American Paintings Auctions Fall 1998

Frank Benson's quite abstract "Dawn on the York," sold for $820,000,

not including the buyer's premium, at Christie's,

far above its high estimate of $500,000

Christie’s

Dec. 2, 1998

Sotheby’s

Dec. 3, 1998

By Carter B. Horsley

The Fall 1998 important auctions of American Paintings at Christie’s and Sotheby’s were quite strong, but selective, an indication that the art market had survived the sharp decline at the end of the summer in the stock markets.

The robust recovery of the stock markets came only as the art market season began in earnest and none too soon to settle the considerable nervousness in the art market. The spring sales had been fine and were pushing the market close to historic highs.

There was little doubt that the art market was still vibrant given the fact that some of the earlier fall auctions had some remarkable sales such as $71 million for a not terribly great self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, $15 million for a nice Modigliani, and more than $3 million for a large Basquiat painting.

The American paintings auctions this fall were full of surprises as many routine paintings by secondary artists fetched astounding prices and great works by important artists faltered, a reflection of the vagaries of the market and the naiveté of many well-to-do collectors who seek decorative rather than seminal, or interesting, works. True connoisseurs, of course, tend to avoid the tired cliché formula paintings and value the unusual, the mysterious and provocative, or difficult works. Such works, however, do not reach the market regularly.

For the past couple of decades Sotheby’s and Christie’s have usually come up with quite similar offerings, at least in terms of number of lots, but this season, Christie’s came up quite short offering only 131 lots in one catalogue compared to 310 lots in two catalogues at Sotheby’s. One of the Sotheby’s catalogues was devoted to 72 pictures from the Masco Corporation.

Christie’s

Although Christie’s had fewer lots, it fetched the highest price for an individual lot, $4.1 million, for an 18-by-22-inch oil painting by Childe Hassam (1859-1935) of the pond in Central Park.

The painting, similar to several painted, better, by William Merritt Chase, was pleasant, but not stupendous and had been consigned by the Bronxville (NY) Public Library, which had received it as a gift in 1947 from William Francis Burt at which time it was worth, according to an article by Adam Miller in the Dec. 4, 1998 edition of The New York Post, "a mere $1,500." Such a valuation, indeed, was probably high for major masterpieces by the most important American 19th Century artists could be had for only a few hundred dollars at the time and even into the early 1950’s. The painting was bought at Christie’s by a collector in Florida. According to the Christie’s catalogue, the painting was executed between 1890 and 1892, about the time the artist moved into the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street for a year. Hassam’s best New York paintings are his flag pictures of Fifth Avenue that he did a generation later. Hassam was a very prolific and uneven Impressionist painter who worked in several different styles.

Three other good Hassams in the sale failed to sell: lot 39, "Alkalis, Rabbit and Grease Wood Squaw, Oregon Trail," a very fine and bright Western landscape from 1908, lot 42, "Naples," an 1897 scene of the Italian harbor that was very painterly and strong, and lot 87, "The Toll Bridge, New Hampshire Near Exeter." The western scene former had a low estimate of $150,000, the Neapolitan scene, formerly in the collection of Governor Herbert H. Lehman, had a low of estimate of $250,000, and the New Hampshire scene had a low estimate of $400,000. All were better than the Central Park scene, but New York scenes are more popular, especially with cute figures as the successful Hassam had. One wonders how the buyer of the Central Park scene can explain such bidding reticence for these other two paintings. Another popular painter of New York scenes, especially winter scenes, was Guy Wiggins (1883-1962), and lot 71, a Fifth Avenue winter scene was one of his best and sold for $85,000, far above its reasonable high estimate of $35,000.

Winslow Homer (1836-1910), on the other hand, is the greatest American artist without question and Christie’s had two good watercolors by him that did very well. Lot 26, "The Coral Divers," was painted in 1885 on the artist’s first trip to the Caribbean on a commission from The Century magazine to illustrate an article on Nassau. The pleasant but slightly faded watercolor is not a masterpiece and sold for its high estimate of $2,400,000, a very high price considered that it is not vibrant and a less than thrilling composition.

Lot 23, "Two Girls and a Boat, Tynemouth, England," is a more satisfying Homer watercolor, dating from 1881, but still a minor work by this master. It had been estimated at $800,000 to $1,200,000 and sold for $2,300,000, a remarkable price given that Homer’s finest watercolors are from the Adirondacks and Prouts Neck and the fact that some of his much larger oils of coast scenes have only fetched about $1 million at auctions in recent years. Homer himself, of course, felt that his fame would rest more on his watercolors than his oils, but he was great in both media. If the Hassam mentioned above is worth $4 million, Homer’s major oils should be worth $30 million or so.

