Auction  February 28, 2020  Rebecca Rego Barry

Georgia O’Keeffe’s 'Seaweed' takes a Tangled Path to Auction

Courtesy Sotheby's

Georgia O’Keeffe’s small, square oil on canvas titled Seaweed comes to light at Sotheby’s in New York on March 5. It is estimated to reach $300,000-500,000.

In March of 1946, a thief made off with three Georgia O’Keeffe paintings from her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s Madison Avenue gallery, including a 7”x 7” oil on canvas titled Seaweed. For some thirty years, the paintings had remained hidden and changed hands among collectors, until a 1976 sale prompted the artist to take legal action. After an unfavorable judgment in 1978, a settlement finally put the artworks back into her hands two years later.

courtesy sotheby's

Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe, circa 1924-27, is estimated at $30,000-50,000.

The lush Seaweed now resurfaces to public view for the first time since its only showing in 1924 and to auction for the first time ever. O’Keeffe painted it around 1923, after a series of trips to coastal Maine and Lake George, New York, focused her attention on seascapes. Her depiction of the aquatic plant is lifelike, yet not literal—a manifestation of O’Keeffe’s signature style. 

“This example is intimate in scale and demonstrates the tenuous balance between abstraction and realism that became central to O’Keeffe’s aesthetic,” said Charlotte Mitchell, specialist in Sotheby’s American Art department.

In New York on March 5, Sotheby’s will offer the diminutive painting, estimated at $300,000-500,000, alongside more than one hundred works of art and personal effects from the collection of artist Juan Hamilton. Kayla Carlsen, head of Sotheby’s American Art, referred to the collection as a “time capsule.”

courtesy sotheby's

O’Keeffe’s 1932 painting, Nature forms ~ Gaspé, is expected to be the top lot of the sale at $4-6 million.

O’Keeffe met Hamilton in the mid-seventies, when he served first as an employee around her Ghost Ranch studio in New Mexico, and then as her caretaker, assistant, and companion as her eyesight waned. He taught her how to use a pottery wheel, which she took up in her last decade (a few of her pots will be auctioned for the first time, too). When she died in 1986, she bequeathed much of her art and belongings to Hamilton, some of which were later donated to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Sante Fe, and some of which he has held onto until now.

courtesy sotheby's

A selection of clay pots from O’Keeffe’s final years are headed to auction for the first time, including this circa 1980 example, estimated at $10,000-15,000.

“It has been a true privilege to live with and care for these works for many years,” Hamilton commented in a statement. “But it is now time to allow others the opportunity to enjoy and learn from these treasures. I hope that they will inspire a new generation of admirers and collectors of O’Keeffe, Stieglitz, and their inimitable circle, as they have long inspired me.” 

courtesy sotheby's

A grouping of eighteen jars of pigment, each affixed with an adhesive label with the color of the pigment written in O’Keeffe’s hand, is one of the more personal lots on offer. It is estimated at $15,000-20,000.

Inspiration is indeed one of the overarching themes of this sale, bringing together the work of those who influenced and were influenced by O’Keeffe, from Stieglitz and Hamilton to John Marin and Ansel Adams. In the case of Seaweed, the Sotheby’s catalog further notes how O’Keeffe distilled the techniques of artists she admired, such as photographer Paul Strand and painter Henri Matisse, as she vaulted toward her own unique form of expression. “O’Keeffe and Strand often portrayed flora in a similar manner—enlarging their subjects and cropping the picture plane as seen in Seaweed,” said Mitchell. “O’Keeffe also observed Henry Matisse’s treatment of color and form.”

The sale is enhanced by a wide selection of neat artifacts, such as Stieglitz and O’Keeffe’s 1924 marriage license, pigments used by O’Keeffe, and the artist’s address book from her years in New York, which lists not only names and numbers of friends but sales of paintings complete with prices.

courtesy sotheby's

Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s marriage certificate is estimated to reach $7,000-10,000.

About the Author

Rebecca Rego Barry

Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places and the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine.

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