American Art Auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's Soar to Pre-Crisis Heights

Edward Hopper's "Blackwell's Island," 1928, fetched $19,163,750 at Christie's

NEW YORK — Auctions of American paintings this week at Sotheby’s and Christie’s found their strongest footing since the market crisis of 2008, earning almost $80 million in total.

On May 22, Sotheby’s turned in a sale that notched $28,087,750, in line with last November’s $27.6 million total, but with better sell-through, and 81 percent of the 52 sold lots exceeding their high estimates. “Our strategy of smaller sales with things of real quality seems to be working,” says department head Elizabeth Goldberg. “This is our third consecutive sale that’s topped its estimate.”


Things got off to a rousing start when Max Weber’s daringly modern “Soloist at Wanamaker’s” (1910), a gouache on paper laid down on board from the estate of La Jolla, California-based James and Helen K. Copley, flew past its $4,250 opener — and $20,000 high estimate — to $112,500. The buyer was New York- and Bloomfield Hills-based dealer Jonathan Boos, who revealed that it was for his personal collection. The next lot, Andrew Wyeth’s spare, fraught watercolor “Elsie’s House” (1983) (est. $120–180,000), ratcheted up to $245,000.

Of the handful of institutional consignments, Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s Trumpet Flowers (1919) ($400-600,000), went from the Museum of Modern Art to another East Coast museum after a plodding back-and-forth that netted $785,000 for MoMA’s acquisitions fund. Russian-American transplant Nicolai Fechin’s At Home in New York” (1924), a domestic interior with an almost pixilated effect from the Copley collection (est. $100–150,000), had at least four bidders duking it out on the way to $413,000.

Works by Norman Rockwell, sporting estimates that were lower and more enticing than last season, did well. Rockwell took up four of the top ten berths. The most successful was “He’s Going to Be Taller than Dad” (1939) (est. $500–700,000), which sold for $2,629,000 to a phone bidder. Keeping the estimates reasonable has proved to be “an effective way to get a strong result,” notes Goldberg.

Top honors, however, went to John Singer Sargent’s “Marionettes (Behind the Curtain),” painted in 1903 and sporting its original frame, having been passed down in the artist’s family (est. $5–7 million), which took in a sale-high $5,205,000. A new record was set for Milton Avery when “The Music Makers” (1946–47) (est. $1–1.5 million), from the collection of matinee idol Gregory Peck, realized $2,965,000.

One of Goldberg’s clients picked up a passel of iconic images. Maxfield Parrish’s “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” (1902) (est. $200–300,000) soared to $845,000 under a protracted three-way tussle. The same deep-pocketed bidder snapped up Rockwell’s “Doc Mellhorn and the Pearly Gates” (1938) (est. $500–700,000), for $1,145,000 and “The Veterinarian” (1961) (est. $300–500,000) for $905,000, plus Frederic Remington’s oil “Call the Doctor” (1889) (est. $1–1.5 million) for $1,085,000 from the Art Institute of Chicago on the back end of the sale.

Two surprise tug-of-wars erupted for Western works, including for William Keith’s “Yosemite Valley” (1876) (est. $70–90,000). Joe Caldwell, of Caldwell Galleries in Manlius, New York, explained: “Anyone who realized what they were looking at knew it would go for ten times that.” It sold for $755,000 to a telephone bidder. Shortly thereafter, a tiny bronze by Charles Marion RussellAn Enemy That Warns” (ca. 1921), standing just 5¼ inches, achieved $460,000 on an estimate of $40,000 to $60,0000.


Christie's also pulled off a strong sale on May 23, taking in $50,848,750, up from last November’s $38,469,650 and its highest total since May 2008. Some 99 lots sold of the 135 offered.

The house would appear to have clobbered its rival, but a large part of that total came courtesy of a large, important Edward Hopper painting, “Blackwell’s Island” (1928) (est. $15–20 million), included in the recent Hopper exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. “It’s from this great moment in Hopper’s career that bridges his Ashcan training, when he was working with Robert Henri, with his mature modern aesthetic,” notes Liz Sterling, head of the department, of the work.

Bidding opened at $9 million and petered out into a silent, excruciating duel between two phone bidders. “Speak to me,” implored auctioneer James Hastie to break the tittering silence as he wrung out the last few hundred thousand dollars from the phones. The gavel came down at $19,163,750, making it the most expensive painting sold at an American art sale since 2008, and the second-highest price for a Hopper at auction. Shortly thereafter, a watercolor on paper by the artist, Kelly Jenness House” (1932), climbed past its $3 million high estimate to earn $4,155,750, a record for a Hopper work on paper.

Virginia collectors James and Frances McGlothlin, accompanied by their art advisor Michael Altman, cleaned up at Christie's, nabbing several big fish — including works by Stuart Davis, Theodore Robinson, and Elizabeth Catlett — plus a handful of Averys, including “The Musicians” (1949) (est. $400–600,000), from the estate of singer Andy Williams, for $843,750. They tacked on another piece from the Williams collection, “Moon River” (1984) by Millard Owen Sheets, a hotly contested canvas that overtopped its $5,000 high estimate at $81,250.

But there was broad participation from collectors who had come for one or two works, determined to win them. Such was the case for advisor Nan Chisholm, who chased Henrietta M. Shore’s knockout “Untitled (Cypress Trees, Point Lobos)” (ca. 1930), to $687,750, more than four times the $150,000 high estimate, on behalf of a Midwestern client. “That was a really aggressive estimate for that artist at auction,” says Sterling, “but I think the final price is a testament to her cult following.” Gil Waldman, a Santa Fe-based collector of Western art, was pleased to take home Granville Redmond’s California landscape “Snow Capp Spring” (1927) (est. $100–150,000) for $123,750. New York dealer Mark Murray wielded the paddle on behalf of a local collector couple who wanted, and won, George Bellows’s “Village on the Hill” (1916) (est. $150–250,000), for $231,750.

Among 19th-century works, Sanford Robinson Gifford’s luminous “Tappan Zee” (1879–80) (est. $200–300,000), described by Sterling as “a rediscovered masterwork,” had six ardent admirers who pushed the final price up to $1,179,750. The sale’s sole Rockwell, “Starstruck” (1934), took in $2,027,750 from a bidder on the telephone with specialist Eric Widing against an estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million. Childe Hassam's sunny In a French Garden (1897), was picked up by San Francisco-based art advisor Steven Platzman for a mid-estimate $963,750.

As for the buy ins, the priciest came from the Eric and Cynthia Sambol collection of assorted Wyeths.

Both department heads pointed to an upswing in demand for illustration artists like Rockwell and Parrish. “Consistently, you’re seeing good works by them doubling and tripling their estimates,” says Sterling. “There are a lot of people willing to bid aggressively in that category.”

Overall, both houses were encouraged to see new faces — primarily crossover buyers from the contemporary sphere coming in for modern paintings — and old collectors returning, which bodes well for future sales. “In the American market, it’s a smaller group of people,” Goldberg points out, “so when both houses can produce good results, it sends a strong signal.”

To see highlights from New York's American Art auctions, click on the slideshow.