Published: February 27, 2018
Review and Photos by Rick Russack, Catalog Photos Courtesy Grogan & Company
BOSTON – A study for John Singer Sargent’s “Frieze of the Prophets,” which hangs in the Boston Public Library, was anticipated to be the lead item in Grogan & Company’s February 11 sale, and it lived up to its expectations. Finishing at $97,600, it led a sale that had a 92 percent sell-through rate. The jewelry section, which included some pleasant surprises, accounted for about half the $1.05 million total. Decorative arts lots spanned the decades, from an Eighteenth Century Chippendale clock to contemporary glass by makers such as Toots Zynsky. The salesroom was nearly full, several phone lines were in use and internet bidding was available.
“Two Heads of a Bearded Man” is a study for “Frieze of the Prophets,” which John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925) was commissioned to paint in 1890 for the Special Collections Hall of the Boston Public Library. It was part of a series of murals celebrating the library’s status as the city’s “shrine of letters.” The study is a well-documented work, having been first sold by Christie, Manson & Woods in London in 1925. It has been exhibited several times and is documented in John Singer Sargent: Complete Paintings Vol. 9: Figures and Landscapes, 1914-1925, among other Sargent monographs. Ending at $97,600, it sold at the high end of the estimate ($60/100,000).
There were other strong sales in the painting section. Setting a new auction record for the artist was “Beach Scene, Nantucket,” an oil by Frank Swift Chase (American, 1886-1958), which finished at $20,740. “Centerport Series #23” by Arthur Dove (American, 1880-1946) also did well, selling for $15,860. Bringing a bit less than it might have a few years ago, a large work, “Portrait of Sir John Skynner” by Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727-1788) ended up at $20,740. Skynner was an influential judge and a member of the House of Commons from 1771 to 1777. He was appointed ling’s counsel in 1771, lord chief baron in 1777 and was knighted in 1777. The painting had remained in the Skynner family until 1975, when it was donated to a museum.
Comprising about half of the total sales for the day were several lots of jewelry. Unsurprisingly, the selection was topped by a gold brooch made by Alexander Calder, which was probably helped by its provenance. The circa 1948 piece, unusual for being made in gold where most Calder items are made in silver, was registered with the Calder Foundation. The brooch was gifted by Calder’s wife in 1964 to Victoria Chase, the daughter of a friend and neighbor of the Calders in Connecticut. As the story goes, Victoria had been excluded from a family trip to India. Louisa Calder, feeling sorry for Victoria, gave her the brooch as consolation. It sold for $79,300.
Prior to the sale, Lucy Grogan, who heads the jewelry department, was asked which was her personal favorite piece in the sale. She immediately picked up a gold, diamond and gem-set brooch in the form of a lizard. It was estimated at $4,000 but it sold for $26,000, and after the sale, she was asked why it did so well.
Her answer? “This is one of those items that at first glance appears to be too good to be true. In this business, one is conditioned to manage expectations for oneself and for the consignor when evaluating jewelry for potential consignment. When I first saw the brooch at the home of the consignor in early October, it was hard for me to believe that it was a true Victorian demantoid garnet lizard brooch because of its impeccable condition and quality. I cataloged it conservatively without assigning it a date nor confirming the identity of the gem-set green stones, knowing that the market would decide for itself whether this treasure was truly as good as it appeared. I wasn’t disappointed to discover that my first instincts were correct. It was a pleasure to bring such a rare and fine example of Victorian jewelry craftsmanship to the market!”
Grogan makes extensive use of Instagram, posting both before and after the sale. The posts are chatty and designed to encourage bidding. One item on her Instagram page was a Seaman Schepps 18K yellow gold, aquamarine, rose quartz, ruby and diamond necklace, made up of nine strands of aquamarine, rose quartz and ruby beads. The photo she used in the posting showed the necklace around her neck and said: “This Seaman Schepps masterpiece wishes it was in Palm Beach. Picture it with white pants and a flowy top. Or a simple maxi dress. Instead it’s being modeled here in front of an office bathroom mirror in cold snowy Boston paired with an old pilled cashmere sweater. BUT you could buy it on Sunday and bring it to the beach and make all its dreams come true.”
The necklace sold over the $6/8,000 estimate, finishing at $10,370. Grogan also used Instagram Live to live-stream the sale. She said, “I got a great response from it and heard from a lot of people that it was fun to watch the auction – as many has never seen one live before.”
In addition to fine art and jewelry, Grogan’s sales include choice decorative arts: silver, oriental rugs, glass, furniture and ceramics, to name a few. The star of that portion of the sale was a late Eighteenth Century Rhode Island Chippendale block and shell carved tall case clock. The mahogany case had been refinished, had some repairs and had an English movement, which was thought to be original. It sold for $11,590.
Silver highlights included an American silver art nouveau two-handled tray, made by the Mauser Manufacturing Company, which ceased operations in 1913. It sold for $3,660, while another tray, this one about 150 years older, earned $4,270. It was an engraved and footed Georgian silver example, made by Edward Capper in 1769. Jumping ahead 200 years, a colorful glass vase, called “Tonfo” by its maker, contemporary glass artist Toots Zynsky, sold for $10,370.
Georgina Winthrop, Grogan’s director of fine art, commented after the auction, “It was a good sale. Decorative arts and jewelry did well, and we were pleasantly surprised by the Chase, which set a new auction record. It was a bright painting, and the subject matter, Nantucket, probably helped. I was also pleased that the Sargent did well. Boston was the right place to sell that painting.”
It is always interesting to ask gallery staff which item in the sale was their personal favorite. Winthrop, whose academic training focused on Italian renaissance art, said, “I really liked the Italian carved white marble bench. It made me think of the gardens it must been in over the years, and how many people must have rubbed their hands on it. But it was too big for a small Beacon Hill apartment.”
Grogan & Company is a family run business: Michael and Nancy Grogan and daughter Lucy. The couple met when both worked for PB-84 in the 70s. Michael would eventually run Sotheby’s rug department while Nancy worked in the director’s office, handling customer relations, and with other responsibilities. They married in 1982. A few years later, Sotheby’s was considering opening an office in Boston and Michael was asked to research the market. His opinion was that a Boston office would be successful for Sotheby’s. The company eventually decided against it but the Grogans believed that the Boston market could support another auction business. In 1987, they moved to Boston and opened an auction gallery in Brookline, later moving to Dedham. Nancy had three children in the first five years of their marriage, so her involvement in the auction business was limited at that time but increased as the children grew older.
Three or four years ago they had the opportunity to purchase their current location in Boston’s Beacon Hill area and Lucy joined the company. Nancy commented: “It’s been awesome. I’m so proud of what we have and it’s been a wonderful life. We’re surrounded now with bright, young people – Lucy and the three young women who work with us. They understand social media and what their generation wants. We just created the position of marketing director and she will concentrate full time on getting the word out about our sales. These young women are the next generation and they’re helping us adjust and move forward.”
All prices include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.groganco.com or 617-720-2020.
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