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‘Extraordinary’ Offerings Fuel $160M American Sales

Sales of American art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s (May 21-22) realized a combined total of $159.6 million, up substantially from the $111.2 million total recorded last spring (ANL, 6/12/07).

NEW YORK—Sales of American art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s (May 21-22) realized a combined total of $159.6 million, up substantially from the $111.2 million total recorded last spring (ANL, 6/12/07). Christie’s offered 140 lots, selling 111, or 79 percent, and earning $72.6 million, above its presale estimate of $44.2 million/65.4 million and well above the $55.4 million total reached last spring. Sotheby’s earned more—$87 million, above its presale estimate of $52.6 million/77.2 million—but had 74 more lots in its auction, and its buy-in percentage was just under 18 percent. The total was also considerably higher than the previous $55.8 million sale last May.

Overall, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s had “very healthy sales,” Gavin Spanierman of New York’s Spanierman Gallery told ARTnewsletter. “Things of extraordinary quality did quite well; things of not extraordinary quality brought appropriate prices,” Spanierman said, adding that the market for American art is strong and “there is still plenty of money in America. The sales at the auction houses were proof of that. It’s the middle of the market—the lesser-known artists whose works are priced in the middle range—that has been affected a great deal” by the downturn in the U.S. economy.

“These sales don’t seem to reflect the economic climate at all,” Dara Mitchell, head of Sotheby’s American paintings department, told ARTnewsletter. “We went into it very concerned and uncertain what would happen; we know that this is a very American market, not a global one, and that no Russian or Chinese collectors would come in to keep the prices up. I was very surprised just how much activity and depth of bidding there was—not just two bidders, but five or six bidders all competing.”

The positive results came as less of a surprise to Manhattan-based American art dealer Louis Salerno of Questroyal Fine Art, who told ARTnewsletter, “The world of art attracts a stratum of society that isn’t affected as severely as others. They will buy pieces of art they are passionate about.”

Salerno said he purchased four paintings during the two days of sales, three at Christie’s—Thomas Moran’s A Side Canyon, Grand Canyon, Arizona, 1905, for $541,000 (estimate: $600,000/800,000) and two by Milton Avery, Bather, 1952, for $193,000 (estimate: $60,000/80,000) and Dawning Sun, 1962, for $259,000 (estimate: $100,000/150,000)—and one at Sotheby’s, Albert Bierstadt’s Home of the Rainbow, Horseshoe Falls, Niagara, circa 1880s, for $361,000 (estimate: $250,000/350,000). Salerno did not specify whether the works were acquired for clients or for inventory.

Leading the Sotheby’s sale was Edward Hicks’s The Peaceable Kingdom with the Leopard of Serenity, circa 1846–48, which earned $9.7 million, outstripping its $6 million/8 million estimate and setting records for American folk art, Americana and for Hicks himself all at once. The painting had been on long-term loan to the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, but when its owner, jewelry dealer Ralph Esmerian, found himself deeply in debt, according to legal documents, he consigned the Hicks in order to raise money. Since Esmerian had pledged the painting to Sotheby’s as collateral for an $11.5 million loan, the $8.6 million hammer price of The Peaceable Kingdom will be applied to that debt, according to an auction house spokesperson.

Other top earners in the sale include William Merritt Chase’s I Think I Am Ready Now (The Mirror, The Pink Dress), circa 1883, which brought a record price for the artist of $6.6 million (estimate: $1.5 million/2.5 million); Frederic Remington’s bronze sculpture The Wounded Bunkie, 1896, which set a record for the artist at $5.6 million (estimate: $3 million/5 million); Childe Hassam’s Paris, Winter Day, 1887, which garnered $3.96 million (estimate: $2.5 mil¬lion/3.5 million); Maxfield Parrish’s The Canyon, 1923, which drew $2.8 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million); and William Sidney Mount’s The Ramblers, 1847, which brought a record price for the artist of $2.28 million (estimate: $2 million/3 million). Charles Coleman’s Azaleas and Apple Blossoms, 1878, earned a record price for the artist of $2.3 million, and was notable for far surpassing Sotheby’s modest $500,000/700,000 estimate. It was bought by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Birch, Lazzell Fly Past Estimates

