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The Art of Seduction

Shaun Tolson

The market for vintage pinup art changed dramatically in June 2007 when the fourth of five Gil Elvgren paintings crossed the block during a Heritage Auctions sale in Dallas. At that time, the record price for an Elvgren pinup at auction—$93,500—had stood for almost a decade, though that particular result seemed to be an outlier. During the first six years of the new millennium, original Elvgren oil paintings exchanged hands for much less, and based on the results of regular Heritage-hosted auctions, their values were appreciating at a gradual pace.

During one of Heritage Auctions’ early comic book sales in 2003, for example, Elvgren’s 1957 painting What a View (a whimsical scene of a blonde standing by a coin-operated public telescope with her red-and-white frilly skirt ballooning in the wind) sold for $16,100. The following year, the artist’s 1962 scene of a stocking-clad brunette skinny-dipping (titled Taking a Chance) sold for $26,290. By 2006, the better examples of Elvgren’s pinup paintings were selling for $40,000 to $65,000, which only intensified the buzz that bubbled up in the wake of that June 2007 sale.

The piece that had illustration-art collectors talking (and the one that would set a new record for the artist) depicts a blonde cowgirl straddling a saddled, makeshift hobbyhorse fashioned from an inverted wooden barrel, and it is cheekily named (as most Elvgren paintings are) Sitting Pretty. It sold for $131,450. Ed Jaster, a senior vice president at Heritage, believes that the quality of Elvgren’s painting technique on display in the piece, along with the attractiveness of the woman and the clever scene, are what influenced the final price. But he also believes that another factor played a key role in establishing the painting’s record-breaking value.

A few weeks earlier, Sotheby’s had sold a Norman Rockwell painting titled New Calendar, which depicts a wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked old man admiring a new pinup calendar on his wall while his indignant wife—clasping knitting needles and with her hands on her hips—looks on. The pinup scene featured on the elderly man’s calendar is Elvgren’s Sitting Pretty, and its inclusion reflects Rockwell’s respect and admiration for his fellow illustrator.

Despite such recognition from their respected contemporaries, the pinup artists of the mid-20th century were not cast in the same spotlight as other illustrators such as Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish, nor were their works collected as fervently or sold for as much. Only recently have values for the best examples of pinup art escalated, and even so, those values pale in comparison to the $1 million and more that a prized, original Rockwell might command. Still, the market is growing.

At the same time, however, fewer examples are coming up for sale. Soon, the best examples may be available only through private dealers. Understanding the factors that determine a superlative example of pinup art will assist any new collector looking for the best that they can afford. Equally important is knowing just who’s collecting this type of art. As auction-house experts and private dealers reveal, that audience is more diverse than most people think.

A few years ago, Randy Allen, a pinup-art collector from North Carolina, learned of a rare Enoch Bolles painting set to be auctioned by Barridoff Galleries in Portland, Maine. Bolles’s colorful and flirtatious scenes graced the covers of Film Fun magazine from 1921 to 1948, and that exposure made his pinup art some of the most recognizable during the Art Deco period. Many of his contemporaries painted in subdued tones, which made Bolles’s use of primary colors all the more impactful. However, very few of his original paintings still survive.

Allen made the trip up to Portland in early winter to attend the auction, though he only had interest in that one Bolles painting. Because it was scheduled near the end of the sale, the 64-year-old collector had to sit through the bidding for all the other paintings, most of which were nautical-themed. “All of the paintings were going for either half of their estimates or they weren’t selling at all,” he recalls. “I was shocked but also excited. The Bolles painting was estimated at $7,000, so I thought I might be able to get it for $2,000.”

When the Bolles piece came up for bidding, however, murmurs of interest filled the room. That was when Allen realized that many of the 150 or so people in attendance that day were there for the same reason he was. “That whole group of people was bidding like crazy,” he says. “I finally got it for $28,000, but the bidding didn’t slow down until it hit $23,000 and that was my first bid. I’m still glad I bought it; it’s one of my favorite pieces. But I was shocked.

“It’s a lot of fun trying to get a piece that someone else wants and hoping to find one that nobody else has recognized,” he continues. “But those days are long gone.”

Those days are long gone in large part because one of the greatest collectors of illustration art, Charles Martignette, also is gone—although Martignette made collecting vintage pinup art a difficult endeavor for other collectors while he was still alive. Up until his death in 2008, Martignette owned a massive collection of illustration art, including hundreds (if not thousands) of pinup paintings. It took Allen about 10 years of negotiating before he convinced Martignette to sell him 18 original Elvgrens. Even then, he had to buy them as part of a much larger group of paintings. “He loved this art,” Allen says of the late collector. “Charles was a very frugal and sharp dealer, but you weren’t dealing with a [normal] businessman. He put such high prices on these paintings because he didn’t want to turn them loose.”

About a year after Martignette’s death, Heritage Auctions acquired his estate and has been gradually auctioning off its contents ever since. As evidenced by his book, The Great American Pin-Up, which Martignette coauthored with Louis Meisel—a fellow collector and owner of one of the oldest contemporary art galleries in SoHo, New York—Martignette collected all the major pinup artists, from Alberto Vargas and George Petty to Earl Moran, Zoë Mozert, and many others. But without question, the most desirable artist of all—and one that Martignette collected with the greatest passion—was Gil Elvgren.

Elvgren, who graduated from the American Academy of Art in Chicago and who found inspiration in the works of John Singer Sargent and Haddon Sundblom, entered into an exclusive relationship with the Brown & Bigelow calendar company during the mid-1940s. Most of the original paintings that survive (300 are believed to still exist) correspond to the images that appeared in those calendars, and according to Jaster at Heritage Auctions, the most sought-after pieces are the ones from the late 1950s to early 1960s. “You’re looking for a full composition, a girl who’s very well rendered and very pretty,” he says, explaining that what separates Elvgren from the other artists like Vargas and Petty are the detailed scenes.

“I only buy certain pinups,” says Bruce Lewin, a New York collector who owns about three dozen original pinup paintings, including numerous Elvgrens. “They have to have a sense of humor; there has to be something humorous going on in the painting. I love that about Elvgren. I like the imagination and the sense of humor and how well they’re painted. It’s the things that he dreamed up and concocted.”

One of Lewin’s favorites is a composition titled Jackpot, circa 1961, which captures a moment when a blonde in a black cocktail dress hits it big at a slot machine. The painting shows her lifting up the front of her dress to catch all the coins spilling out of the machine, but just like most of the illustrator’s scenes, this piece reveals only a little more of the woman’s figure than one would normally see. “Anybody can come along and paint a female with a dress hiked up or paint a female nude, for that matter,” says Lewin. “But it’s not everybody who can add a new dimension to a painting that, when you look at it, evokes a feeling that goes above and beyond looking at a pretty girl.”

“He really doesn’t paint a femme fatale,” adds Jaster. “The girls have a real girl-next-door sensibility.  They’re pretty in an all-American way, with heart-shaped mouths and round eyes, and they’re [typically] compromised in an ‘oops’ situation.”

“They were sexy but chaste, pretty, all-American girls,” Meisel adds of the women depicted in Elvgren’s paintings. “Those were the girls that the boys who fought in World War II were coming home to.”  

Some of Elvgren’s most desirable pinups include a bit of innuendo. On the House, circa 1958, depicts a skirt-clad brunette sitting on the edge of her roof, her legs wrapped around the television antenna pole. Similarly, Fire Belle, circa 1956, catches a blonde in a black corset, red fireman’s helmet, and fireman’s boots sliding down the firehouse pole. And then there’s The Wrong Nail, which shows a curvaceous brunette sucking her thumb, with a hammer in the other hand and a framed painting leaning against the wall. As Jaster explains, Elvgren’s paintings provide a suggestive, sexual situation, but they’re always well rendered. “Gil could flat-out paint,” he says. “Elvgren was a complete package.”

To date, 34 Elvgren paintings have sold for more than $100,000 through Heritage Auctions since 2008, and the resale values are escalating quickly. Fire Belle, for example, sold for $191,200 in October 2011. Today, an interested collector can buy that from its current owner for $315,000. Looking for Trouble, a whimsical fireworks scene, sold for $56,762 in May 2010. But a collector looking to acquire it now would need to pay $139,000.

“I’ve been holding on to most of what I have, and every once in a while I’ll sell an Elvgren for $250,000 or $300,000,” says Meisel, adding that his most expensive Elvgren sold for $400,000 in 2003. “At some point, an Elvgren will sell for $1 million, and it won’t be 10 years from now.”

According to jaster, Alberto Vargas and George Petty are the two most popular pinup artists, aside from Elvgren. Unlike Elvgren, however, both Vargas and Petty painted pinup scenes that typically featured models on plain backgrounds. They don’t offer the same level of composition and they generally lack the implied narrative that has attracted so many collectors to Elvgren’s work. Nevertheless, the best examples from both artists’ portfolios can fetch $50,000, and in the case of Vargas, a couple of his paintings have eclipsed the $100,000 mark.

In addition to more simplistic compositions, the pinups by both artists were painted in watercolors. That also influences their value, since oil on canvas—Elvgren’s preferred medium—is more desirable among collectors. The periods during which both artists worked for Esquire magazine (Vargas from 1940 to 1946; Petty from 1933 to 1940, and again from 1955 to 1956) are their most desirable, though the pinup series that Vargas created for Playboy also attracts many collectors. “I’m a red-blooded American guy. I looked forward to those trips to the barbershops to sneak a peek at a Playboy,” Jaster recalls. “These pinups are pretty girls that are very idealized. What’s not to like?”

Jaster’s reaction is one that most noncollectors of this type of artwork might expect to hear, but the auction specialist points out that the hobby is supported by numerous female collectors, as well as married couples. “My wife is a big supporter,” Meisel says. “She’ll spot a good pinup before I will.”

The same can be said for Allen, who acknowledges that some of his favorite paintings (and the ones that he refuses to sell) are those that bear a resemblance to his wife. “It’s not a male-dominated hobby, as most people think,” he says. “There are a lot of women in the field. My wife started going to auctions with me and then she started recommending things that I liked but wasn’t sure if I should buy. In fact, some of the best-looking pieces that I have were drawn by women. That was shocking to me.”

Lewin, who collects a variety of art, fully endorses the prospect of pinups becoming a mainstream, collectible category. “There’s something about pinup art that appeals to everybody,” he says. “If you’re a collector of fine art, but especially contemporary art, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a pinup in your house.”

For a newcomer to the hobby, the best rule of thumb, according to Jaster, is that old adage that less can be more. “It’s about how close you can get to the line of good taste,” he says. “The more you can creep up to that line but not go past it, that’s what defines a great piece of pinup art.”

 

Click here to see a contemporary artists take on pinup art.

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Courtesy of Shakespeare and Company - Paul Foster Books - the NY Antiquarian Book Fair
Photo courtesy of Klein Sun Gallery, New York; Li Hongbo