In the mid-19th century, John P. Weimar modeled a bust of George Washington after the well-known life portrait by sculptor Jean- Antoine Houdon (French, 1741-1828). The Weimar version, cast in bronze in 1852, sold for $14,340. Neal Auction Company photo.
Top lot of the November sale was a landscape by an important regional painter, Norwegian-born William Henry Buck (1840-1888). The view of three Acadian Creole cabins on the shore brought $382,000 (est. $250,000/350,000). Neal Auction Company photo.
This 11¾" x 19¾" luminous landscape by William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900) was signed, dated, and inscribed on the back “On the Potomac.” The final price for the diminutive view was $17,925 (est. $8000/12,000). Neal Auction Company photo.
“The Little Chair That Could” would be a perfect name for this fine American fancy chair, 1815-20, possibly by John Banks, New York. The estimate of $700/ 1000 seemed reasonable. The intricate Classical gilt stenciling was in good condition. But a long, repeat long, phone battle took the little masterpiece to $11,053.75. Neal Auction Company photo.
A new record for Jacques Amans (French, 1801-1888) was set when this charming portrait of Jeanne, daughter of Louisiana Governor Andre Bienvenu Roman, sold for $197,175 (est. $15,000/25,000). Amans painted portraits for many French families in New Orleans during his 1836-56 sojourn in the city. Neal Auction Company photo.
Silver star of the sale was this rare tureen made by Adolphe Himmel for Hyde & Goodrich, New Orleans, which bore the inscribed date “August 25, 1866.” A buyer from the Mid-Atlantic who attended the sale paid $19,120 for the elegant lot. Neal Auction Company photo.
A gueridon is just a small round table by definition, but this elaborate example, made of gilt and patinated bronze with a micromosaic top, sold for $21,510 (est. $10,000/ 15,000). Neal Auction Company photo.
The 19th-century New York box sofa in this sale, which sold to a bidder on the floor for $11,352.50, was very similar to one in the Newark Museum 1963 exhibition Classical America. Neal Auction Company photo.
On April 30, 1812, Louisiana became the 18th state admitted to the Union. Only three examples of the 18-star, 13-stripe flag are known. This version, reportedly stitched by seamen 1812-16, sold for $32,862.50. Neal Auction Company photo.
Neal Auction Company, New Orleans, Louisiana
Auctions are often advertised as “important” or “major” based on their consigned contents. The annual Louisiana Purchase Auction at Neal Auction Company in New Orleans might better be labeled as “special” in the classic sense of existing for a particular purpose. The purpose in this case is to gather and offer what president Neal Alford calls “the regional fabric.” He stressed, “We’re leaders in the field of regional painting.” Yet that fabric also includes furniture, decorative arts, pottery, silver, and militaria tied to the history of the South.
As usual, the weekend sale, this time on November 17 and 18, 2012, was packed with over 1200 lots that ranged from regional gems to decorative objects to Asian antiques and even African tribal art. Chairman John Neal explained before the sale, “There is a lot of material that’s coming on the market for a lot of different reasons. We actually have more to sell that we can put in a single sale. We have to live up to the obligations to our clients, but not everybody’s stuff gets in here.”
Neal continued, “We made the Louisiana Purchase Auction a special sale. We own that trademark. We bought it from Morton Goldberg many, many years ago. The staff works hard; we have a great crew and a great reputation. I had dinner with Neal [Alford] a couple of times this week, and we reminisced. We started this business in 1983. The Magazine Street location was an old furniture store when I bought it. The Carondelet Gallery we bought fifteen or so years ago does quite well too. It was the old post office. We have more room there than we do here.”
Saturday at the more formal Magazine Street location is definitely “y’all come” day. In spite of growing on-line bidding and a mighty phone bank that runs from ten to 15 people, everyone wants to meet and greet, to be seen on the floor. More and more chairs were brought in, and Neal had a full house when the bidding got underway. There was delectable crab soup at noon and champagne and wine later on, but the audience paid careful attention to the course of the sale, watching what lots soared and what lots aroused no interest. Everyone tries to match the current market against the collections they have formed back home.
Joe Koch had come in from Monte Verdi Plantation in Cushing, Texas, where he and his wife, Cecilia, have an antiques shop, keep some cattle, and sell real estate. He said, “We upgrade, we buy something and sell something.” Bill Seeman and his wife have a place in New Orleans and are working on restoring their early house on the Gulf Coast, which was damaged by Katrina. He was successful in reclaiming a shipyard painting by Robert Wadsworth Grafton that had family connections. Ned Stinson and Brian Bartilotta flew from the East Coast with carefully marked catalogs and remained intent on the action throughout the day.
