Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace” could bring up to $20 million.

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“The Gossips” is expected to fetch up to $9 million.

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Norman Rockwell, American painter. File photo. ORG XMIT: MIN2013093009432607

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Three Norman Rockwell classics to be auctioned

  • Article by: CAROL VOGEL
  • New York Times
  • October 1, 2013 - 1:53 PM

They are three of Norman Rockwell’s best-known paintings of homey, small-town America published on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post — “Saying Grace,” “The Gossips” and “Walking to Church.”

But the decision to auction them at Sotheby’s in December will signify the end of a decade of unhomey legal squabbling among the heirs of the art director who gave Rockwell his assignments from World War II to the eve of the Vietnam War.

“It’s time to move forward,” said Jonathan Stuart, a son of the artworks’ original owner, Kenneth J. Stuart, who was the longtime art director of the Saturday Evening Post.

Of Rockwell’s 322 covers for the Post, the three images were particularly popular. “Saying Grace” — a crowded restaurant with a boy and an old woman bowing their heads in prayer — was considered Rockwell’s masterpiece, topping a readers’ poll in 1955. “The Gossips” was a finger-wagging montage of friends, neighbors and even the artist himself. “Walking to Church” was another timeless favorite.

Some scholars of American art predict that the sale of these paintings on Dec. 4 could become — given their caliber, celebrity and condition — the auction of the year in an area of the art market that has not bounced back since the collapse of the world financial markets in 2008. Experts say that two have a chance of topping the record price for Rockwell at auction, $15.4 million, which was set in 2006 for “Breaking Home Ties,” an image of a fresh-faced boy leaving home for the first time.

“They are iconic images of 20th-century American culture, all three of them,” said Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., who organized a blockbuster Rockwell show there in 2010.

“Each one of these paintings is just as relevant now as when they were made.”

For the sons of Kenneth J. Stuart, though, the story behind the sale is not so cozy.

Curtis Publishing, which owned the Saturday Evening Post, tried unsuccessfully to claim ownership of the paintings. (The company does have reproduction rights to the images on countless objects, including mugs and mouse pads, porcelains and playing cards.)

Heirs of Kenneth Stuart were embroiled in their own legal battles, too, after he died in 1993. He left his entire estate to his three sons — Ken Jr., William and Jonathan — in equal shares. But shortly after his death, William and Jonathan sued Ken Jr., claiming that he had taken advantage of their ailing father, forcing him to sign papers to gain control of the fortune, and contending that Ken Jr. had used estate assets for his own expenses. Only recently did the brothers settle out of court.

“It’s been a long road,” said Jonathan Stuart, the youngest brother.

The value of the three paintings was next to nothing when they were produced in the late 1940s and early ’50s, but Stuart now called them “precious heirlooms” — so precious, in fact, that he and his brothers could no longer afford the insurance and upkeep.

Sotheby’s estimates that “Saying Grace,” on the cover of the Nov. 24, 1951, issue, could bring $15 million to $20 million. The painting hung in Kenneth J. Stuart’s office at the Saturday Evening Post and later in his family’s living room in Wilton, Conn. “Walking to Church,” thought to bring between $3 million to $5 million, was in the bedroom of his wife, Katharine.

“Dad never hung ‘Gossips,’ ” Jonathan Stuart said. “None of us could figure out why.” That painting is expected to fetch $6 million to $9 million.

Jonathan Stuart, 67, who lives in Manhattan and owns a record company, recalled that when he was a teenager his parents often left him at the Rockwell home in Stockbridge, Mass., where the artist lived from 1953 until his death in 1978.

“I wish I’d known when I was hanging out in his studio and he was teaching me how to draw a horse how famous he’d become,” Stuart said. “I would have gotten him to sign one of his teaching sketches.”

He described his father and Rockwell as “best friends.” The elder Kenneth Stuart also created covers for the Saturday Evening Post before becoming the magazine’s art director.

“As an artist Ken Stuart knew how to talk to Rockwell,” said Elizabeth Goldberg, director of American art at Sotheby’s. “But he also had an uncanny commercial sense.”

The working relationship between Rockwell and Kenneth Stuart was casual. “Norman would show him seven sketches and [Stuart would] say, ‘I like them, let’s do them all,’ ” Jonathan Stuart recalled. “Nobody had worked like that with him before.” Kenneth Stuart also paid Rockwell twice as much as other cover artists received. In 1951, for instance, he earned $3,500 for “Saying Grace,” about $30,500 today.

Over the years Rockwell simply gave many of the paintings to Kenneth Stuart.

Despite the impeccable composition of his paintings, art critics dismissed Rockwell for decades, calling his work too saccharine. In 1968, critic Arthur Danto described it as “a shovelful of stardust.”

But Rockwell’s commercial success was uncontested. And so Sotheby’s campaigned hard to get the business. All details were kept on a secret file in the auction house’s computer system. Knowing that its archrival, Christie’s, was also after the collection, Sotheby’s assigned a code name to the collection: Texas.

On Labor Day, “Saying Grace,” “The Gossips” and “Walking to Church” were quietly picked up from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, where they have been on loan for 18 years, and brought by truck to the auction house, where they will be shown to top collectors. The loss of three of the artist’s best-loved works leaves an irreplaceable hole in the museum’s collection, said Laurie Norton Moffatt, the Rockwell Museum’s director, though she said wistfully that she knew their departure “would likely happen.”

Who will end up buying the paintings is anyone’s guess. Rockwell collectors include filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, as well as businessman Ross Perot and Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress. “There are also trophy hunters who don’t live here that may try to buy them,” Goldberg said. “There’s simply no way to know.”

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