NEW YORK CITY — There was energy in the salesrooms of the city’s major auction houses this past week as back-to-back American art sales were conducted from the podiums at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams. The auctions, augmented by several exhibitions of American art by private dealers, mainly the Just Off Madison open house by 14 galleries on May 18, provided opportunities aplenty for collectors to see and vie for stellar examples of top-shelf works by the nation’s blue-chip artists through three centuries.
Here are some of the highlights of the week.
In a sale featuring a selection of American artists, Sotheby’s May 16 American art auction realized $27,132,500. The sale achieved a sell-through rate of 72 percent by lot.
The auction featured 65 lots with 48 artists represented, including John Singer Sargent, Norman Rockwell, Georgia O’Keeffe, Milton Avery, Jamie Wyeth, Thomas Wilmer Dewing and others.
The combined top three lots of the sale, two John Singer Sargents and a Norman Rockwell, grossed more than $15.6 million, topping half of the sale’s total revenue.
Sargent, who accounted for four works in the sale, continues to bring in strong numbers against a worrisome market. Three out of four of his works sold above high estimate, with just one going in between the uprights.
At Christie’s spring sale of American art on May 19, a large-scale painting by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), “Lake George Reflection,” painted circa 1921–22 and from the collection of J.E. Safra, led the day at $12,933,000. Inspired by O’Keeffe’s frequent visits to the family home of Alfred Stieglitz, the work continued in the tradition of earlier Hudson River School painters inspired by the sublime topography of the region, but was interpreted in O’Keeffe’s avant-garde style of abstraction. The painting can be viewed either vertically or horizontally and this ambiguity of orientation creates a work that is at once highly representational and wholly abstract. First exhibited in 1923 by the artist at the Anderson Galleries, the work was hung vertically, encouraging anthropomorphic comparisons most closely relating to her magnified flower imagery, which she was simultaneously exploring.
The sale of 98 lots totaled $42,737,500, offering works ranging from major American Modernists O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Max Weber to Nineteenth Century masters Frederic Edwin Church, John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Several private collections highlighted the auction, including those of Kippy Stroud, Gail and John Liebes, and Lois and Harry Horvitz, as well as property of H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest. It was O’Keeffe, however, who had a red letter day, with four of her works among the sale’s top five.
The sale established new world auction records for Max Weber and Rebecca Salsbury James. Nine lots sold in excess of $1 million. Of the five works by O’Keeffe, all five sold, most of which exceeded their high estimates. “Lake George Reflection” is the second highest price paid for the artist.
Active bidding was seen from established collectors to new buyers, with nearly 200 registered bidders across every region in the United States and considerable online participation.
The top lot at Bonhams American art sale on May 18 was William McGregor Paxton’s (1869–1941) pensive oil on canvas titled “The Yellow Jacket,” which brought $413,000. The artist is best known for his idealized portraits of women in romantic interiors, and this 27¼-by-22¼-inch example was a prime example of this genre. Undoubtedly influenced by his French education and the oeuvre of Johannes Vermeer, whose compositional ambiguity Paxton would later admit to admiring, Paxton created aesthetic narratives open to interpretation and considerate of the times in which he lived.
Painted in 1907, “The Yellow Jacket” is a purely pleasurable interior scene with Paxton’s hallmark touches; an elegant woman in a refined Chinese jacket appears to study an impressive tome on a table beside a small window.
One of several paintings by Andrew Wyeth to be offered in American art, all of which came from a private North Carolina collection, “Only Child” realized $305,000, while an untitled work by the artist finished at $137,000.