Browbeating at a luxury estate auction
The woman in the serigraph print was obviously an African queen. I could tell by her clothing, her head wrap, and her regal posture and direct stare.
The auction house had hung the print farther away from the steps that led into the room, closer to a large window. Even with the natural light, I could not make out the name of the artist, who had pencil-signed it in the right corner.
That’s Andy Warhol, an auction staffer told me after I inquired. And the woman? Queen Ntombi. (I learned later that she was Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland).
“It’s about $20,000,” he said.
In another room, I could hear the auctioneer trying heartily to sell another piece of artwork, browbeating the 25 or so auction-goers to dig deeper in their pockets to pay top prices for the trove of works stationed throughout the house. So, I wasn’t betting that Warhol’s queen was going to pull in $20,000 – even if that’s what she was worth. Click on photo above for a full view.
I was attending an estate auction over the weekend with two friends at a home on Philadelphia’s tony Main Line. It was an expansive house with a mid-century modern feel, and very spacious grounds (a little over two acres). On the first floor near a smoothly curving stairway, you could glance through the branches and leaves of a ficus tree that had weaved their way across a floor-to-ceiling glass window – creating a peek-a-boo look into the back yard.
At the doorway, a weathered black lawn jockey holding a lamp stood sentry, next to a black-painted greyhound dog statue (it looked like a greyhound, and a pair sold later for 50 bucks).
The auction was by invitation only to people whom the auction house expected to pay big bucks for a preview sale before it was opened to the public. I didn’t get an invitation but a friend of mine did. Since I buy high-end art at low-end prices, I likely won’t show up on the lists of auction houses like National Estate Marketing, which conducted this sale and is a seller of items from luxury estates.
The company also noted on its website that it doesn’t charge the seller for conducting the auction. “We make our compensation off the event,” according to the website.
That explained the flogging, which soon got as tiresome as it gets at my kind of auction. It was obvious that people came looking for a bargain – who doesn’t? – and kept their purses and wallets closed very tight. At one point, the auctioneer thanked someone for a pity bid – joking that the person had bidded because he/she had felt sorry for him.
Auction-goers may have bidded sparingly because the majority of the items sold for the hour or I was there were original prints – lithographs, serigraphs, woodcuts. Not many people expect to pay a lot of money for a print of a painting unless it’s a rare print or they just fell in love with it.
Many artists were represented at the sale, including Dali (a woodcut from the Divine Comedy series was among the offerings), Marc Chagall by Mourlot, Itzchak Tarkay, Leroy Neiman (what home is complete without one of his?), Joan Miro, Degas, Norman Rockwell, Jim Dine and Carlos Comesanas (a new name for me). I even saw a small Fernando Botero piece propped against a wall on the floor beneath book shelves in the auction room.
The sale also included jewelry and some beautiful Persian rugs, one with colors of soft orange and yellow that caught my eye. It went for $1,400.
The auction was conducted at the home of a “well-known Mainline socialite,” according to the post-card invitation. The auctioneer mentioned that all of the pieces had been displayed in the 4,654 square-foot home, which must have felt like a museum for the owners. Several paintings had a label with the name “Nathan Isen, Purveyors of Fine Art.” So I Googled him.
Isen is a Philadelphia art dealer, gallery owner and appraiser who co-authored a book on Icart. He owns I. Brewster & Co. gallery in the city, which was started about 30 years ago in a small space in the city, according to its website. The gallery specializes in Icart’s works, but it also buys and sells other artists, including African Americans Humbert Howard, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
During the auction, a huge piece bursting with reds and yellows and a cacophony of other colors by Comesanas was put up for sale. The auctioneer called it “Parrot,” and pointed to what looked like an abstract version of a parrot with a gold beak and red body. He wasn’t going to take less than $50,000 for it, he said. When there were no takers at his opening bid of $10,000, the painting was taken away.
He did get past the $10,000 mark on an original oil by Icart of his daughter Reine as a little girl. For a few minutes the bidding hung in the air at $12,500 as the auctioneer worked mightily to budge it upward. It finally topped at $16,000. He was obviously disappointed at the prices (at one point calling the experience of minimalist bids a “nightmare”), so much so that he suggested a break so auction-goers could take another look at the inventory.
I’m very familiar with Icart and his images of stylish women (many of which you can get just about anywhere as reproductions). But I was happy to get a chance to see a couple of his oils at this auction.
At another point, the auctioneer pointed to an early painting by Tarkay, whose works he said were sold by Park West Gallery at auctions on cruise ships. Tarkay died in June at age 77 after emergency heart surgery. I recognized the name Park West for the art sales it conducts in hotel ballrooms. In fact, I picked up a painting of an unknown artist at auction some years ago that someone had likely bought from a hotel or cruise ship auction.
The Warhol serigraph of Queen Ntombi Twala was part of a 1985 series called “Reigning Queens,” which also included Queen Elizabeth, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. Warhol also produced a Royal Edition of four prints each of the queens in different color combinations, and sprinkled them with crushed glass that sparkled like diamonds. A set of Queen Elizabeth Royal Edition prints is on display at Windsor Castle from Nov. 23 to next June 2013. In September, Sotheby’s sold a set for $109,000, and a single Royal print for $43,000.
I’m not sure if the Queen Ntombi piece was one of the Royal Edition pieces, but I don’t recall any sparkles emanating from it. I wasn’t around when it sold, but on the web, I came across two non-Royal silkscreens that went unsold at auction this year. Sotheby’s sold both types for less than $10,000 over the past two years.