I n a marvelous apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue, inhabited by Erving and Joyce Wolf – collectors, philanthropists and Honorary Trustees of The Metropolitan Museum of Art – more than 1,000 carefully curated objects tell the story of American art and culture. The Wolf Family Collection spans centuries and includes masterful paintings by William Merritt Chase and Winslow Homer, exceptional sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Paul Howard Manship, among hundreds of other magnificent works of art. And that’s to say nothing of the significant furniture and decorative arts, design, jewelry, art reference books and more.
This April, The Wolf Family Collection is coming to auction in a series of ten sales that go on public view at Sotheby’s New York beginning 14 April. (The series includes seven live auctions and three online-only auctions – two of which are offered entirely without reserve.) Here, explore highlights from one of the country’s most exceptional and unparalleled collections.
Sotheby's Presents: The Wolf Family Collection
Coming to the block on 19 April at 6:00 p.m., The Spirit of America contains the collection’s most magnificent masterworks. The auction defies categories, including paintings, bronzes, furniture, Chinese export ceramics, glass, silverware and more, and is headlined by William Merritt Chase’s masterpiece, In the Studio, depicting his wife, Alice, reclining in his Shinnecock studio.
Sotheby’s Spotlight: The Wolf Family Collection Spirit of America Sale, American Paintings
Paul Manship’s Dancer and Gazelles
Sculpting harmonious human and animal forms was one of Paul Manship’s greatest skills, and Dancer and Gazelles is one of most elegant and rhythmic works. The present example is a reduction of the original heroic-sized bronze, and is one of 12 copies authorized by the artist in this reduced size. Casts of Dancer and Gazelles can be found in prestigious institutional collections such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and the Art Institute of Chicago
Greene & Greene Desk & Chair from the Charles Millard Pratt House
Designed for one of Greene & Greene’s last “ultimate bungalows,” the Pratt desk and chair embody the architects’ defining craftsmanship principles, with a purity of proportion, form and line that is balanced by sumptuous textural enrichments. Hand-carved wood inlays on the exterior of the desk articulate gnarled oak trees in bas relief, inspired by the surrounding landscape of the Ojai Valley in California.
Chippendale Mahogany Chest of Drawers
This exceptional dressing chest of drawers stands as the zenith of the late Rococo style in New England. While its inspiration is derived from the English designers Thomas Chippendale, William Ince and John Mayhew, with its use of native woods crafted in an American manner and its carved ornament being in parallel with that used in Boston and Salem, Massachusetts, it stands as a monument of American craftsmanship.
Famille-Verte “Mythical Beasts” Phoenix-Tail Vases
The finely painted pictorial panels on this pair of Chinese famille-verte vases from the Qing dynasty, Kangxi period (1662–1722) convey well-wishing sentiments for a scholar-official. The presentation of a pair effectively doubles the auspicious meanings. The rich enamels and fine painting also reflect the revitalization of the Jingdezhen kilns under the patronage of the Kangxi Emperor, who encouraged technical innovations to surpass past achievements in earlier dynasties, thus conferring prestige to the newly established Qing empire.
Eanger Irving Couse’s Shrine to the Rain Gods
Eanger Irving Couse was a founding member and first president of the Taos Society of Artists and is best known for his portrayal of Native American subjects, such as this example here. Shrine to the Rain Gods retains distinguished Museum provenance, having previously been owned by the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, and the Museum of the American Indian, New York, before entering The Wolf Family Collection in 1971.
The Wolf family’s collection of jewels heads to the auction block on 20 April at 10:00 a.m. Exceptional Jewels includes numerous rare and one-of-a-kind designs by esteemed makers such as René Boivin, JAR and Van Cleef & Arpels – all of which surely comprise one of the most impressive collections to ever appear at auction.
Frank's Files: The Wolf Family Collection
Sapphire, Garnet and Diamond Brooch
This impressive, large-scale sapphire, garnet and diamond brooch epitomizes many of the qualities for which JAR is famed: the naturalistic modeling of the rose and pansies, the subtle gradations of color in the gemstones, the intricate pavé work – much of it hidden deep within the folded petals – the antique diamond cuts and the use of patinated metal. Erving and Joy Wolf purchased this piece from the artist in 2014. It is one of two jewels by JAR that will be offered in the sale.
