When it comes to the standout pieces of American art sold at Christie’s in 2018, it’s hard to look beyond An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection in New York. The sale generated $323.1 million, with auction records being set for 24 artists including Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky and Joseph Stella.
The late travel magnate Barney A. Ebsworth amassed what Caroline Seabolt, chief cataloguer in American Art at Christie’s, calls ‘the greatest privately owned collection of American Modernism ever to come to market’. And for her, Hopper’s Chop Suey was, amidst much competition, its ‘outstanding’ work.
‘The painting has a special place in Hopper’s oeuvre and has been included in every major retrospective he has had,’ says Seabolt. ‘The artist is best known for distilling everyday, urban, American life into highly cinematic images — and, in terms of quality, Chop Suey is right up there with his most famous work of all, Nighthawks.’
Painted in 1929, Chop Suey depicts two women sitting at a table in a Chinese restaurant (with another couple visible at a table in the background). No food has been served, and in a scene of typically Hopper-esque psychological complexity, the woman facing us appears lost in her own thoughts and utterly unengaged with her fellow diner.
The sense of solitude is heightened by the way the artist uses light streaming through the restaurant window, which falls on her almost like a theatre spotlight.
‘It’s one of the best pieces of American Modernism to have come to auction in generations,’ says Seabolt. The $91,875,000 paid for the work set a world auction record, not only for Edward Hopper but for any piece of pre-war American art. (The figure was more than double Hopper’s previous best: $40.5 million, realised at Christie’s New York in 2013, for East Wind Over Weehawken.)
Chop suey restaurants had by the mid-1920s become popular lunch venues for workers in US cities, and Seabolt describes Hopper’s painting as a ‘quintessential’ depiction of that time and place.
The Ebsworth sale was one of two landmark auctions of American art in 2018 from a single-owner collection, the other being The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller: Art of the Americas Evening Sale in May, which also saw record prices for a number of artists, including Charles Sheeler.
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‘In light of the Ebsworth and Rockefeller auctions, this truly was a peak year in our category,’ says Paige Kestenman, Associate Specialist in American Art at Christie’s New York. ‘But there were highlights beyond those two sales too: it was an excellent year for Georgia O’Keeffe, for instance.’ In 2018, Christie’s sold nine works by the artist between the Rockefeller and Ebsworth sales and our various-owner American Art auctions, with five paintings achieving prices in excess of $3 million.