The National Press Club and its affiliated journalism institute will sell a Norman Rockwell painting the artist gave them more than 50 years ago and bank the estimated $10- to $15-million windfall to support future programs.
The painting — “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor” – was completed for the Saturday Evening Post in 1946. Part of a Rockwell series featuring his visits to everyday places across the nation, including a school and a doctor’s office, it depicts Monroe County Appeal editor Jack Blanton in his newsroom in Paris, Mo. The artist, with his trademark pipe, is pictured walking through the door of the Appeal carrying his portfolio.
The artist gave the painting to the National Press Club sometime in the early 1960s, and until a few years ago it hung on the wall outside the members’ restaurant on the 14th floor. The painting will be the top lot at Christie’s American art sale Nov. 19.
“Norman Rockwell and this painting are part of the club’s history. We love our history,” said Press Club President John Hughes, an editor at Bloomberg. “But we’re not set up like a museum, and in fact we’re a busy, open place with hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.”
An appraisal of the painting last year revealed that its value had grown exponentially, prompting the boards of the club and its nonprofit affiliate, the National Press Club Journalism Institute, to explore its future. (Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron is a member of the institute’s board.) On Thursday night, they voted to sell the work. Hughes said the club and institute are sound financially.
“It’s outgrown us; it’s gotten bigger than us,” Hughes said, noting that security and insurance costs are too high. “We have wonderful art, wonderful artifacts, but nothing close to the value of this.”
The club is not sure of the exact date of Rockwell’s gift, but Hughes said there are references to it in 1962, and it was mentioned when Rockwell spoke at the club on July 25, 1967. It has been on loan and on tour to museums for most of the past six years, Hughes said.
Elizabeth Beaman, Christie’s head of American art, said Rockwell made the work at the height of his career, when he was using more sophisticated methods to create complex scenes. The work includes nine figures.
“The fact that he’s included himself makes it that much more interesting,” Beaman said. “By this time he’s become a celebrity in his own right.”
The auction record for a Rockwell painting is $46 million.
“Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor” had been on loan to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., since last November. (The painting has now been moved to Christie’s.) The museum, which has the largest collection of works by the popular American artist, also has the supporting sketches and photographs of the work in its archives, which it has made available online.
The museum would like to acquire the work permanently, but the skyrocketing prices of Rockwell’s art make a bid impossible. “We’ve been outpriced in the market,” said museum spokesman Jeremy Clowe. The museum last purchased a Rockwell 20 years ago, but it has received donations of works bought by collectors. “There’s something about Rockwell’s work that resonates with people, and they want to share it with the public.”
Not the Press Club. Hughes said that donating the work – which was originally given to the club – would not be responsible.
“That would be a wonderful thing for a buyer [at the auction] to do,” he said. “There’s a strong feeling that as board members we are responsible for protecting the club and ensuring its success in the future. The most important way to do that was through a sale.”
Organizations that cash out long-held art often draw public criticism, as was the case with Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University, which sold Thomas Eakins’s “The Gross Clinic” in 2006. Brandeis University backed away from a 2009 decision to close its art museum and sell its collection after a national outcry.
Hughes said the club’s situation is different. “We are able to expand our mission and do even more for the profession of journalism and press freedom,” he said. “That’s a great legacy for Norman Rockwell.”