By Carter B.
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
There was little doubt that the
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
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
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.
Although Christie’s had fewer
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,
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
William Bradford (1823-1892)
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 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)
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
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,
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
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.
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!
auction was not only
much larger than Christie's this fall, but also stronger although
values continued to be rather inconsistent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
of the true heritage of the West.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
but not great, small
coast scene by John F. Kensett (1816-1872) sold for $420,500,
way above its high estimate of $175,000.
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.
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.
best, which was fairly
often, John H. Twachtman (1853-1902 ) was American's finest
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.
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,
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
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.
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.