Art Market

Collecting Vintage Prints: A Personal Perspective

I have to begin this post with a thank you to my colleague Donna Parsons, Gallery Director at Dryden Gallery / Providence Picture Frame for giving me a preview of their incredible Archives Sale, which opens this Friday, June 12 and will run each Friday and Saturday through the end of July from 11am - 4pm each day. Providence Picture Frame is a 100+ year old art business and an institution in itself. It will soon be moving out of the converted textile mill it’s called home for many years and this exciting sale of work from the company’s archive is, what a seasoned collector I know referred to aptly as a “once-in-a-generation sale”.

I was supposed to be visiting Providence Picture Frame earlier this week on official business on behalf of the Providence Art Club. This sneak peak at the objects that would be for sale was supposed to grant us a chance to find some appropriate frames for naked paintings we own, as well as an opportunity to pick up a piece or two to add to our permanent collection. But, of course, I naturally lost all semblance of self control and bought a couple of items for myself.

I am extremely interested in the prints made of New York in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s and was genuinely thrilled to have the opportunity to add two etchings from this period to my personal collection at this intriguing sale. After getting the work home, I did a bit of research and found out some incredibly fun facts about the makers of the pieces I selected. Collecting historic works of art can be interesting, and even dare I say, fun, and I hope sharing what I found and why I love these two pieces might inspire some other would-be collectors.

Nat Lowell,  Lower East Side , etching, 1930’s

Nat Lowell, Lower East Side, etching, 1930’s

The first etching is by the Latvian-born Nat Lowell (1880-1956), who trained at the Art Students League of New York and was a prolific printmaker, capturing the unique vibrancy of the City. This scene of the Lower East Side, probably from the 30’s, shows off the bustling harbor, which itself already dated back 300 years to the Dutch settlement of the island. It may be forgotten today to some extent, but for most of its history New York served as one of the most important ports in the world.

In Lowell’s dynamic image, he contrasts the masts of the sailing ships in the foreground with the spires of the city’s financial hub on the tip of Manhattan Island behind. It’s worth noting that the term “skyscraper” was originally used to describe the height of ships, not of buildings. The riotous sea faring vessels before use accentuate the solidity of the City, as do the billowing baroque clouds over head.

Nat Lowell,  Lower East Side , etching, 1930’s (detail)

Nat Lowell, Lower East Side, etching, 1930’s (detail)

I am unable to find this specific image online thus far, but works by Lowell can be found in the Metropolitan Museum, New York Public Library, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, The Library of Congress, and other important collections. One of the reasons I find original prints so exciting is that for an incredibly reasonable sum, you can live with museum quality work.

Karl Dehmann,  Metropolitan Museum , etching, 1928

Karl Dehmann, Metropolitan Museum, etching, 1928

The second etching is by Karl Dehmann (1886-1974), who was born in Germany and trained both in his native country and in Paris. He made his living for a short time as a copyist at the Louvre and wrote home at one point to complain that he wished he could make more money at his trade. Don’t we all, Karl?

This beautiful nocturne depicts the glowing Beaux Arts facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1928, which one source reports as the year Dehmann emigrated to the United States. This exact print can be found in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York as well as the Metropolitan Museum itself, which acquired it the year it was printed.

Karl Dehmann,  Metropolitan Museum , etching, 1928

Karl Dehmann, Metropolitan Museum, etching, 1928

You might notice that the seemingly cramped steps and horseshoe driveway in this image are not the hallmarks of The Met recognized today for its gracious cascade of stairs. This entry was dramatically altered in the early 1970’s under Thomas Hoving’s directorship. But this print captures a moment in time while also expressing the innate grandeur of the Richard Morris Hunt building abutting Fifth Avenue, as well as the drama of the well-lit facade against the inky night sky.

Both of these images are richly detailed and executed in a style that was extremely popular in this period. They are intricately and lovingly detailed. They exude two polar qualities of New York: the gritty excitement of downtown in the middle of the workday and the meditative night of a staid and cerebral uptown. They also express some of the wonderful technical qualities found in the medium of etching: the specificity of the line work, the graduated tones of dark and light, the possibility for an image to be descriptive, narrative, and abstract all at once.

It is also worth noting that both of these images, as well as many others crystallizing the singular personality of the place that Brooklyn-born poet Walt Whitman called “America’s great democratic island city”, were executed not by native-born artists but by individuals who came to the United States from abroad. This fact has a message for all of us living in the US in 2019.

Historical works of art can add so much to a collection because in looking at them we can know and understand their makers and their context in ways that do not always translate to artists and artworks of our own time. We know the way the places depicted have changed and that makes these works romantic, doesn’t it? We understand the impact that this school of printmakers had on the shaping of art history and that makes these works educative, doesn’t it? And, if we let the lessons inherent in works like these wash over us they can change our mind or make us see the world differently, can’t they?

Although one of today’s more popular art memes goes something like “buy work by living artists, the dead ones don’t need the money”, there is an alternative saying in the museum world about art-makers who are no longer with us. “The only good artist is a dead artist.”

In the case of collecting there are many great things about buying the work of living artists you might know and like, of course. But there is also something to be said for broadening, deepening, and enriching your collection with works by artists whose careers ended decades ago and whose productions were influenced by an entirely different set of social, political, and artistic realities than we know now.

When I look at the prints I recently purchased, I see not only the New York of Lowell and Dehmann, but I feel inklings of my own experience in the City. I also see indications of familiarity on the part of these printmakers with artists whose work I will never be able to afford like Edward Hopper or Martin Lewis. And for a much more affordable price I can bring prints that capture the zeitgeist of their time with technical precision and artistic flourish into my home.

I removed these prints from their frames and pulled them out from under glass and I honestly cannot stop looking at them. They are a delight and I know I will enjoy them for years to come.

And that is truly the best art investment money can buy.

Providence Picture Frame’s Archives Sale is on July 12, 13, 19, 20, 26, and 27 from 11am - 4pm. They are located at 27 Dryden Lane in Providence, Rhode Island.

That Must Be Fun: Navigating Misconceptions About Gallery Work

The field of gallery work, especially as it relates to commercial gallery spaces, tends to be somewhat misunderstood. It is certainly not thought of in all quarters as a serious career. As a gallery professional, when I meet someone at a social function and the question of work comes up, the statement “I manage an art gallery” almost always elicits the same reply, particularly from those who don’t work in the arts: “That must be fun.” While work in the art market is stimulating and those of us who get to do it are incredibly lucky, those four words, and the mindset they represent, are indicative of some fundamental misconceptions about gallery work and who gallerists are.

The average American rarely, if ever, steps foot in a commercial gallery space. And the majority of Americans have never purchased (and will never purchase) an original work of art. So, it makes sense that most perceptions of gallery work are shaped by popular culture. Scripted television shows like Sex and The City or GIRLS have given us fictional gallery workers like Charlotte York and Marnie Michaels. In the 2003 rom-com classic Love Actually a group of school children snicker at a gallerist’s show of large scale nude photos festooned with Santa hats. And the 2012 Bravo reality series Gallery Girls primarily showed the lives of privileged young women working in the industry. Moreover, recent documentaries and news stories about the art market skewer dealers (alongside others) as shadowy insiders grifting from the nouveau riche. In short, when commercial galleries appear in media they are conversely the object of ridicule about elitism or the subject of suspicion regarding the murky nature of money in the visual arts. And gallery workers themselves are often envisaged as delicately coiffed trust fund babies in need of a hobby.

In addition to this problem of perception in the media, it makes sense that a central conceit of gallery life, the wine and cheese fueled reception, is viewed as a sort of party which gallery staff attend rather than an event which gallery staff work. Anecdotally, at least, it seems that many people see gallery professionals as individuals who have fun for a living. These lucky few spend their days toying with art and rubbing elbows with a bevy of glamorous collectors and talented artists. And in the imaginative mind, this hobnobbing is occasionally punctuated by a glass of Rosé over a sumptuous crudités spread.

Misconceptions about gallery work are not limited to those outside the field. Not long ago, I met an aspiring gallery professional who commented that the best part of gallery work was that curators and directors don’t have to lift a finger, saying, “You just point and people hang it for you.” The disconnect between this comment and the reality of daily life for the majority of individuals who make their living in art galleries astounded me.

So what is the reality for many commercial gallery professionals?

Outside of major hubs like New York or Los Angeles and beyond the walls of mega galleries like Gagosian, Zwirner, or Pace, smaller regionally-based and local galleries tend to be financially precarious and gallery owners are often one-man-bands. This means a gallerist has to possess an incredible array of skills. They must be equal parts curator, writer, preparator, installer, art handler, maintenance supervisor, publicist, public speaker, photographer, graphic designer, accountant, events manager, educator, caterer, bartender, server, and custodian. This isn’t to mention the softer skills of social diplomacy required when dealing with sensitive artists, frugal buyers, and a curious public. This job description would be a tall order for anyone, but when you consider the limited financial incentives involved in the local and regional market it becomes taller still.

The gallerist, in spite of this broad skill set, remains an enigmatic figure. And the pressures of gallery work are often veiled behind the well-crafted façade of the art world. The reality is that employees at the majority of commercial galleries are not, in fact, filing their nails at the reception desk of a white cube on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. But instead, they are engaging in numerous skilled tasks, often across many exhibitions at once. They are, additionally, providing needed services to artists and bringing artwork to the market - often acting as the only professional representation certain locally known artists will ever have.

So, why does it matter if the general public or even art people themselves understand what or who a gallerist is and what their work is like?

