Published: December 18, 2018
Review and Onsite Photos by Greg Smith
PHILADELPHIA – Bookended between a 158-lot American Art and Pennsylvania Impressionist sale and a 127-lot Design sale, Freeman’s December 10 single-owner auction offering the collection of Bonnie O’Boyle was the perfect segue, exhibiting the style of the late editor, collector and patron of the arts who connected both genres with an astute and ever-evolving eye.
The 198-lot sale produced $781,350 and was 95 percent sold. Alasdair Nichol, Freeman’s vice chairman and head of fine art was pleased with the results. “I think it went very well,” he said. “It far exceeded the family’s expectations and I was very pleased with it.”
The firm mounted an exhibition of the O’Boyle collection November 14-15 at New Hope’s Phillips’ Mill, a venue that was a buying ground for the late collector. “We had a very successful opening night there and that translated into bids,” Nichol said. “We decided early on that this should be a single-owner sale. This was a collection she spent a lot of her life putting together and we felt it was worth keeping together. That really added a premium to the value overall. A lot of people knew Bonnie and wanted to take something in remembrance of her.”
O’Boyle passed away in April, 2018, leaving behind a collection that she began building in the 1990s and to which she continued adding well into late 2017. The provenance lines and accompanying dates, with records of purchase for a majority of lots in the sale, suggest a collector who had no intention of slowing down. The timeline also offers insight into her developing tastes.
O’Boyle’s collection was an evolution. In the 1990s, she focused her attention on historical works including Pennsylvania Impressionist artists Harry Leith-Ross, Edward Willis Redfield, Daniel Garber, Walter Schofield, William Lathrop, Robert Spencer and Rae Sloan Bredin. Her decorative tastes at the time were also traditional, with the bulk of her formal American furniture acquired during this decade from Lambertville N.J., dealer John Lovrinic.
At the turn of the century, O’Boyle’s acquisitions began to change. Her tastes transitioned as she entered a period of active involvement in the Bucks County art scene, hitting regional art shows at Phillips’ Mill and the New Hope Historical Society while buying from regional galleries and auction houses. She became a patron of contemporary artists Mavis Smith, George Anthonisen and Mark Sfirri. It was at some point during this time that she began serving on the board of the James A. Michener Art Museum.
From 2010 onward, O’Boyle’s collection grew exponentially in quantity and value, with several acquisitions from major auction houses of artists Carroll Cloar, Edna Andrade, Louise Nevelson and Alan Magee. It was also during this period that she began to collect and appreciate American craft through its furniture, woodturnings and sculpture. Represented were George and Mira Nakashima, Arthur Espenet Carpenter, Wharton Esherick, Wendell Castle, Sam Maloof, Edward and Philip Moulthrop and others. Tangentially, O’Boyle also began to collect Twentieth Century ceramics, looking to two renowned potters that were local to her area: Brother Thomas Bezanson and Toshiko Takaezu.
In the sale’s catalog, retired director/chief executive officer of the James A. Michener Art Museum, Lisa Tremper Hanover, said, “Bonnie’s enthusiasm for the diversity of life experiences is echoed in the tangible compositions she gathered around her: vibrant, well-crafted, thought-provoking, evocative of an era, and reflective of a curious mind.”
O’Boyle’s purchase records provide us with market insight: even in circumstances as unavoidable as death, will the market offer forgiveness for the resale of works that were purchased within the last five years? That, as it turns out, depends.
The top lot of the sale went to a 28-by-40-inch acrylic on Masonite by Southern American artist Carroll Cloar titled “The Big House In Big Flat.” It brought $53,125, an artist auction record. The same work, sold in a 2014 Sotheby’s sale, brought $46,875. A modest increase. But that was not the only work by Cloar that drew interest. The fifth highest lot in the sale went to an 11½-by-17-inch acrylic on Masonite featuring a black cat in grass, titled “Vesta and the Cornflowers,” which sold well above the $6,000 high estimate to bring $33,800.
