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Rockwell art sells for record $46M at NY auction

‘‘Saying Grace’’ was on the Saturday Evening Post’s cover in the fall of 1951 and was voted readers’ favorite in 1955.

‘‘Saying Grace’’ was on the Saturday Evening Post’s cover in the fall of 1951 and was voted readers’ favorite in 1955.

NEW YORK — A Norman Rockwell painting titled ‘‘Saying Grace’’ sold at an auction on Wednesday for $46 million, a record for the Saturday Evening Post illustrator and for any American artwork sold at auction, Sotheby’s said.

Two people on the telephone bid against each other for nine minutes before the hammer came down, the auction house said. The buyer’s identity wasn’t disclosed.

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The painting had a pre-sale estimate of $15 million to $20 million. The $46 million price includes a buyer’s premium. In 2006, the auction house sold Rockwell’s ‘‘Breaking Home Ties’’ for more than $15 million, then a record.

The previous auction record for an American artwork was set in 1999, when George Bellows’ painting ‘‘Polo Crowd’’ sold at Sotheby’s for $27.7 million, the auction house said.

Another Rockwell painting, ‘‘The Gossips,’’ sold Wednesday for just under $8.5 million, while a third, ‘‘Walking to Church,’’ fetched a little more than $3.2 million.

For nearly two decades, all three had been on loan at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

Rockwell was paid $3,500 for ‘‘Saying Grace,’’ which appeared on the cover of the magazine’s Thanksgiving issue in 1951 and was voted readers’ favorite cover in a 1955 poll.

The idea for the illustration came from a reader who saw a Mennonite family praying in a restaurant. Rockwell’s son Jarvis Rockwell was among the models he used for it. The illustrator, who created his first cover for the Post in 1916, is celebrated for his reflections of small-town America and portraits of famous figures.

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