Purchase Story

Americana Week in New York City during COVID-19

Photos courtesy Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Keno Auctions

The auctions and shows in New York City in January were probably seen by more people than ever before but not in person. They filled computer screens, tablets, and phones with an enormous number of pictures of some very good things accompanied by yards of text. There were plenty of seminars and chats so that collectors who immersed themselves in this virtual world of arts and antiques probably saw more and learned more during this COVID-19-quarantine Americana Week than on their annual January pilgrimages to New York City. And they stayed warm and comfortable.

They missed the camaraderie, the drinks, the dinners, the hugs and kisses, and most of all being in the presence of objects. That’s why sales at the Winter Show were not brisk and auction totals were far lower than in years past. But business was done at the Winter Show and at auctions, and some big prices were paid for some very special things.

Passionate collectors made the best of it. Some within driving distance ventured to New York to preview sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Keno Auctions, and Arader Galleries. Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales were on view by appointment from January 8 until sale times, January 20-23. Many scheduled inspections were on Sundays when there was on-street parking available, so that previewers did not have to risk using a parking lot where an attendant could expose them to the virus.

Online auctions are becoming routine. Sotheby’s three sessions of American furniture, folk art, silver, China trade, and prints, plus “Vineyard Dreams,” a single-owner sale of antiques from a Nantucket vacation house, and Christie’s China trade sale were timed online-only auctions without catalogs, a new and frustrating experience for many. Bidders should have been told to bid early on any lot they wanted, even a very low bid, in order to make sure their account was not frozen.

Christie’s deputy director and American art chief John Hays made sure his sale had a lavishly illustrated print catalog for American furniture, folk art, silver, American prints, and broadsides from the collection of Ambassador J. William Middendorf II and the Siegmund collection of folk art. The 430 lots were offered in three sessions Thursday afternoon, Friday morning, and Friday afternoon, January 21 and 22, under the banner “In Praise of America.” Unfortunately there were not enough catalogs to meet the demand, so many bidders had to read the catalog online. They had plenty of time to do so as it was posted before Christmas.

Hays also made sure his sales were live with phone bidding as well as online bidding on the Christie’s LIVE platform. Hays appeared on computer screens calling the sale with great enthusiasm to a room with more than a dozen staff members taking bids on phones, while he kept track of the online bidding from across America. He announced where the bids were coming from as they appeared on his screen. Hays and three other auctioneers—Tash Perrin, Richard Nelson, and Caroline Ervin—made online viewers feel as though they were in the salesroom. The furniture, folk art, silver, and prints and broadsides brought a total of $5,936,000 for 85% of 440 lots, including around 30 lots of exceptional prints and broadsides from the collection of Ambassador J. William Middendorf II that accounted for nearly $2.5 million of the total.

Add to that $2,137,750 for 90 lots of Outsider and vernacular art sold online without a catalog but with live auctioneers plus $1,128,750 for Chinese export art, sold without catalog or auctioneer and with timed closings. Christie’s total results for the week were a respectable $9,202,500 for 671 lots offered throughout the week (85% sold by lot).

Sotheby’s total was $3,767,022 for 306 of 394 lots of furniture, folk art, silver, China trade porcelain, and prints offered on Thursday and Friday (78% sold), including folk art and country furnishings from a house on Martha’s Vineyard.

Keno Auctions’ five-lot white-glove sale on Saturday, January 23, brought $951,680, and Arader Galleries’ sale of prints, watercolors, and maps brought $2,590,680 for 124 of 180 lots offered (69% sold).

The grand total for four days of New York Americana Week auctions comes to $16,511,882.

This 1776 broadside of the Declaration of Independence, probably printed in New Hampshire by Robert Luist Fowle, the printer of the New Hampshire Gazette, sold at Christie’s for $990,000.

This 1776 broadside of the Declaration of Independence, probably printed in New Hampshire by Robert Luist Fowle, the printer of the New Hampshire Gazette, sold at Christie’s for $990,000.

The top-ten lots sold accounted for about a quarter of the total. A 1776 broadside of the Declaration of Independence, probably printed in New Hampshire by Robert Luist Fowle, the printer of the New Hampshire Gazette, sold at Christie’s for $990,000 (est. $600,000/800,000), the highest auction price of the week. It was from the collection of Ambassador J. William Middendorf II. Richard Nixon appointed Middendorf as ambassador to the Netherlands, and he also served as secretary of the Navy. Also from the Middendorf collection was Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre. It brought $412,500, a record for the most popular piece of Revolutionary propaganda; it is in the best condition of all the surviving examples.

