Everyone dreams of discovering thrift store treasure

December 20, 2017


Dozens of midcentury treasures—furniture, signs, photographs and oil paintings—line the walls and occupy every inch of the floor of Paul Beaty’s North Side apartment. They are mostly items he’s rescued from alleys, dumpsters, demolished buildings and thrift stores. Beaty, a freelance photojournalist, considers himself an urban archaeologist with an eye for beautiful objects others may see as junk. “I fall in love with all of it,” he says. He knows the value of some, but, like a parent, he is often conflicted about letting them go.

Except for one piece: a painting he found two years ago at the Salvation Army thrift store in River West he is convinced is worth thousands more than its $100 price tag.

It is a 41-by-46-inch oil by Warner Sallman, a little-known Chicago illustrator primarily known for his postwar portraits of Jesus that were reproduced more than a half-billion times, making Sallman one of the​ most famous unknown artists of the 20th century. At the Salvation Army, Beaty stood staring at an original Sallman portrait, titled “Head of Christ,” a portrait similar to one he stared at in Catholic school decades earlier. Beaty would later learn it was one of only five oil paintings Sallman, who died in 1968, created in his lifetime.

Since then Beaty has tried to find a home for the portrait, and to learn its true value. His experience not only illustrates the difficulties of navigating the art market with a devotional work, it also sheds light on an artist who is largely invisible in the art world even though his output represents some of the most recognizable images in postwar America.

Born in 1892, Sallman was a devout member of the Evangelical Covenant Church who attended the School of the Art Institute. Working for most of his life out of his bungalow on Spaulding Avenue in the North Park neighborhood, he never showed his art in a gallery setting but was a prolific illustrator for advertising agencies and publishers, creating images for magazines and ads. In 1940, his faith led him to create his most popular work, “Head of Christ,” which Kriebel & Bates, a religious publisher in Indianapolis, pushed to make the most reproduced image of its day, appearing on prayer cards, calendars, posters and buttons, and hung in classrooms, churches and courtrooms. Most famously, the USO handed out tens of thousands of wallet-size copies to U.S. servicemen heading overseas to fight in World War II.

For his image, Sallman rotated Christ so he is shown in profile. He has soulful eyes and long flowing hair, and is backlit to reflect warmth and holiness. The image created a bond with followers who found its portrayal of Christ relatable, as if he was someone who lived just down the street. David Morgan, a religious studies professor specializing in religious imagery at Duke University in Durham, N.C., says that its popularity peaked during the Cold War, when it became “the quintessential American Jesus” and helped people “negotiate the rocky transition to the new world of the 1950s and 1960s.”

“Sallman was successful with his image because he avoided symbolism,” Morgan says. “It really looks like it came from a midcentury photo album book, a college annual. I think that’s something he did very shrewdly. It allowed the image to find a place in people’s imagination.”

According to Leroy Carlson, a Sallman historian in Chicago who operates a website dedicated to his legacy, and who verified the painting’s authenticity, the “Head of Christ” in Beaty’s possession was created in 1964 and donated to a Salvation Army rehabilitation center in Minneapolis, where it hung in a chapel for 28 years. In 1992, the painting was transferred to the organization’s headquarters in Des Plaines. When the Salvation Army moved to Hoffman Estates last year, the trail stops. “Why they let it go is a mystery,” Carlson says. “I’ve got a hunch someone out there is going to have egg on their face.”

Through a spokesperson, the Salvation Army released a statement that says it regretted “the oversight that led to a donated piece of art being purchased at a thrift store, and we’d welcome the gift being returned to our collection.”

Carlson estimated in writing to Beaty that his “Head of Christ” might be worth $100,000 because it is​ one of only five oils Sallman made and also the only one in private ownership since the four others are hanging in institutions.

However, Morgan says Sallman’s work, while significant, is not considered fine art, which is typically “about challenging conventions, not about consensus or comfort or nostalgia.” Therefore, he says, art dealers will “never take it seriously.” Ed Jaster, a specialist in fine art at Heritage Auctions in Chicago, agrees, saying that even though it is “arguably the most famous image of Christ that exists,” it might only fetch $25,000 or so because “religious art is almost impossible to sell” and there are no comparable sales of Sallman’s work on the market.

Beaty has had little luck generating interest from art dealers, and while the many museums he has contacted—from the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.—have shown strong interest, they expect work to be donated as gifts, he says. So the painting, along with a 1957 Sallman chalk drawing that Beaty also purchased at the Salvation Army that day, sits in a storage locker.

“I’ve gone through cycles about selling it,” Beaty says. “Sometimes I think I have the holy grail, and other days I’ll think it’s just another picture of Jesus that no one gets.”

Sallman’s work has found a home at Anderson University, a liberal Christian university in southern Indiana. More than 147 of his piecess are on display there, most of them gifts. Tai Lipan, curator of Anderson’s galleries, says that people show up with two objectives: to view the art and to talk about their connection to Sallman as a person. Because they grew up with his paintings in their homes and churches, they “have an ownership of the narrative,” she says. (Anderson says it will only accept the painting as a gift.)

The gallery is digitally archiving hundreds of letters it received over many years from WWII veterans who recount how “Head of Christ” gave them comfort during combat. For them, Sallman’s Christ is their Christ. “Sallman was first and foremost a commercial artist who was always thinking of his audience. He really wanted to connect with people,” Lipan says.

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