What you see: A Young Woman and a Captain on an Evening Stroll, Likely Chatham, Massachusetts, an undated but probably circa 1920s oil on board by Harold Dunbar. Eldred’s sold it in August 2017 for $78,000 against an estimate of $3,000 to $5,000–stomping the artist’s previous auction record several times over.
The expert: Joshua Eldred, president of Eldred’s and head of its fine arts department.
First, let’s talk about the artist who made this work, Harold Dunbar. What can you tell me about him? There are two distinct parts of his career. When he was younger he lived in Canton, Massachusetts. He was a gifted Impressionist painter, and if he stayed that course, he might be better regarded than he is today. In the 1910s, he moved to Chatham, Massachusetts, and he started to work for the tourist trade. He could paint local scenes of Chatham fairly quickly, and he sold them to tourists and locals for a tidy sum. Lore says he had quite the alcohol issue. We see a real variety of quality in his later era–some paintings where he didn’t give his all, and others that are much better.
Did this work have a name when it came to you? No, it did not have a name. We applied the name.
This has been described as Dunbar’s best work. What makes it so? Obviously it’s a very subjective thing to say. In my opinion it’s in the top five. It’s certainly the best we’ve ever handled. The thing that really grabs people is the woman. She’s looking right at you and she’s almost talking to you, like she’s trying to draw you into the painting. Her pose, the way her head is cocked, the way she’s looking toward the viewer, it’s really dramatic.
How do we know the landscape shows the Cape Cod town of Chatham? There’s a bit of debate about that now. Some feel it might be Truro instead. We can’t say it’s an exact point in Chatham. There’s a bit of a debate about exactly where it is on the Cape, but we’re fairly sure it’s Truro now.
Do we know if he used models for this, and if so, do we know who the models were? I don’t know. I suspect he did. He didn’t do an awful lot of figurative work.
What makes this painting stand out among Dunbar’s works? The prominent figures, the work is a fairly large size for him, and the quality is outstanding. He obviously puts a lot of time and effort into it. On the quality scale of his Cape Cod works, it’s a 10.
How many Dunbars have you handled? How have you seen his market change over time? We’ve handled probably 500 Dunbars. The market for him has been pretty steady. There’s always been pretty solid demand, particularly on the cape. They’re bright, cheerful, and fairly easy and popular sells.
How did the painting find its way to you? It came in to an art dealer in a shop in Denver, Colorado last summer. The dealer called us to refer the consigner, and shipped the painting out. It was not where you expect to find a Dunbar. My suspicion is someone who was probably here originally left the area. We didn’t see a public record of it being sold. None of the local dealers and collectors recalled seeing it on the market before.
Did that prompt a concern that it might be fake? Are fakes a problem with Dunbar’s work? That didn’t concern us at all. There actually have been a few fakes out there, but they’re pretty easy to spot. A lot of the “fakes” that we see are not intentionally faked, but people thinking, “If I put a signature on it, I can make a couple hundred bucks.”
What was it like to see it show up? It was exciting. We looked at it and said, “Wow, this is the best Dunbar we’ve ever seen.” It was a nice moment to unpack it. I put it on the cover of the catalog not thinking it would bring that kind of money, but because I thought it was a powerful image.
How did you arrive at the estimate of $3,000 to $5,000? Estimates are always a tricky thing. As an auctioneer, you want the estimate to be fair but conservative. In this case, the Dunbar auction record up to that point was $5,000. It was a very nice harbor painting that we sold about 10 years before. Only about five percent of his works had broken the $3,000 barrier. Conservative estimates are better, but a lot of people get caught up in the moment and bid what they want to bid. I thought if they got caught up, on a great day, the Dunbar might sell for $10,000 to $15,000.
When did you get a notion that the Dunbar might do better than $5,000? We had a preview two weeks before the sale, and it was very, very well-received. Dunbar collectors loved it. Even those who didn’t care about Dunbar loved it.
What was your role in the auction? I am one of the principal auctioneers, but I did not auction the Dunbar. I was a bystander.
What do you remember of the sale? I think it started around $5,000. There were two very active people in the room, and it quickly got around $15,000. After $15,000, there was one bidder on the phone and one in the room who bid it up to the final price. The person who bought it was in the room, and the underbidder was on the phone.
What was your reaction when you saw it glide past $15,000? I would have been pleased with $15,000. Once it got to $20,000, I was shocked. It was a surprise to everybody. Two people desperately had to have it, and it became a battle.
Why do you think they fought so hard for it? I think the painting just spoke to them. This is just my analysis of it–I haven’t spoken to either of them. This is a wonderful Cape Cod painting. Everyone was taken in by the female figure. It’s a pleasing painting, a relaxing painting. You can picture yourself walking on a Cape Cod evening and passing her. It was one of those moments. And there’s mystery around the painting, too. The man is much older. Is it her father? Her husband? People had fun figuring out what the story was. At one point, I thought it might be a commissioned work or an illustration for a story, but there’s no proof. That’s complete conjecture on my part.
How long do you think this record will stand? Could any other Dunbar painting challenge it? I know of nothing out there that would be available for sale at any point that could challenge it. I know of some Dunbars in private hands, but they wouldn’t achieve close to this level. In my opinion, it will stand for a long time, potentially our lifetimes. It was lightning in a bottle.
Well, this painting pretty much appeared out of nowhere. Maybe lightning will strike twice? It certainly can. I’m not a gambler, and I wouldn’t bet on it, but part of the fun of what we do is we never know. Last summer, we sold a scrimshaw tooth that shattered the record, and it was bought at a gun show. There’s always that next wonderful thing out there. That’s part of what keeps us going.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Eldred’s.
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