Shop Talk: Adventures in American Art

Betty Krulik, Debra Force, Richard Rossello, Lou Salerno, Bernard Goldberg, Katherine Degn, Howard Godel, Eric Baumgartner Art

A Treasure Beneath the Bed

The Itinerants by Thomas LeClear (1818–1882), c. 1862. Photograph courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art.

Acquisitions can come to a dealer in various ways. Before I opened my own gallery in 1999, I worked at Beacon Hill Fine Art and Hirschl and Adler and spent nine years at Christie’s as well. Thus, I’ve been able to build up a considerable clientele for American art, which is my specialty. In addition, my appearance on Antiques Roadshow has sometimes generated leads from viewers who have similar paintings to ones I appraise. When you get a phone call, you just never know what’s coming your way. A story comes to mind about a work by the great Thomas LeClear, painted in 1862, called The Itinerants.

First, LeClear is a very rare artist. You just don’t see work by him very often. This particular painting was a very large urban genre scene depicting children playing musical instruments on a street in New York State—possibly Buffalo—during the early years of the Civil War.

One day I took a call from an insurance agent with a client who had inherited the picture decades prior. The owner lived in Denver, and, due to some skittishness about the value of the painting, kept it hidden away underneath a bed. After seeing a photograph, I decided this was worth a flight to Colorado. As you might expect, the family was very timid about letting people see it, but they did want to sell the painting, so they invited me to their home. The owner was an elderly woman who asked her two children to join us for the viewing. When they pulled the painting out from beneath the bed and I first laid eyes on it, I realized its quality and importance. It was very exciting!

It’s always a challenge to win over an owner, who may or may not have other dealers they’re working with to sell a picture. I’m gratified not only by seeing a terrific work of art, but also by the challenge of convincing an owner that I am the one that can best handle its sale. A similar example by LeClear titled Young America had sold at auction some five years before my visit, drawing a lot of competing bids from public institutions. It presented a great comparison for the value of The Itinerants on the market. Ultimately, I was able to secure a consignment. The late art historian William Gerdts wrote an essay about the piece, doing a lot of fastidious research on it, and that year, we took the painting to the American Art Fair. We kept a drape over it until the opening, at which point we unveiled it. Everybody was in awe. This was a museum-quality picture that nobody had seen before, and it sold right away.

— Debra Force, Debra Force Fine Art, New York 

What’s in the Box?

Flight of Europa by Paul Manship (1885–1966), 1925. Columbus Museum, Georgia.

Sometimes the greatest finds are hidden in plain sight. For several years, I did appraisal work annually for the family of an artist. I would set up in their warehouse, placing all my supplies on a big wooden crate the height of a countertop. Then I’d spend the day documenting and photographing artworks—handling hundreds of drawings in a day. I’d pack up and come back the next year to do the same thing again with a different group of artworks.

One day at the end of this multi-year project, Marie, the artist’s daughter—then in her eighties—said, “You know, Betty, we should talk to you about our Manship.” I responded by saying how much I loved the artist and inquired, “Which one do you have?” When they told me it was Europa and the Bull, I held my hands as if holding a basketball and said, “Oh, I love that little one.” They looked at each other, and then said to me, “It’s not that small!” I asked how large it was, to which Marie replied, “Well it’s in that box you’ve been using as a desk all these years!” I knew then that it wasn’t Europa and the Bull but the Flight of Europa, a small difference in wording, but a large difference in value. Lew, Marie’s husband, remarked he called it the Golden Bull. I was intrigued.

We proceeded to open the crate, remove the lid, and there I saw an extraordinary sight—think Tutankhamen’s tomb—the bronze covered in forty years of dust, compressed like a green-gray velvet, covering the entire surface. I was heartbroken, thinking that its time in the crate had caused the surface to slowly degrade.

I called Steve Tatti, a sculpture conservator par excellence. Steve had worked on the Statue of Liberty, so I was sure he could handle this situation. The couple and I loaded the sculpture into my car and immediately headed over to Steve’s atelier. Marie and Lew were enchanted by his brownstone studio, which looked like the Xanadu of sculpture. Steve looked at the bronze, shook his head and said, “Give me some time with it, I’ll call you tomorrow.”

We parted ways, and my heart sank, thinking the sculpture might have been completely ruined. In the meantime, I went to my library and found that Manship made this model in an edition of twenty, only five of which were gilded. A less than thirty-second digital search of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art produced a letter written by Manship to the artist telling him, “your Flight of Europa is ready. . . I am sure it will look very attractive in your Worcester home.”

The following afternoon Steve called. He had done the tests. His report: not only could the sculpture be safely cleaned, but Steve also said he had never seen such a well-preserved gilded patina! We could not have been more thrilled.

