Review and Onsite Photos by Greg Smith
BOONTON, N.J. – New England’s first snow of the year fell on the first day of Millea Bros November 15-17 sale, which brought more than 1,100 lots across the block as part of the firm’s twice-annual “select” series sales. The auction grossed more than $2.1 million, with firm co-owner Mark Millea expressing positive feelings towards the outcome. “I thought it went great in the end,” he said. “Day two had worried me a little bit because it felt very hot and cold. But when I look back at the results, I can say it was strong. And day three killed it – it went beyond my expectations.”
About a third of the entire auction, over 400 lots, hailed from the collection of Eugene and Clare Thaw. Eugene Thaw was a distinguished American gallerist, art historian and benefactor, whose legacy stretched effortlessly across entire genres of art and can be found today in the Master Drawings collection of the Morgan Library, Native American Art at the Fenimore Art Museum and Ancient Nomadic Art at the Metropolitan Museum. Eugene was a founding member of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) and served as president from 1970 to 1972. Notably, Thaw represented the estate of Jackson Pollack and co-authored the artist’s catalog raisonné.
Eugene died in January of this year, six months after his wife, Clare, igniting a chain of sales that would clear out the remainder of his collection, which was housed between Manhattan, Santa Fe and Cooperstown, N.Y. Christie’s mounted a 182-lot $2.2 million sale of the dealer’s material in October. Much of the works on offer from Millea hailed from the Cooperstown estate as well as from their Manhattan townhouse.
A number of other consignors were also represented in the sale, with collections hailing by descent from the estate of gallerist Ileana Sonnabend; fashion designer Arnold Scaasi; Seema Boesky, Elizabeth Stafford, Earl McGrath and the Countess Camilla Pecci-Blunt McGrath and others.
The sale was spread through three days of categorized offerings, the first representing Asian art with American and Continental antiques; the second focusing on modern and contemporary art, design, photography and African art; and the third hinging on the French and Continental antiques, European art, antiquities and books from the Thaw collection.
The sale’s top lot went to a Diego Giacometti standing bronze cat titled “Chat maitre-d’hotel,” circa 1967, 11½ inches high, that sold for $81,250. According to records, the piece had been acquired by Thaw from James Lord, a biographer and recognized authority on Alberto and Diego Giacometti. Auctioneers know that great works attract others, and such was the case with another work from Diego Giacometti, a second edition Table Berceau circa 1970 in a verdigris patinated bronze that went out at $21,600.
A number of sleepers headlined the first day of sales as Asian art continues to burn bright in the American market. A Qing dynasty Chinese gold and silver inlaid bronze Hu vase from the Nineteenth Century, 11¾ inches high and featuring an $800 high estimate, went out at $27,600. At the same price was a Mughal drawing, possibly Seventeenth Century, India, depicting dancers, musicians and Naigamesha (horned deities), measuring 8 by 5 inches. It had a $500 high estimate. Big things came from little items as two lots of smalls from the Thaw collection went way over estimate. These included a netsuke lot of a mouse with inlaid eyes and a seated skeleton that went out at $12,600. Right behind at $10,200 was a 2-inch-long cast ancient Chinese gilt-bronze tiger, which was likely Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Two pieces of English furniture sold at $16,800, starting with an English burlwood kidney-shaped kneehole desk from the Nineteenth to Twentieth Century with burl veneer, inset leather top and brass gallery and pulls. It tied with a Victorian mahogany artist’s storage/easel cabinet from the Nineteenth Century.
When asked about what surprised him in the sale, Mark Millea said, “I didn’t think much of that artist’s cabinet, it was in Thaw’s office in Manhattan. Now part of me wonders if he sold paintings off of it. It’s very specific; I don’t know if I’ve seen one like that before. Maybe a few dealers who had done business off it felt sentimental. Anytime furniture brings more than $10,000, it surprises me.” On the kneehole desk, Mark recalled his brother Michael pulling the drawers out and being impressed with it when they were taking in the consignment. “My brother looked at it and said, ‘this is a really nice desk,'” Mark said with a laugh. “After the sale, I said ‘look at you, Michael; you know your stuff.'”
