RECORD! Christie’s Sells Ammi Phillips’s “Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog” for Almost $1.7 Million

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Update: Christie’s sold Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog for $1.69 million–a new world auction record for the 19th century American folk artist.

 

What you see: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, a portrait that American folk artist Ammi (pronounced Ah-mi) Phillips painted circa 1830-1835. Christie’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.

 

The expert: John Hays, deputy chairman, Christie’s Americas.

 

I’d like to start with some discussion of how Ammi Phillips was recognized and discovered. It seems like he could have disappeared, or far less would be known, if scholars had not done incredible work with identifying paintings by him. There’s a long version and a short version. The short version is like many painters who were not in the annals of art history, he was not known until people started piecing together his work in the 1960s. It was a grassroots effort. It was Mary Black who galvanized the research being done. Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter, 1788-1865 was a pioneering exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in 1968, and it traveled around. [Scholars] figured it out [what was his] because he depicted sitters holding newspapers and he signed some of his work. The family histories of the sitters also helped piece together the show. He was prolific. As the count began, they realized he did a few thousand portraits.

 

The lot notes call Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog a “quintessentially American work of art” and “strikingly modern”. What makes it so? Every country has its folk art, painted by people who didn’t go to the national academy. What makes it quintessentially American is he was painting Americans–successful sitters who were documenting their lives. The other aspect that makes it quintessentially American is [the notion that] time is money. The quicker he was able to render a portrait, the quicker he was on his way.

 

And what makes the portrait “strikingly modern”? Stacy Hollander [of the American Folk Art Museum] did a show in 2008, The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red that showed the urge to modernity, the idea of reduction to the pure form. Isn’t it interesting that it started in 1830? If you look at the dress [the sitter in Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is wearing], it’s geometric forms with little lines, a broad expanse of red. It’s a knockout, a home run. There’s no question what the statement is–a girl in a red dress. It looks forward, but it distills the form to the essence of the form. That’s an idea that the Color Field artists Clyfford Still and Rothko [embraced]. Phillips did it from a more economic point of view, but he succeeded.

 

Why do his portraits of children perform so well at auction? Phillips is at his best with children because there were no rules [for painting them]. A lot of Phillips works are dour. Some of his sitters are ministers and older people with bibles in their laps. With children, he captures the spirit of young America. That’s where he hits the home run, and that’s why there’s a huge price difference with the artist. Depicting a child evokes much more.

 

The lot notes also refers to ‘record-breaking sales in the 1980s.’ Could you elaborate? Phillips did a group of four children in red dresses, three girls and a boy, with their hands almost in the same positions. One was discovered in an appraisal day at the Corcoran Gallery in 1984. I was here [at Christie’s then]. We looked at it. The family didn’t know what it was. It was over their fireplace. By that time, the [groundbreaking 1968] Ammi Phillips show had happened, and we knew what it was. We put it in [a 1985 Christie’s auction] with an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000 and it sold for $682,000. It went to Dan Terra of the Terra Foundation. It made the front page of the New York Times. The other known portrait [of a girl sitter from the foursome, aside from this one], Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, was bought by Ralph Esmerian for the American Folk Art Museum. [After the 1985 sale], the owner [of this portrait] called us and said, ‘We think we have one.’ That’s how we discovered it 33 years ago. We’ve been quietly hoping it would come out one day.

 

That must have been delightful and startling, to have a folk art portrait sell for so much in 1985. You could acquire a major Impressionist picture [for $682,000] at that time. I put the Phillips in a jewelry vault that night. We were not prepared to have it sell for that price.

 

What makes this portrait so strong? It captures the essence of what folk art collectors want and what they look for. It’s hard to define it in words, but it has a universality to it. It’s just riveting, and kind of mesmerizing. You say, ‘God, he gets it.’

 

Do we know why the girls in the Phillips red dress portraits are wearing coral necklaces? Did coral have some sort of symbolic meaning in America in the 1830s? Coral necklaces were very popular in the 1820s and 1830s. In this portrait, she holds a bead of coral as if she’s a little nervous. She seems to say, ‘Hurry up and finish this picture, why am I here?’ As for iconography, there’s nothing we’re aware of. Coral was fashionable at the time for teething rings. The three girls [in the group of red dress portraits] each have a coral necklace. The one at Terra has two strands, this one has three strands, and the one at the American Folk Art Museum has four.

 

What is she holding in her left hand? It could be parsley. The girl in the Terra portrait is holding a strawberry. They [the items the child sitters hold] all have coded iconography that you could linger over. But it could be something Phillips gave her to hold while he painted her.

 

And what’s with the dog at the left? Is that her dog? The beagle is in all four of these portraits. Maybe it’s Ammi Phillips’s dog. Maybe it’s for the comfort of the child.

 

Yeah, about that. One of the skills Phillips had to develop as an itinerant portrait painter was to convince small children to sit still long enough for him to do his work in an age before screens. Might the dog have played the role that a screen would now–helped entertain the kid and keep her sitting in one place? It’s an idea, and it’s the same stylized beagle [in the four portraits], with the spoon-shaped lozenge on the forehead. I have a beagle. I know beagles very well. He captured the essence of a beagle, and its wry smile. If you have a beagle, you’d recognize it too.

 

I take it we don’t know who the young sitter is, even though scholars have tried to identify her? Yes. She’s adorable, that’s all I would say.

 

Is it possible that the three girls in the group of four red dress portraits are sisters or cousins? Initially we thought, ‘Are they sisters?’ But there are little differences, actually very subtle differences. The idea that they’re related is not ruled out at all. There are many unanswered questions.

 

The portraits in the group of four show kids in a virtually identical red dress. Is there a chance that Phillips traveled with the dress, as part of a small wardrobe, and offered it to the parents to use for the sitting? That’s an interesting idea, but the thing that emerges from Phillips is a spontaneity. It’s the quickly-rendered moment that folk art collectors love so much. A portrait was for a wealthy client that he poured his heart into would be worth a fraction of those that he did more quickly and got down to the essence.

 

What’s the world auction record for a Phillips? Portrait of a Young Girl and her Cat, which we sold in 2007 for $1.2 million. It’s a great picture, but it’s not in the narrow group of four. It’s one of 11 he did of children in red dresses. The girl [in the portrait sold in 2007] has a different stance.

 

What are the odds that Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog will meet or beat that sum? To be really candid, that’s the one question I can’t answer. I’m as intrigued as anybody to see what will happen in January.

 

What is it like in person? It has what my colleagues in fine art call “wall power.” It just jumps off the wall. It makes everything around it pale.

 

Why will it stick in your memory? For me, personally, I was here when we sold the first one, and it changed a lot of things in my life. It makes me reflect on the last 33 years in the art world, and how exciting it’s been. Not every day does an Ammi Phillips girl in a red dress cross my computer screen. And it expresses a sort of humanity that the experiment of America allowed. I dare you to tell me where such a portrait has emerged in any other country. That’s why I do what I do. It’s unique to portraiture in this country.

 

How to bid: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is lot 1205 in the Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver and Prints auction taking place at Christie’s New York on January 17 and 18, 2019.

 

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

 

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Sotheby’s Could Sell Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Stunning 1788 Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan for $6 Million

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What you see: Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape, a life-size oil on canvas painted in 1788 by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. Sotheby’s estimates it at $4 million to $6 million.

 

The expert: Calvine Harvey, specialist and vice president in the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s.

 

Let’s start by talking about how extraordinary Vigée Le Brun was, and how extraordinary she had to be to work as a portrait painter in 18th-century Europe. Technical competence is just the price of admission for a woman then, I take it. What other skills and talents did she have besides the obvious? She was really an absolutely remarkable woman and probably the most successful woman painter in the 17th and 18th centuries in terms of renown in her lifetime. She was unbelievable. She trained with her father originally, but he died when she was eleven years old. She certainly used the connections he set her up with to keep herself in that world. Her skill was absolutely amazing, and she was prolific. [A key skill was] her use of her connections and the way she was able to ingratiate herself in the royal court. She painted Queen Marie-Antoinette for ten years. Then the French Revolution happened. She fled France and traveled through Europe. She brought her daughter with her, not her husband–he stayed.

 

We should point out that a woman traveling Europe in the 18th century without her husband is a very different thing from a woman traveling Europe without her husband in the 21st century… Yes. She had a gentleman carriage driver and a governess for her daughter. For all her success in France, she left without anything. When she arrived in Rome, she painted an amazing self-portrait, showing herself painting Marie-Antoinette. She needed to make it for her business to survive. It’s in the Uffizi now. [The self-portrait] helped her meet people and make connections. In her memoirs, only two chapters are in France. Then she travels the world, painting people.

 

About those memoirs. Are they the source of most of what we know about the story of the Khan portrait? Are there contemporary accounts by third-party observers? There are some contemporary accounts. One is from the translator for King Louis’s court. I don’t think we have an amazingly detailed account [from the translator] and there’s no account from the other side. I wish we had one from Khan’s side. On their side, [Khan was one of three ambassadors from India, sent to France by Tipu Sultan to solicit help in pushing back against the British] we don’t have an accounting from them. They were beheaded [by Tipu Sultan after they returned to India, for falling short of the goals he set for their mission.] It’s too bad.

 

Vigée Le Brun is the master of “Make me look exactly like myself, only 20 percent more attractive.” Is she generally regarded as a reliable narrator? She was a pretty reliable narrator. Her memoir is pretty detailed, but it’s a fun read. She liked to tell stories of interesting characters [who sat for her]. She described who the people are–a lot of it is that. Her recounting is what’s used over and over in many books about the subject. From all sides, different people use her as a source, for sure.

 

Khan and his two colleagues, who Tipu Sultan sent to France, were faithful muslims. Islam maintains a taboo against depicting the image of Muhammad, the main human figure within the religion. Would the three men have had a baseline objection to having their images recorded? Certainly. Being captured pictorially was very foreign to them. Which is why Le Brun knew why she had to make the request of the king wanting something [wanting their portraits] for them to go for it. There was hesitation.

 

Yeah, about that. In her memoirs, Vigée Le Brun writes, “I saw these Indians at the opera and they appeared to me so remarkably picturesque that I thought I should like to paint them. But as they communicated to their interpreter that they would never allow themselves to be painted unless the request came from the King, I managed to secure that favour from His Majesty.” She makes it sound like getting the French king to do what she wanted was easy. I realize she was tight with the queen and the French court, but come on, it had to be tougher then she lets on, yes? It was definitely not as easy as that, but it reflects back on her resourcefulness. She knew she had to be strategic about it. I think she would say the queen [helped her] if it was the queen. She probably arranged it through her contacts at court. She knew them, and they knew her. She was part of the circle.

 

When I think of paintings by Vigée Le Brun, I think of portraits like lot 51, the 1804 pastel of Mrs. Spencer Perceval. The Khan portrait is unusual in the artist’s output, and I’d like to discuss what marks it out. I see that Khan is not looking at the viewer. How atypical is that for a Vigée Le Brun portrait? It’s not unique. It’s not common, but there are definitely other examples [of sitters not making eye contact]. In some of her Marie-Antoinette portraits, the queen is not looking directly at the viewer, especially the ones painted at full length. She said in her memoirs that Khan stood in this pose and she did not direct him. He stood, grabbed his sword, and looked off in that direction with fierce power. That was that. She was blown away, and she went with it.

 

I realize that full-length portraits often reflect the purse of the sitter–the wealthier you were, the larger your portrait could be–but obviously, she wouldn’t have charged Khan for this. Most of her full-length portraits are of Marie-Antoinette. To me, it shows how important this painting is in her entire oeuvre.

 

The lot notes comment on how Khan looks “imposing and formidable.” That’s not a typical trait we see in those who sit for Vigée Le Brun, Lot 51 is kind of like an image of a kitten with a bow, and the Khan image is like an image of a tiger. How does the artist communicate Khan’s ferocity? It’s the look on his face, but a lot of it is the pose. It’s amazing to me, the masculine power–“Let me hold a large sharp sword”–but the sword has beautiful detailed carving. It’s a work of art in itself. There’s a balance to the sense of power that comes from the sword, the pose, and the look.

 

Does she depict anyone else who looks as fierce as Khan? Not that I can think of. To me, there’s nothing like this one.

 

To get back to skills that she had to have beyond the ability to paint–she would have had to have kept Khan standing and engaged long enough to finish her work in an age before television, radio, video games, podcasts, the Internet, smart phones, and the like. Did she talk about how she managed him while she painted him? In her memoirs, she talks about how she loved the theater, and loved to sing. Marie-Antoinette and she would sing during sittings. Other than that, she didn’t talk about strategies to keep sitters engaged. But she must have some, because she did a lot of painting.

 

And would she have, say, finished Khan’s face on the spot and simply laid in details of his costume and sword and finished them later, back at her studio? I imagine a lot of what she did, she did there and then. The details of the costume were probably done then. Certainly she would have finished the background separately.

 

The notes say she painted Khan’s two colleagues as well, and the portrait of Osman Khan has since been lost. Do we know where the third painting is? She painted the other two ambassadors together, with the elder ambassador seated and the other standing behind him. That portrait is now lost. There’s a drawing of the 1789 Salon [a prestigious annual art exhibit then held in France] that shows it mapped out. That portrait is in it, and it’s the only record we had of it. [If you scroll down on this link, you can see the drawing of the 1789 Salon on the lower right. It’s figure four.] It was the final Salon under the king’s reign. Vigée Le Brun left France in October.

 

The drama continued after she finished the portrait. Khan hid it behind his bed and refused to give it to her. She persuaded his servant to steal it back, and that caused a worse problem. Evidently Khan was angry enough to kill the servant over the theft, and an interpreter had to intervene. He convinced him that punishing the underling with death was a breach of French custom, and that the man handed it over at the request of the king. Do we have a notion of why Khan would have refused to give the painting back to the artist? I imagine it had something to do with religion. In her memoirs, she says he hid it behind the bed and told her ‘the painting needed a soul.’ He might have been frightened by the image of himself. It was probably a very foreign concept to him. He might have been frightened by it and not wanted to give it back to her. The servant was probably a French servant, arranged for by the king. The painting was at the hotel where Khan stayed. The servant ended up going in to get the painting. We don’t have the exact details [of how he retrieved it]. The translator said he had to say no, no, you can’t just behead a servant for something like this. Everyone was OK in the end, and she got the painting, for which we are all grateful.

 

If I walk into a room full of Old Masters that includes a work by Vigée Le Brun, it calls me right over to it. Why was Vigée Le Brun so damn good at what she did? She was a brilliant painter and a brilliant portraitist, able to capture the subject with a sense of knowing them. I think her early training as a pastelist shows a sense of softness and light that comes from the pastel medium. Her social skills were advanced, and she used them to her advantage to get the sittings she got and to draw out her sitters. She studied them and knew who they were, and she focused on them.

 

In scanning the lot notes, it looks like the Khan portrait was last at auction in 1893. Is that right? I believe so.

 

How did you arrive at the estimate for this? It was not an easy one to price. It’s so atypical for her. We had to see how it was different than a portrait by Vigée Le Brun. The comparables we looked to were Joshua Reynolds’s circa 1776 Portrait of Omai, It’s a full-length portrait of a person in Polynesian dress. We sold it in November 2015 for $13 million to $14 million. [Scroll down on this link to see the portrait. It’s figure three on the lower right.] For us, the Khan portrait is more like pictures like that–a capable and impressive artist of the Western tradition, painting someone in exotic dress who has a sense of power and intrigue.

 

What is the painting like in person? It’s enormous. It’s so impressive and grand. It’s just huge. It’s unbelievably powerful. You step back when you see it. He is big, and he is grand and magnificent.

 

How to bid: Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape is lot 48 in the Master Paintings Evening Sale scheduled for January 30, 2019 at Sotheby’s New York.

 

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

 

Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

 

You can buy Vigée Le Brun’s memoirs from Powell’s or another independent bookseller.

 

Sotheby’s also published two pieces on its website about Vigée Le Brun and about a larger group of women artists whose works appear in the January 30 auction: The volatile Saga Behind Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of India’s Ambassador to France, and The Women Who Dared to Paint.

 

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

Folk Art Phenomenon: Christie’s Could Sell Ammi Phillips’s “Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog” for $1.2 Million or More

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What you see: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, a portrait that American folk artist Ammi (pronounced Ah-mi) Phillips painted circa 1830-1835. Christie’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.

 

The expert: John Hays, deputy chairman, Christie’s Americas.

 

I’d like to start with some discussion of how Ammi Phillips was recognized and discovered. It seems like he could have disappeared, or far less would be known, if scholars had not done incredible work with identifying paintings by him. There’s a long version and a short version. The short version is like many painters who were not in the annals of art history, he was not known until people started piecing together his work in the 1960s. It was a grassroots effort. It was Mary Black who galvanized the research being done. Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter, 1788-1865 was a pioneering exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in 1968, and it traveled around. [Scholars] figured it out [what was his] because he depicted sitters holding newspapers and he signed some of his work. The family histories of the sitters also helped piece together the show. He was prolific. As the count began, they realized he did a few thousand portraits.

 

The lot notes call Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog a “quintessentially American work of art” and “strikingly modern”. What makes it so? Every country has its folk art, painted by people who didn’t go to the national academy. What makes it quintessentially American is he was painting Americans–successful sitters who were documenting their lives. The other aspect that makes it quintessentially American is [the notion that] time is money. The quicker he was able to render a portrait, the quicker he was on his way.

 

And what makes the portrait “strikingly modern”? Stacy Hollander [of the American Folk Art Museum] did a show in 2008, The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red that showed the urge to modernity, the idea of reduction to the pure form. Isn’t it interesting that it started in 1830? If you look at the dress [the sitter in Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is wearing], it’s geometric forms with little lines, a broad expanse of red. It’s a knockout, a home run. There’s no question what the statement is–a girl in a red dress. It looks forward, but it distills the form to the essence of the form. That’s an idea that the Color Field artists Clyfford Still and Rothko [embraced]. Phillips did it from a more economic point of view, but he succeeded.

 

Why do his portraits of children perform so well at auction? Phillips is at his best with children because there were no rules [for painting them]. A lot of Phillips works are dour. Some of his sitters are ministers and older people with bibles in their laps. With children, he captures the spirit of young America. That’s where he hits the home run, and that’s why there’s a huge price difference with the artist. Depicting a child evokes much more.

 

The lot notes also refers to ‘record-breaking sales in the 1980s.’ Could you elaborate? Phillips did a group of four children in red dresses, three girls and a boy, with their hands almost in the same positions. One was discovered in an appraisal day at the Corcoran Gallery in 1984. I was here [at Christie’s then]. We looked at it. The family didn’t know what it was. It was over their fireplace. By that time, the [groundbreaking 1968] Ammi Phillips show had happened, and we knew what it was. We put it in [a 1985 Christie’s auction] with an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000 and it sold for $682,000. It went to Dan Terra of the Terra Foundation. It made the front page of the New York Times. The other known portrait [of a girl sitter from the foursome, aside from this one], Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, was bought by Ralph Esmerian for the American Folk Art Museum. [After the 1985 sale], the owner [of this portrait] called us and said, ‘We think we have one.’ That’s how we discovered it 33 years ago. We’ve been quietly hoping it would come out one day.

 

That must have been delightful and startling, to have a folk art portrait sell for so much in 1985. You could acquire a major Impressionist picture [for $682,000] at that time. I put the Phillips in a jewelry vault that night. We were not prepared to have it sell for that price.

 

What makes this portrait so strong? It captures the essence of what folk art collectors want and what they look for. It’s hard to define it in words, but it has a universality to it. It’s just riveting, and kind of mesmerizing. You say, ‘God, he gets it.’

 

Do we know why the girls in the Phillips red dress portraits are wearing coral necklaces? Did coral have some sort of symbolic meaning in America in the 1830s? Coral necklaces were very popular in the 1820s and 1830s. In this portrait, she holds a bead of coral as if she’s a little nervous. She seems to say, ‘Hurry up and finish this picture, why am I here?’ As for iconography, there’s nothing we’re aware of. Coral was fashionable at the time for teething rings. The three girls [in the group of red dress portraits] each have a coral necklace. The one at Terra has two strands, this one has three strands, and the one at the American Folk Art Museum has four.

 

What is she holding in her left hand? It could be parsley. The girl in the Terra portrait is holding a strawberry. They [the items the child sitters hold] all have coded iconography that you could linger over. But it could be something Phillips gave her to hold while he painted her.

 

And what’s with the dog at the left? Is that her dog? The beagle is in all four of these portraits. Maybe it’s Ammi Phillips’s dog. Maybe it’s for the comfort of the child.

 

Yeah, about that. One of the skills Phillips had to develop as an itinerant portrait painter was to convince small children to sit still long enough for him to do his work in an age before screens. Might the dog have played the role that a screen would now–helped entertain the kid and keep her sitting in one place? It’s an idea, and it’s the same stylized beagle [in the four portraits], with the spoon-shaped lozenge on the forehead. I have a beagle. I know beagles very well. He captured the essence of a beagle, and its wry smile. If you have a beagle, you’d recognize it too.

 

I take it we don’t know who the young sitter is, even though scholars have tried to identify her? Yes. She’s adorable, that’s all I would say.

 

Is it possible that the three girls in the group of four red dress portraits are sisters or cousins? Initially we thought, ‘Are they sisters?’ But there are little differences, actually very subtle differences. The idea that they’re related is not ruled out at all. There are many unanswered questions.

 

The portraits in the group of four show kids in a virtually identical red dress. Is there a chance that Phillips traveled with the dress, as part of a small wardrobe, and offered it to the parents to use for the sitting? That’s an interesting idea, but the thing that emerges from Phillips is a spontaneity. It’s the quickly-rendered moment that folk art collectors love so much. A portrait was for a wealthy client that he poured his heart into would be worth a fraction of those that he did more quickly and got down to the essence.

 

What’s the world auction record for a Phillips? Portrait of a Young Girl and her Cat, which we sold in 2007 for $1.2 million. It’s a great picture, but it’s not in the narrow group of four. It’s one of 11 he did of children in red dresses. The girl [in the portrait sold in 2007] has a different stance.

 

What are the odds that Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog will meet or beat that sum? To be really candid, that’s the one question I can’t answer. I’m as intrigued as anybody to see what will happen in January.

 

What is it like in person? It has what my colleagues in fine art call “wall power.” It just jumps off the wall. It makes everything around it pale.

 

Why will it stick in your memory? For me, personally, I was here when we sold the first one, and it changed a lot of things in my life. It makes me reflect on the last 33 years in the art world, and how exciting it’s been. Not every day does an Ammi Phillips girl in a red dress cross my computer screen. And it expresses a sort of humanity that the experiment of America allowed. I dare you to tell me where such a portrait has emerged in any other country. That’s why I do what I do. It’s unique to portraiture in this country.

 

How to bid: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is lot 1205 in the Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver and Prints auction taking place at Christie’s New York on January 17 and 18, 2019.

 

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

 

Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

 

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

 

Bid-time Story: A Functional Work by Contemporary Artist Pae White Could Command $25,000 at Heritage Auctions

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What you see: Widow of a King, a 2006 work by artist Pae White. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.

 

The expert: Brent Lewis, director of design at Heritage Auctions.

 

Is this piece unique, or part of a limited edition? From what we understand, three versions were made, and each of those is unique.

 

How do the other two differ? From a few images I’ve seen, they’re very similar, but slightly different in the design of the faux carving.

 

Do we know why Pae White named this piece Widow of a King? I don’t know the story on that. I think she uses an evocative title to suggest a background for it that could not be immediately obvious. This is very atypical of her oeuvre. Pae White is an artist in the true sense of the word. She is not a designer. She typically does not make functional objects.

 

Do we know why she made Widow of a King predominantly white? The material she used, Corian, is produced in various colors, but its primary color is white. She’s been quoted as saying she wanted to source blue Corian, but it wasn’t available, so she used white. She worked up the conceptual side of the piece in white, and she has said, “I wanted the “look” of something that might have been carved in the Black Forest but by an albino alien and I think we came pretty darn close.” If you look at it from a distance, it looks like it may be a traditional four-poster bed that’s carved and may be painted white. As you approach, you see the way it’s carved is different. The carving itself is off and almost degraded. You can tell there’s something else going on with the piece once you begin to examine it.

 

Why is one of the headboard posts taller than the other? It’s part of what I described of her intentionality. It [the work] is an object that has an inherent unbalance. She talked about wanting to subvert the viewers’ relationship with everyday objects.

 

Do the symbols on the footboard have any particular meaning? Not to my knowledge.

 

Do we know why she used Corian? And how involved was she in its creation–did she do the physical work of producing the bed, or did she delegate it? I didn’t see anything [that explained why she used Corian]. She’s a mixed-media artist who doesn’t typically work in this manner. I’m not aware of other works in Corian. Everything was done under her watchful eye. It was made with the assistance of sophisticated machinery.

 

Widow of a King is an actual bed, but what size is it? And did the consigner use it as a bed? I think it’s a king-size. And yeah, the owner did use it as a bed.

 

Widow of a King has signs of use. Will that matter? No. I think that any of that can be conserved quite easily.

 

Is Widow of a King among the earlier pieces by the artist to reach the secondary market? Not a great deal of her work has come to auction. I count 25 auction records on Artnet, with the record being $20,000 in 2013, sold at Christie’s, and titled Skygazing #6: Blue Nebula. It’s a large cotton and polyester work.

 

Is that record work anything like Widow of a King? No. Nothing like this by Pae White has sold at auction.

 

What is Widow of a King like in person? It’s incredible. It’s extraordinary, it’s complex, it’s multi-layered, and it has extraordinary physical presence.

 

We’re seeing the work as an incomplete bed frame, with no mattresses or sheets. Does the artist have any recommendations for finishing it? I don’t think there are any, but it was created to be a functional bed. Its impact would be complete when it’s installed in a domestic setting.

 

Are there details that don’t show up well in the photo? The fine carving on the posts. I think there is an intangible quality to the carving on the headboard and the footboard.

 

How does the carving hold your attention? It’s beguiling. It’s beautiful, but in an unexpected way. As I explained earlier, when you first come upon it, it’s traditional. As you approach it, you look for the carving techniques you’re accustomed to. When you get up close, the carving may be sharper and more asymmetrical where you would expect a more balanced pattern. It throws you off balance, but allows you to enjoy the object itself.

 

Widow of a King is a work of contemporary art, but you decided to put it in a design sale. Was that a tough call? There was debate, but in the end we felt it was pretty clear-cut where this piece should be positioned. Pae White is an artist who doesn’t make design objects and is not known for making functional objects. Because of the functionality, it may have a stronger market in design than in contemporary art, where you normally see her work. From time to time, contemporary artists make works that have a functional aspect, like this bed. Sometimes they’re successful from a design standpoint, and sometimes they’re less successful. I think this is very successful. The quality of the material used and its production is very high, but the intentionality that’s prevalent in it clearly comes from the place of the artist. It’s what makes this piece stand apart. It’s an accomplished piece of furniture, but you can look at it as a work of art.

 

How to bid: Pae White’s Widow of a King is lot 79038 in the Design Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions on October 21, 2018.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

 

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SOLD! Gerard Sekoto’s “Three School Girls” Fetches More Than $400,000 At Bonhams–Almost Double Its Low Estimate

Sekoto school girls

Update: Gerard Sekoto’s Three School Girls sold for £308,750 ($401,207)–almost double its low estimate.

 

What you see: Three School Girls, an oil on board painted by South African artist Gerard Sekoto sometime between 1940 and 1947. Bonhams estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000 ($160,000 to $230,000).

 

Who was Gerard Sekoto? Born in 1913 in what was then the South African province of Eastern Transvaal, he began showing artistic talent as a teenager. Art schools aimed at black students didn’t exist in South Africa in the early 20th century, so he trained as a teacher instead and studied art as best he could. He lived in several different areas in South Africa before leaving for Paris in 1947 for what’s been described as a “self-imposed exile”. Sekoto spent a year in Senegal in 1966, but he never made his home on the African continent again. In his final years, he started to gain recognition for his work. He died in Paris in 1993, at the age of 79.

 

The expert: Eliza Sawyer, a specialist in modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams.

 

How prolific was Sekoto? It largely depends on which period you’re talking about. The period of Three School Girls was not so prolific. It was before he left South Africa for Paris. Those works are rarer, and hard to come by. He didn’t have easy access to materials, and he was still finding his voice. He was much more prolific after he left for Paris in 1947.

 

How often do pre-1947 Sekoto works come to market? There have been a handful in the last few years. When they come up, they tend to fetch high sums. His most valuable period is between when he left Sophiatown [a township near Johannesburg] and when he left for Paris. It was a very short period of his life–seven years. Maybe one Sekoto work a year comes up from that time. What’s rare for this sale we have in September is a particular collector bought two works from a Sekoto show in 1947 [and consigned them both]. To have two works from that period in the same sale is quite extraordinary, but they’re from the same collection.

 

How do we know this Sekoto painting dates to between 1940 and 1947? The most obvious point would be the subject matter–three little girls on an almost-mud street in a township. Parisian pictures tend to be of jazz bars and the Seine. The other thing that’s distinctive is the color palette. Up to 1947, Sekoto gravitated toward a very earthy palette of reds, browns, and yellows that reflected the colors of the ground in South African townships, and reflected the kinds of clothes people wore and the dyes that were available. Also, in 1940, he met Judith Gluckman, an artist who introduced him to oil painting. The fact that this is painted in oils and not household poster paint suggests it was executed after 1940.

 

The surface of the paint looks rugged and thick. Is that typical for Sekoto? What I’d say is unusual about the surface of the work is how unspoiled it is. Gerard Sekoto did use impasto [he painted in thick layers] and he mixed sand and grit in to create texture. Gritty, thick texture is more characteristic of his early style. But most of his works from this period don’t survive well. They have craquelure [the paint is covered with a network of cracks], and the surface attracted dirt. To see a work in this good a condition, with no paint loss and minor dirt, is incredibly unusual. Later, he worked in watercolors and gouache, and his brush strokes were more fluid and loose.

 

How did Sekoto work doing that seven-year period in the 1940s, when he painted Three School Girls? He would carry notepaper in his pockets. The people he saw were not accustomed to people making their portraits, so he would pull out a piece of scrap paper, sketch quickly, and come to his studio with his pockets full of ideas.

 

This painting is relatively small, measuring 15 15/16 inches by 19 7/8 inches. Is that because he was working from small sketches done on scrap paper? Earlier pieces tend to be smaller than works created in Paris. It’s partly related to the Post-It note size of his sketches and partly from an awareness of using up all his material. In this period, we see him work the same piece of canvas over and over, particularly as he tried to learn  his craft.

 

Three School Girls is fresh to market, having gone from the late 1940s selling exhibition to the consigner to Bonhams. Is that unusual for a Sekoto? Yes, it is quite unusual. I’d say Sekoto works have hugely appreciated in value over the last 10 years, partly due to his status as a pioneer of South African modernism.

 

Did Bonhams play a role in raising Sekoto’s profile? In 2008, we were the first international auction house to hold a stand-alone sale of South African art, and Gerard Sekoto was one of the artists we featured. We put up a work from his District 6 period, which is a few years before the period when he made Three School Girls, for an estimate of £200,000 to £300,000, and it made in excess of £600,000. It was an eye-opening moment for us and for the art market as well–it showed that Sekoto is an artist to take very seriously.

 

What’s the world auction record for a Sekoto? It’s held by Bonhams for a work sold for £602,400 ($784,694) in 2011, depicting a yellow house he saw in District 6. He didn’t live in this particular house, but he’d walk past it on a day-to-day basis between 1942 and 1945. It’s very similar in style and period to Three School Girls, which probably dates to 1945 to 1947. It was also painted in gritty impasto, and is around the same size as Three School Girls.

 

Does Three School Girls have the potential to set a new auction record for the artist? When I saw the work, my first thought was it really is something special, potentially a record painting. We haven’t seen one of comparable quality and style since 2011 [the year that Bonhams sold Yellow Houses, District Six]. The market has changed and demand has changed, but if any painting has a shot at breaking the record for a Sekoto, it could be this one.

 

What about Portrait of a Man (Lentswana)the other Sekoto painting that the consigner sent to this auction? It’s from the same period and is around the same size. The reason we put a slightly higher estimate on Three School Girls is it’s a more universal image. The other is a wonderfully intimate human portrait, but some collectors are not comfortable having particular likenesses hanging in their home. It’s like having a picture of another person’s grandfather. That’s the thought behind this particular estimate.

 

What is Three School Girls like in person? The first thing that strikes you is the size. In this day and age, particularly if you collect contemporary art, you’re used to monumental canvases. This painting is different. It’s intimate in scale, and it draws you in. The colors are warm and earthy. They’re not colors that are considered colorful or sexy for an urban apartment. But it transports you to a totally different time, a totally different country. You can feel the heat rising up from the dusty road the girls are walking on.