The sale started off well with a nice, small watercolor of an Eastern Bluebird in flight by John James Audubon. Given the rarity and importance of Audubon, the lot sold for $95,000 and had had a high estimate of $80,000.

A very pleasant, but not pyrotechnical small oil by Frederick Edwin Church, (1826-1900), "Bee Craft Mountain from Church’s Farm," lot 6, sold for $320,000 within its properly estimated range, while lot 7A, "Sunset in the White Mountains," by Sanford Robinson Gifford, soared above its high estimate of $50,000 to $95,000, a high price for the 5 1/2 by 10 3/8 inch oil, which has a nice composition but is very sketchy. A bland and interesting Thomas Moran (1837-1926) small oil, lot 8, was not sold probably because it had a very high estimate of $70,000 to $100,000 and was more like a poor work by William Hart. Another larger and more interesting but still rather somber Moran landscape with a figure, lot 48, also failed to sell and had a low estimate of only $40,000. Yet another Moran, lot 10, "Venice - Grand Canal," also sailed past its high estimate of $120,000 to sell for $160,000, a very high level indeed since it was one of the less exciting of this popular Turneresque scene that Moran produced and which regularly sold for about $30,000 in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Moran, of course, is revered most for his western scenes and lot 54, "Glen Eyrie, Garden of the Gods, Colorado," was a major and little known painting that was only recently published. The 36-by-50-inch canvas was very dramatic in its depiction of an impressive tower of stone in the glen, but was not as fiery in its coloration as some of his most sublime paintings. It sold for $1,200,000, well above its high estimate of $800,000. Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt are the two greatest second-generation Western artists and at their best they are several times better than the mediocre illustrators who followed later. By such measure, this painting should probably be worth $3-5,000,000.

Some of the Hudson River School painters such as Worthington Whittredge and Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) produced excellent paintings of the West. Lot 64, shown below, in fact, was a beautiful small oil by Gifford depicting American Indians and their canoes by the side of a lake beneath a luminist sky. It sold for $210,000, although its low estimate was $250,000 and it should have sold for around $400,000.

Indian Summer by Sanford Robinson Gifford

"Indian Summer," by Sanford Robinson Gifford, sold below its low estimate for $210,000,

not counting the buyer's premium

William Bradford (1823-1892) painted Western scenes but is known primarily for his Arctic scenes. Lot 65, "Among the Ice Floes," was a large but rather gloomy work that sold for $260,000 just above its high estimate. In 1990, the painting sold for only $100,000 at Sotheby’s and it is much duller than some of his fine, incandescent works. With its brownish, gray sky, this painting, however, is quite subtle and almost makes one do a double-take because its drama is simple, but startling.

Still life by Thomas Hill

This painting by Thomas Hill, one of the best of many still lifes offered, did not sell

Still lifes were very much in evidence at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Lot 67, was a large work, shown above, by Thomas Hill (1829-1908), an artist known mostly for his Yosemite scenes. It failed to sell and had a low estimate of $50,000, which was ambitious for the artist whose work in still life is little known, but it was a very good still life, with an open landscape background a flying bird quite prominent in the center, quite the opposite of the formula works by Severin Roesen, (1815-circa 1872), a very competent but overrated artist specializing in still lifes. Lot 68, a large and good example of his tables overflowing with fruit against dark background, went unsold and had a low estimate of $200,000.

Theodore Robinson (1852-1896) continued to encounter difficult times at the auctions and lot 12, "Girl Raking Hay," was unsold. It had an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 and while only 18 1/2 by 15 1/2 inches was a very fine work, consistent with his greenish palette but exceptional dynamic in his brushwork of the hay. At his best, as here, Robinson is several times better than Hassam.

