Heritage Auctions Offering The Charles Martignette Collection --- Pin-Up & Glamour Art Pioneer
by Hector Cantu
For decades, Charles Martignette scoured the country amassing the finest collection of American illustration art ever to be offered at public auction.
As a guitarist for the rock band Soul Asylum, Dan Murphy is not easily impressed. He's seen quite a bit during his group's 25 years of touring.
But ask him about meeting Charles Martignette and Murphy remains astonished.
As a collector of original illustration art, Murphy first talked to Martignette over the phone 13 years ago. Not long afterward, Murphy scored a personal tour of Martignette's legendary art warehouse. When Martignette and Murphy arrived, it was 1:30 in the morning. "We were there until about 2 the next afternoon," Murphy recalls, "going through piles and piles of art. Charles had these huge racks against the wall and he'd pull out an Enoch Bolles painting, or an N.C. Wyeth painting. There were Henry Clives, Rolf Armstrongs, Gil Elvgrens. It was amazing."
"If a person could have a single love, that was Charles's love, and yes, that made him a kook, to be that obsessive about a single thing."
Buying, Skimming, Selling
Charles Martignette began collecting original illustration art in the early 1970s --- "with a credit card and a $350 line of credit," says Louis Meisel, an art historian and owner of the Louis K. Meisel Gallery in New York City. "With that credit card, he bought three illustrations, sold one for $1,000 and kept the other two. When the Norcross Greeting Card Company went out of business, Charles went to them and bought 90,000 pieces of art, 5-by-7 inch watercolors, everything they'd ever published. He paid what worked out to be maybe a penny apiece. Well, Charles sold them for $10 apiece at flea markets. That's how Charles worked. That's all he did."
It was a system he followed for most of his life: buy, skim, sell. With his strategy in place, Martignette focused his collection on original pin-up art.
"Charles was into sex ... nudes, girls, the pin-ups," explains Meisel, who established a business partnership with Martignette in 1980. Beginning in the 1920s and peaking in the 1960s, illustrations of women in sometimes-provocative poses were used to sell everything from magazines to auto parts to wall calendars. "These were just wonderful, beautiful images, and Charles was into that," Meisel says. "These all-American girls were in every gas station, in every workshop in America. It was stuff we grew up on."
The masters of pin-up art --- Gil Elvgren, Rolf Armstrong, Alberto Vargas, Earl Moran, Enoch Bolles --- were all on Martignette's "want list." But Martignette wasn't a passive buyer. He often went directly to the artists or artists' families and made offers for whatever they had. Other times, he went straight to the people who commissioned the art. "Charles would travel to these obscure calendar companies, knock on the door and walk out with Vargas pastels," Murphy says. "He'd go to Brown & Bigelow, or the Louis F. Dow calendar company and he would say, 'Hey, I'm a historian and I'm trying to write a book on this stuff.' "
At the time, Martignette had few competitors. He kept the finest pieces, and sold the rest. "In those days," says Heritage Auctions consignment director and illustration art specialist Todd Hignite, "much of the art establishment roundly ignored illustration art, often considering it nothing more than cheesecake or kitsch at best and trash at worst."
One man who took notice was Hugh Hefner. The Playboy magazine founder in 1980 began publishing a series of articles featuring Martignette's collection. And, true to his word, Martignette wrote his book, The Great American Pin-Up , co-authored with Meisel. Today, it's considered the bible of American pin-up art.
As his collection grew, Martignette expanded beyond pin-up and glamour art. He was soon pursuing important works by illustrators like Norman Rockwell, Joseph Christian Leyendecker, William Herbert Dunton, and Harvey T. Dunn. As Martignette once wrote: "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."
Entering The Fine Art World
Mel Ramos began painting nudes 50 years ago. But don't call it pin-up art, he says.
"To me, they [pin-up artists] were all commercial guys," the California artist says. "I was kind of a snob when I was younger, and I thought these guys were just illustrators. They weren't fine artists. It was only when I saw my first Norman Rockwell show, whom I also considered to be a commercial illustrator, that I realized, 'Jesus Christ, this guy is one hell of a painter!' and I changed my attitude a little bit about that, as I have with Gil Elvgren, who's also a real journeyman painter."
Martignette was familiar with the criticism.
"Charles always argued that his favorite artists were prolific, masterful realists," says Ed Jaster, Heritage Auctions vice president and director of illustration art. "He argued that these guys could flat-out paint. If you're questioning the subject matter, I think the argument can be made that nudes are a staple of artists. What's the difference between Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus and a Vargas girl? Why is there this disdain by the art establishment?"
