Published: June 10, 2015
BY LAURA BEACH
NEW YORK CITY — As tastes diversify, Americana Week fades as an apt description of the three-ring circus that is Manhattan in January. Allowing for a slight twist of the dial, one might even argue that May is the American moment. Between May 19 and 21, three of New York’s leading houses sold $100,452,852 worth of American paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, design and Native American art. Though partially overshadowed by the multibillion-dollar Modern and Contemporary sales of a few days before, the auctions were well-attended and successful overall, a sign that the market for historic American art is steadily improving.
“We have been seeing very good results since 2012. The market continues to improve as we hone our strategy of focusing on quality and great pictures at a variety of price points,” said Elizabeth Goldberg, head of Sotheby’s American paintings department.
Eighty-five percent sold by lot, the May 20 various owners session realized $38,301,624. Nearly 60 percent of the sold lots exceeded their high estimate, and five artists — John Frederick Peto, James Peale, Kenneth Southworth Davies, Otis Kaye and Charles Webster Hawthorne — achieved new benchmark levels.
Leading the day’s bidding was “White Calla Lily” by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1927, oil on canvas, 32 by 17 inches, $8,986,000 ($8/12 million). Sotheby’s American Art.
“White Calla Lily,” a 32-by-17-inch oil on canvas of 1927, led at $8,986,000. It is the second most costly Georgia O’Keeffe painting sold at auction, the first being “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” auctioned by Sotheby’s for $44.4 million last November and acquired by Crystal Bridges Museum.
Why the public’s devotion to O’Keeffe’s white flower paintings?
“They are iconic. Collectors and institutions love them. O’Keeffe is among a handful of artists in our field who have participation from collectors in other fields and from outside the country,” the specialist explained. “White Calla Lily” remained in O’Keeffe’s possession until her death in 1986. Gerald Peters Gallery sold it to the consignor a few years later.
Painted by Norman Rockwell in 1926, “The Bookworm (Man With Nose in Book)” went to the Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering for $3,834,000. The canvas, a gift from an anonymous buyer, came from the collection of Chicagoans Roy and Sarita Warshawsky, who realized nearly $8 million on Tiffany and prewar design from their holdings at Sotheby’s the day before. The museum has on permanent loan one of three variations of Carl Spitzweg’s “Der Bücherwurm,” the prototype for Rockwell’s “Bookworm.” Featuring 23 of the artist’s works, “Carl Spitzweg in Milwaukee” remains on view through September 13. The buyer of “The Bookworm” was new to Sotheby’s, Goldberg said.
A year ago, Sotheby’s set the auction record for Milton Avery, the mid-Twentieth Century colorist whose semiabstract reveries appeal to diverse audiences, with the $5.7 million “March and Sally Outdoors.” The York Avenue firm returned this round with “Spring in Vermont,” sold to the phone for $3.37 million, and “Beach House,” knocked down at $1.45 million.
Among landscapes, a small, luminous Martin Johnson Heade oil depicting New Jersey marshlands garnered $970,000. Shrouded in mist, a Grand Canyon view by Thomas Moran captured $910,000 from a collector. The painting, of a sought-after subject, had been in a private collection for decades. “The Blown Thistle,” a tranquil Long Island rendering by William Merritt Chase, achieved $790,000. George Luk’s lively watercolor and tempera on paper painting “My Garden, Berk Hills” quintupled its high estimate to sell for $100,000. Questroyal Fine Art of New York outbid rivals for paintings by Cropsey, Bierstadt and Blakelock, among others.
“Old Time Letterrack” by John Frederick Peto, 1894, oil on canvas, 30 by 25 1/8 inches, sold for a record $850,000 ($800,000/$1,200,000). Sotheby’s American Art.
Large and rare, a John Frederick Peto trompe l’oeil “rack” painting, depicting letters and other paper affixed to a board, crossed the block at $850,000, an auction record for the artist. Also a record, James Peale’s portrait of George Washington in the battlefield with his gold-hilted sword made $610,000. Thomas Hart Benton’s stylized tabletop still life of fruits and flowers doubled high estimate to sell for $670,000.
Emblematic of the season, a Venetian watercolor by John Singer Sargent, $670,000, and William Glackens’ oil “Summer,” $550,000, went to New York dealer Debra Force, whose other purchases included a Rhode Island coastal view by A.T. Bricher, $87,500, and Asher B. Durand’s “A Showery Day Among the Mountains,” $87,500.
