Copley Fine Art Auctions, Charleston, South Carolina
Photos courtesy Copley Fine Art Auctions
The Southeastern Wildlife Expo is the place to be for those who love the best of the best where decoy and sporting art is concerned. The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE) first took place in 1983 and included 100 exhibitors and about 5000 attendees. Skip ahead to 2018, and this year’s edition—held February 15, 16, and 17—saw 500 exhibitors, artists, and wildlife experts participating, with more than 40,000 through the gate.
According to press material, the mission of the SEWE is “to contribute to the local economy while promoting wildlife and nature conservation and preservation.” In the process, the Expo “has grown in size and impact each year, making SEWE invaluable to all of South Carolina’s resources.”
This three-day event held in Charleston, South Carolina, celebrates wildlife and nature through fine art, conservation education, sporting demonstrations, food, drink, people, and, yes, a couple of auctions. And this is where Copley Fine Art Auctions, LLC comes into the mix. Utilizing the Design District of Upper King Street in Charleston, South Carolina, Copley presented its sale at the Expo on February 16.
The venue was filled with would-be buyers, and with the telephone, absentee, and online bidding through Bidsquare and the sporting art industry’s first app, Copley Live, it’s no wonder the sale total was an impressive $1.8 million.
“The auction was made up of 345 lots, and we had a 97 percent sell-through rate,” said Copley’s chairman and CEO Stephen B. O’Brien Jr. Both fine art and decoys enjoyed celebratory moments throughout the auction.
The price realized for the first lot offered set the tone for the day. Estimated at $2000/3000, the 15" x 22" oil on canvas of an English setter by S. Edwin Megargee Jr. (1883-1958) soared instead to $9225. According to Copley, many of Megargee’s “sporting dog scenes appeared in Field & Stream and in his portfolio ‘Gun Dogs at Work.’ He is best known as a leading portrayer of prize-winning gun dogs, including pointers, setters, retrievers, and spaniels.”And it’s not surprising that the artist was also a judge of the American Kennel Club. Concerning this image Copley notes, “This painting was illustrated in a 1940s advertisement for Fleischmann’s Gin. It was reproduced as a color print and sold for ten cents by the gin company.” Davison B. Hawthorne collection.
Selling strongly at $28,800 (est. $12,000/18,000) was this 16" x 20" oil on canvas of setters on point by Gustav Muss-Arnolt (1858-1927). It came from a private collection in New York and Pennsylvania.
Fine art saw several records set at auction for a variety of artists. A world record for artist Gustav Muss-Arnolt (1858-1927) came when his oil on canvas of setters on point realized $33,600 against a high estimate of $24,000, indicating that art featuring hunting dogs at work continues to be popular with collectors. All prices include a 20% buyer’s premium (23% for online bidding), and all record prices cite AskArt.com and Decoy Magazine.
A world record for a sporting painting by William Henry Machen (1832-1911) was achieved when this oil on canvas of grouse and quail sold for $8400 (est. $2000/3000). The work measures 27¼" x 22?". Davison B. Hawthorne collection.
Though not a large sum, the $8400 price for the hanging game painting titled Grouse and Quail was a world record for a sporting painting by William Henry Machen (1832-1911), and an oil on canvas of wild turkeys by C. Ford Riley (b. 1952) set a world record for the artist at auction when it sold for $22,800 (est. $10,000/15,000).
The top painting at the 2018 winter sale was this watercolor on paper by Ogden M. Pleissner (1905-1983). The 17½" x 27½" Autumn Grouse Shooting is signed “Pleissner” at lower left and sold for $42,000 (est. $40,000/60,000). Born and trained in New York, Pleissner loved the outdoors. The sale catalog notes that the artist’s “subjects range from the landscapes of Europe to salmon fishing in Quebec and his style is informed by the classical traditions. He is quoted as saying, ‘A fine painting is not just the subject. It is the feeling conveyed of form, bulk, space, dimensionality, and sensitivity. The mood of the picture, that is most important.’” It came from a private collection in Florida and had been acquired from the Sportsman’s Edge Gallery, New York, November 1991.
Top lots in the fine arts portion of Copley’s 2018 winter sale include the watercolor Autumn Grouse Shooting by Ogden M. Pleissner (1905-1983), which sold for $42,000 (est. $40,000/60,000), while Snow Hunter (Snowy Owl), an oil on linen work done by Ewoud de Groot (b. 1969) in 2015, sold for $26,400 (est. $8000/10,000).
