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First president disappoints at auction

One portrait sells below estimates, another not at all

From Phil Hirschkorn
CNN New York Bureau

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The "Constable-Hamilton" portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, was commissioned in 1797.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The Wednesday sale of a portrait of George Washington will help the New York Public Library to procure more books and manuscripts -- but not as many as predicted.

The painting by renowned artist Gilbert Stuart, which depicts America's first president during his final year in office, was expected to command between $10 million and $15 million, according to Sotheby's in Manhattan. Instead, it sold for a mere $8.1 million.

The buyer's name was not immediately disclosed. The final price includes an auction house commission of 20 percent of the first $200,000 and 12 percent of the rest.

A wealthy merchant-trader named William Constable commissioned the painting of a seated Washington, a sword and document in his lap, for Alexander Hamilton in 1797. Hamilton was the nation's first secretary of the treasury.

In addition to the "Constable-Hamilton" portrait, Stuart, who lived from 1755-1828, painted Washington on almost 100 other occasions.

The portrait was among 15 paintings and four sculptures the New York Public Library hawked to raise money for its endowment to acquire books and manuscripts. (Full story)

"The quality is clearly there. It is a magnificent portrait in a wonderful state of preservation, has been obviously very carefully taken care of by the library for many years," said Peter Rathbone, Sotheby's director for American paintings and sculpture.

A second Stuart portrait of Washington, also consigned by the library, failed to sell, meaning no bidders offered the minimum price guaranteed by Sotheby's.

The auction house had estimated that the picture, which shows Washington standing with a sword in one hand and his other resting on a copy of the Constitution, would sell for $6 million to $8 million.

Rathbone said it's unusual for two high-quality Washington portraits by Stuart to be on the market at the same time.

"They do appear with some regularity, but never works as important or as rare," he said.

Stuart's best-known image of Washington, a head from an incomplete portrait, graces the $1 bill.

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