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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Arts and Crafts and the 20th Century Design Sales

The market for Arts and Crafts has been especially volatile in the past few years.  While it is easy to blame everything on the global economic crisis, and tempting to pretend as though a rebound towards stability and predictability is imminent, the recent New York sales show a market that refuses to be either stable or predictable.

For the most part, Christie's seems to have abandoned their interest in Arts and Crafts--their most recent sale (December 17th) only yielded 2 items:
1. a Stickley three door oak and glass cabinet that sold for 25,000, and
2. a pair of Thomas Jeckyl andirons  that went for 56,250

By contrast, Sotheby's offered many more arts and crafts lots, and priced them fairly aggressively.  Broadly speaking, 35 of the first 37 lots of the sale could be termed arts and crafts.  Excepting the Manship Vase and Augustus Saint Gaudens box, the selection was a standard who's who of the movement and offered Stickley furniture, Elizabeth Copeland's silver work, Grueby pottery, and Dirk Van Erp Lamps and metal pieces.  These are the types of things that always sell at arts and crafts auctions, and usually do well too.  If you needed to form a blue chip index for the movement, these are the names and the types of objects you would pick.

Unfortunately, as the economist and Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb reminded readers in Fooled by Randomness, past performance is not a reliable predictor of the future, despite what market gurus and consultants believe.  Describing what he calls "a more severe aspect of naive empiricism," Taleb reminds readers that "[one] can use data to disprove a proposition, never to prove one.  [One] can use history to refute a statement, never to confirm it."(Taleb 119)  Thus, even though history might indicate to you that you can sell an Overbeck vase comfortably (or perhaps optimistically) for $80-120K,  or a Grueby Daffodil Vase for $50-70K, history sometimes makes little difference to the present moment.  In part, it seems as though the success of the movement at auction is part of the problem, since high prices now form a barrier for those looking to begin collecting.  Ironically, the high prices have been largely due to a few major collectors who, as their own collections grow, have less need for pieces, and higher standards for acquiring them.  How else does one explain why a Marblehead Potteries vase with roses fails to sell in 2011 even with an estimate of 30-50K, when just last fall David Rago sold a similar example (with better design) for $134,200?  Rago's estimate of 25-35K on that vase, combined with the stronger design, seemed to encourage competition in the bidding room.  If this indicates anything, the take away might be that the high end of the market remains strong but finicky, and that past performance needs to be treated with a bit more suspicion. 

Take for example Lot 14 an "important and rare landscape motto plaque" made by Marblehead Potteries which was estimated at $60-80K and sold for 68.5K (with the buyers premium).  Just 5 years ago Sotheby's offered a similar example, estimated at 25-35K which sold for $90K.  More buyers?  Better estimates?  Who knows?  The lesson, if there is one in this, is that one shouldn't rely upon past performances to craft high reserves and estimates in a market that appears to be unpredictable.

Was there good news in any of these sales?  Of course.  The market for Tiffany remains strong, as evident in both the major sales this past month.  Sotheby's did $4.6 million on 53 lots, Christies total was slightly higher (4.8 million) but keep in mind that sale had more than 3 times the lots that Sotheby's offered.  There were some surprises in modern design as well.  The star of the auction season was Francois-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008) whose group of 10 sheep at Christies went for more than 12 times the low estimate of 600,000 to reach a staggering sum of $7,474,500 when the bidding had finished.  An elegant and rare teapot by Naum Slutzky breezed easily past its estimate of 60-80K at Sotheby's to reach a final price of $374,500.

Late 19th and 20th Century design gets a break for a while, as the season shifts (as it does every January) to the Americana sales.  With nice offerings by both major houses, it should be a good indicator of the overall health of the market as we roll into the new year.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Auction Roundup: A Rough Weekend for Rookwood, and other notes

I could look at Rookwood pottery for days on end.  I like the company's history of innovation, the quirky designs of pieces from almost all eras, and I think the company did a great job of navigating the tricky space between an industrial concern and the artistry people expected in the late Victorian era into the arts and crafts.  The market for Rookwood, however, is changing as evident by recent sales results.  

The annual sale (or two) of Rookwood has been something of a tradition, certainly in Cincinnati and for a long time the Cincinnati Art Galleries did well by this sale.  But changing tastes, a general drop in the Arts and Crafts market mid-level wares, and an economy in flux seem to have conspired against this past weekend's sale at Humler and Nolan.  The offering--465 lots of (mostly Rookwood) on Sunday, December 4th--was an ambitious array of Rookwood, but one has to wonder whether this type of monolithic sale makes sense in a market that is changing.    

First, the good news:

232 of the 465 lots offered for sale either met or exceeded their pre-auction estimate.  

The strongest sales, not surprisingly, were among the rarest pieces, and Amelia Sprague's Aerial Blue vase of 1895 led the sale, going for $14,000, or comfortably within the 12-15K estimate.  William Hentschel's carved mat vase went for slightly less ($12,000), but this figure doubled the low estimate.  Matthew Daly's exceptional Indian portrait vase met its estimate selling for $8,250, but this seems a far cry from the prices these pieces were commanding at the height of their popularity.


Less welcoming news was that 233 lots fell below their pre-auction estimates or failed to sell.  

