What you see: Untitled (Landscape), a 2013 watercolor on paper by Nicolas Party. Phillips estimates it at $60,000 to $80,000.
The expert: Samuel Mansour, an associate specialist at Phillips and head of its New Now auction.
Who is Nicolas Party? He’s Swiss-born and is probably best known for his bright color-saturated paintings, murals, sculptures, and drawings. His work bridges figurative art and abstraction to create environments and worlds that are grounded in color theory.
What do we know about Nicolas Party’s influences? Who or what has shaped his approach to art? It’s safe to say that Party has been influenced by some of the more traditional greats of the Western art canon, with evidence of everything from Old Masters and Rococo to Léger, Magritte, Hockney, and Matisse in his work. For the most part, Party’s work can be divided into three distinct subjects: portraiture, landscapes, and still lifes. With Party, along with his peers in the contemporary art world, we’re seeing a return to figuration [art that depicts figures, as opposed to abstraction]. Figurative images have really been commanding the market, and this is a wonderful example to come up for sale.
Does Untitled (Landscape) depict an actual, identifiable place, or is it fanciful? Party grew up in Switzerland by a lake. He has spoken about how his work depicts familiar forms, such as the trees and natural elements in Untitled (Landscape), but he translates them to be more conceptual shapes.
Untitled (Landscape) is a watercolor on paper, whereas Nicolas Party’s preferred medium seems to be pastel. How, if at all, does that matter? Is his approach to this watercolor pretty similar to his approach to pastels? Color is a strong focus for Nicolas Party, and this work is a prime example. While he does work in pastel quite a bit, his paintings in oil and watercolor allow him to experiment with color in different ways. With Untitled (Landscape), in particular, he’s showing a great deal more dimensionality than you might see in some of his other works, whose forms he chooses to leave more simplified.
Could you talk a bit about Nicolas Party’s use of color, and how it adds to the appeal of his work? Bold saturated colors are central to his work. Party’s murals and pastel works reference surrealism and fauvism. He’s clearly interested in Matisse and Hockney, the two premier colorists of the 20th century, and he is definitely continuing in that tradition.
What is Untitled (Landscape) like in person? Are there details or aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? This work was really difficult to capture in a photograph, particularly with the dimensionality and the volume he’s chosen to create among the forms, as well as the intensity of color. It really is one of those pieces that comes to life in person.
Nicolas Party has generated a lot of buzz lately, what with the show at Hauser and Wirth and coverage in Artnet and other venues. How does that affect how you set an estimate? In generating estimates, we have a lot to consider, including past prices for comparable works, collector interest, and institutional and gallery interest. Of course it’s great when an artist is generating a lot of buzz. That helps raise awareness of their work.
Why will this Nicolas Party work stick in your memory? What I love about Untitled (Landscape) is that it is familiar and totally fantastical all at once. The work depicts trees and bushes, which are instantly recognizable but transformed into a fantastical landscape that’s almost Dr. Seussian in form and color. I think that duality is what makes the work so appealing.
How to bid: Untitled (Landscape) by Nicolas Party is lot 43 in the New Now auction taking place at Phillips New York on March 4, 2020.
What you see: A large Acoma Tularosa Revival jar, created circa 1920, possibly by Mary Histia. Santa Fe Art Auction estimates it at $5,000 to $10,000.
The expert: Gillian Blitch, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Art Auction.
How is “Acoma” pronounced? AH-ko-MAH.
Who are the Acoma, what region are they from, and do they still exist? Acoma is a pueblo in the northern part of New Mexico. The village is still there. It’s considered to be the oldest continually inhabited pueblo in the United States.
What do we know about how this large Acoma Tularosa Revival jar was made? It would have been made using the coil clay method. You make a snake out of the clay and coil it around and around to build the pot.
Where would the clay have come from? Traditional potters, to this day, gather their own clay. The pueblos have different local clay colors in a range from buff to red to white. Acoma is known for its white color. The clay has to be tempered using shards of prehistoric pots, so the clay will hold together and hold water. The clay is refined until it becomes workable material.
How did the potters paint the clay? They painted over it with slip, a very, very watered-down clay. This has a cream-colored slip. The designs painted on it are from mineral and vegetable dye pigments, done with a brush made from chewed-up yucca stalks.
And I understand that almost all Native American potters are women, correct? Yes. There have always been a few male potters, and in the 21st century, a husband might paint a pot [that his wife fashioned], but classically, men created rock art and women created pottery.
What does “Tularosa Revival” mean here? Tularosa is another region that was actively creating pottery between 1100 and 1300 A.D. Near Acoma, there’s a trench with shards of broken pottery from that period. Acoma potters ground them up to use to temper the clay for their pots. I speak of acquiring a piece of history when you acquire an Acoma pot because it often contains shards of ground-up pots.
This Acoma Tularosa Revival jar is described as “large”. What makes it large? Does its size give us a clue about how it was used? Yes. Smaller pots are usually for tourists, because you can’t do much with a small pot. You couldn’t get a large jar in your luggage to take it back east. This jar measures 12 inches high and 13 inches in diameter. Because it’s in almost perfect condition, I don’t think it was ever used.
How would it have been used? It has a wide opening, so it could have been used for water. The base of the jar is concave, so it sits comfortably on the head. But if it was used for water, the top would have been worn down from scraping its lip against the edge of the pool or the river. We have another piece in the sale where you can see the wear on the top. Maybe, by 1920, this jar might have gone into a collection unused.
Are the designs we see on the jar traditional Acoma designs? Do they carry any meanings? These are Tularosa designs. What makes it Tularosa Revival is the ancient designs, which were found on prehistoric shards of pottery around the Acoma pueblo. It’s a very large, much-discussed area what the patterns may or may not have signified. The answer is, we don’t know, but they are remarkable prehistoric patterns.
What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult this Acoma Tularosa jar would have been to make? It’s not done on a potter’s wheel. It’s all done by eye and hand. And the pattern repeats perfectly, completely around the jar. She didn’t have a pencil or a ruler. She did it completely by hand.
How do we know that the Acoma Tularosa jar dates to circa 1920? It would be the design, the level of decoration, the quality of the clay, and the fact that it was probably Mary Histia, who was doing that [style of pot] at the time.
So this jar is characteristic of what Mary Histia did? Absolutely. It’s hard to know when she was born, but her dates are 1881 to 1973.
She would have been an established potter by 1920. Definitely. By 1920, she was the queen of Acoma pottery. President Roosevelt knew of her, and had several pieces by her in the White House collection. She was a star of the pottery world.
Did she sign or mark the piece in any way? It was considered inappropriate to sign a jar around these times, but it’s very typical of the work Mary Histia was doing. We can’t say for sure it’s Mary Histia, but she was one of the great matriarchal potters from this period.
Matriarchal potters? Mary Histia was the first in a long line of distinguished potters from Acoma that includes Marie Z. Chino, Juana Leno, Jessie Garcia, and Lucy M. Lewis. Her work continues to be very collectible and very important. There’s no signatures [on it], but the Theodore Roosevelt connection made a difference. Mary Histia was the reviver of Tularosa designs. Potters after her went on to do the same thing.
What is this Acoma Tularosa Revival jar like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera does not pick up? It’s remarkable for its fineness. It’s thin, remarkably fine in its execution. It’s not a big, heavy, chunky pot. If you knock it, it makes a pinging sound, like knocking a wine glass. And it’s completely smooth to the touch, with a very fine cream slip and brown pigment painted on. It’s dazzling.
Why will this Acoma Tularosa Revival jar stick in your memory? The clarity of the design, the size, the condition–it’s just a thing of beauty. It’s mezmerizing.
What you see: D-Train by Richard Estes, 1988. It’s one of 15 artist’s proofs (AP) created in addition to the edition of 125 prints. Christie’s estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Lindsay Griffith, specialist and head of sale for prints and multiples for Christie’s.
Who, or what, is Domberger? It’s a printing studio in Stuttgart, Germany. It’s one of the preeminent printmaking studios of the 20th century. It was founded by Luitpold Domberger and is now run by his son, Michael. They’ve worked extensively with artists such as Keith Haring and Robert Indiana. Because of the precise and highly complex nature of what they produce, the most significant 20th century and post-war contemporary artists have worked with the Domberger studio.
And who is Richard Estes? He’s considered one of the most preeminent members of the photorealist school of painters. He’s known for creating highly detailed paintings and prints based on photographs. He takes more than 100 photos for his images and whittles them down to select the perspective he’s most interested in. That’s typical of his working process. He does all his drawings freehand, working from photographs, with no projectors or mechanical processes [to transfer the photographic image onto the canvas]. It speaks to what a draftsman he is. It’s what separates him from his peers.
How did this particular print, D-Train, come about? Is it based on a Richard Estes painting?D-Train began as a maquette [in this case, a maquette is a fully rendered two-dimensional artwork intended as the basis for another work of art], not a painting per se. The maquette was wash and acrylic on board, and it was at the same size as the print itself. Estes sent the maquette to the Domberger studio. It produced his first portfolio, Urban Landscapes, in the early 1980s. Domberger could achieve what Estes was looking for–pictorial realism. He produced a highly finished maquette image and the studio worked with him to achieve his vision.
So the idea for the D-Train print begins with Richard Estes? He decided what the image would look like. Domberger decided how to make it come alive in the printmaking medium.
How far back does the relationship between Richard Estes and Domberger go? He worked with Domberger the entire time he made prints.
Has Richard Estes stopped making prints? No, he made prints very recently. The most major prints he’s made were produced by Domberger.
What challenges did Richard Estes and Domberger face in transforming the D-Train maquette into a finished fine art print? It’s quite a large print for a screenprint. There are so many different colors and layers in it–there’s so much going on. It took a highly complex process to achieve. Domberger created a special three-layer museum board for it.
…Because the amount of ink needed would saturate and bleed through a standard museum board? Yes. Many, many layers of ink were required to produce this print. It needed substantial backing to hold it.
So D-Train was monumental in more than one way–monumental in size, and it needed a monumental amount of ink to print it. It is, by a hair, not the largest Estes print, but it’s close. It’s the apex of everything he was trying to achieve in his prints. I love the fact that you can see the reflections in the subway seats.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this print was to make? The printing is quite a process–many screens, many layers that line up perfectly, so there are no imperfections. The skill involved is very high. D-Train is considered by many to be one of the most technically complex screenprints ever produced. There’s so much going on.
The lot notes say that the creation of D-Train “pushed the screenprint process to its limits”. How did it do that? From receiving the maquette, it was clear it would not be a typical day in the office. They had to have a separate press imported from Sweden. The print required more than 100 different layers of ink.
My god, that sounds suicidal–from what I remember from my commercial art classes in high school, that means they had to line up everything perfectly for each pass for each layer of ink… Exactly. It was surely a long day at the office to achieve something that complex. And it’s very finished. There’s a very fine quality to all the works that came out of the Domberger studio. Andy Warhol had said that he didn’t want to work with them because they were too precise.
The Richard Estes D-Train print is described as “unusually large”. The museum board it’s printed on measures 42 inches by 76 and 7/8 inches, and the image itself measures 35 and 7/8 inches by 72 and 1/8 inches. What does unusually large mean in this context? His Urban Landscape portfolio measured 27 by 19 inches in size and the images were 20 by 13 inches. Most of his prints are around that size. Other prints produced by other artists are certainly larger, but this is the largest print produced for Estes.
What is the Richard Estes D-Train print like in person? When you get up close to it, the nature of how the ink sits on the board is almost painterly. 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.
I imagine it draws a lot of power from cognitive dissonance–it looks so real, but you know it can’t be real, because there’s no way that subway train would be rolling under daylight with no one in it. If you were on an empty D-Train, you’d be really worried. It goes back to Edward Hopper, who Estes is so closely tied to. You feel you’re part of it, but not. Estes is a continuation of the [Hopper] tradition.
How does the print’s large size hit you in person? You almost feel like you’re sitting on the D-Train. It’s very lifelike. Nothing has been scaled down, or it doesn’t feel scaled down. Your brain is tricked into thinking you’re looking at a very precise world.
How often does the Richard Estes D-Train print come up at auction? This particular print, on average, about once a year. I do know there are quite a few in institutions because it’s considered a historically important print, but I would not categorize it as specifically rare.
What’s the likelihood that this print of D-Train will meet or beat that sum? This is an example in very good condition and the provenance is the best that anyone could hope for. We can expect a strong price because of these factors. To me, it’s one of the strongest images in the sale.
Why will this Richard Estes D-Train print stick in your memory? To me, it’s emblematic of what makes a printing studio such a great partner for an artist like Estes–when the printmaker works to achieve the vision of the artist by using their own skills to achieve those goals. And as a New Yorker, I love it. It’s so immediately recognizable.
Update: The vintage Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge sold for $81,250.
What you see: A photograph of the George Washington Bridge, shot by Margaret Bourke-White and printed circa 1933. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $50,000 to $75,000.
The expert: Deborah Rogal, associate director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.
Who was Margaret Bourke-White, and why does her work remain influential today? She became a pioneering photojournalist and was the first woman photojournalist at Life magazine. She covered World War II, the Great Depression, and a lot more. We appreciate her work for merging a high level of aesthetic sophistication with strong editorial comment.
How did this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge come to be? Was it for an assignment? It was intended for a story in Fortune magazine. The George Washington Bridge was constructed over a four-year period, from 1927 to 1931. At its completion, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.
What, if anything, do we know about how Margaret Bourke-White got this shot? The point of view is east to west. The photo is shot from the New York side, not the New Jersey side. [The look of the image] suggests it was shot in the afternoon in pretty bright sunlight. It would have been important to her to highlight the material used and the physicality of the structure.
How did she get this angle on the bridge? Was she standing in the middle of it, with cars passing her? I agree that she was standing somewhere in the middle of the span. In a variant of this photo, you can see a bit more of the actual span and you can see at least one car, small and in the distance.
What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult it might have been for her to get this shot? To me, it seems she would have been crouching or she arranged the tripod at a very low position so she could angle the camera upward to highlight the size and scope of construction. It gives the print a sense of the sublime. In the image, you don’t see the road itself. Our eye focuses on repeated imagery, allowing us to wonder at a new architectural feature of the city.
How does the way Margaret Bourke-White chose to compose this shot show her mastery of photography? She really focuses on architectural strength. She offers a sense of poetry and awe without losing visual strength–a hallmark of Margaret Bourke-White.
Would it have been difficult for her to shoot the George Washington Bridge in a way that excludes any features of New Jersey on the far side? The bridge is quite high. It’s a huge bridge, and the sense of being suspended in the air is pretty palpable. On the New Jersey side is the Palisades, a beautiful landscape feature. I’m not sure she had to do a lot to get the landscape out of the shot. I think she had to tilt the camera to get the expanse she wanted.
How, if at all, does this image of the George Washington Bridge connect to her earlier architecturally-themed photographs? There’s a clear connection between all elements of her career. She had a remarkable ability to capture a sense of bigness, of scale and power, as well as finer details like texture and the materiality of industry, and she could translate that sensation to people who encountered her work in a magazine.
It’s worth mentioning here that Margaret Bourke-White stands out for her ability to takestrong photos of human beings and equally strong photos that have no human beings in them whatsoever, such as this one… True. She’s able to create powerful human images that display an ability to connect with an audience, and photograph structures to bring a sense of beauty and appeal while retaining a sense of strength. She’s extraordinary.
How rare are prints of Margaret Bourke-White’s photo of the George Washington Bridge? We last sold one in October 2000 for $29,500. Since then, it’s appeared only a handful of times as a vintage fine print. [The online Swann Galleries archive goes back to 2001.]
How do we know that this image was produced in 1933? Because of the provenance. In this time frame, it was given to Robert Kiehl, the original owner.
Do we know why Margaret Bourke-White would have made this print then? Would it have been a gift for Kiehl? Many of the photographs printed before the secondary market for photographs [arose around 1970 or so] were made as gifts for family members and friends. It’s certainly possible it was a gift for him.
How rare are early Margaret Bourke-White prints, such as this one? There’s no real census of her photos. There are likely few of any given image existing in the print format. For this one, there are probably five to ten. Some might fall lower in that range. There are certainly fewer in the range of vintage.
Thank you for mentioning that, I should ask–when you describe a photograph as “vintage,” what do you mean? It was printed before 1970? “Vintage” is a word that’s defined slightly differently [depending on who’s using it]. For us, it’s a print made close to when the negative was made.
What is this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite capture? It’s a stunning object, with a rich dimensionality associated with fine art prints. It has a very rich texture and a fine range of tones. Seeing a work like this in person always adds to the experience.
The silver print photo is described as being “warm-toned.” What makes it warm-toned? It’s a sepia toning that adds warmth and stability to the print. Her vintage prints frequently have a warm tonality, a creamy [cream-colored] mount, and are signed below the image. This is her classic presentation.
How does the provenance add value to the photograph? We can trace it to Margaret Bourke-White herself. She gave it to Robert Kiehl, who worked as her assistant between 1932 and 1935, when she had a studio in the Chrysler Building. The direct provenance is special, and adds to the value of the work.
Do we know if Kiehl might have helped produce this photographic print? It’s possible he had a hand in the creation of the print, given his capacity as her assistant, but there’s no proof.
Has this print been to auction before? No, it’s fresh to market.
Why will this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge stick in your memory? It’s a stunning representation of a trailblazing photographer at the height of her powers. It’s an homage to what’s new and modern and a chance to see her experiment with abstraction, contrast, and beauty. It has everything we associate with Margaret Bourke-White in one image. I think it has it all.
What you see: A circa 1900s Harry Houdini postcard depicting the legendary magician in chains. The address side bears a stamp from the Harry Houdini Collection. Potter & Potter estimates the vintage postcard at $1,500 to $2,500.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Houdini wasphotographedmany, many, manytimesduringthe courseof hiscareer. Why is this image such a standout? I mean, when I think of Houdini, I think of this picture. It’s a combination of beefcake, magic, metaphor, hardware, and really, kind of… all the things Houdini stands for, rolled into one photo.
Do we know whose idea it was for Houdini to have these pictures taken? Was it him, or did someone else make the suggestion? My guess is it’s Houdini. He was a guy with a very carefully crafted image. Early in his career, he got help from [vaudeville theater owner and booking agent] Martin Beck. Was Beck standing there at the photo shoot? I doubt it. But when Houdini realized something was working, he didn’t walk, he ran in that direction. It was a theme he must have understood, because he came back to it throughout his career. In one of his films, Terror Island, he’s basically just wearing a loincloth.
Why might Houdini have wanted to pose for these photos? What do they do for him that a fully clothed shot does not? He posed for both, of course. He understood every aspect of what that meant in the sense that it might have been a little bit scandalous. He was definitely pushing a boundary there, and stirring up interest–he’s not just shackled, he’s basically undressed. It’s titillating, but it had the added effect of proving that he was not hiding anything and he was able to escape the chains through his ability alone.
Are the chains Houdini poses with for this photo actual, no-kidding chains of the sort from which he escaped, or were the chains chosen solely for how they would look on camera? They were definitely functional. Remember, by this point, Houdini is performing challenge escapes on a regular basis. [Theater-goers] were allowed to bring their own handcuffs and restraints. Houdini was making a challenge–‘Lock me up in your cuffs, and I’ll escape.’ Were these the things he was escaping from? 100 percent. My guess is he provided them to the photographer. No doubt similar things were tossed at him, quite literally, in public appearances.
Do we have any notion of how Houdini used this image, outside of the postcard and the Amsterdam poster? And would he have printed the postcard with the intent of selling it as a souvenir? I’m not sure that he did. It seems unlikely. If there was a handbill or a flyer that used this image, it wouldn’t surprise me.
This postcard bears a stamp that reads “Harry Houdini Collection”. What was the Harry Houdini Collection? Would that have been his personal collection? Yes, it was probably owned by him. I understand it [the stamp] was put there by his wife, to prove that it was his.
So it was Houdini’s own archival copy? Or one of many in his collection.
Do we know how the postcard left the Harry Houdini Collection? We don’t, but it could have been given away, or it could have been sold. Things started leaving Houdini’s family’s possession quite quickly after he died. There was tremendous interest in Houdini, and a lot of souvenir hunters out there, looking for things.
I take it that Houdini had quite the personal library? He absolutely never saw a piece of paper that he didn’t like. Thank goodness for that.
How rare is this Houdini postcard? I’ve probably seen it half a dozen times.
Can you quantify what the presence of the Harry Houdini Collection stamp adds to the value of the postcard? I don’t think there’s ever been any doubt about it being a beautiful, authentic postcard, but let’s say ten percent.
Is this image of Houdini in chains more sought-after than other images that show him bound or escaping his bonds? These things speak to different people for different reasons. The iconic nature of the image helps this one.
But people prefer images of Houdini actively escaping over other images of him? Yeah, but images that people haven’t seen can do well. Last December, we had a postcard of Harry and Bess that did well because it was unusual, and people hadn’t seen it. It sold for $2,600.
What condition is the Houdini postcard in? Lovely. I could do without the little tape marks on the back, but it’s nice.
How does this image of Houdini speak to the larger themes his work expressed and evoked, and which set him apart from other magicians? How does it capture the promise of, and the yearning for, escape from bondage? To play an amateur Dr. Freud here–Houdini was a diminutive guy, an immigrant to these shores, and he found a way to beat whatever was thrown at him. That’s a pretty powerful metaphor. It’s a concept that resonates even in modern times.
What you see: A Nintendo PlayStation prototype dating to circa 1990-1992, and evidently the only surviving prototype from the abandoned collaborative project between Sony and Nintendo. Heritage Auctions has declined to give an estimate.
The expert: Valarie McLeckie, director of video games at Heritage Auctions.
Let’s start by talking about how this Sony-Nintendo PlayStation project came about. I take it they weren’t direct competitors in the early 1990s? Yeah, essentially. Sony had no intention of becoming a video game company, but today, it’s one of the largest.
How well-known was the Sony-Nintendo PlayStation project at the time it was live? That’s a bit hard to say. Usually, companies are pretty secretive about projects. It did get to a point where the public found out about it, but it was late in the process, when it began to fizzle.
How did Sony and Nintendo divide the labor on the PlayStation project? It was not so cut-and-dried. Nintendo had created the Super Nintendo [SNES] by this point. It was released in 1991 in North America. This [project] was actually designed to be an add-on to the [SNES] console to play CD-Rom-based media.
CD-Rom based media? They said originally it wasn’t going to play games. It was going to play different types of media–karaoke was an idea, or encyclopedias. That’s why Nintendo let its guard down. They didn’t see it as a way to play games. And they thought people wouldn’t want to wait 15 seconds to load a game on a disc.
It’s believed that 200 Nintendo PlayStation prototypes were made, but what evidence do we have to support that number? I’m not really sure. It’s a ballpark number based on the number of prototypes made for game development purposes.
Ok, but why was it necessary for them to make 200 prototypes? Why couldn’t they get by with five, or a dozen? Did they need to make that many for the people who were in charge of quality control? Or was it more like with action figures, where the prototype goes through distinct stages? I’m sure those all were factors. A lot goes into the development of something like this. Different teams need to get their hands on it. One or five prototypes isn’t enough.
So, the 200 number–is that back-calculated from what was probably made, based on what we know about how other gaming consoles have been developed, or are there surviving documents that mention there being 200? I’m sure there probably is an internal document showing the exact number or alluding to it, but internal paperwork is hard to get your hands on. It’s never released outside the company, and when they’re done with it, they destroy it. Based on what people said at the time, 200 is a reasonable estimate.
How do we know that only one of these Nintendo PlayStation prototypes survive? If there were others out there, it’s pretty unlikely they would have left the company. When a game company is done with them [the prototypes] they typically trash them or take them home as a memento. It’s unlikely there’s another one out there, especially with something like this.
Olaf Olaffson, a higher-up at Sony, owned this Nintendo Playstation prototype. Do we know why he kept it? No. I looked to see if Olaffson made any comments in the past [about keeping the device]. From what I can see, he never acknowledged it, not publicly.
How did the prototype leave Olaffson’s possession and end up with its second owner? That is an interesting story, and kind of long. Olaffson left Sony to work for Advanta Corporation [a finance company; he was there from 1997 to 1999]. He left Advanta before it went bankrupt, and the prototype was swept up in the company assets. It was in a mystery box in the [bankruptcy] auction and it was bought by a very lucky person. That person has said they thought they were getting kitchen utensils–they didn’t think there was tech in there.
What’s your favorite detail of the Nintendo PlayStation prototype? The controller itself is pretty finalized. The only difference between it and a Super Nintendo controller, aesthetically speaking, is you see Sony PlayStation on the front, and “Nintendo” is in raised plastic on the back. It’s so wacky to see, but it looks exactly like a Nintendo controller.
What games can be played with the prototype? It does play Super Nintendo games. It was meant to be an enhancement [to the Super Nintendo] though they also said there would be a stand-alone version. It’s typical for companies not to come up wiht game ideas until the console is in a finalized state. Any games [made specifically] for it may have been destroyed or may never have been created. There is a user-made game [for the prototype], a homebrew game. I haven’t played it, but I hear it’s very cute.
What is the prototype like in person? The thing that stands out when you see it–it’s Nintendo and Sony. If you look at the two companies and the relationship between them now, it’s purely competitive. It’s sort of shocking to see this, almost like it shouldn’t exist. [Laughs.] The controller really is my favorite part. It stands out the most. It’s like your 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.
How did you set the estimate for the Nintendo PlayStation prototype? What comparables did you look to? I don’t have an estimate. We fully trust the market with this. It’s hard to say what it’s worth until it’s sold.
Are you sure you can’t give me some sort of number to work with? We’re doing our best not to set unrealistic estimates on the piece, because there are a lot of rumors.
Have other game console prototypes gone to auction? Might their prices hint at what the Nintendo PlayStation prototype might do? Nothing compares to this. It’s an unreleased prototype. It was not purchased with the knowledge of what it was, and was never sold for what it’s possibly worth.
So, until now, game console prototypes have changed hands in private sales, not at auction? Ebay sales aside, that’s correct. We’re the first to dive into this as a formal market.
The Nintendo PlayStation prototype was restored to functionality, but how important is that? If it didn’t work, would it be worthless? For me, I don’t care if it works or not. You want it for the historical value. It’s a Nintendo-Sony PlayStation. There’s not going to be another one like this.
Why will this Nintendo prototype stick in your memory? Because it’s the closest thing to a unicorn I’ve ever seen in person. It might be the only chance in my lifetime that I get to see it. I’m really savoring my time working with it.
Update: The sixth state of the 1515 Albrecht Dürer print, The Rhinoceros, sold for $81,250. Yay!
What you see: The Rhinoceros, a 1515 woodcut by German artist Albrecht Dürer. Freeman’s estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.
The expert: David Weiss, senior vice president at Freeman’s.
So, for those who might never have encountered Albrecht Dürer before, could you talk about who he was, and why he remains influential today? He’s considered the preeminent German Renaissance artist and he’s credited with bringing Renaissance art to northern Germany. He was only 56 when he died, but he was established by his twenties as a painter and printmaker, and his genius lives on.
How did the woodcut print of The Rhinoceros come about? What we know is… first of all, rhinoceroses were not at all common in western Europe at the time. Dürer didn’t see a rhino, but he saw a sketch that was sent from Moravia. Dürer’s image was based upon an actual Indian rhino that arrived in Lisbon in 1515. It was the first living example of a rhinoceros in Europe since Roman times. The woodcut was very popular in Europe and remained so until the 18th century. It was presumably Dürer’s idea to make it.
Wait wait wait. Dürer did the woodcut without actually seeing a live rhino? He relied on someone else’s sketch? He did it based upon the sketch [which was later lost] and on news of the rhino’s arrival in Lisbon, which was published in Nuremberg. He was really thought of in Renaissance circles as one of the true artists of the period, a genius. That a rhinoceros would be intriguing to him is not surprising.
Where is Dürer in his career in 1515, when he makes The Rhinoceros? He’s well-established, and nearing the end of his life. He passes in 1528.
Is there any proof that Dürer created The Rhinoceros because he thought it would sell well–that it would be a hit with the public? It’s an interesting question whether or not his approach to this was if it was commercially viable. Arguably the subject did go through his mind. The arrival of the rhino sparked a great deal of interest. He thought it would be a good subject for a woodcut, and it was very popular.
Do we have any notion of why Dürer issued The Rhinoceros as a woodcut rather than, say, an engraving? Woodcuts are something that can be produced in greater quantity than engravings, which are more labor-intensive.
Dürer’sThe Rhinoceros… doesn’t look exactly like a rhinoceros. We recognize this now. But is it possible to know if Dürer knowingly and deliberately departed from what he saw in the sketch and what he read in the contemporary accounts to give the beast what looks to be armor plates? There is some artistic license in the way he created his own version of the rhinoceros, with armor and rivets and what looks like breast plates. It would be wonderful to compare the [since lost] sketch to the original image. It would be fascinating to see, but we can’t do that. As for the translations [into German of the stories of the arrival of the rhinoceros], written descriptions of the original German documents don’t survive.
Dürer made this woodcut with only a sketch and a few written accounts to go on. I would be scared stiff to depict a rarely seen animal based on such meager source material, and yet, Dürer got reasonably close to reality. Why do you think Dürer’s The Rhinoceros remained an influential image after it was clear that it wasn’t strictly accurate? At the time, the rhinoceros was, essentially, a mythical beast. In some circles, the beast was conflated with a unicorn. I think he probably reveled in making a mythical, mystical image.
How was Dürer’s The Rhinoceros received in its day? It was highly popular and very well-received. What I don’t know is precisely how many were produced, and how it was received in commercial terms. It was viewed for a long time as a realistic or accepted depiction of a rhinoceros.
In its time, Dürer’s The Rhinoceros was considered an accurate depiction of a rare, exotic beast. We now know that he got some things wrong, but his rhino still commands attention anyway. Why do you think we 21st-century people enjoy the rhino despite its not being strictly accurate? The print resonated with the European art world and the European public at the time and it stayed popular for decades. I’m not sure I can answer your question about why it sustained its popularity. Part of it, certainly, is it’s a good-looking image, and part of it is how much of a departure from reality it is. It’s visually compelling.
Might The Rhinoceros‘s continued success be tangled up in the fact that it’s not strictly accurate, but it still looks very much like a rhino–that cognitive dissonance that comes from seeing something that looks real, but can’t be real? I think that’s a fair statement. It appears as a rhino, but not realistically so. It’s certainly not surreal. It’s not created from the subconscious. It’s a recognizable image.
The image of the beast goes right up to the edges of the paper. Do we know why Dürer did that? It’s worth noting that most prints extant of this image either have no margins or very thin, slight margins, measured in milimeters. It’s simply how the print was issued.
Might Dürer have done that to give the impression that the rhinoceros was so large that the paper could barely contain it? I don’t know if he was trying to make the animal seem bigger in the viewer’s mind. You could make the case that hardly a milimeter is wasted in that rhino. It seems to take over the space on which he depicts it. 21st century eyes can look at it as an imposing beast about to burst out of the four walls in which it is contained.
We don’t know how many copies of The Rhinoceros were printed in 1515. But do we know how many of them survive? I don’t know the number that’s around if we take into account private and public collections. I do know the number that have been offered [at auction] in the modern era, and what they’ve sold for. Since 1990, 26 woodcuts of The Rhinoceros have been at auction. [This doesn’t mean 26 copies from one of the first through eighth states of the 1515 woodcut have been offered; some of the 26 might be the same example coming back up for sale.]
The example of The Rhinoceros at Freeman’s is from the sixth state of eight produced in 1515. Does that matter? Do collectors prefer the earliest possible state, or are woodcuts of The Rhinoceros so rare that anything from 1515 is fine by them? Earlier states, particularly the first, are going to be rarer and more sought-after and command higher prices at auction. With each descending state, there’s less rarity and slightly less interest.
What is The Rhinoceros like in person? Are there any aspects of the Dürer woodcut that the camera doesn’t pick up? It’s a wonderful thing, it really is. What really comes across is the strength of the printed line of the woodcut itself and the fragility of the 16th century paper. You can hold it up to the light and see through it. On one hand, it’s a strong, imposing image of a beast, but on the other hand, it’s created on very thin paper that’s survived for centuries. It’s a striking image in person.
What’s your favorite detail of Dürer’s rhinoceros? I like the all-over plating itself, and the designs within it–the intricacies.
What’s the world auction record for Dürer’s The Rhinoceros? It sold at Christie’s New York in 2013 for $866,500. It’s worth noting that the estimate for the print was $100,000 to $150,000. It was a first state in perfect condition, and it had the text on top. Our print doesn’t have the upper panel above the rhino with text. I can’t tell you precisely why it was cut, but it’s not uncommon. The one that sold for so much had the text above the image. It’s also the third-highest price realized at auction for any work by Dürer.
What’s the condition of this print of Dürer’s The Rhinoceros? It’s in generally good condition, but not in mint condition. Generally good, with some minor restoration.
Why will this woodcut of Dürer’s The Rhinoceros stick in your memory? It’s the first time in my career that I’ve appraised and handled this print by Albrecht Dürer. It’s an iconic image that I’ve never handled as a specialist in charge of an auction.
The lineup includes a 1929 Mercedes-Benz 710 SS 27/140/200hp Sport Tourer (shown above), estimated at $6.6 million to $8.8 million, as well as a 1938 Alfa Romeo 6C 2300 B Lungo Cabriolet by Worblaufen, estimated at $1.3 million to $1.9 million, and a 1993 Jaguar XJ220 C Le Mans that competed in the 1993 and 1995 editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Update: The 1985 Untitled Ed Moses painting sold for $28,125.
What you see: Untitled, a 1985 oil and acrylic on canvas by Ed Moses. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $18,000 to $25,000.
The expert: Clo Pazera, specialist at LAMA.
First, could you briefly introduce Ed Moses, and talk about why his work continues to speak to us? Moses was an L.A.-based artist, born and raised in Los Angeles — he went to UCLA, and first started exhibiting with Ferus Gallery in 1957. Ferus was a foundational L.A. gallery and a lot of the fellows — mainly fellows — who exhibited there had attended Chouinard, like John Altoon, Larry Bell, and Ed Ruscha, but Moses went to UCLA. Moses did spend some time briefly in New York, where he met Willem de Kooning and other abstract artists of that cohort — that may be one of the reasons that his works are more abstracted than, say, Ruscha or Bell… though in 1969, Moses had a show at Riko Mizuno Gallery and cut out big chunks of the ceiling so the artwork was essentially the light dancing across the floor. So even though he was mainly a painter and collagist throughout his career, he did experiment with other mediums and movements.
How prolific was Ed Moses? Has someone done a catalogue raisonné for him? He was pretty prolific. He produced a significant body of work throughout the years — not quite so many prints, he definitely focused more on drawings, collages, and paintings. Nobody has done a catalogue raisonné of his works yet. I know that the Ed Moses estate is currently still active, but I’m not sure whether they have plans to start a raisonné or not.
Can you give a rough number for how many works Ed Moses might have produced over his lifetime? Certainly I would say in the hundreds, but I don’t have a real ballpark figure.
Is there a period during his career that collectors prefer more than other periods? If so, does this work belong to that period? Throughout the decades, Moses’s style transitioned pretty significantly. In the early 1960s, he really focused on works-on-paper, and then in the 70s, he transitioned back to his roots in painting. By 1985, he was mainly working as a painter, and this work is a great example of the style that he solidified in that era.
Where was Ed Moses in his career in 1985, when he made this untitled work? At this point, he was mid-career. This was around when he was picked up by L.A. Louver Gallery, which went on to represent him for another 15 or so years.
How is it typical of his work—what marks it as an Ed Moses painting? Also, are there any ways in which this 1985 painting is atypical of his work? This is a pretty typical example of Moses’ work. He utilizes the diagonal grid pattern pretty frequently, it was one of his favorite motifs from the mid-seventies to his death.
Thank you for mentioning the diagonal grid pattern–I meant to ask about it. How often do diagonals come up in the work of Ed Moses? Why did it hold his interest? Yes, the diagonal grid comes up often in his work. In the early 1970s he became very interested in Navajo textiles, so many of his paintings have a textile-like quality to the compositions, which I see reflected in this work.
How often did Ed Moses tend to choose these colors—red, green, and black? Moses definitely used red quite a bit in his work, and red and black tended to be one of his favorite color palettes. The addition of green comes up less often.
This work is untitled. Did Ed Moses usually decline to name his paintings? He did title paintings, but also often enough would leave them untitled. He would frequently have obscure titles that seemed to refer to something, but it was unclear what that was, such as Down-Broz #1 or Mug-Po.
How often do Moses paintings come to auction? Since he was an L.A.-based artist, we see his works pretty often. Outside of L.A., they don’t come up quite so much. Moses is definitely a LAMA mainstay — we are the auction house to go to for his works.
What is this untitled Ed Moses painting like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? Moses’s works always have a lot of texture to them, which doesn’t always come through in images. A lot of abstract artists really lay on the paint, but Moses really liked to utilize the texture of the substrate, which is something that you can’t always detect in a photograph.
The substrate? What is the substrate? The bottom layer, like canvas, linen, or paper.
How did you arrive at the estimate of $18,000 to $25,000? In my role as an auction specialist, I look at what similarly sized works from a similar period have been offered for in the past. This is a really beautiful example of Moses’s work of that era, so we have confidence that the hammer price will exceed our low estimate.
Why will this untitled Ed Moses piece stick in your memory? It’s surprisingly playful — within his chosen structure of the grid, it’s easy to become absorbed in his breadth of mark-making, from watery paint blossoms to the artist’s own footprint.
Update: Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (Portrait of Marjorie Ferry) by Tamara de Lempicka sold for £16,280,000, or $21.1 million–easily a new record for the artist at auction, and the third painting of hers to break her auction record in a span of 15 months.
What you see: Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (Portrait of Marjorie Ferry), a 1932 oil on canvas by Tamara de Lempicka. Christie’s London estimates it at £8 million to £12 million, or $10.4 million to $15.6 million.
The expert: Keith Gill, head of the Impressionist and Modern art evening sale held at Christie’s London.
Who was Tamara de Lempicka, and why does her work still speak to us today? She was a famous female artist of the 1920s and early 1930s, and very much in the celebrity mold of her time. She was probably almost ahead of her time in terms of her approach to things. I don’t think her art has dated as such. Her aesthetic appeals to people today as in the 20s and 30s. Her art has become timeless.
Aside from a six-month trip to Italy that she took as a 13-year-old with her grandmother, what art training did she have? She undertook some art studies in Saint Petersburg, and when she came to Paris in 1918, she went to classes as often as she could. She studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumeière, and enrolled with Maurice Denis at the Académie Ranson, and she traveled to Italy quite frequently. And she sat in cafes in Montparnasse and discussed art and fashion with the avant-garde.
So, no traditional art studies that ended with a degree, but more than sufficient… I can’t say she was self-taught, but she didn’t take a formal qualification. She took every single opportunity to be taught.
How prolific was Tamara de Lempicka? Is there a catalogue raisonné? Yes. There are 218 recorded works on paper, and in terms of oils, there are 520 in the book. It’s worth pointing out that it includes works from the 1940s into the 1970s, where really, the key period is the late 1920s and early 1930s.
What happened in the 1940s? She did far fewer commissions, and more still lifes. She didn’t paint identified individuals. There’s a mix of imagery.
So she didn’t just do portraits, but she’s most famous for her portraits? She’s most famous for her portraits, and they’re the most highly valued works she did.
At what point in her career do her paintings start looking like the Portrait of Marjorie Ferry–the imagery we think of when we think of Tamara de Lempicka? I’d say she finds her way very early in the 1920s. I would argue her style evolved to what we recognize in 1925, and by 1927, she has her mature style, the style that propelled her to fame and fortune.
How did Tamara de Lempicka’s social life shape her business life? How did it help her attract clients and commissions? It’s incredibly difficult to say which way around it worked. Really, the two very much related to each other. The paintings built her social life. Her portraiture was almost instantaneously successful. She became a celebrity, and she got more commissions and became someone people wanted to have at parties. She wouldn’t have been invited to parties or have become famous if people didn’t like her work.
Where was Tamara de Lempicka in her career in 1932? She was very much the toast of Paris. She was absolutely at her peak. Her top 10 [works at] auction all date from 1925 through 1932, the year of this work.
I’ve seen Tamara de Lempicka’s work described as Art Deco in its style. What makes it Art Deco? The stage-like lighting and the very stylized backdrops it has. In a picture like this, it’s the greys, whites, and blacks in the background, and it’s [Ferry’s] very Art Deco hairstyle as well. The haircut is very much of that time.
How did the commission for Portrait of Marjorie Ferry come about? Did she know Ferry or her husband or both? The balance of probability is she knew them both. Around 1933, she did a portrait of Suzy Solidor, one of her lovers who was a cabaret singer. It’s likely she met Marjorie Ferry through her relationship with Solidor, and probably, Ferry’s other half, a wealthy banker who commissioned the portrait, was part of her circle at the time.
I understand one reason that Ferry’s husband commissioned the portrait was to immortalize a cabochon ring that he’d given her. Can you talk a bit about how Tamara de Lempicka structures the composition to showcase both the sitter and her jewelry? She does it through a very interesting device. You’re drawn to her face and hair, and the red of her lips. Then you have the very vertical line of her arm, drawing your eye down to her other hand, and the red in her nails. If you drew a straight line from the center of her lips, you’d land on the light in her ring. It’s very clever.
Does this work represent the only time that Marjorie Ferry appears in a painting by Tamara de Lempicka? Yes. It was a one-off commission. The only people she paints a number of times are her family or her lovers.
What do we know about how Tamara de Lempicka worked? Would she have had Marjorie Ferry pose in her studio, or would she have shot photographs of her and worked from those? The balance of probability is Ferry sat for the portrait in an old-fashioned sense. The background is very much in line with the design of the artist’s studio in Paris. It wasn’t exactly like this, but it was a very stripped-down steel interior with lots of reflections.
De Lempicka described her style of painting as “clean”, and credited her style with her success. Could you talk about what she meant when she said “clean”? In this work, the “clean” aspect is around the simplicity of it, a fundamental focus on the sitter and the simplistic background. It’s a stripped-back, minimalist aesthetic, both in the backgrounds and in the way she paints her figures. This work has a very flat surface, but the variation is all in the color and the paint, not in the surface. You can see the link between this and photography.
I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say you see the link between this and photography. It’s not going out of its way to look like a painting. It’s not painting for painting’s sake. It’s more about the subject and the use of light and dark rather than the physical surface of the painting.
A story about Tamara de Lempicka on the Christie’s website describes her work as “conspicuously luxurious pictures for conspicuously luxurious times”. Do you agree? What, in your opinion, makes them “conspicuously luxurious”? The look of the fabric, the dresses you see on the sitters–it’s a very luxurious, satin type of fabric. It creates a very luxurious feeling. And the ring Ferry has, the perfect nails, the perfect hair, it very much illustrates the wealth of the time.
And it’s very Old Masters-y to revel in the details of luxurious fabrics… Exactly. It goes back to the Medicis, and commissioning portraits as status symbols.
What’s the painting like in person? Are there any aspects that the camera fails to pick up? Not really. I think it’s incredibly striking in person. It feels almost lifelike, life-size. When it’s on the wall, you appreciate the incredible shades of light and dark.
What’s your favorite detail of this painting? It’s her hand with the ring and the nails, because it’s very much an intrinsic part of the story of the picture, the sitter, and the fiance. 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.
No fear. 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.
In 2018, Christie’s sold the artist’s La Musicienne for a record price. Last November, Sotheby’s sold La Tunique Rose for a new record. Is it a coincidence that the record for a work by Tamara de Lempicka has broken twice in the span of 18 months, or do the sales represent an acceleration in her market? We often find strong prices when we bring other works by the artist to market. There is that result we had in 2018, which was a record then. When you achieve a record for the artist, the market talks about the artist. Maybe it started people thinking more about Tamara de Lempicka. What’s nice is a lot of her works are in private collections. Clients see the price and think about parting with a certain painting.
How does Portrait de Marjorie Ferry compare to the two recent record-holders? I know it once held the world auction record for a Tamara de Lempicka work… It held the record for one day, and it was broken the following night by Portrait of Madame M. But I think it’s very comparable to both of them in terms of quality, technique, and composition, and arguably more comparable to the 1929 work [La Musicienne], which has the second highest price. Her style evolves. In 1927, she wasn’t quite at her peak, but in 1929, she was absolutely at her peak in terms of style.
How long has Tamara de Lempicka been a feature of Impressionist and Modern evening sales? Is that recent? It goes back a long way. We had a strong piece in an evening sale in 2004 and others in 2006. What’s different here is we featured Portrait de Marjorie Ferry on the cover, and that’s the first time a female artist has been on the cover of the catalog for an Impressionist and Modern evening sale [at Christie’s London]. Everyone is saying how incredible it is as a catalog cover.
Is Portrait de Marjorie Ferry the first work by Tamara de Lempicka with an estimate that edges into the double-digit millions? Yes. The one that made a big price in New York [La Tunique Rose] had an estimate of $6 million to $8 million, and before that [La Musicienne] was $6 million to $8 million. This one is £8 million to £12 million, very much the highest starting price for the artist.
What are the odds that Portrait de Marjorie Ferry will break the record on February 5? All I would say is it has a very good chance.
Why will this painting stick in your memory? 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 cover.
Update: The Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover sold for $18,750.
What you see: A Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover, standing 13 inches tall and produced sometime in the 1920s. Skinner estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Stuart Slavid, director of fine ceramics and senior vice president at Skinner.
Let’s start by talking about what Fairyland Lustre is, and how it came to be. I have to say–if I didn’t know it was Wedgwood, I’d never guess it was by them… Wedgwood, for a long time, was traditionalist. They made thingsthat wereclassical designs, and theynever stopped. Fairyland Lustre was beyond anything designed by Wedgwood, and it came from Daisy Makeig-Jones.
Who was Daisy Makeig-Jones? She was enthralled with nursery rhymes and fairy tales from a young age. She read them to her siblings, and they stuck with her. When she went to Wedgwood, she was pretty old for an apprentice. She started at 28, when most started at 14 or 15. She worked her way up through the ranks to become a designer, a position not held by a woman.
How did Daisy Makeig-Jones convince Wedgwood, which built its reputation on classical-looking ceramics, to produce the Fairyland Lustre line? She didn’t have to sell them on it. She only had to sell it to the art director, John Goodwin, who gave her her own studio. Fairyland Lustre was a new line that brought Wedgwood into the 20th century. It was a good cash cow as long as it lasted.
Are there technical advances that happened around 1915 that allowed Wedgwood to make the Fairyland Lustre line, or was Wedgwood able to realize it with the tools and techniques they already had? Fairyland Lustre was totally Daisy Makeig-Jones’s vision, and she realized it. Wedgwood hadn’t done anything like it before. It was quite revolutionary at the time. I toured the Wedgwood factory in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and I asked the head potter, “Why can’t you make Fairyland Lustre today with the technology you used to make it in the 1920s?” Wedgwood had tried [to revive the line] in the 1970s and it came out flat. He said, “Because we can’t use lead.” The lead in the glaze gave it its iridescence.
What was the reaction to the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre line when it debuted in 1915? Was it a hit right away? It was, but it was the ordinary lustrewares that were a hit, not the Fairyland Lustre. It wasn’t because of the beauty of it, but the price point. It would cost the average English person a month’s wages for a piece of Fairyland Lustre. Fast-forward to today, and the Fairyland Lustre price point is much higher than the ordinary lustrewares.
I take it, then, that fewer pieces of Fairyland Lustre sold when it was new? I might love a Ferrari, but I’m happy with a Toyota.
How many different types of Fairyland Lustre did Wedgwood make? There are three types. The first is the ordinary lustreware, with butterflies, birds, and dragons on it. The second is the Fairyland Lustre, which has fairies on it. The third is unknown, or other–designs within the line that have animals or something else on it, but are not ordinary.
I came across a description of a type of Fairyland Lustre as being “true” Fairyland Lustre. Which of the three types is the “true” Fairyland Lustre? It’s the second. There were a number of books Daisy used as influences. Some that she read to her siblings gave her inspiration.
And through the 15-odd years of the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre line’s existence, it was entirely the vision of Daisy Makeig-Jones? All are her designs. Some are signed and some are not. She could not possibly have done them all, but she is credited with them all.
Do we have any numbers on how many pieces of Fairyland Lustre Wedgwood made?I imagine they made more of the ordinary lustrewares… You’re probably correct, but there are no numbers on that. It’s hard to date Fairyland Lustre because so many of the designs were re-used for as many as 15 years. When Fairyland Lustre [the true Fairyland Lustre] arrived in 1916, there were as many as 62 variations.
Wedgwood discontinued the Fairyland Lustre line around 1929 or so. Why? The art director changed, and tastes changed. And it was right after the stock market crash. When [the new art director] called Daisy Makeig-Jones into his office to fire her, she continued to work. A short time later, Wedgwood discontinued most of the Fairyland Lustre patterns. She went back to her studio and smashed all the molds and instructed the staff to destroy the remaining stock. She left the factory and was never heard from again.
She didn’t try to launch her own studio after Wedgwood fired her? Daisy Makeig-Jones was an odd lady, and a heavy smoker. My favorite story about her is she had a kiln in her office, not for ceramics, but for making grilled cheese sandwiches. She died in 1945. She was only 63.
The piece I’m focusing on is a Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover. What scene do we see depicted on the piece? Is there a narrative? It depicts a land of illusion adapted from the legend of croquemitaine–a bogeyman. But if you read the story, you don’t know how [the scene on the Wedgwood piece] got from point A to point B. The translation of the story to the design makes no sense. [Makeig-Jones] may have gotten inspiration from the croquemitaine story, but there’s a rabbit at the bottom of the piece [look at the lower right] that’s running to Alice in Wonderland.
The piece is described as being a Malfrey pot with cover. What is that, exactly? A Malfrey pot, in our terms, is like a covered ginger jar. Sometimes it’s round, sometimes it’s oval, sometimes it’s vertical, but there’s always a domed cover on it.
And the four robed figures are the ghosts? Yes.
I only have one photograph of the piece. Does the design repeat on the other side? All Fairyland Lustre decorations cover all sides. I’m pretty sure the same scene is on the other side.
What’s your favorite detail of the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods piece? Probably the figures. They don’t show up on any other Wedgwood designs. They’re not scary ghosts–they’re just kind of fun.
What are the four ghosts carrying? Torches? Maybe, but our guess as to what they’re carrying–we interpret it the way we want to interpret it. At the top [above the ghosts] there’s a thing that looks like a big bat, but it’s actually a Roc bird.
I think I see a face in the tree on the right… You see all sorts of funny things like that [in Fairyland Lustre scenes]. At the bottom, there’s a huge toad in gold, right at the front.
What do we know about how the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods piece might have been made? It was printed [a print transfer was applied to the blank shape], then it was hand-painted over the print. Fairyland Lustre pieces [could go to] the kiln as many as five times. It was quite a process. It certainly wasn’t done in a day. The gilding was the last step.
Did Fairyland Lustre go through a period when it was unfashionable with collectors, or has it always been sought-after? When it was first produced, it was quite successful. You don’t produce it for 15 years unless it does well at the time. In terms of collecting, Fairyland Lustre didn’t become popular until the 1960s and 1970s. Wedgwood collectors had to be students of the 18th century. Not until the next generation came along and opened their eyes to the wider world of Wedgwood did they collect Fairyland Lustre as well.
Which group is bigger nowadays–the group of collectors who are only interested in Fairyland Lustre, or the group of collectors who are broadly interested in Wedgwood? The ones who are interested in Wedgwood A to Z, because there’s 260 years of production. People who only collect Fairyland Lustre have only 15 years of production. But at some point, someone is going to tell their story.
I count 14 pieces of Fairyland Lustre in the upcoming Skinner sale. Is it unusual to have so many? Are they all from the same consigner? No, they are two collections. We might have two, three, four, five pieces in a sale. This is a nice showing of Fairyland Lustre and should be a nice barometer of the market today. These pieces, and the magnitude of these pieces, will bring some [additional examples of Fairyland Lustre] out of the woodwork.
How often does a Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Malfrey pot with cover and a Ghostly Woods theme come to auction? This is at least the second one, and it might be the same one [the two recorded auction appearances might belong to this example]. It doesn’t show up very often.
Does that healthy July 2019 result indicate an acceleration in the market for Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre, or is it a coincidence? There’s an acceleration at the high end with the true Fairyland Lustre. It was the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that got the Temple on a Rock vase and cover, but someone had to underbid it. [As of January 2020, the MFA Boston hasn’t included the acquisition in their online database.]
What is the piece like in person? It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like it, it’s amazing. If you look at Fairyland Lustre, you think it can’t possibly be Wedgwood. It’s wonderful. It’s the thing dreams are made of.
Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? The photographer did a really good job showing the colors and the iridescence of the thing. It’s a photographer’s nightmare to shoot this stuff. Because it’s so shiny and lustrous, it reflects off everything in the room. It really is a very difficult thing to shoot.
What condition is it in? It’s in tremendous condition. It has its original cover, and that makes a huge difference. The covers tend to slide off. It [the design of the ceramic piece] doesn’t have an inside rim. There’s nothing to secure it. If you’re carrying it across a room, you’d better be careful. The first thing to look for is if the cover has been repaired. This one has not.
Why will this piece of Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre stick in your memory? It’s one of my favorite subjects. There are so many Fairyland Lustre subjects, but they’re kind of redundant–fairies in the woods. Ghostly Woods, you don’t see it. The patterns you don’t see are much more interesting than the patterns you see often.
Update: Mansion on Prairie Avenue sold for $30,000–more than four times its high estimate, and a new world auction record for the artist.
What you see: Mansion on Prairie Avenue, a mid-century oil on masonite board by Irene V. Clark. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.
The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.
Let’s start by talking about Irene Clark–who she was, and why she’s still collected today. She’s an interesting artist. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was a modern painter at the time when there were few African-American women painters. She was interested in embracing different kinds of imagery and subject matter and embracing the African-American experience.
Was Irene Clark prolific? And do we know how many works she did with a mansion theme? This is a subject she did a number of versions of, but I don’t think it’s a series, in that those I’ve seen are the same subject. It was an interesting subject for her. If you like painting your dog and you keep painting your dog, that doesn’t mean you do dog portraits. Her other work is a little different, usually an isolated figure or a mask on a background. We know this painting is important to her because the other versions are well-known.
But as far as numbers go, do we have an idea of how many artworks Irene Clark produced? I don’t know. I don’t see her work that often. She had a long career, but her market is quite small. She’s had less than 20 works at auction. Most are paintings on wood or paper, in a similar size and format.
Did Irene Clark start painting mansion works while she was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, or did they come later? I believe they were done in the 1950s and 1960s, after her Works Progress Administration period. The one in the Art Institute of Chicago collection is circa 1955. I don’t know exactly when these were painted. They’re not dated. [The one offered at Swann has a circa date range of 1955 and 1962, and the one in the museum is circa 1955.]
Is Irene Clark best known for her mansion paintings? I think the best way to put it is because one’s in the Art Institute of Chicago and the other is in Cedric Dover’s book American Negro Art, yes, it’s probably her best known subject.
What makes Irene Clark’s mansions a compelling subject for an artwork? They show how the neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago were changing. With the Great Migration, the neighborhoods of 19th century mansions changed and became predominantly African-American.
Are the people Irene Clark shows in the windows and in front of the mansion specific characters that appear in every mansion painting? No, they’re a general kind of idea. The South Side of Chicago, with its big stone buildings, was kind of a historic district. They were built for rich white families in the 19th century. Now, African-Americans live there. She’s reflecting on that in the picture. She’s relating it to the African-American experience on the South Side of Chicago.
Is the mansion recognizable as a specific South Side Chicago mansion, or is it a fanciful invention of hers? It’s probably just a fanciful version. It’s just the idea of a mansion in the neighborhood and the people who live there. I guess it could have been done from a sketch, but it’s probably the artist’s interpretation. It seems very much her own. It’s playful and fanciful, with everybody in the windows. It’s her artistic license.
What is the Irene Clark painting like in person? It has a fair amount of texture. It’s painted on wood, and has an underlying solidity. It has texture and weight to it. I think the image gives a good sense of what it looks like in person.
Would the Johnson Publishing Company have commissioned this mansion painting from Irene Clark? I’m not aware of any direct commission, but I don’t have a lot of information. I can’t really say. My feeling is they would have been able to acquire work from the artist if they wanted to, but I don’t know where it was acquired.
I ask because I see in the lot notes that the painting was pictured in a December 1973 issue of Ebony, which was the company’s flagship magazine. Yes, it was illustrated in a later magazine. They were publicizing the [art] collection in the 1970s after the building had opened [at 820 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 1971; in 2017, the city of Chicago declared it as a local landmark.] I’m quite positive it was acquired directly from the artist. A lot of artists were contacted directly for works for the collection, but I don’t have documentation.
How often do Irene Clark works come up at auction? Maybe one every couple of years. There haven’t been many. It depends on the year. It’s infrequent.
So if Mansion on Prairie Avenue sells for its low estimate, that will be a new auction record for Irene Clark. Right.
What are the odds of that happening? I think it will do well for a couple of reasons. It’s a well-known subject of hers. It’s known within the collection because it was featured in Ebony. It’s a good representation of the African-American experience in Chicago. It ticks the boxes.
Is everything in the Johnson Publishing Company sale fresh to market–nothing has appeared at auction before? They did acquire works from galleries and dealers. I don’t believe any works were acquired at auction. Many of these artists, especially works from the 1970s, were acquired directly, and many are new to auction or have few auction records. I think 25 artists [represented] in this collection don’t have auction records.
Wow. I imagine you haven’t had that many debut artists in one sale since you founded the African-American art department at Swann in 2006. That’s right. I wrote a lot of biographical information for this sale. It’s a great collection, because it brings together well-known, important African-American artists across the country.
But I imagine there will be a lot of competition for this Irene Clark work because of its strong Chicago connection? It definitely appeals to collectors of Chicago art and Chicago artists, and it appeals to people who collect early African-American art, and people who known the Johnson Publishing Company collection and know the importance of the company. It will resonate with different types of collectors.
Why will this Irene Clark work stick in your memory? It’s definitely a significant work by her. It speaks to her work, and it’s something that meant a lot to her. It’s very similar to the work 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.
In March 1987, I was fourteen years old and obsessed with Monty Python.
I learned about the existence of fanzines and decided I wanted to do one about the British comedy troupe.
I have no idea why I thought it would work, but I dialed the London phone directory, or operator, or whatever body helped you locate London phone numbers back then, and asked for the number for Terry Jones.
He was listed.
I sat there holding a piece of paper with the numbers on it for a bit. I dialed.
I did not die of a heart attack.
I told him, in what I am certain must have been a high-pitched, terrified voice while rushing my words, that I wanted to start a Monty Python fanzine, and asked for his help.
He did not flinch. He did not slam the phone into its cradle. He did not tell me off. Instead, he volunteered the phone number for what was then the main Python office and gave me a specific name to ask for.
A few months later, I started my zine. I ran it for five years.
When I came to London at age seventeen, he was one of the three Pythons who were in the city at the time and invited me to visit them in their homes. (The others were Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam.)
He was never anything less than 100 percent supportive and kindly toward me. Never.
If I hadn’t started that Python fanzine as a teenager, I would not be where I am today–no question.
And I could not have started the fanzine without Terry Jones’s spontaneous and unhesitant act of kindness, bestowed on a weird American girl he had never met, who cold-called him at home and breathlessly asked for his help.
Update: The circa 1915 Alexander, The Man Who Knows poster sold for $1,560.
What you see: A circa 1915 poster touting Alexander, The Man Who Knows. It measures 108 inches by 80 1/2 inches. Potter & Potter estimates the oversize vintage poster at $1,000 to $1,500.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Let’s start by talking about Alexander–who he was, where he performed, and where he was in his career around 1915, when this poster was printed. He was at the peak of his powers. He was an American, no real city of birth, but a west coaster. I don’t believe he ever performed outside the U.S., but he certainly traveled across the U.S. over his career.
I understand that Alexander was a mentalist. Could you explain the difference between a magician and a mentalist? He did also do magic tricks. The thing that set him apart from other people was his ability to apparently read minds in such a believable way. He would answer questions people would write down and seal in an envelope–some deeply personal, some frivolous. It set him apart from other people who did the same kinds of tricks.
And the turban Alexander wears in the poster was part of his costume? It was also integral to his act. It was built for him for his mentalism routine. There were mechanical devices in the turban that he used to communicate with his assistants offstage. It was a way for backstage assistants to whisper in his ear. This was in the teens, the 20s, probably back a little further than that. It was pre-radio, a combination of induction coils and telephone technology. David Copperfield has the turban now on display in his place in Las Vegas. [While it doesn’t show the Alexander turban, this video gives a decent overview of Copperfield’s private museum.]
So Alexander was best known for answering questions from his audience? Hence “Alexander: The Man Who Knows”? The Q & A was one of his trademark routines. A dozen or a hundred people would write a question they were seeking an answer to. Without opening and reading the envelope, Alexander would answer the question and reveal personal details of the people in the audience. He’d give their names, the number of children they had, their address, and he’d answer the question in the envelope. [Only after we spoke did it occur to me that Johnny Carson must have been riffing off of Alexander with his “Carnac the Magnificent” routine on The Tonight Show.]
And I take it Alexander relied on his assistants to relay that information through the devices in the turban? It was more complicated than that. He used everything in his arsenal to acquire and deliver information. The material he was best known for made people believe he could actually read your mind.
Did Alexander use cold reading and hot reading? Yes, I would say that’s fair. I imagine there was a combination of the two. Probably a lot of hot reading.
I read the Wikipedia entry on Alexander and it seems pretty outlandish–killing four men? Marrying between seven to fourteen times? Escapes from jail? What information do we have about him that can be trusted? There’s a wonderful biography written by a man named David Charvet that draws on sources including diaries. David’s book is the final word on Alexander’s story. Killing four men… I’m not sure that’s ever been proven. Tax evasion, there are public records as far as that kind of thing. Polyamorous lifestyle, there’s not much doubt about that. Certainly his theatrical successes are provable. His is a tantalizing story and a lot is verifiable. Can I prove he murdered people? No. Can I prove he was an opportunist? Yeah.
Why is Alexander: The Man Who Knows such a powerful poster? I think it’s the striking simplicity of the design. His eyes follow you. It leaves open a lot of room for interpretation. It’s tantalizing as a stand-alone object. It grabs your attention. It’s still doing its job more than 100 years later.