Alford was accurate in underlining Neal’s leading role in the regional painting market. The works of native-born and visiting artists produced the top prices of the sale and gave a major boost toward the approximately $3.6 million total for the weekend. The catalog cover image was well chosen. The view of three Acadian Creôle cabins on the shoreline by William Henry Buck, who was active in New Orleans from 1869 till his death in 1888, brought $382,000 (including buyer’s premium). It was the top lot of the sale. The painting, which had belonged to the collection of the Crozat family, had been sold by Neal before in 2006.
Any little boy who grew up thinking his sister got all the attention had his viewpoint confirmed by a pair of sibling portraits sold early on Saturday. Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans (French, 1801-1888) was active in New Orleans 1836-56, during which time he received portrait commissions from many French families in the city. Andre Bienvenu Roman (1795-1836) was the ninth governor of Louisiana. Included in a consignment of historic material from the family, a portrait of his daughter Jeanne, charming in a white dress and holding a ringneck dove, climbed to $197,175 in fiercely contested phone bidding. The same bidder was able to purchase brother Robert for only $29,875. Both had been cataloged with a $15,000/25,000 estimate.
Jean-Joseph Vaudechamp (1790-1866) was another French artist who painted portraits in New Orleans; he was active in the city 1831-39. The portrait by him in this sale, probably of Catherine Fournier, had an inscription in French with the date of 1828 and a family history. Sold for $31,070, the work reveals an artist with tremendous skill in handling the complex transparent fabrics of the woman’s attire.
When painting specialist Rachel Weathers was asked to pick a favorite, she immediately pointed out the View of Holy Name of Jesus Church from Audubon Parkby Ellsworth Woodward (1861-1939), which sold for $185,225 (est. $80,000/120,000). Part of the appeal was the painting’s size (34½" x 60"). She observed, “Woodward was a great artist, but he was an administrator at Newcomb College. He didn’t do a lot of big canvases. I don’t think he had time.” Also Woodward had undoubtedly seen Monet’s works on his summer travels, so the American Impressionist’s treatment of the lake and water lilies in the foreground invites comparison.
Fine art was on a roll at this auction. The Woodward and the Amans portrait of Jeanne Roman set new records for those artists, as did a portrait of James Barbour attributed to Cephas Thompson. Also, in the oddly popular dead fish and game department (it sounds better if you call it “nature morte”), a new record was achieved for Achille Perelli (1822-1891) when his watercolor rendering of a deceased red snapper brought $31,070 (est. $8000/12,000).
Of course, since New Orleans is a sophisticated international port city, not all the top lots were southern or even American. Right inside the front door was a Neoclassical-style bronze gueridon or ornate table, which everyone brushed past and even set their used wine glasses on. Perched on three legs with winged caryatids and topped by a micromosaic of the Colosseum, the pretty table of unspecified age and origin sold for $21,510.
Nearby was a chandelier with a fascinating well-documented back story. As it hung in Neal’s front window within easy reach, the lower pendants proved irresistible to human hands. The slightest touch produced a profoundly satisfying chime of crystal. The circa 1820 lighting had been purchased originally by Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy for his residence in Bombay. Attributed to English maker John Blades (many parts were stamped with a “B”), the tour-de-force glass composition (64" tall) sold to a room bidder over the phones for $107,550, a price which seems to be a record for that maker.
Under the chandelier, sitting on a chair in the corner, was a life-size painted terra-cotta figure of a man. The realism of the figure repeatedly startled people as they walked past. The figure was described as, and looked like, a “New Orleans Stevedore” wearing tattered clothing and a smile. The rather speculative catalog entry pointed to a 19th-century artist in Bavaria named Bernhard Bloch, who made other sculptural works in this material. Also remarkable was the provenance: “Possibly the Paris Exposition Universelle 1900; by repute, acquired in the 20th century from the collection of Rock Hudson.” The sculpture sold for $14,340 (est. $6000/8000).
Noticeable during the sale was the rising use of Internet bidding for more valuable lots; the bids are coming from buyers in this country and abroad. Phone apps make it possible for bidders to follow the action wherever they might be and even to bid from the auction floor without raising that revealing paddle.
Steven Rutledge, often the man on the computer said, “I’m our condition reports administrator. I handle all the questions and inquiries about condition. I’m also our inventory coordinator. Keeping up with it is a full-time job.” He has seen the transformation of digital bids. “When we first started using on-line bidding, they were bidding on small decorative arts and collectibles. Over the past five years, that has changed. You see some of the bidding that used to be on the phones taking place on line. There are apps that allow you to watch auctions on your smartphone.” He brought up the fact that, unlike with phone bidding, he really does not know who the on-line bidder may be and does not have the ability to discuss the action on the floor with the bidder. Furthermore, quick reflexes are required. According to Rutledge, “Even with the fastest Internet connection, there’s still a tiny delay, and that tiny delay can be the hammer. Sometimes you have to fight to get in there.”
