Review by Madelia Hickman Ring, Photos Courtesy Brunk Auctions
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – From September 29-30, about two months shy of the one-year anniversary of dealer Peter H. Tillou’s death on November 22, 2021, Brunk Auctions offered more than 700 lots that epitomized the varied eye and expertise of Tillou: American, English and European furniture and fine art, Asian works of art, numismatic, militaria, minerals and fossils, and volumes from his personal library. After a print and digital marketing campaign across the United States and Europe, the sale saw new buyers comprise 30 percent of the sale and it achieved an overall sell-through rate of about 97 percent, with a total $3,555,320 in sales. While not the largest or most profitable sale in Brunk’s history, the auction was one Andrew Brunk noted was “certainly one that we are most proud of,” adding it capped off a month that saw about $8.38 million worth of lots trading hands.
“The remarkable response from the market was in large part a testament to Peter Tillou’s famously good taste in so many different categories. The range of good works of art – from old masters to folk art to modern art – made it especially exciting. The sale blew right by the estimates. We were thrilled with the results and honored to represent the estate,” Andrew Brunk said after the sale.
Self-taught American artist Winfred Rembert (1945-2021), who grew up in Cuthbert, Ga., had worked in the cotton fields as a boy and spent time in prison, where he learned the art of working with leather. In the 1950s, while living in New Haven, Conn., Rembert used his talents to createdscenes from his early life. A show at the Adelson Galleries in New York City in 2010 that came about from Rembert’s friendship with Tillou was followed in 2021 by a biography, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, which posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize.
Rembert’s works have been on the ascent at auction recently and the two works of his in the sale capitalized on the trend. Offered sequentially on the second day, “Chain Gang Picking Cotton #4,” done in 2007, had been in the Adelson Galleries show and measured 24¾ by 43½ inches. A private collector who had bid with Brunk Auctions before but who was making their first purchase of Rembert’s work, paid $282,900 for it. On the very next lot, the same buyer also paid $282,900 for “Hungry Eye,” an earlier work from 1998 that measured 37¾ by 27½ inches. Both works – dye on carved and tooled leather – had been estimated at $40/60,000 and set the new high bar for the artist, besting $118,750 realized for another chain gang painting from 2007 that was sold at auction in late April 2022.
“[Rembert’s work] represents a new category of collecting for [the buyer],” Brunk said. “They recognized the importance and power of the images and were determined to add them to their collection.”
Tillou’s eye for European Old Master paintings was well known and the sale offered numerous choice examples to choose from, all scheduled on the first day of the auction. Leading the category at $92,250 was an exuberant large still life oil on canvas by Flemish master W. Mertens (active 1640-60). Considered one of the most prestigious works by the artist and depicting fruit as well as crab, prawns and lobster on a fabric box with roemer, ornate silver tazza and repoussé ewer, it had extensive exhibition collection as well as provenance to several prominent collections and dealers. It was purchased by a private collector from Alabama.
A work by leading still life painter, Osias Beert (Flemish, circa 1580-1624), sold within estimate for $51,660. His “Still Life with Fruit on Pewter Platters and Kraak Dish,” circa 1605-15, had extensive provenance and is included in the RKD database at the Netherlands Institute for Art History.
The sale featured two works by Joseph Wright of Derby (British, 1734-1797), portraits of the Reverend John C. Carver, and his wife, Mrs Elizabeth Carver. The portraits had stayed together through no fewer than four auctions before Tillou acquired them. Sold separately, the pair will nevertheless remain together having been purchased by New York City interior designer Ralph Harvard, who paid $73,800 for each for them.
Other Old Master portraits in the sale also saw intense bidder scrutiny and interest. Earning $57,960 from a private Florida collector was a pair of monumental Seventeenth Century Spanish school portraits of noblewomen in French costumes. Pieter Nason’s (Dutch, 1612-1688) oil on canvas portrait of R. Pauu holding a pistol, from 1667, fired up bidders, who took it from $6/9,000 to $57,960. A private collector from Monaco prevailed.
A monumental Flemish port scene, by the circle or school of Jan Miel (1599-1663), docked at $59,040, from a New Jersey private collector. Titled “Capriccio of a Busy Mediterranean Port,” the unsigned oil on canvas was considered a commentary on various social ills and included what could be considered allegorical depictions of the seven deadly sins.
The first day of the sale saw more than 100 lots from Tillou’s collection of Asian works of art also cross the block. A surprise result would certainly be the day’s top lot, a pair of Sixteenth or Seventeenth Century Thai Auytthaya-style bronze Buddhas, standing with their hands raised in abhaya mudra, which achieved the enlightened price of $98,400 against an estimate of $12/18,000. The pair had provenance to a French private collection and dealer Carlton Rochell; they found a new home in Pennsylvania with a private collector.
Tillou acquired several things from TEFAF, including a Chinese Tang (618-907 CE) or Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) earthenware robed figure that was accompanied by a 2005 thermoluminescence report. Standing 29 inches tall, the figure, which had occupied pride of place in the foyer of Tillou’s Litchfield, Conn., home, sold to a Wisconsin private collector for $41,820, several multiples of its $2/4,000 estimate. Another early Chinese figural piece was a monumental camel with rider dated to possibly the Tang dynasty that rode home to a South Carolina collector for $27,060.
Fireworks that followed the two Winfred Rembert works on the second day of the auction were most notably those for an early New York state limner portrait of a young girl that both institutions and private collectors competed for. Cataloged as “attributed to John Heaton (active 1730-40s), the sitter was thought to be a member of the prominent Schuyler family because of its history of descent and provenance. Despite interest from multiple institutions, a private collector bidding by phone prevailed, taking it to $104,550.
Tillou’s eye for American fine art ranged from folk art and early American masters to more contemporary offerings. Earning $22,000 was a late Eighteenth or early Nineteenth Century oval portrait of George Washington in his 1789 uniform that bears a resemblance to a life portrait of Washington done by Irish American artist, Walter Robertson (1750-1801), which is in the collection of Tudor Place, Washington DC.
An advanced collector of important folk art who was bidding by phone paid $19,680 for a triple portrait of three children cataloged as “manner of Joshua Johnson,” while a portrait of Jane Tyler with a cat by Joseph Whiting Stock (American, 1815-1855) topped off at $17,220 from a New York bidder. The 40-by-30-inch oil on canvas had been exhibited at Smith College and was included in Joseph Whiting Stock and Juliette Tomlinson’s The Paintings and the Journal of Joseph Whiting Stock (1976).
Prior to this sale, Brunk Auctions had sold a few of Tillou’s contemporary Western art bronzes by Dave McGary (American, 1958-2013). Four more were offered in this sale, led at $40,960 by his 1996 “The Rainmaker,” which found a new home with a North Carolina collector. Prices for the remaining McGary bronzes ranged from $11,685 to $31,980; a representative for the auction house said that they sold to the same buyers.
The furniture category was dominated at the high end by things large and impressive. Three American desk-and-bookcases, two from Connecticut, and one from Delaware, all sold above or within expectations, for $12,000, $10,000 and $11,000, respectively. A George III inlaid desk and bookcase fell short of its low estimate, earning $7,680.
“Generally speaking, I thought the sale was a great success,” said Peter’s son, Jeff. “I can’t tell you how careful Andrew Brunk was in putting the sale and the catalog together. It really represented who Peter was as a dealer and a collector, and I thought Andrew did a great job promoting it.”
Peter’s friend and fellow dealer, Jim Kilvington agreed. “I think it did fabulously. The main thing of the sale was that Peter had as much a presence in Europe as he did in the United States. The sale had a little bit of everything and shows the permanent record of the brilliance of the man.”
Nan Zander, Brunk Auctions’ specialist for fine art, said they “saved some of Peter’s goodies from various categories that were not originally included in the print catalog that will be included in the upcoming Premier and Emporium Auctions, November 10-12.”
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. For information, www.brunkauctions.com or 828-254-6846.