Until, that is, the Manship sculpture was recognized by the Columbus Museum in Georgia as a masterpiece worthy of its collection. Now, it can be seen by a diverse and enthusiastic community, in a museum that offers free admission to all.

—Betty Krulik, Betty Krulik Fine Art, New York 

Patience Rewarded

Woodland Scene by William Bliss Baker (1859–1886), 1885. Photograph by Marc McCarron, courtesy of Avery Galleries.

The artist William Bliss Baker came to my attention many years ago, when I was still a novice collector. It was a small woodland landscape by Baker for sale in a local antiques show that caught my eye. I couldn’t get over the clarity and unique light in the picture. I was unsuccessful in my attempt to buy it at the low price I could afford at the time, and this picture that got away always haunted me. When I researched the artist, I found that he died tragically at the age of twenty-seven, the result of an ice-skating accident. As a budding young artist, his reputation was rapidly growing at the time and his acceptance into the National Academy was evidence of the high regard in which he was held. His premature death and scant number of his works doubtlessly account for his relative obscurity today. One of his masterpieces, Fallen Monarchs, is in the collection of the Brigham Young University Museum, but otherwise few institutions have examples of his work.

Over the years, I thought of him as one of my “secret genius” artists, whose work was far under-recognized and under-valued. I always kept on the lookout for his pieces, but in the last twenty years only a few have surfaced. That’s why I was so surprised and delighted when the opportunity arose to acquire Woodland Scene in 2018. At thirty-eight by fifty inches, it is the largest work by the artist that I have ever come across. The fact that it was being offered by the family who bought it from the artist himself was especially exciting. This work, still in its original frame and painted a year before Baker’s tragic death, is a tour de force of American landscape painting. Finding it and bringing it back to the public’s attention is gratifying beyond words. The exceptional young artist who painted it deserves to be remembered and appreciated.

—Richard Rossello, Avery Galleries, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and New York 

Love at First Sight

Still Life with Blue Bowl by Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), 1922–1923. Photograph courtesy of Questroyal Fine Art.

Every year our gallery puts out a catalogue called Choose With Your Heart. Inside, we present a group of paintings with their prices, but omit the artists’ names. People can get so tied up in certain artists’ historical importance or prestige that they forget to pursue what genuinely appeals to them. Not long ago, I relearned that lesson myself.

Though we’ve had Charles Burchfields and Milton Averys in the gallery, we usually buy realistic works— Hudson River school painters and such. Expecting to do more of the same, I was reviewing works in an upcoming Sotheby’s sale, when suddenly a Marsden Hartley caught my eye. It was abstract, a whirl of angular blue, green, white, and red color blocks emanating from a centrally placed bowl of fruit. The artist had painted it during his time in Berlin in the early 1920s, a visit very different from the one he’d made to that city at the beginning of the First World War.

Many of his friends were dead by then, and Hartley’s mindset is reflected in the dark, pensive atmosphere of paintings from the period, what he would later call “the best painting[s] of my life as painting—not pictures . . . but paintings.” After discussing it with my son, Brent, who co-owns the gallery with me, and with our director Chloe Heins, we decided we had to buy it. I’m looking at great works of art every day and have to do plenty of intellectualizing in order to make smart purchases, but in my mind the way we bought the Hartley is the best way to do it: You walk past, react . . . and spend a quarter of a million dollars.

— Lou Salerno, Questroyal Fine Art, New York 

An Accidental Introduction

Standing Woman by Elie Nadelman (1882–1946), c. 1906–1911. Private collection.

In my years both as a collector and a dealer, I have been drawn to the work of Elie Nadelman. My introduction to the artist was largely due to a serendipitous visit to a gallery, which turned out to influence both my own collecting as well as the inventory I buy for the gallery.

That was in 1985. I had just renovated my apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York. The place looked beautiful and it was furnished, but the walls were bare. There wasn’t a single painting to hang. My kids were coming in from Westchester to see the apartment for the first time, and I knew they were reluctant to move back to the city. If you know me, you know how important my family is to me. I wanted the kids to feel a warmth and be instantly happy when they arrived. I wanted everything to be perfect.

One afternoon I was walking by Hirschl and Adler Galleries, then in its old location off Madison Avenue, and they were having an exhibition of work by William Schwartz—a Jewish immigrant known for large vibrant abstract paintings he called “Symphonic Forms.” In the window were these big, bright, colorful pictures, and I thought they were just fabulous. I thought they would be perfect to help welcome my kids to our new home.

