What's driving the market for decorative pictures? Could it be ... dogs? In fact, canine paintings valued up to a staggering $175,000 are enjoying a veritable field day this week, with William Doyle Galleries in New York holding its second annual auction of this specialty and three uptown galleries also sporting such fare.
Why now, when we're all poised for Valentine's Day? Could it be that the Westminster Kennel Club Show opens today, Monday, Feb. 12, at Madison Square Garden, bringing more than 30,000 breeders and just plain dog fans to town.
"They're part of a veritable groundswell of interest in this market," says Alan Fausel, Doyle's director of painting. He should know. Two years ago, London's Bonham's auction house moved its dog sales across the Atlantic to Doyle's. Since then the dog sales have realized more than 20 percent higher totals.
In addition to dog show fans, clients include the "hunt set" and even non-pet owners. And fashionistas are also drawn to this category. At publicist Eleanor Lambert's luncheon on Sunday for the fashion set, a bevy of editors were cooing over Cece Kieselstein-Cord's copy of Doyle's catalogue. The 207-lot sale takes place tomorrow, on Tuesday, Jan. 13.
Top dog is expected to be John Emms portrayal of a hound with cavorting puppies (est.: $40,000-60,000). Last year, an Emms of hounds, his favorite breed, brought a stunning $140,000 against a $40,000-$50,000 estimate. The Emms record is $440,000, set at Christie's two years ago.
Another work certain to hit high on the price charts is the portrait of a demure King Charles spaniel by Thomas Woodward from 1844 (est. $30,000-$40,000). That artist is regarded as one of the leading animal painters of the 19th century. But aside from those paintings with steep estimates, a considerable number of lots are expected to fetch less than $5,000 each, and that's part of the appeal of this growing market.
Clearly, dogs are hardly paltry business. Gallery owner William Secord's 11- year-old gallery off of Madison Avenue specializes in this area. As founder and director of the Dog Museum of America, Secord brings the right pedigree to this genre. He says sales of dog paintings, specifically those priced at $40,000 and up, have tripled in the past five years,
His current show, "Nineteenth Century Dog Paintings," just opened and boasts prices from $3,500-$175,000 (the high being for an Emms, of course). Secord's exhibition coincides with the publication of his latest tome, Dog Painting: The European Breed (Antiques Collectors Club).
"Queen Victoria accelerated the rage by commissioning portraits," says Secord , whose book Dog Painting: 1840-1940 is now in its fifth printing.
While the Golden Age of dog painting was 1860-1920, Secord sees an increasing collector base for contemporary versions with decidedly modern day prices. Christine Merrill is the artist of the moment at Secord and her clients include romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford and socialite Patricia Mosbacher. Prices begin at $9,000 and run to $30,000. "She truly loves the dogs," says Secord.
Down the street from Secord, Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, which specializes in Old Masters, is also touting pet pictures. On view is Dick, a cunning terrier by Gilded Age painter Julius L. Stewart (1855-1919). The price is a cool $55,000.
"What's different today about the market is that dog paintings have moved out of the country house decorating trend into serious art," says Madison Avenue dealer Joan Peck, who has been selling in this niche market for 15 years. Her star painting is a coy collie Coupable by Alice Leotard from the late 19th century for $32,000.
But why in this age filled with $20-million Rembrandts are considerable numbers coveting dog paintings? "They're not six-figure canvases and you can buy a dog painting for less than $10,000, so price is a major factor," says Derek Ostegard, associate director of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts. He sees the art world jumping on the latest marketing trend -- dogs. "Dogs are now in just about every shelter magazine shot and a ton of commercials."
Still, couldn't the current fashion for dogs be simply due to the cozy factor? In any case, today's dog paintings are high-priced chic.
Doyle's "Dogs in Art" sale, Feb. 13, 2001, at 1 p.m., 175 East 87th Street, New York, N.Y. 10128. Phone: 212 427 2730.
William Secord Gallery, 52 East 76th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021. Phone: 212 249 0075.
Joan Peck, 1264 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028. Phone: 212 427 4900.
Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, 42 East 76th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021. Phone: 212 517 3643.