Dogs playing poker in a late 19th century liquor ad. Is it art? Was it ever an original painting? Is it Lot 78 at Sotheby’s November 18, 2015 American Art Auction with a pre-sale estimated hammer price plus buyer premium of $400,000 to $600,000? The answer to all these questions is “yes,” complete with provenance.
“Poker Game” is an 1890s painting by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844-1934), commissioned for Rosskam, Gertsley & Co., makers of Old Saratoga Whiskey. According to Sotheby’s auction catalog notes, Coolidge’s work drawing “very humanoid canines, an artistic subspecialty” began with cigar companies after a string of other careers. He lived in Antwerp, New York from 1868 to 1872, painting advertising signs and street numbers, working as a druggist, starting the town’s first newspaper and bank, then sailing for Europe. He next appears on the American side of the Atlantic in 1873 in Rochester, New York, where he started the dog drawings. He moved from cigar company commissions to a contract with printers Brown & Bigelow, and his dogs went to baseball games, travel on trains, got visited by police, among other things.
“Poker Game” is a mid-1890s work with an Old Saratoga Whiskey bottle prominently featured on the left lower quarter of the scene. What’s harder to see are the four aces held by the dog on the left, his IOU tab from previous losses, and what looks like a pocket lighter he’s also thrown in to keep his hand going. The dog on the right is the evening’s big winner, a bespectacled breed partial to tidy chip stacks. Is he about to push forward a pile of reds he almost certainly loses to the four aces? The middle dog is almost out, but his eyes watch the night’s big winner while a paw hesitates to go all in with his small stack. The onlooker with the cigarette may have seen the four aces. If he has, his face is not a tell.
Sotheby’s American Art Auction starts at 6:30 p.m. EST November 18, 2015. Along with Coolidge’s dogs playing poker, there are some paintings and drawings by Andrew Wyeth, Jamie Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Thomas Hart Benton, and others. The highest pre-auction price estimate is $2 million to $3 million for Andrew Wyeth’s “Flood Plain” tempura on panel, painted in 1986.