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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

Illustration Art Draws Collectors

Why Swann Galleries launched its newest record-setting department. By Peggy Carouthers Peggy Carouthers lives in North Carolina and is the editor of custom content at Journalistic Inc.

From beloved children’s books to magazine covers, illustration art shapes the narrative and adds dimension to a story. While not new to auctions, it is only in recent years that the popularity of these works has soared. This shift led Swann Galleries, a house that specializes in rare and antiquarian books, to establish a separate Illustration Art department in 2012. The department deals exclusively with original works of art intended for publication, including book and magazine illustrations; advertising art; theater, costume, and film designs; cartoons; and comics.

Howard Chandler Christy, I Am an American!, charcoal and pastel, 1941. Sold January 28, 2016 for $40,000. Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
Georges Lepape, Le Miroir, ink and watercolor, for Vogue, 1927. Sold September 29, 2016 for $52,500. Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), Tadd and Todd, ink and watercolor, for Redbook, 1950. Sold September 29, 2016 for $23,750. Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Specialist Christine von der Linn, the department founder, explained why the auction house is focusing on this burgeoning category.

Why was it time to form the Illustration Art department?

The work of many artists and illustrators was overlooked for years and not regarded as important or serious enough for the international market, especially if it depicted lighthearted subjects. But as modern art historical thinking has expanded to appreciate what defines us as storytellers, illustration art has come to be seen as a form of cultural reflection. As such, collectors, museums, and other institutions are increasingly interested in the vast scope of illustration art.

What are some of the highlights of the department?

Last fall, we sold a rediscovered illustration by Theodor Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, of Tadd and Todd, which realized $23,750; in the same sale we sold a 1922 Harper’s Bazaar cover by Erté titled La Cage Improvisée for $45,000. We also offer new-to-market cartoons by Charles Addams and unique works by Aubrey Beardsley, Ludwig Bemelmans, and Maurice Sendak.

The department regularly establishes auction records for artists new to the market and breaks existing records. These include $52,500 for Georges Lepape’s 1927 Vogue cover, Le Miroir, in September 2016, and Howard Chandler Christy’s original charcoal and pastel maquette for the iconic I Am an American!, 1941, which was purchased for $40,000 in January 2016.

We have become well known for our popular New Yorker magazine section where we feature original cover art and cartoons by great names from the famed publication, such as Charles Addams, Peter Arno, George Booth, Mary Petty, and others. A private book collection of works by Edward Gorey—a personal favorite of mine—enlivened interest in his artwork and, to date, we’ve sold more originals by him, and set more records for his work, than any other auction house.

What is most exciting about this category?

Nearly every work is a little mystery. Often, the consignor has no idea why his or her piece was created and whether or where it was published. We love to dig into the research to uncover the background story. We always unframe a work to see what clues might be on the reverse, like a fragment of a signature or a magazine label with a sticker that we have to struggle to read to solve the riddle.

Are there any common misconceptions about illustration art?

People sometimes think that because an illustration is whimsical or a commission for a popular publication that it is not “serious” or technically sophisticated art, but so much can go into a first-class example. The light in a Bernie Fuchs painting for Sports Illustrated is unparalleled, as are the painstakingly rendered details, like raindrops or beadwork by the hand of Erté, or the facial expressions of characters by W. T. Benda.

Peggy Carouthers lives in North Carolina and is the editor of custom content at Journalistic Inc.