American Paintings at Sotheby's & Christie’s

(December 3 & 4, 1997, respectively)

By Carter B. Horsley 

The art market in the fall of 1997 got off to a rousing start with the very strong auction of the Ganz collection at Christie’s of Picassos and other 20th Century works, although Sotheby’s auction of similar quality works from the Evelyn Sharp collection was not a success, nor was the impressive Keir collection of medieval art.

The earlier American painting auctions this fall were quite strong, so it is a surprise that only 111 works are being offered at Christie’s "important" auction December 4, and even more surprisingly that very few works – less than half a dozen - of the Hudson River School, which also were making a comeback are included. Of course, the consignment deadlines were close, so the real indication will be the spring auctions, nevertheless, the pickings at this Christie's auction are relatively small.

In contrast, Sotheby's, which had been lagging Christie's a bit, has quite a strong auction with more than 225 works, still markedly down from the heyday of the 80's. The Sotheby's sale includes 55 lots from the collection of Andrew Crispo, the notorious art dealer who was implicated, but not charged in a very, scandalous, sordid and grisly murder several years ago. Whatever his character flaws, Crispo, who did considerable business with Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszon - a member of the advisory board of Sotheby's Holdings Inc., and one of the greatest private collectors of art in the 20th Century - had a pretty good "eye." The Sotheby's sale also has several fine pictures from the estate of Joseph Levine, the producer, and a number of excellent paintings from Time-Warner Inc., apparently another fine corporate collection being deaccessioned, presumably to make some uncouth accountant or CEO happy.

Both auctions were very successful with each selling almost half of the lots at more than the high estimate and only "passing," or, "buying in," less than 12 percent, a very low percentage, especially in recent years.



The cover illustration is Winslow Homer’s "Two Girls on the Beach, Tynemouth," lot 14, which carries an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. Although the catalogue maintains that this watercolor, painted in England in 1881, "exemplifies the artist’s finest work in the medium," the work is not one of Homer’s many masterpieces. It is centered on two lovely young women carrying a basket with some sailboats in the background beneath a gray sky. The figures are finely executed and the broad composition is strong, but collectors surely would prefer his much more colored and abstract sunset marine watercolors, or Adirondack scenes of a later period. It sold for $1,652,500.

Homer is the definitive American artist and is still vastly undervalued in the marketplace as several of his major and large oils have only sold in this price range at auction in recent years. This is a good Homer with good provenance and exhibition history and it should probably sell within the estimate, even though a sailboat at the right of the picture appears to have been added as an afterthought as the horizon shows through its sail.

A second, much more interesting, and cheaper, Homer is Lot 26, "The Life Brigade," which has an estimate of $700,000 to $1,000,000. This unsigned, small oil painting is one of the most abstract compositions that exists by Homer and the catalogue reproduces a related drawing of the fishermen in oilskins in Cullercoats, England, 1881. The catalogue properly describes it as "stark in its simplicity." The drawing shows the men huddled by the side of a building facing away from the viewer of the drawing. The painting is must stronger than the drawing and adds a second building on the other side, framing a vista of a churning, storm-tossed ocean. The painting has fewer fishermen and they are now not the main subject. The brushwork is very sketchy, but painterly. If this relatively small painting were signed, it should probably sell for several million dollars despite its small size, non-American subject matter, lack of vibrant color and strange "object" in the lower center of the work. Despite such caveats, this work epitomizes the mystery and power of the sea and Homer’s fascination with it and the people who lived by it. It is an unromantic side of the same artist who painted the fabulous painting in the Louvre of two women dancing by the sea.  It sold for $1,762,500.

One of the possible bargains at the auction is "Lady Listening," an oil by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, lot 23, that is being deaccessioned for inexplicable reasons given its quality by the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The medium size work is still in its original Stanford White-design frame and the painting is a fine example of Dewing’s ethereal poetry and great brushwork. It has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 and should sell a bit higher.  It sold for $288,500.

One of the other great American painters of women was John White Alexander and this auction has a lovely medium-size oil, lot 28 that carries a very low estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. The low estimate probably reflects that several large and quite major Alexanders have not fared well in recent years at auctions. Inexplicably, this fine painting is being deaccessioned by the Mint Museum of Art "to benefit the acquisition fund," an indication probably that its curators have no taste. While this painting does not have the magical fluidity and inspired rapture of Alexander’s masterpieces, it is a meditative picture of very sweet charm and should exceed its estimate given the excesses of "pretty" woman pictures that the market has grown most fond of, again.  It sold for $79,500.

One such "pretty" picture is "Afternoon Tea," by Richard Edward Miller, lot 29, that carries an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. Painted in Giverny, France, in 1910, this is a fine example of Miller’s virtuosic brushwork and bold palette. It is one of his best, although it has more green than most of his works that tend to sparkle with more blues. Miller is one of those artists who has been rediscovered over the last decade and whose prices are streaked upward. He puts Childe Hassam and Cezanne to shame and would probably have tantalized many of the Fauves. Despite his decorative brilliance and showmanship, however, he does not have the lyricism of Dewing and Alexander. The painting may have trouble reaching its estimate, in part because there have been a lot of Millers on the auction block in recent years.  It had no trouble, and sold for $1,047,500.

Indeed, lot 61, "Cafe Society," is a superb Miller although not in his signature style.  This elegant painting is estimated at $100,000 to $150,000 and the sheer beauty of the brushwork and the sitter and the composition should make it one of the auction's stars.  It is a fabulous painting.  Incredibly, it only sold for $156,500.

One of the other "hot" painters of pretty woman is Louis Ritman and his "In Pensive Mood (Morning Tea)", lot 33, is also likely to have trouble reaching its estimate of $300,000 to $500,000 as it is a bit too mechanical and contrived and just not terribly beautiful, especially given the option to get the Miller. It was knocked down in the auction room for $420,000, which does not include the buyer's premium as do all the other prices mentioned in this article.

Connoisseurs will probably focus on lot 52, a pastel by William Merritt Chase of a seated woman in a yellow gown that is appealing in its unfinished state, though not quite up to some of the bravura sketches that have been on the auction block in the last decade. It is estimated a little aggressively given that the sitter's face is not well defined at $100,000 to $150,000.  It sold for $310,500.

Connoisseurs will probably also grab lots 61 and 62, pastels by Everett Shinn, estimated at $30,000 to $50,000 and $150,000 to $250,000, respectively. The former, a scene of a pool room, should do reasonably well because of the subject matter and the composition, although the latter, a very dramatic and pyrotechnical  "tightrope walker," is a bit pricey, though worth it.  The former sold for $101,500 and the latter for $200,500, a reflection that Ash-Can artists are most appreciated at their most urban rather than elegant.

A major Cassatt, lot 40, "Francoise Holding a Little Black Dog," is fine and should easily top its estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,600,000.  It failed to get past $1 million in the bidding and passed.

A few Western paintings are included and the nicest lot in this genre, is Lot 79, a watercolor by Charles Marion Russell, that is most reasonably estimated at $20,000 to $30,000 and is one of his strongest portraits of an Indian.  It sold for $27,600.

"The Lost Greenhorn," lot 74, by Alfred Jacob Miller, the first truly great artist of the American West, is a knockout and way underestimated at $40,000 to $60,000.  It will be a bargain at many multiples of the estimate.  It sold for $277,500, still a bargain!

"The Island," lot 70, by Albert Bierstadt, is a good-sized and interesting painting, possibly of an Alaskan locale.  Another museum deaccession, it is one of two Bierstadts being offered at this auction by the Art Institute of Chicago, and has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000.  Bierstadt's auction prices have been low for several years and this should be a good test as it is a substantial work, even if it is not one of his supreme masterpieces.  It sold for $398,500, a fair price.

At his best, John Henry Twachtman is the most daring of the American Impressionists.  Lot 22, "An Early Winter," is a very good medium-size painting by him that is estimated at $80,000 to $120,000, which is not too expensive for one of his better works as this muted wintry scene is.  It sold for $178,500.

Two other lots that are also estimated too low are lot 92, "The Visit," a very fine Max Weber, and lot 93, "Broadway," a superb oil by George L. K. Morris. The former is estimated at $30,000 to $40,000 and the latter is estimated at $30,000 to $50,000 and both should go higher.  The Weber sold for $156,500 and the Morris  sold for $57,500.

Lot 95, "Rocky Coast," is a very unusual Milton Avery. It is much stronger in composition and palette than most of the many Averys that come up at auction and is quite atypical for him. It is estimated aggressively at $100,000 to $150,000, given its unusual colors. It sold for $112,500. Another Avery, lot 100, "Reclining Nude," is superbly reminiscent of Modigliani and quite excellent and should meet its estimate of $70,000 to $100,000. It sold for $200,500.

Ben Shahn has two very fine works, lot 97 and 106, that will test the market with estimates of $150,000 to $250,000 and $40,000 to $60,000, respectively. The former, which is quite large and interestingly framed, is called "The Dream" and the latter is a portrait of Jean Paul Sartre. Shahn is tremendously undervalued still in the market place, and these are excellent examples of his oeuvre. These are important Shahns.  "The Dream," however, failed to get beyond $120,000 in the bidding and passed, while the Sartre sold for $48,300.

Another interesting lot is Lot 98, "Long Island," a 20-by-32-inch oil by Arthur Dove, who will be the subject of a major exhibition early in 1998 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Highly reminiscent of marine scenes by Albert Pinkham Ryder, this work, mostly dark browns and greens, is very strong in composition.  Although it is rather mimimal, given his typical energetic, organic style, the result here is by no means weak. Indeed, shown at the auction exhibition against a black wall at one end of the large gallery, the work is most striking.  The catalogue correctly states that "The naturally spawned forms in Long Island are carefully situated as separate entities, but through Dove’s ingenious handling of color, and space, he unifies the composition to create a work that challenges his earlier artistic accomplishments." The painting, which was painted after the artist suffered a heart attack in 1939, is estimated at $350,00 to $450,000. Despite Dove’s great importance as a Modernist pioneer in American art, his works have not escalated in market value commensurate with his importance and recent auction sales of his work have been a bit disappointing. As a result, this quite excellent work may have to struggle to meet its estimate, which is about where it should be valued. It sold for $717,500.

Four typical still-lifes by William Harnett did well, but a very strong William J. McCloskey painting of  "Oranges in Tissue Paper," lot 11, passed.  It had an ambitious estimate of $200,000 to $300,000.

A good beach scene by Edward Henry Potthast, lot 44, did well, selling for $255,500, well over its estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.

Another winner was lot 87, which was also the back cover illustration, "Slightly Open Clam Shell," by Georgia O'Keefe.  This medium-size pastel had been estimated, correctly, at $300,000 to $400,000, but, given the success of other O'Keefe's at Sotheby's the day before, it soated to $1,102,500.

A charming  John Singer Sargent, "Portrait of Skene Keith," lot  30, did well in this season of Sargents (Sotheby's had several up for sale and the Adelson Gallery has a major show on him through December 13).  It had been estimated at $300,000 to $500,000 and sold for $717,500.



This auction sports two catalogues, one of which is devoted to several paintings by John Singer Sargent, that are also reproduced in the main catalogue.

Sargent was an uneven artist and not many of his best works have appeared at auctions over the last few decades. The cover illustration of lot 13, Portrait of Pauline Astor, is a fine example of his formal portraiture - elegant with considerable dash and allure. It is estimated at $2- to $3-million and should do reasonably well given the beauty and status of the sitter, her silver satin coat, the charming dog biting her finery and the huge size of the painting, 98 by 50 inches.  It sold for $1,982,500.

A better and more modestly sized painting is lot 9, "In the Garden, Corfu," as its painterly values are higher and the composition stronger, even if the subject of two women reading books is more casual. The estimate is "on request" and the painting may well fetch more than $5 million as it is museum-quality and very engaging.  It sold for $8,362,500.  According to a Dec. 5, 1997, report by Carol Vogel in The New York Times, it and several of the other Sargents in this sale came from the collection of Henry Kravis, the financier and a Sotheby's board member, and this had had a high estimate of $7 million.  The story said that the entire sale, however, set a record of $42.8-million.

Lot 10, "Venetian Wineshop," is another Sargent with a high pricetag: the very ambitious estimate is $3- to $5-million, reflecting, mostly likely the less formal composition of an interior with five people in various stages of inebriation. Sadly, the painting is not of the haunting quality of Sargent's best work in Venice and the composition and technique are a bit stodgy here. This is not a prize Sargent.  It sold for $1,982,500.

Lot 12, "A Gust of Wind," is a painting you want to like. It depicts a girl holding on to her wide-brimmed hat standing on a beach bluff and the view is from below with clouds in the background. The painting is mostly whites and blues and greens, but sadly they are somewhat muted, although the brushwork here is the very bold slapdash at which Sargent was so good. Although the medium-size oil is unsigned, it should do well as its estimate is only $700,000 to $900,000.  It sold for $1,652,500.

Lot 19, "Montauk," is a better-than-average landscape by Childe Hassam in his semi-pointilist style that should easily exceed its estimate of $150,000 to $250,000.  It sold for $167,500.  A more charming and quite different Hassam is "Springtime-West 22nd Street New York," lot 20, that is modestly estimated at $75,000 to $100,000.  It sold for $145,500.

There are some other good New York City paintings in the sale, including lot 21, "Saturday Evening, Bryant Park," by Jonas Lie, and lot 154, "Downtown, New York, Buildings," by John Marin. Lie, a very strong and undervalued artist, is seen at his best here, although the scene depicted is hard to identify as Bryant Park given the size of the skyscraper in the background. It is estimated at $25,000 to $35,000 and is worth considerably more. It sold for $28,750.  The Marin watercolor is dated 1912 and depicts a skyline with the famous Singer Building skyscraper in the center. Although it is not a great Marin, it is a fine example of his New York sketches and conservatively estimated at $12,000 to $18,000.

A small but fine pastel by William Merritt Chase, lot 25, "The Garden Wall," is an unusually abstract composition for the artist and very lovely and very undervalued at the $30,000 to $50,000 estimate.  It passed!

A magnificent watercolor of "Waterlilies," lot 26, is unsigned by ascribed to John La Farge and carries a pretty high estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.  It passed.

Robert Henri, the father the "Ash-Can" school, is well represented by four excellent lots, 45, 46, 55 and 56 and all should do very well, especially 56.  The only lot that sold was the best, lot 46, which was knocked down for $112,500, within its presale estimate.

The sale has a number of quite pleasant genre paintings, the best of which is lot 71, "At The Well," by Harry Roseland. The artist is best known for his pretty ladies conversing with their servants, (lot 101, for example) but here a pretty girl is filling her bucket in a very lively and interesting composition that may be his best painting and is only estimated at $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $31,050.  Another fine genre painting is lot 100, "Played Out," by Edward Lamson Henry, depicting three children in a stagecoach, one of the artist's best works and estimated only at $12,000 to $18,000.  It sold for $24,150.

The sale also has several still lifes by Severin Roesen, all in his usual style that misses being formulaic, but not by much despite his high degree of competence that seems to attract enough interest to justify the rather high estimates.

Unlike the Christie's sale, there are some landscape paintings in this auction, including an excellent one, lot 75, "Deer By A Stream," by DeWitt Clinton Boutelle, that is fairly estimated at $15,000 to $20,000, and a superb Alfred Thompson Bircher, lot 80, "Indian Rock, Narragansett Bay," from the Time Warner Inc., collection that should easily exceed its estimate of $60,000 to $90,000.  The Boutelle sold for $20,700 and the Bricher sold for $68,500.

There are two paintings by Edward Hicks and the better one is lot 82, "Washington At The Delaware," from the Crispo collection, and it should definitely exceed its estimate of $175,00 to $275,000.  It sold for $233,500, while the other one passed.

For the connoisseur, the best painting in the auction is lot 89, "Gremlins In The Studio 1," a small but wonderful painting by Martin J. Heade that has been at auction before at fractions of its current estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. I have lusted after this painting for more than a quarter century, but, alas, cannot afford it. The painting shows a typical marsh sunset painting by the artist on an easel underwhich a gremlin is frolicking and letting water drip out of the marsh. A slightly smaller version of the same painting, both from the Crispo collection, is being offered as lot 90.  Lot 89 sold for $57,500 and lot 90 sold for $107,000.

