Sporting Art on the Wing After Market Setback

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A.E. Crowell running curlew, $247,250. A.E. Crowell running curlew, $247,250.
The migratory habits of collectors were on display in late July as buyers of sporting art made their annual swing through coastal New England. Prices for decoys and fine art depicting sportsmen’s pursuits rose dramatically until 2007, cresting that year with Guyette & Schmidt’s auction of a red-breasted merganser hen by Lothrop Holmes (1824-1899) for $856,000 and Stephen O’Brien Jr.’s private sales of two A. E. Crowell (1862-1952) decoys for $1.13 million apiece. Following a steep fall-off, prices have begun to climb back in this clubby, traditionally male-dominated field. As the recent round of auctions demonstrates, Crowell, the best known of the decorative carving movement’s early 20th century pioneers, is still king.
Copley Fine Art Auctions’ July 21-22 Sporting Sale in Plymouth, Ma. was 86 percent sold by lot and fell squarely within its estimated range, garnering roughly $2.5 million on just over 650 lots. Nearly 300 potential buyers from around the country previewed the event. About half of all registered bidders were in the room. The Boston-based firm logged its biggest internet sale to date with N.C. Wyeth’s “One January Afternoon,” an oil on canvas of 1915 that made $86,250, 22 percent less than its price at Skinner just nine years ago.
  • Copley’s cover lot, a circa 1912 running curlew made by A. Elmer Crowell, set a new auction record for a decorative shorebird by the carver when it brought $247,250 (est. $60/90,000). Copley sold a comparable carving for $189,000 in 2007. “We had four bidders up to $190,000. Two final bidders, one in the room and one on the phone, carried it to $215,000 plus premium,” O’Brien said. [Lot 380]

  • A jack curlew by Crowell set a record at auction for a miniature shorebird when it hammered down at $12,650 including premium against an estimate of $4,000 to $5,000. The pigment and pattern on the circa 1910 sculpture are nearly identical to that on the cover lot, the full size running curlew above. [Lot 340]

  • Offered at auction for the first time, a circa 1870 canvas-covered swimming old squaw by Lothrop Holmes of Kingston, Ma. achieved $218,500 (est. $150/250,000). It is from a well-known rig found in the Boston area in the 1960s. The buyer also claimed the subsequent lot, a Holmes old squaw drake from the same rig, for $74,750 (est. $60/90,000). [Lot 518]

  • “It was in excellent condition and had good provenance, which is key with decoys by Lee Dudley (1860-1942),” O’Brien said of a Knott Island, N.C., canvasback drake that dated to around 1890. It surpassed estimate to bring $69,000. The decoy is thought to have been part of a rig made for a member of the Dudley’s Island Club, owned by Lee’s twin brother, Leonard. Dudley carvings have long been prized by collectors. [Lot 629]

  • Though of later date and factory made, Mason decoys enjoy a solid following, especially among Pacific Coast collectors. A circa 1910 Hudsonian curlew by Mason exceeded estimate to bring $37,375. It was also the top-selling Mason decoy in the 1996 auction of the John A. Hillman collection, where it achieved $15,400. [Lot 584]

  • “Springers and Pheasants,” an oil on canvas painting of 1948 by Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969), made what O’Brien believes is a record auction price, $97,750 but, contradictorily, failed to meet its $100/200,000 estimate. “We based the estimate on a Ripley watercolor that we sold a few years ago. This is one of three paintings that I believe to be the artist’s best. Perhaps a lower estimate would have generated more bidding activity,” said O’Brien. [Lot 27]
Guyette & Schmidt’s July 19-20 sale in Portsmouth, N.H., was its best summer event in four years, grossing roughly $1.5 million on 592 lots. The two-day session called by Fairfield, Me., auctioneer James Julia saw a 43 percent increase in online bidders and a 15 percent increase in bidders in the room from a year ago. The partnership also hosts seasonal events in Maryland, Ohio and Illinois, acknowledging the broadly North American interest in sporting art as well as the regional nature of many individual collections.
“Quality sells in a weaker economy. Collectors are seeking the best,” said founding partner Gary Guyette. Material of Pacific Coast, Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina interest performed especially well.
  • As elsewhere, the graceful sculptures of East Harwich, Ma. carver A.E. Crowell took top honors. Leading the flock was a circa 1900 willet that boasted fine detail, excellent condition and desirable provenance. It sold at the low end of its range for $57,500, the same price paid for Lot 316, a full size decorative golden plover featured in Brian Cullity’s 1992 loan exhibition and catalogue on Crowell for Heritage Plantation Museum in Sandwich, Ma.  [Lot 106]

