DALLAS – Collectors will likely mark July 15, 2009, as the day the market for Illustration Art officially changed. That the date is the same day that marked the auction of the first section of the Charles Martignette collection is no coincidence.
In its debut as part of Heritage Auction Galleries’ Signature July Illustration Art Auction on July 15 and Signature July Art of the American West & Texas Auction on July 16, the first portion of Martignette – some 311 works selected for these two auctions from the collection’s 4,300 pieces – realized a very strong $2.6 million, with a virtually unheard of 99 percent sell-through rate. The results from the Martignette canvasses in the July 15 auction led Heritage to its most successful overall illustration art event yet, which topped out at $3.1 million, including buyer’s premium.
“By any reckoning we blew the top off the pin-up market,” said Ed Jaster, Vice President of Heritage. “It’s safe to say that it soundly exceeded not only our expectations, but also those of the collectibles and fine arts communities. There was so much interest, in fact, that the auction took more than seven hours to complete; the average for an illustration art auction is about four hours.”
While Charles Martignette is rightly known as the king of the pin-ups, his fantastic eye for the entire history of illustration art was more than evident in the top two offerings in the auction from his epic collection and impeccable taste in artists shown through in much more than glamour art. In fact, it was J.C. Leyendecker’s 1917 Kuppenheimer as diptych, A Proud WW I Sailor’s New Uniform, which led the offerings attached to his name with a $155,350 price tag. Martignette’s other high profile Leyendecker in the auction, The Hero’s War Story – the cover from the May 10, 1919, Saturday Evening Post – showed its enduring appeal at $101,575.
In the Western & Texas Art Auction on July 16, 26 canvasses from Martignette’s estate were in the mix, and they brought in almost $500,000, led by William Herbert Dunton’s Western masterpiece, The Badger Hole (The Spill), which brought $143,400. J.C. Leyendecker, who led the previous day’s illustration art auction, made another strong showing in the Western art auction when his illustration for the Howard Watch Company, Two O’Clock, brought $89,625.
“One of the great surprises of the afternoon was an astonishing record price paid for a work by James Avati, widely considered the greatest paperback book cover artist,” said Hignite. “His masterpiece for the 1959 Signet Classics edition of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin shattered the previous record set for the artist, $6,600, when it soared to a final total of $26,290.”
With all that said, however, it was indeed the pin-ups – especially the work of Gil Elvgren – which provided the greatest fireworks of the afternoon. The top Elvgren offering from Martignette, 1964’s A Near Miss (Right on Target), was certainly a bullseye with a final price of $143,400. It provided a direct compliment to the top two lots of the entire auction, both Elvgrens, as well – It’s a Snap (Pretty Snappy; Snap Judgment) from 1958 realized $215,100 and Cover Up, 1955 finished at $191,200 – though not from the Martignette collection. Upsetting Upset, a 1969 Elvgren from Martignette performed very well for a later period piece from the master, finishing the afternoon at $80,660.
Robust prices were also seen for works from Earl Moran and George Petty, while Alberto Vargas and his beautiful Vargas Girls continued to show the stature of legendary gatefold artist for both Esquire and Playboy. Among the strong prices realized for the variety of his work in the Martignette collection, it was his delicate December 1946 Esquire Calendar Girl and Reclining Nude, Preliminary Drawing for the Very First Vargas Girl, from October 1940, that realized the most healthy prices, bringing $53,775 and $50,790, respectively.
The biggest names in illustration history performed well throughout the marathon auction, with Dean Cornwell leading the way with two epic paintings, Captain Blood Inspecting the Treasure Chest Jewels, a July 1930 illustration for Cosmopolitan Magazine, and Spanish Tavern, 1922. Amos Sewell also got some well-deserved recognition for his wonderful March 11, 1950, Saturday Evening Post cover, Kids Playing Cowboy, which realized $41,825, also a record for the artist.
Formidable prices were also posted for works by Harvey Dunn, Howard Chandler Christy, James Montgomery Flagg, Tom Lovell and Howard Pyle.
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Photos courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries.