National Press Club’s Norman Rockwell sale to diversify its assets—at a cost

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Over the more than 20 years since she joined Washington’s National Press Club, when Nell Minow has shown visitors the Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth paintings hanging on the walls, she has said half-jokingly that the art was part of the reason she joined the club. “I loved showing it to guests,” says the freelancer, who covers arts, entertainment, and business for BeliefNet, Huffington Post, and others.

The painting, “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor,” which ran in the Saturday Evening Post on May 25, 1946, contains a self-portrait of the artist smoking a pipe as he enters a bustling newsroom, where two people hack away at typewriters. A man in a suit and a hat is sprawled in a chair poring over a newspaper, while an apron-clad copy boy, with pages in hand, dashes off stage left. The work offers a nostalgic glimpse of a moment in journalism that no longer exists; aside from The New Yorker, where else do editors receive illustrators in person? Who needs aprons in the age of digital printing?

The work’s tenure at the Press Club is also coming to a close. The club recently consigned the painting–which has hung on its walls for at least 52 years–to Christie’s for sale. The auction house predicts the painting will command $10 to $15 million when it goes on the block on Nov. 19. In its place, a replica will hang on the same spot on the club’s wall, in the original frame. The impending sale has raised questions for some about whether the monetary payoff is worth parting with a historic and artistic masterpiece, especially one that has become so integral to the club’s culture and atmosphere.

Not everyone thinks the sale is a great idea. “These are often the kinds of decisions that seem good in the moment, and then you don’t realize how meaningful a piece of art is until it’s gone,” says Eric Grode, who directs Syracuse University’s arts journalism program. “I think having a replica around doesn’t scratch that itch.”

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In two emails to club members, of which I’m one, John Hughes, Press Club president and a Bloomberg editor, wrote that the club was selling the painting because a recent appraisal came back exponentially higher than previous ones. The climbing value means the club can no longer afford to adequately protect the painting, or to pay the massive premiums required to insure it against theft or damage.

“This is wonderful news for the club and the institute, because we will have additional resources to carry out our missions for many years to come,” he wrote, referring to the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the club’s nonprofit affiliate, which will receive 30 percent of the sale proceeds; the other 70 percent will go to the club. The sale will position the club to invest in its programs and facility, according to Hughes, but board members also have an “overwhelming desire” to think about how the money can secure the club’s future.

Club leaders are currently discussing what to do with the money, according to Hughes, who says the sale will put the club in a better position to invest in its programs and facility. “There is an overwhelming desire on the part of board members to use the money to secure the future of the club,” he says.

Sitting in his office steps from the wall where the Rockwell painting hung before it was sent following the appraisal to the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.*, for safekeeping, Hughes says that in the 17 years he’s been a member of the club, he’s been cautious about discussing the work’s value for fear of jeopardizing its security.

When members of the Rockwell committee–three club and three institute board members–met to decide what to do with the painting, they learned that many who belong to the club weren’t even aware that the Rockwell was real. “They thought it was a copy,” Hughes says.

Minow, the freelancer, knew the work was an original, perhaps because her husband, David Apatoff, is an expert on Rockwell.* When she received the email from the club detailing the reasons for the sale, Minow was sympathetic.

“While I am very, very sorry to lose it, I understand all of the factors that went into the decision and believe it was the right choice,” she says.

Apatoff, who is not a Press Club member, sees things a bit differently. “I thought that it was a shame.” Without the painting, the club will “lose some of its humanity and its tradition,” he says. But Apatoff also thinks the work may have “outgrown its venue,” and that transferring custody to an owner who can afford to better protect it will be preferable. “The worst case scenario would be for the painting to crumble with age and neglect, or become vandalized or stolen,” he says.

Hopefully we’ve driven a stake through the heart of the idea of ever financially struggling again.”

Apatoff thinks Christie’s valuation of the work is fair, and that a bidding war could drive the price well above the auction house’s estimate. “Rockwell’s work does seem to resonate with billionaires,” he says. The work is a rare horizontal composition for the painter, and although it’s not Rockwell’s best, Apatoff says, “there are very few Rockwell paintings like this one in the world, and none of them will be coming up for auction anytime soon.”

