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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Americana Rallies but Bargains Remain at Northeast

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“Boy in Blue Dress” by R.W. and S.A. Shute, $70,800 “Boy in Blue Dress” by R.W. and S.A. Shute, $70,800
The Dow collapsed this week to lows not seen in many months. But even as investors flee the stock market there are signs, at least for now, of renewed confidence in art and antiques.
I am thinking especially of Northeast Auctions’ August 5-7 sale in Manchester, N.H., featuring nearly 1,700 lots of fine and decorative arts, much of it Americana. To give you a sense of the Americana market’s gyrations, Northeast’s sales at this annual event plummeted from $9.43 million in 2008 to $2.62 million in 2009, rebounding this year to $4.6 million.
Folded into the three-day marathon, the catalogued sale of folk art from the collection of Helen and Steven Kellogg helped make the difference.  A month ago in this space, I predicted that this thoughtful  assemblage would lift the folk-art market in August.
Was I right? Yes and no. Including premium, the Kellogg collection came in near its global estimate of $1.4 million. In general, the trade bid cautiously, leaving collectors to pick and choose among the best pieces, sometimes paying half of what they had been prepared to bid.  As I write, buyers are negotiating privately on some of the passed lots and dealers are getting multiple offers on items they picked up inexpensively.
“This was a very personal and extremely interesting collection. It was put together with a great deal of passion for the material and a personal point of view,” said Patrick Bell, the Pennsylvania dealer who acted as a consultant to the Kelloggs.
Assembled during the height of the country Americana collecting movement of the 1960s through the 1980s, the Kellogg collection documented an era while offering evidence of how taste has changed.  Prices for works that hang on a wall or sit on a pedestal or shelf have steadily advanced but the romanticized ideal of the period interior has passed, taking with it the taste for antique furniture that receives daily use. One dramatic example of this trend was a rare set of eight initialed arrow-back chairs in yellow paint with red floral decoration. Purchased from the prominent Connecticut dealer Fred Giampietro, they barely mustered $3,166 with premium.
Another way of looking at how inexpensive country Americana has become is to compare prices from this sale with those achieved at the 1994 sale of the collection of Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little. Of five objects owned by both the Littles and the Kelloggs, three brought higher prices in 1994, surely an indication that present values are in many instances depressed.
Early American Rugs
Four rugs from the Kellogg collection brought $16,500 or more each, a very good result.  The top price, $73,160 (est. $15/20,000) including premium, was for a late 19th century hooked rug with great graphics and a muted palette. Decorated with two horses flanking a central star, this rug, as well as a shirred chenille example that sold for $25,960 (est. $10/15,000), are “textbook,” says auctioneer Ron Bourgeault. Both are illustrated in Joel and Kate Kopp’s classic reference, American Hooked and Sewn Rugs: Folk Art Underfoot, published in 1985. The highwater mark for rug sales was 2004, when Northeast auctioned a room-sized hooked rug for $79,500 and a runner by Magdalena Briner for $74,000.
Folk Sculpture
Sculpture was not something that the Kelloggs collected in depth. The exception to the rule was the cover lot, a late 19th century carousel figure of a giraffe attributed to Daniel Muller of the Dentzel Company in Philadelphia. It had the great form and untouched paint that collectors want.  The fact that several contenders already own similar figures may have dampened the price of the figure, which nevertheless doubled low estimate to bring $101,480 (est. $50/75,000). A large, hollow-cast chalk cat with smoke decoration was competitively bid to $27,140 (est. $6/8,000).
Folk Portraiture
Folk portraiture can be a tough sell and the Kelloggs owned a lot of it. Their sophisticated preference for edgy primitivism put them at odds with a wider public seeking colorful, undemanding pictures of children. Winners in this category included a pair of Micah Williams’ circa 1820 pastels on paper of a New Jersey couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smalley, for $129,800 (est. $15/20,000); an oil on canvas portrait of a woman attributed to the Beardsley Limner, $35,400 (est. $25/35,000); and R.W. and S.A. Shute’s watercolor portrait of child in a blue dress holding an orange, $70,800 (est. $25/35,000). Two John Brewster, Jr., pastels of little girls holding flowers sold for a combined $63,720. Losers? One, inexplicably, was a Shute double portrait of children. Estimated at $20/25,000, it failed to meet its reserve. Another was a pair of oil on canvas portraits of a New Hampshire couple attributed to Erastus Salisbury Field. Formerly the property of the pioneering dealer Edith Gregor Halpert, the pair brought only $11,800 against an estimate of $15/20,000.
Painted Furniture
An early 19th century New England chair table made news in 2000 when it brought $21,850 at Northeast’s sale of the Virginia Cave collection. Bought in this time at est. $20/$25,000, its whimsical, late 19th century painted decoration was clearly not to everyone’s taste. Alternately, a Maine blanket chest of circa 1820 doubled its low estimate to sell for $30,680. It had everything collectors look for: high bracket feet, shaped skirt, architectural details and appealing blue and ochre grained decoration. Ditto a grained red-over-ochre New Hampshire chest of drawers, $25,960, with high bracket feet and the date 1766 inscribed on its back. Massachusetts dealer Sam Herrup acquired it at the Little sale in 1994 for only $6,038. It resold for $25,960.
Write to Laura Beach at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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