The Ralph O. Esmerian Sale

Highest-Ever Total For An Auction Of American Folk Art

February 4, 2014

The noted American folk art collection of Ralph O. Esmerian was sold on Jan. 25th at Sotheby's New York headquarters. Titled "Visual Grace: Important Folk Art from the Collection of Ralph O. Esmerian," the sale had 228 lots of exemplary painted furniture, ceramics, fraktur, carvings, weathervanes, needlework, watercolor portraits, trade figures, canes, and more. The pre-sale estimate was $6.4 million to $9.5 million. The total gross (including the buyer's premiums) was $12,955,943. It was 82.5 percent sold by lot and 93.7 percent sold by value. Of the 228 lots, 188 sold, and 40 failed to sell.
"I think there were buyers who were intimidated with some of the estimates, and that hurt some of the redware and also fraktur," said one advanced collector. None-the-less, record prices were realized in several categories, including carvings and portraiture, and it was the highest-ever total for an auction of American folk art. The previous record was the Little collection, sold at Sotheby's in January and October of 1994.
The buyer's premium at Sotheby's is 25 percent of the hammer price up to $100,000, and 20 percent of any amount in excess of $100,000, up to and including $2,000,000, with the premium increasing to 12 percent for any amount over that. All prices in this report include buyer's premiums.
The highest priced lot in the sale was a Samuel Robb (1851-1928) wooden carved and painted figure of Santa Claus, standing nearly 39 inches tall, made in New York in 1923. It sold for $875,000 (est. $150,000-$250,000). The buyer was Woodbury, Conn., dealer David Schorsch and his business partner Eileen Smiles. "I bought the first Santa for a customer and the second one for stock," stated Schorsch. Schorsch bought roughly one quarter of the sale, spending around $4 million dollars. He had handled a large number of the objects from the collection in the past, having been a one-time advisor/agent for Esmerian.
Who is Ralph Esmerian and why did this collection go to auction?
Esmerian was a successful fourth generation dealer in rare antique jewels. He resided in Manhattan and collected various categories of American folk art beginning in the 1960s. He was also the former chairman emeritus of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City (AFAM).
In 2010, he pled guilty to a three-count indictment of wire fraud, bankruptcy fraud, and concealment of assets. He is currently midway through serving a six-year prison sentence. The once-promised gift to AFAM, published in the 2001 book "American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum," included material ensconced in a scheme that involved the collection being double-pledged as collateral. He had taken out loans in the hundreds of millions associated with his retail jewelry business, with much of the collection as security.
A negotiated agreement was met in the courts for AFAM to keep 53 items while 212 once-promised items were awarded by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court through a liquidation trustee in March of 2013 to be sold by Sotheby's. The sale generated $10.5 million for his creditors, which included both Sotheby's and Christie's.
"By and large, the museum did a very good job with what they kept," stated Westborough, Mass., dealer David Wheatcroft. The majority of truly iconic objects from the collection stayed in the museum.
Esmerian had added several objects over the intervening years. One such notable example was the portrait of hatter John Mays of Schaefferstown, Pa., in his shop, done by Jacob Maentel, circa 1830, that sold for $469,000 on May 13, 2006, at Pook & Pook to David Wheatcroft, underbid by David Schorsch. It sold this time for $245,000, again to David Wheatcroft, and again underbid by David Schorsch.
One particular category Esmerian had always been drawn to was Pennsylvania German decorative arts, namely fraktur and redware. He also collected painted furniture, trade figures, portraiture, needlework, canes, and select shaker material, as well as Bill Traylor drawings, among other things.
The collection had extensive exhibition and publication histories, notably from "American Radiance." That publication was heavily relied on for the Sotheby's catalog. Most catalog entries were cut from the book.
The specialized market for high end American folk art is highly selective and like any market is in constant flux. Everyone with an active interest in the field was either present on the salesroom floor or sky box above the salesroom.
"The results were mostly what you would expect and probably reinforces what I already knew; it is a bifurcated market,” said Wheatcroft. "At the end of the day, it lifted the top end more than the middle," he continued.
For those who analyze this market, there is an erratic nature and psychological ingredient, depending on how well the overall economy is doing. Folk art has historically dealt with cyclical waves. In the mid-1970s during the time of the Bicentennial, the fervor was at a higher pitch than at present; however today, a select number of billionaire collectors affects how the market moves at the top. If just three top collectors decide to move on to another field, such as contemporary art, it is felt.
"I believe six people bought a good portion of the sale. Some buyers are inconsistent and not in tune to the market or don't care about the market. The market is built on confidence. It is not about justified necessity," continued Wheatcroft.
We have seen this at landmark sales. Some mind boggling prices are achieved, and it can serve as a temporary shot in the arm to various sectors of the field. It was no different at the Esmerian sale. Some of the Americana dealers exhibiting at the Winter Antiques Show, which was going on at the same time, thought there was some carry over effect following the sale, reporting increased business at the show.
According to one advanced spectating collector, "Some very rare items were fought over by a select handful of individuals, each with a net worth of over a billion dollars. Also, some very nice things brought prices in line with what you would expect them to bring or less than what they previously sold for.”
The Esmerian collection was formed slowly over decades. He cherry picked select iconic objects and had the resources to do it. Many items came from major sales, and he paid record prices. A number of the fraktur came from the Garbisch sales, held in 1974, through Sotheby's. Carvings and redware came from the Wetzel sale in 1980 and also the Deyerle sale in 1995. Some highlights also came from the Fine sale in 1987. There were items from the well-known Hodgson and Wichman sales as well. All of those single-owner sales were held by Sotheby's. A number of objects also came from the Himmelreich sales in the 1970s through Pennypacker's. Walter Himmelreich was a well-known dealer/collector in Lancaster County, Pa., who handled Pennsylvania German folk art. He had four sales at Pennypacker's in 1958, 1971, 1973, and 1976.
In next week's issue there will be continued coverage of this sale with a report concentrating on the Pennsylvania German side of the collection, including the fraktur, redware, and Jacob Maentel portraits.
To recap, huge prices were achieved by a select number of private collectors, one of which is exclusively an auction buyer.
It was an extraordinary high profile collection from a high profile astute collector whom, in the end, happened to have fallen from his own "Visual Grace."
The captions tell more of the story from this important sale.
All images are courtesy of Sotheby's.


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