A Pair of “Mystery-Set” Sapphire and Diamond Earclips by Van Cleef & Arpels
This pair of earclips is one of several examples of masterful Van Cleef & Arpels “mystery-set” jewels included in this sale. These pieces incorporate delicate mosaics of colored gemstones held in place without visible metal claws or collets. The resulting effect is of a smooth, unbroken expanse of vibrant, glistening color in a subtle grid pattern. The elegant simplicity of the design is made possible by a complex and difficult manufacturing process. Early examples of mystery-set jewels were either flat or slightly curved, but over time refinements to the process allowed for the creation of more complex, undulating surfaces, as seen in the petals of these floral motifs.
A Diamond Bracelet by René Boivin
This bracelet from circa 1937 is sleek yet intricate. The author and founder of The Adventurine Marion Fasel writes: “A marvel of engineering, the over 35-carat diamond René Boivin fish-scale bracelet transforms into a dazzling openwork pattern when it is wrapped around the wrist.” The Parisian jewelry house led by Madame Jeanne Boivin employed a number of extremely talented and mostly female designers, who produced sophisticated and masterful jewels during this period that have become highly sought-after by collectors.
Forging America, on 20 April at 1:00 p.m., will see a curated selection of American bronzes from the 19th and 20th centuries. With an emphasis on distinguished sculptors, such as Paul Manship and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the auction features forms rarely seen in private collections.
Sotheby's Spotlight: The Wolf Family Collection Forging America
Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s The Moqui Prayer for Rain
During a visit to northern Arizona in 1895, Hermon Atkins MacNeil observed the Moqui people’s annual prayer for rain at the top of the Mesa at Oraibi. The ceremony concluded with the participants carrying live snakes to the plain so that their prayers would be answered. MacNeil was so inspired by the ritual that he produced The Moqui Prayer for Rain to capture the movement and fervor of the event. This cast is one of 10 or fewer examples that Hermon Atkins MacNeil authorized for production with Nelli Bronze Foundry in Rome after 1896. It is believed that only six remain in existence.
Paul Manship’s Flamingo, King Penguin and King Pelican
Paul Manship’s bronze animal sculptures are well known for adorning the Rainey Memorial Gates at the Bronx Zoo, as well as both the Lehman Gates and Osborn Gates in Central Park. The artist’s bird sculptures in particular are celebrated for their individuality, as is evidenced in this series of tabletop bronzes. Despite their small stature, they possess a remarkable degree of naturalistic detail, and each retain the artist’s original and carefully selected lapis lazuli veneered base. Each bird is number two from a limited edition of casts produced at the Munich foundry of Priessmann Bauer & Co. in 1932.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Diana of the Tower
This majestic bronze sculpture of Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is a small-scale version of the heroic sculpture that adorned the tower of Madison Square Garden from 1893 to 1925 and now resides in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As the sculptor’s first and only nude figure, Diana made waves when Saint-Gaudens originally unveiled her to the public. More than a century later, she continues to be one of the artist’s most commercially desired subjects.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens towered over his generation of sculptors in the originality of his sculptural ideas, the finesse of his execution and the scope of his ambition.
Modern America features a cross-section of work from the 20th-century, including painters (Chase, Prendergast), designers (Tiffany Studios, Frank Lloyd Wright, Greene & Greene), photographers (Stieglitz) and more. Heading to the block on 20 April at 2:00 p.m., the auction represents many American advancements from its modern period.
Tiffany Studios 8-Light Moorish “Prism” Chandelier
This chandelier showcases Tiffany Studios’ masterful integration of glass and metalwork. The gilt bronze fixture features a leaded opalescent glass shade with a central “Turtle-Back” tile, encircled by iridized favrile glass prisms and interspersed with bronze ball chains. The elaborate design is further distinguished by eight decorated “Lily” shades. All together, these elements cast the perfect ambient light onto the Wolf Family’s other treasures of fine art, sculpture and decorative arts.
Maurice Brazil Prendergast’s Girls at the Inlet
This jewel-toned painting dates from the final decade of Maurice Prendergast’s career, representing the culmination of more than 30 years of artistic exploration. Although Girls at the Inlet is figurative, close inspection reveals a hint of abstraction; Prendergast’s loose brushstrokes, non-naturalistic colors and flattened forms create a dynamically patterned and textured surface that borrows from the decorative arts and other prominent Post-Impressionist painters, such as Paul Cézanne.
William Merritt Chase’s Summer-Time
The simplicity and unconventional cropping of this Impressionist composition are distinctly modern. In Summer-Time, William Merritt Chase depicts dappled light and lush foliage with textural brushwork and luminous colors that transcend their illustrative purpose. When the present work was painted in the 1880s, Chase was living in Brooklyn and often painted the public parks in his neighborhood. Summer-Time is one such painting depicting the borough’s varied outdoor spaces.
