American Folk Art From Ralph O. Esmerian Collection Takes Record $12,955,943

NEW YORK CITY — They were all there, and if you did not see them filing into Sotheby’s seventh floor gallery for the sale of American folk art from the collection of Ralph O. Esmerian, then they had left bids, made arrangements to bid by phone, or were tucked away in one of the private sky boxes in the gallery. It was the day for folk art enthusiasts, old and young, seasoned collectors and newcomers, to raise a paddle in quest for some of the most important folk art to come on the market in years.

Saturday, January 25, 2014, will long be remembered as the day a new record total was set for any auction of American folk art, as Sotheby’s achieved $12,955,943, including the buyer’s premium. The previous record was held by Sotheby’s combined sales of the Bertram K. Little and Nina Fletcher Little Collection in January and October 1994.

Nancy Druckman, head of the folk art department at Sotheby’s, said, “People came from across the country for this sale, and we had over 400 people in the gallery, with standing room only.” She added, “There were peaks and valleys in the sale, some lots were passed, but a good number of them have already been sold following the sale.”

The 228 lots in the sale, dubbed “Visual Grace” on the catalog by Sotheby’s, were, at one time, part of a promised gift to the American Folk Art Museum by Ralph Esmerian.

From all reports, this sale included the greatest number of sgraffito pieces of redware to ever come on the market at one time, and, with few exceptions, all lots sold. Lot 1 of the auction, the sgraffito oval dish, got the sale off to a running start, selling for $281,000. Interest continued strong as the third lot, a sgraffito plate with open tulip design, Pennsylvania, attributed to Conrad Mumbauer, circa 1830–1840, 117/8 inches in diameter, sold for $53,125, more than tripling the high estimate of $15,000. Several lots later, a sgraffito redware plate, Pennsylvania, with a vase of flowers design, 10½ inches in diameter, brought $25,000, slightly exceeding the $20,000 high estimate.

The catalog cover lot, a gilded iron, zinc and wood banneret with bird and heart weathervane, possibly New England, circa 1880, 48 inches long and 34 inches high, went for $112,500, exceeding the $80,000 high estimate. Eden Galleries, Salem, N.Y., is listed in the provenance, a shop operated by Irving and Felice Zweig, who also sold the carousel rabbit pictured to Esmerian.

In an email to Antiques and The Arts Weekly, Felice Zweig writes, “The carousel rabbit came to us along with a cat holding bird in mouth, and two gorgeous horses, one of which Charlotte Dinger bought and placed, in color, on the cover of her book. The other horse went to the famous Great Escape Amusement Park carousel. We acquired them from a New York City workman who explained he had salvaged them from a carousel being demolished on Coney Island. He retired to the boondocks near us and brought them along for his grandchildren to play with until he decided he could no longer spare the space. True facts, better late than never, for lovers of American folk art.”

Several lots of smalls at the front of the sale included a dark green and red painted carved poplar candle box, Guilford, New Haven County, Conn., circa 1750. With a slide lid, this piece measured 57/16 by 10½ by 73/16 inches and sold over the high estimate of $10,000, bringing $17,500. A red, yellow and black painted maple, ash and tin storage box, Pennsylvania, dated 1853, measuring 211/16 by 315/16 inches in diameter, sold well over the high $6,000 estimate for $25,000, and the next lot, a painted poplar, oak and iron sugar bucket by Joseph John Lehn, Elizabeth Township, Lancaster County, Penn., dated 1888, sold for $28,175 against a $12,000 high estimate. The provenance on the storage box lists the Sotheby’s sale of the collection of Don and Faye Walters, and David Schorsch is listed in the provenance of the Lehn ware. Schorsch was also the buyer of both lots.

Jacob Maentel’s portraits in watercolor, gouache, ink and pencil on paper of Elizabeth Haak and Michael Haak, circa 1830–1835, measuring 17 by 10¾ inches each, sold to a phone bidder for $233,000. The high estimate was $120,000, and the portraits came out of the Garbisch Collection. Lot 559, a dark green paint decorated miniature chest by Jacob Weber, Lancaster County, dated 1849, with a three-story house flanked by two trees on the front panel, sold for $50,000, over the high estimate of $40,000. This chest was formerly in the collection of Howard and Jean Lipman.

One of the lots to sell below the low estimate was the fireboard with a view of Boston Harbor, oil on pine panel and in the original wood frame, circa 1825–1836, measuring 27¼ by 32¾ inches. Marjorie Schorsch is listed in the provenance and it sold for $245,000, against an estimate of $250/350,000. A Silas Goodrich bandbox and Collins & Fairbanks top hat, Boston, circa 1835, printed wallpaper on pasteboard and silk-lined beaver skin hat, formerly in the Little Collection, sold over estimate for $11,250.

A rare stained leather key basket, probably Richmond, Va., circa 1830–1860, 73/8 by 713/16 by 65/8 inches, sold within estimate for $34,375, and a phone bidder bought the pair of portraits of a man and a woman, possibly Captain Fitzhugh Greene and Mrs Greene, attributed to John Durand, circa 1768–1770. Oil on canvas and measuring 295/16 by 245/16 inches, the pair sold just under the $400/600,000 estimate, bringing $389,000. Florene Maine of Ridgefield, Conn., is listed in the provenance.