And I take it Alexander is best known today for these Alexander: The Man Who Knows posters, and not the substance of his act? 100 percent. No one knows who this guy was in the real world. His biography is great, but it was never on the best-seller list.
How involved would he have been in the design of this Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster? He was probably intimately involved. If he was so involved as to modify the name of the printer to something more theatrical, he was probably involved in the design.
Alexander modified the name of the printer to something more theatrical? All his posters bear the mark of Av Yaga, a phony printing company in Bombay. No one has been able to determine who printed the poster. He did it [invented Av Yaga] to deliberately create a mystic aura of the east around him.
To extend the illusion? Yeah. He’s a gringo, but he’s wearing a turban and pretending to be privy to the secrets of the ages. This guy’s life should be a movie.
This Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster is big–108 inches by 80 1/2 inches. Where would it have been displayed? On the side of a building. Probably more than one poster if the bill poster had space. I’ve often wanted to buy one of these to put it up on the side of a building.
I don’t see a blank band on the top or the bottom of the Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster to tell people the venue and the dates of his performance. How did local promoters tell people when and where Alexander would appear? Occasionally they would overprint the theater and the date on posters like this one. Or the theater and the date would be posted adjacent to it.
Usually, with desirable vintage posters, only a few examples survive in varying states of condition. I understand that’s not the case with Alexander posters. Could you explain what happened? When Alexander retired, he was still a relatively young man. He sold his entire show to a man, Robert Nelson. A truck showed up at Nelson’s house and he thought it was a done deal. Then a second truck showed up with unused posters. Reportedly, there were several tons of paper. For years, he was selling posters, and eventually, they found their way into the hands of poster dealers.
Was there only this red background style of Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, or were there others? There were many different varieties. There were probably more of the red one-sheet size than most others.
The one we’re discussing is the red eight-sheet version. How rare is that? It’s less common. I’ve only had two or three in 12 years.
What condition is it in? A. About as good as it gets for a poster this size.
Is it in better condition than the other examples you’ve handled? Actually, yes.
What is the Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster like in person? Almost overwhelming. Definitely hard to avoid. It’d be great in a bowling alley or a restaurant that has vibrant ambience. It’s kind of a traffic stopper.
Why will this poster stick in your memory? His life should be a movie. He was a bootlegger, a tax-evader, a bigamist, a mentalist, the list goes on and on. And it’s a great poster with a great aesthetic. Alexander understood how to sell the sizzle and the steak.
What you see: Afghan Girl, an image shot by American photographer Steve McCurry in 1984 of a 12- or 13-year-old girl later identified as Sharbat Gula. It appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic magazine. Skinner estimates a photographic print of the image at $7,000 to $9,000.
The expert: Robin S. R. Starr, director of American and European Works of Art at Skinner.
So let’s begin by talking about how this photo came to be–who shot it, how the photographer got the opportunity to shoot it, etc. Steve McCurry started out as a documentary photographer and a photojournalist. In the late 1970s, he was certainly known, but not with an uppercase K, for becoming the go-to guy photographing in the region on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And this particular photo arose from one of those assignments? In 1984, National Geographic wanted to put together a feature article on the growing number of refugees in the camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and they approached him to do it. In the process of touring one camp, Nasir Bagh, he was looking for a subject and overheard voices in a tent that was set up as a girls’ school. Sitting in the tent was a stunning girl with amazing green eyes. She was the oldest [student], off by herself, and shy. She was 12 years old.
How did Steve McCurry get the shot? He came into the tent, spoke to the teacher, and asked for permission to photograph the students. He wanted the girl because of her green eyes, which were so amazing, but he started with other students in hopes she would loosen up. The kids had never seen a camera before. It was all new to them.
Did McCurry know right away what he had, or did he only realize it later? He knew that intense look was something he was looking for, but it wasn’t until he went through the images back home that he realized how striking and amazing the photograph was.
And I understand that National Geographic nearly went with a different McCurry shot of the same sitter?National Geographic went back and forth on which shot to use–you can see the other, which is her holding her veil in front of her face. They realized this was so much more striking, they went with it instead on the cover.
Might part of the reason that Afghan Girl is so compelling is the sitter did not grow up with a camera, and had never seen a camera before? Sure, that was part of it. I certainly suspect she hadn’t seen a lot of white guys, and she was of an age when she [as a Muslim] was supposed to be covering up in front of strangers. She might have been uncomfortable uncovering for a foreigner with a strange contraption.
Steve McCurry has shot countless photographs. Is it fair to say that Afghan Girl is his best-known image? Absolutely. Absolutely. You may not know Steve McCurry, but you know this image.
Afghan Girl has been described as the “most recognized image” ever published by National Geographic. Can you talk about why that’s such a big deal? I mean, it’s the last survivor among the photo-driven magazines of the 20th century, such as Look and Life … That’s huge. I’m a big fan of National Geographic. I love the articles, and love learning about new places, new cultures, new things, but it’s the images. They’ve had some really phenomenal photographs over the years. They’re timeless.
Did McCurry make note of the sitter’s name at the time? No, he did not know her name. I don’t think he was in the tent for more than an hour.
How did he and National Geographic figure out who the Afghan girl was? After the September 11 attacks, National Geographic wanted to send a TV crew to find her.
Wait, how are the September 11 attacks relevant to National Geographic wanting to find her? Wouldn’t they have gotten enough questions from people asking who she was and them having to say “no idea” that they were moved to try to track her down? I think it was some of both. They wanted to know who she was, and Afghanistan was in the news again–do we attack? Do we not attack?
So National Geographic wanted to cover Afghanistan, and they saw the search for the Afghan girl as a way to approach the story. Exactly. In finding her, they could see what the Afghan people had been through.
How did they find her? McCurry knew which camp she had been in, and some of the camps were still there. Nasir Bagh still existed in 2002, but it was due to be demolished. The film crew went around with her picture, asking, “Do you know her?” A lot of people claimed to know her, and some claimed to be her. Finally somebody who had been associated with the camp said, “I know her brother.” They put the film crew in touch with the brother, who united them.
How did the Afghan Girl photo change the life of Steve McCurry? It put him on the map. I can’t imagine how it changed his life in terms of jobs, grants, and funding. Anybody can take a picture of the downtrodden, but to take it well, with humanity and dignity–that’s hard. Steve McCurry can do it. Not many people can.
How did the Afghan Girl photo change the life of Sharbat Gula? It didn’t affect her life much at all until she was told, 20 years later, that the image was world-famous. Then, all of a sudden, it changed her life. In the aftermath of the second meeting, Steve McCurry wanted to help her family. She lived in a really dangerous area on the Afghan-Pakistani border. He and National Geographic got medication for her, her husband, and her children, and paid for her and her husband to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. National Geographic also created a fund, the Afghan Girls Fund, that provided education to girls and women. Later it was changed to the Afghan Children’s Fund. I think it still exists.
When was the Afghan Girl image released as a fine photographic print? It’s an open edition [this means Afghan Girl prints are available now, and there’s no explicit limit on the total number that may be produced during McCurry’s lifetime]. I know some were printed in the late 1980s or early 1990s. There have been lots of printings.
So it appears fairly often at auction? If it doesn’t come up today, wait until tomorrow. I think Artnet has 115 results. It’s not rare, and it’s not getting more rare.
What’s the world auction record for an Afghan Girl print? It was a unique dye-bleach print made in 2012, measuring 33 by 22 inches–quite large. It was sold in 2012 at a Christie’s auction called The National Geographic Collection: The Art of Exploration. It brought $178,900.
Steve McCurry signed the Afghan Girl print you’re offering for sale. Does that matter? I would be concerned if it didn’t have a signature. It doesn’t make it more valuable, it makes it valid.
What’s the image like in person? Are there aspects of the photograph that don’t come across on a screen?And I imagine it has to be different from seeing it on a magazine cover. One thing is the scale, obviously. Looking at it at 20 inches tall is different than looking at it on a phone or a computer screen. It’s life size. When someone life size is staring directly at you, it’s compelling. You pick up on the flecks of white in her scarf, and get a sense of the depth of her hair. Also, some people who claimed to be her didn’t have the scar–she has a dark mark down the middle of her nose. [If you’re not looking at a large print of the image,] You don’t pick up on that otherwise.
In January 2019, Skinner sold an Afghan Girl print of the same size for $19,680 against an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. How does this example compare to that one? It’s very similar. They’re the same size, and both were signed on the back. More specifically, the provenance to it [the 2019 example] was from the Howard Greenberg Gallery. Outside of that, there’s not a lot of difference.
What makes Afghan Girl such a strong image? It’s such a perfect picture of a refugee. Her clothes are ragged, and there’s no obvious Hollywood smudge of dirt on her face, but she doesn’t look airbrushed. There’s a lot within those young eyes–her gaze is direct and unflinching, and a little frightened and curious. It’s such a riveting face. How could it not attract the attention of those who want to know what’s going on with the Afghan people? …No one image can sum up a moment. Some get pretty damn close. This is one of them. It’s beautiful and so striking. That’s why it speaks to so many people.
In particular, what makes Afghan Girl such a strong photographic portrait? There are so many emotions in her face. I think that’s it, in a nutshell. We don’t look at that face and say, “She’s angry, end of story”, or “she’s happy” or “she’s innocent”. That complexity of emotions is what makes people human and real. That striking, perceptive gaze makes her so present, and so real.
What you see: A Hand chair, covered in silver leaf and designed by Mexican artist Pedro Friedeberg. Shown further along in this story is a second Hand chair in unadorned mahogany. Both chairs date to circa 1965, both will be offered at Rago in the same auction, and each carries an estimate of $7,000 to $9,000.
The expert: Richard Wright, president of Wright auction house. [Rago and Wright merged in 2019.]
Who is Pedro Friedeberg, and why is his work still collected today? He’s a self-styled eccentric and a surrealist. I should say–I’ve never met him, and I’m not an expert on Pedro Friedeberg, but I’ve handled a good bit of his work and referenced his website and his statements. He comes off as a 21st century Dalí. He’s proudly eccentric. That seems to be his brand.
Would the Hand chair be Friedeberg’s best-known work? I think that’s fair to say. It’s his most widely produced.
Do we know how he came up with the idea of the Hand chair? I don’t know that, but to me, his art is all about… if you look at Surrealism, Salvador Dalí does the Lips sofa in the 1930s and reintroduces it in the 1960s. A bit of a Pop sensibility comes to Surrealism in the 1960s. There’s a body consciousness. The Hand is evocative. It draws on motifs that appear earlier in his work. You can make an art-historical case that there’s threads of it in Mexican fine art, in Frida Kahlo, and Catholic iconography.
Yeah, the Hand chair strikes me as having a sort of retablofeel to it. Exactly. I’m sure Friedeberg would tell a fantastical story of how the Hand chair came to be. He could be an unreliable narrator.
You said the Hand chair draws on motifs that appear earlier in Friedeberg’s work. Could you elaborate? He has a fine art practice [as well as his design work]. The same surrealistic elements are in his painting–hands that point. I’m sure he was working with the motif in two-dimensional art before it manifested as a chair.
How is the Hand chair produced? Is it mass-produced, or is it created in a more artisanal manner, like studio furniture? It’s all studio-produced in Mexico. It’s not widely distributed, but he’s worked within the art gallery system. It’s not true production furniture. [Hand chairs produced] while he is alive are considered original Pedro Friedeberg furniture.
On the Wikipedia page for Pedro Friedeberg, there’s a reference to maybe 5,000 Hand chairs having been produced since the design debuted in 1962. Is that accurate? I can’t imagine there are 5,000 of them. In reading things that he writes, you have to take everything with a large grain of salt.
Even throwing in the Hand-Foot variants, we don’t get to 5,000? Even so, I think, based on what comes up in a year, 5,000 is a lot to be circulating.
What number do you think is more likely, based on your gut feeling? I would say–and there are a lot of variations–half that number.
How many variations of the Hand chair are there? And is the Hand-Foot chair considered a Hand chair? It’s considered a form of the Hand chair. There’s the Hand chair in natural wood, and with silver or gold leaf. There are at least two Hand-Foot variations: a single foot, and a cluster of feet.
Do collectors clearly prefer any one variation over the others? I don’t think it’s that rigorous a collecting mentality. They buy them because they’re cool, and they make a statement in a room, rather than buying them as a significant investment in a serious work of art. I don’t know if there’s a clear hierarchy. Gold and silver leaf is an upgrade from the standard wood–that feels true to me. Visually, I think the silver and the gold are nicest. The silver is rarer than the gold. It’s up to you which one you find more interesting.
Both these chairs are undated, but both have a circa date of 1965. What clues point to a relatively early date for the two Hand chairs? There’s not a ton of info out there. You can’t just send them [Pedro Friedeberg and his studio] infomation. There’s not an archivist to help you. These dates are based on facts that come from the consigners.
From the look of his website, having an archivist would be antithetical to Pedro Friedeberg’s brand… That seems to be apparent to me. [Laughs] He’s a fine artist who doesn’t want to work within the system. Friedeberg’s work floats outside of that.
And these two Hand chairs are from two different consigners? Yes.
Why does it make sense to have two versions of the same chair, made around the same time? Is it because they’re just different enough from each other? That was the thinking. There’s enough depth and interest in the market to have two, a wood and a silver. And they are opposing–a left-handed example and a right-handed example. You can take the two and put them next to each other to form a settee.
The silver leaf Hand chair is signed by Friedeberg and the plain mahogany one is not. Does that matter at all? Again, it comes down to… people are not approaching it as a fine art purchase, but as a decorative art purchase. The wood one is unsigned, but we have the provenance, which guarantees it’s original. The silver is signed. Obviously, it’s nice to have it signed.
Why do the two different Hand chairs have the same estimate? The silver variation is the better chair. In giving them a $7,000 to $9,000 estimate, we didn’t bother making the distinction to say that the silver chair is slightly rarer, and signed. It’s a more pragmatic decision, to think of it as a Hand chair.
What condition are the Hand chairs in? And what issues do you tend to see with vintage Hand chairs? Both are in good condition, and in general, they actually tend to be in good condition. The worst that happens, with the leaf examples, is scratching to the leaf. Hand chairs are lightly used, and if they’re cared for at all, they’re in good shape.
Have you sat in a Hand chair? What is that like? The seat is deeply carved. It does have a contour to make it practical to sit in. It’s great for the Instagram era. It’s theatrical. It’s not uncomfortable to sit in, but I wouldn’t put a suite of Hand chairs around a conference table to conduct meetings. [Laughs]
So, comfortable, but only just? They’re functional chairs, but you don’t sit in them often, or for very long. You may perch on one to put on your shoes, but you won’t watch a movie in a Hand chair.
Is there any chance that the silver leaf Hand chair might take off like that record-setting gold leaf one did a little while ago? People buy these because they’re looking for a cool chair to make a statement. When Hand chairs do well, they’re bought by decorators or clients who use it as a punctuation mark in a room. [Whether a chair takes off at auction is] really driven by are there two people who really want that chair?
Has the Hand chair always been sought-after, or was there a time when it was considered unfashionable? It’s always been a chair that would garner your attention. It’s never been a chair that there’s no interest in. It’s pretty cool, but I think his market has risen and it looks better than it was in the 1990s. Friedeberg is well overdue for a proper retrospective. I’d love to see that happen while he’s alive, but I think it will be in the future. He fits in in an interesting way with the Surrealist Pop sensibility, and with motifs from Mexico. I think there’s a real story there.
So, right now, the Hand chairs are regarded as decorative art, not fine art. Is it possible in the years to come that general opinion might morph, and they might be seen as fine art? And if so, have you seen that sort of shift–first seen as decorative art, now seen as fine art–happen with other furnishings or fittings? I do believe Friedeberg’s work will be reassessed at some future date. As he is a fine artist, the chairs may be seen in that context, but as they also serve a function, they will always be in a middle ground. The sculptor Franz West made decorative art works that sit in that middle ground, and they are viewed in both ways. Scott Burton is another example. Future curators and scholars will decide.
Why does Pedro Friedeberg’s Hand chair design endure? How has it avoided being dated or dismissed as kitsch to remain collectible in the 21st century? I just think it’s visually cool. In its classic configuration with the pedestal base, it’s chic. You can mix it with several different types of decoration, and it fits in. It seems to accomplish walking the line between weird and chic.
How to bid: The silver leaf version of the Hand chair, which is left-handed, is lot 663 in Rago‘s Modern Design sale, scheduled for January 19, 2020. The right-handed mahogany version is lot 641.
What you see: Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems In Flea-Market America by Maureen Stanton. $17.00 (paperback), Penguin Books.
Does it fit in my purse? Yes.
Cut to the chase. Should I buy this book? Yes.
I like Curt Avery, though I haven’t met him. Or maybe I have, and I didn’t know it; Curt Avery is not his name. (He asked the author for anonymity, and she granted it.)
Avery is the center, the linchpin, the load-bearing wall of Killer Stuff. If Stanton chose wrong, the book would fall apart.
Stanton did not choose wrong. Killer Stuff kills.
It does this despite its obviously neutered title (it’s drawn from a quote by Avery that appears on page 257, and he didn’t say “stuff”) and despite tackling a topic the uninitiated regard as bloodless–the world of antiques.
By putting an exceptional human being at the center of her book, Stanton gets at the endless, grinding challenge of the hunt for killer stuff in a visceral way.
Having Avery as the focus allows her to weave in the obligatory bits of historical information and industry-specific terms into his story, seamlessly and painlessly.
We see Avery tested and challenged out in the wild, in auction sale rooms and antiques fairs, sometimes winning and sometimes not.
She shows how winning in the world of antiques is not just spotting a prize that others have overlooked, or getting to the right booth at the right time. It means passing on the golden-looking thing that you sense, in your gut, is not on the up-and-up.
She also manages to include Antiques Roadshow, the San Diego Comic-con, and the Brimfield Flea Market.
The great test comes at the end, when we say goodbye to Curt Avery, newly 50, in the year 2010. Do you want to know what happened next? I know I did. I still wonder about Curt Avery, and I still hope he’ll find the score of a lifetime.
Let’s start by discussing Phillip Lloyd Powell and why his work still speaks to us. It’s a complicated answer. The first is he’s part of the New Hope school, and the New Hope school is considered a very relevant school of design, which includes George Nakashima and Paul Evans. Two, Powell is really good. His idea of furniture design is singular. Three, he was very hands-on. Paul Evans made 35,000 pieces. George Nakashima, 35,000 to 40,000. Phillip Lloyd Powell, maybe 1,000. Of the three of them, it works to his detriment. It’s hard to create a market if there’s not much there. But when you buy a piece by Phillip Lloyd Powell, you buy something he had his hands on. With Powell, it was personal.
In what ways is this Powell fireplace typical of his output, and in what ways is it unusual? Powell’s gift with wood was to draw out drama in grain flow, knots, and the overall organic form and feel. He did this by carefully choosing where in the grain carving and shaping would occur. He started with an overall vision and worked a piece down to creating contrasts between honed and chipped carved surfaces, often on the very same board. That’s what’s typical here. What’s unusual here is the grandness of the gesture.
The grandness of the gesture? What I’d say is the scale of it. It’s big and imposing. It almost imitates the flames of the fire in the way he treats the wood.
Is this the only fireplace Powell made? He did stuff for fireplaces, such as mantels. A sculpted wall like this–it’s the only one I’ve seen.
What’s the story behind the Powell fireplace? Did he create it on commission, or did he make it on spec as a showpiece for his New Hope showroom? My understanding is it was an on-spec piece for the showroom, probably to show his chops as an artist.
The Powell fireplace looks very powerful to me. Almost masculine. It is, but the treatment of the wood is more delicate. It’s like a fire licking a fireplace. It’s more organic. It certainly defines the New Hope school of woodworking. George Nakashima let the wood speak. Phil had more of a hand in letting it talk.
What, if anything, do we know about how the Powell fireplace was made–how it was carved and sculpted? If Powell left no notes, what can we tell, just by looking, how challenging this would have been to make? From living artists that worked with Phil, such as Dorsey Reading and Charles Tiffany, we know that his most important tools were custom-made pneumatic chisels. An automotive-use air chisel was modified and specially shaped to make deep gauges in small areas. To finish off roughly chiseled surfaces, semi-flexible shapes of rubber and foam were cut out of larger sheets and used as backing for sanding wood smooth.
Is this Powell fireplace made from a single piece of wood, or is it made from several pieces that have been joined? It’s made from a number of slabs of American black walnut. There was a few sources for the lumber. Traveling salesmen would sell lumber to artists like George Nakashima. Powell would get the pieces most others didn’t buy or want because they were too irregular for conventional use. Powell also used to source similar boards from a mill in Plumsteadville, Pennsylvania.
How did Powell fireproof the fireplace? I’m guessing that the fire itself is set far enough back. It was in fabulous condition–no indication even of it being dried out by fire.
How does the Powell fireplace show his mastery? He used wood, and he used great wood. The scale of the piece shows his capacity to sculpt. This is on a grand scale and gives him a lot of room to roam with his particular talents and his particular eye. You can see it as mirroring the fire in the fireplace, the sensuous, organic movement to it.
