or the Showdown at the Mudslingers Ball
Auctions tend to create a stir of emotions and great anticipation with a room full of eager buyers lorded over by the clipped staccato voice of the auctioneer. It is more painful for artists being present, generally cowering in the back of the room, if at all present, to see their works cast into the wind once again.
As a museum director and curator turned art appraiser, I follow fine art, design and studio craft auctions closely. My job as an appraiser relies on gallery, secondary and private sales, as well as auction records, which become public information, as a means to establish fair market value to my clients, whether they are gifting to museums, insuring their collection, or settling estates. So it was with great anticipation that I followed the Estate of Candice B. Groot Collection sale held on April 16 at Treadway Toomey Auctions. Fortunately I was ensconced in a cozy B & B in Golden, Colorado, during a snowstorm to watch the auction live from my laptop. Overall, my take was that prices realized approximately 30 cents on the dollar of what the offerings were initially acquired for.
Candice Groot was a champion of the ceramics field, stimulated by a voracious appetite to collect and her philanthropy with the Virginia A. Groot Foundation, named in honor of her mother. Established in 1988, they have awarded impactful grants to artists, many of them working in clay. The proceeds from this auction, over $2 million dollars, will continue Candice’s visionary passion in supporting artists and the creative process.
Her collection of ceramics spanned the Mad Potter of Biloxi George Ohr (1857 – 1915) to Lauren Mabry, the youngest artist represented among hundreds of artists from emerging to established masters to one hit wonders. A private person, her collection was only seen by a few art tour groups and artists she knew well. When asked, she graciously loaned to public exhibitions, but unfortunately her collection was never shown in full. Her untimely death at age sixty-two means that this auction and the series of attendant catalogs will be the only visual record of her exemplary collecting history.
For many dealers, collectors, and curators following market trends in the ceramics field, and those participating in the Groot offerings, this sale was the motherlode, and will function as a barometer of where the market stands today. Due to the nature of this auction as a benefit sale, there were no reserves and no sales tax. As a result, the 90% sell-through was higher than usual and the passed lots showed deep weaknesses of this tactic when even a low estimate couldn’t attract a single bid.
Of 185 lots of ceramics, by both mid-career and established artists, all but 16 were sold. However, unlike a benefit auction to charitable institutions, in which artwork is donated, and buyers are motivated by goodwill, those results are not used by appraisers and are not generally available as public records. Public exposure of the Groot auction results will provide appraisers and others gauging the marketplace a mixed bag of sale prices used as comparisons for years to come.
When I previewed the auction online last month, I was stuck on how low the estimates were for the majority of work. As an example, the first lot offered was a stunning Kathy Butterly sculpture Buttercup, 1996-97, estimated at $2,000-$3,000. Having viewed the artist’s show at Shoshana Wayne this past spring in Los Angeles, I know her current works sell for $20,000 or above. It sold for $12,200 which includes the buyer’s premium. And this was one of the success stories. I don’t know why the auction house set low estimates, perhaps to lure in early bids, but it didn’t seem to help overall for this sale.
An auction requires multiple bidders to drive prices up above low estimates at this sale there were so few buyers lined up in advance meant that some lots opened with one and only one bidder. With the auctioneer opening the bidding at below the low estimate, then moving up quickly with house bids, the actual bidding began on the internet platforms Live Auctioneers and Invaluable Bidder, and multiple phone lines and those in the room.
Most of the pioneering artists from the field were represented: Robert Arneson, Rudy Autio, Stephen de Staebler, Jack Earl, Viola Frey, Howard Kottler, Marilyn Levine, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos, cut a wide swath of historical West Coast ceramics.
In this first of two auctions to focus on Candice’s sculpture and fine art collections, it was clear that Figuration was a particular interest and she collected some artists in great depth. In this auction were examples of work by 24 of 35 foundation award recipients whose careers benefitted immensely as award recipients from the Virginia A. Groot Foundation, providing the necessary funds for time to develop their creative practice. Important works by these artists include Chris Antemann, John Byrd, Beth Cavener, Cristina Córdova, Christine Federighi, Kris Kuksi, Alessandro Gallo, Beverly Mayeri, Joseph Seigenthaler, Akio Takamori, Tip Toland, Sunkoo Yuh and Wanxin Zhang.
