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Banksy Shows Up at Neal

Karla Klein Albertson | July 13th, 2013

French Opera House, New Orleans by William Woodward (1859-1939) is a vivid Raffaelli crayon sketch on board, 13½" x 9½", and was the top lot of the sale, going to a collector in the room who won against the phones. The final price was $95,600, well above its conservative $18,000/25,000 estimate. Nostalgia may have played a role. While the city has retained many landmarks, this splendid building was lost to fire, not water, in 1919.

Last of a group of four oil paintings in the sale by Louisiana artist Clementine Hunter (1886/7-1988), a how-it’s-done view of Pecan Pickin’ sold to a collector in the Northeast, bidding against several local collectors, for $8962.50 (est. $3500/5500). This complex, early painting and its three companions came from the carefully selected collection formed by Marie Merkel, who purchased them from the artist.

Three Louisiana oil on canvas landscapes by Marshall Joseph Smith Jr. (1854-1923), consigned from the same estate, were offered on Saturday. This one, the largest at 16" x 30", sold for $73,800. All had descended in the New Orleans family of noted music critic Adolph Pollatsek (1841-1906) and his granddaughter Constance Reynolds Green (1916-2012). One of the paintings bore a gift inscription to Pollatsek, who was a friend of the artist.

Fortunately for collectors who gotta have one, Ida Kohlmeyer (1912-1997) produced a string of bright, easy-to-live-with paintings in her “Cirrus Series.” This 52" square example, #24, is signed and dated 1978, and brought a top-of-its-estimate $27,485.

Louis Oscar Griffith (1875-1956) was active in the city around 1916-17 when he presumably painted this Impressionist view of Old Basin, New Orleans, Louisiana. Bidders on the floor and phone pushed the price for the 10" x 12" painting past its $10,000/15,000 estimate to $46,605.

Banksy (b. 1974, so they say) slipped into New Orleans in 2008 to decorate the city in his own sweet way. A graffiti of “Homeless Abe” appeared at the corner of Cleveland and South Derbigny. This stencil spray paint on cardboard, a portable version of Abe, had stayed on in New Orleans, but an international bidder on the phone paid $77,675 to take it away, a price which bettered the $68,500 received for a similar work at ­Sotheby’s on March 9, 2011.

At one end of the centerpiece spectrum, you might find the modest mirrored stand supporting grandma’s flowers. At the other, there are massive table plateaux such as this Sheffield plate engraved presentation example in three parts, dated 1832, which stretches 4' 6" down the table. As auctioneers often say, “You won’t see another like it.” A convinced bidder paid $31,070 (est. $12,000/18,000).

More than one bidder strongly felt that these cranes would be desirable residents in a coastal garden, and the 20th-century bronze castings,  85" and 69" high, quickly climbed to $8540 (est. $2000/3000).

Neal Auction Company, New Orleans, Louisiana

Photos courtesy Neal Auction Company

Summer in New Orleans is usually a quiet season. Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival are over. The humidity and heat can be breathtaking. Antiques dealers’ first greetings usually come with a tall glass of ice water. Closing those shutters and taking a long nap in the afternoon makes perfect sense.

Summer auctions are usually lighter in content, perhaps with a chance to pick up some nice things at bargain prices. This year, however, Neal Auction Company’s July 13 and 14 sale showed no seasonal slump. The firm has perfected a formula: they do what they know, and they do it well. The mix changes a bit with market fluctuations and the vagaries of consignments, but the diversity is always there.

What was offered in the July sale was of the same quality as Neal’s high-season events in April or September, and the result was a long list of five-figure prices among the over 1400 lots sold during the weekend. Apparently, Neal did not hold back all the special material for fall, so we must assume that more good stuff is in the pipeline.

The top-ten price list included most of Neal’s favorite categories, including American and international fine art, American furniture and decorative arts, and English and European furnishings. Notable was the strength in 19th- and 20th-century southern regional art with works by William Woodward, Ida Kohlmeyer, Marshall J. Smith Jr., and Louis Oscar Griffith, as well as a New Orleans-oriented stenciled work by the British graffiti artist Banksy. The sale brought in $2.05 million (with buyers’ premiums).

Even auction house president Neal Alford was a bit bemused by the results. “Summer sales generally were a little bit lighter in weight, probably not as complete in various categories. This particular group of material, in this particular summer sale, was a terrific sale. The rooms were full—packed as they could be—even coming on the heels of July the fourth, which is often a week for families. At the exhibition, July fifth and sixth, Friday and Saturday, we had more interest in the exhibition than we might have for a February or May sale. I can’t really explain that. I think the room stayed very vibrant, and on line probably increased a bit.”

A divergent element was the array of 18th-century American forms from cabinetmakers from the East scattered through the catalog, thanks in part to the furniture and decorative arts from the estate of Hubert and Wadene Harrison of Austin, Texas. The Harrisons kept careful records of their purchases, which included many Queen Anne and Chippendale pieces acquired from Connecticut dealer John Walton in the early 1980’s—a highboy, a chest, side chairs, a camelback sofa, etc. Purchasers included both the trade and private collectors based in the South, the Northeast, and even out West.

All the Harrison collection furniture in the catalog, as the illustrations reveal, was sold in clean and polished condition, and may have appeared thus when purchased 30 years ago. Comments can be made about finishes on American furniture and regional taste. Much of the furniture that passes through New Orleans was fashioned in the Classical and Rococo Revival styles, which furnished the great southern estates of the 19th century. In all parts of the country, those pieces were kept French polished by their owners, unless they became financially distressed. Auction-goers today prefer to see such pieces well preserved/conserved. A Quervelle table or Belter sofa with alligatored finish and popping veneers is a sad sight.

When it comes to 18th-century American furniture, “original, untouched surface” has become a catch phrase. Some experts will accept no happy medium between “untouched” and “stripped.” Museum conservators do reach a happy medium, of course, on the cleaning and conservation front. Whether on a Greek vase or a Boston high chest of drawers, grotty accretions and barnacles are carefully removed before the object goes on display.

Walking further into this minefield, some collectors like to point out that wealthy 18th-century Philadelphians treated their furniture upkeep much as those 19th-century southerners did. They did not eat on soot-caked tables or gaze at themselves in spotty mirrors. Money being available, surfaces were polished and mirrors resilvered. The Harrison collection offerings looked well kept, had good forms, and were sold at or around their reasonable estimates.

Pages reserved at the front of the July catalog discussed several other estates that contributed material to the auction, including that of collector, author, and historian Earle Williams Newton II (1917-2006). He began life in New England where he founded the Bibliophile Press and started Vermont Life and American Heritage magazines. One choice offering in the sale was an advance copy of Robert Frost’s 1935 poem “The Gold Hesperidee,” published by The Bibliophile Press, with the author’s inscription to Newton; it sold for $2091. Newton later moved to Florida, where he worked on Spanish Colonial restoration projects. In 2001, he donated many of his artworks to the Savannah College of Art and Design.

The most exciting stretch of the sale came about 300 lots in on Saturday when collectors near and far focused on a long run of fine art that included works by well-known southern artists as well as international stars. The one to watch was the Banksy 2008 Abe Lincoln, 36" x 24", stenciled with spray paint on cardboard, which was accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from his Pest Control watchdogs. Banksy (b. 1974, so they say), the best known of what are called contemporary street artists, paid a visit to New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina and executed a number of social commentary graffiti through the city. There were many problems to comment on, after all. Some people saw him; many others said they did.

One stencil on a wall at the intersection of Cleveland and South Derbigny depicted “Homeless Abe” pushing a cart with his belongings. Photos exist—one was printed in the catalog—but the actual graffiti is gone. The Neal lot was one of three movable versions of the upper half of Abe. One sold at Sotheby’s New York in March 2011 for $68,500. The Neal version, which had been acquired from the artist and remained in New Orleans, brought $77,675 (est. $30,000/50,000).

Neal Alford said, “For a Banksy to turn up in America—Lincoln looking with his own eyes at a post-Katrina New Orleans—is pretty cool. Banksy comes in here all the time. He comes to the building a lot. I think he likes the music, the vibe, the history of it…I’m putting you on a little bit. But when he was here, he had to stay somewhere, and those people are still in contact with him.”

Rachel Weathers, director of paintings, prints, and photography, agreed that the Banksy lot offered one of the high points of the July sale, particularly in light of its relationship to New Orleans. “We’ve never had one before! It was interesting to get to handle something cutting-edge like that. It sold to an overseas bidder. There were bidders in the room for it, and one of them does live in New Orleans, but all of us on the phone bank were calling overseas, and that’s how it ended up going.”

Top lot of the sale in the same fine art block was a Raffaelli crayon view of the French Opera House in New Orleans by William Woodward (1859-1939), which sold to a local collector in the room for $95,600 (est. $18,000/25,000). The opera house was opened in 1859, the year Woodward was born, and the artist presumably executed the drawing before the structure was destroyed by fire in 1919. The frame bore a label from a National Arts Club exhibition in 1930. The building has been sketched from a side angle, emphasizing the architectural elements, which differs from most turn-of-the-19th-/20th-century print and photo frontal views of the opera house. As Neal Alford noted, the Woodward was only 13½" x 9½", and the result was “a very strong price for a smaller picture—it was…vividly colored with an intensity of orange and red and mauve—an Impressionist palette.”

A New Orleans estate consignment of three oil paintings by important local artist Marshall Joseph Smith Jr. (1854-1923)—all depicting Louisiana landscapes with live oak trees—was another focus of interest in the fine art run. The first and largest of the group, 16" x 30", sold to a Louisiana collector for $73,800.

Rachel Weathers said, “Smith is perhaps the most ‘Barbizon’ of the Bayou school painters. This large canvas was in the same New Orleans family (and probably hung in only three houses) until July 14.” The works had descended in the family of Adolph Pollatsek (1841-1906), a music critic who came to New Orleans from Hungary and was a friend of the artist. The smallest of the group, Hunter under a Live Oak, 1898, at 4¼" x 6½", almost a cabinet picture, had a gift inscription from Smith to Pollatsek and sold for $22,705.

Just as there was a good range of prices for the late 19th- and early 20th-century regional artists, later 20th-century and contemporary works brought prices that fit every budget. Another big canvas by Ida Kohlmeyer (1912-1997), from her “Cirrus Series,”#24, 52" x 52", went to a southern collector for $27,485. As Weathers commented, these works are very easy to live with and buoy the spirits. Equally cheerful was a Kohlmeyer Cluster Print, 95/100, which was picked up for $2390 on Sunday.

Other Louisiana artwork was scattered throughout the sale. From William Hemmerling (1943-2009), Sweet Olive Down by the River brought $8663.75, and Mint Chocolate Chip, $1968. Not a Bright Sun Shiny Day, 1976, by Henry Casselli (b. 1946) sold for $3585. From Surrealist photographer Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985), The Enigma, 1941, an iconic view of a ruined plantation in Mississippi, brought $3465.50.

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This pair of monumental copper repoussé architectural masques, 23" and 27" high, reportedly came from a building on the East Coast. There may be more out there, and perhaps someone could identify the source. Strong bidding took them to $4182.50 each (est. $1200/1800).

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

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