To make a long story short, I walked in and asked for pricing, negotiated a deal, and left the owner of five paintings and a beautiful drawing by Schwartz. I was very happy. The kids would come in and see these big, really beautiful, colorful pictures and feel at home.

Half an hour later, as I’m walking back up Madison Avenue, I begin thinking to myself: “What did I do?!” I don’t want five paintings by this artist. He’s a wonderful artist, but what am I going to do with five pictures? The whole house would be just William Schwartz. It doesn’t make any sense. Immediate regret. So I decided to keep just one or two and the little drawing.

I returned to the second floor of the gallery to speak to the salesperson I worked with, and out of the corner of my eye, I see this sculpture. It was a tall bronze with a very dark patina of a standing woman with her arms bent. It was just beautiful, and so well done. I fell instantly in love with it and asked, “Who’s that?!”

I had not yet heard of Elie Nadelman, so I asked a few more questions, and, of course, the price. It turned out that the cost of the Nadelman was the same as what I had just committed to in the purchase of the five Schwartz paintings. So, I negotiated a trade, and that was my first Elie Nadelman. Later, from the Nadelman family, I bought a standing male figure of approximately the same size, and as a pair they stand on pedestals in the foyer of my apartment, where they greet each and every visitor as they walk in the door.

That was my introduction to the artist who I have spent much of the past three decades working with. Nadelman is personally my favorite artist, and I own quite a few works by him, including drawings as well as sculptures in wood and bronze. I’ve handled a lot of his work through the gallery, too—in fact, he is the artist we handle most.

—Bernard Goldberg, Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, New York 

A Discovery and a New Understanding

The Breakfast Porch by William Glackens (1870–1938), c. 1920. Photograph courtesy of Kraushaar Galleries.

As an art dealer, one of the most rewarding aspects of my work is the satisfaction of making a match. These come in two very different forms: one, as part of building a collection; the other, when contextualizing the work of an artist within the scope of their career.

I have built relationships with clients who have specifically focused collections, where their wants are so narrowly defined that you just know when a particular work will fit. But there are other collections that are built around the personality and aesthetics of the collector. The second type takes time to build, and it’s the personal relationship that develops that is the most interesting and rewarding to me.

Understanding where a work of art fits within the oeuvre of an artist is as thrilling to me as building a collection. A metaphor comes to mind: it’s as though you’ve dropped a box of puzzle pieces and don’t realize that there are some missing until you’ve put together the entire image. After almost thirty-five years at Kraushaar Galleries, I had thought that one way or another I had seen just about every variation of a composition by William Glackens. Earlier this year, while researching a monotype by William Merritt Chase, however, I came across a Glackens monotype—an unexpected medium for the artist—and it expanded my understanding of him.

For five summers, 1920 to 1924, the Glackens family rented a house in, New Hampshire. There, in addition to the local landscape, the artist focused on his family as subject. As with other major subjects in his oeuvre, Glackens explored his compositions in several sizes and variations. I had seen examples of The Breakfast Porch in works on paper and in paintings, but until this serendipitous moment, never as a monotype. In fact, I’ve seen only a few modest examples by Glackens in the medium. Making this connection and confirming just how important the subject was to the artist was exciting and added a new dimension to my understanding of the way he worked.

A dealer—especially when working as a representative of an artist or their estate—sees so many works of art throughout her career. With patience, good recall, and passion, we can truly explore how the artist sees a subject. Sometimes it’s the obscure, atypical work— one that an academic might never come across—that helps to fit in the missing pieces of a career, or add a new dimension to a collection.

 —Katherine Degn, Kraushaar Galleries, New York 

Judgment Call

Still Life with Liqueur and Fruit by Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825), 1814. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

In 2002 the market was strong, we were doing well, and a beautiful Raphaelle Peale still life came up at auction. I saw it at the Christie’s preview in Los Angeles. A number of experts played it down, but I knew it was special.

I’ve had a habit for forty years of always writing down a number in auction catalogues so I don’t go over my limit, and I don’t get too emotional. But this was one of the very few times when I didn’t put a number down for a picture, and I knew it was going to go for a good amount of money. I was willing to reach on this one and figured I’d never find another Raphaelle Peale of this quality. Sure enough, I got it. My colleagues at the gallery hadn’t known I was looking at the picture. I hadn’t discussed it with them, but I’d seen a great opportunity and believed it was a catch. So, it was a big surprise to them. An expensive one, but a good surprise.

The American paintings department at Christie’s could not reveal who the underbidder was, but they said it was an important institution, which gave me a boost of confidence in the purchase. I had gotten a really, really great masterpiece. It was one of the greatest acquisitions of my career. And for a year or two, we thought business was good enough that we might even keep it personally.