Meisel bluntly questions the ability of the art world to define "fine art," pointing to a recent sale by a British artist. "Last year, he sent 200 paintings to auction, all these things that people thought were very famous. They were essentially new pieces, copies, made by him and his staff and they sold for $200 million. After that, pieces of his original works came along, and they went for a third of what people paid for the copies! Yet these are the people who sneer at the pin-ups in your house.
"Illustration art," Meisel continues, "has always been a legitimate art form. Pin-ups done in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, people will care about them and respect them 300 years from now."
"They are the original American pop artists," adds Hignite, "speaking to the cultural moment as importantly as later artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. More people are realizing this."
This widening appreciation for illustration art began only in recent years, experts say, placing Martignette ahead of the curve in collecting a genre that continues growing in importance and value. "With a lot of these artists," Hignite says, "prices are not going to stay where they are. It's the tip of the iceberg of what the market is going to be."
When he died unexpectedly in 2008 at age 57, Charles Martignette left behind his life's work: the largest private collection of American illustration art in the world. The collection was crammed, room after room, into a warehouse near his Florida home. Its scope is unmatched, containing perhaps the finest pieces of America's top illustrators.
"Charles was always refining his collection," Hignite says, "always keeping the best of the best. It's impossible for a collection like this to be ever compiled again."
'Encyclopedia Of Knowledge'
Charles Martignette was consumed by his collection. Friends called it an obsession.
"Charles was an eccentric man," Meisel says. "He was a night owl. He would go to bed at 7 in the morning. He didn't care about clothing. He bought stuff at thrift shops. He didn't manage his money well. He inherited $800,000 from his grandfather and he lost it all gambling. But Charles knew about illustration art more than anyone in the world. He knew where a piece was published, when it was published and he had all the magazines featuring the illustrations. He was an encyclopedia of knowledge."
He was particularly pleased, says Murphy, when art by Gil Elvgren and other pin-up artists recently began reaching record prices at auction. "He knew the true value of this art years ago, before anyone else," Murphy says.
Not long ago, Martignette admitted that he hadn't sold more pieces because his collection was neither archived nor organized. "I have a lot of storage facilities," Martignette told the Portland Oregonian , "rooms packed with hundreds of wooden crates and boxes. To get to one painting sometimes takes two men, working four to five hours each, moving 190 wooden creates to get to the painting in the back of the room. And I have a lot of rooms in my life."
In February 2008, Charles Martignette died of apparent heart failure. In the following months, experts from Heritage Auctions arrived at his Florida warehouse and began the delicate process of tagging and shipping three truckloads of artwork to Dallas for auction. About 4,300 pieces from Martignette's inventory are scheduled to be sold in more than half a dozen sales over the next few years.
In life, Martignette was eager to share his obsession. His pieces were exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. The Brooklyn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, and the Museum of the Rockies also exhibited Martignette pieces over the years.
Now, Martignette will be remembered as a passionate collector who championed the idea that illustration art is one of the most poignant reflections of 20th century American culture. "He was a true visionary," Hignite says. "He was obsessed with illustration art, valuing it as a uniquely American art form when few others did."
Masters Of Pin-Up And Glamour Art
The Charles Martignette collection includes works by these legendary illustrators:
Rolf Armstrong (1899-1960) is considered one of the best pin-up artists of the early 20th century. His work appeared in Pictorial Review magazine during the 1920s and he was among the top artists at Brown & Bigelow.
Enoch Bolles (1883-1976) is considered among the top Art Deco era pin-up artists, with his work most notably gracing covers of Film Fun magazine .
Gil Elvgren (1914-1980) considered one of the most prominent pin-up and glamour artists of the 20th century. Best known for his pin-up paintings for Brown & Bigelow. Also did advertising and illustration work for The Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping .
J.C. Leyendecker (1874-1951) is best known for his men's fashion advertisements, particularly the Arrow Collar Man. He was Norman Rockwell's predecessor as the top cover illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post .
Earl Moran (1893-1984) rocketed to fame after being featured in a 1940 Life magazine story. Worked for Brown & Bigelow and hired a young Marilyn Monroe to model for his paintings. Completed publicity posters for Hollywood movie studios.
Patrick Nagel (1945-1984) is best known for his Art Deco-inspired illustrations for Playboy magazine, and for designing the Rio album cover for the pop music group Duran Duran.
