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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Call for Papers: 4th Annual Emerging Scholars Seminar

The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms and the American Fine and Decorative Arts Program at Sotheby’s Institute of Art seek submissions for the Fourth Annual Emerging Scholars Symposium to be held at the Stickley Museum on Saturday, October 18, 2014

“Craft and the Machine: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives”

One of the overriding concerns of craft reformers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries was the degree to which mechanization should be integrated into craft production.  On the one hand, Irene Sargent echoed anti-machine sentiments in Gustav Stickley’s The Craftsman when she wrote “The slave of the machine must follow its movements at the peril of his health, sanity and life… He is in all things the opposite of the master craftsman…” Yet, at virtually the same time, Frank Lloyd Wright argued the opposite: “The great ethics of the Machine are as yet, in the main, beyond the ken of the artist or student of sociology; but the artist mind may now approach the nature of this thing from experience, which has become the commonplace of his field, to suggest, in time, I hope, to prove, that the machine is capable of carrying to fruition high ideals in art – higher than the world has yet seen!”  We seek papers about craft—broadly construed as both historical and contemporary work—that sheds light on the complexities of this subject.  Less a binary opposition than a strategy that reformers and practitioners employed to connect with audiences, we welcome papers from diverse periods and media that address the role of the machine in craft production.  What sort of strategies—myths even—did practitioners and reformers use?  What do these anxieties signaled by craft tell us more broadly about the cultures that produced them?


We invite current graduate students and recently graduated scholars to submit proposals for 20-25 minute papers that critically examine these issues.  Please direct any questions to:

Jonathan Clancy
Director, American Fine and Decorative Arts Program
Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York

Submission Guidelines:
Please submit the following by July 21, 2014:
·       A one-page abstract of your topic with title.
·       A current c.v.

All submissions will be reviewed by August 1 and you will receive an email with the decision about your proposal.

Accepted proposals must submit a final draft of the paper by September 7th, 2013.

Participants must be able to attend the symposium in order to deliver their paper.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Americana Week Part 3: Folk Art

While I lament the general lack of concern shown for Americana by many of my peers outside the field, there's one aspect of the market that continues to bring material to the forefront and helps push the sales upward: folk art.  Forget for a minute that the term is impossible to cogently define, as the Esmerian sale demonstrated, good folk art makes people go slightly crazy.  Why?  I have my theories, some of which may be useful.  The first is that there is generally an abstract quality to the works which appeals to many generations, for a number of different reasons.  I think younger generations relate to the work as contemporary in form, and see a formal resonance with the post-war art that they have been raised on.  Spanning all generations (to my mind) is the association of integrity to the pieces, a belief that artists unencumbered by formal training have something more substantially individual and unique to say than trained artists working in an established style.  This dovetails with the general quest for things authentic and vital that arose during the Industrial Revolution and accelerated as the 20th century became increasingly mechanized and corporate.  The commodification of simplicity as honest and authentic has a long history which I see the current fad for folk and outsider art as belonging to.  That said, I am somewhat at a loss to explain how the highest priced figure in the sale was Samuel Anderson Robb's carved Santa Clause, from 1923, which sold for $875K.  Perhaps the combined forces of the folk market and the timeless appeal of Santa were simply too powerful?  In any event, this was an exceptional sale of 227 lots that realized just under $13M.  To put this in context: that's more than Christie's silver, Christie's Furniture, and the Sotheby's furniture sales combined.  It is difficult to guess who is happier at the moment: Nancy Drucker who brought this to market, or Ralph Esmerian's creditors who will finally be paid.  The loser in all of this, it should be remembered, is the American Folk Art Museum, to whom the collection was a promised gift.  While the chance to see the objects, and the incredible work of Nancy Drucker promoting and selling is commendable, I couldn't help but feel that the pieces belong were taken from the folk art museum, not through any fault of their own, but through the inexcusable and unethical actions of a donor.  That these represented probably the finest publication of the museum in modern memory, and that they gained a certain caché as a result of this association, only to be ordered sold as an asset is the real travesty behind this monumental sale.  Hopefully, some of the pieces will find their way back to the Folk Art Museum through the generosity of donors and supporters.

