Published: December 2, 2014
By: Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY — It is not every day that an auctioneer lands an estate like that of Leon Fischer.
On November 14, Roland New York brought to market 18 European works of art, among them nine paintings, drawings and a print by James Ensor (1860–1949). The Belgian artist spent most of his life in the resort town of Ostend, graduating from the Barbizon-influenced landscapes and seascapes of his youth to grotesque caricatures rendered in an incongruously pastel palette. Fischer, about whom little is known, acquired the Ensor works from the Austrian-born dealer and collector Sam Salz, who emigrated to New York in 1938. Among Salz’s clients were Paul Mellon, Henry Ford II, members of the Rockefeller family and William S. Paley.
Dealers since 1973, William and Robert Roland launched their eponymous auction house in 2010. Their monthly sales of estate furnishings and private collections attract wholesale and retail buyers to their storefront premises on East 11th Street, near Broadway and just south of Union Square, in what has long been an antiques and design district.
In the catalog to the single-owner sale, the brothers write, “No matter how much experience you have, nothing quite matches the excitement of introducing new work by a known and beloved artist to the marketplace. “
Ensor scholar Xavier Tricot, also a resident of Ostend, Belgium, determined that none of the nine Ensor lots had previously been offered publicly. Tricot is adding three previously unknown oil paintings to the next edition of his catalogue raisonné on Ensor. Three other lots, while known to the art historian, will be freshly illustrated in the revised volume.
Born in Ostend in 1860, Ensor studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels between 1877 and 1880. “Bateau en Feu,” $24,000; “Seascape with Sailboat and Rower,” $12,000; and “Landscape with Farmhouses,” $15,600 — the first two oil on cardboard and the third an oil on canvas — date from his student years, before he had developed a distinctive approach.
The highest price, $270,000, was for “La Mort Coquette,” a 9½-by-12½ inch oil on canvas of 1923. Not previously illustrated, it bears the hallmarks of Ensor’s developed style. A drawing and a lithograph of the same year depict the same subject.
“Ensor was famous for painting masks and skeletons. Interestingly, his parents owned a boutique in Ostend that sold carnival masks,” explains Tricot, who believes that the winning bid for “La Mort Coquette” came from the Belgian trade.
Masks also figure in “Nature Morte,” $102,000, an oil on panel of 1934.
A grotesque double portrait, the 4¾-by-6¼-inch pencil drawing “Vieux Augures” of 1892, fetched $54,000.
“I have been working on Ensor for 30 years so it was a real surprise when Roland contacted me with a photo of one of the works,” says Tricot. He does not know how Fischer and Salz became acquainted, but hopes to learn more.
Fischer’s remaining paintings included Maurice de Vlaminck’s “Paysage de Neige,” $51,000.
In the United States, the best public collections of Ensor’s work are in New York and Chicago. On November 23, the Art Institute of Chicago opened “Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor.” On view through January 25, it showcases Ensor’s monumental drawing “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” acquired by the museum in 2006 and newly conserved.
The Fischer estate produced big results for Roland New York, demonstrating that even in Manhattan, in a month of blockbuster sales, a small, family-run business can go head-to-head with the biggest houses and succeed.
“We are in business to make money but, at the end of the day, we added to the historical record. That is enormously satisfying,” said Robert Roland.
Prices reported include buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.rolandauctions.com or 212-260-2000.
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