Every Bird on The Hot Bid

A late 19th century Russian silver rooster-form presentation cup offered at Freeman's.

Birds flock to The Hot Bid. Several featured lots and records have an avian theme. You don’t need binoculars to enjoy this roundup.

The flamingo image from the double elephant folio of John James Audubon's The Birds of America, sold at Sotheby's in December 2019.

Sotheby’s offered a rare double elephant folio of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America in a single-lot auction in December 2019. Selby Kiffer, senior vice president and international senior books specialist for Sotheby’s New York, spoke in depth about what makes the book legendary.

Ben Austrian's painting White Hen with Chickens, sold at Freeman's in June 2019.

A flock of paintings by Pennsylvania artist Ben Austrian appeared at Freeman’s in June 2019. White Hen with Chickens led the group.

A tall, snarky-looking Wally Bird, which is totally judging you, sold at Rago in January 2019.

A tall, snarky-looking Wally Bird offered at Rago in January 2019. Initially created as tobacco jars, collectors have long loved these British ceramics.

An Ira Hudson flying black duck, offered at Copley Fine Art Auctions in February 2019.

An Ira Hudson flying black duck graced the February 2019 sale at Copley Fine Art Auctions.

A spectacular Civil War-era quilt that showcased an eagle and featured several other colorful birds appeared at Skinner in March 2019.

In March 2019, Bonhams Los Angeles offered a stunning 2007 opaque ruby carving of an eagle in flight, done by Peruvian artist Luis Alberto Quispe Aparicio.

18th century natural history painter Sarah Stone depicted a charming foursome of parrots that could never happen in the wild. It sold at Dreweatts in November 2018.

Chris Barber of Skinner spoke about a robin carved by the late New Hampshire artist Jess Blackstone ahead of an October 2018 sale.

A ridiculously scarce 1834 French first edition of a magnificent ornithological book came up at Heritage Auctions in September, 2018. Pictured above is its plate on the red curlew.

A circa 1912 Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy swam away with a startling sum at Copley Fine Art Auctions in July 2018.

An Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose decoy, also offered at Copley Fine Art Auctions in July 2018, set several records.

An original comic panel from The Far Side by Gary Larson, featuring a human trying to talk to a duck, appeared at Heritage Auctions in May 2018. The human succeeded, and so did the auction house, which set a new record for original art from The Far Side.

A late 19th century Russian silver rooster-form presentation cup came up at Freeman’s in October 2017.

In June 2017, the late Australian artist Brett Whiteley’s Hummingbird and Frangipani appeared at Bonhams Sydney.

An absurdly rare near-complete Dodo skeleton sold for a record sum at Summers Place in November 2016.

A Gus Wilson red-breasted merganser duck decoy sold for a record sum at Copley Fine Art Auctions in July 2014.

A unique, large, four-panel Frederick Hurten Rhead tile featuring a splendid peacock set a record at Rago in 2012.

Images of White Hen with Chickens by Ben Austrian and the Russian rooster-form silver presentation cup are courtesy of Freeman’s.

Images of the Wally bird and the Frederick Hurten Rhead peacock panel are courtesy of Rago.

Images of the red curlew plate from the ornithological book and the original Gary Larson comic art are courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Images of the Ira Hudson flying black duck, the Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose, the Elmer Crowell preening black duck, and the Gus Wilson red-breasted merganser are courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

The image of the near-complete Dodo skeleton is courtesy of Summers Place Auctions.

Images of the Luis Alberto Quispe Aparicio ruby eagle carving and the Brett Whiteley painting are courtesy of Bonhams.

Images of the Civil War-era quilt and the Jess Blackstone robin are courtesy of Skinner, Inc.

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Painters of the Peculiar, by Michael Papa and Johnny Meah (THB: Shelf Life)

The cover of Painters of the Peculiar, a book that gathers a wealth of information about sideshow banners and those who painted them.

What you seePainters of the Peculiar: A Guide to Sideshow Banner Artists & Their Respective Work, by Michael Papa and Johnny Meah. $24.99. *

Does it fit in my purse? I guess it could if I rolled it up, but I wouldn’t want to do that to it.

Cut to the chase. Should I buy this book? If you’re into sideshow banner art, yes. I am, and I loved it.

Painters of the Peculiar is review-proof in that, as far as I can tell, it’s the first book of its kind. Others have presented sideshow banners as art, but this appears to be alone in attempting to identify as many banner painters by name as possible, along with biographical information and images of their work, whenever it could be found.

The book also assumes you know why you’re holding it in your hands. It doesn’t kick off with a Sideshow 101 tutorial. It starts by breaking down the layout and features of a sideshow banner in detail and discusses each artist’s work through that lens.

Painters of the Peculiar performs a valuable service by doing its damndest to expand knowledge of American sideshow banners and those who painted them. Every fact gathered in its pages was rescued from an obscurity that almost consumed it.

Many objects have made the slow transformation from tool to art–weathervanes, figureheads, signs that hung outside shops. Sideshow banners are among the few that transitioned during the 20th century, when at least some alert and passionate folks could make a stab at documenting the shift.

As the book notes, more than 100 different sideshow companies once trekked across America. Now there are none. If you want to see a live sideshow, you need to make a pilgrimage to Coney Island USA in Coney Island, New York.

It’s telling that those who actually made sideshow banners never thought of themselves as artists-with-a-capital-A and would be startled to see their road-worn original images of sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, and fat ladies sell for four- and five-figure sums. Snap Wyatt, one of the greats, prided himself on his ability to finish a banner a day. Fine artists rarely boast of their speed, even if they are feverishly cranking out works on deadline to fill a gallery or an art fair booth.

I say the banner painters “would be startled” as most of them didn’t live to see the change. Johnny Meah, the rare painter who has, co-authored Painters of the Peculiar, contributes its cover art, and tells tales of his mid-century working life, both on the road and from his winter base in Florida. These stories alone justify getting the book.

Add the painter identifications, the field guides, and the black-and-white period images of banners on display, and you have a real winner.

Worth buying new, at full price.

How to buy Painters of the Peculiar: Co-author Michael Papa sells it directly through a dedicated website.

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Image is courtesy of Michael Papa.

* I received Painters of the Peculiar as a review copy, but it covers a topic I like and actively seek out. I’ve interviewed Johnny Meah before. I haven’t interviewed Michael Papa, but I did interview his father, John, for a story for Robb Report Collection that is not online. Michael Papa also deals in original sideshow banners.

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RECORD! An Indiana Jones Hat, Worn On Screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Set a Record at Prop Store in 2015

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

What you see: A fedora worn on screen by Harrison Ford while playing Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Prop Store sold it in September 2018 for £393,600 ($522,100) and a record for any piece of Indiana Jones memorabilia. [Scroll down for information on Prop Store’s first auction in Los Angeles, which takes place in late August, 2020 and includes another iconic prop from the 1981 movie.]

The expert: Brandon Alinger, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Prop Store Los Angeles.

Do we know why Director Steven Spielberg, Writer-Producer George Lucas, and Costume Designer Deborah Nadoolman decided that the Indiana Jones character should wear a hat, and how they decided what sort of hat he should wear? Spielberg and Lucas were very good about borrowing from existing ideas in cinema, and this was no exception. The look of Indiana Jones was patterned largely on the look of Charlton Heston in the 1954 film Secret of the Incas, where the character wears a Fedora and a leather jacket. The specific fedora was designed by Deborah Nadoolman to best compliment Ford’s face–you would have to ask her what exactly it was that made that *the* fedora.

What makes the fedora an important part of the Indiana Jones character, and why it is iconic? The character came to be known as “The man with the hat.” The look of Indiana Jones was just different enough to be memorable. It placed him in a certain time in history. Spielberg found many uses for the fedora in the Indiana Jones series–he could establish the character in a silhouette shadow shot based on the outline of the brim, or use it as a gag when Indy nearly loses it diving through a closing temple door and has to reach back and recover it with not an instant to spare.

Do we know how and why the film team chose the Herbert Johnson company to create the Indiana Jones hat? Herbert Johnson is a preeminent manufacturer of custom hats in London, where the production of Raiders of the Lost Ark was based. It would have been a logical choice for Nadoolman and her costume team.

The mark of Herbert Johnson, the milliner who created the Indiana Jones hat for the Raiders of the Lost Ark film team.

Do we know how many Indiana Jones fedoras the company made and delivered to the film team? It’s not known exactly how many fedoras were made for each film. For the first film, at least two fedoras are known to exist. Studying the hats in the film, we can see that these same two show up again and again. Of course, there may have been a few others made and on standby if needed–it’s hard to say with certainty.

Could you discuss what techniques and tricks Nadoolman and her colleagues used with the Indiana Jones hat to give it an aged, weathered look? The primary weathering on the fedora in Raiders is the addition of a dirt-like product, possibly Fuller’s earth. The idea was to make the hat look as if it had been worn on many adventures before.

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

How do we know that this particular fedora was indeed worn on screen? What features or details of the Indiana Jones hat mark it as the one Harrison Ford wore in particular scenes? There are a number of unique identifying marks on the hat, including the previously mentioned Fuller’s earth application, and the folds and stitching in the bow of the hat’s ribbon. Each hat ribbon is created by hand and takes on a unique appearance, providing a fingerprint to trace a fedora through the film.

A close-up on the bow on the Indiana Jones hat. Its particular shape and stitching helps experts identify when and in what scenes Ford wore it.

What is the provenance of this Indiana Jones hat? What happened to it after the film wrapped? The hat originated with someone who worked on the film and it passed through the hands of a few collectors before we brought it to the auction block. 

I understand that Harrison Ford signed the hat. Where on the hat did he sign it, and when did he sign it-during the shoot? The signature was obtained by a prior collector who owned it, probably a number of years after filming. It was signed in the hat liner band. 

At some point after Raiders of the Lost Ark was filmed, a collector asked Harrison Ford to sign the Indiana Jones hat. He obliged, applying his signature in the hat liner band.

What is the Indiana Jones hat like in person? Are there details or aspects that don’t come across on camera? When I first handled the hat, I was struck by how soft the felt actually is. You might expect the hat to feel rigid and hold its shape, but in actuality, the felt is quite soft and malleable. A lot of the form that the hat exhibits on screen comes from the way Harrison Ford’s head fits into it-the specific stretching of his head into the hat band causes the edges of the brim to curl up.   

Did you try on the Indiana Jones hat? I did not! At Prop Store, we revere these artifacts and handle them with great care and respect. The Raiders fedora is a historic piece, and deserves to be treated as such.

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

Is this the first screen-worn Indiana Jones fedora to come to auction? If not, is it the first screen-worn Indiana Jones hat from Raiders of the Lost Ark to come up? Certainly from Raiders, yes, and I believe it’s the first screen-matched fedora to be offered at auction from any Indiana Jones film. 

Was the September 2018 sale the Indiana Jones hat’s auction debut? If not, when has it sold at auction before? The hat had traded hands between private collectors in the past, but never through public auction.

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

How did you set the estimate for the Indiana Jones hat? What comparables did you look to? We looked at Indiana Jones items that have sold through our auctions in the past, as well as private-party transactions for other fedoras that we were aware of. We knew this fedora was in a class on its own-possibly the most significant artefact from the Indy film franchise in private hands, and the price reflected that.      

What was your role in the auction? How many bidders were there at the start, and how long did it take to drop to two? As Chief Operating Officer, I am involved with all aspects of the auction, and I’m very hands-on with high-profile pieces like this. I worked with the consignor on sourcing and cataloging the pieces, I worked with our photography team and graphics team on the look and presentation of the piece in the catalog, and I did the research to screen-match the hat to various stills. I don’t recall the specifics on bidder volume.    

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

What do you recall about the sale of the Indiana Jones hat? Certainly the hat was a star lot in the auction, and we had a number of serious pre-sale inquiries. We expected strong bidding activity and we saw that on the day, with the final hammer price outpacing the upper end of the estimate we had placed on it.

The Indiana Jones hat ultimately sold for more than $520,000. Were you surprised by that? I believe this is a record price for any Indiana Jones fedora, but we expected it would be. It is almost certainly the best example of a fedora in any private collection.

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

What factors drove the Indiana Jones hat to its record price? The fact that it was screen-matched to multiple key scenes from the first Indiana Jones film, which is almost universally regarded as the best film. If you’re a fan of the series, it’s hard to imagine a much better piece that you could own.

It appears that the Indiana Jones hat is NOT the most expensive hat ever sold at auction-that appears to belong to a riding helmet worn by Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, which sold for $6.5 million at a charity auction in 2015. Does the hat hold any records aside from the most-expensive Indiana Jones screen-used prop? Might it hold the record for any screen-worn hat? It certainly may hold that title! I think you’ll have to reach out to Guinness to see what they have in their books. I can tell you it’s the highest priced Indiana Jones piece we have ever sold.

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

How long do you believe this world auction record will stand? What’s out there that could challenge the Indiana Jones hat? It’s hard to imagine a better Indy piece, but the market is always moving. Indiana Jones has been a consistently strong performer at auctions, along with other landmark titles of the era such as Star Wars. Who knows what the future may bring? That’s the fun part of auctions.

We know that the London milliner made at least two fedoras for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do we know where the second fedora is? If it came to auction, would it challenge the record set by this Indiana Jones hat? At least one Raiders fedora is still in the collection of George Lucas. I’m not aware of any others at this time, and I think it’s extremely unlikely it [the Lucas fedora] will ever reach the auction block.

Why will the Indiana Jones hat stick in your memory? I’m a massive fan of the Indiana Jones films myself, so it was a real privilege to have this piece in house, to study it, catalog it, and prepare it for sale. It was a wonderful item to work with and an embodiment of what Prop Store is all about.

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On August 26 and August 27, 2020, Prop Store will hold its first auction in Los Angeles. The 850 lots will include a large Nostromo principal filming model miniature from Alien, estimated at $300,000 to $500,000; a screen-matched, blank-firing hero prop Colt Walker-style revolver used by Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, estimated at $40,000 to $60,000; and a Staff of Ra headpiece from Raiders of the Lost Ark, estimated at $100,000 to $200,000.

Prop Store is on Twitter and Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Prop Store.

Herbert Johnson is still a going concern, and you can order an authentic Indiana Jones hat directly from the company.

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RECORD! A Shepard Fairey Work, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Fetched Almost $260,000 At Artcurial in 2019

Shepard Fairey created the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité image in November 2015 as a response to the Bataclan attacks. He painted it twice on canvas. The first hangs in French President Emmanuel Macron's office. The second set a world auction record for the artist.

What you see: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, a 2018 work on canvas by American artist Shepard Fairey. Artcurial sold it on November 5, 2019 for €232,200 ($259,089) against an estimate of €80,000 to €120,000 (roughly $90,300 to $135,500), setting a world auction record for the artist.

The expert: Arnaud Oliveux, associate director and auctioneer in Artcurial’s urban art department.

Who is Shepard Fairey? He’s one of the most important contemporary urban artists. He’s very well-known for the image of Andre the Giant that he stickered all around the world at the beginning of his career in the late 1980s. Andre the Giant was a famous French wrestler who had a very particular and impressive body. Shepard used, and still uses, this image to do some posters with the word OBEY, which became its tagline. It references George Orwell’s book 1984 and John Carpenter’s movie Invasion Los Angeles [known in the United States as They Live]. Fairey’s works often deal with subjects such as mass manipulation and propaganda images, as well as with musicians who play rap or punk music. It can easily be said that Fairey is a committed artist.

When you say that Shepard Fairey is a committed artist, could you elaborate on what you mean by that? I mean that Shepard’s work deals with political and ecological issues. I think he himself is very committed, and that’s the reason why his works deals with these issues–Big Brother [the symbol of the surveillance state that reigns in 1984], war . . .

Could you tell the story of why Fairey made this French-themed work? What prompted him to create it? He created it just after the Bataclan attacks of November 2015 in Paris. [ISIL terrorists conducted several attacks on civilian targets in the city in mid-November 2015. The deadliest happened at the Bataclan theater, during a performance by the American band Eagles of Death Metal. Of the 130 victims who died in the November 15 attacks, 90 were killed at the Bataclan.] Fairey was in Paris for the Cop 21 event in December [the shorthand name for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 21st Conference of the Parties]. He was working on this incredible Earth Crisis Globe under the Eiffel Tower. And then the Bataclan attacks happened. Four days later, he wanted to do a tribute by using French symbols: the Marianne figure; the French flag colors, blue, white and red; and the French motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. For Fairey, this work was a symbol of harmony and fraternity.

I understand that Fairey made a version of this canvas and gave it to Emmanuel Macron, who hung it in his office after he won the presidency. Is there any chance that the record-setting Fairey work is the one from Macron’s office? The first version of the canvas was purchased by a French collector who is a close friend of Emmanuel Macron. This work is a real symbol here, so this collector decided to loan the canvas to the president’s office. Our record-setting work was the second one, not the one from Macron’s office, which is always there. 

What makes this Shepard Fairey work so powerful? Why is it such a successful design? This work is really compelling. I think there are two reasons. First, as I said earlier, is its symbolism in relation to the Bataclan. And then the image hung in our president’s office. It is really effective. It’s the reason that the prints from 2016 that originally sold for €70 [$60] can sell now for €6,000, and the reason that our buyer in November 2019, a business leader, purchased it for his company. It’s not so easy to answer your second question, but I think the composition of the work is very easy to understand. The wall in Paris with the same image is very impressive. The meaning is easy.

I searched for this piece in Fairey’s online archives and found two editions that resemble the record-setter, but do not match its size–both are smaller. What can you tell me about the 2018 version that set a record? Is it a one-off? If it’s not a one-off, how big was its limited edition? The work we sold, and which set a new world record in November 2019, is a different work. It’s a mixed media on canvas with spray paint, stencil, and collage. The image is the same visual in the two links on the artist’s website, but they are not the same work. The works shown in the links are prints, one in an edition of 450, and the other in an edition of 1,000. Shepard Fairey is a master of using the power of an image. He often develops the same image in different media: print, paper, wood, metal, and canvas. He wants the image to be seen by many people. Fairey created the second canvas version for an exhibition in Detroit in 2018. It was bought by a French collector.

I noticed there was a 2016 version of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité in the same November 2019 Artcurial auction, and it sold for far less than the record-breaker. Was the 2016 example one of the poster editions? Yes. That was a poster from an edition of 450. The record-setting work was an original canvas. These works are really very different, and the prices are really very different.

What is the Shepard Fairey work like in person? Are there details or aspects that the camera doesn’t quite capture? You can see more details on the work when you are physically in front of it. A stencil die stuck on the canvas creates depth in the work. But the essentials are the symbols–Marianne, the colors red, white, and blue, and the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité motto–that you can see on the image. 

While I have not seen this Shepard Fairey work in person, I did attend his 2009 show in Boston and saw a very large version of one of his Hope posters. I was surprised by the amount of visual texture it had–imagery that isn’t evident unless you get close to the real thing. Does the record-setting Shepard Fairey work have that same sort of “visual texture”? You’re totally right. There are many symbols in most of Fairey’s works. He is so very committed. The Obama Hope poster series and Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité are committed works which tell a story–a social, political story.

How many Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité images have you handled at Artcurial? Do you tend to sell more of this particular Shepard Fairey work than other auction houses? In the past, we’ve sold six Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité posters–the print editioned in 450 copies in 2016, and this version on canvas. So, seven works, with this image. I think we tend to sell more of this one than other auction houses for several reasons. This visual has a French theme, and it’s been seen often during President Macron’s speeches. And Artcurial has realized the best aution prices for Shepard Fairey. We have ten of the 15 best prices in the world for him, according to Artnet. We have the current record for Fairey and the previous record. We have a very good database of collectors.

What was your role in the auction? I was the auctioneer of the sale. The buyer, who I know very well, was in the auction room, just in front of me. 

What do you recall of the auction? How many bidders were there at the start, and how long did it take to drop to two? During this particular auction, the bids were very quick. We had six or seven bidders on the phone and in the room. They all wanted the work until it hit its high estimate. Maybe 30 seconds after the start, the bids reached €150,000 [about $169,200]. The auction continued between two persons until it reached €180,000 [$203,200], which was the final hammer price. [The complete price was €232,200, or $259,100.]

Were you surprised at how well the Shepard Fairey work did? What did you think it was going to sell for, and how close was that number to the final number? Surprised? Yes and no. I knew when I took this work on consignment that we could have a new record for Shepard Fairey. The image is already iconic. During the exhibition, I thought we could sell it for €120,000 to €150,000 [$135,500 to $169,200], which is a very important price for a Shepard work. But I did not think it would sell for €232,200. And during the bidding, when we reached €180,000, I dreamed of a €200,000 [$225,800] hammer price. €232,200, including fees, is a great price–nearly $260,000. 

When did you know you had a world auction record for any work by Shepard Fairey? I knew it before the auction, in fact. During the exhibition, I knew that some collectors wanted to bid it up above the previous Shepard Fairey record. During the auction, we broke the record very quickly.

How long do you think this Shepard Fairey auction record will last? What other Shepard Fairey works out there could dethrone this one? It’s difficult to know. But now, with the COVID-19 situation, maybe things will change on the art market. Maybe the record won’t be broken immediately.

Why will this Shepard Fairey work stick in your memory? First, we broke the record for Shepard Fairey. That’s always an event for us, we did a good job. And I love Shepard Fairey’s works. I spent time with him three years ago, and he is very committed. His works are political, social, and environmental.

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Image is courtesy of Artcurial.

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RECORD! A Four-Rotor Enigma Machine Sold at Sotheby's for $800,000

An M4, or four-rotor, Enigma machine, recovered from a bunker in Trondheim toward the end of World War II. It set a record for any Enigma machine at Sotheby's in December 2019.

What you see: A four-rotor (“M4”) Kriegsmarine Enigma cipher machine, in its original case. It sold at Sotheby’s New York in December 2019 for $800,000 against an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000, setting a new world auction record for an Enigma machine.

The expert: Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s.

Let’s start by explaining what an Enigma machine is. An Enigma machine is a machine used to encrypt messages. It doesn’t send messages. It simply encodes them so they can be sent in a secret manner. They were usually sent by Morse code. In order for encryption and decryption to function, you need two machines. The Enigma machine was not invented by the Nazis, but the Nazis chose to use it because it was the best model of encryption machine. Before the war, they were used in the commercial realm, to keep business secrets.

Were there different types or varieties of Enigma machine? When World War II broke out, the Nazis chose to adapt and use the three-rotor machine, also known as the E1. It was primarily used by the army. Three-rotors tend to be banged up. They were on the ground.

Were three-rotors the most common model of Enigma machine used during World War II? Those are the most common, which is not to say any are common. They’re the ones I see the most.

So, Enigma machines predate World War II and were used commercially. Were they available to the Allies? They were. My understanding is the Nazis had a contract with the companies that manufactured them. I don’t think the companies had a choice [to decline the German contract], but during the war they exclusively produced a more sophisticated machine than was previously available in the commercial realm. The Nazis swooped in when the machines were on the verge of having an extra layer of encryption invented, and bought it all out. If the Allies had a machine in their hands, they’d captured it.

The example that set the world auction record is a four-rotor Enigma machine. How is it different? The Nazis knew that the Allies were working to break the code, but they weren’t aware of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. The commander of the German naval fleet, Karl Doenitz, was particularly concerned about it. He had a four-rotor Enigma machine developed in secret, to be used by the German navy. The body is slightly different. Both the three-rotor and the four-rotor are in an oak case, but the four-rotor has a handle on the side, so you can slide it into a slot on a U-boat so it doesn’t roll around. The majority of four-rotors were on U-boats, and the majority are trashed, rusted out, because of exposure to salt water and air. I’ve seen them completely rusted, with just the chassis surviving. To find a machine that’s complete and in fantastic condition is so rare, and to find one with a traceable provenance… it’s a unicorn. This is the unicorn of Enigma machines.

How did this four-rotor Enigma machine manage to survive in such good condition? The story is fantastic. We do know where the machine originated. It was in a bunker in Trondheim, Norway, in a major communications center. The crew had 15 of these machines.

Wow, 15? Was each four-rotor Enigma machine in that Trondheim bunker dedicated to a single U-boat, or could each machine only handle one message request at a time? A machine couldn’t handle more than one at a time.

How does the four-rotor Enigma machine work? When you open it up, you see that there are rotors inside–wheels. Each wheel has 26 positions. In the four-rotor, the wheels have letters, A to Z. Each wheel has to be set to a specific letter. Patched cables also have to be set in very specific ways at the front of the machine. For Machine A to encrypt the message, it has to be set up in a specific way. For Machine B to decrypt the message, the cables and the rotors must be set up in the same way. It takes 45 seconds to reset a machine, but during war, there’s no time for that. Each machine had a different setting, set up to speak to a specific machine.

But I don’t think this is the rarest form of Enigma machine. Didn’t they make a 10-rotor? That wasn’t used in wartime, really, and it’s not exactly a 10-rotor. There are double rotors, and I don’t completely understand how those machines function. I would compare a three-rotor to a Volvo. A 10-rotor is more of a Prius. I can change the oil in an old Volvo, but I can’t in a Prius.

How did this four-rotor Enigma machine leave the bunker? The bunker was sieged, taken by surprise. When a machine was captured, the first thing that the Nazis were supposed to do was destroy the machine–open it, smash the rotors, smash the keyboard, throw it in a lake. The most important thing to get rid of was the rotors. The secret of the rotors was not just in their secret positions. Each has internal wiring that’s different. If you can figure out the internal wiring, it all falls apart.

“It all falls apart,” meaning if you learn the way the rotors are wired, you can easily figure out whatever messages come over? Exactly. But if the rotors are destroyed, you can’t figure it out.

What happened to the other 14 machines in the Trondheim bunker? They did survive the war, but I think they were disposed of later. The fact that this machine’s rotors are in perfect condition shows they were taken by surprise. They were not able to destroy the machine. They [the people working in the bunker] were kept prisoner and forced to teach a Norwegian naval officer how to use the machine.

So this would have been after Vidkun Quisling was overthrown? Yes.

What happened to the four-rotor Engima machine after it left the bunker? After the war, Churchill ordered all types of Enigma machines destroyed. Most from the bunker were trashed. One member of the Norwegian naval forces took this one home and kept it. His son consigned it, and told me that kids in his village used rotor boxes to keep change in. This was something kept in his house, not hidden, just there. There was no sense they were not supposed to have it, or it was stolen.

Is that how most Enigma machines come down to us now? Someone kept it? It’s what I understand to be the case with every Enigma machine that comes to market. The majority were kept as souvenirs. Someone’s Swiss grandpa took one and kept it in the attic, or they’re left behind in homes that were used as Nazi bases. I haven’t encountered any machine that came to the market in any other way.

When did Enigma machines start arriving on the auction market? Probably the late 1990s or early 2000s. They were previously placed in scientific instrument sales or World War II sales. Those buyers looked at them more as relics. They put them on a shelf, and they wouldn’t be touched. They were part of history. The biggest leap in prices was in 2015, when I was at Bonhams. The sale with the Alan Turing manuscript also had an Enigma machine, and I want to say it made $269,000. It was a record price and a big leap for a three-rotor. It was fully operational.

How did the 2015 Bonhams sale of the three-rotor Enigma machine change things? It was a big shift. They were no longer World War II relics sitting on a shelf. Now they were objects from the history of computing that you could play with. Interest in Alan Turing’s manuscript came from the tech world. The shift in interest in the machines went from World War II to tech–a different client base. That’s when things took off, I think. Christie’s sold a four-rotor Enigma machine in 2017 for $547,500, which was a new world record. The one we sold in December was way above that.

Why did the four-rotor Enigma machine that Sotheby’s sold in December 2019 do so much better than any other offered at auction? It had a combination of everything you want. This machine had fantastic condition and a really killer history. It’s the only one I’ve seen or know of with an unbroken chain of provenance. Condition plus provenance plus rarity is where you find higher prices. Buyers understood it was a trifecta.

How often do three-rotor Enigma machines come to auction, and how often do four-rotor Enigma machines come up? The E1 [the three-rotor], once or twice a year, maybe. A really, really good one comes up every other year. I could probably sell many E1s every year but they wouldn’t be in great condition, or wouldn’t have a great provenance, or they wouldn’t function. The M4 [four-rotor], there have been four I’m aware of in the past six years. Two have been at Sotheby’s since I’ve been here. One was at Christie’s, and one was at Bonhams. I always look for four-rotors. I know where to find three-rotors. It’s not difficult to acquire one. Getting an M4 is a different story, much more difficult to do.

How many Enigma machines have you personally handled? Quite a few. I’d say at least one dozen, if not more. I’m including ones that clients own but need to figure out if it’s working or not.

Do Enigma machines have to work to have value to collectors? They definitely wouldn’t be worthless, but there would be less interest in it. I’ve previously seen them come up in World War II and scientific instrument sales not working and they were still sold. I have seen machines missing most of their hardware still sell. But I’ll see a higher price for an operational machine.

Why do functional Enigma machines command higher prices? A functional Enigma machine is a totally different thing. It becomes an interactive piece that can encode messages, and you can show people how to decode messages. They come into the gallery and I ask, “You want to see how this thing works?” The looks on peoples’ faces… going from a box on a shelf to showing them how it works, it blows peoples’ minds every time. If the choice is between a machine that blows peoples’ minds versus a box sitting on a shelf, you’re going to go for this machine.

How easy or difficult is it to operate a four-rotor Enigma machine? It seems easy to me because I’ve played with the machines for a long time. They’re not difficult to operate. They’re actually pretty clean and elegant. I understand the math behind it is more difficult.

Do Enigma machines make any noise? What do they sound like? They make a very satisfying kind of thunk sound, very similar to old typewriters, but very distinctive. It’s louder than an old typewriter. You couldn’t use it in secret.

That’s why you need a bunker… Yes! [Laughs]

What is the four-rotor Enigma machine like in person? I think it’s very difficult to understand what these machines really are just with a camera. You need to put your hands on them and play with them. I love Enigma machines. I’m obsessed with them. If I could have two M4s and two E1s, I’d be very happy and very broke. If you can forget about what they were used for, they’re amazing technical marvels. It’s impossible to convey in a video. The experience is a different thing. And it’s heavy. It takes a strong person to lug it around.

Do you know how much it weighs? I think the E1 and the M4 are about the same weight. This is a two-arm job. It comes with a leather strap, but there’s no way I’d try to carry it with a leather strap.

In what ways does the four-rotor Enigma machine bring pleasure to someone who loves all things analog? Opening the machine up and seeing the guts, seeing how the rotors are put together, how it’s engineered to fit together, nest together, it’s so satisfying. I’m a person who likes to look under the hoods of cars. I like taking things apart and putting them back together. If you’re that person, an Enigma machine is so fun.

What was your role in the auction? Were you on the phone? Yes.

With the winner? Yes.

Did you have a notion that the four-rotor Enigma machine might break the world auction record? I always hoped for that. I didn’t think it was unreasonable. I think it was a fair price, and it was right for it to sell for that price. The provenance and the condition were beyond the others [that have been] at auction. I thought it should, at minimum, sell for the high estimate. I was happy with where the sale ended up.

What role did the provenance play in driving it toward the record price? I think it played a big role. It really did. People were excited about the story. If you take the provenance away, it gets closer to the high estimate.

And its condition, what role did that play in the record price? The machine was issued with, I believe, seven rotors. Each rotor has a serial number. One way to determine if a machine was used during wartime is if the serial number of the rotors match the serial number of the machine. The serial numbers on the rotors do not match the machine–that means it was used. When it sat in a bunker, all the rotors were piled on a table, because they were interchangeable in terms of wiring. You could use an R7 [a seventh rotor] in any machine. When the machine was taken, it had a full complement of rotors and [the original private owner] grabbed a box with extra rotors. The rotors in the box had different serial numbers than the machine, which is totally fine. If they matched, that means the machine was never used, or used in isolation.

So the world of Enigma machines is not at all like the world of classic cars, where you want the number on the engine to match the number on the chassis. Exactly.

What do you think it would take for an Enigma machine to cross the seven-figure threshold? Would this particular one have to return to auction? I think it’s definitely possible. It’s hard to say what kind of machine would do that. It’d have to be a famous machine with some sort of super-celebrity provenance to it, like Admiral Doenitz’s own.

Does Admiral Doenitz’s four-rotor Enigma machine still exist? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out!

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News: Summer 2020 on The Hot Bid

As of today, The Hot Bid shifts to a summer schedule.

New posts will appear on Tuesdays during July, August, and early September.

Most will feature items that set world auction records.

When The Hot Bid resumes its twice-a-week schedule, new posts will appear on Tuesdays and Fridays, rather than Mondays and Thursdays.

Enjoy your summer, and enjoy The Hot Bid!

A Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco Figure Could Command $24,000

A Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure, dubbed The Aristocrats and depicting a woman in medieval-esque clothing walking a pair of Borzoi dogs.

What you see: The Aristocrats, a cold-painted and carved ivory figural group in ivory and bronze on a green onyx base, created circa 1925 by Professor Otto Poertzel. Bonhams estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.

The expert: Gemma Sanders, head of the department of 20th century decorative arts and design at Bonhams.

Who was Professor Otto Poertzel? He was a successful German commercial artist. He’s best known for his Art Deco statuettes executed in bronze and ivory.

How did he get the title of “Professor”? The title was given to him in 1913 by Duke Carl Eduard, the last member of the ruling family of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He gave it possibly because Poertzel was a founding member of the Coburg Art Association. Perhaps the professor title was a nod to his academic associations.

Did Poertzel only create Art Deco statuettes, or did he work in other media as well? We know he honed his craft as a porcelain designer. He learned his craft in porcelain, as an apprentice. Once he was a commercial artist, he made large-scale public artworks in stone as well as statuettes for commercial production.

How prolific was Poertzel? It’s difficult to know exactly how many pieces he produced. He was as much a designer as an artist. As an auctioneer, I see his works less often than his contemporaries.

The Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure is described as “cold-painted”. What is cold-painting? It’s a way to apply color to a bronze after the casting process. Once it’s cold, the color can be applied.

It seems like there was a vogue for decorative figures and statuettes during the Art Deco period. Do we have any idea why they caught on then? It’s tricky. I don’t know why they took off or who was the first to produce the figures, but I know they were produced before the Art Deco period. Art Nouveau figures featured beautiful young women in flowing outfits, but with more gilt. The Art Deco period was about high-end materials and exotic, rare finishes. At the time, ivory was seen as the best material for intricate carving. I think the figures captured the glamorous, positive, upbeat feeling of the time.

Is this Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure unique, or was it part of an edition? We know it isn’t a one-off because others have come to market. I should stress that there have not been many–six in 20 years. Figures of this quality were expensive, even at that time. They were expensive because of the ivory components.

Do the other figures look identical to this one, or do they vary? I know examples where the hair is part of the bronze casting and examples where the hair is part of the ivory. And sometimes, there are contrasting details to the dress–the cold-painting might be different.

Where would something like this have been sold when it was new? They were most commonly offered in high-end department stores–Harrods, or that city’s equivalent. If one sold, another would have been requested from Priess Kassler [a foundry that produced the figures] or directly from the artist.

The Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure has a circa date of 1925. How do we know it was made around then? Does it have a date on its base? No. Other figures like it are very difficult to date. We use “circa 1925” for auction purposes. It could date to the mid-1920s, the late 1920s, the early 1930s, there’s no way of knowing.

I take it there’s no surviving production records? No, not for things like this.

This Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure is called “The Aristocrats”. Do we know how it got its name? Possibly it was given its name in the 1970s or 1980s, when these figures became popular again.

Do we know anything about how or why Professor Otto Poertzel created this particular Art Deco figure? We know he likes the medieval look. He adopted it for a few of his figures. The Borzoi dogs were fashionable at the time for their lean look. And in a book by Alberto Shayo, there’s an archival photo of Mrs. Edmund Guy at the Casino de Paris music hall that looks like her [the human figure in the group].

So Professor Otto Poertzel might have had that woman performer model for him for this figure? We don’t have images to back that up, but it’s what his contemporaries would have done. Demetre Chiparus had the Dolly Sisters model for him. Certainly, Poetzel would have had a model at the first part of the process. He would have sculpted his figure, and that figure would have been cast.

How involved might Poertzel have been with the creation of this Art Deco figure? Did he create the design and hand it off to others to fabricate, or did he participate in its physical creation? The design is certainly his. It’s not known if he carved every piece or was involved in the process, but it’s likely he had help with some of the processes. He was probably more involved because he was not as prolific as his contemporaries, and his ivory-carving is superior.

The quality of the carving on the ivory face convinces you that Poertzel personally did it? The face is exquisite–beautifully carved, and she’s actually a beautiful-looking woman. I see a lot [of these Art Deco figures], and others are not so good, not so real-looking. He is one of the best carvers. The quality is so good, I see it with only one other maker, Ferdinand Priess.

A detail shot of the female figure in Professor Otto Poertzel's The Aristocrats that shows off the quality of the carved ivory face.

And that would be your favorite detail of the piece–the woman’s face? The face is exquisite, and not easy to achieve in ivory. I also love the stride she’s taking under her long skirt. It’s quite fabulous in reality. It comes down to his modeling ability, to create a feeling of movement. That’s where a figure can look stiff and stifled. He designed it so perfectly… it’s probably from his years of training in porcelain modeling.

What is the Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? I talked about how beautiful the face is. She has a quiet confidence to her expression, in the way she’s looking down. A lot of figures just stare at you. She’s strikingly elegant, striding out and looking down. To give a figure like that emotion is very difficult to do.

What do we know about the provenance of this Poertzel figure? It’s been privately owned for a half-century or more.

What condition is it in? And what condition issues do you see with Art Deco figures like this one? Ivory is a natural material. If it heats and cools and heats and cools, it can crack. Cracks in the ivory are often engrained with dirt, and can be detrimental to the look of the piece. Sometimes, there’s a hairline crack in the face of a figure that creates a gray line. This is in very good condition–no hairline cracks to the ivory. Her ivory is very clean. She’s had careful ownership.

I’m doing this interview from the United States. May I bid on this Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure? No, unless you have a home in another part of the world where you can enjoy it. It cannot be imported into the United States. The laws governing ivory in the U.K. and Europe are different.

What’s the world auction record for this particular Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure? It was £43,700 [about $54,000], set at Sotheby’s in 2007.

Is that also the world auction record for any piece by Professor Otto Poertzel? I was not able to find a higher price, so it might be it. The highest that Bonhams has achieved is $40,000. We’re very excited to have this figure.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? For me, I think, the stride in her step, her movement, and the confidence in her face. I would like to bottle that confidence.

How to bid: The Professor Otto Poertzel statuette is lot 218 in a Decorative Art & Design sale taking place at Bonhams London on August 11, 2020.

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Thomas Edison Light Bulb Design Drawings, Plus a Period Edison Light Bulb, Could Command More Than $110,000 at Christie’s (Updated July 17, 2020)

A set of Thomas Edison design drawings for the light bulb, dated March 1886 and paired with a period light bulb, could sell for $110,000 or more at Christie's.

Update: The Thomas Edison light bulb and design drawings in his hand sold for £75,000, or about $93,900.

What you see: A page of design drawings of light bulbs and related objects, rendered by American inventor Thomas Edison in March 1886. The pencil sketches are paired with a period Edison light bulb. Christie’s London estimates the lot at £600,000 to £900,000, or $75,600 to $113,400.

The expert: Sophie Hopkins, specialist in manuscripts and archives at Christie’s London.

Who was Thomas Edison, and why is he still important? He was arguably the greatest inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His fabulous inventions shape our lives today, from radiography to microphones. His way of working was also distinctive. Before Edison, scientists did personal research with a few assistants. Edison took a more collaborative approach to things. His laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey was the first of its kind–the first proper, organized scientific lab. The best way to characterize him is to use an electrical engineering comparison: he was a dynamo. An unstoppable torrent of extraordinary ideas poured from him.

The seven pages of Thomas Edison drawings in the lot have a March 1886 date. Where was Edison in his career at that point, and how widely used was his light bulb by then? He had already gained a good amount of recognition. He had the phonograph and the microphone under his belt. And by 1884, over 10,000 “Edison lights” were in use in New York. He was very successful.

One of the pages of design drawings reflects a date of March 12, 1886. Edison was honeymooning with his second wife at the time.

Thomas Edison was not the first to invent a light bulb, but he did make the first commercially viable one. He began working on designs in 1878 and filed for a patent in 1880. Why was he continuing to work on the light bulb in 1886? Was he trying to improve the design? It is relevant to point out that through the 1880s, Edison constantly tinkered with light bulb design, mainly to improve its durability. But not all of the drawings are about improvements to the light bulb, necessarily. Edison had conceptions for how light bulb technology could apply elsewhere. The first page of drawings shows him introducing electrodes into the circuit. The drawings cover a mixture of the two [motivations]–how the light bulb itself continues to occupy him, and how electric lamp technology could have applications beyond itself, such as for vacuum tubes.

What specific pages, or drawings on specific pages, show Thomas Edison grappling with applying electric lamp technology in other contexts? I think it’s better to see the pages in a holistic sense. You see a mind fizzing with ideas and working on them all simultaneously.

One page of the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings carries a March 1886 date. We know he was on honeymoon with his second wife at the time. What does it say about the nature of the light bulb that it kept calling him and tempting him to work on it, even when he was supposed to be vacationing? To me, at least, that’s what differentiates men and women like Edison from the majority of the population. For brilliant inventors, geniuses, people who make and change history, inventions aren’t something they can make and put down. It’s very simple–Edison was a man possessed. There were just too many ideas in his brain, and they came bubbling and pouring out. He couldn’t stop, even on his honeymoon. There’s a reason he filed just shy of 1,100 patents in his name in his lifetime.

Did Thomas Edison continue to work on the light bulb until he died? The light bulb continued to preoccupy him into the 20th century, decades after he filed the patent. From the late 1870s to the 1890s, he improved the durability of the filament in the light bulb. After that, we see him tweak it less. The light bulb was always something that his followers and fans liked to talk about, because it was so significant. It’s the thing that defined him. What’s great about these drawings is they’re from the middle of the period where the light bulb was clearly a work-in-progress. Everything was essentially moving toward a more durable light bulb, which happened in the early 1890s.

A Thomas Edison light bulb comes with the handwritten design drawings. Does the bulb date to 1886? If not, when was it made, and how do we know when it was made? The bulb is certainly a little earlier than 1886. It’s possible to say the light bulb that comes with the lot was made between the end of 1880 and early 1881.

A nearly complete Edison light bulb comes with the lot. It's believed to date to late 1880 or early 1881.

Have the Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings always been offered as a pair, or did someone bring them together at some point in the past? The first time we see the light bulb and the documents together is in 2009, when they were with a rare book dealer in America. They reappeared on the market ten years later, in a sale in Paris.

Do we know how the Thomas Edison light bulb drawings left his possession? We do know that his design notebooks became scattered for the same fact I pointed out earlier–the style of working in a laboratory. Because you’re working alongside others, there’s a culture of exchange of ideas, and a vast number of design drawings. You often find material such as this coming to the open market via one of Edison’s assistants or a colleague of his who was in Edison’s laboratory at some point.

When you’re inventing things, you’re not worrying about how and where to archive the raw design sketches. It’s important to think of them as in-the-moment design drawings, not formal. It’s the best instance we have of transmitting genius to paper. To me, [raw design sketches are] more interesting and more exciting, because they offer insight into the creative process. We see Edison working through his ideas. The drawings are part of a much broader chronological arc. This one moment is a flash of brilliance, but he was constantly working toward something.

How often do Thomas Edison design drawings come to market? And how often do you see them appear with an example of the object illustrated in the drawings? The first time that original Thomas Edison design drawings came up was in June 2000.

Whoa. Exactly. It’s fair to say it’s rare to see such material on the market. To have it paired with a finished object is rarer still.

I’d wondered how much, if any, Thomas Edison design drawings have been consigned to auction. I had a vague notion that after he died, most of his material went directly to an archive. The Thomas Edison National Historic Park is the main repository of his archived material. There are five million pages in there. It’s rare to see Thomas Edison design drawings on the market. We’re quite excited to have these pages and the light bulb.

Heck, the light bulb is an emoji. Thomas Edison’s breakthrough has become the visual representation of a breakthrough. Yes! The light bulb is the symbol for the dawn of the proper modern industrial age, a symbol for brilliance, a symbol for a great idea. Who wouldn’t want to have drawings from the world’s most brilliant inventor of his invention that sums up the idea of a good idea?

The world has seen many great inventors. Only one, Thomas Edison, saw his invention become the symbol for a good idea.

What are the Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? One thing I find pleasing is how big and bold and sculptural the light bulb is. It’s bigger than the light bulbs we use nowadays. I find something incredibly appealing about holding a light bulb in its earliest state, because it looks so different from the light bulbs of today. I think of how precious and alien it must have been to a 19th century observer.

And the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings? I like the fact that you get the sense of the pencil Edison uses for the drawings. I love drawings and letters in pencil. The texture of the pencil lead is more evocative than pen.

And by choosing a pencil, the user is kind of saying, “I might screw this up”. Exactly. These things are not finished works. The pencil is an admission of that. People who appreciate that person years later appreciate them more [for using a pencil to think through problems]. You want to see an unguarded moment of creation. You want to see the scientist struggling and working it out. You want to see the toil that went into it.

