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Forty M.A.D. Years

Lita Solis-Cohen | October 13th, 2013

See Americana Lots over One Million Dollars Sold at Auction since 2004

See Folk Art Lots over Five-Hundred-Thousand Dollars Sold at Auction since 2004


In November 1973, Sam and Sally Pennington launched Maine Antique Digest from their kitchen table in Waldoboro, Maine. Since its first issue M.A.D. has been the publication of record for the market for Americana. It covers landmark sales, record prices, innovative ideas, museum exhibitions and symposia, crimes and scandals, shows of all sizes, and the people who make this market, all too often as obituaries that celebrate the lives of the dealers, auctioneers, collectors, and curators who searched for excellence.

Anniversaries provide a time to celebrate and reflect. When M.A.D. turned 30, a book, Maine Antique Digest: The Americana Chronicles, 30 Years of Stories, Sales, Personalities, and Scandals, published by Running Press, traced the 30-year bull market for American antiques. It reprinted stories from each decade that reflected the comprehensive coverage of sales and a centerfold of scandals. (You can still buy The Americana Chronicles on line.) Even with four market downturns—generally following recessions in 1974-76, 1981-83, 1990-93, and 2002-03—objects of superior quality and historical importance brought record prices, and the overall market continued an upward trend. When interest in Americana seemed to wane, a collection would come to market that brought enthusiasm and new buyers to the marketplace

Appended at the back of The Americana Chronicles are lists and photographs documenting pieces of American furniture that sold at auction for $1 million or more and American folk art that brought $500,000 or more through January 2003. For the 40th anniversary, those lists have been updated and printed in this issue. Thirty-two million-dollar lots of furniture have been added to 33 on the original list, and 33 lots of folk art have been added to the 18 that had sold for more than $500,000, of which four sold for more than $1 million, three paintings by Edward Hicks and one piece of needlework. In the last decade folk art that has been added to the over $500,000 list includes 13 paintings, six weathervanes, three pieces of painted furniture, a box, three carvings, five decoys, and a sampler. Some made the lists because of the ever-increasing buyers’ premiums, and dozens just missed making the list.

The high prices were paid by a handful of collectors with deep pockets. The Americana market remained exuberant through 2007; the middle and upper-middle market began its slow decline at the turn of the 21st century and accelerated after the financial crisis in 2008. Nevertheless, rarities and objects of exceptional design brought record prices. There is one market for the best and another for the rest.

For example, picking up where the 30th anniversary list ended, on April 24, 2004, Freeman’s in Philadelphia sold the most medieval and exquisite of all Pennsylvania German frakturs, with a line from Hymn to a Nightingale andsigned and dated “Gr. Geistweit, 5 June 1801,” for a record $366,750 (includes buyer’s premium) to Westborough, Massachusetts, dealer David Wheatcroft. That price eclipsed the fraktur record of $181,500 set at Pook & Pook’s Koch sale in June 5, 1999, for a rare Daniel Otto fraktur with an alligator.

The sale of the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Jeffords at Sotheby’s in early October 2004 gave the American furniture and silver market a boost. Winterthur paid $1,688,000 for a tall-case clock made by Peter Stretch; the price was a record for an American clock. On November 7, 2004, Skinner got $1,876,000 for a japanned high chest signed by Rob Davis, a record for any American high chest. Six days later at Green Valley Auctions in Mt. Crawford, Virginia, dealers David Schorsch and Eileen Smiles paid $962,500 for a red, white, and blue hanging cupboard with a running deer by Johannes Spitler, establishing a record for American painted furniture.

Dealers continued to act as advisors and brokers, buying for clients, not for stock, a trend that had been building as prices at the top of the market escalated to the stratosphere.

In January 2005 at Sotheby’s, dealer Albert Sack, on behalf of a client, paid $8,416,000 for Nicholas Brown’s scalloped-top Newport tea table attributed to John Goddard, and dealer Leigh Keno paid $1,584,000 and $1,696,000 for the two roundabout chairs, probably made for Nicholas Brown in the same shop. At Christie’s, a 1750-70 marble-top pier table sold for $1,696,000 on the phone, underbid by Baltimore dealer Milly McGehee. Bidding for a client, McGehee paid $1,584,000 for a circa 1750 Philadelphia easy chair. On May 19, 2005, at Christie’s, Leigh Keno paid $1,808,000 for a 1755-65 Philadelphia mahogany high chest made for Benjamin Marshall, probably in the shop of Henry Clifton and Thomas Carteret.

