Published: February 7, 2012
Stephen O’Brien Jr, chairman and chief executive officer of Copley Fine Art Auctions, started his career as a dealer in decoys and sporting art of historical interest. He hosts an annual summer sale on Cape Cod that attracts other specialty dealers and collectors in his field. Last year, in an effort to reach buyers in Manhattan for Americana Week, he introduced his January Sale at Wallace Hall on Park Avenue in the East 80s. Copley and Keno Auctions share the space, preview hours and even some staff, an arrangement benefiting all involved.
Though Copley is still working out the exact formula, it is clear that cross-pollination benefited the January 16 Winter Sale. The auction of 465 lots of decoys, folk art and fine art exceeded last year’s total of $1.5 million, grossing just over $1.9 million, and setting ten new auction records. It is worth noting that Copley’s 15 percent buyer’s premium on bids up to $1 million is lower than any of his Americana Week competitors. All prices shown here include the premium. The company registered more than 532 bidders.
The sale was close to 90 percent sold by lot. That said, several major lots failed to sell, including two cover lots: Alexander Pope’s canine portrait “Waiting for Master,” estimated at $100/200,000, and Charles Birch’s large, circa 1920 carved and painted swan decoy, estimated at $90/120,000. It appears that potential buyers were scared off by aggressive reserves.
The morning session started with 24 lots of contemporary bird carvings before moving quickly to decoys from the Mason Factory, in operation between 1896 and 1924. Masons are a known quantity with an avid following. In good condition, they fly. Copley opened with a mallard drake salesman’s sample of circa 1910. Seven phones lit up before the premier grade, two-thirds-size sample was hammered down for $12,650.
The next lot was a circa 1905 premier grade snaky head mallard pair. From a rig commissioned by Chicago banker George K. Schmidt, whose brand marks their bottoms, the decoys for years were stored in a bank vault and are in pristine condition. They made $48,875.
Mason shorebirds were also solid, with most selling within estimate. Leading the flock was a salesman’s sample golden plover of around 1905. It left the room at $18,400.
It is never a surprise when carvings by Cape Cod master A. Elmer Crowell (1862‱952) set the pace, as they did on January 16. The top price for life-size carvings was $69,000, the amount paid for a black-bellied plover of circa 1910 and for a Hudsonian curlew of about 1930. A top price for a miniature was $3,105 for a stilt of about 1929.
“We sold all the life-size mantel birds, and most within estimate,” said O’Brien. He was disappointed that one of his key lots, a complete, circa 1915 set of 25 mint-condition miniatures in their original, custom cabinet passed at $95,000 ($100/150,000).
“We sold the set three years ago for $92,000,” said O’Brien, noting that no assembled set could match this one for condition and consistency.
Among Midwestern waterfowl decoys, a pintail hen from the Kankakee Marsh in Indiana achieved $63,250. It is one of only seven drakes and hens of this type known. The group first surfaced at Christie’s in 2007, where this and another hen together made $90,000. The carving is attributed to Herman R. Trinosky. Experts Linda and Gene Kangas write about the Kankakee Marsh carvings in their book, Great Lakes Decoys .
Other top decoy lots included the Dexter and Gardner willet, $46,000, and two record-setting flying ducks by Chauncey Wheeler, $48,875, which exceeded their $20/40,000 estimate. A Ward brothers swimming Canada goose, $27,600 ($30/50,000), and a black duck, $1,955 ($3/4,000), were good buys.
Reels and duck calls had strong showings, with a pair of circa 1940 carved and painted calls by Illinois carver Charles Perdew fetching $18,400.
Copley closed the day with 225 lots of sporting paintings, prints, sculpture and reference books. Leading the afternoon session was “In the Cedar Swamp” by Carl Clemens Moritz Rungius (1869‱959), a painter of Western wildlife. Phone bidders pushed the oil on canvas toward the high end of its $150/250,000 estimate, topping out at $241,500.
The brilliant oil on canvas “Wild Turkey,” painted in 1924 by naturalist and Harvard professor Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874‱927), doubled high estimate, selling to Erik Brockett of Arader Galleries in New York for $86,250, a record for the artist at auction.
Also highlighting the paintings category was Richard Goodwin’s oil on canvas trompe l’oeil “Hanging Game,” $37,375, and George Browne’s oil on canvas “Yellow Birch and New Snow,” $19,550. Ogden M. Pleissner (1905‱983) watercolors ranged in price from $6,900 for the fishing scene “Poling up The River” to $48,875 for the hunting composition “Driven Grouse.”
“The market for John Whorf has been unsettled, so we were pleased with the $8,625 we got for the watercolor ‘Early Morning East Harbor,'” O’Brien said.
Bronzes were another area of success. The house nearly doubled the record price at auction for a bronze by William J. Koelpin, whose “Storm Warning” of 1880 sold for $20,700 against an estimate of $10/15,000.
Copley Fine Arts Auctions has scheduled its 2012 Sporting Sale for July 12 and 13 in Plymouth, Mass. The auction will include a collection of seven Rungius paintings from a private collection of wildlife art, dog portraitist Percival Leonard Rosseau’s painting of two English setters and the number three casting of Charles Shreyvogel’s bronze “The Last Drop.”
For information, 617-536-0030 or www.copleyart.com .
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