Art: Best in Show
William Secord can tell immediately whether a person likes dogs by how he or she reacts to the notion of dog paintings. “If they don’t like dogs, they go blank,” says Secord, president of an eponymous Manhattan gallery of canine images and owner of a 3-year-old Dandie Dinmont terrier. “If they have dogs, they get a twinkle in their eyes, and I know if I ask the right question, they’ll tell me all about their mastiff.”
It is fair to say that the canine-themed art market caters more to dog lovers than to collectors seeking investment-quality paintings. Two auction houses, Bonhams and Doyle, hold annual sales in February in New York to coincide with the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. (Both Bonhams’ and Doyle’s auctions will be held on February 13.) But as in any field, superior material by the most talented artists commands the highest prices. Last year Bonhams sold New Forest Foxhounds—a large, late-19th-century painting by John Emms—for more than $760,000. “This is the Night Watch of dog paintings. Each dog has a distinct personality,” says Alan Fausel, director of fine arts for Bonhams New York. The image depicts 13 hounds and a terrier lounging in their kennel in England. An accompanying drawing that identifies each animal further increases the painting’s worth, Fausel says, adding, “It came directly from the family [of the man who commissioned it]. It’s fresh to the market, and it’s in very good shape.”
Canine art is not a monolithic genre. Secord identifies three varieties: sporting art, which showcases hunting dogs; breed portraits, which immortalize best-in-show winners; and pet portraits, which depict lapdogs. And then there are those images of dogs playing poker, which most people picture when asked to think of a canine-centric work. Doyle’s February 2005 sale may have reinforced that impulse when the auction house sold two such paintings for a total of $590,400. If the paintings, which an anonymous Manhattan bidder purchased, represent kitsch, at least it is kitsch with a provenance. Cassius Marcellus “Cash” Coolidge, the man who originated the dogs-playing-poker scene, painted them in 1903.
“The whole world was stunned,” says Louis Webre, senior vice president of marketing and media for Doyle, which had assigned a maximum presale estimate of $50,000 to the paintings, auctioned as a single lot. “It was extraordinary. I thought long and hard about it, and I realized that this guy had paid relatively little money to buy two of the most recognized works of art in the world. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. But we have very serious works of art by masters.”
Secord was present at that Doyle sale, but he passed on placing a bid on the poker-playing dogs. “They weren’t on my radar. I was interested in a painting by Rosseau,” he says, referring to Percival Leonard Rosseau, an American artist whom Percy Rockefeller, a nephew of J.D. Rockefeller, patronized often. Secord rebuffs the notion that the Coolidge spectacle only belittles dog art. “I have 7,500 people on my mailing list who are interested in dog paintings in a serious way. This, to them, is an anomaly,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s a portrait, or a landscape, or a dog, there are good, bad, and indifferent paintings by good, bad, and indifferent artists. Good painting is good painting is good painting.”