Thomas Colville won Charles Webster Hawthorne’s endearing portrait “Portuguese Fisherboy” for $298,000. To Gerald Peters went Worthington Whittredge’s “Landscape with Teepee and Indians,” $200,000, and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait’s “A Slight Chance (A Good Chance),” $322,000.
“Clapboards & Shadows,” an acutely rendered architectural view by Kenneth Southworth Davies, fetched $237,500. The previous record for the New England artist was $11,000.
“It is a striking painting and we decided to try it. It did extremely well. Elements of surprise attract both established and new collectors to our sales,” said Goldberg.
Sotheby’s has scheduled its next auction of important American art for November 18.
“Buyers respond to works that are fairly priced, have private provenance and are in good condition,” Bonhams’ American paintings expert Kayla Carlsen observed of her May 20 sale, which reaped $2,843,600 on 59 lots. “Illustration art is strong, as is Modernist and Western art. Hudson River school can be, too, if you have good examples. Only American Impressionism seemed static this time.”
Bonhams’ top lot was a forest idyll by N.C. Wyeth, who executed the 1925 painting as an illustration for James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Deerslayer. After heated bidding, the work went to the phone for $1,325,000, more than double high estimate. “Critical Moment,” an oil on canvas by the illustrator Philip Goodwin, left the room at $60,000.
“Blackfeet Camp” by Joseph Henry Sharp, oil on canvas, 20 by 27 inches, $81,250. Bonhams American Art.
With thrice annual sales of California and Western paintings and sculpture, Bonhams enjoys solid footing in these sectors. Included in this session was the oil on canvas “Blackfeet Camp” by Joseph Henry Sharp. It exceeded high estimate to sell for $81,250. “Stalking Panther,” a bronze by the Canadian-born wildlife sculptor Alexander Proctor, garnered $50,000.
Portraiture was also solid. The youthful “Gordon Fairchild” by John Singer Sargent achieved $305,000; the seasoned “Doctor Royal Whitman” by Dennis Miller Bunker, $65,000; and Gertrude Fiske’s breezy “Dorcus,” depicting a stylish young woman in red, $40,000. Anna Richards Brewster’s portrait of her father, the artist William Trost Richards, at work in his studio made $47,500.
With appreciation for the lyrical talents of Jane Peterson on the rise, New York dealer Debra Force acquired the Impressionistic oil on board “Geisha Girl” for $60,000 and the oil on canvas “White Hosta” by the artist for $16,750.
“We saw more dealers looking mainly on behalf of clients, but also buying for stock. We also had institutional bidding. Most of the top lots were purchased by private individuals,” said Carlsen.
Bonhams’ next New York American art sale is November 18.
Christie’s two-part auction combined property from various owners with a cataloged session of works assembled by polymath collector William I. Koch. Grossing $47,011,625 on 107 lots, the well-attended vendue highlighted the market’s strengths and its inconsistencies.
“Traffic seemed a bit lighter than in the fall. Advisors were noticeably absent. Part of that may simply be fatigue after the epic two weeks of Impressionist, Modern and contemporary sales. There was so much material all at once and our clients don’t necessarily collect in strict categories,” reflected department head Elizabeth Beaman. Two expected top lots — “Two Puritans” by Edward Hopper ($20/30 million) and “Mount Newport on Mount Desert Island” by Frederic Edwin Church ($5/7 million) — passed.
“In both instances, we encountered price resistance. The Church was a bit of surprise. Churches just don’t appear at auction and this is a great subject. We sold it in 2000 for $4,186,000 in competitive bidding,” said the specialist. Having dispatched Hopper’s “East Wind Over Weehawken” for $40,485,000 in December 2013, Christie’s had reason to expect the best for Hopper’s “Two Puritans,” a Cape Cod architectural view. Both the Church and the Hopper remain in play, however, and are expected to sell privately.
“Boat Going Through Inlet” by Arthur G. Dove, circa 1929, oil on tin, 20¼ by 28¼ inches, sold to the Terra Foundation for American Art for $5,429,000 ($2.5/$3.5 million). Christie’s American Art.
Works by Arthur Dove, Thomas Hart Benton and William Bradford set records, with Dove’s expressive “Boat Going Through Inlet,” a circa 1929 oil on tin, going to the Terra Foundation for American Art for $5,429,000. “Compared to other artists of the Stieglitz circle, Dove is still undervalued. This was a significant step forward,” said Beaman.
