ARLINGTON — A famous American painting that has spent about 33 years of its existence between the walls of an Arlington residence was auctioned Wednesday for more than $15 million. The Sotheby's auction house sold Norman Rockwell's "Breaking Home Ties" for $15.4 million on behalf of Donald Trachte Jr. of Burlington and his three siblings, Dave, Jon and Marjorie. An anonymous telephone bidder made the winning bid, according to Sotheby's.
"Breaking Home Ties" was included in a sale of American paintings and brought a record price for a Rockwell painting.
Edward Hopper's "Hotel Window," also brought a record price when it sold for $26.8 million. The New York Times said the seller in that case was the actor Steve Martin.
The experience was overwhelming, said Trachte Jr. "A thousand thoughts and emotions. It was such a spectacular event for all of us. It was my first time to be at an auction of that nature. We had our own special room that was above the gallery so we could look down over everything," he said.
The family's painting was Lot 16, so they patiently watched as paintings were sold at much lower prices before their family treasure was called.
The suspense built up steadily until it seemed to explode, said Donald Jr.
"Bidding started at about three and a half million. It went slowly at first, and I was happy when it hit landmarks like four or five million. Then all of the sudden it just took off at half million increments and got up over 12 and 13 million," he said.
Despite thinking about the possibilities, Trachte Jr. never expected the price of the painting to reach the level it did.
"My imagination can run wild, but I had to keep control of myself. I was going to be happy if it just hit five million. And then of course we hit nine million and the record," he said.
Dave Trachte and his wife, Joyce Trachte, of Arlington, attended the auction in New York City with the three other Trachte children. Joyce said the experience was unbelievable.
"It was very exciting to watch and to hear the bidding and everything. We were all on pins and needles," she said. "Sotheby's was great and it was handled very smoothly."
According to Joyce Trachte, the four children will split the record setting money equally. The previously highest amount paid for a Rockwell painting was $9.2 million in May, for "Homecoming Marine."
"Whoever bought it paid $15,400,000. Our total of that ... was $13,750,000," she said. "They said it broke all the records for all of the Rockwell paintings ever sold."
Rockwell created the painting in 1954 as he tried to capture the loss he was feeling as his own sons moved away. The painter's eldest son, Jerry, had enlisted in the Air Force, and his two younger sons, Peter and Tom, were going away to school.
The canvas shows a father and son sitting on a truck's running board as the boy leaves for college. Scholars of the folksy painter consider it one of Rockwell's best works.
The image first appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in September 1954. The 44- by 44-inch oil on canvas painting began to take shape when Rockwell lived in Arlington, but he did not finish until after he had moved to Stockbridge, Mass.
The Trachte children's father, Donald Trachte Sr., an artist known for the comic strip "Henry," had purchased the painting directly from Rockwell himself.
The story of the painting's life is much more complicated, however.
It began in 1949, when Trachte Sr. moved his family to Arlington and soon became friends with his neighbor, Rockwell, who had moved to Arlington in 1939. The two men, along with other famous artists, including Grandma Moses, formed an clique. Trachte Sr. and Rockwell grew very close, with Trachte Sr. spending many hours in Rockwell's studio carefully taking note of Rockwell's work and technique. They remained close friends even after Rockwell moved to Massachusetts.
In 1960, Trachte Sr. and his wife Elizabeth purchased "Breaking Home Ties" from Rockwell for $900 when it was part of an exhibit of 24 Rockwell paintings at the Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester. The painting was hung in the couple's living room and quickly became Trachte Sr.'s most prized possession. He was offered $35,000 for the painting shortly after he purchased it, but turned the offer down. Rockwell, who was aware of the offer, told his friend he must be crazy, but appreciated his loyalty, nonetheless.
When Trachte Sr. and his wife divorced in 1973, "Breaking Home Ties", along with several other paintings owned by the couple were to be divided between them. Trachte Sr. retained his famous Rockwell, however, along with three other paintings. As part of the settlement, ownership of the paintings was left with the couple's four children, but he and his wife were free to display them wherever they chose.
More than two decades after the divorce, and after the death of Trachte Sr., questions about the painting began to surface.
In 2002, the Trachte children, decided to send the painting to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge for safekeeping because their father's health was beginning to deteriorate. But when the painting arrived at the museum, experts were troubled by differences between the painting and the image that had appeared on the magazine cover. When examined closely, the boy's expression seemed to have changed and the coloration seemed a bit off.
Trachte's children also began to question the painting's authenticity, and their concerns were compounded when a museum declined to exhibit another painting owned by their father because a picture of Trachte Sr.'s painting differed from a picture the museum had.
Brothers Dave and Donald Jr. decided to visit their father's old studio earlier this year in February that had remained untouched since his death. Their discoveries would finally force them to accept what they had feared: The Rockwell painting their father had treasured was not the original. The brothers found several versions of other paintings that appeared to have been reproductions in the studio.
But Dave Trachte had not given up. While looking around his father's old home, he found what appeared to be a false wall in the living room.
In March of this year, Trachte Jr. received a call from Dave asking him to come to Arlington to visit the family home to investigate the false wall. During his trip from Burlington to Arlington, Donald Jr. wondered if his father could have made a replica of the painting. He said he didn't think they would find anything behind the wall because he was preparing himself to be let down.
But the two brothers removed some of the bookcase shelves to unlock it, and noticed a sliding wall. After looking inside, they noticed a second sliding wall and began to move that as well. As they did, they began to slowly see Rockwell's original painting appear.
"They were just shocked. They couldn't believe the paintings we all looked at all of these years weren't the real ones. They were very happy. Kind of on cloud nine," said Joyce Trachte.
Donald Jr. said he was just amazed that his father had created such an elaborate hideaway.
"The first thought was, how ingenious. ... Of course you just keep them on the wall and cover it up with false walls," he said.
Donald Trachte Sr. died last year at the age of 89 and never told anyone the secret about his prize painting. Experts believe Trachte probably made the copy in about 1973, when he and his wife were going through a bitter divorce.
There are several possibilities as to why Donald Sr. may have created the replica, said Donald Jr. "I'm still trying to sort it out, but I have a couple of theories. The simple answer is that he just wanted to keep it safe. ... But then you have to dig in deeper and ask why he would even think he could do that," he said.
Donald Jr. said his father had painted a copy of the painting in which he portrayed himself as the father and his character "Henry" as the son. His father titled his creation, "Breaking Daddy's Heart," he said.
"Maybe it spawned an idea in his head that maybe he could do a better painting," said Donald Jr.
Nobody in the family is planning a shopping spree or to change their lives dramatically. So far, the most expensive thing purchased by the family was a nice lunch in New York to celebrate the auction, said Joyce Trachte.
"Not now. I think it's just too fresh. Everybody is going to keep working. I'm not going to say they're not going to retire, but everyone is going to keep going about their business," she said.
Donald Jr. said selling the painting was never about cashing in the money. On the contrary, the family's main concert was preserving and displaying the painting.
"The money is secondary. We have mixed emotions. We're sad to see the painting leave our family. ... I'm confident the buyer bought the best painting in America. I'm in high hopes that a museum will be able to display it," he said. "Although we'd like to have the painting stay in our family, things change hands."
The replica painted by Donald Trachte Sr. still belongs to the family and is displayed at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.