The Courtroom Sketch: A Piece of History, and Art

Sitting in a Manhattan courtroom in 1993, Marilyn Church unpacked her crayons and paper and patiently waited for the right moment to illustrate. As a courtroom sketch artist, she was used to jockeying for a good vantage point. This time, she was lucky to be seated in an empty jury box, giving her a clear view of both Mia Farrow and Woody Allen during a hearing in their child custody dispute.

Working at a fast pace, Ms. Church said she faced pressure from news media outlets outside the courtroom waiting to get her drawings, as well as pressure to capture the likeness of the two celebrities.

“It’s high anxiety,” she said. “You also have to be careful not to get wrapped up in the very disturbing stuff you’re hearing.”

Credit…Marilyn Church

Although some jurisdictions in the United States allow electronic media coverage of criminal proceedings, it has been prohibited in federal courts since 1946. As such, the Library of Congress has long recognized the value of the images produced by courtroom sketch artists.

In February, the library announced that it had acquired 269 sketches from the trials of the Los Angeles police officers who were involved in the beating of Rodney G. King in 1991. The sketches, by the artist Mary Chaney, add to the library’s collection of about 12,500 drawings, the earliest of which are from the 1924 trial in Germany following the so-called Beer Hall Putsch, when Hitler and members of the new Nazi Party attempted a coup.

“The opportunity to acquire Rodney King is really important to me because it’s such a seminal moment in American history,” said Sara Duke, a curator at the Library of Congress. “Here was the first time that brutal law enforcement was captured on video. It truly shocked the nation.”

The library’s holdings also include more than 4,500 sketches by Ms. Church, who over a nearly 50-year career has illustrated dozens of high-profile cases, including the trials of Martha Stewart, the rapper Tupac Shakur and the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam.

Her work has also been purchased by companies including IBM and Disney, as well as by those in the legal profession, she said.

While the Library of Congress and organizations like the Smithsonian Institution collect courtroom sketches for their historical value, some art enthusiasts see such pieces as an investment.

Marc H. Miller, an art historian, curator and the owner of Gallery 98, made what he called a “very calculated choice” in purchasing a group of sketches from hearings and trials related to the Watergate scandal. The drawings, by the artist Freda Reiter, include sketches of key figures from President Richard M. Nixon’s administration and now sell for up to $3,200 each, far more than what Mr. Miller said he paid for them in the late 1980s.

Credit…Freda Reiter, via Gallery 98

“This is not stuff that’s going to decorate most people’s house,” Mr. Miller said, noting that there was a “natural market” for such works in the legal profession. Sometimes law firms will inquire about a particular sketch because it depicts a lawyer who has a connection to the firm, he said.

Sketches from celebrity trials also attract collectors, said Steven Grossfeld, an art dealer at Gremlin Fine Arts in Vermont.

He said that illustrations from Charles Manson’s 1970-71 murder trial were among his most sought-after, and that one such sketch sold for $14,500.

Mr. Grossfeld said the notoriety of a trial — and the artists who cover it — help drive buyers’ interest: “Some artists are just more popular than others.”

He also explained the appeal of courtroom sketches: “This is historical stuff that just doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “Once these trials are over, you can’t get these images anywhere else. This is it.”

Ms. Church, who said courtroom sketches occupy a space between fine art and commercial art, said she was infuriated that it had not grown in popularity. “We are drawing history in the making,” she said. “People love the idea that you were there and drew this.”

Mr. Miller raised another point: “The longer one is involved in art, the more one realizes it’s not necessarily about timeless masterpieces,” he said. “But there is a lot of different functions that art plays, and there is a lot of different reasons people buy art or want art. This is a niche.”

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