Tradition and innovation, dual aspects of the American art department at Christie’s

by leslierankowfinearts

Norman Rockwell Charwomen

Norman Rockwell
Charwomen illustration © SEPS                      Used with permission from Curtis Licensing.       All Rights Reserved.

NORMAN ROCKWELL IS ONE OF AMERICA’S MOST BELOVED AND RECOGNIZED ARTISTS, APPRECIATED FOR HIS VISUAL STORYTELLING AND HIS IDEALIZED DEPICTION OF EARLY 20th CENTURY AMERICAN LIFE. IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE AMERICAN ART  AUCTION AT CHRISTIE’S, 20 ROCKEFELLER CENTER, NEW YORK, TO BE HELD ON DECEMBER 4, 2013, THE DEPARTMENT HAS CURATED AN EXTREMELY INVITING EXHIBITION ILLUSTRATING AMERICA: NORMAN ROCKWELL AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES IN CHRISTIE’S PRIVATE SALES GALLERY, A BEAUTIFUL SPACE DESIGNED BY ARCHITECT STEVEN LERNER,  LOCATED ON THE 20th FLOOR  AT 1230 AVENUE OF THE AMERICAS, NEW YORK.

The exhibition:

Christie’s first exhibition devoted solely to the art of American Illustration, the exhibition will feature approximately 50 works by iconic artists such as Norman Rockwell, Joseph Christian Leyendecker and Jessie Willcox Smith, among others. Elizabeth Beaman, Senior Specialist of American Paintings at Christie’s, notes, “Anchored by such iconic and rarely seen The Saturday Evening Post covers as Rockwell’s Charwomen in Theater (1946), Armchair General (1944), and The Rookie (1957), this exciting exhibition will be a survey of American illustrators active in the 20th century who shaped our imagination and forged a sense of national identity through their art.”
ROCKWELL’S CHARWOMEN, AN ENDURING  IMAGE THAT FIRST APPEARED AS THE APRIL 6, 1946 COVER OF THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, IS A CENTERPIECE OF THE EXHIBITION. IN THIS PAINTING, ROCKWELL DEPICTS TWO ELDERLY CLEANING  WOMEN IN THE MAJESTIC THEATER ON BROADWAY WHERE THEY HAVE TAKEN A MOMENT TO ENJOY THE PLAYBILL PROGRAMS LEFT BEHIND BY THE THEATERGOERS, ENGROSSED IN THIS PASTIME, AND TRANSPORTED TO A WORLD BEYOND THE CONFINES OF THEIR JOB.

POPULAR INTEREST IN ROCKWELL BEGAN TO REVIVE IN 1994, THE CENTENNIAL OF HIS BIRTH AND SHORTLY AFTER THE OPENING OF THE ROCKWELL MUSEUM IN STOCKBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS,  HIS ORIGINAL WORKS BEGAN TO COMMAND HIGH PRICES AT AUCTION. IN 1999, THE HIGH MUSEUM IN ATLANTA COLLABORATED WITH THE ROCKWELL MUSEUM TO ORGANIZE THE FIRST MAJOR TOURING EXHIBITION OF ROCKWELL’S ORIGINAL PAINTINGS AND ILLUSTRATIONS TO VENUES THAT INCLUDED THE CORCORAN GALLERY IN WASHINGTON, DC  AND THE GUGGENHEIM IN NEW YORK.

IN TODAY’S LRFA BLOG, ELIZABETH BEAMAN, SENIOR SPECIALIST IN CHRISTIE’S AMERICAN ART DEPARTMENT, WILL SHARE HER KNOWLEDGE OF THE SCOPE OF SERVICES THAT SHE AND HER TEAM OF SPECIALISTS CAN PROVIDE.

IN OUR GLOBAL ART MARKET,  LIZ, I CAN ONLY ASSUME THAT THERE IS AN EVER-INCREASING DEMAND TO OFFER WORKS THAT HAVE A UNIVERSAL APPEAL. THE POPULARITY OF ROCKWELL’S NARRATIVE WORKS AT AUCTION AND THE ACCOMPANYING EXHIBITION OF HIS ILLUSTRATIONS AND THOSE OF HIS PEERS RESPOND TO THIS TREND.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE OTHER WAYS IN WHICH THE AMERICAN DEPARTMENT IN PARTICULAR AND CHRISTIE’S IN GENERAL STAY CURRENT?  I NOTED WITH GREAT INTEREST THAT WORKS OF SUBSTANTIAL VALUE ARE NOW BEING PURCHASED ON LINE  AS WELL AS  IN THE SALESROOM.  DO THE COLLECTORS AND THEIR ADVISORS VIEW THE WORK IN PERSON OR IS SOME OF THE WORK PURELY ONLINE PURCHASES?

