ON MAY 29, the Joseph Mallord William Turner painting, "Juliet and Her Nurse," brought a record $6,400,000 at Sotheby Parke Bernet.
Before the sale, Sotheby president John Marion sat in his office thinking. "I made a list of 10 people who I thought might bid on the painting. Eight of them did bid. Twenty years ago, you would be hard-pressed to think of five people who would bid $500,000," he said.
Recently, a Newport chest of drawers by John Goddard went for a record of $360,000, $100,000 more than the previous record for an American-made piece of furniture, the Goddard-Townsend desk owned by Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, sold just a few months earlier. "Four or five people were in on the final bidding," said Marion. "And they all went over $250,000 -- one young man bid $300,000 before Harold Sack's high bid."
"And there are a lot of collectors out there who aren't Newport fans. Thank God, they don't all pick the same thing."
It's obvious that the day of the great collectors is not over. People still exist who have the money and the desire to lay up themselves treasures on earth. "May of them are still in their 30s," Marion said. "the young man who bid on the Goddard chest said he might have to sell a few of his less important pieces to afford it, so he obviously had already amassed an important collection."
Marion thinks the important fact about the antique market today is its breadth. "You have more people buying on all levels -- both the small collectors and the big ones. And we have bids from all over the country.
"The gnomes, the big financial institutions, are not the ones buying," Marion said. "It's collectors, dealers and museums."
As for the museums, Marion, with a certain amount of self-interest, thinks they should sell off what they're keeping in the cellars. "Put what they think is the worst half on the market."
Ronald Reagan or no, Marion expects continued inflation, and with it constantly rising prices on objects. "The value of money troubles people. In the United States, it's a relatively new idea to put your money into intangible property, but the Europeans have always done it."
Marion's father was the head of Parke-Bernet during the Depression (years before the merger with the British Sotheby's). "He made $18 a week, paid his own rent and his brother's. He said that it was three years into the Depression before the art business had any slowdown at all. There was a lot to sell, certainly, but it still remained a healthy marketplace. Though I hope I never see a depression."
At Christie's, Sotheby's prime competition, David Bathurst, Christie's president in the United States, takes a more sober view. He worries about the "uncritical acclaim for what seems to be an endless series of new record auction prices . . . without regard to inflation, condition and rarity. While some high prices do indeed indicate trends in the market, many are merely trival. The New Yorker magazine writer describing Christie's sale in England of the contents of Sir Cecil Beaton's house and noting that the price fetched for a used mop and broom, $6, I believe, was a record for a used mop and broom -- was making a significant point which I hope is remembered." And Bathurst hopes for "less emphasis on investment potential and more on pleasure and enlightment. I am concerned that the investment-minded distort the tradition of collecting."
After that worthy statement, Christie's goes on to list their records for the season.
All the auction heads admit that the high interest rates are discouraging.
Gray Boone, publisher of Antique Monthly and the Gray Letter, an antique and art newsletter, also raises the question as to whether the Ronald Reagan administration will discourage investing in the antiques market. The Nov. 10 Gray Letter said: "With the Republican win sending waves of optimism throughout the financial community, most investors prepare their return to traditional areas -- stocks, bonds, securities -- and are expected to diminish activity in the art/antiques market."
The Gray Letter goes on to say that this could result in a price leveling, "dealers will lose the windfall profits of recent dizzying market trends -- the better educated and more deliberate collectors will again dominate buying and selling." But it ends on a more cheerful note: "Most industry professionals are optimistic that the Reagan victory will improve overall economic conditions and create a more stable economic climate."
Christopher Weston, head of Phillips International, said, "Despite the gloom at the beginning of the fall, prices in most specialized sectors have shown a distinct improvement in the last few weeks. Judging by the quality of the goods we already have in, we are optimistic for the coming year, in which Phillips have already scheduled a record of nearly 1,400 sales.
"We in London see better buying opportunities in certain classes of usuable antiques -- furniture especially -- than we have seen for sometime." Which translated means: Furniture pries are coming down.
Whatever their fears, auction houses so far have had a good year. Locally, C. G. Sloan & Company had a total of $2,922,085 for September through late December, for both its weekly and catalogue auctions. Adam A. Weschler & Son had $2,550,000 for the same period. The Sotheby Parke Bernet North American total was $130.1 million, up 43 percent over the $90.7 million in the same period last year. Its New York sales were up 41 percent, from $82.5 million to $116.4 million. Christie's reports $50 million, a 42 percent increase over last year's fall sales. Phillips Gallery has a fall total of $6,740,896 in New York, $75,494,094, for the year worldwide.
