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Sharp Drop in Volume at American Art Auctions As Buyers Pull Back

Sales were rocky in auctions of American art at Sotheby's and Christie's on Dec. 3–4 and at the American Art Fair at the National Academy and School of Fine Arts on Dec. 1–4.

NEW YORK—Sales were rocky in auctions of American art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s on Dec. 3–4 and at the American Art Fair at the National Academy and School of Fine Arts on Dec. 1–4.

Combined totals at the auction houses were about $46million, down from a record $136.5million last year, and the auctions were less than 60 percent sold through, both in the number of lots and the estimated values for the sales. Dealers at the fair said they were pleased with the turnout and interest of visitors, but reported few immediate sales.

At Sotheby’s, the $25.5million total included a record-setting top lot, Francis A. Silva’s Sunrise at Tapan Zee, 1874, a landscape from the collection of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz Jr., which was bought by an American collector for $2.7million, above its $2million high estimate. Among the other top lots, an auction record was also set with the $1.2million paid by an unnamed American museum for Robert Walter Weir’s painting Greenwich Boat Club, 1833, which was estimated at $400,000/600,000.

American modernism also figured among the top lots, with two paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and single works by Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis and John Marin all selling within their six-figure estimates. The Davis, Still Life with Map, New Mexico, 1923, which had been in the collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller, was sold to a museum; the others went to private collectors.

Two portraits by Russian-American artist Nicolai Fechin—Portrait of Duane, 1926, which sold within estimate for $902,500, and Nude Woman, 1923, which at $872,500 exceeded its $700,000 high estimate—were acquired by an anonymous buyer.

A more modestly priced work by Silva, October on the Hudson, 1875, failed to sell at Sotheby’s against an estimate of $400,000/600,000, but other works from the Ganz collection did find buyers, including Riva–Lago di Garda, 1863, an Italian cityscape by Hudson River School painter Sanford Robinson Gifford, which went within estimates for $242,500. Another Gifford work, Long Branch Beach, 1867, sold below estimate for $602,500. Other highlights at Sotheby’s included a Winslow Homer work on paper consigned by St. John’s College, Annapolis, Md. The 81⁄4-by-131⁄2-inch gouache-and-pencil drawing of sailboats seen from the shore doubled its high estimate when New York dealer Louis Salerno, owner of Questroyal Fine Art, purchased it for $242,500 (estimate: $80,000/120,000).

A pastel-on-paper drawing by Maurice B. Prendergast, Sunset, Boston, circa 1895–96, estimated at $400,000/600,000, failed to sell, as did a John Singer Sargent watercolor, Summer on the Guidecca, which was estimated at $1.5million/2.5million.

At Christie’s, the sale realized $20.6million, and while some high-priced lots failed to sell, others set auction records. The top lot was In Pastures New, 1895, a gouache-on-paper study of Native American life by Henry F. Farny, which sold near its high estimate for $1.4million. A Childe Hassam watercolor, Fifth Avenue, was the second-highest lot, selling at the low end of its estimate for $1.3million to the Maxwell Davidson Gallery, and another Hassam watercolor depicting New York City, Fifth Avenue, Evening, also came in among the top ten lots, selling within estimate for $902,500. Records were also set for works on paper by Grant Wood and Andrew Wyeth: Wood’s charcoal-on-paperboard Study for “February” sold to Michael Altman Fine Art & Advisory Services for $1.1million, well over its $600,000 high estimate, and Wyeth’s watercolor-and-pencil Cider Barrel just exceeded its $700,000 high estimate, selling to dealer Ann Richards Nitze for $782,500.

Among the prominent lots at Christie’s that failed to sell were a watercolor and an oil by Homer. The watercolor, After the Rain, Prouts Neck, 1887, was estimated at $2.5million/3.5million; the oil, the 8-by-13-inch Shepherd Girl Resting, circa 1878, was estimated at $1million/1.5million. A medieval-themed oil by Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, The Return from the Tournament, 1841, consigned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and estimated at $2million/3million, also failed to sell.

Salerno, who specializes in Hudson River School works, told ARTnewsletter that in addition to the Homer work on paper he had bought 16 other lots in the sales. “I spent nearly $2million,” he said. “I don’t know when things are going to get better, but I have an unswerving belief that things will get better.” Salerno commented that the current market makes for a “different dynamic,” in which dealers are able to build their inventory. He reported that the Homer work he bought was resold “within days,” and added that he had also made some sales at the American Art Fair.

New York dealer Bernard Goldberg said the art fair—which was organized by Alexander Gallery and Thomas Colville Fine Art, who then invited nine others to participate—”was wonderful mostly because of the people that came through.” He added, however, “I don’t know that there were any great sales made.”

Gerald Peters, a dealer with galleries in Santa Fe, N.M., and New York, told ARTnewsletter that the fair “was a marvelous idea, very well executed. Attendance was spectacular, but we didn’t make an actual sale. It’s a sea change, without question.”

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