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American-Art Sales: ‘Active but Selective’ Buying

The results of the midseason auctions of American paintings, drawings and sculpture at Sotheby’s and Christie’s March 3–4 showed improvement from the sales of a year ago, with slightly higher overall volume and sell-through rates.

NEW YORK—The results of the midseason auctions of American paintings, drawings and sculpture at Sotheby’s and Christie’s March 3–4 showed improvement from the sales of a year ago, with slightly higher overall volume and sell-through rates. While the recent London auctions of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art indicated intense demand for high-end, blue-chip masterpieces by such artists as Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso (ANL, 2/23/10; see related story, page 3), observers are also keeping a close eye on ­middle-market activity in order to gauge the extent of the art market’s recovery from the economic downturn. (A report on the midseason Impressionist, modern and contemporary auctions will appear in the next issue of ARTnewsletter.)

Following Sotheby’s sale on March 3, director of fine arts and specialist in charge Jennifer Roth said the auction was distinguished by “active though selective bidding, in both the 19th- and 20th-century sections of the sale; clients knew what they wanted, and were prepared to compete.”

After Christie’s auction the next day, specialist and head of the sale Aviva Itzkowitz said that “buying was consistent across all collecting areas within the sale, including modernism, Impressionism, Western art, sculpture and the more specialized categories of maritime and sporting art.”

Sotheby’s realized a total of $2.3million for 180 lots on offer, in the middle of the estimate of $1.8million/2.7million and surpassing the $2million the house took in for 195 lots in its midseason American sale last March. In this year’s American sale, 124, or 69 percent, of the lots found buyers, compared with a 64 percent sell-through rate at last year’s auction. The sold-by-value rate was 84 percent, also an improvement on the 71 percent rate achieved last year. Christie’s realized a total of $2.4million for the 184 lots in its American-art sale on March 4, compared with $1.7million for 185 lots in last year’s sale. The result was just short of the overall estimate of $2.5million/3.7 million. Of the 185 lots on offer, 121 found buyers, yielding a ­sold-by-lot rate of 66 percent this year, slightly higher than the 63 percent achieved last year. Christie’s sold-by-value rate was 74 percent, compared with 72 percent last year.

Lachaise Leads at Sotheby’s

At Sotheby’s, the top two lots were both sculptures by Gaston Lachaise (1882–1935) from private collections. The top lot, the 63⁄4-inch-high ­nickel-plated bronze Mask of Marie Pierce, 1925, sold for $68,500, far above its $10,000/15,000 estimate, to a U.S. dealer. The mask, a hollow-backed relief, was developed from a bust-length portrait of Marie Pierce, the niece of Lachaise’s wife, Isabel Dutaud Nagle, as a modern version of the masks worn in ancient Greek tragedies.

According to the catalogue, Lachaise said that seven bronze casts of the work were sold in 1925, and the artist also issued later casts bearing a 1927 copyright. The one sold here, from the collection of Mary Schiller Meyers and Louis S. Meyers, is from the earlier group, and is one of six that have been located in the past three decades, according to the catalogue; the others are in private collections. The sellers bought the work at Sotheby’s (then Sotheby’s Parke Bernet) in New York in 1978.

The second-highest lot was Lachaise’s sculpture Dolphins, modeled in 1931 and cast in 1932, a bronze with a black patina and a greenish overcoat depicting several leaping dolphins, consigned from the estate of Mary Warburg. Estimated at $15,000/20,000, it brought $56,250 from a U.S. dealer. According to the catalogue, Lachaise completed the plaster cast for the sculpture (which is now lost) in September 1931, and shortly thereafter received an order for a bronze cast from the philanthropist and collector Edward M.M. Warburg (1908–92), a founder of the American Ballet and the Museum of Modern Art. The plaster was sent to be cast in bronze by Preissmann Bauer & Co., Munich, because that foundry was thought to be less expensive and better than U.S. foundries, the catalogue says. Warburg received the completed Dolphins by the following April, according to the catalogue.

Eclipse of the Moon in Spring, 1949, a watercolor and gouache by Charles Burchfield, also sold well above expectations, for $50,000 against an estimate of $20,000/30,000. The same price was paid for John Sloan’s oil Glimpse of New York from the Palisades, 1908, against an estimate of $25,000/35,000. Rancho del Charco, 1939, a landscape painting by Peter Hurd (1904–84) modestly estimated at $5,000/7,000, soared to $43,750, and was also sold to a U.S. dealer.

Among the more contemporary works on offer, Sailboats in a Harbor, 1976, an oil on board by LeRoy Neiman (b. 1921), sold for $53,125 against an estimate of $20,000/30,000. The painting was from the collection of the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va., which has earmarked the proceeds for the museum’s art-acquisition fund.

Six-Figure Surprises Bolster Christie’s Sale

The sale total for Christie’s auction of American art on March 4 was boosted by the presence of several paintings whose prices soared well above their high estimates. Among these was the top lot, Pony Express, 1863, an oil on canvas by French-born artist Jules Émile Saintin (1829–94), which depicts a rider armed with a rifle galloping across a Western landscape. The painting brought a price of $146,500 with premium from a European private buyer, nearly tripling its $30,000/50,000 estimate. Itzkowitz called the painting a “dramatic Western work that had been unknown to the market until its consignment from a private collection earlier this year.”

A U.S. dealer acquired Milton Avery’s semi­abstract landscape Twilight Sea, 1958, which more than doubled its $30,000/50,000 estimate to sell for $116,500. That same price was realized for White and Pink Dogwood, a floral still life by Jane Peterson (1876–1965), which carried an even lower estimate of $20,000/30,000, but leaped to the final price on the strength of its style and composition, according to Itzkowitz.

“We are delighted with such a strong price, but not necessarily surprised,” she said. The painting “has a pleasing, off-center composition that is reminiscent of Japanese screens. We had broad interest in it before the sale not only from collectors of Peter­son’s work, but also from collectors of Impres­sionist and Japanese art. It was also entirely fresh to the market, having been in the same New York family collection since before 1960.”

Other strong prices included the $92,500 paid for Torre dei Schiavi, 1847, an Italian landscape by Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900), which had been in a private collection since the late 1800s and was estimated at $25,000/35,000. Along the Shore, a seascape by Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837–1908), sold for $68,500, surpassing the estimate of $30,000/50,000. A View of Nassau in the Bahamas, a marine painting by James Edward Buttersworth (1817–94), sold for $52,500, also above its estimate ($20,000/30,000).

Results were uneven for a number of works being deaccessioned from the collections of several museums, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, N.J., and the Saint Louis Art Museum. One ­high-profile buy-in was Charles Sheeler’s tempera painting The Blue Roof, 1947, which was consigned by the Mont­clair Art Museum to benefit its acquisition fund (estimate: $60,000/80,000). The museum fared better with Mother and Child, 1920, by Joseph Floch (1894–1977), which sold for $47,500 against a modest $6,000/8,000 estimate.

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