THE NEW YORK-BASED SPECIALIST TALKS RECORD-BREAKING SALES, THE ARTISTS WHO INSPIRE HER AND HOW A ‘LUCKY BREAK’ LED TO A 25-YEAR CAREER
By Rhonda Reinhart · Portrait by Josh David Jordan
If you need to find Aviva Lehmann during office hours, don’t bother looking at her desk.
As the Senior Vice President of American Art at Heritage Auctions, Lehmann spends most of her days meeting with clients, conducting appraisals, handling consignment pickups, attending networking events or lecturing at museums across the country. As hectic as that work schedule sounds, Lehmann wouldn’t have it any other way. “The beauty of the auction world, and one of the aspects that drew me to the art world, is that the business is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. Every day is different,” she says. “Of course, connoisseurship and market knowledge are crucial to being a department head, but personal relationships are what drive business, and I take my relationships very seriously.”
To that end, Lehmann stays in constant communication with her clients seven days a week because the way she sees it, whether they’re buying or selling, they need to feel comfortable with the process and confident that their business is in capable – and attentive – hands. “I always say that a great work of art will sell anywhere,” she says. “What makes the difference to our clients is the process. It is all about the relationship and the experience. That is what drives me every day.”
Below, Lehmann discusses her career highlights, the upcoming works she is most excited about bringing to auction and why the Golden Age of illustration will forever feel like “a beacon of goodness.”
How did you get into the art world? What about the auction world?
I was an art history major and graduated at the top of my class, but I graduated with zero connections or opportunities. My lucky break came in the summer of 1998 when Christie’s needed a Hebrew speaker who understood the material for a single-owner sale of Judaica. I was hired as a viewing assistant for a five-day stint. Although I was young, I understood that this was my moment, so I worked that preview like my life depended on it. From there, I was offered a job at the front counter, and the rest is history. Twenty-five years later, I am still doing what I love.
What do you love most about American Art?
As a second-generation American, I find the relationship between American Art and American history fascinating. I absolutely love how masters like Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, Marsden Hartley and many others traveled abroad to study art and then came back home to create a brand of art that is uniquely American. This invigorates me.
What are some of the most exciting American Art sales you’ve presided over while at Heritage?
There are too many to count. Off the top of my head, I would say selling Norman Rockwell’s Home for Thanksgiving was a career – and life – high. I have loved that painting since I was a small girl. To sell it felt like a dream come true. I also loved selling Joseph Christian Leyendecker’s Beat-up Boy, Football Hero – it was the third time in my career that I established a new auction record for the artist. Setting such a high benchmark for the unsung hero of Golden Age illustration is a moment I won’t soon forget.
In your opinion, what is it about that era of Illustration Art that speaks to collectors?
What appeals to so many, young and old alike, is the sense of nostalgia. Golden Age illustration conjures a simple life and the simple pleasures in life. In a world that grows increasingly complicated and at times dark, Golden Age illustration feels like a beacon of goodness. That will never change.
Heritage has a major American Art auction coming up May 12, titled Diverse Visions: Important Works by American Masters. Can you give us a sneak peek of some of those important works?
We are ramping up for an amazing sale, and I cannot wait to surprise our audience and delight them with masterworks across medium and genre. Following several years of smashing success in the category, holding more than 130 auction records, we are pushing the envelope and expanding to areas such as Magic Realism, Modernism and Regionalism. A few pieces that I can mention this early on are Quintet, a seminal work from Ernie Barnes’ first Grand Central Art Galleries show; two Leyendecker Saturday Evening Post covers – Easter and Fourth of July; a Thomas Moran Long Island landscape; an early boxing drawing by George Bellows; the best Arthur Wesley Dow ever to come to market; and some other exceptional works by Henry Koerner, George Tooker, George Ault, Marvin Cone, Charles White, Hughie Lee-Smith, Winslow Homer and Nicolai Fechin.
Heritage is also about to launch a new American Art series featuring works at more approachable price points. What can you tell us about that?
At Heritage, we are fully committed to promoting and elevating American Art on a global scale. As the largest U.S.-owned auction house, the third largest in the world and the most dedicated auctioneer holding events exclusive to the American Art category, we are the most dynamic and fastest-growing American Art department in the industry. We are ideal brokers for American masterworks at every price point; therefore, we are adding sales to the calendar based on price point. Our online In Focus auctions will offer material in the $2,000 to $10,000 range, while our Signature sales, held in May and November, will focus on material in the $10,000 to seven-figure range.
In addition to working at Heritage, you’re an adjunct professor of Appraisals and Valuation in the Art Administration master’s program at New York University. What do you like about teaching?
I love inspiring the next generation of art world darlings, and NYU has the top Art Administration program in the country. I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to impart my knowledge and pass the baton to those rising up in the ranks. Mentoring is very important to me.
RHONDA REINHART is editor of Intelligent Collector.