The news from the New York auction houses this week has been fascinating for art-market watchers, and especially for anyone interested in American art and Edward Hopper. First of all, there were four Hoppers for sale on subsequent days, two works at Sotheby’s on December 4, and two at Christie’s the following day. This is an unprecedented number of Hoppers to appear in the auction marketplace in any single week (and that’s not counting the artist’s charming boyhood drawing of a steam engine, on the block today at Freeman’s in Philadelphia—and just sold for $5,500).
As anyone still breathing knows by now, Hopper’s 1934 oil, East Wind Over Weehawken, garnered $40.5 million at Christie’s, a record price for Hopper. Of the two watercolors at Sotheby’s, Spindley Locusts (1936) sold for a comparatively paltry $305,000, and Church in Eastham (1948) took a pass, with bids not reaching the minimum estimate of $2 million. And finally—as I reported here earlier this week—one of Hopper’s Vermont Watercolors, Sugar Maple, failed to sell at Christie’s, despite a low estimate of just $300,000.
This wide range of works, estimated prices, and results leaves us scratching our heads over who covets a particular work of art and why, and whether investment values have completely trumped aesthetic qualities and stewardship responsibilities (see my next paragraph) in today’s marketplace for fine art. Everyone is wondering about the identity of the anonymous telephone bidder who paid such an astronomical price for Weehawken. Hopperphiles are hopeful that we’ll see a press release announcing that it has been acquired for a U.S. museum—perhaps, as has been rumored, by Alice Walton for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (And, if so, what will they think of this bleak New Jersey scene in Bentonville, Arkansas? I bet that a lot of those folks would have preferred Sugar Maple!)
The sale of East Wind Over Weehawken to benefit the acquisition fund of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts has raised eyebrows and a few outcries. PAFA bought this Hopper in 1952; the museum already had another Hopper oil, Apartment Houses (1923), acquired in 1925. Apparently, however, someone at PAFA decided that one monumental Hopper is enough for Philadelphia, and thus Weehawken was packed up and sent off to Christie’s. The proceeds of $40.5 million (or whatever the net is after commissions, etc.) will give a healthy boost to PAFA’s acquisition fund, but for many of us there’s a sour note to the sound of museums trading off beloved works from their permanent collections for contemporary works that haven’t yet passed the test of time.
The prevalence of this practice was further underscored for Hopper last week, as Church in Eastham, the watercolor that quietly and without fanfare appeared at Sotheby’s, belongs to the Whitney Museum of American Art! Church in Eastham was among thousands of Edward Hopper’s works in all media that came to the museum in 1968 as part of the Josephine N. Hopper Bequest. Sotheby’s online catalog noted that the watercolor was being “sold to benefit future acquisitions.” Since this piece did not sell, it was presumably returned to the Whitney. One has to wonder, however, whether and when this painting or others of the Whitney’s Hoppers will next appear on the deaccession-and-up-for-auction agenda.
In the course of researching and writing my book, I had the pleasure of connecting with a few collectors whose appreciation for their Hoppers went far beyond investment value. Witness Lila Harnett, who owned Sugar Maple for a time in the 1960s, describing her experience of living with this Hopper painting: “[I]n my mind’s eye, I have many times sought peace and quiet under its cool branches” (Edward Hopper in Vermont, p. 148). Likewise, I found a certain refuge in re-reading Lila’s words, as a respite from contemplating the ominous implications of museum deacessioning and sky-rocketing prices.
Lila and Joel Harnett bought their Hoppers as young marrieds, when the watercolors were still selling for three figures and it was possible to pay for them on the installment plan. They enjoyed Sugar Maple and other works in their home, as did David and Peggy Steine, the original owners of another Hopper watercolor of Vermont, Rain on River (1938). Writing in 1969, David Steine described living with art as “adding a new dimension to each of our lives, aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally,” an experience that he and his wife shared with their children, now the stewards of the Steine collection. In this tradition, David Stein and his sister, Peggy Richter, shared Rain on River with Vermonters last summer, sending it from Nashville, Tennessee, on loan to the Middlebury College Museum of Art for the exhibit based on my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont.
As I recorded these stories and others from longtime Hopper owners, it seemed to me that art collection used to be a more personal enterprise in the past, but perhaps it was simply more transparent. Regardless of such distinctions, let’s hope that Hopper collectors, whether persons or museums, private or public, continue to loan their works to exhibitions, allowing the less affluent among us to experience the thrill of seeing an original Edward Hopper.
This is what happened this past summer, when Hopper’s Vermont watercolors and drawings were shown in Middlebury—in Vermont, where Hopper painted them, for the first time—thanks to the loans from six museums and five private collectors who were willing to share their treasures for all of us to see. To my way of thinking, this is how the value of a work of art becomes truly exponential.
At Auction: $300,000 – $500,000
In an Exhibition: Priceless!