One of my favorite things about working for a company like Christie’s is that even though we have been around for over 200 years and even though the core of business has essentially remained the same, there is significant innovation at every turn.  We are branching out into online sales, we are curating special selling exhibitions for our Private Sales Gallery, we are conducting increasing numbers of private sales, as discussed, and we are witnessing larger than ever participation in our traditional auctions from online bidders. 

While many of our online bidders do attend the exhibitions and examine the works first-hand, there are some collectors who, in the spirit of absolute anonymity, just participate online.

I VIEW AMERICAN ART AS WORK PRIMARILY COLLECTED BY AMERICAN COLLECTORS. EXCEPT FOR THE REMARKABLE BARON VON THYSSEN, ARE THERE OTHER EUROPEAN COLLECTORS FOR THIS AREA?

While the overwhelming majority of American works are going to American collectors, or expatriates living abroad, we do see foreign participation in every auction.  When we sold Andrew Wyeth’s Above the Narrows for $6.9 million in 2009, for example, that went to a private European collector who had never before purchased an American painting.  It is these kinds of surprises that always make the auction process fascinating.

WE HAVE SUCH A HUGE SHIFT IN THE ART MARKET AND THE COLLECTOR PROFILE TOWARDS CHINA, ASIA PACIFIC, INDIA AND RUSSIA IN TERMS OF POST-WAR AND CONTEMPORARY ART.  WHAT IS THE INTEREST OF THESE  COLLECTORS, IF ANY, IN AMERICAN ART AND DO YOU PLAN TO EDUCATE AND EXPOSE THEM TO ITS VALUE AND ITS BEAUTY?

I think we are just at the very beginning of this shift.  We have seen some participation from the Asian markets in our field but to date, but it has been limited.  That said, we held an exhibition of Andrew Wyeth in China, which traveled to Beijing and Hong Kong and was very well received.  Institutions such as the Terra Foundation for American Art are also touring works from their collection in Korea, with plans to tour to other international venues as well.  Christie’s will be hosting its inaugural auction in Shanghai this fall.  I think we will watch this space carefully and hopefully develop a stronger appreciation abroad for American Art.

 CHRISTIE’S AMERICAN ART DEPARTMENT ALWAYS PROVIDES WONDERFUL ACADEMIC EVENTS THAT SUPPORT AND ENRICH THE COLLECTOR. PLEASE TELL US ABOUT SOME OF THE GREAT LECTURERS THAT YOU HAVE HOSTED.

Christie’s hosts a lecture or symposium in advance of every auction.  Our speakers have included John Wilmerding, Patricia Hills, Erika Hirshler, Alexander Nemerov to name a few and they are usually discussing forthcoming exhibitions.  We have found that it is a great way to engage our clients and it is even more special when we are able to include a work of art in the auction that ties in to the theme of that season’s lecture.

WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FORTHCOMING AUCTIONS AND FOR THE AMERICAN ART DEPARTMENT AT CHRISTIE’S AND FOR YOU?

We are poised to have a very exciting season this fall with many wonderful works for auction and an exciting special exhibition to be held in our 20th floor galleries.  I can’t say more than that just yet but stay tuned!  As for me, the very best part of this job is that no two auction seasons are alike so there is always something new and different to which to look forward.

THE HOLIDAYS ARE ALMOST HERE  –   CHRISTMAS LIGHTS AND DECORATIONS ALREADY ADORN MADISON AND FIFTH AVENUES.  DURING THIS SEASON, MANY PLAN  TRAVEL TO VISIT FRIENDS AND RELATIVES OR TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE QUIETER BUSINESS CLIMATE  AND STEAL A FEW WEEKS AWAY.  I AM DELIGHTED THAT NICHOLAS CHRISTOPHER, PRESIDENT OF TURON TRAVEL, WILL JOIN ME IN THE NEXT LRFA BLOG, TO SHARE HIS EXPERTISE AND INSIGHT ON ART DESTINATIONS AROUND THE WORLD.   START PACKING!!

UNTIL THEN….