The top lot of the auction was this circa 1910 turned-head “dust jacket” plover by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), which sold for a commanding $156,000 (est. $75,000/95,000). Crowell is widely credited as being the father of American bird carving, and Copley stated, “Crowell’s ‘dust jacket’ plovers have long been viewed by folk art and decoy collectors, and museum curators, to be among the finest decoys and American sculpture ever made.” It came from a private collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and from the Grant Nelson collection.
Yes, fine art saw stellar sales, but setting the high mark for the day was a decoy. The turned-head “dust jacket” plover by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) garnered a great deal of attention. Both floor and phone bidders drove this decoy well past its $75,000/95,000 estimate to $156,000.
Two other Crowell decoys that sold above their estimates—both $35,000/45,000—were a turned-head “dust jacket” yellowlegs at $57,000 and a running yellowlegs, which realized $72,000.
Selling for $45,000 (est. $30,000/50,000) was this circa 1880 running curlew by Captain Robert Andrews of Smith Island, Virginia. Copley’s catalog listing explains, “His decoys are perhaps the rarest of the region’s top makers. This distinctly Smith Island curlew stands today as the most iconic remaining decoy from the isle and the best of its kind to come to light. The sculpture’s simplified form and confident sweeping lines are unique to this talented Southern maker. The long-reaching body resolves with the region’s most elegant wing carving.” Copley’s decoy specialist Colin S. McNair was “encouraged to see a return of broad interest to the shorebird decoy market.” Provenance includes the John Henry Downes rig; the Roy Bull collection; the Henry and Barbara Fleckenstein collection; the Barbara Anne Wiest (Fleckenstein) collection; and a private collection.
With a long original bill, slightly turned head, ridged back, and bold features, this circa 1890 greater yellowlegs by Charles S. Clark (1869-1947) of Chincoteague, Virginia, “ranks among the finest Accomack County shorebirds known,” according to Copley. It sold for $20,400 (est. $18,000/24,000). The decoy is 11½" long. Its provenance includes the Adele Earnest collection; the Alvin E. Friedman-Kien Foundation collection; and the Grant Nelson collection.
At 24½" long, this circa 1849 Canada goose by Captain Charles C. Osgood (1820-1886) sold to a phone bidder for $72,000 (est. $80,000/120,000); its sale set a world record for a goose by the maker. A ship’s captain from Salem, Massachusetts, Osgood sailed for California in 1849. Copley chairman and CEO Stephen O’Brien stated that while waiting to return with his cargo, Osgood carved a rig that included this decoy as well as five other examples that reside in the collection of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. It is of hollow construction and features a skyward-looking, uplifted head turned slightly left. This goose’s body is made of three pieces and has a removable head for ease of transport. Possibly unique in its construction, each side of the neck joint is fitted with a metal hinge, and a removable hinge-pin neatly secures the head to the body. Ronald Swanson collection and a private collection.
Lothrop Turner Holmes (1824-1899) of Kingston, Massachusetts, “is one of the earliest documented shorebird makers from any region and is widely considered the top decoy maker of the nineteenth century,” according to Copley. This black-bellied plover by Holmes sold for $57,000 (est. $25,000/35,000). The circa 1860 decoy is 10¾" long. Holmes differs from other decoy carvers who made their living selling decoys; Holmes carved decoys only for his own use. It came from the John and Elizabeth Levinson collection and the Grant Nelson collection.
This auction offered 20 lots (lots 205 through 225) from the Grant Nelson collection of decoys, including the two “dust jacket” Crowell pieces mentioned above. All pieces from the Nelson collection offered by Copley bore the “NELSON” stamp, and many auction participants aggressively vied to take an example home.
Copley’s catalog states, “The Grant Nelson Collection of Shorebird Decoys is one of the finest ever assembled. Nelson’s love for shorebirds and waterfowl grew out of his appreciation for avian works by Boston impressionist painter Frank W. Benson (1862-1951). For two decades, Nelson’s focus was on acquiring exemplary pieces with great form, surface, and provenance. Nelson’s acquisitions, totaling well over one hundred birds, are a defining collection in the field.”
