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Obscure Artist, Famous Subject: $1.5M for ‘Spirit of ’76’

A top figure at the Christie’s American art sale on Nov. 30—nearly $1.5 million—was given for an artist many collectors may never have heard of before.

NEW YORK—A top figure at the Christie’s American art sale on Nov. 30—nearly $1.5 million—was given for an artist many collectors may never have heard of before.

The price paid for The Spirit of ’76, an oil painting completed in 1912 by American artist Archibald Willard (1836-1918), soared past his previous record—$343,500, for an 1875 painting with the same title, at Sotheby’s New York in 1998.

Most experts were unfazed. “It’s not based on the artist but on the subject matter,” New York dealer Debra Force told ARTnewsletter. Willard was an Ohio genre painter whose “claim to fame is The Spirit of ’76. He did several versions,” adds Force.

The painting, originally titled Yankee Doodle Dandy, depicts Revolutionary War soldiers marching into battle. Said W.F. Gordon, author of The Spirit of ’76: An American Portrait, as quoted in Christie’s catalogue: “This painting . . . has probably reached into more homes and hearts in this country than any American painting ever produced.” The presale estimate of $700,000/1 million was indicative of Christie’s high expectations for the work.

“People are concerned with quality—you don’t necessarily need a household name,” comments Gavin Spanierman, partner and director of the Spanierman Gallery, New York.

Indeed, auction-sale history points to a considerable gap between prices garnered for Spirit of ’76 and those paid for other works in the artist’s oeuvre. For instance, the third-highest auction price for Willard is $28,800, given for an 1898 ink on board, On to Havana, sold at Treadway/Toomey auctioneers in Oak Park, Ill., in 2001. Typically, says Force, works by the artist sell for “a few thousand” dollars.

Of a total of just 22 works offered at various auctions in the last decade or so, five failed to find buyers. Several have sold for under $5,000, while the least expensive work on the list, Western Landscape, fetched $316—including premium—at a 1997 auction, falling under the $500/700 estimate.

At the recent Christie’s auction, none of that was of concern to determined Spirit of ’76 buyer Jack Warner, a philanthropist and avid American art collector who in 2003 established the Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in order to house the bulk of his collection of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century art in a common location.

Darryl Thornton, a spokesman for Warner and the museum, told ARTnewsletter, “[The Spirit of ’76] is an iconic work, which Mr. Warner had determined to be of interest for the collection prior to attending the auctions.” Warner, whose grandfather Herbert E. Westervelt invented flat-bottom, brown paper grocery bags and founded the Gulf States Paper Corporation (now the Westervelt Company), purchased two other lots at Christie’s: Study of Clouds and Mist, a work on paper by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), for $72,000; and Study for Boulders of Avila, 1971, by Peter Blume (1906-992), for $114,000.

At Sotheby’s American Art sale on Nov. 29, Warner also bought a work by Maxfield Parrish, Tree on a Rock, for $632,000, the first picture by Parrish to enter the collection. All the works are earmarked for the museum’s collection, Thornton says, and will be on view shortly.

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