Sotheby’s sells Taubman’s American collection

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
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Sotheby’s third auction of Detroit philanthropist and real-estate developer A. Alfred Taubman’s art collection had mixed success Wednesday night in New York. Sixteen of the 31 lots of American art failed to meet low-end estimates set by the house.

Martin Johnson Heade’s “The Great Florida Sunset” sold for $5.85 million.

This continues the lackluster pattern set by the first of the four Taubman auctions Nov. 4, when the “Masterworks” — the best among the billionaire’s Modern and Contemporary collections, with works by Rothko, Picasso and Modigliani — didn’t match what some called unrealistic expectations.

All the same, the 77 lots in the Nov. 4 “Masterworks” sale netted $377 million for Sotheby’s, which guaranteed the Taubman heirs $500 million after a bidding war with Christie’s.

Exceeding expectations Wednesday evening, however, were works by the “visionist” American painter Charles E. Burchfield and pieces by Milton Avery, a New York painter influenced by Matisse, both of which far outstripped their price spreads.

And while Martin Johnson Heade’s “The Great Florida Sunset” didn’t hit its $7 million minimum, its hammer price (plus buyer’s fee) of $5.85 million still pegged an all-time record for the artist, beating his previous high of $2.8 million.

“I saw the Heade,” said Madison Avenue gallerist Greg Hubert, who’s followed the Taubman auctions closely. “It’s iconic — a museum piece.”

Milton Avery’s “Female Gamester” pulled $580,000, easily outstripping Sotheby’s top estimate of $300,000. Similarly, Burchfield’s hypnotic “House Abandoned to the Insects,” estimated at $250,000-$350,000, went for $394,000.

As on Nov. 4, celebrity names didn’t do as well as might have been expected.

Two of three Winslow Homer pieces fell short of their low-end prices, though a painting of girls crouched beneath a beached boat, “The ‘Summer Cloud,’” netted $1.81 million, well within its $1.5 million to $2.5 million spread.

On the other hand, John Singer Sargent’s “Portrait of Lancelot Allen” brought in only $490,000, well under its $800,000 low-end estimate.

The artist with the greatest number of works on sale Wednesday was Burchfield, with seven. Also well represented were Reginald Marsh, with four, and Avery and Homer with three apiece.

Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, whose works dot the Cranbrook campus in Bloomfield Hills, didn’t have a great night. His small study of the girl in “Europa and the Bull” outside the Cranbrook Art Museum only pulled a $22,000 hammer price, short of its $30,000 low-end estimate.

And his “Vingarna” sold for just $4,000, well under its $15,000-$25,000 spread.

Taubman, who died in April, bought Sotheby’s in 1983. He was convicted in a price-fixing scandal with Christie’s and in 2001 served 10 months in a federal minimum-security prison.

Taubman’s Old Masters, including paintings he’d loaned to the DIA, will be auctioned Jan. 27.

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