Published: July 21, 2020
Review by W.A. Demers, Catalog Photos Courtesy Case Antiques
KNOXVILLE, TENN.- It was a great weekend for African American art. Sculptures by William Edmondson headlined the two-day summer Case Antiques auction, July 11-12 at the company’s headquarters. The auction also offered a vivid abstract expressionist watercolor by Beauford Delaney, another Tennessee-born Black artist, and a “Gamin” bust by Florida native Augusta Fells Savage.
Works by Edmondson, the self-taught son of Tennessee slaves who in 1937 became the first African American artist to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, led the first day’s action. Two sculptures came from the same New York estate collection, “Lady with a Book” – likely inspired by a woman in Edmondson’s Nashville community – and a “Critter” attracted a surge of interest from institutions and advanced sculpture collectors, with “Lady'” selling for $144,000 to an anonymous phone bidder, more than triple its high estimate, and “Critter,” at $66,000, also tripling expectations. Limestone figures carved by Edmondson have dominated the top spots at the past three Case auctions.
An iconic Edmondson limestone sculpture led the winter Case Antiques auction in January of this year when his carved limestone depiction of a bible-waving pastor was chased by eight or nine phone bidders to finish at $540,000, the second highest among Edmonson’s figures sold at auction to date. And in January 2019, Case sold Edmonson’s limestone statue of a woman carrying her bible and purse, a 15½-inch “Miss Lucy: An Uplifted Lady,” for $324,000 to a private collector. Case has sold eight Edmondson sculptures in the past five years, including one now in MoMA’s permanent collection.
Two quilts also catapulted beyond their presale expectations with plenty of others vying for attention across many categories among the sale’s more than 1,000 lots. Witnessing it all was a reservation-only live audience in masks, who were joined by more than 7,000 people placing online, absentee and phone bids. When completed, the auction posted a 95 percent sell-through rate and auction sales finished 20 percent above the high estimate
“There’s no doubt, many individuals and institutions are racing to close gaps in their collections,” said company president John Case, referring to the success of works by Black artists in this auction. “The good news is there’s an abundance of great African American art, especially here in the South. We’ve been offering it since this company started more than 15 years ago, and it’s gratifying to see more collectors and institutions joining in our excitement about these works.”
Applause greeted a Depression-era “TVA quilt” as it crushed its $2/3,000 estimate to hit $50,400. In the textile’s graphic image, a silhouetted Black man is caught between the hands of Uncle Sam and a woman with a guitar. Designed by African American educator and activist Ruth Clement Bond and made by the unknown wife of a worker at one of the Tennessee Valley Authority Works Progress Administration dam sites at the juncture of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, it was the first public selling debut of a Bond quilt. The buyer was an institution, according to the auction house, underbid by eight other bidders and several absentee bidders, including multiple museums. An institutional buyer also prevailed on an early Twentieth Century African American quilt attributed to East Tennessee schoolteacher Margaret Carr and/or her mother, Lema Carr. The quilt, combining a Schoolhouse pattern and Tree of Life motif, had shown at the recent “Century of African American Quilts” display at Colonial Williamsburg’s McCarl Gallery and was bid to $5,280, twice its estimate.
Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962) is probably best known for her bronzed plaster bust of a street urchin titled “Gamin.” Created in 1929, the character was rendered in multiple versions, which are keenly sought-after today. This “Gamin” figure stood 9 inches high, rising to $28,800 against its $7/8,000 estimate.
Another artist who rose to acclaim during the Harlem Renaissance is Tennessee-born Beauford Delaney. His small watercolor abstract expressionist work titled “Composition” also outperformed, posting a final price of $15,600 against an estimate of $4/4,400.
Other fine art highlights included a marine painting of the English ship Cambria racing in the 1870 America’s Cup by English artist Charles Gregory. Phone bidders chased it beyond its $4/4,500 and it found safe harbor at $16,800. Luminist realist John Wesley Chumley (1928-1984) captured a new world auction record when the winter landscape by the Virginia/Tennessee artist was bid to $18,000.
Highlights by American living artists were led by Darren Waterston’s “Offering,” an ethereal oil on canvas work with label for the Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle, Wash., that brought $10,880. There was a generous helping of estate jewelry in the auction, with several pieces making it into the top 20 lots. These included a 6-carat pear-shaped diamond with six baguette diamonds in a JB Star designed platinum ring setting that doubled its estimate at $40,800; a Piaget emerald and diamond necklace set in 18K gold commanding $31,200; and an eternity necklace with 22 carats total weight in diamonds from the estate of Dr Sara Parks Pendleton of Owensboro, Ky., which realized $21,600. From the same estate, a 9-carat diamond eternity choker in platinum setting fetched $6,400. From the estate of Kathleen Presten of Chattanooga , Tenn., came a lady’s Van Cleef & Arpels 18K yellow gold 9.0mm hinged bangle bracelet with 296 round brilliant diamonds paved in the bracelet weighing approximately 3.74 carats. It changed hands at $12,000.
The Rolex marque continued its popularity at auction with two notable examples crossing the block. The first was a vintage Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer Model 1016 men’s wristwatch, circa 1963, serial number 901123. With a black dial with luminous cream-colored numbers, markers and hands and “Frog Foot Coronet” logo, it wound up at $26,400. Slightly less, at $24,000, was a men’s 18K yellow gold Rolex Cosmograph Daytona watch, model #16528, serial #X624966 with an 18K yellow gold oyster bracelet having a flip-lock clasp.
A parade of English silver was led by a George III neoclassical sterling epergne by Thomas Pitts of London, dating 1774-75 and taking $14,080.
Sold at $9,600 was a group of 16 American Brilliant Period cut glass wine glasses, including three different patterns. Ten Colonna pattern goblets were by Libbey, with teardrop stem and ray design to the underside of the base.
Fetching $24,000 was a rare War of 1812-era Tennessee state militia jacket belonging to Lt. William Graham of East Tennessee and accompanied by his powder horn and military commission signed by Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier.
Among the sale’s furniture highlights, a star was a formal Southern walnut Chippendale press, circa 1810, with broken arch pediment having carved rosettes over glazed doors and a chest base. It went out at $11,400. Other good prices were achieved by an East Tennessee cherry press with glazed doors and cupboard base, attributed to the Jacob Fisher cabinetmaking shop of McMinn County, $7,200; a cherry corner cupboard with arched doors containing 20 panes, $7,040; a small green-painted Hepplewhite demilune table, possibly Southern, served up $1,792, and an inlaid Federal secretary desk and bookcase with eagle finial and flared feet, $3,840. This piece had been deaccessioned from the Memphis-Brooks Museum of Art.
Asian lots in the sale included a pair of 15-inch-tall Daoist bronze Immortal sculptures that sold to an overseas phone bidder for $12,000.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.caseantiques.com or 865-558-3033 (Knoxville office) or 615-812-6096 (Nashville office).
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