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November 24, 2005

'Those things are becoming kind of valuable'

I guess this auction market/deaccessioning thing is pretty hot, huh?

Even my old high school is now cashing in, putting a little Stuart Davis piece up on the block at Christie's (est: $2–3 million). [Update: The painting sold for $2.8 million before buyer's premium]:

For years, New Trier High School students breezed by the colorful painting with barely a second glance.

Teachers carted the abstract painting from a 4th-floor hall into classrooms, where it was presented as an example of American modernist art. But the piece later was put into storage for decades.

No one imagined that the Stuart Davis painting purchased in 1948 by Frank Holland, then chairman of the school's Art Department, for $62.50 would be worth an estimated $2 million to $3 million today.

Administrators at the North Shore school district plan to use the proceeds from the sale at Christie's auction house in New York Dec. 1 to add to their already impressive campuses in Winnetka and Northfield.


As Davis' work goes up for sale, art enthusiasts are just as excited about the painting's rich history and lessons on the Cold War era. The painting, "Still Life with Flowers," was purchased by the State Department and traveled worldwide in a 1946-47 exhibition called "Advancing American Art," according to Christie's. But after some members of Congress targeted Davis and other left-leaning intellectuals as communist sympathizers, the State Department sold the painting for next to nothing, officials said.

"Still Life with Flowers," at 40 inches by 32 inches, is among the artist's largest works, according to Christie's.

Holland was notified about the State Department's sale through his work at New Trier. With the school's permission, he purchased the Davis painting and another, called "Driftwood," by surrealist Julien Levy for a total of $125. No one knows what happened to the Levy work, Bangser said.

The school lent the Davis painting to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993, where it was displayed until earlier this year, he said. The painting had been in storage at the school since the 1960s.

In the early 1990s, appraisers valued the Davis painting at a few hundred thousand dollars, officials said.

Since then, interest in Davis' work has escalated, but even school officials were shocked by just how much more the painting was worth after they approached Christie's and other auction houses within the last year.

"Someone said, `Those things are becoming kind of valuable,'" said James Koch, president of New Trier's board of trustees.


It was one of his first oil paintings that "pulls together all of the modern ideas of his career," Widing said.

By the late 1940s, Davis' work had received favorable attention while touring with the U.S. exhibition through Europe. The climate back home, however, turned to fear and suspicion of communist sympathizers.

Like other teachers in public schools at the time, Marran recalled having to take a loyalty oath when he went to work at New Trier in 1955.

"The oath was that we would uphold the Constitution of the United States and that we were not members of the Communist Party," he said.

He used to eat lunch with Holland, and admired the depth of his knowledge about art and the circles in which he traveled.

"He knew everything about art, about architecture," Marran said. "He knew Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, all of those guys."

Marran is not so sure he enjoys the style of the Davis painting, but he figures Holland knew it could be a gem some day.

School officials have set up a separate fund for proceeds from the sale, which will be used for a project such as a photo laboratory or an artist-in-residence program, Koch said. A committee will help recommend how to use the money, assuming the painting sells, he said.

"'Those things are becoming kind of valuable'"
Posted by Dan at 12:11 PM


Great article. Thanks for the interesting post about a painting for one of my favorite American Painters. It is a pretty amazing story you wrote about.

I referenced you and your article in a post on my site. http://juxtapose.typepad.com/jmg_artblog/2005/11/art_auction_int.html

Posted by: Jefferson Green on November 26, 2005 at 11:15 PM

Referenced in this post:

Chicago Tribune: In 1948, an art teacher paid $62.50 for it. Soon, New Trier could make millions.—Lisa Black
Christie's Lotfinder: Sale 1578, Lot 22: Stuart Davis—Still Life with Flowers
Iconoduel: Ringing the Register
New Trier Township High School District 203