Keeneland art auction gathers most valuable collection ever in Lexington

Walt Robertson, left, vice president of sales at Keeneland, and Greg Ladd,  owner of Cross Gate Gallery in Lexington stood with LeRoy Neiman's Flat Racing tile mural, the largest piece for sale in The Sporting Art Auction at Keeneland.
Walt Robertson, left, vice president of sales at Keeneland, and Greg Ladd, owner of Cross Gate Gallery in Lexington stood with LeRoy Neiman's Flat Racing tile mural, the largest piece for sale in The Sporting Art Auction at Keeneland. Lexington Herald-Leader

Starting Tuesday at Keene land, area residents have a chance to see what is likely the most valuable collection of artwork ever assembled in Lexington for auction.

The Sporting Art Auction will include several works valued at well over $1 million each and some of the biggest names in sporting and American art, including Sir Alfred Munnings, Mary Cassatt, Richard Stone Reeves, Andre Pater and three generations of the Wyeth family.

The works will be on public display until Nov. 14 during the track's November Breeding Stock Sale. The art auction will be Nov. 20.

Asked when the last time a group of paintings of this stature had been brought together for auction in Lexington, Walt Robertson, the track's director of auctions, said, "I'd put that at never. We're not spring chickens and we've been watching this thing for 40 years," he added, referring to himself and Cross Gate Gallery owner Greg Ladd, who curated the auction.

Cassatt's 1908 oil painting Children Playing With Cat, valued at $5 million to $6 million, is one of the most valuable pieces in the sale. It is topped only by Andrew Wyeth's 1964 tempera painting Marsh Hawk, set at $5 million to $7 million.

The top equine image is Munnings' Blue Prince II With Harry Carr Up on Newmarket Heath, valued at $800,000 to $1.2 million. The largest piece is LeRoy Neiman's Flat Racing, a 17-foot-wide, 7-foot-tall tile mural once displayed in Chicago's Sportsman's Park; it's listed at $250,000 to $350,000.

If you're really just looking for a little something to brighten your wall, there are a number of items in the four-figure range, some by younger artists, so an investment might enjoy substantial appreciation.

Keeneland declined to state a total value for pieces in the auction, but totaling the auction catalog's suggested prices for the 174 items resulted in a range of $14,679,900 to $19,214,700.

Procuring the pieces for the auction was Ladd, who curated this sort of auction for Keeneland in the early 1990s.

"It seemed like a natural fit," Ladd said Monday morning in the Keeneland Sales Pavilion, where the work will be displayed to the public during the sale. "The people that come here are the clientèle we hope will be interested in what we're doing. Keeneland sells to 40 countries and 50 states, and they're all horsemen, so it's starting out pretty sporting-oriented."

That was Ladd's intention as he began visiting potential clients willing to put their works up for auction. As the Cassatt and Wyeth works became available, he said, the focus changed slightly; the auction is now subtitled "Fine Sporting Art, American Paintings and Sculpture."

"Those are major pieces, important pieces, and we were lucky to get them," Ladd said.

Robertson noted, "There hasn't been a major sporting art sale in 10 to 12 years. There's been sporting art in sales, but not a sale that has concentrated on sporting art."

Ladd and Robertson pointed out that people already inclined to spend millions of dollars on Thoroughbred horses are predisposed to filling their homes with high-quality art works that reflect that passion.

Ladd, whose gallery specializes in sporting art, worked to gather a group of lots that include several works by Reeves, considered one of America's top equine portrait artists until his death in 2005. His work in the auction includes paintings of Northern Dancer and Artistides.

The auction also includes several pieces by Lexington resident Andre Pater, including The Gift of Scent, an action scene of hounds on the hunt that is listed at $125,000 to $150,000 — or you can get the charcoal study for $15,000 to $20,000.

The painting stops Ladd, who represents Pater through Cross Gate.

"He's the real deal; classically trained, so he has all the drawing technique down, great light, great color. The personality of the hounds is phenomenal," Ladd says. "You can tell what they're thinking."

Ladd and Robertson can go on with stories about the pieces they acquired, how the Neiman mural was in a box in its owner's home, how John D. Hertz had the trainer of 1928 Kentucky Derby winner Reigh Count painted out of a portrait of Hertz and his jockey after the trainer offended the owner, and why Munnings might have painted the words "My last painting of a race horse!!!" on his valuable portrait of Blue Prince.

A point of interest for Derby fans is the sketch by Pierre Bellocq, aka PEB, for his jockeys mural at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

Gathering works for the auction took more than a year for Ladd, who says he saw most of the works in person before including them.

As the Nov. 20 auction draws near, he and Robertson already are looking toward next year's sale and have even acquired a few pieces.

"The first time, people find out about it, and then it builds," Ladd says. "We feel we have the perfect venue, and it should build on itself."

The Sporting Art Auction

What: Show and auction of 174 pieces of sporting art

Show: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Nov. 14

Auction: 4 p.m. Nov. 20

Where: Keeneland Sales Pavilion at Keeneland Race Course, 4201 Versailles Rd.

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