LeRoy Neiman (b. 1927) is best known for his bright, semi-abstract paintings and screen prints focusing on athletes and sporting events. Considered by many to be the premier sports artist in the world. Hired by Hugh Hefner to complete illustrations for Playboy magazine shortly after its launch in the 1950s.
George Petty (1894-1975) produced pin-up art for Esquire and True magazines, and various calendars. Petty's art was widely mimicked by military artists who decorated warplanes during World War II, including the Memphis Belle .
Alberto Vargas (1896-1982) worked on Hollywood movie posters in the 1930s. In the 1940s, he created iconic World War II pin-ups for Esquire magazine known as "Varga Girls." His work later was featured in Playboy magazine.
Fritz Willis (1907-1979) produced illustrations for the nation's top magazines, including Esquire . He developed the "Willis Girl" for Brown & Bigelow calendars in the early 1960s.
Mel Ramos Sets Himself Apart From The Crowd
Many art historians consider Mel Ramos (b.1935) a part of the pop art movement, grouping him with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, and James Rosenquist.
His nudes first caught the public eye in the 1960s during the Golden Age of American pin-ups. But Ramos doesn't consider himself a pin-up artist. "No," he says. "I'm not part of that group."
Ramos, 74, says his inspiration was another art form. "I was attracted to comics back then, because of the eroticism before the Comics Code was imposed," Ramos says. "After that, comic books got kind of boring. The drawings in those early comic books of Sheena and all those sexy comic queens, that's what attracted me. Originally, I was just doing comic book images the way they appeared and then I decided I wanted to make them look more realistic, so I started adding the faces of celebrities, which I still do."
Superman, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern all got the Ramos treatment. His Sheena, Queen of the Jungle --- like many of his images --- features vivid colors within sharp contour lines, with the subject's name spelled out in big letters. The painting is featured in Heritage Auctions' Glamour & Pop Art Signature® Event scheduled for Sept. 17-18, 2009.
The New York Times has pointed out that modeling comic book bodies on those of real women --- movie stars like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe --- was Ramos's innovation. "So despite their nonrealistic comic style," the Times said, "Mr. Ramos's women had an erotic presence that comic-book women of the day never had."
His later works combine nudes with well-known brands, including images of women, for instance, inside a Baby Ruth candy wrapper or kicking back on a giant roll of Lifesavers. He's also known for his "peek-a-boo" paintings, where nude women are visible through keyholes.
Although he owns an original Gil Elvgren painting, Ramos says he's never been particularly inspired by the work of America's great pin-up artists. "The Spaniards --- Joaquin Sorolla, Diego Velazquez --- those were the main influences when I was younger," he says. "I aspire to those kind of heights."
As for contemporary artists, Ramos is more likely to identify with his colleagues and friends Tom Wesselmann and Allen Jones. "Most of my career, I have received the brunt of criticism from nudity in my work. It's controversial. I've been the target of feminists over the years. Not so much anymore. But like Tom and Allen, we've suffered the same abuse because of the erotic implications of the work.
"When Picasso or Matisse did a painting of an undraped model, a nude model, they were called nudes," Ramos continues. "When I do it, they're called pin-ups. Somebody has a pre-occupation with this. I certainly don't. I consider myself a painter."
Rolf Armstrong (1889-1960), Pin-up in Black, Pastel on board, 37 x 29.5 in. Heritage Auctions estimate: $15,000-$20,000. From the Estate of Charles Martignette.
Gil Elvgren (1914-1980), Bear Facts (A Modest Look; Bearback Rider) , 1962, Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in. Heritage Auctions estimate: $30,000-$40,000. From the Estate of Charles Martignette.
Rolf Armstrong (1889-1960), The Pool , Pastel on board. Heritage Auctions estimate: $15,000-$20,000. From the Estate of Charles Martignette.
Alberto Vargas (1896-1982), Ski Troops Girl , Watercolor on board, 22.5 x 17.5 in. Heritage Auctions estimate: $20,000-$30,000. From the Estate of Charles Martignette.
Enoch Bolles (1883-1976), Film Fun magazine cover, October 1935, Oil on canvas, 30 x 22 in. Heritage Auctions estimate: $8,000-$12,000. From the Estate of Charles Martignette.
Mel Ramos (b. 1935), Sheena, Queen of the Jungle , 1963, Oil on canvas, 30 x 26 in. Heritage Auctions estimate: $120,000-$160,000. From the Estate of Charles Martignette.
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Heritage Magazine Summer/Fall 2009 Copyright ©2009 by Heritage Auctions, Inc.