Buyers were particularly unenthusiastic about Rookwood's standard ware, with pieces that less than a decade ago would have been quickly snapped up failing meet estimates, or even sell.  The general mood of the sale (at least if one is to believe the numbers reported by LiveAuctioneers) was one where astute buyers were able to snap up good deals, but where big money sales failed to materialize.  Particularly disappointing were the failure of lots 1152 and 1178 to sell, since these two pieces had estimates in the 20-30K dollar range.  

A rare electroplated vase decorated with bats and carved poppies that was exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900 failed to sell.  While there was some wear on the unusual plating (gold over copper), the provenance of the piece alone might have attracted bidders in the past.  Lot 1178, photo from Live Auctioneers.   

A similar fate befell the rare tiger eye vase decorated by Mary Taylor (lot 1342) which apparently did not attract enough interest to meet its reserve, as well a sweet little silver overlay teapot made in 1892.    

The news from Treadway's sale (as far as Rookwood is concerned), was equally mixed.  The top selling lot, a large scenic vellum plaque, went for $17,000, but this was well under the 20-25K estimate.  

Lot 258, photo from Live Auctioneers.  This large scenic landscape plaque fell below it's estimate.  By comparison, a similar sized plaque done in the same year by the same artist sold at David Rago's in March 2004 for $50,000. 

A number of lots passed, and many went for under their pre-auction estimate.  The Treadway sale was buoyed, in part, by a more diverse offering of wares and strong performances by two Dirk Van Erp Lamps.  The modern offering performed more unevenly, and by the day's end there were a number of larger lots that failed to sell.  Notable in this regard were lot 809 (Nakashima table, est. 18-24K); and lots 592-3, two works by Sam Gilliam.

On the horizon, there's a particularly nice selection of ceramics and good arts and crafts coming up for sale at Sotheby's December 15 Important 20th Century Design Sale.  Sotheby's and Christies seem to have adapted to the shifting market by offering less wares, but presenting a bit more of a highly curated (and cultivated) selection.  Both sales kick off with a set of similarly designed Thomas Jeckyl Andirons, Christies' pair is in iron, the Sotheby's pair in brass.  

Friday, December 2, 2011

Redwood Catalog Entry: Alfred Hart's Portrait of Berkeley after Smibert, by Jennifer Lee

Jennifer Lee's entry on Alfred Hart's portrait of Berkeley blends a solid understanding of the historical aspects of this image with contemporary references that help place why the desire for this copy would have been especially appealing for the Redwood Library collection.


Alfred A. Hart, Reverend George Berkeley (after Smibert), ca. 1858, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 (76.2 x 63.5 cm)
Gift of Charles H. Olmsted
RLC.PA.033 (1858)

Painted in 1858, Alfred A. Hart’s Bishop George Berkeley is a testament to the continued importance of Berkley’s legacy to Newport as an economic and cultural center in Colonial America.  Born in Killerin, Ireland, writer and philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) gained considerable notoriety for his An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision (1709), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713). By the 1720s—and fearful the England was falling to ruin—Berkeley had begun formulating plans to start a Christian community outside of England where he could establish a college.  He chose the colony of Bermuda due to its agreeable climate and abundance of resources; a royal charter was granted in 1725 and Berkeley and his entourage sailed in 1728.  Determined to create an area of study where he could educate the “savages” on Christianity, but lacking the necessary funding to begin, Berkeley and his shipmates—including the painter John Smibert—remained in Newport from 1729-1731. 
            Although Berkeley’s residence made Newport an intellectual and artistic center, it was Smibert’s painting that announced this forcefully and heralded the arrival of the fine arts to a colonial culture largely devoid of trained painters.  During Berkeley’s brief tenure he introduced the fine arts to America and helped found the Newport Philosophical Society, the forerunner of the Redwood Library. Alfred Hart’s painting, which used Smibert’s depiction of Berkeley from The Bermuda Group (1729-1731) as its model, demonstrates the painting’s popularity and importance even to a nineteenth century audience. Hart would have seen The Bermuda Group on display at the Yale College where it had been since 1808. More than just simply a record of Berkeley’s visit, the painting came to stand for the beginning of the fine arts in America and secured Newport’s importance as a colonial port.  
            Smibert’s reputation, both in the United States and England, was indebted to his travels with Berkeley and The Bermuda Group and the painting was revered as a singular contribution to the evolution of the arts in America.  As early as 1762, in his Anecdotes of Painting in England, Horace Walpole remarked on Smibert’s time with Berkeley’s “uncertain but amusing  scheme.”  By 1818, antiquarian Gulian Verplanck noted that while the painting was “not one of Smibert’s best” he presumed “it is the first painting of more than a single figure ever painted in the United States.” By 1855, just around the time that Hart executed his copy, the critic and historian Henry Tuckerman informed readers that “The visit of Smibert and associates Berkeley’s name with the dawn of art in America.” Berkeley’s importance to Newport’s legacy and The Bermuda Group’s stature as a painting would have resonated with audiences and made this a particularly fitting image for the library’s collection.           

Selected Bibliography
Annals of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, R.I.: Redwood Library, 1891.

Berkeley, George. The Works of George Berkeley Part One. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Gaustad, Edwin S. “George Berkeley and New World Community.” Church History 48 (March 1979).

Tuckerman, Henry T. “Berkeley’s Visit to America.”  Home Journal 2 (January 1855).