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  • Writer's pictureDavid Morris

INSIGHTS: Tom Adams, Christie & Fontana: The Case of the Stolen Painting!

Updated: Jan 14

The original "first" painting of "By the Pricking of my Thumbs" by Adams

The highly effective triumvirate of Agatha Christie, Tom Adams and Fontana paperbacks took Christie's success as a published author to levels never achieved in the 1920s-50s. For many ardent fans of Christie's works, the images Tom Adams created for the covers of these books still resonate and provide a visual connection to the world of Christie we all love.

The process of developing the covers was fairly straight forward - Fontana's art director would contact the artist and advise what books were up for publishing, or reissuing. Tom Adams, if time permitted (as a few covers were done by Ian Robinson) would create the painting - typically in a 2-up scale (i.e. twice as wide and twice as tall as the books cover) - and submit it to Fontana. If all went well, the cover art would be used. In the following years, if sales were not great, the cover art might be redone and a newer version issued.

In a few cases, the art director would reject the cover art or ask for revisions. One of these rejections was of one of the works Adams was most proud of and of great annoyance because the second version he created for Fontana (that was used on the book) was stolen in the early 1980s. The book was By The Pricking of My Thumbs which was to be published by Fontana in 1971, three years after the hardback. In 1970 Adams was commissioned to create the cover. One of Tom Adams's friends, Gaby Goldscheider, wrote a book for the Medallian Collector's Series titled Dolls. Tom used images from within this book to help create the design aesthetic for the two covers he ultimately painted.

The inspirational source book for Tom Adam's cover.

The original cover was one of his favourite paintings but was rejected by John Constable, Fontana's art director, because it did not have a core focal element deemed necessary for a 'first time in paperback' cover. While Adams created a second painting that elevated the doll image to a core focal image, he preferred his original painting. In fact, Adams used the original image in his small published collection of ten covers titled Agatha Christie Cover Paintings even though it was not actually the cover ultimately used by Fontana. Others also used this image in both large scale books that collected his works - Agatha Christie The Art of her Crimes - Tom Adams, and Tom Adams Uncovered.

The image used in "Agatha Christie Cover Paintings"

It is interesting to note that Fontana further revised the selected art work for the second paperback printing. Originally the cover used a mirrored image of the painting, with the dolls head facing left. By the second printing, the cover was changed to reflect the actual painting, with the dolls head facing right. Whether this was an error at the printers, or a stylistic choice by John Constable, remains unknown. But for paperback collectors, both versions should be collected.

The first paperback edition with it's mirrored image.

The second paperback version - as Tom painted it - facing to our right.

In the following years, Tom would frequently lend his paintings to exhibitions and they would also be provided to printers and publishers when images were being used in book collections or to create art quality prints. While at one of these publishers, the original version of the second painting was stolen. Fortunately for Tom, his preferred original first painting was still in his possession. In the years that followed, Tom Adams would periodically sell his originals to private collectors and his fans around the world. The original first painting of By the Pricking of My Thumbs is now in private hands.

The 1970 dated signature on "By the Pricking of my Thumbs"

Authenticity: If you buy an original Tom Adams painting seek authenticity as it is possible prices will continue to escalate which may prompt fakes to enter the market. All paintings are signed by him and dated - but this was usually done after the painting was returned from Fontana. These signatures and dates were not in the image used by Fontana so placement is unknown to the average person and it did vary. As mentioned earlier most paintings were in a 2-up scale, though a few were slightly different. For example, Lord Edgware Dies is slightly smaller than 2-up (and the artist's signature is on the ear!) and the Sammer Gallery paintings (click here) were large scale items. Any item sold directly from the artist was likely framed at "The Great Bear / Conservation and Framing" and may have the sticker on the rear. Also, if the item was used in a public exhibition, it may still have the descriptive information on the rear. Tom Adams was also diligent about providing letters of provenance in the last 20 years - so any item sold more recently should have paperwork. If no letter of provenance seek other paper items - receipts or posted correspondence - that imply authenticity.

Values: Original Tom Adams Fontana paperbacks are still quite affordable (first versions in very good plus condition: £10 / $13 each), though a few are very rare - especially Miss Marple's Final Cases (£100 / $130). For his original paintings, there are probably ~150 in private hands. Of these about 60 are between two large collections, one in the UK and one in the US. Others do occasionally come up for sale at auction or via private transaction. For example, one recently sold via the website 1stdibs. When paintings were sold by the artist directly, recent prices in the last decade were generally in the £5,000 - £7,500 range, depending on the appeal of the image. For private transactions, and since the artist's passing last year, prices are likely pay what you are willing, but certainly higher than these levels. Some prints of his images were available direct from the artist, and still appear to be via his website - here prints are generally £280.

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