Edmund Darch Lewis: Hudson School on the rocks

Edmund Darch Lewis (1835-1910) was an American landscape painter associated with the Luminist branch of the Hudson River School. Like a lot of the second-tier Hudson guys, his average paintings run for $3000-5000 now but when he really steps up his game they can run for multiples of that. (Overall, prices for his works appear to have gone down over the past 10 years.) It’s pretty clear what his successes are: They are always well-lit horizontal landscapes with sun breaking through clouds over mountains with water. That seems to be a general trend, actually – the paintings with the strong contrast of light and dark – the “wow” factor paintings – are far more valued than the more monochromatic blah-ier paintings.

For instance … This one, “River Valley,” (1866) which is very big at 112 x 183 cm, sold for $14,000 at Skinner in Boston in May, 2016. That’s strong strong for him but was below the expected range of $20,000-$30,000. I’m trying to decide how good this painting is. The rocks in front look a bit fake, actually. The whole thing has a little of that “velvet Elvis” feel about it (a common problem with older landscapes), but when you stand back it’s still mighty impressive.

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This one, “Nebraska Notch,” (1876) was73 cm x 127 cm, and sold for $1,900 at Alex Cooper Auctions in Towson, MD, in August 2015. That was below the expected range of $3,000 to $5,000. Now … it looks pretty similar to the one above, but not as good (also a little smaller). The lighting is darker and it is less dramatic with less going on. Still it’s interesting that this thing fetched not even 1/7th of the one above. That’s art – it either grabs you or it doesn’t. And the difference between grabbing and not-grabbing can be pretty tiny. Plus Cooper’s is a much less well-known house than Skinner.

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Lewis also did a lot of verticals, which always are a bit more awkward and generally don’t sell as well. This, for instance, is of Little River in Stowe, VT, 76 cm x 50 cm, in 18xx (unclear). Clearly the same painter as above, though not as profound. Hammer price was $5,500, within the expected range of $4,000-$6,000.

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Lewis has two paintings coming up at the Shannon’s Auction in Milford CT this Thursday. This first one is called “Along the Susquehanna,” (1878 — 30×50 inches) and the expected range is $4,000-$6,000. Looks a whole lot like the Nebraska Notch one, though not as good. Shannon’s is a much bigger deal than the Cooper auction house (where Nebraska Notch sold), and this Shannon auction will attract a lot of attention from Hudson River School-interested people  so I suspect it will get the $4,000 number, if not more. I’m curious to see it in real life. See if it grabs me.

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Then we have this: “Landscape Near the Susquehanna,” (1857), at 39 x 53 inches (still really big). It was done in 1857 so an earlier work from him. I kind of like it though in some ways it is generic. The lighting is not powerful, for instance and there isn’t too much happening. The expected range is $2,500-$3,500. I think it will get that because I suspect upon seeing it in person it will strike one as very warm and soothing. I could be wrong though.

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In his day Lewis was very successful painter and became quite an affluent collector. He lived in Philadelphia, having become an associate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at age 24. He took painting trips throughout PA, NJ, NY and VT and also did a lot of nautical painting. So why are his works selling for $4,000? One answer could be that all the examples shown above are actually not his best. Lewis’ stuff is in many Eastern and New England museums. This painting of Newport Harbor at Twilight (1876 – 30×50 inches)  is just basically better than the ones above. This is a recurring issue where artists’ best works get snapped up by museums over the years, leaving auctions with the leftovers.

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Artprice.com has a valuation indicator for this artist going back to 1999. The peak value of an “average” Lewis was in 2006 at $5,900. Now the figure stands at $2,100. Very likely that is due to lower-quality work coming on the market now but the deterioration has been pretty steady over the past 10 years so I’d say there may have definitely been a drop-off in interest too.

 

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James Hamilton: Prices in the dumps, but why?

