Heritage Auctions American Sale Review


William Trost Richards' Seascape

Most paintings from Flanner & Buchanan Corporate collection sold well, a reminder of the successful sale of Judge Buchanan’s personal collection (also at Heritage Auctions) two years ago.

One of the highlights from Buchanan’s personal collection sale was a painting of forest interior by William Trost Richards during his brief Pre-Raphaelite period. It was sold for approximately quarter million dollars and is now proudly hanging in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Among the corporate collection, another painting by William Trost Richards also received fierce bidding. Rocky Cliff with Stormy Sea, Cornwall was painted in 1902, when Richards was at his height rendering seascape. The crushing waves and dramatic cliffs of Cornwall provided him an opportunity to capture the moody water in great motion, a departure from his serene receding tides along New England coast.

I first fell in love with Richards’ seascape two years ago, when the National Academy organized the exhibition “American Waters “ with many seldom-displayed Ricahrds’ watercolor donated from his family. In the review, I wrote “in his marvelous watercolor works such as crushing waves or white masts under stormy clouds, nothing would be associated with romanticism like those done by Thomas Moran. The simplicity and clarity in his marine works has a factual tendency, which I found is very enchanting. If Charles Temple Dix found the beauty of seas from the excitement of traveling, then Richards praised  rocks and waves that he owned and lived with unassuming sincerity.”

Here, the exotic scenes of foreign land (Watergate Bay, Cornwall, England) must have excited him. He abandoned his usual choice of extended horizontal composition in most of his American seascape in favor of more traditional size so that the solidity of the cliff dominates the picture yet the opulent light through mist and cloud leads to the expansiveness beyond the canvas.

When the same painting was auctioned in Sotheby’s on March 17, 1994, it was sold for $10,350 (with the estimated price between $5000 and $7000). Seventeen years later, the painting was estimated between $15,000 and $25,000 and was sold for $38,837.50.

Richards were not the only who benefited from the British landscape in the same. A painting of Niagrara Falls by a French artist Victor De Grailly reminded us of Tomas Chambers with its primitive colors and repetitive patterns. Interestingly, the catalog indicated that there was no firm evidence that Grailly ever visited Niagara Falls and he mostly likely used the engravings by William Henry Bartlett’s from the American Scenery series published in London in 1840, as did Chambers in many of his paintings. That can explain the gaudy (or fancy in a better term) colors and geometric lines and patterns in these folkish paintings.  Estimated between $6,000 to $9,000, the painting was sold for $15,535. Apparently being primitive is not bad in today’s fine art market.

Even though portraiture seems to move slower in today’s market, Charles Hawthorne’s portrait of Joan Becker was sold near the high estimate. Fresh from the estate, it is perhaps the only one left from a few portraits of this family by Hawthorne which is still in private hand. (Two portraits of Joan’s mother are now own by Grand Rapids Art Museum and Indianapolis Museum of Art.) It puzzled me that John, at the age of 5, was presented with a sense of gravity and dignity incompatible with her statue or age. I am sure Joan would not care when she was the sitter, but maybe that’s what Eulabee wanted.

Two top lots had different fates in the auction.

Frederic Remington’s Apache Signal Fire, was one of the 70 or so nocturnal paintings he painted in the 1890’s. The series has largely been regarded as his most artistic achievement and certainly not many are still in private hands. One week before the auction, Michael Duty gave a lecture on this particular lot at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. It is not my favorite nocturne painting by Remington, but the rarity plus the great lecture helped secured some serious bids. It was sold for $262,900.

Even with the prominent place displayed in the gallery and the cover of the illustrated catalog, the top lot, Severin Roesen’s “Still Life with Fruit and Flowers in a Landscape” (which was supposed to fetch half million dollars) failed to find a buyer in the auction.  It is accompanied by a letter from Judith Hansen O’Toole, the director of Westmoreland Museum of American Art, whose own Roesen’s still life I have seen many times in the past.  With its luxuriant settings, meticulous rendering and grand scale, it for sure can take the center place for any room. Yet, it keeps hovering in my mind, that such grandeur and luxury living evident from the past cast a somber shadow on the consciousness of art collectors when frugality overtone hang around every corners of daily spending. At least, in my consciousness, it is a rare moment that the ethnics underlining the aesthetics hover above quality, the rarity and the provenance.

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