NEW YORK - There have been many great collections of American folk art – and many great sales of American folk art.
What then sets the Esmerian Collection of American folk art apart? What makes this assemblage amongst the defining collections of American folk art?
The title of the sale, Visual Grace, addresses one aspect of that question. There is a preternatural consistency of the beauty and charm in each of the pieces presented here. Whether modest or lofty – a small piece of slip-decorated pottery or an elegant pair of 18th century portraits, or spotted kangaroo ready to pounce, each piece has an unassailable excellence of design, form and proportion, a vibrancy of color, an element of charm and forthrightness. They are pitch perfect.
Attributed to John Durand, Portrait of a Man (Possibly Captain Fitzhugh Greene) and Portrait of a Woman (Possibly Mrs. Fitzhugh Greene). Estimate $400,000-600,000.
Many of the famous earlier collectors of American folk art, people like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Electra Havemeyer Webb, George Horace Lorimer, Edgar and Bernice Garbisch, Stewart Gregory and Nina Fletcher Little dug deep into their roots in the American culture they were born to as they collected. Ralph Esmerian came to American folk art from a distant vantage point and life experience. As a fourth-generation dealer in precious stones and rare antique jewels, his world was the world of superb objects – of storied gems and jewelry, of saturated color, pattern, texture and design. He grew up in a world of formal French furniture, Impressionist paintings and rare book bindings. But he became captivated by American folk art. He responded profoundly to the spontaneity, imagination and God-given talent of the American makers of American folk art – the portrait painters, furniture decorators, schoolmasters and clergymen, carvers and stitchers – people who bent the hierarchies of European art, culture and craft to their own vision and circumstances, with excellence.
Rare carved pine pheasant hen weathervane. Probably Connecticut, circa 1875. Estimate $200,000-300,000.
So, another aspect of Visual Grace extends to Ralph Esmerian’s profound understanding of the quality of the folk artists’ creations, their lives and aspirations. While his sophisticated eye recognized without hesitation what made something “work” visually, his embrace of American folk art was as much a matter of heart as eye.
Rare watercolor gift drawing: 1st My Children Dear, Whom I Do Love, Polly Collins (1801-1884), Hancock, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, dated 1854. Estimate $ 125,000 - 175,000.
It was my great good fortune to “come up” in the field of American folk art with Ralph Esmerian. I began my job as an assistant in the American Furniture and Decorative Arts Department on July 2, 1973. Roughly six months later, Colonel Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch decided to offer the first grouping of their American folk art collection (there would be seven more sales comprising more than 1,200 objects), consisting of Pennsylvania German fraktur, watercolors, samplers, theorem paintings, and other small “flat art” at auction. Ralph Esmerian was already well into his pursuit of the best Pennsylvania German material. His determined bidding in the first of those Garbisch sales created a mild sensation. On the slender reed of a sale of Pennsylvania German fraktur, there was huge success. Great auctions are great theater – providing a visible platform to showcase the importance of great art. With the first of the Garbisch sales, and over decades of subsequent offerings of great material, American folk art commanded attention and center stage, Esmerian set the bar, other collectors picked up the gauntlet and strengthened their resolve. The field of collecting American folk art developed a broader foundation, greater visibility and credibility. I had more than a job; I had a career.
Jacob Maentel’s John Bickel and Caterina Bickel. Estimate $200,000-300,000.
Working on the sale of the Esmerian Collection has been a bittersweet walk down memory lane for me. It has been a joy to work at close hand with these objects, seeing many of them back at Sotheby’s for a second time. I have read in depth about each of these pieces in the superb volume, American Radiance, with entries written by the top scholars in the now mature field of American folk art. Seeing these pieces side by side, their excellence is easy to appreciate. In fact, their choice seems inevitable. Of course, the selection was not easy, and their choice was far from inevitable. There were so many paths not taken. Watching Ralph Esmerian connect with these objects instantaneously was dazzling. Their selection and the collection, which resulted, was made by an individual of uncommon vision and passion.
I was just lucky enough to stand at the side and watch this remarkable process unfold. We have all learned a great deal about the beauty and soul of American folk art from a collector of great generosity, vision and heart.