The State of the American Art Market
With purpose and focus, Richard and Carol Levin of Kansas City assembled an outstanding collection of American art of the early to mid-20th century that they curated over the course of 50 years. Ranging from a 1913 illustration of New York street musicians by John Sloan to psychedelic, tongue-in-cheek trompe l’oeil works by Aaron Bohrod, the couple’s collection reflected their personal taste while also celebrating the best that the American art market had to offer. Their endeavor began innocently enough, with a purchase of a portrait of Carl Sandburg by Thomas Hart Benton during a visit to the artist’s studio. After their second purchase from Benton, Study for Flood Disaster (Homecoming-Kaw Valley), Benton’s wife Rita encouraged Richard and Carol to look beyond her husband’s work.
The couple took Rita’s advice to heart and expanded their scope, although these two Bentons, along with an eventual third purchase of The Discussion, with its accompanying drawing and print, proved to be highlights of the collection. On May 20 of this year, the Levin collection was offered at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, where The Discussion sold for $1,052,500, against an estimate of $200,000-400,000. Not only did the Bentons perform well, but the entire sale sold, a rare occurrence in the art market. In addition to the Bentons, Sloan, and Bohrods, the Levin collection included a striking Robert Henri portrait of a young Irish girl, a Charles Burchfield watercolor of the artist’s upstate New York backyard, as well as works by Reginald Marsh, John Steuart Curry, and William Glackens, among others.
The success of the Levin sale reflects the state of the fine art market in general, which has recently seen a surge, with strong prices realized at auction for quality works. The key word, however, is quality. Likewise, the largest amounts of money are paid for paintings executed by well-known names working in popular movements such as the late 19th and early, to mid-20th century. According to a June 30, 2015 New York Times article, Alice Walton, founder of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and American heiress to the fortune of Wal-Mart Stores, spent $150 million on art for her museum in the last year alone. Among her purchases include Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 for $44.4 million, Jasper John’s 1983 Flag painting for $36 million, and four works by Louise Bourgeois totaling $35 to $40 million. In addition to Ms. Walton’s spending spree, other buyers paid over $1 billion dollars at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary, Impressionist, and Modern Art auctions. As Abigail Asher of art consultant firm Guggenheim Asher Associates, Inc., was quoted in a May 13, 2015 New York Times article, “It’s a spectacle of excess at the highest level. The last few years have been building up to this moment. A new class of buyer has entered the market and they’re prepared to pay staggering sums for trophy pictures.”
This begs the question, however, what about those paintings that aren’t “trophy pictures?” The paintings of kittens, happy peasants working in the fields, children playing with puppies in parks? Bucolic landscapes where satyrs and nymphs frolic with abandon? While perhaps not representing as much of an art historical or actual dollar value, these paintings have an intrinsic value themselves. Collectors at one time purchased these works and hung them in their homes for decoration, to show sophistication, wealth and pride in their country and self. The Dutch of the 17th century started this trend, of commissioning and collecting secular, rather than religious, art. Scenes of Netherland ports, rolling Dutch hills, interiors of homes filled with a wealth of objects from around the world reflect the values of prosperous citizens proud of their home and themselves.
The desire to decorate the home with pleasing pictures continued out of the Dutch tradition, and artists of all stripes accomodated the market. However, in the beginning of the 21st century, these works, except for those by the most well-known artists, do not command high prices at auction. In fact, they often perform abysmally. Why are these paintings no longer bought except at low prices? Is art only valued now if it is of museum quality or the artist has a proven track record? It seems a shame to deride paintings that were once cherished for their attractiveness purely because they’re “decorative.” The term decorative in fact, should be embraced. Aren’t all paintings, to some extent, something to hang on the wall and enjoy, to embellish the home? Collectors are often advised to only “buy what they love,” and it appears this has been forgotten in the pursuit of only the best.
While quality pieces such as those in the Levin collection, in museums, and in this past spring’s auctions certainly deserve the high prices they commanded, decorative paintings should still be appreciated for the purpose with which they were created, to decorate. Perhaps some day the art market will come around to the notion that this is acceptable.
In the meantime, if one desires to purchase a painting of ducklings by a pond or gallants enjoying themselves in a courtyard, by all means, buy it. Most likely it won’t cost much.