Large sale of Western Pennsylvania Scalp Level School Art hits new highs

By Chriss Swaney

Scalp Level School artist Albert King's still life of watermelon sold for $9,400 at a Sept. 24, 2011 sale at Concept Galleries.Scalp Level School artist Albert King’s still life of watermelon sold for $9,400 at a Sept. 24, 2011 sale at Concept Galleries.

A recent sale of the largest collection of rare Western Pennsylvania art offered at auction tipped the fiscal scales with prices ranging from $9,500 for an Albert King signature watermelon still life to $32,000 for William Coventry Wall’s idyllic forest landscape.

The Sept. 24, 2011 sale at Pittsburgh, Pa-based Concept Art Gallery featured more than 40 Scalp Level artists from George Hetzel to A. Bryan Wall.

“This was a wonderful sale because it reflected a very positive environment for serious collectors despite the challenging economic times,’’ said Sam Berkovitz, owner of Concept Art Gallery.

The collection, which came from the late Eugene Anthony Brunozzi Jr., gave a rare glimpse at the work of painters strongly tied to Western Pennsylvania. Like the Hudson River School, America’s most beloved group of 19th-century landscape painters, the Scalp Level School was a closely knit group of artists who trekked into the woods to capture the fading beauty of America’s countryside. But instead of leaving New York City to paint scenic views of the Hudson River Valley or the Catskills, they left the smokey streets of Pittsburgh, to paint sweeping landscapes near Johnstown, Pa. and beyond.

Collectors from all walks of life came to the sale to bid for their favorite artists. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, plumbers and retired empty nesters spent hours vying for their favorite scalp level art.

Bidders plopped down $30,000 for a still life of fruit by A. Bryan Wall, better known for his pastoral scenes of sheep. Eugene Poole’s “Path Through the Forest’’ fetched $6,000. A similar Poole last fall brought only $3,500.

Artist George Hetzel’s “Stream in the Forest” landscape brought $6,000 after a bidding war between two online buyers. Hetzel (1826-1899) is Western Pennsylvania’s most significant landscape and still-life painter of the 19th-century. He was instrumental in forming the Scalp Level School of painting. Scalp Level is an area near Johnstown, Pa., where Paint Creek and Little Paint Creek converge.

Other scalp level artists like Russell Smith sold for $6,500 and a late fall scenic afternoon piece by Eugene Poole ended the sale with a bid of $6,500. A similar Poole only two years ago fetched $2.500.

Bob Bourse, who collects scalp level paintings, said the sale reaffirmed his belief that Scalp Level Art is finally achieving the same kind of recognition and value once only attributed to the Hudson Valley School. “You had to be there to see the energy and enthusiasm for the art. It was fantastic,’’ he added.

The gallery’s next sale is Oct. 22 featuring more than 500 lots of antique furniture and fine art.

Chriss Swaney is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist for Reuters, The New York Times, Pittsburgh Engineer and Horse World, and an avid antique collector.

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