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Norman Rockwell's art, once sniffed at, is becoming prized

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"Rockwell's greatest sin as an artist is simple: His is an art of unending cliche."

In that Washington Post criticism of a 2010 exhibition of paintings at the Smithsonian, Blake Gopnik joined a long line of prominent critics attacking Rockwell, the and illustrator who depicted life in mid-20th-century America and died in 1978.

"Norman Rockwell was demonised by a generation of critics who not only saw him as an enemy of modern art, but of all art," said Deborah Solomon, whose biography of Rockwell, American Mirror, was published last year. "He was seen as a lowly calendar artist whose work was unrelated to the lofty ambitions of art," she said, or, as she put it in her book, "a cornball and a square." The critical dismissal "was obviously a source of great pain throughout his life," Solomon, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, added.

But Rockwell is now undergoing a major critical and financial reappraisal. This week, the major auction houses built their spring sales of American art around two Rockwell paintings: After the Prom, at Sotheby's, and The Rookie, at Christie's. After the Prom sold for $9.1 million on Wednesday; The Rookie for $22.5 million on Thursday.

In December, Saying Grace set an auction record for Rockwell, selling at Sotheby's for $46 million.

Rockwell isn't yet at the level of Francis Bacon (top price at auction: $142.4 million), Picasso ($104.5 million) or Andy Warhol ($105.4 million) - all of whom critics eventually embraced - but he's poised to join a select handful of artists whose work is instantly recognisable not just for its artistic quality but, for better or worse, the many millions it took to acquire one.

Apart from any critical reappraisal, Rockwell's paintings show that in art, as well as in the stock market, it can pay to be a contrarian. Rockwell's paintings have turned out to be a singularly good investment. After the Prom last sold at Sotheby's in 1995 for $880,000. This week's sale price represents a compounded annual rate of return of 13.1 per cent, compared with 7.9 per cent for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index over the same period.

Michael Moses, a retired professor of economics at New York University's Stern School of Business and a co-founder of the Mei Moses Art Index, said his database contained 39 works by Rockwell that had sold more than once at auction. Taken together, their sales prices represent a 9.7 per cent annual rate of return over the period from 1960 to 2008. (The latest round of sales isn't included.) "That's extremely good for an American painter," Moses said.

Moses said that his research suggests that the adage - "buy the best," or the most acclaimed by critics - doesn't hold true, at least when it comes to investment returns. "Rockwell was so out of favour, there was ample room for appreciation," Moses said. Paintings already acknowledged by critics as masterpieces "tend to underperform the market," he said. "It turns out you don't have to be an art expert to earn good investment returns."

To put Rockwell's recent multimillion-dollar sales prices in perspective, "These prices are enormous by the standards for American paintings, which tend to be undervalued," Moses said. (At art auctions and galleries, the American paintings category doesn't include abstract and pop postwar and contemporary works, but it does include realist paintings.) "There's a great Georgia O'Keeffe painting coming at Sotheby's that's estimated at only $2 to $3 million," Moses said. "The academic acclaim for O'Keeffe is exponentially higher than for Rockwell. Or take Albert Bierstadt, one of the greatest American painters of the 19th century. There's a Bierstadt at Sotheby's estimated at $1 to $1.5 million. Winslow Homer might sell for the kind of money that Rockwell is. But at $40 million, you're really in another realm."

The explanation for the sudden and, to many, improbable surge in the price of Rockwell paintings dates to at least 2001, when the Guggenheim Museum mounted a major retrospective of Rockwell's work. Coming just after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the show may have touched a nerve with an American public hungering for the reassurance of traditional American values captured by Rockwell's vision. "That was the big turning point," Solomon said. "He finally was getting art world recognition." Still, some critics were incensed by the exhibition. "It shows the Guggenheim further trashing the reputation won for it by generations of artists," Jerry Saltz wrote in the Village Voice. But the show set an attendance record.

The year after the Guggenheim show, Rosie the Riveter, one of Rockwell's most famous images, sold for close to $5 million at Sotheby's, setting a record for the artist. The painting was later sold again for an undisclosed price to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., the museum founded by the Walmart heiress Alice Walton.

In 2006, Breaking Home Ties set another record, selling for $15.4 million, far above its $4 million to $6 million estimate. (The buyer is believed to have been H Ross Perot, the former presidential candidate and founder of Electronic Data Systems. The painting has been seen hanging in his office.)

Rockwell also gained a Hollywood stamp of approval. Two of the country's most famous film directors, George Lucas (Star Wars) and Steven Spielberg (E.T.) were acquiring Rockwells. Rockwell "is a great story teller, and he used cinematic devices," Lucas told an interviewer for the Smithsonian, which mounted the exhibition of his and Spielberg's Rockwell collections, Telling Stories, in 2010. "He 'cast' a painting," Lucas said. "It wasn't just a random group of characters.

Others, too, were discovering new depths in Rockwell's work. "What distinguishes the best of his works for me," Solomon said, "is that they're rooted in real emotion. They're not just a one-liner. Take 'The Rookie,' which is a great painting. It captures the tension between generations, when a rookie, a youngster, arrives, and the veterans realise they've just met their replacement. Their time is limited. It doesn't matter if it's baseball players, or newspaper reporters, or firefighters. It's about time and how one generation replaces another."


© 2014 The New York Times News Service

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