There were no fireworks at the major Americana auctions in New York City in late June and just a few welcome signs of freedom from the recession. The skyrocketing prices of a few years ago are but memories this Fourth of July weekend as auction prices for American antiques settle down at a lower level.
The parade of American furniture, folk art and silver crossing the auction blocks at Christie's and Sotheby's was greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and wariness. Each auctioneer grossed about $2.7 million: Two hundred and ninety lots sold at Sotheby's and 139 at Christie's. In headier days that was the cost of just one fine piece.
Some strong prices were paid last month. But 93 lots at Sotheby's and 50 at Christie's, about a quarter of the lots each offered, failed to sell. The unsold pieces generally were minor items, on which there was no bidding at all, or none reaching the minimum reserve prices acceptable to the sellers.
When a late 19th century weathered copper weather vane in the form of a full-bodied winged figure of Fame blowing her trumpet sold at Christie's for a whopping $148,500, the mood in the salesroom became one of hope that she heralded better times ahead for Americana. Folk art dealer David Schorsch Inc. of New York bought the 39-inch high sculpture, made by the J. L. Mott Iron Works, which had been estimated too conservatively at $4,000 to $6,000. A similar vane brought $50,600 at Sotheby's in April 1982.
Patriotism, rarity and artistry attracted seven bidders at Christie's to a gilded and painted wooden American eagle grasping a red, white and blue shield and two draped American flags. Made in the mid-to-late-19th century by John Bellamy, a well-regarded eagle carver in Portsmouth, N.H., its price soared to $39,600, more than three times its high estimate.
Christie's and Sotheby's tied at $220,000 for the week's costliest lots. At Sotheby's, a Philadelphia Chippendale armchair, which didn't sell three years ago when the originality of its arms was questioned, was bought by Allen Miller, a Quakertown, Pa., restorer and dealer, now convinced of its authenticity. At Christie's, New York dealer Israel Sack Inc. reacquired a mahogany serpentine-front chest of drawers made there before the American Revolution, its carved skirt and feet reflecting the taste for rococo ornament. The chest's $220,000 price was below its $250,000 to $350,000 presale estimate and substantially less than its consignor, New Hampshire collector Eddy G. Nicholson, said he had paid Sack for it.
The most expensive furniture at Christie's came from Mr. Nicholson, who was one of the small group of wealthy collectors responsible for the late 1980s explosion in Americana prices. In January 1986, he was the first to pay more than $1 million for a piece of American furniture, spending $1,045,000 at Christie's for a Philadelphia pie crust Chippendale tea table. In June 1989, he underbid the record $12.1 million Brown family Newport block front secretary.
Now, Mr. Nicholson is raising cash for a business venture: "I would have preferred to sell some real estate, but there are no buyers. Art and antiques, like stock, are liquid."
Mr. Nicholson said he made a good profit on 10 paintings largely purchased about a decade ago, netting $1.7 million. He got $1,116,000 for eight pieces of furniture and eight silver items, taking a loss on some of what he acquired more recently during boom times. Although good quality pieces, they lacked the mystique associated with being fresh to the market.
Dean Failey, Christie's director of Americana, was upbeat about the results of Mr. Nicholson's sales, noting that several new collectors were bidding and that all of the furniture and silver sold, thanks in part to a consignor who understood the importance of realistic presale estimates and low reserves.
A woman from Texas standing at the back of the room bought Mr. Nicholson's Philadelphia Chippendale dressing table for $165,000, its low estimate. A fine Philadelphia Queen Anne walnut side chair, from a set made for Capt. Samuel Morris, fetched $104,500. The underbidder was New York dealer Leigh Keno, who sold it to Mr. Nicholson six years ago for about the same price.
An unidentified collector bidding by phone paid $154,000 at Sotheby's for a Federal girandole clock, made by Lemuel Curtis of Concord, Mass., circa 1815, crowned with a carved gilt American eagle, and decorated with a lexicon of patriotic symbols in eglomise (reverse painting on glass) on its throat and round convex (girandole) door.
"We have faith in Americana," said octogenarian Harold Sack, the dean of Americana dealers and a major force in the price pyrotechnics of the late 1980s. Mr. Sack sat out the last three major Americana sales in New York but now is bidding again, finding smart competition.
"There are plenty of new buyers who are doing their homework and buying investment-grade antiques," he noted. "There's a lot of knowledge around. We used to have the field to ourselves."