Norman Rockwell Made a Fortune: But He Could Have Made More
From very early on, Norman Rockwell wanted to be an artist. At 14, he took classes at the Art Students League of New York and later at The New York School of Art. At the Art Students League, he was mentored by Thomas Fogarty. It paid off: while still in his teens, he was hired as art director of Boys’ Life, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America.
Throughout his life, Rockwell was a prodigious worker. He produced 4,000 original pieces with many of them oil paintings. Rockwell was not the stereotypical artist who “struggled to make ends meet”. He died in 1978 leaving an estate worth more than $24 million in 2013 dollars. This article documents how he made his money. It also suggests how he could have made more.
We start at the end and work backwards.
His Will – What He Left Behind
Rockwell’s will documents that he died a wealthy man. Table 1 indicates that in 2013 dollars, he was worth $24.3 million. Most of his assets were put trusts to avoid taxes (Transfers During Life to Others).
Table 1. – Assets in Rockwell’s Will
Source: Documents in the Norman Rockwell Museum Archives
Rockwell’s wife and three sons were the primary beneficiaries of his estate. As Table 2 indicates, they received $2.2 million or $7.8 million in 2013 dollars. (Table 2)
Table 2. – Estate Beneficiaries
At his death, an estimate was made of projected royalties for the for the 1979 to 1984 period. They totaled $1 million or $3.8 million in 2013 dollars (Table 3).
Table 3. – Projected Royalties
Nov. 8, 1978, American Appraisal Company
Records show that Rockwell’s income earning years covered more than 6 decades (1916 – 1978). While Rockwell’s covers for the Post “put him on the map”, he did far more than Post covers. Laurie Norton Moffatt’s research on Rockwell, [Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue (2 vols.), University Press of New England, 1986] provides a detailed overall picture on Rockwell’s “production”. Table 4 provides a summary of these activities.
Table 4. – Rockwell’s Work, By Category
I have always been interested in why some artists are “painters while others are “illustrators”. Rockwell is remembered as an “illustrator”, even though a large segment of his work was oil paintings. In contrast, Warhol is viewed as a “painter”. Stephanie Plunkett, the Deputy Director/Chief Curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum offered the following on this issue: “An illustrator is working for a publication to create pictures that are to be formatted and used in a specific way. Often an illustrator is finding a moment in a story or positioning a product for an advertisement. All of Rockwell’s paintings were created as illustrations – with a purpose to be seen in print.”
In 1916, Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace Lorimer hired Rockwell (then 22 years old) to do 2 covers for $75 each. That started everything. Over his 50-year career, Rockwell painted 322 covers for the Post [He actually painted 322 “potential” covers. Two were republished and one got turned down (he still got paid $3,000 for it – “Murder Mystery”, December 1948).] and 199 covers for other clients.
How can Rockwell’s earnings from these covers be calculated? As indicated in the Methodology Annex, I have earnings data by date on 85 of his Post covers. I use these data to calculate the average Post cover payment he received by decade. Of course, the projections are only indicative and probably a bit high. But they do provide a “ball park” approximation.
The results are shown in Table 5. The table also indicates what the incomes would be in 2013 dollars. His cover earnings appear to have peaked in the 1940 decade.
Table 5. – Estimated Cover Earnings
Advertising/Commercial Art Income
842 ads – a lot! Table 6 lists the number of ads per decade. These are huge numbers, especially in the early decades when he was not all that well known. Once he became well-known, many of his ads were generated by advertising firms including Benton & Bowles, J. Walter Thompson, and Gray and Rogers.
Table 6. – Rockwell Ads by Decade
Table 7 lists data on Rockwell’s ad sources by industry. His largest individual clients were – Franklin Mint (91) followed by MassMutual (83), Boy Scouts (55), Schenley (49), and PanAm (35).
Table 7. – Largest Ad Sources by Industry
How to calculate the income generated? In trying to convince the Post to increase his cover fees, Rockwell claimed that other clients paid him twice as much (letter to Post on Jan. 15, 1956 when he was getting $3,500 for covers – “everything else, $7,000”). “Twice as much” is probably a bit of an exaggeration, so I assume he got 75% more from ads to private firms than for Post covers. But Rockwell also did ads for various government and non-profit organizations. I assume he got paid the same as Post covers for government work, and two thirds as much Post covers for non-profit ads. Of course, as with my cover estimates, these are only intended as rough approximations.
The results are presented in Table 8. His best years for ads were the ‘40s decade where he received more that $15 million in 2013 dollars or slightly more than $150,000 per year.
Table 8. – Estimated Ad/Commercial Art Income
On November 7, 1972, Rockwell was paid $10,000 for two portraits (the McGoverns and Nixons). At that time, $5,000 was what he was getting paid for covers. So for my portrait earnings estimates, I assume he received the same amount for portraits as he did for covers. The resulting earning estimates are presented in Table 9.
