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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Americana Week Part 2: Sales and Such

Americana week is really all about the sales (or to be honest, the previews, since most of the items are beyond my price point).  Maybe it's just me, but I always sense a certain nervousness about these sales as auction houses, collectors, and scholars wonder whether the market will be able to maintain forward momentum.  Prices realized ultimately matter, but so do the season's offerings.  In many ways the market for American furniture and decorative arts is facing similar crises to other established markets--the Old Master's market comes to mind--as much of the field's best material has been removed from the market into museums and foundations.  If, for scholars anyway, this is a good thing since the public is more able to view items, and since objects are more easily accessible, the reverse is true for the auction houses, which have to make do with much less.  In addition, there is the persistent challenge of getting a younger audience interested in the field.  For reasons that I don't quite comprehend, my own generation (not to mention those younger) seem more comfortable plunking down their money at Pottery Barn than they do at auction.  They'll go to Design Within Reach and spend more for a reproduction often than they would by visiting Wright Auctions, or David Rago's modern sales.  What this means for the market is that the great objects which come up are generally insulated from the downward pressure of prices, while the middle and lower sections of the market continue to struggle.  This was in abundant evidence this week in the major sales at Christie's and Sotheby's.

Christie's struck first, and had a number of exceptional lots to offer including items from the estate of Eric Martin Wunsch.  It should be noted that they did this even while continuing to have a September sale (Sotheby's did not).  The Christie's sale totaled just over $5.6m on 136 lots, and saw six lots exceed the quarter million dollar mark.  By the contrast, the Sotheby's sale netted more than $5.4m for 428 lots, with one lot exceeding the quarter million dollar mark (all figures include premiums).  If we add in the results for the silver sale at Christie's (which makes sense as the Sotheby's sale included silver) the Christie's total exceeds $7.3m for a total of 225 lots, with an additional lot passing the quarter million dollar mark.  It was a strong performance, and Andrew Holter (a Sotheby's American Arts Course alum, by the way) an John Hays deserve a lot of credit for continuing to find property and bring it successfully to market.  

Some highlights from Christies included an exceptional silver bowl, made by Cornelius Vander Burch in New York, ca. 1690, which went for $317,000 and set the high water mark for silver this week at auction.  A Philadelphia tea table, probably from the shop of Benjamin Randolf, ca. 1770, sold for $905,000.  The storied pedigree of the table (at least in the twentieth century), is indicative of the persistent desirability of the table.  Beginning in 1929, when it was exhibited and illustrated in the Girl Scouts Loan Exhibition, the table remained with the Keep family, until it was acquired by Israel Sack in 1966.  From there, it went into the Wunsch family collection, continued to receive accolades, and was illustrated in in Wendy Cooper's In Praise of America (1980).  Albert Sack thought it worthy of inclusion in his 1993 The New Fine Points of Furniture and since the 1990s it has been referenced in a number of important sales catalogs from both Sotheby's and Christies.  The Chipstone Foundation continued to deaccession objects to benefit acquisitions, and sold the Deshler Family Chair, which brought in $725,000.  

 The star of the show, in terms of performance vs. expectation, was surely the Octagonal sewing box, attributed to Thomas Seymour and painted by John Ritto Penniman.  The modest estimate of $3-5,000 made even the lowliest of collectors think they might have a chance at this box (I'd buy it for that price).  When the smoke cleared after bidding, and the final price of $125,000 was realized, it became clear that exceptional quality and rarity, even in a seemingly small item, continue to thrive in this market.  If there was hiccup or two at Christie's (certainly the Wunsch chair that passed at its $200-300K comes to mind), the general tenor of the sale was strong, the quality of merchandise very good, and buyers seemed eager.

The Sotheby's sale started more quietly, and if the Audubon prints proved a dependable way to get things rolling, any assurances that the sale would go smoothly quickly evaporated with the frankly dismal performance of the export porcelain (lots 17-70).  Then the silver portion of the sale (lots 72-166) struggled mightily.  While many lots just reached their estimates (if premiums are included) a number of lots failed to generate sufficient interest to sell.  In a particularly grim stretch of ten lots (90-99), only four sold.    The high point was a piece of Southern silver, a Thomas You bowl made in Charleston, ca. 1765 which went for well beyond its $20-30K estimate and finally was bought for $53,125.

Furniture at the Sotheby's sale fared better, and here the efforts of Erik Gronning (another alum) and Leslie Keno deserve credit for getting salable property even in a tight market.  As expected, the major northeastern producers (Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Newport) continue to be strong in sales and fine examples, such as the Chippendale side chair, ca. 1765 from Philadelphia performed well for Sotheby's.  The standout of the furniture was a classical work table, ca. 1815 from Boston, that went for more than twice the high estimate of $60K.  It was somewhat curiously listed as "the property of various owners" suggesting perhaps that a number of dealers or investors had gone in on this and brought it to auction.  

All of these figures, however, were dwarfed by lot 319, a decoy of an eider drake, carved about 1900 probably on Mohegan Island, by an unknown craftsman.  Having never been offered publicly before, the decoy surpassed its high estimate of $500K and realized a whopping $767K.  As the catalog noted, "This is arguably the most sophisticated of all eider decoys, with flowing lines and stylized abstract paint worthy of a Zen calligrapher."  Whether or not that's true, it does provide a fitting transition to part 3 and allow me to wrap things up here.  I leave you with the following thought: the folk art market is apparently alive and well, and amongst the strongest performers of Americana Week.  

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