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Christie's American Art Sale

Lita Solis-Cohen | December 5th, 2013

Edward Hopper (1882-1967), East Wind Over Weehawken, signed “E. Hopper” (lower right), oil on canvas, 34" x 50¼", sold for $40,485,000 (est. $22/28 million). Painted in 1934, it was acquired in 1952 from the Frank K.M. Rehn Galleries in New York by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was widely exhibited in American museum exhibitions in the 1930’s and 1940’s and abroad. Most recently it was at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. It was sold to support the academy’s acquisition endowment. Christie’s guaranteed a minimum price fully financed through third parties.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Two Calla Lilies, signed and dated “OKeeffe/ May 18-26” and bearing initials in artist’s star device on the reverse, oil on board, 9¼" x 12¾", painted 1925-26, sold on the phone for $1,865,000 (est. $600,000/800,000) .

Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938), Surprise (May Moon), signed with conjoined letters “OBlümner” lower left, signed again and dated 1927 and inscribed “May-Moon” on a label affixed to the reverse, watercolor and gouache on paper laid down on board, 9½" x 12¾", sold for $815,000 (est. $400,000/600,000) to New York City dealer Michael Altman in the salesroom.

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), signed “Benton” lower right, tempera on masonite, 17" x 13", painted circa 1943, sold on the phone for $167,000 (est. $50,000/70,000).

A crowd favorite was Newell Convers Wyeth’s Self-Portrait with Pipe, a 16¼" x 13" oil on canvas painted 1915-20. It sold for $149,000 (est. $50,000/70,000).

Two phone bidders competed for Bringing Home the Tree, a 30¼" x 40" oil on canvas by Dale Nichols (1904-1995), signed “Dale Nichols” lower left. This seasonal work by a midwestern realist sold for $106,250 (est. $40,000/60,000).

There was a lot of bidding for this 35¾" x 12" watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper laid down on canvas by Childe Hassam (1859-1935). Man Standing in Street, signed and dated “Childe/ Hassam/ NY 1890,” with artist’s crescent device lower left, sold for $1,505,000 (est. $120,000/ 180,000), underbid by a collector in the salesroom.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), The Thing to Do with Life Is Live It! (Outrigger Canoe), signed “Norman/Rockwell” lower right, oil on canvas, 25" x 84", painted in 1956, sold on the phone for $1,625,000 (est. $800,000/1,200,000). It is the most elaborate and large-scale painting from a Pan Am advertising campaign celebrating American tourism. Originally published in Life magazine in 1956, it is a humorous image of an American couple in a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe called the Ka Mo’i. This canoe was owned by the Outrigger Canoe Club, a popular destination in Honolulu. Rockwell contrasts the tourists in their Hawaiian shirts, straw hats, and leis and with a Pan Am travel bag with the bare-chested local boys leaning forward while the tourists lean back and grip the handle. Diamond Head, the mountain in the background, is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Hawaii.

Christie’s, New York City

Photos courtesy Christie’s

On December 5, 2013, Christie’s sold Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken for $40,485,000 (with buyer’s premium), a record for Hopper and well over the $22/28 million estimate. The New Jersey street scene was painted in 1934 shortly after Hopper’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in the fall of 1933. It captures post-Depression life in America. The for-sale sign on the corner house seems relevant, recalling the recent drop in real estate values.

The buyer on the phone has not been identified. The underbidder was an Asian woman sitting on the far side of the salesroom. The seller was the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). The academy bought it from the Frank K.M. Rehn Galleries, Hopper’s dealer in New York, in 1952. The academy will receive $36 million from the sale, which will be used to establish an endowment for the purchase of art, particularly contemporary art.

It was one of only two Hoppers owned by Philadelphia institutions. The Philadelphia Museum of Art does not have a Hopper oil painting. The academy owns another, Apartment Houses,painted in 1923, purchased by the academy from its annual show in 1924. It was the first Hopper bought by a museum.

The art world could not understand why an institution would sell a masterpiece that Hopper himself acknowledged was one of his most important paintings and one that his dealer Frank Rehn called “one of the most Hopperesque canvases he has ever painted” in order to invest in current art that has not been edited by time.

Christie’s showed the painting in a room by itself, making Hopper’s truthful picture of an ordinary street in a stage-like pictorial space seem like a familiar and powerful silent image of a moment in America. It is as glimpsed from a car window. He made the street in Weehawken universal and permanent in his melancholic style. It is a masterpiece in the American realist tradition.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that director of the PAFA Harry Philbrick said in a statement issued after the sale that the money from the Hopper sale would “revitalize the museum’s historic practice dating back to 1816 of building the collection through strategic purchases of art.” He noted that “because purchases will be made only with revenue generated by the fund and not from the principal, the proceeds from the auction will strengthen the museum’s acquisition program in perpetuity.” Until the 1960’s the PAFA regularly purchased contemporary art almost entirely through shrewd low price acquisitions at its prestigious annual exhibitions. The annual exhibitions are no longer held.

