Sotheby's American Art auction saw some prices soar, while Christie's remained more firmly grounded

A museum sells art to balance its budget, a gorgeous Sargent goes unwanted, and a painting of a giraffe reaches high.

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Georgia O'Keefe, Autumn Leaf and White Flower (1926) Courtesy: Christies

Georgia O'Keefe, Autumn Leaf and White Flower (1926) Courtesy: Christies

Christie’s sale on 18 May was even keeled. Bidding for Rockwell Kent’s Frozen Lake, Alaska from 1918-19 (estimated at $300,000-$500,000) congealed stiff at $325,000, and so did most else, hitting mid-and-low estimates with precision. Only the other Rockwell— Norman—hit a Christie’s high with Jeff Raleigh’s Piano Solo from 1939. It sold for $2.9m against a $1.2m-$1.8m estimate. Another exception was a good but by no means exceptional Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire by Sanford Gifford. It had a $300,000-$500,000 estimate and sold for $662,500.

Most of the haul came from the estates of the husband-and-wife artists Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason. The auction house took $8,122,375 from the two artists’ collections but most of this was from Autumn Leaf and White Flower (1926) by Georgia O’Keeffe, which sold for $4.95m on a $3m-$5m estimate. Both Kahn’s and Mason’s own work set records but the amounts were small. In total, Christie’s made $17,735,750 in a listless pair of auctions.

Gertrude Abercrombie, Giraffe (1954) Courtesy: Sotheby's

At Sotheby’s on 19 May, the action was hotter. Gertrude Abercrombie’s moment seems to be now. Abercrombie (1909-77) isn’t a household name but Dizzy Gillespie credited her with making Bop music visual. Her Giraffe from 1954, at postcard size, quiet and structured, must have made sense to a pair of bidders who pushed it at Sotheby’s from a $10,000-$15,000 estimate to $365,400.

The distinguished but hard up Newark Museum sold art to pay its bills. Georgia O’Keeffe’s mediocre Green Oak Leaves went for $1.17m on a $300,000-$500,000 estimate. The Arch of Nero, a lovely Thomas Cole done in 1846, two years before he died, was thought to bring $500,000-$700,000 but sold for $988,000. Childe Hassan’s Piazza di Spagna, Rome, a pretty picture, got $1.23m at a $500,000-$700,000 estimate.

A lightening round of bids broke out Thomas Eakins’s clunker Portrait of Dr Joseph Leidy II from 1890. He was a palaeontologist and the first expert witness in a criminal trial to give evidence using a microscope. It went from a $50,000-$80,000 estimate to $362,800. But you don't need a microscope to tell it is one of Eakins’s weakest portraits.

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Joseph Leidy II (1890) Courtesy: Sotheby's

And you don’t have to dislike babies to find Mary Cassatt’s Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother’s Shoulder hard to get fuzzy-wuzzy about. The leaden infant, painted in 1900, got $1.59m from a $1m-$1.5m estimate. Cassatt’s strength was clearly not in oils but in pastels and prints.

Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon, A Miracle of Nature (1913) was one of the few multi-million-dollar prospects in either sale. It is very late for a Western landscape painting, done the year of the Armory Show, a landmark for the move into Modern art. Estimated at $2m-$3m, it failed to sell but bidding went up to $1m.

Mrs William George Raphael by Sargent also did not sell, hitting only $750,000 on a $1m-$1.5m estimate. It is a fine portrait, in the family since Mrs Raphael sat for Sargent in 1906, and it has everything the best late Sargent portraits offer. Although Mrs Raphael has an experienced come hither look, twirling her turquoise and diamond necklace, Edwardian era portraits might be out of style now, and the estimate seemed a bit high.

In all, Sotheby’s took in $14,994,060, with the backbone coming from the Newark Museum works, at a combined $5,919,000.

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