NEW YORK (AP)
A Norman Rockwell painting titled "Saying Grace" sold Wednesday for $46 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for an American painting and for a work by the Saturday Evening Post illustrator, Sotheby's said.
Two people on the telephone bid against each other for nine minutes on the work, which appeared on the cover of the magazine's Thanksgiving issue in 1951, before the hammer came down. The buyer was not disclosed.
"Saying Grace," which depicts a crowded train station restaurant with a grandmother and her grandson bowed in prayer at their table as other patrons look on, had a pre-sale estimate of $15 million to $20 million. In 2006, Sotheby's sold Rockwell's "Breaking Home Ties" for more than $15 million, then a record.
The previous record for an American painting was set in 1999, also at Sotheby's, for a work by George Bellows titled "Polo Crowd" that sold for $27.7 million.
Another Rockwell painting, "The Gossips," sold Wednesday for just under $8.5 million, while a third, "Walking to Church," fetched a little more than $3.2 million.
For nearly two decades, all three had been on loan at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., which has the world's largest collection of original Rockwell art located in the artist's hometown.
Rockwell was paid $3,500 for "Saying Grace," which was voted Post readers' favorite cover in a 1955 poll.
The idea for the illustration came from a reader who saw a Mennonite family praying in a restaurant. Rockwell's son, Jarvis, was among the models the artist used for the drawing.
The illustrator, who created his first cover for the Post in 1916, is celebrated for his reflections of small-town America and portraits of famous figures, including one of Dwight Eisenhower called "The Day I Painted Ike", which sold at the auction Wednesday for $137,000.
Rockwell spent 47 years at the magazine and produced 321 covers. He died in 1978.
"The Gossips," which was a cover illustration for the March 6, 1948, issue, depicts a montage of the artist's neighbors, wife Mary and Rockwell himself finger-wagging and yammering on the phone.
"Walking to Church" appeared on the cover of the April 4, 1953, issue and shows a family dressed in their Sunday best walking along a city street. Rockwell based it on a painting by Johann Vermeer.
The four paintings, along with three other of the artist's works, were sold by the family of Kenneth Stuart, Rockwell's longtime art director at the magazine. The sale comes years after a legal fight among Stuart's three sons. Rockwell and Stuart worked together at the magazine for 18 years.
Laurie Norton Moffatt, director at the Rockwell museum, called it "a thrilling moment for Norman Rockwell."
"It's a painting of such significance that wherever it is, there will hopefully be a desire to share it, have it seen in public. So perhaps it will come on loan someday or be in another museum exhibition," said Moffatt, who attended the auction.
"We're just so happy we were able to share it for two decades," she added.