Personal Property Journal - Volume 4 (1) 1991 Viewpoint - Review Summer Auction Market


The art market never ceases its relentless flow onward, in sometimes turbulent and ofttimes muddied waters, which occasionally and unexpectedly reverse direction.

Major arsales at auction are finished until the Fall, and it's fair to say that price levels are, in general, back to the 1986-88 season, so it's not all gloom and doom, but the faster than a speeding bullet stratospheric roller-coaster ride is over for the time being.

No question that great art fetches great pricesAt the early summer sale at Christie's in London, Degas' racehorse painting, "Les Chevaux de Courses," estimated at several million less, sold for $9.74 million, not a shilling less than it might have gotten at the top-of-the-market 1989 sales. The unknown purchaser of the Degas went on to buy Oskar Kokoscka's "Richmond Terrace" for $726,000 and Max Ernst's "Vol Nuptial" for $371,910.  The next day this mystery man turned up at Sotheby's in the same city and took Toulouse-Lautrec's “Le Lit" (from the Chester Beatty collection) for $2.12 million, Max Ernst's "Foret et Soleil" for $850,000, and Edouard Vuillard's "Le Divan" for $247,940.  Of course, high rollers don't remain anonymous for very long.  Said to be a big donor to charities in the U.S., the mystery man is of Iraqi-Lebanese origin, and his first name is Wolfgang. He'd be perfect for a cable tv show titled "The Art World's Most Wanted."

Although the Degas we just mentioned was only the second highest public price paid for a work by the artist, there have been other auction records broken recently.  At Sotheby's Americana sale at the end of June, a much publicized inkwell by William Crolius set a record at auction at $148,500 (including premium).  This heartshaped piece, thought to be the most important item of early stoneware known, had elaborate blue filled incising and rosette stampwork, and was signed on the bottom and dated "July 12, 1773." The saminkwell was sold at Sotheby's in 1979 for $12,000.

Records for African art occurred when a 19th century carving of a Bangwa queen from what is now Cameroon sold at Christie's for $3.4 million, eclipsing the $2.08 million paid last July for a Benin bronze head at Christie's in London.  In the same sale a Bamileke mask was purchased by the French Government for the Louvre, at $319,000, helping to bring the auction total to $7.1 million, a record for a tribal art sale.

It's not only the major auction houses that produce surprises.  At Doyle's in New York a Second Empire gilt and patinated bronze vitrine table, 25 3/4 inches long, estimated at $5,000 ­$7,000 pre-sale, soared to $145,000.  At the sale furniture by the recently deceased artisan, George Nakashima, found $7,000 for a rosewood and walnut dining table, and $2,000 for a set of six "Mira" chairs by the same maker.

And still another record bit the dust - this one for printed Americana - when Sotheby's sold a first printing of the Declaration of Independence for $2.420 million.  One of only twenty four copies known, the freedom proclamation had been estimated by about half as much as it fetched. This is the famous copy that the consignor had found in a picture frame at a flea market in AdamstownPennsylvania two years ago. He paid $4 for the frame and when he removed the painting he found the document inside. The previous auction record for a copy of the D of I was set last year at Sotheby's at $1.595 million. Sort of restores your faith in scavenging.

Now another copy of the Declaration has been discovered (actually rediscovered) at the Maine Historical Society.  Bequeathed in 1905 to the society by a collector in Maine, this now known-to-be-the-25th-copy was ignored by its owners because it was thought to be a reprint.  The Society finally got around to examining the document a few weeks ago and it's currently on display at the organization in Portland.  And they say Southerners are slow.

Cincinnati has had its share of excitement this year.  First, the brouhaha about the Mapplethorpe exhibition and its subsequent trial of the museum director generated renewed interest in a city not known for spectacles.  Now an auction of Rookwood pottery has set a series of records that will be a long time in breaking.  The Cincinnati Art Galleries featured the collection of Katherine and the late David Glover, purchased by the Galleries following Glover's death.  Records were set for a world record price at auction for a piece of American art pottery, for Rookwood with applied decoration, for a standard glazed piece, for an iris glazed plaque, for a standard glazed plaque, and several for individual ceramic artists.  The Rookwood-only sale contained 1,210,000 pieces and generated $2.4 million.  The top lot was a monumentaRookwood vase by Kitaro Shirayamadani, estimated at $40,000 - $60,000.  Decorated with· electroplated copper carp swimming under a sea green glaze, the vase finally sold for $198,000 (including premium)A standard glaze vase by Albert Valentien brought $60,000, a standard glazed plaque decorated with a papoose carrying Indian woman fetched $31,000, and another Shirayamadani, a decorated vase with applied dragon, brought $80,000.

