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On the Hunt

Stephen B. O'Brien Jr.

A fourth-generation sportsman with a refined collector's eye, Stephen B. O'Brien Jr. launched Copley Fine Art Auctions in 2005 after almost fifteen years in the antiques trade. A trusted advisor to leading collectors, O'Brien opened Stephen O'Brien Jr. Fine Arts, LLC, in 1996.

Located on Newbury Street in Boston, Copley Fine Art Auctions specializes in antique decoys and 19th- and 20th-century American, sporting, and wildlife paintings. Please visit the website at www.copleyart.com for more information.

Records tumble at Copley’s 2009 $4.16 million Sporting Sale

  • Canvasback Pair by John “Daddy” Holly (1819-1892) or James T.  Holly (1855-1935), Havre de Grace, MD, c.  1885 ($155,250)

    Canvasback Pair by John “Daddy” Holly (1819-1892) or James T. Holly (1855-1935), Havre de Grace, MD, c. 1885 ($155,250)

  • Turned-Head Feeding Pintail Drake by John G.  Tornberg (1902-1971), Mill Valley, CA, c.  1948 ($26,450)

    Turned-Head Feeding Pintail Drake by John G. Tornberg (1902-1971), Mill Valley, CA, c. 1948 ($26,450)

  • Frank W.  Benson (1862-1951), “Canada Geese,” 1928, watercolor, 19 ¼ by 23 ¾ inches, framed ($80,500)

    Frank W. Benson (1862-1951), “Canada Geese,” 1928, watercolor, 19 ¼ by 23 ¾ inches, framed ($80,500)

On July 15 and 16, Copley Fine Art Auctions held its annual sporting sale in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The 2009 auction shot over its $3.5 million low estimate settling in at $4.16 million, making it the most successful in the company’s history. In this landmark sale, 23 of the 25 highest estimated lots sold. Commenting on the auction, Copley Chairman Stephen B. O’Brien Jr. said, “To be up thirty percent from last year’s totals in this economy is a testament to the hard work of our entire staff, and the trust that our clients place in us. We make every effort to deliver a pleasurable experience to our sellers and our buyers, and it is incredibly rewarding to see that effort pay off.”

The Radisson Hotel ballroom buzzed with anticipation from private collectors, dealers, and wildlife art enthusiasts during the three day event that included guest lecturers, book releases, and dealer exhibits in addition to the two full days of auctions. Tuesday evening, an estimated three hundred people attended the preview and cocktail reception preceding the start of auction sales on Wednesday. The crowd created a collegial atmosphere, and the quality of the items offered did not disappoint.

The decoy portion of the auction saw a strong start with the Barry and Bernice Stavis Collection of Mark McNair carvings. A busy bank of telephone bidders added to the excitement surrounding the collection. In 2008, Copley set the world record for a McNair decoy when it sold a preening curlew for $7,188. Topping last year’s success with McNair decoys, bidding once again exceeded expectations and established new world records for the artist. The carver’s feeding swan initiated the record-breaking, selling to The Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont for $10,925. The record was short-lived, however, as the same institution purchased the subsequent lot, McNair’s preening swan, for $16,100. The impressive prices for the maker’s carvings continued as a rig of five golden plover soared past their $5/10,000 estimate before landing at $37,375. Not only is this number a record for McNair, but it is believed to be the highest price ever realized for any contemporary decoy carver’s work. Finally the artist’s brown trout rose to $2,990, three times the high estimate.

The centerpiece and highlight of the sporting sale was the Harry V. Long collection of A. Elmer Crowell decoys. As one of the most accomplished and sought after decoy carvers, Crowell’s works have fetched noteworthy numbers in recent years. Crowell prices held strong at the auction, and six of the seven sold within their estimates to five different buyers in the room and on the phone. The first Long decoy up on the block, a preening pintail, sold for $546,250 to a bidder in the room. The same buyer knocked down the very next lot, the swimming black duck, just above the low estimate at $115,000. Next up on the block, a plump over-sized merganser sold just over the high estimate for $207,000 to a Massachusetts collector. The spectacular merganser more than doubled the previous record for a Crowell merganser established at the McCleery sale in 2000. Bringing in more than any individual item in the auction, the nesting Canada goose sold for $661,250. For the shorebirds of the collection, a calling yellowlegs and black-bellied plover sold within estimate for $172,500 and $115,000 respectively. The price for the yellowlegs more than tripled the previous auction record for any Crowell yellowlegs. Of this historic offering, O’Brien said after the auction, “We were very pleased with the results of the Long collection, it was a terrific group of decoys and a tribute to the exceptional foresight of Harry V. Long. As one of Crowell’s best and earliest patrons, it is amazing that this gentleman put this exceptional group together prior to 1915. I am sure that Harry would be pleased to know that his collection realized close to two million dollars.”

Immediately following the Long birds, strong prices for Crowells continued, and a life-size ruddy turnstone by the maker soared above its estimate of $30/60,000 before reaching a sale price of $80,500, another record for the species by Crowell. His greater and lesser yellowlegs both sold above their estimate for $26,450 each. Soon after, Crowell’s early and near mint set of twenty-five miniatures, which includes two rarely found species, commanded $92,000 and set a new record for a complete waterfowl set by the maker.

A rare California decoy by John G. Tornberg, one of only five known feeding pintails by the carver, sold above estimate for $26,500 and broke the previous world record for the maker previously set at $19,550 in the 2000 McCleery sale. Charles Schoenheider’s folky standing hollow pintail drake was estimated at $20/40,000 and proved to be an object of competitive bidding, bringing in $37,950. Another extremely rare item, Lem Ward’s carving of a ruffed grouse is one of only five known to exist and sold for $40,250.

Two shorebirds by New Hampshire carver George Boyd also surpassed expectations. The first, a golden plover, brought a solid price of $14,950. The maker’s yellowlegs followed the golden plover and reached beyond its high estimate to achieve a price of $18,975. Shortly thereafter, bidding took off yet again for a pair of pintails by Ken Harris estimated at $8/1,200 before finally realizing $6,900, believed to be a new record for the maker.

Harry V. Shourds’ black-bellied plover hit $13,800, almost tripling the high estimate. Joining the group of successful shorebirds, a “minnow in throat” yellowlegs set a new record of $20,700 for its maker, George Hinkley of Beverly, Massachusetts.

Two truly exceptional lots from the Holly family rounded out the notable decoy sales, including a beautiful swan that sold for $54,625. One of only four or five by the maker, the exceptional form and provenance propelled the decoy just above its low estimate. The next Holly decoys, a pair of outstanding canvasbacks, sold for $155,250. This sale set a new world record for the maker and more than doubled the price the pair brought in the McCleery sale in 2000.

With something for everyone, the second day of the sale featured a wide variety of sporting paintings, prints, and books. The day began with fourteen Frank W. Benson lots consigned by the artist’s great grandson, as well as other etchings and an exceptional watercolor by the artist. The 2008 Sporting Sale featured a similar group of works that were consigned by the artist’s great grand-daughter. Notable Benson pieces in this year’s sale included his Federal duck stamp print from 1935, which sold above its high estimate for $4,888. Moments later, the artist’s Woodcock drypoint saw competitive bidding and landed the same price. Both Benson etchings Old Tom and Marsh Gunner performed well, bringing in $14,375 and $13,225 respectively. Bringing a close to this fine grouping of Benson works, his superb Canada Geese watercolor hit just above its high estimate at $80,500.

Copley continued its success with impressive sales of works by famed American artist Ogden Pleissner. Barn Pool, which had previously passed at Sotheby’s in 2007, sold in this sale for $17,250. The artist’s atmospheric Venetian scene entitled The Gondolier sold above its estimate for $46,000. Similarly, Grouse Shooting performed exceptionally well, topping the $30/60,000 estimate at $69,000.

Following last year’s record-breaking success with oil paintings by Edmund Osthaus, Copley once again achieved solid results for the artist. All three of his oil paintings sold within estimate.  The first on the auction block, Two Setters in a Field, reached its mid-estimate at $28,750. Of a similar subject matter, a small, dynamic George Browne oil painting depicting a steady hunting dog broke through its high estimate to sell for $34,500.

Aiden Lassell Ripley, noted for his realistic sporting scenes and depictions of upland game, proved his continuing popularity. The artist’s overall success began with his watercolor entitled Dawn, which sold for $29,900. Grouse in Spruce Tree, an oil painting of a wintry upland scene, landed in the middle of its estimated range at $46,000. Most impressively, the watercolor Grouse in the Orchard saw intense bidding and sold well above its high estimate for $77,625.

For the third year running, Copley set a new world record for works by contemporary artist Chet Reneson of Connecticut. Goose Hunting, estimated at $10/20,000, brought $12,075, well above last year’s record of $7,475. Lynn Bogue Hunt’s works also saw outstanding result, with Wood Ducks realizing $17,250. An exceptional J.M. Tracy self-portrait entitled Marsh Shooting featured on the cover of the auction catalog surpassed its high estimate to bring $31,050.

Other strong sporting works included Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ scene of canvasbacks. Bidding propelled it well beyond its high estimate to $25,300, establishing a new record for a Fuertes work on paper. Richard E. Bishop’s oil painting of black ducks hit close to its high estimate at $9,200.

As in years past, Copley offered a number of works by distinguished American artists.  John Andress House, an Andrew Wyeth watercolor of a Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania farm building, performed well and realized $63,250. A luminous portrait in oil by Boston-based Impressionist Edmund C. Tarbell sold for $120,750. An exceptional 1835 John James Audubon print from the collection of Dr. George Edmund Gifford Jr. entitled Snowy Heron or White Egret brought $41,400, well beyond its $20/30,000 estimate.

The auction concluded with the sale of a number of sporting books. Herbert L. Stoddard’s The Bobwhite Quail sold at $4,888. Several copies of Isaac Walton’s The Compleat Angler also performed well, with the most popular bringing $403. P. London Fisher’s The Angler’s Souvenier more than tripled its high estimate with a sale price of $1,840. Only three lots later, Gervase Markham’s The Pleasures of Prince or Good Men’s Recreations saw similar success and brought $1,725.

Copley Fine Art Auctions, LLC is now accepting consignments for the 2010 Sporting Sale. Please call 617.536.0030 for information regarding future consignments or private sales. A full list of Copley’s realized prices from the 2009 Sporting Sale is available on the website at www.copleyart.com.

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