In the 1980s collectors bought as if they were creating their own private museums. In the 1990s they are buying from public museums.
Large and small museums faced with deficits and storage costs are deaccessioning and selling works not on exhibition. That is why nearly two-thirds of the lots of American furniture and decorations sold at Sotheby's on Oct. 26 were consigned by public institutions.
The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford sold duplicates from the Wallace Nutting Collection which had been purchased in 1925. The Henry Ford Museum sold furniture no longer deemed relevant to its collection of Americana in Dearborn, Mich. Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, in the process of refining its collection, offered some American furnishings which "no longer advanced the objectives and mission of the Foundation."
Even the star of the sale, the small Edward Hicks "Peaceable Kingdom," selling for a record $1.21 million, was consigned by a small historical society, which asked for anonymity. The 17-by-23-inch painting in its black painted frame was discovered by an appraiser evaluating some old glass dishes. He spied the picture stashed away in a corner.
The painting has three small holes in the canvas and a white streak from bird droppings across the face of the lion. The "as found" condition is what connoisseurs prefer. The picture was bought on the phone by a collector bidding against another phone bidder. The price was in line with the $1 million-plus prices paid to dealers for Hicks' paintings in the last two years, and topped the previous auction record for American Folk Art: $990,000 paid by Hirschl & Adler on behalf of a client for another Hicks painting, "Penn's Treaty with the Indians," sold at Sotheby's a year ago.
That record for folk art and a record $264,000 paid for a rare pieced pictorial quilt demonstrated that there is still good competition for the finest, even in troubled economic times.
The record quilt, which has 40 pictorial squares, is initialed "W.B." and dated "November 18, 1867." It was purchased by New York dealer Joel Kopp of America Hurrah. He outbid Massachusetts dealer Grace Snyder, who was bidding for a client. "I bought it for an important collector, Kate Kopp," beamed Mr. Kopp, after the hammer fell.
Mr. Kopp said he and his wife Kate hoped to live with the quilt for awhile but eventually it would be for sale. "It is the Quilt of Reconciliation, the reconciliation of the North and the South after the Civil War," said Mr. Kopp.
Pictorially inventive and well-made with bright fabrics of the period, it reflects the important events in 1867 which reestablished the Union. Mr. Kopp believes the square depicting a horse and rider facing a large black man and embroidered with the words "Master I am Free" documents black men getting the '' right to vote in New York State in 1867. He thinks the square showing a man with a woman holding a flag, embroidered "Jeff Davis and his daughter," may have been inspired by a newspaper article about the release of Jefferson Davis from prison, decribing how Davis was met by children and his daughter was given an American flag.
Mr. Kopp said he is pretty sure the quilt was made in New York State. "The Civil War soldiers are dressed as Zouaves and the blacks are portrayed in several squares as tradesmen; that shows that it was made in the North." He said he is aware of one other quilt with patches made by the same hand, also dated 1867, illustrated in the Quilt Calendar in 1975. According to Nancy Druckman, who heads Sotheby's American Folk Art department, the quilt was consigned by a New York man who said it was owned by his late wife's family.
Record prices do not always reflect the broader market. The two top lots in this sale accounted for a third of the sale's total, $3.8 million for 420 lots, of which 62 remained unsold because no one was willing to bid a minimum acceptable price.
Prices paid for expensive furniture were down from the high of two years ago to the level of the mid-1980s. A mahogany card table made in Philadelphia circa 1770 for David Deshler, the mate to a card table at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, sold for $275,000. It was estimated to sell for $250,000 to $350,000.
Sotheby's estimates were realistic. A Philadelphia bonnet-top chest-on-chest of classic proportions, its drawers made of solid figured mahogany, circa 1770, sold for $159,500, near the middle of its estimates -- $125,000 to $175,000. A Philadelphia lowboy with carving attributed to the masters Nicholas Bernard and Martin Jugiez, circa 1770, went over estimate to a collector on the phone for $115,500. The underbidder was Downingtown, Pa., dealer Philip Bradley. Mr. Bradley said he would have liked to have bought the lowboy, but earlier in the sale he had spent $99,000, half its high estimate, on a Philadelphia highboy with similar carving that had descended in the family of George Reader, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
"I don't know of another Philadelphia highboy of this stature on the market for less than two or three times the price," Mr. Bradley said.