A pleasant Long Island beach scene, lot 37, a detail of which was reproduced on the catalogue's cover, by William James Glackens (1870-1938) sold for $1,550,000. Its high estimate was $1,200,000. Like his idol Renoir, Glackens is very uneven and while this was nicely composed with many bathers it really is not a good painting, but it is good that the Ash-Can School painters are beginning to be appreciated more. Auction houses try to put similar paintings together in their catalogues and the next two lots were excellent mates to the Glackens. Lot 37, "Fireworks, Vernon Bridge," by Theodore Earl Butler (1861-1936) was a superb example of the not well known artist’s free impressionism, which mixes many different styles of brush strokes, and appropriately sold above its high estimate of $60,000 for $72,000. Lot 38, "Lawn Party, Old Salem," by Gifford Beal (1879-1956), was an idyllic scene of lush trees and billowing skirts that only managed to sell for its low estimate of $80,000 despite the fact that it was more lovable, albeit denser, than any Raoul Dufy. Butler and Beal are good artists of high consistency.

The sale did not have much Hudson River School work, although a small, pleasant but unsigned John F. Kensett (1816-1872) scene of a tree on a plain in Colorado went a bit above its high estimate to sell for 24,000.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) is very much in vogue with a major exhibition and catalogue now current. Lot 74, "Susan in a Toque Trimmed with Two Roses," was a medium size oil by her that was especially strong because of the dark color of her hat and coat, and was not unreasonably estimated at $800,000 to $1,200,000 yet sold for only $550,000. This brooding girl, a favorite model of the artists, was a far more vibrant and interesting painting than many of her popular but boring pictures of mothers and chidden. Surprisingly, another Cassatt, lot 94, "Portrait of an Italian Lady," went unsold. It, too, showed a women in dark clothes, but it was a very pensive and good work, though not as bravura as Cassatt’s best works. It had been estimated at $700,000 to $1,000,000.

Every auction usually causes some market-value reassessments of artist reputations. Jonas Lie is an artist with one masterpiece at the Metropolitan Museum and few elsewhere. His paintings are always interesting at least from a compositional viewpoint, although his palette can run to the garish. Lot 76, "Monhegan Island," was a large oil that had been understandably estimated at $20,000 to $30,000 and it sold for $75,000. The rather vertiginous, a-kilter composition was interesting but its green and yellow palette was unsettling.

Lot 78, "On the Pier, Edgartown," was a masterwork by Jane Peterson (1876-1965). It sold for $320,000, just above its ambitious but justified low estimate. Peterson’s bold paintings have always been consistent in their attractive, bluish palette and bold outlines. The catalogue correctly notes that she was neither an Impressionist, nor Post-Impressionist, nor a follower of Prendergast, although she shares his temperament for blocky sections although her work is much softer.

Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874-1939) is another impressionistic painter with a penchant towards blue hues and Lot 81, "On the Beach," was a very fine painting that failed to sell. It had been estimated at $600,000 to $800,000 and probably did not find a buyer because the market has been flooded with Friesekes in recent years and this one was not in his typical, pointillistic style and was much more open in its brushwork. The painting, in fact, would be a masterpiece, and is far better than most of his studied works, were it not for the fact that the women’s shadow is cut off at the edge of the painting, upsetting an otherwise fine composition. The market's fixation on pretty lady pictures has driven prices for artists such as Frieseke, Louis Ritman and Richard Miller very high in recent years and while many of them are fine artists with distinctive styles the genre tends to be cloying, academic and overblown reflecting the unsophistication and naiveté of many contemporary collectors who hopefully will mature into more daring connoisseurship.

One of the best paintings at Christie’s was lot 97, "Dawn on the York," shown at the top of this article, a large and quite abstract work by Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951). Estimated at $300,000 to $500,000, the river scene in New Brunswick, Canada, sold for $820,000, a sign that at least some people in the auction room recognized quality rather than formulas. This painting is a masterwork from an artist who enjoyed sporting themes. Benson divided most of his oeuvre between sporting pictures and pretty lady pictures and while his work is usually very attractive, it rarely rose to the great dramatic level of this picture.

Sotheby's

The Masco Collection

Mountain scene by Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt

After years of indecision on whether to move from its York Avenue and 72nd Street site, Sotheby's finally decided on a modest expansion at its present location and abandoned a scheme by Michael Graves for a mixed-use tower. The announcement of its plans in September led to a very quick construction schedule and the superstructure of the enlarged building was already in place by the time of this auction!

Sotheby's auction was not only much larger than Christie's this fall, but also stronger although values continued to be rather inconsistent.

The sale was divided into two catalogues, one of which contained 68 works being sold by the Masco Corporation. These were generally of a very high caliber, although the collection was rather odd and inconsistent.