So we did, and it hung in our dining room for a number of years. At one point I told my kids: “If the house catches fire, just grab that painting over the mantel and run out. Don’t worry about anything else.”

A few years later, our gallery held an exhibition of American still lifes and we included a number of pictures on loan from major private collections to pair with works from our inventory. Our gallery director, Katherine Baumgartner, persuaded me to loan the Peale and I agreed, happily. She recalls the gem of a show as one of the best we ever mounted.

One day, Margi Conrads, who was curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, came by to see the show. Katherine and Margi were looking at the paintings, and of course the Peale stood out. Margi whispered to Katherine: “Is it for sale? What can we do?” We discussed the idea, and I put a price on the Peale, and we took it from there.

A few weeks later, during the summer, I was a guest on a friend’s sailboat on the Amalfi Coast, and Katherine was on vacation in Maine. But we managed to handle the majority of the transaction with the Nelson-Atkins by cell phone, with me on the water, and Katherine in a remote part of Maine with spotty cell service.

Not long after the Nelson-Atkins purchased the picture, they reopened their American wing and held a big symposium. William Gerdts gave a talk on still-life painting and mentioned the new acquisition. I must add that if you’re ever in or near Kansas City, don’t fail to go to that fabulous museum. It will remind you of the Met. It’s a big, wonderful institution. I also love Kansas City—a great town. So we were very happy to fly out there for the reopening. It was a great honor to see the Peale hanging on the wall, placed adjacent to his After the Bath, one of the most iconic pictures in American art.

It’s always an honor to place a picture into a museum collection. But bringing this Peale to such a great institution got us all very excited. We took a big gamble on this picture, went against some very prominent expert opinions, and we were right. There’s nothing better than that feeling. Owning it for the years that we did, and then placing it at the Nelson-Atkins—it was all a true privilege.

 —Howard Godel, Godel and Co., Bedford, New York

Scaling the Mountain

View of Mount Washington by John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872), 1852. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Sometimes a chance encounter can lead to a remarkably important discovery. On Easter morning in 2003, Stuart Feld—the principal of Hirschl and Adler Galleries—and I left New York on a road trip to deliver and install a very delicate banjo clock for a client in Detroit. We thought we’d take the opportunity away from the gallery to visit some museums in Ohio and Pennsylvania on the way home, one of which was the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. The director at the time was Judith O’Toole, whom many people know because she literally wrote the book on still-life artist Severin Roesen. As she showed us around the galleries, we came across this magnificent large painting of Mount Washington in New Hampshire from 1852 by one of my favorite artists, John Frederick Kensett. Judy introduced the painting as one of the stars of the collection, but told us that it was going to be leaving soon as the family who had had it on deposit for many years had decided it was time to sell. Stuart and I turned to each other with wide eyes, and Stuart asked, “Have they decided how they’re planning on selling it?” Judy was unaware of the family’s plans but agreed to forward our proposal to handle the sale of the picture.

So, when we got home, I wrote a lengthy and detailed proposal, letting them know a little about who we are, where we saw the interest level for Hudson River school pictures, and how this particular work would likely fare at auction versus with a private gallery such as Hirschl and Adler. We valued the painting at roughly $1.5 million and offered to do a deal that would maximize the owners’ earning potential by charging a “seller’s commission” and a “buyer’s commission” of 10 percent––much like an auction house would handle a consignment. These kinds of cold-call proposals often end up in a black hole, and you never hear from anybody ever again, but one day at the end of the summer, we received a letter from the family member who was orchestrating the sale. He said that our proposal was interesting and that we should talk, but wanted to know why our valuation was so much higher than others they had received. In the end, no amount of arguing could convince him. Just like a government agency, the family rejected the lowest “bid” and the highest—ours—and consigned the Kensett to auction at an estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million. He probably leveraged our bullish proposal and got the auction house to raise its estimate! When the Kensett came up for sale in May 2004, we decided that we liked it well enough to go ahead and buy it, which we did at the low estimate of $800,000.

After we bought the Kensett, I wrote the family to tell them that we were the buyers and requested a little more family provenance. I certainly didn’t want to rub their noses in it, but wanted them to know that we had put our money where our mouth was. They were very gracious, gave us some additional information, and wished us success. In 2006 we sold the Kensett to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for considerably more than what we had originally estimated it would bring.

Thanks to the delivery of a delicate banjo clock, we made an exciting discovery, which led to a great sale. But almost as thrilling, our road trip led me to another great discovery when we made one of our other stops at the Palmer Museum at Penn State. This find was a little more personal: the Berkey Creamery at Penn State produces some of the finest ice cream I’ve ever tasted!

—Eric Baumgartner, Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York