Thursday, February 26, 2009

A close encounter with great children’s art

Feb. 26, 2009
Posted by Noah

Yesterday, at the invitation of David Lisot, our Director of Video, I took a lunchtime stroll up to the executive conference room where he was filming some video lot descriptions for various categories. I walked in right in the middle of filming a few choice specimens from an important California Collection of mostly children’s art from the upcoming Illustration Auction, March 12-13.

On the table were two original drawings from the Madeline series, by Austrian-born Ludwig Bemelmans. Without thinking, I immediately quoted:

“In a little house in Paris, that’s covered in vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread, brushed their teeth and went to bed. They left the house at half past nine. The smallest one was Madeline.”

Lisot looked at me like I had uttered some arcane phrase from a long dead language. Todd Hignite, Consignment Director for Illustrations and Comics Art, laughed. He knew exactly what I meant. He has a two-year-old daughter. I have a three-year-old. If you have a well-read toddler girl at home, or had one, then you’ve read the great Madeline series.

I subsequently spent the rest of the day thinking about the vast amount of children’s literature and books that populate our bookshelves (and floors and cabinets and closets and cars) at home, and about those that stand out – those that I break out sparingly at my daughter’s bedtime because I personally love them so much. I have to number Madeline as chief among my current delights, and hers. And there I was yesterday, staring at two perfectly prime examples of Bemelmans’ airy, surreal drawings of Madeline and Pepito – that bad hat!

Three years ago I knew quite little of children’s literature and art, now I get weak in the knees at seeing prime examples of my favorites. Trust me, if I were in a position to bid on these paintings – and any number of others, including original Sendak and Seuss art, very rare! – from this specific collection, I would in a heartbeat; I have my daughter to thank for this appreciation. The process of observing the change in my own perspective, as I’ve come to intimately know much of this great art via hundreds of readings, has been refreshing and, dare I say it, delightful. Let it just be one more thing that I am grateful to her for.

The true greats of Children’s literature – see Sendak (In The Night Kitchen is one of my favorite books ever, of any genre. Period.) and Seuss above – don’t go cheap because they are so rare. Greatness on the level of Bemelmans, and many of the others, is relatively affordable to an average collector. Anywhere from $500 to a few thousand dollars can get you something pretty extraordinary. You just have to know what you like.

“The drawings from the first part of the 20th century, value-wise, are not up there with the big magazine guys of the times,” Todd said. “Some, of course, are very well respected and in museums. The peak period of children’s art, like Dr. Seuss, are extremely rare and expensive because they don’t really exist in private hands. In fact, Seuss and Sendak, two of the biggest, both gave their papers and archives to universities and values are quite high for the rare originals that come up.”

Space is short, as is time, so I’ll spare you the list of my favorite kids books, though I’d be happy to hear yours – just for fun – at

That’s all there is, there is no more.