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American Art Sales: Signs of Improvement

Volume at this month’s American art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, Dec. 1–2, dropped to $48.2 million from year-ago levels of $57.4 million (ANL, 12/15/09).

NEW YORK—Volume at this month’s American art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, Dec. 1–2, dropped to $48.2 million from year-ago levels of $57.4 million (ANL, 12/15/09). However, numerous six-figure prices were recorded, with Sotheby’s selling six works for over $1 million each and Christie’s scoring three sales at the million-plus level; specialists said private buyers dominated the sales, particularly at the high end. The overall market for American paintings “is still off the highs,” seen a few years ago, said Louis Salerno, owner of New York–based Questroyal Fine Art and an active buyer at the latest series of auctions. “But there are signs of improvement,” he added.

Christie’s sale on Dec. 1 took in $21.2 million for 148 lots offered. Of these, 96, or 65 percent, found buyers. By value the auction was 76 percent sold. The top lot was Frank Weston Benson’s oil portrait Two Little Girls, 1903, estimated at $1.5 million/2.5 million, which sold for $2.1 million to the Caldwell Gallery in Manlius, New York. Gallery co-owner Joseph Caldwell III said the gallery does not discuss particular acquisitions, but did comment, “I think there’s a little bit of strength coming back into the market but there are still a lot of paintings selling at their low estimates, even for major artists.”

Eight of Christie’s top ten lots were acquired by private buyers. Said Eric Widing, the house’s head of American paintings: “Much like our major evening sales in New York last month, this sale was dominated by private collectors, who returned to the saleroom in force along with a crop of new buyers.”

John Singer Sargent’s Ricordi di Capri, 1878, a depiction of peasant life on the Italian island of Capri, was the second-highest lot, selling for $1.65 million, compared with an estimate of $1.5 million/2.5 million. It was followed by Georgia O’Keeffe’s colorful flower painting Canna Red and Orange, 1926, which sold for $1.4 million against an estimate of $1.2 million/1.8 million.

Maurice Prendergast’s Fountain, Central Park, n.d., a watercolor and pencil on paper, sold for $782,500, falling within the estimate of $700,000/1 million. All three were acquired by private American collectors.

John Frederick Kensett’s New England Sunrise, ca. 1863, an oil painting estimated at $500,000/700,000, sold for $662,500 to Salerno.

Among other works he purchased for Questroyal’s inventory: Thomas Moran’s oil painting On the Grand Canal, 1887, which went for $96,100 (estimate: $60,000/80,000); George Inness’s night scene Nine O’Clock, 1891, which sold for $338,500, compared with an estimate of $150,000/250,000; and another Inness painting, Palisades on the Hudson, ca. 1876, which sold for $140,500 (estimate: $120,000/180,000). Salerno said he also bought works at Sotheby’s and Bonhams during the week. “The reason I was aggressive is that I’m very optimistic about the market continuing to improve over the next year or two. I’m anxious to acquire high-quality works. There are good opportunities now.”

Describing the overall atmosphere at the sales, Salerno added that where the works “were most desirable and in satisfactory condition, you really had to battle to buy them. The paintings that sort of missed the mark,” did so for a reason; the results underscore the “selective nature of the market.”

Sotheby’s sale on Dec. 2 totaled $27 million for 133 lots offered. Of these, 89, or 67 percent, were sold. By value the sale was 86 percent sold.

The top lot was featured on the cover of the catalogue, Edmund Charles Tarbell’s Child and Boat (Child with Boat, Girl with Sailboat), 1899, which surpassed its $2 million/3 million estimate to sell for $4.2 million to a private buyer.

Two paintings by Winslow Homer figured in the house’s top lots, including Peach Blossoms, 1879, which had been in the same collection since 1968. It sold for $2.9 million, just missing the low end of the $3 million/5 million estimate. Meanwhile, Girl Reading on a Stone Porch, 1872, slightly exceeded expectations, selling for $1.3 million against an estimate of $800,000/1.2 million. Childe Hassam’s Rainy Day, New York, 1892, more than doubled estimates ($500,000/700,000) to sell for $1.5 million.

Charles Burchfield, the subject of a major recent show at the Whitney Museum of American Art curated by contemporary artist Robert Gober, was also in the top-selling lots. Main Street, Salem, Winter Day, 1917, sold for $962,500, well above the $400,000/600,000 estimate. All but one of the top lots at Sotheby’s were bought by private collectors.y

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