James B. Stewart uses his investing column in the New York Times to praise buying Norman Rockwell paintings in the years preceding the recent run-up in prices as a case of smart contrarian investing. Moreover, Steward wants to suggest that a critical re-appraisal of the artist is going hand-in-hand with his market rise.
Stewart’s own exposition, however, argues against this idea from two different sides. The first is to suggest that there are a number of critically and art historically acclaimed painters whose work is undervalued by the market. These are artists who are important to the canon but belong to the lesser register of American art. Michael Moses is Stewart’s guide here:
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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”
From the other direction, Stewart shows that the market for Rockwell is driven by the wealth and status of its players, not critical or cultural acumen. Although it seems to start with the Guggenheim retrospective in 2001, the registers only rang because of buyers with deep pockets:
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,” Mr. Lucas told an interviewer for the Smithsonian, which mounted the exhibition of his and Mr. Spielberg’s Rockwell collections, “Telling Stories,” in 2010. “He ‘cast’ a painting,” Mr. Lucas said. “It wasn’t just a random group of characters.”