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The $20,000 Caterpillar


Detail from Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar


Illustration art is hot. Children’s book illustrations are super-hot. No one knows this better than the specialists at Swann Galleries, the auction house on East 25th Street in Manhattan that specializes in prints and drawings, maps and atlases, photographs, and other works that are often of special interest to graphic designers and illustrators.

Three years ago, inspired by an ad in The New York Times featuring a John Tenniel illustration of the White Rabbit, I visited Swann Galleries, learned a bit about the ins and outs of art auctions (and learned that the treasured Alice in Wonderland books my mother gave me years ago are book-club editions better suited to handing down to my own children rather than consigning at auction).

In December, Swann’s Illustration Art sale featured works on paper by artists whose work I (and many graphic designers and art directors) may own or have had the pleasure of working with including Folon, Peter Arno, R.O. Blechman, David Suter and Jerry Pinkney. What is their work worth? A fraction of a Picasso or a Basquiat, but a considerable amount, it turns out. The runaway hit was a pen-and-ink drawing of the Marx Brothers by Al Hirschfeld. This illustration for the cover of Why a Duck?, which features Chico, Harpo and Groucho in classic Hirschfeld style, was estimated at $7,500, but sold for $26,000 after a bidding war.

Al Hirschfeld, “The Marx Brothers,” illustration for the cover of Why a Duck?, pen and ink, 1971; sold for $26,000. The pre-sale estimate was $5,000-7,500).


The Best at the Gavel

“We see, time and again, that the most iconic children’s book characters and memorable designs perform best at auction,” said Alexandra Nelson, Swann’s communications director. “This was epitomized by the record result for Eric Carle’s hand-painted collage for The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

What might you have — or will you create in 2019 — that has lasting value? For yourself, your clients, and the public in general?

Eric Carle, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, which sold for $20,000, an auction record for the artist. The pre-sale estimate was $8,000-12,000.


H.A. Rey, “Do you want to get across?,” illustration for Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys featuring the first appearance of Curious George, color pencil, charcoal & watercolor with wash, 1939, sold for $17,500.


Charles M. Schulz, “The Years Are Going By Fast,” original 4-panel Peanuts comic strip, 1979; sold for $12,500.


Garry Trudeau, “Is Rufus Ready for his Lesson?, original 11-panel Doonesbury comic strip created for Kenneth B. Clark, circa early 1970s; sold for $5,750


200 Years of Illos

Swann’s Illustration Art department, led by Christine von der Linn, has celebrated the artistic achievements of illustrators from the last two centuries. The department handles original works intended for publication, specializing in studies of beloved children’s characters, finished illustrations for books and advertising, and illustrations drawn for magazines including The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, LIFE and Vogue. “The breadth and quality of the material enables us to further the appreciation and enjoyment of this specific category of art,” von der Linn noted.

Charles Addams, Couple passing a giant bird house, cartoon for the January 17, 1948 issue of The New Yorker, watercolor, ink and wash; sold for $16,250.


Gahan Wilson, “But then I think about how rich you are and then everything’s alright again,” cartoon for Playboy, pen, ink and watercolor; sold for $6,250.


Jerry Pinkney, “The Lion & The Mouse,” illustration for the December 2009 cover of School Library Journal, watercolor, graphite and wash; sold for $7,000.


Virgil Finlay, The Outsider and Others, dust jacket illustration, minimal pen, ink and correction fluid, 1939; sold for $5,500.


Peter Arno, “Circus Tricks,” cover illustration for the April 4, 1964 issue of The New Yorker, ink, wash and watercolor; sold for $4,250.


“Ringo with Psychedelic Ladies and the Submarine,” original animation cel for Yellow Submarine, 1968; sold for $1,250.


David Suter, “In New Academia, a Day’s Work Isn’t Free,” illustration that accompanied a letter to the editor published in The New York Times, ink over graphite, 1995; sold for $594


David Suter, “Russian Global Bear,” illustration published in Harper’s magazine, conte crayon on paper, 1980; sold for $688.



R. O. Blechman, art for advertisement for the Borghi Gallery, pen, ink and gouache, 2007; (still available).


Like the credit card commercial that asks, “What’s in your wallet?” it’s tempting to consider what might be rare and valuable that’s on your walls or in your flat file drawers. What about that Folon hanging in the hallway and those Korens that illustrated an ad campaign you art directed?

John Ford Clymer, “The Perfect Christmas Tree,” watercolor and gouache, circa 1930; sold for $6,750.


Happy (still) New Year! The next auction of illustration art at Swann Galleries will be on June 4, 2019. The house is accepting quality consignments. Yours perhaps?

#EricCarle #AlHirschfeld #SwannAuctionGalleries #illustrationartauctions #TheVeryHungryCaterpillar #childrensbookillustrations

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