Tomorrow, Heritage to Begin Auctioning For Millions Artwork That Once Sold for Pennies

A couple of weeks back, Todd Hignite -- Heritage Auction Gallery's consignment director and a scholar on the subject of illustration and comic art -- was kind enough to give Unfair Park a tour of the room in which the Oak Lawn auction house is storing but a fraction of Charles Martignette's art collection. Martignette was no average collector, though; no old masters for him, only pin-ups and paperback covers and other mad-men pieces once thought disposable till the co-author of The Great American Pin-Up proved otherwise. Hence, the walls decorated with covers for such magazines as Adventure and The Saturday Evening Post; fronts of paperback books revealing women-in-distressed clad (barely) in pink dresses and handcuffed to beds -- kinky romance or detective crime, hard to tell which; pin-up girls seated in coy, flirtatious positions; and costumed show dancers' perky breasts.

This is but a fraction of the 4,300-piece Charles Martignette collection that will be auctioned off by Heritage over the next two and a half years, beginning tomorrow. The work, valued at $20 million on the auction-house market, represents the newly resurgent genre, Illustration Art, defined as art that was once used for print reproduction, mainly to sell products on billboards, posters and in magazines. Says Ed Jaster, Heritage vice president, "There are no words to describe how excited we are to offer this important artwork from one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century." In large part, that's because each piece is guesstimated to go for thousands -- hardly disposable after all.

As Hignite likes to remind during our tour, and as he wrote in this essay accompanying the auction, no one ever thought of these images as capital-A art -- more like commercialized pulp. The artists themselves treated their work as a product: They gave the painting to the publisher, then moved on to the next project. The publication often put the original painting in storage or threw it away. By the '50s and '60s, photography became so prevalent that these paintings were forgotten in antiquated obscurity.

But in the '70s, Martignette became obsessed with collecting the painted originals. His obsession was driven by his belief that art should reflect regular folks' lives. Martignette once said, "The images that comprised the genre of illustration art were pictures that captured the hopes and dreams, fears and problems of the American people. ...These pictures, which were once a part of every American's daily life, now serve as reflective mirrors that capture moments in time and depict slices of America's past life at home, at work, in sports, fashion, romance, adventure, and education."

His collecting frenzy, which lasted up until his death in Florida last year at the age of 57, wasn't taken very seriously early on; after all, the art he was collecting initially sold for a nickel. But as his collection and unprecedented knowledge grew, the art form garnered national and then international attention. Pieces from his collection were eventually exhibited in museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, and the pin-ups, at the request of Hugh Hefner, were featured in Playboy.
Martignette's estate of more than 10,000 pieces eventually mellowed to the remaining 4,300 that are now being auctioned off by Heritage. Hignite says the pieces are among his finest -- ones that he refused, out of a collector's protectiveness, to sell -- and represent the most well-known Illustration artists' "best-of" work. As such, the collection is arguably one of the most important private Illustration Art collections in the world. And while there are icons included in the auction, most notably Norman Rockwell and Alberto Vargas, unless you're an illustration junkie you're probably unfamiliar with such names as Jessie Wilcox Smith and Dean Cornwell, Martignette's favorite artists. But you'll likely be familiar with Gil Elvgren's popular pin-up of a polka-dot-bikini-clad redhead wearing a sailor's hat and heels while looking through a telescope. 

Because there's a huge resurgence of interest in this art recently, and because of the sheer breadth and quality of the collection, Heritage expects collectors from the coasts, and from around the world, to fly in to either preview the collection or attend the auction. They also anticipate a large number of buyers bidding live on the Web site. Hignite says they've received more international calls for this collection than for any previous auction.

Hignite also speculates that the auction will be transformative for the Illustration Art genre, because for the first time many important pieces will leave the stronghold of Martignette's estate and disseminate around the world, raising the competitive prices for well-known pieces and the reputational value of featured artists.

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Alex Wolens