Published: April 30, 2019
Review by Karla Klein Albertson / Photos Courtesy of Neal Auction Company
NEW ORLEANS – An observant Martian in the crowd at an auction might wonder why fine art is such a big hit. Buyers can never sit on it, wear it to a party or make it into a square meal. Yet art has become big-ticket sustenance for coastal and regional sales. At the spring estates auction at Neal on April 13-14, all of the top ten lots were paintings – and most were Twentieth Century paintings at that. Customers do still buy elegant antique sofas and chairs – but then a collector needs a place to rest when looking at all that art.
Neal sold almost 1,200 lots over two days for a total of $1.8 million. New Orleans has become the most reliable source for desirable works by Southern artists, ranging from those classic Nineteenth Century landscapes by painters like William Henry Buck (1840-1888) to compositions by living painters, such as Hunt Slonem (b 1951), James Michalopoulos (b 1951) and David Harouni (b 1962). Recently, interest in Slonem’s large canvases with multiple images of natural life has grown, and collectors are eager to buy in while the canvases are still affordable.
This particular sale included a strong showing by women artists, including an important early work by local favorite Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer (1912-1997) and three examples from Mississippi artist Marie Atkinson Hull (1890-1980). Both painters were featured in the cataloged exhibition “Central to Their Lives: Southern Women Artists in the Johnson Collection,” currently on a tour of museums around the Southeast. Hull’s “Macaws,” which brought $36,600, seems almost a mate to the exhibition’s “Red Parrots,” another work inspired by her time in St Petersburg, Fla.
Weekend honors, however, clearly went to New Orleans’ own George Rodrigue (1944-2013), whose paintings from multiple consignors accounted for six of the top ten prices in the sale, including two of more than six figures. Basically, one could say his works generally fall into two categories: 1) large, rather scary dogs, usually blue, and 2) views of people in a Cajun landscape setting. The canines still hold the record, set when his 2010 Blue Dog “Chairman of the Board” brought $173,276 in April 2015 at Neal’s. But a Cajun series work came close this time when “The Class of Marie Courrege” from the collection of Dr Robert Trahan, Lafayette, La., sold for $152,500.
Painting specialist Marney Robinson, who worked for Rodrigue before coming to Neal, admitted that this was her favorite work in a conversation with Antiques and The Arts Weekly before the sale: “When I think about the most important George Rodrigue paintings, this is right there at the top of the list. I think most people who are very familiar with George’s work would consider this one of the most important paintings of his entire career. It was done in 1971, based on a photograph of his mother’s school class, but placed within his Louisiana bayou landscape. What makes this painting particularly important is, when he was contacted to submit a painting to the famous Salon in Paris in 1974, he chose this painting. They hand out only a handful of awards each year, very few, out of the thousands of entries, and George was selected to receive an honorable mention award. Quite an honor for a young artist in his mid-20s from Louisiana.”
The complete story about this submission can be read in the extensive entry for Lot 190 in the catalog online. Robinson continued, “He received a lot of coverage internationally for his work at that time, including from the French newspaper Le Figaro, which called him ‘America’s Rousseau.’ He received some press here as well when the award was shipped back to the governor of Louisiana, at that time Edwin Edwards, who presented the award to George. It really catapulted George onto an international stage and gave him confidence that what he was doing was working – it solidified his career.”
With its period furniture and decorative arts as well as fine art, Neal’s April event included a diverse mix of American, European and Asian material, drawn – as advertised – from a variety of sources. Some were local, such as property from the estate of antiquarian David A. Wojciechowski, who was the business partner of well-known antiques dealer Don Didier. Works by several Mississippi artists were being sold by the Natchez Art Association to benefit its educational programming. Many of the leading lots of Nineteenth Century furniture, however, were part of second offering from the collection of Stanley Weiss in far-away Providence, R.I.
Speaking after the auction, Marc Fagan, Neal’s vice president for consignments, told a great discovery story that led to the consignment of the large Shearwater Art Pottery jardinière, which sold for $14,030: “We got that from a lady in Connecticut. She was using it as a jardinière on her floor, she kept plants in it. One day, she noticed the Shearwater impressed mark on the base and googled us. She bought it at some flea market many years ago.” An excellent reminder that the greatest value may lie not in the painting over the mantel but the pot by the window.
Fagan is the specialist for documents, maps, prints and books, and he was able to offer an important group of documents from both the French and Spanish periods in New Orleans. The earliest was a manuscript, dated 1719, when the area was the “Colonie de la Lousianne” that brought $1,280. As a provision of complex treaties in the wake of the Seven Years War, French lands west of the Mississippi as well as the city of New Orleans in 1763 became part of the Spanish Empire, before returning to French control in 1802, just before the Louisiana Purchase. This multicultural heritage helped create the complex artistic mixture that gives the city its unique character.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.nealauction.com, 504-899-5329 or 800-467-5329 (toll free).
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm