On the morning of Dec 2, 2009, three generations of Wyeth paintings were auctioned in the Christie’s Important American Painting and Sculpture Sale. A large egg-tempera on panel by Andrew Wyeth Above the Narrow was the top lot of the sale. When the auctioneer hammered down the price of 6.1 million dollars given by a floor bidder, there was a floor-wide applause. The top lot, in this sale, was not only sold, but also exceeded expectations, beyond the five million dollar high estimate.
On the other hand, the result of 14 paintings of Rubinson Crusoe series by N. C. Wyeth, consigned by the Wilmington Institute Library was a mixed bag. Only five of them were sold (1.83 million dollars in total) beyond their reserved values, which may leave the complete series disassembled. However, Christie’s has 30 days by contract to find private buyers for the paintings, and hopefully will eventually bring 3.8 million dollars to the library.
The Robinson Crusoe series was purchased directly from N. C. Wyeth in 1922 and have been hanging in the reading room of the library built by Pierre DuPont since then. The series, in fact, contain 17 paintings. The library holds 14 of them, while two paintings are in private hands and one missing.
The library, which was hit hardly during the recession, is hoping to raise $4 million to $5 million to renovate the neoclassical building and help replenish the library’s endowment. Based on the original plan, quality prints will replace the oil paintings by Wyeth; but now the board will meet to decide the fate of the remaining unsold nine paintings.
The only painting by Jamie Wyeth was sold for $110,000. Most of the lots, especially those deaccessioned from art institutes were sold with solid results. But a few stand out. Mary Cassatt’s large pastel works have always been blue chips in the art market and this lot, a study for Young Mother Sewing, was sold for over two million dollars. The Water Lily by Joseph Stella brought $190,000, much more than its high estimate of $70,000. UAA team overheard the conversation between a staff and Michael Quick during the preview that it was one of the most inquired-about paintings in the sale, the result proves so. The rare Raphaelle Peale which sold for $700,000, also beating the presale estimate. (Other still paintings faced a different fate: Neither Joseph Decker not Martin Johnson Heade attracted enough bids.) A phone bidder spiced up the sale by giving bids much higher than necessary and drove the price for a painting by Thomas Hart Benton to $520,000. It was one of the moments that both the auctioneer and the audience laughed in spite of some fierce competition between bidders, but such optimistic moments are too rare in the current market in which only the best quality works bring up the right values.