While I lament the general lack of concern shown for Americana by many of my peers outside the field, there's one aspect of the market that continues to bring material to the forefront and helps push the sales upward: folk art. Forget for a minute that the term is impossible to cogently define, as the Esmerian sale demonstrated, good folk art makes people go slightly crazy. Why? I have my theories, some of which may be useful. The first is that there is generally an abstract quality to the works which appeals to many generations, for a number of different reasons. I think younger generations relate to the work as contemporary in form, and see a formal resonance with the post-war art that they have been raised on. Spanning all generations (to my mind) is the association of integrity to the pieces, a belief that artists unencumbered by formal training have something more substantially individual and unique to say than trained artists working in an established style. This dovetails with the general quest for things authentic and vital that arose during the Industrial Revolution and accelerated as the 20th century became increasingly mechanized and corporate. The commodification of simplicity as honest and authentic has a long history which I see the current fad for folk and outsider art as belonging to. That said, I am somewhat at a loss to explain how the highest priced figure in the sale was Samuel Anderson Robb's carved Santa Clause, from 1923, which sold for $875K. Perhaps the combined forces of the folk market and the timeless appeal of Santa were simply too powerful? In any event, this was an exceptional sale of 227 lots that realized just under $13M. To put this in context: that's more than Christie's silver, Christie's Furniture, and the Sotheby's furniture sales combined. It is difficult to guess who is happier at the moment: Nancy Drucker who brought this to market, or Ralph Esmerian's creditors who will finally be paid. The loser in all of this, it should be remembered, is the American Folk Art Museum, to whom the collection was a promised gift. While the chance to see the objects, and the incredible work of Nancy Drucker promoting and selling is commendable, I couldn't help but feel that the pieces belong were taken from the folk art museum, not through any fault of their own, but through the inexcusable and unethical actions of a donor. That these represented probably the finest publication of the museum in modern memory, and that they gained a certain caché as a result of this association, only to be ordered sold as an asset is the real travesty behind this monumental sale. Hopefully, some of the pieces will find their way back to the Folk Art Museum through the generosity of donors and supporters.
The sale started off with a bang, and was generally unrelenting. An oval, glazed earthenware dish seemed to stall momentarily at its low estimate of $40K, before finally realizing $281K. There was a brief respite and steady sales, a few lots passed, but just 17 lots later a poplar spice cup more than doubled its high estimate and sold for $245K. Just ten lots later a painted pine hanging cupboard (with spoon shelf) went for $209K, well over the $80-120K estimate--and just 26 lots into the sale mind you. A rare green glazed Rudolph Christ fish flask? $53K! Jacob Mantael's John and Caterina Bickel? $401K! A pair of portraits attributed to John Durand? $389K. A Ruth and Samuel Shute painting? $665K A rare Boston sampler estimated at $30-40K? Try $233K on for size. A painted pine box (with hearts, always a good thing)? How about $209K. If you needed a miniature checkerboard chest to go with it? Just $377K. And what about rugs you ask? Well, a knitted wool rug attributed to Elvira Curtis Hulett and estimated at $8-12K sold for $161K.
The pent up demand for folk art that this sale spoke to is indicative of continuing strength in this sector of the Americana market, but one should be cautious too. All too often after a sale like this, you'll see the market flooded with similar items as people awaken to the realization of what their objects could be worth. Unfortunately, it sometimes does not occur to these people that the prices they see were the result of pent up demand, and that without competing bidders to bolster the prices, there is little chance of seeing these prices again, without new players entering the market. Once you remove the top bidder from a sale, it's not the underbidder that matters, but where his underbidder stopped that helps determine the price. Sometimes, this is well below the sale prices and often a shock to those who consign pieces in the hopes of striking it rich quickly.