  • An old squaw drake, maker unknown, was found near Rockland, Me., in 1968 by Don Snyder, who sold it to the consigner in the mid 1980s. An appealing form and a finely executed head pushed the price of this bird to $24,725 (est. $12/15,000). A rig mate is displayed at the Maine State Museum. [Lot 90]

  • A comprehensive new book, The Stevens Brothers: Their Lives, The Times and Their Decoys by Dr. Peter J. Muller and Peggy Lane Muller, has invigorated the market for works by these New York carvers. Dating from the 1880s, a rare golden-eye drake in eclipse plumage, a special order from maker George Stevens, sold for $18,400 (est. $14/16,000). [Lot 42]

  • Rarer than most Crowells, a curlew made by Walter Brady of Oyster, Va. in the last quarter of the 19th century brought $48,875 (est. $40/60,000). [Lot 387]

  • A late 19th century running knot from Cobb Island, Va., was purchased at auction a decade ago for around $16,000 and resold for $25,875. [Lot 393]

  • Dating to the last quarter of the 19th century, a well sculpted bluebill drake from a member of the Doughty family of Hog Island, a barrier island on Virginia’s eastern shore, fetched $18,975. [Lot 458]

  • A rare rig mate pair of green wing teal by Mitchell LaFrance of Saint Sophie, La., more than doubled low estimate to bring $18,975. [Lot 67]
“Even though we did not have a major collection to build around, overall sales were much stronger than a year ago. Some of our market is sportsmen but bird lovers are also a big part, especially for the decorative bird carvings,” Ted Harmon said of the auction that he and his wife, Judy, organized in Hyannis, Ma. The July 24-25 event realized roughly $1.4 million with premium. Of special note were A.E. Crowell miniatures from the collection of Joseph Bard French.
  • A prized possession of Dr. George Ross Starr, a sicklebill curlew found in Duxbury, Ma. roared past estimate to sell for $111,550. A rare form in near mint condition, it came from the Fox family in Chatham, Ma. “We had two people who wanted it badly,” Harmon explained. [Lot 358a]

  • “We got close but it passed,” Harmon said of a red-breasted merganser hen, possibly dating to the late 19th century, by Franklin Pierce Wright of West Barnstable, Ma. It passed at $54,000. “This is the most important merganser I’ve ever seen. I’d like it to stay on the Cape or go to a museum,” says the auctioneer, who is negotiating a private sale. [Lot 533a]

  • A circa 1900 hissing Canada goose by George Boyd, New Hampshire’s premier carver, fetched $60,375. “We had one last year. News of its sale bought this one out of the woodwork,” said Harmon. [Lot 79]

  • A pair of red-breasted mergansers made by Maine carver Irving Wallace in the early 20th century went for $37,375. “The form, condition and rarity are incredible,” says Harmon. [Lot 81]

  • A late 19th century sanderling made by the Chipman family of Sandwich, Ma. fetched $23,000. “We sold one for $90,000 in 2006. This one had a replaced bill,” the auctioneer explained. The Chipman brothers made wooden molds for the Sandwich Glass Factory. The cobalt eyes used for these birds is said to be Sandwich glass. [Lot 142]

  • The Harmons deal in other arts of Cape Cod, including pictures by the Cahoon family.  “King Neptune,” a painting on board with two mermaids and the god of the sea by Ralph Cahoon of Cotuit, Ma. achieved $24,150. A second Cahoon, depicting a Chinese auctioneer offering two mermaids for sale, made $23,000. [Lot 435]

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