Published: February 4, 2020
Review and Onsite Photos by Madelia Hickman Ring, Catalog Photos Courtesy Sotheby’s
NEW YORK CITY – Taking place on Saturday, January 25 were two single-owner collections and, on Sunday, January 26, the various-owners Important Americana that included furniture, folk art, silver, Chinese export and prints. A sale of manuscript and printed Americana followed on Monday, January 27. Once the gavel fell on the final of 872 lots, a total of $12,485,875 had been sold.
Previous editions seemed larger – not only in the number of lots offered – but also in the total prices realized so this reporter took a closer look at how the sales have shaken out. The first year Sotheby’s coordinated American books and manuscripts to sell alongside Americana was in 2017, when a total of 1,261 lots were offered for a total of $19.3 million. That volume stayed constant in 2018 but the sales only achieved $13.9 million. A year ago, the sales saw an increase in both volume of lots and total prices grossed, realizing $16.8 million in about 1,400 lots. This year, while the total lots and sales sold was less, the per-lot average was higher than the previous two years.
Commenting after the sale, Erik Gronning, Sotheby’s Americana Head of Department, said “Overall, I was very happy. You always want to do better, but I thought the week did really well.”
Prior to the Americana offerings crossed the block, Sotheby’s had scheduled two days of sales to sell the collection of the late decorator Mario Buatta. In an attempt to capitalize on potential crossover interest, Gronning had placed the various owner’s exhibition on one of the floors exhibiting material from the Buatta sale. After the dust settles, a Sotheby’s spokesperson said, “More than 40 percent of all bidders in (Sotheby’s) American Furniture & Folk Art sales had never before bid on Americana.” While they would not go so far as to directly attribute that increase to turnout for Buatta, one must assume the increased attendance had some impact on the sales.
The top lot achieved at Sotheby’s of American furniture or folk art was a copper and zinc fire pumper and horse-drawn weathervane by Cushing and White that brought $437,500 from a private collector bidding on the phone in the Saturday afternoon session of “A New Dimension of Tradition: Important American Folk Art” sold to benefit the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It had been estimated at $100/150,000 and, in the end, competition came down to two phone bidders.
Taking second-place honors was Ammi Phillips’ “Portrait of a Seated Child in a Pink Dress with a Spaniel and Coral Teething Ring,” which was in the January 26 sale of various-owners Important Americana and had been placed prominently at the front of the saleroom. It brought $250,000 from a married couple bidding in the room who identified themselves as “longtime private collectors.” It had been estimated at $200/300,000.
Another weathervane from the “New Dimension of Tradition” sale filled the third-place place at $237,500. A phone bidder won the monumental copper and zinc “Cooperstown” Cow weathervane, so named because it had once dominated the roofline of a barn (and later Singer Sewing Machine company) in Cooperstown, N.Y.. It sold slightly below presale expectations.
Collection of Barbara & Arun Singh
The first sale to cross the block the morning of Saturday, January 25 was “Triumphant Grace: Important Americana from the Collection of Barbara and Arun Singh,” which grossed a total of $3,002,375 and was about 87 percent sold by lot.
Reached by phone at his Rhode Island home after the sale, Arun Singh could not have been more complimentary of either the sale’s performance or that of Sotheby’s team. “Sotheby’s, Erik, Sarah, Caroline and their entire team did an awesome job. My wife and I could not have asked for better. You have to be realistic considering the market. We did very well and are very pleased.” The Singhs, who were in New York City prior to the sale, did not attend but were delighted at how well received their collection was.
The top lot of their sale was a Chippendale carved cherrywood bonnet-top high chest from Colchester, Conn., that a trade buyer in the room took for $200,000. Other furniture highlights include a Connecticut River Valley inlaid chest of drawers with wonderfully scalloped top that a phone bidder won for $37,500. The chest was immediately followed by a pair of compass-seat side chairs attributed to John Townsend that a trade buyer in the room snapped up for $52,500. The mode for Rhode Island seating furniture continued when a set of six Federal carved mahogany shield-back side chairs that had provenance to Israel Sack made $47,500 from an online bidder.
The second highest price achieved in the sale was for a Chinese export panoramic view of Macao that sold for $112,500 to an online buyer competing against several phone bidders. The selection of China trade paintings in the Singh’s collection was small but choice and the rest of the works all exceeded expectations. Winning bids came from the phones, online and both trade and private buyers in the room.
