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Art Market

Auction highlights – an all-American medley at Sotheby’s

6 April 2023

The Art Basel and UBS Art Market report, published earlier this week, has underscored the dominance of New York at the upper echelons of the auction world – no fewer than 41 of the top 50 highest prices achieved by works of art at auction were found in the Big Apple last year. This is a streak the auction houses will be hoping to continue, as they gear up for their big-name modern and contemporary sales that coincide with Frieze Week in May. But before then, Sotheby’s hosts something of an aperitif in the form of the Wolf family collection, from which more than 1,000 works will be offered across four live and three online sales between 19–22 April.

Over the course of their marriage of 66 years, Erving and Joyce Wolf – who made their millions with the Wolf Land Company (now Inexco Oil Co.) – established in their Fifth Avenue apartment a wide overview of American art and craft. The pair endowed the Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery in the American Wing at the Met in 1980, and also made notable donations to the Denver Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In the Studio (1892), William Merritt Chase. Sotheby’s, New York (est. $2.5–3.5m)

The flagship sale, ‘The Spirit of America’ on the evening of 19 April, reveals the depth and breadth of the couple’s collecting. Of their paintings, the undisputed highlight is William Merritt Chase’s In the Studio. Painted at the height of his powers in 1892, this is a tender portrait of Chase’s wife, Alice Gerson, set amid their summer studio in the Shinnecock Hills – so not the Tenth Avenue interior familiar from many of Chase’s other works of this era, which formed the backdrop to social receptions that, for a while, were the hottest ticket in town. But the surroundings here are similarly eclectically and flamboyantly decked out, and in their midst Gerson leans back on a wicker chair, a sketchbook closed on her lap, as though collecting her thoughts.

Lantern by Greene & Greene photographed in the Wolf family home. Photo: courtesy Sotheby’s, New York

But while it also boasts significant paintings by Winslow Homer, John Singleton Copley and several members of the Hudson River School, the collection is particularly notable for its furniture and design. An unusually colourful and asymmetrical window, produced by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1911 for the Avery Coonley Playhouse in Riverside, Illinois, is one among many works by the architect, which also include furniture and renderings. A monumental lantern produced by Greene & Greene for the Blacker House in Pasadena (c. 1908) is a masterpiece of iridized glass, with motifs of birds in flight and vines on a trellis, set in an elaborate mahogany frame. There are major works by Tiffany & Co. – and, looking back to the 18th century, significant examples of Chippendale furniture produced across the East Coast. The silver in the collection ranges from American colonial to art nouveau; the Chinese export porcelain includes works formerly owned by the likes of J.P. Morgan and Nelson Rockefeller. Around $50m is expected from the seven sales in total.

Trinity – T-Rex (late Cretaceous period). Koller Auktionen, Zurich (est. 5–8m CHF)

Elsewhere in April, a rather different vision of America appears at Christie’s, with the collection of the musical theatre composer Ted Shen offered on 21 April. Among the early modernist pieces he amassed are four works by Marsden Hartley, including On the Beach (1940–41) – a painting of disproportioned, muscular figures and peculiar power. A superb imperial Chinese porcelain bowl, dating to the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736–95), is coming up in a single-lot sale in Hong Kong on 8 April. It is a falangcai ware – the most prestigious group of Qing dynasty porcelains – and one of a pair; the other is on long-term loan to the British Museum. When Alice Cheng bought the bowl in 2006, it became the most expensive Qing dynasty porcelain ever sold at HK$151m ($19.3m). More than HK$200m is expected this time around – and should it fetch more than HK$253m (around $32.4m), it will regain its former crown. (For more on the history and meaning of the bowl, read Rosemary Scott’s feature for Apollo here.) And in Zurich, Koller Auktionen introduces Trinity – the first entire Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever offered in Europe, dating to the late Cretaceous (around 67 million years ago) and with expectations of 5–8m CHF (£4.4m–£7.1m).