On Thursday, the Sotheby’s New York auction of property from the estates of modernist icons Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz brought in $17.2 million. The sale far surpassed its presale high estimate of $13.3 million with an offering of 95 artworks, photographs, and rare ephemera that saw a solid 87 percent sell-through rate. The house also announced that Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library acquired a grouping of photographs and literature through private sale for the school’s Stieglitz/O’Keeffe archival collection in advance of the public auction. The works were consigned from the collection of fellow artist and O’Keeffe confidant Juan Hamilton.
Among the highest-selling lots was O’Keeffe’s Nature Forms – Gaspé (1931), which sold for $6.9 million, exceeding its high estimate of $6 million. The painting has been broadly exhibited at major institutions around the country, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum. But lesser-known works also sold big: O’Keeffe’s sculpture Abstraction, first cast in 1946 and featuring a white spiral design, drew $668,000, double its $300,000 high estimate.
At auction, O’Keeffe’s work has outperformed other American modernists in her circle, including Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, and peaked demand across several collecting categories, among them contemporary, American, Impressionist and modern sales in past seasons. More recently, her work has set records at auction. In May 2014, her 1932 painting Jimson weed/White flower no. 1 set the artist’s auction record at $44 million, nearly tripling its high estimate of $15 million; and in 2018, a 1926 urban landscape featuring a street-level view of New York skyscrapers reached $13.3 million in Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale.
Among the personal effects from the artist’s holdings that were auctioned on Thursday was a black-and-white custom-made dress, which sold for $25,000, more than doubling its high estimate of $10,000. A 2017 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York that focused on O’Keeffe’s sartorial interests and her role as photography muse may have sparked increased interest in the piece. Also offered at Sotheby’s last week was the 1924 marriage certificate for O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz; bearing artist John Marin’s signature, it sold for $15,000.
The Yale library acquisition includes a group of writings, scrapbooks, and ephemera documenting O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s decades-long relationship. Among them was a manuscript for “My Eyes and Painting,” a set of O’Keeffe’s writings on her changing eyesight in the later stages of her career; the artist’s address book, which she began to use in 1926; and a file of 300 handwritten recipe cards collected from the 1950s–70s.
Photography, books, and manuscripts tend to sell for less than paintings and sculptures at auction, but they serve to enhance an artist’s aura and output. This may account for buyers’ going in big for photography at this particular auction. Two iconic Stieglitz editions sold here: the first, his 1933 Georgia O’Keeffe – Hand and Wheel, showing the artist’s hand laid atop the fender of her Ford V-8 convertible coupe, achieved $400,000, in the middle of its $300,000–$500,000 estimate; the second, his famous 1923 Spiritual America, took in $218,750, more than twice its $90,000 high estimate. Selling for $62,000 was a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, signed and inscribed by painter Marsden Hartley, who acquired the book during his time in Europe before creating his seminal “Amerika” series.