A number of lots went well above estimate, including Thomas Birch’s maritime painting USS United States vs. HMS Macedonian, circa 1813, which sold for $481,000 against an estimate of $125,000/175,000; Blanche Lazzell’s Painting XI (The Windmill), 1928, which brought $505,000 against an estimate of $100,000/150,000; Stuart Davis’s The Music Hall, 1910, which garnered $2.8 million against an estimate of $500,000/700,000; and Nicolai Fechin’s Tea in Santa Monica (Portrait of Mrs. Krag), 1923, which fetched $909,000 compared with an estimate of $200,000/300,000.

A few lots for which Sotheby’s held higher expectations went unsold, including two paintings by Maurice Prendergast—Snowy Day, Boston, circa 1907-9 (estimate: $500,000/700,000), and Holiday, Headlands, circa 1900-5 (estimate: $200,000/300,000)—and Charles Marion Russell’s The Battle at Belly River, 1905 (estimate: $400,000/600,000).

Both the Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales spanned a number of categories. Sotheby’s auction included folk art, illustration art (two Norman Rockwell paintings found buyers at $909,000 and $1 million), Western art, and contemporary Western art (a 1999 Howard Terpning painting exceeded its $300,000/500,000 estimate, taking $909,000).

Eclectic Offerings at Christie’s

Christie’s auction included 24 Western paintings from the estate of Arizona collector Arthur J. Stegall Jr. and three maritime oils—including two racing scenes by James Edward Buttersworth, Ariel with Josephine Behind, 1849 (estimate: $150,000/250,000), and Josephine with Ariel Behind (estimate: $120,000/180,000), which earned $217,000 and $157,000, respectively.

Christie’s sale also saw a number of record-¬setting prices, including $17.7 million for Moran’s 1878 oil Green River of Wyoming, which set a new high for 19th-century American art and surpassed the auctioneer’s $3.5 mil¬lion/5 million estimate.

A similar, though slightly larger, 1880 painting of the same subject by the artist had been sold at Christie’s in 1994 for $2.4 million. “We knew that the market has come up since then,” said Eric Widing, head of American paintings at Christie’s, “but we had no idea where it was going.” Bidding “quieted down” at the $10 million point, he says, and all but two bidders dropped out; however, the remaining two bidders doggedly pursued the work. It was eventually won by Avery Galleries, Bryn Mawr, Pa.

Other top prices were the record $7.3 million paid for Bierstadt’s 1862 Indians Spear Fishing (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million); $6.3 million for Marsden Hartley’s 1915 oil Lighthouse (estimate: $5 million/7 million), a record for American modernism; $5.6 million for Hassam’s Spring in Central Park, 1908, (estimate: $2.5 mil¬lion/3.5 million); and $2.5 million for Moran’s oil A Passing Shower in the Yellowstone Cañon, 1903 (estimate: $1.5 million/2.5 million).

New auction records were also set for George Inness, whose Sunset on the River, 1867, brought $1.94 million (estimate: $600,000/800,000); Walter Ufer, whose The Gateway, 1918, earned $1.5 million (estimate: $500,000/700,000); and Joseph Henry Sharp, whose The Medicine Teepee, 1903, took $1.5 million (estimate: $500,000/700,000).

One work that exceeded estimates to a surprising degree was Colin Campbell Cooper’s oil New York Public Library, which sold for $881,000 against a $120,000/180,000 estimate. Widing noted intense bidding for the work. Christie’s was also pleased with the $1.16 million earned by Edward Henry Potthast’s painting At the Beach (estimate: $300,000/500,000). “There hadn’t been a Potthast on the market for a while, so we put a conservative estimate on it,” Widing said.

Among the higher-priced lots that failed to sell was Mary Cassatt’s Madame H. de Fleury and Her Child, circa 1890–91 (estimate: $3 mil¬lion/5 million), and John Singer Sargent’s oil portrait Elsie Wagg (estimate: $1.5 mil¬lion/2.5 million).

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