J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 08, 2017

Norman Rockwell’s Franklin Up for Bid

For the sesquicentennial of American independence in 1926, the Saturday Evening Post commissioned a cover image of Benjamin Franklin. The magazine traces itself back to the Pennsylvania Gazette, which Franklin printed and published in the mid-1700s.

Norman Rockwell, already a star at what his time deemed mere illustration but previous centuries called history painting, portrayed Franklin at a desk with a writing quill. The face and especially the hair, loose and not under a wig, match how Franklin was often portrayed late in life, not at the height of his publishing career.

Rockwell’s illustration ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post’s May 29 issue. It became iconic Americana. Starting in 2005, the portrait was displayed at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

In January 2010, Bonhams Auction House offered the painting for an estimated price of $700,000 to $1,000,000. The owner was then the Carlos & Elena De Mattos Collection. This appears to be Carlos De Mattos, head of companies that rent filmmaking and theatrical equipment and winner of two Oscars for technical achievements.

Sometime after that auction, the painting became the property of actress Debbie Reynolds. She also amassed an immense collection of Hollywood memorabilia, especially costumes worn by her fellow actresses. Reynolds continued to loan the painting to the Rockwell Museum.

On 14-16 October, Profiles in History will auction 1,500 works of art and artifacts from the estates of Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher. The Franklin painting is the auction highlight, with an estimated price of $2-3 million. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Ross Perot are well-known Rockwell collectors, and there’s a new dormitory at Yale named after Franklin that might need an iconic portrait. Or, depending on the buyer, the painting might return to view in Stockbridge.

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