Among Christie's New York record sales this year: Louise Nevelson, a monumental painted wood sculpture, $110,000; French furniture, a desk by Jean Henri Riesener (1734-1806), found in a Pennsylvania farmhouse, $150,000; English furniture, Queen Anne walnut bookcase, $125,000 (in 1946 it brought $2,100); a Norton Simon consigned Edvard Munch painting, $2.8 million, the highest price for any art work in America sold this season. Jewelry sales, reached almost $10 million, including $660,000 for a diamond ring to a private Swiss collector. Art Nouveau and Art Deco showed a slight softening -- the net sales were $4 million, up 146 percent over last fall. A new Galle record was set for a cup made in 1903, 7 1/2 inches high, $250,000. A sale of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings and some sculpture works brought $3.5 million, including $450,000 for Thomas Moran's "Miracle of Nature." A Chinese gilt bronze figure, 11th-12th century, found on an appraisal day, sold for $75,000. A 19th-century European painting, by Zugel, appraised at $800 15 years ago, sold for $145,000. Christie's found silver did well this fall, with 97 percent of the European silver sold. A 1964 Jasper Johns lithograph, "Ale cans," sold for $2,000.
Among Phillips auction house important sales this year were $39,000 for a Cire perdue figure of a cougar; a world record for a Rene Lalique Cire perdue scent bottle (1897) brought almost as much: $37,000. A Toulouse-Lautrec poster, "Moulin Rouge," brought a record $52,000. Other world record prices were posted for posters by Beardsley, Cheret, Dupas, de Feure, Erie, Goines, Gruau, Kriese, Laubi, Marcel-Lenoi, Mucha, Orazi and Rhead. A pair of French silver wine coolers by Martin Guillame Biennais, went for $25,000. And a world record was set for a Louis Icart print when "Repose" went for $9,000.
Sotheby, New York, sold during the fall season an Impressionist painting, a Renoir from the Andre Meyer Collection, for a record $1.6 million. A ruby and diamond ring brought $440,000. A Chinese ceramic, a Dingyao-type Meiping vase from the Bernat Collection sold for $500,000, almost double the previous American high. The price of $190,000 for a work by Argentinian artist Pettoruti was a record for an artist from Latin America. Americana sales exceeded $22.6 million in the three months, including: a Winslow Homer at $1.7 million, the Goddard-Townsend chest at $360,000, a U.S. two-cent Hawaiian Missionary stamp for $220,000, and a Hicks painting for $270,000, which set an American folk art record. Decorative arts sales were up 63 percent for a total of $37,372,000.Of these, American Furniture and Decorations were up 142 percent; Chinese artworks, 123 percent; rugs, 105 percent; 19th- and 20th-century artworks up more than 99 percent; silver, vertu and paperweights, 79 percent.
Both Christie's and Sotheby's had sales of arts and crafts objects from the late 19th and early 20th century this season, suggesting a new period style for collecting. To all the prices, add a 10 percent buyer's surcharge, levied by the auction houses. Business has been good, without a doubt.
Sotheby's expanded its decorative art sales into a huge new elegant building at Madison and York avenues in New York. It added a new restoration department. And next year, it expects to open a new gallery just for the sale of books, stamps and coins on 84th Street between Third and Lexington (the old PB 84 building). Sotheby's also is adding evening exhibition hours. Both Christie's and Sotheby's are scheduling lecture series. Phillips has bought the ornate Neo-French Renaissance style Rhinelander mansion on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street and expanded over its 18,000 square feet under the elaborate plaster decorations.
In Washington, the two major auction houses are equally cheerful. Donald Webster, a co-owner of Sloan's, says he is expecting "next year to be extremely good. Our Feb. 12-to-15 catalogue auction may be our best, of the year, more than $1 million. A Tiffany Magnolia lamp should bring $100,000 to $150,000. Opening our new Baltimore office brought in a lot of business we wouldn't have had." Sloan's is looking for a large new building to accommodate their growing business.
William P. Weschler, of Weschler's, expects at least a 25-percent increase over last year. Weschler's sold a Tiffany spider-web lamp for $210,000, though there was a slight bend to the frame. An oil painting by Wierusz-Kowalski, "Winter Slaying at Dusk," went for $26,000.
In fall auctions, Sloan sold a $12.50-carat emerald ring for $57,000; an Art Deco platinum diamond and 8.47 carat sapphire ring for $35,000; an antique Chinese blue and white porcelain moon flask for $22,000; a William Merritt Chase painting, "The Blown Thistle," went for $22,500 and a Tiffany peony table lamp for $21,000; a William and Mary slantfront desk sold for $21,000.
Los Angeles Sotheby's sales were up 59 percent with a total of $9.7 million; Canada had sales of $4 million, up 82 percent.
So it was a good fall season at the auction houses. And what will the new year bring? Surely a record for a procelain ashtray sold on a Tuesday afternoon when it's raining.