The Artwork of Norman Rockwell Preserved on a Pair of Suspenders

WHEN some famous artists die, they live on in art history books, their artwork preserved in museums and notable collections.

But the artwork of certain artists such as Norman Rockwell has become an even larger commercial industry after their passing. Rockwell's drawings, oil sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings attract collectors willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on major works. But his images, in whole or in part, are also available on a myriad of souvenir-priced items for which enthusiasts spend tens of millions of dollars annually. This merchandise - 1,200 items are available at the Norman Rockwell Museum gift shop in his hometown of Stockbridge, Mass. - includes note cards, jigsaw puzzles, and trouser suspenders.

Many dealers of illustration art are critical of the amount of low-priced merchandise - which is sometimes poor quality - that the Rockwell family and its copyright holders have allowed.

``Rockwell was, and still is, exploited in shameless ways,'' says Walt Reed, owner of Illustration House, an art gallery in New York. ``You see all these souvenir items that denigrate the artist, to my way of thinking.''

Art collectors have not been dissuaded from paying top dollar for original Rockwells, however. ``The people who buy the original aren't affected by what they see in the department stores,'' says New York art dealer Judy Goffman.

The Rockwell family was left with relatively few originals, and because there are not enough to sell, the family's main means of generating income is through licensing.

Mass-produced artwork

Honore Daumier and Francisco Goya also were well-regarded painters who achieved even greater renown through their mass-produced caricatures in print media. Mary Anne Robertson's (Grandma Moses) original paintings are hung in major museums and private collections; her images are also found on posters and ceramic plates. Like the Rockwell licensing company, Grandma Moses Properties Company, created in the 1940s, handles the licensing of her images.

Yet, there is less Grandma Moses merchandise than Rockwell merchandise on the market. This is partly a reflection of demand and partly a matter of planning, says Jane Kallir of Galerie St. Etienne in New York. Ms. Kallir works as a dealer for Moses.

``Toward the end of her life and after her death, Grandma Moses's celebrity status waned, and her status as a fine artist increased,'' Ms. Kallir said. ``In this context, we didn't want the artist to seem totally exploited commercially [so] ... we have put more emphasis on exhibitions and seeing her work reproduced in books. Licenses are mostly restricted to fine arts areas.''

Old-fashioned appeal

Another explanation for Rockwell's seemingly boundless popularity is the old-fashioned, cozy images his works provoke. ``Rockwell's name is used proverbially,'' says Thomas Rockwell, one of the artist's three sons and the sole trustee of the family trust. ``When you say Norman Rockwell, the small-town image comes to mind.''

The hundreds of companies that market Rockwell merchandise get permission from at least one of the four main copyright holders, which include the Norman Rockwell Family Trust and Estate Licensing Company; Curtis Publishing Company of Indianapolis (which owns the rights to the Saturday Evening Post covers, Rockwell's most famous works); Brown & Bigelow Inc. of St. Paul, Minn. (the world's largest calendar maker, for whom Rockwell did about 150 illustrations); and Hallmark Inc. of Kansas City, Mo. (for whom he designed Christmas cards).

The copyright holders receive 5 percent to 10 percent royalties on sales of Rockwell-related items. Brown & Bigelow grosses $200,000 to $300,000 a year; Curtis Publishing takes in more than $500,000, while the estate licensing company gets almost $500,000 yearly.

Licensees generally pay copyright holders a nonrefundable advance against royalties - $2,000 to $5,000 for smaller items; $50,000 to $100,000 for those that will be marketed widely.

``A company may not be able to sell as many items as projected, or there may be so many problems along the way of production that it drops the item altogether,'' says Joan Durham, president of Curtis Archives, a division of Curtis Publishing. ``But for us, that means giving an exclusive license to a very salable image and receiving no royalties back for it.''

Copyright holders also generally license images for no longer than a year at a time, subject to ``performance reviews,'' she says. With hundreds of companies seeking Rockwell images, Curtis Publishing and other copyright holders can afford to choose carefully and strike hard bargains.

This year marks Rockwell's 100th birthday, and all stops are being pulled out to note the event. The federal copyright law, meanwhile, extends an artist's (or his or her heir's) control for the artist's lifetime plus 50 years.

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