James Hamilton (1819-1878) was an Irish-American marine painter who, in his day, was reasonably well known. He is credited with painting one of the first American seascapes, The Sea at Atlantic City, in 1868. Now, though, auction prices for his works are all over the map — and appear to be sinking. Just three years ago his pieces were routinely fetching $5,000-$12,000 (still not much). More recently they are barely scraping $2,500 – and the quality of the pictures going now doesn’t seem any lower in the recent auctions. Hamilton’s works are in at least 17 US museums, including the NY Metropolitan, Smithsonian, and major Museums of Boston, Phili, Brooklyn and Newark. There was a book written about him in 1966, which I have just ordered.

After immigrating from Ireland as a child in the 1820s/30s, Hamilton went back to England in 1854 to study works of JMW Turner and other landscape artists. You can certainly see a Turner-esque influence in his work. Here’s a Hamilton “Philadelphia Harbor” (1864) that went for $9400 at the Dorotheum in Vienna in October 2013. The Dorotheum auctions tend to be pricey (5 figures) so perhaps this work got an updraft from that. Size is 68 cm x 107 cm, which is pretty big.

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The one below, which is almost identical to the one above, went for $2,500 at Cowan’s in Cincinnati just a few days ago. (I bought it.) That was the top of the expected range of $1500-2500. The same picture failed to sell at James D. Julia in February of this year, when the expected range was $3,000-$5,000. So what’s going on here? Well, it could be that art auctions were weak in February because the stock market had just plunged in January and people with money were not thinking about art. I suppose it could be a fake – i.e. a knockoff of the one above. That said, the condition report from the James D. Julia catalogue says the picture below has had some inpainting and suffers craquelature (both signs of age). Plus there is a tag on the back saying “Brookyln Museum loan.” Another possibility is simply that the one below is smaller (48 cm x 73 cm) and all else being equal bigger works go for more.

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This Hamilton below  sold for $5,500 at Freeman’s in Philadelphia in December 2013. That was well above the expected range of $2,000-3,000.

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Hamilton definitely had a thing for doing similar scenes over and over. This one here is the Chesapeake Bay, with Baltimore in the background. It is 40cm x 55cm and sold for $3,500 at Shannon’s in October, 2015. That was below the bottom of the expected range of $5,000-$7,000.

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This is Hamilton:

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– Mike Churchill

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Arthur Hoeber: Second-tier Tonalist knocks it out of the park.

Arthur Hoeber (1854-1914) was an American landscape artist known for calm, meditative works. He fits in with the Tonalist school, as his works emphasize mood and aren’t strictly realistic (but he can do realism with animals). In particular he sought to capture the sublime feeling of dusk. The piece below is coming up for auction at the Litchfield County CT Auction on October 12. Starting bid is $3,000 and expected range is $6000-9000. The range seems a tad high buy ultimately may be proven correct. The piece looks outstanding. While there are no cows (and Hoeber is somewhat known for his cows) I think he really nails it on the colors and the mood. Hoeber is hit or miss. Some of his paintings work better than others. This one works. Also great frame.

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Here is a darker Hoeber that went for $4,000 at Christie’s in NYC in 2011, above the top of the expected range ($2500-$3500). It’s always a little tricky to use Christie’s as a benchmark because prices of four-figure works tend to get inflated by the reality of so paintings going for 10-50x more. I mean … $4,000 simply equates to the 25% buyer’s premium on a $20,000 work, so it’s easy for someone in attendance to look at this as a sort of freebie. The painting below may or may not be a hit if viewed live. Hard to tell.

 

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I take a particular interest in Hoeber because I own one. One night a few years ago I was browsing Ebay to see what they had in the way of old paintings and came upon a beat-up Hoeber that looked like it had potential. It was being sold by an antique picker who found it at a garage sale or something. The paint was peeling off in many places and it was basically a mess. The picture was very similar to the dark one above, though maybe a little lighter and with a serene cow prominently featured. The cow itself was in perfect shape and I figured the rest could be restored. So I participated in the Ebay auction and got it for about $500. We then found a local guy in Falls Church who restored it for $400. This was the last painting he did before he died and he did a great job but he had it for nearly a year. Based on comparable works I figure it is worth about $2500 or so.