The sale started off with a bang, and was generally unrelenting.  An oval, glazed earthenware dish seemed to stall momentarily at its low estimate of $40K, before finally realizing $281K.  There was a brief respite and steady sales, a few lots passed, but just 17 lots later a poplar spice cup more than doubled its high estimate and sold for $245K.  Just ten lots later a painted pine hanging cupboard (with spoon shelf) went for $209K, well over the $80-120K estimate--and just 26 lots into the sale mind you.  A rare green glazed Rudolph Christ fish flask?  $53K!  Jacob Mantael's John and Caterina Bickel? $401K!  A pair of portraits attributed to John Durand? $389K.  A Ruth and Samuel Shute painting? $665K  A rare Boston sampler estimated at $30-40K? Try $233K on for size.  A painted pine box (with hearts, always a good thing)?  How about $209K.  If you needed a miniature checkerboard chest to go with it?  Just $377K.  And what about rugs you ask?  Well, a knitted wool rug attributed to Elvira Curtis Hulett and estimated at $8-12K sold for $161K.

The pent up demand for folk art that this sale spoke to is indicative of continuing strength in this sector of the Americana market, but one should be cautious too.  All too often after a sale like this, you'll see the market flooded with similar items as people awaken to the realization of what their objects could be worth.  Unfortunately, it sometimes does not occur to these people that the prices they see were the result of pent up demand, and that without competing bidders to bolster the prices, there is little chance of seeing these prices again, without new players entering the market.  Once you remove the top bidder from a sale, it's not the underbidder that matters, but where his underbidder stopped that helps determine the price.  Sometimes, this is well below the sale prices and often a shock to those who consign pieces in the hopes of striking it rich quickly.  

Americana Week Part 2: Sales and Such

Americana week is really all about the sales (or to be honest, the previews, since most of the items are beyond my price point).  Maybe it's just me, but I always sense a certain nervousness about these sales as auction houses, collectors, and scholars wonder whether the market will be able to maintain forward momentum.  Prices realized ultimately matter, but so do the season's offerings.  In many ways the market for American furniture and decorative arts is facing similar crises to other established markets--the Old Master's market comes to mind--as much of the field's best material has been removed from the market into museums and foundations.  If, for scholars anyway, this is a good thing since the public is more able to view items, and since objects are more easily accessible, the reverse is true for the auction houses, which have to make do with much less.  In addition, there is the persistent challenge of getting a younger audience interested in the field.  For reasons that I don't quite comprehend, my own generation (not to mention those younger) seem more comfortable plunking down their money at Pottery Barn than they do at auction.  They'll go to Design Within Reach and spend more for a reproduction often than they would by visiting Wright Auctions, or David Rago's modern sales.  What this means for the market is that the great objects which come up are generally insulated from the downward pressure of prices, while the middle and lower sections of the market continue to struggle.  This was in abundant evidence this week in the major sales at Christie's and Sotheby's.

Christie's struck first, and had a number of exceptional lots to offer including items from the estate of Eric Martin Wunsch.  It should be noted that they did this even while continuing to have a September sale (Sotheby's did not).  The Christie's sale totaled just over $5.6m on 136 lots, and saw six lots exceed the quarter million dollar mark.  By the contrast, the Sotheby's sale netted more than $5.4m for 428 lots, with one lot exceeding the quarter million dollar mark (all figures include premiums).  If we add in the results for the silver sale at Christie's (which makes sense as the Sotheby's sale included silver) the Christie's total exceeds $7.3m for a total of 225 lots, with an additional lot passing the quarter million dollar mark.  It was a strong performance, and Andrew Holter (a Sotheby's American Arts Course alum, by the way) an John Hays deserve a lot of credit for continuing to find property and bring it successfully to market.  

