Paper Money

Sotheby's paper money paintings yield big bucks

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. 

The painting depicts a bundle of money including an 1899 $5 silver certificate, an 1899 $1 silver certificate and a 1902 $20 national bank note with Charter Number 24. Johnston noted that the charter number identifies it as being issued for a Cincinnati national bank. 

Unlike the notes, the coins are not painted with sufficient specificity to allow for any attribution as to type or even denomination. 

Fumes from a lit cigar at the edge of the painting enliven the picture.

Meurer spent much of his career in Terrace Park, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, and maintained a studio there for many years. He was well-known for his realistic depictions of money and paintings with hunting motifs. 

As Alfred Frankenstein wrote in his book After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870–1900, “This mode of still life painting was later described as editorial-sanctum still life, something that emphasizes with appropriate objects authority (books), industry (pen and inkwell) and respectability (money). Many journalism offices today have paintings or copies of them with that motif.”

Meurer studied painting with Frank Duveneck in Cincinnati, later journeying to France for further study. The artist was fond of sharing that he was converted to trompe l’oeil painting when he saw the work of Michael Harnett at the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition of 1886 and the work of other still life painters as it was exhibited in Cincinnati. 

The price that his still life brought on June 9 was surprising as similar small-scale still life paintings by the artist generally sell for less when offered at auction. A slightly smaller picture titled Good Fellows depicting coins, a pipe, and books on a similar table sold for a bid of $750 against an estimate of $1,200 to $1,500 at an auction earlier this year by Maryland auctioneer Sloans and Kenyon.

Otis Kaye

The auction also offered a single lot consisting of three diminutive works on paper by Otis Kaye (American, 1885 to 1974) that brought $3,000 against an estimate of $1,500 to $2,500. Two of these were etchings with coins painted in oil paint. 

One of these, Rembrandt’s Etching of His Mother with Penny and Indian Head Nickel, depicts a 1933 Indian Head 5-cent piece and the Wheat reverse of a Lincoln cent. 

The artist’s depictions of the coins are “attached” to the paper by his painting of clear tape and masking tape. Rather amusingly, and perhaps intentionally, the artist elected to use a year for the “Buffalo nickel” that did not exist in reality as no examples of the type were struck in 1933. Rembrandt’s mother appears to hold the two coins, valued at six cents total, on her lap and the artist has signed the piece O. Kaye near the back of the chair. 

The other, titled Rembrandt’s Etching of the Goldsmith with $10 Indian Head Coin, depicts a 1926 Indian Head gold $10 eagle with two red dots providing the illusion of tacks that hold the coin to the etching. Of course, the connection between the Goldsmith in the Rembrandt etching and the use of a gold coin should prove obvious. 

The works had been in the family of the artist and then went to New York’s Berry-Hill Galleries who handled the artist’s estate. 

Works from the lot were included in the firm’s 1988 exhibit "Old Money: American Trompe l’Oeil Images of Currency and in its 1994 show Virtual Reality: American Trompe l’Oeil Paintings.

Kaye has enjoyed increased attention in recent years, most notably with the exhibit titled “Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery” that ran though May 10, 2015, at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut. 

As the museum stated in its exhibition catalog, “More puzzling than Kaye’s work, which is steeped in mystery and symbolism, is the enigma that surrounds the artist himself. The record of Kaye’s life is nearly non-existent.”  

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