Drama surrounding the sale of Norman Rockwell’s 1941 painting Willie Gillis, Package from Home appeared to sputter to a close in mid-April when Chicago auctioneer Sean Susanin chose a curious way to announce that he had sold the painting for $1.75 million. That sum is millions below the $3/5 million presale estimate, and it is $1 million below the sale that Susanin had celebrated in December, when the painting owned and consigned by Chicago insurance giant CNA appeared to sell in a Susanin’s auction for $2.8 million.
Prior to the sale, PR had churned relentlessly. After the auction, the sale as a $2.8 million done deal was shortly yanked from Artnet. It also disappeared from Susanin’s Web site. No information on the buyer was forthcoming, and Susanin did not respond to repeated requests for information or clarification.
Sharp-eyed appraisers attending the annual International Society of Appraisers (ISA) conference in Chicago April 12-15 spotted a full-page ad by Susanin in the conference program. Below a photo of the painting, large print trumpeted the lower price. Equally large print added that it was the “Largest Single Auction Item Sold in Chicago.”
Except that it wasn’t. On April 18, the Chicago Tribune reported information from an e-mail by Susanin wherein he explained that Willie Gillis, Package from Home had failed to meet its reserve at auction and had not sold. The newly stated result was because “Susanin negotiated a new price privately.”
At the same time, on-line ads by M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans, featured new merchandise including, prominently, Willie Gillis, Package from Home. Rau’s price was $4.85 million.
By this time, auction watchers were perturbed. If the painting had failed to meet its reserve (and no one seemed to remember one stated before the sale), why did the gavel go down at $2.8 million? And if $2.8 million did not meet the reserve, how could CNA accept a sale for $1.75 million?
There were no answers from CNA. CNA’s PR person referred us to Susanin. He wasn’t talking. So when M.S. Rau came to Chicago for a show at the Merchandise Mart, we asked Bill Rau about the status of the painting. Willie Gillis was there, prominently displayed and getting a lot of attention.
Rau could not have been nicer, but he was resolute. Before he too clammed up, he told us, “At the end of the day, it’s a great painting. I firmly believe that if the painting had sold in New York at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, it would have brought five to seven million.”
By late April the sale had been reinstated on Artnet. This time the total was listed as $3,266,000, including buyer’s premium. (Susanin’s stated buyer’s premium is 25%.) This new total is quite different from the original sum touted in the ISA program ($1,750,000 plus buyer’s premium, which would have resulted in $2,187,500).
So, questions remain. Did Willie Gillis, Package from Home sell? If so, to whom, and what is the real sum? In the painting, Willie has a quirky, knowing look. He has the package from home, and everyone wants to know what’s inside. Only Willie knows. And he’s not talking.
Full-page ad in the ISA conference program.
Willie Gillis, Package from Home by Norman Rockwell, 51” x 39”, at the Merchandise Mart International Antiques Fair, held April 26-29.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest