UPDATE: WORLD RECORD AT AUCTION FOR ALMA THOMAS: LAMA’s Fresh-to-Market Canvas by African-American Artist Alma Thomas Sells for Almost $400,000


Update: Thomas’s Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. sold for $387,500 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions on Sunday, March 5, 2017–well above its $125,000 to $175,000 estimate. It also represents a world record at auction for the artist.

What you see: Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C., a 1969 oil on canvas by Alma Thomas.

Who was Alma Thomas? She was a member of the Washington Color School, a mid-20th century abstract art movement based in Washington, D.C. that also included Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. Thomas was under-appreciated during her lifetime, but she was not unknown; in 1972, she became the first African-American woman to receive a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Thomas died in 1978, at the age of 86. Her art gained fresh attention when President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama displayed her works in the White House. Resurrection, a 1966 Thomas canvas that the Obamas chose for the White House family dining room, shares a mandala-like motif in common with Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C.

Why is Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. so compelling? “It has an intimacy that you only get when you contemplate a solitary blossom,” says Peter Loughrey, director of modern design and fine art at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA). “There’s something Zen and eastern about it. The progression of color draws you in to the center of the work. It really lends itself to a one-on-one, personal interaction.”

How does the painting call to mind Washington, D.C.? “It’s extremely abstracted, but it does reference the cherry blossoms that bloom every spring,” says Loughrey, who grew up in the nation’s capital. “It’s inescapable, that pinkish color in the background. It’s what you remember and walk away with.”

Why is the painting estimated at $125,000 to $175,000? Thomas wasn’t as prolific as other Washington Color School artists, and today’s collectors are keen to own her works. Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. has never gone to auction before; the consigner’s father bought it directly from the artist in 1969. He was a medical student at the time, and he paid her in installments. The lot includes a handwritten letter from Thomas to the proud young owner, telling him,”I hope you will love the painting. So many of my friends wanted to buy it.”

How to bid: Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. is lot 323 in the Modern Art & Design Auction that takes place on March 5, 2017 at LAMA in Van Nuys, Calif.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

RECORD: Elizabeth Catlett’s War Worker Sells for $149,000 at Swann–An Auction Record for a Catlett Painting

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Update: Elizabeth Catlett’s War Worker sold for $149,000–a new auction record for a painting by the artist.

What you see: War Worker, a 1943 tempera-on-board by Elizabeth Catlett. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $60,000 to $90,000.

Who was Elizabeth Catlett? She was a 20th century African-American artist. She was best known for her sculptures, but she made prints and the occasional painting as well. She devoted herself to creating images that reflected the African-American experience. During the 1960s, she created a series of posters that depicted Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Harriet Tubman. She also created sculptures of Sojourner Truth and Louis Armstrong. She was active until she died in 2012 at the age of 96.

What makes War Worker so notable? “It’s very scarce. It’s only the second painting of hers to come to auction,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department, adding that it dates to a period in the 1940s when the artist lived in New York. Swann offered the first Catlett painting at auction in December 2015. Titled Friends, it sold for $81,250 against an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000.

Why have so few of these paintings come to auction? Are they in institutions? “The works are just very scarce. They’ve been in people’s collections for a generation or more,” he says, adding that Friends did go to an institutional buyer. “Catlett passed not too long ago. There’s a growing sense of her significance that’s bringing the paintings to market. If you look at Friends, it’s definitely related to War Worker. Both are images of African-American workers.”

War Worker is smaller than 12 inches by 10 inches. Most of the known 1940s paintings are on the small side, and rendered in tempera. Do we know why? “She didn’t have a studio in the traditional sense. She had to work during the day at her teaching job,” he says, explaining his theory that Catlett may have made War Worker in her apartment, sitting down, perhaps with the paper in her lap. She might have chosen tempera for this reason, too–it doesn’t smell or give off fumes, as oil paints do. “It’s conducive to working in a non-studio environment,” he says. “The small size reinforces the intimacy of these works.”

Does Catlett approach the painting in a sculptural way? Does it hint at her future as a sculptor? “It’s a fascinating glimpse into her work as a modern artist,” he says. “She shows an interest in depicting average working men and women as a social realist. She’s also interested in abstracting the sculptural qualities of his face, flattening the forms. There’s a sculptural quality you see that comes forward in her work, which is interesting in view of her development as an artist.”

War Worker is estimated at $60,000 to $90,000. Do you think it has a chance to top Friends and set a new record for a Catlett painting at auction? “I think this will do very well, and could sell for more,” he says.

What else makes War Worker special? “It’s a really powerful image. These small paintings pack a punch,” Freeman says. “The accumulation of small strokes gives it an intensity. I think it’s going to resonate with the people who see it. We are excited to have it.”

How to bid: War Worker is lot 20 in the African-American Fine Art sale at Swann Auction Galleries on October 5.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

SOLD! M.C. Escher’s Masterful Day and Night Fetches $40,000 at Swann Galleries

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Update: The M. C. Escher print of Day and Night sold for $40,000.

What you see: M. C. Escher’s Day and Night, a 1935 print. Swann Galleries estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.

Who was M.C. Escher? Maurits Cornelis Escher was a Dutch graphic artist and printmaker who gained fame for his complex, precise, mind-boggling, and delightful images. He captured the imaginations of sages such as Martin Gardner and Douglas Hofstader, author of the classic Gödel, Escher, Bach. In 1922, he took trips to Italy and Spain that forever shaped his visions. In particular, he fell under the spell of the tessellations that decorate Alhambra, the fourteenth-century Moorish palace in Granada, Spain. Surprisingly, Escher took no formal mathematical training. He died in 1972 at the age of 73.

Escher made Day and Night in 1935, at the end of an 11-year period when he produced many of his most iconic images. How does Day and Night build on what came before? “When Escher was traveling in Italy, he did tour-de-force topographical works of landscapes. This is more abstracted. It’s not a straightforward view,” says Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann and director of prints and drawings. “In terms of his printmaking techniques and procedures, it’s classical. He’s academically trained. The linear aspects of his woodcuts are very clear.”

How does Escher achieve the exceptionally fine and subtle gradations that we see in Day and Night? “You have to imagine very, very fine cutting of the wood block by hand,” Weyman says. “He was a technical virtuoso.”

Did he work alone? “Yes,” he says. “He often signed and inscribed his prints with the word ‘eigendruk,’ which means ‘printed by myself.’ He’s saying he’s the printer. He oversaw everything at a time when it was not uncommon for an artist to work with a printer, who would handle the technical aspects.”

We should also stress that Escher did all this without the aid of a computer, which would not have been available to him anyway, and he had to carve the image into the wood block backwards to create the print that we see. “Yes. Everything is printed in reverse,” Weyman says. “You can see not just his artistry but his technical virtuosity in the medium.”

This Day and Night has no edition number. Do we know how many were made? And how often does it appear at auction? Unfortunately, we don’t know how many Day and Night prints Escher made, though other prints of his are editioned. This is the only version that he produced. Weyman says it has appeared at auction 40 times in the last 30 years, but some of those might represent the same print being consigned again. The record for an Escher at auction belongs to a 1940 print of Metamorphosis II that sold at Sotheby’s London in October 2008 for more than $246,000. The record for a print of Day and Night was set at Christie’s London in March 2013 when one sold for almost $57,000.

What else makes Day and Night special? “It has all the aspects of a great Escher that you would want,” Weyman says. “The yin and yang qualities, the way the landscape morphs into an aerial view, and the patches of landscape morph into birds, the parallel landscapes [under] day and night, the technical virtuosity, the imagination at play in this image–it’s all Escher.”

How to bid: M.C. Escher’s Day and Night is lot 618 in Swann Galleries’ 19th & 20th Century Prints and Drawings sale on September 19.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

RECORD: Yee-Haw! A Rare Frederic Remington Bronze Runs Away With $11.2 Million at Christie’s


What you see: A 1906 cast of Coming Through the Rye, a bronze by Frederic Remington. Christie’s sold it in May 2017 for $11.2 million against an estimate of $7 million to $10 million. It set a world record for the artist at auction as well as a record for an American sculpture that predates World War II.

Who was Frederic Remington? He was an American artist who excelled at scenes of the West, in both painting and sculpture. The Evolution of the Cowpuncher, a piece he co-created for Harper’s Monthly in September 1893, kindled the romantic legend of the cowboy. Remington came to sculpting in 1895, well after he had earned a reputation as a master of two-dimensional art. He died of peritonitis in 1909, at the age of 48.

How many casts of Coming Through the Rye are there? “What makes it so desirable is it exists in limited quantities. There are 17 known examples,” says William Haydock, head of Christie’s American art department. “The real challenge with Remington is was it cast during his lifetime? If not, was it estate-authorized, or is it posthumous without estate approval?”

To which group does this cast belong? “Of the 17, nine were made in his lifetime. The one we handled was one of those nine,” he says, noting that it carries the number three.

When did Remington break the molds? “Famously with this example, Frederic Remington himself broke the mold on Coming Through the Rye because it was his most complex sculpture. He took a metal bar to it, and he thoroughly destroyed it,” Haydock says. “That day got the best of him, but he quickly designed another [mold].”

