KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – “Don’t forget to invest in art,” quipped auctioneer Wendell Hanson at one point, as one after another painting blew past its estimate at the Winter Case Antiques Auction. The socially distanced live audience chuckled behind their masks, but hardly needed reminding. In fact, the January 30-31 sale set new world auction records for nearly a dozen listed artists. Absentee and Internet live bidding was available through LiveAuctioneers.
Case also set a new company record for the number of bidders: although the floor crowd was limited to 50, there were 8,000 other registered online, phone and absentee bidders participating from more than 60 countries. The diverse auction featured 1,184 lots of art, jewelry and antiques dating from the16th through 21st centuries, and eager buyers pushed the overall dollar value of the sale to its high total estimate by the middle of the first day.
The top-selling lot took the room by surprise: a romantic William Oliver (France/UK, 1823-1901) oil on canvas of a man with cigarette in hand, gazing at a fan-clutching beauty on a park bench (above). Estimated at $1,800-2,200, it skyrocketed to $40,960, beating the $27,000 auction record set for Oliver by Sotheby’s back in 1997. Oliver’s oils hadn’t brought more than $10,000 at auction since 2011, making the sudden battle between mostly floor and phone bidders all the more remarkable. Both the buyer and underbidder were private collectors. All prices in this report include the buyer’s premium.
“Clearly a lot of people are staying close to home these days, and finding joy in collecting or furnishing their homes in a way we haven’t seen for a long time,” said company president John Case. “We’ve attracted a lot of new buyers, and some of our longtime buyers are getting better at navigating online bidding. The result is a strong market, for which we’re very thankful.”
A small, mid-19th century watercolor Caribbean landscape by important Trinidad artist Michel Cazabon (1813-1888) doubled its $10,000-14,000 estimate to hit $33,280, while an oil landscape by Angel Botello (Puerto Rico, 1913-1986) brought $12,800.
A vivid abstract sunburst on canvas set a new record for Tennessee/Indiana expressionist painter Burton Callicott (1907-2003) at $28,800.
The previous record for Missouri artist Joseph Vorst fell when his oil study for a WPA-era mural, depicting wheat farmers, raked in $26,400. The Vorst painting was from the estate of businessman Carl Klein of Brentwood, Tennessee, a collector who focused his energies on mostly American regional art of the 20th century. The majority of paintings from Klein’s estate outperformed their estimates, including a New York harbor scene by Joseph Cain, $10,880.
Bidders snapped up the strong supply of regional art from other consignors, as well. An illegibly signed Hudson River School autumn landscape painting quadrupled its estimate at $14,400, while an Emile Gruppe Gloucester harbor scene docked at $10,880. A panoramic realist landscape of Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains by John Wesley Chumley (Virginia/Tennessee, 1928-1984) peaked at $13,200 and a luminist landscape by Kentucky artist Carl Christian Brenner glowed at $8,400. A private collector in the room paid a record-setting $10,800 for a circa 1900 Southern landscape featuring a young African-American man with hoe in hand, by Tennessee artist Edwin Gardner (1845-1935). Gardner honed his talent at the Royal Academy in Brussels and the National Academy of Design before returning to Mississippi and Tennessee, but his work rarely appears on the market.
Case broke its own auction record – twice on the same day – for work by Helen LaFrance. The self-taught Kentucky artist, who died in late 2020 at the age of 101, was known for her “memory” paintings, which had previously hammered for up to $6,240. Bidders chased her large oil on panel of a church picnic to $9,600, while a small Fourth of July Patriotic scene set off fireworks at $8,400.
There were several strong results for works on paper. A signed expressionist screenprint by William Scott (1913-1989), Bottle & Bowl, Blues on Green, tallied a strong $14,080 – a world record auction price for that image. A Romare Bearden 1977 color screenprint and photo-lithograph, Mother and Child, realized $5,888 and a George Rodrigue “Blue Dog” limited-edition estate lithograph titled Take Me Back to Texas hit $3,456.
Mid-century modern pieces dominated the furniture category. The day’s top furniture lot was a George Nakashima hanging wall cabinet at $14,080, with a set of four Warren Platner for Knoll wire chairs close behind, selling to a Paris collector for $12,800. The Platner chairs hailed from a collection of mid-century furniture and art from the Memphis headquarters of Guardsmark, an international security firm founded by the late Ira Lipman in 1963. Lipman’s collection of Knoll furniture, used in his executive offices, also included three Knoll credenzas designed by Florence Knoll Basset, ranging from $5,520-$6,400. A Knoll Kyoto etagere designed by Gianfranco Frattini hit $5,520, while a Barcelona couch/daybed designed by Mies van der Rohe rested at $5,632 and an oval table desk with highly figured wood top tallied $4,096. From other consignors, a Philip and Kelvin Laverne “Chan” coffee table sold for $8,960 and a pair of Knoll Barcelona chairs with caramel colored original leather brought $5,888.
In the jewelry and objets de vertu category, a 2.93 carat round brilliant cut solitaire ring, VS2 clarity and J color, doubled its estimate to achieve $21,600, and a 3.19 ct. t.w. ring with an emerald cut center stone (clarity SI1, color L), flanked by two half-moon cut diamonds, sparkled at $15,360 (est. $5800-$6,200).
A six-piece Francis I sterling tea set with sterling tray (no kettle) brought a strong $16,800. An early 20th century seven-piece Mount Vernon sterling tea set with kettle and sterling tray in the neoclassical-style Pompeiian pattern earned $9,000. The top-selling sterling flatware service was a 157-piece set of S. Kirk & Son Repousse pattern flatware at $5,520.
The Book, Document and Historical category continues to be one of the biggest draws at Case. An Ayn Rand signed 1943 true first edition of her first major literary success, The Fountainhead, (with dust jacket) rocketed to $23,040.
An Andrew Jackson autograph letter, signed, detailing the President’s intervention at West Point on behalf of his late aide’s orphaned son, elicited $9,000. A 1778 engraved view of Philadelphia published by Carington Bowles sold for $8,320 despite having multiple tears.
Southern decorative arts continued their strong streak, in a variety of mediums. A rectangular Cherokee rivercane lidded storage basket made by Eva Wolfe (1922-2004) in pristine condition, tripled its estimate at $10,200.
A North Carolina 5-gallon stoneware jug with initials for Daniel Seagle (1805-1867), formerly from the Daisy Wade Bridges collection, hit $4,800 (est. $1,400-$1,800).
Tennessee Samplers are a rare commodity, and ones with city names are even harder to find, which helps explain the excitement over an alphabet and basket of flowers sampler signed “Eliza A. Folwell, Nashville, 1836.” Collectors pursued it to a strong $7,200 (est. $4,800-$5,200).
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