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American art weak at Sotheby’s and Christie’s New York sales despite museums’ clear-out

A new willingness to deaccession brought some success, but overall picture is of caution in the teeth of the recession

new york. Prices for 18th- to mid-20th-century American art plunged in May as Sotheby’s and Christie’s struggled to sell just 60% of their New York auctions, making $32.1m, down from $159.6m a year ago. “There were fewer bidders than we’ve seen in a decade,” said Dara Mitchell, the head of Sotheby’s American painting department. “People were cautious and really waiting to see where this market is going.”

“Most of the big players were not around,” said New York American painting dealer Howard Godel. “There wasn’t enough enticing material above $1m to get those buyers salivating.” Even a plentiful array of fresh-to-the-market museum offerings wasn’t enough to bolster weak results.

Christie’s 20 May sale totalled $16.8m for 141 lots, under the $20.6m low pre-sale estimate. Just 62% found buyers, and only three lots surpassed the million-dollar mark. The top lot was Milton Avery’s 1944 Sketching by the Sea which fetched $2.2m, well above the $800,000 high estimate. The painting depicts two figures drawing by a rocky coast line and came from an estate where it had resided since 1946.

The sale included 45 lots from US institutions (the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Montclair Art Museum and the New Britain Museum of American Art among them) accounting for nearly a third of the sale.

“For decades American museums sold very little American art. They felt required to hold on to everything they were given,” said Christie’s American painting director, Eric Widing. “There has been a cultural change and museums recognise you don’t have to keep everything in the basement. Scholarship has made the process much easier and the art is much more valuable.”

Results were mixed. Indiana­polis fared poorly with a group of over-estimated Western paintings. Canvases by Ernest Martin Hennings, Walter Ufer and Olaf Carl Seltzer were among seven lots that failed to sell.

Montclair fared better. A blue and green 1909 William James Glackens, Wickford Harbor, Rhode Island, at the museum since 1956 and exhibited in 1994 as part of a show billed as “Masterworks from the Montclair Art Museum”, fetched $458,500, above a $300,000 estimate. The museum wound up selling 23 lots (of 29 offered) for $2.8m. “The purpose was to build an endowment fund dedicated to purchasing works of art,” said Michael Gillespie, the museum’s communications director.

The Hirshhorn sold three paintings by Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins, plus a fourth at Sotheby’s. An athletic nude, Study for William Rush and his Model, around 1908, fetched $122,500, above the $120,000 high estimate.

Sotheby’s 21 May sale made $15.3m and included works sold by the Hirshhorn and the Art Institute of Chicago. Results fell below the $16m-$24m pre-sale estimate with 62% of lots selling.

The top lot was indicative of market conditions. Childe Hassam’s 1887 atmospheric Paris, Winter Day, fetched $2.3m, just under the $2.5m high estimate. Private New York dealer Joseph Caldwell bought the painting on behalf of a client he declined to name. A year earlier the same painting had sold for $3.9m to San Francisco collector Halsey Minor, who then refused to pay for it and two other works he had purchased at Sotheby’s. The company sued Minor, who countersued and litigation continues. The sellers agreed to re-offer the painting, this time around making about half the 2008 price.

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