By Marice Richter
DALLAS (Reuters) - A Texas family who discovered their old Norman Rockwell work of baseball umpires was an authentic painting sold the work at auction for $1.6 million, Heritage Auctions said on Monday.
The painting, an original study for the work called "Tough Call," shows three umpires pondering whether to halt a game as raindrops begin to fall. It became one of the best-known Rockwell illustrations after being published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1949.
Rockwell gave a signed copy to John "Beans" Reardon, a baseball umpire featured prominently in the work. Sandra Sprinkle, Reardon's granddaughter, later inherited the piece and put it above the mantle of her Dallas home for about a decade, it said.
After her death in 2015, her husband Gene Sprinkle sold the couple's home and moved to a retirement community, where his nephew took a look at the piece and noticed brush strokes.
"We always thought it was a print, but we hung it over our fireplace because it was signed by Norman Rockwell to Beans Reardon," Gene Sprinkle told Reuters by telephone on Monday.
Sprinkle, a 74-year-old retiree, said he agreed to let his nephew contact Dallas-based Heritage, which determined it was an original oil, painted as a study for the final version.
The buyer has asked to remain anonymous, according to Heritage officials.
"Sandra and her grandfather were very close," Sprinkle said. "Whenever people came to our house to visit, she was always proud to show it off and tell them about her grandfather."
(Reporting by Marice Richter; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sandra Maler)