Published: April 6, 2021
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring, Catalog Photos Courtesy Stair Galleries
HUDSON, N.Y. – Clocking in at less than 350 lots – 342 to be exact – the Ligonier, Penn., estate of Richard P. Mellon (1939-2020) was handily dispatched by Stair Galleries on Thursday, March 25. All but five lots sold from the podium for a sell-through rate of more than 98 percent, with the sale raking in a total of $1,224,341 from a low/high estimate of approximately $370/590,000. Mellon had been an avid equestrian and sportsman as well as a devoted preservationist; his estate reflected the wealthy family he had been born into as well as his upbringing in England.
“He had dozens of friends who wanted to buy mementoes of things that he owned,” Colin Stair said after the sale. “In my opinion, that seems to be the measure of the collector. It was a really wonderful sale that way and it was very strong. We haven’t sold that breadth of works and I was pleasantly surprised.”
Heading the sale was “After Halloween” by Jamie Wyeth (American, b 1946), a poignant image of a rusty iron cauldron loaded with sagging jack-o-lanterns, their leers distorted with decay. A mixed media work, it was done as a drawing with watercolor, then affixed to a board and varnished by the artist with additional oil highlights. “The quality of the work was extraordinary,” said Stair’s director of fine arts, Lisa Thomas. Provenance for the painting was also noteworthy: it had been handled by Coe Kerr Gallery of New York City and had been exhibited in 1984 at the Portland Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Jamie Wyeth: An American View.” It courted what Colin Stair described as two “very healthy left bids,” which paved the way for competition from eight phone bidders, ultimately selling to a trade buyer on the phone for $86,100, more than double its high estimate.
Three works by Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975) crossed the block, with “Night Encounter of Two Trains” steaming ahead and bringing $68,880. The ink and tempera on paper had provenance to the estate of the artist and Hirschl & Adler Galleries and had been exhibited at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in 1990, the Laguna Gloria Museum of Art in 1990 and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, 1990-1991. In speaking after the sale, Thomas said that after the catalog went live, she discovered it was a cartoon drawing for a finished painting titled “Casey Jones.” It was the second highest price realized in the sale and sold to a trade buyer, bidding on the phone.
The two other works by Benton were lithographs and each exceeded presale expectations. Both were, in Thomas’ words, “lovely impressions with really velvety inking, which is exactly what you want to see when you are looking at lithographs.” A phone buyer took the train robbery depiction “Jesse James,” which was from a 1936 edition of 100 and had been handled by Hirschl & Adler, to $18,450. Benton’s iconic “The Race” was from an edition of 250 and nearly tripled its low estimate to end at $15,990.
Mellon’s interest in Western American art was evidenced in both two- and three-dimensional works, with an ink, wash and gouache on paper work, done in 1895 by Frederic Sackrider Remington (1861-1909) taking the third highest price in the sale. “Searching the Slain” more than tripled its estimate and sold to a trade buyer for $49,200. Thomas said that Remington drawings are rare and this was one of five he did for a story about the Indians of the Sierra Madre that appeared in the June 1895 issue of The Cosmopolitan.
Bronzes, both Western and sporting, were plentiful in the sale – 22 examples were on offer – and attracted much interest. Leading the category was “Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider” by Frederick William MacMonnies (1863-1937). Bids came through fast and furious, and it sold to a California private collector buyer bidding against four phone lines as well as internet interest, for $28,290. “Three Huddled Horses” after Anna V. Huntington ran to $20,910 and Charles M. Russell’s “Smoking Up” brought its high estimate of $7,995.
Two equestrian works by Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) galloped past their estimates. “Gentleman-rider,” a monotype in black on laid paper had a red Atelier inkstamp and measured just 12¼ by 9¼ inches, rode to $20,910 from a trade buyer. The other, two studies of equestrians in pencil, also featured the red Atelier Degas inkstamp. It had been previously offered in 1976 at a sale at Christie’s London and sold to a local private collector, bidding via absentee bid, for $19,680.
