It is not unusual to have one American trompe l’oeil painting depicting money in an auction, but to have three is a rather unusual occurrence. Sotheby’s June 9 American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture auction in New York City realized just over $4 million and included several lots of interest to numismatists.
All three were offered without reserve — meaning that the consignor, in this case an unnamed corporate collection — did not set a minimum price. The first, A Few Bills by Victor Dubreuil, sold for $20,000, sailing past its estimate of $4,000 to $6,000.
The painting depicts seven U.S. notes attached to a wall. Among the notes depicted are an 1891 $1 silver certificate, an 1886 $5 silver certificate and an 1891 $2 silver certificate.
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As the artist did not have high denomination notes to work from, he often created fantasy notes for larger bills. Dustin Johnston, director of currency at Heritage Auctions, pointed out that this painting has a fantasy $500 legal tender note and a fantasy $100 silver certificate with design elements from an 1886 $1 silver certificate. At the center is an 1891 $1 Treasury note.
Johnson added, “These trompe l’oeil paintings depicting money are a window into time, revealing what was actually in circulation. The cross section of currency in the painting points to how scarce the high denominations were. While most artists portrayed the small denominations with incredible accuracy, few painters have ever accurately depicted notes at the $100 level or higher indicating that they were far out of reach for the common man.”
The painting was signed by the artist in the lower left and had been acquired by the corporate collection in 1992, from a Michigan private collection.
Dubreuil’s life is mysterious. He was born around 1846 and was active until at least 1910. His depictions of money are best represented by his paintings of barrels literally overflowing with cash. In his most notable works the artist included symbols that allowed the works to be read as allegories and commentaries on then-current political events.
The term “trompe l’oeil” is a French term that means “trick” or “fool the eye.” It is the name for a painting style that is highly realistic and utilizes optical illusions so that the viewer is unsure of what is painted and what is real.
Charles Alfred Meurer
A still life of paper money and coins by Charles Alfred Meurer (American, 1865 to 1955) was estimated at $1,500 to $2,000 and brought a massive $10,625. The small oil on canvas was signed by the artist and dated 1913 in the lower right. It had been in a private collection in Cincinnati and was acquired by the corporate collection in 1992.