The Head Of Christ perhaps ranks among the most identifiable works of art ever produced. And yet when Paul Beaty discovered a pair of originals while browsing a Chicago thrift shop, the valuable paintings had seemingly been discarded like unwanted artifacts. But then Beaty realized what he’d come across – and learned of the rare pieces’ material worth.
Beaty in fact discovered the Head Of Christ artworks at a Salvation Army store in Chicago early in 2016. And even though the images are believed to be the most widely reproduced of all time, the bargain hunter reportedly knew at once that he’d found something noteworthy. Yet it turned out to be a find that many thrifters only ever dream of.
As Beaty had suspected when he’d first spotted them, you see, the Head Of Christ paintings he’d stumbled across are originals. So, after bartering with the sales clerk, the thrifter took the pair home at a reduced price. And following a bit of internet sleuthing, Beaty learned just how special his discovery was.
Beaty also put some effort into identifying someone to sell the paintings on to. Then, after a couple of years and a chance encounter, he found somebody to take the artworks off his hands. And although Beaty had found the paintings in a thrift store, they would subsequently earn the eagle-eyed thrifter an impressive amount of money.
Beaty, you see, has developed quite a knack for finding antiques and historical keepsakes over the years. The Chicago-based photographer collects interesting items of old Americana as a sideline, in fact. A visit to his apartment in the north of the city would indeed reveal an abode lined floor to ceiling with such memorabilia.
Beaty scours dustbins, alleyways and even derelict areas – as well as thrift stores – for interesting artifacts. And in his scavenging, the Chicago native has developed a pursuit that he regards as urban archaeology. Perhaps due to his skills as a photographer, then, Beaty has developed an ability to see beauty where others see only trash.
“I fall in love with all of it,” Beaty said of his memorabilia in a December 2017 interview with Chicago Business. It’s clear, then, that he has a passion for collecting and has become rather good at it over the years. And along the way, the photographer has learned the monetary worth of some of his finds.
So it was Beaty’s keen eye for a collector’s piece that was caught when he strolled into the Salvation Army store early in 2016. At first, though, he couldn’t quite comprehend what he was seeing. The Head Of Christ image was immediately recognizable, of course, as it had been so prevalent when he was a child.
“It seems like [I] would see [the Head Of Christ images] almost on a daily basis growing up, in schools or churches or Boy Scout meetings,” Beaty told WTTW News in February 2018. The photographer even recalled how he would sometimes zone out in class and gaze at a print of the image fixed to the wall.
When Beaty saw those Head Of Christ paintings in the Salvation Army thrift store, though, he noticed something unlike any version he’d seen in his youth. Somehow, in fact, the photographer sensed as soon as he laid eyes on the two paintings that they were originals.
Yes, what Beaty had seen wasn’t one of the countless reproductions so commonly displayed on the walls of churches, schools and charitable organizations. What the collector had in fact spotted had been created by the hands of the artist himself. And that, as Beaty would later learn, made them very special finds indeed.
“I walked in [to the thrift store], and I couldn’t believe something like this would be in the Salvation Army,” Beaty explained to WTTW News two years after the discovery. “I knew they were originals from across the room, but I didn’t know how rare they were until I started Googling.”
What Beaty found was actually two Head Of Christ portraits – each measuring around 4 feet tall by 3 feet wide. One was painted in chalk, the other in oil. And yet, although the photographer didn’t immediately understand the rarity of what he was looking at, he felt they must be worth more than their $125 price tags.
This is despite the fact that the Head Of Christ is not the work of a Rembrandt or a Picasso. Nor is it a priceless antique long forgotten in someone’s attic. In fact, the story of the painting’s originator is a far more humble one. And the portraits only ended up in a thrift store due to a costly mistake from the Salvation Army.
So although the image Beaty recognized from his childhood is well known, the name of its creator is perhaps not. The Head Of Christ painter is in fact an artist named Warner Sallman. And while you can’t view Sallman’s work in any gallery, you may nevertheless be familiar with his creations.
But who was he? Well, Sallman was born in 1892 and later studied at the internationally renowned Art Institute of Chicago. Much of his career was then spent holed up in his bungalow in North Park, Chicago. Here he created illustrations for publishers and advertising agencies to be reproduced in ads and magazines. His most famous work actually appeared in 1940.
Unsurprisingly, you see, Sallman was a devout Christian, and it was his faith that inspired his most renowned piece. That artwork? A depiction of Jesus that would become what’s believed to be the most prolifically reproduced image in the world. Yes, the illustration in question is 1940’s Head Of Christ, and it’s what Beaty found at the Salvation Army nearly 75 years later.
In the Head Of Christ, then, Sallman portrayed Jesus in a way rarely seen before. The artist presents the figure in a profile view and with loose, long hair and added depth of emotion to his eyes. The addition of light to the background of the painting also seems to reflect the kindness embodied by Christ.
So Sallman’s image perhaps shows a figure that is more relatable than previous artists’ impressions. In any case, people certainly connected with his representation of the holy man in a way that they hadn’t done with other depictions. The Head Of Christ, then, presents a man who looks like someone who might be living in the modern world – somebody who walks among his followers.
David Morgan’s 1996 book, Icons Of American Protestantism: The Art Of Warner Sallman, talks of the painting too. In it, Morgan claims that the image appeared to Sallman late one night after he’d prayed for guidance during a difficult time in his life. The issue had apparently been a looming deadline for a magazine cover that the artist was finding it impossible to come up with an idea for.
