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Private Collections Send Americana Sales Flying

Works from important private collections that were fresh to the market fueled buoyant sales of Americana at Christie’s and Sotheby’s from Jan. 19-22, taking in $66.6 million, compared with $38.6 million last year.

NEW YORK—Works from important private collections that were fresh to the market fueled buoyant sales of Americana at Christie’s and Sotheby’s from Jan. 19-22, taking in $66.6 million, compared with $38.6 million last year.

Christie’s led with a $41.9 million total, of which about $32.3 million was realized for the property of private collector Mrs. J. Insley Blair (née Natalie Bennett Knowlton, 1883-1951), including the top lot, a full-length portrait of George Washington at Princeton, by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Estimated at $10/15 million, the painting fetched $21.3 million from the Yardley, Penn., antiques dealer C.L. Prickett and set a world record for an American portrait at auction.

The work, signed and dated 1779, is one of eight known full-length portraits of Washington that Peale painted from 1779-81 during the Revolutionary War. Six of the eight works are in institutions, including: the U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.; Colonial Williamsburg, Va.; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and Princeton University Art Museum, N.J.

A number of experts note, however, that bidding on the portrait at Christie’s came mainly from private buyers. “There are a lot of images of George Washington, but this Peale portrait was of spectacular quality and rarity,” says Warren Adelson, president of Adelson Galleries, New York. “This was really a special picture; and when something like this comes on the market, there is a lot of interest in it.”

In comparison, Washington portraits met with mixed results at a Sotheby’s American art sale last December (see ANL, 12/20/05). A circa 1800 full-length portrait by Gilbert Stuart, estimated at $6/8 million, failed to find a buyer. Another, a 1797 Stuart portrait of Washington once owned by Alexander Hamilton, was sold as part of a pair of artworks, along with a 1794 marble bust of Hamilton himself, for a total of $8.14 million—considerably below the $10/15 million estimate. All were from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Hailing the Washington portrait at Christie’s as “an icon of American art,” Todd Prickett, a partner at Prickett, calls it “a privilege and honor to be associated” with the work. Prickett, which bought five of the ten highest lots in the Blair sale and was also a major buyer at the Sotheby’s sales, would not say if the Peale work had been earmarked for a private buyer. Still, notes Todd Prickett, of the numerous Americana works bought at the recent sales, some were purchased specifically for private clients, others for inventory.

Among other top lots in the Blair collection, an oil-on-copper Portrait of James Tilley, by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), was bought for $374,400 (estimate: $100,000/150,000).

Another highlight of the house’s various-owner sale was a gilt molded copper-painted and sheet- iron Goddess Liberty weathervane that soared past the $60,000/90,000 estimate to earn a record $1 million from Boston dealer Stephen Score. A similar example had fetched $424,000 last summer at Northeast Auctions, Manchester, N.H.

Hicks Painting Leads at Sotheby’s

At Sotheby’s the Americana sales brought in $24.7 million, down a notch from $25.3 million last year. The top lot, The Peaceable Kingdom, by Edward Hicks (1780-1849), was purchased for $3.1 million, just above its $2/3 million estimate, also by Prickett. A pair of portraits of Josiah Dean III and his wife Sarah Dean of Raynham, Massachusetts, by Rufus Hathaway (1770-1822), went for $441,600 (estimate: $300,000/500,000).

“Clearly, for these rare pieces of Americana there is an incredibly strong marketplace,” says Adelson. Indeed, “the whole [art] market is like that. Works that are considered special and rare are at the top of the food chain. There seem to be more and more people coming forward to buy. You’re really seeing a broadening base.”

Prickett was a major buyer again at Sotheby’s, acquiring five top lots in the house’s sale of property from the collection of Diane and Norman Bernstein, Washington, D.C., and three of the top lots in the general Americana sale. The material at both houses, comments Todd Prickett, provided “one of the best offerings I’ve seen in about ten years.”

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