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Balancing Act Perfected

Karla Klein Albertson | May 4th, 2013

As the fashion for Orientalism flourished in England, talented artist David Roberts (1796-1864) went on a painting expedition to record monuments and scenes of daily life in the Middle East. His travels resulted in the 240 plates that illustrate The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, with Egypt and Nubia, published as six volumes, 1842-49, by F.G. Moon in London. This set, deaccessioned from the archives of a small Jesuit college in Alabama, became the top lot of Neal’s May sale when it brought $83,650.

This pastel by Kentucky artist Paul Sawyier (1865-1917) perfectly captures a turn-of-the-19th-century street scene in the heartland. Flower Peddler at the South Entrance of the Old Covered Bridge, Frankfort, Kentucky doubled its high estimate to bring $22,705.

This majestic view of A Camp at Sunset, East Texas with three Conestoga wagons at the center (31¼" x 48¾") captures a marshland landscape now permanently transformed by the oil industry. The artist who signed the painting—F.J. Kulbachgen—is unknown but presumably arrived with the 19th-century wave of German immigration into Texas. The regional subject matter and the skill of the artist took the painting to $17,925.

A very atmospheric 26½" x 47½" painting with a compelling background story, Clare in Azalea Garden, Mepkin Plantation by North Carolina painter Hobson Lafayette Pittman (1899/1900-1972) brought $22,705 (est. $8000/12,000). The plantation on the Cooper River north of Charleston was originally the home of Revolutionary War figure Henry Laurens, but it was purchased in 1936 by publisher Henry Luce and Clare Boothe Luce—the “Clare” of the title, who was a pioneering female political figure and author. The painting may have been done around 1947 when Pitt-man was on assignment for Luce’s LIFE magazine. The Luces are buried on the estate, which is now a Trappist monastery.

The excellent execution of a classic kidney-shaped form led to success for this English walnut desk attributed to Gillows, circa 1840. The shapely lot surpassed its high estimate to bring $25,620.

A small group of non-Chinese Asian material at the very end of the sale included this beautifully rounded jar with a perfect bluish-white glaze. “Probably 19th century” was its only claim, but several people must have known more about the form, which went on to bring $14,340 (est. $1200/1800).

As was often the case, Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965) painted these azaleas in watercolor on an ordinary 8½" x 11" sheet of typing paper. The color is vivid, the brushstrokes creatively fill the space, and azaleas are a southern favorite. The desirable little painting brought a robust $29,875 (est. $8000/12,000).

Tucked between a run of American furniture and a group of silver lots, this Federal carved giltwood eagle, 43" wide, took the floor by surprise when it flew by a modest $1500/2500 estimate to bring $20,912.50.

Once again, Neal offered a strong work by Louisiana artist Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer (1912-1997). Big and bold, Cluster #49,  43" x 52", had its original frame and the 1974 receipt from a New Orleans gallery. It sold for $25,095.

Abbott Fuller Graves (1859-1936) was a well-known Boston painter who, according to the catalog, spent the winters of 1927 and 1928 in warm New Orleans. In this 21" x 18" oil on canvas from that period, he captured a view of the courtyard of the Brulatour Mansion on Royal Street that was the home of the Arts & Crafts Club from 1922 to 1951. The final price was $41,825.

Neal Auction Company, New Orleans, Louisiana

Photos courtesy Neal Auction Company

Sales in New Orleans follow a successful alchemical formula that mixes fine art and furnishings from America, Europe, and Asia. Done right, the result produces gold for auction house and consignors alike. Of course, this takes a certain skill in assembling those elements, particularly when the sale includes over 1200 lots, as did Neal Auction Company’s spring estates auction in New Orleans on May 4 and 5.

At Neal, like material—whether silver, European decorative arts, or contemporary paintings—is clustered together. So whatever you collect, there is a time to bid—and time to take a break for food and friends. And even a time to get up in the middle of the night if you happen to be phoning in from the other side of the world. The modern ability to pull in bids from around the globe is good for business; the total realized for this event was around $2.1 million.

The May auction had particularly strong runs of American furniture and fine art from the 19th and 20th centuries with an emphasis on southern regional artists and views. No six-figure prices appeared this spring, but bidders snapped up many desirable lots with five-figure prices. And in excellent news for collectors on a budget, there were attractive and useful offerings that could be picked up for prices under $5000.