George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson of George Washington, called James Sharples’s pastel profile portrait of George Washington “the best likeness of the man extant.” Middendorf’s copy brought $325,000, a record for the artist and the sixth-highest price of the week.

A young couple paid $506,250 at Keno Auctions for Diana, this 31

A young couple paid $506,250 at Keno Auctions for Diana, this 31" high bronze sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

The second-highest price of the week was $506,250 paid for Diana, a 31" high bronze sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sold at Keno Auctions on Saturday afternoon, January 23. Keno said the buyer was a young couple, and it was the third-highest price for a Diana bronze and the fifth-highest price for any work by Saint-Gaudens.

The highest price for any piece of American furniture in this series of sales was paid for a discovery, a previously unknown form made by New York’s premier French cabinetmaker Charles-Honoré Lannuier. The ormolu-mounted and parcel-gilt rosewood and ebonized wood marble-top pier table, labeled and stamped “H. Lannuier / New York,” 1808-12, sold at Sotheby’s for $403,200 despite the fact that it needs conservation, estimated to cost up to $50,000. It was found in a thrift shop in western Canada by a picker who sent a photo of it to Erik Gronning, who said “ship it to New York.” It arrived a day before the catalog went online.

The seventh-highest price of the week was for Two Dogs Fighting; Man Chasing Dog by Bill Traylor (c. 1853-1949), tempera, graphite, and colored pencil on white paper-faced card, 1939-42, 18" x 25¾". From Jerry Lauren’s collection, it sold at Christie’s on Thursday morning for $293,750 (est. $100,000/200,000).

The fifth-highest price was paid at Leigh Keno’s sale. It was $356,250 for Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of George Washington, 1803-05, a copy the artist made of his Athenaeum portrait. It was bought in 1817 by a Philadelphia merchant named Israel Kinsman. It brought considerably less than other Stuart copies of his most- famous Washington portrait because it needs cleaning and conservation. Keno said it went to a collector, and the underbidder, from London, was on the phone.

Three of the top-ten lots of the week were portraits of George Washington.

At Christie’s Charles Peale Polk’s oil portrait of George Washington, after a portrait painted from life by his uncle and mentor Charles Willson Peale, appeared on Christie’s catalog cover, and it sold for $268,750 (est. $200,000/300,000); it was the ninth-highest price of the week.

The eighth on the top-ten list was a book of magnificent prints, The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, published in Boston by L. Prang and Company in 1876. The 15 chromolithographs after Thomas Moran make it special. Sotheby’s got it to $277,200 (est. $120,000/180,000). Dealer Graham Arader said he was the underbidder.

The most expensive piece of furniture sold at Christie’s was an elegant sculptural mahogany scallop-top card table attributed to Newport, Rhode Island, cabinetmaker John Townsend. It is a distinct American form and one of only two tables of this shape by Townsend known. It sold for $250,000.

A Native American Washoe basket by Dat So La Lee (Louisa Keyser) brought almost as much. The $237,000 (est. $40,000/60,000) paid for it was not a surprise in the world of American Indian arts. It is a true masterpiece. It was bought by the same buyer who paid $87,500 for another larger basket by Dat So La Lee offered as the previous lot.

Another broadside of Revolutionary propaganda from the Middendorf collection, “Bloody Butchery,” a broadside known for its powerful graphics of 42 coffins, illustrates the narrative of the day-long battles of Lexington and Concord. It was printed in Boston by Ezekiel Russell. It details American casualties and at the bottom is printed “Elegy to the worthies who were slain.” It sold for $212,500 (est. $80,000/120,000).

Americana Week in New York City has always been known for discoveries, and this year was no exception. Earle Shettleworth Jr., retired Maine state historian and a resident of Hallowell, Maine, had been looking for View of Hallowell, Maine, painted in the mid-1860s, since he came across a glossy photograph of it about a year ago. In early January he got a call from a local antiquarian bookseller telling him about lot 21 in Sotheby’s January 22 sale, and sure enough, there was the picture he was looking for. Even though he knew the local Hubbard Free Library could not afford it, he spent weeks before the sale trying to track down the painter. So far the artist remains unknown, but Shettleworth can date the picture because the bridge over the Kennebec River on the right side was constructed in 1860, damaged in a storm in 1869, washed away entirely in 1870, and never rebuilt. The cotton mill, the building on the left with a peaked roof, was given an additional story with a flat roof in 1867 during the period of prosperity after the Civil War, and it still stands today. The painting sold for $201,600 (est. $30,000/50,000) to dealer David Schorsch, who said he bought it for resale.

Originally published in the March 2021 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2021 Maine Antique Digest

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