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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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“Diverse” is a good way to describe the typical offerings at the sales of American art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, where works by Georgia O’Keeffe are sold alongside those of Maxfield Parrish and George Inness. At the American art sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York last week, demand was for the most part concentrated on paintings from the first half of the 20th century.

Christie’s 100-lot smorgasbord on Wednesday, May 16, 2012, totaled $27.2 million (with premium) for 77 lots sold, or 77 percent. Among the premium offerings were a rather prosaic Fitz Henry Lane Massachussets harbor scene, complete with a pair of bulls, from 1849; an Oscar Bluemner Cubo-stained glass take on the view from Tottenville to Staten Island (or vice versa); and an unabashedly corny Norman Rockwell magazine cover portrait from 1927 of an old-time cowboy absorbed by a victrola. All three paintings carried estimates of $2 million-$3 million, but the only one to sell was the Rockwell, which at $2.3 million was the auction’s second priciest lot.

First place was taken by Mary Cassatt’s Sara Holding a Cat (1907-08), painted when the artist was in her 60s and beginning to suffer from arthritis and cataracts (note the large signature). It sold for $2.6 million, about double the presale high estimate of $1.2 million. During the last century, the much-reproduced painting -- widely available as a poster and commercial print -- passed through the hands of Knoedler’s twice and Hirschl & Adler once, and last sold at auction in 2000 at Sotheby’s New York for $830,750.

Other top lots included a Frederick Carl Frieseke Japonisme-inspired painting of a lady with a pink parasol in a garden of blue Foxgloves from ca. 1912 ($2.2 million), Georgia O’Keeffe’s melodramatic 36-inch-tall Deer Horns from 1938 ($1.9 million, bought by New York dealer Baird W. Ryan), and Maxfield Parrish’s otherworldly Puss-in-Boots illustration ($1.4 million), all of which sold within or near presale estimates.

A second, earlier O’Keeffe, a dark, abstract pastel of concentric circular forms titled Lake George in Woods (1922), sold for $902,500, well above its presale high estimate of $500,000.

Milton Avery was represented by a small fleet of paintings, and three far exceeded their estimates. A 1947 oil, Adolescent, showing a beret-topped girl standing confidently beside a chair, made the top ten at $1 million (est. $400,000-$600,000). A nude that was a gift back in 1948 from the artist to Janice Newman Rosenthal, the painting’s consignor, brought $722,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000). And perhaps most surprisingly, Avery’s Swans from the 1940s vaulted past its presale high estimate of $60,000 and sold for $434,500. Swans was deaccessioned by the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art to benefit the acquisitions fund.

The Ohio museum’s take-away was dwarfed by the funding windfall of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, thanks to the sale of a painting from its collection, Edward Hopper’s Bridle Path (1939), for $10.4 million (est. $5 million-$7 million) at Sotheby’s New York on Thursday, May 17, 2012. The animated picture, which seems poised between the artist’s early magazine illustrations and his signature later works, shows a trio of horseback riders approaching the Riftstone Arch at 72nd Street in Central Park. After seeing sketches of the painting, Hopper’s wife, Jo Hopper, wrote in her diary, “I am most excited over this new picture -- it will be outstandingly fine.”

In all, Sotheby’s sale totaled $34.8 million, with 52 of 59 lots selling, or just over 88 percent. With to the $10.4 million Hopper, the final tally of the auction is the highest total for such a sale at Sotheby’s since 2008.

A very green, frieze-like George Bellows scene of a tennis match in 1920 just made its high estimate of $7 million (thanks to the addition of the buyer’s premium) and was the sale’s second priciest lot. In third place was a 1905 Frederick Remington scene of a cavalry patrol gathered around a fire at night, originally an illustration for Collier’s Weekly, that sold for $2.7 million, significantly more than the presale high estimate of $1.2 million.

The 59-lot sale set a pair of auction records. Elie Nadelman’s elegant bronze Horse that was once in the collection of Helena Rubenstein (a major and early benefactor of the artist) sold for $842,500 (est. $200,000-$300,000), a new auction record for the artist. The catalogue quotes Barbara Haskell’s biography to highlight Nadelman’s “radical simplification of form” and “stylized distortion” that “became a pulse point of debate about the future of sculpture,” but it might have also noted the artist’s deep interest in American folk art, which Horse clearly references. Much of Nadelman’s huge collection of American paintings, sculptures, ceramics, glass and tools, among other things, is now housed at the New-York Historical Society.

Elsewhere in the sale, a large-scale David Johnson (1827-1908) Hudson River landscape from 1869 set a new auction record for the artist when it sold for $722,500 (est. $300,000-$500,000).

The most recent work in either sale of American art was a 1980 painting of a grazing deer by Andrew Wyeth titled Jacklight that made the top five at Sotheby’s, selling for $1.5 million. It was most recently shown at the Fukushima Perfectural Museum of Art in Japan in a 2008-09 solo exhibition of the artist’s work. Sotheby’s also sold the only work by a living artist, a bright painting of Monhegan Island in Maine, by Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew ($122,500).

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.