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Art Market Watch

by Rachel Corbett
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While the New York sales of American art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s last week had their epic landscapes, schmaltzy genre scenes and early modernist paintings selling for six- and seven-figures, the overall totals were not what you’d call booming.

Christie’s May 18 sale of American paintings, drawings and sculpture totaled $22.2 million, with 88 of 138 lots finding buyers, for a modest sell-through rate of 64 percent.

Sotheby’s auction on May 19 of American paintings, drawings and sculpture totaled $27.1 million, with 84 of the 121 lots selling, or just over 69 percent.

You wouldn’t mind such revenues, you say? Indeed. But compare the totals to the boom years of three or five years ago, which were marked by seven-figure prices and mind-boggling totals: $82.8 million at Sotheby’s in 2006, $72.5 million at Christie’s in 2008, $55 million at Sotheby’s in 2007.

The top lot at Christie’s, a sprawling 18-foot-long fairy-tale mural by Maxfield Parrish originally commissioned in 1918 for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Long Island sculpture studio, sold for $2.9 million (with premium), within its presale estimate.

A serene and airy landscape by William Trost Richards, Mackerel Cove, Jamestown, Rhode Island (1894), was the number two lot, selling for $1,650,500 to Caldwell Gallery in Manlius, N.Y. The price was well above its presale high estimate, and a new auction record for the artist.

Other top lots included a sun-dappled nude by Frederick Carl Frieseke ($1,022,500) and a stormy California seascape by Albert Bierstadt ($794,500). Bierstadt’s emblematic picture of a Rocky Mountain ram triumphant on a Montana crag sold for $542,500.

Norman Rockwells 1931 painting of a Colonial-era kiss, Milkmaid, sold for $566,500, while a 14 x 11 in. watercolor of the Florida jungle by Winslow Homer brought $542,500.

Both top lots -- as well as the Frieseke and 26 other lots in the sale -- are from the Warner Collection, one of the great corporate holdings of American art, formed by the now-94-year-old Jack Warner, inventor of the brown paper bag and founder of the Gulf States Paper Corporation in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A hard-nosed industrialist, he was known as a strike-breaker as well as a latter-day southern aristocrat.

Gulf States was reorganized in 2005 and renamed the Westervelt Company, which is now in control of Jack’s son, Jon Warner -- who quickly moved to liquidate his father’s fabled art holdings, supposedly in order to gain a tax benefit provided by the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010. So far, it looks like the proceeds are in excess of $60 million -- more than the price of a new plant Westervelt is building in rural Alabama.

But back to New York. At Sotheby’s, the top lot was the first in George Bellows series of realist tableaux of Maine seamen, Dock Builders (1916), which sold for $3,890,500, well above its $3 million presale high estimate. The buyer was identified as a “private American collector,” as were all of the buyers of the top ten lots.

Other top lots included a Paris genre scene by Childe Hassam ($2,098,500), Thomas Hart Benton’s 1951 Flood Disaster ($1,874,500) and a formidable (or might that not be comic) painting of a woman draped Arab-style in a white blanket by Ernest Leonard Blumenschein ($1,538,500). This last, which was sent to the block by the Wichita Center for the Arts, set a new auction record for the artist.

New records were also set for William J. McCloskey, whose Wrapped Oranges on a Tablecloth (1897) sold for $782,500, and William Aiken Walker, whose The Cotton Wagon sold for $434,500.

Typically, such modest auction totals are explained by the overall economy (still struggling), the quality of the artworks in question (not all good) and the presale estimates and reserve prices (too high).

At the same time, according to American painting dealer Howard Godel, whose Godel & Co. Fine Art is located on East 72nd Street in Manhattan, many high-priced pictures never make it to the auction room, but are sold behind closed doors, either by dealers or by the auction firms via private treaty sales. “A lot of collectors don’t even realize that an American still life painting can bring in $12 million to $15 million,” Godel said.

Earlier this year, one of the best pictures from the Warner collection, Asher Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilization) (1853), was sold privately to an undisclosed buyer for an estimated $50 million.

Godel argued that the American art market is stronger than it might look from the auction results. Still, he said, the auction firms set
“extremely aggressive” estimates on lots that weren’t all that attractive.

Christie’s cover lot, Frank Weston Benson’s 1916 Eleanor and Benny, is an important American Impressionist painting, but Godel thinks its $3 million-$5 million presale estimate may have scared off potential buyers.

And the presale estimate of $500,000-$700,000 for Frank Duveneck’s Portrait of Miss Blood (Woman in a Satin Gown) would have been reasonable, Godel said, if it weren’t “exactly the wrong kind of Duveneck” -- a dark portrait by a painter known for Italian landscapes. The Duveneck was one of 16 unsold works from the Warner Collection consignment.

Prices given here include the auction-house buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the amount between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12 percent on the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Arts Auction Report.

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