Marc Fagan, the go-to guy for books, maps, and ephemera, said, “It was a good solid sale; we’re pretty pleased with the results.” Although Fagan’s department did not have as much material as he cataloged in the fall Louisiana Purchase auction, one prize book consignment was the top lot of this sale. The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, with Egypt and Nubia, published as six volumes, 1842-49, by F.G. Moon in London with illustrations by British artist David Roberts (1796-1864), sold for $83,650 (est. $30,000/50,000).

The consignment came from the archives of Spring Hill College, a Jesuit institution in Mobile, Alabama. Fagan said, “It’s been in their library for years and years, and they wanted to deaccession things that really didn’t fit with the collection. The results were not unexpected but appreciated. We could have bumped that estimate up another $10,000, no problem, but we probably wouldn’t have got as many people interested in it. The set went to a private person who was bidding against about six other people. There was interest in England, Australia, and the United States.” And the college now has a tidy sum to continue its mission.

Another rare offering was a group of six watercolor paintings—not prints—of North American birds by English naturalist John Abbot (1751-1840). Born in London in 1751, Abbot came to these shores in 1773, settling first in Virginia and then later in Georgia, where he remained, collecting specimens and capturing wildlife through his art. These paintings, offered as individual lots, had been in a Manchester, England collection for almost 200 years and were sold at Christie’s New York in 1980.

“The Abbots were very cool, I thought,” commented Fagan “They have so much character—my favorite was lot 101, the duck. If you looked at it closely, it seemed to be smiling.” Sadly the marvelous paintings did not attract the attention they deserved; only three of the six sold. The Pileated Woodpecker brought $7380, the Little Brown and White Duck, $5535, and the Black Cheak, $3585.

As is usually the case at Neal, the weekend sale was divided into two sections at two separate locations. During the Saturday session at the main showroom on Magazine Street, 675 lots crossed the block, including most of the high-end pieces. On Sunday, the crowd moved to the firm’s other location on Carondelet Street—not far away in the Garden District—to finish off the sale in a less formal setting. Buyers looking for a particular form or artist often had a choice of possibilities during the two-day auction.

In a section of American furniture on Saturday, a Classical carved mahogany center table with a white marble top sold for $5795, while a table of the same period with an alluring black Egyptian marble top was $6273.75. Out of the five 19th-century American bedsteads that appeared in the sale, a Gothic walnut example brought $2562, and a rosewood Rococo Revival full tester bed brought $4880 during the Sunday session. The latter was stamped “C. Lee” for Charles Lee, the Massachusetts cabinetmaker who regularly marketed beds in New Orleans.

Among the Saturday desks, a Classical mahogany writing table and bookcase attributed to Duncan Phyfe, circa 1820, went for $6572.50. But the star was another Classical mahogany secretary bookcase attributed to the New York workshop of Edward Holmes and Simeon Haines (active 1825-29) on the basis of closely related labeled examples in the MFA, Boston and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. The lot achieved $11,950, at the upper end of its accurate estimate. Rachel Weathers, who handles both furniture and paintings, noted, “Holmes and Haines is not a workshop we’re able to pin down that often. It’s one that everyone knows exists, but there are not that many documented examples, so this was a great discovery.”

She said, “It was a good sale. We had a good balance between the Classical and Federal furniture and our fine art offerings.” The majority of the five-figure prices that helped enrich the sale total came out of Weathers’s fine art department. She continued, “One American painting that really took off was the Walter Anderson watercolor of azaleas. On the one hand, this was very typical of his work—it was on an 8½" by 11" sheet of typing paper; he wasn’t using archival materials. But part of the appeal of this one was the way he filled up that picture plane. And there are small penciled notes about color in the margins, so you get to see his process a little bit.” All these good points contributed to a final price of $29,875.

Weathers also pointed out A Camp at Sunset, East Texas, an 1870 oil on canvas by unknown artist F.J. Kulbachgen, that brought $17,925. “Texas had this influx of Czech and German immigrants through the port of Galveston from the 1840’s through the 1880’s. We don’t know who this painter is, but we’re thinking he was part of that wave. When you drive through the Texas Gulf Coast landscape now it’s oil country. At this point, it’s a very controlled landscape. This is a fascinating painting because it is that Texas marshland before industry moved in. It’s a good-sized salon-quality painting in a formal frame.” Neal has a strong connection with the Texas market; many collectors from nearby Houston drive over for the auctions.

In the fine art mix, it was very much a case of old regional style—19th and early 20th century—versus a newer contemporary regional style. There were notable sales in both beyond the lots illustrated. In the first group, The Cotton Wagon by South Carolina artist William Aiken Walker (1838-1921) sold for $23,900, Waiting for Turkeys on the Turkey Stand by Tennessee’s Gilbert Gaul (1855-1919) for $15,535, and On Sol Legare Road – James Island by South Carolinean Elizabeth O’Neill Verner (1883-1979) for $11,950.

As usual, strong prices were realized for two nature morte works by Louisiana’s George Louis Viavant (1872-1924), an artist who realized that painting from life is a lot easier if the animals are dead. Nature Morte: Mallard Drake, 1914, sold for $21,510, and Nature Morte: Large Mouth Bass brought $11,352.50. One of New Orleans’s favorite dishes graced the catalog’s cover. An 1874 still life with wine and oysters on the half shell, You Go First, by Adalbert Johann Volck (German/American, 1828-1912) doubled its estimate to reach $12,547.50.

At the contemporary end, many lots by more recent Louisiana artists offered new buyers the chance to build a collection at affordable prices. On Saturday, a large oil, Mood Thoughts, 35" x 80", by William Tolliver (1951-2000) brought $6273.75. On Sunday, The Harmonica Player, a blue and bluesy pastel by the same artist, brought $5185. Sunday art also included two colorful oil on canvas views of local houses by New Orleans painter James Michalopoulos (b. 1951). May Hay Way, 2007, sold for $4780, and Bebo House from Hilltop for $3585.

No Neal sale is complete without its international side, and once again Asian antiques contributed substantially to the auction total. If grandma had a couple of those Chinese chairs in the front hall, now might the time to sell them. An elegantly simple Qing Dynasty huanghuali pair sold for $38,130. A greenish-white jade ruyiscepter from the same period doubled its high estimate to bring $50,787.50.

“Over the past year, Neal Auction Company has seen a tremendous rise in interest in good antique Chinese paintings that come to us with documented provenance,” said Asian expert Bettine Carroll. “In our February auction, we sold three paintings from the Headley-Whitney Museum, which were documented as having been acquired during the 1960’s by the museum’s founder, George W. Headley. The paintings sold for [about] $125,000, $15,000, and $12,000.

“The May auction also had two antique Chinese paintings, lots 231 and 232, which were consigned by a local couple who had acquired them at a 1969 Parke-Bernet auction. Though neither the consignors nor Neal Auction were able to locate a copy of the old catalog, the consignors were able to dig up a copy of the original Sotheby’s invoice, which was then included as part of each lot. The paintings sold for $27,485 and $21,510 to a Chinese art collector in the room competing against our telephone bank and the Internet.”

Ultimately, the balanced mix at auctions in New Orleans often reflects the southern estates that are consigned for sale. Rather than adhering to the period purist consistency of a New England house, collectors along the Gulf Coast easily mix American Classical furniture from eastern workshops with French chandeliers, English silver, southern regional art, and some porcelain picked up in the Orient. All of these can find a home and a buyer in Neal’s sales.

President Neal Alford offered a final word on the market: “Looking at the whole sale, it seemed very balanced to us. We had gathered a lot of decorative arts from several estates. Not all were focused on Americana, but other categories are equally interesting to us including English and Continental decorative arts and furniture. That material has been collected for eons, and having fresh material from these estates creates interest in our sales overall.”

He continued, “The market seems to be getting better, although it still has some contradictions. We see a healthy market for late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century furniture and decorative arts from both America and Europe.” Alford is quick to point out, however, that the firm’s consignments are not only from the South these days. In addition to last fall’s Lee Anderson estate material, Neal has recently sold the contents of several historic townhouses in New York and in the next sale will offer American antiques purchased by Texas collectors from some of the best dealers and auction houses in New England.

Neal Auction Company has its headquarters at 4038 Magazine Street in New Orleans. Learn more at the Web site ( or call (504) 899-5329.

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

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