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WINCHENDON — The painting by an iconic American artist hung above the foyer stairs at the Eugene M. Connor American Legion Post 193 for decades. Officials assumed the artwork — “Home for Thanksgiving” by Norman Rockwell — was merely a reproduction of the famed artist’s original 1945 painting, which depicts a soldier and his mother sitting in chairs and peeling potatoes, a pumpkin resting on the floor near the woman’s feet.
Years later, experts revealed that it was the real thing.
The Legion post acquired the painting in 1959 from a local priest, the Rev. Wilfrid Tisdell, who donated the artwork along with $500 in the hopes it could be used to help Legion officials who were in the process of moving from their original location on Central Street into a new building on School Street.
Sixty-two years later, facing dwindling membership, expensive repairs and possible closure, Legion officials have decided to sell the famous artwork, which experts have determined has appreciated in value to between $4 million and $7 million.
When will the Norman Rockwell painting be auctioned?
The painting is scheduled be auctioned off by Heritage Auctions at 11 a.m. Friday, and can be viewed online at ha.com/. It is Auction 8058, Lot 67161.
How did the Winchendon American Legion get Rockwell’s ‘Home for Thanksgiving’?
Charles E. Grout, a World War II veteran, was invited to select a painting from Tisdell’s art collection. According to Coral May Grout, her father, who died in 2003, selected the painting because it brought to mind people he knew very well in the community.
The painting was commissioned by The Saturday Evening Post and graced the cover of the magazine’s Nov. 24, 1945, issue.
“It reminded him of a typical Winchendon veteran, somebody who had been away during World War II, who was home for Thanksgiving and the holidays, and who was sharing time with his elderly mom, and being happy to be together again after being separated for so long,” Grout said.
Grout, who is a former Post president and currently serves as the national secretary of the American Legion Auxiliary, said her father had a feeling the Rockwell painting was more than a reproduction when he chose it from several other pieces of art.
“He knew something because when he selected that painting, Father Tisdell said to him, ‘Charles, you took the most expensive painting in my collection,’” Grout said. “So, my father knew it was worth something, but he never really let on to anybody its value.”
How they verified the authenticity of the Rockwell painting
It was probably for the best that visitors to the Legion were unaware that they were in the presence of a Norman Rockwell original whenever they entered through the building’s main door and headed down the stairs.
“Anybody could have lifted (the painting) because it wasn’t that high up,” Grout said. “I’m not tall and I would have been able to lift it. So, it hung there with nobody thinking it was anything other than a fake.”
But then in 1982, a stranger walked into the Legion and offered to buy the painting for $500. That’s when officials began to suspect the artwork might not be a reproduction after all, a suspicion that was confirmed by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, where experts determined the painting was indeed the original and valued its worth at about $60,000.
And, somewhat to Grout’s surprise, the painting was deemed to be in excellent condition.
“The painting hung in that hallway through thick and thin, and you know in those days we had smoking allowed — you could smoke pipes and cigars — we were very lucky that when we eventually did contact the Norman Rockwell Museum, that the painting was in excellent shape,” Grout said. “There was no damage on it. It was almost perfect.”
The museum agreed to hold on to the painting ever since, periodically putting it on display in various exhibits over the years.
Post 193 feels like they must sell it to meet the expenses of the organization
Kenneth LaBrack, a member of the post’s housing board, said it hadn’t been an easy decision to put the painting up for sale, but a combination of decreased revenue and expensive repairs at Post 193 made selling the artwork a necessary choice.
“We weren’t meeting our bills on a monthly basis, and then over the past few years we’ve had to shut down because of COVID, so our expenses were higher than the revenue we were taking in,” LaBrack said. “It got to the point where we had to do something, so we decided to sell the painting to keep us afloat for a while and build the business back up.”
The projects Legion officials will fund with the proceeds from the sale include redoing the parking lot, replacing the building’s boiler, purchasing a new walk-in cooler and modernizing the facility’s kitchen, LaBrack said.
Gardner History:How the iconic Gardner American Legion rose from the ashes
After the painting is sold, the money will be placed in a trust. Legion officials will establish a seven-person committee that will decide how to spend the annual interest generated from the sale, according to officials.
Grout said she had initially been opposed to selling the painting due to its close connection with her father. She said there was also a lot of opposition to the sale among members of the Legion and within the community. She admitted to being torn between the needs of the community, for which Post 193 is a popular meeting spot and venue location, and her family’s attachment to the valuable piece of art.
“I knew closing the building would harm the community and the veterans, too, because we host so many events here,” she said.
Eventually, Grout said she visited her father’s grave at the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon, where her father was the first person to be buried, and asked him for some guidance in what to do.
“I went to the cemetery about four months ago and sat on the ground by my father’s grave and said, ‘Dad, I can’t fight anymore, so tell me what you want me to do. Do you want me to keep fighting or do you want (the painting) to go to save the Post?,’ and I asked him for a sign,” Grout said. “And a couple of nights later, I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream where my dad (I assume it was him) said, ‘Let it go.’ So, that’s when I gave my support to selling the painting.”
Rockwell paintings in North Central Massachusetts
This isn’t the first time an original Rockwell painting has been discovered in Greater Gardner and sold for millions of dollars. Rockwell’s painting, “Willie Gillis in Convoy,” hung for years outside of the principal’s office in Gardner High School.
The painting was placed in storage during renovations and forgotten about. After it was rediscovered, it was placed on the auction block in 2014 and sold for more than $2 million. The school received about $1.9 million, which was used to establish the Williams-Rockwell Educational Gift Foundation.