Interesting fish-related pieces, such as this 25" x 16" circa 1970 brook trout on a map of Maine by Winthrop, Maine, artist Lawrence C. Irvine (1918-1998), fit well with the rest of the material—mostly avian—on offer. This painted plaque in the shape of Maine sold for $2760 (est. $2000/3000).
Establishing a world record for the artist after active bidding on the floor, this 30" x 40" oil on canvas of wild turkeys by C. Ford Riley (b. 1952) sold for $22,800 (est. $10,000/15,000).
This 15" long circa 1930 standing black duck by Ira D. Hudson (1873-1949) of Chincoteague, Virginia, set a world record for a decorative carving by the maker when it sold for $96,000 (est. $100,000/150,000). William H. Purnell Jr. collection and the Grant Nelson collection.
Not surprisingly, decoys from the Nelson collection sold strongly, including a highly contested standing black duck by Ira D. Hudson (1873-1949), which achieved a world record for a decorative carving by this artist when it sold for $96,000 (est. $100,000/150,000), while a hissing Canada goose also carved by Ira D. Hudson sold for $42,000 (est. $45,000/55,000).
Other Canada goose decoys were also highly desired at this Copley event, including a Canada goose by Charles A. Safford (1877-1957), which sold for $48,000 (est. $60,000/90,000), and one by Captain Charles C. Osgood (1820-1886), which sold for $72,000 (est. $80,000/120,000) and set a world record for a goose by the maker.
O’Brien noted, “Osgood was a ship’s captain from Salem who sailed for California in 1849. While waiting to return with his cargo, he carved a rig that included this decoy as well as five other examples that reside in the collection of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.”
Finding an Ira D. Hudson (1873-1949) hissing Canada goose in its original paint, let alone with its serpentine neck still intact, can be a challenge. Copley’s sale had this example, which sold for $42,000 (est. $45,000/55,000). The circa 1920 goose is an impressive 28½" long. Its provenance includes Collectable Old Decoys and the Grant Nelson collection.
Selling at $19,200 (est. $14,000/18,000) was this circa 1890 long-billed curlew pair by Quogue, Long Island, New York, artist Thomas Gelston (1851-1924). Gelston was known for carving his birds in animated poses, with raised wings and with bold paint patterns. Provenance includes the Shelburne Museum collection (high head); the John and Elizabeth Levinson collection (tucked head); and the Grant Nelson collection (both).
A running curlew by Captain Robert Andrews sold for $45,000 against an estimate of $30,000/50,000 and held special meaning for O’Brien.
“This decoy used to belong to one of my mentors, Henry A. Fleckenstein Jr., and was pictured on the back cover of his book Southern Decoys. To not only have the chance to sell this decoy but to set a world record for the maker was especially gratifying. Henry was the first real author that made me realize that I too could someday write a book. I am currently working on my third, which covers the life and carving career of standout Elmer Crowell.”
Sale achievements continued throughout the auction, which featured selections from the collections of Richard and Lynn Gove, Davison B. Hawthorne, Ernest and Carolyn Kramer, Blair Ledingham, John T. Ordeman, Ronald S. Swanson, and a descendant of Barrie and Bernice Stavis.
All areas of sporting collecting made a showing, from folk art canes to miniatures, whale carvings, and more. “We are very excited to see continued expansion in this decoy auction down South and are thrilled to be the dominant player in this growing arena,” O’Brien stated.
Copley Fine Art Auctions, LLC is preparing for its sporting sale, which returns to Plymouth, Massachusetts, July 19 and 20. Session III of the Donal C. O’Brien Jr. collection will headline the sale, which also will feature items from the Hawthorne, Sharpless, and Swanson collections. For more information, call (617) 536-0030 or see (www.copleyart.com).
A mantel bird carved by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) of East Harwich, Massachusetts, and given as a gift to his good friend and fellow carver Fred Gardner of Accord, this circa 1915 running yellowlegs soared to $72,000 (est. $35,000/45,000). This ornamental bird features wet-on-wet feather paint and presents the yellowlegs in stride atop a carved clamshell base. This carving is slated for inclusion in the upcoming book Elmer Crowell: The Father of American Bird Carving. It was in the collection of Alfred Gardner and then was in a private collection on Cape Cod.
Originally published in the May 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest