The sales pavilion at Keeneland is usually filled with the lightning patter of auctioneers and whoops of spotters selling horses parading on the auction block.
But Wednesday afternoon, the items for sale were pricey pieces of sporting and American art, some works valued at well over $1 million. It was the most expensive group of artwork put up for auction in Lexington in memory.
While organizers celebrated the inaugural event and the many sporting art pieces that sold well above their stated values, they did not manage to sell the two highest-priced works in the auction.
Andrew Wyeth's Marsh Hawk earned a top bid of $4.8 million, and Mary Cassatt's Children Playing with a Cat attracted $4.7 million, but neither met its reserve and the paintings were not sold as of Wednesday night.
"We had a low estimate on both of them," said auction organizer Greg Ladd, owner of Cross Gate Gallery. "But if you don't get the price, the owner can decide not to sell it."
Ladd said the seller, whom he did not identify, needed $5 million each to sell the works. He said he and the auction organizers would continue to work with the seller and bidders to complete a sale.
While he was disappointed about having no million-dollar sales, Ladd said he was pleased that the sporting art "went through the roof." Numerous items, including several works by Lexington-based artist Andre Pater that were sold late in the auction, exceeded their stated values. His Sandstorm, a painting of an Arabian horse and rider, went for $80,000, exceeding its stated value by $20,000, and his dog hunt painting The Gift of Scent went for $160,000.
The top seller of the evening was also the biggest piece, LeRoy Nieman's Flat Racing, a 17-foot-by-7-foot mural that was displayed in Chicago's Sportman's Park until it closed. It sold for a total of $291,000, including buyer's premiums. Several works that received top bids in the high six figures did not meet their reserves and did not sell, including Alfred J. Munnings' Blue Prince II with Harry Carr Up on Newmarket Heath and Frank Weston Benson's A Northwest Day.
But Keeneland director of sales Walt Robertson said he was extremely happy with the evening and the crowd, which he said was lively and excited about the event. The auction took in a total of $3.11 million. Proceeds from the auction benefit the Keeneland Foundation.
Ladd and Robertson say they plan to make the auction an annual event.
After Wednesday's event, Ladd said they would look through the catalog, assess what sold well and refine next year's lots. The auction started as strictly an auction of sporting art and then expanded to American art after some pieces were offered by loyal Crossgate clients.
Ladd said he was not surprised the sporting art did best Wednesday.
"That's our crowd," he said.
As the auction started, spotters lined the floor as Roberston and fellow auctioneer Ryan Mahan blazed through the numbers as if horses were in the ring.
The art works, which were hanging in the lobby and restaurant of the Keeneland sales pavilion, were shown on video screens behind the auctioneers, with the prices displayed and usually slowly rising on the left-hand side of the screen.
Occasional trends erupted in the bidding, such as when a buyer who seemed to have an affinity for late 19th century American painter William Henry Stull snapped up several works for $26,000. A fan of 20th century American Allen F. Brewer Jr. bought two Brewer paintings in the auction for a total of $27,000.
Of course, while there were no horses in the ring, the horse art did inspire some of the auctioneer's patter.
After announcer John Henderson described how the owner of Reigh Count had the trainer painted out of Lynwood Palmer's picture of him up for auction, Mahan joked "An owner and trainer. What could go wrong?"
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.