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Americana has had its ups and downs in the decade since the market peaked. Sotheby’s pointed to their $20m total for the week (including a sale of Alexander Hamilton’s papers not included in these totals) as the second highest total achieved since 2007 when the comparable sales made $29m.
Without major works on offer at either auction house, the sales depended upon the reputations of a few collections. Although the top works still reflected a mix of American paintings, folk art, outsider art and early American furniture, there were a number of lots that far exceeded their estimates helped along by the strength of the collections from which they emerged.
Just to cover the broadest numbers. Slightly more than 80% of the nearly 2000 objects on offer were sold during Americana week. The hammer ratio was a low 1.05 reflecting sales that were more likely to be at the low estimate than appreciably above. The top lots were more likely to sell well above their estimate range than works that made their low estimate.
In other words, these were not sales where the high value lots sold with little competition to make up the numbers. You can see that sort of pattern in Nicholas Brown tea table or the silver Brandywine bowl that sold at Sotheby’s. But the rest of the top ten works across both houses were objects that exceeded estimates.
Indeed, the top work, a painting of Lake Pontchartrain by Richard Clague that once hung in the Oval office when Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. It sold for $1.6m against a $120k low estimate. John Rasmussen’s View of the Berks County Almshouse which had a $60k low estimate sold for $516k. A similar story was told for the lead lot of Christie’s Folk and Outsider art sale, William Edmondson’s carved Lion made $511k over a $200k low estimate.
When we focus on the hammer ratio, that is works that sold for the highest multiples of the low estimate, we see several of the same works that are on the top ten. Below is a list of the top 15 works with the highest hammer ratio. We’ve removed the works that sold below $50,000 to ensure that we’re looking at works with meaningful market value.
Based upon the hammer ratio, the top lot of the week was American portrait painter James Henry Beard’s depiction of Zachary Taylor, the United States’s 12th president. The top fifteen by hammer ratio includes a fair number of low value lots that were bid to either significant five-figure sums or meaningful six-figure sums. A Tiffany vase from the Pan-American Expostition in Buffalo was pushed to $175k. A William and Mary chest of draws rose to the same figure. Hermann Herzog’s Southern Hardwood Swamp Scene had an $80k high estimate but that did not prevent determined bidders from chasing it all the way to $487,500.