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New York Library Art Buoys American Art Auctions

Despite some disappointments in the sale of high-profile works from the New York Public Library collection at Sotheby’s, results remained strong in auctions of American paintings, drawings and sculpture at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s from Nov. 30-Dec. 1. At Christie’s the total was $32 million, on a 75 percent sell-through rate—an improvement over its year-ago

NEW YORK—Despite some disappointments in the sale of high-profile works from the New York Public Library collection at Sotheby’s, results remained strong in auctions of American paintings, drawings and sculpture at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s from Nov. 30-Dec. 1.

At Christie’s the total was $32 million, on a 75 percent sell-through rate—an improvement over its year-ago total of $24.6 million. At Sotheby’s the overall total was $63 million, with 84 percent of lots selling through. Last year Sotheby’s posted a record $108 million, including $65 million realized for American paintings from the Rita and Daniel Fraad collection (see ANL, 12/21/04).

Observes New York dealer Meredith Ward: “At the high end things did exceedingly well—for the top end there is a tremendous demand, and for the middle range there’s considerably less demand.”

The highest price realized in the sales was at Sotheby’s for a pair of works from the New York Public Library trove: a 1797 Gilbert Stuart Portrait of George Washington, once owned by Alexander Hamilton; and a 1794 marble bust of Hamilton himself by Guiseppe Ceracchi. These went to a phone bidder for $8.14 million, quite below the estimated $10/15 million.

However, three of the 16 works being sold to raise funds for other library projects failed to find buyers, and the $15.6 million total was well below Sotheby’s pre-auction estimates of $22/31 million.

A second Stuart portrait of Washington, this one a circa 1800 full-length view estimated at $6/8 million, did not sell. Less high-profile works from the library did find bidders, though, with auction records set for a John Singleton CopleyMrs. Theodore Atkinson, Jr. portrait of , 1765, at $3.4 million (estimate: $3.5/$4.5 million); and for a Samuel F.B. Morse portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, 1825, at about $1.4 million (estimate: $300,000/500,000).

Commenting on the unsold Stuart portrait in Sotheby’s sale, New York dealer Ira Spanierman told ARTnewsletter: “I was surprised that the big portrait wasn’t sold, but there have been a lot of Washington portraits on the market.” Furthermore, he adds, “a lot of people seemed to have the feeling that those things should have stayed in New York,” something that may have depressed the prices realized for the library works.

Records set in the Sotheby’s auction included the nearly $7 million paid by an American collector for Grant Wood’s Spring Plowing, 1932 (estimate: $3/5 million); and nearly $4.5 million for Stuart Davis’ Rue de l’Échaudé, 1928, which was sold from the collection of Josephine and Walter Buhl Ford II (estimate: $1/1.5 million).

Guy Rose’s Owens River, Sierra Nevada, California, ca. 1917, also set a record at Sotheby’s, more than doubling the high estimate when it fetched $1.92 million. A Charles Prendergast Screen (in Three Panels), ca. 1928-32, decorated in a floral pattern of tempera, pencil and gold leaf, was sold by the estate of Laurance S. Rockefeller for a record $1.6 million, also more than twice its high estimate.

Other highlights in the Sotheby’s sale: two works offered by the estate of Leonard Green to benefit a foundation—John Singer Sargent’s oil The Rialto, ca. 1909, which reaped a within-estimate $3.7 million; and Childe Hassam’s Paris at Twilight, 1887, which brought $1.36 million (estimate: $600,000/800,000).

The top lot in the Christie’s sale was a Mary Cassatt painting, Mother and Two Children, 1906, which was being deaccessioned by a university museum. It sold within estimates to an American collector for $4.27 million, an auction record.

Records were also set at Christie’s for John F. Kensett, whose landscape Entrance to Newport Harbor, 1855, sold from the collection of Arthur and Nancy Manella, took $1.2 million (estimate: $400,000/600,000); and for modernist John Marin, whose oil Sailboat, Brooklyn Bridge, New York Skyline, 1934, sold within estimates for $1.2 million to the Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.

Other highlights included a Stuart Davis Still Life with Flowers, 1930, which was sold by an Illinois school district at about the high estimate for $3.2 million; and two paintings of Native Americans—George de Forest Brush’s Council of the War Party, 1886, which fell for $2.6 million, about five times its high estimate, and Charles Marion Russell’s Meat for the Tribe, ca. 1891, which brought in $1.5 million (estimate: $300,000/500,000).

Comments Eric Widing, Christie’s department head for American paintings: The sale saw “every category from the 19th century to contemporary realism reaching new heights.”

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