Published: December 7, 2004
In a surprise decision, The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, changed the time and terms of Sotheby’s sale of the O’Fallon Collection of American Indian Portraits by George Catlin on the morning of the sale, December 2. Instead of selling 31 individual Catlins (plus three paintings by other artists), the auction house would now make the entire sale one lot, with a starting bid of $10.7 million. Sotheby’s read the announcement to stunned bidders waiting in the room.
The sale was postponed from its scheduled time of approximately 11 am on December 2 (on the heels of the Fine Books and Manuscripts auction) to 5 pm the same day. This allowed individual bidders an opportunity to rethink their original intentions and prepare for more serious bidding.
The Field Museum changed course in the hopes that the entire collection would go to a public institution. The decision came as a direct result of an offer of $10.7 million that was put forward by art dealer W. Graham Arader III of New York City, the morning of the sale. Arader was bidding with his own money on behalf of the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Neb.
The Joslyn Art Museum did not acquire the Catlins. The single-lot sale brought $17,368,000 from a private buyer, bidding through Soth-eby’s Selby Kiffer (senior vice president books and manuscripts) on the phone. The underbidder was also bidding by phone, through Sotheby’s Lisa Heller. On the auction floor, Arader bid to $12 million from his own account before dropping out.
Most of Catlin’s 28 North American Indian portraits in the sale carried presale estimates of $200/400,000 or $300/500,000 with some estimated as high as $600,000. His painting of a formidable “Buffalo Bull, grazing on the prairie” was estimated at $400/600,000. (There were also two other buffalo paintings by Catlin in the group). Bidders coming to town with a few million dollars to spend on Catlins had to leave empty handed. The revised presale estimate was announced as $10.7/15 million.
Graham Arader thought the anonymous buyer got a bargain buying the Catlins for $17,368,000, noting, “The Charles Bird King painting went for over a million. Portraits by Catlin are more valuable than that.” The King painting, “Ottoe Half Chief, Husband of Eagle of Delight” was part of Sotheby’s American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture sale the day before and sold for $1,352,000 ($150/250,000). The other King, “Wai-Kee-Chai, Sanky Chief, Crouching Eagle” brought $792,000 in the same sale ($125/175,000).
“It used to be that most dealers had $300,000 to spend. Then it was $1.5 million. Now it’s $5 million,” said Arader after the sale. “David Redden played this just right – giving people just four hours to come up with the money.”
David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby’s, stated, “We are privileged to have been asked by the Field Museum to sell these most important documents of American history. The portraits in the O’Fallon Collection are among the earliest portraits of Native Americans made by George Catlin, who is generally conceded to be the most significant pictorial historian of the American West. We are very pleased with today’s results.”
According to Jonathan Haas, curator of North American Anthropology at the Field Museum, the funds will help the museum “to become one of the premier institutions in the world collecting contemporary material culture.”
The O’Fallon Collection was named for St Louis Indian Agent Benjamin O’Fallon, who commissioned them and arranged for Catlin to travel aboard the American Fur Company’s Missouri River steamboat, the Yellowstone in 1832. The identities of many of the sitters are known from Catlin’s writings.
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