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Sotheby's American Art Auction

Lita Solis-Cohen | December 4th, 2013

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Saying Grace, oil on canvas, 43" x 41", signed “Norman Rockwell” in his block style, lower center, painted in 1951, sold for $46,085,000 (est. $15/$20 million), a record for Norman Rockwell and for any work of art sold at an American art auction.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Norman Rockwell Visits a Country School, oil on two joined photographs, sight 9½" x 21¼", painted in 1946, from the Stuart collection, $509,000 (est. $200,000/300,000). The buyer at the back of the salesroom was Judy Goffman Cutler, who said she wanted to hang it next to Russian Schoolroom at her National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, Rhode Island.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Boy and Shopkeeper: Gone on Business,oil and pencil on board mounted on board, 31" x 30", signed “Norman Rockwell” in block letters, lower right, painted in 1960, sold on the phone for $905,000 (est. $250,000/350,000).

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Still Life with Spring Flowers, oil and tempera on board, 29" x 20½", signed “Benton” and dated ’49 lower left, sold to a woman in the salesroom for $545,000 (est. $200,000/400,000). The next day Christie’s sold a smaller (17" x 13") and earlier Benton still life, painted circa 1943, to a phone bidder for $167,000 (est. $50,000/70,000).

Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), The Knave of Hearts: The Six Little Ingredients, oil on board, 20 1/8" x 16 3/8", signed with the artist’s initials “M .P” lower center, also signed “Maxfield Parrish” and titled “The Knave of Hearts: The Six Little Ingredients” and inscribed “Windsor, Vermont/ Jan. 1925” on the reverse, sold for $1,925,000 (est. $250,000/350,000) to Rick Lapham. The jars were labeled with a very fine brush as butter, salt, flour, pepper, cinnamon, and milk.

Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses (1860-1961), The Old Snow Roller, oil on masonite, 15½" x 20", signed “MOSES, ©” lower left, dated February 16, 1948, numbered 1234, and titled “The Old Snow Roller” on an original Grandma Moses label affixed to the reverse (copyright reserved to Grandma Moses Properties, New York), sold on the phone for $173,000 (est. $50,000/70,000). A slightly smaller work, Penn Barn (not shown), sold to the same phone bidder for $47,500 (est. $20,000/30,000).

Paul Manship (1885-1966), Indian Hunter and His Dog, bronze, 21" high x 24" long, inscribed “Paul Manship © 1926” and “Alexis Rudier Fondeur Paris” on the base, sold for $1,565,000 (est. $300,000/ 500,000) in a strong market for American sculpture. Only two of a dozen casts of this bronze are in private hands.

Thomas Moran (1837-1926), Grand Canyon in Mist, oil on panel, 13¾" x 20 1/8", signed with the artist’s monogrammed signature “ TMoran” and dated 1915 lower left and with artist’s thumbprint lower right, sold for $1,445,000 (est. $800,000/1.2 million) to Nan Chisholm, a New York art consultant, for a client.

New York City

Photos courtesy Sotheby’s

American art sales in December showed more strength than in the last five years. Impressive new records were made, which boosted sales totals; a score of paintings sold for more than a million dollars, and lower-priced works found buyers. Paintings that did not sell were either overestimated or had condition problems. Sculpture performed well. Some significant sales were made at the American Art Fair the same week. Are we in an upward trend?

Saying Grace, Norman Rockwell’s illustration for the November 24, 1951, Thanksgiving issue of the Saturday Evening Post, sold on the phone at Sotheby’s in New York City on December 4, 2013, for a record $46,085,000 (with buyer’s premium). It topped the previous Rockwell record, $15.4 million, paid for Breaking Home Ties at Sotheby’s in 2006.

Saying Grace is the most expensive painting ever sold at an American art sale and is eighth on the list of the top prices paid for any work by an American artist. That list begins with Andy Warhol’s $105.4 million Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster),which sold at Sotheby’s on November 30, 2013, in a sale that totaled $380.6 million (far less than the $691 million worth of contemporary art sold at Christie’s postwar and contemporary art sale the evening of November 12, 2013). The Warhol is followed by three artworks by Rothko. Those prices were $86.9 million at Christie’s in May 2012, $75.1 million at Sotheby’s in November 2012, and $72.8 million at Sotheby’s in May 2007. Then come two more Warhols—Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), which sold at Christie’s for $71.7 million in May 2007, and Men in Her Life at Phillips, which brought$63.3 millionin November 2010. Then there is Clyfford Still’s 1949-A-No.1, whichsold at Sotheby’s in November 2011 for $61.7 million. All these records were made at contemporary art sales, a market that is a world away from American art. The previous record for any work sold at an American art auction was set at Sotheby’s, New York, in 1999 when George Bellows’s Polo Crowd sold for $27.5 million. It is now in third place behind Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken, which sold for $40,485,000 at Christie’s on December 5, 2013, the day after the Rockwell record at Sotheby’s.

