Buying at Auction

Heads turned last summer when sales at the fifth annual Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, ID, topped $8 million. In front of an enthusiastic crowd numbering close to 900, some 96 percent of the artworks, many of them wildlife paintings, found buyers. Across the country, in New York, NY, Christie’s International sold a whopping $33.9 million worth of contemporary art in just 75 minutes, the highest total in five years. And in Dallas, TX, Altermann & Morris Galleries’ Collector’s Sale broke records going back several years as 85 percent of the lots, heavy on western paintings, sold for $2.2 million.

Last year was a record-setter for American art auctions, and the forecast is rosy for 1997 too. While certain artists and subjects continue to bring top dollar, savvy consumers can find some undervalued buys. With that in mind, we asked experts at major auction houses and galleries to review 1996 and preview the 1997 auction season.

Though 1996 was a banner year, the past three years have been consistently strong, says Jack Morris of Altermann & Morris Galleries, Houston, TX. “The doldrums of the early 1990s were broken by buyers flocking back to the auction scene wiser and ready to buy,” he says, adding that veteran collectors who shied away from a shaky market are now joining a fresh crop of enthusiastic new collectors, and both are better-educated than in years past.

Andrew Schoelkopf, director of American paintings at Christie’s, echoes Morris’ thoughts. “When the market took a hit, people who hadn’t invested wisely did poorly. They are returning more informed and aware of the fact that paintings by deceased western American masters are becoming increasingly rare. A major work by Charles Russell, for instance, is hard to find.”

Everyone agrees that paintings by well-known deceased western artists are among the hottest, highest-priced auction items. “Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran continue to set new records,” says Morris. “As more and more American and European collectors become aware of western art, the supply becomes depleted and prices go up.”

“People are more selective now and will pay dearly for ‘name’ western artists such as Frank Tenney Johnson,” says Dan May of Dan May & Associates, Scottsdale, AZ. “I can’t stress enough that name is synonymous with quality.”

Scot Levitt, director of paintings at Butterfield and Butterfield, San Francisco, CA, attributes the enthusiasm for western subject matter by deceased artists to what might be called “investment decorating.” “Although the market has ebbed and flowed over the past 20 years, western paintings, particularly from 1880 to 1940, are selling well,” he says. “Many people are buying second homes in western states such as Montana and Wyoming, and these paintings are perfect for them.”

Other genres also fared well. Peter Rathbone, director of American paintings at Sotheby’s, says that their big-gest surprise of the year was the American illustrators auction. “Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak doubled its estimate, selling for $4.3 million. The previous auction high was $220,000. That’s a dramatic change. Illustrators have increased in value a great deal.”

Levitt points out that California buyers are still strong on California subjects. “Early plein-air painters are still in demand, particularly the important artists featured in the book California Plein-Air Painters. Good but lesser-known artists bring less, but that will change when they too are documented in print.”

The Coeur d’Alene auction proved that there is a growing audience for quality wildlife art. Says Stuart Johnson, auction co-organizer: “Top-quality wildlife art is limited to about one percent of what is produced, so when works by Rungius and other outstanding painters and sculptors come on the marketplace there are avid buyers for them.”

Where are the bargains? “Still-life paintings are the most underrated subject matter,” says Morris. “Great ones by recognized, top-flight artists such as Cyrus Afsary, Joan Potter, Mary Russell and Loran Speck are going for very reasonable prices.” Schoelkopf adds that the 19th-century still-life market is also fairly weak.

Such market softness is often the result of changing tastes, says Levitt. “An Albert Bierstadt landscape without Indians sells for less. But what is not in vogue at the moment may become more popular later.” Rathbone agrees, adding that early American portraits by lesser-known artists are bringing relatively low prices. “It’s just not popular to collect someone else’s ancestors these days,” he says.

Schoelkopf believes that works by minor artists are going for less than their inherent worth. For those collectors with an eye for quality, purchasing such works has the benefit of not only great material but also the chance that purchases might rise in value when future researchers turn relatively unknown artists into investment opportunities.

Nevertheless, it is possible to purchase quality art by well-known artists at reasonable prices. Bill Burford of Texas Art Gallery in Dallas asserts that one reason people keep coming back to auctions is that there are always good buys.

Since most auctions sell works on consignment, finding high-caliber art is often a bigger problem than finding buyers. “Because the economy is strong, people are holding onto what they have,” says May. “Most collectors don’t want to sell artwork unless they have to a death or life change, such as divorce. Those who do sell typically cull their collections of weaker material and keep the jewels. And of course, it’s the jewels we want to sell at auction!”

Since many auctions feature “previously owned works,” you can expect to find a high percentage of deceased artists. Some gallery auctions, however, round out their consignments with new works by gallery artists. Morris estimates that 75 percent of the works Altermann & Morris Galleries auctions are by contemporary artists, while the remaining 25 percent are works by deceased artists (revenues are approximately fifty-fifty, however, because deceased material carries a higher price tag).

Buying works by contemporary artists at auction offers benefits above and beyond price, claims Morris.  “You are participating in the culture of your time and supporting a person whose experiences are similar to your own. You have an opportunity to meet and maybe get to know the artist, and you get an absolute guarantee that the artist created the artwork. Artworks by deceased artists are more difficult to validate.”

As collectors have become more educated, the makeup of the average auction audience has changed. “Over the past three years, as the market has surged, the number of private collectors is up and dealers down,” says Schoelkopf. “And because buyers are more educated, artworks are bringing retail prices.”

“We have aggressively marketed the idea of buying at auction to a wider audience, so the percentage of private buyers has escalated,” says Rathbone. “Twenty-five years ago, dealers were 75 percent of each sale; now 75 percent are private collectors.”

Yet dealers continue to attend auctions. Many act as agents for collectors. Others—just like many private buyers—enjoy the show and the education one can get from watching where buying enthusiasm is directed.

What does the future hold for auctions? Everyone we talked to expects the market to remain strong for several years. “As interest in western art increases and the supply is depleted, fewer of these works will come to market,” Morris says. “This brings to light artists of comparable skills but less recognition. We are already beginning to see more interest in Los Cinco Pintores and the Taos Moderns artists who were formerly in the shadow of the Taos Founders. Established marketing organizations, such as the Cowboy Artists of America and Prix de West sales, are also riding the wave of the economy and increased awareness of western art.”

“We are very optimistic about the future of the American painting market,” concludes Schoelkopf. “Signs are evident that the current strengthening will continue for many years to come.”

Featured in March 1997