Published: February 21, 2023
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring, Photos Courtesy Brunk Auctions
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – In its’ first two-day Premier Auction of 2023, Brunk Auctions saw four works by Winfred Rembert (American, 1945-2021) and an important “Freedom” quilt bring some of the sale’s top prices. The February 2-4 event, which included an Emporium Auction, was distinguished by a sell-through rate of 96 percent and a sale total of $2,766,577.
“This was a great sale; it’s got the year off to a very good start,” Lauren Brunk said, when Antiques and The Arts Weekly spoke with her after the sale.
Bringing all but its high estimate at $196,000 was Rembert’s 2006 “Cotton Pickers with Overseer,” a striking dye on carved and tooled leather composition that had provenance to the Adelson Galleries. The 34¾-by-40¾-inch work attracted multiple bidders both on the phones and online; in the end, it sold to a phone bidder.
“We knew the Southern paintings and self-taught and modern were very strong. With the Remberts, we continue to have a pretty strong field of bidders.” Brunk noted that institutions joined the trade buyers and private collectors chasing the works of the Black artist who survived a lynching and spent years in and out of prison before he began to create memory pictures of his childhood in the Jim Crow South, worked in leather and brightly colored.
“Not everyone who wants a Rembert has collected self-taught or African American or Southern art, which are the three obvious boxes his work checks. Those buyers are there, but also those who are looking at this as a really interesting phenomenon in American art. They are looking at his work at a much higher level,” she said.
Two of the works were from the estate of Peter Tillou, the Connecticut dealer whose collection Brunk sold September 29-30 and who – along with Adelson Gallery – had helped bring Rembert to prominence; the other two works had been acquired directly from Rembert.
Though the buyers of the Remberts were not identified, all were bidding on the phone. One paid $92,250 for his “Baptism” (2004), which was from Tillou’s estate. “Couple Dancing” (2011), acquired directly from the artist, finished at $49,200, while “Silas Green of New Orleans” (2007), also ex Peter Tillou, depicted two black-faced figures on unicycles and rode to $39,360.
Earning the second highest price of the sale and going to a new home at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts which beat out other competing institutions, was an important “Freedom” pieced and appliqued cotton quilt, one of just four examples made by Jesse Bell Williams Telfair (Parrot, Ga., 1913-1986). All of Telfair’s other three “Freedom” quilts are also in museums: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington DC), the High Museum of Art (Atlanta, Ga.) and the American Folk Art Museum (New York City). The quilt’s seller had originally purchased it for $18,000 in 1995, from the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City.
A Nineteenth Century abolitionist miniature was another lot Brunk said was important. Done in watercolor, wire, wax and foil, in a round burlwood frame, it was consigned alongside a silhouette collection from Middleburg, Va. It featured two Black men, kneeling before an allegorical figure of Brittania, with a banner inscribed “Brittania Set Us Free.” The image of the kneeling Black man became an emblem of the antislavery movement in Britain, France and the United States. The miniature gave her a reason to reach out to museums who had expressed an interest in wanting a similar item and her efforts paid off: it sold to an American institution in the South for $9,840.
Though the auction house did not offer any great examples of American furniture as it often does, a pair of marquetry inlaid tufted upholstered chairs, cataloged as “possibly Russian or French, Nineteenth Century,” had a surprisingly strong finish, making nearly ten times its high estimate and selling to a buyer bidding on Brunk’s online platform, for $46,740.
“That was consigned by someone who had found them in a tag sale and were advised to call us. When we reached them after the sale to tell them what they had sold for, they said, ‘Could you repeat that, please?'” Brunk recalled.
Decorative arts were another strong category, as exemplified by four lots of Chinese export porcelain that had originally descended in the family of Charles Izard Manigault of Charleston and consigned by a private collector. Brunk said the lots – offered consecutively – generated “one of the more exciting moments on stage, with very lively bidding from a lot of different places.” She could not recall if institutions were among those bidding on the shrimp platter, lidded cup or two porcelain plates, only that interest from private collectors was strongest.
The shrimp platter brought the most at $41,820 from a bidder on www.brunkauctions.com; it was followed by a 9¾-inch plate at $39,360 by a bidder on the same platform. The lidded cup made $29,520, while the second plate, measuring 10 inches in diameter, finished at $14,760.
All of the Manigault family’s Chinese export porcelain lots were from a 381-piece original set purchased by Manigault in Canton in 1820 and featured the family coat of arms and motto in sepia decoration. Extensively discussed by Robert Leath, in In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad 1740-1860 (1999) and David Howard, Chinese Armorial Porcelain, Volume II (2003), additionally, the lots were accompanied by similar examples pictured in Christina H. Nelson, Directly from China: Export Goods for the American Market, 1784-1930 (1985).
Topping offerings of silver at $39,360 was a George III English silver epergne that had been made in London in 1760 by Thomas Pitts and was not only marked on each piece but retained its original fitted case. Multiple absentee bids gave the lot a strong opening, but online bidding pushed it beyond its high estimate.
A trade buyer, bidding online, paid $38,400 for two silver gelatin photographs of Albert Einstein (German / American, 1879-1955), one of which had been taken in 1947 by Trude Fleischman (Austrian / America, 1895-1990); the other photograph, showing Einstein on the beach, was inscribed on the lower left side of the mat “To Mr. and Mrs. J.L. Dobeny/Albert Einstein/19. II. 33,” while on the right, the mat read “Carl Ebert/S. Barbara.” Nan Zander said the presence of Einstein’s signature helped drive interest in the lot.
Brunk Auctions’ next Premier Auctions are scheduled for March 23-25. For information, www.brunkauctions.com or 828-254-6846.
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