Curators and gallerists long undervalued Rockwell due to his commercial success, but that’s changing, according to Apatoff. A recent Sotheby’s $46 million sale of “Saving Grace” in Dec. 2013 was “anomalous,” but overall buyers are increasingly realizing “we’ve had a brilliant, prolific painter right under our noses all this time … So Rockwell’s prices are making up for lost time.”

“This is not a temporary surge in value,” he says. “He has all the earmarks of a long-term significant artist.”

But the potential that the work might lose value is precisely why the club is selling now, Hughes says, noting that it would be irresponsible to allow 80 percent of the club’s assets to continue to be tied up in a single object. And shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect the work in coming years “would be the tail wagging the dog.”

“We’ve learned that the art market is volatile, so you can’t assume it’s just going to go up, up, up,” he says.

The club, which was founded in 1908, has weathered financial hardships that have threatened its existence, but for the last seven to eight years, it has been profitable, and now has a modest reserve of funds. Hughes is grateful that the club isn’t selling from a position of financial instability. “I think people would say, ‘You mismanaged the club. You mismanaged your finances. And now you’re selling the assets, because you’re desperate.’ I think that would be a terrible situation to be selling the Rockwell in,” Hughes says. “Hopefully we’ve driven a stake through the heart of the idea of ever financially struggling again.”

Although Hughes mentioned in an email to the membership that the club doesn’t plan to sell any other artworks, the sale does invite the question of whether anything that isn’t bolted to the floor or the walls might be consigned next.

The club owns a painting by N.C. Wyeth, though Hughes declined to comment on its value or its title or subject. (Minow, the freelancer, describes it as a “small but very nice” painting of a “Western scene with cowboys on a buckboard.”) Two of Wyeth’s illustrations recently sold for more than $700,000, and his work is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Portland Museum of Art.

Another object at the club that is likely of great value is a piano then-Vice President Harry Truman was photographed playing in 1945, while starlet Lauren Bacall perched atop the instrument. A plaque notes that the photo of the “amateur musician” and Bacall appeared in Life magazine on May 7, 1945 and became “one of the most published photos in journalistic history.”

Mark Evans, the member services director of American Political Items Collectors and a collector himself, says it’s “almost impossible” to price the piano. “No one would know unless it was actually offered for sale,” he says. Truman is one of the most popular presidents when it comes to collecting campaign items, Evans says, because the former president’s stuff is “scarce and highly popular,” and “very steadily” going up in value.

Sara Fox, of Christie’s, declined to comment on the fee the auction house will receive for selling the Press Club’s Rockwell painting. She also wasn’t sure about the details of a replica that the club will receive. (In addition to being a Press Club member, I also used to freelance for Christie’s website.)

“My understanding is that to the naked eye … it’ll look exactly the same,” says Hughes, the club president. “I look at it as, we are going to continue to celebrate that painting through all of our days, and the painting is even a better story now than it ever was.”

Minow, the freelancer and club member, is well aware the copy won’t be like having a Rockwell on the wall “any more than a postcard of the Mona Lisa is the same thing as the painting in the Louvre.”

But since the appraisal there’s been nothing on the wall. “Right now, we don’t have a picture of Rockwell delivering his work to a small town newspaper at all. So it will be good to have a replica as a reminder of that era and that gift,” she says.

* An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of the Norman Rockwell Museum and incorrectly stated that David Apatoff was curating an exhibit for the museum. Additionally, Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the museum, sent the following response: Norman Rockwell Museum ardently petitioned the boards of the National Press Club and Journalism Institute to safeguard and make a permanent home for this painting so that the National Press Club would not have to worry about insurance and security. The boards turned this request down overnight and sent it to auction. Norman Rockwell gave this painting to the Press Club for the enjoyment of its members and the public. It would have been appropriate to keep this painting in the public eye at the Rockwell Museum if the Press Club felt it could not adequately care for it. To sell it because the market for Rockwell has skyrocketed ignores the reason Norman Rockwell gave it to the Press Club. Norman Rockwell Museum has been honored to exhibit this painting, and hopes that it will be purchased by an owner who will place it back in the public trust, as Norman Rockwell originally intended. Alternatively, we would still happily provide a home for this artwork.

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Menachem Wecker is a freelance journalist covering culture and the arts, religion, and education for The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, Deseret News, National Catholic Reporter, and Jewish Daily Forward, among others. He lives in Washington, DC.