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.”

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