Willie Gillis, Package from Home. Susanin’s photo.
The highly publicized sale of a Norman Rockwell painting for $2.8 million in Chicago may or may not be a done deal. The painting portrays Willie Gillis, a fictional character created by Rockwell, as an enlisted man carrying a food package from home. Close behind are servicemen eagerly eyeing the package. Willie Gillis, Package from Home is one from a series of Gillis paintings created by Rockwell for covers of the Saturday Evening Post. The oil on canvas measures 50" x 39".
Depending on who’s talking, the sale of Willie Gillis, Package from Home either happened, did not happen, fell through, or is in negotiation. Last November, Susanin’s Auctions in Chicago announced that it had been selected by the owner to sell the painting, and on December 1, 2012, Susanin’s announced that the work had sold for $2.8 million to a phone bidder during a fine art and estate jewelry auction.
On November 11, 2012, the Chicago Tribune had reported the upcoming sale, stating that Susanin’s cofounder and auctioneer Sean Susanin expected the painting to sell for $3 to $5 million. Susanin declined to identify the owner of the work, but a Google search on December 5, 2012, identified the owner as CNA, the Chicago-based financial and insurance giant.
The Tribune quoted Susanin as saying, “It’s a dream come true for a Chicago auctioneer to be called up to handle something of this magnitude and caliber.” The article added that the previous Chicago auction record for a painting was a still life by Vincent van Gogh that sold for $1.43 million in 1991. That oil on canvas, Still Life with Flowers, brought $1.3 million (hammer) at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in March of that year.
On November 12, 2012, United Business Media PR Newswire had cited an announcement from Susanin’s, calling it “the Midwest’s largest fine art auction house.” In the release, headed “Norman Rockwell Masterpiece Resurfaces after Decades,”
Susanin called it “certainly one of the finest Rockwells.”
Media had a field day with the upcoming sale. In short order, Susanin was filmed in house by the Chicago ABC affiliate, as a business reporter proclaimed Susanin’s opinion that the painting could bring $10 million. Standing next to the painting, Susanin explained that it “has hung in the [unnamed corporate] CEO’s office since 1968,” and that a new CEO wanted the painting replaced. For weeks after the sale, Susanin’s tumblr.com page still carried a November 28, 2012, clip from the Chicago PBS-TV affiliate covering the upcoming sale. In some sort of presale PR high point, a shot of the upcoming sale in a crawl on a PR newswire in Times Square hit the screen. Advance for the sale seemed everywhere. UPI carried the story, as did the Wall Street Journal (with photo), on November 29, 2012. Coverage ranged from New York gallery blogs to an on-line newsletter from India.
After the sale, Reuters and newsfeeds picked up the story, leaning heavily on a Susanin release. Reuters included a quote from an in-house spokesperson lamenting that the painting did not bring up to $5 million as hoped. The house spin was that the $2.8 million result was nonetheless “great news,” as no other painting had ever fetched more at a Chicago auction.
Then the questions started. Who, exactly, bought this version of Willie Gillis? Why wasn’t the buyer identified, even if only as private buyer or institution, or by location?
Previous sales of Willie Gillis paintings have ranged from $926,500 at Sotheby’s for the 14" x 11" The Fighting Gillises (Willie Gillis’s Generations) in December 2010 to $1,049,000 at Sotheby’s for the 28" x 24" Willie Gillis in Church in May 2008. Surely, almost $2.8 million deserved some celebration. Most auctioneers would be shouting from the rooftops. The Rockwell, however, has disappeared from the results page on Susanin’s Web site.
And where was Sean Susanin? A scholarly and enlightened explanation on how a possible $10 million sale devolved into $2.8 million might have extended the PR honeymoon.
We know how it is in the art and antiques biz. Buzz happens. People talk. In very short order, questions became deafening. The range of theories about this Rockwell sale includes:
On December 5, 2012, we reached Susanin, and he told us, “I can’t talk about it.” The sale is “still in negotiation. I’ll let you know in a week or so. It’s like buying a house. Until something is done, especially in this business, it’s not finalized.”
Still reeling from the recent unexpected death of Christian Skeem, cofounder of Susanin’s, Sean Susanin seemed in shock. “It’s been the most awful three months of my life,” he told us. To be honest, Sean and I go back many years, and I can tell you—he was not himself.
Meanwhile, no one’s talking, and the painting is listed as a completed sale on artnet.com but with no price. Askart notes the painting is sold but also lists no price. CNA’s public relations department head refers all inquiries to Susanin. He is reluctant to comment via phone or e-mail. After repeated attempts, we did get an e-mail from him on December 18 stating that he was not ready to discuss the matter. In a February 4 e-mail he wrote, “Gillis is about 2 weeks away from completion.”