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Selective Buying at Smaller American Art Sales

Auctions of American art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York on May 20–21 realized a combined total of $32.1 million, reflecting the recent auction performance of most other genres, for which volume has dropped sharply but for which individual prices have remained solid.

NEW YORK—Auctions of American art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York on May 20–21 realized a combined total of $32.1million, reflecting the recent auction performance of most other genres, for which volume has dropped sharply but for which individual prices have remained solid. The combined total for last spring’s American sales was $159.6million, a result that startled even auction-house officials, who admitted they were surprised at the buoyancy of the market in the worsening economic situation at that point (ANL, 6/10/08). A smaller auction of American paintings at Bonhams’ New York showroom on May 20 brought in a total of $2.2million, which was well below the estimate of $3.1million/4.6million, but scored several strong individual prices.

This year Christie’s auction, on May 20, produced a total of $16.8million, falling short of the estimate of $20million/30million, with 88, or 62 percent, of the 141 lots finding buyers. The result was a fraction of the $72.6million taken in at Christie’s last year with 140 lots offered. Sotheby’s sale on May 21 had similar results, earning $15.3million, under the $16.4million/24.3million estimate, with 66, or 62 percent, of the 107 lots finding buyers. Sotheby’s sale last year brought in $87million with 214 lots on offer.

Manhattan American-art dealer Debra Force noted that almost 40 percent of the lots in each sale did not find buyers. “That seems to be the norm now in American art sales,” she told ARTnewsletter, though she attributed some of the low sell-through rate in the spring auctions to the “dearth of outstanding material.” A few lots commanded “a lot of competition,” she said, but on many of the lots in the sales there were few bidders, and “in some cases, just one.” New York art dealer Gavin Spanierman said that the high buy-in rates at both auctions reflect the continuing recession. “It means that people are not going to pay the amounts the auctioneers are estimating them to be,” he told ARTnewsletter.

The top lot of Christie’s sale was Sketching by the Sea, 1944, a 28-by-36-inch oil by Milton Avery, which brought in $2.2million, far surpassing the estimate of $600,000/800,000. The painting, one of five works by the artist in the sale, had been consigned by an estate and was purchased by a private collector in the saleroom to a round of applause. The price was the second-highest public sale price for a work by Avery. The record price of $2.5million was paid for the oil The Reader and the Listener, 1945, at Sotheby’s in November 2007 (ANL, 12/11/07).

Other top prices in the Christie’s sale include the $1.8million paid for Albert Bierstadt’s oil Oregon Trail (estimate: $2million/3million); $1million for Thomas Cole’s oil View in Kaaterskill Clove, 1826 (estimate: $800,000/1.2million); $962,500 for George Bellows’s Cloud Shadows, 1913 (estimate: $600,000/800,000); $662,500 for Marsden Hartley’s oil New Mexico, 1919 (estimate: $500,000/700,000); and $662,500 for Eastman Johnson’s oil The Old Mount Vernon, 1857 (estimate: $600,000/800,000).

Works by Western artists did particularly well in the sale, including Charles H. Humphriss’s bronze sculpture The Sun Dial, which sold for $76,900 against an estimate of $20,000/30,000, and Edwin Willard Deming’s oil Dance at San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, which brought $56,250 on an estimate of $30,000/50,000. Early Morning, Annisquam, Massachusetts, 1900, by Eric Pape (1870–1938) sold for $62,500, below the $70,000/100,000 estimate. All three were record prices for the artists.

Eric Widing, head of American paintings at Christie’s, said that “many of the top lots sold above their high estimates, demonstrating that collectors of American art are eager to compete for rare works of high quality.” He noted that eight of the top ten works in the sale were fresh to the market from public and private collections.

Among the unsold lots was Untitled (Mountain Wood Gatherers), circa 1926, an oil painting by New Mexican artist Ernest Leonard Blumen­schein (estimate: $1.5million/2.5million).

Hassam Returns to the Block at Sotheby’s

Childe Hassam’s oil Paris, Winter Day, 1887, was the top lot, selling for $2.3million to a private collector on an estimate of $1.5million/2.5million. Although that was a high price, it was well under the $3.9million winning bid that collector Halsey Minor made for the work in Sotheby’s May 2008 American sale.

Minor bought the Hassam and two other works in that sale, most notably Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, but the lots became the subject of a legal battle between Minor and the auction house that has yet to be resolved (ANL, 9/16/08). According to Dara Mitchell, director of American paintings at Sotheby’s, the executors of the estate from which the Hassam was originally consigned in 2008 needed to clear probate. The consignor decided to put the work back up for sale in this year’s auction, a decision Sotheby’s accepted. “We were frank with people about the circumstances of this painting,” Mitchell said, noting that none of the underbidders from last year’s sale were involved in the bidding this year.

Other strong prices in the sale include $1.1million, paid for Country Fair, 1950 (estimate: $700,000/900,000), an oil by Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson); $962,500 for Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s bronze The Vine, 1923, an auction record for the artist (estimate: $400,000/600,000); and $752,500 for Walter Ufer’s oil The Red Moccasins, 1917 (estimate: $400,000/600,000).

Andrew Wyeth’s tempera on panel Buzzard’s Glory, 1968, sold within its $600,000/800,000 estimate for $722,500, and Charles Marion Russell’s oil Buffalo Hunting, 1894, sold for $458,500 on an estimate of $400,000/600,000.

Mitchell said that the Grandma Moses painting was “more of a barometer of the state of the art market” than the Hassam. She noted that Country Fair had last been sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 1993, when it took a record price of $220,000 against an estimate of $200,000/300,000. “We’re in the middle of a recession, in a very difficult market, and this work brings a million dollars,” she pointed out.

Among the lots that did not find a buyer was Winslow Homer’s watercolor Spanish Moss at Tampa, 1886 (estimate: $600,000/800,000).

Manhattan dealer Louis Salerno, owner of Questroyal Fine Art, told ARTnewsletter that he saw “not very much of high quality” in either sale, which he took as “a good sign, because it means that collectors are holding on to their more valuable pieces, waiting for prices to improve.”

Still, Salerno was an active bidder in the auctions, purchasing Hassam’s Newport, 1901 (estimate: $500,000/700,000), at Sotheby’s for $902,500 and Jasper Francis Cropsey’s View of Sugar Loaf Mountain from the Artist’s Home, 1875, at Christie’s for $70,900 (estimate: $80,000/120,000), as well as five other works.

At Bonhams the top price was the $1.3million paid for Frederic Edwin Church’s Twilight in the Tropics, just within the $1.2million/1.8million estimate. There were only two bidders for the work, one in the room and the other on the telephone, according to Alan Fausel, Bonhams’ head of American paintings. Other top prices were the $314,000 paid for Richard Edward Miller’s The Plaid Skirt (estimate: $200,000/300,000), and $206,000 for William Glackens’s Boys with Sled, Washington Square (estimate: $200,000/300,000). Only 51, or 56 percent, of the 84 lots were sold.

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