Some highlights from Christies included an exceptional silver bowl, made by Cornelius Vander Burch in New York, ca. 1690, which went for $317,000 and set the high water mark for silver this week at auction.  A Philadelphia tea table, probably from the shop of Benjamin Randolf, ca. 1770, sold for $905,000.  The storied pedigree of the table (at least in the twentieth century), is indicative of the persistent desirability of the table.  Beginning in 1929, when it was exhibited and illustrated in the Girl Scouts Loan Exhibition, the table remained with the Keep family, until it was acquired by Israel Sack in 1966.  From there, it went into the Wunsch family collection, continued to receive accolades, and was illustrated in in Wendy Cooper's In Praise of America (1980).  Albert Sack thought it worthy of inclusion in his 1993 The New Fine Points of Furniture and since the 1990s it has been referenced in a number of important sales catalogs from both Sotheby's and Christies.  The Chipstone Foundation continued to deaccession objects to benefit acquisitions, and sold the Deshler Family Chair, which brought in $725,000.  

 The star of the show, in terms of performance vs. expectation, was surely the Octagonal sewing box, attributed to Thomas Seymour and painted by John Ritto Penniman.  The modest estimate of $3-5,000 made even the lowliest of collectors think they might have a chance at this box (I'd buy it for that price).  When the smoke cleared after bidding, and the final price of $125,000 was realized, it became clear that exceptional quality and rarity, even in a seemingly small item, continue to thrive in this market.  If there was hiccup or two at Christie's (certainly the Wunsch chair that passed at its $200-300K comes to mind), the general tenor of the sale was strong, the quality of merchandise very good, and buyers seemed eager.

The Sotheby's sale started more quietly, and if the Audubon prints proved a dependable way to get things rolling, any assurances that the sale would go smoothly quickly evaporated with the frankly dismal performance of the export porcelain (lots 17-70).  Then the silver portion of the sale (lots 72-166) struggled mightily.  While many lots just reached their estimates (if premiums are included) a number of lots failed to generate sufficient interest to sell.  In a particularly grim stretch of ten lots (90-99), only four sold.    The high point was a piece of Southern silver, a Thomas You bowl made in Charleston, ca. 1765 which went for well beyond its $20-30K estimate and finally was bought for $53,125.

Furniture at the Sotheby's sale fared better, and here the efforts of Erik Gronning (another alum) and Leslie Keno deserve credit for getting salable property even in a tight market.  As expected, the major northeastern producers (Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Newport) continue to be strong in sales and fine examples, such as the Chippendale side chair, ca. 1765 from Philadelphia performed well for Sotheby's.  The standout of the furniture was a classical work table, ca. 1815 from Boston, that went for more than twice the high estimate of $60K.  It was somewhat curiously listed as "the property of various owners" suggesting perhaps that a number of dealers or investors had gone in on this and brought it to auction.  

All of these figures, however, were dwarfed by lot 319, a decoy of an eider drake, carved about 1900 probably on Mohegan Island, by an unknown craftsman.  Having never been offered publicly before, the decoy surpassed its high estimate of $500K and realized a whopping $767K.  As the catalog noted, "This is arguably the most sophisticated of all eider decoys, with flowing lines and stylized abstract paint worthy of a Zen calligrapher."  Whether or not that's true, it does provide a fitting transition to part 3 and allow me to wrap things up here.  I leave you with the following thought: the folk art market is apparently alive and well, and amongst the strongest performers of Americana Week.  

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Americana Week 2014: Part 1

Yes, it's here, Americana week, and although it seems as though it occurs as regularly as my blog posts of late, my new year's resolution is to correct that.  Let's hope it sticks.

The nexus of several important shows--the Winter Antiques Show, the New York Ceramics Fair, The Metro Show, and the Armory Antique Show--as well as major sales at Christie's and Sotheby's forms the backbone of Americana week.  Sandwiched in between all of these events are the other events, the openings, the Wunsch Americana Foundation Awards, the lectures, the private gatherings, and the dinners.  Even for the most excited of Americanists, this week can try one's stamina.  Add to that temperatures in the single digits for much of the day and scurrying between events seems like a cross between Antiques Road Show and the Iditarod.

