The Rago Gallery and Skinner Auctioneer both had their fine art auctions on Friday. The results were solid, with a high percentage of lots sold, although the final hammer prices of the majority were closer to the low estimation. However, the featured lots (a crayon and ink on paper by Picasso, a pen and ink on paper by Matisse and an ink, graphite, and watercolor on board by Salvador Dali) were all sold under low estimation. The seemingly Picasso fatigue syndrome (with that particular lot sold way under low estimate and one at Sotheby’s unsold about two weeks ago) is a sign that even stellar artists in the current market would not hold strong for lesser works.
Recently a New York appraiser and high-end antique dealer commented to me that auction houses were not as aggressive as before. They tended to appraise lots at much lower price to reflect a market deflation and to make sure they will get sold. Most of the paintings offered at Skinner can fit in medium or medium-low range category. The fact that there were more unsold contemporary artworks than 19th century arts indicates a more conservative buyer’s market, or should I say the unmatched reserved price implies the owners of those contemporary artworks had not fully reconciled their high hope with the declining art market?
There are a few star lots in the Skinner. Two paintings by Eugenio Zampighi fetched $10,000 more than the high estimation price. The genre paintings were rendered with humor and sensibility and a warm homely feeling. Although Zampighi died in 1944, the narrative perspective and the brown atmosphere are reminiscent of old time. Michel Joseph Speeckaert’s boutique is another blue chip but still life paintings by European masters are not my expertise. Surprisingly, there are quite a lot paint loss areas, but apparently at least more than two buyers didn’t mind it in the auction.
The star lot which stunned me the most is a watercolor painting by Anton Mauve. The Hague School is gaining recognition outside the Netherlands in the past years. Henry Ward Ranger, who painted with Anton Mauve, regarded the group of Dutch painters in the last two decades of 19th century as the linear successors of the French Barbizon School. But beside the overall gray subdued tonality, the works have a more romantic nostalgia compared to French masters. While Israels would put the anonymous figures in the center of the canvas, the figures in Mauve’s paintings like this water-color gem is surrounded by (or more precisely isolated to) a world of simplicity void of subsidiary details. In this landscape, the human and nature are in a stark unity emerging out a world of sombre melancholy, alienated from the mundane reality.
The popularity of Hague School’s grayness did not extend to American artists of slightly later period in the auction. A study by Henry Ward Ranger, bearing the estate stamp, was sold near $2500, higher than its high estimation yet still within an expected range. In a few examples of Ranger’s landscape studies which I have seen, the chalk-like light impasto is more evident because of the lack of the jewelry-like final layer’s varnish that the artist thought indispensable. The study provides an advantage to closely look at Ranger’s technique: the brushstrokes balanced between abandoness and calculation and the warm over the cool for the color pallet. The barren woodland, possibly from Connecticut, bear the charm and tenet that was infused in the school of Lyme artists: an affinity to natural soils that were once eroded and disappearing. In the book “Charles Warren Eaton and the Tonalist Movement” by David Cleveland, the author pointed out the nostalgia run-down farmlands, like the tonalism movement itself, are more transient than eternal. Thus, what Ranger painted was a snapshot of humane landscape before it went back to the wild.
Other medium-ranged paintings that have caught my eyes include a vibrant painting by Herman Dudley Murphy, which fetched a price close to the upper end, possibly because of its original frame and regional flavor. The painting by William Hart with scintilating colors and pastoral scenity, like his other numerous similar examples, always guarantees a solid sale. On the other hand, portraiture is a forgotten corner. The portraits of solemn looking strangers sitting against dark background are never a visual pleasure and once such paintings were sold from the original estate, their lifelines are cut immediately and become grumpy souls jumping around different walls. The reverend Alden Bradford, painted by Chester Harding, is a marvelous example of the techniques of sincerity and sympathy by a painter whose talent outgrew the expectation of an itenerant painter; but it was sold for the half of the low estimation (without premium). Sadly, I do not think the downturn trend of portraiture will change in the near future.
At Rago auction, two lots had my attention. A small painting by Charles Warren Eaton, featuring his white pine trees against sunset, once exhibited at “Thumb-box Exhibition” were sold for $4,750 without premium. The financial appreciation for this particular painter during the past 10 years has tripled, in particular to his pine tree series. Eaton’s pine tree series, unlike other tonalism paintings, always remind me of the Aesthetics Movement with their reduced patterns and bold cropping.
“Outdoor scene of the Ward family on Goat Island, Niagara Falls, ca 1860”, a full plate ambrotype image was sold for $1900 plus premium. The low sensitivity of the wet plate collodion process was perfect for rendering the falls with silky texture without losing the ambient mists. “Each one is unique. Each one is hand-made.” commented once by David Sokosh, an artist from Brooklyn, NY, who is reviving such a technique that plays against the consumerism of photography. If you are interested to learn more, check his website.