Why did he find Coming Through the Rye so frustrating? “The bulk of his bronzes are isolated to a single figure,” he says. “This, by far, is his most complex and challenging bronze, and many view it as his grand masterwork in the arena of sculpture.”

The bronze seems to have a lot of delicate dangly bits that could break or snap off easily. “In these examples, because they were so prized and well-regarded, they were treated reasonably well,” Haydock says, noting that this one might have had a repair to one of the figures on the left.

How often does Coming Through the Rye go to market? “Very infrequently. Before this, it was 1998,” he says. “Of the 17, ten are in institutions, one is destined for an institution, and the one we just handled is likely to follow the same path. Numbers five and six are missing. [The May sale] represented more or less the last chance to buy a lifetime example from the artist. That was the perception in the marketplace, and I think it’s why you saw huge prices.”

How long do you think the Remington auction record will stand? “Probably the only scenario is a truly phenomenal Remington painting coming on the market in the next 10 years. The only way it’s going to be eclipsed is with a painting,” he says.

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

RECORD: A Stunning Bronze by Nigeria’s Ben Enwonwu Fetches $461,000 at Bonhams


What you see: Anyanwu, a 1956 sculpture by Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, better known as Ben Enwonwu. It set an auction record for a bronze by the late Nigerian artist, selling for £353,000, or $461,066, at Bonhams London in February 2017.

Who is Ben Enwonwu? He was a Nigerian artist, and arguably, THE Nigerian artist of the 20th century. He embraced traditional Western art media, most notably painting and sculpture. He sculpted a portrait bronze of Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 and was made a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) two years later. A crater on the planet Mercury is named for him. He died in 1994 at the age of 72.

Why is Anyanwu regarded as his masterpiece? “One of the reasons is it garnered the greatest publicity,” says Giles Peppiatt, head of African art at Bonhams. “In the 1960s, a version of it was gifted from the Nigerian state to the United Nations for its new headquarters. For Nigeria to choose this image by this artist confirms him as one of the most important artists to come out of 20th century Nigeria.”

How many Anyanwu sculptures exist? “He produced quite a few variants, but he wasn’t a good record-keeper,” Peppiatt says. “If someone said they wanted one, then he had one cast.” He estimates there might be between half a dozen and a dozen castings at most of the largest version of Anyanwu, which is shown here and stands about seven and a half feet tall. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear there are another three or four out there,” he says. “They were expensive at the time. I can’t believe there are 30 of them.”

How does Anyanwu show Enwonwu’s strengths? “In conception, it is a very intelligent and clever piece. It refers back to Nigerian mythology, and the figure wears a traditional Nigerian headpiece. It obviously struck a chord when it was produced,” he says. “The execution is brilliant. The photo doesn’t capture the crispness of the bronze. The detailing of its features are superb.”

Anyanwu sold for £353,000, or $458,612. Is that a record for an Enwonwu bronze at auction, or a record for an Enwonwu sculpture at auction? “For a single piece, it’s a record. I think the record for a sculpture was set four years ago,” Peppiatt says, referencing a group of wooden Enwonwu sculptures sold for £361,250 ($469,300) at Bonhams in 2013. The final prices on the two lots are close enough to be affected by currency fluctuations.

You were the auctioneer for the sale that included Anyanwu. When did you know you had a record? “As soon as I hammered it down, I knew,” he says. “As the price went up, I was willing it to get to a record. I don’t think we expected it to perform as well as it did. The auction world is full of pleasant surprises.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “I think it will stand for a bit, and I’ll tell you why. You only get one debut, and this was it,” Peppiatt says. “If another [large] cast went to auction, it would probably fetch less. A bronze is almost like a print. It’s unusual for someone to want two of the same. That person won’t bid the next time it comes up. But the market changes, and new buyers come in, and you can never be sure.”

What else makes the bronze special? “When you stand in front of it, you look it in the eye. It’s an amazing piece of sculpture. I was delighted it did well. It deserved every penny,” he says.

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

Enwonwu paintings and sculptures will appear in Bonhams’s October 5, 2017 sale Africa Now in London.

RECORD: Artist’s Artist Florine Stettheimer Steps From the Shadows at Skinner


What you see: An undated floral still life by Florine Stettheimer. Skinner sold it in January 2016 for $375,000 against an estimate of $75,000 to $100,000, a record for the artist at auction.

Who was Florine Stettheimer? She was a wealthy American woman who was, and is, regarded as an artist’s artist. Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O’Keeffe attended her salon. She might be the first woman artist in history to paint a nude self-portrait. She wasn’t keen on self-promotion; she had one small solo show at the Knoedler gallery in 1916, which flopped, and she never did another. While Stettheimer’s sisters ignored her wish to have her art destroyed after she died, they gave most of it to museums, leaving little for collectors to acquire. Two years after her death, the Museum of Modern art staged a Stettheimer retrospective. The Jewish Museum in New York is showing Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, until September 24, 2017. She died in 1944 at the age of 72.

