At a Fine Arts Auction House, the Artists (and Buyers) Go to the Dogs

By C.W. Thompson

At a generous estimate, about half of the 60 folding chairs set up in the main bidding room of Doyle’s New York were occupied. It was the auction house’s 11th Dogs In Art auction and on this recent midweek afternoon, with New York in the throes of a trickle-down recession, empty seats were not unexpected. But even in a recession, the niche world of sporting art auctions saw a few brave souls come away with their own prized purchases.

The auction’s offerings ranged from lower-priced porcelain, ceramic, cast iron and marble dogs to higher-priced etchings and paintings featuring dogs, horses and birds. For the most part, the dogs presented in hunting scenarios fetched the highest asking price, peaking at $20,000 for a breed portrait of a pointer from William Harnden Foster, an avid sportsman and pointer specialist. The other paintings showed dogs sniffing out their prey, dogs clamping down on birds, and dogs portrayed with one paw raised expectantly above the ground, as the animal waits for a bird to fall out of the sky. Other paintings featured men on horses, men firing guns, dogs in portrait, and fox hunts.

Russell Fink and his wife, Marlee, a couple in their late-50s, had made the trip from Lorton, Virginia with one goal in mind: to pick up game bird and waterfowl etchings by Richard Bishop, an admired sportsman and etcher. Fink recently completed a limited-edition 500-page leather book on Bishop’s work.

“We got just what we wanted,” said Russell, speaking of the ten carefully-crafted drawings of geese, pintails, and bogs that they picked up. The Finks travel around the country going to auctions, attending events in Las Vegas and Boston. They are familiar with market conditions.

“Prices are depressed,” said Marlee.

The auctioneer moved quickly through the early part of the auction. Many of these pieces – mostly the figurines – did not garner a bid either from the few attendees or from online or phone bidders. Overall, of the pieces that did sell, about one-third sold for less than the stated low estimate.

“The market is down, but people will always buy tangibles,” said Marlee. “It just depends how much discretionary income they have.”

One attendee who spent some of this discretionary income was Tom Smith, 71, a retired judge who recently moved to New York from Los Angeles. “New York is a great place to retire to,” he said.

Smith bought two sporting art pieces, one of a horse riding a trail and another depicting of a polo match, spending a total of $3,450.

“They’re very good deals,” he said, “Plus, they’re horse paintings, and I’m a horse person.” He said he would hang them in his new house on East 73rd Street.

An attendee who came away empty-handed was Laura Maioglio, who owns Barbetta, a restaurant in the theater district that is New York’s oldest restaurant owned by the same family. The restaurant’s interior is riddled with antiques, but Maioglio, clutching her handbag, left halfway through the auction.

“I’ve been buying all my life,” she said. “The consignments here are not as impressive as other years.”

By auction’s end, 61% of the pieces had sold for a total of $168,056. One piece, a rendering of horse riders in the English countryside by Peter Curling, sold for $3,100 higher than expected. But overall, sales were down compared to previous years. Russell Fink put the depressed results of the auction in a personal context.

“Some of my best years were during the Carter administration, when inflation was through the roof,” he said. Russell and Marlee then waited as the workers at the auction house carefully wrapped up the Bishop etchings in butcher’s paper for a safe journey back to Virginia.