The second day of the sale saw strong results in sculpture and photography. A 2003 stoneware sculpture from contemporary artist Eva Hild titled “Complex B,” went out at $38,400, while a pair of cast bronze lions from Arturo di Modica went five times over estimate for $31,200. Sam Francis’ “SF85-493,” a 19-by-15-inch acrylic on paper, took $25,200. A smattering of David Hockney photography works consigned by the estate of the daughter of the late gallerist Ileana Sonnabend padded the section, with the top results hailing from the artist’s 1976 “Twenty Photographic Pictures” portfolio. The top result was “John St Clair Swimming,” $15,600, with “Yves-Marie Asleep” following behind at $12,000.
The third day of the sale provided the bulk of the sales total, with historic fine art from the Thaw collection emerging as the leading category. The Thaw collection would produce more than $700,000 in total for Millea Bros. At the top here was a circa 1862 13-by-16-inch oil on canvas attributed to Honore Daumier titled “Third Class Carriage.” It sold for $66,000, doubling the high estimate. While the catalog attributed the work, Mark Millea and bidders were confident that it was by the artist’s hand, matching the 1930s photograph and description exactly to entry no. 9118 in the Daumier registry. Flemish artist Bernard Van Orley’s circa 1535 “Hawking Party,” a pen and brown ink with Indian ink wash, did much better against its $10,000 high estimate, selling for $54,000. The catalog noted it was a design for a tapestry. Next highest was “Madame Dans Son Salon,” an oil on cardboard attributed to Édouard Vuillard that took $42,000 against a $7,000 high estimate. At $22,800 was a double-sided drawing by French artist Jean-Louis Andre Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) featuring two sketch drawings of Middle Eastern men in traditional costumes. Thaw had acquired the work from Pierre Olivier Dubaut, who owned a thorough collection of Gericault works.
Before the sale got underway, Antiques and The Arts Weekly asked Michael Millea which of the lots in the sale was his favorite, and he pointed immediately to a Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century oil on canvas of a magician from the Utrecht school. “From the moment I saw it in the apartment, I said ‘wow,'” Millea commented. “There’s something about it. We didn’t even realize it was a magician until we saw Eugene’s notes on it. And then you look, and he’s got a conjuring box with a magic wand.” With his tattered clothes, the street performer put on another good show as he sold for $26,400 above a $1,500 high estimate.
Small bronzes were a favorite of the Thaws, and bidders agreed with their discerning style. Two Italian Renaissance-style bronze medals were an unlikely top lot in this section, as they rose from a $600 high estimate to a final price of $22,800. The medals were by Savelli Sperandio and Matteo de’ Pasti. Another surprise was found in a fine Continental gilt-bronze plaque of a Bacchanalia from the Seventeenth Century or earlier. The catalog placed it as possibly Italian, featuring a relief cast with a scene of a satyr and nymphs attending a raucous outdoor feast. Bidders pushed it over the $600 high estimate to land at $18,000. Finally, at $14,400 was a grotesque oil lamp after German artist Arent van Bolten (1573-1626). It featured a bearded ostrich with a conch shell on its back.
Native American and Tribal material were represented from a number of collections in the sale. The category was led by a Papua New Guinea Asmat drum from the Nineteenth or Twentieth Century. The carved wood instrument featured an animal skin drum with a wood body and a handle carved in the form of a Praying Mantis. It came with its original 1977 receipt for $2,700 from New York City dealer F. Rolin & Co. This time around, it sold for $7,800. At the same price was a Tlingit ceremonial grease bowl with carved bear-form handles by Inuit artists Augustus Bean and Rudolph Walton. Following up behind was a Nineteenth Century Tlingit carved wood whale-form pipe that brought $5,400.
The firm’s next ABC auction will be held in December. For information, 973-377-1500 or www.milleabros.com.