The New York Ceramics Fair is a real treat, and the opening on Tuesday night (Jan. 21st) might be a useful place to start Americana Week.  For starters, the opening night tickets at $90 are a real bargain, and perhaps the best value in the city.  Second, the show is extremely manageable in size; it thus rewards close looking, a second visit, and a chance to handle a variety of ceramics from Ancient through Contemporary.  In fact, once you give in your ticket, they stamp your hand with some sort of spooky black light dye that allows you to visit again and again--for the whole run of show--without any additional admission.  More shows might consider this as a way to reward visitors and increase the chance for sales by encouraging, not deterring, repeat visitors.  Opening night was a who's who in ceramics (collectors, dealers, designers, editors, and museum people), with the likes of Ralph Harvard, Joe Gromacki, Robert Hunter, and Mary Mills all spotted on the floor.  Virtually everything is available from classic stoneware and glass from the Stradlings, to early English Pottery from Garry Atkins, and ancient pottery from Anavian Gallery.  Those favoring contemporary ceramics with a strong tradition of craft and exquisite technique were rewarded by the presence of Cliff Lee, who brought exquisite examples of his hand-carved porcelain to the show, and Michelle Erickson, whose ceramic forms span historical reference and post-modern, assemblage sensibilities.  Though at first glance, their works seem to be in polar opposition, these ceramists in some ways define the best of the current field.  United by a dedication to their craft and exquisite technical skills, the work of Erickson and Lee resists the crass decorative quality of much of contemporary work and firmly asserts the notion--seemingly lost in much of fine art and craft today--that the success of the object is more than an idea; artistry is the combination of thought and skillful execution, not just a novel idea.  What's refreshing about both of these artists is their willingness to discuss the craft, the process of their work, and their willingness to patiently instruct you on the subtleties that you might over look.  Instead of rejecting historicity and craft as something passé, both artists play with historical associations, reference history, and yet are able to bring these into contemporary voices that are strong, resonant, and talented.

Wednesday is in some ways a day to breathe, except if you are on the vetting committee of the Winter Antiques Show.  So, yes, I vetted all morning, had a lovely lunch in the afternoon, and after a quick break to get some work done I headed over to Christie's for the Wunsch Americana Foundation awards.  In some ways, it felt more like the Met than an auction house, as curators Morrie Heckscher and Peter Kenny gave remarks and introduced the evening's honorees: Linda Kauffman and Dick Jenrette, two individuals whose contributions to American Decorative Arts, scholarship, and bettering the public discourse of objects is difficult to overstate.   The Kauffman gift to the National Gallery of Art is simply astounding, and the impact on the field--through enhanced public visibility, education, and familiarity with early American furniture--will be felt for years to come.  If you haven't gone and seen it, you should.  It's a beautiful blend of furniture that even includes southern examples, something all too rare in many museum collections outside of the South.  Similarly, though perhaps more quietly, Dick Jenrette's Classical American Homes Preservation Trust has worked since 1994 to bring this important aspect of American history to the public.  It's an amazing gift that both of these individuals have given, and one certainly worthy of honoring.

Thursday is another busy day: one must figure out what to cram in and see before the opening of the Winter Antiques Show that evening.  I have always found opening night somewhat magical, especially in the transformation between the choreographed chaos that accompanies vetting day into the elegant splendor of the opening reception.  Within 24 hours, the floor of the armory changes radically.  Gone are the union workers, the lifts, the debris and detritus of the set-up; lights are in place, carpets laid, labels hung; works shine in the booths, people smile (rather than scowl) and the physical transformation of the space echoes the emotional transformation of all involved.  It is simply a night to enjoy.  Sales will be made, wine and hors d'oeuvres consumed, outfits worn and commented upon: it remains one of the most enjoyable nights of the year--a time to see old friends and acquaintances, to make new ones, and to glimpse at or examine the best of what the field has to offer in a given season.  Selfishly, too, it is also a time to check up on my students, since they intern at the Winter Antiques Show each year.  During the course of two weeks, they see an art fair intimately, and work all aspects of it.  From the opening day's rush and loading in to the scurrying before the opening to the quiet pattern that emerges once the show is up and running, my students see it all, work it all, and get to experience a fair from the inside.  This means they not only help with show set up, press inquiries, and mundane tasks like staffing events or handing out brochures, but they also work with dealers, with vetters, and with the public at large.  I can think of no better way for them to learn about the business and am grateful for the support of Elle Shushan and Executive Director Catherine Sweeney Singer who make this happen each year.

That seems like enough for a post without pictures, more to follow.