UPDATE 5/16/18: Hamilton’s Leonard Nelson sold above target, but not by a radical margin: the William Bunch gallery listed the sale at $16,000, double (100% mark-up) to the high end of the expected range.
5/14/18: Paintings can be big business: Field Life (La Vie des Champs), a painting of faceless peasants by French impressionist Paul Cezanne, sold to a British buyer for $1.5 million at Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia last month, in the first sale of artwork from the estate of the late Campbell Soup heiress Dorrance Hill “Dodo” Hamilton.
Paintings are more often small business: Tomorrow Will Come, a man-high picture of textured light and deep colors over grays by the late New York abstractionist turned Philadelphia color-field painter Leonard Nelson, is listed for just $3,000 — expected to maybe go as high as $8,000 — in Tuesday morning’s sale of Hamilton legacies at William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals, Chadds Ford.
It’s a century and a half since photography left painting behind as a means of record. And its value is ratified in the marketplace by buyers and investors — advised by a powerful, small group of art gatekeepers including museum staff, boards, and the dealers they like, says Brent Byrne, head of Divi-Vest Advisors, a Bryn Mawr investment management firm that displays Nelsons at its Lancaster Avenue office.
Byrne is part of a group of investors who acquired scores of Nelson paintings since his death in 1993. These interested partisans, and other Nelson fans, have been frustrated that Nelson, a longtime Moore College of Art prof, is not better represented in Philadelphia museums — or worth more when his works come on the market.
As a buyer and a donor, Hamilton was influential in the Philadelphia art world. Sometimes buyers can be stimulated when their pieces, with their personal connections to the famous, go on the market, says auctioneer William Bunch.
For example, in 2006 a little-known piece, Gregory Gillespie’s miniature Allegorical Painting (Insects), auctioned from the estate of Luden’s cough-syrup heir and Philadelphia art collector Daniel Dietrich, was listed starting at $1,200 but sold for $36,000, a record for a Gillespie.
“We called it the ‘Dead Bug Painting,'” Bunch told me. But it fetched far more than any previous Gillespie. The buyer was “a retired doctor living in South Australia, who donated it to an art museum in the Midwest. He bought it on the phone.” Maybe the Dietrich imprimatur helped make a difference: “With art, you sell the steak, and you also sell the sizzle.”
Glenn Sweeney, cataloging the Hamilton connection for Bunch, told me the highlights of the Nelson story, which gets more detail in a glossy 2001 book written for Nelson fans by Princeton art professor Sam Hunter. A Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts graduate, Nelson was among those who “started the New York drip-painting school with Jackson Pollock,” whose works eventually sold for tens of millions, as Sweeney says.
“But when Nelson wanted to evolve from there, those people thumbed their noses at him. So he came back to Philly, and did color-field paintings — abstract landscapes, with all that luminosity,” said Sweeney. “In these paintings, color is more important than theme.” Nelson liked Philadelphia “because there wasn’t the politicization of art” that he found in New York. “He didn’t feel the pressure here that he’d felt there. He did things the way he wanted to. A lot of people have asked why there hasn’t been a major exhibition of the guy.”
“What — you don’t think there’s politics in art?” Bunch said, laughing. He compared Nelson to Philadelphia drugmaker turned impressionist collector Albert Barnes. His collection of Cezannes and other once-cheap, now-priceless impressionists has its own Philadelphia gallery, moved in 2012 with $55 million in state aid from Bala Cynwyd to Philadelphia’s Parkway museum row. “Like Barnes, [Nelson] went against the grain.”
Ironically, collector Dietrich, a member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s contemporary committee, was among those who did not support a Nelson acquisition by his hometown museum when staff showed intereset back in 2002 deal, Byrne notes.
Dietrich was a fan of another Philadelphia abstract painter, Warren Rohrer, some of whose paintings were handled by Philadelphia’s Locks Gallery, a favorite among PMA trustees. But Byrne says Rohrer learned his color fields from Nelson. [Some of the people most familiar with Rohrer object to any suggestion he learned from Nelson. Update 5/14]
“Regardless of what Nelson fetches at auction” — or what “museum insiders” judged in the past — Hamilton’s ownership of a big Nelson color field should be seen as a powerful endorsement, Byrne concludes. We’ll see Tuesday if that translates to a price premium.