The walls of James Cox’s gallery space in Willow are chock-a-block with paintings, many of them the finest examples of Woodstock work, with a wild assortment of complementary pieces, from newly contemporary to enviably ancient. Every surface is covered in more works, from sculptures and jewelry to an entire collection of pieces from Thomas Edison’s early days, including a framed note for his employees to “not enter this room,” all commissioned by the Mount Tremper family of a longtime top Edison employee and friend.
Everything’s being readied for the June 10 Sunday afternoon 16th Annual Collectors Exchange Fine Art Auction at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center, 56 Rock City Road, Woodstock. A steady stream of art aficionados who missed last Friday evening’s launch party for the assembly of art going up for auction are stopping by, figuring out what they will be bidding on. They all know that Cox, a key presence in the Woodstock cultural scene since moving up from years running New York City’s fabled Grand Central Galleries to open his own eponymous space in 1990, not only has an eye for great art, but also connections to some top estates.
Among the two hundred plus pieces being auctioned off Sunday are treasures from several key local collections built up over the last half century and longer, including that of the late Sam Klein, which included a Milton Avery drawing as well as hosts of other renowned local artists, and all the local heirs of Edison’s pal George Meister, which collection includes a Babe Ruth-signed photo of a Phoenicia baseball team, as well as one of the Edison Company’s first light bulbs, which still works.
“This is all stuff that they inherited from their great-grandfather,” Cox said of the latter Meister collection, and the Mount Tremper woman who contacted him about it. “She said, ‘Why are we keeping this; let’s get it all out there. And I agreed to offer it.”
We passed around one of those century-old light bulbs as if passing around the objectifiable excitement Cox still feels for the art he handles, albeit on a more limited level than he once did, due to changes in the art world and its sales foundation in recent years. Whereas he used to run two of his auctions each year, in addition to handling such duties for others each year, this will be the first Collectors Exchange event in a year.
Cox and his painter wife Mary Anna Goetz are living upstairs above their gallery space this year, having rented out their compound’s main house to a globetrotting renter to up their cash flow and allow themselves the leeway to explore more personal projects. One is displayed on a large table among the art works: a large map of Oklahoma and environs, where Goetz is from, tagged with notes for an upcoming trip that will trace the history of several pioneering frontier women’s steps from the South into the land rush and beyond. With plenty of time for painting and side trips…and a fun future story for these pages.
So what’s happening with art sales to slow this grand auctioneer and gallerist down, at least somewhat?
“People find us, and we have a lot of art up on our website that leads to a number of inquiries, but I wouldn’t say that leads to regular sales anymore,” Cox said. “Often inquiries will now lead to stuff, and we sell a lot of art via the internet at our auctions.”
“There’s a new element of sticker shock,” Goetz adds, noting how many who are new to the world of art collecting are not used to the costs involved.
“The people who were buyers 15 years ago are sellers. There’s an enormous generational change. The people who were in their 50s and 60s and living the leisurely life are now in their 70s and 80s and downsizing and moving into smaller quarters and not only not buying, but selling,” Cox added. “Locally, they’re barely being replaced. We really depend much more now on a national rather than a local market.”
He added how that same generational shift is changing the sorts of art that buyers are now looking for.
“Things have gone way away from traditional and realism and so forth and into things that are contemporary and very modern and abstract…A lot has to do with fashion,” Cox continued. “The new people moving into Woodstock don’t necessarily feel a strong sense for collecting, or any real interest in the roots and history of what Woodstock’s all about.”
The result is that an auction like this weekend’s ends up depending more on phone and internet sales to people around d the country, and world, as anyone local. While meanwhile, the art up for sale grows more interesting as older, already well-curated collections start to dissipate and go out to market again.
“We don’t just get a piece or two, now, but entire collections,” the auctioneer and gallerist explained. “A lot of what we do now is manage estates…”
Among those, Cox noted, were Konrad Cramer’s works, as well as the huge collection of African tribal art and African-American art collected and created by the late Ben Wigfall, a fellow gallerist and teacher based in Kingston.
Yet, as with the dispersing of curated collections, the trick comes down to finding takers. For estates, Cox said, he looks at each endeavor as a project: i.e. helping out a movement to launch an African art museum in Kingston, or move major exhibits through museums around the nation and world.
What about Woodstock artists?
“The true stars are soaring, people like Avery and Kuniyoshi. That’s just unbelievable what’s happened with them,” Cox replies. “But I would say that the vintage good Woodstock art, I don’t think the collectors are replacing themselves for that. We’re not having young collectors become encyclopedic about the work the way an Arthur Anderson, Joseph DePaul or Lee Mills did.”
We speak about people now placing old record albums on their walls, or collecting things that Cox described as “Woodstocky instead of Woodstock.”
And yet the world of high end auctions has continued to rise, price-wise, off the charts.
“My New York City gallerist friends all complain about how much work it takes to make sales now at these goddamned art fairs, which makes up their major income,” Cox said. “They have to do Miami, they have to do Basel and Chicago, and it’s wearing them down as they all chase after the same 300 collectors.”
We noted how many larger museums and galleries in the area are now bussing their audiences up from New York City.
But then a steady stream of local collectors start through Cox’s gallery, oohing and ahhing over what he’s brought together. And one realizes he still knows his market. And the quality of what he can find for auction just keeps getting better.
“We’re simplifying, in many ways. And having fun,” Cox said as the room cleared at one point. He rushed around like a much younger man, showing off great new pieces up on his walls, soon to depart for emerging collections.
And his longstanding world of art keeps moving on.
James Cox’s 16th Annual Collectors Exchange Fine Art Auction takes place at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 10 at the Woodstock’s Mescal Hornbeck Community Center, 56 Rock City Road. Look its offerings up online, and feel free to bid, at jamescoxgallery.com. Or call Jim and Mary Anne at 679-7608, or just stop by at 4666 State Route 212 in Willow, just past the entrance to Silver Hollow and before you get to Riseley Road.