Yet another light bulb-related drawing from the group of Thomas Edison documents.

What’s your favorite detail in the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings, and why? I like the drawings that look most obviously like a light bulb. There’s something incredibly powerful and pleasing and emblematic about Thomas Edison drawing a light bulb.

The Thomas Edison light bulb that comes with this lot–does it work? [Laughs] It’s not working currently, but it’s in near original condition and it’s tantalizingly close to being functional. It would require technological intervention of the sort that very few are capable of doing without altering or changing the bulb.

What’s the most expensive Thomas Edison item sold at auction? It was an 82-page autograph manuscript, notes for his autobiography. It sold in New York in 1998 for $75,000. A more recent comparable lot sold at an American auction house in July 2014. It was a laboratory notebook from Edison in which he’s essentially doing experiments on rubber to find a suitable alternative for tires. That sold for $50,000. It was a full notebook, and it dated from the late 1920s, the end of his career. But to be quite honest, when collectors think of when they think of Thomas Edison is the light bulb. What’s more desirable–the light bulb, or experimenting with different forms of rubber?

So you think the Thomas Edison light bulb and design drawings have a shot at breaking the world auction record for an Edison item? If you reach the low estimate, you’ve pretty much done it. We’re hoping it contends for the title of most expensive item at auction for Thomas Edison. I think a lot of collectors see the value in design drawings of something so emblematic of modernity and progress and brilliance.

Why will this lot stick in your memory? The Eureka! sale focuses on inventions of the modern age. The electric light ushered in a society where sunset and sunrise don’t define productivity. It opens the door to everything that came afterward. To have it open the sale, as lot 1, makes perfect sense to me.

How to bid: The Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings are lot 1 in Eureka! Scientific Breakthroughs of the 20th Century, an online Christie’s sale that began on June 24, 2020 and continues until July 16, 2020.

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A Saint-Gaudens Lincoln Statue–a Reduced-Size Version of an Original in Chicago’s Lincoln Park–Could Sell for $900,000 (Updated June 26, 2020)

After Augustus Saint-Gaudens died, his widow fulfilled a wish to cast reduced-size versions of his Standing Lincoln statue. One of the 17 bronzes could command $900,000.

Update: The reduced-size Augustus Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue sold for $1.5 million.

What you see: Abraham Lincoln: The Man, aka Standing Lincoln, a reduced-size version of a sculpture commissioned from Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the late 19th century. Sotheby’s estimates it at $600,000 to $900,000.

The expert: Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s.

Who was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and why was he chosen for this commission? He was regarded as the most celebrated American sculptor of his era. He was awarded the commission for a statue of Lincoln in Chicago due to his success with earlier Civil War-related projects, specifically the Farragut monument and the Sherman memorial in Manhattan. By the 1880s, he was a known American sculptor, and a good choice.

Does the Standing Lincoln sculpture represent his first attempt at sculpting Abraham Lincoln? Yes, it does.

How did Augustus Saint-Gaudens approach the Lincoln commission? He prepared diligently before modeling the full-scale Lincoln. He studied his speeches and contemporary photography to get a sense of his physical likeness. Saint-Gaudens had encountered Lincoln twice: in 1861, before his presidency, and during his funeral procession in 1865. Those two moments stuck in his mind.

Saint-Gaudens managed to really capture Lincoln despite not being able to have him pose in his studio… It really does speak to his mastery of the field. He began work on the sculpture in the summer of 1885, in Cornish, New Hampshire. While he was there, he recruited a local farmer who stood around six-foot-four to serve as a likeness for Lincoln. Being able to reference a person like that was very helpful.

I understand Saint-Gaudens also had access to a cast of Lincoln’s face and both of his hands? I know he referenced them and did spend significant time with them. They enriched the authenticity of the finished work.

Do we know why the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue includes a chair? Why not just show him standing? The chair is meant to be a chair of state. I’m not sure if you can see it in the photo online, but there’s an eagle on the back of the chair, which represents Lincoln’s role as president of the United States. The chair is based on the throne of a priest from the third century in Athens. I do think it was helpful to include the chair of state to contextualize the moment Saint-Gaudens captured.

What moment does the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue capture? It shows a contemplative Lincoln, his head down, one foot stepping forward, and preparing to give a speech. You can tell he’s deep in thought, and preparing for what’s to come.

What is the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue like in person? It’s incredibly beautiful in person, with a rich brown patina that stands out and draws the eye in. You can see the details in Lincoln’s face and the emotion that Augustus Saint-Gaudens really captured. There are also details on the chair and the hands as well–the hands really read true-to-life.

What is your favorite detail of the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? It’s Saint-Gaudens’s ability to infuse the work with emotion, and his ability to capture Lincoln’s character. You see the figure looking down, deep in thought. I think the details capture where he was in this moment and reflects everything that happened in his presidency, and what he was preparing for.

It’s tough to give a hunk of bronze an inner life… It is. He does it very successfully here. It’s very true to life, down to the creases in his jacket.

How heavy is the reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? Do you need more than one person to move it? It’s solid bronze, and weighs about 230 pounds, so you do need more than one person to move it.

I understand that 17 casts of the reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue were made. Do we know how many survive, and how many are in private hands? There are approximately 17, based on records that his wife kept. In 1982, a publication on the artist identified the locations of 12 of the bronze casts. Most were in public collections and institutions, indicating that this is one of the last ones in private hands.

What was Augusta Saint-Gaudens’s role in the production of the reduced-size version of Standing Lincoln? She oversaw the whole production process of the statues. She was very, very careful and kept good records. She only used his preferred foundries. Her advocacy on the behalf of her late husband contributed to the resulting quality of the bronzes, and contributed to Saint-Gaudens’s legacy.

Of the 17 bronzes cast, 11 were done by Gorham, and six by Tiffany. Does that matter at all to collectors? Or are there so few examples available that it’s not an issue? With the Standing Lincoln, there’s no preference. This one was cast by Gorham in 1917, but it was probably sent to Tiffany [the boutique] to be sold based on the provenance for this example.

Was the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue cast in one piece, or was it cast in multiple pieces and soldered into a whole? It’s probable it was cast in several pieces, but cast from a single bronze pattern [a tray-like mold that would have contained all the components]. We’re certain different aspects were cast and joined. But the finishing is highly exquisite. We can’t see where the joins are.

Are the bronzes in the series numbered? No, not to my knowledge. I don’t think it was standard practice to number them.

What’s the patina like on the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? And do the patinas on the other examples vary, or do they all share the same general coloration? This example presents with a beautiful warm brown patina with gold undertones. To my knowledge, it’s consistent with the others, but because I haven’t seen the other 16, I can’t confirm.

How often does this reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue come to auction? This is actually the first time at auction, at least in the past 30 years. If you go online and check the art auction sales databases, you won’t find another one.

What condition is the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue in? I can tell you it’s in excellent condition. The work was recently waxed and cleaned as well, which is a good way to maintain the sculpture.

The entire run of the reduced-size Standing Lincoln statues were cast posthumously. Does that matter to collectors at all? Do they prefer Saint-Gaudens bronzes that were cast during his lifetime? The debate is moot here. It was only ever cast posthumously. It’s not a concern for people.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a true pleasure to handle works that are as rare as this. It could be the first and last time I handle one of these. Its meticulous details and exceptional quality resonates with me, and sticks with me. It’s one of my favorite works in the sale.

How to bid: The Saint-Gaudens Lincoln sculpture is lot 40 in the American Art sale scheduled to take place at Sotheby’s New York on June 26, 2020.

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The Earliest U.S. Navy Mark V Diving Helmet Could Set a World Auction Record (Updated July 20, 2020)

A U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet from 1916, the earliest example known. Nation's Attic could sell it for $40,000 or more.

Update: The 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet sold for $21,000, hammer price.

What you see: A 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet, the earliest known example of the type. Nation’s Attic estimates it at $20,000 to $40,000.

The expert: Don Creekmore, co-owner and founder of Nation’s Attic in Wichita, Kansas.

What is the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet, and why did the Navy commission it? The Mark V was the first standardized diving helmet that the Navy used. Before that, there was no standard diving helmet design. As they were developing it, entering World War I was a distinct possibility. With any war, there’s a certain amount of salvage work to be done.

Salvage work? Such as? Recovering sunken ships, or material salvaged from ships to keep the war going.

The U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet was in use for a long time, from 1916 to the mid-1980s. What made it such a useful and durable design? The job of the Navy diver who used this kind of helmet was essentially the same–doing salvage work. They’re not fighters. They’re very brave people, but their job is not combat. The Mark V really was an improvement over what was available prior to this. It has a lot of redundancy and safety [built in]. That’s why it was used by the Navy for such a long time. It was a proven safe design, the pinnacle of what’s called “hard hat diving”.

Do we have any idea how many U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmets were made, and how many survive? During the entire production run, tens of thousands were made, but I don’t know if it was closer to 20,000 or 50,000. The majority, probably 85 percent, were made during World War II, between 1942 and 1945. Another majority were made around 1918, for World War I, and a very small number were made between those two wars. It was simply due to demand from the government.

And the manufacturers didn’t build many more because the earlier-made ones didn’t need to be replaced? Exactly. The large number that was made around 1918 were relied on in the 1920s, the 1930s, and the very early 1940s. Around the 1940s, the Navy realized it drastically needed to increase its inventory.

Are there any big differences between the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmets made for the two world wars, and those made later? The only difference on the ones made later in the 20th century is the windows that the diver looks through changed from glass to plastic. That’s it. That’s how good and reliable this helmet was.

How do we know this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet was made in 1916? This one has a clear identifying plate from the manufacturer showing the day, month, and year it was made. And the serial number is in six different places on the helmet. That’s the nice thing about anything military. Commercial diving helmets from the same company had serial numbers, but not the dates. For commercial divers, who cares? But the military wants redundancy.

A detail shot of the identification plate on the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet, confirming it was made in 1916.

How do we know this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet is a prototype? There’s a number of minor differences in this helmet from the standard production helmet. On the back of the helmet, the places where the air line and the communication line would attach are opposite from where they normally would be on a standard production helmet. It also has parts from an English diving helmet. The manufacturer was trying to figure out what the U.S. Navy wanted and what would work best.

How do we know that the helmet is in “original unaltered condition”, as it says in the lot notes? When a diving helmet comes from the factory, it has tinning, a finish that covered the copper body of the helmet and prevented corrosion. It was standard on all helmets the U.S. Navy ordered. The top half of this helmet has well over 90 percent of its original tinning remaining, and the lower half has about 60 percent remaining. That’s quite unusual. The copper is exposed on the lower front half because weight belts were strapped across it, and the tinning wore off prematurely.

But no one has tried to touch it up. Correct. And nothing on here has been repaired, altered, or moved. Other than age, everything appears the way it did on the last day the U.S. Navy used it.

A rear three-quarters view of the diving helmet. The ports for the air line and the communications line are visible.

I’d like some help identifying what some of the fittings on the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet are. In the photo that shows the helmet from the back, there’s a long fitting that juts out at an angle. What is that for? That’s for the air line.

And the shorter, stubbier fitting at the right? Was that for the communications line? Yes. At the time, it was a relatively new feature. The U.S. Navy wanted the most advanced technology incorporated in the helmet. The line itself was a big, thick telephone cable. It hooked up to the helmet, and there was a speaker inside the helmet. You could hear through it and also talk into it, but the helmet was loud.

What made the diving helmet so loud inside? Air was blasting in there at high volume. It was very hard to hear. But it was better than what was used before. Prior to this, they had a signaling system that involved pulling on the air line. Very crude communications. The telephone line was a big advancement.

A front three-quarters view of the diving helmet, clearly showing the speaker fitting at the left temple and the spitcock valve on the left side of the jaw.

What is that solid, round, flat fitting that lines up with the wearer’s temple? That was where the telephone, or the speaker, was housed. It was positioned so it didn’t hit the diver’s head. It’s more flush with the inside of the body of the helmet rather than sticking inside it.

What’s the fitting sticking out of the jaw, which has a lever handle? That’s the spitcock valve. It was a crude thing that allowed water into the helmet, if needed, so you could spit it onto the insides of the windows if they were fogging up. It was a redundancy thing. Commercial helmets generally didn’t have a spitcock valve.

So the spitcock valve was kind of like a defogger? A secondary defogger. Air blowing inside the helmet was the primary defogger. Of course you couldn’t use your hands to wipe the insides of the windows.

A front three-quarters view from the right, clearly showing the eight-pointed star wheel on the exhaust valve. The shape of the wheel helps prove how early the helmet is. Models made after 1918 have four-pointed star wheels.

What’s the gear-shaped fitting on the other side of the jaw? That’s the exhaust valve. It allows you to regulate how much air is coming into the helmet and the suit itself, to make you more buoyant or make you sink more. It’s a part that’s particularly important to this helmet, because it’s an eight-pointed star wheel. After 1918, the U.S. Navy required the wheel be changed to have four points on it. It’s very unusual and rare to see an early one still on a helmet.

What does the pattern of wear seen on the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet tell us about how it was used? It indicates it was used and tested, but I would not say it was used as primary equipment. Normally, on the very top of the helmet, you see working dents. They’re dents from using the helmet underwater, and from when the top half of the helmet is removed and set on the ground. This has working dents, but they’re fewer, and they’re minor. It indicates limited use, and careful use as well.

How would the U.S. Navy have tested this helmet? Would it have been tested empty, or with a diver wearing it, or both? It would have been primarily tested in water, at a U.S. Navy shipyard. Maybe in Washington, D.C., but it could have been tested elsewhere. The U.S. Navy may have had a tank to test the pressure and see how much the helmet could take. It would always have had a person in it.

How does this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet compare to other early Mark V helmets you’ve handled? I’ve never had one this old. Essentially, it’s the oldest. I’ve had some from 1918 in similar condition. But this Mark V being incredibly old–you don’t expect to see one in complete original condition like this. It’s almost as good as you could hope for.

What’s the story behind the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet? How was it discovered? How did it manage to survive so well? The earliest we could document it is to the 1950s, when it was purchased by two brothers in Wisconsin as a curiosity. They put it in their house with other amazing antiques that were not nautical- or diving-related. It was discovered when the brothers sold the helmet and other non-related items. That buyer contacted us in January of this year. We let them know the significance of it, and they ultimately chose to consign with us.

Do we know how the diving helmet ended up in Wisconsin? It’s hard to say how it made its way there, but the U.S. Navy did make ships up there in the Great Lakes.

A profile view of the 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet. Don Creekmore of Nation's Attic believes it could set a new world auction record for an antique diving helmet.

What is the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? The feeling of picking it up. It’s over 60 pounds. It retains all the elements that Navy divers would know in 1916. You look through the same old glass looked through by the guy who tested this potentially dangerous equipment. It hasn’t been polished, it hasn’t been messed with. The experience of it–that’s what the camera can’t capture.

If someone wanted to use this antique helmet on an actual dive, could they? It would need new gaskets and glass, and it would need to be tested for leaks. Then it would be in dive-ready condition.

How did you arrive at the estimate for this diving helmet? There has never been a 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet to sell at auction. I sold a 1917 Schrader helmet in 2010, for $15,100. I’ve sold other helmets from 1917 and 1918 in the $14,000 range directly, not at auction. This one, though, is the cream of the crop. This is the best and earliest Mark V you could hope to have. I feel the low end being $20,000 is very conservative, and doubling it is not too crazy. It could possibly exceed that.

What’s the world auction record for an antique diving helmet? It was set in London by a helmet made by C.E. Heinke Company and sold in the UK by Christies in 1997. At the time, based on the exchange rate, it went for $62,390, or £36,700. A diving helmet made in the United States by A.J. Morse & Son sold for $61,360 in 2010.

Why do you think this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet is likely to meet or beat the world auction record? In my experience, the Mark V, regardless of what year it’s made, is the most popular diving helmet worldwide. We have the most demand for it. It is the style people think of when they think of diving helmets. This is the earliest one, in good condition. It has the potential to sell for the highest amount at public auction.

As of June 11, 2020, the day we’re speaking, the diving helmet has attracted two bids, the higher of which is $14,500. The auction doesn’t take place until July 18, 2020. Is it meaningful for the diving helmet to have drawn two five-figure bids this early? It’s a big plus, I think. It indicates that even this far out, it has the potential to reach its high estimate and exceed it.

Why will this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet stick in your memory? The Mark V is our bread and butter. I’ve always wanted to find the earliest one. This is the earliest one, and it’s in incredible condition. As a dealer, it’s what you dream of. To me, it’s my one chance at handling the best, earliest example. I’m never going to forget this one.

How to bid: The 1916 prototype U.S. Navy Mark 5 diving helmet is lot 0181 in the antique diving helmet and SCUBA auction taking place at Nation’s Attic on July 18, 2020.

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A Lock of George Washington’s Hair Could Sell for $25,000 (Updated June 24, 2020)

A lock of George Washington's hair, taken late in 1798 in Philadelphia. It was preserved in an elaborate locket decorated with gold leaf. The memento of America's first president could sell for $25,000 or more.

Update: The lock of George Washington’s hair sold for $25,000.

What you see: A lock of George Washington’s hair, taken late in 1798 in Philadelphia. William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.

The expert: William Bunch, owner of William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals.

Who was the Hopkinson family? They’re a family from Philadelphia, one of the founding families, if you would. A very significant family politically, economically, and socially in colonial Philadelphia. They were friends with Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, any number of people.

How did the Hopkinson family become friends with George Washington? They were involved in the Revolution and fought the war together. They were upper echelon, not in the trenches with rifles. They drove the political process. The new American government capital was in Philadelphia then, and George Washington spent a lot of time there. In those days, the city had a much smaller footprint. What was called Society Hill was the nucleus of colonial Philadelphia.

What is the story behind the lock of George Washington’s hair? What led to him agreeing to have it clipped? It was collected in 1798 by Mrs. Oliver Wolcott, who was a friend of Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson. [Wolcott served as the country’s second secretary of the treasury from 1795 to 1800; Alexander Hamilton held the post first.] George Washington was retiring from government service after having been president. He was highly revered. He just wanted to be a farmer, but society and the politics of the day would not let him do that. President John Adams wanted to get him back in service, and Washington agreed, but only if the French invaded the United States. A November 10, 1798 letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his wife, Eliza, states he was staying at the Wolcott residence in Philadelphia and that Washington “will be here about twelve to-day”. [The auction house produced a detailed story about the background of the locket. Scroll down a bit to see the text of the Hamilton letter that contains the quote.]

So we can pin down almost precisely when the lock of George Washington’s hair was taken? We have documents outside of the Hopkinson family that provide evidence? Right, right down to who was there and why they were there. The final assumption is the lock was cut to be given to Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson as a sign of friendship and camaraderie [between Mrs. Wolcott and Mrs. Hopkinson]. Washington died a year after this was taken. I’m not going to say it’s the last lock taken from him–it was common to take locks of hair at death–but it might be the last one taken in a high-profile, ceremonial setting.

These handwritten provenance notes detail when, and for whom, the lock of George Washington's hair was taken. It's unclear when the notes were written, or which member of the Hopkinson family wrote them.
The lot includes handwritten provenance notes that detail when, and for whom, the lock of George Washington’s hair was taken.

Do we know when the lock of George Washington’s hair was placed in the locket? We don’t know for sure, but I had the locket out of its frame because I wanted to test the metal to see if it was gold, and it’s not. It’s gold leaf. But it [the locket] certainly seems to be 19th century. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t mount something like that at an early time.

How do we know this is a genuine lock of George Washington’s hair? Because of where it came from. A couple dozen steamer trunks descended in the Hopkinson family. The archive was undisturbed for decades. There was no chance to play with it or mess with it. It all, pardon the expression, smells right. Given the family it comes from and the documents, books, manuscripts, and family ephemera that came out of the trunks, there’s no reason to doubt anything in there.

But the hair hasn’t been subjected to DNA testing, correct? If the future owner wants to confirm it with DNA testing, they can do that. Because it came from that family archive, and it’s backed with research that shows who did what and when, it makes all the sense in the world [for it to be genuine]. I would be astounded if it proved through DNA testing not to be George Washington’s hair.

The headline on the lot listing describes this as a “substantial” lock of George Washington’s hair. What does “substantial” mean here? As opposed to half a dozen wisps. It’s a pretty good chunk of hair. If you took the strands of hair out and stretched them out, they’d be six to eight inches in length. For the most part, I’d say it’s a sandy-silvery color that some of us get as we age–not a totally silver-haired person, like I am.

A detail shot of the lock of Washington's hair. It's described as a "substantial" lock because it consists of several long strands of reddish-brownish-greyish hair, and not just a few wisps.

What is the locket containing the lock of George Washington’s hair like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? I don’t think so. But these objects are–inanimate objects can speak volumes about where they’ve been and what they’ve done. I’m always in awe when certain things cross my desk. All these objects have their own stories, and they all stand as silent witnesses.

How does this lock of George Washington’s hair fit that idea–how does it speak? The fact that it bore witness to a gathering of such important people, but they were no more than neighbors getting together for a farewell dinner. This is a piece of everyday life from one of the families that helped create our country. To have American history sitting on my desk is so overwhelmingly powerful… I sit in awe of the ability to touch it, handle it, learn from it, and hand it on to someone who will take care of it.

I see a blue ribbon strung through the top of the locket frame. Does that imply that the locket might have been worn as a piece of jewelry? Or is it more likely it was always displayed inside a frame? I think it was a keepsake. It was never a piece of jewelry, I think. It’s too big. It might have been hung on a wall with the ribbon as decoration.

And the lock of Washington’s hair and the rest of the Hopkinson family archive–it’s all fresh to market? Never been to auction before? This is the first time any of it has been on the marketplace.

How often do you see locks of hair from this period at auction? In my experience, it’s rare. I’ve certainly never handled anything this important. Most of the time, when hair is saved as a memento, it’s from [between] the Civil War and the end of the 19th century–things such as hair jewelry.

And to clarify–what does this lot consist of? What does the winning bidder receive? The locket, which contains the hair, and the provenance notes that were fastened to the back of the frame.

What’s the world auction record for a lock of George Washington’s hair? It was at Leland’s last year [2019] and sold for $35,764. For material such as this, the market is not going to go down. I have no doubt [the lock of George Washington’s hair that he is handling] will hit the top end of the estimate, and it may well exceed it.

What condition is the locket in? I can’t find anything negative in terms of condition. It doesn’t look as if the hair has been out of the frame since it was placed in it.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? Because of the emotional and adrenaline boost it gives me in pursuing my auction business. Over the last 45 years, I’ve sold a lot of things. Things like this–you remember them. You just do. It’s not about the money. The money comes and goes. You cannot replace the thrill of handling things like this.

