Auction Action December 2010: Through the Eyes of a Dealer

Published on December 17th, 2010 | Posted in Art Market Analysis

I eagerly awaited the December auction catalogues steadfast in the belief that great buying opportunities would exist as a result of the economic contraction. Auctions in the recent past offered little quality as collectors were reluctant to offer prized paintings in the heart of the recession, but this round had far superior selections––yet another indication that we are in the early stages of recovery.

I felt a sense of urgency, thinking that the market may be transitioning and the buyer’s advantage may be fading. I decided that this was the time to go “all in,” but I needed to reinforce my resolve so I summoned me, myself, and I to a midnight meeting. We reflected upon all the missed opportunities of the past and the lament of those who watched them go by.  Why did so many fail to see that good fortune was right before their eyes? The assembled triumvirate put forth a theory: they determined that if one calibrates his thinking to the present, his beliefs will be in accord with the common perception, which is distorted by a constant barrage of conflicting data and emotion. However, if one’s thinking is calibrated so as to be in harmony with the greater passage of time he will be much closer to the mean, a far more reliable foundation to formulate opinion and prediction. The concept had unanimous support and so I convinced me and myself to spend our money.

With fortified confidence, I set out to the first of the auctions: Bonhams. My top lot was a small but exquisite Blakelock painting of shanties under a starry sky. It was pure magic and I paid more than twice the high estimate. A compelling Edward Moran of two boys fishing painted like a great Homer caught my attention. It was estimated at $10,000 to $15,000 and I took it to about $40,000 only to watch it sell for $46,000. A fine modernist work by Bluemner entitled Downpour was offered at $25,000 to $35,000. I thought the estimate was far too low as it compared favorably to works that have sold for much more. I was prepared to pay over twice the high estimate and was fortunate enough to acquire it for just a bit above that. Later that evening a dealer called and offered a fair profit for the Bluemner; so, at the day’s end, I bought three paintings and sold one.

I went to Christie’s on Wednesday for a more serious round of buying. There were many paintings worthy of consideration but two were obvious standouts. The first of these was George Inness’s Nine o’clock. A major exhibition piece that was thought lost for many years, its pedigree was stunning as it had no less than 17 literary references and was exhibited at five major exhibitions. I stood before the painting and felt overwhelmed by the impact of Inness’s genius. The painting’s visionary qualities and otherworldly feelings were expressed with extreme power and confidence. I stood before this masterpiece and was determined to acquire it. A thousand considerations ran through my mind and as the moments passed I continued to raise my limit. I knew that I would reach beyond any predetermined amount no matter how disciplined I was and so the waiting began. The auction estimate was too low at $150,000 to $250,000 and the painting had considerable buzz. The bidding began at a furious pace but slowed as it broke through the $250,000 level. I could hardly contain myself when the hammer fell to my paddle at about $338,000.

I had to suspend my celebration because another monster was due up in just three lots. John Kensett’s New England Sunrise was a perfect example of the artist’s abilities as a luminist master. Its provenance was impeccable and many bidders were discussing its merits. The pre-sale estimate was conservative at $500,000 to $700,000; I thought the actual value to be in excess of $1,000,000. This painting caught everyone off guard as the bidding was sluggish; nevertheless, I found myself up against a determined collector and we battled in $10,000 increments. I offered the winning bid of about $662,000 and was surprised to be the new owner at the mid-range of the estimate. I ultimately took the painting back to the gallery but the duration of my ownership was just a matter of hours––the great ones always seem to find collectors. Ten lots later I found myself chasing another extraordinary Inness of the Palisades. It was estimated at $120,000 to $180,000 and was hammered to me at about $140,000. (I neglected to mention that early in the sale I also acquired an extraordinary Thomas Moran Venetian scene, under-estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, for $96,000.)

I was at Sotheby’s early Thursday morning with my sights set on three extraordinary works. The first was a monumental Charles Burchfield of Main Street, Salem. The work was very provocative and one of the best examples ever to come to auction. The early bidding seemed to support a pre-sale estimate that I thought too conservative at $400,000 to $600,000; however, it soon escalated and I was outbid at $962,000. I think the painting was a great acquisition for a collector with a longer time horizon and I will always regret not acquiring it. Next, a fabulous Childe Hassam pastel of Hollyhocks, Isle of Shoals was on the block. This was a premier location for the artist and the surface was superb and bright. It was unquestionably a superior example. The pre-sale estimate of $600,000 to $900,000 was reasonable as I remembered smaller watercolors of the same location that sold for millions. I was the winning bidder at $710,000 which was well within the estimate. (Perhaps a watercolor by Hassam titled Rainy Day, New York, which sold much earlier, commanded the attention of competing collectors?) I was hoping that my luck would hold as the Albert Bierstadt of Yosemite was offered. It was a brilliant luminist work with a pre-sale estimate that was just too low at $400,000 to $600,000. I bid as aggressively as I could bear but I watched it sell for $854,000. It was a fabulous buy for the winning bidder and, of course, I wished I had stayed with it a bit further. My last selection was a bit of a sleeper. It was a good size oil by Whittredge that was poorly lit and estimated at just $50,000 to $75,000. I was fortunate to win it at $50,000. My clients will be shocked when they see it re-framed and with proper lighting.

The days have gone by without doubt. A great collector once said, “I only regret the paintings I did not buy.”  I am always willing to tell more war stories and I encourage all of you to visit.

Louis M. Salerno, owner of Questroyal Fine Art, is a longtime enthusiast and collector of American paintings. Once a successful seller of thoroughbred breeding stock, Lou discovered his interest in American art in the 1970s. Together with his partner and son, co-owner Brent L. Salerno, Lou actively and persistently acquires quality American paintings, fueled by his confidence in American art as a sound investment capable of providing a lifetime of enjoyment.
Email or share this post

  • Elin Lake-Ewald commented on February 11, 2011:

    Your report encourages transparency in the art market, which is both commendable and intriguing sn establishes a personal relationship between you and your readers. The question is – are there so many good buys at auction because the American Art market is at plateau currently?