Erving Wolf was both in Nebraska and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and made his name as a businessman against the backdrop of the American West. On 20 April at 4:00 p.m., Glorious America celebrates the natural wonders of the country, from important Hudson River School paintings to photographs of the western frontier and more.
Sotheby's Spotlight: The Wolf Family Collection Glorious America
Worthington Whittredge’s Off Seconnet, Rhode Island
Unlike many of his Hudson River School contemporaries, Worthington Whittredge was inspired by the effects of light and color on landscape as taught by the Impressionist school, and he applied expressive brushstrokes to capture the texture and atmosphere of this quiet seaside town. Off Seconnet, Rhode Island is a beautifully rendered New England seascape in which the grassy, wildflower-filled foreground effortlessly merges with the surrounding inlet of water, as fishermen’s houses and boats ground the composition at center.
Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Twilight on Hunter Mountain
The freshly cut trees in the foreground of Twilight on Hunter Mountain are symbolic of westward expansion and the aftermath of the Civil War – two matters with which Gifford was greatly concerned.
Adolf Alexander Weinman’s Chief Blackbird
Chief Blackbird (Ogalalla Sioux) was the leader of the Omaha Tribe and a celebrated veteran of the Great Sioux War. Adolf Alexander Weinman sculpted Chief Blackbird from life for the first time in 1903, originally as a full length figure and later a portrait bust.
Adolf Alexander Weinman’s ‘Chief Blackbird’ (1903) features a naturalistic headdress of eagle feathers framing a dignified mien and a decorative base highlighting wildlife and Indian motifs.”
Cross-Currents in America honors the country’s diverse cultural milieu and history of cultural exchange. The Wolf Family Collection of Chinese ceramics is one of the most important in the world, and will be complemented with extraordinary sculptures, paintings, silver, photographs and more on 21 April at 10:00 a.m.
Sotheby's Spotlight: The Wolf Family Collection Cross-Currents in America
“Hong” Punch Bowl
“Hong” punch bowls count as the most important and iconic of Chinese porcelains produced for the Western Market. Highly prized by collectors and connoisseurs for their fine and delicate decoration, they serve as a testament to the prosperity of the Pearl River waterfront during the zenith of the China Trade. The current example is especially well painted, and was formerly in the collection of François and Nicole Hervouët, illustrated in their seminal work, La Porcelaine des Compagnies des Indes a Décor occidental.
Imari “Royal Arms of France” Tripart Spice Box and Cover
This spice box bears the Royal arms of Louis XV, King of France, and is from undoubtedly the most important order of Chinese armorial porcelains for the French court. The unique form derives from a porcelain prototype made by various French factories, which in turn likely originated as a European silver form. This form is particularly rare in Chinese export and only two other examples appear to be published.
Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave
Arguably the most important American sculpture of the 19th century, Greek Slave represents a shackled woman who was enslaved during the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s. Hiram Powers chose this subject in the 1840s, likely to comment on the ongoing debate over American slavery at the time.
The final live auction of the week is Building America on 21 April at 2:00 p.m. The sale features fine and decorative arts representing early American history, and includes a majority of the family’s collection of furniture, supplemented by art and decorative objects.
Sotheby's Spotlight: The Wolf Family Collection Building America
Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s The Puritan
Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s iconic The Puritan form was originally conceived as a public monument honoring one of the founders of Springfield, Massachusetts. The figure’s body was based on a model who posed for Saint-Gaudens in a costume inspired by 17th-century woodblock prints. The dramatic silhouette of the puritan is imposing and dignified, inspiring reverence for the individuals who first settled the city.
Queen Anne Walnut Side Chair
This Queen Anne walnut side chair, attributed to John Welch (1711–1789) exhibitions Colonial Boston at its avant-garde best. The piece was once owned by the Apthorp family.
This album quilt from 1848 features wreaths of flowers and hearts, bow-knotted bouquets, vases and birds, and was made for John and Rebecca Chamberlain.
The seven live auctions are supplemented by 3 online-only auctions opening for bidding 13 April. The first, America Without Reserve (closing 24 April), includes a diverse selection of nearly 200 affordable works offered without reserve.
Luxury Handbags (closing 25 April) features dozens of iconic vintage pieces, including an impressive collection of Hermès Kelly bags.
The collection’s final sale, Ex Libris (closing 25 April), includes art reference books from the family’s impressive library offered without reserve.