Furniture saw exceptional results, particularly works that were impressive in scale and stature, which Stair makes a point of noting in the auction catalog. Described as “grand in scale and impressive in person,” a late William IV gilt-metal mounted and painted Neo-Gothic bookcase in lovely cream paint with a blue-painted interior had a dramatic cornice molding and soared to $34,400. It sold to a New York City private collector bidding online. Stair recalled that in his career, he’s sold maybe four Neo-Gothic bookcases but this one was his favorite. He noted that all of the bidding took place exclusively online.
The bookcase was not the only Neo-Gothic piece in the sale and the aesthetic had apparently appealed to Mellon. Several other pieces in the same vein achieved high results, whether of old or newer vintage. In the latter category, a painted two-pedestal dining table by Graham Carr, which boasted a painted top and had been acquired directly from the artist, topped off at $19,680; a painted sideboard by Carr realized $5,843. An antique Neo-Gothic carved oak hall bench made $7,380, a gilt-metal mounted rosewood center table finished at $6,765, and a set of eight Neo-Gothic Oak dining chairs, stamped Sauders and Wooley, nearly doubled their high estimate to bring $6,150.
In terms of rarity, it would be hard to find another example of a German Black Forest carved tester bed. The example in the sale sold to a private collector in Southern California for $24,600.
As Mellon collected, he retained the documentation for his acquisitions; the provenance was duly noted in the catalog. However, he also inherited from his family and the conspicuous absence of paperwork for some lots in the sale suggested to Thomas that he had inherited those works. Such may have been the case for “Girls in a Mountain Landscape” by Hans Dahl (Norwegian, 1849-1937), which Thomas acknowledged fell outside of his collecting tastes. Despite interest from four international trade bidders, the painting brought $34,440 from a local private collector who left a large enough absentee bid right before the sale.
Another work that had been inherited was a portrait of the Right Honorable William Pitt, Chancellor of the Exchequer and attributed to Gainsborough Dupont (circa 1754-1797). The painting had an extensive provenance beginning with the Earl of Dudley in 1874, coming into the Mellon family when Richard P.’s grandfather, Richard B. Mellon (1858-1933) acquired it from M. Knoedler & Co. It then passed to General Richard K. Mellon (1899-1970) before it came to Richard P. Thomas said they had received a lot of interest from the United Kingdom and said it sold for $11.685 on the phone, likely going back to England.
Mellon’s eye extended beyond the well-established and his collection included several works by lesser-known artists who now have a more substantial mark on the secondary market. Among this was John Evers Jr (1797-1884), who painted views of New York state; the sale featured two of Evers’ works, both of Hempstead, Long Island, and both with provenance to Hirschl & Adler Galleries. According to Thomas, both were lovely with interesting subjects and saw interest from both American painting dealers and private collectors. The first to cross the block was “Front Street, Hempstead, New York”; it set a new auction record for the artist, bringing $8,610 from a local private collector. The other, “North East Corner, Front Street, Hempstead, New York” topped off at $7,380, won by an American trade buyer, bidding by absentee bid.
Another artist who bidders pushed to a new auction high was José Escofet (Spanish, b 1930). His still life pictures are done in an early Nineteenth Century style and are largely considered decorative with a previous auction record of $5,290 according to AskArt. Mellon’s collection featured two works: “Blue and White Vase of Tulips,” done in gouache on heavy paper in 1989 and measuring 18½ by 25 inches, and “Still Life,” which was done in oil on board in 1997 and measured 36 by 45 inches, featured a composition lushly filled with fruits and flowers in baskets. The smaller work was, in Thomas’ opinion, the better picture and sold to a private collector in California for $7,380. The larger one sold to an American private collector, bidding by phone, for $4,920.
Six works by Henry Koehler (1927-2019) depicted hunters and jockeys; Thomas said many of the people Mellon had hunted with pursued them during the sale. “Heavyweight Hunter,” an oil on paper work that was the last of Koehler’s works to cross the block measured 10 by 14 inches and brought the top price of the group, selling to a local private collector for $8,610. All the works had been estimated at $800-$1,200 and prices for the rest ranged from $1,722 to $6,765. Thomas noted that Stair Galleries would be selling the contents of Koehler’s Southampton, N.Y., estate in the fall of 2021.
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house.
Stair Galleries will have a silver sale on April 14, a porcelain sale on April 15 and on May 6, will sell the collection of Niall Smith.
For additional information, www.stairgalleries.com or 518-751-1000.
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