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Fruit-Eating Rat Leads Potomack Company Sale

Walter C. Newman | February 22nd, 2014

The high lot of the Potomack sale was this Chinese ink on paper on scroll. The artist is Qi Baishi (Chinese, 1864-1957). He is known for what are often described as “whimsical” works in watercolor. This 31" x 9½" piece fits that description. The image shows a rat sitting on one of two gourds and eating a loquat fruit. The calligraphy at the left is by the artist and indicates that Qi Baishi created the work in 1924 in what he refers to as the “Old Way,” meaning in an old style of painting. At the right margin, a second set of calligraphic writing was added in 1964 by Zhang Yan, then deputy director of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. That poem pays posthumous homage to Qi Baishi, stating, “You say it is in the old way [but] you painted it in the new way that shows you have a sense of humor and broad strokes.” This piece of artwork was no joke. It received active bidding from all quarters, ultimately selling to the phone for $193,875 (est. $60,000/90,000).

This 12¾" x 16½" (sight size) engraving is by Alexandre Hogue (1898-1994). It is titled Spindletop-1901, numbered (24/50), signed by the artist, and dated 1941. Hogue’s artwork is best known for realistic depictions of Depression era and Dust Bowl scenes from the southwestern United States. This scene is an imagined depiction of persons and events associated with the discovery of oil in east Texas, near the town of Beaumont. Spindletop was the site of the so-called Lucas geyser, discovered on January 10, 1901, the first major gusher of the early 20th-century Texas oil boom. A monument honoring the gusher was erected at the site in 1941. One can only speculate that the date of this engraving is associated with that event and that the two gentlemen shaking hands at the center of the engraving may be Anthony F. Lucas and Pattillo Higgins, the two men most closely associated with the discovery. This piece of Texana sold to the phone for the appropriately Texas-size sum of $8813 (est. $600/800).

The Potomack Company, Alexandria, Virginia

Photos courtesy The Potomack Company

The Potomack Company held its winter cataloged live auction at the firm’s Alexandria, Virginia, gallery on February 22. We have come to expect a wide variety of quality items at Potomack sales and were not disappointed.

For some time I have expressed my opinion that Potomack has emerged as a regional auction leader, particularly as Asian items are concerned. There never seems to be a lack of interesting and surprising lots within that general category, and this session was no exception. Kudos to Elizabeth Wainstein and her staff. They appear to be consciously forcing the evolution of the firm, and in that process they are attracting an ever broadening selection of auction-worthy material.

The high lot of this sale did come from the Asian category. It was a Chinese ink on paper on scroll by Qi Baishi. Bidding on the lot was intense from both collectors and dealers, most of whom were on the phone. One of the phones won the piece for $193,875 (includes buyer’s premium), well over its high estimate.

While religious iconographic art is not as yet a category unto itself, this sale did offer a large number of pieces. Sino-Tibetan thangkas, Latin American retablos, and traditional Russian and Greek icon forms were available. With some exceptions noted among the photos, these pieces sold within their estimates.

The February 22 sale is noteworthy for two reasons that will not be evident from chronicling the specific lots that sold.

First, this sale was referred to as a “live” auction. Potomack’s sales are usually two-day affairs with sessions on both Saturday and Sunday. The Saturday portion of this sale was a bit smaller than usual, with only 350 lots offered.

There was no live Sunday session. The second half of the sale (another 350-plus lots) was photographed and detailed in the catalog, but those lots were available for on-line bidding only. That portion of the sale closed on February 25.

This format seems to be a very good idea. In my experience, two-day sales seem to be heavily weighted with the lots that are expected to be the most successful on the first day. Gallery attendees sometimes refer to the second session of such sales as the “dealers’ day,” when there is likely to be more opportunity to buy stock without having to compete with a high percentage of collectors and retail buyers.

Some brick and mortar auction houses have analyzed their businesses and have elected to move to an “on-line first” or “on-line only” format. They feel that there are direct and quantifiable efficiencies realized by using the Internet as their primary (and sometimes their only) sales platform. Potomack’s efforts in dividing the sale may be a good middle ground. There is nothing like the live auction experience, and it needs to be preserved.

A second interesting and noteworthy takeaway from the Potomack sale is that the Asian market is not simply about buying and selling artifacts. While classic “ancient” items are still in great demand and represent the bulk of lots offered, it is worth noting that three of this sale’s highest-priced lots were works by artists living and active into the mid-20th century. A friend was flipping through the Potomack catalog and remarked, “Look at the dates of these artists. Some of them are still alive, and some haven’t been gone long.”

For additional information, contact the Potomack Company at (703) 684-4554 or on the Web (

This Chinese white and russet jade carving is a figure of a beast called a qilong. The piece is small, 1½" high and over 2½" long, and is fitted atop a carved wooden base. The beast is carved with its head turned and holding a peony flower in its mouth. The jade is light green with scattered russet inclusions. The lot opened at more than ten times its high estimate, and following spirited bidding, the figure sold to one of the phones for $23,500 (est. $600/800).

This Chinese Qing Dynasty vase has been drilled and fitted as a modern electric table lamp. The hu-form piece stands 12" high and is glazed a deep oxblood fading to cream perimeter accents. The lamp received a single bid from an Internet buyer and sold without an advance for $9988 (est. $200/300).

This ink on paper on scroll is by Pu Ru (Chinese, 1896-1963). Pu Ru was an artist and calligrapher. This piece, Green Bird, measures 34½" x 12". The green bird sits on the tallest branch of a tree that has lost most of its leaves. The calligraphic message carries the seal of Pu Ru. There appears to be some repetitive moisture staining along the left margin, perhaps from while the scroll was rolled. An Internet buyer won this piece for $23,500 (est. $4000/6000).

Calvert Vaux (British/American, 1824-1895) is best remembered as the co-designer of New York’s Central Park, as well as many other landscape architecture projects. A lot of Vaux’s drawings consisted of seven sheets (one shown) of floor plans and elevations for a cottage to be built in Newburgh, New York. Each of the 8" x 11" drawings is matted. The home was apparently designed in 1854 for a Mr. Ryan. Vaux later published a book containing a collection of his villa and cottage designs. This group of drawings brought $4994 (est. $300/500).

Here is a Russian icon thought to date from the 17th century. A label attached to the piece reads: “Two Saints/ Russian, 17th Century/ The full-length figures of (Archbishop) Peter and Symeon, portrayed as Workers of Miracles. Christ Immanuel is represented in the upper middle of the painting.” There is no indication as to who supplied that description. There appears to be a Cyrillic inscription along the top of the frame, but much of it is missing, making it illegible. The icon measures 10 7/8" x 9" and is painted using egg tempera and gold leaf. Bidding was active on this piece. It sold to an Internet buyer for $6463 (est. $800/1200).

These Louis XV-style urns display a bright green celadon crackle-glaze surface. The urns are a flattened baluster form, encased in very ornately scrolled bronze mounts and bases. The handles are dramatically arched above the urns’ mouths. The urns measure 20" in overall height and 12" at their widest point. A phone bidder won the pair for $9988 (est. $2000/3000).

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

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