Personal Property Journal - Volume 4 (2) Fall/Winter 1991 Viewpoint - Art Market Review

Art Market Review

The annual urge to encapsulate one year’s activities into a few terse paragraphs, and predict the future of a particular market, is with us once again.  So let’s take a plunge, a la Jeanne Dixon.

Crystal-Balling It

As of the moment it appears that the future focus in the arts field, at least for the immediate months, will be in decorative arts.  If auction sales are a true indicator, there is no slump in the areas that combine function with aesthetics, i.e., antique furniture, ceramics, glass, and those other use-plus-beauty items.  The recent sale at Sotheby’s of the Keck collection saw 55 objects on the block, of which only six failed to sell.  The auction house revved up for a show previously reserved only for high profile painting sales, a nighttime glitz and glamour parade of gilded and lacquered French furniture, led by a Louis XVI ebony and Japanese lacquer secretary, accompanied by a matching commode, both by Adam Weisweiler, a famed 18th century cabinet maker.  The pair was bought by Antiquaires à Paris for $2,860,000.  The sale’s total came to $10,212,400, and many of the pieces were bought by French dealers, seemingly not the least discouraged by the 18.6 percent value added tax the French government recently imposed on the purchase and importation of French antiques.  However, it’s rumored that many of the French dealers are shipping their new acquisitions to Geneva.

Also interesting about this sale, actioned by Keck’s divorce, is that the majority of the pieces were acquired over the past decade usually considered a negative factor in the secondary market.  Howard Keck is the son of the founder of the Superior Oil Company.

In the same sale a pair of blue and white marble jardinières, estimated to sell for approximately $300,000, fetched $825,000, and an exotic Louis XVI stained horn, mother-of-pearl, stone and brass marquetry writing table, figured to bring about $450,000, sold for $962,500.

Aside from the promising auction sales of decorative arts lately, we note that a number of painting dealers have been adding a decorative arts section to their galleries, and doing well with them.  And we know of a few dealers who are moving out of the fine art area into antique furniture and decorative objects.  If these dealers, with a background in high visibility hype, decide to take on the challenge to promote their decorative holdings, we foresee a boom in high quality furniture and decorative objects that may rival the past boom in Impressionist and Contemporary art.

Toys For Us

There have been so many forced bankruptcy sales lately involving art and artifacts that it’s unusual when one makes the news, but the “Sold Unreserved by the Trustee In Bankruptcy” sale of goods from the recently deceased Mint & Boxed galleries did just that.  Press and TV representatives abounded at the Christie’s dispersal where an impressive array of beautifully preserved transportation pieces went on the block.  Among the showcase items was the well-known George Brown tinplate “Charles” hose reel, circa 1875, decorated with scroll work, brass bells and large cast wheels, considered the earliest surviving tin toy in existence – a steal at $210,000 dollars.  The owner of the now-defunct corporation was a very high-profile Englishman who cut a mighty swath through the world of small scale transport, paying top dollar and acting every inch the heir to a great fortune.  It was a fantasy acted out, and the Christie’s sale saw the end of the dream.

Mishap In a Pool

This incident had nothing to do with water.  At a Christie’s East auction five years ago a dealer bought a handsome Chippendale mahogany chest-on-chest for $30,800.  As a result of that seemingly ordinary purchase the Justice Department has fined three antiques dealers the following penalties: Kay & Gross, New York - $20,000; Bernard & S. Dean Levy, New York - $100,000; Thomas Schwenke, Inc., New York/Connecticut - $50,000.  In the J Department’s anti-trust probe it was determined that those three dealers had recognized the aforementioned chest as being a major piece and had agreed to send one of their group to capture the prize, that later went to the Levy’s for about $38,000.  The allegations are being denied by the Levy’s.  Christie’s had estimated the piece at $1,200 - $1,800.  Despite that low estimate, the counsel for another auction house (Sotheby’s), says it might conceivably have sold for even more than the $30,000, but, in any case, it did not allow a free market.  The New York indictment was primed by recent pool investigations in Pennsylvania.  The anonymous tip that triggered the NY investigation came from a Philadelphia source in 1987.