Table 9. – Estimated Portrait Earnings
Book and Story Illustrations
As Table 4 suggested, Rockwell was a prolific book (503) and story (746) illustrator. To generate income estimates, I assumed he got paid one-third of what he got paid for covers for both. In addition to getting paid for each illustration on delivery, Rockwell received royalty income on many of them as well.
Table 10. – Estimated Book and Story Illustration Earnings
Table 11 presents Rockwell’s estimated earnings from all his activities. An extremely hard and productive worker, he made a lot of money. From the ‘40s through the ‘60s, his average annual earnings exceeded $1 million in 2013 dollars.
Table 11. – Rockwell’s Earnings From All Activities
While Rockwell is best known for his Post covers, it appears that over 60% of his income came from his commercial ad work. 18% of his income came from portraits. And while he was best known for his Post covers, I estimate he earned only 12% of his income from covers.
When a draft of this article was shown to “Rockwell experts”, they pointed out that as an illustrator, he was in a business where expenses are high. They also said he was very generous – a real philanthropist. Rockwell had an accountant that kept close tabs on his income and expenses. So to investigate these claims, I selected two years (1963 and 1964) and collected data from his ledgers for those years on both expenses and donations. The results are presented in Table 11 along with their share of his average income for the 1960-69 period.
Table 12. – Rockwell’s Business Expenses
Rockwell’s expenses do not appear to be abnormally high for a small businessman. On being a philanthropist, Rockwell’s charitable donations were $874 and $1,012 in 1963 and 1964 respectively.
Limiting Factors – How Rockwell Could Have Made More
Rockwell’s earnings were limited by the agreements he entered into with clients. At the Post, his cover payments started at $75, went to $5,000 and then back to $3,000. But in Rockwell’s dealings with the Post, there was far more at stake than what he got paid for the covers. Most critical were who got the painting royalties and who ended up owning the paintings. These critical issues were addressed in correspondence between Rockwell’s lawyer (John Donna) and of the art director (Kenneth Stuart) of the Saturday Evening Post. In a letter dated September 9, 1955 to Donne, Stuart said: “Our company [Curtis Publishing] owns all rights to Norman’s paintings, including the ownership of the originals….”[Letter in Norman Rockwell Museum Archives.]
Stuart went on to say “We have for years…returned a great portion of the originals to the artists particularly where we did not need them for decoration or for promotional purposes.” In actual fact, the Post did not return all the pictures they did not need for “decoration” or “promotional purposes”. They auctioned off some of them. The evidence of this comes from a letter from Mrs. Alexander Spivak to Rockwell dated May 26, 1964 in which she said she had purchased the original of “Cellist with Little Girl Dancing” cover (February 3, 1923) at auction. Sadly, a lack of clarity on what pictures the Rockwell family legitimately owns continues to this day.
To get some idea of just how important ownership of paintings is for the artist and their heirs, consider the prices Rockwell’s paintings got at auction. Of his more than 4,000 art works, 926 of them have gone to auction since his death. Of that number, 172 did not sell. 134 items were auctioned more than once. Total auction revenues have been $254,752,140. As Table 13 indicates, the highest price paid for any paintings was $46 million for “Saying Grace in 2013. The next highest was $15 million in 2006 for “Breaking Home Ties”.
Table 13. – Highest Prices Paid for Rockwell Paintings at Auction
One might wonder if holding on to the paintings would have been worthwhile. Table 14 shows that the compound annual return on paintings that sold more than once at auction was 16.7%. Over the same period, the compound annual growth rate of the S&P 500 was only about half as much – 8.7%.
Table 14. – Growth Rate of Auction Prices on Rockwell’s Work
Source: Norman Rockwell Museum Auction Database
The data suggest that hard working painters can do very well. It also clear the deals painters enter into with their clients can have a tremendous impact on the economic well-being of painters and their heirs. Artists should think very carefully about selling off their works. That might sound strange. After all, most non-commercial artists generate most of their income from sales of their works. And certainly, fees for just selling the rights to works will be lower than selling the works outright. But well-established artists can loan their works to museums and galleries for a fee. In sum, there is a growing demand for art as an alternative investment. To take full advantage of this, artists should hold on to their works as long as they can.
I have data on what Rockwell got paid for about 85 of the 324 covers he painted for the Saturday Evening Post. This information runs from his first cover to the last. I use this information to project what he got paid for covers in every year. I assume all the other “cover buyers” paid him as much as the Post did.
b. Advertisements/Commercial Art
In a number of letters, Rockwell said he got twice as much for “his other work” as he did from the Post for covers. This is probably something of an exaggeration. In addition, he did three different types of ads – for firms, governments, and non-profits. So I assume:
- He charged firms 1.75 times as he did for Post covers;
- He charged governments the same as he charged the Post, and
- He charged non-profits two-thirds as much as he did for Post covers.
I then generate the income by using the average the Post paid him for covers for each decade during his working life (Table A) and use these prices to project his ad/commercial art income.
Table A. Average Post Cover Payments by Decade
c. Book and Story Illustrations
I assume Rockwell got paid one-third of what he got for covers for both book and story illustrations.