One of the best works was a knock-out "Scene in the Sierra Nevada," lot 86, shown above, an 18-by-24 inch oil on canvas that is as good as Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) gets at this small size and that is very good indeed. Surprisingly, it only sold within its modest estimate for $343,500. Not only did this jewel have great luminosity, but it also had two very nice figures in the foreground.

The Bierstadt price was all the more surprisingly given that a run-of-the-mill, though fine, seascape by the very prolific William Trost Richards (1833-1905), lot 87, sold for $220,000, way over its more appropriate and rather healthy estimate of $50,000 to $70,000.

Indeed, a large and early but not very refined Jasper Francis Cropsey, lot 95, "Sportsmen Nooning," sold for $453,500, well over its ambitious estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. Cropsey (1823-1900), of course, is one of the great second generation Hudson River School painters whose autumnal scenes are ravishing, but this was rather static. Both Cropsey and Bierstadt were prolific but there are far more excellent Cropseys than there are Bierstadts and Bierstadt is historically much more important.

Bierstadt's great rival in grandiosity, Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900), was presented in the sale by a very nice, early and rather atypical landscape, lot 108, "View Near Stockbridge," that had been estimated at $600,000 to $800,000 and which sold for $1,047,500. This work was 1847 when Church was still very much under the very important influence of Thomas Cole had a great Church sky and the lighting on the depicted pasture was excellent, but the foreground trees were not up to the artist's best work. In this contest, the Bierstadt offered was a far greater painting, but such are the vagaries of the auction room.

Indeed, another Bierstadt in the sale, lot 127, "Tropical Landscape with Fishing Boats in Bay," sold for $288,500, far above its reasonable estimate of $50,000 to $75,000. Here the sky was aflame, but the top of the tallest tree was cut off in the composition rather disconcertingly.

A very striking Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-1865), lot 119, "'Star Light' in Harbor," sold within its estimate for only $772,500. The bright white sails of the picturesque ship virtually jumped off the canvas of this quite good and rare Lane and the buyer got a bargain.

The Reprimand by Eastman Johnson

Eastman Johnson

One of the best paintings at either auction was "The Reprimand," lot 127, by Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), shown above, 19-by-22 1/2 inch oil that is a rare, complete composition by this important master. It sold for only $222,500, within its estimated range, a good price.

Another great buy was lot 129, "Discovery of Adam," by William Holbrook Beard (1823-1900), one of the most interesting and amusing Amercian artists. It sold for less than its low estimate of $20,000, perhaps because the turtle being observed by the monkeys in human clothing was quite strange. Beard's important works are quite rare and this was one of them and certainly much more interesting than the many still life paintings that predominated in this corporate collection.

Another painting that sold for just under its low estimate of $150,000 was lot 126, "The Money Diggers," by John Quidor (1801-1881). The artist is the American Hogarth and is best known for his macabre illustrations of Washington Irving's stories. His imaginative work, usually quite dark, is very, very rare, and this work, a masterpiece, was quite unusual because of the brightness of the bonfire in the scene. By all rights, this painting should have sold for several times what it fetched. An earlier and smaller version of this painting is in the great collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

Another major work was lot 131, a masterpiece by Louis C. Moeller (1855-1930), entitled "A Moment's Rest." It sold in the middle of its estimate of $40,000 to $60,000, but was as fine as any painting by Thomas Eakins and was a deparature for an artist best known for depicting elderly gentlemen in club-like settings.

Robert Blum's, "Venetian Bead Stringers," a larger major work quite similar to his famous "Venetian Lace-Makers" in the Cincinatti Art Museum, soared above its $700,000 high estimate to sell for $1,487,500. Blum (1857-1903) is a fine, though not great, artist whose best work is in pastel but this large oil is impressive though academic.

The Masco Collection, indeed, was quite esoteric and another of its important paintings, "The Picture Writer's Story," lot 80, by George de Forest Brush, sold for $1,707,500, well over its high estimate of $1,200,000 and quite a remarkable price for the 23-by-36-inch oil. The catalogue noted that the artist "sought to memorialize the customs and traditions and the Indian tribes he had lived with on the West frontier," adding that "Unlike his contemporaries, Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, whose work depicted the Indian as hunter and warrior, Brush was interesting in illustrating the daily life of the Plains Indians." Brush (1855-1941) is an excellent academic painter and certainly his themes were more honorable than the commercial work of Remington and hopefully this very impressive price might indicate that collectors of "Western" art are becoming if not more discerning at least a bit more appreciative of the true heritage of the West.

