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Rockwell painting kept in storage in Gardner heads to auction

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

For decades, the Norman Rockwell painting hung in the principal’s office at Gardner High School, all but unknown to the world beyond.

Now, the 1941 original has burst into the public eye, slated for a Sotheby’s auction that could fetch millions for the Central Massachusetts city.

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In the early 1950s, Rockwell gave the painting, part of a popular World War II series for The Saturday Evening Post, to the principal, who hung it in his office. There it would stay until 2001. Realizing its value, school officials had the painting appraised, then stored it away for safekeeping.

But in December, after a Rockwell painting sold for $46 million, an auction record for an American painting, city officials decided it was time to tell their secret.

“I said to myself, ‘Hey, we have a Norman Rockwell,’ ” Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke quipped on Thursday.

The oil painting, titled “Willie Gillis in Convoy,” depicts Gillis with a group of other soldiers riding in the back of a military truck. While a charcoal study of the scene was part of the artist’s catalogue, the painting has remained in obscurity, and its emergence has delighted Rockwell enthusiasts.

“It’s a remarkable painting,” said Jeremy Clowe, manager of media services at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

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Clowe said the World War II series showed Gillis in a range of military scenes.

“The goal was to present this young recruit in service,” he said. “It was kind of like a postcard home to his family.”

But the painting was never put into circulation, and was apparently at the artist’s Vermont studio when Gardner High’s principal, F. Earl Williams, came to visit. As the story goes, Williams was looking for a painting to give to the graduating class of seniors, Hawke said.

Rockwell told him he probably couldn’t afford one of his paintings, and said he was busy. But when Williams offered to mail a letter for him, he agreed to show him around, and wound up giving him the painting for free.

Clowe said the story rings true.

“He was actually very gracious about giving away works,” he said.

So the principal brought the painting back to Gardner, where it stayed. Hawke said he remembered it from his days at Gardner High School, and that nobody ever thought much of it.

“It was something people took for granted,” he said.

As Rockwell’s paintings became more valuable, people got nervous about it being stolen, and decided to store it in a crate. Then people more or less forgot about it again.

But when “Saying Grace” sold for $46 million, Hawke decided it was time to cash in. He contacted Sotheby’s, who expressed immediate interest. Upon a visit, they said the painting was in excellent condition and was worth at least $1.5 million. They even agreed to have a replica created for the high school.

The auction is set for May 21, and the proceeds will support an educational endowment that will support the schools for years to come. A gift more than 60 years in the making.

“I think Rockwell would be very pleased by this,” Clowe said.

More coverage:

4/1: Rockwell’s ‘The Rookie’ up for auction

12/29/13: Family of Norman Rockwell skewers new biography

12/14/13: Rockwell fetches a price due a master

12/5/13: Rockwell art sells for record $46m at NY auction

11/23/13: ‘American Mirror’ by Deborah Solomon

11/23/13 | Photos: Bio follows artist from NY to Stockbridge

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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