Filed Under:Claims, Education & Training

Not all art is created equal: Appraising the value of high kitsch

Making ‘cents’ of the sentimental artwork by Barry Leighton-Jones

Well-known American illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell still inspires art today like this image based on his
Well-known American illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell still inspires art today like this image based on his "Gone Fishing" scenes. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Sentimental paintings and “kitsch” art have a controversial reputation in the history of art. Generally looked down upon by “serious” collectors, it has been claimed that overly sentimental art may express disingenuous emotions, is self-indulgent, and interferes with rational thought and an understanding of the art world.

Historically, this has been a problem for critics of sentimental art because sentimentality is seen as a distraction and a way for us to shift our attention from the harsh realities of the world to more pleasant, unthreatening subject matter.

Serious art collectors tend to frown upon sentimental art as being art for the oblivious. That said, there are plenty examples where astronomical prices are fetched by well-known kitschy artists such as Jeff Koons with his shiny balloon dog sculptures, and Damien Hirst with his colorful dot paintings. One can almost wonder if serious collectors have suddenly changed their prevailing attitudes.

The truth is, they have not.

Related: The art of identifying fine artwork 

Photo of Emmett Kelly the clown

Leighton-Jones' painted many images of Emmett Kelly, a hobo who symbolized the Great Depression. (Photo: Collectors Weekly) 

Determining the value of a Barry Leighton-Jones work  

A certain percentage of sentimental and kitsch art has always been lauded. For instance, Norman Rockwell’s paintings of children and families were loved at the time of their creation and his originals continue to achieve high prices today. It is important to know that Rockwell was highly praised by critics. His technical skills informed by his art training and years as an illustrator helped him tap into America’s need for nostalgia during a tumultuous time. This brings us to the second, more pervasive type of sentimental art — art that is not highly prized by art historians or serious collectors.

Enservio’s appraisal team was asked to evaluate an oil on canvas painting titled “Promenade Des Anglaise Variation III,” depicting three well-dressed women by Barry Leighton-Jones. A certificate of authenticity from Art 4 Art accompanied the painting, as well as an undated statement that stated its value at $35,000.  

Barry Leighton-Jones was born in London, England in 1932. He was tutored by the famed artist John Minton. His work began being published as his reputation grew. In 1985, he was selected by the estate of the famed circus clown performer Emmet Kelly to create a series of paintings based on Kelly’s life work. Kelly, popularly known as Weary Willie, was the hobo face symbolizing the 1930s Depression era.

This commission sealed Leighton-Jones’ reputation and is, perhaps, the best representation of his capabilities. Just following this was Leighton-Jones’ most prolific period. Between 1986 and 1992, licensors used images of his artwork on prints, collector’s plates and figurines. It was around this time that his works started selling on cruise ships. In the art world, “cruise ship” art does not have always have the best reputation and is generally associated with a low level of connoisseurship.

While some of the detailed images of Emmett Kelly have historical interest, much of Leighton-Jones’ other work appears vacuous and because it adheres closely with the aesthetics of the time, it is nearly interchangeable with the work of his contemporaries.

What makes art valuable?

What causes one artist to achieve immortality in the annuals of art history and another artist to be relegated to the dust bins of flea markets is debatable. While there is no exact formula to predict which artists will sell well today and which artists will sell well in the future, there are some telltale signs.

The fact that Barry Leighton-Jones’ work is nostalgic, that he was a prolific artist who allowed his work to be overexposed in the collectibles market, and that his work was repeatedly presented in a forum generally associated with buyers who have low art market expertise, all created a somewhat unfavorable perception of his work. Had his work been aesthetically outstanding, the overexposure and the issues with nostalgia might be overlooked. Sadly, this is not the case.

The insured’s claimed value of $35,000 was optimistic and suspect. Upon researching the market, Enservio found that the subject property painting was offered for auction on eBay on October 16, 2015, by a seller in Lake Worth, Florida, at a start price of $3,000. It appears to have gone unsold. The auction information confirms the seller purchased it at an auction in 1998 with a certificate of authenticity from Art 4 Art. The painting was signed and framed and measured 42” x 54”.  

In today’s market, the most common place of sale for this particular artist is at auction, on eBay and on secondary sites such as Etsy. Often, subject-specific pieces that might appeal to a certain audience will be sold in a retail setting. An example of this is an 18” British solider boy oil painting that recently sold at Trade Antiques in England for $627.93.  More often, works by Leighton-Jones are offered on eBay. Examples we found at auction ranged in price from $175 to $850.

In the final analysis, we placed a framed retail replacement value on this painting at $2,200, a fair and reasonable appraisal.

Christian Trabue is a member of the Appraisers Association of America and a fine art review appraiser for Enservio, a leading provider of contents claim management software, payments solutions, inventory and valuation services for property insurers. Contact her at

Related: Pricing the priceless - Valuing irreplaceable works of art ...


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