Additional Information About Rhode Island Auction Hits

Additional Information About Rhode Island Auction Hits

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By Catherine Little Bert

Well, Thursday is the last day of our current exhibit and we have had many visitors and questions about the auction market. So, for those of you too far a field to visit us at 540 South Water Street I’m posting the wall text that I wrote on the topic (please visit the slide show to see any of the images larger). Enjoy…

American Art in Auction
Prior to the 1980’s, paintings by American artists lagged significantly behind their European counterparts. But as American collectors became interested in their native artistic heritage – American art prices began to soar. Rhode Island had its share of significant painters to add to the mix. With the stock market crash in 1987, Black Monday, there was a slow down in the art auction market by 1990. The art market has been significantly revived in the last 5 years. In the Sotheby’s Art Market Review of 2006 their description of the American Art market was “Domestic Bliss.”

The continued bullish mood and growing strength in the American art market was evident in the November 2006 week’s total for Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions. Collectors and dealers responded strongly to quality as a selection of American art sent the sale total over the high estimates for both auction houses. Sotheby’s sale total of 82.8 million far surpassed the firm’s pre-sale high of 65 million, significantly exceeding Christie’s 38.2 sales total.” “The Impressionist & Modern Art market continues its stratospheric rise, breaking all records with more than 2 billion in auctions sales worldwide in 2006, Sotheby’s is central to this market growth – tripling sales in the last two years and bringing new collectors to the auction rooms: new buyers accounted for 42% of Impressionist & Modern Art sales in 2006.”
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Artist Report Card: An artist must be evaluated on more attributes than just the auction record. There are some artists who are sold primarily in the gallery market and relying only on the auction prices is deceptive. This is because the artists’ exhibition history and artistic training must be likewise evaluated. If you want to draw a parallel to the stock market a blue chip stock would be an artist who scores high on all variables: auction record, gallery sales, exhibition and museum history, productivity and artistic training. A penny stock would be an artist who on some variables scores high and others low. There are certainly no guarantees, only attributes of an artist that you should be aware of when purchasing a painting. What an informed buyer needs to decide first and foremost is “do you like the painting.” If so, then you review the artist from all aspects to understand the ”real” value of your purchase.

Variables to Consider
1. Auction Record: What are the published auction prices on the artist?
2. Gallery Retail Sales: These generally are private but you can see if an artist is represented by a number of galleries and what are the retail prices. Galleries also add to marketing an artist and making them known in the art arena.
3. Exhibition & Museum History: During their lifetime how active was the artist in exhibiting their work and where did they exhibit – local, national or international venues.
4. Subject Matter: Is there a more desirable subject matter for an artist? Do still life sell higher than landscape?
5.Productivity: How many paintings did the artist produced. Limited numbers are often a liability. A serious artist will produce hundreds of paintings over their career.
6. Artistic Training: Where did the artist study? Did they study under an important artist?
7. Provenance & freshness to the market: What is the history of the painting? Who owned it? Was it exhibited in an important institution – the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum?
8. What are the current economic conditions?: The auction market tends to do better during times of war and terror – the World Trade center tragedy of 2001 did not affect the art auction sales. Taste and fashion also lead to the popularity of some periods of art over others. 50% of paintings sales are happening on the private market.
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Sales Distributions
.2% of auction sales are over million.
83% of lots in 2005 were less than $10,000.

For the exhibit we installed the artwork by auction profile and trends. How were Rhode Island artists profiling in the art market? Specific artists’ work were shown with each example and a commentary written.

Consistent Auction Trends
Mabel May Woodward (1877–1948) is a Rhode Island artist collected beyond the state borders. She has achieved record prices for her beach scenes of $59,500 in 1997, $58,500 in 2001 and $57,500 in 2006. Other desirable subject matter includes her Woman in the Garden series painted in the early 1900’s and her Charleston, South Carolina scenes. For other subject matters there is a significant drop off in prices as evidenced in the Skinner 2006 sales where small canvases averaged in the $2,000 – $5,000 range. Woodward shows a consistent auction trend since the 1980’s.

Auction Appreciation
F. Usher De Voll’s New York City Scenes have seen a significant rise in value. In one of the perfect examples of auction market activity his oil painting of the East River in New York City was estimated to sell at Christie’s in New York in 1989 for $20,000-$30,000. It sold for $31,000. Seventeen years later the same painting come onto the market at Sotheby’s in 2006 with an estimate of $30,000-$50,000 and it sold for $66,000. This is a prime example of significant and steady auction appreciation by an artist. However, De Voll has only achieved only moderate sales prices in other categories such as landscapes ($800. – $5,000.).

Popular Local Artists with No Auction Records
Maxwell Mays and Spencer Crooks are household names both in and out of Rhode Island artistic circles. Spencer Crooks was a well-respected water colorist who in his early career garnered exhibits at important venues such as the Royal Academy In London. He was a popular exhibitor at the Providence Art Club and important watercolor instructor. Maxwell Mays has achieved even greater name recognition for his naïve style and historical depictions of Rhode Island in bygone eras. His widely marketed prints have made him a household legend and can be seen in many Rhode Island corporations and area bank branches. Despite their popularity in their home state, both of these artists have never had their paintings appear in the auction market. (Actually Maxwell Mays had an oil which was up for sale in Skinner’s in … and it never achieved the reserve price). This factor significantly restricts both artists market to the Rhode Island area and has depressed the secondary market for their works. The secondary market is when a painting that was purchased directly from an artist exhibit is re-sold by the original buyer. For example, a painting by Spencer Crooks or Maxwell Mays will often appear on the market at 40 – 60% of the original price that the painting sold for in an exhibition ten to twenty years ago. What will happen ten to twenty years from no one really does not know.

