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Chicago Landmark Loses an Icon

Marshall Field's new owners find a Norman Rockwell original was replaced with a copy.

April 21, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — When this town's beloved shopping destination Marshall Field's was sold two years ago, its famous collection of holiday window decor and crates of Frango chocolate mints were left behind for the new owners.

But Target Corp. seems to have packed up one Windy City souvenir before turning over the keys: an original Norman Rockwell painting of one of the great clocks on North State Street.

The 1945 painting, which once appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, is estimated to be worth at least $1 million. Commonly called "The Clock Mender," it depicts a bow-tied worker perched on a ladder, adjusting the minute hand of one of the massive bronze timepieces that have marked the hours in downtown Chicago for more than a century.

Rockwell reportedly donated the painting to Marshall Field's in 1948, and the store displayed it in its in-house museum.

The painting is "rare, because it was unusual for Rockwell to include elements of a particular city in his work," said Peter Rathbone, director of American paintings at Sotheby's. "His works tell stories that are universal, of everyone's hometown. But this, like his paintings of the Cubs and Union Station, is about Chicago."

According to an official for the store's current owner, "The Clock Mender" left Chicago in 2004, when Target sold the Marshall Field's chain to the May Department Stores Co. A copy was put in its place, but it's unclear when or by whom.

Shoppers continued to wander through the museum, glancing at archived advertisements and listening to an audio tour that detailed the charm of the Rockwell painting. But they didn't know it was a fake. Neither did Federated Department Stores, which bought May Department Stores last summer.

When they took over, the new owners said, they were surprised to learn that the original artwork was not at the Marshall Field's flagship location.

"The deal didn't break down into such small details, such as the painting," said Jennifer McNamara, a spokeswoman for Federated and Macy's North, Marshall Field's operating division. "We've been trying to get it back ever since."

Federated officials said they had begged Target to return the painting, to no avail. Target did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

It's unclear when Marshall Field's staff found out the original was gone. They have since pulled down the copy, and in its place put black-and-white photographs dating to the 1920s. They show women shopping.

The switch was reported Thursday in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The painting is one of several Chicago icons to have drifted away recently: City News Service, a scrappy media outlet where author Kurt Vonnegut once worked, has closed shop. The lights have also gone out at the Berghoff, the popular German restaurant that obtained Chicago's first post-Prohibition liquor license.

By this fall, even Marshall Field's -- which survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 -- will have a new name. Federated plans to rename it Macy's.

"The clocks are as quintessential a Chicago icon as the Cubs are," said Marshall Stoltz, coauthor of "Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post," a collection of the painter's works from 1916 through 1971. "To lose it is to lose a bit of what makes that city special."

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