Lost Treasures

In the terrible fire that swept through Berkeley and Oakland, CA, a short time ago the following architecturally important homes were destroyed: Craig House-1950, by Warren Callister; Evans House-1929, by Henry Gutterson; Calkins House-1926, by Ernest Coxhead; Lamberson House-1941, by William Wurster; Terry House-1949, by Bernardi and Emmons; Edwin Pillsbury House-1928, by Bernard Maybeck; Starbuck House-1932, by Maybeck; Warren P. Staniford House-1925, by Maybeck; Talbert House-1962, by Moore, Turnbull, Lyndon and Whitaker; Wells House-1911, by Julia Morgan; Honeymoon House-1969, by the Wells family; Atkins House-1915, by Henry Atkins and Harry Stearns.  These were among the 2,668 houses lost in the horrendous blaze that destroyed not only homes, but numerous works of art and irreplaceable collections.

Class Action

In the 1950s an ex-Borstal working class boy was given the opportunity to study at the Royal Academy School in London where he encountered a very upper crust blueblood, Sir Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures.  The young man, Eric Hebborn, felt that Blunt was patronizing him and decided to take his revenge on the aristocrat and on the whole bloody establishment.  In his autobiography, just published, Hebborn explains how he went about forging a series of drawings by Poussin, the subject of Blunt’s lifelong study, and how Blunt himself authenticated these as products of the Italian Renaissance.  Hebborn blew the whistle on himself because he was miffed that his ersatz works were not include in the British Museum’s show last year, Fake? The Art of Deception.  Hebborn claims his make-believe masterpieces are hanging in the British Museum (Van Dyck’s “The Crowning with Thorns), in the Danish Royal Museum (Piranesi’s “A Roman Port), and in the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Jan Breughel the Younger’s “The Temples of Venus” and “Diana at Baia”), among numerous other art showcases.  He also points the finger at a number of art dealers whom he has deceived.  In the museum and gallery world, where reputations are teetering as a result of this scandal, many say that Hebborn is a manipulator of truth.  But what is the truth in this case?

Rivera Record

While contemporary art dealers continue to moan and groan about the dismal season Latin American art sales seem extremely healthy.  Diego Rivera’s 1942 painting, “Vendedora de Flores,” set a new high when it brought $2,970,000 at Christie’s.  A Fernando Botero, which sold in 1984 for $176,000, went for $40,000 this time ‘round.  At a Sotheby’s Latin American sale the same week a Jose Maria Velasco, estimated at $600,000-800,000 fetched $2,42 million, not an unpleasant surprise for the auction house – and the owner.  Nineteen artists’ records were set in the one sale at Christie’s and 18 records went into the books at Sotheby’s.  So it’s best to take a long and measured view of the art market; where one area takes a dip another always emerges to fill the void.

Standing Firm

The sale of a famed bankrupt Australian businessman’s art collection has been put on hold because Alan Bond refuses to let go of eight of his paintings.  There’s a court order in the works that would take the paintings from the family.  The paintings have not been identified as yet, and there’s been no date set for the sale.  Bond was the purchaser of the van Gogh “Irises” that he never did collect from Sotheby’s.

Van Gogh Again

The Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company of Japan is giving $18 million into the planned expansion of gallery space at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  It’s being done through the Japan Foundation, a non-profit cultural exchange agency, therefore exempting the donation from taxes.  At the same time another Japanese corporation has given six and a half million to an Oslo museum to refurbish the plant.  In return, the corporation, which has major investments in Norway’s oil industry, obtains the right to exhibit special works by Edvard Munch at Tokyo museums over the next 15 years.  It’s the best kind of publicity.

No Kids Allowed

We doubt there are many tykes who could afford the prices paid at Sotheby’s for a bunch of old comics, including the record breaking $55,000 for a copy of Detective 27, the 1939 issue in which superhero Batman flew onto the American scene for the first time.  It’s one of the about 100 extant examples, and went for double its pre-sale estimate.  A 1938 Action No. 1 (originally priced at 10 cents), in which Superman made his debut, was bought for $29,700.  The majority of the major purchases were made by the owner of a traveling museum of baseball memorabilia, which exhibits in Wal-Mart stores.

Prediction No. 2:  There’s a big push on now for iconic collectibles – comic books, rock’n roll memorabilia, vintage toys – this is one of the areas where we can expect to see price explosions.  When heavy-hitters enter a market hold on to your hairpieces.

