Published: December 5, 2000
The American Art Auctions In New York
Sweeping Vistas, Historical Visions Reach $74 Million Collectively
NEW YORK CITY- Fall sales of American art concluded last week at three major New York auction houses. Phillips held its sale first, with 209 lots offered on November 28 realizing a total of $4,791,502. Christie’s conducted an auction the following morning featuring 147 lots bringing $28,180,800. Finally, closer to the weekend, Sotheby’s offered 209 works of art on November 30. Two very tight collections incorporated into the event – the Collection of Arthur and Holly Magill and a private collection of Andrew Wyeth paintings – allowed Sotheby’s to clean up with a total of $41,162,250.
Bidders could choose from plenty of American landscapes depicting specific American vistas from the Hudson River and the Adirondacks to the Grand Canyon. Not surprisingly, most buyers were from the United States. Thomas Moran’s oils received enthusiastic attention at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and an epic landscape by John La Farge seemed to epitomize the grandeur buyers were seeking.
American Impressionism remains strong with Cassatt, Sargent and Hassam maintaining lead positions in the rankings. Marsden Hartley’s American modernism abstractions keep him in top echelon, as does the work of Patrick Henry Bruce. A Georgia O’Keeffe gem of a still life thrust that artist into the limelight. Two generations of Wyeths showed their strength this fall with N.C. in the top ten at Christie’s and Andrew accounting for three of the top ten at Sotheby’s. Paintings of historic figures like George Washington also sold well.
For Phillips, the saving grace was a magnificent historical painting by Benjamin West entitled “The Death of General Wolfe.” Estimated at $180/200,000, it brought $2,862,500, indicating perhaps another instance of Phillips reportedly (The New York Times November 14) underestimating a piece to encourage a bidding frenzy. The Phillips sale also offered many fine grand landscapes.
Christie’s was very consistent, selling 80 percent of their lots, and 80 percent by dollar. They also included a group of fine paintings from the Terra Foundation for the Arts. Paul Provost, senior vice president and director of Christie’s American paintings department said, “While American Impressionist paintings from the Terra Foundation for the Arts performed particularly well, we saw throughout the sale that paintings of excellent quality and provenance fetched prices well above their pre-sale estimates, confirming the strength of the market for these works.” The Terra is currently mired in legal and financial troubles (see this week’s “International News Briefs”).
“A Sioux Camp near Laramie Peak” by Albert Bierstadt set a world auction record for a work on paper by the artist. It sold for $941,000 to an anonymous buyer. The top lot was an oil painting by Mary Cassatt entitled “Katherine Kelso Cassatt,” the artist’s sister. It did not reach its low estimate of $3,000,000; an anonymous buyer snatched it away for $2,976,000. Christie’s also sold a John La Farge to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. for $2,096,000, entitled “The Last Valley, Paradise Rocks.” The La Farge painting had been out of circulation since the late 1800s when a private buyer purchased it from Pierce and Company of Boston in 1878.
Other artists in the top ten lots at Christie’s were John Singer Sargent, Thomas Moran (two paintings), Childe Hassam (two paintings), Newell Convers Wyeth, and Theodore Robinson. There was not enough interest in the Gerald Murphy oil “Library” to bring about a sale. Placed on the cover of the Christie’s catalogue, the precisionist painting had been estimated to bring $3,000,000 to $5,000,000.
Sotheby’s knocked themselves out by producing three catalogues for the sale: the main catalogue, a catalogue for the Andrew Wyeth collection, and the catalogue for the Arthur and Holly Magill collection. In addition, they produced a brochure for the what was to be the top lot, Thomas Moran’s painting “Mount Moran, Teton Range.”
The Thomas Moran painting was an excellent example of the artist’s work, and will be included in Stephen Good’s and Phyllis Braff’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné. Bought within estimate by an American private collector for $2,975,750, it had been in the former owner’s family since about 1928. The sale set a record price for the artist at auction.
Three of the twenty Andrew Wyeth paintings from the Wyeth collection were in the top five lots of the sale. There was tremendous interest from bidders in the packed room and on the telephones. Two of the Wyeths in the top five lots sold over the high estimate, and one sold just shy of the low estimate. Other artists in the top ten lots at Sotheby’s were Marsden Hartley, Maurice Prendergast, Child Hassam, Patrick Henry Bruce, Georgia O’Keefe, and Edward Savage. With the exception of the Prendergast, which did not achieve the low estimate of $2,000,000, these lots were sold within Sotheby’s estimates.
Even though Sotheby’s took the lead this fall, this sale was only their fifth largest sale of American paintings. In past years they have offered deaccessioned masterworks like George Bellow’s “Polo Crowd” which came from MoMA last year and set a $27.5 million record for an American painting sold at auction. Museums seem to be hanging on to their collections more tightly this year. Still, “it was a very solid sale,” said Dara Mitchell, Sotheby’s director of American paintings.
All prices quoted include the buyer’s premium.
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