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$5.5 Million Paid for Rare Watercolors

November 28, 1985|RONALD L. SOBLE | Times Staff Writer

A consortium of art collectors, consisting primarily of chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies, has paid $5.5 million for a coveted 16-volume set containing 468 original botanical watercolor paintings by Pierre Joseph Redoute.

The work, entitled "Les Liliacees," was accomplished over a 14-year period under the commission of Empress Josephine Bonaparte.

The volumes were sold at auction last week in New York by Sotheby's to W. Graham Arader III, a Pennsylvania-based print dealer who has a number of retail outlets around the country, including one in Downtown San Francisco. Arader was the only bidder, although there were some 200 spectators and art agents in the audience, Matthew Weigman, a Sotheby's spokesman, said.

"All the Redoute lovers in the world were there," the Sotheby's representative said.

The hammer price, which included a 10% commission for Sotheby's, represented the 10th highest price paid for a work of art or a book in recent years, the spokesperson said. Two years ago, the Gospels of Henry the Lion, a 12th-Century manuscript, sold at a Sotheby's auction in London for about $11 million, the current record.

Reached at his New York outlet, the 35-year-old Arader said he put out the word a few weeks ago that his investors were prepared to bid up to $11 million for the Redoute portfolio, executed on vellum, which had been held in a family trust in New York. But in reality, he said in a telephone interview, the $11 million was a "bluff" to keep out the heavy hitters, such as the Los Angeles area's J. Paul Getty Museum and the Morgan Library of New York.

"I bluffed everyone," he said. "It's unbelievable. My bluff worked."

In a letter soliciting investor participation, Arader said, however, "should the bidding go above $8 million, we will drop out."

Whatever the case, Philippa Calnan, public-affairs director for the J. Paul Getty Trust, took exception to Aradar's comments.

"At no time did the Getty Museum consider acquiring the drawings," she told The Times.

Francis S. Mason, assistant director for the Morgan Library, which also has a substantial art collection, said the institution would not comment on the sale.

Arader said he has many shareholders in his group with original shares selling in the $70,000 range. Each share, he said, entitles the corporate investor to four Redoute watercolors, which probably will end up in corporate board rooms.

Arader said he retained many of the watercolors, which he will put on display before selling. His San Francisco outlet, he said, would exhibit the paintings sometime in February.

Delighted with the purchase, Arader called the purchase a "bargain" and said he felt the potential worth of the watercolors could soar to $25 million.

Josephine, an enthusiastic botanist whose Malmaison gardens near Paris are a tourist attraction, was a primary supporter of Redoute and was instrumental in inspiring the 16-volume work, which was produced in embossed leather bindings.

"You have a combination of a great illustrator and interest in Josephine because she was one of the most charming women in the world," said Doris Harris, a Los Angeles autograph and document dealer (Doris Harris Autographs, 5410 Wilshire Blvd.).

Harris said, however, the art world would probably be disappointed that the set was not being kept intact because of its great historical significance and beauty.

On a related note, she said within the year she has acquired three documents signed by Josephine and/or Redoute. All are for sale, she said, ranging in price from near $600 to more than $1,700.

Question: I have acquired some old cardboard advertising signs. For example, one of the signs advertises a Ford rental car from the year 1918, which surely must have been one of the earlier efforts to capitalize on the auto as a rental-vehicle venture. How can I classify this collectible both in terms of subject matter and value?--R.B.

Answer: Generally, collectors put signs in the category of advertising posters, and, riding on the crest of the nostalgia trend among collectors, they have become fairly popular. Some of these early signs were lithographed and had colorful letters and pictures of the products they advertised.

Dealers say it's difficult to find an organized market for early advertising signs and that prices are usually dictated by supply and demand or spur-of-the-moment sales. About $20 or a little more would not be an unusually low price for a sign, such as you possess, if it is in good condition, according to some dealer catalogues.

Q: Have you run across a collecting group that is knowledgeable in old handbags?--G.S.

A: There is a Costume Society of America listed in one of our reference sources. It is at 330 West 42nd St., Suite 1702, New York, N.Y. 10036. Another source might be the costume-and-textile department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Q: I've been trying to locate original, early 20th-Century gum-ball or peanut vending machines. Will I have to put out big dollars to find what I want?--O.N.

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