By Sean Dobbin, Democrat and Chronicle
GENESEO - Throughout his childhood, the portrait of George Washington was just another of Oliver Chanler's parents' paintings.
On Saturday, it had the attention of art collectors and history buffs all over the world, and with more than 400 people in attendance at Cottone Auctions in Geneseo, the painting sold for more than $1 million.
The buyer, a private dealer from York County, Pennsylvania, made the winning bid of $925,000 after a lively auction that lasted about a minute and a half. A buyer's fee of 15 percent pushed the final total for the portrait, which was painted by famed presidential portraitist Gilbert Stuart about 200 years ago, to more than $1.06 million.
"I thought it was going to go for more from what I've been reading, but it's fine," said Chanler, a Geneseo resident who discovered the value of the painting about 10 years ago.
Bidding opened at $250,000 and quickly escalated to more than $700,000, when the action slowed down. Grant Holcomb, director of the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, was one of the last remaining participants, but bowed out when bidding reached about $750,000.
Jeff Bridgman, the owner of Jeff R. Bridgman American Antiques in York County, Pennsylvania, was the winning bidder.
Bridgman, who deals in antique American flags and American folk art, said that he knew the painting would sell for much more than the estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. While Stuart reportedly painted more than 100 portraits of Washington, they aren't available on the open market very often.
"There hasn't been one sold for five years," said Bridgman. "I'm very pleased."
While the final bid often exceeds the estimate, items don't always sell for more than expected. For example, a Tiffany floor lamp - which finished with the second-highest final bid of the nearly 300 items auctioned on Saturday - sold for $575,000, after being estimated at $500,000 to $800,000.
But based on art market trends and the historical significance of the painting, officials at Cottone Auctions thought the painting would be sold for between $400,000 and $600,000, said Matt Cottone, co-owner of the auction house.
The winning bid ended up being much more, breaking a record for Cottone Auctions. Previously, the most expensive item sold at the auction house was a James A. McNeill Whistler painting that was sold in July 2006 and had a final bid of $910,000.
"High-end pieces are bringing record prices right now," said Cottone.
Chanler discovered the portrait's worth when appraisers came to value his mother's estate 10 years ago. He can only definitively trace his family's ownership of the painting to his great-grandfather John Winthrop Chanler, who served in the House of Representatives from 1863 to 1869.
However, the portrait could conceivably date all the way back to his great-great-great-great-grandfather John Jacob Astor, who also at one time had his portrait painted by Stuart.
Collectors at the auction said that the provenance created additional interest in the portrait.