On Thursday, Sotheby’s auction of property from the estates of modernist icons Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz brought in $17.2 million. The sale, which offered a total of 95 artworks, photographs, and rare ephemera, saw a solid 87 percent sell-through rate, and it far surpassed its pre-sale high estimate of $13.3 million. The house also announced that Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library acquired a grouping of photographs and literature to be included in the school’s Stieglitz/O’Keeffe archival collection in advance of the public auction through private sale. The works were consigned from the collection of fellow artist and O’Keeffe confidante, Juan Hamilton.
Among the highest selling lots was O’Keeffe’s Nature Forms – Gaspé (1931), which sold for $6.9 million, exceeding its high estimate of $6 million. The painting has been broadly exhibited at major institutions around the country, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum. But lesser-known works also sold big: O’Keeffe’s sculpture Abstraction, first cast in 1946 and featuring a white spiral design, drew $668,000, double its $300,000 high estimate.
At auction, O’Keeffe’s work has outperformed other American modernists in her circle, including Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, and peaked demand across several collecting categories, among them contemporary, American, Impressionist and modern sales in past seasons. More recently, her work has set records at auction. In May 2014, her 1932 painting Jimson weed/White flower no. 1 set the artist’s auction record at $44 million almost tripling its high estimate of $15 million; and in 2018, a 1926 urban landscape featuring a street-level view of New York skyscrapers reached $13.3 million in Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale.
Among the personal effects from the artist’s holdings that were auctioned on Thursday was a black and white custom dress, which sold for $25,000, more than doubling its high estimate of $10,000. A recent exhibition in 2017 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York focused on O’Keeffe’s sartorial interests and role as photography muse may have sparked increased interest in the work. Also offered at Sotheby’s last week was a 1924 certificate for her marriage to photographer Alfred Stieglitz that bears artist John Marin’s signature; it sold for $15,000.
The Yale library acquisition includes a group of writings and realia documenting O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s decades-long relationship. Among them was a manuscript for “My Eyes and Painting,” a set of O’Keeffe’s writings on her changing eyesight in the later stages of her career; the artist’s address book, which she began to use in 1926; and a file of 300 handwritten recipes cards collected from the 1950s–70s.
Photography, books, and manuscripts tend to sell for less than paintings and sculptures at auction, but they further enhance the aura of an artist and their output. This may account for why buyers went in big for photography at the Sotheby’s auction. Two iconic Stieglitz editions sold—the first, his 1933 picture Georgia O’Keeffe – Hand and Wheel, showing the artist’s bracelet-cuffed hand laid atop the tire of her Ford V-8 tire convertible coupe, achieved $400,000, well within its $300,000–$500,000 estimate, and the second, his famous Spiritual America, which achieved $218,750, selling for more than double its high estimate of $90,000. A rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses that was signed and inscribed by painter Marsden Hartley, who acquired the book during his time in Europe before creating his seminal “Amerika” series, sold for $62,000.