What you see: A jumbo NFL bobblehead, made in the early 1960s and styled as a player for the San Francisco 49ers. Huggins and Scott estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.
The expert: Bill Huggins of Huggins and Scott.
The lot notes say the jumbo NFL bobblehead was distributed by the Otagiri Mercantile Company. What do we know about the company? Is it still in business? As far as I can tell with our research, it is not. It’s a company out of Japan in the 1950s, when these bobbleheads were mostly made. Then it kind of went away. I didn’t find out what else they might have made.
So it pretty much disappears by the 1970s? I believe so, or the dolls weren’t being produced by then.
Why might the Otagiri Mercantile Company have wanted to make jumbo NFL bobbleheads for the 14 American football teams that existed in the early 1960s? At that time, the NFL wasn’t anywhere near as dominant as it is now, and the first Super Bowl was years away. What convinced the company that it could turn a profit off these toys? I’ve been doing this for 40 years now, and have sold several of the jumbo NFL bobbleheads. The story among hobbyists is these were promo dolls sold at airports in the United States, probably in the 14 cities that were home to the teams. They [the airport stores] would put the big bobblehead up, and little bobbleheads around it, and you could buy the little ones.
So the jumbo versions were display-only? Yes, I believe the big ones were not designed to be sold. I think they were designed to be eye-catchers for the little guys.
These jumbo NFL bobbleheads stand about 15 inches tall. Is that what qualifies them as “jumbo”–being 12 inches tall or taller? Yes. The regular ones were about five to six inches tall.
Do we have any notion about how many of these jumbo NFL bobbleheads were made, and how many survive? The lot notes say the company might have produced as many as five jumbos per team. Five is a guess. Very few were produced, and very few survive. I’m in the Baltimore area. We’ve sold half a dozen of the Colts ones, but that’s the area we’re in. They were very, very regional. I think this is the first San Francisco 49ers one we’ve ever handled.
I see an NFL logo on the bobblehead’s left foot. Did the Otagiri Mercantile Company get the league’s permission to use it, or not? I think they just stuck the logo on. Today, if you were to reproduce a logo owned by a team without permission, you’d get sued real quick. Nobody cared back then. Probably, the league was happy that somebody was promoting the sport.
The jumbo NFL bobblehead has the words FORTY NINERS written on its chest. Did the team not have a logo then? I’m not really sure, but the red and silver coloring of the uniform is consistent with the 49ers colors.
Do the jumbo NFL bobbleheads look basically the same–same face, same pose, but different colors of uniform and helmet? Yes, and I believe the numbers on the backs of the players are always double zeroes.
How might these jumbo NFL bobbleheads have been made? They probably poured ceramic material into a mold of some sort. It hardened, and then it was painted.
Painted by human beings? I would think somebody painted them individually. When you get the smalls, they’re a little bit different in the painting. You can tell they’re not rolled out on a factory assembly line.
And the jumbo NFL bobbleheads are 100 percent ceramic? Yes. Today, bobbleheads are made out of hard plastic. You can throw them against the wall and they won’t break. These, they’re very fragile. You drop ’em, you have a pile of dust.
How did these toys manage to survive at all, given that they were made in such small numbers, from a highly breakable material, and were never meant to be sold? I don’t know. When the promotion ran out, whoever ran the gift shop or the hobby store might have given them to someone, or taken them home. [The world auction record for any bobblehead belongs to an early 1960s jumbo Yankees bobblehead from the same Japanese company. It sold for $90,000 at Heritage Auctions in October 2019.]
What is the jumbo NFL bobblehead like in person? What aspects elude the camera? The crudeness of how it was made. If you held it in your hand, you could tell it’s very fragile.
What condition is the jumbo NFL bobblehead in, and what sorts of condition issues do you tend to see with these oversize vintage toys? We’ve found indentations on the shoulders and flaws at the backs of the heads, where there are hairline cracks from people pushing the head down to make it bob. This one is described as being in “near mint” condition. That’s very rare to find, based on what they’re made out of.
Why will this toy stick in your memory? For the size of it. It’s so unique, compared to thousands and thousands and thousands of other bobbleheads that we sell all the time. We see so few of the big ones. It’s rare to find a jumbo at any time.
What you see: A Mohr & Krauss double Ferris Wheel toy, dating to circa 1905. Bertoia Auctions estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: Auctioneer Michael Bertoia of Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, New Jersey.
Who were, or what was Mohr & Krauss? Mohr & Krauss was a German manufacturer out of Nuremberg. There’s not a ton of info about the company itself. This is actually a steam-powered toy. Steam engines were the focus of the company, and it made steam accessories, such as this.
How does the double Ferris Wheel toy work? The entire structure rotates at the top, and the inner wheels rotate as well. At the bottom rear of the toy is a double flywheel that spins a pulley run by a steam engine. You have to have a live steam engine to run it. It’s a steam engine accessory.
Does the toy come with a steam engine? It does not.
If you wanted to operate the double Ferris Wheel toy, how would you do it? You can hand-crank it, or have an auxiliary engine of some sort.
What, like a two-stroke engine, or a lawnmower engine? Probably a battery-powered engine. All you need is a circular spinning engine or a pulley connected with a rope or a wire.
You said that Mohr & Krauss made steam engines and steam accessories, and this toy is considered a steam accessory. What else falls under the heading of “steam accessory”? An example would be a water fountain that uses a steam-driven flywheel to spritz water into the air. Windmills were popular. Any carousel or amusement-type wheel could be a steam accessory.
Is this double Ferris Wheel toy unique? This is the only one I’ve personally seen. Reportedly, two other examples are known. One is in the United States, and I don’t know where the other is. Sotheby’s had one of the others in the 1980s, I don’t know which.
Are the other two identical to this one, or do some of the details and colors vary? The only illustration I’ve seen is in black and white, but they very well could be different.
Why would Mohr & Krauss make a huge, delicate toy such as this? What convinced them they could turn a profit on it? That’s the big question mark here. Unless it was a special order or made as a commemorative… I can’t imagine the time, the labor, the materials it took to make it. It’s very large, and very ornate and intricate. To solder and assemble it had to take hours. It would have been a very expensive toy.
How expensive would it have been? Probably five to ten dollars in 1905, equivalent to the annual wage of the factory worker who would make the toy.
How big is this toy? About two feet from the base to the top of the tower. When it rotates, it spans about 36 inches.
Who was the audience for this double Ferris Wheel toy? Was it children, or was it really for a deep-pocketed adult? I think the audience was the parents as much as the children. We are talking about a toy powered by a live steam engine that burns alcohol. Obviously, you had to have a parent involved to play with it for the child.
The steam engine that powered the toy was driven by alcohol? That’s how the steam engine was fueled, by alcohol.
Might this have been a kind of show-off piece, maybe made for display at a World’s Fair or in the front window of a fancy toy store? It could have been, absolutely. You mention shop windows–Aaron and Abby Schroeder [the husband and wife who built the collection that comprises the auction] unearthed this in a small Pennsylvania town. There was a barber shop with large bay windows, and in one of them was this toy. They stopped and stayed overnight. Aaron got a haircut, and Abby carried out the double Ferris Wheel.
But we don’t know where the barber got the toy? We don’t.
Are the figures and the Ferris Wheel seats cast as one piece, or are the figures loose? They are removable. It’s impressive that they’re still intact and original to the toy.
And it has everything it ought to have–everything it would have left the factory with in the early 20th century? I believe so. The whole toy is quite delicate. Normally, bits and pieces that hang off a toy are the first to break off, such as the flags, or the even more delicate pair of lamp posts at the front. But they’re still intact and preserved.
About those flags at the top–it looks like one is a French flag and I can’t tell what the other country is supposed to be… I assume they’re decorative. There are times when a toymaker uses country flags for a specific market. I wouldn’t wager that to be the case here. They may have been [colored with what was] leftover from what they used to paint the gondolas.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this double Ferris Wheel toy would have been to make? The hardest part was probably keeping it all level and visually balanced. It was made by hand and soldered and pieced together. To make it uniform and parallel is tricky and impressive. And it has to be level for it to function and move.
How does something this large and fragile survive so well for 120-odd years? It’s a testament as to why so few are known. It’s miraculous for it to have survived in such good condition. The missing paint is a product of the age of the toy. When Abby bought it, it had 100 percent of its paint. Temperature and humidity changes caused the paint to start to lift and flake off. That’s very common in antiques [antique toys].
What is the double Ferris Wheel toy like in person? It has a very commanding presence. A lot of that has to do with the size of it. Artistically, it has an elegant beauty. You want to look at it at a slight angle. Not only is it tall and wide, it’s deep. As you look at it from different angles, your attraction grows.
What is your favorite detail of the double Ferris Wheel toy? The negative space. The fact that it’s so ornately assembled, but with so much open air space, gives it a very attractive look. The framework of the wheels and the tower are not flat pieces of metal. They criss-cross. The Eiffel Tower is a good comparison–if you look at it dead on, it’s a triangle, but if you look at it at an angle, you see how deep the structure is, and how much intricacy there is in the assembly of it.
As we speak on February 23, 2021, the double Ferris Wheel toy has 41 watchers online and has drawn a single bid of $5,000. Is that at all meaningful? Not as of yet. When the toy is an example of this caliber, collectors hold their cards close to their chests and demonstrate their willingness and their desire in the heat of the moment at auction.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? A toy of this size is often crudely assembled or manufactured. This toy is put together artfully, not thrown together the way many toys of the time were. This had something more along the line of the Rolls-Royce treatment. It was constructed in refined style.
How prolific was he as a printmaker? He made 93 documented lithographs between 1929 and 1974.
This Thomas Hart Benton lithograph is based on an oil painting by Benton titled Homeward Bound. Do we know anything about how he came up with the idea for the image? There’s a quote by him which is not an explanation for why he painted it, but it’s about a study for the painting, in which he says, “Common enough scene in the days of the steam engine. Why did horses so often run with the steam trains while they now pay no attention to the diesels?” The quote gives insight into why he did it–a glimpse of a bygone era. I thought it was about horse versus machine, but the quote shows how we romanticize the past and this view of the American West, which was vanishing.
Did Benton’s approach to printmaking differ when he was translating a painting into a print, and when he was creating an image that would debut as a print? No, it doesn’t differ. It’s standard in that aspect. The majority are derived from his paintings and drawings. When you look at his lithographs from 1929 through 1974, they’re technically and stylistically similar, though they were produced over a 45-year span. There’s virtually no alterations to the style or the technique. After he appeared on the cover of Time in 1934, Benton was approached by a fine art publishing company in New York, Associated American Artists (AAA), which had the idea of democratizing art collecting. It was a mail order publishing outfit. You’d pay a dollar or two dollars and pick a lithograph.
So Associated American Artists was kind of like Columbia House, which promised a bunch of records for a penny, that sort of thing? Yes. The general idea was to make art affordable for the masses. Associated American Artists approached well-known artists like Benton to give oomph to their venture. Benton was associated with AAA for most of his lithographs. They weren’t really original things. The art was made previously to pulling and submitting it to AAA for a lithograph. Because he was better-known, AAA lithographs by Benton might be $2, and those by lesser-known artists might be $1.
How hands-on was Benton in the creation of his lithographs? Did he hand off the artwork and stay away until it was time to correct the proofs, or did he do more than that? He was fairly well-involved. He worked with the lithographer to create the image. He drew the lithograph on the lithographic stones, and sometimes on a zinc plate.
The print run for this Thomas Hart Benton lithograph was 250. Is that a pretty typical edition size for Benton? That is typical, because Benton worked so frequently with the AAA. 250 is the edition size for most of the editions issued by AAA.
How well does the image exploit the advantages that lithography has to offer? I’d say it makes very full use of lithography. The main two points are the fluidity of the drawing and the tonal nuances–they are the touchstones of lithography. You don’t see Benton produce prints in etchings. Lithography suits his work. Another point is his painting style is colorful, and he never worked in color lithography. It would have been available, but not with AAA. Benton never sought it out, and he never hand-colored lithographs, which other artists sought to do.
So Benton was really more interested in painting. I think that’s it, and that color lithography is more work. For Benton, his work went into painting, not printmaking.
Can you talk a bit about how the darks and lights come across here–the tonal nuances? In Benton paintings, as in his lithographs, there’s strong chiaroscuro, the play of light and dark. He used it to create a mood that’s present in his oils. It harkens back to the modern art movements that he would have seen while studying in Paris between 1909 and 1912: Fauvism, Synchromism. It comes out in his paintings.
How much did George Miller, the printmaker who translated Benton’s images into lithographs, add to the quality and the impact of the lithographs? Tons. George Miller was a genius printer. Benton could not have been lined up with a better lithographer.
What is the Thomas Hart Benton lithograph like in person? What I take away from it is how rich the ink is and how it stands out on the sheet. It’s not terribly thick–it’s more of a sheen against the whiteness of the paper. When you photograph it, it becomes matte and flat. It loses something.
What’s your favorite detail of the lithograph? The shadow of the horse in the pond in the foreground, just how the light catches the horse and creates the shadow in the water. I think that’s cool. I also love the clouds in Benton’s work. Jackson Pollock was a student of Benton’s. If you block out the ground and look at the clouds in the upper half of the lithograph, you get the start of abstract expressionism.
We know how many lithographs of The Race were printed. Do we know how many survive? Based on what we see, it’s likely that most of the edition of 250 is around. Benton was a famous artist. This print would have been carefully preserved.
How often do you see this Thomas Hart Benton lithograph come up at auction? I see at least one a year. It’s not such a scarce image.
What condition is the lithograph in? It’s in excellent condition. It has full margins. A side note on AAA prints in particular–AAA sold them matted and framed as well. It was standard practice to paper-tape the back of the lithograph to the front of the matte. When people removed the prints from the frames, they’d cut it from the matte and remove half an inch off the margins. With AAA prints, collectors ask, “Does it have full margins or not?” Frequently, they do not. When an AAA print has full margins like this one does, it’s definitely a boost.
Why will this image stick in your memory? The image itself is a rendering of a bygone era, this nostalgia for the American old West, with the combination of the galloping horse and the steam engine. It’s gripping, and there’s something iconic about it.
Update: The girl skipping rope mechanical bank sold for $73,800.
What you see: An antique mechanical bank in the form of a girl skipping rope. Morphy Auctions estimates it at $60,000 to $90,000.
The expert: Collector Bob Brady, consigner of the girl skipping rope mechanical bank.
This mechanical bank was made by the J. & E. Stevens Company. Did it have a good reputation as a maker of mechanical banks? Also, when did it go out of business? J. & E. Stevens was the largest mechanical bank manufacturer. It was probably responsible for 50 or so of the mechanical banks that are out there. They made some of the best action mechanical banks and they made banks that were extremely colorful. Before World War II, they were out of the business of making mechanical banks. I believe what happened is the cost of manufacturing became prohibitive.
The lot notes for the girl skipping rope mechanical bank don’t give a date. Do we know when the bank was in production, and when this example might have been made? The patent was approved in the late 1890s. It was probably manufactured until the 1920s, maybe a little into the 1930s. There were variations in production styles on the girl skipping rope. There’s color variations on the girl’s dress–blue, brown, and yellow dresses are out there–but the main part of the bank stayed the same. The rope was originally cast iron, but because they had problems with the rope, they ended up casting it in brass. On this one, the rope is cast iron.
Did J. & E. Stevens invent the girl skipping rope form of mechanical bank, or did they see it elsewhere, put their own spin on it, and popularize it? This was their design and their manufacturing. No one else tried to replicate the girl skipping rope.
Do we have any idea how many girl skipping rope mechanical banks were made? Did J. & E. Stevens keep production records? I don’t know anybody who had ever had those kinds of records for J. & E. Stevens.
How many examples of the girl skipping rope mechanical bank survive? There might be, oh, possibly less than 100 in varying conditions. Maybe 15 to 20 are original, without repairs. This example is the second-best I know.
What makes this one the second-best example you’ve seen? Basically, the number of chips on the bank. I’m comparing all-original banks. It’s just the wear. Other factors that come into play is there’s a lot of red on the bank. If it came into contact with daylight, the red would turn to a light, faded pinkish color, or it goes back to the base, prime color, which is white. That’s pretty much only on red. The other colors survive well.
While I haven’t seen a ton of mechanical banks, most of the ones I’ve seen feature animals, or groups of men, or people with animals, or a boy–not an individual girl. Is it unusual for a bank to showcase a girl, as this one does? There are a few other girl-type banks, but their actions aren’t nearly as drastic as on the girl skipping rope.
How does she work? The coin gets put in the bank in the green area just below the squirrel. It sits there until the motion starts, then it falls to the bottom of the bank, where it’s stored. There’s a lever at the level of the girl’s feet if she’s standing up straight. [In the above photo, it looks like a doorknob, and it’s at the level of her knees.] That starts the girl swinging. As it makes a 360-degree rotation, the girl’s head looks left and right, and her feet move forward. She jumps the rope three or four times, but in examples I’ve operated, I’ve seen as high as 20.
I see that the girl skipping rope mechanical bank comes with a key. What did it do? The bank had a difficult mechanism in it. It had to have a strong enough spring to rotate a flywheel that was six inches in diameter. It had a bit of weight to it. You had to turn it 270 degrees, three-quarters of a turn, to lock it into position and activate it. Even an adult could have trouble turning the key. And if the key slipped off, the spring-loaded mechanism could break internally.
And that’d be the end of the bank. Pretty much. People like myself try to stay away from repaired banks. I strive for the best condition imaginable.
The bank is made entirely of cast iron. How much does it weigh? Probably about four pounds. A young girl who had one was probably an exception.
Who were mechanical banks made for? Who was the target audience? Were they made for children, to encourage them to save money, or were they actually enjoyed by adults? I’ll tell you what appealed to me when I saw them. I grew up poor. These banks imply thrift. And you’ve got the action associated with it, and this has the best action of any of the banks. It’s a pretty intricate working bank. I think the reason why J. & E. Stevens had a girl on it was it was aiming at a female market. But I think girls and boys would find it equally desirable.
What makes the girl skipping rope mechanical bank so beloved among collectors? And how much of it has to do with its action–how it moves? It’s such an appealing bank and a desirable bank. Everybody strives to have a girl skipping rope. Its popularity and its availability is such that it’s an expensive bank to own. I’d say it has the most elaborate movement, and there’s the symbolism–the girl skipping rope is the logo of the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America. They thought enough of that bank to pick it as their logo.
So the girl skipping rope is literally the symbol for mechanical banks? [Laughs] It’s kind of the tip of the spear for mechanical banks. If someone has a girl skipping rope, they’ve had 50 or 100 banks before getting to that level. Unless you’re an heir to Nike, you’re not going to buy one of these early in the collecting cycle.
The figure on the girl skipping rope mechanical bank is wearing a dress that’s a lot more dull in color than the rest of the bank. Why? Is a beige-colored dress closer to what little girls actually would have worn when the bank was new? Generally, I would say yeah. I wasn’t around in 1890, but it was an acceptable style of the time.
The mechanical bank has a squirrel on it. Do we know why? Was it the mascot of J. & E. Stevens or something? [Laughs] I’m purely speculating, but they were probably looking for some animal a girl would be familiar with. It probably could just have easily been a rabbit.
What coins does the bank accept? Pennies on up to quarters? Yeah. I’ve never tried a quarter. Generally, I never put a coin in. I just operate it.
How do you operate it without putting a coin in it? You can release the spring by pushing the lever down [the gold doorknob-like thing sticking out of the colorfully-painted structure that lines up with the girl’s feet or knees, depending]. That operates the bank. I can also move it manually by putting my fingers on the rope and rotating it.
How do you get the coins out? Do you turn it upside down and take off the bottom plate? You can use a screwdriver on the little Swiss lock on the bottom of the bank. There’s nothing sophisticated about it.
The mechanical bank is described as being in “near mint” condition. What does that mean? It means it’s all-original, no repairs, no repaints, nothing done to it. It’s the way it looked 125 years ago. That’s what people strive for.
This example of the girl skipping rope mechanical bank comes with its original cast iron key. How rare is that? It’s very rare to have its original key. They do make reproductions, but they’re not nearly as good.
Would the sum you paid in 2007 represent a world auction record for a girl skipping rope mechanical bank? To the best of my knowledge, that was the record.
How does your mechanical bank collection make you happy? Also, why sell it now? Mechanical banks are true American antiques. Only so many were made. What’s left are the survivors. I enjoy seeing the shapes of the banks and knowing what their actions are. They represent savings and my undergraduate degree, which was in mechanical engineering. I look at my mechanical banks every day. I’ve got them showcased throughout the house. I’m only selling them now because I’m 78 and my kids never took an interest in them and my wife has terminal cancer. And they hold special memories for me. I’ve met people from all over the world through collecting, types of associations I’d never have if not through collecting mechanical banks. Some of my best friends are actively involved in bank-collecting.
Why not delay the sale until COVID-19 is no longer a concern, so you can enjoy seeing your friends gather to bid on your collection? I did my will, which is pretty important with my wife’s condition. Also, Morphy’s has an option–it has a theater auction room. Morphy’s can seat 75 people in that room with face masks and the required spacing needed in Pennsylvania. And they’ve gotten to the point now where you can do so much online. We have the best of both worlds.
Have you decided yet if you’ll be there in person for the sale? [Laughs] I’m not sure. It’s going to be hard. It’s a big part of me. I have decided if I do go, I’m going to sit up front, to be away from any of the interactions.
Update: The 22-inch high Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze, Appeal to the Great Spirit, sold for $100,312.
What you see: A 22-inch-high version of Appeal to the Great Spirit, a Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze. Bonhams estimates it at $50,000 to $70,000.
The expert: Katherine Halligan, Western art specialist at Bonhams.
Who was Cyrus Edwin Dallin? He was a late 19th century and early 20th century artist born in Springville, Utah Territory. That’s important because he’s one of the first American artists to recognize the rights of Native Americans. He didn’t just focus on Native American subjects. It constitutes some of his most iconic work.
Where did he train? His earliest training–he had friendly relations with the Ute Indians, and as a child, he made rudimentary animal models from the clay at their clay beds. Later, he went to Boston to study with Truman Howe Bartlett, and in Paris with Henri Chapu.
What drew him to Native American subjects? Where did that come from? Certainly, from his childhood. He grew up in a Latter-day Saints (LDS) settlement in a very small town and was exposed culturally to the local Indians. It informed his decision to depict Native American subjects and fight for the rights of Native Americans. Because of his firsthand experiences, he had a sense of ownership in protecting Native American cultures and depicting them as best he could in his work.
Cyrus Edwin Dallin was progressive for his time, but would his views on Native Americans be considered progressive by contemporary standards? That’s a tough thing to answer, because he was of his time. I think his values and his political activism was very forward-thinking in many ways, so forward-thinking that it could meet the standards of social justice today. [The website for the Cyrus Edwin Dallin museum includes many statements and initiatives that support social justice.] He was politically active and formed a group that [after merging with similar groups] became the Association on American Indian Affairs.
How did he conceive the idea behind Appeal to the Great Spirit? I don’t know of any first-hand writings that explain his ideas. It was the fourth sculpture in his TheEpic of the Indian cycle, a series of monumental-size works on equestrian subjects. It’s a very bold presentation that reflects his own growing confidence as an artist.
Did he come up with the idea in Paris? He was studying in Paris in 1889, and Buffalo Bill came to the city–
Oh, I’m guessing Buffalo Bill’s show didn’t sit well with Cyrus Edwin Dallin. Interestingly, no–you’ve got to keep it in the context of the time. Dallin went multiple times during its run and befriended the Native American actors and sketched them. The sketches became the basis for the models in The Epic of the Indian.
Did he rely on photographs at all? I haven’t read that he used photographs, but it was a very typical practice of his contemporaries.
What makes Appeal to the Great Spirit such an effective sculpture? From an artistic perspective, it’s very powerful. It’s the last story in The Epic of the Indian cycle. What it represents is the recognition–he’s realizing his way of life has been lost due to the imposition of white culture. We relate to the vulnerability of the figure, with his hands out and his head thrown back. It’s universal. Its supercharged emotions make it different from the other three in the cycle.
In looking at the backing material for Appeal to the Great Spirit, I don’t see any information that identifies the tribal community to which the male figure belongs. Did I miss it, or did Cyrus Edwin Dallin deliberately make it vague? I think this figure is a Sioux chief. I think the identity is in the [style of] headdress. Some artists were intentionally or unintentionally inaccurate with the details of Native American clothing. Dallin’s intention was to be accurate. He had a tremendous amount of respect for the different communities.
He’s not the sort of guy who would switch in the headdress of a different tribal community because to him, it looked better than a Sioux chief’s headdress. His approach was much more respectful, with the intent of authenticity.
This Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze is a reduced-size version of Appeal to the Great Spirit. What challenges did he face in sizing the work down to 22 inches? The main consideration would be to get the fine details right. The Gorham foundries were very skilled in the lost wax process. This has exceptionally fine detail.
I understand there are 107 examples of this Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze. Do we know how long–over what span of years–it was produced? I don’t know the answer to this, and I don’t know how many survive. I do know the number that have been at auction is hardly 107.
Was the Gorham bronze foundry connected to the Gorham silver company? Yes, it is. Gorham was really one of the top American foundries of that period. The most significant American sculptors used them.
Elsewhere in the auction you offer an 8 3/4 inch version of Appeal to the Great Spirit. How many different sizes were offered? The 22-inch version is the middle size. There’s a third, larger size as well. It was a one-foot, two-foot, three-foot kind of thing. I believe the largest size was a significantly smaller edition. There are up to 280 of the smallest edition.
Also in the sale is a 14 1/2 inch high Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze of The Signal of Peace. Taking all three lots together, I see a jumble of sizes. Is it possible to collect a group of four reduced-size bronzes of the works in The Epic of the Indian that match in size? I don’t know for sure, but I believe you should be able to, with the smallest size. The measurement on The Signal of Peace includes the figure’s spear, which adds four or five inches.
Is the Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze solid or hollow? It’s more solid than hollow. It’s hefty.
Were all 107 of the 22-inch Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronzes cast during his lifetime, or were some posthumous? I don’t know for sure, but I would imagine they’re all lifetime casts.
This example is number 12 in the edition of 107. Does that matter? Is it more desirable to collectors because of its lower number? Savvier collectors like the lower numbers because the details are crisper.
What is the Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze like in person? What aspects elude the camera? Certainly I would say the detail–the face and hands, the horse’s face, the headdress are incredibly crisp and detailed. In the smaller version and in later versions, the fingers tend to be less crisp, but these are beautifully rendered. And the presence–it’s been cleaned and re-waxed and it absolutely glows. It’s got a rich golden brown color.
Do all 107 have that same general patina of a rich golden brown, or are there variants? I’ve never seen something else. They’re all in a medium brown.
What condition is the Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze in? It’s really in amazing condition. The reins were recreated and replaced, but it was in the same family for four generations, and they left it alone.
I take it that it’s common to have the reins replaced on a reduced-size Appeal to the Great Spirit? Yes it is. They’re removable, and frequently, they’re kinked or bent. The reins are an add-on, and they usually don’t last. There are small holes in the sculpture where the reins attach.
How often does the 22-inch Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze appear at auction? There have been five at auction since 2015. They’re not always identified by edition number, but I assume none were the same ones reappearing at auction over the last six years. Speaking about the edition, it’s rare to have an example with such a low number.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? This particular bronze is one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of working with. And it has good auction karma. It’s been in a nice family, and they’ve been wonderful to work with. This is my first Bonhams sale, and it will be an unforgettable one.
How to bid: The Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze is lot 11 in the Western Art sale scheduled at Bonhams Los Angeles on February 26, 2021.
What you see: A Barbotan meteorite, which fell over rural France in July 1790. Christie’s estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.
The expert: Darryl Pitt, curator of the Macovich collection of meteorites and consigner of this and other meteorites in the sale.
Let’s start with the story of the Barbotan meteorite fall. When did it happen? What do we know about it? It was the evening of Saturday, July 24, 1790, the sort of summer night when one might go out for a stroll. And those who were out—it’s been estimated there were more than 1,000 witnesses—saw a fireball blazing through the night sky with attendant sonic booms, pressure waves, and thunderous rumbling, culminating in a shower of stones raining down. The event was documented in newspapers and journals.
The Barbotan meteorite fall took place over Gers, France in 1790. What do we know about Gers and what it would have been like then? Was it a rural village? Gers is a département in the southwest corner of France—like what we would call a county. Gers was one of the original counties of France and was created during the French Revolution, just four months before the Barbotan event. Barbotan lies within Gers and is a small, rural spa town about 80 kilometers [roughly 50 miles] from both Toulouse and Bordeaux.
If the fall hadn’t happened around 10:30 pm on a cloudless night in late July, might it have gone unnoticed? Or was it so loud and spectacular that it would have woken the townsfolk no matter what season it was or what time of day it happened? The event would not have gone unnoticed, but seeing a fireball would have been less likely. It’s hard not to notice rocks falling around you, but it’s something more easily perceived in the light of day.
Who investigated the Barbotan fall first, soon after it happened? Fortunately, a noted physicist, Professor Baudin, was among the folks who were out that night. The Annals of Physics published an extensive account of his experience. Montpellier’s Journal of Science published a similar account.
How did the Barbotan meteorite fall come to be dismissed as a “collective delusion”? The two accounts I just mentioned were dismissed by civic leaders and scientists as being wholly absurd. When the Montpellier account was published, a scientist demanded official testimony. When a mayor provided a notarized document indicating that 300 people had seen what would later be known as the Barbotan meteorite shower, the scientist then wrote something to the effect of how pathetic it was for a municipality to certify an “impossible phenomenon.” If one insists on wearing blinders, one simply cannot see. Rocks falling out of the sky was a notion that did not fit with the preconceived order of things in 1790s France, and so there was a collective interest in maintaining the delusion that meteorites didn’t exist.
How did it come to light that a Barbotan meteorite had struck and possibly killed a herdsman? Was he asleep on a bed that would have been in the path of the meteorite that punched a hole in his roof? Did it leave marks on his body, or is the evidence circumstantial? For those who experienced the meteorite shower and then checked on a missing friend and found his body, a rock, and a hole in the roof, it seems intuitive to make the connection, right? Occam’s razor—look for the simplest explanation. Unfortunately, documentation is scant because of a conundrum: How could a meteorite impact cause a death at a time when meteorites were not believed to exist? This conundrum also would explain why there are so few Barbotan meteorites today—nobody believed rocks could just fall from the sky, so no one kept them. I don’t know that we know anything about the herdsman, but I know there is a great research paper waiting to be done.
I recall being told that no meteorite, to date, is known to have killed a human being. Is the Barbotan incident considered not to count as a human death, for lack of evidence? Exactly right. Until that research paper is written, the herdsman’s death indeed does not count due to a lack of evidence. There has only been one documented death due to a meteorite impact: it was a cow in Venezuela.
How much material was recovered from the Barbotan fall? According to the standard source of such matters, only 6.4 kilograms [14 pounds] are known to exist, and about half of that is in museums. This is despite the fact that Barbotan was a massive meteorite shower including rocks ranging in size from modest pebbles to stones weighing up to 45 kilograms [99 pounds]. I believe the scarcity of material is due to the prevailing notion that the rocks were not worth keeping.
How often do Barbotan meteorites appear at auction? Almost never. Whether in an auction environment or not, Barbotan meteorites are largely unavailable and specimens are coveted. It’s one of the great historic meteorite falls that dates from a time when Western civilization was wrestling with the notion of rocks being able to fall out of the sky.
What is this particular Barbotan meteorite like in person? What is it like to hold it? The first feeling is the humbling sensation that comes from touching any meteorite: here is something that originates with an asteroid shattered during the early history of the solar system, which was then deflected from somewhere between Mars and Jupiter into an Earth-crossing orbit. Whoa. As for this specimen, well, any Barbotan specimen is just so special. It does feel somewhat heavier than one might expect as a result of the amount of iron-nickel in the matrix, and it becomes heavier still when considering its history. Per unit weight, meteorites inspire more awe for me than just about anything, except vaccines.
At two inches by two inches, this example is relatively small in size. Are most Barbotan meteorites small? Most of the specimens that become available to collectors are smaller. There are bigger fragments—this partial slice was removed from one such fragment—but most of the larger material is in major research collections and museums and is pretty much untouchable.
Do we know who gathered this Barbotan meteorite? We don’t, and I wish we did, as it would add to the provenance and the value of this specimen.
