A few score art lovers assembled on folding chairs under a large white tent on the afternoon of Aug. 15 for Barridoff Galleries’ annual Summer Sale. Apropos an auction in a time of pandemic, everyone except the auctioneer wore a face mask and he was behind a Plexiglas shield.
This was Barridoff’s first auction since the coronavirus hit in March and the buyers and sellers did their best to carry on as usual, seats wide apart, plenty of hand sanitizer and free monogrammed Barridoff masks. To encourage online bidding, Barridoff increased its buyer’s premium from 22 percent to 25 percent for live bidders on top of the hammer price.
Barridoff Galleries was established in Portland in 1978 by Rob and Annette Elowitch. For most of its life, Barridoff was a contemporary gallery and frame shop that held a couple of auctions a year. By the time the Elowitches sold the business to colleagues in 2016, it was primarily an auction house.
The new co-owners – auctioneer William Milliken, conservator Jeremy Fogg, restaurateur (Silly’s) and arts administrator (St. Lawrence Arts) Deirdre Nice, and accountant Glenn Morin – moved Barridoff to a rather unlikely office-industrial fringe out beyond Sable Oaks in South Portland. I say “unlikely,” but the Barridoff building is near the turnpike and the airport and has excellent internet access, perhaps because of the Department of Homeland Security offices just down the street.
The 2020 Summer Sale featured some 200 consigned lots, the vast majority being paintings and prints by Maine-related artists. Most items carried modest price estimates, only seven with estimates above $10,000. And, in fact, only seven works hit five figures; Most pieces sold in the $1,200-$2,500 range and you could have purchased a work of fine art for as little as $300.
Auctioneer Peter Coccoluto of Lynn, Massachusetts, disposed of the lots at a rate of about one per minute, with total sales of $538,000 ($650,000 when the buyer’s premium is added).
Barridoff staff manned phones and computers, where close to 80 percent of the action was.
Milliken monitored one of the four online platforms used, shouting out bids as they appeared on his screen. Bidding for two and three online bidders at a time, he sometimes seemed to be bidding against himself.
“It exceeded all expectations, no doubt about it,” said Milliken, president of the Maine Auctioneers Association. “Auction sales in general are decent to robust. People are buying. The auctions that have been hit the hardest are live-only auctions.”
People suffering financially because of the pandemic might find it strange that their neighbors are able to buy art, but then art is not a luxury to most collectors. Nor were the prices paid exorbitant. The average price paid (with premium) was $3,250. You couldn’t buy a decent used car for that.
Only 30 lots failed to attract a buyer or meet their reserve price and some of them sold after the sale, adding up to a sell-through rate of close to 90 percent. Barridoff believes as many as 22 artist auction records were set.
Zebras by beloved artist Dahlov Ipcar, who died in 2017 at the great age of 99, set an auction record for her ($33,000) as did her African nocturne ($25,000). Spontaneous applause broke out when the Ipcars were hammered down, as it did when an abstract painting by Lynne Mapp Drexler, who lived on Monhegan and in Portland, fetched another unexpectedly high price ($26,000).
The four other paintings that broke the $10,000 barrier were roses by Walt Kuhn ($19,000), a coastal landscape by Gertrude Fiske ($17,000), an abstract landscape by Jon Imber ($17,000) and a view of Owls Head by Tom Crotty ($10,000).
There were caches of landscapes by Carl Sprinchorn and John Calvin Stevens as well as works by two dozen living artists, among them Katherine Bradford, Lois Dodd, C. Michael Lewis, Mark Wethli, and George Lloyd.
Sculpture did not sell particularly well, perhaps because collectors are uncomfortable with art that competes with them for space. Two metal sculptures by John Bisbee and a wooden figure attributed to Robert Laurent drew passes.
The steals of the auction were painted wood relief birds by Glen Gunderson that went for $400 and $500. (I own a Gunderson goose and would have bid on his work, but we just don’t have a wall large enough to accommodate a 6-foot stork.)
The Elowitches were in attendance, advising a client on his bids, so I asked Rob for his reflection on the auction as soon as it ended. He told me he thought it was a good day for affordable art purchased for love rather than investment.
“The art came through this time,” he said. “The intrinsic feeling instead of the intrinsic value.”
All in and all done, as the auctioneers say.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.