Brush's painting froze a compelling moment in much the same way that N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945) captured the purity of a worker concentrating on his labors in "The Doryman," a sensational painting whose artistry puts Norman Rockwell to shame. This painting, lot 138, sold for more than $600,000, ten times its low estimate.

Most of the still lifes in the auction did well but one in particular was noteworthy, lot 99, "The Printseller's Window," by Walter Goodman, a relative unknown who was born in 1823. This large oil had a high estimate of $150,000 and sold for $415,000, a well justified price for a masterpiece that is the equal of the best of William Harnett (1948-1892), John Peto (1854-1907) and John Haberle (1856-1933), the three great American titans of trompe l'oeil.

Surprisingly, then, an excellent Peto, "Hanging Knife and Jack of Hearts," lot 110, sold for $79,500, well beneath its reasonable low estimate of $100,000.

Even more astounding was the fact that the most charming painting in both auctions, lot 112, "Christmas Eve," by George H. Yewell only fetched $11,500. This painting of a young girl looking at a shop window full of toys with a young boy waiting patiently beside the window was as good as any John George Brown, S. S. Carr or Edwin Lamson Henry and on a par with Walter Goodman's lot mentioned above. Yewell (1830-1923) is, like Goodman, not well-known.

Lot 121, "The Apprentice Blacksmith," was a masterwork by Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), but it sold for only $156,500, far below its low estimate of $200,000. A fabulous composition, this large painting had a lovely soft palette of browns and grays.

The rest of the Sotheby auction

Jasper Francis Cropsey

Jasper Francis Cropsey

One indication of how strong the current market is was lot 150, a 12-by-20 inch oil by Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900), shown above. This 1875 work is much more luminist than most of the artist's famous autumnal scenes and sold for $23,000 at Sotheby's in 1985, near the top of the last highwater marks. This time it was estimated at $50,000 to $70,000 and sold for $74,000, a fair price for a beautiful small painting by an important master.

A fine, but not great, small coast scene by John F. Kensett (1816-1872) sold for $420,500, way above its high estimate of $175,000.

Among the usual late, third generation Western paintings were two very good ones by Frederic Remington (1861-1909), lot 189, "The Lone Scout," and lot 202, "The Belated Traveler." The former, which had a high estimate of $1,000,000 sold for $1,542,000, and the latter, which had a high estimate of $1,500,000 sold for $2,477,500. Remington had painted a handful of great painters but these were among the best of his other work.

Lot 28, "Children Playing With a Cat," by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was the cover illustration of the catalogue and sold for $2,972,500. The little girl in a blue dress holding the cat at the left of the painting was wonderful, but this was just an average, colorful, good Cassatt, not one of her masterworks.

At his best, which was fairly often, John H. Twachtman (1853-1902 ) was American's finest Impressionist painter because of his poetic abstraction that was not interesting in conventional perspectives and prettiness. Lot 26, "Niagara Gorge," was a great, wild, misty vision of Niagara Falls in blues and whites, and carried very low estimates of $80,000 to $120,000, reflecting the marketplace's conventionality. It was passed at $65,000, an affirmation of Sotheby's market perspicacity but a depressing reminder of how ignorant many buyers are.

Similarly, another Twachtman, lot 47, "Yellowstone Park," was passed at $250,000! It had been estimated at $300,000 to $500,000. Twachtman had been commissioned in 1895 to paint four pictures of Yellowstone, but he became so enthralled with its great scenery that he painted several more and two were still in his possession at his death. The catalogue quoted Richard Boyle as noting that "No other American painter of the late nineteenth century better expresses, or puts to better use, the restraint and the philosophical, contemplative tendencies characterizing the tradition of American lanscape painting than John H. Twachtman." The catalogue also said that the painting "displays the impact of Japanese culture, which had penetrated into Western art, largely owing to the teachings of Whistler."

A delightful, small William Glackens (1870-1938) sketch of a Fifth Avenue bus, lot 58, sold for $63,000, just over its low estimate and a very fine, large painting by Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), lot 66, sold within its rather low estimate for $145,500.

There were a fair number of passes in the larger Sotheby's catalogue, a reflection of the mixed quality of many of the lots. The high prices achieved for many paintings at these auctions, however, indicates that the market is very strong even if rather unpredictable.

 

See The City Review article on the Spring 1998 American Paintings auctions

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