ARTnewsletter Archive

Selective Buying at Autumn American Art Auctions

Fall auctions of American art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s realized $50.4 million, up from $48.2 million, but still well below the $57.4 million achieved in the 2009 sales.

NEW YORK—Fall auctions of American art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s realized $50.4 million, up from $48.2 million, but still well below the $57.4 million achieved in the 2009 sales.

Though levels have improved somewhat since the market doldrums of recent years, experts say that collectors remain extremely selective when it comes to American paintings. American art dealer Debra Force told ARTnewsletter: “It’s clear that for the best material out there, there are people to buy. At the most expensive level, it’s still a strong market. For some of the lesser material, there are still buyers as well. The area that is suffering is the low-to-mid-six-figure range. That element for the collecting arena seems to be very soft right now.”

Christie’s sale on Nov. 30 realized $25.8 million for 136 lots offered, up from last year’s $21.2 million for 148 lots. Six of the top lots sold for more than $1 million each.

The sale was led by Oscar Bluemner’s colorful, serene landscape painting titled Illusion of a Prairie, New Jersey (Red Farm at Pochuck), 1915, which rose far higher than its $2 million/3 million estimate to sell for $5.3 million, a new record for the artist.

Frederic Edwin Church’s Twilight, 1863, never before offered at auction, sold for $3.2 million (estimate: $1 million/1.5 million) to the Caldwell Gallery, Manlius, N.Y. Two works by Georgia O’Keeffe were included among the top lots, with both landing within expected presale estimate ranges. My Autumn, 1929, sold for $2.8 million against an estimate of $2 million/3 million. The consignor had acquired the work at Christie’s auction in 1995 for $937,500, compared with an estimate of $600,000/800,000. And O’Keeffe’s Black Iris, 1936, sold for $1.4 million, compared with an estimate of $1.2 million/1.8 million.

Other top sellers included Marsden Hartley’s Movement, Sails, 1916, an oil on board that sold for $1.8 million on an estimate of $1 million/1.5 million. The painting is one of the “earliest and most advanced Cubist paintings produced in America,” according to Christie’s catalogue.

A painting by Emmanuel Leutze, Departure of Columbus from Palos in 1492, painted in 1855, sold for $1.1 million, falling under the presale estimate of $1.2 million/1.8 million. John Singer Sargent’s Venetian watercolor scene, The Piazzetta with Gondolas, ca. 1902–4, sold above the $600,000/800,000 estimate for $842,500.

A new auction record was set for artist Louis Ritman when his Impressionst-style oil painting, In The Garden, sold for $542,500, compared with an estimate of $250,000/350,000.

Also bringing prices at the high end of their estimates were Milton Avery’s oil Nude on the Beach, 1943, which sold for $506,500, just above the $300,000/500,000 estimate, and N.C. Wyeth’s Black Spruce Lodge (Lobstering Off Black Spruce Lodge), 1939, a tempera on panel, which sold for $482,500, compared with an estimate of $250,000/350,000.

At Sotheby’s sale on Dec. 1 there were 111 lots offered, and 79, or 71 percent, were sold. A total of seven lots sold for over $1 million each, and many of the top-selling lots far exceeded their presale estimates. Overall the sale realized $24.6 million, compared with last year’s total of $27 million for 133 lots offered.

The top lot was Hartley’s brightly colored, Untitled (Still Life), 1919, a view of a vase of flowers atop a red and white striped tablecloth and the New Mexico landscape visible through the open window behind. It sold for $3.2 million, far higher than the $700,000/900,000 estimate.

Martin Johnson Heade’s Orchids and Hummingbirds, ca. 1875–90, also outstripped expectations, selling for just under $2 million on an estimate of $500,000/700,000. And John La Farge’s Red Hollyhocks, ca. 1863, yet another floral painting, sold for $1.9 million, against an estimate of $500,000/700,000.

Western painter George Catlin’s Interior of a Mandan Lodge, 1830–32, offered from the collection of the Field Museum, Chicago, sold for $1.5 million, just above the $800,000/1.2 million estimate. Three other works by Catlin from the Field Museum collection, all of which had once been in the collection of William Clark’s nephew Benjamin O’Fallon, also landed in the top prices, though some fell short of their estimates. The Catlin works included: Buffalo Chase, A Surround by the Hidatsa, 1830–32, which sold for $1.1 million, nearing the high end of the $800,000/1.2 million estimate; One Horn, Head Chief of the Miniconjou Tribe, Teton Dakota (Western Sioux), 1830–32, which brought $962,500, missing the low end of the $1 million/1.5 million estimate; and Black Hawk, Prominent Sauk Chief, Sauk and Fox, 1830-32, also bringing $962,500 and falling short of the low $1 million estimate. In all, the Catlin works realized $4.6 million.

Norman Rockwell’s Couple with Milkman, 1935, fell within expectations, selling for $1.4 million (estimate: $1.2 million/1.8 million). Winslow Homer’s Orange Trees and Gate, 1885, a watercolor, sold for $1.3 million, far higher than the $500,000/700,000 estimate.