This Barbotan meteorite looks much more like a standard rock than othersI’ve covered on The Hot Bid. Could you talk a bit about that issue–how it can be hard to distinguish a meteorite from a mundane rock when in the field? Most often, distinguishing terrestrial from extraterrestrial rocks is not so hard. With time and familiarity, all rocks will not look alike. What’s more challenging —and this depends on whether the rock fell in an arid environment or a moist environment—is being able to identify an anomalous stone meteorite that’s been sitting on the surface of the Earth for a while. What’s even more difficult to do in the field is make an accurate assessment of precisely what type of meteorite it is. More and more meteorite hunters are taking handheld XRF [x-ray fluorescence] analyzers into the field to provide quick insight into elemental ratios, which does help, to a degree. A typical fresh stony meteorite will possess, just as the Barbotan meteorite does, a fusion crust from its fiery descent through Earth’s atmosphere, as well as spherules of silica minerals called chondrules and a profusion of tiny flakes of iron-nickel suspended throughout the stone’s matrix. If you spend time enlarging catalog photos of the Christie’s sale, you’ll get a sense of the attributes of different types of meteorites.
What do we know about the provenance of this Barbotan meteorite? The earliest history of this meteorite is lost. We’d love to know who picked it up in France in 1790, and their relationship with the rock. More recently, it came from the collection of Alain Carion, one of the most respected mineral dealers in Europe.
This sample is described as having “fusion crust”. What does that mean? When a meteoroid— think “small asteroid”—plunges through the atmosphere, frictional heating begins. When the meteoroid achieves terminal velocity and begins to cool off as it falls to Earth, the liquified material solidifies into a kind of rind or crust, which envelops what will be called a meteorite upon its impact. Fusion crust is a sought-after aerodynamic artifact. Its presence commands a premium, and at times, the crust itself can be really beautiful.
The Barbotan meteorite also displays “metal flake”. What metal might it be? Iron? Nickel? Both. Primarily iron, with some nickel and a lot of trace elements.
What is the world auction record for a Barbotan meteorite? It will be established on February 23 in this auction. The only Barbotan specimen previously offered that I know of did not sell as it had an appropriately hefty reserve. The specimen in this sale has no reserve. I assure you it will sell for at least double or triple its weight in gold.
Why might this piece stick in your memory? For me, it’s a meteorite of special interest, not only because of its story, but it fell on July 24th, which, centuries later, became my birthday.
Update: The 1651 copy of Reginald Scot’s The Discovery of Witchcraft sold for $9,000.
What you see: A 1651 second edition, second issue of The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot. Potter & Potter estimates it at $7,000 to $12,000.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Who was Reginald Scot? He was an English gentleman of some station in that era, a landowning gentleman near Ashford in Kent. I believe he was a member of Parliament.
Do we know why he published The Discovery of Witchcraft in 1584? The story people have latched onto is he was a freethinker, and able to see the big picture. He held the Calvinist idea that it was all the work of God, not witches or spells or magical forces–that the things people were witnessing were accomplished by natural means.
So it was a debunking book? That’s a way to put it. The thing that the magic community latched onto for a century or longer was he said, “This is not sorcery, this is magic.” But it’s not all magic tricks. I believe one, maybe two chapters are about magic tricks. Magic is a focus, but it’s not the bulk of the work.
We should also stop briefly and point out that Reginald Scot uses the term “juggling” in the book, but “juggling” would have been another word for “magic” back then. Exactly.
Who was Reginald Scot’s audience in 1584? Who did he write The Discovery of Witchcraft for? I suppose it was his peer group. Not only were books a luxury item in 1584, but how many people could read? Books were not commodities the way they are today. I imagine he wrote it for people with a similar or adjacent educational background. Only an educated, moneyed group of people was able to buy the book and read what it was describing.
I notice that the lot notes describe the Discovery of Witchcraft as “perhaps the most influential work in the English language on the history of conjuring” and does not call it the first book of its kind in English, as I’ve read elsewhere. Is it in fact not the first English-language book that details how to perform specific magic tricks? Recent scholarship would say it gets too much credit for being that. I say it deserves credit for recording tricks that are truly classic. The tricks are elementally the same, centuries later, as they were when Scot described them. He talks about picking up a rope, cutting it in half through the middle, and restoring it. I have a friend who performs the rope trick in a Las Vegas show every day. You could perform the tricks described in the book and make a good living.
So, Reginald Scot describes the tricks well enough in The Discovery of Witchcraft that a modern reader could learn to do them by relying on the book alone? If you can get past the “s”s rendered as “f”s, yeah, you can do the tricks based on the descriptions.
The magicians’ community frowns on those who share the secrets behind the performance of a magic trick. Might that attitude have prevented magicians from writing down and printing detailed descriptions of tricks before Reginald Scot published The Discovery of Witchcraft in 1584? Mentorship has always been a tool for teaching magicians how to perform. It was probably common at that time, and there’s a better chance magicians learned that way as opposed to reading. With Scot, probably no one told him not to write the tricks down, because it had never been done that way–they hadn’t been published in a book.
Do we know where Reginald Scot got his source information? I don’t know, and I wish I did. It’d be wonderful to say he watched an itinerant conjurer, sat him down with a glass of beer, and got the info. Some version of that story is likely.
But we don’t have any evidence that Scot performed any magic tricks himself? Not that I’m aware of.
But he was able to describe the magic tricks in a way that others could read what he wrote, learn how the tricks work, and perform them accurately, which is a skill unto itself. Absolutely. He must have been a smart dude.
What magic tricks appear in The Discovery of Witchcraft? Tricks with cards, tricks with coins, tricks with rope, even tricks with living humans. The image that people have latched on to is the decapitation of a man, where the body and the head are separated from each other, and the head’s on a plate and talking and interacting with someone. It’s a fairly diverse assortment of tricks, and they’re good tricks.
I understand there’s a discussion of gimmicked knives. Does that have to do with the decapitation trick? There’s one here that goes through your arm–“to thrust a knife through your arm and to cut half your nose asunder”. Another is about “to thrust a bodkin into your head and through your tongue”–a bodkin is like an ice pick. You can buy these tricks today.
I’m under the impression that if you’re building a first-rate library of books on magic, you need an antique copy of The Discovery of Witchcraft. Correct? Yes. That’s been true for at least a century, probably longer.
How was The Discovery of Witchcraft received on its first publication in 1584? I’m not a scholar of the reception, but I know that King James was not enamored of exposing these things and ordered the books burned. I haven’t done the research to verify that story, but the books are scarce. The first edition is not the rarest of books, but in all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve sold three.
Is the 1651 second edition just as scarce? Some say the edition in the auction is the scarcest of the editions. Someone who called me said there were four. I’m hesitant to say there’s four of anything, but this second edition, second state is more difficult to locate than the first edition.
How many copies of the second edition have you handled? Only two, so about the same number as the first edition.
Did the contents of The Discovery of Witchcraft change in any significant way between 1584 and 1651? Not that I’m aware of, but I’m not a scholar of the editions. I know the type was reset, and it’s a different printer.
Has anyone done a census of antique copies of The Discovery of Witchcraft? I have a running count in my head of where the copies are, but there’s no formal census.
Do you know how many copies of the first edition exist, and how many of the second? I don’t. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the third edition is still scarce but more readily available.
What condition is the book in? The binding is attractive and the pages are generally clean and bright and easy to read. It’s not like it’s missing words.
It has all its pages? Yes, it’s been collated. I believe the binding is later. It’s a classic full leather binding, and it’s not overdone, either. Some turn books into trophies. In 1651, they wouldn’t have done it that way.
What is the book like in person? It fits in your hand nicely. It’s not compact, but it’s easy to hold. It’s unassuming, in a way. It’s well-kept, and showing signs of its age.
Do you have a favorite plate or illustration? Probably the decapitation. I guess I’m a sucker for magic tricks.
Update: The Jess Heisler pair of sleeping duck decoys sold for $28,800.
What you see: A pair of sleeping mallard duck decoys by Delaware River region carver Jess Heisler around 1920. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates the pair at $20,000 to $30,000.
The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.
Who was Jess Heisler? Where was he in his career around 1920, when he made this pair of decoys? Jess Heisler is remembered as one of most competent early decoy makers from the Delaware River region, where he was perhaps the most talented disciple of the early master John English. He lived and worked just south of Trenton, New Jersey. During his life, he was highly regarded not only for decoys but also for exceptional boats, perhaps the region’s finest. I’ve heard he was also skilled with vintage furniture restoration.
How prolific was he? Estimates of his output are between 1,000 and 2,000 decoys. That said, most years only see a small handful of his carvings cross the auction block, really just a few in original condition.
Did Jess Heisler both carve and paint his decoys, or did he only carve? Did he have assistants? Jess was a one-man operation, carving and painting all of his own decoys. This one-man operation is very typical for the Delaware River carvers.
The lot notes describe theJess Heisler duck decoy pair as “exceedingly rare”. Why? First, they are mallards, which are far less common than his black ducks and other species. Secondly, the sleeping pose. It only seems to appear two or three times in a decade. Third, they are a pair–most of his rigs have been broken down to singles. Capping it off, they are from his golden period, and they survive in virtually ideal condition.
Did Jess Heisler sign his work? If not, how do we know the pair is by him? Like most makers, Heisler did not sign his work. That said, his craftsmanship and nuance of style practically act as a big John Hancock for anyone familiar with the decoys of the mid-Atlantic region. Paired with that, his presence was very much alive when the decoy collecting community began taking notes in the 1950s and 1960s.
Do we know anything about how this pair of Jess Heisler duck decoys came to be—why he might have made it? While we do not know the history of this specific pair, we can make some deductions. I would bet they were made for a wealthy sportsman. This is because they were barely used, they are in a special pose, and they are of an uncommon species.
The Jess Heisler duck decoy pair dates to circa 1920. Do decoys start to become more decorative and less functional around that time? Or would these work perfectly well in the wild? It’s more complex than that. Heisler pretty clearly seems to be going far beyond what was needed in order to impress more than just the ducks. He was trying to impress a wealthy client with those long thin tails, sharp raised wing tips, and that fine featherwork on the hen. So, they were 100 percent honest working decoys that also had the hunter in mind.
Why carve duck decoys that appear to be sleeping? This topic has been the subject of intrigue for as long as decoys have been in play. While we don’t know Heisler’s logic, we do believe that he was the originator of this sleeping pattern. One theory is that resting birds help make the rig [the string of decoys placed on the water] look at ease and invite passing birds. Who knows if that works, but as a hunter, I can assure you it is harder to break a head off of one of these sleeping decoys than a regular decoy.
Do we know how many sleeping duck decoy pairs Jess Heisler did, either of mallards or of any other species of duck? I looked back over a quarter-century of auction reports and this pair represents one half of all known Heissler sleepers. And they are the two finest.
You say Jess Heisler is believed to have invented the sleeping duck decoy form. This pair dates to circa 1920. Does that make it an early Heisler take on the sleeper? If so, does that make the pair more interesting to collectors? Or does the timing not matter? To clarify this point, Heisler did not invent the sleeper in general. Albert Laing is the earliest known maker of sleepers, and his date back to the antebellum period. Heisler appears to have originated this variation of the sleeper. I’d place these in the early to middle golden period of his carving arc, so timing is a factor, and these benefit from that.
Is it rare to see an intact pair of male-female duck decoys, or do pairs tend to stay together through the decades? This Winter Sale catalog has hundreds of single decoys that began their lives in rigs ranging from six to 200-plus birds. Today rig mate pair numbers appear to have just bounced off an all-time low, and the pendulum is swinging back towards the rejoining of pairs and sometimes larger rig groupings, especially with shorebird decoys. I love it. Decoys were intended to be seen en masse.
Does the provenance tell us if this pair has stayed together since they were made? Or were they ever divorced and reunited? The provenance suggests they’ve always been together, which is highly probable in this instance.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult the pair of duck decoys would have been to make? For example, how difficult is it to get the two to look nearly identical, aside from sex-based markings? This is actually a fairly elaborate duo. Having handled and X-rayed these, I can tell you the bodies are made from three joined pieces of wood with watertight body seams. The inside of the body is hollow, which adds layers of work and complexity to the construction. The heads are fitted to the body with a scribe-line inlay around an edge of the bills. From the photos anyone can make out the elaborate and stylish wing tip and tail carvings with some carved feather detail… and then again that hen’s painted feathering! I could go on, but Heisler seems to have casually created a highly complex and functional pair that work perfectly together.
What is the pair of duck decoys like in person? What aspects elude the camera? Their hollow bodies make them super light. Their undersides have chamfered lead pad weights, which allow them to almost hover above a surface. In the hand they have a lovely dry surface. And while one hand embraces a round and compact head and breast the other is literally on edge with the tactile contrast of the wing tips and tail. Our photographer did a great job, but they only get better in person, I assure you.
What is your favorite detail of the pair of Jess Heisler duck decoys? Like any successful sculpture, they only succeed as complete form. With that established… I… I do love Heisler’s exaggerated take on John English’s raised wing-tips and protruding tail.
What condition is the pair in? Do they show signs of having been used by a hunter? They were definitely used, but not too much, and only in freshwater. They have what I consider to be a Goldilocks level of light gunning wear, just enough to build character and tell a story and not so much as to distract.
What is the world auction record for a Jess Heisler duck decoy? According to the Decoy Magazine Year in Review for 2020, the Heisler record is $36,800. That was for a pintail in 2007. This sleeping pair could break that on a good day. We’ll know soon enough. Copley smashed the record for the entire Delaware River region a couple years ago, hammering down a John English decoy at a quarter million, so that helped make some room.
Why will this pair of Jess Heisler duck decoys stick in your memory? Well, for me, decoy memories can be made where excellence meets rarity. To illustrate the rarity–while cataloging, I flipped through every single page of the leading book on the Delaware River region decoys and found exactly zero sleepers like these.
Update: The Discovery expedition medal sold for $14,112.
What you see: A silver sporting medal awarded to First Lieutenant Charles W.R. Royds during the British National Antarctic Expedition, better known as the Discovery Expedition, between 1901 and 1904. Bonhams estimates it at $11,000 to $16,000.
The expert: Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams.
What was the Discovery Expedition? It was the first official British expedition to the Antarctic region in more than 60 years. Both Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton were on the expedition, and it was a launch pad for both of them in terms of Antarctic exploration.
What were the Discovery Expedition’s notable accomplishments, and how successful was it, compared to other British expeditions to the Antarctic and other countries’ expeditions? They reached a new further south, they got a little further to the South Pole. It was pretty successful in as much as others proved particularly fatal. It laid the trail for expeditions that followed.
Who was Charles Royds, and why would he have been selected for the Discovery Expedition? He was in the British Navy already, and had built himself a career in the navy. What’s interesting is the Discovery Expedition was driven and instigated by naval officer Clements Markham. It had a very naval core to it. Royds served as a first lieutenant in the British expedition, and there’s a cape in Antarctica named after him.
Do we know how many of these Discovery Expedition medals were struck, and how many survive? No, sadly, to either question. Bonhams has handled two–this oneand another. I’ve found traces of records of other ones, but they’re pretty rare. I’d say there’s a dozen or fewer, but that’s a pure guess.
The Discovery Expedition medal is silver. Does silver mean “second place” in this context, or were all the sporting medals given out on the expedition made of silver? All the ones we’ve seen are silver. I think that’s just what they were. Other 19th century medals that aren’t sporting medals–medals for valor and achievement–tend to be silver as well. I think this continues the theme.
Do we know if the Discovery Expedition medal is 100 percent silver, or sterling silver, or a silver alloy? I don’t think I could say without having it in my hands, but it looks like it’s solid silver.
I see what looks like a penguin on the front of the Discovery Expedition medal, but I can’t identify which species of penguin it is. Is it a penguin? The neck of the bird seems too long to be a penguin. It was probably designed to be a penguin, and probably designed to be a King penguin, based on the dimensions. I agree that the neck seems too long to be a penguin. I think it’s like Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros–trying to depict an animal without having seen it in real life.
Do we know what Charles Royds won the silver sporting medal for, and when? We know that on King Edward VII’s birthday on November 8, 1902, they declared a holiday and decorated the ship with flags and organized a sports day. That’s the day we believe the medal was won.
But we don’t know what Royds won it for? We don’t know for what, but it’s confusing. On the day of the event, Royds was on a sledging expedition, and probably did not participate in the sports day. The hypothesis is maybe there was another sporting event after he got back one to two weeks later, or he was awarded the prize even though he wasn’t there.
I see a hoop on top of the Discovery Expedition medal, and I’m guessing it’s for stringing a ribbon. It strikes me, though, that it makes no sense to wear a metal disc around your neck in Antarctic temperatures. How did the winners wear their silver sporting medals? I think rather than wearing a ribbon around their necks, they wore it like they wear medals in the military–hanging from a bar pinned to their chests. The idea of pinning it to their chests would have seemed more natural than hanging it around their necks.
What does it say about the people who planned the Discovery Expedition that they were far-sighted enough to strike silver medals to give out in Antarctica as awards for sports and games to be held on the ice? I find it pretty extraordinary, honestly. They had to arrange for food, tools, sledges, protective clothing–I find it remarkable they went to that level of detail.
It occurs to me that sports and games–they engaged in sledge-pulling, skiing, and rifle shooting–that all costs calories. The planners of the Discovery Expedition felt it was important to include enough food so the men could spend calories on having fun while they explored Antarctica. Yes. I always find it remarkable. They had a relief ship that went on runs to New Zealand, but they had no sense of what they would be consuming. When they actually made sledging expeditions to the South Pole, they were constantly thinking about rationing. When I go to the store for groceries, it’s hard for me to think a week ahead.
I’ve marinated in Monty Python and British culture, and it strikes me that holding sports days on the Antarctic ice is a very public school, very Boy’s Own thing to do… Totally. What’s key to the British public school system, which is actually the private school system, is it was keen on sport. Sport was a huge part of British upper class culture, and these guys were in the British Navy as well–there were sports competitions between forces in the military. It makes sense as a pastime. But there were intellectual pursuits as well. Shackleton was responsible for The South Polar Times, and others on the Discovery Expedition contributed to it. Another lot in the same sale features a watercolor from The South Polar Times.
The back of the Discovery Expedition medal has Charles Royds’s name engraved on it. I had assumed Royds had it done in Britain, after returning home, but I should ask if it was done in Antarctica, to be sure. The explorers were capable of doing a lot of surprising things in Antarctica, such as publishing books… My guess is he did it back in England. I say that because the other Antarctic medal we sold was blank on the back, and that came through Royds–he gave it as a gift to a woman he was courting.
Did Charles Royds leave a memoir or a diary? If he did, did he talk about the sporting day at all? He kept a diary, and it was published in 2001 in Australia. I have not seen it. It may shed light on things and it may not. Very often, they [the explorers] were more interested in the wider picture: “We landed here and sledged to here,” not the smaller stuff that we’d be more interested in.
Very much in the style of a Captain’s log? No emotions, just facts? Exactly, yeah. Very occasionally, they introduce medical issues. Often, these are slightly whitewashed for the public.
...Because they’re British and Edwardian and they didn’t talk about emotional stuff, even in their own diaries? Yes. [laughs]
The Discovery Expedition medals are so weird in that they seem utterly frivolous and on second thought, they seem absolutely necessary to buck up morale among a group of people who had no radio and virtually no mail. It’s completely bizarre, and I think also absolutely brilliant. You forget the extent of time they had there when they were not achieving heroic deeds. A lot of it was very dull and ordinary. And they were stuck with the same group of people for years. Tempers flared. It was tough.
What is the Discovery Expedition medal like in person? It’s pretty unremarkable, really. It’s pleasantly tarnished with age. It looks like something that’s 120 years old. It’s not particularly large, an ordinary size of medal. Nothing striking about it except the actual context.
What is it like to hold the medal? It’s quite a satisfying object. It’s bigger than a coin, and thicker. It begs to be held, and it’s connected with the Antarctica of the period.
What’s your favorite detail of the medal? The fact that they actually chose to put a penguin on it. They could have picked so many other things–the ship, someone skiing… there are no human figures, and that’s odd. Usually, there’s a member of the royal family or the leader of the expedition, but here, they put a penguin on it. And is it even really a penguin?
Why will this piece stick in your memory? You mentioned Monty Python earlier. There’s an element of the surreal nature of Olympics on ice. There’s also the optimism that it symbolizes, the optimism of keeping spirits up in adversity. If you want to be topical, there’s an element of similarity with the COVID-19 lockdowns. We’re confined with the same people all the time. The explorers’ solution was to get involved in sport.
Update: The Edward Millman fresco detail sold for $2,860.
What you see: A fresco detail by Edward Millman of a mural panel he painted on the walls of the St. Louis post office for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $3,000 to $4,000.
The expert: Harold Porcher [pronounced Por-SHAY], director of modern and post-war art at Swann Auction Galleries.
Who was Edward Millman, and what made him a good choice for the St. Louis post office mural project? He was a lifelong teacher, skilled in all media–tempera, oil, fresco. His skills with fresco made him one of the leaders to get the mural project for the WPA.
Had Edward Millman done WPA projects prior to this one, and had he worked with artist Mitchell Siporin before? He had worked with Siporin in 1938 on a post office in Decatur, Illinois, and had done other murals himself for the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in 1933.
I understand that Edward Millman went to Mexico and trained under Diego Rivera. How, if at all, does Rivera’s influence show up in this fresco detail and in the finished mural panel? With this panel and the fresco detail, his style is more closely aligned with [Mexican muralist] José Clemente Orozco. What Millman took from Rivera was learning the difficult technique of fresco painting and the high-contrast, limited-detail forms that translate well to fresco. Rivera limited his visual language so it could be read from afar and directly. Millman took that in his education.
What do we know about how the St. Louis post office mural project came to be? That post office was constructed under the New Deal and completed in 1937. Artists submitted images to compete for the job. Edward Millman and Mitchell Siporin were competitive because they had experience in fresco, and this job called for fresco work. Both had gone to Mexico to study mural-painting with José Clemente Orozco.
I looked at the website The Living New Deal, and I think I see the panel from which the fresco detail came–I think it’s from the far right of panel seven. Is that correct? Yes. Three large mural panels were done by Edward Millman and three by Mitchell Siporin. There were also two small mural panels, one by each artist.
What’s going on in the Edward Millman fresco detail? What do we see here? I believe it represents the early Missouri pioneers, and the struggle to go into new territories.
Are the figures settlers who are trying to build a house? They’re moving materials. It almost seems allegorical, but it feels more literal than allegorical. I think he’s trying to be more straightforward and show pioneers. One is carrying wood on his back, and it almost comes across as Christ on the cross.
How did Edward Millman and Mitchell Siporin physically do the mural work? Did they paint the frescoes during business hours, as people did their errands below their scaffolding, or did they paint when the building was closed? Thematically, the artists worked together by agreeing to tie the composition together with a ribbon of blue in the background, which represents the river. I would speculate that they worked like any other government employee, putting in daily shifts during working hours, if not nine-to-five. I found a black-and-white photo of them on the scaffolding during work hours.
This WPA post office mural is notable for depicting Native Americans and Black people as part of the story of the creation of Missouri. Do we know how the mural was received when it was unveiled? Was it controversial? I could find no articles on the public reaction at the time, which leads me to believe there wasn’t outrage or pushback from the people of St. Louis. And it has survived. It hasn’t been painted over or covered with other panels. I don’t think there was a huge positive or negative reaction. That’s my sense.
How is this Edward Millman fresco detail typical of his work, and how is it atypical? Subject-wise, I find his work veers toward the hardships and tribulations of working-class Americans. This is one of his more Cubist works in general. He moved away from Orozco-type images as he progressed. His style became more figurative later.
What can we say about the color palette Edward Millman chose for the fresco detail, and for that particular section of the mural? I believe he was, again, following the color palette of work by Orozco. In general, the panel has a wider range of colors, with blues and greens. This detail has darker tones–dark reds, burnt oranges.
Edward Millman painted this fresco detail in tempera on Masonite in 1942, possibly after the mural panel was finished. Why might he have done this? Maybe he painted it for a class, as a teaching tool? I have two thoughts. The inscription at the bottom right of the fresco detail [was maybe] added as a historical document to say the year in which the mural was completed. The second possibility is it was done earlier in 1942 and the mural was completed after. Maybe he was working out that portion of the composition.
I don’t claim to have comprehensive knowledge, but I’m trying to think of any other time I’ve seen an artist make a detail of a fresco in a different medium, and I’m coming up empty… I agree. These [multi-year fresco mural] projects had to be well mapped-out. Why do a detailed rendering of a mural section in another medium? It’s puzzling. My theory is he was working out the details of a mural section. He might have used it as a reference to do the rest. Thematically, all the panels follow the same concept–three groups of figures, with one group at the left, one at the right, and one in the center. He may have needed to work out the colors and the forms, and only chose this one section to do that.
Did Edward Millman render any other fresco details from the St. Louis post office mural in tempera? Have any of those come to auction? I’ve found no other examples of studies having been sold for this particular project for either artist. Maybe scholars will dig deeper and bring attention to other examples.
What’s the provenance of the Edward Millman fresco detail? Does it come directly from his family? He retained it until his death in 1964. It was bought from the family by a collector in Boston.
What condition is the Edward Millman fresco detail in? The paint and the panel are in great shape. There are hairline scratches in the pigment that expose the white underpainting.
What is the Edward Millman fresco detail like in person? It translates very well in the photo. It uses heavy contrasts and lots of shadow and light. There aren’t a lot of subtleties that are lost.
What is your favorite detail of the Edward Millman piece? Often, when you see studies from a larger composition, it doesn’t feel complete. This holds up as a composition on its own. It’s complete, though it’s a detail of something larger.
What’s the world auction record for a work by Edward Millman? It was a 1941 oil on canvas, titled Flophouse and showing two men, one reclining and one seated. It sold in June 2015 for $24,000. Stylistically, it’s different from the work we have, but compositionally, it’s similar.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? In Edward Millman, you see an artist who’s mastered several techniques. I attribute that to his being a teacher. Not all artists are great technicians. Millman was always learning by creating examples for his students. In that sense, I believe teachers are better technicians than most artists.
Update: The Edward Penfield golf calendar from the year 1900 sold for $5,250.
What you see: The June/July page from an Edward Penfield golf calendar for the year 1900. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $8,000 to $12.000.
The expert: Laura Polucha, a cataloger in Swann’s illustration department.
Who was Edward Penfield, and why would he have been chosen to illustrate this golf-themed calendar? He was probably among the most famous and prolific illustration artists of all time. He’s credited with bringing the phenomenon known as the “poster craze” to America. In 1899 and 1900, he was working as the art editor for Harper’s, which was one of the largest magazine groups in New York, and he was actively taking freelance projects. That’s how the calendar came to be. His association with [publisher] R.H. Russell started in 1896.
Do we know if Penfield played golf? It’s certainly conceivable. It was a very popular activity of the time. But Penfield’s health was known not to be strong, even in his youth. It’s possible he played golf vicariously through these images. He produced his first golf calendar for Russell in 1899, and it was so popular that Russell asked for another one in 1900. That’s the version we have in our auction.
How different are the illustrations in the two Penfield golf calendars? They’re nearly identical except for the cover and the illustration for February.
Why might R.H. Russell have wanted to print and market a golf-themed calendar in 1899 and 1900? What convinced the publisher that it would sell? Golf really started to emerge as a popular pastime in the 1890s, which was a period of profound change in the country. There was more leisure time and more recreational opportunities for the middle class. The calendar would have appealed to players and to the general public.
Do we have any idea how many copies of the golf-themed calendar were printed, and do we know how many survived? I can’t speak to how many were printed in either year, but the 1899 and 1900 calendars are very rare, especially in complete form. This is the only 1900 calendar we could find that appeared at auction in the last 20 years.
So the Penfield golf calendars were subject to being broken up? A lot of dealers would break them up because the illustrations have stand-alone appeal as single sheets.
What details in these illustrations mark them as the work of Edward Penfield? His style is characterized by the use of large, flat shapes, and large, flat areas of color, and simplified figures with bold outlines. The style translates well to the posters he was producing.
Would Edward Penfield have hand-colored the illustrations, or provided a color guide, or would someone at R.H. Russell have chosen the color palette for the calendar? Edward Penfield was heavily involved in the printing process. He really liked rich, multi-color effects. His process began with him sketching the subject and the layout and then making a master drawing in ink, using a pen and a brush to add watercolors. Once he had the master drawing, he laid down tracing paper on top, using a different piece of tracing paper for each color. That would be his maquette [original artwork]. It was not uncommon for him to stay with the pressman until the desired effect was achieved.
What sorts of effects would Penfield attempt? There was the splatter effect, where one plate would cover up some area of another to produce a new hue where they overlap. In the September illustration, you can see in the area at the lower right how the green of the grass lays on top of the yellow and orange of the sand to create a darker green color.
What is the Penfield golf calendar like in person? What doesn’t come over on camera? When examining it with a close eye, you can see the impressions are very deep in the thick stock of the paper. It’s well-colored.
What is your favorite illustration from the Penfield golf calendar, and why? I’m drawn to the November/December page, primarily because of the couple’s fashion. My favorite detail is the hosiery throughout the illustrations, which is fantastic. I’m a fashion historian and a fashion fanatic, and it attracted me. In the early 1900s, there were advances in high-speed knitting technology that lead to a wider availability of hosiery in brighter colors and patterns. Penfield had an eye for patterns. Here, I love the gentleman smoking a pipe and wearing socks with orange interlocking circles at the top. Hers have a bold diamond print. If you look closely, you’ll see her socks don’t quite match. I find that so charming and fashion-forward for the time. She wouldn’t get away with that off the golf course.
Do we know if slightly mismatched socks like hers were actually available for purchase in 1900, or if Penfield had the illustration colored and printed that way simply because he liked it? It’s hard to say for sure. I haven’t heard about a trend for mismatched socks [in 1900]. I have a hunch it was Penfield’s decision.
The thing that jumped out at me in looking through the illustrations is the depictions of the players. There are a few solo men, and a few solo women. The couples are always one man and one woman. The cover shows a mixed group, but we never see a foursome, and we never see an all-male group–not once.Why might Penfield have done this? Was the sport of golf this co-ed in America in 1899 and 1900, or is Penfield just drawing the figures he wants to draw, reality be damned? This is a fascinating observation. What’s really interesting is the February illustration for 1899 showed two men playing together. It was replaced the following year by a man and a woman playing together. It’s interesting that that was swapped out. Women gradually participated in more sports in the 1870s, and by 1900, women commonly played sports like golf and tennis. Though they were barred from entry at many golf courses in the U.S., some did allow women. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Long Island allowed women in 1891 and was so popular, it installed a nine-hole golf course for women two years later. They couldn’t participate in tournaments, as far as I know. It was a genteel pastime, like croquet.
What condition is the Penfield golf calendar in? Overall I’d say it has really good, strong impressions, and the colors are bright and vibrant. It has punch holes at the top, which were placed by the publisher. It has the typical age wear you see in things like this.
Do we know anything about how this particular copy of the Penfield golf calendar managed to survive so well? I’m guessing that calendars are even more vulnerable than posters to being thrown out, because they’re literally date-stamped… Some are so visually appealing, they make you want to keep them around. I have a few calendars I haven’t parted with. It speaks to the enduring appeal of the images.
This question might be a little odd, and please call me out if I’m wrong. But it looks like the man in the January illustration and the woman in the March/April illustration appear together, as a couple, in the November/December illustration… do you see what I see? I agree that the April golfer is the same woman in the November/December illustration, but January… I’m bouncing between them, and his hair looks slightly different from the November/December man. It’s a sweet thought, but I can’t confidently get behind it. The man looks different.
Do prints, paintings, illustrations and other artworks that depict golf have an automatic, built-in audience? I’m guessing this calendar might not draw as much interested if its theme was, say, curling. In general, it’s been my experience that golfers have a fervent love of the sport and gravitate to artwork with a golf theme. What makes the calendar special is you don’t need to be a golfer to appreciate the artwork. It’s designed to have mass appeal.
What’s the world auction record for a Penfield golf calendar, and for any work by Penfield? A complete 1899 Penfield golf calendar–nine sheets, plus the cover–sold in February 2020 at a different auction house for $21,600. It appears to be the most expensive Penfield sold at auction also.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I’m a cataloger for illustration art. I typically handle original art. This sale, overall, has been really unique for me. I’ll remember the calendar as one of the stars of a robust and respected collection. [The auction showcases the Dick McDonough collection of golf illustration.] I’m eager to see how it does.
Update: The 1968 Hot Wheels store display sold for $36,300.
What you see: An exceptionally rare and unusually complete 1968 Hot Wheels store display. Van Eaton Galleries estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Joel Magee, consigner. He is also known as The Toy Scout, and has appeared on the TV show Pawn Stars.
How did this 1968 Hot Wheels store display come to be? Why did Mattel make it? This was the very beginning of Hot Wheels. Matchbox had dominated the industry for literally decades. When Mattel made Hot Wheels, they took it to the next level. Everything they wanted, they put into the cars. They made these gorgeous store displays which were unheard of at the time. They looked like a dealer showroom. When the kids saw that, they went crazy. No marketer had made something so elaborate for a toy.
Mattel realized they had to go big or go home if they were going to compete with Matchbox, and this is what they did? They literally created a piece of art to sell these toys. Nothing had really been done before at that level.
So, this Hot Wheels store display is pretty much how the world was introduced to Hot Wheels? Exactly. There were a lot of commercials on TV, but from a point-of-sale situation, it was everything. You were not able to not notice the display. Mattel just made it look so cool, you couldn’t resist.
Did every toy store get a Hot Wheels display of this level of quality, or was it reserved for FAO Schwarz and other high-end venues? The stores had to put in a big pre-order to get the display, but pretty much everybody got it.
What makes this 1968 Hot Wheels store display extremely rare? Mattel sent one display per store. Most were thrown away. Some displays were cut open so they could take the cars and throw the rest away. A few people saved the displays and took them home. This one is even rarer because it has a fold-out flap that advertises Hot Wheels accessories. Only three examples still have the flap.
And someone at Mattel would have had to personally assemble each display before shipping it to a toy store? They put them together like a puzzle. It’s lithograph on card, and it took a lot to put this together. Each car had to be hand-tied down, two straps per car. Mattel spared no expense in making these displays.
What else adds to the Hot Wheels store display’s rarity? It has toys in colors that were not used in the main product line. The watermelon pink Mustang only came in store displays. That adds excitement and allure to the set. It highlighted 16 cars, but not every display had exactly the same cars. Some had a chocolate brown Camaro. This display doesn’t have one.
Do we know why this Hot Wheels store display doesn’t have a chocolate brown Camaro? I don’t think it was intended at the time. I think they [Mattel] pretty much said, “We’ve got a bunch of cars over here, OK, take these,” and later, they made a different decision during production. The two specific [rarities unique to variants of the 1968 Hot Wheels store display] are the chocolate brown Camaro and the watermelon pink Mustang.
Does this 1968 Hot Wheels store display have all 16 toy cars that it came with originally, or have some been replaced over the years? All 16 in the display are original to the set.
The toy cars in the display are called “Redline” cars. Why? There are red lines on the tires. They’re like whitewalls, only they’re red. They’re considered the premium Hot Wheels cars, and they were made between 1968 and 1976. Then Mattel shifted to black-wall tire cars. That’s where old-school collectors stop.
Do we know how this particular Hot Wheels store display survived? It was acquired from a local hobby store in Cleveland, Ohio in 1968. A father had pestered the store owner because he wanted it for his son. One day he came in and the display was gone. He asked where it was and the owner said “I put it behind the counter. I didn’t forget you.” The father got it for the price of the 16 cars, so, he paid 59 cents times 16. [That would have been $9.44 in 1968 money, which translates to roughly $71.34 in modern dollars.]
Does the Hot Wheels store display come directly from the family? I bought it from them myself. They enjoyed it for many years, then they put it away in a closet. Fast forward 50 years, and they realized, “Oh my God, this is a life-changing moment here.”
What condition is the 1968 Hot Wheels store display in? Everything is in its original place. The plastic cover, which is an acetate-type material, tends to shrink over time, but amazingly enough, I knew a Mattel employee who had a few covers. So this has a new cover, but it’s 50 years old.
What is the Hot Wheels store display like in person? Mattel painted the cars with what they called Spectraflame paint. The best way to explain it is it glows. It’s like they take on a new life. It’s one of the things that makes people crazy for them–they’re mesmerized by how beautiful they are. [Magee later explained that Mattel stopped using Spectraflame paint on Hot Wheels cars around 1973 or 1974.]
How large is the Hot Wheels store display? It’s about two feet long by about one foot deep. It has a commanding presence. Mattel really went out of its way to make it look like the ultimate showroom. They spared no expense. The buildings and scenery in the back added to the mix.
What’s your favorite detail of the display? In my opinion, it’s the three-dimensional look to it. Mattel designed it so it doesn’t look like it was printed on a flat background. They gave it depth. They could have just stuck a few cars on bases, but instead, they put them on round platforms that do move–they’re on a rivet, they can swivel.
How many of these 1968 Hot Wheels store displays have you handled? I’ve been doing this for 35 years. I’ve handled four.
How does this example compare to the other three? This one has the flap. The flap is the big deal. The others had their flaps torn off.
Why does that front flap on the Hot Wheels store display tend not to survive? The cardboard probably got weak, and tore off, or someone tore it off intentionally. I just know that only a few have the flap.
The 1968 Hot Wheels store display carries an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. What percentage of its value belongs with the display itself, and how much belongs to the toy cars? Between 90 and 95 percent of the value is in the display. The cars, you can get, except for the brown Camaro and the pink Mustang. The display, you can’t.
It seems like sales of Hot Wheels cars mostly happen in private, not at auction. How does that affect the estimate for this display? Very rarely does one of these come up for sale. I figure it will settle around $50,000 to $70,000 this time. Again, it’s all about quality, rarity, and desirability, and this has all of that. It’s the Holy Grail of Hot Wheels.
What’s the likelihood that this 1968 Hot Wheels store display will set a new world auction record for Hot Wheels toys? In my opinion, it will absolutely set a new record. I can’t imagine it won’t set a new record, just based on all the other stuff that’s going on. COVID-19 has changed the situation. Everyone is at home and researching different hobbies, and they want something fun that’s an investment. Hot Wheels are just skyrocketing. There are Hot Wheels that sold for $2,000 or $3,000 that are going for $5,000 or $6,000 now.
What you see: A Limoges enamel tazza, signed with the initials of Pierre Reymond and dated 1542. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.
The expert: William Russell, Jr., Christie’s specialist head of department, early European sculpture and works of art.
Limoges is known as a center for porcelain. What was the French city’s reputation for enamels in 1542, the date on this tazza? There were many workshops in the city. It was one of the most famous production centers in France. Enamels are some of the hardest to make of the kunstkammer objects. Some of the most sophisticated French collectors were buying them. To bring it to today, I’ve been working here since 2000. Enamels have always been popular. The very best make astronomical prices.
What techniques would have been used to make the Limoges enamel tazza? Nobody really knows. In Limoges, enamels were a family business, and the families were very competitive.
So Limoges enamel works were like the glassmaking families on the Italian island of Murano? Family pride and family secrets? Exactly.
Who was Pierre Reymond, and where was he in his career in 1542? His first pieces were in the 1530s, and I think he worked until the 1570s or 1580s. He had a long life, especially for that time, and he started young. In 1542, he was young. He was a semi-diplomat. Politics and money were very mixed in Limoges.
So he wasn’t just a dude who was good with a kiln. He was a superstar really young.
Do we know how prolific Pierre Reymond was? This piece bears his initials–is there a count of surviving Limoges enamels that he signed? I don’t know what his output was. Revival enamel pieces were popular in the late 19th century, and everybody put “PR” on them, and some tried to pass them off as Renaissance. Dating is hard, because the enamel techniques are basically the same.
Pierre Reymond signed and dated this Limoges enamel tazza. Is that unusual? I get the sense that looking at the scope of history, signing and dating works was seen as a privilege that few artisans were allowed before the modern era. It is rare. Most are not signed and dated. Maybe it’s part of the Renaissance tradition that centers the human, and sees the human as not just a cog in the wheel. And I’m sure the powers that be in Limoges regulated everything. They didn’t want a crummy thing sent to the court in Fontainebleu. Him being able to sign his work is part of that. He had to have reached a point in his career where he was a master.
What is a tazza? What is its function? You see them in ancient Greece and Rome. By the Renaissance, the tazza had become an element of the table. Basically, it was to show how rich you were.
Why might Pierre Reymond or the person who commissioned this Limoges enamel tazza have wanted the feast of Dido and Aeneas depicted on it? It was a famously elaborate feast, with tons of gold and silver. The story referred to antiquity. [With the tazza,] you could show how sophisticated you were, and how learned you were. It’s fun to have, but you’d appreciate it more if you did know it [the story of the mythical feast]. And you have the grotesques around the base. You have to have a sense of humor to put those things on it.
Do we know anything at all about why the piece was made–who might have commissioned it from Reymond in 1542, and why? No. For us, it’s a little bit disappointing not to have more provenance. It was at a Danish auction house and then the trail goes cold.
Do we know if the Limoges enamel tazza was a one-off or part of a group of pieces? It could have been a one-off, it could have been part of a series, I don’t know. It would have looked great in a group. Many of these things were made in bigger groups, and were made for big tables.
This Limoges enamel tazza has a noticeably cool palette of blues and grisaille, or grey. Do we know why? Was there a fashion for cool palettes on enamels in 1542? There were lots of colorful enamels, but grisailles were the chicest. It was what people wanted. They were some of the most sophisticated things produced in France at the time. The sources were prints, widely circulated prints. The theory is the grisaille was done to imitate the prints. When this tazza was produced, grisaille was relatively new, the hot new thing. Everybody loved it because it was so weird and different and beautiful in a way.
Is it possible to know how involved Pierre Reymond would have been in the creation and production of this Limoges enamel tazza? Would he have drawn the design and handed it off to others to execute, or might he have shaped the form and painted it himself? We know so little about the workshop, so few of the names, even. I don’t know what his involvement was. But he was still really young. If you’re on the make, trying to establish yourself, you’re not going to outsource that. You don’t want to. I guess he was quite involved in making this, so early in his career.
What do we know about how hard this Limoges enamel tazza might have been to make? Does one color equal one pass through the kiln? I know it was fired many times. I’m sure the production secrets were carefully guarded from family to family. The gilding would have come afterwards [after the firing was finished].
What is the Limoges enamel tazza like in person? Are there details that the camera doesn’t capture? It’s surprisingly light. Copper is a pretty light material, and metal is expensive. They wouldn’t have wanted to waste it. That’s my first reaction. My second reaction is the high-gloss sheen of the surface is very seductive, very tactile. Everyone’s attracted to touching it because it’s so beautiful. There are unbelievably subtle shades of white and black. There’s a lot going on.
So these enamels are painted on a copper core? They look as bright and engaging as an oil-on-copper painting? Exactly. Oil-on-copper paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries look like enamel–they’re dazzling. Those paintings were meant to imitate enamel.
What’s your favorite detail on the Limoges enamel tazza? I love some of the weird grotesques and decorative elements on the stem. I also like the huge putto [cherub] hanging over the frame. For me, it’s kind of weird and great, which I love. What’s he doing there? Are we looking at him? Is he looking at us? Who’s looking at who? It’s curious and it’s fun. Maybe it’s [the oversize putto] an obvious joke in 1542 that’s been lost to time.
The other thing that jumps out at me is it looks like it could have been made last week–it’s that fresh and vibrant. How is that possible? That’s part of its appeal. It doesn’t crack, dry out, or fade, or rot, or get eaten by insects. It still has jewel-like colors. It’s as vivid and as dazzling as the day it was made, which is amazing.
Why will this Limoges enamel tazza stick in your memory? It takes energy to look at. It forces you to slow down and look at the object like people used to have to do. You have to stop looking at your phone and make up your own mind.
The mid-19th century represented the peak of the American whaling industry. This scrimshaw wall pocket dates to circa 1870. Does the date plus its intricate nature point to this piece having been made on land rather than at sea? It’s hard to know. It could have been made on land or at sea.
But those facts are not proof it had to have been made on land? No. Very, very many delicate things were brought onto ships. We had a fabulous 18th century games table that had hand-forged hooks in the back to tether it to the floor so it wouldn’t move around.
So it wasn’t impossible to make something like this at sea, particularly if the ship was stuck in the doldrums. Right. Back then, you went by wind. If there was no wind or current to take you anywhere, you’d hang out for a couple of days.
Do we know anything about how this scrimshaw wall pocket came to be, and who might have made it? Since it’s a one-off, and because of the labor that went into it, they had to saw it. I can only imagine it was made for letters–to save precious letters from ports around the world. A lot of sailors’ art was made for loved ones. These guys were lonely at sea, and were thinking of loved ones back at home.
I wanted to clarify something. The lot notes call the scrimshaw wall pocket “one of the largest genuine single pieces of scrimshaw in existence”, but you mean one of the largest finished pieces in existence, yes? This is made from several pieces of whale bone, not a single one? Exactly.
How many pieces of whale bone went into it? There are seven main pieces and at least a dozen smaller pieces that are attached to it.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how hard the scrimshaw wall pocket was to make? It would have been hard because whale bone is brittle. Look at the stars. The stars come to a tiny point before they attach to the circles. When you’re cutting it, you’d have to be so careful not to crack the bone. People tend to forget the most difficult part is not the beginning, it’s the end. Imagine cooking a soufflé. If you pull it out at the wrong time, it collapses.
So we can assume that whoever made this had at least a few failed attempts at carving parts of the whole? Whoever made this… this was not their first time at the rodeo. They were skilled enough to make it, skilled enough to cut it and say, ‘This doesn’t look right, it’s the wrong scale’.
And one person would have made this scrimshaw wall pocket, working alone? Yes, we can assume one person did this.
What condition is the scrimshaw wall pocket in? It’s in remarkably good condition. One of the protrusions on the front–a little button–has been replaced. There are no breaks in it.
Does it show signs of having been used? It hung off the central circle from a wall. I’m sure someplace along coastal Massachusetts or Connecticut, somebody was lucky enough to have it in their hallway and threw letters in it. Or they had it in their bedroom and threw love letters in it. Who knows?
What is the scrimshaw wall pocket like in person? What does the camera not quite capture? What’s hard to grasp is the actual scale of it. It is big, and impressive for its size. I think a copy of Vogue magazine could fit in it, though you wouldn’t necessarily want to put Vogue magazine in it. Copper pins secure the parts.
Have the copper pins oxidized? There’s slight verdigris around them from the salty air. It’s wonderful.
What’s your favorite detail of the scrimshaw wall pocket? I love the central panel with the five stars. There’s good balance between the positive and the negative spaces. The artist had a great sense of scale. It was well thought out. I’m sure they drew it out on a piece of paper.
Yes. Today, we’d use computers to design something like this. You can tell it was fabricated by hand. A computer could not think it up as well as this. Because it’s handmade, there are slight, subtle incongruities. If it was done on a computer, out of plastic, it wouldn’t look like this. It would have no life to it. This has life to it. It looks mechanical because of the squares, but if you examine it, you can see the craftsmanship.
It looks delicate. Is it delicate? It’s light, but it’s a lot less delicate than you might think. It’s sturdy. It’s a minimum of an eighth of an inch to three-sixteenths of an inch thick. If you dropped it on the ground, it would shatter, but it’s stronger than you’d think. If you took it off its board and put it on a wall in your house, it’d be fine. You’d just want to make sure your hook is strong. But I think most collectors today would leave it as is, and make sure it’s preserved.
The scrimshaw wall pocket appears in two books that were published in the 1970s: a Time-Life book called The Whalers, and American Folk Sculpture by Robert Bishop. How, if at all, does its appearance in these books make it more interesting to collectors? Whenever an object has a history of publication in well-known books, it helps. American Folk Sculpture is still the bible of three-dimensional American folk art. It’s fantastic to have a piece from it.
Why will this scrimshaw wall pocket stick in your memory? Because of its scale and the overall artistic composition of it. It has a timeless quality, and it can go with any decor. When you look at it, it always puts a smile on your face. I think that’s good art, when you have an emotional connection to it.
What you see: Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa, by Marilyn Chase. $29.95 (Hardback). Chronicle Books.*
Does it fit in my purse? No. It’s a hardback and it’s just slightly too big to fit.
Cut to the chase. Should I buy this book? Yes, especially if you have no idea who Ruth Asawa was.
Ruth Asawa was traditional in many respects, but she was not conventional.
Moreover, she knew she was not conventional. She knew she didn’t really fit anywhere, she accepted that fact early and firmly, and she never let it trouble her.
That fundamental self-acceptance and lack of doubt seems to be key to Asawa’s success as an artist. At least, that’s what I get from Everything She Touched. Ruth Asawa was unique, spectacularly so. She got what she wanted because she knew what she wanted, and she stuck with it even if her wants didn’t match the 20th century white male artist’s definition of success.
What she wanted, even more than she wanted art-world renown, was a large family. Asawa was the middle child of seven, and she was determined to have six children of her own, even though she suffered from ghastly bouts of morning sickness. (Ever the pragmatist, she met her goal by birthing four children and adopting two.)
The book, which is the first major biography of the artist, lays out the facts of her life crisply in chronological order. She and her parents and siblings suffered the injustice of internment in camps during World War II because of their Japanese ties, and the U.S. government arrested and held Asawa’s father, Umakichi, apart from them over concerns he might be involved with a Japanese ultranationalist group. (He wasn’t.)
The author, Marilyn Chase, manages the trick of relaying the positive aspects of Ruth Asawa’s camp years without implying the experience was a good thing. She also captures the bitterness Asawa felt upon learning, three years into her studies, that the teachers’ college she attended in Milwaukee, Wisconsin denied her a student-teacher position–which she needed to complete her degree–over fears for her safety as a person of Japanese ancestry.
