DALLAS – Heritage Auctions’s latest American Art event, held May 7, was its biggest ever, realizing more than $10.75 million in a near-sellout that resulted in myriad records, among them the highest price – by far – ever paid for a painting by legendary illustrator Joseph Christian Leyendecker. His Beat-up Boy, Football Hero, which appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on Nov. 21, 1914, sold Friday for $4.12 million, shattering the previous world record for a work by the influential illustrator.
The Beat-Up Boy had never before been to auction, having remained with the family of its original owner for more than a century.
“I always vowed that I would be the first one to sell a million-dollar Leyendecker,” said Aviva Lehmann, Heritage Auctions’ New York City-based Director of American Art. “I am honored to have sold this masterwork for $4.1 million. Not only was it a huge day for Heritage, but it was a historic day for American art.”
Indeed, numerous lots in the American Art Signature Auction sold far beyond their pre-sale estimates, and auction records were set for several artists, among them Frederik Ebbesen Grue, Gustave Baumann, and Linden Frederick.
And on top of all that, Birger Sandzen stood among the auction’s biggest stars: The art professor’s playful, almost proto-psychedelic works dazzled collectors who fought over the six works made available in this auction, chief among them Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado from 1930. Its sale price of $225,000 more than doubled its low pre-auction estimate, after a pitched bidding war that broke out shortly after it opened at $52,500.
As Lehmann likes to say: “American art is back.”
All of it, too, from the snowcapped mountains and tumultuous seascapes of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt to the potent sculptures of Carl Ethan Akeley to the giddy, vibrant scenes of LeRoy Neiman to the masters of magazine illustration, Leyendecker only one among them. Little wonder it took almost five hours to sell only 189 lots: More than 1,000 bidders worldwide participated in one of the most thoughtful, wide-ranging and bountiful American art events in recent memory.
“Clients have learned to expect quality across all collecting categories in American Art events at Heritage,” said Lehmann. “This particular auction boasted masterworks from every genre in the category, and clients clamored for a piece of it.”
It’s no surprise, either, that Norman Rockwell likewise exceeded estimates Friday: His Excuse Me! (Soldier Escorting Woman) sold for $543,000, a price tag befitting its significance as the artist’s first cover for Judge magazine, where it appeared on July 7, 1917. This rich, playful piece, featuring a young woman in pink ruffles declaring her independence from one man to link arms with another, was first sold at a Liberty War Bonds auction during World War I.
Another classic from the Golden Age of Illustration Art stormed into the event: Eugene Iverd’s The Siege, the snowball fight that appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on Jan. 15, 1927. It sale price, $162,500, also set a new auction record for the artist.
Thomas Moran’s A Mountain of Loadstone-Arabian Nights from 1898, which almost seems lit from within by the sunset reflected upon snow-capped peaks and choppy waters, sold for $375,000. Albert Bierstadt’s 1889 masterwork Mount St. Helens, Columbia River, Oregon, painted at the height of the artist’s fame and representative of his love affair with the snow-covered peaks of the American Northwest, brought $350,000.
John Singer Sargent, the American who lived abroad most of his life, was represented in this event by the spirited watercolor of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, an exciting new addition to the artist’s dozen known works recording the facade of the majestic Baroque church located at the entrance to the city’s Grand Canal. It sold Friday for $250,000, more than twice its estimate.
Andrew Wyeth’s St. George, the artist’s homage to the coastal Maine where he found his inspiration, also sold for $250,000. This undated work, depicting one of the area’s historic architectural landmarks, the Finnish Congregational Church and Parsonage on St. George Road in South Thomaston, had never before been to auction.
LeRoy Neiman’s Roulette Table at Vegas from 1970 might be considered St. George’s reverse: Like all of Neiman’s works it’s so bright and action-packed one can almost hear the clicks of the wheel and the clamor of the crowd – like a scene from the original Ocean’s 11 or a Bond film. No surprise this was among the sale’s biggest hits, too, realizing $200,000 on Friday.
In all, 15 pieces in this event crossed the six-figure mark, among them George Wesley Bellows’ 1924 Mill Dam, which showcases the artist’s extraordinary use of color. The work opened bidding Friday at $36,000. But like so many of the lots in the American Art event, it attracted a long and strong bidding war, which pushed this gem to $187,500, almost twice its pre-sale estimate.
Wonders and delights abounded throughout the sale, and at all price points. Grue’s stunning still life Foo Dog and Persimmons from 1981, which almost looks photo-realistic, sold for $87,500 in the American Art event to set a world auction record for the artist. Tucker Smith’s Union Pacific Railroad, a work from 1992, opened bidding at $15,000 only to close at $68,750, more than twice its high estimate. And Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s 1910 Along the River-Martigues, from The Wainwright Collection of American Modernism, opened at $30,000 only to sell for $87,500.
And then there were the magnificent sculptures, among them The Wounded Comrade, a bronze of African elephants by taxidermist, conservationist, biologist, photographer and sculptor Carl Akeley. The 1913 work, cast 14 years later for Tiffany & Co., sold for $78,125. Also, Paul Manship’s 1932 bronze Shoebill Stork, one of the models used in the final design for the Paul J. Rainey Memorial Gateway to the New York Zoological Gardens, sold for $81,250, almost three times its estimate.
“Given its 98 percent sell-through, and the numerous auction records shattered, it is clear that Heritage has risen to the top of the American Art field,” Lehmann says. “We are a force.”
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