The buyers of both the Rockwell and the Hopper have not been named, but it is significant that the underbidders in both cases were Asian. Yasuaki Ishizaka, managing director of Sotheby’s Japan, was taking bids on the phone from the underbidder of Saying Grace, and an Asian woman in Christie’s salesroom was the underbidder for the Hopper.

Sotheby’s small sale was carefully curated. Of the 68 lots, 60 sold for $83,915,500, well in excess of the $62.1 million high sale estimate. The total is the third-highest American art sale at Sotheby’s, topped only by the May 2008 sale at $87.5 million and the December 2004 sale of the collection of Rita and Daniel Fraad at $107.9 million. The December 2013 sale had a strong sell-through rate of 88.2%, the highest since December 2004 for a Sotheby’s American art auction. The seven paintings by Norman Rockwell, from the family of Kenneth J. Stuart Sr., the artist’s longtime art editor at the Saturday Evening Post,sold for a total of $59,663,000. Illustration art carried the day; the 14 lots of illustration art accounted for $64,774,00, which is 77% of the sale total.

It took nine and a half minutes for auctioneer Maarten ten Holder, Sotheby’s managing director for North and South America, to coax bids from the two persistent phone bidders who wanted Saying Grace. When Elizabeth Goldberg, head of American paintings at Sotheby’s, bid $39.5 million, ten Holder said, “I’ll take it,” referring to the half increment. Ishizaka bid $40 million, and then Goldberg’s phone bidder bid $41 million. There was no further advance, and ten Holder dropped his hammer. Applause followed.

No other Rockwell in the sale brought anywhere near the price of Saying Grace. The large (43" x 41")painting depicts a young boy and his grandmother saying grace in a crowded railroad station diner, sharing a table with two workmen who look on in amazement. Rockwell painted it in 1951; he was paid $3500. His inspiration was a letter from a Post reader, Mrs. Edward V. Earl of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, who wrote Rockwell that she saw a Mennonite family saying grace at the Horn & Hardart Automat and thought that it might make a good cover illustration. Rockwell wrote back that he would incorporate her idea in his annual Thanksgiving cover but warned that it would likely diverge from her memory of it.

Rockwell collected the props, chose the models, and hired photographers to take pictures under his direction, and then combined photographs with preparatory sketches, and painted a masterpiece. According to the catalog essay, Rockwell felt that he got more spontaneous expressions and a wider choice of expressions with the assistance of the camera. The photographs also saved a lot of wear and tear on himself and the models. The young man with his back to the window is the artist’s oldest son, Jerry, who was on leave from the U.S. Air Force when he sat for his father. Rockwell’s student apprentice Don Winslow is the other man at the table with a cigarette in his mouth. Rockwell’s assistant Gene Pelham has finished his breakfast at the next table and is holding his cigar. Donald F. Hubert Jr. is the young boy. Rockwell wrote that he did not work from a single photograph and that his picture is a composite of many of them.

 According to the catalog, Rockwell gave the painting to Ken Stuart, his art editor at the Saturday Evening Post. Stuart hung it in his office, and when he retired he took it home and hung it in great room of his Pennsylvania farmhouse. When his father died in 1993, Ken Stuart Jr., the eldest of three brothers, was made executor of the estate. His two brothers were not pleased with the way he was handling the estate and sued him. The paintings were put on loan at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, while the litigation went on for nearly two decades before it was finally settled.

 “It all turned out well for them not selling in the 1990’s or even three years ago,” said James Steven Lipton, a Connecticut appraiser who said he is a good friend of Ken Stuart. “If it had sold three years ago, Saying Grace would have made a record price, but it would not have taken off. The timing was perfect.” Lipton said family members watched the sale from skyboxes and will share nearly $60 million. He said Dr. William Stuart bought two paintings from his family’s collection: the color study for Girl at Mirror for $329,000 (est. $200,000/300,000) and the portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower called The Day I Painted Ike for $137,000 (est. $100,000/150,000). The Eisenhower portrait is one of six (five show Ike in different moods, and one is of Mamie) that Rockwell did for an article (not the cover) in the October 11, 1952, Saturday Evening Post.

Rockwell’s reputation endures as a chronicler of the highest virtues of American life in the 20th century. Collectors who once dismissed illustration art now embrace Rockwell’s work as art. Every Rockwell offered at the December American art auctions sold. At Sotheby’s, three of his oil paintings painted over photographs sold well over estimates. One was Girl at Mirror mentioned above; another was a color study for Breaking Home Ties,which sold for $905,000 (est. $200,000/300,000). (The finished oil painting sold in 2006 for a then record $15.4 million at Sotheby’s.) The third, Norman Rockwell Visits a Country School,sold for $509,000 (est. $200,000/300,000). Many were not aware that photography played such an important part in Rockwell’s creative process until Sotheby’s pointed it out in the catalog essays and published many of the preliminary photographs for the works on offer.

For example, the catalog included an illustration of the photographs of 30 talking heads Rockwell used for his March 6, 1948, Post cover The Gossips, which sold for $8,453,000 (est. $6/9 million). Rockwell used photographs of buildings from towns in New York and Vermont to create a composite street scene for Walking to Church. The small painting is said to also have been inspired by an old master painting by Johannes Vermeer, View of Houses in Delft. Walking to Church sold in the salesroom for $3,245,000 to Rick Lapham, a New York private dealer bidding for a client. “It is a little gem painted meticulously in the style of the Dutch old masters,” said Lapham.

Illustrations by Maxfield Parrish also performed well. Lapham, bidding for a client, bought one of Parrish’s original oil paintings on board of The Six Little Ingredients from The Knave of Hearts, published in 1925 by Scribner’s. The oil on board sold for a strong $1,925,000 (est. $250,000/350,000). Another Parrish painting of the framed list of characters in The Knave of Hearts, “in the order of their appearance,” held by two court pages, sold on the phone for $437,000 (est. $200,000/300,000). They are two of the 26 original oils on board Parrish painted for the publication of the play The Knave of Hearts by Louise Saunders that were exhibited at the Scott & Fowles gallery in New York City in 1925.

There were other successes, especially for works off the market since the 1980’s and early 1990’s. A small luminous early painting of the Western wilderness by Albert Bierstadt, Lake in the Sierra Nevada,painted in 1867, sold to a private dealer in the salesroom for $2,105,000 (est. $1.5/2.5 million). Another small Western view by Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon in Mist,dated 1915, went for $1,445,000 (est. $800,000/1.2 million) to Nan Chisholm, a New York City art consultant. New York City dealer Michael Altman bought The Wilderness, an oil on canvas by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), for $965,000 (est. $800,000/1.2 million).

Altman was also the buyer of Arthur Garfield Dove’s large abstract painting Lattice and Awning for $1,685,000 (est. $1.2/1.8 million). It was painted late in his career. The price is a record for the artist, considered a mainstay of Modernist painting in America.

Two small Georgia O’Keeffe paintings sold to two different phone bidders. A closeup of an iris called Blue Flower sold on the phone for $965,000 (est. $500,000/700,000), and Oak Leaves went for $605,000 (est. $450,000/650,000).

Still Life with Spring Flowers by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), 1949, oil and tempera on board, sold to a woman in the salesroom for $545,000 (est. $200,000/400,000). Christie’s offered a smaller and earlier Benton still life tempera on masonite that sold for $167,000; both were modern interpretations of an old master subject.

The market for Milton Avery paintings seemed selective (most were minor works), but the market for nostalgic primitive paintings by Grandma Moses was strong. A snow scene, The Old Snow Roller,dated February 16, 1948, sold for more than double its high estimate at $173,000 (est. $50,000/70,000).

Sculpture performed well, perhaps because of publicity for the exhibition The American West in Bronze: 1850-1925 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was about to open. Paul Manship’s Indian Hunter and His Dog, 1926,  sold for $1,565,000 (est. $300,000/500,000), a record for the artist. One of Manship’s most popular works, according to the catalog, it was inspired by Manship’s childhood in Minnesota. A life-size version is outside the Como Park Conservatory in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Of the dozen 21" casts, most are in museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another cast was sold last March at the ADAA Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory by New York City dealers Conner • Rosenkranz for about the same price. These are the only two casts in private hands.

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

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