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Art market

Influx of new collectors of American paintings boosts market

Even third-rate works are now selling for six figures

New York

At the American paintings sales in May, Sotheby’s made $40,448,000 (est. $31.5/45 million) and Christie’s $40,669,200 (est. $23/35 million). Christie’s total was almost double the figure for both its sales last year, and both auction houses set several new record for artists in the field: 14 at Sotheby’s and 18 at Christie’s.

These impressive results follow the entry of a group of relatively new buyers with deeper pockets than ever before. Among them are James W. McGlothlin and his wife Frances (see p.25) In a telephone interview from his Virginia home, Mr McGlothlin revealed his goals. “We will thin out our Hudson River School pictures.” He also reported purchasing 10 paintings in the final weeks of May, including a Julius LeBlanc Stewart ($2,312,000), a William Glackens ($284,800) and a William Merritt Chase ($912,000 at Sotheby’s).

Also new on the scene is Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. She has enlisted Robert Workman as the project director for her new museum Crystal Bridges, which is to open in 2009, and he reports that Ms Walton has been buying American painting for the past 15 years. “We have aspirations of becoming a major player in research and exhibition conception,” says Mr Workman. He reports that the museum will also dedicate space to regional artists.

Over in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Jack Warner, 88, presides over his two-year-old Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art which contains more than 500 examples from portraits of the founding fathers as well as early explorers. He began collecting close to five decades ago and his grandfather founded what is now the Gulf States Paper Corporation, one of the largest privately held paper companies in the country.

In 1972, Mr Warner purchased Asher Durand’s Progress for $300,000 from Manhattan dealer Norman Hirschl. Now the companion picture has sold to Ms Walton for a reported $35 million. Mr Warner says he is now filling in his collection. Within the past year, he has purchased two Coles and one Church. “We’re on the lookout for a really good Eakins,” says Susan Austin, director of his museum, which has an annual attendance of 12,000.

According to Mr Warner, major American collectors, Mrs Walton, the McGlothlins, Richard Manoogian and Terry Stent have all visited his museum. “But of them all, Mrs Walton will make the market go up,” says Mr Warner.

Another new museum is the two year old Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, which displays paintings of the Wild West. “Within the past few months, we’ve purchased items at the Santa Fe Art Auction, Scottsdale Art Auction and from Bonhams & Butterfields”, wrote Seth Hopkins, Booth executive director in an email.

With this group of highly wealthy players creaming off the top of the market, lesser painters have become more desirable. The private dealer Carol Irish says, “When works by artists such as Guy Wiggins that would have been considered third-rate a couple of years ago are now routinely trading in the six figures, all bets are off as to what will be upgraded next in the eyes of the commercial market.”