Sad But True

A well-known and respected authority in the ceramics field is about to begin an 18-month sentence at the Allenwood Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Pennsylvania after admitting to the theft of more than 100 valuable objects from eight museums in the United States and England.  Professor John Quentin Feller, a much published authority on Chinese export ceramics, and a member of the board of trustees at the Peabody Museum, confessed to an 18-year habit of removing precious works from the institutions in order to donate them to other museums, or occasionally to keep them in his own home.  The thefts began in 1972 when the professor, on the faculty of the University of Scranton, found a cache of 30,000 pieces of antique porcelain in the basement of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.  Horrified by the idea that these valuable ceramics were being so badly neglected, he decided to remove 18 of them, giving them to the Peabody Museum where he felt they would be appreciated.  He donated to the diplomatic reception rooms at the State Department in D.C., in memory of his parents, a rare Chinese export cup and saucer that he had lifted from the Rhode Island School of Design.  And so on and so on.  Feller took items from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Ashmolean Museum in England without being apprehended.  It was when he recently secreted a Chinese platter in a sideboard at Winterthur that the plot began to unravel.  Although he couldn’t be tried for the earlier thefts – (the statute of limitations had run out) – Feller was convicted on the theft of the most recently stolen eight objects.  It’s a fascinating study in criminal behavior by an academic felon who desired only to find appreciative audiences for neglected objects – or so the defense attorney’s script goes.  The prosecution says Feller really desired to further his academic career.  We’ll put aside any judgment until we see it on television, and I’m sure we will.

Dress Up

We’ve come to the conclusion that most markets can be viewed in the same way – items sell if they’re appropriately priced, in good condition, the right collectors know about the sale because it’s been well publicized, and the objects are not entirely out of fashion.  Only the last reference doesn’t apply to vintage clothing, where everything is out of fashion, so to speak.

The recent auction at Sotheby’s of three different groups of vintage clothing illustrates the above point.  The first group of clothing, sold by a former vintage clothing dealer, had unrealistic reserves, some of them above the minimum, some with questionable attributions, and all of them at high retail level.  Almost every item was passed.  The second group, designer dresses, was sold for the benefit of a philanthropy.  The clothes showed wear, but were priced at buyable levels, and many apparently were without reserves  That group sold moderately well.  The third group came from the collection of a well-known Newport fashionplate.  These examples were in almost pristine condition, all bore top designer labels, and all the dresses and gowns had been carefully catalogued by the collector’s personal appraiser.  There were no reserves on the lots and the sale move briskly and well, although the unusually small size of the collector probably prevented atmospherically high prices – except for those rare examples when costume institutions sought.  It was an interesting comparison.  Three different approaches in one sale.  The end result says it all.

A Classic Case

In Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, at an auction of class autos, a collector didn’t exactly drive off with a 1927 Bugatti Type 35C after he paid $330,000 for it.  He was bidding over the telephone.  The final offering of the day was also the most desirable item – a 1952 Mercedes W194 SLR Works Race Car, one of only ten ever built, and one of two in private hands.  Known as the Gullwing, it soared to a sky-high $715,000.  The 60-cars in the sale had been donated to the Harvard Medical School and the School of Public Health.  You must admit it’s a novel way to further medicine.

Stamp of Approval

Lugano, Switzerland was the location.  The object of admiration was a Penny Black, the world’s earliest stamp.  Sold to a Swiss agent acting on behalf of a Japanese executive, the 1851 stamp, canceled in London the day after it went on sale, was purchased for $2.4 million, the world record price for a stamp.  Previous records for a single stamp are $1.3 million for an 1855 Swedish stamp, and $1.1 million for a plate block of four upside-down U.S. airmails (not exactly a single stamp, but we thought you’d like to know about it anyway).

A whopping $13,471,480 just displaced the previous record price for works by Titian, a meager four million plus. The superprice was paid for “Venus and Adonis,” sold at Christie’s, London.  It was purchased by a London gallery in partnership with a New York dealer, a pair known to have previously bought works for the Getty.  The Getty at present is denying that it has bought the masterpiece, but is a bit coy about denying that it couldn’t happen in the immediate future.

This highest grossing sale of the season doesn’t thus-far necessarily mean that the Old Master market is about to hit the roof.  It probably just means that there are some wonderful things available that were worth the prices paid.