Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Final Piece of the Puzzle. Norman Rockwell

I started collecting magazines thirty seven years ago, just after I entered medical school in Chicago. In those days it was fun to go from city to city to the plethora of dusty old bookstores and mine for gold. On one of my day trips to nearby Milwaukee, I found a Saturday Evening Post with Norman Rockwell's first cover and bought it for 17 dollars.
Rockwell was still living then so I shipped it off to Stockbridge, Massachusetts with a number of other rare magazines and, sure enough, it came back signed with a wonderful inscription "This was my first Post cover of years ago, sincerely, Norman Rockwell.

It became one of my prize possessions and piqued my interest in Rockwell, who, for magazine collectors of the day was an icon. As it happened, my compulsive collecting of Rockwell illustrated magazines and books gave me some very interesting experiences.

In his later years, Rockwell's memory was quite poor and, unlike the compulsive Maxfield Parrish, he had not been in the habit of documenting what he had done in the past. As a commercial illustrator, he really cared little for the work he had done after it was completed. The final painting became the possession of whomever commissioned it and he most often gave away the preliminary drawings and canvasses.

As interest in Rockwell increased, the museum wanted to learn where the paintings they had came from and really had no siurce to find out. This was componded by a 1943 fire that destroyed most of Rockwells studio and records. Enter a crazy doctor from Chicago. They began calling me and, before too long, since I had put together the best collection, we had somewhat of a working relationship. I, essentially, became Rockwell's memory. I had the privilege of showing Rockwell's work to his wife and three sons shortly after he died.
In the late 1970's, we struck a deal. I gave them the collection I accumulated and they gave me an original Rockwell drawing in return, to my knowledge, the only piece of original art ever to leave the museum archive. Unfortunately, in the early 80's I donated it back to them for a $50,000 tax deduction. It would be worth in excess of a million dollars today- tsk tsk. On the basis of acquiring my collection, the museum was then able to put together a catalog raisonne of Rockwells work, "A Definitive Catalog". The author, still executive director, Laurie Norton Moffatt, was kind enough to acknowledge my participation in the introduction.
Getting back to the first Post cover. Since rarity rules, I actually traded it away to a friend for the first issue of LOOK Magazine in the late eighties. I eventually regretted the trade but, as luck would have it, my friend sold it to someone else, who put in on Ebay five years ago and I was able to re-acquire it for $900. A bargain by any measure.

Part of the collection I traded away to the museum was a complete collection of twenty or so early juvenile fiction books illustrated by Rockwell. Only yesterday, I acquired the final book to duplicate what I gave away thirty years ago. The last piece of the puzzle was "Keeping His Course" a very volume by Ralph Henry Barbour with four NR illustrations. It is probably rare since the title page incorrectly attributes the illustrations to another artist, Walt Louderback. Perhaps the publisher realized their mistake and pulled the edition. Anyhow, its taken thirty years to find another copy.

I still have a drawer full of the rarest Rockwell covers I've found over the years, most of which are not in the catalog. I still keep the museum up to date on my new finds. Thank goodness, Rockwell never kept records, he's the gift that keeps on giving- and my nostalgic Post cover is back where it belongs!

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