That Norman Rockwell Poster on the Wall? It’s Actually a $300,000 Original, One Family Discovered

The painting was given as a gift to an umpire, but his descendants assumed it was just a print.

Norman Rockwell, Tough Call (1949). Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
Norman Rockwell, Tough Call (1949). Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

A long-lost work by Norman Rockwell has been discovered by Heritage Auctions Texas. The owners, who mistakenly identified the piece as a signed print, presented it to Heritage auctions experts to assess its value. However, after careful inspection, the work, showing three umpires standing in the rain during a baseball game, is actually an oil-on-paper study for the final piece titled Tough Call. Its value is estimated at $300,000, but based on past auction results, it could go for considerably more.

Tough Call, also knows as Game Called Because of Rain, Bottom of the Sixth and The Three Umpires, originally graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on April 23, 1949. The finished work, perhaps the artist’s most famous baseball painting, now resides in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, but Rockwell gave the early study as a gift to John “Beans” Reardon, one of the three umpires pictured in the image.

Norman Rockwell, <em>Triple Self Portrait Study</em> (1960). Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Norman Rockwell, Triple Self Portrait Study (1960). Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

According to Heritage Auctions, the painting depicts a specific doubleheader game, played between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates on September 14, 1948, at Ebbets Field. It bears the following inscription: “My best wishes to ‘Beans’ Reardon, the greatest umpire ever lived, sincerely, Norman Rockwell,” and is being consigned by the umpire’s descendants.

Before publication, the Saturday Evening Post actually had another illustrator edit the final image without Rockwell’s consent, changing the sky and removing brand names from the work, among other alterations. The artist disapproved, informing the editors that “I do feel that the re-painting of a man’s work to this point is completely unethical.” Sufficiently chastened, the publication changed its editorial policy in response to Rockwell’s complaint. The study, therefore, is in some ways more reflective of the artist’s original vision.

“The Rockwell discovery is a wonderful story and we expect this work to do quite well considering the broad interest across sports, art and Rockwell enthusiasts,” said Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions at Heritage, in a statement.

Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton's Barbershop (1950). Courtesy of the Berkshire Museum.

Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop
(1950). Courtesy of the Berkshire Museum.

The artist recently made headlines over the controversial plans of Massachusett’s Berkshire Museum to sell off two paintings by the famed artist, along with 38 other artworks, in the hopes of raising $50 million at a Sotheby’s auction to put toward a “reinvention plan” for the interdisciplinary institution.

Other Rockwell studies have done quite well at auction. According to the artnet Price Database, a study of The Problem We All Live With (1964), which depicts African American student Ruby Bridges’s historic 1960 walk to a segregated New Orleans school, sold for $854,500 at Sotheby’s New York in 2010.

Rockwell’s most expensive study on paper, for his famed Triple Self Portrait, sold for $1.33 million at Heritage on May 3 of this year. Like the current lot, the paper work is mounted on panel, but Tough Call is more than double the size at approximately 15 by 16 inches.

1952 Topps Mickey Mantle baseball card. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

1952 Topps Mickey Mantle baseball card. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Among the upcoming auction’s highlights are a number of historic lots from the New York Yankees, including an jersey worn by Lou Gehrig from 1937, estimated at $800,000; a 1952 Topps baseball card of Yankee Mickey Mantle, the most valuable post-World War II trading card; and a baseball bat used by the great Babe Ruth during the 1920 season, when he hit a then-record 54 home runs.


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