A 'lion' in winter as Thomas Moran's 1914 masterwork tops American art sale

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A 'lion' in winter as Thomas Moran's 1914 masterwork tops American art sale
Thomas Moran (American, 1837-1926), Mountain Lion in Grand Canyon (Lair of the Mountain Lion), 1914. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches.

DALLAS, TX.- American art roared back with a vengeance at Heritage Auctions this year, as evidenced by yet another successful event Thursday that realized more than $4.2 million, welcomed more than 740 bidders and saw seven lots reach the six-figure mark.

"This has been the year for American art," says Aviva Lehmann, Heritage Auctions' New York-based Vice President and Director of American Art. "For this event we saw an extraordinary 93% sell-through rate, and had museums, new collectors and long-time buyers vying for some amazing pieces that spanned decades and styles — from the Hudson River School to Modernism, from Western works to illustration art. Just a thrilling way to end the year."

The excitement was evident early in the Dallas-based auction house's Dec. 3 American Art event, when Thomas Moran's stunning Mountain Lion in Grand Canyon (Lair of the Mountain Lion), from 1914, realized $471,000. Its high price should not surprise. After all, Moran's works defined the American West to those who'd never seen it; the Hudson River School painter made real, and romantic, that which most Americans could only read about. Indeed, so essential were his paintings that the National Park Service considers him the "Artistic Master of the Conservation Movement."

So popular was Mountain Lion in Grand Canyon (Lair of the Mountain Lion) that only a year after its completion, it was turned into a large-scale color print.

A very different Moran – a Venetian Scene from 1894 – opened bidding at $46,000. But it, too, proved a favorite among collectors this week: After a spirited round of bidding, it realized $106,250.

William Robinson Leigh's The Best in the Bunch from 1941 — painted when the great artist of the American West was 75 years old but his talents undiminished by age — brought $312,500 during event. And the price befits its maker, its scope and its provenance.

The panoramic work, featuring Native American horsemen attempting to tame a bucking bronco, is vibrant — as epic as any John Ford Western. The work is action-packed, drenched in sand and sweat; you can almost hear the horse fighting against his wranglers. As our online catalog notes, it gives the viewer "the sense of having just walked up on the scene as it is unfolding."

This piece, too, was once displayed in Dallas Love Field airport and belonged to a former big-city mayor — J. Erik Jonsson, the Texas Instruments co-founder who became Dallas' mayor in 1964, and was tasked with rescuing the city's tattered reputation following Nov. 22, 1963. Jonsson's "Goals for Dallas" led to the creation of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the building of a new city hall and a central library that bears his name.

Upon his death, Jonsson passed along the piece to his son Philip, a Dallas civic leader and one of the preeminent collectors of Western art. Indeed, several of the pieces in the American Art event came from his collection, including Fritz Scholder's Indian on Blue Horse.

That stunning oil, of a rider and steed illuminated by a pink sunset sky, opened at $34,000 Thursday. But bidding on the piece was heated, exhilarating. And when the lot closed, the 1975 work realized $162,500 — the third-highest price paid for a Scholder at auction.

Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait's Late Autumn, a view of Long Lake in the Adirondacks painted in 1881, provided further thrills in our American Art event. Bidding opened at $41,000, and then bids poured in like floodwaters. In the end, Late Autumn realized $200,000, four times its maximum estimate.

An American Art event would have been incomplete without a Norman Rockwell, and there was no more uniquely American piece in this event than his original study of President John F. Kennedy painted in 1963 for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. It realized $187,500.

This piece, which looks almost identical to the finished work, is muted, with the young president rendered in brown and gold, as though obscured by shadow and lit by fading sunset. Kennedy's brow is furrowed; his chin rests upon his right hand, suggesting a man lost in thought and worry. Rockwell's work here is as intimate as any photograph ever taken of the president.

Studies by illustrator Joseph Christian Leyendecker, Rockwell's predecessor at the Post, were likewise highly sought-after in this sale: A circa-1916 House of Kuppenheimer advertisement study titled Solder's Pride realized $55,000; while another, from around 1920, brought $52,500.

Rockwell's wasn't the only Saturday Evening Post cover offered in the event: Constantin Alajalov's playful Shooting Gallery, which graced the front of the magazine's Sept. 12, 1953, issue, opened at $3,400 and realized $35,000 — a record for the artist.

One of the most surrealistic pieces in the event came from one of this country's most revered Regionalists, Thomas Hart Benton, whose murals have done as much to depict this country and its everyday people as any history book, poem or photograph. He adored abstracts but wasn't necessarily known for them. And so Benton's 1946 work Fantasy, likely based on a model or sculpture he created,is something of an outlier — and a coveted work among his collectors.

That was plainly evident when it opened at a $75,000 reserve and closed, a few minutes and many bids later, at $150,000.

Throughout the day, myriad pieces among the more than 175 offered sold well above their estimates, among them Childe Hassam's watercolor Lighthouse, Isle of Shoals from 1886, which realized $81,250. Dale Nichols' Land of the Midnight Sun, which hasn't been available for almost three decades, opened at $30,000 only to realize $68,750, the same amount paid for Louis Ritman's stunning Sunspots.

John Singer Sargent's1924Portrait of Henry Sturgis Russell, exhibited in 1956 at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, opened at $28,000. But after a few minutes, its price, too, escalated to $68,750. And Margaret Keane's 1971's Eyes Upon You sold for $35,000 — the second-highest price ever realized for one of the beloved painter's works behind only Zsa Zsa Gabor, which Heritage sold in 2018.

"We began this celebration of American art with our July sale, which shattered records, and followed with another blockbuster sale to end the year," Lehmann says. "It was a great way to end a very successful year and reinforce our position as a leader in the field of American art."

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