Sotheby’s, New York City
Photos courtesy Sotheby’s
When Ralph Katz retired from his medical practice in Buffalo, New York, he and his wife, Susanne, moved to a 1950s house in New Hampshire, where they lived with their collection of American folk art until they downsized and moved to a retirement community and sent the collection to Sotheby’s, where it was offered on January 21. Sotheby’s installed more than 60 of their portraits along with landscapes and seascapes, painted chests, painted boxes, decoys, and whirligigs in a stunning exhibition on the fourth floor, making vernacular works from the 19th century seem modern.
View of the Berks County Almshouse, a large oil on canvas, 32" x 40", signed “J Rasmussen” and dated 1880, was the most admired folk painting of the week. It is titled and has the names of the directors below the image. It sold with buyer’s premium for $516,500 (est. $80,000/120,000) to Pennsylvania collector Steve Smith in the salesroom, underbid in the salesroom by Patrick Bell of Olde Hope Antiques, New Hope, Pennsylvania. It is in very good condition.
View of the Berks County Almshouse by John Rasmussen (1828-1895), oil on canvas, 32" x 40", signed “J Rasmussen,” dated 1880, and titled below the image with a list of the directors, sold for $516,500 (est. $80,000/120,000) to Pennsylvania collector Steve Smith in the salesroom, underbid in the salesroom by Patrick Bell of Olde Hope Antiques, New Hope, Pennsylvania. It is a record for an almshouse painting by Rasmussen, topping the $339,300 that Kelly Kinzle paid at Pook & Pook in October 2008. In the 1880 census Rasmussen is listed as an inmate of the Berks County Almshouse and a fresco painter. He was one of three almshouse painters, including Louis Mader (1842-after 1899) and Charles Hofmann (c. 1820-1882). At Pook & Pook in October 2013, a record $545,100 was paid for an almshouse painting by Hofmann; Smith was the underbidder.
The price is a record for an almshouse painting by John Rasmussen and tops the $339,300 Kelly Kinzle paid for one in October 2008 at Pook & Pook. In 2013 at the sale of the Andy Williams collection at Skinner, another Rasmussen almshouse painting sold for $102,000. In the 1880 census Rasmussen is listed as an inmate of the Berks County almshouse and a fresco painter. He was one of the three almshouse painters, including Louis Mader (1842-after 1899) and Charles Hofmann (c. 1820-1882). At Pook & Pook in October 2013 a record $545,100 was paid for an almshouse painting by Hofmann. Steve Smith was the underbidder. Almshouse paintings have sold privately for more. They are rare, and those painted on zinc are often in poor condition, while those on canvas, like the one sold here, fare better. Every folk art collector wants one.
A fireboard painted with a stark still life of fruit on a small table, from the Moses Martin house in Salem, New York, was another favorite that provoked bidding on the phones and online. It sold online for $100,000 (est. $60,000/80,000).
This painted fireboard came from the Moses Martin house in Salem, New York. The circa 1830 oil on canvas depicts an arrangement of fruit on a curly maple table that seems to float on a background of light green concentric rectangles. The 29¾" x 49½" fireboard sold for $100,000 (est. $60,000/80,000) to an online bidder, underbid on the phone.
The Katzes owned five landscapes by James Hope (1818-1892). Two phone bidders competed for the best one, a large (26¼" x 36¼") view of Clarendon Springs, Vermont that sold to a collector for $87,500 (est. $30,000/50,000). According to the catalog, Hope painted at least three views of Clarendon Springs, one of which was commissioned by the owner of Clarendon House, which is in the center of this view, and it was hung in the lobby. It is now in the collection of the Currier Museum of Art.
James Hope (1818-1892) painted Clarendon Springs, Vermont circa 1853. The oil on mattress ticking, 26¼" x 36¼", sold on the phone for $87,500 (est. $30,000/50,000), underbid on the phone. It has an impressive trade provenance that includes Alexander Acevedo, Peter Tillou, and David Wheatcroft.
Orphaned as teenager, James Hope purportedly walked from the family farm in Montreal, Quebec, to Fairhaven, Vermont, to begin an apprenticeship as a wagon maker, and later he enrolled in the Castleton Seminary. He cultivated an interest in painting, particularly during a short period while he was recuperating from an injury. He often painted multiple copies of the same view, and in time his work became more academic. During the summers of 1848, 1849, and 1850, Frederic Church (1826-1900) painted in the Clarendon Springs region. It was there that Hope befriended Church. He described Church in a letter as “famous through color power.” The catalog points out that Hope’s style is more linear and stylized than Church’s and suggests that the bold red clouds in the Clarendon Springs painting may be a nod to Church, whose depictions of sunset skies often include vibrant reds and oranges. In 1853 Hope went to New York City to become a more academic painter. His family remained in Vermont, and he returned there in the summers.
