Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s unveiled their top American works at the end of May, leading to strong sell through rates and strong realized prices.
At Sotheby’s, half of the top ten lots were by Norman Rockwell (in fact, there were 10 Rockwell’s sold in the sale and together they totaled $20M). After the Prom, painted in 1957, is one of Rockwell’s most recognizable works featuring two teenagers seated at a diner counter admiring each other after their Junior High prom. This painting was originally given to Rockwell’s son, Thomas, and it is believed that the spark of inspiration for this work was Thomas marrying his high school sweetheart. Previously auctioned back in 1995 when it made $880,000, After the Prom(which was the cover of the sale’s catalogue and the May 25, 1957, edition of The Saturday Evening Post) brought $9.13M (estimate $8M – $12M), making this the most expensive work in the sale.
The second highest sold lot was Milton Avery’s March and Sally Outdoors, 1950, which featured the artist’s two most important muses — his wife and daughter. This work was bought by the seller’s mother directly from Avery and has remained unknown to the public and experts until now. With an estimate of $2M – $3M, March and Sally Outdoors garnered $5.7M … an auction record for the artist.
In third place we had a tie: Rockwell’s Boys and Girls First Aid Week (Scout Bandaging Girl’s Finger) 1962, (estimate $1-$1.5M) and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Lake George Barn, from 1929 (est. $2.5-$3.5M) which is one of fourteen works that O’Keeffe painted on the Stieglitz property and had been in the same collection since 1988. Both works brought $2.97M.
Running down the rest of the top ten lots we find that Albert Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley (1865) brought in $2.5M (est. $1-$1.5M). Three Rockwell’s followed, the first of which was Willie Gillis on Convoy (cover of The Saturday Evening Post on October 4, 1941). In this work, Willie sits facing us in the back of the army truck — Rockwell would paint 11 Post covers featuring the soldier and his adventures serving in the Second World War (one of which was offered at Christie’s the following day, Willie Gillis in Church, but that one did not sell). The painting was gifted by Rockwell to the seller, the Gardner High School, in 1951, and it sold for $2.3M (est. $1.5-$2.5M). Next came The Ouija Board (1920), selling at $1.69M … just over its high estimate of $1.5M. This was followed by,If Your Eyesight Controls Your “Great Decisions” from 1929. This Saturday Evening Post cover of December 14, 1929 was commissioned as an advertising campaign for the Tillyer Lenses Company’s new wide-angle lenses. The work depicts two elderly men playing cards, the man on the left is wearing glasses and smiles as his ace lay on the table, to the right is a man without glasses squinting at his cards. Estimated to bring $400-$600K, thet work blew past that and sold for $1.33M.
Finally, Edward Hopper’s House on the Shore, from 1924, doubled its high estimate of $500K, bringing in over $1M; while Milton Avery’s Dancing Trees from 1953 brought just above the low estimate of $1M at $1.03M.
In the end, the sale made well $45.87M (falling comfortably within its pre-sale estimate of $33.2-$49.7M), the highest total in the last five years. 80.7% of the lots sold, making this the fifth consecutive year that Sotheby’s American sale sold over 80% of the lots. Ten lots sold over $1M with half of the sold lots making above their high estimates.
The following day Christie’s held their sale and Norman Rockwell topped the charts again whenThe Rookie, The Saturday Evening Post cover from March 2, 1957, grabbed the top spot. Iconography of America in the 20th century was always the heart of Rockwell’s subjects, so it comes to no surprise that he would paint one of America’s oldest and most beloved baseball teams, the Boston Red Sox (Go Yanks!). The Rookie made $22.6M, just above the low estimate of $20M, making it the second highest price for the artist at auction.
Next we had a very strong result for The Grand Canyon of the Colorado — what some consider a masterwork by Thomas Moran. Here, the artist paints his favorite subject, the Grand Canyon, with a strong play on light and shadow. Captured from a high vantage point, you are looking down on the peaks and divots of the canyon which dwarf the sliver of the Colorado River in the distance. Last sold by Sotheby’s in 1990 for $1M, 24 years later it brought $12.5M (est. $8-$12M) — making it the second highest lot in the sale.
Anchors, by Stuart Davis, is an iconic 1930’s piece depicting recognizable objects and elements of Gloucester, MA. The catalogue details a lengthy provenance for this work, coming to auction twice prior; first in 1987 at Sotheby’s, selling for $220K, and again in 2002 at Christie’s for $780K. This time around, Anchors sold for $1.8M (est. $1.5-$2.5M).
In fourth, we found Edward Hopper’s Coast Guard Boat I. First purchased by Robert W. Huntington eighty-nine years ago, the work has remained in the family’s possession ever since and was finally sold for $1.7M (est. $1-$1.5M).
Rounding out the rest of the top ten we had: Milton Avery’s 1946/47 work, Siesta at $1.57M (est. $1-$1.5M); followed closely by his The Mandolin Player, from the same period, which sold for $1.46M (est. $800K-$1.2M). Then we come back to Norman Rockwell, who many believe was the greatest visual mass communicator of the twentieth century. The Franklin Mint, founded in 1964, was yet another company hoping Rockwell’s “Americana” artwork could help them bring art and collectables to the masses. Their relationship started 1970, when Rockwell began the first stages of his commission for The Mint. The theme: to celebrate the connoisseurship of The Mints most loyal customer, the coin collector. Over the next five years, Rockwell created about 80 sketches for works that were planned to be made into collectable plates, medals and figures. Two oil paintings were then commissioned to be reproduced and sold as limited edition lithographs. Both original works were being offered by The Franklin Mint at the sale. The first, Spirit of America, 1974, made $1.1M — more than twice the high estimate of $500K. The second, The Collector, 1971, had an estimate of $700K – $1M and brought in $965K. Here we find an avid collector studying a coin in his white gloved hand, the other is equipped with a magnified glass for detailed inspection. An important element in the scene is the bust of Benjamin Franklin, the namesake of the Mint.
The final two works that topped the charts were Winslow Homer’s, A Shady Spot, Houghton Farmand Francis A. Silva, October on the Hudson. The Homer was last on the market in 2002 and sold for $493K, this time it brought $965K (est. $600-$800K). Silva’s painting, circa 1873, sold for $941K (just under the top end of its estimate – $1M). This same painting was last seen on the market in 1993 when is sold for $102K (est. $100-$150K).
Once the sale was over, of the 167 works offered, 115 found buyers (69%) and the total take was $64M. Between the two salerooms over $100M worth of American art changed hands in the course of 2 days … not bad!