This Gil Elvgren (1914-1980) oil on canvas illustration—“Let’s eat out,” circa 1967—sold at Heritage Auctions for $104,500.
Today’s’ collectors can’t seem to get enough of original illustration art, conceived and created for books, magazines articles and advertisements. Prices range from modest to sky high as they compete with dealers and museums to buy artists largely forgotten for decades. From a collectors’ standpoint, part of the appeal is that there are illustrations for every taste, from Sci-Fi and automobile designs to movie posters and pinup girls.
Depending on the subject, illustration art is displayed in offices and homes; women like fashion illustrations and society scenes from the 1920s, ’30s, while men often select fantasy, Sci-Fi, military and transportation for office walls. Some find their way into corporate collections. Private collectors display them as art. Children’s subjects are used to decorate nurseries. Wealthy collectors see them as an investment.
Since illustrators worked in a variety of mediums, collectors can specialize in oil paintings, watercolors, pen and ink or acrylics, or collect across the board. The medium used was up to the illustrator and what was popular at the time. For instance, pen and ink combined with a color wash was in vogue in the 1920 and ’30s. Today’s fantasy and Sci-Fi illustrators like the bold effects of acrylics.
No article on illustration collectors would be complete without the mention of Charles Martignette, who, at the time of his death in 2008, had amassed 4,300 illustrations (he began collecting in the 1970s). Martignette once told me that he collected for two reasons: he loved illustrations and he wanted to have the largest collection of illustrations in the world. That collection is currently being sold in segments through Heritage Auctions and continues to attract attention to this art form.
Henry Patrick Raleigh’s (1880-1944) “Cornelia’s Mountain,” done in charcoal & watercolor on board. It was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1924.
It’s hard to believe that in 1976, when I discovered my first examples of original illustration art at an estate sale, I didn’t know what art category they belonged in or who the artists were, only that I liked them. At the time, I was writing about antiques for the Chicago Daily News and looking for unusual things to collect. I bought a pair of drawings of old cars signed “Henry Raleigh,” whom I had never heard of. In my local library, I learned more with the discovery of a book titled “The Illustrator In America,” published in 1966 by illustration historian Walt Reed (it has been republished several times and added to over the years).
Reed is considered the worlds’ foremost scholar on the subject. I contacted him by phone and he told me of a major exhibit honoring American illustrators to be held in New York later that year (1976) that would draw leading illustrators and collectors. I went. It was a heady experience and I afterwards I made plans to visit Reeds’ gallery in Westport, Conn.
As an antiques columnist, I was often asked to do lectures and bring examples of my antiques discoveries. At one, where I showed my Raleigh illustrations, a woman in the audience later approached me saying she had 15 similar pieces of art to sell and asked if I would be interested? It was a treasure-trove of some of the early masters of illustration, including Franklin Booth, Joseph Clement Cole and more fabulous Raleigh’s. I paid $25 apiece for those pieces. Today, they are worth from $500 to several thousand. One of the Raleigh illustrations—titled “Cornelia’s Mountain”—I later sold to Charles Martignette. That same piece sold through the Heritage Auctions in 2010 for $478.
An oil on cardboard illustration from Howard Pyle’s (1853-1911) “Book of Pirates.”
Over the years, while my collection grew, prices continued to stay low and there was little interest in the artists in my collection. I bought and traded with Walt Reed and devoted many of my antiques columns to the subject. In 1991, I wrote the first price guide dealing with long forgotten American illustrators: “Official Price Guide American Illustrator Art,” a paperback. The prices came from Walt Reed’s New York auction gallery, “Illustration House” Beginning in the 1980s, I decided to sell some of my collection. I contacted Martignette, who came to my home and bought the bulk of my collection. We bargained back and forth for four hours before prices were agreed upon. Since Charles didn’t have the necessary cash, we drove to his parent’s home in Hallandale, Fla., at midnight. To seal the bargain, his mother fixed pasta and his father served a glass of grappa to toast the event.
American illustration art has a long history. Did you know that Paul Revere and Amos Doolittle are among our first American illustrators? Revere’s famous engraving depicting the Boston Massacre goes for top dollar when examples come to auction. Felix Darley (1822-1888) is considered one of the top illustrators of the early 19th century. He illustrated books for the famous authors of the day.
Advances in technology in the mid-to-late 19thcentury, such as improved printing techniques, were important to the publishing industry. Illustrations became a necessary tool, and the Civil War created a new type of illustrator, known as a pictorial reporter.
Howard Pyle, who founded the Brandywine School of Art in Delaware, is considered the father of American Illustration. He authored and illustrated many books, notably his “Book of Pirates.” Among his students were other famous illustrators, including Newell Convers Wyeth, Harvey Dunn and Frank Schoonover. When their works come to market, they command thousands of dollars.
Original book and magazine illustrations got no respect after they had served their purpose and were printed. Some languished in publishers’ files while others were thrown out. Even the great Norman Rockwell admitted that “There have been disadvantages to being an illustrator. Many who consider themselves serious painters look down their noses at us.”
Joseph Christian Leyendecker’s (1874-1951) “A Real Happy New Year,” a Saturday Evening Post Cover from 1906.
It wasn’t till 1979 that original American illustrations were accepted by major auction galleries. Among the first to go on the block were N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Chandler Christy, Joseph Christian Leyendecker and, of course, Rockwell. In 1988, Guernsey’s New York auction gallery auctioned 500 American illustrations and realized prices ranged from $50 to a few in the high thousands. While prices weren’t very exciting, the good news was that a beginning market with realized prices had been established,
Collectors were exposed to a new type of art market. The good news for collectors is that there are still illustrations waiting to be discovered in unexpected places.
Leyendecker was famed for his annual New Year’s Eve covers done for the Saturday Evening Post. He has always been collected and did 300 covers for the venerable weekly magazine. His 1906 cover fetched $31, 700 at a Heritage auction. Early collectors, often illustrators themselves, sought and saved Leyendecker and Rockwell illustrations.
Women illustrators found their niche and employment early on as part of Howard Pyle’s Brandywine school. The best known is Jessie Wilcox Smith (1863-1935), who illustrated Good Housekeeping magazine covers and children’s books. A contemporary, prolific illustrator of children’s books is Diane Dillon, who collaborates with her husband Leo Dillon, an illustrator.
A Harrison Cady pen and ink on paper illustration that appeared in St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine For Young Folks in a 1908 issue.
When children’s books and magazines first became popular in early 20th-century America, much of their charm depended on the illustrations. Harrison Cady (1877-1970) was one of the most prolific. He did illustrations for St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine For Young Folks. Rose O’Neill (1875-1944) did many types of illustrations but is best known for her “kewpies,” impish babies with turnip-shaped heads.
There are many contemporary illustrators that are beginning to come to auction and reasonably priced. Their work can be found on paperback book covers, magazines, posters and calendars. Two known for their fantasy art are the brothers Hilderbrandt, Greg and Tim.
Who knows how many early illustrations are still waiting to be discovered?
There are far too many places where collections of illustrations are displayed to list here. Among them: The Society of Illustrators and Illustration House in New York and the National Museum of Illustration in Newport, R.I., are just a few.
A couple of notes on buying illustrations: Signatures are important, since values depend on them. Some pieces have an “estate stamp” in lieu of the artist’s signature. It is the custom for art dealers to have estate stamps made up to take the place of signatures. They are hand-signed and dated either by a descendant of the artist who is a qualified art dealer or appraiser. Often, illustrations are only signed with a monogram.
Condition and subject matter can also dictate the price. Since many early illustrations have damage, prices are low. If they are by an important illustrator, a good restorer can bring back value. An important factor is the subject. Does it have a favorable visual impact?
For collectors of illustrations, the art is fine.
Anne Gilbert is the author of a nationally self-syndicated antiques column “The Antique Detective,” the author of nine books on antiques and art, and a professional appraiser specializing in original illustrations and original political cartoons. Her early columns and feature stories are archived in Chicago’s Newberry Library section of “Outstanding Pioneer Women Journalists of the Midwest.” As an advocate for abused dogs, she has written her first novel, “Mayor of the Dog Park,” an e-Kindle book. You can e-mail Anne at Antique2@bellsouth.net.
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