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American-Art Auctions Meet With Uneven Demand

Despite a considerable increase in overall sale volume, auctions of American art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s May 19–20 yielded uneven results and relatively high buy-in rates.

NEW YORK—Despite a considerable increase in overall sale volume, auctions of American art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s May 19–20 yielded uneven results and relatively high buy-in rates. At Christie’s sale 108, or 60 percent, of the 179 lots sold, yielding a total of $35million, just under the estimate of $35.9million/55.5million. Sotheby’s sold 68, or 61 percent, of 112 lots for $31.9million, within the estimate of $28million/43million. Last May Christie’s took in $16.8million for 141 lots in its American sale, while Sotheby’s took in only $15.3million for 108 lots.

The top price of the day at Christie’s was the $6.4million paid for Andrew Wyeth’s tempera-on-masonite Off Shore, 1967, which had been estimated at $1.2 million/1.8 million; another tempera by Wyeth, Blackberry Picker, 1943, also did well, earning $1.4million (estimate: $600,000/800,000).

Twelve works by Maxfield Parrish were consigned to this sale. All but two sold, and these lots amounted to slightly more than $11 million, or one-third of the sale total. Among them were an oil on board, Daybreak, 1922, which sold for $5.2million on a $4million/7million estimate, and an oil on canvas, Sing a Song of Sixpence, 1910, which sold for $2.2million, short of the $2.5million/3.5million estimate. An oil on canvas, Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, 1912, also fell short of its $1.5million/2.5million estimate, selling for $1.3million, and Sheltering Oaks, 1956, an oil on board, brought $782,500 on a $600,000/800,000 estimate. The Reservoir at Villa Falconieri, Frascati, 1903, an oil on canvas, on the other hand, surpassed its $300,000/500,000 estimate to fetch $722,500. Eric Widing, head of American paintings at Christie’s, noted that “American illustration art is being treated in a more serious and scholarly way.” Widing added that he foresees this genre becoming an ever-greater part of the house’s American sales.

There were also strong prices for Thomas Hart Benton’s tempera and oil on canvas The New Pony, 1958, which sold for $1.5million, beating its $800,000/1.2 million estimate; William Robinson Leigh’s Embarrassed (Range Pony in Town), ca. 1910, which sold for $962,500 (an auction record for the artist) on an estimate of $400,000/600,000, and Squash Blossom No. II, 1925, an oil on board by Georgia O’Keeffe, which sold for $938,500 against an estimate of $400,000/600,000.

Two lots that failed to sell, however, were N.C. Wyeth’s oil Autumn Dawn, 1915 (estimate: $200,000/300,000), and Andrew Wyeth’s watercolor Snow Birds, 1970 (estimate: $300,000/500,000).

Bernard Goldberg, the New York art dealer who closed his gallery last year after 12 years in business (ANL, 3/9/10), had consigned 65 pieces that had been in his gallery’s inventory to Christie’s American sale (all of it estimated at $300,000 or under), and 32 of them found buyers. Some lots performed well, including Elie Nadelman’s marble Duck, ca. 1927, which fetched $218,500 (estimate: $180,000/240,000); Guy Pène du Bois’s oil Place Massena, Nice, 1930, which sold for $290,500 on an estimate of $150,000/250,000, and Benton’s Martha’s Vineyard, 1950, which sold for $170,500 on an estimate of $100,000/150,000. However, Marguerite Zorach’s Night Still Life, ca. 1940 (estimate: $50,000/70,000), and Marsden Hart­ley’s oil Roses for Seagulls that Lose Their Way, 1935–36 (estimate: $300,000-500,000), both failed.

‘Ups and Downs’ at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s sales were also “up and down, across the board,” said Dara Mitchell, head of American paintings. Bidding was “not as competitive as I would have liked, and attendance was down a little bit,” she said, attributing the high buy-in rate to the news of the European bailout of the Greek economy, which led to a significant drop in the New York Stock Exchange and “gave everyone the jitters.”

Sotheby’s top lots were works by O’Keeffe. The first, Black Petunia and White Morning Glory I, 1926, sold for $4.1million, well over its $2million/3million estimate, and the second, Inside Clam Shell, 1930, fetched $3.4million (estimate: $3million/5million). Strong prices were also seen for Stuart Davis’s Café, Place des Vosges, 1929, which fetched $3.4million on a $3million/5million estimate, and for Winslow Homer’s The Return of the Gleaner, 1867, which sold for $2.2million on a $400,000/600,000 estimate.

George Luks’ Lily Williams, ca. 1909, a portrait of a young girl, sold for $1.9million, a record for the artist (estimate: $800,000/1.2million), and George Hitchcock’s Tulip Culture, 1889, sold for $1.8million, also an artist record (estimate: $700,0000/900,000). Berlin Series, No. 1, ca. 1913, an oil by Hartley, sold for $1.8million on an estimate of $1.5million/2.5million.

Frederic Remington’s bronze The Mountain Man, 1903, sold for $1.1million, clearing the $700,000/900,000 estimate, and Mary Cassatt’s pastel Mother and Child, ca. 1898–99, sold for $902,500, above its estimate of $500,000/700,000. Leon Gaspard’s painting Manchurian Forest, 1921, sold for $782,500 on an estimate of $700,000/900,000. Among the lots that did not sell were a 1904 Robert Henri portrait of Eugenie Stein estimated at $400,000/600,000 and Andrew Wyeth’s drybrush and watercolor on paper Beauty Rest, 1991, with a $600,000/800,000 estimate.

New York dealer Debra Force noted that these two auctions “don’t say anything about the overall market for art, although they may say something about the market for traditional American art, because it has a national client base, which is limited.” Perhaps, she said, these collectors are still suffering from the recent recession, “or they’re not willing to invest in art right now.”

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