New York’s recent “gigafortnight” sales of Modern and contemporary art have dominated recent industry news, but the city also just played host to its traditional autumn series of American art sales.
Christie’s catalogue and preview for its 18 November American Art auction promised a staid sale but it delivered Wild West shoot out moments and half-a-dozen world records. Jacob Lawrence’s Builders—19 Men from 1979 is a late painting and a tad derivative but hefty and energetic. It has been in a private collection since 1983. On a $100,000 to $150,000 estimate, it went for $650,000 (with fees). Moments later, bids for Arthur Dove’s Sunset from 1935, estimated at $2m to $3m, bounced back and forth until $7.8m (with fees) parted from the buyer and a new world record for the artist was set.
Paul Cadmus’s Portrait of Lloyd and Barbara Westcott from 1942 galloped past its $300,000 to $500,000 estimate to finish at $2.4m (with fees), a record for Cadmus. The painting is startlingly retro, showing the Westcotts, who were New Jersey animal breeders and pioneers in bovine artificial insemination, standing virile and proud but prim with their cows and horses. It is Cadmus at his crisp, clear Art Deco best and not the perhaps the artist we expect. No one is flexing muscles on the beach, in the Navy, or in a locker room, and it is a portrait of ordinary people, not celebrities. Still, it is dazzling Magic Realism.
New records were also set for Walt Kuhn, Ida O’Keeffe, Wolf Kahn and George Copeland Ault, and Christie’s sale totaled $28.9m (with fees).
It was a quieter though uneven affair at Sotheby’s American sale on 22 November. Maxfield Parrish’s lovely nocturne The Glen from 1936 went for $3.2m (with fees), easily topping its $1.5m-$2m estimate. Norman Rockwell’s The Adventurers from 1928 might have been a Saturday Evening Post cover but its bifurcated subject—Galileo looking at a globe and Richard Henry Dana, Jr. steering a ship—seemed dated, even hokey. On a $1.5m to $2m estimate, it hit only $950,000 and went unsold.
A nice Albert Bierstadt, Elk in Oak Grove from 1875, splashy and rich in detail, was estimated at $1.2m to $1.8m but was also unsold. It has been in a private collection since the 1950s. When all was done, the Sotheby’s sale totaled $14.2m (with fees).
These days, Sotheby’s tends to move its heavy hitter American painters to its Modern evening auction where the clientele is more international. In its 16 November evening sale, Pink Spotted Lily by Georgia O’Keeffe, painted in 1936 and highly decorative, brought $6.8m on a $3m to $5m estimate.
And finally—it is not art but it is surely American. On 18 November, Sotheby’s sold a copy from the first printing of the final version of the United States Constitution for $43.2m (with fees). Two bidders fought for it with revolutionary zeal in an eight-minute volley. It is one of only 13 copies of the longest continuing charter of government in the world and, now, the world auction record for a text, book, historical document, or manuscript. The hedge fund mogul Kenneth Griffin bought it, beating a DAO (a blockchain-based “decentralised autonomous organisation”), which had crowd-funded a reported $46m. BThe proceeds benefit the Dorothy Tapper Goldman Foundation.