Published: July 29, 2020
Review by W.A. Demers, Photos Courtesy Material Culture
PHILADELPHIA — Material Culture rolled out the carpets for a no-reserve sale of the category on July 15 and followed up with a compelling selection of folk and Outsider art in its Art360 auction just seven days later on July 22.
The firm regularly presents auctions of Oriental carpets, and as with past auctions, the summer sale provided a window into the allure of this category that sometimes gets short shrift. If mentioned at all, Oriental rugs are usually relegated to a coda in general estate antiques sale marketing as “rounding out the sale,” but George Jevremovic, founder and principal at Material Culture, in 2018 decided to stage four to six high-value, curated rug sales a year. “There’s a pretty strong demand for rugs out there — and it definitely helps if they’re easily and affordably shippable — unlike antique furniture,” he told Antiques and The Arts Weekly at the time. “There’s a certain convenience factor in it, and we’re also able to post lots of photographs and respond to condition report requests.”
Lower-priced inventory that typically comes out of estates or liquidation situations is channeled into no reserve auctions because the priority is to sell everything. The firm’s July 15 sale was geared to do just that, so there were no five-figure results but still an attractive selection of distinctive, decorative and collectible rugs. At this level, Jevremovic said the split in sales is approximately 50-50 between trade and private. “We see a lot of private buyers willing to buy the most expensive rugs in our auctions,” he said.
In the most recent sale, in which 317 lots were offered, a Persian Sultanabad rug from the early Twentieth Century took top honors at $6,250. Of wool pile with cotton warp and weft, it weighed in at 95 pounds and measured 12 feet 4 inches by 17 feet 2 inches.
Said Jevremovic, “Not sure I’d call it a great rug, but a very good antique rug in great condition, especially considering its very large size.”
A Persian Kerman rug, Persia, circa 1920, featuring a wool pile, cotton warp and weft, came in at $4,375. It measured 9 feet 1 inch by 19 feet 11 inches.
Oushaks, Serapis and Bakshaish rugs are among the room-size, decorative carpets that attract people, and these include Nineteenth Century Oushaks that were produced in western Turkey for the European and American markets. An antique Turkish Oushak in this sale dated from circa 1900 and measured 11 feet 1 inch by 18 feet 10 inches. It found a buyer at $3,750.
A choice Persian Serapi rug, late Nineteenth Century, 9 feet 1 inch by 11 feet 9 inches, realized $4,063.
Material Culture has more than three decades of experience in the fields of art, decorative arts, antiques and collectibles from around the world. It differentiates itself by claiming to “bring a discerning eye and a careful hand to the marketing and selling” of one’s property at public auction. The sales, whether general estate, single-owner or themed, are well advertised and cover an eclectic array of material, periods, styles and prices.
Material Culture has spacious auction and exhibition areas, some 15,000 square feet of naturally lit space housed under the same roof as the firm’s 30,000-plus-square-foot retail store and event space. That kind of elbow room will come in handy again when pandemic restrictions are lifted and exhibitions of its rug sales can resume.
Jeremovic was asked what effect conducting online-only sales was having on the market. Aside from the potential buyer not being able to see and handle the item in person, “Rugs benefit greatly from being easy and cost-effective to ship, versus furnishings and very fragile items” he said. “Once you accept the fact that the prices for most types — but not all — are lower than the highs of 20 to 30 years ago, the market is doing pretty well. This really is a good time for collectors to buy and dealers to stock up, as prices have leveled out to a point that good values abound.”
A couple of days before the folk art sale on July 22, Material Culture’s Matt Wilcox was asked what was getting a lot of presale interest. “Top lot right now is an Inuit fossilized whale bone sculpture of a bird,” he replied. The prediction was right on the money — as was the lot. “Flying Bird,” a circa 1973 antique whale bone sculpture by Karoo Ashevak soared to $33,750, its $3/5,000 estimate remaining earthbound. The auction house said its price was within the top ten for the artist and the winning bidder was a private collector.
That sale totaled $435,000 with 482 lots sold and 64 unsold. There were more than 2,000 registered bidders with online success in the 90 percent range.
Ashevak (1940-1974) lived a nomadic hunting life in the Kitikmeot Region of the central Arctic before moving into Spence Bay, Northwest Territories. In 1968, his career as a sculptor was launched when he enrolled in a government-funded carving program. Ashevak’s primary medium was fossilized whale bone, and he is reported to have made about 250 sculptures in his lifetime. Inuit themes of shamanism and spirituality animate his playful depictions of humans and animals. A house fire in October 1974 tragically took his life.
Unlike other Inuit primitivist carvings, Ashevak’s work abandoned cultural references and adopted a modern expressionistic style, which visually appealed to a broader audience than collectors of Inuit art.
An extensive collection of Ashevak’s sculptures went on solo or group exhibitions at commercial galleries around the world, including Lippel Gallery in Montreal, which was listed as provenance for “Flying Bird,” which evidenced some loss to the wing and measured 12½ by 8 by 9 inches, 17½ inches high on its stand.
African American art, too, was in ascendance at this sale. An Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) study for “The Emperor Jones” sped past its $3/5,000 expectation to take $26,250, going to a Southern private collector. Circa 1925-1927, the tempera on board bore a paper label verso from Lyzon Gallery, Nashville, Tenn., and the work had been a gift of the artist. Framed, it measured 17 by 19 inches.
Douglas was a Kansas-born African American painter, graphic artist and muralist who was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African American cultural talent that bloomed in the Harlem section of New York City in the 1920s. In 1944, Douglas founded the art department at Fisk University in Nashville, leading it for 22 years. His series of prints were based on the Eugene O’Neill play Emperor Jones.
Argentinian artist Antonio Berni (1905-1981) was represented by a portrait of a young girl that sold for more than seven times its high estimate, settling at $17,900. “Nina,” an oil on canvas measuring 41 by 33 inches, was signed and framed. It came out of a private Buenos Aires collection, acquired in the late 1960s and descended in the family since.
“Santa’s New Toy,” 1988, a humorous sculpture by Stanley Wanlass (American, b 1941) depicting a steam punk Santa in a red jalopy laden with toys and goodies, skidded to $12,500. The polychrome bronze sculpture on marble base was 14½ by 24 by 11 inches. Wanlass, who resides in Oregon and Utah, is an internationally known sculptor, designer and painter. He also creates heroic bronze historical monuments. Best known for his hyperreal hand painted limited edition automotive sculptures, Wanlass got national television exposure in 1988 when Regis and Kathie Lee unveiled “Santa’s New Toy” on their annual Christmas show. It was on its way to the White House and the unveiling of the National Christmas Tree at US President Ronald Reagan’s request.
Two lots in the sale, both by native Texans, achieved $11,875. Frank Jones’ (American, 1900-1969) “Humpty-Dumpty Devil House,” circa 1960-63, colored pencil on paper, signed, 25 by 30 inches, and G. Harvey’s “The Picnic,” 1988, oil on canvas, 40 by 36 inches, signed and dated, with provenance of Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, Ariz., and a private Minnesota collection. G. Harvey was born Gerald Harvey Jones in San Antonio, Texas. Jones, born near Clarksville, Texas, began to draw in 1964 while serving a life sentence for murder in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. His drawing materials were salvaged stubs of red and blue accountant’s pencils and sheets of typing paper from the trash cans in the prison office where he worked. Later, as his drawings received favorable attention inside and outside the prison, he was given better paper and new colored pencils. Jones experimented with other colors, but preferred red and blue, which he said represented fire and smoke.
Additional sale highlights included a sculpture by Roberto Fabelo (Cuban, b 1951) “Un Poco de Nosotros I,” mixed media on brown paper, $10,000; a colorful collage of musicians attributed to Romare Bearden (1911-1988), $8,125; and a Haitian work by Jasmin Joseph (1923-2005), titled “Angels Watching Over Flocks,” oil on board, also at $8,125.
Material Culture is planning its auction — Asian & ethnographic art and antiques from the Chinalai collection — for August 17 at 10 am. Its next art-only auction is in October.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For more information, www.materialculture.com or 215-849-8030.
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