Published: August 15, 2017
Review by Andrea Valluzzo, Photos Courtesy Case Antiques
KNOXVILLLE, TENN. – The late Dr Benjamin Caldwell (1935-2017) was renowned among decorative arts scholars and collectors. Author of the pioneering book Tennessee Silversmiths, he had an abiding passion for Tennessee arts and history. It is quite fitting, then, that his estate was offered during Case Antiques’ August 5 auction as the auction house is not only local, but specializes in Southern decorative arts. This sale, as true of most others here, featured art, antiques and jewelry from several prominent Tennessee collections and estates.
A focus of the 897-lot auction was Caldwell’s Nashville estate, which offered up Southern coin silver, paintings, folk art, American furniture and Asian arts. The sale also offered Southern decorative arts from the estate of Barbara Gipe of Kingsport, Tenn., the living estate of John and Donna Rogers of Greeneville, Tenn., and folk/Outsider art from the Arts Center of Cannon County, Tenn.
“It was a very strong sale,” said Sarah Campbell Drury, vice president of fine and decorative arts, Case Antiques Inc, Auctions & Appraisals. “It had so much energy, we had over 4,000 bidders. We had about 150 people in the room over the course of the day and the rest were on the phone and online.” Institutional buyers were well represented and word is that one of the top lots was acquired by an institution (stay tuned for more details in a future issue when the museum is ready to go public).
The auction performed above its high estimate and had a 94 percent sell-through rate. “We had interest across the board, across collecting categories and across price points. It was a very strong and diverse sale,” she added.
With the top three lots – all standouts of fine art – the sale demonstrated its broad appeal and diversity, spanning the globe. The top-selling painting was a Colorado mountain landscape by Birger Sandzen (American, 1871-1954), followed by a Connecticut scene by John Frederick Kensett and then a Paris lithograph poster from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
“It was nice to see paintings from all over the country do well,” Drury said, noting the poster would have done even better if it was not as faded. “It had some condition issues, but did well in spite of them.”
The Sandzen, a 1927 oil on board titled “Twilight,” not from the Caldwell estate, brought $97,000. It depicts a lake with a rocky, tree-lined bank at sunset with mountains in the background and a crescent moon in a pink sky and is signed on verso “Twilight/ Rocky Mountain National Park/Colorado.”
This painting was accompanied by a 1983 letter from the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery, attributing the work to Sandzen, circa 1928-1931. According to the letter’s writer, co-director Larry Griffis, “The colors and brush strokes are characteristic of the period of his life that produced his finest work.” Griffis compares this work to two other known Sandzen works, “Silent Lake” and “Lake in the Rockies.” A letter from Douglas Hyland, director of the Brooks Museum in Memphis, regarding the Sandzen painting, describes it as “one of his best works.”
The second highest-grossing painting (and overall lot in the sale) did come out of Caldwell’s estate though. Attaining $94,800 was a John Frederick Kensett (New York/Connecticut, 1816-1872) oil on board, “Early Autumn,” a Luminist landscape painting depicting sunset over Contentment Island, site of Kensett’s studio, near Darien, Conn., circa 1872.
The unsigned work bore 1960s-70s exhibition labels for Wickersham Gallery, New York. A year after Kensett died in 1873, this painting was included with many other works from his studio in the Kensett Memorial Exhibition held at the National Academy of Design. This newly rediscovered Kensett painting will be included in the forthcoming John Frederick Kensett catalogue raisonné.
The Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph showing the famous Moulin Rouge dancer Jane Avril with a snake coiled around her dress fetched $60,000. Printed in four colors using three stones, printed in 1899 by H. Stern, Paris, the litho was the final poster the dancer commissioned from Lautrec, a lifelong friend and during a difficult time in the artist’s life, to advertise her work. This work came from the estate of the late Dan Evins, who founded the Cracker Barrel chain, along with another Lautrec lithograph, “Confetti,” 1894, $25,200.
Setting an auction record price was a Victor C. Anderson (Texas/New York) oil on canvas, “Barn Swallows – Children Playing in Loft,” circa 1935, that fetched $33,600 together with three pencil studies for the painting. “This whole sale goes to prove we may be located in the South, but we excel with items from all over the country,” Drury said.
Another standout among fine art, and with Caldwell provenance, was a pair of Tennessee portraits by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (1788-1838), unsigned, oil on canvas, depicting Thomas Claiborne Jr (1780-1856), and a woman, likely his wife Sarah Lewis King Claiborne (1786-1867)
Caldwell bought the paintings circa 1960s and they were sold at Brunk Auction in 2006 when the Caldwells were moving to a smaller home. Case Antiques was not in business at that time. The buyer in that sale was a collector from Maryville, Tenn., who consigned the paintings here, knowing the Caldwell estate was being sold.
Caldwell’s ties to Case Antiques and its owners go way back. “He was a friend of ours for years. He and John Case worked together on catalog entries for the ‘Art of Tennessee’ exhibition,” said Drury. “He was an incredibly diverse collector. He was just one of the most discerning and generous collectors that Tennessee has ever known. His devotion to scholarship and to sharing what he owned with others was really unparalleled. His death leaves a huge hole in the collecting community.”
Silver was a central part of Caldwell’s collection and some choice pieces, both large and small, performed well in this sale. “I love silver; that’s one of my favorite things, so it was bittersweet to catalog these pieces that we had shared conversations over for a long time,” Drury said, recalling sharing a common love of silver with Dr Caldwell. Kentucky silver brought great prices in the sale, including a Samuel Ayres coin silver soup or punch ladle having a script monogram “B” on the coffin-style handle, $8,160.
Leading the jewelry category were a Tiffany & Co., Art Deco, green jadeite pendant in 18K gold and 14K yellow gold and green jadeite demi parure that made $11,008 and a 2.53-carat round diamond ring in white gold, $9,840.
Rounding out the auction were a Malles Goyard Aine steamer trunk, circa 1900, 26½ by 36 by 23 inches, bringing $13,200; a George III sterling silver epergne having a large oval center basket with pierced sides and undulating gadrooned rim, selling for $12,600; and a Virginia Federal inlaid sideboard, signed by its maker, Jacob Thalwig, $9,360.
A surprise in the auction was a bird’s-eye view drawing of the University of Virginia and Charlottesville from Lewis Mountain that made $17,400. Drury said they expected it to do well, but gave it a conservative estimate as they had nothing to compare it and it ended at ten times over estimate. “It is very similar to a litho of the same subject put out by Edward Sachse. We were really never able to figure out if there was a connection between the drawing and the litho,” Drury said.
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.caseantiques.com or 865-558-3033.
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