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American Paintings Auction (Sotheby’s)

Lita Solis-Cohen | May 22nd, 2013

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Marionettes: Behind the Curtain, oil on canvas, 29" x 20 7/8", painted in 1903, sold for $5,205,000 (est. $5/7 million) on one bid to a buyer who had placed an irrevocable bid.

Max Weber (1888-1961), Soloist at Wanamaker’s, 29¼" x 18½" gouache on paper laid down on board, signed and dated “10” lower right, sold for $112,500 (est. $15,000/20,000).

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), He’s Going to Be Taller than Dad, oil on canvas, 26" x 19", painted in 1939, sold for $2,629,000 (est. $500,000/700,000).

Norman Rockwell, Doc Mellhorn and the Pearly Gates “He Was Just a Good Doctor and He Knew Us Inside Out,” oil on canvas, 26¼" x 21½", painted in 1938. It sold on the phone for $1,145,000 (est. $500,000/700,000).

Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955), At Home in New York,oil on canvas laid down on board, 18" x 22", painted in 1924, sold for $413,000 (est. $100,000/150,000). Painted the year following Fechin’s emigration to New York from Kazan, Russia, near the Volga River, this intimate portrait of his wife, Alexandra, was sold with a handwritten note by his wife saying that she was the model in the painting and that their apartment overlooked Central Park. Fechin later moved to Taos, New Mexico, and became well known for his paintings of Native Americans. Fechin’s dynamic brushwork and his expressionistic yet realistic technique brought the artist critical acclaim.

Norman Rockwell,study for Construction Crew (Bulldozer and Baseball Game). Drawn in 1954, this 17½" x 16 1/3" pencil on paper sold for $125,000 (est. $40,000/60,000).

Irving Ramsey Wiles (1861-1948), The Corner Table, oil on canvas, 20" x 26", inscribed “R. Wiles 1886,” sold on the phone for $635,000 (est. $300,000/500,000), a record for the artist. This work shows the artist’s indebtedness to Manet.

Sotheby’s, New York City

Photos courtesy Sotheby’s

Twice each year Sotheby’s offers the best American art it can muster. The sales take place in late May and early December. Elizabeth Goldberg, who heads the department, said she keeps the sale small on purpose, turning down lesser material or sending it to the mid-season sales, where estimates are lower and the sales much larger. For this May 22 auction she sent 23 Western paintings to be sold along with American Indian material in a sale called Arts of the American West, held in the afternoon session after the morning sale of just 62 lots of American art. For example, three watercolors by Jacob Miller were in the paintings sale in the morning, and two lesser ones sold with the American Indian material in the afternoon.

David Roche, Sotheby’s consultant for Native American art and artifacts, was pleased to sell flat art along with three-dimensional objects, because the art swelled his total. Even though all the pictures were on view in the spacious tenth-floor galleries, art dealers said they would prefer that all the art be offered in the same session, even though they could bid by phone or on line and not return for the afternoon sales.

Since the abrupt economic downturn five years ago, it has not been easy for auctioneers to get plum consignments. Many people who must sell prefer private sales, not wanting to risk the ivory hammer. Those sellers who are confident that their works are top quality still choose auction, counting on keen competition.

There was enough competitive bidding on some good pictures and sculptures at Sotheby’s on May 22 to rack up a $28,087,750 total (including buyers’ premiums) for 52 of the 62 lots offered. That amounts to 83.9% sold by lot. The total was above their high estimate total of $24.4 million, figured without the buyers’ premiums.

The strongest segment of the American art market is American illustration. Six works by Norman Rockwell brought a cumulative total of $6.5 million, double their overall high estimates. Seven bidders battled for He’s Going to Be Taller than Dad, a picture of a young boy marking his height on the wall as his dog looks on. Painted for an Upjohn pharmaceutical advertisement in 1939, it sold on the phone for $2,629,000 (est. $500,000/700,000). Two other paintings by Rockwell sold for more than $1 million each, and a Rockwell drawing (a 1954 study for Construction Crew [Bulldozer and Baseball Game]) sold for $125,000 (est. $40,000/60,000).

Two paintings by Maxfield Parrish, one an illustration for a Mazda lamp advertisement and the other Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, an illustration for a book of poems, each fetched $845,000. (Their estimates were each $200,000/300,000).

A Frederic Remington magazine illustration, Call the Doctor, sold  to a phone bidder for $1,085,000 (est. $1/1.5 million). The same phone bidder, L0070, purchased two paintings by Rockwell, Doc Mellhorn and the Pearly Gates “He Was Just a Good Doctor and He Knew Us Inside Out” and The Veterinarian; Maxfield Parrish’s Wynken, Blynken, and Nod; and another Remington called The Advance. There was much speculation that the buyer was movie producer and director George Lucas, who has announced plans for an American illustration gallery at the Presidio in San Francisco, if the city approves it. Lucas has said in press reports that it will be similar to the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, and he vows to put a billion dollars into the project.

The top lot in the sale, John Singer Sargent’s Marionettes: Behind the Curtain, painted in 1903, sold on one bid for $5,205,000 (est. $5/7 million). In the catalog the lot was marked with the symbol indicating it was guaranteed by an irrevocable bid. According to Sotheby’s terms as stated in the catalog, an irrevocable bid “will be executed during the sale at a value that ensures that the lot will sell. The irrevocable bidder, who may bid in excess of the irrevocable bid, will be compensated based on the final hammer price in the event he or she is not the successful bidder. If the irrevocable bidder is the successful bidder, he or she will be required to pay the full buyer’s premium and will not be otherwise compensated.”

Elizabeth Goldberg executed the bid, and the buyer got the painting for the reserve price. It is an unusual Sargent painted in Philadelphia in 1903, during the artist’s month-long stay. It depicts a cropped backstage view of a marionette performance with young men operating Sicilian rod puppets. According to the catalog notes Sargent liberated himself from the constraints of portrait painting to travel and record the activities of common people, and in these paintings he expresses the joy he had in the process of painting. Apparently Sargent did not create this exuberant work with the idea of selling it. It remained in his personal collection and was passed on to his sister Emily at his death in 1925 and descended in the family until this sale.

The market for some artists is strong and for others weak. The demand for Milton Avery’s paintings remains strong indeed. Sotheby’s established a new world auction record for Avery when Music Makers (from the estate of movie star Gregory Peck and his wife, Veronique) sold for $2,965,000, almost double its $1.5 million high estimate.

The American art market has a loyal but aging following. Without an international audience, American art sales seem to offer some good quality art for the money.

For more information, contact Sotheby’s at (212) 606-7000 or (

Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, oil on paper, 21" x 14¾", signed with the artist’s initials. It is also signed Maxfield Parrish November of 1902” and inscribed “The Oaks’ Windsor: Vermont/ no. 342” on the reverse. It sold on the phone for $845,000 (est. $200,000/300,000).

Milton Avery (1885-1965), Music Makers,oil on canvas, 36" x 41¾", signed and dated 1947 (also signed “Milton Avery / Music Makers,”dated 1946, and inscribed on the reverse), sold on the phone for $2,965,000 (est. $1/1.5 million). The price is a record for the artist.

Bronze sculpture has an audience. An Enemy that Warns, a 5¼" tall bronze sculpture by Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926) of a wild animal vanquishing his prey, sold for $437,000 (est. $40,000/60,000).

Henry Merwin Shrady (1871-1922), Monarch of the Plains. This bronze is inscribed “Henry Merwin Shrady” and“Copyright 1899 Theodore B. Starr”on the base. It is 13½" high and sold for $197,000 (est. $40,000/60,000).

William  Keith (1839-1911), Yosemite Valley, oil on canvas, 48¼" x 80¼", signed and dated 1876, sold on the phone for $755,000 (est. $70,000/90,000), a record for the artist. There was lots of bidding in the room and on the phones. Three phone bidders competed past $400,000. The painting was sold to support Twin Towers, a senior living community in Cincinnati, and originally had been in the collection of Obed Wilson (1836-1914) and his wife, who donated all of their collection to Twin Towers.

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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