Alice Karle Appraiser
Fine & Decorative Art
March II, 1961
Auction Sale for $62,815
A gentleman called about a painting and a sculpture he and his wife had inherited from their relatives. Their relatives were an important married couple of collectors; so important that the gentleman told me, when he was little he thought everyone owned paintings like those by Picasso, Degas, Modigliani, and Kandinsky that he saw when he visited these relatives. Much of that collection later helped form the 20th Century Galleries at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His relatives had also actively supported, then unknown up-and-coming artists in the 1950’s-1960’s. The painting was by John Levee (also spelled Levée) and the sculpture by Carel Visser, hardly household names at the time. It was our great privilege to appraise the two works and later assist in their sale, both pieces setting records for the respective artists, Levee and Visser.
The John Levee painting was presented to us as a large work by an unidentified artist. The only photo that existed was a really poor quality iphone photo. At 76 x 76 inches the painting was too large to fit in the clients’ new home and had been crated. The painting was signed, titled March II, and dated 1961. The signature did not read as a cohesive name, unless one was already familiar with the artist’s signature beforehand. At first glance the large abstract painting brought to mind Joan Mitchell, but the signature clearly did not belong to her. Interestingly, it turned out that Levee and Mitchell painted in Paris at the same time in the 1960s and exhibited at some of the same galleries and museum shows in New York.
Enter the Smithsonian archives. In 1966 an appraisal of the husband’s art collection was done for his wife after his passing in 1965, by the iconic Frank Perls. Frank Perls located in Los Angeles, and Klaus Perls located in New York, were important art dealers and famous for debunking fakes. Frank Perls introduced important mid 20th century artists to many of his West Coast clients. Listed in the appraisal along with Picasso, Degas, Modigiliani, and Kandinsky was a 76 x 76 work by the artist John Harrison Levee. In 1966 the Fair Market Value for Estate Purposes of the Levee painting was $400. Although the work was not photographed in the Perls appraisal, the size matched, and both the style and the signature on the supplied photo matched to known examples by John Harrison Levee. To put things in perspective, in the 1966 appraisal a work by Mark Rothko was valued for $12,000. A Jackson Pollock was originally valued at $55,000 with a later sale for $61,875. A Pablo Picasso, originally valued at $90,000 has a note that it sold for $250,000. These were substantial amounts of money for those days, but imagine the value of these works today!
There is an excellent biography of John Harrison Levee at Hanina Fine Arts, and also in the auction entry created by Sharon Squires at Bonhams where our clients’ painting was sold. The artist was born in Los Angeles in 1924, and educated at both UCLA and Art Center. He fought in World War II, studied in New York while waiting for his GI Bill money, then moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian. The French, who have for centuries been at the center of the art world, described the new emerging abstract style as Abstraction Lyrique to differentiate it from Abstract Expressionism, the term invented for artists painting in the style in New York City. Both terms describe a similar movement with roots prior to World War II, but thriving in the decades after the war. Often poetry and painting are tied together in both Europe and the Americas when referencing these abstract movements. Levee participated in important exhibitions in Paris, New York, Ohio, and Tel Aviv. While in Paris, John Harrison Levee was a close friend and artistically associated with Sam Francis. Levee was represented by Andre Emmerich in New York, who also represented Joan Mitchell.
John Levee’s work is included in the permanent collections of major museums including: Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and Kunstmuseum Basel. Please note, we only list values on our website for works with public records that we have represented as agents. Thanks to Sharon Squires, Jason Stein, and Isabel Norsten at Bonhams for the wonderful sale, and letting us participate in the cataloguing and research.
The story of the sculpture by Carel Visser is on the Gallery Page as an item in the Modern Art Gallery.