Market Snapshot: James Milton Sessions
An underrated master of an underrated genre, James Sessions's market shows potential.
Though he may not be a household name, discerning collectors know James Milton Sessions to be one of the foremost marine watercolorists of the 20th century. The Chicago-based realist, who once worked as a helmsman on the Great Lakes, is celebrated for capturing bustling harbors, fishing boats, and tumultuous seascapes in the mercurial medium of watercolor.
Though best known for maritime scenes, Sessions also chronicled Navajo reservations and World War II battles as a “brush reporter” for the Chicago Tribune. In fact, his auction record is not a marine picture, but the Western scene Pueblo Gathering, which sold for $10,350 at the Scottsdale Art Auction in 2011. Allan Kollar and Colleen Zorn of A.J. Kollar Fine Paintings, a Seattle-based gallery specializing in American painting from 1840 through 1950, say his work has sold for much more outside the auction house. “We have handled and placed 20 to 30 of Sessions’s watercolors,” they told artnet News in an email interview, “our private sales for his finest have exceeded the auction record.”
As a watercolorist, Kollar and Zorn place Sessions in the esteemed company of Edmond James Fitzgerald, Ogden Minton Pleissner, Aiden Lassell Ripley, Andrew Wyeth, John Whorf, John Marin, and even John Singer Sargent. Nonetheless, Sessions’s work is comparatively affordable compared to his peers. Retail prices range from $3,500 to $15,000. “There have been two sales that exceeded the $15,000 level,” they added, “but both were quite special.”
Due to the fragility of the paper, the pigment’s proneness to fading, and its reputation as a Sunday painters’ medium, watercolor is often seen as a risky investment. Nevertheless, the Kollars are confident that Sessions’s highest-quality works will continue to appreciate. “Many collectors shy away from works of art on paper,” they said, “but with today’s conservation framing they should not be timid. Watercolor painting is a skill with its own finesse and merit. The medium has an elegance many collectors do not discover in their early years of collecting. If one looks closely, the rewards are visual poetry.”
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