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Louisiana Purchase Auction Total Driven by Strong Regional Art Sales

Karla Klein Albertson | November 22nd, 2013


Director of paintings Rachel Weathers stands by the star of this year’s Louisiana Purchase Auction, a portrait of Major General James Wilkinson (1757-1825) by Jose Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza (c. 1750-1802). The work established a world record for the sought-after Spanish colonial artist when it sold for $591,000 (est. $150,000/250,000) to a New Orleans collector bidding on the phone. Salazar’s signature includes the date 1799, the last year that Louisiana was under Spanish control. Wilkinson had sailed to New Orleans from Baltimore that November, and in 1805 was appointed the first governor of the Louisiana Territory after the United States had negotiated its purchase from France.


The sun and shadow of Morning on Royal Street is perfectly captured in this 1960’s oil on masonite by Mississippi artist Mildred Nungester Wolfe (1912-2009), which sold for $16,605 (est. $7000/9000). Adding to its value, the work had previously been in the collection of Leigh Barrett Latimer, a pioneer woman in the oil industry and a strong supporter of the arts in Mississippi. Neal photo.


The woman photographed in a bright yellow jacket seemed somewhat puzzled by her 19th-century surroundings. Signed by photographer Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) and dated 1980, the 16" x 24" color print from an edition of five tore past its presale estimate of $12,000/18,000 to reach $183,000 after competitive bidding from the phones and Internet—a rare image indeed.


When New Orleans philanthropist Sara Lavinia Hyams died in 1914, she designated that the proceeds from the sale of her jewelry would fund two public wading pools for children, one in Audubon Park and another in City Park. As noted on the bottom edge of the painting, the latter is shown in this 13¼" x 19" 1921 Impressionist view by noted local artist William Woodward (1859-1939). With all phones in action, the bidding mounted slowly and steadily to a final price of $83,650 (est. $30,000/50,000). Neal photo.


Little is known about the life of French artist Charles Giroux (c. 1828-1885), who painted landscape scenes around New Orleans during the last decades of his career. This example, View from Spanish Fort: Lake Pontchartrain near Bayou St. John, signed by the artist at lower right, was fresh to the market and larger (14" x 24") than many of the artist’s works. Collectors seized the opportunity, and potential buyers on the floor gave way to a determined phone bidder who purchased the work for $86,637.50 (est. $30,000/ 50,000). Neal photo.


No collection of 19th-century Louisiana regional art is complete without a landscape by Norwegian-born William Henry Buck (1840-1888). This 12" x 20" bayou scene, signed and dated 1881, came from the estate of New Orleans collector Harry T. Howard III. It sold for a mid-estimate $155,350. Neal photo.


In a run of 19th-century southern coin silver on Saturday, no lot did better than this Alabama agricultural award pitcher, 9½" high, made by Mobile silversmith Alanson Knapp, which went to a phone bidder for $16,132.50. The inscription, “for the best twenty bales of Cotton brought to market this season, Mobile 1844,” evokes strong images of southern economic and political history in that period. Neal photo.


A true relic of the Raj, this silver salt cellar was made circa 1810 in Calcutta by Hamilton & Co., which had a license from the East India Company. Dinner must have been rather special in those days, for an officer had given it to the mess of the 7th Madras Light Cavalry on the occasion of his promotion, as stated in the inscription. The historic treasure drew strong interest and rose to $8066.25, over its modest $500/750 estimate.


In the latter decades of his life, Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965) would disappear for weeks at a time with his watercolors, a packet of typing paper, and minimal food supplies to paint flora and fauna along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and nearby barrier islands. This painting, Amaryllis, has an especially vivid palette and fills the small field. A phone bidder took the image for $23,900 (est. $8000/12,000). Not shown, a small image of aloon went to a phone bid for $11,895, and a cormorant brought $9560. Neal photo.

Neal Auction Company, New Orleans, Louisiana

As president of the Neal Auction Company, Neal Alford has always had respect, even reverence for southern regional art. It not only occupies a special place in his heart, it also stands as a pillar of the business. In 2013, his faith paid off. The annual Louisiana Purchase Auction, which always places southern material culture front and center, brought in $3.65 million (with buyers’ premiums), a higher total than has been seen in many years. Almost all of the “Top Twenty” five- and six-figure lots flew the regional flag, led by a historically significant painting that sold for over half a million dollars.

As always, the sale, held November 22-24, 2013, was a big, muscular event with over 1400 lots spread over three days. Neal has an extensive roster of full- and part-time staff members, with lots of young blood, including Nicole Casi and Claire Thriffiley, who have just come on board. Even so, handling that much material over one weekend is exhausting. Just controlling the ebb and flow of phone bidding requires the full attention of a dozen people. Bidding for the first 350 lots began at noon on Friday so that it could conclude early enough to allow everyone to rest up for the big all-day push on Saturday. The Sunday sale, as always, moved to the more relaxed atmosphere of the firm’s second gallery on Caron-delet Street.

In addition to their southern leanings, the top 20 lots were predominantly “flat art”—mostly paintings, a map, a couple of photographs, and an Audubon print. This is not to diminish the importance of hundreds of lots of furniture and decorative arts—chairs, clocks, jewelry, lighting, and an abundance of 19th-century table silver. Some items were attention-getting, all were aesthetically pleasing, and many were very useful. After the auction, Alford put it well, “It was an astounding sale in so many ways—it was so big and included so many categories.” But, as is the case elsewhere, furniture and decorative pieces now seem to take a back seat to fine art when it comes to boosting the auction proceeds.

“In the art and antiques market right now, it’s the paintings that grab attention very quickly,” Alford agreed. “The way we do it is, we provide a lot of encouragement on presentation, a lot of encouragement with advertising and marketing, a lot of encouragement from the experts we have on staff, and the estimates we provide try to be very inviting to potential bidders.” While this Neal auction may not have had the highest total or the most expensive lot ever—let’s not forget the 1990’s—he agreed that this was the best result in a decade or longer. And certainly those “inviting” estimates seemed to do the trick from the top lot down.

The sale of the 1799 portrait of Major General James Wilkinson (1757-1825) by Spanish colonial painter Jose Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza (c. 1750-1802) on Saturday morning was one of those crowd-pleasing moments of auction theater that everyone likes to share. The most serious bidders waited before entering the contest, and then the price increases were steady and inexorable. The original estimate of $150,000/250,000 seemed very modest when the signed and dated work finally sold for $591,000, a new record for the artist, to a local client bidding over the phone.

Director of paintings Rachel Weathers commented after the sale, “The bidders on the Salazar were very private about their intentions before the sale. I did get just a few mild comments about it during the preview, but nothing to clue me into how intent they were. We had two institutions and three private collectors bidding at the beginning, and it was a private collector here in New Orleans who won it in the end.” Alford also noted that bidders were careful not to show their cards: “We had expectations, but that was beyond our expectations.”

The Salazar painting, however, possessed two great strengths: its Spanish colonial artist, whose career has yet to be fully explored, and the dramatic life story of the soldier who sat for the portrait. So much is made of New Orleans’ French culture that collectors often forget that the city belonged to Spain from 1762 to 1800. History buffs can read more about the long military career of James Wilkinson, who fought in the Continental Army and rose to be commanding general of the United States Army. While that might have made him famous, we remember him best for his infamous behavior off the battlefield. Put simply, he took money on the side from Spain—still a strong presence in the area—even after his 1805 appointment as the first governor of the Louisiana Territory, when it had passed from France to the United States.

Salazar y Mendoza, the most fashionable painter in the city, would have been a logical choice to paint Wilkinson’s portrait because of his talent and reputation, and at the same time, one wonders if Wilkinson might have made the acquaintance of certain Spanish officials through the celebrated artist? Collectors can look forward to answers in a forthcoming work on the painter from art historian Cybele Gontar, who was one of the contributing authors on Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835. In November, she lectured on “José Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza and the Visual Culture of Spanish Colonial New Orleans” at a conference in Williamsburg in connection with the exhibition Painters and Paintings in the Early American South, which included two Salazar paintings. She discussed one of them, The Family of Dr. Joseph Montegut, in an article in the November/December 2012 issue of The Magazine Antiques.

Gontar recently outlined the Salazar book project for M.A.D. readers: “Over the past several years, I have organized a team of scholars, including Katherine E. Manthorne, Gilbert C. Din, Sally K. Reeves, and myself, to comprehensively examine Salazar’s life and oeuvre. Recently, we were extremely fortunate to receive the funding needed to bring this worthwhile publication to fruition by 2015 [Salazar: a portrait painter in Spanish colonial New Orleans, 1782-1802]. Organized into five chapters, this text will consider cultural life in New Orleans during the Spanish administration, Salazar’s biography and those of his subjects, a technical analysis of his paintings, New Orleans as a site of global artistic exchange, and transcriptions of all known archival materials associated with Salazar, including his will and inventory.

“It is an exciting moment, and we are hopeful for an exhibition as well. As students of American art we recognize the importance of Salazar’s legacy. Each portrait is a material fragment that unites our colonial histories, North and South, French, Spanish, and Anglo-American, through the stories of his extraordinary patrons. My search for and rediscovery of the General Wilkinson painting was prompted by research for my dissertation and the upcoming publication. I consider the canvas to be one of our most important American Colonial portraits, a singular example of a revolutionary figure presented with an unmistakable kind of Spanish formality and flair.”

Apparently never satisfied with how he looked, James Wilkinson adored having his portrait painted in his stunning uniforms, and many of these paintings survive. The Neal catalog entry lists no fewer than five classes of portrait types for him, including one done by Charles Willson Peale just two years before the one in the sale was painted. In the Salazar portrait a prominent part of his “bling” is a large oval shoulder belt plate that the officer proudly displays on his chest. In her preliminary research on the Wilkinson portrait, Gontar has made a convincing connection between the one in the portrait and an actual 18th-century oval shoulder belt insignia of similar dimensions sold at Skinner in June 2008. Both have as their central element a spread-wing eagle with shield and constellation of 13 stars above, which had become a popular motif after the adoption of this design for the Great Seal of the United States in 1782; we find versions of the eagle with an olive branch and arrows on documents, military regalia, and even engraved on the reverse of the peace medal given to Indian leaders, as noted in the catalog.

Among the other regional paintings, celebrated 19th-century Louisiana artists attained the expected results. Bayou Scene, 1881, by William Henry Buck (1840-1888) brought $155,350; Near Manchac Bayou, 1880, by Joseph Rusling Meeker (1827-1887), $28,680; View of St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, 1898, by Paul Poincy (1833-1909), $20,315; and Hyams Wading Pool, City Park, 1921, by William Woodward (1859-1939), $83,650.

A luminous 1870’s shoreline painting, View from Spanish Fort: Lake Pontchartrain near Bayou St. John, from a sought-after French artist, Charles Giroux (c. 1828-1885), sold for $86,637.50 (est. $30,000/50,000). Little is known about the life of Giroux, but a dated work from 1868 establishes his arrival in New Orleans. This work came with a strong provenance: it was a gift of the artist to Jean-Alcée Augustin (1838-1888) and his wife, Emilie Dupre Augustin (1842-1929), and descended in the family. Amanda Mantle Winstead, Neal’s senior appraiser of fine arts, noted, “We don’t see his paintings turn up that often, and many are in a much smaller format. A large-scale oil-on-canvas composition is rare, and we haven’t seen a great one turn up on the market in a while.”

Vignettes of the wetlands from an entirely different time and perspective were captured in a series of stylized paintings by James “Mac” Anderson (1907-1998), an artist who has received far less attention than his elder brother Walter Inglis Anderson. The consignor had acquired all five paintings directly from the artist, and there may be further treasures from the same source. Alford said, “His work doesn’t often appear in the auction marketplace, and we have a good collection of it. They did extraordinarily well.”

On Saturday afternoon, Soft Shelling, 1989, sold for $34,655; Oyster Tonging, 1984, sold for $31,070; and Skiff Panel, 1991, sold for $11,950. On Sunday, Bird on Sandbar, 1980, 14" x 24", and Pelican Nest, 1990, 16" x 24", brought $6572.50 each, more than the $2000/3000 estimates. Mac’s relief decoration of a vase thrown by his brother Peter Anderson at the Shearwater Pottery in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, exhibited this same interest in daily life. Mac Anderson shows himself at work on his own rammed earth house; the green-glazed pot sold for $5676.25.

No Louisiana Purchase Auction would be complete without Newcomb art pottery. There were more than a dozen examples in the sale, of which the star was an impressive 1902 high-glaze vase, 11" high, decorated with a repeat pattern of calla lilies by Mary Williams Butler, which sold for $35,850 (est. $20,000/30,000). Noteworthy were two bordered open forms: a 1908 high-glaze bowl with a circle of alamanda blossoms, also by Butler, brought $9560, and a 1909 high-glaze plate with a circle of maple wings decorated by Marie de Hoa LeBlanc brought $1673.

Everyone was talking about the new exhibition in town, Women, Art, & Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise, organized by the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University and the Smithsonian. At Tulane through March 9, the show presents more than 130 objects—not only pottery but also textiles, metalwork, jewelry, bookbinding, and works on paper. The exhibition will travel for the next three years, and the organizers hope to include a stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sally Main, senior curator of the Newcomb Art Gallery, was at Neal for the Wednesday night preview party where she signed copies of The Arts and Crafts of Newcomb Pottery, a new scholarly publication out in time for the exhibition.

Neal Auction Company’s schedule for 2014 can be found at the Web site (www.nealauction.com) or by calling (800) 467-5329.


Mel Buchanan, the new RosaMary Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Mel Buchanan Joins New Orleans Museum of Art Staff as New Curator of Decorative Arts

Mel Buchanan is the new Rosa-Mary Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), filling the post once held by John Webster Keefe (1941-2011). Keefe was a popular lecturer and author on the decorative arts who shared his research with collectors around the country.

Buchanan is a graduate of the Winterthur Program and most recently was the Mae E. Demmer Assistant Curator of 20th-Century Design at the Milwaukee Art Museum. During her tenure there, she organized the 2012-13 exhibition Grete Marks: When Modern Was Degenerate, on the noted German ceramist (1899-1990).

In New Orleans, Buchanan looks forward to broadening the scope of her research. “I think I’m drawn to this work because you’re not just an expert in one area. There is a wide variety of time periods and cultures within a decorative arts department.”  The decorative arts galleries at NOMA are currently closed for remodeling, so she will have an opportunity to plan future projects and perhaps take the collection and its display in some new directions.

Buchanan said, “John Keefe has left the New Orleans Museum of Art very rich in objects; there is a lot of depth in specific areas. There were also areas he was not interested in, because you can only do so much in one career. So there are ways we can expand the decorative arts collection. We have really amazing Newcomb Pottery and other art pottery, but there wasn’t that much emphasis on collecting furniture.”

Buchanan seems delighted to be in New Orleans and is very aware of the special nature of its artistic legacy, which draws from so many sources. Just as the Neal sale featured an important Salazar painting from the Spanish colonial period, NOMA will be hosting a traveling exhibition that ties that period in the city to the broader history of Spain in the Americas. Buchanan said, “Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898,  organized by the Brooklyn Museum, will be at NOMA June 20 through September 21, 2014. It’s about Spanish colonial art in a domestic setting; usually the emphasis has been on ecclesiastical art. So it’s a very exciting time to be here at the museum.”


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

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