Portraits of a young man holding a bible and a young woman holding a rose and a letter, Mary B. Tucker, watercolor and pencil probably painted in Massachusetts, dated 1844, 21¾ by 165/8 inches and 22 by 16¾ inches, carried a $30/50,000 estimate, and sold for $87,500. A few lots later two watercolors, pencil and ink on paper drawings of two children, Charles Edwin Tilton and George Bainbridge Tilton, by Joseph H. Davis sold for $93,750 against a high estimate of $60,000. They were probably painted in Deerfield, Rockingham County, N.H., and are dated 1837. Charles is with a cat, George with a dog, and both are on painted floors.

Jacob Turnerly’s doll cradle for Sarah Turnerly was probably made in the vicinity of Clinton, Conn., and is dated 1853. It measures 137/8 by 225/8 by 12¾ inches and is of cherry, ebony and whale skeletal bone with paint and ink. The provenance lists Joel and Kate Kopp, America Hurrah, and it sold for $50,000 against a high estimate of $30,000.

A portrait of three children in a landscape, an oil on canvas by Henry Walton (1804–1865), was painted in the Finger Lakes region, New York State, circa 1838, and measures 19¼ by 16 inches sight. The provenance brings to mind a series of great dealers, including Frank Ganci, Avis and Rockwell Gardiner and Marjorie Schorsch. The lot sold to David Schorsch for $245,000, against a high estimate of $120,000.

Most of the folk carvings found hungry bidders, including a carved and painted figure of a newsboy holding papers under his left arm and with a cigar in his mouth. This figure is from Eastern or Midwestern United States, dates circa 1880 and is 35½ inches tall. Gerald Kornblau, New York, 1993, is listed in the provenance and the figure sold for $209,000, with a high estimate of $80,000.

A bid of $50,000 was the opening for a Punch by Charles Henkel (1842–1915), a paint-on-wood figure measuring 253/8 inches tall and dated 1870. It was carved in Brattleboro, Vt., and went through an auction at Doyle New York, Edmund Fuller of Woodstock, N.Y., and Christie’s, 1985. It sold for $209,000, just over the high estimate.

A rare watercolor Snow Hill cloister tunebook, attributed to Jacob Ritter, Snow Hill, Franklin County, Penn., dated 1852, sold for $21,250; the high estimate was $12,000. It was watercolor and ink on paper, with leather binding, and came out of the collection of Austin and Jill Fine.

Some of the redware collection was sold toward the end of the sale, including a glazed covered jar with handles and slip decoration, probably Bucks County, Penn., dated 1790. It measured 71/8 inches high and sold for $106,250 against a high estimate of $60,000.

Selling for $106,250 was a rare watercolor religious text with medallion above heart, Samuel Gottschall (1808–1898), Salford Township, Montgomery County, Penn., dated 1834. Ray Egan, Princeton, N.J., is listed in the provenance and the high estimate was $20,000. It was followed by a watercolor on paper Taufschein for Catharina Eberhard, southeastern Pennsylvania, circa 1780. The high estimate was $30,000, and it sold to David Schorsch for $149,000.

A miniature polychrome paint decorated pine checkerboard chest, probably Schoharie County, N.Y., circa 1800, measured 8½ by 91/8 by 10 inches and active bidding drove the final price well above the $75,000 estimate, selling for $377,000. Joe Kindig III of York, Penn., is listed in the provenance.

A rare painted zinc and copper miniature deer weathervane, attributed to J. Howard and Co., West Bridgewater, Mass., measured 12¾ by 9 by 5 inches, had repair to the left antler, but sold for two and one half times the high estimate, $50,000.

A selection of canes closed out the sale, with lot 723, two canes with female handles, probably eastern United States, circa 1860, whale ivory and bone with ink and nail, from the Kristina Barbara Johnson Collection, going for three times the high estimate, realizing $23,750. The next lot, two canes, one with a fist holding a snake handle, Nantucket, Mass., circa 1840, of whale ivory and whale bone, mother-of-pearl and silver, the other of whale ivory and whale bone with ebony, abalone shell, brads and brass, a clenched fist handle, brought close to three times the high estimate, selling for $34,375. Both were also from the Johnson Collection.

All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.

For more information, contact Nancy Druckman, head of Sotheby’s folk art department, at 212-606-7225.

Journey’s End

By Ralph Esmerian

The designation of quality is dependent on the interaction of content and style of performance: great theater demands superb acting; sublime music composition requires virtuoso playing; radiant art calls for enlightened presentation — in publications, exhibitions, auctions.

The Sotheby’s sale of a portion of my Promised Gift to the American Folk Art Museum, seized in my involuntary bankruptcy, was a brilliant tribute to the quality of the art. Inspired and guided by American Radiance, the museum publication of 2001, Nancy Druckman and the Sotheby’s staff produced a lavish and informative catalog that captured the history, the color and picture detail of the objects. The coming together of quality material and diligent auction house work created a sale that not only focused an enduring spotlight on the folk art, but also galvanized that world of Americana.

