ARTnewsletter Archive

American Paintings Sales Move into High Gear

Each season, demand for all areas of the American paintings market—from subdued Hudson River School landscapes to Marsden Hartley’s Cubist creations—continues to rise. In May the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions totaled $81.2 million, with each sale raking in over $40 million. Just a few years back, a total in the $20 million range marked a

NEW YORK—Each season, demand for all areas of the American paintings market—from subdued Hudson River School landscapes to Marsden Hartley’s Cubist creations—continues to rise. In May the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions totaled $81.2 million, with each sale raking in over $40 million. Just a few years back, a total in the $20 million range marked a successful sale.

“The American market is as strong as I’ve seen it in years and years,” said James Berry Hill, codirector of Berry-Hill Galleries, New York. This season the two houses were neck and neck with respect to sale totals, with Christie’s final results slightly ahead of Sotheby’s.

The Christie’s May 19 sale, headlined by an oil on canvas by Robert Henri (1865-1929), totaled $40.7 million, nearly double the figure for both Christie’s sales in 2004. Sotheby’s pulled in $40.5 million on May 18, strong but a mere fraction of its $107.8 million December 2004 sale that had included works from the Rita and Daniel Fraad collection.

“There’s a tremendous depth of interest, and, based on what I’ve seen the past few seasons, it appears that there is a lot of new blood out

there,” Manhattan dealer Howard Godel told ARTnewsletter. “It’s starting to show that there are new billionaires in the game and that they surface for the right picture.”

Just before the sales began, two major announcements commanded the attention of the conservative American art collecting crowd. First, in a purchase fraught with controversy, Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton scooped up the Asher B. Durand painting on sale from the New York Public Library and announced plans to found a major American art museum.

The following week on May 16, two days before the auctions began, billionaire collectors Fran and Jim McGlothlin promised their collection of American paintings, acquired in the last eight years, to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Selections from the McGlothlin collection, valued at $70/100 million, were unveiled in a show, “Capturing Beauty,” at the museum. Among the artists represented: William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Martin Johnson Heade, John Singer Sargent and Everett Shinn.

Christie’s prevailed despite an occurrence that confused and alarmed some people in the room. Registered bidders were given a Xeroxed handout listing 43 lots that might be bid on by parties with an interest in the lots. (“Please note that a party with financial interest in this lot may be bidding,” the handout read.)

When dealers noticed certain bidders pursuing these lots, suspicion grew, but Christie’s maintains it was all aboveboard. “A large number of the works were part of a consignment that was part of a divorce, and one or both of the parties wanted to bid on the property,” Christie’s president Marc Porter explained after the sale. “By regulation, that has to be disclosed to assure that other potential bidders are on notice.” (According to Christie’s catalogue, many of the works had been exhibited previously at Berry-Hill Galleries)

This appeared not to hurt total sales results. Of the top ten lots, seven achieved auction records, including works by Charles Burchfield, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Henri, Eastman Johnson and Julius LeBlanc Stewart. The top lot was the Henri, a portrait of a gilded-age lady that sold for $3.6 million, more than double the $1.5 million estimate. Jessica Penn in Black with White Plumes, 1908, came to Christie’s from a Bronx warehouse, where it had been stored along with the Edward Hopper image Chair Car, 1965, which Christie’s sold for $14 million to Berry-Hill Galleries on May 11 (see ANL, 5/24/05). Both works came from the estate of Helen and David Pall, New York collectors who had purchased the Henri in 1966 from New York’s Chapellier Gallery for $27,000. “We put the highest estimate ever put on a Henri at auction,” Eric Widing, head of Christie’s American painting department told ARTnewsletter. “We felt justified because of the quality of the painting and the presence of Jessica Penn. It’s a big price, and I feel that she was worth every bit.”

A 1916 Hartley painting, Movement, Sails, estimated at $800/1.2 million, was acquired by Andrew Rose, formerly a British sporting pictures expert at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s, who two months ago started Art Finance Partners, a company that lends money to dealers, museums and collectors. Rose paid $1.7 million for the Hartley.

Hudson River School and Luminist art also found heady competition. Coming off last year’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gifford’s 1878 Fire Island Beach set a record when it fetched $2.1 million, nearly twice the $1.2 million high estimate. The painting, which dealers said had been off and on the market recently, had appeared in the Metropolitan Museum exhibit.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s each had tropical paintings of lavender orchids and hummingbirds by Heade, inspired by the artist’s early trips to Brazil. At Christie’s a 1901 painting by Heade, Hummingbird Perched on an Orchid Plant (estimate: $500,000/700,000), went for $1.1 million to a private collector, while at Sotheby’s a circa 1890-1904 Two Hummingbirds . . . by Heade edged a bit higher, to $1.3 million.

Private dealer Michael Altman paid $2.3 million at Christie’s for Stewart’s 1896 celebration of high society at sea. Yachting in the Mediterranean (estimate: $1.2/1.8 million) depicts American playboy James Gordon Bennett on his yacht, surrounded by windswept ladies.

Sotheby’s also had its share of wealthy bidders. Heade’s Sunny Day on the Marsh (Newburyport Meadow), ca. 1871-72, depicting a quiet, dusky moment on a boggy Massachusetts plain, set an auction record for Heade when it fetched $2.8 million, far in excess of the $1.2 million estimate. Sotheby’s identified the buyer as dealer Joe Caldwell of the Caldwell Gallery in Manlius, N.Y., and while Caldwell told ARTnewsletter he didn’t discuss his purchases, he has been known to buy for Edward Johnson, chairman of Fidelity Investments.

“Overall, there were some nice things, but the quality wasn’t as strong as in recent seasons,” says New York dealer Debra Force. “There was very little multiple bidding,” she notes. “It was two people duking it out. It shows there is a limitation.”

Other highlights at Sotheby’s included a rare 1906 painting by Frank Benson of his two daughters posed in the artist’s Boston studio. Standing in front of a sprawling, sun-dappled screen, the girls, in prim white dresses, anchor the Impressionist glimpse of gilded-age Boston. Estimated $2.5/3.5 million, the painting went for $3.3 million to a private collector.

A 1987 tempera painting of an American flag, billowing on a laundry line beside a simple Maine saltbox, attracted several bidders willing to toss aside the $1.5/2 million estimate. Battle Ensign, painted by Maine artist Andrew Wyeth as a tribute to a friend—a neighbor and son of a lobsterman who had died—realized $3.8 million. The work, consigned by Thomas Watson Jr., son of the founder of IBM, set a new record for the artist.