The Hopper accounted for more than half the sale’s total, $76,790,500 for 118 of the 170 lots offered, the highest ever total for an American art sale at Christie’s and well over estimates, although the sale was only 69% sold by lot, 88% by value. Christie’s did not have a mid-season sale in 2013 and included lesser examples in the December sale, some of which did not sell. Moreover, Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Sunday Morning in the Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Washington, D.C. in May 1861, which came to auction from a Civil War exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum with a $3/5 million estimate, failed to sell. It is the only example of Gifford’s series of four major Civil War pictures that remains in private hands. It had been in the collection of the Union League Club of New York City since 1871.

George Wesley Bellows’s Evening Swell (est. $5/7 million), a large-scale depiction of the rugged Maine coast, sold for $7,893,000 to New York City dealer Michael Altman. Bellows painted it in 1911 after a trip to Monhegan with fellow artists Robert Henri and Randall Davey. With vigorous brushwork he painted two fisherman in a small boat facing the raw dark power of nature.

Altman also bought John Singer Sargent’s full-length portrait of Mrs. Richard H Derby for $1,805,000, bidding at its low estimate, $1.5 million.

Two small paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe provoked competitive bidding; both depicted calla lilies. Two Calla Lilies, a 9¼" x 12¾" oil on board, painted 1925-26, sold for $1,865,000 (est. $600,000/800,000). Two Calla Lilies Together, a 16" x 10" pastel on board, sold on the phone for $1,205,000 (est. $800,000/1,200,000). It is the only work in a series the artist completed in 1923 that depicts two flowers in what was the artist’s first foray into the subject with which she is so closely associated.

Childe Hassam’s watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper depiction of a Man Standing in Street (gesturing), signed and dated 1890 and estimated at $120,000/180,000, was a crowd favorite and provoked the most spirited bidding in the sale. A gentleman in the room and a phone bidder battled for it until it sold on the phone for $1,505,000. Hassam perfectly captures the excitement and energy of New York in his dapper gentleman gesturing for a car.

Christie’s offered five paintings by Norman Rockwell; they all sold, and two sold for more than a million dollars. The Thing to Do with Life Is Live It! (Outrigger Canoe), a large 7' long oil on canvas painted in 1956, sold on the phone for $1,625,000 (est. $800,000/1,200,000). It is the most elaborate and large-scale painting from a Pan Am advertising campaign celebrating American tourism. Originally published in Life magazine in 1956, the humorous image shows a couple wearing matching Hawaiian shirts, straw hats, and leis and leaning back gripping the handles while the bare-chested local boys lean forward. Boy with Two Dogs, a 31" x 24¼" oil on canvas painted in 1929, sold for $1,085,000 (est. $1/1.5 million). It had been offered at Christie’s in May 2006 and passed at $800,000.

The three other Rockwells were small. An oil on canvas, My Sketchbook Proves You Can See More of Europe When You Fly Pan American, Says Norman Rockwell, a gift from the artist to the PR director of Pan Am, sold for $118,750 (est. $80,000/120,000). It seemed like a good buy for four vignettes from their travels. Little Boy and Beagle, an early painting of one of Rockwell’s favorite models and favorite dog, sold for $557,000 (est. $150,000/ $250,000). Growth of a Leader, a study for a Boy Scouts of America calendar, sold for $125,000 (est. $80,000/120,000) to New York dealer Judy Goffman Cutler for a client.

Christie’s also mounted a private sale exhibition of illustration in its special gallery of more than 50 works by a dozen illustrators including N.C. Wyeth, Jessie Willcox Smith, Maxfield Parrish, J.C. Leyendecker, Stevan Dohanos, Dean Cornwell, and, of course, Norman Rockwell. Prices ranged from $170,000 for a N.C. Wyeth book illustration painted in 1927 of a detachment of Tartar cavalry to over $40 million for Norman Rockwell’s The Rookie (Red Sox Locker Room), a large 42½" x 40" masterpiece with a portrait of Ted Williams painted in 1957.

Elizabeth Beaman, who put the exhibition together, said two sold—After Turkey Nap by Joseph Christian Leyendecker and My Ball of Twine byJessie Willcox Smith.

Some that did not sell may be consigned to future auctions. Others will be available for private sale on Christie’s e-commerce site. The auction houses that successfully got private collectors to bid for themselves at auctions, bypassing dealers, are now in further competition with the very dealers they once depended on to make the market. For auctioneers, private art dealing is now part of their daily routine.

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Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses (1860-1961), November, signed “© Moses.” lower right, dated “March 1, 1956.” and inscribed with title and “1701” on a label affixed to the reverse, oil and glitter on board, 16" x 24", sold to New York dealer Michael Altman for $161,000 (est. $50,000/70,000) in a strong market for Grandma Moses. The other Grandma Moses in the sale, not shown, Taking Leg Bale for Security, an oil on masonite, 27" x 20¾", sold on the phone for $137,000 (est. $80,000/120,000).

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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