Asked about the Cloars, Nichol said, “We had a lot of interest in those and many inquiries from the south. I think these regional artists tend to be very popular with the specific areas that they are from.” Asked about why “Vesta and the Cornflowers” sold at a higher price per square inch, Nichol responded with British humor: “Because it was a cat. You’re bringing in a whole group of other people with that subject. Cat power. ‘The Big House In Big Flat’ was more about the artist. It had a special feel to it and I think people really responded to it.”
With an eye towards regional art, O’Boyle became an educated collector of Pennsylvania Impressionism. Her finest work from the genre came in the form of “May Day” by Rae Sloan Bredin, a 14-by-14¼-inch work that sold for $46,250. The painting had been exhibited three times by the James A. Michener Art Museum, once in a traveling show titled “Earth, River and Light: Masterworks of Pennsylvania Impressionism,” which went on to the Florence Griswold Museum. The work had also been included in two publications. The catalog noted that one could make out Bredin’s family members in the painting, including Mary Elizabeth Price and Elizabeth Friedly Price, Bredin’s sisters-in-law. Behind at $20,000 was the only other work by the artist in the sale, “Gray Day,” a 12-by-14-inch oil on canvas. Both of Bredin’s works were acquired through New Jersey galleries.
Other notable lots in the category included “Shultis Mill” by Harry Leith-Ross – an artist that O’Boyle took a particular liking to, acquiring seven of his works – a 16-by-20-1/8-inch oil on canvas that took $23,750. Kenneth Nunamaker’s “After The Fog, New Hope,” a terrific winter shore scene, brought $18,750. William Langson Lathrop’s “After The Storm” took its high estimate of $15,000. The work had been bought at Freeman’s in 2002 for the same price. Also included in three exhibitions at the Michener Museum was Robert Spencer’s “Night Life,” a 14-by-12-inch oil on canvas that sold at $11,875. The catalog noted the Spencer turned to small, intimate images of people caught in their domestic life in the late 1920s. Brian H. Peterson, retired Michener Museum curator and author of The Cities, the Towns, the Crowds: The Paintings of Robert Spencer said of the work, “…Spencer’s strange, angular drawing style combine to give the two prostitutes an inhuman, animal-like quality. The sinister atmosphere is enhanced by the nearly faceless rendering of the men and the expressionless, almost skull-like head of the elderly woman. Spencer made this picture at most a few months before he killed himself, and one can’t help but wonder if its dark tone reflects his mood at the time.” Rounding out the category was Edward Willis Redfield’s “The Delaware River In Winter,” $11,250; John Fulton Folinsbee’s “Two Path At New Hope,” $9,375; and Walter Elmer Schofield’s “Spring Song,” $7,800.
Among contemporary artists, O’Boyle took a liking to works that combined a sense of realism, naturalism and storytelling. The latter category was fully evident in the luminous egg tempera works of Pennsylvania artist Mavis Smith, whose five works in the sale established her auction debut and artist record and sold between $813 and $3,750, the highest for a 33¾-by-12-inch work titled “Thin Ice.” This was also clear in her appreciation of Adam Magee, whose realist oil on canvas work “Kleine Fuge” took the third highest lot in the sale at $36,250. O’Boyle purchased that work at Bonhams in 2015 for $27,500. A remarkably rendered charcoal, graphite and oil on panel work by Phillip Adams titled “Happy Hour” caught bidder interest, selling for $8,750, nearly three times the high estimate.
Within the last five years, Twentieth Century masters made their way into the O’Boyle collection. Two works from Louise Nevelson made the cut, with “End of Day XXVII,” a 34½-by-18¾-by-2½-inch wall hanging rising to $21,250. Purchased at Rago in 2016, the work maintained value as it sold for the exact price as it did then. Behind was Nevelson’s “Moon Garden Cryptic XI,” a black-painted wood construction that opens like a book, 9 by 7 by 4 inches, which sold for $11,250. Richard Anuszkiewicz’s “Untitled VIII,” an acrylic on board, brought $16,250, only $1,250 less than it did in a Rago 2013 sale. Meanwhile, Wilhelm Hunt Diederich’s bronze sculpture “Two Cats” took a beating after being purchased at Skinner in 2017 for $11,685, garnering $6,875 this time around.
No doubt blossoming from her interest in Pennsylvania art, O’Boyle’s collection of American craft furniture, sculpture and decorative objects included the finest names in the genre. Starting with her regional interests, we turn to craftsmen George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick who combined for 12 lots in the sale. Nakashima’s lots totaled $80,248, led by a 1983 Conoid Bench in black walnut and hickory, which sold for $33,750. A 1971 Minguren I side table took $19,500, while an early 1962 commissioned coffee table brought $16,250. Purchased between 2013 and 2016, these three lots represented $69,500 of the artist’s sale total, down from a cumulative purchase price of $75,625. A small dip, but largely a wash. Esherick’s three works in wood amounted to a 1962 cherry music stand, $21,250; a 1966 cherry and poplar stool, $5,000; and a black walnut cutting board, $4,875. A look at the numbers on these three lots also draws a slight dip, but largely a wash again: $33,813 purchase price to $31,125 sell price.
Other Twentieth Century designers, furniture artists and craftsmen were found, many with just one work in the collection. O’Boyle likely wanted at least one good design from each of them. California craft was represented by both Sam Maloof and Arthur Espenet Carpenter, with one chair from each. Maloof’s 1980 armchair went out at $15,000, while Carpenter’s 1970s Wishbone Chair brought $5,313. A 1994 “Colt II” console table from Rochester, N.Y., furniture artist Wendell Castle made $11,875. The table’s name likely came from its appearance, resembling a newborn horse standing for the first time, with its uncertain legs splayed angularly underneath its body. Other notables included a jewelry cabinet by Gene Sherer, $6,875; John Risley’s Butterfly Box, $3,380; and contemporary Mark Sfirri’s 2015 console table, $3,125.
When it came to turned wood bowls, O’Boyle knew to buy the right people. Seven lots from Georgia woodturner Ed Moulthrop were found in her collection. Moulthrop is known as the father of modern American woodturning, though prices were soft this time around. The highest result came at $2,750 for a 13½-inch-diameter ashleaf maple vessel turned in 1990. Two works from his son Philip Moulthrop also found bidders, including a 10½-inch-diameter ashleaf maple vessel in an even spherical form that brought $1,250.
At the tail end of the sale were historical works, which included antique American furniture, British equestrian paintings and American samplers. Of note from the furniture was a New England maple and pine arrow-back settee, circa 1820, which finished at $2,625 on an $800 high estimate. A Joachim Hill Federal inlaid mahogany tall case clock from Flemington, N.J., circa 1795, went out below expectations at $1,625. A good buy. A Twentieth Century cased sterling silver Sturbridge pattern flatware service from Old Newbury Crafters, Newburyport, Mass., finished at $2,000. Of the two samplers on offer, the higher was an 1833 work by Henrietta S. Gausline, and it took $1,950. British equestrian works were led by an 1838 oil on canvas by William Barraud titled “Piebald Hackney,” which brought $3,000. It was indeed one of O’Boyle’s earliest acquisitions on record, dating to a Doyle sale in 1981.
In the end, the question on whether the market would forgive recent acquisitions turned out to be “yes, mostly.” Although there was a slight dip in some and a slight rise in others, the largest loss incurred would have been a result of commissions rather than market hesitance.
Nichol felt the same: “Because Bonnie is no longer with us, you’re effectively taking a main bidder out of the equation. But that didn’t really happen, everything was supported. There was an enormous amount of fondness for Bonnie in the bidding.”
All prices, as reported by the auction house, include buyer’s premium. For more information, www.freemansauction.com or 215-563-9275.
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