A ‘Masterpiece’ of Illinois Folk Art Fetches $835,750 at Sotheby’s
By Carol Sims
NEW YORK CITY – On November 28, Sotheby’s auctioned “Mr. and Mrs. William Vaughan of Aurora, Illinois” by Sheldon Peck as part of its American Paintings sale. It was hammered down at $750,000 to Barbara Pollack of Highland Park, Ill., who purchased it for a client.
With the buyer’s premium the price totaled $835,750. The underbidder was on the phone. To Pollack’s recollection, bidding from the room was not very competitive. “It is a masterpiece of Illinois Folk art and an icon of American painting,” said Pollack. (There are two Sheldon Peck portraits in the Ralph Esmerian gift to the American Folk Art Museum. They will go on view December 11). “At any other time, this painting would have easily gone over a million. I didn’t think I had a chance at all,” Pollack continued. It had been estimated at $1.5/2.5 million.
“Mr. and Mrs. William Vaughan of Aurora, Illinois,” painted circa 1845, is one of only five known full double or group portraits done by the artist. Peck started painting on canvas rather than wood panel after moving to Illinois. It is his only painting that features rich red drapery in the background and a stage-like setting. The wooden floor is a bright yellow, which is echoed in the skin tones of the sitters.
“He had a real hard edge to his work,” said Pollack. “He chiseled out their features with big cheek bones and prominent eyes. It takes a sophisticated eye to appreciate a hard look.” Mrs Vaughan is holding a book and a handkerchief and Mr Vaughan grips a walking stick. A book, probably a Bible, and a vase of flowers rest on a small circular table between them. Peck painted the frame to resemble mahogany veneer.
For Pollack, the purchase has a special poignancy. The painting first caught her eye at least 20 years ago, when it was owned by Bernard Barenholtz of Marlborough, N.H. Pollack used to visit “Bernie’s” with children in tow when she went with her four kids to New England for summer camp. As her children played with vintage toys, she couldn’t help but be fascinated with the Peck portrait’s commanding presence.
According to Pollack, the portrait was originally found in the attic of a Vaughan family member. The Barenholtzes (Bernard and Edith, his first wife) had acquired it from Bihler and Coger Antiques of Ashley Falls, Mass., who got it from Betty Willis of Mt. Morris, Ill. (Betty Willis was to become the second Mrs Bernard Barenholtz later). Betty Willis acquired the painting from John Bereman, Geneva, Ill.
The piece has a good exhibition history. For example, in 1976 the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, featured it in “The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776-1876.” Thomas Armstrong, director emeritus of the Whitney Museum of Art, wrote, “A masterwork of this quality defies identification with a category, but its quiet, commanding authority represents a highlight in the tradition of truly American art.”