Masterpieces of pin-up art in Dallas auction Oct. 27

DALLAS — After the mid-summer results of an auction that redefined the field of Illustration Art, Heritage Auctions is readying the second round of selections from The Charles Martignette Estate in its Signature Illustration Art Auction, Oct. 27, at Heritage’s Design District Annex, 1518 Slocum Street.

"The overwhelming demand and record-setting prices realized in our July 15 auction of just more than 300 pieces of Martignette’s collection showed us that it’s a whole new ballgame out there when it comes to collecting this magnificent stuff," said Ed Jaster, Vice President of Heritage Auction. "We have every reason to believe that this auction, with its emphasis on pin-up masterpieces — with a deep grouping of Gil Elvgren canvases — will see equal demand and equal excitement."

Martignette’s eccentricities and his obsessive pursuit of the art he loved have been much discussed in the 1 1/2 years since his death; as controversial as some of his actions in life may have been, though, there can be absolutely no question that his name, and its relation to the provenance of his more than 4,300-piece collection, will forever be the most important of the entire field, and one of the most famous American Art collections of all-time.

The emphasis of the October auction on some of Martignette’s best pin-up acquisitions is led by the king of the genre, Gil Elvgren, with seven incredible pin-up canvases coming on the block from both the Martignette collection and other consignors, all of which are classics of the form. Nowhere is Elvgren’s mastery more evident than in his brilliantly colorful, thematically bold and scintillating 1957 painting Something’s Bothering You (What’s Wrong?), estimated at $30,000-$40,000.

"Demand for great examples of Elvgren pin-ups continues to grow," said Jaster, "and rightly so. By any reckoning, whether looking at his amazing feel for color and form or the six-figure prices his work now demands, Elvgren should be mentioned in the same breath as the greatest of American painters."

Esquire Magazine’s original gatefold pin-up artist is amply represented in the second part of Martignette with a Petty Girl that was drawn not for Esquire, actually, but for its glamour art rival True Magazine, in 1947, almost a decade after Petty left Esquire. In this pin-up, a pouting young blond woman stares distractedly off the canvas, cradling a large pink telephone against her right ear, a favorite device of the artist, and one he uses to perfect effect in this piece, estimated at $8,000-$10,000. As immediately evident in the scan, this is perhaps the single most striking Petty to ever come up at public auction.

One of the true highlights of the pin-up section of Martignette is Earl Moran’s Golden Hours, easily one of the most beautiful, widely used and famous pieces of glamour art from the 1930s. The brilliant orange background and the delicately filtered light on the model and her blue bathing suit make this one of the most unforgettable offerings of the entire auction, and of Martignette’s astounding collection. Estimate: $10,000-$15,000.

The pin-up offerings in this auction, from numerous consignors, are rounded out by more masters of the form than there is room to mention, though the most spectacular early Vargas painting that Heritage has ever offered, his sensuous and intriguing 1928 pin-up, estimated at $50,000-$70,000, provides a superb exclamation point to the grouping. This painting, done nearly a decade before Vargas started his groundbreaking work at Esquire Magazine, shows the artist’s early mastery of his material. The subject, evocative of many of his later-themed gatefolds and Playboy pin-ups, combines "modern" American sensuality with a "historical" context.

"Martignette is, of course, closely associated with the pin-up," said Jaster, "but his eye for the best Golden Age illustration was unrivaled. He was equally as well versed in the Brandywine School artists as he was in the greats of The Saturday Evening Post as well as glamour and beauty art."

A quartet of superb Golden Age illustration highlights that section of the auction, with J.C. Leyendecker’s stunning New Years 1910, Saturday Evening Post cover, Jan. 1, 1910, leading the way, estimated at $40,000-$60,000. As the first Martignette auction showed, Leyendecker’s highly stylized and stylish artwork brought great demand and record prices. One look at this painting shows why the artist has become recognized as one of the greatest American illustrator’s of all-time decades after his lonely death.

Jessie Willcox Smith has long been recognized as an American master, and her Checkers, Scribner’s magazine illustration, December 1902, shows why she is to be so highly regarded. Her idealized portraits of children, always presented with an inscrutable subtext that makes them impossible to forget, are what made her famous, and this example is prime among those prized portraits; it is estimated at $40,000-$60,000.

One of Martignette’s favorite Golden Age illustrators was Dean Cornwell, and looking at Cornwell’s Romantic Couple Seated by Piano, Hearst’s International magazine illustration, March 1922 – offered from Martignette in the auction – with its pale central figures, clothed in broad patches of deep color, makes it easy to see why Martignette’s discriminating eye for art fixated with such passion on Cornwell. While known for his images of pirates and desperadoes, this painting clearly illustrates that Cornwell was comfortable in any era, with any subject.

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Photos courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries.