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Clayton Pennington | February 16th, 2014


Will 2014 be the year of American folk art? It’s shaping up that way.

One couldn’t ask for a better start. The Ralph Esmerian sale at Sotheby’s was a blowout, bringing in $12.9 million for a folk art collection that was well published and coveted. The bankruptcy trustee overseeing the dispersal made the correct decision by sending it to auction, rather than accepting a multimillion-dollar private offer for the whole collection that was much less than $12.9 million. The total will swell; there was about $1 million of unsold lots that are now being offered privately.

Esmerian adhered to an oft-repeated maxim: buy the best you can. Looking at the bottom line, it paid off. (For Esmerian’s creditors, anyway; he’s still in prison serving time for fraud.) Market-watchers hope the Esmerian sale will lift the prices of folk art, giving the market a robust shot in the arm.

Market momentum may come from the museum world. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a special installation titled American Folk Art from the Peter J. Solomon Family Collection and The Metropolitan Museum of Art is on view through August. There are 20 objects, including a Peaceable Kingdom (1847) by Edward Hicks, one of three Hicks paintings on view, a pair of 1790 portraits by Ralph Earl, and portraits by Joshua Johnson, William Jennys, and William Kennedy.

Two folk art exhibitions will be hitting the road. The American Folk Art Museum will debut Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum at its home at 2 Lincoln Square in New York City on May 13; the exhibit will travel to at least six museums, beginning in August.

The American Folk Art Museum will be the first stop for A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America, a show of more than 60 objects from the collection of Virginia collector Barbara L. Gordon, in late December 2014. A Shared Legacy has confirmed bookings in Kansas City, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; Greensburg, Pennsylvania; Denver, Colorado; Palm Beach, Florida; and Cincinnati, Ohio. It’ll be on the road until at least the end of 2017, and possibly longer.

A successful headline-making sale, combined with curatorial recognition from the museum world, can only be positive for the market.


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

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