ARTnewsletter Archive

Record Prices Power $122M American Art Sales

Sales of American art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s on Nov. 29-30 yielded nearly $121 million, up considerably from $95 million last November. Leading with record prices for rare works by Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Sotheby’s realized $82.8 million—generously topping the high $65 million presale estimate and well above the comparable total of

NEW YORK—Sales of American art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s on Nov. 29-30 yielded nearly $121 million, up considerably from $95 million last November. Leading with record prices for rare works by Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Sotheby’s realized $82.8 million—generously topping the high $65 million presale estimate and well above the comparable total of $63 million last year (ANL, 12/20/05, p. 2). Of 219 lots offered, 164, or 75 percent, found buyers. By value the auction was 93 percent sold.

Afterward Dara Mitchell, Sotheby’s director of American paintings, said the sale pointed to “an extremely buoyant market for the best American art, with great strength at the high end.”

Christie’s smaller sale on Nov. 30 fetched $38.18 million, exceeding last year’s total of $32 million. Of the 168 lots on offer, 145, or 86 percent, found buyers. By value the auction was 94 percent sold. Records were set for several artists, among them Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses (1860-1961) and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000).

“The market in general is incredibly strong” across a range of genres, New York dealer Hollis Taggart told ARTnewsletter, noting the high prices for fine examples of Americana, Hudson River and American modernism. Nonetheless, Taggart echoed other dealers when he said, “The quality on the market now is much less than what it used to be. It indicates to me that there is a shrinking supply of top-quality works. However, new collectors only have this material to select from, and they are willing to pay record prices.”

$26.8M Hopper Painting Stars at Sotheby’s

Several artists’ records were set at the Sotheby’s auction. The highest price by far was given for Hopper’s 1955 painting Hotel Window, consigned by actor Steve Martin, which brought $26.8 million. The work, which depicts a stylishly dressed older woman staring out the window of a hotel lobby, had been estimated at $10/15 million and carried a prestigious provenance, including exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Palazzo Reale, Naples, Italy; and the Art Institute of Chicago, among numerous venues.

The painting previously was owned by such collectors as Barbara Fleischman and her late husband, Lawrence; Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who exhibited it in Lugano, Switzerland; and publisher Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990), who paid $1.32 million for it at Sotheby’s in 1987.

Hopper works rarely appear at auction, and many of his most important paintings are in museums. “I think [Hotel Window] exceeded what most people expected,” New York dealer Debra Force told ARTnewsletter. “It was certainly a good painting but a little later in date, and the subject matter wasn’t for everyone.” Adding that the picture “proved there is a major market for Hopper,” she suggested that “certainly, if one of the earlier works” with prime subject matter were to come on the market, “one can imagine that it would sell for substantially more.”

The previous, long-standing Hopper record at auction was $2.4 million, paid for the 1930 oil South Truro Church at Sotheby’s in November 1990. That record, however, was not necessarily reflective of Hopper’s market, since works sold privately had changed hands for considerably more, experts say. (At a Christie’s evening auction in May 2005, Chair Car, 1965, drew a $14 million bid, below its $15/20 million estimate, but the sale was canceled when buyer Berry-Hill Galleries, New York, failed to meet the payment schedule; ANL, 5/24/05.)

Another new record was the $15.4 million (estimate: $4/6 million) tendered for Rockwell’s Breaking Home Ties, 1954, which depicts a father, son and family dog awaiting a train that will take the young man away to college. The final price skidded way past the previous Rockwell record, set at Sotheby’s just this past May when Homecoming Marine, 1945, won $9.2 million, upending its

$5 million high estimate (ANL, 6/6/06).

Breaking Home Ties was discovered earlier this year behind a wall in the Vermont home of the late cartoonist Don Trachte, who had bought the work from Rockwell in 1960. A replica, said to have been made by Trachte himself while in the process of divorce (reportedly, to protect his children’s inheritance), had been exhibited widely, and since the early 1970s was generally thought to be the original.

Another artist’s record among Sotheby’s top lots was the $2 million (estimate: $1/1.5 million) paid for Stand and Deliver, by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945). The painting Children Playing with a Cat, 1908, by Mary Cassatt (1845-1926), fell for $3.4 million, above the high estimate of $3 million.

Sargent Strong at Christie’s

At Christie’s the top lot was a 1908 oil portrait, Mildred Carter, by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), which sold for $3.9 million (estimate: $1.5/2.5 million). Gavin Spanierman, director and partner of Spanierman Gallery, New York, expressed surprise over the strength of the portrait’s price, noting that such works “have historically not brought that kind of money.” Overall, Spanierman told ARTnewsletter, “the sales did really well and demonstrate that that there is certainly a great demand for high-quality works. The market is robust, yet discerning.” He says this is evidenced by “the fact that works of lesser quality did poorly or failed to sell.”

The second-highest price at Christie’s was Cassatt’s circa 1899 painting Antoinette Holding Her Child by Both Hands, which went for $3.5 million. Among the top lots, artists’ records were set for Archibald Willard (1836-1978), whose best-known subject matter as exemplified in The Spirit of ’76, completed in 1912, sold for $1.47 million (estimate: $700,000/1 million) to the Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

A record also was set for Jacob Lawrence when his 1959 tempera-on-board Subway Acrobats took $968,000, more than triple the $300,000 high estimate; and for Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905), whose Duck Shooting over Decoys, 1854, fetched $856,000 (estimate: $500,000/800,000).

Another record was set for Grandma Moses when Sugaring Off, 1943, a folk-style painting depicting figures in a snow-covered landscape, sold for $1.36 million, more than double the $650,000 high estimate.

The Masterworks Foundation of Bermuda, a nonprofit organization devoted to art of the island, paid $844,800 (estimate: $300,000/500,000) for an oil on board by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Movement, Bermuda, 1916.

Commented Christie’s head of American paintings Eric Widing: “Today saw the return of saleroom exuberance in which core clients fought for top property . . . two Top 10 lots went to institutions acquiring American art from Christie’s for the first time.”