My wife has a friend in his 80’s who told her that at his age any gathering of peers begins with what he calls “the organ recital.” My liver’s been acting up, one person says. My knee is killing me, adds another. In like fashion, for the last several years it’s been customary for dealers in 19th century American art to bemoan the state of the market when they meet. Oh, for the days when a painting by a lesser-known Hudson River School painter brought $50,000! Ah, remember when we could sell a neo-classical marble for more than four figures! The market’s shot to hell!
Yet, as someone once said, low prices do not make a bad market – no buyers make a bad market. Valuations may change, but the market finds its new level. Ira Spanierman, my first art-world boss, used to say that the most important thing a dealer has to do is to be able to forget. That is, you deal with the market as it is today. If you’re stuck in the past, remembering what a particular artist’s work used to go for, whether higher or lower than his prices today, you’re not going to be able to participate in the market. You might as well close up shop.
The auction houses have done a good job of conditioning consignors to the realities of the present market, and their auctions of American art this month bore this out. Gone were the hundreds of lots that could make an auction last three hours or more. Instead, Sotheby’s and Christie’s had more curated sales that could be finished in little over an hour. The estimates were generally reasonable, and the sales results showed it: Christie’s sold eighty percent of their offerings, and Sotheby’s sold a bit over seventy percent, both of which are respectable if not exciting.
Decent Hudson River scenes generally sold, art of the American West sold, and works by women and artists of color achieved prices that indicate the continuing strong demand for their works. If you want to discuss particular works, do give me a call, but I’ll mention three works whose sales I found interesting.
Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872) was an artist of the Canadian frontier whose scenes of pioneer and Native American life have brought almost half a million dollars, though they generally trade in the five-figure range. The piece above was estimated at $30,000-50,000. When I was viewing it at Sotheby’s exhibition, I noticed that the title listed was not accurate. It’s not a just a cabin that the drunken revelers are passing. The sign on the building’s wall, the turnstile, and the gate make clear that this is a toll booth. Three men, out on a toot, are dodging the toll, waving a bottle and mocking the gatekeeper as they go by. The humor in the painting makes it special. Potential buyers must have agreed, as the painting sold for $189,000 including premium.
John George Brown (1831-1913) was an Englishman who settled in Brooklyn and became quite successful as a painter of raggedy yet rosy-cheeked street urchins shining shoes, selling newspapers, and courting flower girls. Such works generally sell in the low-five figures, which is about what they were selling for 30 years ago, but large, multifigured compositions can bring in the low-six figures. That’s what Christie’s was thinking when they put an estimate of $200,000-300,000 on the work above. Someone must have liked fishing, for the painting sold for $819,000 including premium. I don’t think, however, that this result will have any effect on the market for individual boys.
Having never been more than mildly amused by paintings of bulldogs playing poker, monkeys teaching school, and the like, I would be reluctant to pay big money for one, but 19th century collectors enjoyed them, and William Holbrook Beard (1824-1900) became quite successful for his paintings of animals engaging in human activities. Today they generally bring in the mid-five figures. Christie’s thought that the work above would bring $20,000-30,000, but spirited bidding drove the price of the work above to $151,200 including premium, the second-highest result for a Beard painting at auction.
I don’t think this portends a major jump in Beard’s market, but you never know. There’s no accounting for taste. I must admit that I’ve always found a person wearing a bear suit amusing. In fact, I think there are few situations, however grim, that can’t be lightened by the presence of a person in such a suit. It may not solve the problem, but it makes things more bearable.