Purchase Story

Small Is Big

Cottone Auctions, Geneseo, New York

Photos courtesy Cottone Auctions

It was a hot day on the second day of fall in Geneseo, New York, and even the phone wires were hot as bidders from across the globe vied for their picks among 677 lots in Cottone Auctions’ art, antiques, antiquities, and modern design sale. Outside, on Main Street, on September 23, 2017, the large temperature sign read 95 degrees. Despite the heat, a sidewalk/street fair was being held, which caused us to detour slightly to get to the Cottone gallery, across from the campus of the State University of New York at Geneseo and across the road from the Genesee River.

There were not many cars in the parking lot on the second day of the September 22 and 23 auction, and inside at times there were more staff members than patrons. Actually, the sale could have been held with no bidders present in the salesroom, but then what would we write/talk about? Phone bidders, Internet bidders, and left bids are all invisible, so how would we know who got what, and how many bidders there were for any given lot, and who clapped for what?

Yes, a few local collectors and a few local dealers did get some lots, but two-thirds of the sale went to absent bidders. Give them good pictures, an excellent provenance, Cottone Auctions’ reputation, fresh merchandise, and collecting categories that appeal to large audiences around the world, and they will bid.

Bid they did, with two items reaching six figures. There were big prices for very small pieces. An Alexander Calder red and black sheet metal work, Crayfish, with a provenance of many exhibitions in Europe and America and an application number, A08208, from the Calder Foundation, brought $153,400 (with buyer’s premium); it was only 3 3/8" tall. Estimated at $50,000/80,000, the piece sold to a Florida buyer. About 15 phone bidders were involved, and more than two bid into the six figures.

The first indication that we would see some six-figure prices for some very small, one-of-a-kind items came with this red and black sheet metal work by Alexander Calder (1898-1976). With provenance from Paris, London, and Amsterdam exhibits, it was one of 300 items consigned by the estate of a well-known patron of the arts, Annette McGuire Cravens of Buffalo, New York. The 3 3/8" tall work sold for an astounding $153,400 to a Florida bidder. What shape does it suggest to you? Calder called it Crayfish in 1946.

About 200 lots later, the cover lot had a full four-page spread inside the catalog, all black pages accenting the whitish Cycladic head of marble, plus a full page of description and provenance. This early Cycladic head, 2500-2400 B.C., only 5 5/8" high, which once crowned a 20" high figure, had no restorations and a little wear and chipping. Its provenance went as far back as the 1960s-70s to Charles Alexander Best, whose father, Dr. Charles Herbert Best, was involved in the discovery of insulin to treat diabetes. It sold for $188,800 to a New York City bidder. There were at least ten phones bidding for the lot and much action, not just two determined bidders. Interest came about 50/50 from international and American bidders, according to Matt Cottone.

The top lot from the Cravens collection was this Cycladic head of marble, 2500-2400 B.C. With extraordinary provenance and, needless to say, rarity—how many 3rd millennium artifacts have you seen, other than in museums?—it opened at $30,000 online and far exceeded the $60,000/80,000 estimate, climbing to $188,800 from a determined New York City buyer who insisted that the piece be shipped as soon as possible, by FedEx overnight. And lest you think it was the size of a human head, it was tiny, 5 5/8" tall.

Both of these items were consigned by the estate of Annette Cravens of Buffalo, New York, a noted philanthropist and patron of the arts. In 2010 she donated over 1100 items to the University of Buffalo, some dating back to 4300 B.C., according to the sale catalog. Lots 1-300 in the sale catalog were all from her collection. The total paid for all her consignments, including buyers’ premiums, was $1.4 million, about half the sale gross of $2.6 million, which made this sale one of Cottone’s top three sales, according to Matt Cottone.

About 12 items were passed among the Cravens consignments, while others reached the high five figures, such as a Lucie Rie (1902-1995) bowl, 7½" diameter, that sold for $56,640 (est. $8000/12,000), and a John Mason (b. 1927) spear sculpture, circa 1963, at $50,740 (est. $4000/6000).

Small was big. This 4" high x 7½" diameter hand-thrown and decorated bowl, signed “LR” for Lucie Rie (1902-1995), an English ceramics artist, brought $56,640. It was consigned by the Cravens estate.

Lots 301 through 677 were offered on the second day, and there were about 27 lots that did not sell. Cottone told us that only about ten of these lots had reserves. For the sterling, some of the art glass, period furniture and accessories, and folk art, Cottone still had to work harder to get strong bids, with a few exceptions. For example, there was no six-figure lot, and there were only about seven strong five-figure lots, with the top price on the second day going to a Tiffany Studios Curtain Border leaded glass floor lamp. With a shade and base signed “Tiffany Studios,” the piece soared to $66,080, with at least five phone bidders; one of them got the lamp. Another Tiffany lamp did almost as well—a Peony table lamp made $59,000. An Audubon Great Blue Heron, 38" x 25¼", sold for $47,200 after an opening bid of $20,000 and at least six phone bidders in the fray. The print was ex-Seymour Knox II, Buffalo, New York, and it was offered by a descendant.

Other favorites included a pair of Chinese porcelain bowls, 2½" x 4¼", with a Qianlong mark, that made $67,850, and Provincetown Harbor, a 30" x 40" watercolor by John Whorf (1903-1959), ex-Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, that sold for $25,960.

Provincetown Harbor, watercolor, by John Whorf (1903-1959), signed, in the original frame, deaccessioned from the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, sailed through many bids to $25,960, selling to one of ten phone bidders.

One item that did not meet its reserve was a watercolor by Andrew Wyeth, Stones Point, circa 1948. Signed and in good shape, the 15" x 22" work opened at $32,000 and closed there. The estimate was $60,000/80,000. Another surprise was the pass of a Roy Lichtenstein bronze, Peace Through Chemistry, 27" x 46", from a private collection. Estimated at $80,000/120,000, it opened at $50,000, and at $75,000 it remained unsold.

So buyers can be fickle and fussy: what else is new? Dealers and collectors usually know how much they can or will pay for big-ticket items. Cottone told us in a phone conversation after the sale that a big factor in strong prices is the provenance, the longer the better. Being shown in major exhibits or featured in scholarly books also can help. Plus the auctioneer needs to dig for more information, and Cottone has experts on its staff for research.

Always count on a Tiffany lamp in great shape and in a rare form to be a big seller, and this Tiffany Studios Curtain Border leaded glass lamp did not disappoint. With a shade diameter of 24½" and the base and shade signed “Tiffany Studios,” it opened at $40,000 and sold for $66,080 to one of at least six phone bidders.

Audubon’s Great Blue Heron, 38" x 25¼", with provenance from Arader Galleries and the Seymour Knox II collection in Buffalo, New York, drew many bids from at least six phones. Opening at $20,000, it quickly raced to $47,200.

Possibly the most abstract painting in the sale was this 74½" x 50½" all-white acrylic on canvas, Ascent #51, 1969, by Italian artist Angelo Savelli (1911-1995). Signed on the reverse and from the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, it was sold to benefit the museum’s collection fund. It went to a phone bidder for $40,120 (est. $5000/8000). The reason it attracted me was that it seems to epitomize abstract art, and you can interpret it as you wish. The raised rope that weaves in and out of the canvas gives it a third dimension.

“Still it is all very unpredictable. We really don’t know what will happen until the bidding begins. We do have some idea of the amount of interest, with the left bids and phone bid orders,” Cottone added.

Cottone’s major sales always end with Americana, and as usual for the past few years, the prices were modest, to say the least. Stephen Score of Boston commented that waiting until the end of a two-day sale for the Americana was time consuming, but we noticed his patience for the later lots paid off as he got some very good buys, either sitting in the first row or while he was paying for his successful bids at the back of the room. Score was one of the few dealers in person at the sale, and most of those were local.

About 65% to 70% of the sale went to left bids, phone bids, and Internet bids from China, Japan, the U.K., South America, and the U.S. Cottone said, “It’s a winners’ and losers’ market, and not much in between.”

For more information, call (585) 243-1000 or check the website (www.cottoneauctions.com).

Womanhood Personified, this 48" x 48" oil on canvas by Alexander Oscar Levy (1881-1947), attracted a woman in the audience. The bidding opened at $3500, and for $9440 it went home with the woman bidder. Kramer photo.

This Wendell Castle (b. 1932) Cloud Form desk, signed “WC 1979,” is laminated mahogany in steel gray with a brushed aluminum base and a mirrored glass top. Measuring 30" x 84½" x 36½", the piece opened at $20,000, and it sold to a phone bidder for $28,320 (est. $30,000/50,000).

In case you wonder what Steinway & Sons grand pianos are selling for, we can say that at Cottone this one, made in 1899, with some wear and loss to finish (no surprise), 68" x 56", and from a Buffalo estate, opened at $1500 and sold for $4425 to a phone bidder. Kramer photo.

This watercolor of Sarah Morrison, born in 1806, is all original. It had a modest estimate of $1500/2500. It opened at $2000 and sold for $7670 to a local dealer in the gallery.

John Mason (b. 1927) signed sculpture, 1963, 20" x 9", estimated at $4000/6000, sold for—are you sitting down?—$50,740. We told you to sit down.

Originally published in the January 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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