Published: October 22, 2019
Review and Onsite Photos by Madelia Hickman Ring, Catalog Photos Courtesy Sotheby’s
NEW YORK CITY – Sculptural Fantasy: The Important American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra Levin took place at Sotheby’s on Thursday, October 11. The sale, comprising 240 lots of sculptural folk art: weathervanes, trade figures, signs, toys, canes, salesman samples, nautical models and the like, totaled $1,989,813 and was 66.25 percent sold by lot.
This was the second sale of folk art from the Levin Collection. The first, conducted by Sotheby’s on January 23, 2016, was titled American Beauty: The American Folk Art Collection of Stephen and Petra Levin, Part I, featured just 97 lots of similar material, was 51.5 percent sold and totaled $5,104,500. Of the 47 passed lots in American Beauty, 39 were re-offered in Sculptural Fantasy, most with estimates reduced by half, with only 18 selling. After the sale, Erik Gronning, head of Sotheby’s Americana department, said he had negotiated a number of post-auction sales but that those were typically not publicized or included in the online sale total or statistics.
Gronning commented: “Last week’s sale continued a trend we’ve seen with recent offerings of folk art, with demand and strong results for small-scale decorative objects, but a softer market appetite for large-scale sculptural works. This was consistent with what we experienced with our auction of Folk Art from the Teiger Collection earlier this year. As we look forward to our Americana Week auctions in January and beyond, we will continue to pursue the freshest possible material to present to the market with attractive estimates.”
The catalog was beautiful and the lots were thoroughly documented, but the estimates were high, and most reserves were well above what the market would bear. Disappointments came early in the sale, when the two most highly estimated weathervanes failed to sell, despite both being fresh-to-the-market.
A carved and paint-decorated theatrical tobacconist trade figure led the sale at $187,500 and was purchased by folk art dealer Allan Katz, who was bidding in the room on behalf of a client. It had been illustrated in two important books on cigar store figures and was estimated at $200/300,000. Katz acquired a few other things in the sale for inventory, including a carved and painted Indian princess for $50,000; a painted zinc trade figure titled “Rising Star” for $30,000; two barber poles, sold consecutively for $8,125 and $7,500; and a carved and paint-decorated sculpture by Rocco Pavese for $62,500. The Pavese figure had been estimated at $60/80,000, a significant reduction since its initial offering in American Beauty, where it had been estimated at $120/150,000.
Selling for nearly triple its low estimate was a painted tavern sign for G.D. Witts Inn in Kingston, N.Y., which was estimated at $40/80,000. Bidding opened at $28,000, but interest in the stunning sign, which boldly depicted a crocodile, soared and it finally closed at $106,250 to a phone bidder.
The selection of trade and tavern signs generated interest, with most of the offerings finding new home. A painted wood and iron sign for C. Chipman’s Inn sold to a phone bidder for $15,000 ($2/3,000); an elephant-form sign for John M. Dyckman Boots and Shoes, which had been offered in American Beauty for $150/200,000, was acquired by a phone bidder for $56,250 ($60/80,000); and a dog-form trade sign inscribed “Light Running / New Home” tripled its estimate, finishing at $22,500 against an estimate of $6/12,000.
Folk art dealer David Schorsch, bidding on the phone, bought the G.W. Jackson hatter’s sign on the low estimate at $15,000. Buying for inventory, Schorsch and his partner Eileen M. Smiles also bought a carved and painted Millerite sculpture of a man with his arms crossed for $75,000 ($30/50,000) and a carved and painted sculpture of a hunter with his hound from Pennsylvania for $23,750 ($25/50,000).
Commenting by email after the sale, Schorsch said, “The personality of this collection and the bespoke museum-like modern mansion that housed it reflect the glamorous lifestyle of Steve and Petra Levin. They do things in a big way, have a grand vision and resources sufficient to literally collect on a giant scale, acquiring large numbers of the things they liked most – trade figures, weathervanes, patriotic carvings, fire memorabilia, sleds, canes and models – and objects of very large size, many well beyond normal domestic scale. Despite being narrowly focused and the unfortunate timing of the auction in October during the Jewish high holidays, it had the very real potential to have been a blow out, like the auction orchestrated for the vast collection of my late aunt and uncle, Irvin and Anita Schorsch, sold at Sotheby’s in 2016, offered entirely unreserved, that sold for over $10 million. The Levin sale was mortally wounded by overly aggressive estimates and corresponding reserves (likely demanded by the sellers) with unfortunate yet completely predictable results of unsold lots. Those lots with fair estimates did just fine, with a number exceeding their high estimates. Simply put, this was a fine collection that was aggressively put together in a relatively short period of time prior to an economic downturn that came back on the market way too soon.”
Most of the modestly valued works saw competition and results, with many exceeding expectations. One such lot was a folding horse chestnut camp stool from Hayden, Ind. Valued at $2/3,000, it had absentee bids to $2,600 and finally sold for $18,750 to a phone bidder. A dynamic carved and paint-decorated spread-wing eagle with flags and a shield originally offered in American Beauty at $250/350,000 had been drastically reduced in estimate and was now being offered at a more market-realistic $50-100,000. Absentee bids to $35,000 jump started the bidding, but it came down to two phones, with the item going to one of them for $87,500.
