The Australian-American artist Martin Lewis (1881 - 1962), a contemporary of Edward Hopper, was a talented and prolific printmaker, though not as widely recognized by the general public as the creator of Nighthawks. Martin’s work is, however, popular in the market for themes that frequently parallel those admired by Hopper’s collectors. Specifically, the market tends to respond well to work depicting evocative urban environments and scenes of New York life in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s. An examination of some recent sales of work by Lewis illuminates a few of the qualities found in his oeuvre that are rewarded in the market.
In Study for Yorkville Night, a preparatory drawing for one of the artist’s numerous prints, figures gather around the pool of light emanating from a storefront below an elevated rail line. The work is executed in ink with apparent ink washes. It has a great range of tonality and developed figurative compositions within the scene. That being said, it does not have the level of detail that would be expected of a finished print by the same artist. This work sold for $13,750 at Heritage Auctions in May of 2018. This sale price was squarely in the house’s estimate range of $10,000 - $15,000, indicating a level of predictability about the market for Lewis’ drawings.
For comparison, the print produced after this drawing sold for $42,000 (over a high estimate of $35,000) a year prior in May of 2017. Previous sales of the same print image for $26,400 in 2008 and $35,000 in 2016 are indicative of increasing interest on the part of collectors in Lewis in general, his prints more specifically, and this image in particular. This intense interest appears to be mostly correlated to the artist’s prints and it is important to note that such enthusiasm does not always translate across media. When examining recent sales of Lewis’ drawings this is an important detail to be cognizant of.
One question arising from the comparison between the drawing and print sales of Yorkville Night is why would a drawing, which might be considered the more “original” of the two works, sell for so much less, especially at the same auction house? One potential answer to this is that Lewis is primarily known as a printmaker, so the market response will tend to be stronger for his “primary medium”. Another issue is that the drawing in question is almost certainly preparatory and therefore might be considered by some collectors to be an “unfinished” work. In the print, the artist’s intention for the final and complete work is evident. Therefore, it becomes the more desirable work even though it is a multiple. While this is not an uncommon phenomenon, it can be illustrated well in this case.
Variations between the auction and retail markets for Martin’s work are also important when considering varying levels of market response to his drawings. A Study for Yorkville Night is currently on offer in a retail setting at The Old Print Shop for $35,000. This retail price is roughly double and a half the auction price, which is common for a retail setting.
Importantly, a simpler Yorkville Night study executed in graphite and conté crayon is held in the venerable collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. So, the Study can rightly be called “museum-quality”, an often misused descriptor in the commercial art gallery setting.
In another work, the undated watercolor On The Bridge, Lewis handles a daytime scene of commuters traversing a bridge. Like Yorkville Night, the work shows one of Lewis’ central themes: the interaction of figures within nakedly urban environments. This work is larger than the preparatory drawing for Yorkville Night and also considerably more “finished”, yet it sold for the same price ($13,750) just three days prior to the sale of Yorkville Night. Again, the reason for this seemingly surprising result might have to do with the expectations of collectors. Lewis is known for depicting rich dramas of New York night scenes. Daytime imagery is inherently less dramatic, and therefore potentially of less interest to the types of individuals who will vie for his work in the auction setting.
In this watercolor, the focal point of the scene is the atmosphere of the city highlighted between the girdered superstructure of the bridge. While the figures and architectural elements are finely described, the city beyond and the sky above are loose and gauzy. Because collectors tend to respond to Lewis’ prints and to works on paper that exude a strong use of line, a looser treatment would likely be less attractive to the core pool of buyers who help to drive sales results. It also is highly possible that the sale price of this work informed collector response to Yorkville Night, which again sold at Heritage Auctions three days later.
In yet another work on paper, a loose drawing titled Night Windows, an apartment building topped with a water tower is silhouetted in the misty twilight. This work furthers an understanding of Lewis’ process; from loose studies, to more refined drawings, to finished prints. This work is slightly smaller in scale than Study for Yorkville Night. It sold for $5,000 at Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers in 2018, down from a $5,760 sale price at Swann Galleries in 2009. This result shows a clear decline in value for this individual object. This decline appears to be rather unique to this object and its situation, as sales of other work by Lewis have tended to remain strong over time.
Another question that might come to mind is why would a drawing such as this lose value as other works by Lewis such as Yorkville Night rise in value? Again, the answer is almost certainly linked to collector expectations and desires. This work is quite loose and lacks the detailed description which tends to be rewarded. It is rather abstract and illustrates the artist’s process but not the finer details of his more complete works. There is also a great deal of competition in the marketplace, and high quality prints by Lewis become available in a variety of auction settings regularly. Competition rewards works of high quality and is less kind to works that are of less interest to passionate collectors.
It is important to note that this piece has even less “finish” than Study for Yorkville Night. It also has no clearly developed figures, which are often central to the artist’s most popular works. Although there is some evidence of a figure in one of the windows at lower left. Again, Lewis’ oeuvre is known for the presence of characters interacting in urban spaces. It is still a wonderful drawing in many ways, and again, a great indicator of the artist’s process. But as the sale price indicates, it is of less interest to the market than other works by the same artist.
Finally, in another drawing, New York Nocturne, the qualities that truly excite the market for Lewis’ drawings are very evident. The work, executed in charcoal around 1930, shows two figures on a street in New York. One person stands on the sidewalk while the other is prone. Both individuals are framed below the black underside of an awning. There is an element of mystery to the subject and it is not immediately evident whether these two men are friends stumbling home drunkenly from a bar, or whether one is a passerby stopping to glance at a homeless person asleep on the street.
The image bears a great deal of linear description that is architectural in quality. It also has a range of tonalities that describe the way in which street light and ambient moonlight affect facades within an urban setting. This treatment would likely be of great interest to the type of collectors that seek out, and pay high sums, for Lewis’ intricately detailed prints.
This work sold for $47,500 over an estimate of $10,000 - $15,000 at Swann Galleries in 2018. This illustrates that there can be interest in Lewis’ drawings equal to that of prints, when the drawing in question is of exceptional quality. Some of the positive attributes of the drawing in question are that of line, contrast, and narrative drama. All of these, and more, add up to a work that is naturally of great interest to serious collectors.
This brief examination of just five recent sales of works by Martin Lewis does not provide a complete picture of the market for his work more broadly, but illustrates some of the key issues that inform value in his drawings. Each of the works presented has their own unique qualities, but the market response to each was informed by the values of those in the market for such work at this time. Because most of the sales cited here took place in 2018, these few sales provide a snapshot of the diverse market attitudes that can exist at one time.
Lewis was a prolific artist in multiple media and his work comes up at auction regularly and is also readily available in the retail setting. The market for his work is strong, and the response of collectors to the variety of his production is fascinating. Many artists of Lewis’ generation are not as well represented in the marketplace. Still others, such as Hopper, are much more widely known and more well publicized than Lewis. Generational peers are not always equal in the market. Collectors do truly tend to look at artists and artworks with deeply individualized values and opinions.
This post should serve to aid in broadening a better understanding of some basic market opinions about one specific artist during a singular time period. With a better understanding of how the market reacts to work like these by Lewis, collectors, dealers, and even living artists become more informed and more ready to deal with the realities of the current market for fine art.