Middle American art market seeing strong results

By Noah Fleisher

American art, described here as paintings, works on paper and sculpture from roughly 1850 to 1950 – and on occasion even earlier than 1850 – is as fascinating, accessible and varied a wrinkle in the art market as there is. The art and the artists now considered “American” have shifted significantly in the last decade.

Mabel May Woodward painting

“New England Summer, Late Afternoon,” Mabel May Woodward (American, 1877-1945), oil on canvas, signed lower left: “M.M. Woodward,” 16” x 20”. $2,000. (All photos courtesy of Heritage Auctions, ha.com)

“Everything from Colonial portraiture and Hudson River School paintings through to Modernism, Realism and everything in between can be considered ‘American,’” said Aviva Lehmann, director of American Art at Heritage Auctions in New York. “Of all areas of fine art, I find American art to be the most diverse. Where else can you sell a Remington, an O’Keeffe, a Cassatt and a Rockwell in one auction? As such, my catalogs often look like a syllabus of American art, even of American history in general.”

What’s even better news right now for both collectors and dealers in American art, especially if your bread and butter is in the middle market – say anything between $2,000 and $50,000 – and into the lower market, things are as good as they can be. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive to hear that, perhaps, given the obscene prices being paid for high-profile Modern and contemporary works at top art auction houses, but it’s the truth.

There is a plethora of quality work available in all corners, and with the malleable definition of “American art,” this creates opportunities by the score, especially to a determined eye.
“The state of the American art market is as healthy as it’s ever been,” said Lehmann. “In 2007 and early 2008, we all thought that was the peak, yet in many areas the market is at a height never achieved before.”

Several areas are driving the strength we see in American art right now, like Western art, regional art of various types and early American Modernism, with very recent records being set at auction not just for Rockwell and O’Keeffe, but for secondary and tertiary artists in these areas, such as J.C. Leyendecker and Henry Lyman Sayan. This same pattern on down the hierarchical line of popular painters is repeating and resulting in ever better prices.

“As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats,” said Lehmann.

Nowhere has the shift been more pronounced, however, than in illustration art. It’s rare when you

Tom Lovell "Saratoga Trunk"

“Saratoga Trunk,” Tom Lovell (American, 1909-1997), 1941, oil on canvas, signed upper right: “Tom / Lovell,” 26 1/4” x 39”. This painting was created for the film Saratoga Trunk, Warner Brothers Burbank Studios, 1945. $8,125

have an opportunity to witness the exact moment when a paradigm shifts, but when Heritage Auctions began the 2009 auction of the estate of Charles Martignette, a legendary collector – and a series of auctions I was lucky enough to work on – it was obvious that things were changing. Suddenly art that was thought to be kitschy, dated or transient had been given new life. Names like Elvgren, Moran, Armstrong and many more were bringing real, undeniably good prices. The world of “fine art,” which had thumbed its nose so long at illustration art, sat up and took notice.

“Illustration, in my opinion, has the most momentum right now,” said Lehmann. “There are more buyers flocking to the category and more records being set by the season than anywhere else. I’m not just talking about Rockwell; it’s Golden Age art, pulp art, pin-up art. Elvgren now regularly sells in the six-figure range, as do works by Patrick Nagel and even LeRoy Neiman, an artist not even handled in fine art auctions until recently and now who regularly brings competitive bidding and six-figure results.”

So knowing now that the choice of “American” arenas is so broad – let your imagination go – the reality of price has to be considered. Most of us are not going to spend $50,000 or $100,000 on a painting. In fact, most of us will have to carefully consider spending more than $1,000-$2,000 on anything, let alone a painting. How do you decide?

“I always say to either choose a modest example by a very important artist – a Hopper drawing, for example – or a masterwork by a more obscure artist,” said Lehmann. “At the end of the day, buy only what you love and cannot live without. Go from the heart.”

This last bit of advice from Lehmann is perhaps the most important. It is also the most ubiquitous piece of advice a seeker in any category can get. At $100 million or so, it’s probably OK to consider the investment aspect of it. At a few thousand? The market is going to hold its value at most levels right now. You’re not going to get filthy rich on obscure Regionalism, but you’re also not going to lose.

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“I know that there is more ‘investment buying’ in the contemporary art arena and that there are portfolios being built by financial advisers based on art investment alone,” said Lehmann. “I’ve never encouraged buying for investment purposes. American art is quite stable and not as erratic as contemporary art.”

In the end, buy from those you trust, educate yourself – read books, go to museums, galleries and auctions – and seek advice from seasoned collectors and curators.

“Never be afraid to ask too many questions,” added Lehmann. “Above all, have fun.”

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