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Rockwell on a Plate 

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In a democracy, art belongs to the people. --Norman Rockwell

A couple of Sundays ago, Myrtle Sudbrink of Hartland, Wisconsin, fulfilling a long-held desire, spent $110 to purchase a ten-year-old plate decorated with a Norman Rockwell painting of a cobbler. She made the transaction at the Bradford Exchange in northwest suburban Niles in the company of her husband, Milton, and a Bradford Exchange sales representative.

"I started just thinking, 'I like the plates,' and then got in deeper and deeper," said Myrtle, explaining why she began buying collector's plates nearly ten years ago. Then she began listing the places in her home where she had displayed them.

"Plus how many are in the attic that you can't display, can't hang 'em up anymore," said Milton. "You must have 125 plates. Plus she's got Norman Rockwell figurines. She must have a dozen of those."

The Sudbrinks didn't drive all the way from Wisconsin just to buy a plate. They could have done that by phone; most of the exchange's transactions are conducted that way. When Myrtle Sudbrink saw from the exchange's glossy, full-color catalog that "The Cobbler" was the final plate she needed to finish the Rockwell Heritage Series, she could have called one of the exchange's sales representatives, who would have punched a few numbers into a computer terminal on the exchange's trading floor. From the computer the representative would have learned that a collector or dealer somewhere was willing to sell the plate for $110.

The Sudbrinks mainly came to Niles and paid $2 admission apiece to see professional actors put on Norman Rockwell tableaux. The actors would pose in imitation of some of Rockwell's most famous paintings, paintings that could be seen on the plates displayed in the exchange's extensive plate museum.

The Bradford Exchange occupies a sprawling modern building on Milwaukee Avenue. You might call it the New York Stock Exchange of the plate-collecting world, for it links buyers and sellers of plates, dealers and collectors, from around the world. On the computerized trading floor the exchange's sales representatives deal with thousands of plates a day, quoting prices and completing transactions--and claiming a commission for the exchange each time a sale takes place. Sales through the exchange totaled over $100 million last year.

It can be confusing to follow this activity, since there doesn't seem to be much happening: only the sales representatives at their computer terminals and a big overhead screen displaying the prices of the most commonly traded plates in green electronic numbers suggest the bustle of a trading floor.

That 100 million dollars' worth of business takes place so calmly here is only one of the disorienting things about the Bradford building. Its huge L-shaped atrium filled with large and lush tropical plants is another; there's even a stream running through it. On one side of the atrium is a warren of staff cubicles; on the other is the trading floor and the plate display area. Mylar strips, an acrylic railing, and reflective panels seal off the display area from the atrium. Because information about a plate's origin is included on the back of the plate, the plates are displayed in acrylic panels and can be viewed from the front and back. Several hundred panels hang from the ceiling, swaying slightly.

One of the plates on display is the first official collector's plate, which was manufactured in Denmark in 1895. Bearing a white-on-blue view of the Copenhagen skyline seen through a frozen window, the plate would sell for over $3,000 today if you could find anyone willing to sell one. From there the art form grew to include a greater variety of colors and materials, including bronze, wood, and crystal. From American manufacturers there is lots of recent Rockwelliana, and even nude plates. The sales representatives will gladly tell you strange facts about the collection; Californians buy a disproportionate share of nude plates! Midwesterners prefer more conservative designs! When Yul Brynner died the price of The King and I plates rose dramatically!

Rockwell is big business these days, and at the Bradford Exchange they were commemorating the tenth anniversary of his death, along with the tenth anniversary of the exchange's museum. "He tried to paint things as they should be," said Michael Collins, the president of the Rockwell Society. Which is definitely where it's at, in plate collecting: happy children with puppies, sentimental images of young lovers, soft-focus southern belles, Mother's Day scenes. Nobody puts Guernica on a plate: who'd hang it in their kitchen?

Collins was speaking in the atrium before the tableaux began. His listeners sat at little wooden tables, some distracted by the reflections of plants shifting and dissolving in the swaying mylar. "Art in the round is in, not square art where people have to buy expensive frames for every piece," he said. Most new plates are priced from $25 to maybe $60.

That put them comfortably in the range of Collins's listeners; they ranged from retired couples to young women who looked like they worked at suburban office complexes. In the Bradford Exchange's film that introduces plate collecting you can see a white-haired woman say, "This is the way that a middle-class person like me can collect art." It's also one way a middle-class person can dabble in the excitement of investing.

