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Bonhams New York American Art Sale

May 2, 2024
A landscape painting showing the New Mexico desert with hills and storm clouds in the background.

New Mexico Recollection No. 8 by Marsden Hatley

On Wednesday, May 1st, Bonhams’ New York location hosted its first American art sale of the year, featuring ninety-four paintings and sculptures primarily by twentieth-century American artists like Guy Carleton Wiggins, Theodore Earl Butler, and Reginald Marsh. The auction’s top lots, however, ended up being a 1923 oil painting by Marsden Hartley called New Mexico Recollection No. 8. Though known primarily as a New England painter, Hartley traveled extensively, living in Paris from much of the First World War before returning to the United States and working in Massachusetts, New York, and New Mexico. When he created this painting, he had returned to Europe, living mainly in Berlin. As the title suggests, the painting is based on his memories of New Mexico nearly five years after leaving the state. The landscape, therefore, cannot be tied to a specific place. Some specialists in modern American art, including those at Bonhams, note that the New Mexico Recollections as a series tend to have a darker, stormier color palette than the landscapes the artist made while living in the Southwest. Some say this may reflect the turbulent American mindset immediately after the First World War. With an estimate range of $400K to $600K, New Mexico Recollection No. 8 was already slated to be the sale’s top lot. Bidding continued until it hammered at $900K (or $1.14 million w/p), one-and-a-half times its original high estimate. In the process, the painting became the second most expensive of Marsden Hartley’s New Mexico landscapes, coming in just behind one also executed in 1923 that sold at Christie’s New York in 2007 for $1.27 million w/p.

A watercolor study showing a young woman with blonde braids sitting on a hillside.

Knapsack by Andrew Wyeth

The sole lot from Andrew Wyeth featured in the sale came in second place. Knapsack is a 1978 painting made with watercolors and pencil on paper. It was a study for his 1980 painting of the same name. It is part of his Helga Pictures, a series of over two hundred fifty paintings and drawings executed between 1971 and 1985 that feature the German model Helga Testorf as the main subject. Helga can be identified in Wyeth’s paintings by her signature blonde braids. Knapsack shows Helga seated outside on a hill, looking out over the landscape. Interestingly, this study does not contain the titular object, as the brown knapsack featured in the final painting is absent. The Wyeth sold for $250K (or $318K w/p), at the low end of its $250K to $350K pre-sale estimate range. Immediately preceding the Wyeth was Pink Light on the Sea by Wolf Kahn. The painting, made from oil on canvas, is common for the artist’s style, using pastel colors and the composition of a color field work. Like the work of Mark Rothko and other color field painters, Pink Light on the Sea expertly combines different hues separately on a large canvas. Knowing the title becomes paramount to fully appreciating the work. Upon reading the painting’s name, the green, pink, and pale purple sections transform into the grass, morning light reflected on the ocean, and the overcast sky. It was finished in 1999 when Kahn had achieved widespread acclaim and recognition as a leading American artist. Pink Light on the Sea greatly surpassed the estimates Bonhams’ specialists gave it. Expected to sell for between $80K and $120K, the Kahn painting hammered at $235K (or $298.9K w/p).

A canvas divided into three horizontal bars of color, with green on the bottom, pink in the middle, and pale purple on top.

Pink Light on the Sea by Wolf Kahn

There were several surprises throughout the sale, with six lots selling for more than double their estimates. However, none of them greatly exceeded their initial estimates quite like one of the sale’s two paintings by the northeastern American painter Paul Sample. Created in 1931, North Broadway Neighborhood is an example of Sample’s work trying to capture daily American life during the Great Depression. Here, he pulls from regionalist and social realist painting to show a lower or working-class neighborhood, with the smoke and steam of the rail lines rising alongside the tall towers in the background. Only predicted to sell for between $20K and $30K, imagine our surprise when the bidding went on and on before the painting sold for $190K (or $241.8K w/p), or over six times the estimate.

Overall, the auction did relatively well. Twenty-three out of the ninety-four available lots sold within their estimates, giving Bonhams’ specialists a 24% accuracy rate. Twenty-five lots (27%) sold below their estimates, while twenty-eight (30%) sold for above. Eighteen lots (19%) went unsold. Some highly valued lots went unsold, including  Quinciette by Stuart Davis and .04% by Arthur Dove, which were predicted to sell for $200K to $300K and $150K and $250K, respectively. However, they seem to have not dragged the sale down too much. Against a total pre-sale estimate of $2.9 million and $4.36 million, Bonhams American Art auction brought in $3.33 million.