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Christie’s NY 19th Century American Sale

January 19, 2024
A painting of a pair of hummingbirds near a pink flower against a background of trees.

Cattleya Orchid with Two Brazilian Hummingbirds by Martin Johnson Heade

On Thursday, January 18th, Christie‘s kicked things off with their first sale of note for 2024. Their 19th Century American & Western sale featured one hundred lots and ended up a good way to start the year. Of course, the star of the sale, the painting everyone expected to shine brightest, was Martin Johnson Heade’s 1871 work Cattleya Orchid with Two Brazilian Hummingbirds. Inspired by contemporary painters and naturalists like Frederic Edwin Church and John James Audubon, Heade frequently made trips to Central and South America as well as the Caribbean to study the flora and fauna there. The painting offered at Christie’s was created after a year of traveling throughout Colombia, Panama, and Jamaica. It also marks one of the first times Heade included both flowers and animals in the same painting. The orchid-hummingbird combination would become a common subject for the artist throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Predicted to sell for between $1.2 million and $1.8 million, the Heade surpassed expectations, with the hammer coming down at $2.8 million (or $3.4 million w/p). 

A landscape from the American West, with red and white rock formations in the distance.

Afterglow, Green River, Wyoming by Thomas Moran

Next was one of the many landscapes the sale had to offer: Thomas Moran’s 1918 painting Afterglow, Green River, Wyoming. In the hundred years since Moran created the painting, Green River has grown from a rail depot to a small city of 12,000 people. However, the cliffs and other rock formations surrounding the area, with their red and white rock layers as shown in Moran’s painting, can still be seen today as they existed in 1918. Christie’s specialists assigned Afterglow the same $1.2 million to $1.8 million estimate range as the Heade. Though the Moran did not surpass its estimate the way the Heade did, it still hit its high end, reaching $2.2 million w/p. Finally, in third place was the bronze statue The End of the Trail by James Earle Fraser. It was one of the thirteen sculptures featured in the sale. The work shows an indigenous American man on horseback, hunched over with melancholy. Fraser, who had much sympathy for indigenous people, particularly the Sioux, created End of the Trail as a way to symbolize the suffering of indigenous people in the United States. The casting sold on Thursday for $1.1 million (or $1.38 million w/p) against a $500K to $700K estimate. This set Fraser’s all-time auction record. The previous record-holder was a different, slightly smaller casting of the same work, which sold in 2014 for $921K w/p at the Coeur d’Alene Auction House. In fact, different castings of End of the Trail constitute the top five works by Fraser ever sold at auction.

A bronze statue of an indigenous American man on horseback hunched over.

The End of the Trail by James Earle Fraser

Of course, the sale was not without its surprises. Chief among them was a pair of humorous genre paintings from 1856 by David Gilmour Blythe called Family Prayers and The Sequel. The first shows a family kneeling in prayer before digging into the pie on the table. Seeing a ram just outside the door, a young boy holds his hat in front of the man’s backside to coax the ram into charging. In The Sequel, we see the aftermath. The ram has charged at the man, who is now lying face-down on the floor after falling onto the table, knocking it over and everything on top of it, including the pie. It last sold at Christie’s New York in 2003 for $28K hammer, so the $40K to $60K estimate range was not unreasonable. The pair of paintings achieved over three times the high estimate at $200K (or $252K w/p).

Despite several highly-valued lots being bought in, including A Wagon Train on the Plains by Thomas Worthington Whittredge (est. $300K to $500K) and Along a Greasewood Trail by Ernest Martin Hennings (est. $600K to $800K), in the end, Christies did rather well. Of the one hundred lots available on Thursday, twenty-six sold within their presale estimates, thirty-four sold below, while twenty-four sold above. Sixteen lots went unsold. In terms of total dollar amount, the entire sale fell within its total presale estimate, bringing in $10,546,200 against a minimum of $9,099,000. The Heade painting exceeding its maximum estimate by $1 million likely made up for some of the more valuable lots bought in.