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Baltimore artist Alfred Jacob Miller's painting may sell for $1 million-plus at auction

Alfred Jacob Miller's 1854 painting "Pawnee Running a Buffalo," oil on canvas. It's 20 x 24 inches.
Alfred Jacob Miller's 1854 painting "Pawnee Running a Buffalo," oil on canvas. It's 20 x 24 inches. (HANDOUT)

A rare painting by a prominent 19th-century Baltimore-born artist will go on the auction block Thursday in New York with an expected sale price of $1 million to $1.5 million.

Alfred Jacob Miller's 1854 oil painting "Pawnee Running a Buffalo" will be sold by Christie's Auction House on behalf of the anonymous family, originally from Baltimore, that has owned the artwork since it was created 162 years ago.

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"It's so rare to have a work of this caliber come on the market," said Tylee Abbott, associate vice president of Christie's. "It's really piqued a lot of interest."

He noted that the last time a comparable painting by Miller came up for sale was 2012. "Caravan en Route (Sir William Drummond Stewart's Caravan)," sold for a record $1.76 million, or roughly $226,000 more than the anticipated sales price.

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Abbott said Miller's work was steeped in the sentimental notions of the time, a view fueled by the popularity of James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel, "The Last of the Mohicans."

Native Americans and other indigenous peoples were portrayed by 19th-century American and European artists as "noble savages," Abbott said, or vanishing races uncorrupted by civilization and living in harmony with nature.

Miller's oval painting depicts a Native American hunter astride a white horse, its mane and tail flowing in the wind as it gallops alongside a massive bison. The work was inspired by the artist's participation in an 1837 expedition to the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming. Sir William Drummond Stewart, a Scottish nobleman, hired Miller to document the trek by sketching the scenes he observed.

"Europeans and Anglo-Americans were fascinated by the American West and by Native Americans and the lives they led," Abbott said. "Stylistically, Miller's painting is all about this beautiful, soft, atmospheric light that highlights the Pawnee hunter, his horse and the buffalo."

After returning to Baltimore in 1842, Miller made watercolor and oil paintings based on his sketches, and many of these works are owned by local museums.

The Walters Art Museum, for instance, has a large collection of Miller's works, including a watercolor made between 1858 and 1860 with a composition strikingly similar to the oil painting for sale at Christie's. And the Baltimore Museum of Art displays an 1865 oil painting by Miller with much the same theme. "Indians Hunting Elk on the Platte" is on view in the museum's American Wing.

Abbott said "Pawnee Running a Buffalo" was commissioned by Baltimorean William C. Wilson, who in 1854 paid $140 to purchase it and another painting called "The Halt," now owned by Nebraska's Sheldon Museum of Art. Wilson got a deal; the sum is comparable to roughly $4,000 today.

The Wilson family's estate included the land that now is the Elkridge Club in Baltimore County, Abbott said. A branch of the same family also founded Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art.

After Wilson's death, his sister, Jane, inherited the painting and hung it in the country villa she shared with her physician husband, Robert Patterson Brown. There the painting remained until the 1950s, Abbott said, when the Brown estate was developed into the areas that now are the Baltimore County neighborhoods of Stoneleigh and Anneslie.

"Pawnee Running a Buffalo" went to the current seller, a grandchild of the Browns who lives in New England. The painting's owners could not be reached for comment.

"Our consignors would very much like to see this artwork hanging in an institution, preferably in Maryland," Abbott said.

"But most of the calls we've been getting have been from museums and private collectors in the West. This kind of theme really resonates with a Western audience."

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