Only three of the five Hope paintings in the sale found buyers. A View of West Rutland sold on the phone for $18,750 (est. $8000/12,000), but a smaller (12" x 16") view of blue hills in the distance and a small bridge sold for only $2500 (est. $5000/7000). The marketplace prefers his earlier paintings to his more academic style. According to the sale catalog, Ralph and Susanne Katz are working on an article about James Hope titled “Before He Got Too Good: James Hope, The Early Vermont Landscapes.”
There was selective bidding on the 60 portraits in the sale. Collectors and two museums were the buyers. A collector in the salesroom spent $56,250 (est. $40,000/60,000) for Ammi Phillips’s portrait of a Young Lady in a Blue and White Dress, circa 1814. Leigh Keno, sitting in the salesroom with clients, paid $50,000 (est. $25,000/35,000) for John Usher Parsons’s Portrait of a Lady in a Blue Dress, circa 1835. It is a portrait of Sarah F. Hobbs, an older woman full of character. The Shelburne Museum bought the pair of portraits of Mrs. Elizabeth Powers Darrow and Stephen Powers that were painted by Noah North in Holley, New York, in 1834. The museum paid $22,500 (est. $15,000/20,000). The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Colonial Williamsburg bought the portrait of Eliza Jamison of Virginia holding her music book that was painted by Thomas Jefferson Wright in 1831. The museum paid $20,000. Williamsburg is collecting works made in Virginia.
By John Usher Parsons (1806-1874), this Portrait of a Lady in a Blue Dress is of Sarah F. Hobbs (1801-1884). The oil on unprimed and unstretched fabric, circa 1835, 32½" x 24¾", sold for $50,000 (est. $25,000/35,000) to Leigh Keno, sitting between his clients John and Marjorie McGraw.
The portrait was discovered rolled up in a trunk in the Hobbs family house. It is one of a small number of works that Parsons painted 1834-38 while he was recuperating from an illness. Trained as a medical doctor and minister in the Parsonsfield, Maine, and Effingham, New Hampshire, areas, he traveled widely as a missionary, primarily in the Midwest. Sarah Hobbs lived in Effingham her entire life and was related to the artist by marriage. The painting was in the collection of art historian James Flexner, and it had sold at Christie’s in January 2004 for $31,070 (est. $20,000/30,000).
Five of the seven paintings by Thomas Chambers (one was attributed) in the sale found buyers. There were two paintings titled New York Harbor with Castle Garden and Ships. The larger oil on canvas, circa 1840, sold for $37,500 (est. $30,000/50,000). The four other Chambers paintings sold for prices ranging from $6250 to $15,000. The Capture of the H.B.M. Frigate “Macedonian” by the U.S.S “United States” on October 25, 1812 failed to sell. It had sold at Sotheby’s in January 2006 for $108,000 (est. $25,000/50,000). The estimate this time was $80,000/120,000.
The sale was not a huge success Only 112 of the 158 lots sold, and the sale was 70.9% sold by lot and 67.5% by value. It is not that interest in folk art is waning. Members of the Folk Art Society of America were at the sale, but they complained about condition and quality.
The pictures and captions show some of what was embraced. For more information, call Sotheby’s Americana department at (212) 606-7130 or go online (www.sothebys.com).
This carved and polychrome wooden figure of Lady Liberty on a base and holding a metal flag is 17" high to the top of the flag. The late 19th- or early 20th-century figure sold to Connecticut dealer Roberto Freitas for $16,250 (est. $6000/8000), underbid on the phone.
Carved and painted wood bathing beauty whirligig, early 20th century, 15" high, sold for $11,250 (est. $3000/5000) to New Jersey dealer Leon Weiss of Gemini Antiques.
This paint-decorated poplar slide-lid box, Schoharie County, New York, circa 1830, with fruit and floral decoration on a green ground with red trim, 6" x 12" x 8", sold on the phone for $4750 (est. $600/800).
This painted linen overmantel, New York state, circa 1840, is inscribed “Painted before 1846” along the top in early script. This large (40¼" x 54¼") theorem painting has stenciled and freehand decoration and a floral border, and it sold on the phone for $43,750 (est. $12,000/15,000).
Thomas Jefferson Wright (1798-1846)painted this portrait of Eliza Jamison of Virginia. It is signed “JEFF WRIGHT PAINTED 1831” lower right. Jamison wears a flowered headdress and holds a music book. The 28¼" x 24¼" oil on canvas sold for $20,000 (est. $6000/8000) in the salesroom to Laura Pass Barry, curator of paintings, drawings, and sculpture at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Colonial Williamsburg. Wright was born in Kentucky, but information about his youth is largely unknown. He was acquainted with noted portraitists Matthew Harris Jouett and Thomas Sully, and by about 1830 he was living and painting in Virginia. In 1831 he painted portraits for the Major family of Fairview Plantation in Culpeper County. The subject of this portrait may be the Eliza Jamison who was born in 1808 in Rockbridge County, married George Lynch, a cabinetmaker, in Augusta County in 1825, and died in Monroe County (now West Virginia) in 1870.
Originally published in the April 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest