– Norman Rockwell's Home for Thanksgiving has a new home, just in time for Thanksgiving, as the beloved painting of a doting mother and her soldier son peeling potatoes sold Friday at Heritage Auctions for more than $4.3 million.
For decades, the 76-year-old oil has been in the custody and care of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., on behalf of its nearby neighbors, the Eugene M. Connor Post 193 of Winchendon, Mass. Proceeds from the sale of Home for Thanksgiving will benefit the Massachusetts American Legion Post, to which the work was long ago donated.
The painting, which first appeared on the cover of the Nov. 24, 1945, issue of The Saturday Evening Post, was but one of numerous highlights in the Nov. 5 American Art Signature® Auction that realized $11,189,813 to become the most successful fine-art auction in Heritage’s history.
The sale, which surpassed May’s spectacular results, broke several auction records for such artists as Where the Wild Things Are author and illustrator Maurice Sendak and Thomas Hart Benton; boasted a sell-through rate of 94.4% by value; and attracted more than 1,025 bidders in person, on HA.com and on the phone.
“I am overwhelmed by the response to this sale,” says Aviva Lehmann, Heritage Auctions’ Director of American Art. “I have never in my entire career seen such feverish bidding and such strong results. The market for American Art is clearly robust, and as America’s auction house, we are proud to be at the center of this moment.
“Today was a great day, for Heritage and American art. And at the heart of it all was this soulful Norman Rockwell.”
The Eugene M. Connor Post 193’s leadership had long been reluctant to part with Rockwell’s Home for Thanksgiving, which had been donated by a Catholic priest several decades ago during construction of its headquarters. But the post sought its sale to fund long-delayed repairs on an aging, decaying building, upgrades that Navy veteran and former post commander Ken LaBrack says were “being put off because we didn't have the money.” The money will go into a trust, from which the interest and earnings will pay bills, operating costs and further repairs.
Heritage was honored to offer Home for Thanksgiving, one of Rockwell's legendary homecoming pieces painted as war began transitioning to peacetime.
For The Saturday Evening Post he painted myriad images of the soldier home from war, including the iconic Homecoming GI that appeared in May 1945 and was famously used in the film Broadcast News. Home for Thanksgiving became so beloved because it showed “the veteran doing K.P. [kitchen patrol] and liking it,” Rockwell said in 1946's book Norman Rockwell Illustrator.
“According to an editor at The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s initial intention for the Thanksgiving cover of 1945 consisted of a large group of prayerful people giving thanks,” says the Norman Rockwell Museum on its website. “With the end of war already in sight, art editor Ken Stuart advised Rockwell to work on a picture of a returned soldier. The gist of Rockwell’s picture is that the soldier is glad to do at home what he hated doing in the Army.”
The mother and son in the painting were, in fact, mother and son: Sarah (often referred to as Saara) Hagelberg and her boy Richard, who was owner of a dairy farm in Arlington, Vt., and Rockwell's milkman. Richard had spent the previous five years in the 9th Army Air Corps; according to the blog Only in the Republic of Amherst, he flew “65 treacherous daylight bombing missions over Europe, including D-Day.”
Richard had just returned home when Rockwell asked him to pose for the piece. He and his mother initially refused, and relented only when the artist offered them each $15, at the time no small amount of money.
The auction began with a bang Friday morning, with the first 50 lots showcasing Western art. Shots were fired early: San Antonio native G. Harvey’s Cold Leather-Cold Bits from 1987 rode into the auction with a $60,000 high estimate. But the bids poured in, until, at last, the work sold for $325,000. For the first time Friday, but certainly not the last, the auction room erupted with cheers and applause.
There was applause, too, when Joseph Christian Leyendecker’s Summer, which appeared on the cover of the Aug. 27, 1927, Saturday Evening Post, warm-breezed past its high estimate to sell for $325,000. And when Maurice Sendak’s watercolor of his beloved Wild Things, commissioned in 1984 by the Chicago Art Institute, sold for $175,000 to set a new auction record for the author and illustrator.
Cincinnati-born Robert Henri’s 1926 portrait Sarah Burke, one of his masterful love letters to Ireland, was among the myriad lots in this auction to sell above estimate. This captivating work by the progressive leader of the Ashcan School sold for $275,000. Not far behind was Ernie Barnes’ playful 1974 work Every Night, All Night, from the collection of entertainers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. This oil-on-canvas, which the couple acquired from the artist and displayed in their Las Vegas residence, sold for $250,000 – 10 times its high estimate.
Another of Leyendecker’s Saturday Evening Post covers – “Circus Dog,” from July 29, 1922 – barked up quite the bidding war when it reached the podium Friday. This frisky work from the illustrator fetched $162,500 to exceed high estimate. And Eanger Irving Couse’s 1914 oil-on-canvas The Sculptor – a nod to his childhood in the logging town of Saginaw, Mich., where he drew the Chippewa Indians who lived nearby – sold for $115,625, likewise above its high estimate. And Charles Marion Russell’s 1898 Scouting Party sold for $106,250, well above its estimate.
There were new auction records set, too, beyond the Sendak.
Frank Spradling’s Marching Forward, which appeared on the cover of Everybody's Magazine in March 1920, sold for $20,625. Andrew Loomis’ Treasure Hunt, which sold for $20,000, likewise set a new record for the artist at auction. And Thomas Hart Benton’s 1936 lithograph Jesse James realized $25,000, a new auction record for that celebrated work.
“It was no surprise that Illustration and Western art performed well, but to see these records and so many bids in every category in this auction was inspiring and rewarding,” Lehmann said. “And it’s proof, yet again, that Heritage Auctions is the leading force in the field of American art.”