At the August 20 and 21, 2005, sale at Northeast Auctions, a monumental eagle carved by John Haley Bellamy, with “God Is Our Refuge and Strength” on the banner, sold for $666,000 to Steven and Rebecca Blanchard of DR Fine Arts, North Reading, Massachusetts, for a client.

Before Thanksgiving, on November 22, 2005, at Freeman’s, David Schorsch and Eileen Smiles bought a 1790-1810 slide-lid candle box painted with an exuberant design of red, white, and blue half and quarter circles, tulips in double-handled jars, and small polka-dot-painted chickens for $744,825, a record for any painted box. They bought the box for collector Jane Katcher.

The top Americana on an upward climb climaxed in January 2006 with Christie’s sale of the collection of Mrs. J. Insley Blair, which brought a total of $32,291,320, swelled by the sale of Charles Willson Peale’s full-length portrait of George Washington at the Battle of Princeton for $21,296,000 to Yardley, Pennsylvania, dealer Todd Prickett, for a client. At the Blair sale a diminutive painted chest signed by Robert Crosman of Taunton, Massachusetts, sold for $2,928,000 to Massachusetts and Ohio dealer Bill Samaha for a client, underbid by Keno. Christie’s also sold a Goddess of Liberty weathervane of painted and gilded copper and sheet iron for $1,080,000, a record for a weathervane, to Boston dealer Stephen Score. A few days later, Sotheby’s various-owners’ sale brought a little more than $16 million, a total swelled by an Edward Hicks Peaceable Kingdom for $3,152 000 to Prickett, and the following day, bidding for the same client, Prickett paid $2,144,000 for a set of six rush-seated curly maple dining chairs attributed to Philadelphia cabinetmaker William Savery. Taken together, Americana sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in January 2006 totaled a record $68.5 million.

In the fall of 2006, blue-chip Americana continued strong, and the rest of the market followed as the stock market continued to climb. At Sotheby’s, Prickett bought a Queen Anne walnut armchair for $2,256,000, a record for a Queen Anne armchair. The very same day at Sotheby’s, New York collector Jerry Lauren bought a life-size molded copper Indian chief weathervane that once graced the roof of Josephine Clay Ford’s Grosse Pointe, Michigan, house for $5,840,000, an all-time record for a weathervane and for American folk art.

Prickett, disappointed at not getting the big Indian, bought for $716,000 another Indian chief weathervane attributed to the J.L. Mott Iron Works in New York. A month later Guyette & Schmidt in Easton, Maryland, got $830,000, a record for a decoy, for a black-bellied plover decoy in feeding position by A. Elmer Crowell of Cape Cod. Guyette & Schmidt reported the highest-grossing decoy auction at the time, selling 800-plus lots in two days on November 8 and 9 for $4.5 million.

In January 2007, Americana continued to sell above expectations. At Sotheby’s, Prickett paid $4,408,000 for a tiger maple dressing table from the same family as the set of six William Savery $2,144,000 dining chairs. Also at Sotheby’s in January 2007, a Boston secretary bookcase with carving attributed to John Welch sold on the phone for $3,288,000, and a mahogany bombé slant-front desk sold for $1,608,000 to Sack, underbid by Atlanta dealer Deanne Levison. (In October 2004 at a Steenburgh Auctioneers sale in Haverhill, New Hampshire, it sold for $605,000 to Greenwich, Connecticut, collector Billy Mayer, which shows how far the market had climbed.)

At Sotheby’s sale of the Laracy collection, Wheatcroft paid $801,600 for a pair of portraits by John Brewster Jr. (1766-1854) of Major Daniel Coffin (1763-1838) and Elizabeth Stone Coffin (1767-1811) of Newbury, Massachusetts, dated 1801. They are the earliest documented portraits Brewster painted during his extended stay in Newburyport.

