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News of Rockwell sales draws interest

HOWLAND — The sale of the Norman Rockwell paintings in the Boy Scouts of America art collection could create “a feeding frenzy on a global scale,” according to one Cleveland auction house.

The BSA’s decision to include its art collection among the assets it will sell as part of a bankruptcy reorganization proposal also is increasing interest among the general public to see the collection while they can at the Medici Museum of Art.

Deba Gray, president of Gray’s Auctioneers in Cleveland, said the works would appeal to the private and corporate sectors as well as museums and dealers. Gray previously worked for Sotheby’s in Chicago before starting her own auction house with Serena Harrigan.

“Quite frankly, everyone might be a little ravenous,” she said. “The collection tells the story of a long-lost America that people are really nostalgic for.”

The BSA filed for bankruptcy in February 2020 to protect the organization from current and future victim compensation lawsuits after several states changed their statutes of limitation for sexual assault claims.

The directors of Medici reached an agreement to become custodians of the collection, which includes 65 Rockwell pieces and more than 350 items in all, knowing it could be sold in bankruptcy proceedings.

Gray said she believes the power of the imagery in Rockwell’s paintings is stronger than any stigma that comes from the circumstances that are forcing the collection to market. She said it even could be spun as a positive if collectors believe they are helping the victims of sexual abuse by their purchases.

One thing that will help buyers is the proven authenticity and lineage of the collection, which frequently is an issue with rare artworks.

“Here we have a superstar with perfect provenance, no question,” Gray said. “If you had a Picasso collection like that, collectors worldwide would go nuts, and I think that could happen here.”

KEEPING TOGETHER

Finding a single buyer for the entire collection might be more lucrative than selling each piece individually, Gray said, and it also would increase the chances that Rockwell’s work still could be appreciated by the public.

“What this represents is a chunk of American history,” Gray said. “If it’s taken off public view and ends up in someone’s private collection, that would be a real drag.”

Katelyn Amendolara-Russo, associate director of the Medici Museum, agrees.

“I don’t know what their (the Boy Scouts) hopes are, but it would be nice to keep it together,” she said.

Amendolara-Russo is researching collectors with a history of purchasing Rockwell paintings and plans to email them, encouraging them to come see the work in person at Medici. Those collectors include filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose friend and collaborator George Lucas is creating the Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.

Amendolara-Russo also heard from one of the Boy Scouts depicted in a self-portrait of Rockwell at work that is part of the collection. The man told her he still has the check he received for modeling for the 1969 painting and is interested in bidding if it is sold.

Requests for tours, both in person and virtually, also have increased, she said.

Medici plans to display other pieces from the BSA collection when its current expansion is completed this spring. An exhibition featuring the work of Joseph Csatari, who was Rockwell’s successor as official artist of the BSA, is in the works, and the 92-year-old Csatari plans to come to the museum, Amendolara-Russo said.

URGENCY

While the Rockwell show never was planned as permanent installation at the Medici, the bankruptcy news has added a bit of a deadline to the open-ended run. Howland attorney Ned Gold, who was instrumental in bringing the collection to the area, said last week he didn’t expect anything to happen with a sale before fall. Amendolara-Russo said it conceivably could be a year or more.

Beth Kotwis Carmichael, executive director of the Trumbull County Tourism Bureau, said, “I do believe the news does add a sense of urgency. Just the unknown in terms of timing should add a sense of urgency to people who want to see the collection.”

Even with restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, museum manager Tom Hazen said attendance has been up compared to when the gallery served as the Trumbull branch of the Butler Institute of American Art. Visitors can schedule an appointment by calling 330-856-2120 to see the collection at 9350 E. Market St. It is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and walk-ins are allowed if space is available.

While donations are accepted, there is no admission fee.

“It’s free,” Carmichael said. “You get to see 65 original Rockwell pieces for free in Howland, Ohio. I don’t know what the percentage is of the local population that’s seen it, but the museum is doing everything they can to keep people safe.”

agray@tribtoday.com

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