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Avid New Buyers Drive American Art Auctions

Sales of American art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s from May 24-25 took $95.9 million, well above the $81.2 million realized last spring and one of the highest season totals to date. “The American art market is currently experiencing an influx of new American buyers whose enthusiastic participation is driving prices to new levels,” says Dara Mitchell,

Rockwell Painting Fetches $9.2 Million

NEW YORK—Sales of American art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s from May 24-25 took $95.9 million, well above the $81.2 million realized last spring and one of the highest season totals to date.

“The American art market is currently experiencing an influx of new American buyers whose enthusiastic participation is driving prices to new levels,” says Dara Mitchell, director of Sotheby’s American paintings department. Sotheby’s led with a $60 million sale on May 24, near the top of the high estimate of $62.3 million and above the $35.9 million total at Christie’s the following day. (A year-ago spring Sotheby’s and Christie’s realized $40.5 million and $40.7 million, respectively, or about 50 percent each of the season’s total.)

Both houses posted several artists’ records at auction: for Thomas Hart Benton, Maria Oakey Dewing, Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth at Sotheby’s; and for Frederick Carl Frieseke and Maxfield Parrish at Christie’s. Sotheby’s sold 186 of the 231 lots on offer; Christie’s, 120 of 140 lots.

“There is tremendous liquidity in the market. The traditional areas of Hudson River and American Impressionist paintings fared extremely well across the board,” Hollis Taggart, owner of Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, told ARTnewsletter. “It’s consistent with what has been going on all spring in the Impressionist, modern and postwar sectors. The fact that the market can absorb so much material in such a short period of time attests to its strength.”

The highest sale price was the $9.2 million given for Rockwell’s Homecoming Marine, 1945, at Sotheby’s (estimate: $3/5 million). The painting, which had appeared on the cover of the Oct. 13, 1945, issue of The Saturday Evening Post, depicts a young World War II marine sharing his experiences overseas with hometown buddies at his former workplace, an auto mechanic’s garage.

At Christie’s a 1922 oil on board, Daybreak, one of the most celebrated images by Parrish, set an artist’s record when it fetched $7.6 million (estimate: $5/7 million). Parrish was commissioned to paint Daybreak by the art publishing firm House of Art in August 1920. It was his first work commissioned solely for reproduction as a color lithograph print and became one of the most reproduced images in American history, according to Christie’s catalogue.

The record prices have amazed even experts and dealers who observed the sales. “I was somewhat surprised by the distance that the Rockwell and Parrish paintings went,” says Gavin Spanierman, director of Spanierman Galleries, New York. At the same time, he stresses the importance and quality of the works and the fact that they were created by “two major American painters.” Taggart notes that the price earned by the Rockwell picture was “astonishing” to several observers.

Another artist’s record was the $4.4 million achieved at Sotheby’s for Wyeth’s South Cushing, 1955, an image, according to the catalogue, of a “lone, dark horse in an open field [with] a distant farmhouse in the background,” generously surpassing the high estimate of $3 million.

Rose Garden, a 1901 oil by Dewing (1845-1927), sold for $2 million, at the low end of the $2/3 million estimate. However, the price—an artist’s record—almost doubled the $1.1 million achieved by the same work when offered at Sotheby’s in May 2000. At that sale the painting carried a considerably lower estimate of $200,000/300,000.

Benton’s Keith Farm, Chilmark, 1955, sold for $1.8 million, also well above expectations of $350,000/550,000 and a record for the artist. Says Sotheby’s Mitchell: “The very strong competition in today’s sale for classic works by artists such as Rockwell, Wyeth and Benton resulted in notably higher records for these and other artists as well.”

Other works that fetched strong prices: A Portrait of John Hancock, circa 1770-72, by John Singleton Copley, which took $1.7 million (estimate: $600,000/800,000); and Storm Down Pine Point Way, Old Orchard Beach, ca. 1941-43, by Marsden Hartley. The work brought $2.25 million, within the $2/3 million estimate.

At Christie’s, American paintings department head Eric Widing said the auction “marked a return to a level of saleroom exuberance we have not seen for several years, with extraordinary prices and energy throughout.”

Maxfield Parrish Scores Again

The second-highest sale at Christie’s was another oil by Parrish, The Lantern Bearers, 1908. Estimated at $1.5/2.5 million, the work earned a robust $4.27 million from an unidentified American museum. And Frieseke’s The Garden Pool, a colorful Impressionist-style scene, made a record $2.4 million (estimate: $700,000/1 million). The painting was offered from the estate of philanthropist Joan B. Kroc (1928-2003), wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc (1902-1984).

Among other top lots at Christie’s: An 1874 oil, An Orchid with an Amethyst Woodstar, by Luminist painter Martin Johnson Heade, took $1.36 million (estimate: $1/1.5 million); and Rafe’s Chasm, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1853, by Fitz Henry Lane, flew past the $400,000/600,000 estimate to realize $1.1 million from a phone bidder.

Competition was fierce, even for several works at the lower end of the price spectrum, such as two marine paintings by James Edward Buttersworth (1817-1894)—Yacht “Orion” and Yacht “Sappho” Beating to Windward. Estimated at $60,000/80,000 each, the works were pursued by bidders in the room and on the phone. Both pictures were purchased by a tenacious bidder in the saleroom, who eventually won Yacht “Orion” for $542,400 and Yacht “Sappho” for $240,000.

A painting that also sparked competition among at least three interested buyers was The Miller’s House, by George William Sotter (1879-1953). Christie’s auctioneer Christopher Burge opened the bidding just under the low estimate of $30,000, but a volley of offers quickly propelled the price up to $192,000 (estimate: $30,000/50,000).

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