THE passing of a famous artist is supposed to send prices of his or her works soaring. With Norman Rockwell, however, people wondered whether the vast number of his works, and debate over whether he was an illustrator or a great American painter, would dampen that effect. Now, 10 years after his death, it appears that the critical art world - and the market - gave him his due after all.
``When Rockwell died, people became ghoulish,'' said Martin Diamond, one of the main dealers of the artist's work over the past 15 years. ``Everybody figured this was the time to cash in, and anyone who ever had a Rockwell or had something they thought was a Rockwell came to auction houses or dealers looking to see how much they could make.''
There were a lot of Rockwells to be sold. The artist was very prolific and often made 10 to 20 preliminary sketches (including drawings, watercolors, rough sketches, color sketches, and finished sketches) for each final oil painting. He was also free with his work, handing pictures out to people he liked or who simply told him they admired his artistry.
Unlike most artists who earn a living by selling their paintings, Rockwell sold the reproduction rights but rarely the works themselves. His work was used on the covers and inside pages of various magazines - including the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look - and by advertisers. Rockwell often left his originals with the magazines or ad agencies; he didn't believe they were worth anything.
The artist's generosity was legendary. ``Someone once wrote Rockwell that he'd love to own an original painting by him, and Rockwell just sent him one,'' Mr. Diamond says. ``The guy sent Rockwell a letter asking to be billed, and Rockwell never answered; then he sent Rockwell another letter begging to be billed, and Rockwell finally sent him a bill for $1,000.''
Judy Goffman, another Rockwell dealer, recalls a story of a boy writing to Rockwell saying that he and his father really loved his work, and he wanted to give his father a Rockwell for his birthday. The boy didn't know if there was anything he could afford, but he'd love something, and Rockwell sent him a drawing. ``I think it was a study for his painting `The Jury Hold-out,''' Ms. Goffman says.
ROCKWELL also drew a number of the townspeople in the Stockbridge, Mass., area where he lived and gave them the sketches. Many of his works were in circulation when he died, and the market became flooded for a time.
The balance of buyers and sellers finally sorted itself out. But even this interruption did not stem the rising tide of interest in the artist's work. Prices at major auction houses went from $15,000 to $20,000 for the most important works in the early 1970s to the $50,000 to $65,000 range in the two years after he died. Since 1984, these works have fetched $70,000 to $80,000.
There have been some notable exceptions to these prices, such as the $110,000 paid for ``Trumpet Practice'' in 1987, and the $242,000 for ``Crackers in Bed'' in 1988, as well as the $250,000 paid in 1982 for ``Homecoming Marine.''
``Crackers in Bed,'' by the way, which had been painted as an advertising assignment for General Electric, was turned down by Martin Diamond when it was offered to him in the mid-1970s for $25,000. ``It's not a bad picture,'' he said. ``It's just not a great one, and I didn't think it was worth all that money.''
``Homecoming Marine,'' generally viewed as one of Rockwell's most memorable paintings, turns out to have been worth the money, too, as it was sold to a private collector four years later for half a million dollars.
Jay Cantor, head of American paintings at Christie's auction house, notes that ``there is a saying in the auction world that one price is a record, two prices is a trend, and three prices is a market. `Homecoming Marine' certainly set a record, but it didn't set a trend, and you really don't see prices in that area generally for Rockwell.''
``There has been a general reevaluation of Rockwell and of American illustration in this country over the same time period, but not to anywhere near the same degree as for American painting,'' Mr. Cantor says. ``There hasn't been any quantum leap in prices for Rockwell or American illustration.''
Cantor added that this is still a specialized market, with Rockwells more likely to be bought by collectors of American illustration than by collectors of American art.
THAT view is not universally held, however. Dara Mitchell, assistant vice-president for American paintings at Sotheby's auction house, says, ``The major Rockwell paintings really haven't been brought to auction for us to see where the market is.''
Goffman adds that most important Rockwells have been sold privately through dealers, often for prices far in excess of the auction records. She also notes that a growing number of art museums - such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut - and some major private art collectors have begun acquiring Rockwells.
``The view that Rockwell is just an illustrator is gone,'' she says. ``He's now pretty universally acknowledged to be a great American painter.''
A price has been paid for the success of the Rockwell market, specifically in the wealth of fakes that have come onto the market. The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge maintains an ever-thickening file of reported fakes, and Rockwell's various dealers as well as the artist's son Jarvis periodically check with each other about the authenticity of the latest purported ``Rockwell.''
One of these fake - or misattributed - works was donated by Diamond himself to the Rockwell museum after he had purchased a watercolor he thought was by Rockwell more than 12 years ago for $1,000. ``Something told me the picture wasn't right, but I had a hard time knowing for sure,'' he said. ``Even Norman Rockwell didn't remember not doing it.''
Finally, Diamond and his wife spent two days in the New York City Public Library, poring over old magazines until he saw the picture in Women's Home Companion, for which Rockwell had done illustrations. This painting was by a contemporary, Robert Patterson. ``Someone had painted out Patterson's name and put Rockwell's name on it,'' Diamond said. ``It happens all the time.''