On an historic night for American art, An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York realised $317,801,250. Thirteen artist auction records were set and two records by medium, including that for the most expensive work of pre-war American art with Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey, which sold for $91,875,000 (including buyer’s premium).
The greatest privately owned collection of American Modernist art ever to come to market produced deep bidding, as Ebsworth’s laser-like focus on buying only the best was reflected in the competition for museum-quality works by artists of the calibre of Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, Joseph Stella, Charles Sheeler, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
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In addition to Hopper, the collection produced a new world auction record for another giant of 20th-century American art: Willem de Kooning’s Woman as Landscape (1954-55) passed the previous record for the artist before selling for $68,937,500. Jackson Pollock’s Composition with Red Strokes (1950) produced the third highest price of the sale when it was acquired for $55,437,500.
‘In real estate,’ said Ebsworth, ‘three things matter: location, location, location. For me, collecting art was about quality, quality, quality. I would rather have a smaller collection of the finest pictures than dozens of so-so ones.’
The collection, which began in 1972, the year Ebsworth founded the Royal Cruise Line, spanned William Glackens’ 1914 work Café Lafayette (Portrait of Kay Laurell) and Large Bear by Tom Otterness, executed in 2000. The latter was one of the artist records set on the night.
Having focused on the achievements of American Modernists and assembled a superb collection of their works, Ebsworth turned to acquiring the best works by the great names of Abstract Expressionism — Franz Kline, de Kooning, Pollock and others. ‘What I wanted to do by that time was to turn my American Modernist collection into the full American 20th century,’ he explained.
Bidders registered from 23 countries, competing for art that the collector displayed at An American Place, his Jim Olson-designed home on the shores of Lake Seattle.
The blue-chip nature of the works that Ebsworth assembled resulted in auction records for a veritable who’s who of American art across the last 100 years. In the first half of the 42-lot sale, new auction marks were set for Arshile Gorky with Good Afternoon, Mrs Lincoln ($14,037,500); Patrick Henry Bruce for Peinture/Nature Morte ($1,932,500); Francis Criss for Melancholy Interlude ($348,500); Joseph Stella for Tree of My Life ($5,937,500); Suzy Frelinghuysen with Composition ($552,500) and Charles Green Shaw for Untitled ($106,250). The record for a standing sculpture by Alexander Calder also fell, when Hen sold for $8,412,500.
In the second half, further records were established for David Smith (by medium) for Untitled (Billiard Players) ($1,152,500); George Tooker with A Game of Chess ($432,500); John Marin for My-Hell Raising Sea ($1,572,500); Leon Polk Smith with Black Over Red ($336,500); Gaston La Chaise for Standing Woman [LF 92] ($3,732,500), which was flanked by two small works by Georgia O’Keeffe in the entrance hall of Ebsworth’s house; and, finally, for Otterness with Large Bear ($1,512,500), the sentinel that once stood in the collector’s garden.
The sale also marked the first time an art auction at this price level has been recorded on a blockchain, via a secure digital registry administered by Artory, a leading art-centric technology provider.
The introduction of this technology for the sale of the Barney A. Ebsworth Collection continues Christie’s legacy of leading the industry by introducing innovations in the context of major collections, for the ultimate benefit of our clients.
On Wednesday 13 November, a further 49 works from the collection were offered in the Day Sale, producing 11 more artist records — for Andrew Dasburg, Arnold Wiltz, Jan Matulka, Jean Xceron, James Brooks, Morris Kantor, Esphyr Slobodkina, Rolph Scarlett, Theodore Jacob Roszak, Alice Trumbull Mason, and Byrone Browne (whose record was broken twice in the same sale). The final total for the two sales, which were 98 per cent by lot and 97 per cent by value, was $323,103,500.
The 20th Century auctions continue with the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on Thursday. The running total for the season stands at $653,965,375.