ESSEX, MASS. — Michael March’s November 14 auction preview was just electric with anticipation. The stars of the show were two Walter Launt Palmer (American, 1854–1932) landscapes, fresh to the market after more than 30 years in a private collection. A 34-by-24-inch snow scene on offer was typical of the best of Palmer’s work. Palmer, at the tender age of 16, studied under Frederic Church. Palmer was the master at snow scenes, infusing them with a warm glow from reflected sunlight. Anyone who lives in snow country can recognize the special moments, when in the midst of drifts and snow covered trees, the sun comes out and turns the world into a glowing wonderland. That magical moment is what Palmer captured again and again.
Blackwood March Auctions specializes in paintings from Cape Ann, Mass. March has been selling artwork from the area for decades, giving him a deep knowledge of art, artists and the marketplace. All of that and an engaging personality have allowed him to develop a loyal retail/collector audience. But, this evening, it was the two Walter Palmer paintings that brought art lovers to an Essex function hall, hidden behind the famous Woodman’s Restaurant. A gentleman originally from upstate New York, now residing in Gloucester, gave March a consignment that included the two Palmers, along with a small Palmer mountain scene and some old American Indian baskets.
On the way to the sale, I stopped at Crane Beach, a mystical place that illustrates why folks have always been drawn to Cape Ann. The ocean, the miles of marsh grass glowing in the sun, the many inlets filled with sailboats, the stunning quietness of the place, all add up to a sensory feast. No wonder that Cape Ann has been a magnet for major artists for the last 150 years.
The road to Crane Beach is surrounded on both sides by marshland and the amazing light touching the marsh grass takes one’s breath away. The stunning soft sand beach is four miles long and the entire preserve is set on more than 1,200 acres with hiking paths and a rare pitch pine preserve at Castle Hill. Crane Beach is also home to one of the world’s most important nesting sites for Piping Plovers.
The painting everyone was waiting for, the 34-by-24-inch Palmer oil on canvas, titled “Brook and Fence” was illustrated on page 126 of the reference book Walter Launt Palmer Poetic Reality by Maybelle Mann, published in 1984. Estimated at $15/25,000, the painting opened for the low estimate to a left bid and then took off, with action from two very determined in-house bidders until one, a local gentleman and longtime client of the auction house, bought it for $62,100. The next Palmer painting was a watercolor and gouache wooded landscape, 24 by 17½ inches. The estimate was $6/10,000 and it opened for $2,000 to a left bid. It ended up selling for $24,150 to a bidder in the audience, underbid by the buyer of the winter scene.
March puts together an auction every couple of months with about 75 percent of the lots comprising artwork and the rest of the items being antiques. The auctioneer started young as an apprentice in his mother Lucille’s auction company, and he has been auctioning on his own since 1979. His experience with Cape Ann artists is impressive. In the past I have purchased some artwork from him for myself. I can understand why he has such a loyal following from local collectors. Ask him a question about a certain painting and you get a thoughtful answer that places that particular piece in the artists’ lexicon.
This was not just a fine art sale. An American Civil War officer’s sword, inscribed on the scabbard, “Lieut. Charles M. Darth 4th Heavy Artillery,” sold to a man in the audience for $1,955. An Hermes “Constance” handbag, impressed “Hermes” on the inside, opened and closed to an online bidder for $748. A lovely and large Chinese Yuan-style blue and white charger, 17½ inches in diameter, sold for $575. An American Indian basket from the consignor of the Walter Launt Palmer artwork and described as “old and dusty,” elicited a lot of interest, starting with an Internet bid of $800 and ending up selling for $1,495. And a true set of six bowback Windsor side chairs, refinished and with minor condition issues, were purchased by West Newbury, Mass., antiques dealers and marine arts experts Linda and Paul Decoste for a reasonable $1,150.
Some of the Cape Ann artwork sold. A colorful oil on canvas landscape by Bruce Turner went for $1,150 after spirited bidding and it sold to an Internet bidder. An oil on canvas winter scene of two farmhouses with smoking chimneys separated by a snow-covered country road, painted by Otis Cook, opened and closed to an Internet bidder for $835. Two Robert Charles Gruppe paintings were included in the auction. Robert Gruppe is a third-generation Cape Ann artist. Son of noted artist Emile Gruppe and grandson of Charles, he spent 20 years studying with his father. A Gloucester harbor scene signed Robert C. Gruppe, 24 by 36 inches, sold for $1,380, and another landscape titled “Twilight” brought a very reasonable $403.
A surprising result involved a marble sculpture, the head of a man, estimated at $100/200. It brought a stunning $1,725, after opening at $500 with an online bidder, and then it was two online bidders all the way. Blackwood March Auctions has been using an online platform for several years, and this particular sale was a testament to the usefulness of Internet bidding to a regional auction house. It is considerably more work but the results are lucrative.
Other noteworthy paintings sold. A charming portrait oil on canvas by Lilla Cabot Perry (1848–1933) of a young boy in a sailor suit sold for $1,150. It was purchased by the happy buyer of the Walter Palmer gouache. And a pleasant harbor scene, an oil on canvas measuring 28 by 38 inches and signed J.J. Enwright, brought a reasonable $1,035. From a Manhattan estate, an oil on canvas, 27 by 22 inches, of a female nude, nicely framed and signed Rittenberg for Henry R. Rittenberg (1879–1969) brought $2,070.
Overall, Blackwood March Auctions is a good resource for anyone in the market for artwork, especially the Cape Ann school painters. Both consignors and buyers get personal service from Michael, as it is a solo show until auction day. Then his experienced crew steps in and makes sure everything runs smoothly during the preview and the auction. Kudos to the crew, but most especially to veteran dealer and auction coordinator Roger Pheulpin for a smooth-running event. Throw in a stunning Essex sunset and fresh seafood and it all equals an entertaining evening.
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium. For information, 978-768-6943 or www.blackwoodauction.com.