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The American Art Auctions – And The Winner Was?

May 21, 2021

This week both Christie’s and Sotheby’s held their American Art auctions in New York, and you will have to decide who was the overall winner of the American market this season. All sale prices mentioned below include the buyer’s premium.

Kicking off the week, Christie’s held a live sale titled Fields of Vision: The Private Collection of Artists Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason.  Kahn and Mason were married for 62 years, and both recently passed away; Kahn in 2020 and Mason in 2019. The proceeds of their collection went to the Wolf Kahn/Emily Mason Foundation and the Emily Mason/Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation, both supporting artistic visions through exhibitions, research, and philanthropy.

a black leaf and white flower


The sale totaled slightly over $8.1M, and both Kahn and Mason achieved new auction records.  Down East Sunset I by Kahn was estimated to make $50 -70K and sold for $206K. Mason’s Aquifer sold for more than six times its estimate of $10-15K, garnering $93.7K. Top lots in the sale went to more renowned artists – Georgia O’Keeffe took the top spot with a work titled Autumn Leaf with White Flower, estimated at $3-5M, sold for $4.95M. In second place was a painting by Richard Diebenkorn titled Cups II, estimated to bring $500-700K; it sold for $1.47M. In a distant third was a work by Milton Avery, titled Interior with Yellow Lamp; estimated at $120-180K, it brought $362.5K. Of the 28 lots offered, only one lot did not sell. In addition, there was an online-only sale with the rest of the collection (92 lots) that totaled $589K, and again, only one lot did not sell, making the overall sale rate 98.8%.

people playing the piano


Later that day, Christie’s offered their traditional American sale, featuring 78 lots. The top lot and highlight of the auction was Norman Rockwell’s Jeff Raleigh’s Piano Solo which was estimated to bring $1.2-1.8M and sold for $2.9M. Coming in second was Newell Convers Wyeth’s  The Guardians, estimated at $600-800K and selling for $750K. Rounding out the top three was Sanford Robinson Gifford’s painting Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire; estimated at $300-500K, it sold for $662.5K. There were no significant upsets here except for a watercolor by Winslow Homer, estimated at $600-800K, that did not sell. The auction totaled just over $9M with the premium, falling right in the middle of the $7.26-11.8M presale estimate, with a sell-through rate of 80.8%.  

mother and baby


The next day was Sotheby’s turn; they offered just 61 lots and the sale began with a bang! The first two lots blew away their estimates – Gertrude Abercrombie’s Giraffe was estimated at $10-15k and sold for $365K! WOW! Next was Orville Bulman’s Les Voila Paris, estimated at $25-35K – it sold for $126K. But then things came back to reality; the top lot in the sale was a work by Mary Cassatt, Baby Charles Looking over His Mother’s Shoulder (No. 3), which was guaranteed to sell; estimated at $1-1.5M, it just cleared the top end when it made $1.59M. Childe Hassam’s Piazza di Spagna, Rome came in second, beating its estimate of $500 -700K, selling for $1.23M. Taking the third spot was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Green Oak Leaves which also sold beyond the $500-800K estimate, garnering $1.17M.

view of the grand canyon


The big disappointment of the sale was a work by Thomas Moran. Estimated at $2-3M, it actually should have been the highlight of the sale, but it failed to find a buyer. Here’s an interesting note – a work by Charles Sheeler, estimated at $500-700K, could not find a buyer the first time around during this auction. Sotheby’s reoffered the lot later in the sale, and it sold for an underwhelming $315K? Guess the Newark Museum really did not want it back!! The auction’s presale estimate was $13.5-19.9M and when all was said and done, the overall take was just shy of $15M. 

So in the end, I guess Sotheby’s won the American market this year… Christie’s may have garnered a bigger total, selling over $17.7M, but it took three sales and 198 lots… Sotheby’s came close to $15M with just 61 lots offered, although that was a far cry from their high expectations. To make the comparison clearer, Christie’s average price per lot was close to $90K and Sotheby’s was more than 2.5 times that with an average price of $245K!!