How did the Stettheimer painting come to Skinner? “It came out of a house where it had been for decades,” says Robin S. R. Starr, director of American and European Works of Art at Skinner. “It was an estate situation. The family didn’t know much about it.”

How does this still life show off Stettheimer’s skills as an artist? “What could be a smarmy, cutesy sort of subject has a wonderful, modernist, fresh vibe all its own,” Starr says. “She has a great, unique personal style. She doesn’t look like anybody else. She’s her own style. The fact that she wanted her work destroyed after she died says she didn’t think much of it, though now we’re rediscovering her and finding out how fantastic it really is.”

How does this floral still life compare to other Stettheimer paintings? “This is a wonderful work, but in comparison, it is relatively minor,” she says. “This is a record-breaker because none of those works [of hers] in museums have come up at auction.”

How did you decide on the estimate of $75,000 to $100,000? “It takes a lot of chutzpah to put an estimate on something that you know is going to sell for a world record,” she says, noting that the previous record for a Stettheimer was set in 1997 by a painting that commanded $145,000 against an identical estimate. “Artnet has six records [for Stettheimer], and only one [of the six artworks] has real figures in it,” she says, adding, “It was really more of a gut instinct. You’ve got to decide what’s a fair estimate based on what little track record there is and how wonderful you think the picture is. Ultimately, an estimate is a guess. It’s a well-educated guess, but a guess.”

Were you surprised that the painting did so well? “Yes and no, which isn’t a fair answer,” Starr says, laughing. “Yes, I was thrilled. I didn’t think it would do that well. I thought there was a very good chance it would go over its estimate. I didn’t think it would go two or three times over.”

How much of a role did Stettheimer’s personal story play in driving the record auction price? Did it help? “That was absolutely a part of it,” she says. “The story is important–just watch Antiques Roadshow. But ultimately, it has to come down to an object that’s beautiful enough or inventive enough to sell the story. If she was a mediocre painter, it’s not going to matter. The story isn’t enough.”

What else makes this Stettheimer floral still life special? “That palette is just–apparently, I’m going to keep using food terms–it’s so delicious. Instead of saccharine, we get that acidity, and that combination is just a gut punch. It’s one of those objects you see and you’re just stopped in your tracks. There’s nothing like it. It’s just its own thing.”

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

RECORD: Wharton Esherick’s 1933 Sculpture essie/rebecca Commands $123,750 at Freeman’s


What you see: Wharton Esherick’s 1933 sculpture “essie”/”rebecca”, fashioned from cocobolo wood. Estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, it sold for $123,750 in November 2014 at Freeman’s. The sculpture now belongs to the Modernism Museum Mount Dora in Mount Dora, Fla.

Who is Wharton Esherick? He’s an American artist who is best known for his sculptural furnishings, which foreshadowed the American studio furniture movement. Esherick started out as a painter but shifted his focus when people reacted to his hand-carved frames more than his canvases. He died in 1970 at the age of 82.

How rare are Esherick’s sculptures? “They’re incredibly rare,” says Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s. “All of Esherick’s things are rare in comparison to the generation of craftsmen who came after him. Esherick produced maybe a few thousand pieces and maybe a hundred sculptures, if that.”

Is “essie”/”rebecca” based on a human model? It was his daughter, Mary, who played a character named Essie in a production at a local theater that the Eshericks supported. “He often used family members and friends as models, and turned the sketches and maquettes into fully realized sculptures,” Andreadis says. “This was later named Rebecca after the Biblical figure of Rebecca at the well. In the 1960s, it finally found a buyer, and it had been with that family ever since.”

What makes “essie”/”rebecca” stand out among Esherick’s works? “This would have been a little more unusual. He would have carved it in one solid piece. It makes it much more challenging,” he says. “It was a celebrated piece, one of those works that were really personal to the artist. And it’s beautiful from any angle. It’s definitely made to be viewed in the round.”

Why did the sculpture do so well? “The stars were perfectly aligned,” Andreadis says. “It was a sculpture of grand scale. Esherick used cocobolo, a rare, exotic wood. Its patina has never been touched. There aren’t many Esherick pieces in private hands. And it’s really personal subject matter, using his daughter as a model for the work. It’s beautifully signed by Esherick. And you can never ask for anything better than to see period photos of the artist standing with the work. Buyers just responded to that. They recognized a rare opportunity that’s not going to come up again for some time.”

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