I see that the Powell fireplace lacks a mantel, or a shelf to put things on. I suspect this was a deliberate choice by the artist… Exactly. We can only guess, but why interrupt that? Leave it alone. Just leave it be.
I realize you last handled the Powell fireplace in 2008, but could you tell me what it was like in person? Are there aspects of the piece that the image doesn’t quite get across? I can remember what it looks like in person because it’s out on display at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It has a presence to it. I’ve seen hundreds of pieces of his work. Powell was on that day. Though it is large, it’s more captivating than imposing, like the scale is ameliorated by the treatment of the wood and the overall design, curvaceous sculpting that unifies all the elements of it.
The provenance of the Powell fireplace includes Dorsey Reading, a noted craftsman who worked with Paul Evans. How did that enhance its interest to collectors? It’s nice to know it was a bench-made piece, made to spec to show off his chops, but the authorship was never in doubt. Pieces like this are so self-explanatory. If you understand organic mid-century woodworking–if you’re into that–this thing’ll talk to you.
What do you recall of the auction? We knew the piece was going to do well. We knew there was institutional interest [interest from museums]. There was a buzz before the sale.
The sale took place in April 2008. Powell passed away in March 2008. Might the timing of his death have helped push the fireplace to a record auction result? It’s certainly possible, though I think the fireplace stood on its own merits well enough. The Michener Art Museum needed a stellar example of his work, and I’m confident they’d have chased it in any case.
Were you surprised that the Powell fireplace set a world auction record for the artist? I think I was a bit surprised, but that says more about my lack of knowledge of the material at the time. And fireplaces are not easy to sell. It’s a site-specific object. They usually don’t go well.
Are you surprised the Powell fireplace still holds the record, eleven years later? No. No. Of the thousand or so things he made, I’ve personally seen 400 or 500. I’ve had others that are special. This is the best of them. My guess is if it sold now, it would bring more.
Even though it’s a fireplace, and comes with the issues fireplaces pose? Yes.
Do pieces that Powell made to wow people in his showroom tend to sell better at auction than those he did on commission? I don’t know. I don’t know how many he made on spec for the showroom. I would say it’s a small percentage. I didn’t know the fireplace was on spec until I got it from Dorsey Reading, who was there at the time. But those guys didn’t keep records. The showroom was open on Saturdays from 9 pm to midnight, after the Bucks County Playhouse got out. They were artists during the 1960s. They were having fun, doing their thing. It was very slapdash.
Why does this Powell fireplace stick in your memory? I’m something of an expert on Phillip Lloyd Powell. I’ve been selling Powell’s work since the 1990s, and I’ve handled many pieces. I really do think I’ve seen more of Powell’s work than anybody. This is the best I’ve come across. It’s not one of the best, it’s the one.
The expert: Caitlin Donovan, vice president, head of sale auction and private sales for handbags and accessories at Christie’s New York.
Why does Hermès dominate the secondary market for handbags? Hermès dominates the market because they created supply and demand, based on how difficult it is to get pieces on the primary market. People have to come to the secondary market to buy bags because they can’t walk into a store and buy them.
And why, among Hermès handbags, does the Birkin dominate so completely? The Hermès Birkin and the Hermès Kelly, both those two are in the lead. Again, it has to do with exclusivity. They’re released in limited numbers. The Kelly sells for a little bit less on the retail market, but both are exclusive and sell for comparable premiums on the secondary market.
How many Hermès Birkins does Hermès make in a given year? There are no definitive numbers.
How often does Hermès make the particular type of Birkin that holds the world auction record? Again, there are no definitive numbers. I, as a handbag specialist, might see a couple a year.
The record-breaking Hermès Birkin is described as being matte white in color. The two previous record-holders were also matte white. Is that a coincidence? If not, why are collectors so keen on matte white Hermès Birkins? They’re matte white, but they’re Himalaya. It’s [the subtle matte white coloration of the bag requires] a technical dyeing process that only very skilled craftspeople can produce. It’s dyed in degrees that most resemble the [colors of the] top of the Himalaya mountains. It’s the rarest, most exclusive bag, and Hermès is said to be not producing it anymore. If you want it, you have to go to the secondary market.
So, Hermès might have stopped making the matte white Himalaya Birkins? It could also be that Hermès is very controlled in its release of inventory. They pride themselves on [creating] wearable works of art. They make sure not to flood the market with pieces.
What does “Niloticus” mean in this context? Does it describe the type of crocodile leather used for the record-breaking Hermès Birkin? Yes, it’s the crocodile skin used to make it. Up to now, Hermès uses Niloticus or Porosos crocodile skin, but the finest is Niloticus.
Why is Niloticus considered the finer of the two? It probably has something to do with the dyeing process. Porosos has holes in the scales, little breathing holes that are noticeable. Niloticus scales are more even in size and symmetric.
The record-breaking Hermès Birkin has a “30” in its description. What does the number mean in this context? It indicates the size. Common sizes are 25, 30, 35, and 40. Smaller pieces are on trend. Collectors in Asia and the Far East favor smaller pieces.
How did the presence of 18k white gold and diamond hardware affect the auction performance of therecord-breaking Hermès Birkin? Majorly, as you can imagine. They make the piece more elusive and valuable.
The lot notes for the record-breaking Hermès Birkin say it earned Condition Grade 1. What does that mean here? Our bags are graded on a scale of one to five. At auction, most fall within the range of one to three. One is exactly the same condition as if it was purchased from the store. Collectors want this condition. They don’t want signs of use.
So an Hermès Birkinthat earnsCondition Grade 1 is still in its original box, with all its accoutrements, and the packaging still in place? Correct.
And if an otherwise great Hermès Birkin was missing any of its accoutrements…? It would be affected, but it depends on the preferences of the person who buys it.
Have you seen the record-breaking Hermès Birkin in person? Yes. I was there in Hong Kong for both [the May 2017 record and the November 2017 record].It’s beautiful. You understand the craftsmanship in the bag when you see it in person.
And the only difference between the Hermès Birkin Himalaya that broke the record in May 2017 and the Hermès Birkin Himalaya that broke the record in November 2017 is the years in which each was made? Yes, that’s the only difference.
What was it like to see the auction handbag record break twice in the space of a year? In Hong Kong, the energy in the room is fabulous. Handbags are a new collecting category, and setting records is integral to building the category. It’s exciting and emotional to see records broken.
Does the Hong Kong saleroom have its own unique energy? Yes. New York, Geneva, and London have different energy. That said, a full sale room is a full sale room. There are different types of collectors in each area.
Why do you think the world auction record for a handbag broke twice in 2017? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we started the department in 2014 and it took a few years for it to get established at Christie’s. By 2017, we were three years into auctions, and we’d built a client base.
What was your role in the November 2017 record-breaking Hermès Birkin auction? Were you on the phone with a client? Yes.
Was the winning bidder in the room? I can’t say who the buyer was, but there was definitely competitive bidding in the room.
Since November 2017, the auction record for a handbag has remained stable after a few years during which it turned over fairly constantly. Why do you think things are seemingly less intense now? A bag hasn’t come up to this degree [a bag that rivals the record-holder], but I wouldn’t be surprised if something comes up this season. The record is ready to be broken at any time.
When do you think we’ll see a Hermès Kelly become the most expensive handbag at auction? I’d love to see our record get challenged. A Kelly or another could break the record. I would love that, to be honest.
Would a potential record-breaking Hermès Kelly have to be similar in style to the record-breaking Hermès Birkin, do you think? A Hermès Kelly in 18k gold and diamond hardware in Himalaya white could break the record. I don’t know if it exists, but if it does, it could break the record.
Why does this record-breaking Hermès Birkin stick in your memory? These pieces are wearable works of art. Even when you see bags all day long, when you’re around a piece as beautiful as this, you appreciate it.
Which stories did readers of The Hot Bid enjoy and share the most in 2019? Counting down, from ten to one, they are…
10. Cat Fancy, an original piece of Edward Gorey cover art for The New Yorker. Offered at Swann Auction Galleries with an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000, it sold for $16,250. Christine von der Linn, Swann’s specialist in art books and original illustration, said, “It draws you in… Part of its enchantment is that you find yourself, like the cats, getting lost in that big, soft bed.”
9. An Andrew Clemens sand bottle with a patriotic theme. Created in 1887, the bottle rocketed past its estimate of $35,000 to $45,000 to sell for $102,000 at Cowan’s Auctions. Auction house founder Wes Cowan called it “an outstanding example of [Clemens’s] late period work, but he didn’t make any crappy examples… He was recognized as a genius then and now. Anyone who holds a bottle in their hands is flabbergasted.”
8. A Malling-Hansen writing ball, an example of the first commercial typewriter. Auction Team Breker assigned this circa 1870s device, created by Danish pastor Rasmus Malling-Hansen, an estimate of €70,000 to €90,000 ($78,000 to $100,000) and sold it for €100,000 (about $111,600). Nick Hawkins, speaking on behalf of auction house founder Uwe Breker, said, “One of the things that’s remarkable about the design is it’s very organic, the curvature of the top and the keys… [Malling-Hansen’s] machine was really revolutionary when you look back on it now. It was almost too modern for its time.”
5. Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, a portrait painted by American folk artist Ammi Phillips circa 1830-1835. Estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million, it sold at Christie’s New York for $1.69 million and a new world auction record for Phillips. John Hays, deputy chairman of Christie’s Americas, said of the painting, “It captures the essence of what folk art collectors want and what they look for. It’s hard to define it in words, but it has a universality to it. It’s just riveting, and kind of mesmerizing. You say, ‘God, he gets it.’”
4. Original artwork for page 33 of the Volume 2, Number 14 issue of The Sandman, which was released in March 1990. Hake’s estimated it at $5,000 to $10,000. It ultimately sold for $14,278 and a new world auction record for artwork from the original series of The Sandman. “As much as The Sandman was about the writing, the artwork is spectacular,” said Hake’s President Alex Winter. “With comic books, sometimes the art is great but the story is just ok, or the art is just ok but the story is great. With this, all 75 issues plus the special are great. It never jumped the shark. I’m a lifelong comic book geek. If someone came in and asked me, ‘What should I read?’ I’d hand them The Sandman.”
3. An 18-karat gold French quarter-repeating pocket watch that once belonged to Edgar Allan Poe. Christie’s gave it an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 and sold it for the stunning price of $250,000. Heather Weintraub, associate specialist in books, manuscripts, and archives at Christie’s New York, talked about what it was like to hold the watch: “I have held it. It has a nice weight to it. It’s wonderful to be able to hold something from the 1840s that Poe may have held. It’s one of the reasons to love this job.”
1.The Mirror of Paradise, a 52.58-carat Golconda diamond set in a ring. It carried an estimate of $7 million to $10 million and sold for $6.5 million at Christie’s New York. Daphne Lingon, head of jewelry for Christie’s Americas, enjoyed the privilege of wearing the ring. “It was a bit breathtaking to try it on. It’s an exceptional stone,” she said, adding, “One of the perks, or requirements, of the job is actually trying jewelry on, because a lot of clients aren’t able to see it in person. Being able to handle and interact with the pieces gives a better sense of what they’re like. They’re not just objects–they’re worn.”
Most lots chosen to appear on The Hot Bid go on to find buyers. Here are the ten that commanded the highest sums in 2019.
10. Finding the Buffalo, a 1988 oil on canvas by Howard Terpning. Bonhams estimated it at $300,000 to $500,000 and sold it for $425,075. In discussing Howard Terpning’s appeal, Aaron Bastian, specialist in Bonhams’s California and Western art department, said, “It’s not just that any one painting is spectacular, it’s consistent quality over the decades. I think that’s why the value is what we see. They’re so well-planned that you don’t see bad Howard Terpnings. They don’t make it onto the market. They fall apart earlier in the process.”
9. An oil on panel portrait of the artist John Singer Sargent, painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1890. It carried an estimate of £200,000 to £300,000 ($261,800 to $391,200), and fetched £371,250, or about $494,000, at Christie’s London. Veronica Scarpati, specialist at Christie’s London, said of the work, “What I love about it is you can see the board [the panel] coming through, especially on the edges. It doesn’t appear to be a commission, or a study. It’s an artist at play, looking up to and admiring [his friend]. That’s why it’s so special. It’s frank and intimate.”
8. Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas from the late Kenneth Noland. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimated the painting at $100,000 to $150,000 and sold it for $550,000. “It’s vibrant. It’s really quite impressive. It’s in flawless condition, which is always nice,” said Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA, adding, “It almost vibrates right in front of your eyes. It’s not subtle like some of his chevrons. This is really bold, and pops out.”
7. A 1543 copy of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, libri V [On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres], by Nicolaus Copernicus, the first scientific work to place the sun at the center of the heavens, rather than the Earth. Estimated at £500,000 to £700,000, or $633,000 to $886,200, it sold at Christie’s London for £587,250, or roughly $734,569. Barbara Scalvini, expert specialist in the book and manuscript department at Christie’s, spoke of the sensation of handling the landmark book: “To me, one of the most affecting parts of the book is the illustration of the concentric circles of the planets around the sun. You can see the earth, a little dot emphasized with a circle, that says we humans are not the center of the universe, but an accident on the periphery.”
6. COMPOSITION, a porcelain enamel panel commissioned from Roy Lichtenstein in 1969. [Note: It’s shown here upside-down, which is how the person who commissioned it displayed it in his home.] Sotheby’s estimated it at $900,000 to $1.2 million. It commanded $1.28 million, just a bit more than its high estimate. “It’s impressive. It holds its own in our gallery. It pulls you in,” said Nicole Schloss, Head of Sotheby’s day auctions of Contemporary art in New York, adding, “Your eye wants to follow the curve of the rainbow. It’s really an exciting work to see in the flesh. It’s much brighter than it looks in the illustration. It’s quite vibrant.”
5. Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, a circa 1830-1835 portrait by American folk artist Ammi Phillips. Estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million, it sold at Christie’s New York for $1.69 million and a new world auction record for the artist. In explaining why Phillips’s portraits of children fetch the highest prices for the artist at auction, John Hays, deputy chairman, Christie’s Americas, said, “Phillips is at his best with children because there were no rules [for painting them]. A lot of Phillips works are dour. Some of his sitters are ministers and older people with bibles in their laps. With children, he captures the spirit of young America. That’s where he hits the home run, and that’s why there’s a huge price difference with the artist. Depicting a child evokes much more.”
4. Original, first-generation NASA videotape recordings of the Apollo 11 moon walk and subsequent events. Sotheby’s estimated the three reels of tape at $1 million to $2 million. They sold for $1.8 million. Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s, viewed the tapes in the process of preparing them for sale, and was surprised by the emotions that the familiar images evoked. “When I watched the tapes, I was surprised, because I started tearing up. The engineer spooling the tapes started tearing up. His wife started tearing up. It has such an impact on people. I’ve sold a lot of cool things that flew to the moon, but this represents what all that effort was for. This is the primary witness to the moment we worked for. It really is representative of man’s greatest achievement. It’s the original artifact from the agency that made it possible. It all comes back to the moments captured on these tapes.”
3. The Mirror of Paradise, a 52.58-carat Golconda diamond set in a ring. Estimated at $7 million to $10 million, it commanded $6.5 million at Christie’s New York. In discussing why the precious stone has a rectangular cut, Daphne Lingon, head of jewelry for Christie’s Americas, said, “The rough would have dictated what shape it is. You can find Golcondas in all shapes. The cut of the Mirror of Paradise is so spectacular. It gives it a brilliance you don’t often find in an emerald cut.”
2. A double elephant folio version of The Birds of America by John James Audubon. Sotheby’s estimated the copy of the legendary book at $6 million to $8 million. It sold for $6.6 million in a single-lot auction. Selby Kiffer, senior vice president and international senior books specialist for Sotheby’s New York, said of the American flamingo plate shown above, “It’s the encapsulation of Audubon’s achievement in a single plate. He took an enormous, wonderful scarlet bird and gets it in there without looking unnatural or awkward. And he throws in anatomical details at the top, which he very seldom does. It’s a great combination of artistry, science, and the personal observation behind the artistry.”
1. Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape, a life-size oil on canvas painted in 1788 by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. Sotheby’s New York estimated it at $4 million to $6 million. It sold for almost $7.2 million–a record for the artist, and a record for any female artist of the pre-modern era. “[Vigée Le Brun] was a brilliant painter and a brilliant portraitist, able to capture the subject with a sense of knowing them,” said Calvine Harvey, specialist and vice president in the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s, adding, “I think her early training as a pastelist shows a sense of softness and light that comes from the pastel medium. Her social skills were advanced, and she used them to her advantage to get the sittings she got and to draw out her sitters. She studied them and knew who they were, and she focused on them.”
Most lots showcased on The Hot Bid do well at auction. Some perform exceptionally well. Here are all the lots featured on The Hot Bid that went on to set a world auction record in 2019.
Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, painted between 1830 and 1835 by American folk artist Ammi Phillips. Estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million, it sold at Christie’s New York for just under $1.7 million and a world auction record for the artist. In explaining what makes the winsome portrait distinctly American, John Hays, deputy chairman, Christie’s Americas, said, “Every country has its folk art, painted by people who didn’t go to the national academy. What makes it quintessentially American is he was painting Americans–successful sitters who were documenting their lives. The other aspect that makes it quintessentially American is [the notion that] time is money. The quicker he was able to render a portrait, the quicker he was on his way.”
Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape, a life-size oil on canvas painted in 1788 by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. Sotheby’s estimated it at $4 million to $6 million, and it sold for almost $7.2 million. It set two world auction records: One for Vigée Le Brun, and another for any female artist of the pre-modern era. In discussing how Vigée Le Brun captured the sitter’s ferocity, Calvine Harvey, specialist and vice president in the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s, said, “It’s the look on his face, but a lot of it is the pose. It’s amazing to me, the masculine power–“Let me hold a large sharp sword”–but the sword has beautiful detailed carving. It’s a work of art in itself. There’s a balance to the sense of power that comes from the sword, the pose, and the look.”
Let Me Off Uptown, an 80 inch by 78 7/8 inch work by African-American artist Emma Amos that incorporates several media, including oil and photo transfer on linen canvas, metallic paint, glitter, collage, and African fabric borders. Estimated at $40,000 to $60,000, it sold at Swann Auction Galleries for $125,000 and a world auction record for Amos. Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department, said of the piece, “It’s a really strong image of a dancing couple, but as you look at it, little details show her sense of humor and intelligence. Look at her [the main female figure’s] dress. The bodice is covered with smiling lips. [laughs] It’s a cheeky, fun thing. You don’t notice it at first, and it’s all very seamless. She really integrates everything well. It comes from her great sense of material–from her fabric and printmaking and painting, which she brings together in works from the 1990s and 2000s.”
A U.S first state “Butcher” album prototype, stereo example, of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today, which was owned by John Lennon, who inscribed and dated it and drew a sketch on the back cover. A subsequent owner of the album obtained signatures from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Julien’s Auctions estimated it at $160,000 to $180,000. It fetched $234,400–a record for a Beatles “Butcher” album. It left Lennon’s possession when he traded it for a Beatles bootleg. Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, explained why the exchange made sense to the musician: “Lennon surely thought that getting his hands on the recording was more important to him at the time. He could get another album cover on his wall if he still needed it. Morrell [Dave Morrell, the other party involved in the swap] was not interested in monetary value. He in turn got something he wanted.”
Children on Cycles, a circa 1961 painting by Nigerian artist Demas Nwoko. Estimated at $70,000 to $100,000, it sold for $225,075 at Bonhams New York–a new world auction record for Demas Nwoko, and more than double his previous record. The painting had been purchased in Nigeria and had been stashed under a bed in Boston for five decades when Giles Peppiatt, head of African art at Bonhams, learned of its existence. “I was just sent this image by the Bonhams representative in Boston. It came from the son of the collector. It had been under a bed,” he says, recalling. “We knew the collector had been in Nigeria in the 1960s. They asked, ‘What about this, is it special?’ I said it was very special indeed. It’s nice to liberate it from its dusty lair under the bed.”
A 1935 Negro League baseball broadside, picturing six of the eight active teams of the time. Hake’s Auctions estimated it at $10,000 to $20,000 and sold it for $8,850, a world auction record for this particular piece of baseball ephemera. Philip Garry III, Hake’s sports consultant, talking about what the piece is like in person, said, “It’s big. It’s 22 inches by 28 inches. A very imposing piece. The clarity is excellent, compared to team photos and other broadsides. The images are so good, you can identify all the people on there. It’s just a great item. If you’re going to have one piece, this is the one to have. It has so much going for it.”
Original artwork for page 33 of the Volume 2, Number 14 issue of The Sandman, which was released in March 1990. Hake’s estimated it at $5,000 to $10,000. It commanded $14,278 and a new record for artwork from the original series of the legendary comic book. “The Sandman is a very tough series to describe. It’s very deep, very literate,” says Alex Winter, president of Hake’s, adding, “It won awards that no comic book had won before. It’s on another level in many different ways. There might have been stand-alone issues, but most were multi-story arc issues, with three to four [storylines] in an issue. Some comic books can be summed up as ‘Batman beats Superman.’ With The Sandman, you can’t say that.”
Original, first-generation NASA videotape recordings of the Apollo 11 moon walk and subsequent events. Sotheby’s estimated the three reels of tape at $1 million to $2 million, and sold them for $1.8 million, a record for vintage videotape. Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s, said of the group, “Everything about these tapes is original, untouched, and unenhanced. I sat and watched every second of every reel. It’s exactly what mission control saw as it was happening.”
Seated Woman, a 1962 sculpture in mahogany by Elizabeth Catlett. Estimated at $100,000 to $150,000, Swann Auction Galleries sold it for $389,000 and a world auction record for the artist. Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department, described the sculpture as having “a beautiful surface. It is a thing people want to handle. It stands about two feet tall. It’s larger than its size–it’s got a bigger presence. It’s got a certain heft and weight to it. You’re drawn to it. It’s very attractive.”
This is a two-fer of sorts. An unpainted Boba Fett rocket-launching prototype crossed the six-figure threshold at Hake’s in July 2019, setting a new world auction record for any Star Wars action figure. Five months later, a fully painted Boba Fett rocket-launching prototype sold for $185,850. In explaining why the Kenner toy company fabricated more than one Boba Fett prototype, Hake’s President Alex Winter said, “Prototypes for action figures are much more layered than for other things. They go through various stages, various color treatments. That’s why there’s so many Boba Fett prototypes. Only a handful have been at auction. It’s still fairly uncommon for them to come up. We happen to have had the luxury of two back to back [in March 2018 and July 2019], and one coming up [in November 2019].”
Medicine Man, an undated painting by the late Native American artist Oscar Howe. The Santa Fe Art Auction estimated it at $25,000 to $35,000 and sold it for $25,000, which represents a world auction record for Howe. Gillian Blitch, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Art Auction, said, “It’s not abstract art in the way that Braques or Picassos were. It was about animating the figure so you’d understand what’s going on. [Howe] rejected any notion that his work was derivative of Cubism. That’s not what he was doing. In Medicine Man, the subject remains intact, unlike in Cubism, where the figures are fragmented and reorganized.”
The expert: Saara Pritchard, senior specialist in Sotheby’s Contemporary art department in New York.
Why was this painting chosen to lead the By Women, For Tomorrow’s Women sale in March 2019? Sotheby’s photographed Oprah Winfrey, collector Agnes Gund, and others in front of it. The auction featured a strong lineup of works. Why does Blanco y Verde earn that treatment? I think this painting would stand out in almost any group of works. It’s incredibly rare to have a work of this scale and caliber come to auction at all. I think it would have achieved the world auction record for the artist in any auction for its rarity, its exceptional provenance, and its status as a truly iconic work by the artist. It doesn’t get better.
Could we talk a bit about Carmen Herrera and her contributions to art? She trained as an architect when she was much younger. She moved between Europe and New York and was friends with important painters, including Ellsworth Kelly. She pursued an interest in minimal geometric abstraction before Kelly and Frank Stella got into it.
Herrera was born in 1915. Is she still painting? Yes. She is still making new work, with a studio assistant to help her build compositions.
Herrera has said she regards her Blanco y Verde series as her most important. Do you agree? What makes it important? Because she started her career training as an architect, she’s said she paints with her brain, not her heart. She investigates color relationships, pairing one color with another to create her desired effect. She pursued the relationship between white and green for over a decade. And Blanco y Verde generally and this painting in particular inspired her to pursue sculpture–she started thinking about the 3-D nature of her work. Her first sculpture, from 1971, has the same composition as the work in the auction. It has the same one-two-three diagonal, the same horizontal format, and a similar scale. The green areas are negative spaces in the sculptural work. This form and this composition became very iconic. That’s why she believes Blanco y Verde is important.
The painting measures 40 by 70. Is that a typical size for her work, and for the Blanco y Verde series? This is among the larger of her canvas compositions, but not the largest. It might be the largest of any to come to auction.
Do we know how many works there are in the Blanco y Verde series? I don’t know, but she did them over the course of 13 years, and there were nine in the Whitney show. [The Whitney Museum of American Art presented Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight in late 2016 and early 2017.]
Do we know how many paintings from the series have come to auction? I think only two have come up in recent years.
When did the secondary market for Herrera works begin? It’s much more recent. I think it didn’t have a presence until the Whitney show.
What is Blanco y Verde like in person? There’s a clear distinction in how she layers different components of the paint, creating a contrast between the green and the white. It does create a sculptural quality. It’s certainly not a uniform surface. The green is the window through, like an opening, and the white is like architecture. And because there’s so many different diagonals, there’s a sense of movement as the diagonals meet and join.
What was your role in the auction? I was helping the school [Miss Porter’s School, the beneficiary of the sale] get works for consignment, and working with collectors who ended up bidding on the painting. Several were familiar with Herrera’s work, and some were completely new to her work and were captivated by it in the view [the preview show]. We had five bidders on the day of the sale. It came down to two when it was over $2 million. I think the buyer and the underbidder were sitting in the room.
That’s unusual. It was very special. Agnes Gund [the collector who consigned Blanco y Verde] was thrilled with the result, obviously.
How did the provenance of the work influence the final price, if at all? It certainly didn’t hurt. Agnes Gund has a great eye, and she’s a very deeply committed collector. If you acquire a painting she owned, it’s probably the best work by the artist there is.
The auction was designed to benefit Miss Porter’s School, a private girls’ school in Connecticut. Did that influence the bidding? I don’t think so. People close to the cause–people who were alumnae, people who were involved in the auction did bid on lower-value work, but that wasn’t the case with this painting. It was bid on by five of the best collectors in the world.
It sold for $2.9 million. Were you surprised? No. I was prepared for more, but thrilled with the result.
How long do you think this record for Carmen Herrera will stand? What else is out there that could challenge it? I’m not sure you’ll see a price quite this high at auction. Not too many Carmen Herreras are better than this one. I think the big public auction prices help the primary market [sales by Herrera’s gallery], and it sure helps spread her name, making her better-known among the collecting community. That’s the importance of a sale like this, especially since she’s still making work.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? Anything that’s the best of its kind is harder to forget. A lot of good will was created by the sale, and it was history-making as well–the first all-female artist auction. I’ll never forget it. Not every day do you get to have dinner with Oprah and Agnes Gund.
During the holidays, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.
What you see: A Ludwig oyster black pearl three-piece drum kit that Ringo Starr played on stage and television, with the Beatles, in the early 1960s. Estimated at $300,000 to $500,000, it sold at Julien’s for $2.1 million–a world auction record for any drum kit.
The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.
So, is Ringo Starr pretty much the whole of the market for stage-played drum kits? Does he dominate the category in the same way that Muhammad Ali dominates boxing collectibles, and the way Harry Houdini dominates magic memorabilia? Absolutely. Ringo Starr is the most famous drummer in the world. He’s the Holy Grail when it comes to drummers.
Does it matter that this is a Ludwig brand drum kit? Does it have any inherent value, apart from the Ringo Starr provenance? The real impact on the value and the record sale price is it was Ringo Starr’s. The Beatles helped make Ludwig famous. [The brand] became synonymous with the Beatles and Ringo Starr. There’s no intrinsic value. The value is in Ringo Starr, and that he used it.
Could you talk about how Starr came to choose this kit? Starr had a four-piece Mahogany Duroplastic 4-piece Premier kit [that was worn out]. In April 1963, Ringo Starr and Brian Epstein [the Beatles’ manager at the time] went into a store in London called Drum City Limited. He remembers seeing the Ludwig kit in the window and saying to Brian, “Oh, great, look at this kit!” That’s what it was.
I understand the drum head, which shows the Beatles logo, is a later remake. What happened to the original drum head? The kit was borrowed by Paul McCartney for many performances in the 1970s and 1980s. When he returned it to Ringo, it was returned without the drum head. Paul, according to Ringo, has it framed on a wall in his home.
I understand the Ludwig drum kit is not complete–Starr kept the snare drum. Do we know why? It’s easier to transport and keep with him. He’s used it for very many other performances. He’s quite attached to it, and couldn’t see himself letting it go. He still has it, and Ringo Starr is still performing.
Wow. He’s almost 80, isn’t he? He looks amazing, and has so much energy. He’s an inspiration.
Ludwig made this kit just before it started putting serial numbers on its instruments. Does that matter? Or are there so many photos and films and other things that document Ringo Starr playing this drum kit that it doesn’t matter? It could be a concern, excluding the fact that it comes from Ringo Starr, and the provenance is 100 percent. Ringo helped Ludwig become famous. It skyrocketed them to fame when the Beatles started using this kit. We did a film of Ringo playing the kit and talking about it. If Ringo wasn’t here to talk about it, it could be an issue, but there are so many photos and videos of Ringo playing the kit that there’s no doubt.
Did you play these drums at any point before the 2015 auction? I definitely sat on the seat he sat on and played the hell out of those drums. [Laughs] It was phenomenal to sit there behind such an iconic drum kit and hold drumsticks and play. I got goosebumps. I have the best job in the world.
Was Ringo Starr there when you played? No!
That would be intimidating. Very intimidating. I’m not a musician, but I was drawn to it and to sit there and go, “Wow.” Ringo was fully involved with the project. He and Barbara [Bach, Starr’s wife] came to the gallery many, many times, identifying objects, telling stories. It was really cool.
I got the impression at the time that Starr was more involved than most celebrities choose to be. Is that accurate? In your experience, have any other celebrities of his stature been as involved in their sales? I’d say no. He and Barbara were unique. It was really important for them to get it right–get it all documented and recorded accurately. In a way, it was cathartic for them, letting go. Their level of involvement was truly hands-on.
Where does this drum kit rank in the pantheon of Beatles-played instruments? Were any others used at both the Cavern Club and the Ed Sullivan show, as this one was? Paul McCartney has a Hofner bass guitar that would be really important if it ever came to auction. We sold John Lennon’s 1962 Gibson, which was a record for an acoustic guitar. That was from the early days of the Beatles as well. The drum kit is certainly really important. It’s very historic and extremely well-documented. It was bought by a collector in Indiana.
I would have thought that Ludwig would have gone for it. There was great interest in it. The winner was Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts. He’s a huge collector. It was important to him.
After the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, Starr stopped playing this drum kit. Do we know why he stopped then–why he didn’t play those drums for the other Ed Sullivan appearances? We have no idea about that, and I haven’t had a chance to talk to Ringo to verify that. There was obviously a good reason for it. Sound was so important to them. Maybe the new setting–a studio with a live audience–was the thinking behind that.
As you said earlier, Paul McCartney played this drum kit, too. How did that factor into its value? It definitely was a factor. There are photos of Paul McCartney playing it, and Ringo Starr playing it–a double whammy. It definitely impacted the price.
I see in the lot notes that Starr has, or had, five drum kits. Was this the only one of the five consigned to the 2015 auction? The other four were not in the sale, correct. He may have earmarked them for his children.
Do we know why he chose this one for auction? It’s certainly one that’s very historic, and it’s in its entirety, apart from the snare drum and the missing drum head. Maybe it’s because he was away from it when he loaned it to Paul for the 1970s and 1980s. Maybe it was easier to let go. But these instruments are really important. [Musicians] talk about guitars and drum kits like it’s a baby. It’s amazing how they remember these items and become attached to them.
So Starr found it difficult to sell? Yeah, yeah. He played it, he’s associated with it, he stored it and kept it for so long. He loaned it to the Grammy museum, and after that he decided to let it go, but it was definitely hard for him to let go.
How did you come up with the $300,000 to $500,000 estimate? By looking at sales of other Beatles-played instruments? Exactly, other Beatles instruments. We thought $300,000 to $500,000 was appropriate. We hoped it would break a million. We could never dream of breaking two million.
What was your role in the auction of the Ringo Starr drum kit? We had a crowded room. I was on a phone with a client–the underbidder. The winner had a representative in the room, and ultimately, he won out.
What do you recall of the sale of the Ringo Starr drum kit? There was great excitement, great buildup, great hype. There were hundreds of thousands of people watching online. Then it came to the drum kit and there was silence. We got to half a million, which was the record for a drum kit. Then $750,000. Then we broke a million. It moved very quickly between one million and two million. It was electric, it was tense, it was exciting.
So you were surprised by the final price of the Ringo Starr drum kit? We had hoped it could break a million and set a world record. Breaking two million was one of those moments when I know exactly where I was. My client couldn’t go any further, so it went to Jim Irsay.
Was Ringo Starr in the room? He was not there, but he was watching online.
What was his reaction to the sale of the Ringo Starr drum kit? He was very pleasantly surprised. It hadn’t been done before. How do you surprise a Beatle? He’s seen everything and done everything. He was really chuffed at the result.
How long do you think this record will stand? I imagine it’d be another Ringo Starr drum kit–maybe the one he played during the 1969 Beatles rooftop concert? It will take a long time to break the record. Possibly, it could be the rooftop drum kit. Because this was the first one [to come to auction directly from Ringo Starr], and he has children he may decide to leave the kits to, who knows when [another] will come on the market? It’s so rare, so unusual, and it’s from Ringo. It’s hard to offer another drum kit that would sell for more than $2.1 million.
Do we know if the drum kit he played during the rooftop concert is still around? I’m not sure, but I think he has all his Beatles kits. It’s very likely [Ringo has it].
Maybe the record will break if this set comes back to auction? It could. Think of the Marilyn Monroe dress in 1999 [which set a record at Christie’s]. Seventeen years later, it sold for $4.8 million. The underbidder kept the paddle [from the 1999 auction] and came back in 2017, determined to get it that time. They waited 17 years.
So we should plan to talk about this drum kit again in…2032? [Laughs] If you want to schedule for 2032, why not?
Update: The double elephant folio of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America sold in a single-lot auction for $6.6 million.
What you see: The American flamingo plate from the double elephant folio version of The Birds of America by John James Audubon. Sotheby’s estimates the copy of the legendary book at $6 million to $8 million.
The expert: Selby Kiffer, senior vice president and international senior books specialist for Sotheby’s New York.
First, let’s talk about who Audubon was, and what he went through to create this book. Audubon was initially a nature lover and in particular, a bird lover. As a boy growing up in France and as an older teen in the United States, he loved seeing birds, and he loved drawing birds. But he didn’t have the sense of that as his profession. He ran a shop, and worked in a museum for a while, but he kept being drawn back to nature.
I understand that Alexander Wilson paid a visit to Audubon’s shop, and that proved to be something of a turning point? Wilson showed him his portfolio of drawings for his own book of American birds. Audubon was polite, but he recognized that his [drawings] were far superior to Wilson’s. He was hit with the idea of making drawings and sharing them with a wider audience.
Was Audubon the first person to show the birds at full size in the pages of a book? Audubon hit upon the idea of depicting the birds at actual size, which had never been done before. For wrens and robins, that’s easily done. For big water birds, that presents a challenge. Because he spent so much time outside, he understood their habits informed what they did. He was not looking at stuffed, taxidermied birds. He was out in the field, appreciating them in natural poses in their own environment. He devoted years of his life to tramping around the United States, and tried to present them as living creatures, not stuffed portraits.
What talents did Audubon need to have to make The Birds of America a reality? He was an artist, but he was also an entrepreneur, a promoter, and an organizer. It was the work of one person, but he had a large support system. He needed to find a paper manufacturer who could fulfill his vision to depict the birds at life size and found one in England. One of the ironies of The Birds of America is to find a craftsman capable of producing the book, he had to go to Great Britain. He had to find engravers who could fully translate [his images] into print. He needed colorists to translate the vividness of his watercolors. And he had to find subscribers to pay for it.
Yes, can we talk about how Audubon’s TheBirds of America isn’t like books sold today–you couldn’t walk into a bookstore and buy a complete copy, you had to subscribe to it? It took eleven years to complete, and it was issued by subscription and in parts. By getting subscribers to support the book, Audubon had some capital to begin with. The Birds of America was issued in monthly parts of five engravings: one large bird, one medium-size bird, and three smaller birds. It was not issued taxonomically. You didn’t get all the owls or all the songbirds at once. You had to wait for 20 parts to be completed and then you got an engraved title page for volume one, to have it bound. It was a long process for Audubon and for the people who subscribed to his work. But once people saw the engravings and the quality of them, I’m sure they got excited waiting for the next installment to come, and I’m sure there was sadness after the last title page arrived.
And I understand that 119 complete copies of the double elephant folio version of Audubon’s TheBirds of America were produced? Audubon got at least 161 subscriptions, and I think he printed additional copies. The best guess is 175 to 200 full sets were completed. The most recent census we have is 119 complete or essentially complete copies, mostly in university libraries or museums. Approximately 60 sets were lost, or more likely, taken apart and sold plate by plate.
Audubon produced several versions of TheBirds of America. Why is the double elephant folio version the most desirable of them all? As in all book-collecting, it’s king because it’s first. You want the first edition, you don’t want the tenth edition. And it’s the only edition that depicts the birds at life size. Even in the 19th century, it was an expensive book. Only the wealthy and institutions could afford it.
How is the octavo version different from the double elephant folio version of TheBirds of America? It’s a reduced-size version. With a few exceptions, the birds are not depicted at life size. It’s still a very beautiful edition, and the plates are colored by hand. But the difference between them is like seeing the Statue of Liberty and picking up a souvenir of the Statue of Liberty at a New York gift shop. It’s a difference in scale.
I understand that TheBirds of America devotes a separate volume to its text, and the volumes with the plates are just that–volumes with plates. Why did Audubon design the book in that way? He did it deliberately, and not just because it was difficult to read pages of that size. He was required to give two copies of books with text to the United Kingdom [a rule that then applied to every book printed in the country]. He avoided that by printing the plates separately and [satisfying the law by] giving the text volume.
Do the text volumes that go with the double elephant folio version of The Birds of America tend to survive alongside the plates-only volumes, or do they tend to part ways? They’re often found separated. The text is a wonderful account, a great story of Western exploration. The sad fact is–and I don’t know if this is a sad fact or not–when we think of The Birds of America, we think of the plates. Many copies don’t have text, or they don’t have the text that was issued with it. In the larger scheme of things, it’s not considered a significant flaw if a copy lacks the text. Because it was published separately, it’s not integral to the book.
The 435 plates in Audubon’s TheBirds of America were colored by hand. How did that work? It was actually fairly efficient, and certainly meticulously done. It was intricate work. There was a roomful of colorists, mostly women, but some men and some children. They worked from a pattern plate that was probably colored by Audubon himself. It was an assembly line. One colorist would do all the green areas and pass it to someone else to do the yellow areas. The most skilled colorists would do the birds themselves. We’re very fortunate that this copy benefits from being overseen by very talented colorists.
The overview for this copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America on the Sotheby’s website notes that the “plates are in a very early state”. Could you elaborate? What does that say about this copy of the book? It goes back to the standards of book-collecting. You want the earliest. Primacy is important. If there’s a misprint on the title page of the book, and it’s discovered and corrected after 100 copies are printed, book collectors want the one with the error.
The overview also describes this copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America as being ‘unusually large and brilliantly colored’. Again, could you elaborate? And is it more ‘brilliantly colored’ than other examples of the same book? Any bound set that’s remained bound and not overly displayed is more brightly colored than a book that’s been broken up and the plates framed. With this book, The Birds of America, there are so many large images it’s important they’re not cut down, because some of the birds take up almost the whole page. If you shave it, you could shave a feather or a beak. This is a set that hasn’t been trimmed very much at all. There’s very little loss of any images and it’s had the luck to go through the hands of a master colorist, so the images are brilliant.
What else helped preserved the colors of the plates of this copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America? The subscriber was an institution, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. It was not in the open library. It could not be checked out. It’s a combination of it being colored very well and preserved well over the centuries.
What makes Audubon’s The Birds of America such a great and desirable book? Several reasons. One, birds still cast a spell. It goes back to Audubon’s fascination with them. As a species, they’re beautiful. There are many bird-watching societies. People enjoy birds. Second is the book itself. It was highly unusual at the time, and it was unprecedented to produce a book of this size. If you go to a library where it’s on view, or an auction house that’s selling it, you can see the monumental size of it. Third is the whole notion of one man’s obsession to get the book to completion. And frankly, I would not discount the value part of the equation. A book that could sell for five, six, seven, eight million dollars–that’s exciting.
Sotheby’s sent over high-resolution images of some of the key plates from the book, and I’d like to discuss each of them. Could we start with the Carolina parrots? Why is this such a strong image? It goes back to the idea of observing birds in the wild and knowing how they behave. A few decades before Audubon, birds were shown absolutely still, in profile, on a branch. That’d be it. Here, he’s showing a flock, or portion of a flock. He shows males, females, and one juvenile at the bottom with his green head. He shows them in the tree they live in. They interact with each other in a variety of poses. He shows action and activity and fills the page, showing them in 360 degrees. You don’t feel like you’re looking at an engraving–you feel like you’re looking at a tree full of birds. And it’s an interesting plate as well because it’s one of the birds Audubon depicts that’s extinct.
Next we have the American flamingo, which bowls me over because in lesser hands, this could have been a mess, but it looks perfectly natural. It’s the encapsulation of Audubon’s achievement in a single plate. He took an enormous, wonderful scarlet bird and gets it in there without looking unnatural or awkward. And he throws in anatomical details at the top, which he very seldom does. It’s a great combination of artistry, science, and the personal observation behind the artistry.
And we have a night scene with the Snowy Owls. Which is very rare. I think there are only two other night scenes out of the other 435 plates. You’re drawn to the birds and initially, you don’t understand that it’s a night scene. But he uses the night scene to make the white of the bird really pop out. They’re up a tree on a mountain, a very dramatic setting and a very powerful image.
How many double elephant folio copies of Audubon’s The Birds of America have you handled? I think this will be the fifth copy I’m involved with selling. I have appraised other copies. Probably, in all, I’ve seen the better part of 20 different copies.
How does this copy compare to the record-setting copy you sold ten years ago? They’re very similar, but one principal difference is the 2010 copy, the Hesketh copy, was in a more elaborate binding. This has a less expensive binding appropriate for the [subscribing] institution, and just as appropriate for the work. The Hesketh is one of the finest copies ever sold. If I had to rank them, Hesketh is 1, and this is 1A. It was in an institution and it did have more handling than the Hesketh copy had. I’d give a slight edge to the Hesketh, but that in no way diminishes the fine condition of this copy.
Does it edge out the Hesketh on the quality of the hand-coloration of its plates? That is harder to remember. I’d say the very best plates of this copy are as good as or better than the Hesketh. They are very comparable. The best plates here are luminous and saturated with color.
What is the book like in person? It has nuance of color and amazing gradation. A bird from across the way looks blue or brown or black. Up close, you appreciate the differences of shade and you see the detail in the flowers, the blades of grass, and the animals in the background. The luminosity is just stunning. And to see it in person–wow, the book really is almost four feet high. We aren’t used to seeing a bound work of this size.
It’s tricky to do now. Absolutely, and in some ways, it’s not practical. What would you do with it? This came with a George IV oak cabinet [to store it in], so that part is solved.
Sotheby’s is selling this copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America in a single-lot auction. Is this the first time Sotheby’s has done that for an Audubon double elephant folio? I think it might be. We don’t do single-lot catalogs very often. When we do, they go on to set records. It not only says something about the regard the book is held in, but its potential to reach a high price as well.
Why will this copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America stick in your memory? The coloring, and the fact that it’s the second time I’ve been involved in selling it. In 1990, I went to London to assist in the cataloging [the last time Sotheby’s sold it]. I’ve been here a long time. To see the book come back almost 30 years later is very gratifying and exciting.
How to bid: Audubon’s The Birds of America features in a single-lotauction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on December 18, 2019.
Selby Kiffer appeared once before on The Hot Bid, discussing Frank Sinatra’s personal copy of the deluxe limited edition of the 1961 official program of the inaugural ceremonies for President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
You can see all 435 plates of Audubon’s The Birds of America online at the website of the National Audubon Society.
Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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Update: The Munnings painting sold for £419,250, or about $552,000.
What you see: A Start at Newmarket, a circa 1937 painting by Sir Alfred Munnings. Christie’s estimates it at £400,000 to £600,000, or $514,400 to $771,600.
The expert: Brandon Lindberg, senior specialist and head of British Impressionism at Christie’s London.
Let’s start by talking about who Munnings was, and when and how he became enchanted with horses. He was born in East Anglia in 1878, the son of a miller. He had a precocious talent for art. He was always drawing from an early age, and he grew up with horses around him. He was born at a time when horses were the main source of transit. They were part of daily life in rural England. He went to the Norwich School of Art, and as a young man, a patron paid for him to go to Paris. His palette had been very brown and rich, but after Paris, his coloring became a lot lighter, brighter, and fresher.
Did he own and ride horses? He would have been around horses, and his family and friends would have had horses. Very early on, probably when he was in his early twenties, Munnings was buying horses and using them to carry his canvases around.
Munnings suffered an accident when he was 20 that blinded him in one eye. How, if at all, did that affect his approach to painting? I think his dog got caught in a hedge and in trying to get it out, he got a thorn in his eye. In his memoirs, he talked about not painting for a while. He found depth tricky without binocular vision. The story is he’d put brushes through the canvas [because he couldn’t judge the depth]. But his personality was so strong that he got over that and battled through.
How prolific was he? I understand that an Alfred Munnings catalogue raisonné is in progress, but do we have a notion of how many works he made during his life? He was incredibly prolific. To give you a guide, a hundred artworks have sold in the last three years alone. There are several thousand works out there. I can’t be more specific than that. Munnings was an inveterate sketcher. He sketched on anything and everything. In the Munnings Art Museum, they have the wall of a stable block. When the plaster was wet, he couldn’t resist drawing horses in it.
Where does Munnings rank among artists who specialize in horses? I would say Munnings is arguably one of the greatest equestrian artists of all time, ranking alongside George Stubbs.
What do we know about the story behind A Start at Newmarket? I take it he is trying to capture as precisely as possible the instant that the horses are released? Exactly. He’s trying to capture that moment when the jockeys are all focused, the split second before the start. You get a sense of the pent-up energy when they’re just about to set off.
What do we know about how the Munnings painting was created? He would have approached it in a number of ways. He was given free reign on the course at Newmarket. He would have been allowed to drive his car onto the course, and he would have been allowed to loiter and capture the moment when they start. And he was given a rubbing-down house–a windowless small stable where they rub a horse down after a race–as a little studio. For a start, he would use pencil sketches, because he had to capture the moment in a few seconds. He also had a dressing-up box of jockey silks, and had one of his grooms don silks and sit on an abandoned block to do for [simulate] a horse for an oil sketch. The work looks effortless, but it’s a complex fusing of various different techniques–sketches, studio studies, and plein air [painting or sketching outdoors].
Did he ever rely on photographs to create his paintings? No. It’s interesting. It reminds me of the only painting he did of the finish of a race. A patron’s horse, Saucy Sue, won the Oaks [a significant English horse race]. He did that painting from a photo, and it doesn’t have the life and energy of the start pictures.
Was Munnings aware of the horse-racing paintings done by Edgar Degas? We think he would have been. Munnings had an interesting relationship with avant-garde art. He didn’t like abstract or non-representational art, but he experimented with color and movement. I would love to know if his library had books on Impressionism. It’s most likely that he saw exhibitions of modern French art when he was there in 1905.
Do Munnings paintings of horse races, and this particular painting, reflect any influence from Degas? I think so, in the sense of the way he captures a cluster of jockeys, and the way the light falls on their silks. A Start at Newmarket has a sense of realism, with the horses jostling each other. It infuses impressions of color, light, and realism with a classical frieze–banks of horses recessing into the distance behind you.
This Munnings painting measures 17 and 5/8 inches by 21 and 1/2 inches. Is that a typical size for him, or is it smaller than usual? He painted on every size and every scale. He seemed to love 20 inches by 24 inches. Those are the ones you see the most of. But he painted in every size. This painting is probably on the smaller side. It’s quite practical to take onto a course and paint.
How does this Munnings painting show his mastery? To me, I think it shows him capturing different lights, and how it reflects off different surfaces. I love the interplay of color, light, and movement. Because it’s a plein air painting, it’s got a sense of movement and spontenaiety.
This Munnings painting is cropped. Do we know what inspired him to crop the compositions of some of his paintings? Munnings did crop things quite regularly. He was not adverse to it. It was a device he used a lot. It gives the painting a very immediate effect, and a slightly photographic feel.
That makes me more surprised that he didn’t rely on photographs. Because he was such an inveterate sketcher, he reached for the pencil instead of the camera.
Did he routinely crop his images of race starts, to amplify the sense of movement? Not really. There are starts that are centered. I think he uses it to great effect here. There are some like examples we’ve had over the years, but some are cropped, and some are not.
Do all Munnings paintings feature horses, or did he paint other subjects? I suppose probably about 30 or 40 percent [of his output], one way or another, are racehorses, whether they’re racing or are portraits. But he was a landscape painter. He loved the English landscape, and he painted a wonderful series of river landscapes. He also spent one year on the Western front in World War I, painting horses, men, and cavalry. Horses are a predominant theme in his work, but it’s not the only one.
Many of Munnings’s most dramatic sporting images are set at Newmarket. How does that affect the value of those works? Are collectors more interested in Munnings paintings that show Newmarket? Not necessarily, no. There are more Newmarkets out there and he produced more great pictures at Newmarket than any other [venue]. And Newmarket is seen as the home of British horse racing. But I think collectors respond to great racing pictures.
What is this Munnings painting like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? I think there are. What strikes me is it has a lovely painterly quality to it. He’s not one of these artists who tries to hide every brush stroke. It’s got thick impasto and thin washes that give the painting an added level that you don’t get in the photo at all.
Why will this Munnings painting stick in your memory? Because it’s a lovely fusion. It’s painted like an oil sketch, with spontaneity and capturing the moment, but it’s a complete painting. You really get a strong sense of his design.
What you see: A test wand designed for Glinda the Good Witch from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Bonhams declines to give a numerical figure for the hero prop, instructing bidders to “refer to department for estimate”.
The expert: Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of books and manuscripts and entertainment memorabilia for Bonhams.
Why would MGM have felt the need to build a test wand for Glinda the Good Witch? Did they only do that for what we now call “hero” props, or would the MGM prop department have built test versions of pretty much everything visible on screen during The Wizard of Oz to make sure it would look good in Technicolor? They certainly did it with all the costumes. It’s probably more helpful to think of the wand as part of Glinda’s costume, rather than like the hourglass or one of the trees. There was a lot of testing and tweaking in preproduction on The Wizard of Oz. They went through several iterations for the pinafore Dorothy wears, and the same with her hair. The wand would have been tested as part of of Glinda’s overall look.
L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, specified that Dorothy’s slippers were silver. They were changed to ruby slippers for the movie because red looked better against the yellow brick road. Did Baum say anything about Glinda’s appearance that would have given guidance to the prop masters when making the test wand? I don’t know the answer to that, but in general, they tried to stay true to what they knew about what was there. By bringing in Gilbert Adrian, one of the visionary, edgier costume designers, they wanted to put their stamp on the story. Glinda’s wand was a subset of her costume, so it came under that umbrella, as did the ruby slippers.
What’s the difference between the Glinda test wand and the Glinda wand that was used on screen? The first version had clear rhinestones. Because they wanted even more glitz and sparkle on camera, they designed wands with clear and colored stones. Because they were shooting in Technicolor, the colored stones give that much more of a flash on screen. And the wand had to stand up to the rest of Glinda’s costume, which is also pretty spectacular.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how challenging the Glinda wand was to make? I suspect it wasn’t that hard. Yeah, I don’t think so. It’s a long staff, a fabricated piece of white metal with a finial on the bottom. The star is another finial that screws in [to the top of the staff]. I’m assuming the rhinestones were done by hand.
Two Glinda wands with colored rhinestones were made for on-screen use. Where are they now? They’re gone. The context for when all this stuff was released in the world is the MGM liquidation sale held in 1970. The two wands with colored stones were bought by people in North Carolina who opened a theme park, The Land of Oz, which had a museum portion. They bought a ton of stuff. They had Munchkin costumes and a Dorothy dress. It was active from the early 1970s to 1980. Then a fire broke out and all the property was destroyed. So this is it. This is the only one. [Editor’s note: The Land of Oz theme park in North Carolina has been revived on a smaller scale and offers events during the summer and early fall.]
No test photos survive that show Billie Burke, who played Glinda, holding the wand, but she had an MGM photographer take a shot of herself in costume, with this particular wand. How did that image come about? I don’t think it was rogue or off the book. It was a promotional shot for the film, and it would have been shot anyway, but Burke had some control over who shot it and how it looked. She liked it so much, she ordered copies of the photo, and she incorporated a sketch of it into her holiday card.
Why would Burke and the photographer have wanted the test version of the Glinda wand for this image? It’s more flattering for black and white. The colored stones wouldn’t have looked as good. They would have looked grey, which is not what you want.
The Glinda wand measures 56.50 inches. That’s long–almost five feet long. Why did the movie producers want it to be this length?Did it help Billie Burke move in a more restrained and regal way? That’s a good question. Maybe Billie Burke is taller than we think. It doesn’t dwarf her when she carries it. Maybe it’s that long because that’s how Glinda does her magic–she does it with a wand, and they wanted it to have substance. Its length does make it harder for the actress to move on screen, but it looks more powerful.
I guess the Glinda wand also has to compete to be seen against the backdrop of the pink poufty Good Witch dress, and the colors of Munchkinland… I didn’t realize it was this size. I never thought about how long it was until it came to us. It’s possible they wanted it to be noticeable. It is thicker than a smaller wand would be. Maybe it’s that long to show up against the bling of the Glinda dress. Or maybe for it to be proportional, it had to be that long.
Speaking of which, what is the Glinda wand like in person? Sometimes, when you see props from famous movies, you notice things about them that you never notice on the screen. But what you really take away from it is the magic it creates on screen. With a touch of the wand, Glinda can send you to Kansas. It is magical what they do with a prosaic piece of metal.
When you get right down to it, it’s just a stick. [Laughs] And the shoes are just shoes.
Have you held the Glinda wand? I have not held it. My colleague and the photographer have held it. I’ve tried to minimize contact with it because I don’t want people knocking the rhinestones off. But it’s sturdy. I guess it’s probably two or three pounds altogether. You don’t need two hands–you can hold it with one.
Did you look to the Cowardly Lion costume and the Dorothy dress as comparable lots to consider when setting the estimate for the Glinda wand? We’re not publishing the estimate at the client’s request, but I can tell you it’s in the low six figures. But those were comparables.
How does the Glinda wand compare to the Cowardly Lion costume and the Dorothy dress? They’re very different, but one of the things that’s nice about the wand is it’s portable and easy to display. I can tell you it was on exhibit at the Smithsonian recently, next to the ruby slippers, for a fairly long period of time. The Smithsonian could fit it fairly easily into their exhibition space. It’s not as fragile as a dress [or other textiles].
What condition is the Glinda wand in? There’s some paint loss and there’s a patina to it. I think it’s missing a few rhinestones. Otherwise, I think it’s pretty good, considering it’s 80 years old.
The sale that includes the Glinda wand is called TCM Presents…1939, Hollywood’s Greatest Year. Did you receive this piece on consignment and view it as a tentpole for a 1939-themed sale, or did you come up with the 1939 idea and then go out looking for 1939 material? It did sort of start almost a year ago with the wand. The consigner approached us with this pretty early. Then I realized that 2019 was the 80th anniversary of 1939, and reached out to get 1939 material.
Update: The Elizabeth I silver pomander fetched £22,500, or slightly more than $29,000.
What you see: An Elizabeth I silver pomander, engraved with portraits of royals and dating to the early 17th century. Christie’s estimates it at £20,000 to £30,000, or $25,900 to $38,850.
The expert: Harry Williams-Bulkeley, International Head of Silver at Christie’s.
Was the pomander a common household object in 17th century England, or was it purely used by nobles and wealthy merchants? I think it was really people of wealth–rich merchants and aristocratic ladies would have had them. They tend to be in silver and rarely in gold.
A fair number of people like to think that previous ages were smellier or stinkier than our own. Is that accurate, and is the silver pomander evidence that bad odors were a common hazard in 17th century England? Yes, very much so. There was no plumbing, and there were open ditches in the street where people threw the contents of their chamber pots. And there was the miasmic theory of disease, the belief that odor itself could give you a disease. The pomander was a way to banish evil smells and evil humors and keep yourself healthy.
Why would a woman have been the likely original owner of this silver pomander? In contemporary portraits [of the period] you see ladies wearing them.
If 17th century Englishmen didn’t carry pomanders, what did they carry instead that served the same purpose? People had scented gloves and scented handkerchiefs. The pomander developed as a form of adornment for women, and it had practical use.
And pomanders usually take the shape of an orb, or sphere? They tend to. Early pomanders were a ball of a scented substance–wax with scents impregnated in them. The form it usually takes is a circular foot with a central stem that has a number of hinged segments. It opens like the petals of a flower.
How would the silver pomander’s owner have used it–to perfume herself, to shield her nose from unpleasant smells, or both? She would hold it up to her nose, like a nosegay or a viniagrette, which is a box that had a sponge with smelling salts or scented waters.
So it’s kind of like us putting Vicks VapoRub under our nostrils today? Exactly.
Would she have worn the silver pomander every day, or did she only wear it on fancy occasions, or at court? It could be everyday. She didn’t necessarily wear it around the house, but it denotes status. It’s a costly object. Certainly, if she went out around town in her finest dress, she’d wear it.
What sorts of nice-smelling things might she have put in the silver pomander? And would she put the same thing in each of its six compartments, or would she put different, complementary things in the compartments? I think it’s each to their own. She might want rosemary for this, or lavender for that. Each scent had certain properties and beliefs about what they would help with. She could put the same thing [in every compartment] or a cocktail. There’s no difference to aromatherapy today–if you’re stressed, try lavender, if you need invigoration, try lemon verbena.
The silver pomander features several portraits of people who are believed to be royals: King James I, King Charles I (as Prince of Wales), King Henry VII, King Henry VIII, and a woman who could be Anne of Denmark (James I’s wife) or Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia. How do we know these are the people depicted? They’re really [after] engravings by the de Passe family, a Dutch family that specializes in head-and-shoulder portraits. They’re not exact matches, but similar ones match up. They’re known engravings of members of the Tudor and Stuart royal family. Anne of Denmark was originally attributed as Elizabeth I.
Would the silver pomander have advertised the political leanings of the wearer? Would she have taken a risk if she went out in public with this hanging from her chatelaine? All the royals [depicted on the pomander] are Protestant monarchs. You’ll find by this time (early 17th century), Britain was established as a Protestant nation. Under the reign of Queen Mary I, the owner wouldn’t have wanted to wear the pomander, but it postdates that. At the time, the monarch was Protestant and the country was 90 percent Protestant.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how challenging the silver pomander was to make? You’ve got six little segments. It’s difficult to make sure they’re all the same size and have the same curve so they come together to form an orb. It’s got a carefully milled thread, so you can screw the top down [and hold the six segments closed and in place]. And it’s been heavily engraved with shield shapes ornamenting the tops of the segments, the medallion portraits, and so on.
What is the silver pomander like in person? Is it heavy? It’s about two inches high. It fits in the palm of the hand. If you make an “OK” sign with your middle finger and your thumb, it’s that sort of size. It feels heavy in the hand.
What condition is it in? When you see it open, [you can see that] the not-quite-rectangular openings in each segment have been squeezed over the years. But really, it’s survived in surprisingly good condition.
I understand that little early English silver survives because various groups sought it to melt it and turn it into money. I realize we don’t know exactly how this silver pomander survived, but what are some plausible theories? In Civil War England, Royalist and Parlimentarian forces were desperate to pay their armies. Silver was the coinage of the day. If you melted a cup and struck coins, you got money. Two silver plates from the Armada service are in the sale. The service was buried in a barn and not rediscovered until 1827. It was almost certainly hidden to avoid being seized by Parlimentarian forces. But this pomander is a small object [which would yield] an ounce and a half of silver, not a huge amount. And it’s easily hidden away. You could stick it in the back of a drawer and if you weren’t really searching for it, you wouldn’t necessarily find it. A silver cup is less easily hidden.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I think number one, it being English. It’s unmarked [it lacks hallmarks that would identify the silversmith], but it would be very strange for it to be anything else than English, and to have portraits on it is rare. Pomanders are more likely to have scrolling foliage on them, that sort of thing. And it’s a gem of an object in an amazing collection of objects that survived all the intervening years. It’s a lovely personal object, beautifully decorated in great detail, and it [represents an] extraordinary survival.
Update: The original art for the Charles Addams Poe cartoon sold for the healthy sum of $22,500.
What you see: Original artwork for Nevermore, a cartoon drawn by Charles Addams and published in The New Yorker on October 29, 1973. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.
The expert: Christine von der Linn, specialist in art books and original illustration at Swann Auction Galleries.
Let’s start by discussing who Charles Addams was, and why we’re still talking about his work today. First, I think we can all agree that Addams’s style was like no other. No one else married gloom, death, and danger with humor, often tempered with tenderness and charm, like he did. He could break down humanity to its basest nature. The New Yorker writer and critic Wolcott Gibbs once described his work as “essentially a denial of all spiritual and physical evolution in the human race.” Ask any cartoonist who their main influence was, and they’ll surely name him.
How prolific was he? His output was astounding. He submitted his first work to The New Yorker when he was 21 and continued until his death [in 1988, at the age of 76]. He worked for over 60 years and produced thousands of cartoons and 15 anthologies, which have been translated into numerous languages.