As expected, human subjects dominated the bidding. The charming innocence of children as painted by New England’s husband and wife team, the Shutes, captivated in watercolor the full-standing Emerson boy ($665,000) and the Russell working girl ($317,000). The three wonderfully stylized portraits of the Carver Family ($521,000) again revealed the impact of watercolor. From the Pennsylvania German community, the itinerant portraitist Jacob Maentel first electrified Mr and Mrs. Bickel in their psychedelic parlor ($401,000), then posed hatter John Mays beside his inventory ($245,000), and finally depicted the very proper and conventional existence of Mr and Mrs Haak ($233,000).

Not to be overlooked, the former slave Bill Traylor, designated as an outsider artist by the Twentieth Century, pictured a fellow Alabamian working a horse and plow ($365,000). Yet the only oil portraits in the auction — John Durand’s youthful captain and his dazzling bride ($389,000) — barely kept pace with the strong values of watercolor sitters, perhaps a reflection of watercolor as folk art’s preferred medium due to its warm and fluent expression.

The human figure did not escape the needlework of Bostonian teenager Lydia Hart, patiently stitching her wonderfully primitive sampler in 1744 representing Adam and Eve ($233,000) in all of their primeval nudity, flanking their pet snake in the blooming Garden of Eden.

In sculpture, the universal and endearing rotundity of Santa Claus by master carver Samuel Robb, assisted by a strong provenance, fetched the auction’s highest price ($875,000). Another figure, the laid-back, stogie-chomping newsboy ($209,000), flogging cigars, tobacco, newspapers, was in good condition, retaining his original worn paint.

At the auction, this appreciation of the human form was followed by the appeal of animals and birds. Vagabonds carving figures for food and lodging were well represented by the Pennsylvania German Wilhelm Schimmel and his awestruck, painted pine lion ($341,000). A more reputable Pennsylvania carving establishment, the Dentzel Company, sculpted our favorite white rabbit ($106,250). Weathervanes, though not abundant, flashed the gilded wood and metal banneret ($112,500) with the profile of a meditative shorebird, only to be eclipsed by the superbly carved pine graceful pheasant hen vane ($449,000).

Because of the commercial culture in which we live, the impressive price parade that marched through the auction lots became a decisive factor for evaluating the sale and the cultural significance and beauty of folk art pieces. High financial value immediately drew oohs and aahs, followed by seals of aesthetic approval, judgments of the best of the best. Without strong prices, objects risk losing luster — their social and art standing evaporating. Occasionally over the years, I would imagine that the art I lived with had no financial value — in a worldwide economic depression that would be a reality. How would I feel about that painting, the weathervane, the sgraffito plate, each one costing me a relatively small fortune in the best of times, once they were stripped of their financial stature?

Although I was a member in good standing of this art market phenomenon, I am presently concerned with this auction’s buy-ins — the objects that could not attract enough interest to be sold in accordance with their respective estimates. Out of the 40 lots unsold, 31 were Pennsylvania German folk art. My passion aside for this traditional immigrant art, I search for reasons why many of the fine pottery pieces, fraktur and decorated objects and furniture found no buyers.

Yes, the very first lot of the sale, the oval sgraffito dish estimated $40/60,000, zoomed up to sell for $281,000. Yes, two pieces from the secluded and fabled Mahantango Valley scaled the heights: the painted poplar spice cup ($245,000) and the decorated pine chest of drawers ($221,000) — but what happened to the rarer decorated desk from the same valley? No sale. What happened to attributed, signed and pedigreed sgraffito, animal pottery figures, resplendent fraktur and watercolors? No sales. Possibly Pennsylvania German folk art was too abundant, ablaze in its very identifiable abstract style for the sophistication of a New York audience.

House sales and auctions in the Pennsylvania countryside attract local collectors eager to bid important sums for their heritage. Perhaps these same unassuming collectors are reluctant to venture beyond their turf to attend big city sales and contend with corporate formalities and protocol.

At journey’s end, I know that each of us — collector, dealer, curator – is a trustee because individual possession in the history of a work of art is so fleeting. Unlike Tutankhamen, we do not exercise the pharaonic luxury of burial with our personal art collections. Thus, the reason for museums — and the hope that vibrant art will outlive makers and audiences — existing forever to educate and inspire human creativity.


Dear Mr Smith, As Americana

Dear Mr Smith,

As Americana collectors for the past 20 years and long-time subscribers and fans of Antiques And The Arts Weekly, we don't know what amazes us more - Mr. Esmerian's comments on the Sotheby's sale or your decision to publish his letter.

Mr. Esmerian is a convicted felon serving time in prison and should not have been given a pass, much less a soapbox by your publication. His self-serving letter shows that he is remorseful that his promised gift to AFAM was "seized" in his involuntary bankruptcy, and that certain items did not find buyers, not the devastation his actions caused.

The auction preview and sale was a happening event, even for non-collecting friends of ours who were in New York that week. We were privileged to attend but do not need to hear more from Mr. Esmerian.

Jim & Pam Alexander
Stonington, CT

You must register or login to post a comment.