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Christie’s New York Modern American Art

April 29, 2023
An abstract seascape by Milton Avery with a woman in a pink shirt and a broad-brimmed sun hat in the foreground.

Woman by the Sea by Milton Avery

On Friday April 21st, Christie’s New York held its Modern American Art sale, consisting mostly of paintings by American masters. These included American impressionists like Edward Henry Potthast and William James Glackens, members of the Ashcan School like Robert Henri and George Wesley Bellows, and the members of the Wyeth family, mainly Andrew, his son Jamie, his sister Henriette, and Henriette’s husband Peter Hurd (w/p = with buyer’s premium). All three top lots sold within the first hour of the sale. Coming in first, Milton Avery’s painting Woman by the Sea is an oil-on-canvas created in 1944, showing a faceless woman wearing a broad-brimmed sun hat. The painting has only been exhibited once at a Milton Avery retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York in February and March of 1960. Christie’s experts predicted the Avery to be the sale’s top lot, assigning it an estimate range of $1.5M to $2.5M. It barely passed the low estimate, bringing in $1.6M (or $1.98M w/p).

A landscape by Edward Hopper on Cape Cod, showing the branchless trunks of four dead trees sticking out of a grassy field in the foreground.

Four Dead Trees by Edward Hopper

Right behind the Avery was a painting by the American master Edward Hopper. Four Dead Trees is a 20-by-28-inch watercolor-on-paper from 1942, showing a landscape somewhere on Cape Cod. Hopper’s longtime dealer, the Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery, sold the work about two years after its creation, but not before being exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This was part of the Artists for Victory exhibition in December 1942, where it hung alongside works by Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock, Andrew Wyeth, Henriette Wyeth, Alexander Calder, and Louise Bourgeois. But unlike the Avery, which barely slipped past its minimum estimate, the Hopper landscape exceeded Christie’s specialists’ predictions, selling for $1.2M (or $1.5M w/p) against the $1M high estimate. And finally, in third was a Nicolai Fechin oil-on-canvas entitled Cesarita in Violet. We see an intimate portrait of a young indigenous girl, likely from the Taos region of New Mexico, where Fechin lived and worked starting in 1927. Estimated to sell for between $700K and $1M, Fechin’s Cesarita sold for $900K (or $1.13M w/p).

An impressionist portrait of a young indigenous girl in a purple tunic, probably from near Taos, New Mexico.

Cesarita in Violet by Nicolai Fechin

Of course, with a sale this large, there were bound to be a few surprises – seventeen lots sold for double their high estimates or more. Among them was a landscape that seemed almost Fauvist-inspired. Curious Cows by Sally Michel Avery shows a trio of cows against a bright pink background with orange foliage both above and below. It’s an 18-by-24-inch oil painting on canvasboard created in 1977 while Avery was in Bearsville, New York. Estimated to sell for no more than $7K, the cows sold when the hammer came down at $45K, or nearly 6.5 times its high estimate. The sale’s surprises also included an illustration that I can only describe as Rockwellesque. Cowboy Asleep in Beauty Salon by Kurt Ard was published on the Saturday Evening Post’s cover on May 6, 1961. The scene shows women sitting in dryer chairs reading magazines in a beauty salon. Meanwhile, a young boy in a cowboy outfit, his toy revolver nearly slipping from his grasp, has fallen asleep in the middle chair. Since the Saturday Evening Post had become so closely connected with the art of Norman Rockwell, Ard’s style, similar to Rockwell’s work, made his illustrations perfect for the front cover. Cowboy Asleep in Beauty Salon was his eighth work featured on the Post’s cover. Estimated to sell for no more than $15K, Ard’s illustration sold for over 6.5 times that at $100K (or $126K w/p).

With ninety-five available lots, twenty-five sold within estimate, giving Christie’s specialists a 26% accuracy rate. Fourteen lots (or 15%) sold under, while forty-nine lots (or 52%) sold over. Only seven lots went unsold, giving the auction a sell-through rate of 93%. In terms of total dollar amount, the sale did very well in that regard as well, bringing in a total of $11.4M against an estimate range of $8.2M to $12.4M.