How to bid: The lock of George Washington’s hair is lot 0227 in the Francis Hopkinson Family Americana Collection sale at William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals on June 23, 2020.

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An Iconic Julius Shulman Photograph, Case Study House #22, Could Fetch $3,000 (Updated June 15, 2020)

Case Study House #22, an iconic black-and-white Julius Shulman photograph of a Modernist home in Los Angeles, could sell for $3,000.

Update: The Julius Shulman photograph sold for $4,063.

What you see: Case Study House #22, a Julius Shulman photograph of the Stahl house, taken in 1960. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.

The expert: Clo Pazera, specialist at LAMA.

Who was Julius Shulman? He was an architectural photographer, born in 1910 and moved to Los Angeles fairly early, at age 10. He took up photography mainly as a hobby, taking mostly nature shots. A friend of his was an assistant to architect Richard Neutra. When he was executing the Kun residence in 1936, he went with his friend and shot pictures of the building. They were shown to Neutra, who liked them. That’s how Shulman grew into an architectural photographer. He had a natural eye and a sense of composition that suited the modern architecture movement of the moment, which was to bring the outside in. His photos complimented the aesthetic.

What was the Case Study House project? The Case Study House project was a vision by John Entenza, the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. It sponsored a competition for architects [to create] low-cost modern architecture for the post-war period. Entenza sought out particular architects, who submitted projects they were already working on or things they hoped would happen. The project ran from 1945 to 1964.

How did Julius Shulman become involved with the Case Study House project? He didn’t necessarily have a formal role in the project, but he was the go-to guy for photos at that point. A lot of architects invited to the project were people who Shulman had a working relationship with. He might have been invited by one of the architects to shoot a house. He also worked with a lot of magazines. His high-contrast photographs were very suited to the black-and-white magazines of the time.

Is the composition we see in Case Study House #22 the only version that Julius Shulman shot, or have others surfaced? The two most famous shots both have people in them. There’s another from the same angle showing a man facing the city. [Scroll down a bit on this link and you’ll see it, in color, on the left.] The Shulman archives were donated to the Getty. You can access most of the images there. Shulman shot an angle that had no people in it, but it looked pretty rough.

Because the Stahl house wasn’t fully dressed. Exactly. He probably shot a few angles to see what worked, and realized it worked pretty well.

What can we tell, just by looking, how hard it was for Julius Shulman to get this shot? It seems like it was pretty difficult, but by 1960, Shulman had been a professional photographer for 20 years or more. There’s a nice oral history of the house by Curbed L.A., which includes this photo. Evidently, it did require a double exposure–a long exposure to get the city lights, and a flash bulb exposure for the interior. It’s essentially two photos, which he overlaid.

Julius Shulman shot many photographs for the Case Study House project, but this Case Study House #22 shot has unusual staying power. Time magazine included it among the 100 most influential photographs ever taken, and Los Angeles magazine called it “perhaps the most famous picture ever taken of Los Angeles”. Why do you think it resonates so strongly? It’s a really dynamic image. There’s a lot of artistry to it, in the way the lines of the house jut out and match the grid of the city, and the way that Shulman saw that and solidified the architectural vision. It’s a really amazing contrast. There’s a lot to draw the eye. And it has an aspirational quality. When you look at it today, you think, “Oh, I wish I could be living that life!”

The Case Study Houses are meant to showcase Modernist architecture, but the Julius Shulman photo of Case Study House #22 that became legendary includes human beings–the two women talking indoors. Why is this image, which is supposed to be about the architecture, better with people in it? The image of the man with his back to the camera is interesting, but has a lonely quality to it. There’s a warmth to the image of the two women, like it’s a small party on a Saturday night. They add energy that suits the image.

Did Julius Shulman know what he had the instant he shot it, or did he realize it later? I’m not really sure, but he put a lot of effort into the shot. Based on the effort he put into it, he probably thought it was going to be one that made an impact.

What was the general attitude toward Moderism in 1960, when he took this photo? I think it was sort of similar to how it is nowadays. Some are enthusiastic about it, but most prefer traditional homes. It was a fashionable thing to have a Modernist home then, but for most of the country, it was aspirational. And most Modernist homes were built in Los Angeles. Modernism may have changed the vision of what L.A. glamour was, and what the aspiration was.

How did this 1960 Julius Shulman photograph change the general perception of L.A.? This was a new idea of Hollywood glamour. The upcoming Hollywood set was more excited to live there [in a house like the Stahl house] than in a big mansion in the Hollywood hills.

What is this Julius Shulman photograph like in person? Are there aspects that the camera can’t capture? The paper itself is very glossy, and the tones of black are very deep. The contrast he’s known for comes through in the image. There’s definitely a dimensionality to it that doesn’t come through on screen.

Do we know when this 1960 Julius Shulman photo of Case Study House #22 was printed? Not really. This was definitely printed later [than 1960]. How much later is hard to say. It’s signed on the back, but there’s no Shulman studio stamp, which he sometimes used to date things. My guess is it was printed in the 1970s, based on the aging of the piece, but it’s just a guess.

Shulman shot this photograph in 1960, well before there was a secondary market for fine art photography. Do we know why he would have had it printed? He kept some for his archives. He would have printed some for publication, and sometimes, he gave them as gifts. We have another Shulman photo in the auction that he gave to the owner of the house. This was a famous image, so he may have made some to sell, or give to friends. But we’re not entirely sure [of the story] with this one.

Would Julius Shulman have been physically involved in the printing of this photo, or would he have handed that task off to others? At this point in his career, I’m guessing he had assistants to do the physical printing. It’s a pretty arduous process. I’d be surprised if he did the printing himself.

Are all the prints of Case Study House #22 gelatin silver prints, and are they all the size this one is–20 inches by not-quite-16 inches? No. They do come in a range of sizes. We had this one in 2019 in a slightly smaller size. Also, there are color versions, called chromagenic prints, or C-prints. They’re the counterpart to gelatin silver prints. It’s a similar process, but for color.

And this Julius Shulman photo is signed, but not editioned, correct? Yes. It’s signed on the back, but he really didn’t do editions.

Many of the homes that Julius Shulman photographed for the Case Study House project have since been demolished or significantly altered. Does the Stahl house still exist? If so, does it look like it did when Shulman shot it? Yes, it does still exist. In the late 1970s, the original owners largely converted it to a filming location. No one lives there, but it’s well-preserved. You can set up architectural tours, too–not at this moment, with COVID-19, but when things settle down. They happened once a week.

How often do you see this Julius Shulman photo at auction? Fairly often. I’d say a few a year. It’s one of his most popular images.

What condition is this Julius Shulman photo in? This one does have some condition issues–some creasing to the sheet, and signs of handling around the margins. We might have been more aggressive with the estimate if it didn’t have those issues.

What’s the world auction record for a Case Study House #22 image, and for any Julius Shulman photo? The record for any Shulman is $47,500 for Neutra’s Kaufmann house. It was an early to mid-1950s printing that sold in 2010 at Sotheby’s. It looks like the record for Case Study House #22 may be at an auction house in Germany. Grisebach had one in 2014 that sold for about $14,200 in 2015.

Why will this Julius Shulman photo stick in your memory? It has the key aspect you really want from a Julius Shulman photo–a combination of a striking exterior shot of a city contrasted with an interior shot. You can really see yourself being there today.

How to bid: The Julius Shulman photograph Case Study House #22 is lot 24 in LAMA‘s Modern Art & Design Auction, which opened online on June 7, 2020, and ends on June 14, 2020.

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Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) is on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

Clo Pazera appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about an untitled Ed Moses abstract.

The Stahl house has a website.

In case you missed the links above:

Much of the Shulman archive is accessible online through the Getty’s digital collections.

Los Angeles magazine, Curbed, and Time have all written about the Stahl home and Shulman’s iconic photographs of the property.

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An Ancient Roman Ring Engraved With the Image of an Indian Ringneck Parrot Could Fetch $15,000 (Updated June 17, 2020)

An ancient Roman ring, featuring a green chalcedony carved with the image of an Indian Ringneck parrot could command $15,000.

Update: Squawk! The ancient Roman ring carved with an Indian Ringneck parrot sold for $87,000–almost six times its high estimate.

What you see: An ancient Roman ring featuring a parrot engraved on a green chalcedony stone. Christie’s estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

The expert: G. Max Bernheimer, senior vice president and international specialist head of antiquities at Christie’s.

When did engraved gems and jewelry featuring engraved gems start appearing in the historical record? In the Near East, they go back to the fourth millennium. In the Greek world, you don’t get them until the Bronze Age. At the end of the Bronze Age in 1200 B.C., there’s a gap until the late Geometric period in Greece. Seemingly with contact with the Near East, hard stones [appear] in the sixth century B.C. From there, there’s continuous usage to medieval Europe, and the context is never lost.

Is the parrot on the green chalcedony an intaglio or a cameo style of engraving? It’s an intaglio, which means it’s carved in the negative with the idea that it will be impressed into malleable material such as clay or wax, and an image will be left behind in relief. Cameos didn’t come into existence until the Hellenistic period of Alexander the Great. Cameos don’t have any function except for decoration or propaganda.

Is the stone in the ancient Roman ring in its original mount? It is. I would say for every hundred stones I might see, I find one or two in their original settings. In antiquity, they used three possible settings for finger rings: gold, silver, or bronze. Gold survives very well. Some engraved gems pop out of rings also. During excavations of Roman baths, [archeologists] have found dozens and dozens in the drains, because that’s where they ended up.

Now I’m thinking of all the stories I’ve heard about engagement rings being lost down the kitchen sink or the bathtub… There’s nothing new under the sun.

Are ancient Roman rings with gold settings more likely to survive intact? There’s a much higher possibility for them to survive because of their gold.

How often do you see birds portrayed on ancient Roman rings? Animals are always a popular subject. As for parrots, there are quite a few out there. Parrots are pretty popular. They were portrayed decoratively on mosaic floors, in reliefs, and on sculptures–they weren’t a rare sight. Having said that, this is only the second one I’ve seen on the market.

I understand that the engraving on this green chalcedony is so precise, we can identify the species of parrot as an Indian Ringneck. How often do you come across an ancient Roman ring with an engraved gemstone that has that level of accuracy in its portrayal? I’d say it’s a unique thing to be able to identify the species of bird that precisely.

What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult it would have been to engrave the image of the parrot into the green chalcedony? The carver probably used a kick wheel, which is similar to a potter’s wheel, or a bow and drill. It’s like a bow and arrow bow. There’s a string that coils around the bow, and the bow moves back and forth, causing the drill to spin. As for how they would have carved a hard stone with iron tools when iron is softer than quartz–they used [applied] powdered emery, which has a rating of eight, harder than quartz.

Do we see evidence of how the carver made use of their tools? If you blow up the image, you can see little blobs in the feet, and in where the legs join the feathered portion of the legs. That’s the shape of the drill that was used. [If you have trouble seeing the details in the image below, follow this link and use the magnification tool.]

Ah yes! I see the blobs on the parrot’s feet. It’s kind of how they articulated the feet. Those are the tips of the drill. A larger one was used for the eye.

And I think you said you can see evidence that a wheel was used? You have two kinds of cutting devices: a pointed drill, which makes the little blobs, and you have wheels of different sizes. They’re like buzz saws, but smaller and without serrated edges. The straight lines you see in the feathers? Those are wheel cuts. The ground line on which the bird is standing is also a wheel cut.

How much work does the carving on the stone in the ancient Roman ring represent? I don’t know, but I think a day or two is quite right for a stone of this size and quality.

The stone in the ancient Roman ring is green chalcedony, and green features prominently in the plumage of the Indian Ringneck parrot. Is it reasonable to assume that the carver deliberately chose a green stone to match the parrot’s green feathers? I have to think yes, but there’s no way to prove it. It’s logical.

And the ring that the carver placed at the parrot’s neck helped identify the bird as an Indian Ringneck? Yes. I’d like to claim that for my own, but previous catalogers identified it. I took a look and agreed.

What is your favorite detail of the engraving on the gem in this ancient Roman ring, and why? I love the quality of it. When I looked through my books to find other examples of parrots, of all the ones I saw, this was the best of the group. The others were good, but not as good as this. I think it’s the finest example of a parrot on a Roman gem.

I realize we can’t hop in a time machine and go back and watch the creation and sale of this ancient Roman ring, but why might someone have wanted a gold finger ring with a gemstone carved to look like a very specific exotic parrot? Why this bird? It could have been a pun on the owner’s name. He could have had an Indian Ringneck as a cherished pet. He could have been in the animal business. We just don’t know, and we’ll never know.

But the level of detail we see in the parrot–that points to it being a custom commission, surely? In the ruins of Pompeii, there’s a gem carver’s workshop, and there were a lot of gems finished and ready to go. We don’t know if they were commissioned, or on spec, and there’s no way to know.

What is the ancient Roman ring like in person? It’s a heavy, beautiful, high-carat gold. Almost all ancient gold tends to be that way, 97 percent gold. It’s a nice, solid hoop that tapers a little bit from the widest point of the bezel at the back.

Have you tried on the ancient Roman ring? I can’t tell you what size it is, but I know I had it on my finger. I can’t remember if it slid all the way down or not. I remember it feeling heavy. Some rings are made out of thin sheet gold hammered over softer material. This is made out of more gold than some. It has a very nice feel to it.

How big is the green chalcedony? The whole thing is 1 1/16th of an inch wide at its widest point. I’d guess the gem is 3/4 of an inch wide.

Could you use this ancient Roman ring if you wanted to? Could you stamp the stone into clay or wax and see the parrot impression? Absolutely. If we were not under a pandemic, I would have an exhibition. I would have knobs of clay under the jewelry cases, and I’d take impressions for people.

And I understand its provenance is notable? What makes it so special is it’s documented back to the 17th century. It was known in the collection of Francesco Boncompagni, who died in 1641, and it passed down in his family for generations until Giorgio Sangiorgi bought it. We know he bought it in 1933 because he published a journal article about it in that year.

How does condition come into play with something that’s as old as this ancient Roman ring? Again, it’s about the beauty of the object. The setting has some surface scratches, but overall, its condition is very, very good.

What’s the world auction record for an ancient engraved gem or a piece of ancient jewelry with an engraved gem? Was it set with you at Christie’s? Yes and yes. The record was set in part one of this collection, which sold in April of 2019. It was a black chalcedony intaglio portrait of Antinous, a young man we know was a favorite of Emperor Hadrian. He died tragically in an accident in the Nile. It was estimated, conservatively, at $300,000 to $500,000 and sold for $2.1 million. It’s a fragment, but what a fragment!

Why will this ancient Roman ring stick in your memory? It’s just so delightful. When you look at this thing, it makes you happy. And you see it exactly the way it was meant to be seen. It’s a connection to the ancient world–it’s personal, it’s immediate, and you experience it the way an ancient person would have experienced it.

How to bid: The ancient Roman ring featuring a parrot carved engraved on a green chalcedony stone is lot 223 in Masterpieces in Miniature: Ancient Engraved Gems formerly in the G. Sangiorgi Collection Part II. The online Christie’s auction began on June 2, 2020 and continues until June 16, 2020.

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Images are courtesy of Christie’s.

Bernheimer also features in a story Christie’s did on engraved classical gems.

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A Joseph Whiting Stock Portrait of a Sea Captain Could Fetch $15,000

A Joseph Whiting Stock portrait of an unknown sea captain, painted around 1847 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, could fetch $15,000. The captain is shown seated in a fashionable Empire chair and holding a telescope. A window behind him looks out on a harbor.

What you see: A Joseph Whiting Stock portrait of an unknown sea captain, rendered circa 1847 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Eldred’s estimates it at $12,000 to $15,000.

The expert: Joshua Eldred, president of Eldred’s and head of its fine arts department.

Who was Joseph Whiting Stock? Do we know much about him? We know a fair bit. He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and like most itinerant artists, he went where the work took him. He had an accident as a kid [when he was eleven, an oxcart fell on him, paralyzing his lower body], and his doctor encouraged him to take up painting. Most of these people were self-taught. It was before photographs, so there was a demand for portraits.

How prolific was he? Has anyone done a census of his works? I think it’s more in the hundreds than the thousands. He died young, at 40, of tuberculosis. Looking at auction records, only 27 Joseph Whiting Stock paintings have sold over the last 25 years.

Did he make a specialty of painting sea captains? No. For the most part, he painted children, women, and family portraits from what I’ve seen.

Do we know who the sitter is in this Joseph Whiting stock portrait? We do not. I wish I did.

This Joseph Whiting Stock portrait follows what seems to be a template for sea captain and ship owner portraits–the sitter is pictured indoors, in a well-appointed room. He holds something connected to his work: a letter, a sextant, or a telescope, like we see here. And over one shoulder is a window that looks out on a harbor. What do we know about this painting convention? Was it invented in America? I would say it started in Europe and America adapted to it. You can tell [what it is] without knowing he’s a sea captain or a ship owner. I think he’s a sea captain because he’s holding a tool of the trade–a telescope. He’s an expert navigator. He’s sitting in an Empire chair, which would have been fashionable. He’s well-dressed, so he’s a man of importance. Stock put a ship there. Whether it’s his ship or not, he is of the seafaring trade.

But the ship Stock painted in the background offers no clues as to who the sitter is? There’s no name on the ship that we can read, and no figurehead that could help identify it. If we can figure out the name of the ship, we can figure out who the captain is. Unfortunately, we can’t ascertain that. With a lot of diligence, it [the identity of the sitter] could be figured out. We have the clue of New Bedford, Massachusetts, which narrows it down a bit.

How do we know that the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait was painted in New Bedford, Massachusetts? Purely the card on the back. [Stock’s artist’s card is attached to the back of the painting.] We can see remnants of it, and it gives a New Bedford studio address.

How do we know the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait was painted around 1847? We know from research that he was in New Bedford in 1842, and it’s very similar to a work he executed in 1847. We figure it was painted between 1842 and 1847, but it’s impossible to know for sure.

When did this style of sea captain portrait disappear? Late 19th century? It faded out toward the Victorian era. This was painted right in the height of it. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was most prevalent.

How would the sitter have used this Joseph Whiting Stock portrait? What did he want it to communicate? And would he have displayed it in the same room where he sat for the portrait? Quite possibly. There’d be artistic license, but it’s quite likely this was a room in the sitter’s house. He’s trying to show he’s a man of importance and wealth.

How is the artist’s card attached to the painting? There are four old brads patching it on. Someone put plastic over it, so it’s not going anywhere. It’s incredibly unusual to see that.

So, Joseph Whiting Stock portraits don’t usually have an artist’s card fastened to the back of the canvas? In my experience, I’ve not seen another with a card. I can’t say there’s not another example out there. We also don’t know who put the card on there. We’re not sure if it was the artist or the owner of the painting.

Are Joseph Whiting Stock portraits usually unsigned? Yes. He and most portrait painters [of the era] did not sign their works. Many were not considered trained artists. They fulfilled a need. We have to identify it by its stylistic similarity to other Stock works and this card on the back.

Maybe the clients generally didn’t want the artists to sign the works? I don’t know that it had anything to do with the clients. These were traveling artists. I don’t think they’d be considered important artists on either side. This was a trade. These artists weren’t showing at the National Academy.

What is the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait like in person? I think the photograph represents it pretty well. The only thing I’d say is when you walk around the room, the eyes tend to follow you a bit. Obviously, it’s an optical illusion, but he does have a presence to him.

What’s the world auction record for a Joseph Whiting Stock portrait? It was set back in January 2008 at Christie’s by A Portrait of Martha Otis Bullock (Girl in a Blue Dress). It sold for $145,000, and it’s a bit of an outlier. The next year, Sotheby’s sold one for $68,000. Those are the only two to exceed $50,000.

I understand that Joseph Whiting Stock was disabled, and used a wheelchair. Do you see any collectors seeking his work for that reason? I haven’t heard of that interest in him, but maybe it’s an angle to play up.

Why will this Joseph Whiting Stock portrait stick in your memory? Other than not knowing who the sitter is, this checks a lot of boxes. It’s a known artist, from the right period for this sort of work, and it’s a classic example of what you look for in this type of portrait. And the sitter is a handsome man with distinctive muttonchops.

How to bid: The Joseph Whiting Stock portrait of a sea captain is lot 289 in session one of The Spring Sale taking place at Eldred’s on June 11 and June 12, 2020.

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Image is courtesy of Eldred’s.

Joshua Eldred appeared on The Hot Bid previously, talking about an Antonio Jacobsen schooner portrait and a record-setting painting by Harold Dunbar.

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A Charles Burton Barber Painting Could Sell for $220,000

Only a Shower, an 1884 painting by Charles Burton Barber, shows a girl slumped in sadness, staring out the window at the weather that has cancelled her plans. A trio of dogs attend her. The painting could sell for $220,000.

What you see: Only a Shower, an 1884 painting by Charles Burton Barber. Bonhams estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000, or $150,000 to $220,000.

The expert: Charles O’Brien, head of the 19th century paintings department at Bonhams.

Who was Charles Burton Barber? He was an English artist who studied at the Royal Academy. He was eventually a London-based artist who became a favorite of Queen Victoria from the 1870s onward.

How prolific was he? We don’t know how many pictures he painted. He doesn’t appear to have kept an account book. Given the meticulous detail of his exhibition pictures–he showed over 30 works at the Royal Academy–and the fact that he was only 49 when he died, I don’t think he was particularly prolific.

Where was he in his career when he painted this picture? He was probably at the top of his game. He was a well-known artist, and some of his best works were painted in the 1880s. A successful artist of this period would be a wealthy man.

Do we know how this Charles Burton Barber painting came to be? Did he paint it as a commission, or on spec [without a buyer in mind]? It was painted specifically for an exhibition, with an eye toward being sold. He was elected a member of the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in 1883, and in 1884, he would have wanted to make an impression as a newly elected member. He wanted to put his best foot forward.

What do we know about how Charles Burton Barber worked? Would he have used reference photographs, or posed models in his studio? We don’t know whether he used photographs. To me, Only a Shower is a bit too stylized to be based on a photo. He probably used live models. There’s a very similar girl who seems to appear in many of his pictures. Whether the model is a member of his family, we’re not entirely sure. There’s a lot we don’t know. A lot is supposition.

So the girl pictured here might be his daughter? We know he had children, but we don’t know that he had a daughter. I think it’s quite likely she is [his daughter]. You don’t have to pay a daughter to model.

Are the dogs his? We don’t know. The dog in the foreground looks a bit like a collie that’s reminiscent of a dog that belonged to Queen Victoria. But it’s all supposition. I’m sure they would have been actual dogs, but where he saw them, we don’t know.

Is it typical for Charles Burton Barber paintings to have a narrative, as Only a Shower does? Completely. He wasn’t formulaic, but single figures and animals–usually girls and dogs–were very much his thing at the time. I’ve tried to work out how old she is in the painting. She’s got a very young face, but she [looks to be] mid- to late teens. I think Only a Shower is about a liaison with an admirer. There’s a letter on the table to the right, which was very often used in Victorian paintings to suggest a person who’s involved who can’t be seen. This is not just wanting a ride on a horse. It’s an assignation delayed by the weather. She’s upset because she’s not in the arms of her beau. That’s my reading of it. The flowers on the table might be a gift from him.

I admit I completely missed the letter on the table, and the flowers. I genuinely thought she was sad only because the weather cancelled her ride. Because we don’t have commentary from Charles Burton Barber, a lot of it is left to the imagination. Clues are left in the picture, and you cam make up what the story is about.

The lot notes quote Harry Furniss, the artist’s biographer, saying that Barber “discovered the fact that the public bought pictures of children and dogs.” Is that still true? Yes, absolutely. Within the 19th century market, subject matter is really important. Paintings featuring children and/or dogs are very popular, and always have been.

What is your favorite detail of this Charles Burton Barber painting? I like the head of the terrier. It’s fantastically well painted. Your eye is drawn to her face, and then the top right-hand corner, to the dog. It’s beautifully modeled, really alert and alive. For me, it’s the best part of the picture.

He really nails her body language–the despondent face, and the full-body slump. He was trained at the Royal Academy. He knew body forms. For me, it’s brought together by the incredible light and shade. It’s a remarkable painting, it really is.

He seems to impart attitudes to the dogs as well, particularly the grey one lurking near the window. Its sadness seems to reflect hers. Completely, absolutely. He worked with dogs for a long time, and understood how they empathize with humans, and he was able to paint in an extraordinary manner. It comes through in the composition. Other Victorian artists could paint as well as Charles Burton Barber, but they weren’t able to paint a narrative.

What is the Charles Burton Barber painting like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? It has better depth than the reproduction that appears in the catalog. The area around the top of the window, where the curtain is pulled back to one side, has a feeling of the outside that’s lacking in the reproduction.

How often do Charles Burton Barber paintings appear at auction? There have been about 70 sales in the last 35 years. Many have been watercolors or sketches. Pictures like this–exhibition pictures–don’t come up often. Only six or seven have been comparable to this in quality or importance.

What’s the world auction record for a Charles Burton Barber painting? It was £322,000 [roughly $396,000], set in 2007, not at Bonhams. It was called In Disgrace.

Why will this Charles Burton Barber painting stick in your memory? It’s a really, really, really top-class Victorian painting. Works of this quality don’t come around all the time. To me, it works because the narrative is strong, sentimental without being mawkish. And it’s a poignant subject, given what we’re living through right now–we’re in a ghastly lockdown, and this is a lockdown by nature. It will live in my mind simply because of the times we’re living in.

How to bid: The Charles Burton Barber painting is lot 50 in the 19th Century and British Impressionist Art auction taking place at Bonhams London on June 3, 2020.

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A George Hunzinger Chair Could Fetch $1,500 (Updated June 4, 2020)

A remarkable chair fashioned by German-American furniture maker George Hunzinger in 1869. It could sell for $1,500.

Update: The George Hunzinger chair sold for $1,750.

What you see: A George Hunzinger chair made from beech wood and dating to 1869. Wright estimates it at $1,000 to $1,500.

The expert: Megan Whippen, senior specialist at Wright.

Who was George Hunzinger? He was born in Germany and came from a family of cabinetmakers. When he came to the U.S., he mostly lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He was a pretty unconventional designer with a unique aesthetic that he paired with technical innovations made possible in the 19th century.

Do we know how old he was when he came over from Germany? He was about 20 years old.

And I take it his family taught him how to make furniture? It’s assumed. There’s not a lot of information, to be honest, but it was a family craft.

Do most or all of Hunzinger’s furnishings look like this chair, or did his style evolve from something more traditional to what we see here? All his hallmark designs were made in the U.S.

And he would have worked in New York City? He was in Brooklyn in the 1860s and moved to Manhattan. It was a pivotal move. His business was taking off, and it definitely accelerated after the move. He had as many as 50 people working for him at the apex of his career.

How prolific was George Hunzinger? Has anyone attempted a count of his works? Unfortunately, that information is lost. What’s distinct about Hunzinger’s work is he applied for patents–he had 21 patents on his designs. It’s rare for a 19th century furniture maker to have 21 patents to his name, and to have an unusual and eclectic style that sets him apart.

Did Hunzinger have a patent on this chair that you’re offering? There’s an actual patent for the 1869 chair. He made very small changes, but it’s almost exactly [like] the patent in its details.

George Hunzinger explored and embraced new techniques that his 19th century contemporaries ignored, leading him to create striking pieces such as this chair.

What does the patent application or patent paperwork tell us about this George Hunzinger chair? It doesn’t really tell us about the chair, it’s more that he went ahead and got the patent. That set him apart from his contemporaries. The chair has a mark on it that notes the patent. Marking the chair with that information shows it’s something [he’s] proud of.

Does George Hunzinger’s work change over the course of his career? Are there clear phases? Not really. This [the style that we see in this chair] was an aesthetic that carried through his career. To my eye, what defines the differences in the pieces is his clear experimentation with technique and certain structural elements within the chair itself. It set his chairs very far apart from what was being done by his contemporaries.

Was George Hunzinger’s furniture appreciated in his time, or only later on? It’s hard to say. The documentation we can see shows that he had a successful business.

Was this George Hunzinger chair a one-off? There’s no question some chairs were made in multiples, and he made distinct chairs as well. There have been other forms of this chair at auction previously.

The lot information for the George Hunzinger chair describes it simply as a “chair”. Where would it have gone within a house? I’m guessing this wasn’t meant to be placed at a dining room table… There’s not a lot of information to that end. Though it’s radical in its stylistic sensibility, it was functional furniture. But I don’t think it was a chair for everyday [use].

German-American furniture maker George Hunzinger took out 21 patents on his works, including this chair design.

What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this George Hunzinger chair was to make? When you look at the form itself, you see really intricate construction details in it. I would think it’s a very hard piece to produce. A lot of hallmarks of his innovative designs are included, such as the diagonal legs and the rounded crest rail at the top.

Much of the George Hunzinger chair’s frame looks like metal piping translated into wood. Yes, a lot of that is that steel element and joinery to make the concept a reality.

Steel element? He would introduce steel wiring in his furniture’s construction, and allow things that traditional joinery would not have. The overall construction and aesthetic was made possible by innovations he experimented with. He was doing things none of his contemporaries tried.

What is the George Hunzinger chair like in person? Unfortunately, because of [COVID-19-related] travel restrictions, I haven’t seen this chair firsthand. I can say the camera captures the delicacy of the form. Its most captivating feature is the intricacy of the design. There’s so much detail in the frame of the chair and all the elements of the chair. Not one part hasn’t been fully thought through.

I realize you haven’t had the chance to sit in this George Hunzinger chair, but have you sat in others made by him? I’ve never had the opportunity to sit in one. I’ve witnessed them and looked at them, but never had the opportunity to sit.

How often do George Hunzinger pieces show up at auction? Once a year? Or sometimes more than that. They appear pretty regularly on the auction market in varying degrees of originality and what’s been done to them.

I take it that the upholstery on the George Hunzinger chair is not the original upholstery, yes? Not in any way. It’s later upholstery, but it’s pretty common not to have the original upholstery. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum have George Hunzinger furnishings with original upholstery. It’s as intricate and rich as the detailing of the frame.

The George Hunzinger chair is part of a sale drawn from the collection of Mark Isaacson and Greg Nacozy, who were noted for their mid-century material. How does this piece fit their aesthetic? What’s really interesting about this chair is how atypical it is in the collection, but that’s what makes the collection so special. Mark Isaacson liked to include works across disciplines. He had an extraordinary eye.

How have you seen the market for George Hunzinger furniture change over time? During my career, the market for American aesthetic furniture was highly collectible in the 80s and 90s. Now we’re seeing more at auction.

Why do you think that is? I think people are looking at the material differently than they did 10 years ago. A lot of scholarly work has been done recently, and they appreciate its modernity. It’s outside of our concept of Victorian furniture.

Do we know what the world auction record is for a piece of George Hunzinger furniture? I’ve seen individual chairs go for $10,000.

Why will this George Hunzinger chair stick in your memory? For me, this chair is about Mark Isaacson and his vision as a collector. As a young specialist in the field, I went back to the Fifty/50 collection [the gallery Isaacson founded in New York in 1981]. It defined what collecting 20th century arts was at the time. There are some true masterworks in the collection, and we get to celebrate its full story.

How to bid: The George Hunzinger chair is lot 256 in The Mark Isaacson and Greg Nacozy Collection auction taking place at Wright on June 4, 2020.

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An Annie Oakley Gun Could Command $400,000 (Updated May 28, 2020)

A closeup on the gold-plated frame of the Annie Oakley gun, clearly showing the name of its recipient. The Stevens company apparently gave her this early model 44 in 1893.

Update: The Annie Oakley gun sold for $528,900.

What you see: A Stevens model 44 .25-20 single shot rifle, given to Annie Oakley. Morphy Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $400,000.

The expert: Michael Salisbury, firearms expert at Morphy Auctions.

Who was Annie Oakley? In the 1880s, exhibition shooting was extremely popular, like football or baseball is today. A well-known traveling exhibition shooter, Frank Butler, came to a Cincinnati hotel owned by Jack Frost. Him coming to town was a great event. At the time, Annie Oakley was known as Phoebe Ann Moses. She was providing game meat to the restaurants at Frost’s hotel, and everybody knew she was an incredible shot. Frost arranged a shooting event. Moses beat Butler by one shot, and a romance began. She married Butler in 1882.

How did Phoebe Ann Moses become a star? In 1885, Butler was looking for his big break. When one of Buffalo Bill Cody’s exhibition shooters fell ill, Butler and Moses applied for the slot. The focus became Annie Oakley because she was a beautiful lady and an incredible shot.

When did she take the name Annie Oakley? Soon after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1885. The reason is unknown, other than it was popular for performers to have stage names. Perhaps Cody recommended she do so. There is much conjecture on the subject [of how she chose her stage name]. Her sisters, growing up, would call her “Annie”. The name “Oakley” is believed to have come from a town near where she grew up.

No one alive today saw Annie Oakley perform in person, yet we’re still talking about her, almost a century after her death. Why? Why is her legacy so strong? The most important thing is exhibition shooting was a man’s sport. It was a big event, her being a lady and outshooting men. She was kind of ahead of her time. She really promoted hunting and shooting to young ladies. She made incredible shots with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. She was one of the stars. Hers is an interesting story that stuck with people.

Why was Annie Oakley so exceptionally skilled with firearms? What made her a standout? Obviously, she had incredible hand-eye coordination. In her autobiography, she said she had an inherent love of firearms and hunting. It was unusual for a lady, but it developed out of necessity. She was seven when her father died. In the book, she says, “I remember how I struggled to master the family’s 40-inch cap and ball Kentucky rifle, which I finally did much to my pride, I was eight years old at the time.”

That rifle was 40 inches long? Sounds like it was almost as long as her own body when she learned how to use it. Here was this little girl, taking the rifle off the wall and into the woods to shoot game to feed her mother and sister. I think her coordination, her ability, and her willpower contributed to her being an incredible markswoman.

Annie Oakley and her husband would have just moved into a custom-made home in Nutley, New Jersey when this gun was made. The Stevens company marked the occasion by giving her this single-shot rifle.

The lot notes don’t give a date for the Annie Oakley gun. Do we know when it was made? Stevens was developing the model 44 rifle in 1893, and Annie and Frank Butler moved into their first home together in Nutley, New Jersey in 1893. Those dates coincide. My theory is Stevens gave the gun to Annie Oakley as a Christmas gift or a housewarming present. That would explain the “Nutley, N.J.” inscription on the left side of the gun’s frame. The Stevens records are not complete for that period.

Where was Annie Oakley in her career in 1893? She was at the height of her career. She had toured Europe eight times with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and done hundreds of shows in America. She gave performances for royalty and the elite. There’s a story that Kaiser Wilhelm II [of Germany] challenged her to shoot the ashes off his cigarette. She took the challenge. There are all kinds of different accounts–some say he had the cigarette in his hand, some say it was in his mouth–but she shot the ashes off his cigarette. When World War I began, she’s noted as having written Kaiser Wilhelm II a letter saying she wanted another shot. [Laughs] She was a daring woman who had a sense of humor.

How did this Annie Oakley gun come to be? Let me tell you a story. Every firearms manufacturer in the U.S. gave Annie Oakley firearms. It was no different than Nike sending Michael Jordan shoes he could wear. She was a rock star. Everybody wanted to go to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. It was a huge event. And I don’t know if it was her intellect or her desire to shoot different weapons, but Annie Oakley never settled on one type of gun. She used a wide variety of firearms. She’d hear about, for example, a new type of Winchester rifle, and would write to the manufacturer saying she’d like to have one, and of course they’d send her one.

It sounds like Annie Oakley was the 19th century version of an influencer. The Stevens company was developing this gun, the model 44, and gave it to Annie Oakley. It was one of their very first ones. Later on, the model 44 became Stevens’s most famous and best-selling firearm.

The Annie Oakley gun, shown in full.

So this gun has inherent value, even without the Annie Oakley provenance? Yes. It’s a very desirable weapon. If you find an early Stevens model 44, embellished, in near mint condition, it’d be worth $15,000 to $20,000. The connection with Annie Oakley increases that tenfold or more.

This Annie Oakley gun is a single-shot rifle. Why is that important? Stevens’s claim to fame as a manufacturer was very accurate single-shot rifles and pistols. That’s what they did, and they would have wanted to promote that.

Did Annie Oakley use this gun during a performance? I do believe, in my heart, it was special to Annie because it commemorates her and Frank’s first home together. I think it was hung on the wall and never used, but all this is speculation on my part.

The Annie Oakley gun is described as being in “near mint overall” condition. What does that mean when we’re talking about vintage firearms? Typically, what it means is it has 97 to 98 percent of its original finish. In this case, it means the bluing on the barrel and the gold on the frame has no more than two to three percent loss on any part of the gun. This gun has that.

An even closer close-up of the engraving on the Annie Oakley gun.

What has to happen for a vintage firearm to survive in such good condition? This gun was well-cared for. They knew how to handle a firearm, and they kept it dry and clean and never used it.

The Annie Oakley gun has never been fired? Not even by her? Not even by her.

Really? Never fired? I’m sure it was test-fired at the Stevens factory. It’s impossible for me to say Annie Oakley never shot this gun. I don’t have any doubt that she took it to her backyard and shot an apple off the head of her dog, Dave. But there’s no record of it. There’s no photos or illustrations of her shooting it.

So I take it you haven’t fired this Annie Oakley gun either. Certainly not!

The Stevens company of Chicopee, Massachusetts, gave this early model 44 to Annie Oakley. The model 44 went on to become one of its best sellers.

Does the Annie Oakley gun function? Can it fire? Absolutely. You can take this gun out and fire it today.

How can you be sure that the Annie Oakley gun works if you or someone else at Morphy Auctions hasn’t fired it? You operate the action. You pull the trigger, and it fires the firing pin.

Why do collectors require vintage firearms to work when no one in their right minds will ever load and shoot them? For the same reason you wouldn’t want to buy a half-million dollar Ferrari with an engine that doesn’t run. Same thing.

A detail shot of the wood stock on the Annie Oakley gun, which could command $400,000.

What is the Annie Oakley gun like in person? Are there details that the camera doesn’t capture? Yes. On most engraved guns, the engraving isn’t that deep. This is very deeply engraved and has an almost 3-D look to it. The finishes are so vivid, and the wood is incredibly well-figured–beautiful, beautiful wood. It’s very rare to find a gun of this age in near mint condition. It’s a work of art, and the canvas here is wood and steel.

How many guns with firm Annie Oakley provenances are out there? There are three or four guns I’m aware of, by L.C. Smith, Parker, and Marlin. Most of these guns are in museums. This is one of the few with an Annie Oakley provenance that’s in private hands.

As we’re speaking on May 22, 2020, the Annie Oakley gun has been bid up to $100,000. Is that at all meaningful at this stage? Yeah, it’s a good indicator that there’s interest there, and there’s going to be some robust bidding on the gun.

What’s the world auction record for an Annie Oakley gun? It was a Marlin Model 1897 sold through Rock Island Auction Company in December 2019 for $575,000.

Do you think this Annie Oakley gun has a chance of meeting or beating the record? Yes, for a couple of reasons. One, our gun has higher condition. [The Rock Island Auction Company’s lot notes described the Marlin as “exceptionally fine” and retaining 70 percent of its original gold plating.] Two, our gun is factory-inscribed to Annie Oakley. And three, I think Nutley New Jersey, Annie and Frank’s first address, is important.

Why will this Annie Oakley gun stick in your memory? I’ve had a connection with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show my whole life, and I’ve had an interest in Annie Oakley and the performers in the show. Buffalo Bill’s partner in the show was Nate Salisbury, a relative of mine. Nate had a deluxe engraved Winchester rifle. I have that gun in my collection. He and Annie Oakley were friends. It’s been a privilege to research the gun and be connected with the gun.

How to bid: The Annie Oakley gun is lot 1369 in the Extraordinary, Sporting, & Collector Firearms sale at Morphy Auctions on May 28 and 29, 2020.

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Admiral Yamamoto’s Rank Flag, Which Flew Above Him When He Gave the Command to Attack Pearl Harbor, Could Fetch $10,000 (Updated June 9, 2020)

Admiral Yamamoto's rank flag, which flew above his head as he gave the fateful order to attack Pearl Harbor. Bids will open at $10,000 and it's likely to sell for much more and set new world auction records.

Update: The Admiral Yamamoto rank flag sold for $40,000.

What you see: Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag, flown on the Japanese naval vessel, the Nagato. Heritage Auctions does not generally give ranged estimates, but is opening bidding for the flag at $10,000.

The expert: James Ferrigan, consulting vexillologist [flag expert] for Heritage Auctions.

Who was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, and what role did he play in World War II? Isoroku Yamamoto was a Japanese admiral of the Imperial Japanese navy and the Commander in Chief (CIC) of the Combined Fleet during World War II. He was responsible for much of the IJN’s pre-war modernization, especially in the area of naval aviation. He planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, even though he personally opposed war with the United States due to his years at Harvard University and his service as naval attaché in Washington. He remained the commander of the Combined Fleet until his death in 1943.

What is a rank flag, and how were rank flags used during WWII? A rank flag signifies the rank of a military officer, ashore or afloat. During WWII rank flags were used as they have been since the age of sail–to indicate the physical presence of the officer in command. Rank flags are still used today in the same way. 

Do rank flags mark a vessel as a flagship? If so, did this rank flag serve that purpose when it flew on the Nagato? Yes, when a vessel wears a rank flag, that makes it, by definition, a flagship. And, yes, that was this flag’s purpose on the Nagato.

Did a vessel typically have a single rank flag, or would it have or need more than one? A capital ship [a significant vessel in a naval fleet] would have a complete suite of flags for all the flag officers who might hoist “his flag” on the flagship. There would likely be large and small flags for both routine and ceremonial use. 

Do we know how many rank flags the Nagato had? I know of six: two for rear admirals, two for vice admirals, and two for full admirals. I would guess there were more. Admirals are like peacocks–they like to show off.

I understand this flag was flown on the Nagato. Why is the Nagato important? What role did the vessel play in WWII? The Japanese battleship Nagato was the lead ship of her class. She was sleek, with rakish lines, powerful engines, and eight 16-inch guns mounted in four turrets. The Nagato spent much of her service as a flagship for the Imperial Japanese navy and, for that reason, did not engage in ship-to-ship combat. She was the only Japanese battleship to survive the war. 

How did the Nagato manage to escape and survive the war? It’s not so much a question of escape, but how she was being used. The Nagato was modestly damaged on a sortie, and the Japanese realized they didn’t have the fuel to keep her operating. They turned the Nagato into a coastal defense ship. When U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz made it his goal to take out the last Japanese capital ships, the Nagato was damaged, but she did not sink. She could have had sorties, and one was proposed for August 1945, before the Japanese emperor surrendered. Then nuclear weapons were dropped, ending the war. That’s how she survived.

Japanese characters on the flag translate to "Big Six", which likely references its size and importance. It's unusually large for an Imperial Japanese navy rank flag, which points to it having been assigned to Admiral Yamamoto.

This Admiral Yamamoto rank flag measures 99 inches by 152 inches, and the lot notes indicate that it’s bigger than similar Japanese rank flags. Do we know why this flag is bigger? Is it fair to assume it’s deliberately bigger than other Japanese rank flags? And how might the term “Big Six,” which appears on the flag in Japanese characters, relate to its larger-than-average size? It is likely that Yamamoto’s flag was the largest because a full admiral was the highest ranking officer in the Imperial Japanese navy, as in all navies. It’s fair to assume this is why it was larger. The term “Big Six” was likely a field expedient nickname created by the signalmen on the Nagato, as in, “The admiral’s coming aboard, hoist the Big Six.”

The lot notes say the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag “was likely shipboard made”. Does that mean that it was stitched by Japanese sailors aboard the Nagato? Flags made at a navy yard were often all machine-sewn. This flag had hand stitching that was very likely done by sailors aboard the Nagato, so it “was likely shipboard made.”

The Admiral Yamamoto rank flag has eight unequal rays projecting from the red sun at the center. Does the number or the position of the rays have any particular meaning? The number of rays differentiates the rank flag from the Japanese national ensign, which has 16 rays. 

Wait, I thought an ensign was the same thing as a flag. How are they different? “Flag” is a generic term. An ensign is a flag of national character flown at sea.

The lot notes say the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag “likely represented Admiral Yamamoto in 1941-1942”. What evidence supports this idea? Deductive reasoning. This is a rank flag for a full admiral, and Yamamoto was the only full admiral to use the Nagato as his flagship. 

Where, exactly, on the Nagato would the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag have been flown? It was a universal custom among both Allied and Axis navies during WWII to indicate the status of a commissioned warship with a pennant worn at the maintop [a platform on the ship’s mainmast] or other conspicuous hoist [position on the ship]. Whenever a warship was designated as a flagship, the flag-officer’s rank flag replaced that pennant. 

Was this Admiral Yamamoto rank flag flying on the Nagato during the attack on Pearl Harbor? Did the vessel take part in the attack? Yes, it is thought that this was the flag used by Yamamoto while serving as CIC aboard the Nagato during the Pearl Harbor attack. It was on Nagato‘s flag bridge that he issued the now infamous command, “Niitaka yama nobore” (Climb Mount Niitaka), a coded signal to proceed with the Pearl Harbor attack.

The reverse side of Admiral Yamamoto's rank flag. It might look surprisingly unscathed for a flag that flew in battle, but expert James Ferrigan says such flags rarely take direct fire.

How do we know this was Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag? It was not his in a personal property sense, but rather his by use. He was the only full admiral to use the Nagato as a flagship, therefore the flag became “his.”

How often do Japanese rank flags of any type come to market? Japanese naval rank flags occasionally come to market, generally without provenance. Since all but one of the Japanese battleships were sunk during WWII, documented rank flags from those ships are exceedingly rare. Rank flags are far less common than ensigns or national flags. 

Does this auction mark the first time this Admiral Yamamoto rank flag has come up for sale? Yes, this flag is fresh to the market, having been in private hands since 1945.

How, exactly, did the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag leave the Nagato?This flag was acquired a trophy of war on August 30, 1945, taken by a member of a prize crew: Prince “Ted” Duncan, a 37-year-old chief boatswain’s mate and the Iowa’s master-at-arms. He left the Nagato with this huge Admiral’s rank flag of the Imperial Japanese navy, a piece of halyard, and 20 small Japanese silk stick flags and ensigns. 

The lot notes say the rank flag was “hauled down” on August 30, 1945, but Admiral Yamamoto died in April of 1943. Why was the flag still able to function as a rank flag after the admiral’s death? It’s unclear why the Nagato may have been wearing a full admiral’s flag. A review of the Nagato’s WWII service record reveals that she served as a flagship for a full admiral only from December 7, 1941 until February 12, 1942–for Admiral Yamamoto. At all other times, she was the flagship of either a vice admiral or a rear admiral. Perhaps the Nagato wore this flag one last time in homage to Yamamoto, or the term “hauled down” was a sailor’s tale. Either way, this was the only Admiral’s flag taken as a trophy on August 30, 1945.

What is the provenance of this rank flag? How did it go from the Nagato to this auction? And how did it manage to survive in this condition for the better part of a century? It went from the Nagato to Prince “Ted” Duncan as a trophy of war on August 30, 1945. It stayed with him until the 1960s, when he gave it to Richard Brundo, a former mayor of Culver City, California. Brundo died in 2016. A descendant consigned the flag.

What is the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag like in person? Are there aspects or details that the camera doesn’t capture? For example, what is it like to touch the fabric? Is it substantial? The flag is a good quality wool bunting. It has a soft hand–it is not a roughly woven fabric. The stitching is well executed and substantial. 

What condition is the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag in? And what role does condition play when we’re talking about WWII-era Japanese rank flags–are they so rare that collectors have to be more forgiving of stains and rips and other injuries? Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag from the Nagato is in good condition–used, worn, and soiled, but otherwise intact. That would be expected in that there is a certain prestige in being a flagship, let alone that of the Combined Fleet. The signalmen would have taken care of such a rank flag. 

With game-worn sports uniforms, collectors want to see enough wear to show that the garments were used in a real game, but not so much that they look as if they were dragged under a bus. Is that the case with battle-flown flag collectors? They want to see some wear, but not too much? Condition is everything. Most damage to flags occurs from use, the weather, or the environment. We rarely see documentable damage from ship-to-ship combat. Rank flags are in good condition, probably for that reason–they were probably not exposed to direct enemy fire. We don’t expect to see that kind of damage. Looking at this flag, you can see it was used. You can tell by the nap of the wool if it was exposed to the elements. This one was. The spotting on the fly edges [the edge opposite the edge that attaches to the flagpole] is not egregious and gives the flag a little character. It doesn’t detract from its appearance.

The period photos shown here appear to document the United States Navy Prize Crew's boarding of the Nagato on August 30, 1945. A member of the crew obtained Admiral Yamamoto's rank flag during that operation.

Among the photos sent over by Heritage Auctions is a quartet of period black-and-white images showing a ship and its crew from various angles. Could you explain what I see here? Those appear to be images of the Nagato taken on August 30, 1945 by the United States Navy’s Prize Crew. They are views of different aspects of the Nagato at anchor in Tokyo Bay. One depicts the prize crew with the Nagato’s ensign, which was conveyed to the US Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis, MD. 

Were any other Japanese flags recovered from the Nagato? Have any of those flags gone to auction? How have they performed? The entire contents of the Nagato’s flag locker [the space on the vessel dedicated to flag storage] was captured intact, so there are at least 13 known Nagato flags, and probably more. Some of the other Nagato trophy flags have come to auction. A Nagato ensign sold at Mark Lawson Antiques in 2013 for a hammer price [the price without buyer’s premium and related fees] of $18,000. Bonhams sold a Nagato flag in 2018 for $13,750. Heritage handled at least one other ensign from the Nagato on December 14, 2019 for $47,500. That was the highest known price paid for a Nagato flag.

What is the world auction record for a World War II-era rank flag? What are the odds that the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag will meet or exceed it? The highest price of which I am aware is $6,000. I have no crystal ball, but I would expect this flag to meet and exceed this. It’s got the Nagato cachet, but it’s even rarer. It was only displayed in the presence of a full admiral, and the only full admiral present was Yamamoto.

Why will this rank flag stick in your memory? It has the triple crown of historic importance. It’s from a distinguished individual, Admiral Yamamoto. It’s from a distinguished vessel, the Nagato. And it’s associated with a historic event, the attack on Pearl Harbor. For me, personally, as a flag scholar, I’d love to see it go to a museum.

How to bid: Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag is lot 43037 in the Historic Flags of WWII and Other Historic Flags sale taking place at Heritage Auctions on June 6, 2020.

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The Kurt Cobain Guitar from MTV Unplugged’s 1993 Nirvana Episode Could Command $1 Million and Several World Auction Records (Updated June 20, 2020: WHOA!)

Shown in full here is the 1959 Martin D-18E guitar that Kurt Cobain played during a legendary episode of MTV Unplugged. The vintage instrument could sell for $1 million.

Update: WHOA! The 1959 Martin D-18E guitar that Kurt Cobain played on the 1993 MTV Unplugged episode featuring Nirvana commanded just over $6 million–$6,010,000, to be exact. It did indeed set several world auction records, including most expensive guitar at auction; most expensive Martin guitar; and most expensive item of Nirvana memorabilia.

What you see: A 1959 Martin D-18E guitar, played by Kurt Cobain for Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged episode. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $1 million.

The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.

Who was Kurt Cobain, and why does his music still resonate today? Kurt Cobain was the lead singer, guitar player, and writer for the band Nirvana, which had a short lifespan. Cobain died tragically in April 1994, but the peak of his fame was 1991 through 1994. Grunge music and grunge clothing represents an era of music, an attitude, Gen X–so many things are wrapped up in it. Nirvana has music and lyrics that have meaning to us all right now.

Another angle on the vintage Martin guitar Kurt Cobain played during the 1993 MTV Unplugged performance by Nirvana.

I get the sense that there’s not a lot of Kurt Cobain material out there to be had. Is that right? That’s absolutely true. There’s a very limited amount of stuff out there. Kurt Cobain was a minimalist guy in a minimalist era. The majority of the stuff is still with the family. We sold a Fender guitar of his last year for $340,000. And the green cardigan [he wore during the MTV Unplugged episode] we sold for $334,000. I think Kurt Cobain would be laughing and crying at the same time [over the result]. He bought it for a few bucks in a thrift shop, and it has cigarette burns and stains. And he wrote great songs, but he was also an artist from a very young age. When his drawings come to market, they can get $7,000, $8,000, $9,000.

I guess Kurt Cobain is kind of like John Lennon, in a way. Exactly. There’s a lot of crossover between Kurt Cobain and John Lennon. The Beatles transformed music and our attitude to music in the 1960s. Nirvana did it again in the 1990s.

The front of the headstock of the 1959 Martin D-18E guitar cherished by Kurt Cobain. He chose it to perform the entire 14-song setlist for the MTV Unplugged Nirvana episode.

Do we know when and how Kurt Cobain acquired this 1959 Martin D-18E guitar? Kurt Cobain played many guitars and broke many guitars on stage. It was part of his show, and part of his schtick. He bought this in the early 1990s at Voltage Guitars, a store in Los Angeles. Martin made 302 of those D-18E guitars. They’re rare and highly collectible. This guitar is number seven in the production run.

What might have moved Kurt Cobain to purchase this vintage guitar? He bought it for a couple of reasons. Kurt Cobain was a left-handed guitar player, and it’s easy to adapt a Martin guitar for left-handers. He also added a Bertolini pickup. That made it an electric guitar–it was still acoustic, but it was modified for electricity. [Since this story went live on May 18, 2020, Lloyd Chiate, owner of Voltage Guitars, offered a correction: The Martin D-18E is, in fact, an electric guitar. While we can no longer ask Cobain why he added the Bertolini pickup, he may have done so to improve the guitar’s tone and its performance during recording sessions.]

A close-up on the 1959 Martin D-18E guitar that shows the Bertolini pickup Kurt Cobain added to it (it's visible inside the sound hole).
If you look inside the sound hole, you can see the Bertolini pickup that Kurt Cobain added to the 1959 Martin D-18E guitar.

MTV Unplugged was a well-regarded, even prestigious musical showcase before taping the Nirvana episode, but that 1993 show is great enough to demand its own category. Why? What makes it such a magnificent performance? Kurt Cobain ruled the roost with that production. He designed the stage, the candlelight, the chandelier–all his decision. There were 14 songs, including six covers from the Vaselines, David Bowie, Lead Belly, and the Meat Puppets. He had members of the Meat Puppets on stage during the performance. It was shot in one take, which is the first time that had happened for MTV Unplugged. Everything Kurt could give, every single ounce, he laid it out in that performance. Five months later, he was gone.

A detail shot of the vintage 1959 Martin belonging to Kurt Cobain that shows the body of the guitar.

Do you think, maybe, Kurt Cobain approached the look and feel of the MTV Unplugged performance and made those choices knowing he might not be around much longer? For me, it’s hard to say, but with hindsight, the candles, the lilies–it was almost a funeral parlor type of setting. He certainly seized the moment to deliver an unforgettable performance for us all. He poured it out there, and the Martin guitar was the canvas that he used. Kurt is gone, but the guitar remains of this historic event.

Did Kurt Cobain use this Martin guitar exclusively for all 14 songs in the MTV Unplugged set list, or did he switch it out for another instrument for some songs? I believe this was the only guitar Kurt used during MTV Unplugged.

A detail shot of the vintage Martin owned by Kurt Cobain, showing three knobs on its right side.

This one is a weird one for me because Nirvana is part of my life. I remember where I was when I got the news of Kurt Cobain’s death, and I connected with his outlook on things… He didn’t want to be famous. He didn’t love fame at all, or music executives, or studios. [In the MTV Unplugged episode] he looked to elevate less well-known bands. The 14 songs included Lead Belly. He had the Meat Puppets. He could have had more famous artists, but he said no, we want the Meat Puppets.

The Kurt Cobain guitar comes with the hard case that he stored it in. How unusual is it to have a guitar from a name musician that retains its carrying case? I wouldn’t say it’s very rare. It’s fairly common. If it’s a special guitar, I’d say a hard-shell case is attached to it. What’s really interesting is it’s not a custom guitar built for Kurt Cobain. It’s not a highly decorated guitar. It was made by the Martin Guitar Company in 1959. He got it in the early 1990s and he played it a lot and played it in important venues. It clearly was something special.

The vintage Martin guitar owned by the late Kurt Cobain, shown in full, with its hard case, and items found inside the case.

Yeah, I think it’s worth pointing out that the Kurt Cobain guitar is not covered in mother-of-pearl or silver or other flashy decorations. It’s a tool to do a job. He definitely had an affinity with the guitar and a sense of reverence for it. It’s a musical instrument built to deliver sound–that’s what it was used for. It doesn’t seem right to have it tricked up with all the bells and whistles. It’s a beautiful guitar with nothing ostentatious about it.

Can you talk about how Kurt Cobain decorated the guitar case, and talk about the things of his that come with the case? On the case, there’s a flyer from Poison Idea, stuck on with silver masking tape. It’s like a postcard of the 1990 album cover for Feel the Darkness. Poison Idea was a huge inspiration for Kurt and Nirvana. There’s an Alaska Airlines sticker, luggage tags on the handle, and also half a pack of guitar strings. And there’s a suede pouch, like a stash pouch, a recreational drug pouch, I’d describe it as. It has a miniature knife, fork, and spoon.

A closeup on a Poison Idea flyer that Kurt Cobain duct-taped to the neck of his guitar case. It touts the punk band's 1990 album Feel the Darkness.

Yeah, what’s the deal with the little set of utensils? Do we know why it’s there, and how Kurt Cobain might have used it? I have no idea, but I think it was a souvenir. You can wear it [the utensils] on a lapel, but you can attach them to the pouch. The spoon is pinned to the outside of the pouch.

The Kurt Cobain guitar comes with its case and an assortment of items found with the case, including luggage tags, spare strings, guitar picks, and a set of miniature utensils.

How do we know that this 1959 Martin D18-E guitar is the same one Kurt Cobain played in the MTV Unplugged episode? It’s so well-documented. It’s so identifiable, with the video performance. The markings on the guitar match perfectly. There’s no question this is the guitar.

You mean the scratches on the guitar match those on the guitar Kurt Cobain plays in the MTV Unplugged show? Exactly. It’s easy to match up.

Scratch marks on the body of the 1959 Martin D-18E guitar match marks on the guitar Kurt Cobain was filmed playing during the MTV Unplugged episode.

Julien’s estimates the Kurt Cobain guitar at $1 million. That’s a serious number. Not many stage-played guitars get seven-figure estimates. What informed the number? Dave Gilmour’s 1969 Martin D-35 sold one year ago for $1 million, the highest price paid for a Martin guitar. Before that, Eric Clapton’s 1939 Martin OO0-42 sold for $791,500. We’ve estimated this 1959 Martin D-18E guitar at around $1 million, and I think we could set a new record for a Martin guitar, and possibly could set a world auction record for a guitar.

The world auction record for any guitar belongs to another David Gilmour guitar sold last year at Christie’s, a 1969 black Fender Stratocaster that commanded $3.975 million. You think the Kurt Cobain guitar has a shot at taking the title? This definitely has the potential, given the interest in it, and the sophisticated buyers interested in it.

What sort of reaction are you getting for the Kurt Cobain guitar? Bigger than usual, even for a top-of-the-line item? There’s been an unbelievable outpouring. It’s up there with when we sold the John Lennon guitar that had been lost for years, and up there with the Marilyn Monroe dress. I’ve done so many interviews!

A shot of the vintage Martin Kurt Cobain owned, alongside its hard shell case.

What condition is the Kurt Cobain guitar in? The case is beat up, but the guitar is in great condition.

Did the person who consigned the Kurt Cobain green cardigan consign the guitar? No, they’re not the same person.

The Kurt Cobain-owned vintage Martin guitar, shown in full inside its case.

Do we know what happened to the Kurt Cobain guitar after he died in 1994? How did it go from the estate to the current consigner? I have to be careful here because I’m under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). The guitar stayed in the family for many years. It comes to the market from a consigner who remains anonymous. It comes free and clear, no issues, absolutely none.

What is the Kurt Cobain guitar like in person? It’s a good, sturdy guitar. A big guitar, but not tremendously heavy. Given its age and history, it’s in very good condition. It’s been played, but it’s been cared for as well.

Have you played the Kurt Cobain guitar? No. I loosened the strings to take it on the plane [to personally escort it to London, where it’s on display until May 31, 2020 at the Hard Rock Cafe in Piccadilly Circus]. The cabin pressure on the plane could tighten them up, and they could snap. We think the strings on it are from when Kurt last played it. Nothing has been done to the guitar since then. We want the new owner to get the guitar from Kurt, as the last person who played it.

Does this June 2020 sale represent the first time the Kurt Cobain guitar has come to auction? It’s the first time it’s been to auction. We felt that $1 million was the appropriate estimate for this particular guitar because of its importance. Based on the pre-auction interest, it still feels like a conservative estimate.

A detail shot of the Kurt Cobain guitar, focusing on the back of the headstock.

Did the sale price of the Kurt Cobain green cardigan factor in to the $1 million estimate for the guitar? It certainly did. Not to take away from the sweater, but if you have the chance, would you want a grungy sweater with cigarette burns, or would you want a guitar from the same performance that you can use and play? Also, when the sweater sold for $300,000, you have to think [the guitar] should sell for at least three times that, if not ten times that.

You’ve handled a lot of amazing guitars in your time at Julien’s. I mean, a lot a lot. Why will this one stick in your memory? It’s amazing just because I have a great personal appreciation of Kurt Cobain, and a sadness for how he’s no longer with us, and how he passed away. He was a creative genius, and became a star against his own wishes. To be entrusted with this guitar, and to be part of its story in a small way, is a massive privilege.

How to bid: The MTV Unplugged Kurt Cobain guitar is lot 742 in the Music Icons sale taking place at Julien’s on June 19 and June 20, 2020.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

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Images are courtesy of Julien’s Auctions.

Martin Nolan previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a stage-played B.B. King “Lucille” guitar, the “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to serenade JFKthe first TCB necklace given away by Elvis Presley, a purple Prince-worn tunic that the star donned for a 1998 BET interview, which yielded a famous GIF; a Joseff of Hollywood simulated diamond necklace worn by Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and several other Hollywood actresses, as well as a once-lost 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar belonging to John Lennon that sold for $2.4 million–a then-record for any guitar at auction.

The 1993 Nirvana episode of MTV Unplugged isn’t online as a whole, but as of May 2020, you can watch individual songs from the legendary show on Nirvana’s YouTube channel. The band is offering access to encourage donations to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

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A Golf-Themed Cocktail Set from 1926 Could Fetch $7,500

A silver-plated golf-themed cocktail set, created circa 1926 and regarded as the first figurative cocktail set. It is not complete, however. The full set consists of a shaker, six cups, and a tray.

What you see: A silver-plated golf-themed cocktail set, consisting of a shaker and six cups and dating to 1926. Sotheby’s estimates it at $5,500 to $7,500.

The expert: Alan Bedwell, founder of Foundwell, a vintage accessories gallery.

I’d like to start by talking about the relationship between Prohibition and cocktails–specifically, how the former shaped the latter. People drank cocktails before Prohibition. You can see shaker designs that date to Victorian times. I think what revolutionized it was people began to travel to more exotic, far-off places, like Brazil and Singapore, and when they came back, they wanted to drink caipirinhas and Singapore slings here. There was a wonderful scene in the 1920s and 1930s, coming out of the gloom of World War I. People were into having fun. Cocktails became more iconic in that period for those reasons. Prohibition was a time where people were maybe having too much fun. [Laughs]

As you just said, cocktail shakers go back to Victorian times. Prohibition became law in 1920. Why did it take until 1925 for the first figurative cocktail shaker design to come along? And why did it take golf as its theme? I’d say it was more the influence of golf on design, really, than thinking “Oh, I’m going to design this”. Golf was an elitist sport at that point and few people played it. What it [this golf-themed cocktail set] did was light the touch paper, in a way. It changed the landscape of cocktail shaker design.

The cocktail shaker in the golf-themed cocktail set lightly adapts a common barware form--the watering can-shaped shaker.

So whoever created this was more interested in combining golf with barware than revolutionizing barware design? Yes. Barware didn’t take a novelty appearance until this came around. You see some departures, but the shapes are not fun things like penguins. This piece is still not a huge departure. There are two classic styles [for cocktail shakers]: the cylinder and the jug, which is almost like a watering can. The watering can is similar to a golf bag. They took the handle and made it the shoulder strap of the golf bag, and put fake leather stitching on it and a golf ball on top.

Does the golf-themed cocktail set pictured here–consisting of a cocktail shaker and six cups–represent the complete set? You could buy it as a set, and the set came as eight pieces, but you could buy them as individual pieces. A complete set had a tray to go with it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t have the tray. It’s very rare. I’ve only ever seen one.

Do we have any notion of how many of these golf-themed cocktail sets were made, and how many survive? No, I’ve never been able to find records for manufacturing numbers. I’d say they’re quite rare.

Do we know how much this golf-themed cocktail set would have sold for when it was new? The eight-piece set sold for $66.50 in 1926. In 1927, a Model T Ford sold for $850, and the average monthly income was $250. It was a luxury item when it was made, and they didn’t make a lot of them, that’s for sure. As pieces go, the shaker is most common. You very rarely see the cups.

Why are the cups so rare, compared to the other pieces in the golf-themed cocktail set? They’re quite small by modern standards. The cups are three inches tall–very easy [for them] to go missing. They got lost, or thrown out.

So the cups that go with the golf-themed cocktail set no longer reflect how people drink? Essentially, today, these are shot cups. In the period, they were cocktail cups. Elsewhere in the sale we have two sets of martini glasses, one from the mid-1920s and one from the 1930s. They’re tiny compared to modern glasses–the portion sizes were smaller. What you get, liquid-wise, is less than you get today.

When you have a complete or near-complete golf-themed cocktail set, what sorts of things have to happen to allow it to remain intact for a century? It’s very rare to find everything together. Somebody cherished this over the years. Usually they come out of houses that have had them for a very long time, or collectors who have had them all their lives.

I understand you’ve had two of these golf-themed cocktail sets in your career: This one, and a second that required some assembly? The prior set I had, I bought the shaker on its own, and bought five cups from a different dealer. Very fortunately, eight to ten months later, I found a sixth cup [at a different venue] in a cardboard box of odds and ends. I had it in three different installments. It’s not unusual to find [a vintage barware set] in that kind of way.

The press release for the auction talks about the golf-themed cocktail set and says it was “perhaps intended to fool authorities by making it appear to be decorative or ornamental rather than practical”. What evidence supports that idea? And where would its original owner have stored or displayed the set when it was not in use? Alcohol consumption was heavily frowned upon. People didn’t openly display barware, or alcohol, for that matter. With the Prohibition movement, everything was put behind closed doors.

So the golf bag design for the shaker is not about fooling the cops. It’s about deflecting the attention of your cranky old aunt who will give you an earful if she sees anything in your house that hints that you might be a drinker. Exactly. A Puritan eye might look at it and think, “Oh, that’s a golf trophy”. Lot 23 is another one that can sit inconspicuously on a shelf. You think, “Oh, that’s just a bell”. You don’t think, “He’s having wild parties on the weekend and getting up to god-knows-what”.

The design of the cups in the golf-themed cocktail set matches that of the shaker. They, too, are styled with a decorative (but flat) strap, and styled to mimic the look of leather and canvas.

In the photographs Sotheby’s sent over, the cups are arranged to show a decorative detail on one side, and I’m not sure what the decoration is–is it a bag strap? It’s an exact play on the body of the shaker–it has the pouch for tees, and a shoulder strap. It also [imitates] a structured, shaped golf bag and the things that went around the bag. Look at the finish of the shaker and the cups–they’re textured, because most golf bags are canvas and leather.

What do the components of the golf-themed cocktail set feel like? Do they have a good weight to them? Pretty good, yeah. With these things, you don’t want them to be heavy, but you don’t want them to be fragile. If you have a few drinks and drop it, you don’t want to break it. The only downside is that the cups are small. But it’s a really good set.

How practical is the golf-themed cocktail set? Is it easy to make and serve cocktails with it? It’s very practical. If you make a drink with ice or fruit in it, a strainer [in the spout] makes everything easier. It’s not bulky, and it’s very easy to clean when you’re done. The lighthouse shaker, a rare and important piece of cocktail design–that is big. I don’t want to put people off, but when you fill it with ice and booze, it’s heavy. This golf-themed cocktail shaker, because it’s early, it’s very useful. It’s a very loosely figural piece, a classic watering can style made to look like a golf bag. It’s a good size, and easy to mix and clean.

What condition is the golf-themed cocktail set in? And what sort of condition issues do you see with this set? I see pieces missing–the lid missing, the spout stopper missing. Sometimes the handle snaps off if people are brutish with it. And general dents and dings happen with cocktail shakers when they’re banged against each other or banged on the bar. This is in pretty damn good condition for something that’s 100 years old, and has been used. It’s got all its original silver plate, and the patina is great.

What’s the world auction record for this golf-themed cocktail set? Sets have been to auction before. One sold at Christie’s London in 2008 for £5,250.

Why will this golf-themed cocktail set stick in your memory? It’s an important piece. It’s kind of the Michael Jordan of the barware world. It came into the game and changed everything. In all my years of doing it [handling vintage barware], it’s only the second one I’ve had. In this auction, we’ve got a good showcase of important designs in the catalog–we’ve got the penguin, the lighthouse, the bell. This is the superstar, because it’s the first figurative one.

How to bid: The golf-themed cocktail set is lot 29 in Prohibition in America | 100 Years, an online sale at Sotheby’s that opened on May 7, 2020 and closes on May 21, 2020.

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A Tall Gogotte Formation Could Fetch Almost $4,000 (Updated May 21, 2020)

A tall gogotte--a naturally occuring sculpture-like rock formation--could fetch $4,000 in a Christie's online sale.

Update: Sacre bleu! The tall gogotte from Fontainebleu, France sold for £27,500, or about $33,600–more than eight times its high estimate.

What you see: A gogotte formation from Fontainebleu, France. Christie’s London estimates it at £2,000 to £3,000, or $2,520 to $3,780.

The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.

What is a gogotte? At its most basic, it’s an incredibly beautiful white, sculpture-like, naturally occurring rock formation. On the scientific level, it’s silica sand and calcium carbonate that fused 30 million years ago.

How did these naturally occurring sculptures get the name “gogotte”? What does “gogotte” mean? I don’t know the etymology, and I don’t want to speculate. But we’ve known of these formations since the 18th century. There’s a grotto-like fountain at Versailles built entirely out of these.

What do we know about how gogottes form, and what conditions were present 30 million years ago that allowed them to form? They formed in the geologic unit of time called the Oligocene. The African and European [techtonic] plates were colliding, and the ocean spread up to Paris. Volcanic activity forced mineral-rich water containing calcium carbonate through sand at exactly the right temperature and consistency to get locked into position. The process was unknown for a long time–they figured it out in the last 30 years.

That’s a long time to wait, considering that gogottes have been known and collected since the 18th century. For scientists, gogottes are not necessarily an exciting formation. Only when you take them out of the context of geology do they become exciting. It’s interesting that the artistic side drove the understanding of the science [of gogotte formation], and not the other way around.

Are all gogottes white? No. The white color is from the sand–quartz, essentially. You see natural yellow coloration in many gogottes, but the more pure the color white, the more commercial it is. It’s the white color that makes them look so perfectly cloudlike and desirable.

When were the first gogottes discovered? I’m pretty certain it was in the 18th century, when [the French] were building the gardens at Versailles.

Are gogottes still being quarried in France today, or are they quarried out? I don’t know of anywhere in France that’s actively quarrying at the moment, but they found several of them in the early 2000s. “Quarrying” is a slightly more aggressive term. Many are probably lifted off the ground.

Are gogottes found only in France? You do see similar sandstone concretions elsewhere, but you don’t get the color and the sense of movement that the French ones have.

Gogottes are found all over the world, but the ones that formed in France are considered the most compelling.

The gogotte pictured in lot 4 of the sale measures a bit more than 17 inches high and is described as “a tall gogotte formation”. Why? Are few gogottes taller than 17 inches? You can certainly have them larger than that. The descriptives I use tend to describe the impression they make on me. There are 14 gogottes in the sale. Writing “A Gogotte Formation” over and over gets a bit repetitive. Descriptives give them a bit more dynamism. It’s as simple as that.

Is this gogotte solid? What does it weigh? It is solid. If I dropped it on my toes, it’d break a few bones, but I could certainly carry it upstairs and not be upset. I’d guess it’s 20 to 25 kilos [44 to 55 pounds].

What is this gogotte like in person? Are there details that the camera can’t capture? The camera doesn’t get how three-dimensional they are. You want to stand it on a plinth and walk around it. It’s spectacular from every angle.

Have you held this gogotte? I’ve been at Christie’s for 15 years, and I’ve seen many things. For me, there are two categories that no matter how many I catalog, they’re exciting: pocket globes, and gogottes. There’s something magical about them. They’re quite a contemplative object to touch, [not unlike] the Chinese aesthetic of scholar stones.

Do the Chinese like to collect gogottes? The Chinese market is adamant about completely pure white gogottes. They don’t tolerate the yellowing that Westerners might be more forgiving of. Everybody is drawn to these natural sculptures. I’ve had collectors come [over] from Old Masters, antiquities, rare books, and contemporary art. I’ve seen gogottes stood next to contemporary art and they hold their own. It’s really amazing.

Were the 14 gogottes in the sale consigned by the same person? No.

Is it unusual to have this many gogottes in the same sale? I would say it is rare. When I put together a sale, I try to curate a good selection of different sizes and different price points. It’s fun to decide what makes the cut and the order to run them in. But I’m picky when it comes to shapes and colors in the auction. If I get offered ten, I might take only one or two.

So it’s OK to put more than a dozen gogottes in one sale, because the demand is there. With 14, there’s plenty of interest in each. It’s a bit like the art market in that there are different tastes–you want one that’s pure white, or a bit larger, or has a bit more movement to it. I expect five or six [bidders] to chase after each one.

About 30 million years ago, water rich in calcium carbonate was forced through silica sand at the right temperature and consistency to form this gogotte.

What’s the provenance of this tall gogotte? It’s been in a French collection for at least ten years. Most of the ones on the market now are from finds in the 80s, 90s, and the early 2000s.

Can a gogotte lose its white color over time from being touched by human hands? They can. The other thing to consider–and this is ludicrous–but 30 million years is still relatively young [for a natural history specimen]. It’s not fully cooked. The surface is a bit crumbly. You could take a car key and scratch it.

What’s the world auction record for a gogotte? It was at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2016, and it was around $100,000 in U.S. dollars.

I realize there are 13 other gogottes in the sale. Do you have a favorite? Lot 61 stands out for me because it has a barn owl face in it. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. I love barn owls, so that pleases me. And I’m covetous of lot 7, which has a large, rounded shape that’s quite minimalist in appearance. I’ve not seen one that minimalist and that large before.

Why will the tall gogotte stick in your memory? There’s something about it that seems optimistic, like a rocketship shooting up to the moon. You can see the different directions of water flowing. They’re such fun objects to contemplate.

How to bid: The tall gogotte formation is lot 4 in Sculpted by Nature: Fossils, Minerals and Meteorites, an online Christie’s sale that began on May 4, 2020 and ends on May 21, 2020.

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Images are courtesy of Christie’s.

James Hyslop has appeared on The Hot Bid twice previously, talking about a Canyon Diablo meteorite and a Seymchan meteorite with pallasites.

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A Rufino Tamayo Galaxia Print Could Fetch $15,000 (Updated May 21, 2020)

Galaxia, a monumental 1977 print by the late Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, depicts a gorgeous, constellation-bedecked night sky that fades from magenta to royal purple.

Update: The Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print sold for $15,000.

What you see: Galaxia, a 1977 print by Rufino Tamayo. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000

The expert: Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann and director of prints and drawings.

Who was Rufino Tamayo? He was a famous Mexican artist who started as a painter and a printmaker in the late 1920s. He was also well-traveled and worked in various artistic centers around the world. He wasn’t the “revolutionary” artist that [fellow Mexican artists] Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros were. His work has a much different tenor.

What role did printmaking play in Rufino Tamayo’s career? It was instrumental to his career and it propelled him to worldwide renown, but he was known for his paintings and murals.

How often do night scenes appear in Rufino Tamayo’s work? Is is a theme he returned to often, or is Galaxia a rarity? He produced night scenes throughout his career, in his paintings as well as his prints. Galaxia is by far the most ambitious and best-known. It stands apart for its size, its ambition, and its graphic quality.

Do we know what moved Rufino Tamayo to create Galaxia? He was drawing from his Zapotec heritage. The Mesoamericans based their calendar on constellations. The knowledge was passed down through the generations. Tamayo was tapping in to that. He might have chosen night images to bring the ancient Mesoamerican traditions to life.

Does the Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print depict a real place, or is it imagined? It’s almost certainly of his own invention.

Do the constellations in Galaxia correspond to known constellations? They don’t appear to be. Tamayo was drawing on the graphic quality–the dots and lines–to create a rhythmic repetition in the piece. They’re more decorative than realistic.

The Galaxia print’s medium is called “color Mixografía”. I haven’t encountered that medium before. What is Mixografía? It’s a separate printing technique developed by Tamayo in conjunction with the Taller de Gráfica Mexicana printmaking workshop in Mexico City. [The studio later changed its name to Mixografía and relocated to Los Angeles.]

Could you talk about how Rufino Tamayo uses color in Galaxia? He sure gets a lot of expression out of that purple. The color is magnificent. [Laughs] Above all, Tamayo is a great colorist. In particular, the Mixografía prints were made on very absorbent handmade paper with a cotton-like texture. It allowed the colors to bleed and blend in a manner not unlike watercolors. The tones of the vast moonlit sky give the image a wonderful ethereal quality.

How thick is the paper? In some cases, the handmade Mixografía papers are a quarter-inch or more thick. It’s a very hefty, ultra-handmade paper. It feels more like pressed cotton pulp than a fine, finished paper.

In Tamayo’s obituary in the New York Times, poet Octavio Paz said: “If I could express with a single word what it is that distinguishes Tamayo from other painters of our age, I would say, without a moment’s hesitation: sun. For the sun is in all his pictures, whether we see it or not; night itself is for Tamayo simply the sun carbonized.” Do we see Paz’s observation reflected in Galaxia? I would say so. Tamayo portrayed powerful natural phenomena as mystical forces. He didn’t just incorporate elements in his work as background–he made them the subject of his work. The sun is a sheer, all-encompassing power that makes humans seem insignificant in the face of nature.

How does the moon in Galaxia match the power of the sun in Tamayo’s work? It imparts the vastness of Tamayo’s imagery in its size and scale, and its focus on the night sky, the constellations, the moon, and the shadow of the mountain. There’s no human presence, just a vast night desert sky.

When did Rufino Tamayo start working with the Taller de Gráfica Mexicana print workshop? They started working together in 1973, when Tamayo wanted to incorporate texture and dimensionality in his prints in the same way as in his fresco work. Taller de Gráfica Mexicana was a second-generation print workshop operated by Luis Remba and his wife, Lea.

How thick is the layer of ink on the Mixografía paper? Is it similar to impasto? It’s not impasto in the sense of [that seen on] a painting, but it has impasto-like qualities.

The Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print is large and long–20 inches by 47 1/4 inches. First of all–is it printed on one sheet, or more than one sheet that’s been joined to make a whole? Amazingly, it’s one sheet.

This is a big, weird size for a print. Did Galaxia pose any extra challenges to make? Tamayo had to specifically produce handmade paper for his prints, and he had to customize it for each of his editions, including Galaxia.

Making paper by hand… that’s not trivial. Not at all, but it’s something the printmakers would have been accustomed to, despite the challenges.

Did the Rembas have to build a special press to realize Galaxia? They had to build a special press, but they built it in 1973, in advance of this [the creation of the Mixografía print medium].

Is Galaxia the largest print that Rufino Tamayo made? No, he did larger. [Laughs]. In May 2019, we actually had one that was almost 60 inches by 95 inches. Its maquette utilized the largest lithographic stone ever produced. It still survives at the Mixografía workshop. Imagine working with that in the studio.

The lot notes describe the Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print as a “large, scarce print”, but I see this is number 66 of 100. I don’t necessarily think of a limited edition print run of 100 as translating to scarcity. What makes this print scarce? Given the size of Galaxia, its delicateness, and the care that goes into preserving it, it’s scarce. There have been only four at auction, including this one, in the last 30 years.

Now that you mention it, how do collectors store a Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print without damaging the ink? Most that I see are kept in shadow box frames. The paper has a textured quality, and the ink is not completely flat. It needs room, and also protection. You can’t pile it with other things in a flat file.

What’s the world auction record for a Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print? Interestingly, the last impression to go to auction was at Swann in 2018. It achieved $11,875.

How does the 2018 Galaxia compare to the one you have in the upcoming sale? Do you think it will beat the record set two years ago? I think the odds of beating it are fairly strong. The market for Tamayo has gotten stronger. The 2018 impression and this one are fairly equivalent. If anything, there’s one fewer on the market. It’s a little more scarce. It might be a little more sought-after.

What is the Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print like in person? I’m guessing it, more than most, is tough to translate to pixels on a screen. It’s difficult. The paper is wonderfully textured, and the colors are so vivid and deep. When you’re in front of it, it transports you. It’s not a characterless inked sheet of paper. There’s a mood about it, something about the colors and the view.

It’s easy to imagine crickets chirping or frogs croaking as you look at it. Galaxia is large. As you stare at it, nothing else is in your field of vision. Your isolation under the night sky is imaginable.

Why will this Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print stick in your memory? I think it’s so evocative of his work. You can see in it the artist’s hand and his creativity. And it is transporting. There’s something universal about the beauty of a night sky like this. Everyone gets to see one at some point.

How to bid: Rufino Tamayo’s Galaxia print is lot 402 in the Old Masters Through Modern Prints sale at Swann Auction Galleries on May 21, 2020.

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Todd Weyman has appeared on The Hot Bid twice before, talking about a Howard Cook print that depicts the Chrysler Building and a print of M.C. Escher’s Night and Day.

Mixografía, the printmaking studio that collaborated with Rufino Tamayo, has a website.

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

A Paul Evans Sculpture Front Cabinet Could Fetch $150,000 (Updated May 13, 2020)

A Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet, created in 1975. The slate-topped Brutalist marvel could sell for $150,000 or more at Rago in May.

Update: The Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet sold for $106,250.

What you see: A Paul Evans sculpture front wall-mounted cabinet, created in 1975. Rago Auctions estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.

Who was Paul Evans? He’s from Newtown, Pennsylvania. He was formally trained in jewelry-making, studying at Cranbrook [now known as the Cranbrook Educational Community], and then became a furniture maker. He had at least four studios that I know of, [including] a gallery he and Phillip Lloyd Powell owned together in the 1960s and 1970s. He died of a heart attack in 1987.

Where was Paul Evans in his career in 1975, when he made this sculpture front cabinet? Was he mostly a regional phenomenon? Yes and no. We get offered Evans pieces. It’s what we’re known for. One reason we get offered them is they were made here and never left. Paul Evans or Dorsey Reading [Evans’s studio manager] personally set them up in their homes. Evans was catering to educated, wealthy world travelers. Imagine how radical this cabinet was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Radical? Normal people were not buying this stuff. They were not buying benchmade pieces by radical guys working in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

Paul Evans made about 75 sculpture front cabinets. This example features three doors.

This sculpture front wall-mounted cabinet is what I think of when I think of Paul Evans. But do we know how he hit upon this look? I can only guess, but people had credenzas. People needed pieces to hold silverware and tableware in the dining room, and needed pieces to hold stereos in the living room. It’s a very functional form. It’s a large piece of furniture with a lot of flat surfaces. Evans transformed them into works of art within a modern household.

But do we know how Paul Evans came to give his sculpture front cabinets this particular style and appearance? He was a jewelry designer first. Each box is designed like a little piece of jewelry, with small elements. Evans knew what it was basically going to look like. He’d do them [design the look of the sculpture front] all together and give them to Dorsey Reading to fabricate.

Do any of the motifs on Paul Evans sculpture front cabinets repeat, or is every cabinet entirely different-looking? He repeated these ideas, but no two are alike. If you look on the left-hand panel of the three on this cabinet–do you see the three crosshatches in orange?

Evidently thinking it wasn't heavy enough on its own, Evans topped his sculpture front cabinets with a slab of locally quarried slate. It takes four people to move the piece, with two assigned to the top.

Do the crosshatches kind of look like a tic-tac-toe grid? Yes. That’s unusual. The circle to the right of the tic-tac-toe–that’s always there. On the right-hand panel of the three, on the lower left, you’ll see another circle that looks like a sun. That’s an unusual variation, with color radiating from it. The clusters of gold nail heads–Evans liked that. There are always nail heads. If you look at the cluster of nail heads above the sun, and look to the right, there are stalactites. He always has those. There are four of them total on all three doors. The motifs tend to repeat, but he always plays with them.

How many sculpture front pieces did Paul Evans make? He made about 75 sculpture front pieces, and probably made them over eight or nine years. They’re labor-intensive, but all one-of-a-kind. And they were not a lot of money.

Not a lot of money? No. I’ve had half the sculpture front pieces made, and easily one-third of them had their original invoices. The most expensive was several thousand dollars. I recall invoices that say $1,000, $1,500.

So the original prices don’t reflect the labor that went into them. Not in my opinion.

A head-on view of the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet. His initial training as a jeweler shaped the appearance of this piece.

The lot notes say this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet comes with digital copies of the original invoice and drawing. Does that indicate that the cabinet was commissioned? Yes and no. I think he might have had a small selection of these in his shop on Main Street in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and took orders from them. But no two are alike. I’ve had cabinets with two doors, three doors, four doors. There are similarities in their shape, and the types of designs [on the front], and the mined slate tops–those are from a local quarry.

Because the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet is not heavy enough on its own–it needs a slate top. Exactly. It takes two men to carry the top. And you can’t get any more of the slate. It’s quarried out. It’s gone. There’s a lot of character to this slate.

Why do you think Paul Evans chose the slate to top the sculpture front pieces? I don’t know why, but it’s a local element, and it’s beautiful. It’s not even a polished piece of stone. It has whorls and ridges in it. It’s not a flat surface. But it’s a beautiful accompaniment to the sculpture front.

Would Paul Evans have designed the sculpture front cabinet and handed the design off to Dorsey Reading to fabricate? It was more collaborative than that, from what I understand. As Dorsey was fabricating, Paul Evans might sketch something out and Dorsey would incorporate it. I’d say Paul Evans was the primary artist here, but Dorsey knew what he was doing.

So the sculpture front design was kind of liquid? Evans might add a motif while Reading was still making it? Yes, or a couple of motifs. It wasn’t like he sketched the whole thing out.

A side view of the sculpted front of the Paul Evans cabinet, showing how some of the motifs jut forth.

What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet was to make? That I can’t speak to. For Evans to come up with the design–easy. Dorsey, his skills are really good. But it’s all magic to me.

How much work does this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet represent? I think this took about a week. It didn’t take a day, or a month. This is thick, welded steel. The ones [cabinets] on a wall are two-and-a-half feet deep.

How heavy is this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet, and how did its installers make sure that it didn’t tear away from the wall? I would say it’s 1,000 pounds for a full-size [cabinet]. This is a little less, because it’s a three-door. They didn’t just go into the sheetrock or plaster. They were set right into the studs, because the studs are supporting the wall.

A side view of the Paul Evans sculpted front cabinet, showing its raw, rugged appearance. Installers typically bolt the cabinets to the studs of the wall to ensure it won't pull away.

Oh! So it became part of the architecture. Yeah. When we move them, we don’t move them in one piece. We take the doors off. That’s three-quarters of the weight.

Paul Evans sculpture front cabinets were used when they were new, but do contemporary collectors use them, or do they tend to treat them like pure sculpture? I don’t see anyone using them as record cabinets. They store mostly dishes and silverware. But I think people who buy them understand they’re high art.

What condition is the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet in, and what condition issues do you tend to see with these pieces? I joke about it, but I’m serious–they’re indestructible. This is as solid as it looks. There can be some rust issues, and the colors can fade or oxidize, but this has good color. Look at the checkerboard on the left door. It has blue, yellow, red. Good color. And the kelp-like blue stuff below it, the red background is like dried blood. I think the color was more expressive half a century ago, but it has beautiful color.

What is the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet like in person? I think it’s photographed beautifully. It’s a powerful piece of Brutalist design. It’s massive, creative, and has a very strong presence to it.

This particular Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet was pictured in the book Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism. Does that matter at all to collectors? As I like to say, I can’t guarantee it helps, but I can guarantee it never hurts. This cabinet has great provenance, from its original owners, and even an original sketch. That’s plenty. On top of that, it was selected for the monograph of the artist. And the colors pop on this one.

Do collectors prefer the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinets that are more colorful? Yes, definitely. The one I sold for the most had a lot of red and sky blue in it. It was very colorful.

Is this piece unusually colorful for a Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet? Usually you don’t get as many of them. Usually, it’s just reds and blues. The checkerboard [on the left door] and the sun on the right door give you the full rainbow. They’re on opposing sides of the piece, but they’re not placed at the same level. It’s a really lyrical piece. You’ve got a thousand-pound piece of steel here, yet there’s an elegance and a lightness. That’s genius–the genius of design.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? I like the way the elements on the front are composed. It has a really good balance to them, a symmetry to them. The condition is excellent, and the colors are softer and add balance to the mass and scale of this piece. I would like it better if it was a four-door over a three-door, yes. But for this size, it’s perfect.

How to bid: The Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet is lot 116 in the Modern Design sale at Rago Auctions on May 13, 2020.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

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David Rago has appeared on The Hot Bid several times before, speaking about a George Ohr vasea super-tall Wally Birda record-setting unique ceramic tile by Frederick Hurten Rheada Paul Evans cabinet, and a René Lalique vase.

Dorsey Reading has a website.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

A P.G. Wodehouse-signed First Edition of His First Novel Could Command $3,000 (Updated May 7, 2020)

A first edition copy of The Pothunters, the debut novel by P.G. Wodehouse. The beloved English author also signed the book, which could command $3,000 or more.

Update: The first edition signed copy of The Pothunters by P.G. Wodehouse sold for $1,950.

What you see: A first edition signed copy of The Pothunters, P.G. Wodehouse’s debut novel. Freeman’s estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.

The expert: Darren Winston, head of the books, maps, and manuscripts department at Freeman’s.

Who was P.G. Wodehouse, and why does his work still resonate today? First, I should say, because I know it’s a pet peeve with collectors, it’s pronounced “Woodhouse”. When you’re talking with serious collectors and you say “Wodehouse,” they’ll shut you down immediately. Wodehouse is an English author, and he really is from another era. He was 20 when Queen Victoria died. When he realized he was a good writer, he became diligent about how he worked. He agonized over a sentence until he got it right. From a technical standpoint, he’s not dated–100 years later, the jokes are still funny.

That’s a good point. Why are P.G. Wodehouse’s jokes still funny? Good material is good material. Whether you like it or not, it’s just good writing.

The upper class, luxurious English-centric world that P.G. Wodehouse describes in his novels… he’s evoking a world that never really existed, strictly speaking. Certain things are real–the schools, the mansions, the cars–but it didn’t literally exist the way he imagines it. You’re right, it’s an imaginary place, except for the fact–and this is my interpretation–what I’ve learned is all his books and characters are his life experience, and it’s his life experience between the ages of 10 and 25. You could argue that every character is pastiche and parodies. Downton Abbey covers the same timeline as those books. If it took a comedic turn instead of a dramatic turn, you’d have it [Wodehouse].

How does The Pothunters fit in to P.G. Wodehouse’s world? The Pothunters is his experience. He went to a school like St. Austin’s. He knew those boys and those masters. It’s a tiny portion of English society, and there’s a lot of pain in that way of life–not in a depressing way, but it was what it was. To poke fun at it was a way of getting through it. I think the world of P.G. Wodehouse is [not dissimilar] to the way people talk about Tolkien and The Hobbit–he created a world and populated it. In his last books, it’s still basically 1919.

Why do you think Americans embraced P.G. Wodehouse’s books so firmly? He didn’t write down to anyone, ever. He did it respectfully, so the upper class laughed at themselves, and the lower class laughed, but not in a mean way. Never mean.

In thinking about why P.G. Wodehouse still hits the mark, I realized that most people know someone like Gussie Fink-Nottle, who’s utterly obsessed with an obscure topic, or Tuppy Glossup, a nice-enough guy who has character flaws. So even if they’re running around in white tie and tails, they seem familiar anyway. I married a Brit, and I think I have a different experience of England than some of my friends do. I want to point out–it’s absurd but true–those people are out there. The people in the books–I’ve met them. I knew a friend who went to an English boarding school and university, and he speaks that way, like it’s 1905. He’s very modern in some ways, but he’s on an archaic trajectory. It’s like having a dodo bird in front of you. It’s fascinating to see it exist.

The Pothunters is P.G. Wodehouse’s first novel. How did its publication come about? Did he have a hard time selling the manuscript? It was published when he was 20, but he’d been writing since he was a teen. I don’t know if he had trouble getting it published. It was serialized in three installments and published in what would have been called a boys’ magazine. He wrote very much in the tradition of what he read as a boy–what the Brits call a “boys’ own book”.

What is The Pothunters about? It’s about a bunch of boys at an English boarding school not unlike the one he went to. A “pot” is what they call a trophy. The pothunters are trying to find pots that have been stolen from the school. He was writing in the style that he was reared in, and the subject matter was his own life.

What themes and tropes appear in P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters that recur in later Wodehouse books? The Pothunters is really the school story. You could say it launched his entire career.

Without The Pothunters, we don’t get Psmith, and we don’t get the background that many of the upper class characters share in the Jeeves and Wooster books. Exactly. You can argue that Wodehouse has characters in his canon in all age strata. Some of them grew up with him.

Over the last few days, my family and I have been watching episodes of the 1990s television series adaption of Jeeves and Wooster, starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie… One of the lots for sale is a tweed waistcoat Fry wore in the series.

Seriously? Whoa. I’m a big fan of the show and a bigger fan of Fry and Laurie. It speaks to one thing I love about what I do–I can put on a Stephen Fry vest, and maybe you saw it last night. And I can hold this copy of The Pothunters, which P.G. Wodehouse had in his hands 100 years ago. There’s one degree between me and him. It never gets old.

Did you try on the Stephen Fry Jeeves vest? I put it on and jokingly said if it didn’t sell, I’d buy it.

Did it fit? It did! Dangerously, it did. My wife gave me a knowing look [as if to say] if it comes home, it’s OK.

To get back to P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters, how good a debut novel is it? I’m not a critic, but it can be argued it’s a very, very good debut. It’s his style. It didn’t change. That book came fully equipped.

This P.G. Wodehouse first edition of The Pothunters appeared in 1902. Does the copy predate the use of dust jackets? Or did it have a dust jacket and lose it at some point? Dust jackets were beginning to be a thing. As far as anyone knows, The Pothunters was issued without a dust jacket, but my feeling is it might have been. You can see others in the sale that are very much in the style of the period. The first edition we’re talking about is so clean, and the design is so simple, [I think] it had to have had a jacket.

Do we know how big the first edition of The Pothunters was? There’s no known quantities for the book. Wodehouse was paid a percentage on copies sold. I’d have to think closer to 500 than 5,000 were printed.

How often does a first edition copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters appear at auction? It shows up occasionally. If there are 50 copies of a Jeeves and Wooster online, there [might be] two Pothunters, and one will be a reprint and one will be a first edition.

P.G. Wodehouse wrote prolifically, but didn't sign all that many of his books. This first edition of The Pothunters, his debut novel, is among the few that he autographed. He lettered his name with a fountain pen, which indicates that he signed the book not long after its publication.

This copy is signed by P.G. Wodehouse. How rare is his signature, and how rare is it to see one on a first-edition copy of The Pothunters? Wodehouse signed for friends and fans. He didn’t sign a ton. What’s really cool about this signature on The Pothunters is it’s in fountain pen, and if you look at the ink, it’s old and brown. It makes me think it’s early. And it just says “P.G. Wodehouse”. He often signed with his nickname, Plum, or signed “Plum–P.G. Wodehouse”. Because this just says “P.G. Wodehouse”, it says to me he was young and not confident enough that the world would know him as Plum. It’s a big difference from the 90-year-old Wodehouse signing in ballpoint pen.

P.G. Wodehouse signed this copy of The Pothunters closer to when the book came out. Exactly. It’s uncommon to find a P.G. Wodehouse book signed. To find a copy of The Pothunters signed contemporaneously–that makes it much more interesting. Looking at auction records, I couldn’t find another.

What’s the world auction record for a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters, and what’s the world auction record for any P.G. Wodehouse book? The highest in general was 2013, at Bloomsbury in London, for The Globe By the Way Book, a 1908 collection of pieces he and a friend, Herbert Westbrook, published in The Globe. It’s one of the rarest pieces of Wodeiana. It sold for £26,840 ($42,192) against an estimate of £2,500 to £3,500 ($3,900 to $5,500), way more than ten times its high estimate. The record for The Pothunters was also set at Bloomsbury in 2014. It sold for £3,968 ($6,200) against an estimate of £1,200 to £1,800 ($1,900 to $2,800).

Was the record-setting copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters signed? It wasn’t. If we can beat $6,200, that would be fantastic.

What’s the condition of this first edition copy of The Pothunters? It was read. We’re lucky that it wasn’t abused. Its architectural parts are sound. If I had to distill it into two words: very good. The only thing that happened to this copy of The Pothunters over the last 120 years was that Wodehouse applied his name, which is a plus.

The first edition of The Pothunters is part of a larger single-owner P.G. Wodehouse collection that Freeman’s is offering on May 7. How well-regarded is the collection and its collector, William Toplis? He built the collection over 25 years and he had very high standards. There are no crappy copies. Everything is a home run. It’s a beautifully curated collection. The only thing that’s worth zero dollars is a copy of Big Money that he must have read at the beach.

How hard is it to build a P.G. Wodehouse collection such as this one? It’s difficult. Wodehouse is a popular subject to collect. He does have a following. This is a really good collection. Toplis was super-diligent. He knew what he wanted, he found it, and he paid for it.

Why will this P.G. Wodehouse first edition and this collection stick in your memory? I think it will stick in my memory because it was a collection. I never met Bill Toplis, but I feel I got much closer to him because I got the gift of handling his books. I saw where his heart was. These 190-odd items might go to 190 places, and Bill’s mojo is in them.

But isn’t it difficult to conduct and oversee the single-owner sale? I mean, you’re dismantling decades of work. In theory, yes. In practice, and this is going to sound corny, the collection is like a tree, and 190 acorns have come from it. Now they’re going back into the wild to seed 190 collections. It’s what I think should happen with beautiful things. They should move around, and lots of people should get to enjoy them.

How to bid: The P.G. Wodehouse first edition of The Pothunters is lot 105 in the P.G. Wodehouse Collection of William Toplis auction at Freeman’s on May 7, 2020.

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Darren Winston appeared previously on The Hot Bid talking about a first edition copy of A Confederacy of Dunces signed by Walker Percy.

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An Art Deco Silver Tureen by Jean Puiforcat Could Command $15,000 (Updated May 7, 2020)

Shown here is an Art Deco silver tureen with cover by French silversmith Puiforcat, and dating to 1925. Christie's could sell it for $15,000.

Update: The Art Deco silver tureen by Jean Puiforcat sold for $16,250.

What you see: An Art Deco silver tureen with cover by Jean Puiforcat. Christie’s estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

The expert: Jill Waddell, vice president and senior specialist in Christie’s silver department.

Who was Jean Puiforcat? He really is the one who brought Art Deco silver to the forefront, but the Puiforcat name–he’s fourth generation. He was born into a well-established family silver firm.

How is “Puiforcat” pronounced? Pwee-fo-cah.

What style of silver tureen would have been more standard in 1925, when Jean Puiforcat designed the one we see here? The late 19th century Beaux Arts style was more typical–shaped circular, oval, or rectangular pieces. You see a lot of grape vines and acanthus leaves.

So a more typical silver tureen design of the period would be fussier-looking, and more loaded with decorations? Yes, it would.

Would silver be a more conservative form of decorative art? Is it less likely to reflect the trends of the day? I wouldn’t really say that. It can be the first to show new artistic movements, because [old silver pieces in outdated styles] can be melted down. You see movements represented in silver five years before [they appear in] furniture, because silver can be melted down and reshaped.

In poking around, I noticed a quote on the Wikipedia page for Jean Puiforcat that calls him “the most important French Art Deco silversmith”. Do you agree with that statement? Maybe it takes it a little too far. He was the most well-known and most renowned Art Deco silversmith. The statement is a little bold, but mostly accurate.

Can we quantify how prolific Jean Puiforcat was, as opposed to earlier and later generations of Puiforcats? It’s really tricky. Jean Puiforcat uses the same hallmark–[that of] Emile Puiforcat–which has been used since the 19th century. Jean Puiforcat is responsible for introducing Art Deco, but he didn’t design everything himself, and he certainly didn’t hammer out the silver. There was a team behind him. It’s hard to determine what to ascribe to Jean Puiforcat unless it’s documented in literature. He probably wasn’t responsible for a single design from A to Z. It was more like [the studio of ] Louis Comfort Tiffany. He sketched it out, and another took it and finished the product, but he was the one credited with the design.

If a Puiforcat design in silver has an Art Deco look, is it reasonable to attribute it to Jean Puiforcat? A fair amount, but how many [designs] were put into large-scale production, we don’t know. But Puiforcat didn’t put all its eggs into one basket. Art Deco was a new style that took time to catch on. A good portion of their customers were looking to buy traditional flatware and dishes similar to what their mothers and grandmothers had. With Art Deco pieces, Puiforcat was saying, “You know we’re good and we have quality products, but look what we can do with forward-thinking design.” And it was. Puiforcat used jade with this piece. [With others] they also used rose quartz, rock crystal, and stone materials. Puiforcat took it up to another level of luxury.

Where was Jean Puiforcat in his career in 1925, when he designs this Art Deco silver tureen with cover? He was 28 years old, and grew up in the firm. He’s young, he’s got lots of ideas, he’s got forward-thinking friends, he’s got a good eye, and he understands the material, but he’s not so tied to a staid, established design.

Was Jean Puiforcat leading the family firm at that point? That I’m not sure.

But he would have been in the family business, with an eye toward taking over someday? And an eye toward modernizing it.

Is this Art Deco silver tureen with cover typical or atypical of Jean Puiforcat’s work? I’d say it’s pretty typical of the work that we see from him at that time. It’s geometric, streamlined, and simple, with an elegant silhouette, and it incorporates elegant materials.

I understand that Jean Puiforcat created the silver tureen with cover for the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, aka the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, which was held in Paris and later credited with launching Art Deco design. How did Jean Puiforcat come to be involved in the show? Was he invited? Did he win a competition? The fair was established for decorative art. [Word went out to all that] You’ve got to have modern ideas to promote and you have to adhere to that. If you’re willing to push forward, you can participate. Jean Puiforcat was responsible for taking on that tangent and putting Puiforcat on the map for Art Deco.

Do those lines on the Art Deco silver tureen and its cover have a specific name? They’re called radiating lobes. It’s pretty typical of his work from the time.

And I understand that while this Art Deco silver tureen design appeared in the Puiforcat display at the 1925 exhibition, we can’t confirm that this individual example was on view? We know the design was exhibited at the exhibition, but we don’t think this particular piece went there. The display was rotated. Things that didn’t sell well were probably moved out.

So the Puiforcat firm was also selling silver pieces directly to visitors to the 1925 Paris exhibition? Yes, people were purchasing.

And Jean Puiforcat would have put the Art Deco silver tureen with cover into production? Yes, it was put into production with different variants on it. The following lot has a glass body. It’s a different variant on the same design.

Do we have any idea how many of these Art Deco silver tureens that Puiforcat made? No idea, but they don’t pop up all that often. I see a lot of trays and platters, but I don’t see a lot of tureens.

Would the Art Deco silver tureen have been a top-of-the-line model? Might that explain its scarcity? It certainly would have been a top-of-the-line piece. It wouldn’t have a jade handle if it wasn’t a top-of-the-line piece.

Do we know how people reacted to this Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver tureen at the time? Was it shocking? I’m sure some people were there [at the 1925 Paris exhibition] to gawk, but it probably also attracted a lot of like-minded people. The tureen probably would have been pretty shocking, and probably would have been super-modern, and probably did what they expected it to do. It showed people who were familiar with Puiforcat quality and design just how far they could take it.

In the context of a dinner service, a tureen is a splashy item–not literally a centerpiece, but meant to be spectacular to look at. How does Jean Puiforcat carry forward that tradition in this piece? It was intended to live on a sideboard or in a glass cabinet, where it could be seen. It was not going to live in the butler’s pantry. Why keep it locked away?

So, it’s very much a showpiece. My catalogs ten years ago are nothing like my catalogs now. The population of buyers has shifted. They don’t want things that will live in the butler’s pantry. They want things that can live in a room as sculpture, and not necessarily in the dining room. They want things that are fun, that have character, that will draw the eye over to them. This tureen is exactly what people are looking for right now.

It looks like it could have been made last week. It’s a shockingly modern design for 1925. It looks modern today, and it proved to be timeless.

What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this Art Deco silver tureen might have been to make? I don’t think it was terribly difficult to make. Simplifying the design and getting the proportions right was probably more difficult. It’s a pretty plain form. What do you do to make it elegant and forward-thinking without it being boring and plain? You have to get rid of the motifs you’ve been using over and over, throw all that out, and start fresh, but keep it modern and elegant, and keep the same level of craftsmanship.

And its simplicity gives the silversmith fewer places to hide. You can’t bury a mistake under a decorative vine or sprig of leaves. The design proves how good you are. You’re probably right. There’s no room to hide a flaw.

What is the Art Deco silver tureen like in person? It’s really elegant, and it’s a nice size. I don’t think it had a matching ladle, because there’s no insert in [the lip for a ladle rest], but you could use it for soup. It’s lovely, and it’s a manageable size.

The size–does that reflect Art Deco as well? The move away from grand houses with dozens of servants and toward entertaining in smaller spaces? This is more intimate. It would be perfect in a Paris or a New York apartment.

What is it like to handle the Art Deco silver tureen? It feels nice, and has a nice weight to it. The jade handle feels really nice in the hand. You can feel the quality in it. It feels luxurious.

What condition is the Art Deco silver tureen in? What sorts of issues do you tend to see with tureens of this type? This is in very nice condition. The issues we tend to see are scratches to the interior, and bruises and bumps to the side.

Would this Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver tureen and the variant in lot 14 have been consigned by the same person? Yes. I don’t believe they were meant as a set.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? I really like the jade. The inclusion of jade is an interesting way of incorporating color. I don’t see a lot of color in my silver world. It’s a nice way of elevating the tureen.

How to bid: The Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver tureen with cover is lot 13 in The Collector: English & European 18th & 19th Century Furniture, Ceramics, Silver & Works of Art, an online sale taking place at Christie’s between April 28, 2020 and May 7, 2020.

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Inaugural License Plates from the Eisenhower-Nixon Years Could Sell for $6,000 (Updated May 15, 2020)

An inaugural license plate issued to President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957. It's one of the only two inaugural plates to include photographic portraits, and both feature Eisenhower and Nixon.

Update: The single 1957 inaugural license plate issued to President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower, sold for $7,995. The pair of 1953 inaugural license plates issued to Vice President-elect Richard M. Nixon sold for $2,767.50.

What you see: An inaugural license plate issued to President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, for his second inaugural celebration. It’s one of two lots of inaugural license plates from the Eisenhower-Nixon years in a mid-May sale at Morphy’s; the second lot is a pair issued to Vice President-elect Richard M. Nixon in 1953. Both lots carry estimates of $3,000 to $6,000.

The expert: Jim Fox, consultant for Morphy Auctions.

What were the first inaugural license plates ever issued, and would those plates be most sought-after by collectors? The answer is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1933. Those were the first inaugural plates.

I’m surprised it was that late. Keep in mind that automobiles weren’t popular until the teens. But yes, the FDR 1933 plates are the rarest, the least common, and fewer survived. We don’t know how many FDR 1933 plates were issued, and we don’t know how many survived.

I found a 2017 Washington Post article that shows several different inaugural license plates, and it looks like the two designs issued in the 1950s for Eisenhower and Nixon are the only inaugural plates that picture the inaugurees. Is that correct? Yes. These are the only plates that picture the inaugurees.

Do we know how or why the 1950s inaugural license plates came to feature actual black-and-white portrait photographs of Eisenhower and Nixon? I don’t know why they did it, other than it’s an attractive design. I don’t know that there’s more to it than that.

I realize I’m asking you to speculate, but do we have any idea why no other inaugural license plate designs include pictures of the president and the vice president? If it was going to happen [again], I thought it would have happened with the last inaugural. To be honest, I doubt the presidents and vice presidents themselves spent a lot of time on inaugural license plates. The inaugural committees make decisions like that. [Putting portraits on inaugural plates is] a great idea, and looking back, it looks like a better and better idea. But I can’t tell you what the logic was.

I find it odd that no one since Eisenhower and Nixon have included their pictures in an inaugural license plate design. It seems like a natural. We’re Americans. We love our cars, and we love telling the world what we think about politics by sticking things onto our cars. Lots of people would buy an inaugural license plate that shows the faces of the president and the vice president. In today’s culture, it does seem natural, and it [putting imagery on license plates] is a proven technology. I wish I had a better answer for you, but I’m sorry to say I don’t. Somebody thought it was a good idea, and went with it.

It’s weird, looking at the other inaugural license plates–they’re kind of interchangeable. If you covered up the year, there’d be no way to guess which plate belonged to which inaugural, except for the Eisenhower-Nixon plates. Absolutely true. Block the date and they’re the same.

This pair of inaugural license plates was issued to Vice President Richard Nixon in 1953. Note that both men are smiling in their 1953 photos, and not smiling in their 1957 photos.

It seems extra-weird that only Eisenhower and Nixon appear on inaugural license plates because the president who came after them, John F. Kennedy, was one of the most telegenic presidents we’ve ever had. You’d think he or his inaugural committee would want to put his picture on the plates. Kennedy switched, and for whatever reason, they didn’t see it as necessary. Maybe they thought it was too expensive. I don’t think the minds of people worked the same then as they do now. Now, everything’s telegenic. Hollywood, let’s call it Hollywood. But license plates are legal documents. That’s all they are–legal documents. They validate a vehicle for a short period of time.

Would the inaugural license plates have come with registrations? Yes. They were legitimate. They were just legitimate for a short time. [Neither of the two lots of inaugural license plates have retained their registration paperwork.]

I take it the registrations would have been placed in the glove boxes of the cars that rolled along D.C. streets in those 1950s inaugural parades? You can bet that no one [would have pulled over Eisenhower or Nixon and] said, “Excuse me, can I see your registration?” On a practical level, it’s worthless. On a historical level, it’s priceless.

Were inaugural license plates only used in inaugural parades? They were used just for inaugural parades, but by the 1960s, the plates were good for the month of the inaugural. Later, it was extended to 90 days. You could put the plates on your car and do what you wanted with them. I put a Nixon second inaugural plate on my car in the 1970s, and the police stopped me within the hour, asking, “Is that a real plate?” The policeman looked at me for the longest time and finally said, “I don’t know what to do with this.” I said, “You don’t have to. It’s legitimate.”

Where were you pulled over? This was in Ohio. Anything [any inaugural license plate appearing on a car] outside of D.C. and the police think, “What the heck?” The policeman finally said goodbye. He never figured it out.

Do we know what technique or tool was used in the 1950s to print black-and-white photographic portraits onto steel to create these inaugural license plates? Whatever they used must have been effective, because the images still look good after sixty-odd years. That’s right, they look great. But that question is out of my league, that’s all I can say.

My best guess–and it’s definitely a guess–is someone on the first Eisenhower-Nixon inaugural committee either created the printing process or knew the company that did, and told the committee members about it, and they went for it. That’s as likely to be the case as anything. Or it could have been curiosity–“I wonder if we can get their photographs onto a plate?” As far as I know, it was never used outside those two inaugurals.

Did both lots of inaugural plates come from the same consigner? Yes.

Do we know how long the consigner had them? As far as I’m aware, he had them in the 70s.

Lot 2008, the inaugural license plate issued to Eisenhower for his second ceremony, consists of one plate. Do we know where its mate is? Might the Eisenhower family have kept it? That’s not out of the question, but it’s not known what happened to the other plate.