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American-Art Sales Rebound From Year-Ago Low

Auctions of American art earlier this month at Sotheby’s and Christie’s displayed a rebound in volume and demand in comparison with the levels of a year ago.

NEW YORK—Auctions of American art earlier this month at Sotheby’s and Christie’s displayed a rebound in volume and demand in comparison with the levels of a year ago. The two houses took in a combined total of $57.4 million, a healthy increase from the $46 million reported last December (ANL, 12/23/08), but still far below the $136.5 million total of December 2007.

Christie’s had the greatest improvement, with its Dec. 2 sale posting a total of $32.36 million, up from $20.6 million last year. Of 138 lots offered, 90, or 65 percent, were sold. Sotheby’s sale on Dec. 3 yielded a total of $25.1 million, on par with the $25.5 million total of last year. Of the 101 lots on offer, 76, or 75 percent, found buyers; by value the auction was 91 percent sold.

“I thought the sales were strong and very positive,” Louis Salerno, owner of Questroyal Fine Art, New York, told ARTnewsletter. Salerno said he bought about five works for inventory at the auctions but was outbid on several others. “There has been an absence of real quality since the recession began,” he said, “and the few pieces that are genuinely great are very much sought after. This lack of supply is a great sign of strength in the market. It means people will only sell what they have to sell.”

Christie’s sale was led by Above the Narrows, 1960, a somber painting by Andrew Wyeth depicting the lone figure of the artist’s son Nick Wyeth from behind, looking out over the Saint George River in Maine. It was offered from the collection of Wall Street titan Jack Dreyfus Jr., who acquired it shortly after it was painted from the Knoedler Gallery, New York. Estimated at $3 million/5 million, it sold to a European collector for $6.9 million—the second-highest price for a work by the artist at auction—after a protracted bidding war.

A 1902 pastel-on-paper study by Mary Cassatt for Young Mother Sewing, consigned from a French private collection, sold to an American buyer for $2.4 million, doubling its estimate of $800,000/1.2 million. Another work by Cassatt, the oil on canvas Françoise Wearing a Big White Hat, ca. 1908, sold for $842,500, within the $700,000/1 million estimate. An 1815 still life by Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825) sold above its $300,000/500,000 estimate, also for $842,500.

Eric Widing, Christie’s head of American paintings, said the sale was notable for “collectors returning to the saleroom to bid with vigor and enthusiasm on many of our top lots.” Widing called the sale results “by far the best we have seen in American art for over a year.”

Other top lots at Christie’s included Charles Prendergast’s Three Panel Screen, ca. 1916–17, which sold for $1.2 million against a $1 million/1.5 million estimate, and Albert Bierstadt’s oil on canvas Mountainous Landscape by Moonlight, 1871, which sold for $1.1 million, short of the estimate of $1.2 million/1.8 million. John Singer Sargent’s portrait Mademoiselle Suzanne Poirson, 1884, sold for $1.02 million, just clearing the $1 million high estimate with premium.

At Sotheby’s, the top lot was The White Dory, Gloucester, 1895, a soft oil on canvas by Childe Hassam depicting an elegantly dressed woman in a rowboat. Estimated at $2.5 million/3.5 million, the work sold for $3.7 million to a U.S. collector. A record was set for a work by Thomas Hart Benton when Little Brown Jug, ca. 1941, sold for $2.4 million, triple the $600,000/800,000 estimate.

Other lots that sold far above expectations included Marsden Hartley’s Mountains No. 22, 1930, which sold for $2.1 million (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million), and Robert Henri’s portrait Mary Agnes, 1924, which sold for $1.5 million (estimate: $400,000/600,000).

Dara Mitchell, Sotheby’s director of American paintings, said the result was encouraging given the uncertain market. “We were fortunate this season to have a high-quality selection of property from estates and private collections that was extremely fresh,” she said. “Many of the works had been off the market for several decades.”

Bonhams also held a New York sale of Ameri­can art on Dec. 2, which realized $2 million. Of 114 lots offered, 61, or 54 percent, were sold. By value, the auction was 70 percent sold. The top lot was The Crossword Puzzle, an oil by Norman Rockwell, which sold for $578,000, within the $400,000/600,000 estimate.

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