At Christie’s in January 2007 Pennsylvania folk painter Edward Hicks’s last Peaceable Kingdom, with a tired, old lion and a stretched-out leopard, sold for $6,176,000 to Marietta, Pennsylvania, dealer Harry Hartman, underbid by Clarence Prickett. It was a record for Hicks. Christie’s sold a Hicks Penn’s Treaty for $3,600,000 to dealer Marguerite Riordan of Stonington, Connecticut. At the same Christie’s sale, Allan and Kendra Daniel, New Jersey collectors and dealers, paid $1,248,000 for Ammi Phillips’s Portrait of a Young Girl and her Cat; Wheatcroft was the underbidder.

The Americana market was at its high. The combined totals at both houses in January 2007 were $52,971,720. The run up was caused largely by a Bill Samaha vs. Todd Prickett competition. Samaha was bidding for a passionate, longtime Massachusetts collector and Prickett for a young Pennsylvania client; both were seeking the best of the best. They had some competition from Leigh Keno for a client and from Albert Sack, who had moved from New York to North Carolina, and a few others. Christie’s partnered with decoy specialists Guyette & Schmidt in January 2007 for a sale at which a red-breasted merganser decoy by Lothrop Holmes (1824-1899) of Kingston, Massachusetts, sold to a phone bidder for $856,000, a new record for an American decoy. Collector Jerry Lauren bought a large Canada goose at the sale for $553,600. That same day at Christie’s, Boston dealer Stephen Score paid $520,000 for a hollow-molded copper grasshopper weathervane.

In spring 2007 the auction action moved to Pennsylvania, where Pook & Pook sold an 1803 Berks County blanket chest for $561,600 to Wheatcroft, during the $9,765,454 sale of the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Donald Shelley.

On October 3, 2007, Christie’s got $6,761,000 for a Philadelphia piecrust tilt-top tea table in untouched condition, a new discovery that was never published. Its rich patina and perfectly balanced design, exquisitely executed, made it extremely desirable. The buyer was Prickett for his client, underbid by Samaha for his client.

That same day at Christie’s, a painted figure of Jack Tar, the mythical sailor, possibly carved by Samuel Robb for a ship chandler, sold for $541,000 to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The seller was the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia. Museums were more often sellers than buyers during the last decade.

The stock market hit an all-time high on October 11, 2007. On October 21, 2007, Philip Weiss in Oceanside, New York, sold a wooden figure of Punch attributed to William Demuth & Co. for $542,400 to Martha Fleischman for a client, underbid by dealer Fred Giampietro of New Haven, Connecticut.

A week later on November 4, 2007, at Skinner, Jerry Lauren bought a modeled copper car and driver weathervane made by W.A. Snow Iron Works for $941,000. At the same sale Schorsch and Smiles bought for $886,000 an unsigned portrait of a boy, now attributed to the Wilkinson Limner.

In January 2008, as financial markets and housing markets began their historic declines, top Americana continued strong. Christie’s sold the Stevenson family mahogany scalloped-top tea table attributed to Thomas Affleck, its carving attributed to Nicholas Bernard and Martin Jugiez, for $5,417,000 to Samaha, underbid by McGehee. Only one other piecrust tea table had brought more. It was consigned by the Dietrich American Foundation. Richard Dietrich had bought it at Christie’s on January 20, 1990, for $1,210,000, then a record for a tilt-top tea table. In January 2008 at Christie’s, $1,049,000 was paid for a Boston mahogany high chest of drawers by Prickett; the underbidder was Samaha.

At Sotheby’s in January 2008, the market seemed shaky. A Philadelphia tilt-top piecrust tea table, from the same shop and carver as the $6 million tea table sold at Christie’s in October 2007, brought a disappointing $1,833,000. Its refinished surface, a few minor scuffs, and a less balanced design, plus the fact that two other similar tables had sold in the previous months, kept the price down.

Regional auction houses continued to get some hefty prices. Earlier in January 2008 at Pook & Pook in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, a sgraffito redware plate sold to dealer David Wheatcroft for a client for $351,000, another an all-time record for American redware. (It was probably a record for redware made anywhere in the world.)

By March 2008, the stock market had lost 54% of its value since the October 2007 high, and auctioneers were finding it harder to get consignments. With lower estimates and smaller sales, totals contracted. Nevertheless, when superior objects of desire came on the market, even in the depths of the recession, some big prices were paid. In May 2008 at an American paintings sale at Sotheby’s Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom with the Leopard of Serenity sold on the phone for a record $9,673,000. The painting had come from the collection of Ralph Esmerian and was sold to satisfy a debt to Sotheby’s. The painting was not paid for, and a year later it sold privately for $7 million, 30% less than the auction price. It is considered the finest of all Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdoms, and it is a worthy record price.

The financial crisis gave the September Americana sales in 2008 the shivers and a fever. With the Wall Street meltdown and Congress bickering over the bailout, collectors, dealers, and auctioneers gathered at Sotheby’s and Christie’s to face the music. They saw many lots sell for two-thirds of their low estimates at both houses, but a Philadelphia Queen Anne stool sold at Sotheby’s for $5,234,500 to Albert Sack, underbid by Prickett. At the same sale, a Philadelphia dressing table made in the Clifton-Carteret shop with carving by Nicholas Bernard also went to Sack, for $1,142,500, underbid by Prickett. Sotheby’s sold Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Bearing Banners in its original cherry veneer frame, hand-lettered by the artist, for $1,314,500 to a phone bidder, well under its $2/3 million estimate. Christie’s had hoped to get $4/6 million for a Hicks Peaceable Kingdom, but it was passed at $3.2 million. Christie’s did manage to get $1,082,500 from Prickett for the Biddle-Drinker family high chest for which Leigh Keno had paid $731,000 at a New Orleans auction in March 2008. Prickett had tried to buy it privately from Keno, but they could not arrive at a price, so Keno sent it to auction instead of showcasing it at the Winter Antiques Show; New Oxford, Pennsylvania, dealer Kelly Kinzle was the underbidder. The price was well below the record $1,808,000 Keno had paid for a Philadelphia high chest. Nevertheless, between the two houses, $15 million worth of Americana changed hands that fall.

In January 2009 a small group of seasoned collectors took the opportunity to buy what they and their advisors deemed worthy. The Prickett/Samaha competition continued. At Sotheby’s, Prickett bought a diminutive Massachusetts bombé chest-on-chest, fresh to market, for $1,762,500, underbid by Samaha. At Christie’s, the star lot, the Quincy family plum pudding mahogany bombé chest, of classic proportions and good color, estimated at $2/4 million, failed to meet its reserve and was not sold. The total for the sale of American furniture and folk art at Christie’s came to $2.9 million, half its low estimate. At Sotheby’s the total for Americana was $7.7 million.

Prices in the middle market that had been swept up by the top of the market began their readjustment. David Schorsch gave the example of a Harris running horse weathervane, a nice starter piece for any collector. In the 1970’s these weathervanes sold for $800 to $1200 and then prices rose to $3500 to $6500 in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and continued up to $15,000 to $18,000 at the top of the market in 2006. Now, said Schorsch, the market is back down to where it should be, and examples are sold in the $3000 to $6000 range, where collectors of some means can afford to collect again. Similar examples can be charted for many forms of American furniture.

The best examples in any category perform well in any economic climate, and some segments of the market remain hot while others cool, often because of the loss of some competitors.

In July 2009 at Copley Fine Art Auctions in Plymouth, Massachusetts, an A. Elmer Crowell Canada goose decoy sold for $661,250 and a Crowell preening pintail duck sold for $546,250. In 2008 Stephen O’Brien, president of Copley, announced he had sold a Crowell pintail drake and a Crowell Canada goose privately for $1.13 million each in 2007.

In January 2010 it was hard to measure how far the market for Americana had retreated. The walnut compass-seat stool made in Philadelphia circa 1760 and offered at Christie’s is not a good example. The first stool of this design to come to auction sold at the Lewis sale at Parke Bernet in 1961 for $10,000, and then in September 2008 at Sotheby’s that same stool brought $5,234,500 from Albert Sack. That crazy price brought another bidet-shaped footstool to market, and this one sold at Christie’s for $482,500 to Prickett, underbid in the salesroom by a Texas collector.

In January 2010, Christie’s sold an Ammi Phillips circa 1852 double portrait of Theron Simpson Ludington and his older sister Virginia, shown with a cat and shaggy dog, for $782,500 to Atlanta dealer Deanne Levison for a client. One of fewer than ten full-length portraits of children by Phillips, it brought the second-highest price for a Phillips.

There were no million-dollar lots of furniture at Sotheby’s in January 2010, but an American silver punch bowl made by Cornelius Kierstede in New York, 1700-10, probably the largest piece of 18th-century American silver known, sold for $5,906,500. It is the highest price paid for any piece of American silver, topping $775,750 paid for a cup and cover made by John Coney discovered in London and sold at Sotheby’s in 2002. That price tied the record price paid for the Hull and Sanderson silver wine cup from a Quincy, Massachusetts, church, that sold at Sotheby’s in January 2001, proving that when works of extraordinary merit come to market there is someone with funds who will step up and buy them.

In May 2010, even though the Americana market was erratic, Keno launched his auction business in Stamford, Connecticut, and sold two million-dollar lots, both fresh to market. James Beekman’s diminutive New York chest of drawers by Thomas Brookman with carving attributed to Henry Hardcastle sold for $1,428,000 to John and Marjorie McGraw in the salesroom. Schorsch paid $1,118,600 for the portrait of Annetje Kool (cataloged as Anna Brodhead Oliver), which now has been attributed to Pieter Vanderlyn (1687-1778) of Ulster County, New York, circa 1740. The McGraws were the underbidders.

In September 2010, Christie’s added a Philadelphia easy chair to the million-dollar list, a document of original upholstery possibly from the shop of Benjamin Randolph. It sold for $1,022,500 to Samaha, underbid by Keno. Off the market for decades, it came from the collection of New York City collector Martin Wunsch. Christie’s has been feeding the Wunsch collection into the marketplace a few pieces at a time over the last three years with good results. The chair doubled its $500,000 high estimate; it was the only million-dollar lot sold in the fall of 2010.

On October 30, 2010, Pook & Pook sold a Berks County sponge-painted schrank for $818,500. It is in a small desirable size—81” high and 60” wide—and has the name Philip Detu[r]k and the date 1775. The buyers were Massachusetts dealers Grace and Elliott Snyder, bidding on the phone for a client; the underbidder was Wheatcroft. Only two pieces of American painted furniture have brought more. The schrank came from the collection of Richard and Joane Smith, one of the last collections assembled from country sales to come to market. Collections assembled at the source by passionate and scholarly collectors have been the mainstay of regional auction houses in the last decade. Very few of these collections are left. The collections that will be sold over the next decade are the collections formed from these sales.

In January 2011 at Christie’s, another Prickett vs. Samaha competition resulted in $5,682,500 paid by Prickett for a three-shell Newport, Rhode Island, kneehole bureau made circa 1765 by cabinetmaker John Goddard for his daughter Catherine. It is a record for the form. In January 2005 at Sotheby’s, it had sold to a St. Louis collector for $940,000.

Albert Sack, who had been the chief buyer for Israel Sack, Inc. and then advised collectors after the firm dissolved in 1999, died in May 2011. The top of the market felt the loss of a major player.

Discoveries are made every once in a while. On November 5, 2011, Skinner sold an anonymous portrait of Abigail Rose of North Branford, Connecticut, circa 1786, fresh to market from the family of the sitter, for $1,271,000 to dealer Stephen Score for a client, underbid by Schorsch. The portrait was accompanied by the enameled box in the picture.

Never had so much Newport furniture been offered at one time as in January 2012 in New York City. Five pieces were expected to sell for $1 million or more, and three did. Christie’s sold a diminutive shell-carved blockfront document cabinet with drawers signed by John Townsend for $3,442,500 to Samaha, underbid on the phone. It was consigned by the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. The proceeds were added to the acquisition fund. Christie’s also offered the collection of Joseph Ott of Providence, which included a mahogany slab table by John Goddard, documented on a 1755 bill. It sold for $2,098,500 to Samaha. A John Townsend card table and a Newport high chest from the Ott collection with too-ambitious estimates failed to sell, in part because refinished surfaces are not popular now

During Americana week in January 2012, Sotheby’s sold four works for over $1 million. A newly discovered John Townsend high chest with six signatures, dated 1756, and with a long family history descending from Colonel Oliver Arnold, sold for $3,554,500 to Samaha, underbid by Keno in the salesroom. Some expected it to bring more.  An extremely rare gold-inlaid engraved Colt pocket revolver, made in 1853 by Samuel Colt in Hartford, Connecticut, brought $1,142,500. A pair of Governor Stoughton standing silver cups made by Jeremiah Dummer in Boston in 1701 for the First Parish Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, brought $1,082,500 from Ian Irving, a private New York City dealer bidding for a collector. At the sale of the needlework collection of scholar Betty Ring, Mary Antrim’s Burlington, New Jersey, sampler sold for $1,070,500 to David Schorsch. Ring, of the generation of scholarly collectors, wrote a definitive book on samplers that defined regional differences. Regional studies in every segment of Americana have been the direction of Americana scholarship for the decade.

In September 2012 the market, along with the economy, continued a slow recovery. Christie’s sold a Philadelphia mahogany easy chair, the carving attributed to the Garvan carver, for $1,166,500 on the phone to Todd Prickett. The chair is similar to one that sold for $1,584,000 at Christies in January 2005 to McGehee. It was consigned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) to help pay for “the Fox and Grapes” dressing table, which matches a high chest with a similar carved tablet illustrating Aesop’s fable in the PMA collection that the museum acquired privately from the Joseph Kindig family. It was hard to understand why the PMA would sell its earliest Philadelphia easy chair with C-scroll arms, which  could have been used to tell the story of the evolution of the Philadelphia easy chair from its inception in the 1750’s to its full flowering in the 1760’s and 1770’s, but the museum needed funds.

Discoveries continued to perform fairly well in the recovering economy, which saw the stock market climbing. In January 2013 a carved mahogany shell-carved blockfront bureau table from the shop of John Townsend, signed by his younger brother and apprentice Jonathan Townsend, sold for $2,210,500 at Christie’s to a new young collector. It had restoration to its feet, but a desirable rich, old finish. Christie’s also sold an Edward Hicks Penn’s Treaty (with the Indians) with the words “Penn’s Treaty” in gold on the frame for $2,546,500 to Downingtown, Pennsylvania, dealer Philip Bradley for a client, underbid by Samaha. It was the highest-priced lot of Americana Week in New York City that year, but the price was less than the $3.6 million paid for another Hicks Penn’s Treaty, about the same size, that sold in January 2007.

At Sotheby’s in January 2013, a cherrywood desk-and-bookcase, probably made in Hartford, Connecticut, 1765-75, sold for $1,082,500, a record for any piece of Connecticut River valley furniture, twice as much as the previous record of $536,000 paid in January 2006 at Sotheby’s for the William Walker shell-carved blockfront desk-and-bookcase made by Calvin Willey, who trained in Colchester, Connecticut. When works of merit appear on the market, there will be buyers.

On March 3, 2013, at Skinner’s sale of the collection of Andy Williams, an Ammi Phillips portrait of identical twins Jacob Wessel and William Henry Ten Broeck sold for $880,000 to Schorsch, underbid by Wheatcroft. There were no million-dollar lots in the 2013 fall sales. January sales held when the Winter Antiques Show draws collectors to New York City continue to be a barometer for the top of the market.

What does this chronicle of the most expensive furniture and folk art reveal about trends in the marketplace during the last decade? It shows how dealers stopped buying for stock and became advisors/brokers as prices climbed into the stratosphere. Collectors needed experts to navigate this field in the same way they needed financial managers for the financial markets. After 2008 the most passionate collectors kept buying, delighted with some downward price adjustments. Some dealers and auctioneers revamped their business plans.

Leigh Keno, dealer-turned-auctioneer, launched Americana sales in 2010 but now calls himself a private dealer/advisor in paintings, furniture, and vintage cars and will hold an occasional boutique auction. “I will hold a few sales this season with less than 100 lots combining contemporary art with old masters and some pieces of American or Continental furniture, various categories in one sale, all vetted by specialists hired for their expertise as needed,” he explained. “With on-line and printed catalogs and on-line and in-house bidding at my 69th Street gallery, I will focus on the top of the market, which is very competitive. I don’t need a big warehouse or a big space for sales.”

In the last decade, there have been fewer Americana sales in New York City. In the 1970’s there were up to ten a year. This decade has seen the expansion of the regional auction houses; it’s become too expensive to sell mid-range material in New York City, with buyers’ premiums climbing steadily from 10% in 1977 to 25% on any amount up to $100,000, plus 20% of the excess up to and including $2 million, plus 12% of the excess of the hammer price above $2,000,000, which is what they are today. Regional auction houses have also raised buyers’ premiums in this decade, but they have kept them a tad lower than the New York City premiums.

