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Vargas, Frazetta, Rockwell illustrations to be auctioned

May 6, 2010 | 12:58 pm

Armstrong Twinkle Toes - hi-res Riding the wave of the seemingly recession-proof nostalgia and collectible markets, Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries has risen to the No. 3 auction house in the country. On Thursday, Heritage christens its new Beverly Hills office with a live auction featuring nearly 300 lots focusing on American pinup and illustration art.

The auction kicks off at 2 p.m and features works from vintage pinup and illustration luminaries such as Gil Elvgren, J.C. Leyendecker, Alberto Vargas and Norman Rockwell as well as contemporary icons Patrick Nagel, Frank Frazetta and Olivia De Berardinis.

Long the less-respected sibling of fine art, illustration art, which was often given away or simply thrown out en masse, has come into its own in recent years as baby boomers sought to recapture a more innocent time.

“In the ‘40s and ‘50s, this stuff, particularly the pinup art, was everywhere, magazines, postcards, calendars,” said Heritage vice president Ed Jaster. “It was real pinup -- the girls were sexy but chaste, and as a result, there’s a lot of nostalgia for that period.”

In addition to nostalgia, the robustness of the illustration art market can be traced back to Charles Martignette, who was the preeminent collector of illustration art when he died in early 2008. 

The co-author, along with gallery owner Louis Meisel, of the definitive book on pinup art, "The Great American Pin-Up," Martignette accumulated more than 5,000 pieces of illustration art during a 35-year period. Crisscrossing the country, Martignette saved art from moldy basements and from warehouses where it was often destined for the incinerator.

Frazetta - Warrior with Ball and Chain “Charles saw value in the art when it was just throwaway art,” said Meisel, who called Martignette a quirky and obsessive collector who would buy shirts for $2 at a thrift store so he could spend more money on art. His eccentricity paid off, however, as his collection was valued at more than $20 million when he died.

The bulk of the collection is being parceled out by Heritage, with more than half the lots in Thursday’s auction originating from Martignette’s estate. Among the highlights are pinups by Rolf Armstrong, George Petty, Vargas and, of course, Elvgren, who is considered the top pinup artist of his generation. 

“At one point, Charles had 120 Elvgren paintings of the 500 that were done and the 250 we know that exist,” Meisel said. “When it came to pinup art, Charles had the best of the best.”

-- Alex Chun

Upper photo: Rolf Amstrong's "Twinkle Toes" 1947.

Lower photo: "Warrior with Ball and Chain, Flashing Swords No. 1," paperback cover, 1973 by Frank Frazetta