Fluctuations in the Auction Market
Antonio Cirino was an important artist on many levels. Not only was he one of the early Italian American painters to achieve national recognition, Cirino was a teacher at RISD and one of the early members of the Rockport Art Association. Cirino’s painting sales demonstrate how paintings can fluctuate in the market. Upon his death in 1983, his estate was tied up for many years before it was settled. Toward the end of his life, Cirino started to see significant appreciation in his prices. This is clearly documented by his Providence Art Club exhibitions in the early 1980’s. With the rise in prices of his fellow Rockport artist peers – Emile Gruppe and Anthony Thieme, there was much anticipation about the appreciation in Cirino paintings. However, the estate tied up for many years and the few canvases that were on the auction market started to rise in value. But when the estate was settled and the benefactors the Sal Magundi Art Club in New York City and the Rockport Art Association started to sell off their Cirino inventory – prices dropped as there were many paintings on the market. While certainly Cirino remained the same talented painter in 1980, in 1990 and in 2000 the prices of paintings at auction remained luke warm. The strong sales in American paintings over the last two years have benefited Cirino who once again is showing a healthy and consistent auction sale record.

Significant Art Historical Profile, Little Market Recognition
Knowing an artist’s background is critical to establishing the value of the artwork. In the case of Koelher-Bittkow, you have a tremendously talented woman artist who has significant art historical presence. She was part of the 1930’s Bauhaus movement in Germany, was the first instructor of weaving and counted among her colleagues the critically acclaimed artists Joseph Albers and Lyonel Feininger. She fled Germany to settle in Boston to escape WWII. Despite some stateside exhibitions at the Margaret Brown gallery in Boston, she never achieved much notice for her remarkable woodcuts, collages and watercolors. In 2005 a few of her early German woodcuts achieved respectable sales of $500 each at Swann galleries in 2005. This auction market sale will perhaps introduce her to a broader audience where her talent and accomplishments will be better reflected in her auction prices.

On the Brink: Schizophrenic Auction Activity
Charles Shaw has a very well established museum and exhibit record. In addition his work is showing agitated activity in the auction market and strong representation in the New York gallery scene. In both markets his prices fluctuate based upon the subject matter and period of production. Recently, there has been much interest in American painters and abstraction in the 1950’s, making Shaw’s early work a prime target for collectors. The later work, from the 1960’s, is starting to be sought after since fewer of the 1950’s work is available. Randall Morgan, another painter of note has not enjoyed the pitched auction fever that Shaw has yet this geometric painting exhibited at the 1950 Whitney Exhibit is as impressive as the work of Shaw. Comparing the two artists, the Morgan is from a stronger art period, has good provenance and likely to catch the attention of a collector.

Considerable Investment Hype – Dead on Arrival at Auction
There are many artists who are promoted very heavily by galleries. This marketing brings name recognition but not necessarily value to the artists’ work. If you look at two artists Erte and Delacroix commercial galleries have very much hyped their market but the auction market shows the sobering reality of “art as an investment.” This Erte suite of numbers was purchased in 1981 for $9,200. and appraised by the gallery it was purchased from “Circle Gallery” in San Diego California for $47,000 in 1992. The current 2007 auction estimate to sell the work is $1,200-$2,000. Furthermore, there are two sales of the entire “Numbers” portfolio at auction each for c. $2000 in both Chicago and Bloomfield Hills, MI. These are sobering numbers and if you look to the Delacroix market you see similar results: a very high retail sales market in the gallery setting and very poor auction sales. This brings us to the discussion of art as a financial asset. While economic studies show that art over a 50 year time period has an 10% appreciation – stocks 11%, selling art is not an easy task. Art is not very “liquid” and you must study the timing and conditions for sale. Sotheby’s makes billions of dollars selling and re-selling art yet their mantra about art as an investment is “ Buy art because you like it, not as an investment.” Marchel Delacroix has a number of galleries in France and the United States who sell his original oils and prints. The prints can retail from $500 – $1,200. Yet, in the auction market they do very poorly. An original oil in a gallery is priced at $36,000. In auction a similar painting can only achieve a $1,000 sale price. One Delacroix estimated to go for $20,000 in a Connecticut auction was bought in because it did not achieve the reserve. Interestingly, there are several internet sites that sell the Delacroix works directly to buyers. These internet sites are similar to a gallery where they are retail prices, which have little correspondence to the auction prices.

Comparables to Internet Value at Auction
Often times you need to compare an artists work with other artists of the same time period and style. If the estate of an artist was poorly promoted after their death then they often fall into obscurity. Over the course of time you get a better perspective on their talent and how to measure success. For instance, Henry Newell Cady is a wonderful seascape artist. When looking at contemporaries of his time William Trost Richards or Edmund Darch Lewis you recognize that these artists command impressive prices for their work. Both Richards and Lewis have important career accomplishments when compared to Henry Newell Cady. However, Cady had a respectable career himself and his work compared to Lewis and Richards is a remarkable buy when compared. While auction data for Cady is beginning to get established, you find the gallery prices of his work in Maine and New York to be 3 to 4 times the auction value. This is an important marker for value of a historical artist who demonstrates superb technical skill and a sophisticated understanding of his subject matter.