Auctions have become more and more like those computer games that allow multiple players in different locations to battle one another in cyberspace. The auctioneer and spotter on the podium must achieve a new level of awareness as bids come flying in from the floor, phone bank, and on-line sources.
New Orleans remains a delightful place to attend an auction. Winter weather is usually in the 70s; there’s a party around every corner and many enticing restaurants. The Neal Auction Company is located in the Garden District at 4038 Magazine Street. The sale moves on Sundays to its annex at 3923 Carondelet Street. For more information and a schedule, call (800) 467-5329 or visit (www.nealauction.com).
This circa 1820 chandelier, attributed to English maker John Blades, once hung in a Bombay palace. The firm of Blades and Matthews had a branch in Calcutta to supply the Indian market. A bidder in the room purchased the shimmering cascade of pendants for $107,550 (est. $25,000/35,000).
Each 69½" square, these complementary works from 1983, Semiotic Blue (left) and Semiotic Plum, reveal the bold color and playful symbolism that make Kohlmeyer’s later work so appealing. A strong contest among numerous phone bidders took the blue lot to $47,800, and the winner was able to pick up the plum mate for $34,655. Each was estimated at $25,000/35,000.
Yellow Study, 1958, is a fine representative example of Kohlmeyer’s early work. It was created not long after she received her M.F.A. from Tulane, studied with Hans Hofmann, and met Mark Rothko. Although some people at the auction seemed puzzled by all the fuss, knowledgeable bidders took the painting to $16,132.50 (est. $6000/8000).\
At auction previews in New Orleans, painting experts will often say, “We’ve got a great Kohlmeyer.” The rising interest in this Abstract Expressionist painter and sculptor proves that the regional painting scene in New Orleans is not only about old views of picturesque swamps.
The 2012 Louisiana Purchase Auction at Neal offered three works by Ida Kohlmeyer (1912-1997) from two different periods. All brought strong prices. Enthusiasm for the artist has been reinforced by Ida Kohlmeyer: 100th Anniversary Highlights, an exhibition on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) through April 14, which has provided collectors with a deeper understanding of the artist and her work.
Ida Rittenberg married Hugh Kohlmeyer in 1934, shortly after graduating from Tulane University with a degree in English literature. They became noted collectors of everything from pre-Columbian to contemporary art and supported NOMA with important gifts.
In her late 30’s, as she was raising a family, Ida blossomed as an artist. She went back to Tulane for an M.F.A. and spent the summer of 1956 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she studied with Hans Hofmann, after which she abandoned representational painting for abstraction. A sojourn in France introduced her to Surrealists, notably Joan Miró. In 1957 she became acquainted with Mark Rothko, when he came to Tulane as a visiting artist. Early works, such as the 1958 Yellow Studysold in this sale, clearly reflect his influence.
Over the next 25 years, Kohlmeyer developed her own style. She filled canvases with colorful symbols she called “scriptic” markings. Semiotics is the study of communications through signs and symbols. Certainly, Semiotic Blue and Semiotic Plumfrom 1983 communicated strongly with bidders at Neal. One buyer managed to win both for a total of $82,455.
Anne C.B. Roberts, curatorial projects manager at NOMA, emphasized how hard Kohlmeyer worked at her craft. Referring to one of the 12 works in the exhibition, she said, “You will note that Synthesis BB, a promised gift from Kohlmeyer’s dealer, Arthur Roger, is from the same period as the Semiotic Blue and Semiotic Plum. This particular piece is of particular interest to me, because it was included in a show at the Arthur Roger Gallery and did not sell, so Ida took it back and reworked the canvas, covering the bright background and simultaneously outlining the symbols in black.
“When works did not sell, she would regularly rework them—one of the many signs of her diligence and determination. At the beginning of her prolific career she referred to herself as a dilettante, but it is obvious now, looking at her prodigious output, that it was not the case. She worked nine to five in her studio, into her eighties.”
Neal Alford is pleased by the fact that mature collectors who began buying only 19th-century paintings are now adding works by 20th-century artists such as Kohlmeyer’s abstractions and the impressionistic views of Robert Wadsworth Grafton (1876-1936). He said, “All those people started collecting at the same point. Now there’s a new generation collecting at the ten- to twenty-thousand-dollar level, which is equally rewarding to us.” Ida Kohlmeyer’s paintings can still be found in this range, but that might not be true for long.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest