GLENS FALLS — As Erin Coe walked through Sotheby’s — one of the world’s premier auction houses — one piece of art stood out among the others: John Marin’s “Lake George.”
“It’s just spectacular,” said Coe, director of The Hyde Collection. “It’s a big watercolor, it’s impressive, it has a lot of bold color and brush work; it has presence.”
Coe is confident it will look even better displayed at The Hyde, where it will be exhibited starting Friday.
On June 9, after a whirlwind series of inspections, board meetings and a trip to New York City during which Coe pored over the painting under magnification, The Hyde bought the watercolor by famed modernist Marin (1872-1953).
Buying an artwork is a big step for a small museum like The Hyde, which relies heavily on donations and bequests.
“In all the years I’ve been here, it’s the first outright purchase of a piece of art,” Coe said. “I don’t know when the last time was, I really don’t.”
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The Hyde used $47,500 from its Charles R. Wood Acquisition Fund to buy the piece for $38,000 and pay the buyer’s premium, a fee charged by the auction house on each sale.
Buying at auction lets the museum pay the fair market value of the piece, instead of the much higher retail price found at a gallery, Coe said.
“For a museum like The Hyde that doesn’t have a huge acquisition fund, if we’re going to buy something, it really needs to happen at an auction,” she said.
The Hyde, like most accredited museums, has a collections plan, a document that identifies gaps in the collection, Coe said.
“It’s a helpful tool in identifying and cultivating certain donors,” said Coe, who has been working on The Hyde’s list since around 2008.
The museum staff gets email alerts from various auction houses when keywords such as “Lake George” or “Georgia O’Keeffe” appear in their listings.
Two categories on The Hyde’s list are modern art and works that represent Lake George. The Marin piece fulfills both.
“ ‘Lake George’ comes up quite a bit, but in most cases, we can’t afford the work,” she said, citing the recent sale of two Lake George-centered O’Keeffe pieces for millions of dollars each.
“We don’t have that kind of money,” she said. “In this case, we could actually afford this — and that’s what’s rare.”
The relatively modest price tag doesn’t speak to the quality of the piece. According to Coe, Marin is “the lead figure in early American modernism, alongside Georgia O’Keeffe.”
Marin painted “Lake George” while visiting O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s 32-acre lakeside farm, which is about a mile north of Lake George village, in 1928.
O’Keeffe has numerous famous paintings of the view from the property, dubbed the Hill. But Marin, an avid outdoorsman, painted the lake from Bolton Landing.
“He ventured out, he ventured further afield than O’Keeffe did,” Coe said. “Marin felt the need to go beyond and to traverse further north into perhaps more unsettled parts of the lake.”
While his viewpoint was different, Coe draws parallels between Marin’s “Lake George” and some of O’Keeffe’s pieces.
In both, the mountains fill the upper half of the painting, pressing up toward the top of the image, she said.
“That’s very O’Keeffe, exactly what she was doing in her landscape paintings,” Coe said. “And clearly in 1928, she had painted enough landscapes, he would have seen them in her studio.”
While Marin was prolific, painting hundreds of watercolors, he produced only nine of Lake George, Coe said.
“That’s a very small number,” she said. “If you look at Maine, for example, he does many, many watercolors of Maine, and of New York City, but only nine of Lake George.”
Of the nine, one is unaccounted for, two are in public institutions and the rest are in private collections.
“Lake George” was originally owned by John Marin Jr., who consigned it to Kennedy Galleries in New York City, from which an anonymous Florida collector purchased it.
“The provenance is extremely important; you need to know the chain of ownership,” Coe said.
Also significant is that the work is in its original frame, which was selected by Marin himself.
“That’s not something you see every day, when you’re talking about a watercolor made in the 1920s,” Coe said. “That makes it even more valuable.”