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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Edith Halpert & The Art Market


Fig. 1: Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000) The Builders, 1974, Tempera on board, 20 x 24 inches, Signed and dated “Jacob Lawrence/1974” (lower right), Image courtesy of Christie’s, Images Ltd., 2012
At the mention of Edith Halpert’s (1900–1970) name most modern art dealers, gallery owners, and auction appraisers can’t help but applaud. A renegade of the modern art world, Halpert brought recognition and eventual market success to a number of unsung artists. “Some critics and dealers thought she was at risk showing the artists she exhibited during her early days, but for her it was the intrinsic relevance of the art in which she believed,” says Allan Kollar of A.J. Kollar Fine Painting.

From a poor-Russian Jewish family, Edith arrived in New York with her sister and mother (Frances (Lucom) Fivoosiovitch) in 1906, having previously lost her father. As a young adult, she occasionally attended classes at the National Academy and frequented the galleries of Alfred Stieglitz and Newman Montross. During this time, she also began a career in advertising that led to a high-paying executive position at the investment firm S.W. Strauss and Company. In 1925, after a spate of good investments, Halpert resigned from the company and traveled to Paris with her artist husband, Samuel Halpert (1884–1930), whom she had married in 1918. Upon her return to New York in 1926 she opened the Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village.

At the time, American artists weren’t hugely important in the art world, and women were even less so. That did not sway Halpert, who handpicked such artists for her gallery as Stuart Davis (1892–1964), Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), Arthur Dove (1880–1946), Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) (Fig. 1), Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) (Fig. 3), and Ben Shahn (1898–1969) (Fig. 2). Their success became her mission.

Fig. 2: Ben Shahn (American, 1898–1969), Demonstration, Union Square, Watercolor on paper (framed), 12 x 9 inches, Signed, Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center, Lambertville, New Jersey
Halpert’s risk-taking tendencies proved prescient, as many of the artists she showed are now more popular than ever. Kollar, who has placed many pieces by Jacob Lawrence over the years, has seen the market values of Lawrence’s paintings steadily increase. “We have seen [Lawrence’s] work go from $8,000–$10,000 in the 1970s, to $15,000–$35,000

in the 1980s.  Now, specific quality works that were executed in the 1950s and early 1960s can easily bring $250,000–$350,000. I know of a private sale for over $2 million dollars for an exceptional work and of course The Builders (1947) (fig. 1) sold for over $2.5 million at auction in 2007.”  

Says John Driscoll of Babcock Galleries, “The audience for early modernist paintings from the time Halpert started dealing until her death was fairly thin. There weren’t a lot of collectors, but [Halpert] was very studious in seeking out people to support her artists when the work wasn’t selling well.”

Due to the meager modernist market, the bodies of work created by Halpert’s artists were fairly small. For example, Charles Sheeler produced only around 150 oil paintings in a career that spanned over five decades (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965), Still Life, 1925, Oil on canvas, 12⅛ x 10¼ inches, Image courtesy of Driscoll Babcock Galleries, New York
Arthur Dove and Stuart Davis also left behind comparatively small oeuvres. The result today according to Driscoll, “is that anything by these artists that is exceptional or has a remarkable quality dramatically increases in value and can command an exceptionally high price.”

Noted American collector William Lane was one of the collectors Halpert sought out. Lane built a number of collections with Halpert’s help that rivaled the country’s best museums. In the early 1960s, after Lane acquired a number of works by Sheeler, Halpert offered him a final piece from a private collection that he had been coveting. After struggling with the $3,000 price tag, Lane declined. According to Driscoll, that same piece would sell for $5 to $10 million today. “The prices have escalated,” said Driscoll. “The marketplace for early modernist paintings is still a real collectors’ market.”

Halpert truly believed that all the artists she showed in her gallery had something to say. People are still listening today.