A Pomegranate You Can’t Afford

Still Life by George Henry Hall in 1862, estimated between $700 to $900 and sold for $6500 at Skinner's Auction
Still Life by George Henry Hall in 1862, estimated between $700 to $900 and sold for $6500 at Skinner's Auction

OK, don’t blame me: Blame William Gerdts. It is in his book “For Beauty and for Truth: The William and Abigail Gerdts Collection of American Still Life” that he wrote “if you both write and collect, collect first and then write – not the other way around!” Thus even though we have a series of “A Gaggle of Intererts” which records things that have caught our eyes, we occasionally write after the auction is over. Our rules of collecting is simple: 1. It is not just we can live with, but we cannot live without. 2. We can afford it, more importantly we can still pay our bill if we buy it.

Thus when we find something extraordinary not only for its quality, but also for its possible final price, we hold our breadth and faintly hope no one else has seen it. But too often the deal was too good to be true. With the advent of internet applications (such as artfact or liveauctioneers), the auction information and their relative market values (such as artfact, askart or artnet) have been democratized. If everyone is bargain-hunting for items whose availability is widespread, then there are no real bargain.

A label from Grand Central Gallery
A label from Grand Central Gallery

So I dropped our phone bid last time for a painting by William Coventry Wall at Treadway with a low estimation of 500 dollars because we knew it was futile and naive to think it would be sold near that. But the final price $22,000 plus premium was still a shock.

Tonight we encountered another similar case. A still life painting by George Henry Hall was auctioned at Skinner’s “American & European Paintings & Prints” sale. It was estimated between $700 to $900 and bears a label from the Grand Central Galleries.

I admit it was not the most stunning still life painting by Hall I have seen, but I abhor giant sized food-porn like still life and prefer a more on-the-study-side smaller painting. Such a gem (10 by 11 inches) would be  inviting for an intimate study. It has everything that characterizes Hall as a still life painter. The dramatic lighting and vertical complex composition contribute a lively dynamics to the still life; the lush colors created by a range of red lying on top of soft green grass are marvelous to view; and pomegranate, his specialty fruit, is in the picture although the seeds do not have the chance to spill out in the Ruskinian nature setting. Above all, this could have been the only Hall I could afford (although still with some stretch) if the painting had been sold for what it had been estimated at.

Eric was more or less aloof to the half eaten fruits on a staged setting, but I managed to convince him that it was the trick used by still life experts to showcase the texture and in a different degree add the lure of appetizing. Hall painted this one in 1862, two years after the first successful auction of his still life paintings. And the old hand-written label from a distinguished yet closed gallery in New York only added more charm.

At 5:25PM, the phone rang, from Skinner. Then as I waited (in sweat) for a couple of  preceding lots, came lot 423A. Before I had the chance to say “yes”, the starting bid roared to $1900. Eventually it went for $6500 plus premium.

A Dead Rabbit by George Henry Hall, 1858 from National Academy Museum
A Dead Rabbit by George Henry Hall, 1858 from National Academy Museum

Afterwards I headed to the National Academy Museum for a gallery talk by Curator Bruce Weber on the current exhibition “Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820–2009“, my second visit to the same show. It was there that Dr. Weber talkd about the half nude figure of a Dead Rabbit Gang member, probably Irish, painted by George Henry Hall, NA. It was a portraiture of social  and historical significance. The Irish young man leaned his head slightly toward the back, defiant and aloof; yet his body exudes energy and power echoed by fires seen in the background, a reference to the gang riot near the five points not long before this picture was painted. The solid modeling of the body is an evidence that Hall, trained in Düsseldorf Royal Academy, possessed imagination and skills to all types of genres, and perhaps chose still life only because it was closer to his heart. Bruce pointed out although Hall, already well known for still life, substituted this painting for an unidentified  fruit painting. Such a practice reflects what the artists of the time conceived the academy, a place for high arts for historical and figure paintings.  In 1985, a group of drawings by Hall was given by James Craig to the institute, still there is no single still life painting by Hall in the inventory of the Academy. “I would not trade a still life for this one, ” Dr. Weber emphasized in the end although he commented that he loved Hall’ still life when I told him just hours ago a still life with a pomegranate was sold at Skinner.

I took it as a comfort that even a museum with the fourth largest collection of American art is on the hunt (perhaps through donation) of a George Hall’s still life.  On the second thought: I can’t afford it, but whoever owns it can’t eat it. That is a real comfort.

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