Western Pennsylvania’s Scalp Level Art School paintings earning national recognition

Diehard antique art collectors are preparing to invest in a bitter sweet sale of the nation’s largest collection of rare Scalp Level art now featured at Concept Art Gallery in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Scalp Level art auction details

The Sept. 24 sale, featuring more than 40 artists from George Hetzel to William Coventry Wall, is expected to draw antique and art enthusiasts from coast-to-coast.

Mildred Perkins, 81, of Gladstone, N.J., has already packed her bags and purchased her plane ticket to get a front row seat at the venerable Concept Art Gallery where prices are expected to range from $3,000 to more than $50,000. “Wild horses couldn’t keep me from this auction. In fact, I just got a new wheelchair to make my trip a little easier,” said Perkins, a retired New York City planner.

“This is the sale of the century because some of these paintings have never been on public view before,’’ said Sam Berkovitz, owner of Concept Art Gallery. “This collection comes from the late Eugene Anthony Brunozzi Jr., a respected CPA from western Pennsylvania.’’

Berkovitz said this auction offers collectors a rare glimpse at the work of a remarkable group 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 loosely 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 and Adirondack mountains, they left the smoky streets of Pittsburgh to paint sweeping landscapes near Johnston, Pa., and beyond.

Undoubtedly, Western Pennsylvania’s most significant landscape and still-life painter of the 19th century, George Hetzel (1826-99), was instrumental in the formation of the Scalp Level School of painting. Scalp Level is an area near Johnstown where Paint Creek and Little Paint Creek converge.

Reportedly while on a fishing trip to that area in 1866, Hetzel was so taken with the beauty of the surrounding woodlands that he convinced many of his colleagues, many of whom he taught alongside at the Pittsburgh School of Design, to return with him on a painting excursion the next summer. In the years that followed, groups of artists and students returned to the area with Hetzel  on a regular basis.

Now, collectors are returning to the region in what some have dubbed a “cultural pilgrimage’’ in hopes of expanding collections and in some cases simply comparing their own private collection to those on public display.

Gene Kravits of Ligonier, Pa., said he simply adores his Scalp Level collection and finds auctions a great way of getting a free assessment of his own private collection. “I’m always looking to add more,’’ he said.

Wib Beachy, a Scalp Level collector for more than 40 years, said the upcoming sale is unique because there are only a handful of Scalp Level paintings ever on the market at one time. “And I think it is also important to note that Scalp Level painters did not solely focus on boulder-strewn streams and river valleys,’’ said Beachy of Somerset, Pa.

Still life was a very popular subject. So, it is no coincidence that the upcoming auction will boast a cache of still life paintings, including Albert F. King’s signature watermelon with plug to a bucket of peaches by A. Bryan Wall, better known for his pastorial scenes of sheep.

Robert Finch of Leesburg, Va., is excited about the upcoming auction because his parents where long-time collectors of Scalp Level art. “This art has more than doubled in value since my parents began collecting more than 20 years ago, and I find it both a wonderful investment and very pleasing to the eye,’’ said Finch, a retired airline pilot.

And prices keep soaring. Take the case of Lila Hetzel, daughter of famed Scalp Level founding artist George Hetzel. Last month, a small scenic painting by Lila Hetzel fetched more than $2,600. A decade ago, that same painting sold for $150.

“Prices and interest for Scalp Level works has remained very steady and stable,’’ said Kevin O’Toole of Gilliland Fine Art, a Ligonier, Pa.-based gallery specializing in Scalp Level artists and other western Pennsylvania art. “There is a very dedicated and savvy group of collectors when it comes to the  Scalp Levels, and we are also seeing more national interest,’’ he said.

O’Toole said that people tend to think that these artists were isolated working just in Pittsburgh. Or that Pittsburgh was a backwater town. But they were very tuned to the national movement.

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Like the works of the Hudson River School, which reflected three themes of America in the 19th century – discovery, exploration and settlement – many of the Scalp Level works on display for the Sept. 24 auction do much the same.

Take for example the rare William Coventry Wall featuring a lush stream and two fragile deer peering through a serene valley. “This Scalp Level beauty is a real showstopper because it embodies all those American themes of discovery and exploration,’’ said Berkovitz.

Just as captivating is a tranquil farm scene by Joseph R. Woodwell who specialized in capturing both scenic beauty including unusual light and shadow in his works.

 “As a collector, I see these works as a visual piece of history,’’ said Louise Teller of Bridgeport, Conn.  “I’m thrilled with the number of works that will be available at this auction. I’ve always wanted a King and I think I will be able to snare one,’’ said Teller, who also collects rare European porcelain.

Still other antique buffs who plan to let their fingers do the walking over computer keys for online bids when the sale begins report that collecting Scalp Level paintings are a safer bet than real estate or the stock market.

Jim Westin of  San Diego, Calif., said most consumers have mistakenly relied on home values and the stock market to bolster retirement funds. “I have more than 15 Scalp Level paintings and I’m confident that my collection will keep the bill collectors at bay,’’ said Westin, a freelance writer who plans to retire next year.

“Even though my $90,000 home in southern California is now worth about $200,000, I’m told that my average annual price growth in the home is less than 6 percent. I can still do better with my Scalp Level antique art work,and in some cases make a 200 percent profit,’’ Westin said.

And Betty Rift of Greensburg, Pa. said she dumped all her parent’s oil and gas stocks and government bonds earlier this year and began purchasing Scalp Level art. “I realized that the same dollar I invested in the Dow Jones Industrial Index would have been worth about $15 in 2008 compared with $10 last quarter. I can do better with a Hetzel or King painting on my wall, and I can  enjoy them very day,’’ said Rift, a landscape designer. 

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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