Sales plunge at Americana auctions


The Americana auctions held each January at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York are important gauges of how the winds are blowing in the antiques market. This year there were just light breezes. The market at Sotheby's and Christie's contracted to less than half its $24 million peak two years ago, and, unlike recent years, no lot offered for sale entered the pantheon of million-dollar pieces.

In both January 1989 and 1990, Sotheby's sold over $10 million worth of antique American furniture, folk art, prints, silver, porcelain and decorations from catalogues as fat as big city telephone books. This year its catalog was much slimmer, and the auction's total shrank to about $5.1 million. Of 1065 lots offered, 18 percent were returned to their owners because no one was willing to pay the minimum acceptable price, compared with 12 percent failing to sell in 1990.

Christie's current total was a relatively skimpy $2.8 million, with 25 percent of the 557 lots offered left unsold. In contrast, it sold over $4 million worth of Americana in January 1989, and a year later it had the all-time record Americana sale, totalling $14 million.

The highest price for any lot during the January 1992 sales was $181,000, paid at Christie's by Houston collectors for a set of six early 18th century New England rush seat maple side chairs and a matching arm chair. Two years ago, Christie's high lot was a $4.62 million Chippendale pier table. Prices also were down at Sotheby's, and few of its expensive lots sold over their pre-sale estimates. The top of the market is thin and nervous -- no surprise in this economy.

Sotheby's costliest furniture lot was a Boston mahogany block front chest, circa 1760. Fresh to the market, it sold for $121,000 Marlboro, Mass., dealer Wayne Pratt, topping its $50,000-to- $80,000 estimate. A Boston slant-lid desk sold at Sotheby's four years ago for $137,500 was up for grabs again, carrying a $135,000-to-$155,000 estimate; it fetched no bids.

With prices generally down, the market was propped up by a few dealers and private collectors taking advantage of a buying opportunity. Judging from the variety and quality of goods on the block, it seems that only those who have to are selling.

San Francisco designer David L. Davies, who sold his New Jersey house, sent his weather vane collection to Sotheby's. Caught in shifting economic winds, some did not fly as high as expected.

The National Museum of American Art in Washington paid $121,000 for a copper weather vane model of a 1931 Cadillac V-16 Sport Phaetonthat was a retirement gift for San Francisco ++ copper executive Daniel C. Jackling. It was made by Kennecott Copper Company workers in Woodside, Calif., in about 1931. The accurate and detailed scale model, complete with an Art Deco "flying lady" hood ornament, stalled in sight of its $100,000-to-$150,000 estimate. The 47-inch-long car, mounted on a long bronze arrow above a Kennecott "K" insignia, had sat atop Mr. Jackling's garage; General Motors custom-made the actual car for him, and presumably it was garaged below. Linda Hartigan, the museum's folk art curator, said the vane was "fabulous," describing it as an icon of American design. "It is not ,, a primitive object, it is a piece of refined sculpture that reflects the streamlined elegance of the 1920s and '30s."

Ralph Lauren was thought a possible buyer for a polo player molded copper weather vane, circa 1920. It was gavelled down to a Texas collector for $38,500, short of its $50,000-to-$75,000 estimate; he also bought a trotting hackney horse copper vane with a desirable weathered patina, made by J. W. Fiske & Co., N.Y., circa 1893. Estimated at $20,000-to-$30,000, it brought $46,200.

The quilt market showed signs of life at Sotheby's. A pieced and appliqued cotton album quilt, some squares depicting black figures, signed and dated "Aug. 1854," sold above estimate at $60,500, but lower than the $110,000 a dealer had asked for it last year at antiques shows.

Silver results were spotty at Christie's. Late 19th century Tiffany mixed metal designs, strong sellers in recent years, generally failed to bring the high prices expected. However, 18th and early 19th century items sold well. A five-piece urn-shaped tea and coffee service made in Wilmington, Del., circa 1807 sold to a phone bidder for $79,200, underbid by a Milwaukee doctor in the salesroom.

In the print market, condition and subject remain critical for hand-colored lithographs by Currier and Ives. "The Farm-Yard in Winter" sold at Sotheby's for $7,975, double its high estimate, while at Christie's an 1866 print, "The American National Game ++ of Base Ball," depicting a match played in Hoboken, N.J., brought $15,400, half its high estimate. One reason is that it was stained and showed a repaired tear down its center. Last year Christie's sold a copy in good condition for $44,000.

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