– Mike Churchill

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Abraham Hulk: Well-known Dutch nautical painter…but works going for $3k.

Abraham Hulk (1813-1897) was a Dutch nautical painter who did fantastic work, and his paintings hang in the museums of Amsterdam, Dordrecht, Haarlem and Enschede. Wikipedia has a good write-up on him here. Hulk works routinely go for just $2,000-$4,000 at auction. Sometimes, though, they blow the lid off the top of the expected range and bring in $30,000.

Sailboats on a rough sea in a slightly cloudy sky is up for auction at Nagel’s in Stuttgart on January 28. The expected price is 2,500 euros ($2,732):

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Boats on rough waters is slated for the Christie’s London auction, January 20. The midpoint of the expected range is $3,600.

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Personally, I think the first is the better picture. That said … this piece below, Sailing Ships at Dusk, is clearly better than both of the above. It was expected to go for $8,000 but brought a hammer price of $27,000 in November, 2015, at Lempertz in Cologne, Germany. There’s something about these sun-breaking-through-the-clouds pictures that really appeal to bidders. I see it repeatedly. This one was also very big: 72cm x 105 cm, which probably helped.

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I’ve inquired with Nagel as to the cost of buying, insuring and shipping a piece from Germany to the US. I suspect it would be quite a bit. Start with a 25% premium to the hammer price, then probably $200 for shipping and $100 for insurance and perhaps another 15% for VAT. So, if one got it for a hammer price of $2,800, the final bill would be nearly $4,000. Then, when you went to sell it, the reverse would apply: If you got a $2,800 hammer price the net to the seller would likely be around $2,100. That’s nearly a 100% bid/ask spread. Yikes!

That said, a big reason these works go so cheap in the first place is precisely because of these gargantuan spreads. Without them they’d probably go for more.

By the way, I first became interested in the Hulk family of painters (there are about four of them) when I saw a Hendrick Hulk nautical work down at the Flagler in Palm Beach. It looked very profound so I assumed it would be a $250,000 piece. Nope. More like $2,000. That floored me and piqued my interest in this question of the gap between hammer prices and quality.

– Mike Churchill

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Albert Bricher

Albert Bricher (1837-1908) is a good example of a reasonably famous mid-list Hudson River School painter whose work is widely exhibited in mid-sized museums yet still accessible for purchase (i.e. low/mid five-figures). Three pieces of his are coming up at the Skinner auction on January 22, 2016.  But first, for comparison sake, here are a few of his home runs:

“West Island, Seasconnet Point” got a hammer price of $70,000 at Sotheby’s in May 2015, below the expected range of 80-120k.

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This Seascape pulled in $15,000 in September 2015 at Christie’s, middle of the expected range of $12-18k. I think it’s very well done. Perhaps the hammer price was low due to lack of dramatic elements (rocks, trees or boats) to set off the water.

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On the water got $50k at Christie’s in November 2014. This is a top of the line work in terms of quality for Bricher. The expected range was $50-70k.

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Now on to the upcoming works.

 Hudson River at West Point (1867) is estimated to go for $15,000 to $25,000 at Skinner. I would say it gets sold, perhaps for $20,000. It’s good, but not as good as his best stuff. Maybe it will surprise to the upside.

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Ocean Cliffs, Sunlight is estimated to go for $22,000 to $28,000 but I don’t think it’s as good as the one above. The rocks look kind of cheesy. I predict it doesn’t hit the minimum reserve and goes unsold. At best it gets the minimum.

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Lastly, this one (Coastal Scene) is clearly weak, though priced accordingly at $4,000 to $6,000. We’ll see. Seems like a low hurdle, though I’m not sure what the point of having an inferior work is. That said, perhaps it looks better in the flesh, so to speak.

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 – Mike Churchill

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