Published: February 12, 2019
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy of Brunk Auctions
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Eighty-seven lots from the collection of North American, European, World and Olympic champion figure skater Dick Button passed beneath the gavel at Brunk Auctions’ January 26 Premier sale. The offerings had been acquired by Button over his long career as a figure skater turned sports commentator and was representative of a figurehead whose focus never left the ice. The sum, much of which was exhibited in the Fenimore Art Museum’s 2017 exhibition “The Art of Figure Skating Through the Ages,” represented the image of skating from the Nineteenth into the Twentieth Century. Spanning fine art, posters, lithographs, Americana and skating memorabilia, the collection would go on to produce $234,240 in total sales.
Brunk specialist Nan Zander was pleased with the results. “We enjoyed the opportunity to sell such an interesting personal, comprehensive and quality collection,” she said. “It represented in art the same aesthetic quality that one saw in Dick Button’s figure skating. It makes perfect sense that such an artistic figure skater would amass such a wonderful collection.”
The top lot from the collection went to a painting by American artist William H. Willcox (1831-1929) that brought $66,000, an auction record for the artist. The 16¼-by-24½-inch oil on canvas titled “Skating on the Schuylkill” was executed in 1875. The busy scene features a large crowd of men, women and children – well over 100 people in all – in various acts of enjoyment on the ice. In the background is the Fairmount Water Works with a noticeably bare hill behind it. This painting was executed one year before the Philadelphia Museum of Art would begin construction. Philadelphia played host to a vibrant skating community in the mid-Nineteenth Century. This began in 1849 with what is now the oldest figure skating club in the United States: the Skater’s Club of the City and County of Philadelphia. The club would host fashionable gatherings on the ice as well as charitable events, though a serious and central concern to the group was skater safety.
Their mission at the time was “instruction and improvement in the art of skating, cultivation of friendship among the skaters and the rescue of people who fell through the ice.” In practice, members patrolled outdoor skating areas to spot and rescue those who had fallen through the ice. In furtherance of their cause, the club merged in 1861 with the Humane Society of Philadelphia and became the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society. Built in 1861, the club’s clubhouse would have been seen across the river, off-frame and to the left of the scene painted. During his skating career, Button skated for and represented the club.
European posters from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century finished well against their estimates. The posters ranged in subject from French theater to Swiss hotels and featured work from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emil Cardinaux, Louis John Rhead, Roger Soulie and Jules Chéret.
Zander noted the strength of this category in a follow-up call with Antiques and The Arts Weekly, saying, “During the time period that the posters represent, there was a post-industrialist revolution going on in French society with a whole new leisure class. They had some money to spend. And with better transportation, people were less rural and were traveling into the city where there were things like skating clubs and musicals and cabarets. That whole new cultural life was portrayed with this new art form that went along with it.”
At the top of the category was a Toulouse-Lautrec work for French newspaper La revue blanche, which finished above high estimate at $10,800. The model in the work was Misia Godebska, one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s favorite models and the wife of Thadée Natanson, who founded La revue blanche in 1891. Behind at $7,800 was Emil Cardinaux’s 1920 poster for the Palace Hotel in St Moritz, Switzerland. The work features high society men and women in their fur-lined coats enjoying their leisure time next to the hotel’s lake as a skater is seen on the ice in the background. Louis John Rhead’s far-reaching image of a woman skating down a river, her hands in a fur muff and a vibrant orange sunset behind her, was applied to more than just posters. The lot presented in this sale, which sold for $7,200 against a $2,000 high estimate, featured the image in an advertisement for the New York newspaper The Sun and was accompanied by a glass “Ice Water” bottle featuring the same image on its label.
Also finishing at $7,200 was Roger Soulie’s 1924 poster for “International Winter Sports Week,” in Chamonix, France, which two years later, following the event’s success, was retroactively named the first Winter Olympics. The events were held outdoors under the towering peaks of Mont Blanc. Finally, two Palais de Glace works from prolific artist and publisher Jules Chéret both finished at $6,600. The Palais de Glace was an indoor ice rink that opened in December 1893, only a short time after indoor skating rinks came into production. It opened inside the Théâtre du Rond-Point and was a fashionable place to be seen.
Small format lithography also championed the pastime of skating, including works published by Currier and Ives, Thomas and Eno, H. Humphrey and artist-produced prints. Currier and Ives held the lead among those offered from Button’s collection, with a “Central Park, Winter/The Skating Pond,” hand colored lithograph finishing just over high estimate at $7,500. With artwork after Charles Parsons, this print was ranked #3 in the original “Best 50” and is #7 in the “New Best 50” large folio. Another Currier and Ives work, “Skating Scene-Moonlight,” 1868, finished at $780. Produced for Thomas and Eno, “Union Pond, Williamsburgh, L.I.,” after art by Winslow Homer, finished at $1,599. Union Pond was man-made when the owners of Brooklyn’s Union Grounds flooded their fenced-in baseball park, where professional games were played in the warmer months, to create a revenue-producing winter attraction.
Other examples of fine art included snow-filled skating paintings and bronze skater sculptures. Conrad Wise Chapman’s “Skating in the Bois de Boulogne,” an 1875 5-by-7-inch oil on paper brought $6,600. An 1865 oil on canvas portrait of Jackson Haines presented by himself to the Reva Skating Society one year later went above its $2,000 high estimate to land at $5,700. The work, unsigned and by an unknown artist, had been exhibited in 1981 at the National Portrait Gallery in “Champions: Heroes of American Sport.” “Snow Storm Threatening,” an 1854 oil on canvas by Régis François Gignoux, 39 by 58½ inches, sold beneath the low estimate at $12,000.
Selling at $6,000 was a bronze skater sculpture by Robert Tate Mckenzie titled “Ice Bird.” The sculpture depicts Gustave Lussi (1898-1993), a Swiss ski jumper who became a figure skating coach. Lussi’s work with Button at Lake Placid, N.Y., was instrumental in preparing him for World and Olympic competition. Behind at $4,500 was a 1930s bronze sculpture by Felix Kupsch depicting Maxi Herber, who with her husband and partner, Ernst Baier, won the 1936 Olympic gold medal for pair skating at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria, Germany.
Americana was led with a unique early Twentieth Century hooked rug that featured people happily skating on a pond and the words “The Ice Is Thin It Signifies How Soon Youth Fades And Pleasures Die” below. It sold for $8,400 above a $2,000 estimate. On this piece, Zander said, “What made it so special was the imagery and the condition of the rug – the figure skaters on it and that saying. It was just a perfect thing at the time.”
Behind it was a wrought iron ice skating trade sign from the turn of the century that brought $4,800. The sign was 58½ inches long and featured an oversized skate with leather straps attached to a wood plinth above a large upcurving blade that terminated in a painted gold knop.
Brunk Auctions’ next Premier and Emporium Auction will be March 21-23.
All prices, as reported by the auction house, include buyer’s premium. For more information, www.brunkauctions.com or 828-254-6846.
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