Richard Michelson, an up-and-coming western Massachusetts gallerist, reacted with skepticism when one of his artists, Barry Moser, told him that he had received a call from an editor at Harcourt asking him if he wanted to illustrate a children’s book.
“A children’s book?” Michelson remembers asking, concerned that the artist’s credibility within the art world would be tainted by something so commercial. “Are you going to start painting cute little watercolor bunnies?” Michelson feared that the decision was “career suicide.”
Today, Michelson’s R. Michelson Galleries, a must-visit destination in Northampton, Mass., is among the largest sellers of children’s book art in the country — and the first gallery to show fine art and illustration art in the same space.
“I was dragged into this field,” Michelson remembers with a laugh. But on further examination, he realized that children’s book art was among the most under-appreciated work in the art world. When Moser entered the world of illustration art, he began introducing his illustrator friends to Michelson — and over time, Michelson’s gallery became a hub for top illustrators.
“I began looking at the books written and illustrated by my new friends, and I was introduced to a whole world I knew nothing about,” he wrote in an exhibition catalog. “The best of them were, I had to admit, the equal in both skill and vision to anything I had been reading or seeing in my favorite galleries and museums.”
The art establishment is beginning to catch on, too: Where once Michelson couldn’t get his phone calls returned, leading museums now regularly approach him to lend works for their exhibitions.
And while the market is booming and the prices of works by top artists in the field have been rising steadily, it’s a field that is within the reach of collectors in a way that fine art often isn’t. The prices required to acquire the work of recognizable illustrators are a tiny fraction of what you’d pay to acquire the work of recognizable fine artists.
The nostalgic appeal is also hard to beat. For example, Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries sold the original painting used for the cover of Nancy Drew #25: The Ghost of Blackwood Hall. The price was $3,883 — for a cover that has been reproduced more than a million times. In that same auction, an original ink and colored marker drawing of the Cat in the Hat, created by Dr. Seuss himself, sold for $1,434.
Michelson says that while the prices of a few top illustrators can stretch into the six figures.
An illustration Maurice Sendak created for a 1990 conference poster for the International Board on Books For Young People, which featured characters from “Where the Wild Things Are,” carried a pre-sale estimate of $400,000-$700,000 at Bonham’s. But, smaller works and sketches by the artist can still be had for less than $5,000. [Whether that will continue to be the case now that Sendak has died remains to be seen. – Editor]
And if you buy outside of the most prominent, best-established illustrators in the field, it is possible to collect original art used to illustrate children’s books produced by major illustrators with almost any budget.
Most artists’ work can be had starting in the low three digits, and the cover illustration for one of my favorite books from childhood, The Rookies, recently sold for a paltry $59 at Heritage Auction Galleries.
As an investment, children’s book illustrations have this going for them: Studies show that children who are read to frequently grow up to have, on average, greater financial success as adults. Those bedtime stories you read to your children and grandchildren will leave them with the desire to own this art — and the means to pay you high prices for it.
This exclusive excerpt of Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 2013 Price Guide explores children’s book illustration art as a feasible category for investment collecting.
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