Running headlong into that racist barrier ultimately led Asawa to North Carolina to attend Black Mountain College, an experience that changed her life, and her art, for the better. But, again, the author takes care to avoid suggesting that the college’s act of discrimination, veiled in paternalism, should be forgiven because things turned out fine in the end. Chase lets it stand alone and apart as an incident of rank bigotry, one of many Asawa faced as a Japanese-American woman in the 20th century.
In reading the many pages on Ruth Asawa’s experience at Black Mountain College, I grew annoyed that I didn’t really know her before picking up Everything She Touched. Her classmates included Robert Rauschenberg and Ray Johnson. Merce Cunningham taught her modern dance. She knew R. Buckminster Fuller as “Bucky”, and he designed her wedding ring. (It’s pictured on page 70, and, frankly, I’m jealous of it.)
Asawa also forged a deep, decades-long connection to Josef Albers, who taught at Black Mountain and saw her potential almost immediately.
Albers wasn’t the only one. In the 1950s, Asawa and her art received coverage in Time, Vogue, and other big-deal publications (though the language quoted from the stories shows that critics and editors didn’t know how to regard her; because she took family friend Imogen Cunningham’s advice to make art under her maiden name, the articles invariably describe her as “Miss Asawa”, a term that has the unfortunate effect of erasing the existence of the family that meant so much to her).
Asawa also earned the ripest of plums: representation by a New York City gallery. That relationship, with Peridot Gallery, ended when she literally outgrew the space. Its ceilings were only so high, forcing Asawa to size her hanging wire sculptures to fit its dimensions. Leaving the gallery meant dropping off the New York City radar. Others more desperate for fame and fortune would have reduced their artistic visions to fit inside the white-walled box. Not Asawa. The West Coast resident plowed ahead, raising children and making art on her own terms.
In performing the task of describing her life story, the book overlooks a thing or two. The Japanese concept of gaman, or endurance with dignity, appears early, as does Asawa’s long-held belief that “crying doesn’t help”. As a grown woman and a mother, she transmitted these values to her children, and she took this approach to her art; in the passage about her wedding ring, the book notes that Asawa’s fingers were often bound with masking tape because of cuts and scrapes inflicted by the wires she wove. But the potential downsides of this stoic philosophy–and come on, they had to exist–go unexplored. There’s brief, general discussion of how she made her wire works, but not much beyond that, and no details about the creation of any specific wire work.
Ruth Asawa’s story could have slipped away, but it did not. Long after his death, Josef Albers helped her one last time by indirectly bringing her to the attention of someone who could raise her profile. When Asawa’s family contacted Christie’s about selling a study in green from the Homage to the Square series that he gave her as a gift, Jonathan Laib took the call. He realized Asawa must have meant a great deal to Albers to favor her with such a standout piece.
Laib kept asking questions of the family, and saw the chance to bring Asawa her due. The Albers study sold for $116,500; with Laib’s help, Asawa’s works brought much more.
Laib directed a national spotlight at her starting in 2010, a time when the public was ready and eager to embrace tales of artists who are neither white nor male. Still, Asawa’s rediscovery was not inevitable. The cover of Everything She Touched sums up the conundrum she poses. It’s a color photograph, taken by Imogen Cunningham in 1951, posing Asawa behind, and partly obscured by, one of her hanging wire sculptures.
Ruth Asawa has always been here, hiding in plain sight. Her work and her brilliance persist whether we see her or not. Everything She Touched lets us see her in full.
When selecting lots to feature on The Hot Bid, estimates aren’t as big a factor as you might think. Even still, it’s fun to look back over a year’s worth of stories and see what sold for the most.
10.An untitled early 1980s Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring and his lover, Juan DuBose. Featured in an online Sotheby’s sale of art from Haring’s personal collection, it commanded $504,000, more than double its high estimate. “It’s a subject that burns like fire. It’s in-your-face and bold,” says Harrison Tenzer, head of Sotheby’s contemporary art online sales in New York. “There’s so much joy and eroticism and heat in the portrait, and we know what’s going to happen to each of these three men. Unlike Warhol, who was active for four decades in a major way, Haring only had one decade. But he burned so bright, like a candle lit at both ends.”
9. A Stevens model 44 .25-20 single shot rifle, given to Annie Oakley in the late 19th century. Offered at Morphy Auctions for $200,000 to $400,000, it sold for $528,900. The Stevens company bestowed this rifle on Oakley, and its competitors routinely did the same, according to Morphy Auctions Firearms Expert Michael Salisbury: “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.”
8. Abstraction, a sculpture modeled in 1946 by Georgia O’Keeffe and cast in bronze between 1979 and 1980. Featured in a March 2020 Sotheby’s auction, it fetched $668,000, more than double its high estimate. O’Keeffe explored sculpture three times in her career: in 1916, in 1946, and 1982. Abstraction takes a form that the artist favored. “The spiral form appears throughout Georgia O’Keeffe’s body of work. She returns to the shape time and time again, depicting it in many media,” says Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s. “The curvilinear lines you see and the powerful simplified shape reflects her interpretation of the natural world.”
7. An exceptionally early print of Ansel Adams’s photograph Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. Sotheby’s sold it in December 2020 for $685,500. Emily Bierman, head of the photography department at Sotheby’s, recounted the story of how Adams captured the legendary image: “He happened to make it in the Southwest, on a day when he wasn’t shooting for that [Department of the Interior murals] project. He was accompanied by his son and a fellow photographer. They were passing through Hernandez, New Mexico when Adams was immediately struck by the quality of light in the town and its cemetery. He pulled the car over and they all got out. The time was ticking down, and no one could find the light meter. Adams made a quick calculation [based on what he knew about the luminosity of the moon]. Before he had a second chance to shoot an exposure, the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the day was over. It was a one-shot wonder, a combination of pure luck, timing, and mastery behind the camera and in the darkroom.”
6. Angels Representing Seven Churches, a set of Tiffany windows created by the famed studio in 1902 for a Swedenborgian church in Ohio. The group sailed past its $150,000 to $250,000 estimate to command $705,000. In talking about how the windows reflect Tiffany Studios’s mastery of glass, Freeman’s head of 20th century design Tim Andreadis says, “First, there’s the overall design. The figures are beautifully rendered in the composition, in the style of dress, and in the way that each relates to one another. All the elements incorporated in the window are carefully designed to best illustrate that particular angel. Two, the glass reflects the firm’s penchant for richly saturated hues and a color palette that was arresting to the viewer. The feather glass not only suggests the texture of the wing, but the shading along the wing in deeply saturated striated reds and vibrant golden yellows makes each feather its own special element. Tiffany was able to paint in glass–to create all that rich texture and subtlety.”
4. A gold Eid Mar coin, dating to 42 B.C.E. Estimated at $500,000, it sold at Roma Numismatics Limited in London for roughly $4.2 million and set a new world auction record for an ancient coin. David Vagi, director of ancient coins at Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), says the coin did more than reflect a set monetary value. “There were many who considered Caesar a tyrant and were glad to be rid of him. With this coin, Brutus doubled down on what got him to this stage to begin with,” he says, adding, “This is an attempt by Brutus–a very blatant attempt–to make the case that Caesar’s assassination was not only good for Rome, it was justifiable. It’s a peek into the mind of Brutus. The stakes were life and death. He went with the justice of his cause.”
3.A 1959 Martin D-18E guitar, played by Kurt Cobain for Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged episode. It sold for $6 million, blasting past its $1 million estimate. Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, sees similarities between Cobain and another musician whose material is just as scarce and hard to find: “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.”
2. Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (Portrait of Marjorie Ferry) by Tamara de Lempicka. It commanded £16,280,000, or $21.1 million, and set a new world auction record for the artist. Keith Gill, head of the Impressionist and Modern art evening sale held at Christie’s London, speaks about the spellbinding power of the 1932 oil on canvas: “I like it because it has a very strong… almost insight into the strength of her [Ferry’s] personality. She looks directly at you, and she has grey eyes, which tie into the greys in her clothes and in the background. And I’m proud to be somebody who put a female artist on our [catalog] cover.”
A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as STAN. Estimated at $6 million to $8 million, it sold for $31.8 million and a new world auction record for any dinosaur. James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history, detailed the tale told by STAN’s bones: “Many of his ribs cracked and healed during his lifetime. He has holes on his jaw that are not caused by disease–they are puncture wounds that are pretty much the size of a T. rex‘s tooth. And vertebrae in his neck fused together and healed, right behind the skull. STAN broke his neck, healed, and carried on being at the top of the food chain. That tells you how tough the T. rex was as an animal.”
Special thanks to the following for permitting re-use of their images for this story:
Sotheby’s, for the Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring and his lover; the Ansel Adams photograph Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico; the O’Keeffe bronze; and the Standing Lincoln bronze by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Morphy Auctions, for the Annie Oakley gun.
Freeman’s, for the Tiffany church windows.
Roma Numismatics Limited, for the gold Eid Mar coin.
Julien’s Auctions, for the Kurt Cobain guitar.
Christie’s, for the Tamara de Lempicka portrait of Marjorie Ferry and also STAN the T. rex.
Which 2020 stories did readers of The Hot Bid like most? In order, they are…
10. A pair of Princess Doraldina fortune teller machines, both made in 1928, one restored, one unrestored. Both were offered in the same Morphy’s auction in June 2020; the restored model fetched $17,200, and the unrestored one, shown above, sold for $24,600. Tom Tolworthy, chief executive officer at Morphy Auctions, explains how the unrestored example managed to survive so well: “A lot of the time, the machines were placed on the boardwalk and brought in at night. This one sat inside a carousel in Seaside, New Jersey that had an inner enclosure. It [also] had to sit in a warehouse for a long time, and while it might not have been in climate-controlled conditions, it wasn’t in damp conditions. If it had sat in a damp place for a long period of time, the mechanism would have rusted. It still works the way it did almost 90 years ago. That’s what makes it a good survivor.”
9. A 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet, the earliest known example of the type. Don Creekmore, co-owner and founder of Nation’s Attic in Wichita, Kansas, says the century-old piece of equipment can be used today: “It would need new gaskets and glass, and it would need to be tested for leaks. Then it would be in dive-ready condition.”
8. D-Train, a monumental 1988 print by American photorealist artist Richard Estes. “When you get up close to it, the nature of how the ink sits on the board is almost painterly,” says Lindsay Griffith, specialist and head of sale for prints and multiples for Christie’s. “There’s an uncanny quality that makes Estes’s work interesting–I take the subway every day. It’s something I know and feel. Here, the perspective is flattened out, and there’s no people. It’s a very solitary scene.”
7. A Stevens model 44 .25-20 single shot rifle, given to the famous American sharp-shooter Annie Oakley. Consigned to Morphy’s Auctions, it sold for $528,900, above its estimate of $200,000 to $400,000. Michael Salisbury, firearms expert at Morphy Auctions, talked about details of the exceptional firearm that eluded the camera: “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.”
5. A circa 1915 poster touting Alexander, The Man Who Knows, measuring 108 inches by 80 1/2 inches. Like the Houdini postcard, it, too, was offered by Potter & Potter. It sold for $1,560, slightly over its high estimate. Alexander’s reputation hasn’t fared nearly as well as Houdini’s, but his posters have lost none of their allure. “I think it’s the striking simplicity of the design. His eyes follow you. It leaves open a lot of room for interpretation,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter. “It’s tantalizing as a stand-alone object. It grabs your attention. It’s still doing its job more than 100 years later.”
4. A 1959 Martin D-18E guitar, played by Kurt Cobain during Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged episode. Estimated at $1 million, it sold for $6 million, setting several world auction records along the way. The MTV acoustic showcase was well-regarded before Nirvana agreed to appear, but its episode became legendary. Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, explains why: “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.”
3. Case Study House#22, a Julius Shulman photograph of the Stahl house, taken in 1960. Offered at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), it modestly overperformed its high estimate, selling for $4,063. Clo Pazera, specialist at LAMA, talked about why the photo remains powerful decades after it was taken: “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!'”
2. A vase by contemporary Native American ceramic artists Nancy Youngblood and Russell Sanchez, co-created in 2008. Mark Sublette, founder of an eponymous gallery and auction house in Tucson, Arizona, believes it is the sole collaboration by the two masters. “We can look at the pot and tell who did what,” he says. “Nancy would have done the ribs on the pot. Russell is known for sgraffito, the etchings on the pot. I don’t know who fired it, but they probably did it together, outdoors, over a fire. My guess is each polished the part they did, with Nancy doing the ribs and Russell doing the neck.”
A set of cups and balls used by the late magician Johnny Thompson. Estimated at $2,000 to $4,000, the set, which was featured in the two-volume book The Magic of Johnny Thompson, commanded $14,400. Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter, had a notion that they might perform spectacularly well at auction: “Before the COVID-19 crisis closed the office, we had a few magicians here who had a chance to look at the cups. Their response was visceral. It certainly got a rise out of them. They were definitely affected by them. They’re little talismans.”
Special thanks to the following for permitting re-use of their images for this story:
Nation’s Attic, for the 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet.
Christie’s, for Richard Estes’s D-Train.
Morphy’s Auctions for the pair of Princess Doraldina fortune teller machines as well as the Annie Oakley gun.
Potter & Potter for the Houdini postcard, the Alexander poster, and the Johnny Thompson set of cups and balls.
Julien’s Auctions for the Kurt Cobain guitar.
Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) for the Julius Shulman photograph.
Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery & Auction for the vase by Nancy Youngblood and Russell Sanchez.
Editor’s Note: As of today, The Hot Bid shifts to holiday programming. Stories will appear on Tuesday from now until mid-January, after which the twice-weekly schedule resumes. I wish all readers of The Hot Bid happy holidays and a magnificent 2021.
It’s always delightful when a lot showcased on The Hot Bid goes on to sell for a world auction record. These spectacular items achieved that feat in 2020.
Mansion on Prairie Avenue by Irene Clark was among the treasures in a Swann Auction Galleries sale of African-American art from the collection of the Johnson Publishing Company. The oil on masonite board commanded $30,000, more than four times its high estimate, and set a new world auction record for the artist. “It’s definitely a significant work by her. It speaks to her work, and it’s something that meant a lot to her,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American Fine Art department. “It’s very similar to a work [by Clark] in the Art Institute of Chicago. If it’s good enough for an institution, I think it will be sought-after by many collectors. It’s a fascinating subject, and I think it will resonate with people.”
Tamara de Lempicka’s 1932 portrait of Marjorie Ferry was expected to do well, and it did, commanding $21.2 million and a new world auction record for the artist. The February 2020 sale marked the third time that the auction record for a de Lempicka broke within a 15 month span. Keith Gill, head of the Christie’s London Impressionist and Modern art evening sale that featured the painting, discusses his favorite detail: “It’s her hand with the ring and the nails, because it’s very much an intrinsic part of the story of the picture. And one of the hardest things for artists to do is to paint hands, and Tamara de Lempicka paints hands incredibly well. She’s drawing attention to her prowess. It’s very much in your face, ‘Look how good I am’. She wants to be compared to the Old Masters in terms of technical ability.”
A rare and possibly unique Nintendo PlayStation prototype, evidence of an early 1990s collaboration between Nintendo and Sony, was fated to set a world auction record regardless. It fetched the healthy sum of $360,000. “The controller really is my favorite part. It stands out the most,” says Valarie McLeckie, director of video games at Heritage Auctions. “It’s like you’re playing a Super Nintendo, but then you look down and you see the controller–it’s like an alternative universe where [the project] worked out. It works exactly the same [as an SNES controller] but it’s a weird feeling to see the controller in your hand.”
Galaxia, a 1977 print by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, sold for $15,000 and a world auction record for that particular print. Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann Auction Galleries and director of prints and drawings, speaks about how hard it is for cameras to convey the impact of the unusually large and long work, which was printed in thickly layered ink on handmade paper: “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.”
The 1959 Martin D-18E guitar played by Kurt Cobain in the legendary 1993 Nirvana episode of MTV Unplugged was bound to sell. No one doubted that. But it ultimately commanded $6 million–five times its estimate–and set several world auction records, including the title of most expensive guitar. Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, lauds the humble nature of the instrument, which is, after all, a tool to do a job: “Cobain 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.”
It’s a big deal when a substantially complete T. rex skeleton comes to market. When the fossil dubbed STAN was consigned to Christie’s New York, the auction house went all-out, placing it in its October 20th Century Evening Sale lineup rather than a natural history auction. STAN rose to the challenge, commanding $31.8 million and a world auction record for any dinosaur. James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history, explains why STAN deserved the upgrade: “STAN really is the best of the best. The 20th Century Evening Sale is a marquee sale at Christie’s, and STAN is a natural fit for that reason. He was 67 million years in the making, but the T. rex is an icon of the 20th century. The first T. rex was found in Cezanne’s lifetime and was first published in 1905. Within 13 years, the T. rex had made its first appearance in Hollywood,doing battle with King Kong on Skull Island. More recently, the T. Rex was almost the lead actor in Jurassic Park.”
Dating to 42 B.C.E. (before common era), the Eid Mar is arguably the most desirable ancient coin. Only two gold examples were known before a third emerged and was consigned to Roma Numismatics Limited in London. It sold for roughly $4.2 million and a world auction record for any ancient coin. David Vagi, director of ancient coins at Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), describes himself as a “fan” of Brutus, whose profile appears on the coin. “He was a very motivated individual. He had a sense of destiny and was very committed to his cause,” he says. “To plan a coup, he had to have very strong political convictions. It may be my imagination, but I see it in the portrait. I see the intensity and the laser-focus of his ambitions. This is not an idealized portrait. It’s extremely individual. I could stare at it for hours.”
Subway, an exuberant 1970 work by AfriCOBRA founding member Wadsworth Jarrell, set a new world auction record for the artist when it sold for $125,000 at Swann Auction Galleries in December. “There’s a wonderful variety of things in his paintings,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department. “There’s the ‘coolade colors’–artificial colors not necessarily found in nature, but were bright and vibrant and got peoples’ attention. The floating letters, the ‘B’s, are representative of black power, blackness, and beauty. They permeate his paintings. The text [in his work] is sometimes explicit. It could be from a speech from Malcolm X or more subtle floating Bs, but there’s a message in his work. Subway fits right into the AfriCOBRA ethos and it’s typical of Jarrell’s work at the time.”
A group of eight Peanuts character portraits, drawn by Charles Schulz in 1953 for a promotional brochure, sold for $288,000 and a new world auction record for original Peanuts art. With this sale, Heritage Auctions broke the previous record for original Peanuts art, set by the auction house less than a month ago, on November 20, 2020, with an early daily Peanuts strip. Jim Lentz, director of animation art for Heritage Auctions, says of the portrait group, “You can tell the personalities of each in some small way, just by Schulz’s quaint depictions of each character: Charlie Brown with the baseball glove, Schroeder at the piano with the Beethoven head, Linus with building blocks.”
Special thanks to the following for permitting re-use of their images for this story:
Swann Auction Galleries, for Irene Clark’s Mansion on Prairie Avenue, Rufino Tamayo’s Galaxia, and Wadsworth Jarrett’s Subway.
Christie’s, for Tamara de Lempicka’s Portrait of Marjorie Ferry as well as STAN the T. rex.
Heritage Auctions, for the Nintendo PlayStation prototype and the group of eight original Peanuts character portraits from 1953.
Julien’s Auctions, for the Kurt Cobain guitar.
Roma Numismatics Limited, for the gold Eid Mar coin.
Update: Sandro Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel sold for $92.1 million, setting a new record for the artist and a Sotheby’s house record for an Old Master painting. Huzzah!
What you see: Young Man Holding a Roundel, a portrait painted in the late 1470s or early 1480s by Sandro Botticelli. Sotheby’s estimates the Botticelli painting in excess of $80 million. It carries the highest estimate the auction house has ever given to an Old Master painting.
The expert: Elisabeth Lobkowicz, a specialist in Sotheby’s Old Master paintings department.
The materials from Sotheby’s describe the Botticelli painting as “The Ultimate Renaissance Portrait”. What makes it “The Ultimate Renaissance Portrait” and not just the ultimate Botticelli portrait? Botticelli is one of the most admired, beloved, and important artists of the Renaissance. He is the creator of many of the most iconic images of that age, and he was a leading master in the realm of portraiture. This sitter is the ultimate Renaissance man–beautiful, confident, erudite–and so this should be considered the ultimate Renaissance portrait.
The portrait is believed to have been painted in the late 1470s or early 1480s. Where was Botticelli in his career at that point? These years are generally considered the height of Botticelli’s career. It was during this period that he created many of his best works, including the Primavera and The Birth of Venus and his frescoes inthe Sistine Chapel.
How prolific was Botticelli? How many of his paintings survive? About 150 works by Botticelli survive, but only about a dozen or so portraits. His portraits are much rarer, but they represent an important part of his corpus and provide for a deeper understanding of his genius.
What, if anything, do we know about the sitter? What clues lurking within the painting itself suggest who it might be? Are there any other figures depicted in Botticelli’s paintings who look like this man? The sitter’s identity remains a mystery. He’s probably a member of the Medici family or someone in their close circle, because Botticelli was one of their favored artists, and many of the Medici turned to him to paint their portraits. Images from the period show that there were many fair-haired youths in the Medici entourage, but it’s hard to definitively link the sitter to any particular likeness. Attempts have been made in the past. Suggestions include Piero de’ Medici (1472–1503), son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, but there’s no evidence to confirm these identifications.
The painting contains a roundel of a saint, painted in the previous century by a different artist. What, if anything, do we know about why the Botticelli painting took this form? Did Botticelli paint other portraits with inserted roundels, or is this a one-off? The roundel is a separate work of art altogether, painted by the Sienese artist Bartolommeo Bulgarini. He was active in Siena and Tuscany a century before Botticelli, and his works would have been known in Florence by Botticelli’s time. The roundel was not always circular–it was cut to this shape from a larger vertical panel, which may have once formed part of an altarpiece. There are no other known examples of Botticelli inserting a gold-ground painting into his works, but the closest comparable work is his Portrait of a Man Holding a Medal of Cosimo il Vecchioin the Uffizi, in which Botticelli includes a round, carved, pastiglia medallion–a three-dimensional sculpture in low relief. What I’m trying to say is in this case, in the Uffizi portrait, the young man is not holding a medal of Cosimo il Vecchio. The object in his hand is actually a sculpted and gilded gesso–a pastiglia, carved in such an illusionistic manner that we read it as a real object. In the case of our Botticelli portrait, however, the roundel is a real object, set into the panel and set into the sitter’s hands.
Do we know which saint is depicted in the roundel in the Botticelli painting? If we do, what might the presence of the saint’s image tell us about the sitter, and why he might have wanted to be shown with this saint? Unfortunately, because the saint depicted in the roundel lacks any specific attributes, his identity also remains a mystery. What I can say is the roundel itself remains a point of lively debate among scholars. Some consider the roundel as original to Botticelli’s intention. Others consider it a later addition that replaced some other object–perhaps something similar to what we see in the Uffizi portrait.
Would Botticelli have painted this portrait alone, or would he have had assistants handle some parts of the work, such as the background? Botticelli would have painted this entire painting himself. It wasn’t until later in his career–the second half of 1480s onwards–that we see the regular intervention of his workshop.
How do we know this is a genuine Botticelli painting? What details or features testify to its legitimacy? No living Botticelli scholar is known to have any doubt about Botticelli’s authorship of the painting. The portrait’s technique, style, and design process is wholly characteristic of his output and his innovative mind.
How does the painting reflect Botticelli’s mastery as an artist? It is pure perfection – showing the best of his skills at the height of his creative powers. It is reflective of his confident and consummate skills.
What is the Botticelli painting like in person? What details or aspects don’t come across in the photo? It is a truly wonderful experience to see the painting up close. Such a close perspective allows the amazing detail with which he rendered the work to shine even brighter. The aspects that come across more clearly in person are the condition, the brilliant technique, and the crisp colors. You can even see the incised lines he used to plan out the architectural elements and the frame of the roundel – it’s like a little glimpse into his mind and working process.
What is your favorite detail of the Botticelli painting? I love how the setting is so simple, yet we understand the space as wholly three-dimensional. No dramatic lines or perspective needed, just a lifelike sitter. This illusion is further enhanced by the fingers of his left hand, which ever so slightly cross over the pictorial boundary into the realm of the viewer.
What condition is the Botticelli painting in? It’s in excellent condition, which is quite remarkable and rare for a painting of this age–over 500 years old.
What do we know about the provenance of the work? How far back does it go? The earliest recorded provenance is the Newborough Family in northern Wales. According to family tradition, the painting was acquired by the first Lord Newborough while he was living in Florence towards the end of the 18th century. The painting then descended in the Newborough family until the mid-1930s, when it was acquired by a dealer. By 1941, the painting had entered the collection of Sir Thomas Ralph Merton, who had an amazing collection himself–36 paintings of the highest caliber, including a Holbein, a Cranach, and other later religious works by Botticelli. Interesting fact: In addition to being a collector, Sir Thomas Merton was a famed scientist, inventor, and spectrometrist. He had a keen eye for works of a very high quality, and he was particularly attracted to colors and pigments. It’s not surprising that this portrait caught his eye and was one of the centerpieces of his collection. The Merton estate sold the painting at Christie’s London in 1982, where it was acquired by the present owner for the equivalent of about $1.3 million at the time. There are some earlier inventory numbers on the reverse of the panel that suggest even older owners than the Newborough family, but we have yet to be able to link them up to old inventories.
I understand this is one of three Botticellis remaining in private hands. If one or both of the remaining two go to auction, would they perform as well or better than we expect this portrait to perform? In other words, is this the best of the three? This portrait is considered by many to be one of Botticelli’s best portraits, comparable in inventiveness and quality to his Portrait of a young man with the medal of Cosimo de’ Mediciand his Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici.
I understand the estimate placed on this work is the highest Sotheby’s has assigned to an Old Master painting. If it sells for at or above $80 million, what world auction records will it set or break? In addition to being one of the most significant portraits of any period to appear at auction, it could very well be the next to surpass the $100 million threshold. The last painting to achieve that level at auction was Claude Monet’s Meules at Sotheby’s New York in 2019. [It sold for $110.7 million.]
Why will this Botticelli painting stick in your memory? I’ve spent a lot of time with this young man over the past few months, and certainly, he has left an indelible impression on my mind. He’s rather handsome, no? His incredibly modern feel–one imparted by his condition, his simple setting, and his lifelike presence–is unforgettable. This portrait is the definition of a masterpiece. We have all been incredibly honored to work with this one-of-a-kind object over these past few months. I’ll surely miss him when he’s off to a new home.
Update: The original Peanuts artwork by Charles Schulz sold for $288,000–a new world auction record for original Peanuts artwork, set less than a month after a different Heritage Auctions sale broke the previous record.
What you see: Original Peanuts artwork by Charles Schulz, created in 1953 for a promotional brochure. Heritage Auctions generally doesn’t assign estimates to its lots, but when asked, it gave a $50,000-$100,000 range to the group of character portraits.
The expert: Jim Lentz, director of animation art for Heritage Auctions.
How well-known was the Peanuts comic strip in 1953, when Schulz created these eight portrait panels of its main characters? The comic strip and its characters were in their infancy, having only come to market in 1950.
Why would Charles Schulz or his newspaper syndicate have wanted to make this promotional booklet in 1953? Who was the target audience? It was created to introduce these relatively new comic strip characters to new cities, and to get people to buy newspapers and follow the strip. Schulz didn’t do this. His newspaper syndicate [United Feature Syndicate] did.
But the syndicate would have gone to Schulz and asked for supporting artwork for the brochure, yes? It would have said, “We need artwork for a brochure to introduce Charlie Brown and the new Peanuts characters to the growing newspaper audience.” Charles Schulz would have worked hand-in-hand with the syndicate to provide artwork to promote the strip.
Do we know why Schulz chose these eight characters to showcase? Also, how do these depictions reveal where the strip was in its evolution in 1953? I see that Schroeder’s habit of playing the piano has been formalized, but Snoopy still looks very much like a dog, and Linus hasn’t yet acquired his blanket… These were the main Peanuts characters at the time, with several just being introduced. Not all the characters had been introduced by 1953. Pigpen arrived in 1954, and Woodstock in 1970.
How was the original Peanuts artwork rediscovered? Do we know how it left the possession of Schulz? It would have been retained not by Schulz, but by the syndicate. It was most likely given out by someone as a gift. There is no definitive answer as to when, just how, possibly.
Had you been on the lookout for this group of Peanuts character portraits, or did its existence come as a surprise? One is always on the lookout for anything and everything drawn by the hand of Charles Schulz. This is one of the single biggest surprises of Schulz artwork I have seen, and it’s some of the earliest artwork of the characters seen outside of a published strip. A 1950 daily Strip just sold at Heritage for $192,000.
This original Peanuts artwork dates to 1953, which is early in the strip’s run. Why do Peanuts collectors tend to favor original artwork with the earliest possible dates, rather than later strips that feature the characters as we have come to know them? In the early days, few people knew of Charles Schulz and these characters. As the strip grew in popularity, and television specials and movies began, Schulz’s artwork was much more well-known and the audience became huge. Scarcity is the factor. Their was no guarantee this strip would take off to global proportions back then.
Are the drawings on eight individual pieces of paper, or four drawings on two sheets, or some other configuration? They’re individual drawings, all framed in one common frame.
What is the artwork like in person? Are there aspects or details that don’t come across in the images? It is spectacular. You can tell the personalities of each in some small way, just by Schulz’s quaint depictions of each character: Charlie Brown with the baseball glove, Schroeder at the piano with the Beethoven head, Linus with building blocks.
What is your favorite detail from this collection of original Peanuts artwork? The TV antenna on Snoopy’s dog house. I just like the mid-century Modern feel of an old TV antenna. It seems to disappear in future depictions of the dog house.
The collection of original Peanuts artwork is described as being in “very good” condition. What does that mean in this context? There are no folds, no tears, and the ink still vibrant.
While these character portraits are original Peanuts artwork by Schulz, they are atypical—they’re not daily or Sunday strip art. Have you seen anything else that’s comparable to this group? Peanuts calendar art, perhaps? The key is it’s “published” art, meaning it was used for something very specific, and not done for fans or for reference. It was for a very early promotional piece to introduce Charlie Brown and the Peanuts characters to an emerging audience. Key also is the time, 1953 to 1954, when these characters were still being fleshed out.
As of November 30, 2020, the collection of original Peanuts artwork had been bid up to $25,000. Is that at all meaningful? What’s meaningful is where it ends up. It is one of the most viewed pieces in an auction of over 2,000 pieces as of November 30, but the auction is still almost two weeks away.
On November 20, 2020, Heritage Auctions reset the record for any piece of original art by Schulz with an exceptionally early daily strip featuring Shermy and Snoopy. What are the chances that this group of character portraits will meet or beat that sum? I never venture any auction guess. I just know it’s a special piece in Schulz and Charlie Brown and Peanuts history.
You say the audience is global—has this always been true, or has the global aspect grown over time? It’s been true since the strip received global distribution and since the television specials and the animated movies went global. We just had A Peanuts Movie released in the last few years to rave reviews. It also was a global release.
Why do you think the appetite for original Peanuts artwork is so strong now, twenty years after the last strip ran? You know it’s the holidays when A Charlie Brown Christmas comes on television each year. You know its Halloween when It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown comes on. The strips, the books, the television specials are rarely dated, with timeless messages of hope and joy.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a piece that no one even knew existed. And each portrait showcases how Charles Schulz wanted to present his characters to the world.
Update: The Protona Minifon Mi-51 sold for £466.60, or about $600.
What you see: A Minifon Mi-51 concealed recording device by Protona, a now-defunct German company. The watch and its wire survives, but its recording device and carrying case do not. Fellows estimates it at £140 to £200, or $187.50 to $268.
The expert: Kes Crockett, a horologist and a cataloger in the watch department at Fellows.
What do we know about how the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch came to be? Why did Protona make it? Protona was a company that manufactured covert recording equipment. Originally, it was called Monske & Co., and it appeared after World War II, in 1951. It was based in Hamburg, Germany, and it closed its doors in 1967.
Was the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch made for sale to the general public, or was it aimed at a niche audience? I should stress–I’m a watch specialist rather than a surveillance specialist. But because of the way the watch was designed and the way the wire was hidden, I believe it was designed for intelligence agencies.
So the Protona spying device watch wasn’t a novelty item–this was serious, legitimate spying equipment? I looked back at the original advertisements and press releases for it, and it cost $289.50, which works out to $2,800 today.
That price would scare off the hobbyists, that’s for sure. It was a specialist piece of equipment. To us, it may not look impressive, but it was an important piece of technology. I don’t know if it’s the first or one of the first battery-driven devices, but it’s certainly very portable, compared to things that came before. It’s a serious piece of kit.
Was Protona alone in making a spying device that looks like a wristwatch, or did it have competitors? There were three to four other companies making specialist recording devices, but I wasn’t able to find any other making a watch-based one. It’s important to say Protona was not a watch manufacturer making a recording device, it was a recording device company that made a recording device hidden in the shell of a watch.
The materials I have date the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch to the 1950s, but is it possible to narrow it down to a specific year? It was difficult to find the answer to that. Because the company did not become Protona until 1952, we can say it’s after 1952.
Do we know anything about the production run for the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch, and do we know how many might have been shipped to America? I wasn’t able to find any production numbers, but I did find something that said an order for “120,000 machines”–whether it was for the specific Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch or the watch and other products isn’t clear–but 120,000 were ordered by an American company in the early 1950s. Certainly a lot were sent to America at that point in time.
I imagine, given the nature of which American entities might need 120,000 recording devices hidden inside wristwatches, the paperwork for the order doesn’t specify where it ultimately went. It doesn’t specify, but with that number, I have to imagine it was one of the agencies. Interesting bit of trivia: Jack Ruby, the assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, apparently owned one.
How did the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch work when used as a concealed recording device? First, we only have the watch and the wire. The recording device is another part of the product. The microphone wire [that attached to the watch] would go up your shirt sleeve and into the recording device. There were no controls on the watch at all. They were all on the recording device.
Where did the wearer conceal the recording device? In the images I’ve seen, it’s in a carrying bag on the shoulder, or under the arm, between the arm and the chest, where it can be hidden under clothing.
How good was the quality of the sound picked up by the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch? It was good quality. The watch had holes around the back of the case that allowed sound to get to the microphone more effectively. I think it was designed to pick up conversations between you and someone else you were speaking with. The further away you were, the worse the sound would have been.
So this device was ideal for one-on-one work, like infiltrating the Mob. Exactly.
And the wire went from the watch, up the shirt sleeve, and into the recording device? Absolutely right. You wanted your cuffs in place or you’d be exposed.
But if you were paranoid enough to teach yourself to look for wires coming out of a watch in the early 1950s, you could bust a spy who wore this. The watch doesn’t function at all. There’s not only a wire coming out of the case, it’s stopped at 7:25. Any observant person would notice you were wearing a broken watch.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the first James Bond movie debuted in 1963. Spies and spying devices weren’t part of popular culture when the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch was new. Exactly. It looks obvious to us now, but at the time, people would not have noticed this sort of thing.
What were the limits on the recording device? How much audio could it capture? Depending on the spool size, it was half an hour up to two hours of continuous conversation. You couldn’t sit there for 24 hours and hope to pick something up.
The button to start recording was on the device, not the watch, so you always lost a little time reaching under your clothes to turn it on, and you couldn’t rely on the watch to help you figure out how much time was left on the tape, because the watch didn’t work… You’d have to ask what time it was, or you had to have a good sense of time in your head. It’s quite nerve-wracking.
I realize the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch was used for spy work, and spies are… not forthcoming. But is there any proof this type of concealed recording device was used during any notable incidents? Protona was still trading as a company until 1967, and there was another company that repaired [Protona devices], so it must have been fairly useful. But I wasn’t able to find specific cases where people used it.
What is the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? At first glance, it looks like a watch, especially from six feet away. The case is the same proportion and size as a normal watch. But once you start looking more closely, you notice the winding crown doesn’t turn, and the dials are purely decorative.
If the little dials on the watch face worked, what would they do? They’re chronograph dials. They’re for timing things like a stopwatch. The dial at 9 am would count the number of seconds, and the dial at 3 pm would have counted every minute up to 30 minutes. The large red hand in the middle of the face is the chronograph second hand. If it worked, you’d press the button at the top right of the case and it would start moving.
Have you worn the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch? I’ve tried it on, but I’m not able to test the eavesdropping function. That’s why I can’t be more helpful about that. As far as aesthetics, it looks like a standard watch if you don’t see the wire. If that didn’t give it away, the perimeter holes all the way around the back of the case would. If it was a real watch, it’d never have that. If you saw the holes, you’d know it’s not what it seemed.
Do we know how or when the watch and the wire parted ways with its recording device and storage case? We don’t have that part of the item, unfortunately, and we have very little information on it.
Is it possible to plug the wire into a different period recording device and enable it to work? I’m not sure. I’m not an electrical specialist. I’m not able to tell you if the jack at the end of the wire is able to fit into any [other devices]. I’m not able to test it, so I can’t say if it’s in working order. The buyer should assume it’s not in working order. If it is, it’s a pleasant surprise.
What condition is the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch in? Good condition. There’s no moving parts, so it’s not going to wear the same way that a 1950s watch might. There’s some aging to the dial and the hands, and some scratches on the case, but there’s no big dents. It looks like it would have come with a green or brown zip-up satchel that fit everything. Inside was the recording device, in its own separate case. The satchel appears to have been made of artificial leather. Because of that, I don’t think many cases survive.
Is it fair to assume that Protona would have subcontracted the production of the watch parts of the device to a different company? It’s much easier for a spy equipment company to make a watch then it is for a watch company to make a recording device. Because the watch has no moving parts, it’s not hard to manufacture. Assuming the company was without any watchmaking expertise, it’s not going to make the dial or the case unless the project was so secret they couldn’t outsource them.
How often do Protona Minifon Mi-51 watches come up at auction? This is the first one we’ve seen at Fellows. One sold last year at another house, and I found a couple more sales in 2005 and 2011.
So they’re not common at auction, but not rare? Well, they aren’t watches, but they look like watches, so they can sell in a watch auction. But they may not find their way to watch auctions. They could appear in military auctions, or gentleman’s auctions. Certainly with one American company ordering 120,000 from Protona–that’s a very big number. If there were 120,000, you’d expect to see them more often than this. There are watches limited to 1,000 that we see more often than these.
As we speak on December 1, 2020, the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch has been bid up to £135. Is that significant at all? There are seven days to go for this auction. The fact that it’s got interest is encouraging. I hope to see enthusiastic bidding as the end of the auction approaches.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It shows how far technology has advanced in seven decades. I think a smartwatch could do what it does with ease now, and would be able to tell the time as well. But at the point that this was made, it was seen as cutting-edge.
Update: The exceptionally early print of Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexicosold for $685,500.
What you see: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, a gelatin silver print created in 1941 or 1942 by Ansel Adams. Sotheby’s estimates it at $700,000 to $1 million.
The expert: Emily Bierman, head of the photography department at Sotheby’s.
Who was Ansel Adams? He defies easy categorization. His work is synonymous with images of the American landscape. He was an exacting printmaker and an advisor to Edwin Land and the Polaroid corporation. He worked with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. It’s hard to overstate Adams’s activity over his seven-decade career.
Where was Ansel Adams in his career in 1941, when he shot Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico? He was a known entity. He had produced the Parmelian prints of the High Sierras, and his photographs had been exhibited at An American Place, Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, in 1936. He was contracting with the U.S. Department of the Interior to create photographic murals. He had much to recommend him.
How did Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico come to be? It was not intended for the photographic murals. He happened to make it in the Southwest, on a day when he wasn’t shooting for that project. He was accompanied by his son and a fellow photographer. They were passing through Hernandez, New Mexico when Adams was immediately struck by the quality of light in the town and its cemetery. He pulled the car over and they all got out. The time was ticking down, and no one could find the light meter. Adams made a quick calculation [based on what he knew about the luminosity of the moon]. Before he had a second chance to shoot an exposure, the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the day was over. It was a one-shot wonder, a combination of pure luck, timing, and mastery behind the camera and in the darkroom.
The creation of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico seems to be a story Adams keeps telling, and elaborating on, over the years… And many other people wrote about it as well. The story of taking the negative is legendary at this point. What’s most important is the end result, the photo Adams made. It was one in a million.
By happening to remember a fact about the luminosity of the moon at just the right time, Ansel Adams got a shot that everyone else would have missed. Exactly, but it’s also the mood he was able to capture in the photo. Only Ansel Adams could really pull out that emotion and the visceral response we get to the best of his photos.
Did Ansel Adams know what he had the instant he shot it? Or did that only become clear later, in the darkroom? It was probably a mixture of both. He had visualized what it should look like. When he developed the negatives, the exposures were difficult to get to a point where they looked like what he had visualized. It took work in the darkroom.
Was Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico an instant hit? It’s one of his most popular images, and it was immediately sought after. He started getting orders for prints, but only a handful are known to date from the 1940s. The developing process was so laborious, and Adams was such an exacting printmaker, it was time-consuming. To have an early print is beyond exciting. It stands in stark contrast to later prints.
How does Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico show Ansel Adams’s mastery of his medium? It’s so exceptionally nuanced. The landscape has great detail in the brush in the foreground. You see the late afternoon sun hitting the grave markers and a vast band of inky darkness punctuated by bands of wispy clouds. Then you have the totally luminous central point of the moon. From a composition standpoint, it’s a beautiful photo. How it was delivered by Adams is pure magic.
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico was first published in the U.S. Camera Annual 1943. Was this print made for that publication? This is not that print.
How do we know this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is the earliest to come to market? We’ve done the research–there’s a long history of auction records to look back to. Its provenance is pretty remarkable. It was acquired directly by Sidney Liebes, a family friend of Adams, to mark his fourteenth wedding anniversary. We know Liebes and his wife, Marjorie, married in November 1927. The print was made in late 1941, possibly early 1942. There’s also the physical characteristics. Its dimensions are consistent with prints that Ansel Adams sent to the State Department early in 1942. It’s a magnificent print, and its condition is exceptional.
When we call an Ansel Adams print an “early” print, what does that mean, exactly? Looking at Moonrise, early prints are relatively close to the time of the negative. Here, we mean early 1940s to the mid-1940s. This is the earliest one to come to market, and possibly the earliest one in existence. The next-earliest to come to market dates to 1948. Sotheby’s sold it in 2006 for $609,600.
Adams personally made about 1,300 prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. I realize this is a uniquely desirable example, but how does the print’s relative abundance affect the market? What one primarily sees on the market is later prints, from the 1970s, with the demand for fine art prints. They tend to be standard in sizing–15 inches by 19 inches. Adams also did a handful of mural-size prints. We sold one at the Photographs from the Polaroid Collection sale in 2010 for $518,500. In terms of collector preference… there are two ways of collecting, really. One is seeking the early prints, the rare examples that clearly shows what the photographer intended. They’re very hard to find, and few in number. Finding an early print of Moonrise is like searching for treasure. Later prints have a different type of emotion. They’re higher in contrast, and the mood of the day is totally different.
Can you elaborate on how later prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico differ from earlier prints? Earlier prints are much more detailed and nuanced. With later prints, the band of clouds remains at the horizon line, but you lose all the clouds higher up.
You lose the twilight. Exactly, and the magic of the fleeting instant.
The later prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico were done by Ansel Adams, so no one can claim they aren’t true representations of his work. But why did he make those changes? Why did he squish some of the details and the nuances in those later prints? As the years went on, Adams’s style evolved. He sought higher contrast and greater intensity of dark versus light tones, and greater dramatic intensity.
What is this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico like in person? I’ve had the good fortune to stand in front of it as it hung on a wall, and to hold it unframed in different light. The detail you get out of the photo throughout is like nothing I’ve seen before. It comes to life in person. If you’re someone who appreciates print and object quality, this photo will make your heart sing. It’s a special experience to stand in front of it.
What jumps out at you that doesn’t quite come over in a reproduction? You don’t understand how much there is in the sky and how exacting Adams had to be to coaxed information out of the negative, and the print negative, to have a nuanced range of tones. It’s not too heavy on the darks, and not too hot in the highlights. It’s an absolutely perfectly balanced photograph.
How many prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico have you handled? I’ve been with Sotheby’s since 2007. I cut my teeth cataloging the Polaroid collection for the 2010 sale, and there were many Ansel Adams photographs in it. I’ve handled many different prints of Moonrise at Sotheby’s. I can say this is in a class of its own. Its scale is more intimate than the later enlargements we most often see. Its visual power and its object quality pack a punch that’s unparalleled.
The early print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico that Sotheby’s sold in 2006–is that the world auction record for the image? It was the world auction record for Ansel Adams–any print–until 2010. It’s still the record for Moonrise. The world auction record is a mural from the Polaroid collection sale, called Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park.
What’s the likelihood that this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico will meet or beat them? The photograph is poised to break both those records, certainly, and it deserves them. The Ansel Adams market is deep and international. It’s been quite some time since an early print came up. If you’re a collector of Ansel Adams, a collector of photography, or a collector of American masterworks, this is a holy grail, an impossible-to-find jewel.
Why will this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico stick in your memory? I remember this image from the beginning of my photography education. To have an opportunity to lay my hands on, and spend quality time with, the best example Ansel Adams made–I won’t have that again. Hopefully I’ll get to visit it in its next home.
Update: The Tiffany “Pebble” table lamp sold for $537,500, well over three times its high estimate.
What you see: A Tiffany “Pebble” table lamp, dating to circa 1904. Christie’s estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.
The expert: Daphné Riou, head of the design department at Christie’s New York.
What sort of reputation did Tiffany Studios have at the turn of the last century, when this table lamp was made? Louis Comfort Tiffany was considered one of America’s most important artists. He was, himself, a member of elite society, creating for the elites. He didn’t create for everyone.
This is a good place to point out that while table lamps are necessities today, that wasn’t true in the early 20th century–electricity was not widely available. Yes. Tiffany lamps were about technology as much as beauty. The shades were created to be works of art, but they were useful objects.
How do we know that the Tiffany Pebble lamp design was probably one of the first Tiffany lamp designs? There are two magazine articles that help us establish the timeline of the Tiffany Pebble lamp. One was written in 1897 and the other in 1899, and both referenced Pebble windows. The Tiffany Pebble lamp was a natural offshoot of these windows.
The promotional material from Christie’s describes Tiffany Pebble lamps as “exceedingly rare”. What makes them so? We don’t know how many Tiffany Pebble lamps were made, but very few have appeared on the market in the last five decades. One reason they’re so rare is their creation required extraordinary skill and a great eye. They [the Tiffany artisans] had to select pebbles and cut them. What’s remarkable about this shade is each pebble was cut in half–the exterior is round and soft, and the interior is flat. Some probably broke during cutting. It was a very delicate process.
…so Tiffany didn’t have a few of these lamps finished and sitting in a warehouse, ready to go. They were probably only produced on request. It was a highly sophisticated shade model.
I imagine if a pebble broke during the cutting process, it was a real pain finding a replacement… Exactly. They had to select the pebbles, and they didn’t have a huge selection.
Might the loss or replacement of a pebble require reshuffling the pebbles and glass that surrounded it? Potentially. That’s why selecting pebbles and glass for the shades was such a complicated process. It required a great eye.
Would Clara Driscoll have designed the Tiffany Pebble lamp? Would her team of Tiffany girls have assembled the shades? It’s not known as a Driscoll design, but it’s possible the Tiffany girls assembled the shade. They had the eye, and they had smaller fingers which were more readily able to handle tiny pieces of glass.
We know from period catalogs that the Tiffany Pebble lamp cost $100 in 1906. How does that price compare to other Tiffany lamp designs offered then? Comparing it within Tiffany prices, it was relatively expensive. The [shades with] geometric shapes, which were much more common and simple, cost $25. The Wisteria lamp cost $400. The highest was the Lotus lamp, which was $750.
The Tiffany Pebble lamp was offered until 1911. How fair is it to consider the design a dud? Or did Tiffany Studios just not call much attention to it? It was a very subtle and sophisticated model that didn’t appeal to everyone.
Do all Tiffany Pebble lamps share the same orange-rust-cream-white-beige palette we see in this example, or did they vary? The palette of the shades are the same, but there are very subtle variations. The pebbles came from the same source, and the colors reflected the natural hues of the pebbles. They are pebbles from the beach.
Wait–they are literal pebbles? Like, rocks? I thought “pebbles” was a Tiffany Studios house term for a type of textured glass that was made to look like pebbles. They are actual pebbles that Tiffany and his children picked from the beach. That’s why they’re difficult to cut. They’d gather them from the shoreline, so there was a limited supply.
Wow, this lamp must have been a pain-in-the-butt to make. Exactly, but it reflects the aesthetics of found objects–Tiffany would incorporate found objects in his designs.
How did Louis Comfort Tiffany find out that he could cut beach pebbles just thin enough for light to glow through them? That’s part of his creative process. That’s what the genius of Tiffany is. In some of his earliest designs, he was basically constructing the design around pieces of glass that had flaws in them–pieces that commercial glass houses might reject. Here, it was pebbles, which you wouldn’t normally think about.