Published: December 6, 2011
Copake Auction recorded the sale of its highest priced item to date in an October 22 auction, but the milestone was not achieved without some emotional stress and physical wear and tear on Seth Fallon, one of the firm’s principals. An unreserved nail sculpture by German sculptor, Op artist and installation artist Guenther Uecker (b 1930) sold for $379,500 to a phone bidder from Germany. The sculpture came from the Fred Eng estate in Tivoli, N.Y., and could have represented just another interesting but fairly routine sale at auction of a work by a living artist. Instead, the piece became emblematic of the lengths an auction house sometimes has to go to in order to consummate a successful sale.
Fallon ended up having to fly to Germany to have the piece authenticated by the artist, in the process getting to meet the now 81-year-old Uecker, as well as seeing firsthand the workings of art warehouses in Dusseldorf and Cologne.
“This is the most expensive piece we’ve ever sold,” said Fallon. “And we had definitive provenance from the 1960s when the work was commissioned and purchased by Eng,” adding that when the 241/8-by-481/8-inch piece was removed from the wall in the family’s home, the paint was visibly lighter in color behind it.
Feeling sanguine about the sculpture’s provenance, Seth Fallon and his father, Mike Fallon, prepared to put the piece in the firm’s monthly unreserved cataloged estate auction.
A couple of weeks before the auction, the firm was questioned by the Uecker family about the authenticity of the lot. “We contacted them to see if we could get a better idea of their concerns, but they did not get back to us,” he said. Finally, and literally one day before the auction, Copake received an email, supposedly from the artist himself, questioning whether the work was actually his. “At this point, we had seven people lined up to bid by phone. So we spoke to Mr Eng [the son] and decided we’d pull it from the auction. My dad and I got here at 7 am, called the bidders †six of whom were in Europe †and, surprisingly, five out of the seven indicated that if it was offered, they would still bid on it.”
This, Fallon said, is what becomes a moment of truth for any auction house that understandably wants to make the sale but also wants to maintain that all-important ingredient of success †integrity. Copake has been a full-service auction house since 1952. It claims to be the longest running auction house in Columbia County, N.Y., as well as a member of the New York state and national auctioneers associations. Mike Fallon purchased the auction gallery in 1985 and was joined by son Seth in 1995.
So the Fallons did what they typically do †they offered a guarantee to the bidders. “We rarely deal in this kind of artwork,” said Seth Fallon. “And the family did not know much about it, but they knew it was important.” Proceeding with offering the sculpture, which was estimated at $120/180,000, the Fallons got more validation on its value when, according to Seth Fallon, “four phone bidders had their hands up at $280,000.”
A collector in Germany on the phone ultimately prevailed, and now it was time to back up the guarantee.
At a cost of $9,500, the sculpture, accompanied by Fallon, was put on a plane from New York City to Dusseldorf, Germany, arriving on the morning of October 25. Fallon spent the next couple of days traveling between art warehouses in Dusseldorf and Cologne, meeting with Uecker, who disavowed the signature on the front (another signature on the back done in red marker was correct), but ultimately recognized the work as his own.
“Now the piece gets cataloged and the collector feels good,” said Fallon.
The Uecker sculpture was one of 619 lots that were sold in the auction that drew 879 registered bidders and 1,315 absentee bids.
Additional highlights included a weathervane of an owl on a broom, 42 inches by 25 inches, which sold for $15,238; a Nineteenth Century Renaissance Revival marble top incised and inlaid center table, 37 by 33 by 29 inches, which realized $3,738; and a steer weathervane, 23 by 15 inches, which went out at $3,450.
Also, a pair of Nineteenth Century oil on panel portraits of children, unframed, 12 by 16 inches, made $2,415, and a pair of Nineteenth Century Victorian Jelliff chairs with carved heads and arms and inlaid neoclassical bronze medallions on their crests sold for $2,185.
Prices reported include the 15 percent buyer’s premium. For information, 518-329-1142 or www.copakeauction.com .
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