Expectations were perhaps highest for the Singh’s collection of folk art portraits: It featured works by most of the iconic artists in the canon. The third highest price paid in the sale was for a pair of portraits of Junia Loretta Bartlett and Levi Stevens Bartlett by John Brewster Jr (1766-1854) that a phone bidder took to $106,250 and which were underbid in the room by Leigh Keno bidding for a client. Strong results for portraits was a trend that began immediately, with a selection of several portrait miniatures kicking off the sale. Most of the miniatures were purchased by the same phone bidder and saw a top price of $68,750 for a self-portrait attributed to Mrs Moses B. Russell.
Other artists who achieved strong prices were William Matthew Prior, whose three portraits of “The Woods Children” realized $62,500 from a phone bidder, while Ammi Phillips’ portrait of Nancy Smith Lamphear finished within expectations, at $75,000; that was the same price dealer Peter Sawyer paid for Phillips’ pair of portraits of Samuel and Letitia Sloane. Another portrait that sold within estimate was “Portrait of a Young Girl in Pink….” attributed to Joseph Whiting Stock that brought $50,000. Leigh Keno won a pair of profile portraits by Ruth Henshaw Bascom for $62,500, as well as a lot of three small silhouette portraits by the “Puffy Sleeve Artist,” for $47,500.
Other notable results from the Singh collection included a pair of Salem, Mass., fire buckets that realized $40,000 from Bob and Kathy Booth, bidding in the room with their granddaughter, who held up the paddle when the gavel came down. A trade buyer in the room paid $50,000 for a “Lady Suffolk” horse weathervane made by J. Howard and a phone bidder won a Chinese export carved eagle plaque for $43,750.
Folk Art sold to benefit the Museum of Fine Arts Boston
The start of the afternoon session was slightly delayed allowing bidders from the morning session a break in the bidding action. The sale of 135 lots was titled, “A New Dimension of Tradition: Important American Folk Art;” proceeds from the sale would benefit a new Folk Art initiative at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The sale totaled $2,151,625 and was 97 percent sold by lot.
Weathervanes were clearly the dominant category offering 18 examples, with all but two selling and securing seven of the top ten prices realized in the sale. Aside from the two examples noted above, other notable results were seen for a two vanes that stood at the front of the room during the sale: a grasshopper weathervane that a phone bidder acquired for $200,000 and a squirrel vane that brought $150,000 from Patrick Bell. It was one of several purchases the New Hope, Penn., and New York City dealer made throughout all three Americana sales, bidding in the room for both clients and inventory.
Bringing high expectations was a portrait of Andrew Jackson by Edward Hicks that crossed the block early in the sale. It had been acquired in 2007 for $352,000 and had been priced at $120/180,000; a phone bidder won it for $106,250. John Scholl’s “celebration whimsy” brought less than expected when it sold to an online bidder for $43,750 and a stoneware jar decorated with a baseball player slid just past its low estimate when a trade buyer in the room brought it home for $35,000.
If one views performance as price realized against estimates, the colorful selection of 13 gameboards was the clear winner. The combined low/high estimate of the group was $26,500/39,200 but the aggregate total of the prices realized was $131,875, with a top price of $27,500 achieved for an unusual polychrome painted example that an online bidder claimed.
Aside from the portrait of Jackson mentioned above, folk portraits were modestly represented. An online bidder paid $14,400 for a portrait of a young girl in white, while a husband and wife collecting couple in the room acquired a pair of folk portraits from an unattributed artist for $6,000.
The collection offered a few pieces of painted furniture, which performed to middling results. The yellow comb-decorated and pine “tree of life” blanket chest featured on the catalog cover did not quite meet its low estimate when an absentee bidder bought it for $22,500; a trade buyer in the room acquired a pair of green and red painted sack-back Windsor armchairs at the low estimate, for $15,000. Failing to find a buyer was a smoke-decorated tall case clock with works by Silas Hoadley that had an estimate of $150/250,000 and was bought in at $75,000.
Various Owners Americana
Selling on Sunday, January 26 was Sotheby’s sale of “Important Americana,” including furniture, folk art, silver, Chinese export and prints, all consigned from various owners. The sale made $4,123,125, which, overall, was 75.7 percent sold by lot. The American furniture and folk art portion of the sale achieved $2,1440,500, with 133 of the 164 lots offered selling, for a sell through rate of 81.9 percent.
