On Wednesday, January 18th, after a weeks-long lull in auctions to accommodate the holidays, Sotheby’s New York hosted its Art of the Americas sale. The auction mainly featured nineteenth- and early twentieth-century paintings. In the end, all of the top lots were contained to the first ten pieces sold. The White-Headed Eagle by John James Audubon hit its high estimate on the nose and took the top spot at $600K (or $756K w/p). The work is interesting because of Audubon’s role as both an artist and an ornithologist. Appropriately, the painting shows a bald eagle in the midst of enjoying its catch of the day. The work is the same image featured in Audubon’s magnum opus, The Birds of America, a massive book of ornithological illustrations considered one of the greatest works on natural history ever created. Immediately after Audubon’s eagle was Lake Hamlet (Passing Shower) by Asher Brown Durand. The rather large canvas, measuring 40 x 60 inches, shows an outdoor scene of a lakeside in a wooded, mountainous area. Given the size of the painting, it’s surprisingly easy to spot a small town across the water, marked by the white pinnacle of what is most likely a church. The area depicted is likely somewhere in New Hampshire since Durand spent his summers there in 1855 and 1856, around when he created this painting. Unfortunately, Lake Hamlet fell slightly short of its $400K low estimate, with the hammer falling at $390K (or $491.4K w/p).
Two works ended up tied for third place, both by some of the biggest names in nineteenth-century American art. First, Mountain Out of Mist by Albert Bierstadt is an oil painting executed in 1889 showing a rather calm, cloudy day in the Rocky Mountains. Bierstadt is considered one of the finest American painters of the nineteenth century, particularly one specializing in western landscapes. Therefore, it’s not terribly surprising that Sotheby’s specialists assigned a $300K to $500K estimate range. Sharing the third place spot with Bierstadt is Frederic Remington’s Bronco Buster, one of the most famous sculptures in American history. The sculpture shows a cowboy breaking in a wild horse, with Remington conveying an incredible sense of movement. The horse is rearing up on its hind legs while a stirrup flaps freely, unanchored by the man’s boot, and a short whip in his right hand flutters in the air while the bronco tries to throw him off. Several castings of the sculpture are now housed in prominent collections, including the Denver Art Museum, Theodore Roosevelt’s house at Sagamore Hill out on Long Island, and the White House Collection (with its version of the Bronco Buster on display in the Oval Office during the Obama administration). The version offered at Sotheby’s on Wednesday is number 49, cast in 1899. Unfortunately, the Remington fell just short of its $400K low estimate. Both the Bierstadt and the Remington sold for $340K (or $428.4K w/p).
Of course, the sale was not without its surprises. While all the top lots were more toward the start of the sale, the auction’s two surprises waited more towards the end. First, the oil-on-paper painting Taos by Laverne Nelson Black shows a brief snapshot of turn-of-the-century life in the titular New Mexico town. While estimated to sell for no more than $35K, the painting sold for $85K (or $107.1K w/p), almost two-and-a-half times what was expected. Similarly, the 1858 oil on canvas painting A Horse Drawn Sleigh Passing a Cabin by Cornelius Krieghoff was only expected to bring in $50K maximum, yet the hammer came down at $150K, exactly three times its high estimate.
In total, out of forty-seven available lots, ten lots (21%) sold below estimate, fourteen lots (30%) sold within estimate, and another ten lots (21%) sold above estimate. Additionally, thirteen lots (28%) went unsold that day. While those numbers are not particularly noteworthy, the total dollar amount certainly is. The sale as a whole was estimated to bring in no less than $5.43M, yet when the sale ended, Sotheby’s had only brought in $3.64M. One of the main reasons for this underperformance was several highly-valued lots went unsold. These included Albert Bierstadt’s Coastal Scene, California (est. $250K to $350K), Martin Johnson Heade’s Sunset Landscape, Cattle Drinking (est. $300K to $500K), N.C. Wyeth’s Winter at Valley Forge (est. $400K to $600K), and Winslow Homer’s watercolor In the Rapids (est. $600K to $800K). While these works’ being bought in certainly contributed to the sale’s disappointing total hammer price, even if all of those lots sold for their minimum estimates, it still wouldn’t have been enough.