Alasdair Nichol, picture specialist and vice chairman at Freeman’s of Philadelphia, called the Horst collection “an auctioneer’s perfect storm” – the sale of a previously unknown cache of untouched European and American art exposed to market for the first time in close to a century.
The time capsule was opened with predictable fireworks on March
30. The 63 pictures sold without a failure for a premium-inclusive
$4.3m (£2.7m), well above the estimate of $1.2m-1.9m.
George D. Horst was a Pennsylvania businessman - a partner in a
hosiery manufacturer in Reading, Pennsylvania that became the
second largest in North America. Across a relatively short period
of time between 1911 and the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, he
used his wealth to assemble a considerable art collection for the
fledgling Reading Public Museum.
However, in 1924, upset when a new building was sited outside
the city limits on land donated by his principal business
competitor, he demanded his pictures back and instead, two years
later, built a private gallery in woods close to his home.
Horst died in 1934 and his wife in 1957. By that time many of
the pictures they had collected had fallen out of fashion and into
critical disrepute. As a result, the paintings, and their gallery
concealed amongst the Douglas firs and the blue pines of Sheerlund
Forest, were largely forgotten by the Horst family until the 1980s
when George H. Sullivan (a specialist in Roman architecture) began
to re-examine his grandfather's legacy.
As an immigrant from Germany, the near 50-50 blend of American
and European paintings in the collection reflected Horst's dual
identity. Some of the most valuable pictures in the collection were
by the New Hope School and the group of American artists known as
The Ten - many of them purchased soon after exhibition at the
National Academy of Design in New York or the Pennsylvania Academy
of the Fine Arts.
However, the event that first piqued Mr Sullivan's interest had
been an exhibition he attended in Manhattan dedicated to the
Barbizon painter Charles Daubigny (1817-78). As he
studied his grandfather's Daubigny, then more closely the rest of
the ensemble, he discovered that this seemingly unpretentious
collection, including Venetian potboilers and merry cardinals, was
also studded with trophy names of 19th century French art.
Some of them, the forerunners of Impressionism, represented the
very peak of East Coast collecting fashion when his forebear
frequented the auction rooms of New York City.
Most of the pictures were in excellent original condition,
retained their original frames and were meticulously documented by
original bills of sale and exhibition/auction catalogues stored in
a room above the gallery.
Economics of Taste
There were to be some subtle lessons in the history - and the
economics - of taste.
At 'The Public Sale of the Crocker, Newcomb, Moir and Bonner
Collections' held by the American Art Association (a precursor of
Parke-Bernet) in New York in 1912, Horst had paid $8000 for his
Daubigny, a 13in x 2ft 2in (34 x 67cm) oil on panel of a
pink-tinged river landscape at sunset titled Bord de L'Oise, Le
Soir and dated 1874.
It was a great deal of money at the time (in 1913 a Ford Model T
cost $550) and amply illustrates the high regard in which the
Barbizon school was held by American collectors in the ante-bellum.
That almost a century later it was estimated at just $6000-10,000
reflected both the art market's sometimes cruel roller coaster -
and the generally conservative reserves set throughout this sale.
Nonetheless, in very good overall condition save some small areas
of retouching, it did rather better, selling at $40,000 (£25,160)
to the French trade.
At the same sale in 1912 Horst had paid a relatively modest $400
for Eugène Louis Boudin's (1824-98) 14 x 10in (35
x 26cm) oil on panel of sailboats and lighthouses in an
This small-scale 'plein air' work painted in Trouville in 1891 -
a typical combination of sun-dappled sea and cloud-filled blue sky
punctuated by brightly-hued shipping - is today far more commercial
than Daubigny's more academic palette of greens and browns. It was
also in excellent original condition. A British dealer, who had
seen the picture when highlights from the collection were put on
view in Pall Mall, bought it at $140,000 (£88,050), some distance
above its $40,000-60,000 estimate. In all, collectors from 47
countries registered for the sale.
Horst had bought his Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
(1796-1875) for $6000 at The Anderson Galleries, New York,
in 1928, by which time the price of a Model T had fallen to $450.
It was part of a sale titled Important Paintings by Old &
Modern Masters collected by the late Charles H. Senff where the
Metropolitan Museum of Art also purchased a Corot.
This 13 x 18in (33 x 46cm) oil by the father of Barbizon
painting in a handsome giltwood frame depicted a wooded landscape -
doubtless somewhere in the Fontainebleau forest or the surrounding
regions of Bas-Breau, Ville-d'Avray and Jean-de-Paris - populated
by a lone figure. A garden gate to the right foreground gave the
work its title. In excellent condition apart from relining and a
minor area of craquelure, it tipped over the top estimate to bring
$100,000 (£62,890) from a Philadelphia private buyer.
The buyer's premium was 25/12%.
A full report of the sale features in this week's printed copy
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