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Sotheby’s $12.9M auction sets record for folk art
By Don Johnson

NEW YORK, N.Y. — When Sotheby’s offered 228 items from the Ralph O. Esmerian collection on Jan. 25, potential buyers understood the magnitude of the moment. Esmerian had long sought the best of the best, often paying top dollar to get it.

The material returned to the market by court order (see the related story). For the American Folk Art Museum, which had been promised the material by Esmerian, it was an unfortunate loss. For folk art collectors, it was a unique opportunity.

Titled Visual Grace: Important American Folk Art from the Collection of Ralph O. Esmerian, the auction saw 188 lots bring more than $12.9 million, a record for an auction of folk art. That figure surpassed the $12.3 million benchmark set when Sotheby’s sold the collection of Bertram K. Little and Nina Fletcher Little in January and October 1994.

During Visual Grace, the mix of folk art was as strong as it was varied, including artwork, pottery, needlework, carvings and weathervanes. Made from the early 18th century to the 20th century, the material originated in New England, Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley and beyond.

Topping the sale at $875,000 (including buyer’s premium) was a standing Santa Claus carved and painted by Samuel Anderson Robb (1851-1928) as a present for his daughter Elizabeth in 1923. Standing 38 3/4 inches high, the figure had an inscription noting it was the last piece made by the carver. The price was a record for a work by Robb.

Representing 11 private collectors, David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles of Woodbury, Conn., purchased the Santa and 36 other lots – the largest grouping for any single bidder.

According to their website, David and the late Peggy Schorsch were instrumental in advising Esmerian as he built his landmark collection of American folk art over three decades. Included in the sale were 32 items acquired from the Schorsches between 1978 and 1995. Originally purchased for $946,000, those items sold at Visual Grace for $3.25 million.

Other top lots purchased by Schorsch and Smiles included Jacob Maentel (1778-1863) individual portraits of John and Caterina Bickel, each holding a book and seated by a table under a mirror, watercolor and gouache, 1815 to 1825. Each painting measured 19 inches by 12 inches, and the pair sold for $401,000. A portrait of Mary Ann Russell, 1828, by Ruth Whittier Shute (1803-1882) and Samuel Addison Shute (1803-1836), watercolor and gouache, 18 inches by 13 1/2 inches plus the original frame, realized $317,000. The Shutes were a husband and wife team of itinerant folk portraitists who worked on paintings together.

Also by the Shutes was a full-length portrait of Jeremiah H. Emerson, circa 1832, the outdoor scene including a dog having its front paws on the boy’s leg, the child holding a book inscribed The Progressive Reader / Jeremiah H / Emerson / Nashua NH,” watercolor and gouache, 29 1/4 inches by 19 inches (sight) plus frame, that sold to a collector in Pennsylvania for $665,000.

Portraits of Mary Coffin Carver, Barnabas Bartol Carver and Frances Ann Carver, executed by an unidentified artist referred to as The Carver Limner, circa 1835, three individual watercolors, each 22 inches by 18 inches, painted in Freeport, Maine, framed together, sold for $521,000 to dealer Peter Sawyer of Exter, N.H.

A spread-wing pheasant hen weathervane, probably of Connecticut origin, circa 1875, the carved three-dimensional figure in pine with traces of old paint, 22 inches high by 31 inches long, sold for $449,000 to an American collector. Likewise, a collector purchased portraits of a man and a woman (possibly Capt. Fitzhugh Greene and his wife), circa 1768 to 1770, attributed to John Durand (active circa 1765 to 1782), oil-on-canvas, each approximately 29 1/4 inches by 24 1/4 inches, that sold for $389,000 the pair.

A paint-decorated pine miniature chest having a checkerboard design and stylized pinwheels, probably from Schoharie County, N.Y., circa 1800, 8 1/2 inches high by 19 inches wide, sold for $377,000, going to a collector in Pennsylvania.

Man with a Plow by Bill Traylor (1852/1856-1949), poster paint-on-paperboard, 1939 to 1942, showing a man in blue behind a one-horse plow in black, 15 inches by 25 3/4 inches, painted in Montgomery, Ala., sold for $365,000 to collector Jerry Lauren of New York.

A lion by Wilhelm Schimmel (1817-1890), carved and painted pine, 7.375 inches highs by 7.5 inches long, 1860 to 1890, made in Cumberland County, Pa., sold for $341,000 to a Pennsylvania collector.

Other top lots included an oval sgraffito glazed redware dish with flowers and a heart, attributed to Conrad Mumbouer (1761-1845) or John Monday (1809-1862), made in Bucks County, Pa., 1835 to 1845, that realized $281,000.

A carved pine and painted figure of a newsboy holding a paper and leaning against several crates, Eastern or Midwestern origin, circa 1880, the front of the base inscribed “Ossendorf Brand 90,” and the newspaper lettered “Tobacco and Cigars,” 35 1/2 inches high, brought $209,000.

Among the textiles was a needlework sampler of Adam and Eve in Paradice [sic] by Lydia Hart of Boston, dated 1744, 11 1/2 inches by 9 inches, at $233,000, while a knitted wool rug attributed to Elvira Curtis Hulett (circa 1805-1895), probably Hancock, Mass., 1890 to 1895, circular with geometric patterns, 50 inches in diameter, sold for $161,000.

For more information, contact Sotheby’s at (212) 606-7000 or visit

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