Vargas Girl and Jessie Willcox-Smith lead record-demolishing illustration art auction

DALLAS – The fervor among collectors for the best examples of American illustration art continues to grow at a fever pitch, as evidenced by the world-record shattering $4.5 million total realized by Heritage Auction Galleries on Feb. 18 in its Signature® auction, live and online ( with more than 1,200 bidders actively and hotly contesting most every single lot. In the end, the auction saw an almost unheard of 99 1/2 percent of lots sold by value and almost 98 percent by lot. The previous single auction record, also held by Heritage, was $3.4 million, realized last October.

The auction also represented the third time selections from the epic Charles Martignette estate have been offered at public auction, and the great collector’s provenance is proving the gold standard as fully $2.68 million of the $4.5 million auction total came from his blockbuster collection.

“We are absolutely seeing lots of new blood in the collecting world,” said Ed Jaster, Vice President of Heritage Auctions, “and both the savvy new collectors and veterans of the illustration art world realize that the treasures from Martignette represent a singular opportunity. The amount of A-plus material in this auction would’ve represented more than three years of market highlights in the past.”

With highlights and world records across the board, choosing the most important few lots from among the multitude is a tough call, but two true high spots came from the two diverse ends of the Illustration collecting spectrum: the height of Golden Age and the height of classic pin-up.

The first among equals at Heritage Auction Galleries’ Downtown Dallas Design District Annex was easily the Golden Age’s Jessie Willcox-Smith, with her stunning 1905 book illustration from A Child’s Garden of Verses, her most important project, which brought $310,700, a record price by more than $40,000 for the artist.

Equally impressive, and from the very pinnacle of pin-up art, came what is perhaps the single-most iconic Alberto Vargas painting to have surfaced yet for auction. His stunning Duotone Varga Signature, 1947, which brought a record $101,575, marking the first time that a Varga Girl has broken the six-figure threshold.

“The records set are nothing short of staggering,” said Todd Hignite, Consignment Director for Illustration Art at Heritage Auction Galleries. “Those traditionally considered second tier pin-up artists are really coming into their own, with prices rivaling—and in many cases surpassing—the ‘old masters’ of the genre who always perform great, as they did in this sale—Gil Elvgren, Earl Moran, Rolf Armstrong, and George Petty. Much of this is due to the fact that Martignette had the single best example by virtually every artist.”

Among those pin-up artists whose price paid records fell, several are notable for the margins by which they beat their previous mark, as well as for the importance of the individual pieces themselves. Fritz Willis more than doubled the previous record paid for his work when his oil A Moment of Pleasure finished at $41,825, while Harry Ekman’s Mishap at the Picnic realized $33,460, more than double the previous amount paid for a work by the artist. Pearl Frush’s Miss Nassau, Aqua Tour series, 1947 was hotly contested to $35,850, also double the previous record, while Edward Runci’s striking Detective Story Pin-up more than tripled the previous highest amount paid for his work by finishing at $26,290.

Records were also set for works by Edward Eggleston (Lady and Peacock, $22,705), Jules Erbit (Waiting For You, $22,705), Zoe Mozert (Starry Night In Hawaii, $20,912), Joyce Ballantyne (Spilled Ink, $15,535) and Vaughan Alden Bass (Iron Girl, $17,925). The prices realized in the Heritage Auction Galleries sale for genre-defining artists of more recent vintage is also of particular note, in specific Patrick Nagel’s Brooke, Playboy Illustration, which saw the 1980s-defining artist’s record price more than double at $33,460.

One of the most consistently and passionately contested areas of bidding came from paperback book cover art.

“As we predicted, a number of these iconic images went through the roof,” said Hignite, “but we certainly couldn’t foresee the astounding levels across the board. You can never predict the top end when offering the best-of-the best, which is what was being offered in this sale.”

The biggest surprise of the very popular pulp art came in the form of Rudy Nappi’s sublime cover Reefer Girl, which proved very popular from the outset, bringing $26,290, more than five times what any previous Nappi painting has brought before.

Record prices were also realized for Barbara Remington, with her highly styled study for a 1965 Ballantine Press edition of The Lord of the Rings – a true icon of 1960s culture – that realized $35,850, while Richard Powers Wine of the Dreamers paperback cover from 1971 obliterated the record price for the artist at $31,070, and Robert McGinnis’s James Bond Thunderball movie original art brought $35,850.

“The broad popularity of illustration art was seen by the continued strength in the great names that regularly populate our auctions, said Jaster. “The great names will always be desirable, and the quality examples of those names in our auctions always mean that collectors will line up to bid, which they did.”

Howard Chandler Christy and J.C. Leyendecker continued to command great prices for the upper echelon pieces that were in the auction, led by Christie’s Amelia Earhart, Town and Country cover, Feb. 1, 1933, and Leyendecker’s Bringing in the Turkey (Thanksgiving cover), Saturday Evening Post cover, Dec. 2, 1933, both of which topped six figures with an identical mark of $107,550.

Records prices of note – were also realized for Joseph Francis Kernan (Baseball Magazine Cover, July, $21,510) and for Saturday Evening Post covers by Richard Sargent (March 20, 1954, $26,290) and Thorton Utz (April 19, 1952, $20,315). Strong prices continued to be seen for several other luminaries of Golden Age Illustration with for Tom Lovell’s Back Comes the Bride, Ladies’ Home Journal illustration, February 1944, realizing $29,875, Frank Earle Schoonover’s Ahuitzotl and the Ocelot, With Cortez the Conqueror book illustration, 1917 bringing $20,315, Dean Cornwell’s The Rendezvous, 1951-52, finishing at $31,070, Norman Rockwell’s There is Only One Reason, Roebling Corporation Steel Wire Rope ad, Fortune Magazine, May 1953 ending up at $25,095 and Harvey T. Dunn’s exceptional A Furbished Gentleman, Saturday Evening Post illustration, April 8, 1916, coming in at $50,787.

For complete auction results on this and other Heritage auctions, visit

Photos courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries.


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