The Head Of Christ was subsequently bought by a publishing company named Kriebel & Bates, which specializes in religious material. The Indianapolis-based firm then put the image on paraphernalia such as buttons, calendars, prayer cards and – what Beaty had gazed at in class as a child – posters. And people lapped it up.
Indeed, the Head Of Christ proved to be an incredibly popular product. Within a year, for example, Kriebel & Bates had already sold a million copies of the print. The United Services Organizations also gave out many thousands of copies of the image to soldiers departing for World War II. And by 2007 there had been an estimated one billion prints produced.
Author Morgan is a professor at North Carolina’s Duke University, and his field of expertise is religious imagery. He therefore has a theory as to why the picture became so popular. He told Chicago Business that the Head Of Christ became “the quintessential American Jesus” during the Cold War era because it guided people through a troubling period of change.
“Sallman was successful with [the Head Of Christ] because he avoided symbolism,” Professor Morgan said. “It really looks like it came from a mid-century photo album book [or] a college annual. I think that’s something he did very shrewdly. It allowed the image to find a place in people’s imagination.”
The immense popularity of the image naturally led to Beaty’s instant recognition of the paintings he spotted in the Salvation Army thrift store. So what was it that set them apart from the billion and more prints that had been sold over the course of 76 years? Well, whatever it was, the photographer was certainly shrewd enough to follow his gut instinct.
Beaty had only $300 in his bank account that day in February 2016, you see. And so, with each painting carrying a sticker price of $125 before tax, buying the pair would have all but cleared out the freelance photographer’s funds. The canny collector sensed that their purchase would be worth his while, though.
Beaty subsequently approached the sales clerk in the hope of buying the paintings for a lower price. At first, though, the shop assistant seemed reluctant to reduce the cost. The paintings were in particularly good frames, after all. Yet, to Beaty’s delight, the clerk moved a little on the price, and the photographer secured the portraits for $220 including tax.
But Beaty was still unaware of either painting’s precise value, so he set about learning more on their origins. He subsequently found Leroy Carlson, who runs an internet site that pays tribute to the life and work of Warner Sallman. Carlson then confirmed what Beaty already suspected: the Head Of Christ portraits he’d found were indeed originals.
Carlson also informed Beaty that the oil Head Of Christ he’d stumbled across was painted in 1964. Carlson then traced the artwork to a piece that had been donated to a Minneapolis-area Salvation Army rehab facility – where it had adorned a chapel wall for the best part of three decades. So how did it end up on sale in the Chicago thrift store?
Well, it’s not entirely clear. The Head Of Christ portrait was relocated to the Salvation Army’s Des Plaines, Illinois, HQ in the early 1990s. But after that, the details become sketchy, and no one is quite sure what happened to it next. It may, however, have been moved again in 2016.
Shortly before Beaty found the Head Of Christ originals, you see, the Salvation Army had relocated to a new site located in Hoffman Estates – on the outskirts of Chicago. It’s entirely possible, then, that the works of art somehow became mixed up with the store merchandise in the process, with staff not realizing how rare the paintings are.
When the Salvation Army learned the real value of the Head Of Christ paintings that Beaty had bought, though, it issued a terse statement. “We regret the oversight that led to a donated piece of art being purchased at a thrift store,” a spokesperson told WTTW. “And we’d welcome the gift being returned to our collection.”
After all, the financial worth of the Head Of Christ paintings revealed that the Salvation Army’s mistake was an incredibly costly one. Some have also questioned the ethics of not returning the artworks in the first place. Yet Beaty seemingly believes that the organization’s mistake isn’t his responsibility. He was further evidently intent on selling the paintings himself.
But putting these ideas aside, Beaty started that February 2016 day with a meager $300 in the bank. So the collector must have felt like he’d hit the jackpot with his discovery. When Beaty got the paintings home, then, he seemingly immediately set about having the paintings valued.
And as we’ve seen, Carlson confirmed that the Head Of Christ artworks were originals. He then also provided Beaty with a provenance. The Sallman expert concluded, in fact, that the oil painting was one of just five of its kind. And, due to the Salvation Army’s error in putting the portrait on sale, it was now the only one privately owned.
But with four similar artworks having been donated to institutions, it was difficult to estimate a real-world value for the oil painting. Nevertheless, Carlson reckoned that it could be worth around $100,000, and he appraised the 1957 chalk variation at a further $35,000. That would make a neat payday indeed for a photographer who admitted that he was “struggling” financially.
Finding a buyer proved difficult, however. As we’ve heard, the image itself may be highly recognizable, but Sallman’s name is considerably less so. And the artist’s other works were mostly commercial. With no precedent set for a Sallman original, then, dealers only valued the portrait at $25,000 – much lower than Carlson’s estimate.
Beaty therefore found no joy with art brokers and museums for a couple of years. Nevertheless, the photographer persevered – and his patience paid off when Jerry Jenkins chanced upon a news article on social media. And when this writer, who lives in Colorado, saw the artworks, he knew he had to have them.
In fact, Jenkins had felt drawn to Sallman’s paintings as a child too. Then he’d later married a woman whose grandfather coincidentally had known Sallman while living in the same Chicago apartment block. Jenkins himself had also cut his teeth working for local Chicago newspapers – just as Beaty had with his photography. So the discovery felt somewhat like destiny.
Jenkins, a Christian writer, subsequently paid the full appraisal price of $135,000 for the Head Of Christ originals. “I’ve had so many people tell me there’s no way that I can sell it without an art broker or auction house,” Beaty told WTTW. “[But] this sets the value of what an original Warner Sallman is worth.”