The top lot from the session was Ammi Phillips’ “Portrait of a Child in a Pink Dress with Spaniel and Coral Teething Ring” that brought $250,000 from a couple of “longtime private collectors” bidding in the room. The painting was not fresh to the market, and had been sold at Skinner in 2013, where it brought $144,000 against a $200/300,000 estimate. Sotheby’s had priced it at the same estimate.
The second highest price in the sale was $150,000, achieved for a 51-piece Chinese export part dinner service in the Rockefeller pattern, so named because several members of the Rockefeller family were known to own pieces of the service. A Chinese export “Hong” punch bowl was another notable result from that part of the sale, bringing $75,000, well beyond expectations.
A print of an American White Pelican after John James Audubon achieved $137,500, the third highest price in the sale. It was followed closely by another Audubon print; the Great Blue Heron landed at $118,750. Two other Audubon prints finished in the top ten prices in the sale, with “Hooping Crane” and “Snowy Owl” each bringing $62,500 against matching $50/70,000 estimates.
The top-selling piece of American furniture was a circa 1770 Chippendale carved mahogany chest on chest from Philadelphia, the case attributed to Thomas Affleck and the carving attribute to Hercules Courtenay that stood at the front of the saleroom during the sale. It brought $112,500 from Alan Miller, bidding in the room on behalf of a client. Also, of note was a Boston Chippendale games table that sold for $62,500 and within estimate to a buyer bidding on the phone with Gronning. A strong price of $43,750 was paid for a Chippendale bedstead that had descended in the Lee family and an absentee buyer won a Classical carved Recamier attributed to Samuel Field McIntire for $27,500.
“It’s one of the rarest folk portraits I’ve owned,” said David Schorsch, referring to the portrait of a young black gentleman that he acquired over the phone for $112,500. The Woodbury, Conn., dealer thought he might be able to learn more about the sitter and said it was one of fewer than ten and one of only two still in private hands. It was one of a few pieces he acquired for stock, noting as well a horse weathervane attributed to the Rochester Iron Works he had purchased a day earlier that he called “one of the greatest example of any of those cast iron horses I’ve ever seen.”
Gronning had pegged a Boston canvaswork picture depicting a hunting scene with dogs to be one of the leading lots and it was, selling on the phone for $100,000. It appears to have been fresh to the market but related to an example wrought by Anna Woodbury (Swett) of Boston that Sotheby’s sold in 2014 for $185,000.
“We had lots of institutional interest throughout the sale,” Gronning sale, though admitted museums were often underbidders instead of winning bidders. Colonial Williamsburg reported buying the portrait of William Henry Capers of St Helena, S.C., by Ralph Earl for $17,500 in the various owner’s sale.
Printed & Manuscript Americana
For the fourth consecutive year, Sotheby’s has capitalized on cross-over interest in American material in any form and scheduled a sale of printed and manuscript Americana. This year, that sale of 169 lots realized $3,208,750 and was 72.8 percent sold by lot. The final lot in the sale brought not only the highest price in the sale but topped all of the results in all of the other sales that made up Sotheby’s Americana week. Seth Kaller, Inc, was the winning bidder of John Hancock’s signed manuscript letter announcing the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, 6 July 1776. Estimated at $600/800,000, it realized $1,040,000. After the sale, Kaller said, “Despite all of the flaws and blind sights of the founders, they created a system for their day, but also an ideal vision of what their system was meant to be. When Thomas Jefferson said that “all men are created equal,” he wasn’t describing the nation he saw then, but the nation we could be. Of the 13 letters to the states, it is not known if six survive. Now that Georgia, in particular, has spectacular libraries and museums capable of maintaining and exhibiting this document, I hope we can find someone from the state to acquire it and bring it home.”
Speaking after the sale, Selby Kiffer, Sotheby’s senior vice president and international senior specialist in the Books & Manuscripts department, commented: “As the top lot of Americana week and such a quintessentially American document, it is encouraging to see the renewed strength and growth in this category since we introduced this sale to Americana Week in 2017 with the sale of a family archive Alexander Hamilton. With competitive bidding on the phones, online, and in the salesroom yesterday, Americana’s continued success is a testament not only to its cross-interest appeal to new buyers, but to the depth of Americana collectors.”
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