The Art of Seduction

  • Gil Elvgren’s paintings represent the pinnacle of pinup art, and his 1955 scene Sitting Pretty was the first to break six figures when it sold for $131,450 in 2007.
  • Photo by HA.COM
    Serious collectors are also attracted to George Petty’s work, like his watercolor On the Phone, which sold for $19,120 in 2011. Photo by HA.COM
  • Illustrator Enoch Bolles created many pinup images for magazines during the early to mid-20th century, including Sure to Make a Hit, which sold for $80,662 in 2010.
  • Photo by HA.COM
    Alberto Vargas became a famous pinup artist during his tenure with Esquire magazine, and he produced calendar illustrations like this one, which sold for $77,675 in 2010. Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
    Calendars and print advertisements represented the two channels for pinup art during the early 20th century. Original paintings affiliated with both mediums, such as George Petty’s Bellhop calendar illustration and his Ridgid Tools calendar illustration, are quite collectible today. Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
    Calendars and print advertisements represented the two channels for pinup art during the early 20th century. Original paintings affiliated with both mediums, such as George Petty’s Bellhop calendar illustration and his Ridgid Tools calendar illustration, are quite collectible today. Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
    Paintings associated with Vargas’s calendars (above) and his illustrations that appeared in Playboy magazine represent his most desirable pieces of art Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
    Paintings associated with Vargas’s calendars and his illustrations that appeared in Playboy magazine (above)represent his most desirable pieces of art Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
    The most desirable Gil Elvgren paintings—and the ones that command the most at auction—often include some clear suggestiveness. Fire Belle sold for $191,200 in 2011 Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
    The most desirable Gil Elvgren paintings—and the ones that command the most at auction—often include some clear suggestiveness. The Wrong Nail commanded $146,500 in 2012 Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
    The most desirable Gil Elvgren paintings—and the ones that command the most at auction—often include some clear suggestiveness. On the House exchanged hands for $149,000 in 2013 Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM
  • Photo by HA.COM

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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