Regional auction houses demonstrated that they too can sell works of merit for record high prices even during times of economic recovery. For example, at John Moran Auctioneers in California in June 2012, a fine first-phase Navajo man’s wearing blanket sold for a record $1.8 million to Vancouver and New York City dealer Donald Ellis. A record $402,900 was paid at Pook & Pook in May 2012 for a stoneware jug signed by potter Absalom Stedman in New Haven, Connecticut, and incised with an eagle holding an American flag.

 Skinner in Massachusetts, Northeast Auctions in New Hampshire, James D. Julia Auctions in Maine, Pook & Pook and Freeman’s in Pennsylvania, Stair in Hudson, New York, Cowan’s and Garth’s in Ohio, Crocker Farm in Maryland, Jeffrey S. Evans in Virginia, Brunk in North Carolina, Neal in Louisiana, Leslie Hindman in Chicago, Bonhams in California, and others have enjoyed a decade of growth as they made use of the Internet for posting catalogs and for on-line bidding from anywhere in the world.

As auction results have become  unpredictable in the last half of this decade, there has been significant growth in private sales, which are not publicized like auctions. Auctioneers who worked so hard to lure the retail trade from the dealers over the last three decades became dealers. When consignors became reluctant to take a chance at auction, Sotheby’s and Christie’s offered private deals and published their climbing “private treaty” totals. Knowing who wants what and who has it gave them an edge, although dealers in their role as brokers say they were offered some of the best material, which would have gone to auction in the past. “We dealers got a huge leg up in the period after the crash because of the great variability in the marketplace,” said Wheatcroft, who changed his business plan, closed his shop, stopped participating in shows, and now deals privately.

“There was a contraction of the market, a contraction of the number of participants,” observed Wheatcroft, “but with the economy improving now and prices reasonable some people who were hibernating are coming back, and some new people are appearing. This is important because 95% of this market is psychology. When collectors see other collectors buying they buy aggressively at all levels.”

A problem seems to be the scarcity of first-rate objects. “Collectors are either not parting with their treasures or giving collections to museums,” complained Wheatcroft. He said he is looking forward to the announcement of the Esmerian sale, which he believes will excite people, and although it will be a big sale, it will not saturate the market hungry for folk art.

The biggest change in the marketplace in the last decade has been the universal use of the Internet for buying and selling at every level.

“Auction houses all have gorgeous on-line catalogs with images that can go up to 400 times resolution. You can literally see the hair from a brush caught in the paint. So who needs catalogs?” asked Andy Rose, whose business Catalog Kid is the largest auction catalog seller in the world.

“The Chinese need them; they have never seen them, so they will spend $1500 for a catalog that I used to sell for $10 at any one of the fifteen antiques shows I used to do. I do not do any shows anymore. Now my business is on line. Thanks to Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Google, and the other American geniuses, I can conduct my business in my hand from anywhere in the world,” Rose said. “It is often hard to locate images on line of anything that sold before 1999. I have them in auction catalogs; someone has to store them. As long as there are auctions, I will sell catalogs.”

Stephen L. Fletcher, executive vice president of Skinner, Inc. and director of Skinner’s Americana department, said, “Over the last ten years, the Internet has changed the landscape for auction houses permanently, offering both opportunity and a competitive threat. The houses that have been thriving are doing so by finding new models and effective ways to merge the old brick-and-mortar business with the array of possibilities for doing business on line—from allowing customers to view auction catalogs on line to taking part in auctions in real time using a computer or tablet.”

Skinner was one of the first auction houses to offer sales on line and recently rebranded its Web site and developed its  own platform for live on-line sales called SkinnerLive! It now accounts for as much as 30% of the hammer in some auctions

Sotheby’s and Christie’s have their own bidding platforms for on-line participation at auction; others are working on them, but most regional houses use LiveAuctioneers, ArtFact, Proxibid, or other similar companies.

A trend has been the lowering of presale estimates back to levels before the first million-dollar lot was sold in 1986. “For middling and upper-middle market, estimates are back to the 1980’s,” confirmed Andrew Holter, chief of American furniture and decorative arts at Christie’s.

“Low estimates have brought furnishers back into the market,” said Ron Pook. “People who want something individual, not homogenized, are buying antiques. Brown furniture well made and well priced is not totally ignored.”