In addition, artists whose works she collected in depth but never won foundation awards including Sergei Isupov, Georges Jeanclos, Michael Lucero, and Gertraud Mohwald were offered in this auction and will be again in the upcoming November 12 sale.
There were a handful of vessels in the sale (including one of her own) but Candice’s predilections of collecting leaned more towards sculpture with narrative or erotic content. William Daley, Rick Dillingham, Ken Ferguson and Wayne Higby each had iconic works.
Leslie Ferrin, of Ferrin Contemporary, one of several dealers attending the auction, is familiar with the collection and interviewed Groot for the oral history program, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, taped on November 4-6, 2014.
I conducted a post mortem interview with Ferrin a week after the auction.
PH: What was the vibe in the auction room, who was there?
LF: In this case it was the dealers who were painfully watching and sweating through the five hour sale. In attendance were Chicago dealers Frank Paluch, Perimeter (recently closed); William Lieberman, Zolla Lieberman; Jayson Lawfer, Nevica Project; and from out of town, Lucy Lacoste, Lacoste Gallery. Many other bidders were on the phone and the internet. These dealers and other art professionals involved with the market, carefully watched and in some cases bid on and bought back the artwork they had sold to Candice.
PH: What are your thoughts the impact of this auction will have on the marketplace, both short and long-term?
LF: Auction houses and galleries are in direct competition for buyers’ available funds. During the course of a normal year, most curators and collectors operate with carefully allocated art budgets and judiciously balance auction purchases with those made at galleries and studios. With so much great material available in such a short time frame, this auction will have a major impact – directly and indirectly – on the living artists and their partners, and the galleries who present their work to the public. Both are dependent on sales to fund and reward the creative process and galleries serve a specific and important function in the lifespan of an artwork. This delicate ecosystem of artists and their galleries was something Candice was respectful of and both benefited through her purchases.
PH: I know that you were not thrilled with prices realized. Any positive aspects?
LF: While I have mixed emotions about this auction in particular, it is promising to see it energize established collectors and maybe even introduce a new generation to this field who are attracted by the give and take of secondary and primary markets, and who purchase using a combination of online platforms and in person experiences.
PH: A recurring thought I had throughout the auction was that if I only had $250,000, a curator dreaming here, I could have put together an amazing and important collection.
LF: I guess you weren’t paddle #780 then, whoever that was picked up numerous sculptures and has an instant collection of some of the finest work of this genre produced in 1980-2015. For others who purchased more modestly, many did so remembering those artworks “that got away” from the exhibitions, auctions and fairs where they first saw them and lost out to Candice’s passion.
After the auction finished, I turned off my computer and sat disappointed but not surprised. Scanning auction results on a weekly basis, the secondary auction market for studio ceramics is taking a tumble. Contrary to the robust nature the field, with so many younger artists creating groundbreaking works, and the contemporary art world embracing clay, it seems incongruent that past and present masters cannot hold their value while passing hands and generations.
Private sales between dealers and engaged buyers can fair better in mutually agreed prices. Compounding the problem is a generation shift with younger collectors opting for private sales where no public record is available, leaving no trace when they decide to resell in the future. Online sales are seeing explosive growth as well; 19% of millennials made their first time art purchases online. Click to read more on sales trends read the 2016 Hiscox Online Art Trade Report.
Given that this was the second of four scheduled auctions, Candice Groot’s passion and eye will continue to give collectors and art professionals another shot at more of those iconic works that got away. Fasten your seat-belts, it’s going to be a bump and grind at the next Mudslingers Ball.
With seven months until the next dance, wouldn’t it be forward-thinking that a consortium of five museums each chip in $50,000, pooling their resources to keep part of the Groot collection intact? It would not only keep part of Candice’s legacy together but be of great benefit to the museum’s viewing publics for years to come. What a beautiful thing it would be!
Photos courtesy of Leslie Ferrin.