Published: August 7, 2018
Review and Onsite Photos By Laura Beach
PLYMOUTH, MASS. – The third and final installment of the Donal C. O’Brien Jr collection of American sporting art and decoys pushed sales to $5.2 million at Copley Fine Art Auctions’ two-day sale on July 19 and 20. The total was a personal best for the firm, which notched more than a dozen records for individual artists and makers. Eight decoy lots achieved six-figure prices.
“While there was interest from institutional bidders, private collectors decided the selling prices on virtually all the premier lots,” Copley decoy specialist Colin McNair told Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
Staged at Plymouth’s Hotel 1620, Copley’s annual summer sale got off to a bang with property assembled by Donal C. O’Brien Jr (1934-2013). In all, three sessions of O’Brien material, published in two catalogs, garnered $7.35 million over two years. The final installment was 90 percent sold and averaged a record $41,000 per lot.
“He was a sportsman, a birder, a conservationist and a collector. He was a mentor, a friend and a strong leader who never walked into a meeting he did not want to run,” Copley chairman and chief executive officer Stephen B. O’Brien Jr wrote of his uncle.
Chief counsel to the Rockefeller family, Don O’Brien gathered classic sporting art and decoys over several decades. At his death, his collection, exhibited at the Museum of American Folk Art in 1981, numbered 500 objects. As auctioneer Peter Coccoluto admonished bidders, “There won’t be another O’Brien sale, so this is your last chance.”
O’Brien was an important early source collector, purchasing or acquiring through trade many carvings from their original context. These exchanges, amounting to a history of decoy trade and scholarship, are recorded in Copley’s O’Brien catalogs.
Steve O’Brien noted, “The deeper we get into the field, the more important provenance becomes. When you think about the collector’s market for decoys, it’s really only since about 1960 that money has changed hands. The market is not even 75 years old.”
Provenance contributed to the success of the auction’s top lot, dubbed the Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose. At once imposing and graceful, the 17½-inch-high sculpture was most likely made in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania around 1870. Dealer Adele Earnest (1901-1993) credited this bird and two like it, which she discovered in Pennsylvania in 1954, with inspiring her “subsequent devotion to the decoy as an art.”
Earnest sold two of the dovetailed geese to collector Stewart Gregory, keeping the third for herself. O’Brien acquired his goose from Sotheby’s 1979 auction of Gregory’s estate. In its latest appearance, the bird, estimated at $500/800,000, went to a phone bidder for $810,000, the highest recorded price for the maker. The previous record, set in 2014, was $632,000.
The second-highest lot was for a preening black duck by Cape Cod maker A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), subject of the forthcoming book Elmer Crowell: Father of American Bird Carving by Stephen B. O’Brien Jr and Chelsie W. Olney. Crowell – who made the black duck around 1912 for one of his best patrons, the sportsman/collector Dr John C. Phillips (1876-1938) – doubled high estimate to bring $600,000.
Crowell’s gift for naturalism was on full display in a circa 1925 carved and painted calling tern. The carving more than doubled high estimate to bring $60,000, a record for a Crowell tern. Likewise, the house set new records for a Ward brothers pinch-breast pintail pair, $252,000; a canvasback pair by John B. Graham, $216,000; a black duck by Nathan F. Cobb Jr, $66,000; and an eider drake by Arthur Poland, $57,000.
Over two days, Copley offered a rich assortment of fish decoys, plaques and models, some from the collection of Ronald S. Swanson, whose holdings yielded a circa 1927 Atlantic Salmon model, $27,600, by Connecticut maker Charles “Shang” Wheeler.
“Top-notch works by the biggest names can be had at a range of accessible price points, including etchings by Frank Benson that are a great entry point for sporting art,” said Leah C. Tharpe. Copley’s fine arts specialist saw record prices for a painting by Milton C. Weiler and a bronze by Robert G. Wehle, plus prices in the mid-five figures for watercolors by well-known sporting artists Arthur B. Frost, Aiden Lassell Ripley and Ogden M. Pleissner.
New collectors are joining the field as the economy improves. For them and others, O’Brien sees opportunity, noting, “Artists like Frost, Benson, Pleissner and Ripley are still affordable. In the decoy category, buyers are finding great value in the work of carvers such as Joseph C. Lincoln, the Ward Brothers, Charles Perdew, Charles Hart, Henry Keyes Chadwick, Benjamin Warren Pease, Lloyd Tyler and Bert Graves. Values for these makers are starting to advance, but there is still a lot of room for the second-level carvers to go higher, given the quality they produced.”
McNair added, “I was excited and impressed by the number of new buyers who recognized, and responded to, the opportunity to acquire top-tier decoys. I credit some of their participation to the rising standards of pre-auction vetting. This has allowed more bidders to participate with confidence at a high level. Our team shot more than 350 decoy X-rays while cataloging this sale.”
Prices, including buyer’s premium, are as reported by the auction house.
The Copley crew now turns its attention to its Winter Sale 2019, to be conducted in Charleston, S.C., in February in association with the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition.
For information, 617-536-0030 or www.copleyart.com.
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