Auctions Market USA

Jailed collector’s folk art makes $13m at auction

Works owned by Ralph Esmerian, and once promised to the American Folk Art Museum, included a carved and painted Santa Claus

Samuel Robb created this carved and painted figure of Santa Claus for his daughter. It sold at Sotheby's New York for $875,000 (est $150,000-$250,000)

Sotheby’s New York auction this weekend, of folk art from the collection of Ralph Esmerian, the former president and chairman of the American Folk Art Museum who was convicted of wire fraud and other charges and is now serving a six-year sentence in a federal high security prison in Pennsylvania, made $12,955,943. The 227-lot auction, held on 25 January, was estimated to bring $6.3m to $9.5m.

All of the lots were once promised gifts to the American Folk Art Museum, and were sold under the order of a US Bankruptcy Court to repay Esmerian’s creditors, who have $140m in claims, according to a December 2012 settlement. The court also ordered Esmerian to forfeit $20m. The museum kept any outright gifts.

Bidders at Sotheby’s skipped pedestrian lots, such as a group of minor Pennsylvania Dutch watercolours, and went after rarer work, such as a 20th-century carved and painted wood Santa Claus by Samuel Robb (better known for his sculptures of Americans Indians that commonly decorated cigar stores) who had created it for his daughter. The top lot of the sale, the Christmas figure sold for $875,000 (est $150,000-$250,000).

“It’s like a Jeff Koons only with soul,” says Leigh Keno, the Americana art advisor and auctioneer. He bid up to $700,000 for the figure. Sotheby Parke-Bernet had sold the Santa for $44,000 on 21 October 1983. “Ralph had an impeccable eye and the museum was his dream,” said the folk art dealer David Schorsch from Woodbury, Connecticut, who bought the Santa and spent at total of $3.3m at the Sotheby’s sale. But he added: “He wasn’t a business man.”

Primitive portraits also fared well, including a carved and painted pine lion by Wilhelm Schimmel, from around 1860, which made $280,000 (est $80,000-$120,000). Schimmel, who was known to terrorise children by roaring like a lion, traded his carvings for drink or sold them for 10 or 25 cents.

Jerry Lauren, the brother of the fashion designer and retailer Ralph, snapped up a pencil work on paper by Bill Traylor, around 1939, for $365, 000 (est $125,000-$175,000).

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