 

Why will this painting stick in your memory? Having been a schoolgirl myself, it’s quite a nostalgic image. I’m a white British woman living in London, and looking at it brings back memories. I remember being dressed in my schoolgirl uniform, walking to school with my friends. The artist somehow manages to forge a connection I find quite touching.

 

How to bid: Three School Girls is lot 25 in The South African Sale, which takes place at Bonhams London on September 12, 2018.

 

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

 

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

A namesake foundation celebrates Gerard Sekoto’s lifetime of work.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

 

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Pay Attention, Class: Bonhams Could Sell South African Artist Gerard Sekoto’s “Three School Girls” for $230,000

Sekoto school girls

What you see: Three School Girls, an oil on board painted by South African artist Gerard Sekoto sometime between 1940 and 1947. Bonhams estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000 ($160,000 to $230,000).

 

Who was Gerard Sekoto? Born in 1913 in what was then the South African province of Eastern Transvaal, he began showing artistic talent as a teenager. Art schools aimed at black students didn’t exist in South Africa in the early 20th century, so he trained as a teacher instead and studied art as best he could. He lived in several different areas in South Africa before leaving for Paris in 1947 for what’s been described as a “self-imposed exile”. Sekoto spent a year in Senegal in 1966, but he never made his home on the African continent again. In his final years, he started to gain recognition for his work. He died in Paris in 1993, at the age of 79.

 

The expert: Eliza Sawyer, a specialist in modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams.

 

How prolific was Sekoto? It largely depends on which period you’re talking about. The period of Three School Girls was not so prolific. It was before he left South Africa for Paris. Those works are rarer, and hard to come by. He didn’t have easy access to materials, and he was still finding his voice. He was much more prolific after he left for Paris in 1947.

 

How often do pre-1947 Sekoto works come to market? There have been a handful in the last few years. When they come up, they tend to fetch high sums. His most valuable period is between when he left Sophiatown [a township near Johannesburg] and when he left for Paris. It was a very short period of his life–seven years. Maybe one Sekoto work a year comes up from that time. What’s rare for this sale we have in September is a particular collector bought two works from a Sekoto show in 1947 [and consigned them both]. To have two works from that period in the same sale is quite extraordinary, but they’re from the same collection.

 

How do we know this Sekoto painting dates to between 1940 and 1947? The most obvious point would be the subject matter–three little girls on an almost-mud street in a township. Parisian pictures tend to be of jazz bars and the Seine. The other thing that’s distinctive is the color palette. Up to 1947, Sekoto gravitated toward a very earthy palette of reds, browns, and yellows that reflected the colors of the ground in South African townships, and reflected the kinds of clothes people wore and the dyes that were available. Also, in 1940, he met Judith Gluckman, an artist who introduced him to oil painting. The fact that this is painted in oils and not household poster paint suggests it was executed after 1940.

 

The surface of the paint looks rugged and thick. Is that typical for Sekoto? What I’d say is unusual about the surface of the work is how unspoiled it is. Gerard Sekoto did use impasto [he painted in thick layers] and he mixed sand and grit in to create texture. Gritty, thick texture is more characteristic of his early style. But most of his works from this period don’t survive well. They have craquelure [the paint is covered with a network of cracks], and the surface attracted dirt. To see a work in this good a condition, with no paint loss and minor dirt, is incredibly unusual. Later, he worked in watercolors and gouache, and his brush strokes were more fluid and loose.

 

How did Sekoto work doing that seven-year period in the 1940s, when he painted Three School Girls? He would carry notepaper in his pockets. The people he saw were not accustomed to people making their portraits, so he would pull out a piece of scrap paper, sketch quickly, and come to his studio with his pockets full of ideas.

 

This painting is relatively small, measuring 15 15/16 inches by 19 7/8 inches. Is that because he was working from small sketches done on scrap paper? Earlier pieces tend to be smaller than works created in Paris. It’s partly related to the Post-It note size of his sketches and partly from an awareness of using up all his material. In this period, we see him work the same piece of canvas over and over, particularly as he tried to learn  his craft.

 

Three School Girls is fresh to market, having gone from the late 1940s selling exhibition to the consigner to Bonhams. Is that unusual for a Sekoto? Yes, it is quite unusual. I’d say Sekoto works have hugely appreciated in value over the last 10 years, partly due to his status as a pioneer of South African modernism.

 

Did Bonhams play a role in raising Sekoto’s profile? In 2008, we were the first international auction house to hold a stand-alone sale of South African art, and Gerard Sekoto was one of the artists we featured. We put up a work from his District 6 period, which is a few years before the period when he made Three School Girls, for an estimate of £200,000 to £300,000, and it made in excess of £600,000. It was an eye-opening moment for us and for the art market as well–it showed that Sekoto is an artist to take very seriously.

 

What’s the world auction record for a Sekoto? It’s held by Bonhams for a work sold for £602,400 ($784,694) in 2011, depicting a yellow house he saw in District 6. He didn’t live in this particular house, but he’d walk past it on a day-to-day basis between 1942 and 1945. It’s very similar in style and period to Three School Girls, which probably dates to 1945 to 1947. It was also painted in gritty impasto, and is around the same size as Three School Girls.

 

Does Three School Girls have the potential to set a new auction record for the artist? When I saw the work, my first thought was it really is something special, potentially a record painting. We haven’t seen one of comparable quality and style since 2011 [the year that Bonhams sold Yellow Houses, District Six]. The market has changed and demand has changed, but if any painting has a shot at breaking the record for a Sekoto, it could be this one.