With one show on the artist recently closed and another just opening, interest in Thomas Hart Benton is on the rise. Bidding on behalf of a museum client, Debra Force took the 1949 oil and tempera on board “Ozark Autumn” for $4,869,000, a record at auction for the Regionalist painter. Force also claimed Thomas Moran’s “Sunset” of 1922 for $215,000 and Winslow Homer’s bucolic watercolor “Cow in Pasture,” $87,500.
Sold for $1,445,000, William Bradford’s “Midnight Sun, The Arctic” was also best of form. “It had everything you look for: dramatic light, perfect condition and it had been off the market since 1964,” noted the specialist.
Following the various owners session, the well-executed Koch sale realized $17,189,125 on 107 lots and represented Christie’s entry into the robust Western paintings sector. Seven auction houses competed for the consignment, sold by Christie’s without guarantee, said Beaman.
“Many buyers of this material do have a connection to the West, if only a second home,” she noted. The informative catalog accompanying the sale included a short, illustrated essay on Bill Koch, who has been gathering Western art and artifacts to furnish a Nineteenth Century town he recreated in Colorado. Running out of space, Koch decided “to pass along these pieces of history to other collectors who share my passion for the West.”
The Koch property aroused the interest of dealers Michael Frost and Baird Ryan of New York, Al Fama of Houston, and top Santa Fe gallerists Gerald Peters, Nedra Matteucci and Nat Owings.
Head of J.N. Bartfield Galleries, Frost claimed the session’s top lot, “The Cliffs of Green River, Wyoming.” Thomas Moran’s panoramic oil on canvas vista of 1896 surpassed estimate to fetch $8,565,000. Dated 1883, Moran’s vertical view of the same subject in watercolor on paperboard went to private art advisor Baird Ryan for $2,345,000. Christie’s holds the record for Moran, having gaveled down an 1878 view of “Green River of Wyoming” for $17,737,000 in 2008.
“The Green River is Moran’s most prized subject and major oils are difficult to find,” Beaman explained.
Leading contemporary selections, Howard Terpning’s “Leader of Men,” a 1991 portrait of a Crow chief, fetched $845,000. Tom Lovell’s evocative oil view “Marking the Crossing,” also of 1991, made $257,000. Koch acquired both at Scottsdale Art Auction in 2012, the Terpning for $977,500 and the Lovell for $402,500. The collector’s loss on these two lots suggested the difficulty of reoffering works so soon after they last came to auction.
Though not from the Koch consignment, William Herbert Dunton’s circa 1924 “Glorieta,” depicting Indians on horseback under a canopy of golden cottonwood, ignited bidding among Peters, Matteucci and Owings. By a Taos artist whose work is scarce, the painting sold for $497,000, more than double high estimate, to Owings.
“Dunton’s earlier illustrations are a market to watch,” said Beaman, noting the crossover appeal of illustration and Western art. “Prices rise when you appeal to two sectors simultaneously.”
Christie’s has scheduled a midseason auction of American art for September 22 with important American art to follow on November 19.
All prices include buyers’ premium.
Total Sales = $100,452,852
Lots Offered = 695
Lots Sold = 578
Sold By Lot = 83%
Average Price = $173,794
Sotheby’s Warshawsky Collection Of Tiffany
And Prewar Design
Total Sales = $7,951,125
Lots Offered = 138
Lots Sold = 136
Sold By Lot = 99%
Average Price = $58,464
Sotheby’s American Art
Total Sales = $38,301,624
Lots Offered = 89
Lots Sold = 76
Sold By Lot = 85%
Average Price = $503,969
Bonhams’ American Art
Total Sales = $2,843,600
Lots Offered = 82
Lots Sold = 59
Sold By Lot = 72%
Average Price = $48,197
Christie’s American Art And Western Painting
From The Koch Collection
Total Sales = $47,011,625
Lots Offered = 142
Lots Sold = 107
Sold By Lot =75%
Average Price = $439,361
Sotheby’s American Indian Art
Total Sales = $2,131,003
Lots Offered = 164
Lots Sold =139
Sold By Lot = 85%
Average Price = $15,331
Sotheby’s American Indian Art And Western Paintings
From The Eaton Collection
Total Sales = $2,213,875
Lots Offered = 80
Lots Sold = 61
Sold By Lot = 76%
Average Price = $36,293
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