Reprinted from Sketches, a Newsletter for the Friends of Belmont, Spring/Summer 2005
On December 1, 2004, some staggering news from New York may have had Gari Melchers doing flip-flops in his grave; the staff at Belmont certainly met the report with incredulous disbelief. Melchers’ Portrait of Mrs. H had just sold at Sotheby’s for $932,000, nearly 10 times the previous auction record for a work by the painter and well beyond the presale estimate of $80,000 to 120,000 set by Sotheby’s. Even the venerable old auction house, it would appear, was caught off guard.
The subject of the portrait is Mrs. George Hitchcock, wife of American painter George Hitchcock, a long-time associate of Melchers. Painted in Holland in 1889, the soulful portrait of Mrs. H pictures Mrs. Hitchcock in strict profile, modeling a maternity jacket. In her left hand she holds an embroidery frame, from which the eye follows a fine strand of gold silk to the beautifully rendered fingers of her right hand. An extremely handsome woman in her own right, Melchers’ masterful touch endows Hitchcock’s image with the dramatic power of a Rembrandt. No wonder an early critic described the painting as “arresting.” The canvas earned Melchers some of the best criticism he ever received for portrait work and it must have been a personal favorite, judging by the frequency with which he exhibited it.
But what, exactly, accounts for its recent astronomical sale price? The cachet of ownership. For the past 33 years the portrait was owned by the late Rita and Daniel Fraad, pioneering collectors of American painting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Fraad’s was one of the most coveted collections of its kind, with a long list of first-rate paintings collectors long hoped would return to the market.
Last summer, when the Fraad heirs decided to sell the entire collection, 272 lots, a frenzied bidding war over the consignment was waged between auction houses and dealers. Even before Sotheby’s won the consignment, they managed to arrange a separate, private sale of two of the collection’s most prized works, a George Bellows, Shore House and a John Singer Sargent, Venetian Street, for a whopping $35, 000,000. The figure rocked the American art market and stepped up the fevered interest surrounding the upcoming December sale.
The sale of the remaining Fraad collection totaled $65,083,400, the highest ever total for a single-owner sale in this category. As it turns out, the Portrait of Mrs. H went for a rather modest price, if nearly a million dollars can be called that, compared to works that sold by Winslow Homer, members of the Ashcan School and a few others by Sargent. It didn’t hurt either that a photograph of the Melchers portrait as it appeared hanging in the living room of the Fraad’s was prominently reproduced in the catalog of the Sotheby’s sale. Also included was an anecdote that underscores Daniel Fraad’s particular fondness for the Melchers: “Dan was a take no prisoners bidder (once raising his paddle at Sotheby’s and never lowering it until he had successfully purchased the Melchers Portrait of Mrs. H)” in 1972.
The Fraads were extremely selective about which pictures they would allow to be loaned. They agreed to loan the Melchers for the opening of the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1980, but would not agree to loan it to the Melchers retrospective organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1990. At the Met a critic wrote, “The beauty of the sitter and the accomplished rendering of the subject caused this painting to stand out even in the company of works by well-known artists that were hung on the same wall.”
Even though the Portrait of Mrs. H is the only Melchers to carry the Fraad name, the auction record it achieved raises new interest in the artist, not to mention raising values. In the wake of this blockbuster sale we are likely to see more market activity in Melchers painting, at least for a while. A picture of New York Harbor painted by Melchers around 1906 has just been made available, for instance, by a Palm Beach dealer.
My office is beginning to receive calls from collectors asking whether they need to reappraise the value of their Melchers paintings for insurance purposes. An insurance value is the price set on an object based on the high-end of its retail value, that is, what it might take to replace the object with something better. A good rule of thumb is to double the value at which you bought the item. While many examples by Melchers don’t’ possess the prestige that the Fraad name can give, it probably wouldn’t hurt to ask your insurance company to reevaluate, even if all it accomplishes is to make you feel better.
There’s nothing like the power of money. While the 1990 Melchers retrospective exhibition renewed interest in Gari Melchers, enthusiasm eventually faded. Sotheby’s million dollar price tag just might have accorded Melchers the most significant and enduring boost yet towards restoring his repetition to what it once was.
Addendum: Today the accepted title for the portrait is The Embroideress, and it is owned by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.