Heade is also represented in the auction by a larger work, lot 92, "Rye Beach," that displays another, more dramatic side of this major and very interesting artist. This is one of the artist's very dark works and this is more abstract than some of the few other, more famous examples. It is underestimated at $80,000 to $120,000 and surely will end up in one very proud museum.  It sold for $96,000.

A very strong George Inness painting that is a interesting transition between his early well-defined Hudson River School works and his later poetic Tonalist works is lot 94A, "Landscape - Sunset," that is very underestimated at $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $27,600. The work, which silhouettes some beautiful trees, is reminiscent of another jewel by John F. Kensett that was on the auction block about 20 years ago.  

Western art is not ignored in this sale and one of the highlights is Lot 108, "Plains Indian," by Henry Farny. This small vertical gouache is one of his finest, yet is only estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $63,000.  There are some overpriced Remingtons, but a quite good Frank Tenney Johnson, lot 114, "Night Watch." It sold for $134,500.

The real knockout, however, is lot 118, "Yellowstone Canyon," a very, very dramatic and almost abstract Thomas Moran that is grossly undervalued at $125,000 to $175,000 as this painting significantly alters, and enchances, one's appreciation of the artist, showing a compositional experimentation unusual in his best known works. It sold for $134,500.  A slightly larger painting of the Grand Canyon by Moran, lot 124, for example, is much more conventional and carries an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It is a nice painting, of course, as Moran hardly ever painted a bad one.  It sold for $552,500.

Of the more modern works, several are stellar, such as lot 134, "George Gershwin -Rhapsody in Blue Part I," by Arthur Dove, a small oil and metallic paint on aluminum with clock spring, that is spectacular. This great work, from the Crispo collection, is only estimated at $80,000 to $120,000 and should easily double that, although Dove, the subject of a major new exhibition that will be at the Whitney Museum of American Art next year, has been disappointing lately at auction. It sold for $255,500.

There are two other extraordinary lots, also from the Crispo collection, 139, "Yosemite Falls," by William Zorach, and 149, "Black Lines," by Georgia O'Keefe.

The former is something that is a cross between Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Vlaminck and Roualt, an entirely original and dynamic work that is not at all what one is accustomed to Zorach's oeuvre, at least as it has appeared at auction. If the Modern Museum of Art or the Whitney Museum of Art (to which the painting is inscribed for a show in 1920) do not buy this, their curators should…retire. It is estimated at only $60,000 to $80,000! It sold for $156,500.

The O'Keefe is a real surprise, a minimalist work of three black lines, two of them vertical, against a white background. If Cy Twombly and Giacometti were good artists, they would have quit after seeing this stunning tour de force. This 1916 watercolor is only estimated at $50,000 to $70,000 once again demonstrating the lack of sophistication of most buyers who crave typical rather than atypical works and don't trust their own eyes. Here a famous artist with her very own obvious style has abandoned it and achieved something in a totally different vein for which other artists have been acclaimed but did not produce anything as fine. It sold for $96,000.  O'Keefe is a great artist who has suffered by too much fame and too voluminous an oeuvre that often contained works that were poorly executed or conserved. Another fine, but more conventional O'Keefe is lot 181, "Winter Tree III," that is only estimated at $225,000 to $275,000.  It sold for $453,500.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the auction was O'Keefe's "From the Plains," lot 138, which had been estimated at $700,000 to $900,000.  It sold for $3,632,500.  It is a medium-sized painting and quite difficult in comparison with most of her work.

Other superb works in this exhibition are by Joseph Stella (lot 176), Jack Levine (lot 177), John Ferren (lots 178-180).  These all exceeded their estimates by about 15 percent or so.

Stuart Davis, Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Wyeth and Milton Avery are represented by unexciting, bland or inferior works that are likely to disappoint their consignors. An exception is the Avery self-portrait, lot 167, which is strong.  One major Davis, lot 153, had been estimated at $650,000 to $800,000 and sold for $1,047,500.  Another major Davis, lot 135, "Odol," was one of the sale's major successes, selling for $2,422,500, barely more than doubling its high estimate.

Edward Hopper's "Squam Light," lot 160, is an immensely pleasing work in large part because it is softer than many of his more famous works, but no less bright. This should do far better than its meager estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000 as it is much more attractive than all but his most important and few masterpieces. It sold for $1,267,500.

See The City Review article on the Spring 1998 auctions


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