New Hampshire auctioneer Ron Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions, who has watched the market for nearly 60 years as a dealer and then an auctioneer, sees “the world moving at such a fast pace that most of the younger generation doesn’t have time to think about furnishing their houses by collecting one piece at a time…Crate and Barrel supplies it all and puts it on a revolving charge card.”

In the last five years Bourgeault watched the market contract after the death or retirement of major dealers and saw the prices of Americana fall in many categories. “Lower prices brought some young collectors into the market this summer. I felt more energy in the marketplace in New Hampshire at the shows and at auctions,” he said.

It has been five years since the financial meltdown, and the Americana market  still is struggling. Even though stocks are doing well and houses are selling again in many regions, many antiques are worth a fraction of what was paid for them. The declining value of collections is one reason why there are fewer collectors and fewer and smaller shows. In this decade, there have been fewer museum exhibitions devoted to Americana, fewer scholarly books and exhibition catalogs, skinnier journals and antiques periodicals, with less first-rate Americana at auctions; there has been a proliferation of the other categories to tempt new collectors. Taste and interests change with each generation

At Sotheby’s, Leslie Keno, longtime head of the American furniture department, has moved on to a new title in Sotheby’s Chairman’s Group, where he is putting together a sale of vintage and historic cars in collaboration with RM Auctions. The first sale will be November 21. “The thirty-five cars in the sale will be exhibited on the tenth floor where you expect to see Picasso, Brancusi, or a John Townsend high chest,” said Keno. “The same principles apply to cars and furniture, line, proportion, originality, provenance, plus function and engineering.” Keno said he is still working on Americana sales with acting head of the department Erik Gronning. “Collections I have been shepherding for the last thirty years will be coming to market, and I am convincing young collectors that they can mix the best Americana with contemporary design. It works!”

John Hays, Christie’s deputy chairman, who has watched the Americana market for three decades, said he sees the coming together of the scholarly world and auctions as a good thing that has happened in this decade and the real hope for the future. “The Internet has made scholarship more democratic,” he said. “Anyone can log on to Pat Kane’s Rhode Island Furniture Archive at Yale or Chipstone’s database for furniture and ceramics at the University of Wisconsin, and a searchable database of Massachusetts furniture in process at Winterthur Museum in Delaware.”

There may be more sharing between academia and the trade, but on these databases condition is rarely mentioned, and nothing is more educational than the experience of examining the material firsthand at a presale exhibition or at a show. Hays said he has watched the top of the market be driven by form, condition, and surface. “Surface has been the deciding factor,” he said. “To appreciate the surface, one has to see it and touch it.”

Hays is optimistic about the future. In January 2014 Christie’s will offer the collection of Martin Wunsch, and it should ignite new enthusiasm. “A single-owner sale of a collection with depth that has something for everybody should be an electric experience,” he said.

“During Americana Week in January, the Wunsch award will be presented at Christie’s to two recipients: Linda H. Kaufman, whose gift of her half-a-billion-dollar collection of American furniture to the nation made the National Gallery in Washington a major repository of American furniture overnight, and to Richard Jenrette, who established the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust that supports a chain of restored Classical Revival houses from New York to South Carolina, furnished with significant collections of Classical American furniture and decorations, some original to the houses,” Hays announced.

One event that took place this decade and exemplified passion and appreciation of Americana and shared it with the public in a creative way was the six-day exhibition Infinite Variety at the Park Avenue Armory, held March 25-30, 2011. Joanna Rose’s collection of 650 red-and-white quilts was installed in circles, spiraling to the lofty ceiling of the drill room, to represent the creative energy that comes out of the communities of quilters. It was a modern example of installation art, contemporary and timeless. It showcased imaginative combinations of red-and-white rectangles, diamonds, triangles, and circles, joined together for ordinary bed covers in the 19th and early 20th century, and it brought 25,000 people to the armory. Many stayed for hours. It inspired quilters and collectors from around the world to make or buy quilts. It boosted the global quilt market and the art of quilting.

It will take more than one exhibition of this kind to bring the public back to Americana and to discover the enormous pleasure of putting together meaningful Americana collections one piece at a time.

See Americana Lots over One Million Dollars Sold at Auction since 2004

See Folk Art Lots over Five-Hundred-Thousand Dollars Sold at Auction since 2004


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

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