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Christie’s New York Modern American Sale

April 19, 2024
A landscape painting by Thomas Hart Benton of rural Utah, featuring a white horse at a fence in the foreground.

White Horse by Thomas Hart Benton

On Thursday, April 18, Christie’s New York hosted its modern American art sale, the first major auction dedicated to American art since January. The sale primarily featured paintings and sculptures by twentieth-century American artists like Milton Avery and Andrew Wyeth. Thomas Hart Benton, the most-represented artist at the sale, claimed the top spot with his 1955 oil painting White Horse. Originally from Missouri, Benton was captivated by the American West and made many Western landscapes in the 1940s. White Horse, a scene from rural Utah, is particularly rare since much of Benton’s Western landscapes are now in prominent museum collections. With an estimate of $1.5 million to $2.5 million, White Horse was eventually sold for $1.8 million (or $2.23 million w/p), a testament to its rarity and value.

A still life painting of a blue morning glory flower against a pale, pink background.

Blue Morning Glory by Georgia O’Keeffe

Next up at Christie’s was the only Georgia O’Keeffe work featured at the sale. Blue Morning Glory is a fine example of one of O’Keeffe’s floral works. At the time of this painting’s creation in 1934, she was focused on flowers for about ten years. It’s a small work, measuring only 7-by-7 inches, and is one of four blue morning glory paintings O’Keeffe made between 1934 and 1936. But the painting’s scandalous provenance may have been another draw for buyers. Blue Morning Glory was previously owned by the Andrew Crispo Gallery, one of New York’s top modern and contemporary art galleries in the 1970s. However, Crispo became a tabloid fixture because of his hedonistic private life, including his involvement in the murder of a Norwegian FIT student in 1985, for which he was never chargedBlue Morning Glory exceeded its $1 million high estimate, landing at $1.4 million (or $1.74 million w/p).

Lastly, the third and final lot with a hammer price exceeding $1 million was Maxfield Parrish’s 1947 painting Ottaquechee River. By this point in his career, Parrish had made a name for himself as an illustrator and was turning to focus on serious landscape painting. This scene is set on the banks of the titular river in eastern Vermont, not terribly far from Parrish’s home in Plainfield, New Hampshire. Alma Gilbert-Smith, one of the leading experts on Parrish, declared Ottaquechee River one of Parrish’s thirteen greatest works. Though far from the artist’s auction record, the landscape hammered at a respectable $1.2 million (or $1.5 million w/p) against the house specialists’ $1 million to $1.5 million estimate.

A landscape of a river in New England at dusk, with a house in the background among trees

Ottaquechee River by Maxfield Parrish

Christie’s Modern American sale was full of surprises, with seventeen out of one hundred four available lots (16%) selling for more than double their high estimates. Four lots sold for more than five times their high estimate. Some of the most impressive surprises served as the auction’s bookends at the very beginning and the very end. The sale’s first lot, starting with a bang, was Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe’s Flowers (Gardenias in a Pitcher). O’Keeffe studied art with her older sister Georgia while growing up in Virginia, and she later went on to receive an MFA from Columbia University. During her lifetime, O’Keeffe often exhibited her work under the name Ida Ten Eyck to stay out of her sister’s shadow. She painted Flowers in 1932 on an 8-by-7-inch canvas. Ida O’Keeffe’s work has never sold for more than $15K at auction, but Flowers absolutely shattered her record, with the hammer coming down at $240K ($302.4K w/p) or over six-and-a-half times its $35K high estimate. Then, towards the end of the sale were two geometric abstract oil paintings by the Canadian-American artist Rolph Scarlett. White Triangle and Untitled are relatively large works, with Untitledthe smaller of the two, measuring about 43 by 43 inches. Both appear to have been influenced by European abstract artists like Kandinsky. Christie’s offered them without reserves and each were estimated at $7K to $10K. The two became Scarlett’s second and third most expensive paintings sold at auction, each selling for $70K (or $88.2K w/p), exactly seven times their high estimates.

Twenty-five of the one hundred four available lots sold within their estimates, giving Christie’s a 24% accuracy rate. Additionally, twenty-three (22%) sold below, while thirty-seven (36%) sold above. Nineteen lots (18%) went unsold, including the 1945 Milton Avery painting Female Painter, which Christie’s specialists picked as the sale’s star. In the same collection since 1995, Avery created Female Painter at the height of his career. The specialists predicted it would sell for between $1.5 million to $2.5 million. On top of Female Painter, there was also the Avery work Mother and Child by Seashore (est. $300K to $500K), Fairfield Porter’s Keelin Before the Reflected View No. 2 (est. $500K to $700K), Edward Hopper’s Oaks at Eastham (est. $500K to $700K), and Ralston Crawford’s Boat and Grain Elevator (est. $200K to $300K), all of which went unsold. These paintings getting bought in meant that Christie’s fell slightly short in terms of total dollar amount, bringing in $10.6 million (or $13.29 million w/p) against a pre-sale total minimum estimate of $10.8 million.