A circa 1876 American Centennial flag estimated at $1,5/2,500 inspired frantic bidding from bidders online, in the room and on the phone before closing for $20,000 to a private collecting couple bidding in the room. It followed a 17-star flag with provenance to the Thomas Connelly collection that was making its second time across the block. Initially offered at $20/30,000, it was being re-offered at $15/30,000 and brought $17,500 from a phone bidder.
Carved sculptures on an intimate scale did better than large figures, for the most part. The greatest disappointment of the section was the carved and painted “Buckeye Family” from Overton County, Tenn., which had been reduced in estimate from $800,000-1,000,000 in 2016 to $500/800,000. Despite the reduction in expectation, it still failed to find a buyer and was passed at $370,000. A collection of 23 whimsical mechanical carvings with provenance to Gemini Antiques and estimated at $5/10,000 sold to a phone bidder for $16,250, underbid by a trade buyer in the room. Two phone bidders competed vigorously for a carved figural group of a farmer and wife with horse and sleigh that quickly surpassed expectations ($10/20,000) to finish at $30,000. Interestingly, it had originally been offered in American Beauty for $20/30,000.
Works with provenance to important collections often held their own. A figure of a barber formerly in the collection of Adele Earnest and later Stewart Gregory sold to a bidder on the phone with Gronning for $35,000 ($20/30,000). Bringing $37,500 against an estimate of $40/80,000 was a paint-decorated figure of a racetrack tout that had been in the collection of Electra Havermeyer Webb and Peter Tillou.
Toys and games were strong, largely selling near estimates, with some notable exceptions. The grouping kicked off with 16 carved and painted carnival game racehorses that sold to a private collector in the room for $12,500 ($3/5,000). A Lion carnival toss game priced at $1/1,500 opened at $700 and closed at $4,750, going to a phone bidder, while another carnival toss game, this a French plaster clown, more than tripled expectations ($1,5/2,500) to bring $8,125 from an online bidder. Two phone bidders competed for a cowboy-form shooting target, with one ultimately prevailing at $15,000.
The category with one of the highest sell-through rates was that of canes; of the 13 lots in the sale, 11 sold, with many lots selling near their estimates. While the majority of the cane lots featured more than one, the highest price in the category was $10,000, paid by an online bidder for a circa 1875 Gambler’s cane with an estimate of $8/12,000. One lot that saw tremendous interest was a group of three canes carved with women in bathing suits that saw competition initially between online and phone bidders but in the end, two trade bidders in the room were the only ones in the action, with one taking the lot for $8,125 ($1,5/2,500).
An unusual and surprisingly large selection of painted sleds comprised a section of 17 lots that saw all but three find buyers. An unusual boat sled kicked off the group, selling within estimate for $8,750; it was quickly followed by a paint-decorated and upholstered salesman’s sample that exceeded estimates when a phone bidder won it for $13,750. Another phone bidder showed their mettle and determination, buying five of the lots one right after the other.
The sled section was followed by several lots of mechanical models and salesman samples. An absentee bidder snapped up a model of the Acme Road Machinery Co, road machine just below estimate for $7,500 and a trade buyer in the room won a model of the Stockland Road Machinery Co, Giant road grader for $5,250, competing against phone bidders and another trade bidder in the room. Two model fire pumpers did not excite enough interest among bidders but the star lot of the section – a model of the Hope hand pumper fire engine made by Robert and Henry Eichholtz finished within estimate at $40,000.
Ship models and other nautical works were also represented, with varying results. Leading the section was a Nantucket whalebone scrimshaw sewing basket that had been in the collections of both Esther B. Crego and Barbara Johnson. Absentee bids to $2,600 jump-started the lot, which ultimately closed at $15,000 to a bidder on the phone with Gronning. Of the three figureheads or carved figural busts, only one sold, a sternboard bust of Daniel Webster that had failed to find a buyer in 2016 when it was offered at $20/30,000 but went to an absentee bidder this round for $11,875.
Relief carved nudes appealed to bidders, with four different bidders snapping up all but the most heavily estimated one – the Temptation of Adam by Henri Bernhardt – that was a re-offer from American Beauty. Previously offered at $50/70,000, it was lowered to $25/35,000 but still was not low enough to find a buyer and was bought in at $18,000. The other quasi-erotic relief carvings did better, most selling above estimate.
A last burst of energy from bidders was expended on three lots of William Hunt Diederich sheet iron weathervanes that were among the last lots in the sale. The strongest selling of these depicted Diana and the Hound. A bidder in the room commented to this reporter he thought it was “better than the one at the Met.” Estimated at $10/15,000, it went to a phone bidder in the room for $93,750, underbid by a private collector bidding in the room. The next example depicted a figure with two hounds ($8/12,000) that went to another phone bidder for $25,000, underbid by a client on the phone with Gronning. The third and last example depicted polo players and was acquired by the same phone bidder who won the previous lot, this time paying $11,250 against an estimate of $6/9,000.
At press time, Gronning was still accepting post-auction offers on unsold lots. When asked what would happen to the unsold lots, he said a decision had not been made but confirmed that they would not be sold during Sotheby’s January 2020 Americana Week.
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