 

What about Portrait of a Man (Lentswana)the other Sekoto painting that the consigner sent to this auction? It’s from the same period and is around the same size. The reason we put a slightly higher estimate on Three School Girls is it’s a more universal image. The other is a wonderfully intimate human portrait, but some collectors are not comfortable having particular likenesses hanging in their home. It’s like having a picture of another person’s grandfather. That’s the thought behind this particular estimate.

 

What is Three School Girls like in person? The first thing that strikes you is the size. In this day and age, particularly if you collect contemporary art, you’re used to monumental canvases. This painting is different. It’s intimate in scale, and it draws you in. The colors are warm and earthy. They’re not colors that are considered colorful or sexy for an urban apartment. But it transports you to a totally different time, a totally different country. You can feel the heat rising up from the dusty road the girls are walking on.

 

Why will this painting stick in your memory? Having been a schoolgirl myself, it’s quite a nostalgic image. I’m a white British woman living in London, and looking at it brings back memories. I remember being dressed in my schoolgirl uniform, walking to school with my friends. The artist somehow manages to forge a connection I find quite touching.

 

How to bid: Three School Girls is lot 25 in The South African Sale, which takes place at Bonhams London on September 12, 2018.

 

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

 

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

A namesake foundation celebrates Gerard Sekoto’s lifetime of work.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

 

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RECORD! Christie’s Sells Diego Rivera’s The Rivals for $9.7 Million–A Record for Rivera and ANY Latin American Artwork

Rivera

What you see: The Rivals, a 1931 painting by Diego Rivera. Christie’s sold it in May 2018 for $9.7 million, a record for the artist and for any Latin American artwork.

 

The expert: Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American art for Christie’s.

 

First off, how rarely do Diego Rivera canvases of any kind come up for sale, let alone fresh-to-market works from the Rockefeller family? We get them from time to time. We actually just had a smaller canvas in the regular Latin American art sale. They are rare, but every now and then we do get some.

 

Have any other Diego Rivera canvases painted for members of the Rockefeller family come to auction? No, not directly from the Rockefeller family. The collection of David Rockefeller’s mother was bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and became part of their collection. MoMA deaccessed one in the 1960s, but it had been in the collection for decades. Technically the answer is no, no Diego Riveras for Rockefellers at auction.

 

Why is it called The Rivals? Do we see the rivals in the lower left corner? It’s actually the narrative of a festival in Oaxaca, Las Velas. Here, the confrontation goes on in the foreground. The third male [the man in the black hat] looks like he’s going to intervene, but we don’t know if they’re about to have a fight. That’s why it’s called The Rivals–the male characters.

 

The lot notes describes The Rivals as the ‘most important Rivera offered at auction in decades.’ What makes it so? A picture on this scale has not been seen for 20 years. The last great Diego Rivera was at auction in the 1990s, a much larger painting than ours, but similar subject matter. It was from the collection of IBM, and it sold at Sotheby’s.

 

How did you arrive at the estimate of $5 million to $7 million? We had some notion of  work that had transacted privately recently. $5 million to $7 million became the low estimate of what we had in mind. We thought it would be [would sell] closer to $10 million, which it did. Not that we expected that–it was a wonderful surprise. The estimate needed to be fair but with room to grow and create competition. Sometimes bidders are guarded. Everything came together in the last two days. Six to eight people were interested in the painting and pursued it to the end.

 

Can you talk a bit about the importance of its having been commissioned from Rivera in 1931 by a member of the Rockefeller family? That is important. People like to know where things have been. Only the Rockefeller family owned it. That’s one aspect. The other aspect is that 1931 is a prime year for the artist. He was much-celebrated in Mexico and globally. It made his relationship with America very fruitful and complicated. It [The Rivals] precedes the painting of the Detroit murals. In 1931, MoMA did a Rivera retrospective, and this painting was part of it. All those factors make it very special.

 

What is The Rivals like in person? Beautiful. The colors are vibrant and fresh. All we did was have a conservator superficially clean it. Some of the characters are very abstracted, especially the women in the background–just the idea of a face. It really draws you in, almost like you’re watching a movie. It’s very cinematic in that way.

 

What was your role in the auction? I had a phone [he represented a bidder on the phone], but I didn’t have the winning bid. It was a multi-departmental sale for Christie’s. It had pre-war material, American art, and Latin American art. It was very dynamic for that reason alone. It was one of my favorite sales. Not only was it important, but it felt so energetic and dynamic, and there were some surprises. Everything that sold that night, five or six parties were interested. People love to see that. It’s exciting.

 

Were you there when the previous world auction record for Latin American art was set in 2016? Yes, I was in the room. I didn’t have the winning bid that evening.

 

A work by Frida Kahlo was the previous Latin American art record-holder. Could you talk about the significance of Kahlo, Rivera’s wife, handing the honor off to him? The Frida Kahlo sold in 2016 for $8 million. The market for Diego Rivera had not really moved in the high end. We really wanted it to be at the level of Frida Kahlo. We sold it [The Rivals] and surpassed it. Now Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo hold the top prices in Latin American art. I think it’s well-deserved.

 

How long do you think the records–for Rivera at auction, and for any work of Latin American art–will stand? It’s really unpredictable. Obviously, every season you hope, but the reality is you don’t really know. I’d like to see other Latin American artists get Mexican prices [Rivera and Kahlo were both Mexican].

 

The Rivals is pretty hard to beat, though. What could challenge it? Would it have to wait until this artwork comes back to auction? No, no. It would have to be something from a private collection. A few Frida Kahlos remain in private hands in Mexico. There are no plans for them to be sold, but maybe someday they could be. A few Wifredo Lams in Europe could do it. But it’s unpredictable, that’s the thing.

 

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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

 

Garza spoke to The Hot Bid earlier in 2018 about a Fernando Botero Circus painting.

 

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