In a trickle-over from the troubled painting market, buyers of photographs have buoyed up that marketwhich is up 680% since 1975.  During the art recession between Spring and Fall of 1990, the photography market fell 20%, following a steep climb of 70% over the preceding year.  And it's a market still new enough to create surprises, such as the sale of Felix Teynard's “Sights of Egypt and Nubia,” that brought $800,000double the earlier record for a multiple-image work.  What was really remarkable about this is that Teynard is not mentioned at all in any of the major histories of photography.

Don't bother to offer a photograph for sale at Sotheby's or Christie's unless they expect it to bring a least $2,500.  What's hot right now in photography are images by artists famous in other fieldssuch as Man Ray and Brancusi.  Younger artists of interest are Cindy Sherman and Joel-Peter Witkin.

Can't resist picking up old catalogs and comparing auction prices then and now - even though the contrast might have been more startling a year ago.  John Marion was even then at the podium in January of 1965 when 20th century paintings from the Ira Haupt Collection were offered at the old Parke-Bernet Galleries on Madison Avenue (now Sotheby's on York).  A sampling from the sale reveals the following prices realized: "Jackson Pollock from 1948 - $14,000; Willem de Kooning - $40,000; Robert Delauney - $10,000; Piet Mondrian - $40,000. A quarter of a century ago and a million light years away.  It really adds perspective when someone tells you that "the market is really down.”  Down, perhaps, from a brief whirl when dealers were dancing on the moon.

When a Van Gogh painting was discovered by Leslie Hindman auctioneers in a suburban Milwaukee home it was sent to Amsterdam for evaluation by a panel of experts, and then onto the auction block where it sold to an American based Japanese collector for $1.43 million.  Unfortunately, before calling in the auction house the elderly couple had sold off a Renoir at a tag sale.

At an offbeat auction house a little German-made wood Santa Claus in a tin sleigh drawn by goats fetched $104,500.  In the realm of collectibles that's got to be some sort of record.  Again, on the subject of records, a Tiffany stained glass triple panel window from the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland's former residence, sold for $440,000.  The previous record for a Tiffany window was $352,000, also set at Christie's three years prior.

"A thief of historic proportions,” who faces up to 35 years in prison and a fine of $1 million, is to be permitted to match up the thousands of rare books he has stolen with their owners.  The books are stored in a warehouse in Omaha, NE., where Stephen Blumberg was arrested.  The enterprising gentlemen, it turns out, never sold any of the books he stole, living instead on a widespread business in stolen antiques.  The books were taken, according to Blumberg, "to preserve and protect them...from a plot by the American government (and others) to keep the masses downtrodden and without knowledge of their history.” Blumberg pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. Surprisesurprise!

An early cover bearing the world's first postage stamp, the British Penny Black, has been sold at auction for $2.4 million, almost double the highest previous price for a philatelic item.  The Penny Black, canceled in London on May 2, 1851, the day after it went on sale, was auctioned by Harmers in Lugano, Switzerland.

This has certainly been a traumatic year in the art world, what with an economic recession, a war in the Gulf, and the retreat of the scandal buffeted Japanese, until recently the mainstay of the market.  It's encouraging to see that good paintings and antiques are still selling well at auction, that the cooling down of the overheated market saw the diminution of the overblown, overhyped and not-all-that-talented artists so lionized by the industryover the past ten years. We're not back to square one in the art market, just back to reality.


Elin Lake Ewald, ASAserves as a member of the Board of Directors and Editor of the Newsletter of the New York Chapter of ASAShe is member of the American Arbitration association, and is doctoral candidate, Ph.Dprogram, New York UniversityMs. Ewald,fine art appraiser, is President of O'Toole Art Associates, Inc.a 12 person firm specializing in the appraisal of corporatecollections and in damage/loss/fraud reports involving fine and decorative artShe is currently researching her dissertation topic focusing on art ethics and law involving the fine art appraiser.