Misconceptions about gallery work devalue the labor of gallery professionals. Not only in the eyes of those with an already limited affinity for the visual arts. But also in the minds of those who are genuinely interested in galleries, art, and collecting. An artist once told me that commercial galleries are a racket because gallerists provide virtually nothing in exchange for their 50% commission. This line of thinking is extremely troubling. A good gallery owner, indeed a good gallery professional at any level, does much more. And for this reason gallery workers are worthy of recognition. But the reputation of privilege and frivolity persists. So, too, does the idea of the unfriendly gallery person.

In the popular imagination gallerists are chilly and inaccessible. In reality, though, commercial gallery work is essentially the effort to bring art to new audiences and thereby to new potential clientele. For this reason, gallery staffers must be public people, yet they are often perceived as closed off. This is in part the fault of gallerists everywhere who fantasize that they are the second coming of Larry Gagosian. Gallerists on the lower end of the market who seek to cultivate a reputation for elitism and aloofness do so at their own peril and degrade the reputation of the profession in the process.

Those of us in the gallery field are more often than not amiable people who care about art and artists and work to help them navigate this complicated marketplace insofar as we can. Commercial galleries also provide an incredible, if unspoken, community service in that unlike most art museums they never charge admission. For free, anyone can visit an art gallery and see artwork that is being made by artists right now. And they can often engage directly with the artist, too.

Gallery work is, as many people suspect, deeply enjoyable. But it is also emotionally and physically taxing in its own way. I know many in the business who work around the clock even when the gallery is closed, conducting studio visits, installing purchases in the homes of clients, answering frantic emails from artists on weekends at midnight, to name just a few common tasks. Though the work is often fun, it’s not always easy.

Ultimately, the best way to understand gallery work is to be in the trade. But one can learn a lot by speaking to real world professionals. A little bit of research also goes a long way. Instagram accounts like @arthandlermag, @jerrygogosian, and @contemporarycostanza humorously illuminate some of the things that go on behind-the-scenes. But truly, visiting galleries, reading art news, and following your local gallerist are essential to developing an understanding of gallery culture and the people who make it all happen.

And, if you ever have any questions for your own friendly local gallerist, you should feel more than welcome to email me.

In Black and White: Examining the Recent Market for Drawings by Martin Lewis

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.

Martin Lewis,  Study for Yorkville Night , ink and pencil on paper, 8.63" x 11.88", unsigned and undated Sold for $13,750 at Heritage Auctions (Estimate: $10,000 - $15,000)  Sale date: May 4, 2018, Lot #68185

Martin Lewis, Study for Yorkville Night, ink and pencil on paper, 8.63" x 11.88", unsigned and undated
Sold for $13,750 at Heritage Auctions (Estimate: $10,000 - $15,000)
Sale date: May 4, 2018, Lot #68185

Martin Lewis,  Yorkville Night , drypoint, 8.5” x11.5”, edition of 18, signed  Sold for $42,000 at Heritage Auctions (Estimate: $25,000 - $35,000)  Sale date: May 7, 2017, Lot #355 Same image sold in 2016 for $35,000, in 2008 for $26,400 It was also offered in 2001 and 2002 for estimates of $1,500 - $2,000 and was unsold both times via Swann

Martin Lewis, Yorkville Night, drypoint, 8.5” x11.5”, edition of 18, signed
Sold for $42,000 at Heritage Auctions (Estimate: $25,000 - $35,000)
Sale date: May 7, 2017, Lot #355
Same image sold in 2016 for $35,000, in 2008 for $26,400
It was also offered in 2001 and 2002 for estimates of $1,500 - $2,000 and was unsold both times via Swann

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.

Martin Lewis,  On The Bridge , watercolor on paper, 17.75" x 20.75", signed and undated Sold for $13,750 at Doyle New York (Estimate: $10,000 - $20,000)  Sale date: May 1, 2018, Lot #133

Martin Lewis, On The Bridge, watercolor on paper, 17.75" x 20.75", signed and undated
Sold for $13,750 at Doyle New York (Estimate: $10,000 - $20,000)
Sale date: May 1, 2018, Lot #133

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.

Martin Lewis,  Night Windows , graphite on paper, 10.5” x 8”, unsigned and undated Sold for $5,000 at Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers (Estimate: $4,000 - $6,000)  Sale date: April 26, 2018, Lot #149  Same drawing sold for $5,760 in 2009 at Swann Galleries.

Martin Lewis, Night Windows, graphite on paper, 10.5” x 8”, unsigned and undated
Sold for $5,000 at Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers (Estimate: $4,000 - $6,000)
Sale date: April 26, 2018, Lot #149

Same drawing sold for $5,760 in 2009 at Swann Galleries.

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.

Martin Lewis,  New York Nocturne , charcoal on paper, 12.75" x 16.88", c. 1930, signed Sold for $47,500 at Swann Galleries (Estimate: $10,000 - $15,000)  Sale date: March 13, 2018, Lot #166

Martin Lewis, New York Nocturne, charcoal on paper, 12.75" x 16.88", c. 1930, signed
Sold for $47,500 at Swann Galleries (Estimate: $10,000 - $15,000)
Sale date: March 13, 2018, Lot #166

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.