Published: January 8, 2002
Butterfields’ American and California Paintings and Sculpture Sale Grosses $3.3 Million
By Bill Meyer
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. – If there were any doubts about the market for the works of California plein-air and impressionist painters, Butterfields’ American and California Paintings & Sculpture sale, held December 12, put those to rest. The sale grossed $3.3 million on 366 lots with a sell-through of 75 percent. Only in rare instances, though, did the best California pieces not meet or exceed their estimates.
“I just think it shows a tremendous amount of strength in the California market, in general,” said Scott Levitt, director of Butterfield’s painting sale. “The Northern California stuff was strong, the Southern California was strong, and some of the modern things, which are often hard to sell, were fairly strong.”
Though the sale featured a sizable selection of regional American works, including William Robinson Leigh’s “Night Rider” (lot 5110), its California pieces, from the likes of Maurice Braun, William Merritt Chase, Selden Conner Gile, Thomas Hill, Edgar Payne, Granville Redmond, and William Wendt, generated the most interest and activity. Fittingly, its cover lots were four seasonal paintings from Wendt. Its other pre-sale highlight was Chase’s “A Northern California Coastal Landscape” (lot 5206).
Interestingly enough, none of the above were the sale’s top lot, all far exceeded by the surprise painting of the day, Bruce Nelson’s “A Coastal View, California” (lot 5198), bought from the floor by Los Angeles’ Edenhurst Gallery for $195,375 on a meager estimate of $10/15,000. The piece grossed $40,000 and $60,000 more, respectively, than the sale’s second and third top lots–Chase’s “A Northern California Coastal Landscape,” closing at $140,375 ($100/120,000), and Leigh’s “Night Rider,” hammering at $151,375 ($60/90,000).
Competition for the lot was intense as more than five floor, phone, and Internet bidders battled for the piece. The lot even prompted a record-setting Internet underbid of $170,000. “There was a lot of active bidding, but we were determined to get it,” said Tom Gianetto of Edenhurst Gallery, which now has purchased four Nelsons. “We are not afraid to step up to the plate for things we like and find important.”
He wasn’t shocked by the lot’s final hammer, either, noting the rarity of Nelson’s work, the quality of the example, and the piece’s relationship to a larger sister painting on display at the Irving Museum, which earned a medal at the Golden Gate International Exhibition as part of the 1915 World’s Fair.
“This was a landmark sale–everything came together,” he said. “It had the size, it had the condition, it had the quality, it had the imagery, it had everything going for it, so it was bound to set the record for the artist.”
The gallery got a fair price, too, according to Gianetto, though it paid ten times the high estimate. “We expected to pay a lot more,” he said, adding that the gallery had no immediate buyer in mind.
Gianetto said Butterfields was compelled to give the low estimate because the artist’s best work has been sold privately, not at auction. “Everyone knows the value of Bruce Nelson, but the auction houses, of course, have the constraints of responsibility to put an estimate that’s in line with recent history,” he said.
He wasn’t alone in his expectations for the lot, though. “I figured it would bring a $100,000,” said Butterfield’s Levitt. “I knew a lot of other people that were theorizing that it was going to bring even more than that, so it wasn’t a compete mystery.”
Its modest estimate, according to Levitt, was the key to its success. “I think if we put that same painting in for say $150,000 to $200,000, everybody would have fallen over laughing and it wouldn’t have brought that kind of money.”
Other high-profile top-performers included Wendt’s “Autumn Foliage,” 1901, (oil on canvas, signed, dated) for $96,375 ($60/80,000); Thomas Hill’s “Following the Trail, Hetch Hetchy,” 1880 (oil on canvas, signed) for $79,875 ($30/50,000); Wendt’s “Autumn Aglow” (oil on canvas, signed, inscribed) for $79,875 (60/80,000); Maurice Braun, “The River in Autumn,” 1932 (oil on canvas, signed) for $52,125 ($25/35,000); and Eanger Irving Couse’s “Preparing the Evening Meal” (oil on canvas, signed), which sold to an Internet bidder for $55,000 on an estimate of $40/60,000.
“The big names in the California market, the ones that are in the books on plein-air painters are just red-hot, as far as I can tell,” said Levitt. “And there were some pretty good examples, and that of course, ultimately, is the important thing. People don’t tend to pay crazy prices for mediocre pieces.
“People are not knocking on the door in droves to consign this material, so I think that’s part of what is driving this market,” he added. “I think a lot people feel there’s only so much of it around and it’s getting harder and harder to find.”
More surprising, but also impressive was the performance of William Trost Richards’s “Waves Breaking on a Beach on a Cloudy Day with Sailboats in the Distance,” which sold for $74,375 on a meager $7/10,000 estimate. William Elling Gollings’s “A Winter Landscape with an American Indian on Horseback,” 1919, also grabbed $63,375 on a $15/20,000 estimate.
Of course, not everything sold. Most notably, bidders passed on two Remington bronzes, “The Cheyenne” and “The Mountain Man,” that opened at $75,000 and $140,000, respectively, on estimates of $100/200,000 and $200/300,000.
“They may be recasts, so that’s the problem there,” said Levitt of the two rdf_Descriptions from New York’s Roman Bronze Works.
“Even though they have all this rock-solid provenance, or so it seems, there is some question to whether or not they are right,” he said, adding that Roman Bronze Works recast rdf_Descriptions at different times and numbered them non-sequentially.
However, that doesn’t mean bidders won’t likely see them again. “I have taken scrapings of the metal, and I’m sending those off to a lab that can authenticate them,” said Levitt.
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