After Collins's talk some 100 people crowded into the theater, the walls of which were hung with a few original Rockwell drawings and sketches and copies of many of the artist's magazine covers and advertisements. At one end of the room was a slightly raised platform to which was affixed, perpendicular to the floor, a circular gray backdrop.

Schmaltzy music began playing from loudspeakers, and then a young man walked onto the platform from a door to the right of the backdrop. It was Tom Gaitsch, a Chicago actor with a conservative haircut; on this day he was wearing a red kerchief, tan slacks, and a long-sleeved, deep blue shirt stained with what looked like paint smears. The music wound down as Gaitsch began speaking, introducing himself as an artist who would give viewers a glimpse of Norman Rockwell's life for the next 20 minutes or so. "I never knew Norman Rockwell," he said, "but I've done the next best thing: I've studied him very carefully.

"The New Yorker magazine once said that the American public would vote Rockwell 'the greatest artist in the world,'" said Gaitsch. "But did you know that he never set out to be a great artist? You see, what he really wanted was to tell stories through his pictures, and he geared his life's work to that one end. Every person, every object, every gesture, every action that you see in his pictures is geared to that one objective--to tell an interesting story."

While Gaitsch continued in this vein a woman emerged from the door and fastened a Velcro-backed collector's plate onto the carpeted backdrop. Moments later she appeared with a panel painted with details from the background of the painting on the plate--an austere colonial parlor--which she also fastened to the backdrop with Velcro. Gaitsch began talking about Rockwell's early interest in historical subjects. As he did so a couple walked in the door and mounted the platform: a young woman with a long dress and a snow white wig, and a ponytailed young man wearing a colonial soldier's cape and sword. They walked to the middle of the platform, before the center of the backdrop, and posed, he whispering into her ear, their poses echoing those on the plate near her head. They remained there, perfectly still, for several minutes.

"Rockwell shows us a more human side to the father of our country," Gaitsch said. "He didn't show him as a brilliant general or a great patriot, but as a young man in love, nervous, enthusiastic, emotional, and--like all of Rockwell's characters--very real. You know, thanks to Rockwell, we can see that at least sometimes George Washington wasn't much different than you or me. In fact, I can see myself and my wife in the same situation."

Which was true, more or less, since the woman posing was Gaitsch's wife, Lisa Keefe, also an actor. This was their third performance of the tableaux, after successful productions at collectors' conventions in Pasadena, California, and South Bend, Indiana. "We got a chance to view a different world," Gaitsch said later. Neither he nor his wife had been involved with plate collecting before, and in spite of their exposure he didn't think they would start now.

A few viewers had murmured appreciatively when Gaitsch said that it was Washington in the tableau. When he announced that the woman in the tableau/plate/painting was "not Martha" he drew some sparse dry laughter.

Gaitsch completed his lecture with a scene involving a young woman at a train station. 'Do you think that her most cherished possessions are in those bags?" he asked. "You see, after studying [Rockwell], I believe that he thought the girl's most important possessions were her hopes and her dreams."

When Gaitsch finished talking there was hearty applause from the crowd. Some of the audience members stayed in the room, mingling and looking at the art displayed on the walls.

Lyle and Carole Anderson and their son Gary, for example. They drove from Mishicot, Wisconsin, to see the tableaux and, as Carole put it, to "steep myself in Rockwell. It's so exciting." They run a sort of mini-museum of Rockwelliana in Mishicot, which is between Manitowoc and Door County. It began with Carole's father, who was in the Boy Scouts and collected Rockwell's Boy's Life illustrations and Saturday Evening Post covers. Now she lectures on Rockwell for tourists.

"I wanted to come here to reinforce what I knew," said Carole. "Just to learn more about Rockwell. I think I know him as well as I know my own uncle."

Some audience members walked to the trading floor to work on their own collections, like Myrtle Sudbrink, her Rockwell Heritage Series now complete. It was not unusual for a plate like the one she had just bought to appreciate several hundred percent; and for her the price was not too high.

"It's a nice everyday life, like mine is," she said of Rockwell's subject matter. "He grew up in the times we did, so those are our childhoods." As she left with Milton they praised the bright and clear driving weather that would take them to their bowling league match with time to spare.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Friedereici.

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