Where is most of Addams’s original artwork now? A large portion resides at the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation in Sagaponack, New York. Tee [Addams’s widow] gave a large portion to the New York Public Library. For many years, they had a dedicated rotating gallery for those works.
Where was Addams in his career in 1973, when this was published? He was 61, and still working for The New Yorker.
How did this Addams Poe cartoon come about? I understand the joke was not Charles Addams’s idea—someone else came up with it, and he was asked to illustrate it?Nevermore was, in fact, the first idea that cartoonist Jack Ziegler sold to TheNew Yorker. At that time, The New Yorker had mostly phased out the editorial practice of having staff cartoonists illustrate caption and concept submissions by other contributors, but it still occurred sometimes. Cartoon editor James Geraghty brilliantly tasked Addams with this one. It was only later that year, when Lee Lorenz joined The New Yorker and invited Ziegler to contribute his own work, that he became a regular cartoonist.
Could we deconstruct this Addams Poe cartoon? It strikes me that it’s much more intelligible and straightforward than other cartoons from The New Yorker… I hesitate to answer this because I feel like the more you analyze a cartoon, the less funny it becomes, but I’ll take the bait. [Laughs.] Ziegler and Addams knew that Poe’s TheRaven is one of the most famous poems ever written. Its tagline is seared in everyone’s brain, and Poe’s likeness is well known. Therefore, it would have immediate recognition and wide appeal, especially to a cultured readership like The New Yorker‘s. We imagine famous authors to be confident in their work, and, in fact, Poe wrote about the creation of The Raven a year later in his essay, The Philosophy of Composition, explaining that he went about it very methodically and logically. So we can’t possibly imagine that Poe had a moment of doubt or ever considered anycreature other than the now-iconic foreboding black harbinger of his spiraling descent into madness. Marry that with Addams’s inimitable skill at depicting anxiety and torment, and there’s the core of the genius. Then you look at the hilariously unsuitable choices Addams showed the exhausted poet contemplating–a basic farmyard pig, a giant, ungainly moose, and a morbid, gormless looking turtle–and it becomes the most hysterically funny thing.
How does the Addams Poe cartoon testify to Addams’s skills as an illustrator, and his skills as an illustrator of gothic images? He was a genius with the details. I love the crumpled up piece of paper on the spare table and floor–what animal choices they contained, we can only imagine. His fingers barely grasping the quill pen from his limp arm resting on his thigh, and the totally dejected look on Poe’s face, are priceless. I also like how something as simple as his excluding the exclamation point after “nevermore” drives home the failure of its delivery. Addams also loved combining animals with gothic themes. He married his last wife, Marilyn, who was known as “Tee”, in a pet cemetery at their home and that is where their ashes are both interred, along with those of all their pets. And Addams was known to be an impeccable draftsman. His editors all remarked that he often handed in his cartoons in a perfect, finished state, with no edits needed. He nailed it nearly every time.
Is this the only instance in which Addams depicted Edgar Allan Poe in a cartoon for The New Yorker, or any cartoon? No. While this is the best known of them, he created three more iterations of The Raven titled Occasionally, Once Again, and the last, in 1983, a lengthier riff on the bird’s refrain, Carnivore, either-or, blood & gore…etc. He likely considered Poe a kindred spirit of the macabre.
I have to admit, when I saw this Addams Poe cartoon in the catalog, I stopped dead, my jaw dropped, and I think I even pointed at the screen. Was that your reaction when you first learned of its existence? I’m so glad you jumped on this, like you jumped on the Gorey cat. It’s a famous Addams piece, so my first thought, which happens with similar iconic Addams cartoon submissions, is that it may be one in a series of reproductions that were printed on watercolor paper with Epson Ultrachrome ink. If someone sends a low-resolution JPEG [of a piece of Addams cartoon art] and does not give dimensions, they can fool you on first glance. I had the same reaction when a consigner approached us with the famous Movie Scream cartoon that we sold in 2017, which brought $31,200.
What condition is the Addams Poe cartoon in, knowing it was created as a piece of functional art, and not to hang on a wall? Quite excellent, really. It was lovingly cared for, framed early on to protect it, and was never exposed to direct light, so the ink is strong. The back has some abraded paper and its The New Yorker stamp is a bit yellowed and frayed, but that adds to its charm, I think.
What is the provenance of the Addams Poe cartoon? It belonged to Dona Guimaraes, who was a New York Times Magazine home section editor, an executive editor of Mademoiselle magazine, and a friend of Addams, who bequeathed it to current owner, a close friend of hers. It has never been on the market.
What is the Addams Poe cartoon art like in person? Are there details or aspects that the camera doesn’t quite catch? The size of it is impressive– 20 inches by 13 inches, which is on the larger side of some of his work. You can also see the brush work on the board, and the care he took with the areas of shading through ink and wash. When you face a work like that in person, head on, it comes at you with even more force. I’m always encouraging people to collect original cartoons because even though the caption and image are digested at first sight, seeing the medium on the surface and picturing the illustrator creating it adds a special element that connects a person to the artwork. That experience isn’t unique to engaging with fine art.
How often do original Charles Addams cartoons for TheNew Yorker come to auction? I’d say about a dozen, on average. These generally consist of cartoons, doodled autographs, and covers for The New Yorker.
Does original Charles Addams cartoon art done for The New Yorker carry a premium? Yes, absolutely.
Could you quantify it? I’d say 50 percent or more. To be specific about it, cartoons for other publications that contain characters that resemble the Addams family tend to bring more. Cartoons that don’t contain them don’t bring as much.
How did you arrive at the estimate for this Addams Poe cartoon? What did you look to as comparables? I looked at the results for other large-scale cartoons for The New Yorker that were also among his most recognizable. I also considered the condition, the provenance, and the fact that it had never come up before. I am generally conservative in my estimates, believing that the auction process will allow works to find their level. I like to attract, not prohibit participation. I’d love to see this reach the level of Movie Scream, though I doubt it may reach the record price set by Sad Movie, a 1946 cartoon for The New Yorker that sold for $40,630 in 2012.
Why will this Addams Poe cartoon stick in your memory? Because it’s a perfect example of Addams’s genius. I had taken a bunch of close-up images of it for a condition report on it for a client. I was at my computer screen, looking at an enlarged, high resolution image of the pig’s face for about the 200th time, with the classic Addams deadpan dot eyes, and I started trembling with laughter, for the 200th time. And because books are fundamental to Swann’s founding and history, an Addams cartoon with a literary theme just gets me where I live.
Update: The Howard Terpning painting sold for $425,075.
What you see: Finding the Buffalo, a 1988 oil on canvas by Howard Terpning. Bonhams estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.
The expert: Aaron Bastian, specialist in Bonhams’s California and Western art department.
Let’s start by talking about who Howard Terpning is, and what makes him interesting to collectors. I tried to think of another living artist who isn’t a mainstream contemporary artist, but whose works still sell for six or seven figures on the secondary market, and I couldn’t come up with one… Howard Terpning is a fascinating character, and a titan of contemporary Western art. Like many in this space, he has a background in illustration. He did it for a couple of decades before wandering over to this side of the fence. Pleasing an art director and working to a deadline carried over into his self-defined artistic practice. He’s one of if not the most decorated artists in this space. I don’t want to bore your readers, but it would take pages to list them all. He won the National Academy of Western Art’s Prix de West. It’s a big deal to win it once. He won it twice. He’s won the Thomas Moran Memorial Award for exceptional artistic merit [given at the annual Masters art exhibition and sale held at the Autry Museum of the American West] twelve times, including eleven straight between 2005 and 2016. He is immensely recognized in his field. Anyone in this space knows who he is.
What makes Howard Terpning paintings so exceptional? It’s not just that any one painting is spectacular, it’s consistent quality over the decades. I think that’s why the value is what we see. They’re so well-planned that you don’t see bad Howard Terpnings. They don’t make it onto the market. They fall apart earlier in the process.
How prolific is he? I’m sure the family has it [a total count for his body of work] but it’s not public. Big finished works take him a couple of months. I don’t know how many he might work on simultaneously.
Is he still painting, or has he retired? As of two years ago, when he was 90, he was still painting. He’s going to die with a pencil in his hand. If he can’t paint oils, he’s going to draw. I can’t see him ever stopping.
Howard Terpning has been painting Western art since the late 1970s. Are there periods or phases within his work that collectors prefer, or has his work been scarce enough that they can’t be that choosy? It’s a somewhat complicated answer. What we see for the top ten [for him] on the auction market is in a fairly narrow period for production in the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Is that indicative of what the market thinks is most valuable? Some of that is those are the works that are available. Maybe there’s a great late 1990s work out there that will blow us away if it comes to auction. I think this work [which dates to 1988] is in the sweet spot, but I don’t know if the sweet spot is real.
Finding the Buffalo measures 36 inches by 32 inches. Is that a typical size for a Howard Terpning painting? It’s sort of middle of the pack as far as scale goes. He does paint larger, and he does paint smaller. But he’s stretching his own canvases. He makes them any size he wants. The finished drawing he does [in the lead-up to creating the painting] always informs the size and proportions of the canvas.
What do we know about how he works, and how he might have made Finding the Buffalo? His technique is pretty well-documented. He starts with a series of sketches leading to a finished drawing. The drawing informs the size of the canvas. It’s traced and essentially transferred to the canvas, which is not a blank canvas. There’s one tone brushed onto the whole canvas. The drawing is transferred on, then he begins. There are videos of him doing this. [Jump to the 4:20 mark to watch Terpning embark on the first step of creating a painting.] Lights and darks are applied over the midtone. He can quickly define the whole composition.
Then he finishes it? That’s where the real time is spent.
So the drawing, the scaling-up for the canvas, and the transfer of the drawing–that’s a kind of scaffolding for creating the finished painting? Yes. I think it’s a rigorous approach he gets from his background in illustration.
How might he have arrived at the content and composition of the image we see in Finding the Buffalo? He has a huge archive of reference images. The rocks in the background could be a combination of images of a few different rocks. And he has a huge archive of objects. He’d have a quiver as a historic reference, but he’ll modify it to make it historically accurate to [the quiver of] a Comanche scout.
How often do Howard Terpning paintings feature the Comanche people, as we see in Finding the Buffalo? He always has a specific tribe in mind. Comanche, I hesitate to give a percentage, but he’s painted them many times. I don’t know if they’re a favorite per se. It’s the Plains peoples who are his fascination.
And the Comanches are among the Plains peoples? Yes. Terpning has a deep connection with and fascination with the nomadic style of life these people led.
How rare is it for Terpning to place an animal front-and-center in his works, as he does here with the horned lizard? I don’t know another work like it. It’s very unusual. The lizard is front and center, but it’s not the center point. You look at the scouts, look at what they’re looking at, and–oh. Everything is centered on the lizard, but the lizard is more like one of the rocks, and he puts the focus on the Comanche. Terpning is ultimately a figure painter, and Finding the Buffalo is no different. I think it’s a really neat painting in that it’s a subtle painting. In another Terpning painting in the sale, My Medicine Is Strong, the medicine man is on a rock and he’s clearly having a religious moment. Here, it’s a little quieter compared to some of the narratives Terpning likes to convey.
What’s going on in Finding the Buffalo? What’s the story? This is from Terpning himself: Comanche scouts believe that if they ask the horned lizard where the buffalo are, whatever direction he runs in is where the buffalo are. If he breaks left, go left. They’re watching the lizard very intently, especially the scout in the back–his anxiety is piqued. And I love that even the horses are staring at the lizard. [Laughs]
What’s your favorite detail of this Howard Terpning painting? There’s a splash of blue beadwork right at the very center of the painting. There are a few other touches where he uses bright blue, but this is the only spot where you get that color, and he does it right in the center of the painting. I love it as contrast. I look at the painting and it feels hot and oppressive under the bright sun, washed out. The splash of blue yanks your eye to the middle of the painting. Then you look down, and there’s the lizard. It’s so restrained, and it speaks to how valuable the beads would have been.
What is the Howard Terpning painting like in person? It’s more subtle in person. When you have a painting with large patches in the same tonal family, your eye is better at appreciating the subtle tonal shift than the camera is. The lizard blends into the rocks even a little more. The background behind the scouts is very rich, and I don’t think you get that in the reproduction. And the camera doesn’t capture the thickness of the paint. Terpning is reliant on impasto [the buildup of paint on the surface of a canvas], and it casts shadows. Not a big shadow, but a tiny ridge of paint can cast a tiny shadow. The camera can’t capture the change in physical height–that texture–but the eye can perceive it. He uses it to give the rocks a real three-dimensionality.
On the webpage devoted to the lot, you at Bonhams have included a photograph of the back of the painting. Could you talk about the information Terpning put on the back of the painting, and how him bothering to do that helps collectors, dealers, and specialists like yourself? I would say this is true almost universally among art buyers–there’s going to be interest in the back of a painting. In this case, we have information from Terpning. He signs it, puts the title on the back, and says how big it is in his own handwriting. He signs it in two different places and reminds you that he retains the reproduction rights [laughs]. And there’s a brief narrative [that explains the scene] affixed to the back of the painting. It’s a printed label, but it is his language, his words. And there’s a CAA (Cowboy Artists of America) label still on the back [from when the painting was first shown and sold in 1988] that says $60,000.
How many Howard Terpning paintings have you handled? In the last five years, we’ve sold six. There aren’t a ton that circulate. At all the auction houses put together, ten or 15 go up at auction every year.
Is it unusual to have three Howard Terpning paintings in the same auction, as you do here? It’s only happened to us once before. [Laughs]. But it’s not unheard of. We’ve just been very lucky recently.
What’s the world auction record for a Howard Terpning painting? It’s $1.9 million, set in 2012 at the Scottsdale Art Auction. Its name was The Captured Ponies, and it’s not an outlier. Nine Howard Terpning paintings have sold for more than $1 million since 2006. We had one in 2019 that sold for just shy of $1.4 million.
Why will this Howard Terpning painting stick in your memory? There’s a real subtlety to this one. I like how quiet it is. It’s a painting that rewards you for looking at it longer. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like much is going on, but as you look at it, there’s a lot going on. It’s a sophisticated picture in terms of how it was painted and the narrative it conveys.
Update: The Mucha Slav Epic poster sold for $6,000.
What you see: A circa 1930 poster by Alphonse Mucha for the Slav Epic Exhibition. Soulis Auctions estimates it at $8,000 to $10,000.
The expert: Dirk Soulis, founder, owner, and auctioneer at Soulis Auctions in Lone Jack, Missouri.
Who was Alphonse Mucha, and why is his work still important now, roughly a century after his heyday? He was an illustrator and artist of Czech/Slav origin. He’s still important because of the quality of his work. The work itself and the beauty of it makes it a classic, whether you know who the artist is or not.
What was the Slav Epic, and why was it important to Mucha? It was a series of 20 monumental paintings, allegories of the history of the Slavic peoples. In 1899, Mucha was commissioned by the Austro-Hungarian government to create murals for the Pavilion of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Researching the history and culture of those peoples inspired him to seek sponsorship and a platform for a similar project in his home country of Czechoslovakia.
Did Mucha intend to finish the Slav Epic by the 10th anniversary of the proclamation of the Slavic Republic, or did he start work and seize on that milestone as a deadline later on? I suspect that [the latter] is the case. He started the Slav Epic in 1910 and I’m not sure he had that [10th anniversary] goal in mind.
The poster is dated circa 1930. Did the Slav Epic open to the public in 1930? No. This poster is a little more unusual for that reason. The Slav Epic opened in Prague in 1928, and the majority of the posters are from 1928. In 1930, it opened in Brno, the second-largest city in Czechoslovakia. The image is the same for both posters.
The Slav Epic is a series of canvases. Mucha made his reputation with poster designs. Why did he make a poster for the Slav Epic? Did he need to advertise it in this way, or did he feel that people knew him best as a poster artist, and he ought to make a poster for the show? I suspect it’s a little of both. The organizers, including him, felt like a poster was in order. It was a familiar way to promote things.
Is this the only Slav Epic Mucha poster design, or did he do others to promote the show? As far as I know, this is the only poster design for the exhibition.
Do we have any notion of how many posters were printed for the 1928 and 1930 Slav Epic exhibitions, and how many survive? I think this would be difficult to accurately state. A few of his posters that are near life-size are printed in two pieces, and this is printed in two pieces, and the sheets are joined. The image is the same, and the lower portion, with the location and the date, changes.
Does this Slav Epic Mucha poster draw its imagery directly from a painting in the show, or is it a more abstract image that captures the show’s overall spirit? This is drawn from the 18th canvas. By drawn, I mean it’s based on the actual painting itself.
It’s a straight repetition? Yes.
Let’s talk about what’s going on in the Slav Epic Mucha poster. Who is the woman at the center? What instrument is she playing? Is that an incense burner at her feet, and does it have any special symbolic meaning here? She and the other figures in the original mural represented Slavic youth in the 1890s. Her garb is traditional and of that late 19th century period. She plays a semi-circle stringed lyre-like instrument with cockerel head surmount and, in the original mural, the face of a woman is at its base. I can’t comment on the metaphor of the censer and smoke.
Who is the figure in the back with more than one face? Is it a god? Yes, he is the three-faced Slavic pagan god Svantovit. He’s a figure of folklore, and he holds a cup representing plenty. Svantovit does not appear in the original mural.
Did Mucha use a live model for the young woman at the center of the poster? Yes, she’s his first born daughter, Jaroslava.
How often does this Slav Epic Mucha poster tend to come to auction? It’s not very common. It’s even more uncommon to find a nice example in good condition with good color. One or two come up every few years.
As of November 19, 2019, the Slav Epic Mucha poster reflected a bid of $4,000. Is that at all meaningful with weeks to go before the sale? It’s always energizing and noteworthy, but in my experience, it’s not always meaningful. The real action doesn’t start until the live auction.
What’s the condition of this example of the Slav Epic Mucha poster? It’s in good to very fine condition. Again, the colors are very strong. It’s very clean, no visual issues or detractions. It’s properly mounted and has its margins. With this example, the text panel is framed separately. That’s how the collector displayed it in his home.
The Slav Epic Mucha poster is from the collection of the late Robert Allan Haas. Who was he, and how does his provenance make the poster more interesting to collectors? Haas was an artist and an illustrator, as Mucha was. He worked for Hallmark cards, and was based in Kansas City, Missouri. He studied at the Ringling College of Fine Art, and happened upon a Mucha illustration in a book and was taken with it. He credited it with teaching him about art and life.
And Haas became a Mucha expert? To some degree, based on his notes and the books we found. At times, he authenticated pieces for the Mucha family. They consulted with him, and he knew and corresponded with them.
To what extent can we credit Haas with the good condition of the Slav Epic Mucha poster? That’s kind of the luck of the draw. He was fortunate to find a fine example. He certainly did know and understand what must be done to conserve and display posters and works on paper.
How many Mucha works from Haas are in this auction? And does that number represent the entirety of his collection? About 60. There are another 50 lots, not counting his library. There will be a second session next year in 2020–we haven’t set the date yet–and that will be the whole collection.
What is the Slav Epic Mucha poster like in person? The colors are strong, with a lot of vibrant hues. The trailing plumes of gold-embossed smoke are really striking. It’s very intriguing in person.
Would the smoke be your favorite detail of the Slav Epic Mucha poster? That is it–the plume rising, the beauty of the flowing lines, and the way it sets up the composition.
What you see: A Know Nothing American flag, dating to December 1858. Freeman’s estimates it at $25,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Lynda Cain, vice president and department head for American furniture, folk and decorative arts at Freeman’s.
Let’s start by talking about who the Know Nothings were. They were founded in 1849, and were a nativist party–anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, largely due to Irish immigration. Ireland experienced a famine, and there were no jobs, so they moved to American cities. It was an anti-immigration movement, sadly not unlike today.
Funny how some things never seem to change. There’s an interesting letter from Abraham Lincoln about the Know Nothings. It’s from 1855, and it reads: “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.” The Know Nothings were a well-enough known party, though they kept it kind of secret. If anyone asked about their agenda, their members would say, “I know nothing.” [Hence the name.] They didn’t want new people, people who had different faiths. They didn’t want to change.
How would the Know Nothings have used this flag in the late 1850s? I don’t know for sure. I think maybe it was made for group meetings, secret meetings, or for someone’s personal use. But it’s small, a very small thing–only 19 inches by 23 1/4 inches. It looks like it was pinned up on something. It was not hung on a building. It was rather discreet. Nobody wants to stand up and say, “I hate people.”
The Know Nothing flag is small enough to tuck inside a coat? It’s small. It’s not something to be raised on a pole.
Here in the 21st century, we think of the design of the American flag as being fixed and inviolate. I get the impression that wasn’t the case in the 19th century, when this Know Nothing flag was made. The makers have clearly taken liberties with the basic American flag design–they’ve replaced the canton [the blue field that appears in the upper left] with an image of George Washington… This whole patch [with Washington on it] was cut out of a length of printed fabric and appliqued on the stripes. It functions as the canton, and it serves its purpose beautifully.
There are 13 embroidered stars above the eagle’s head on this Know Nothing flag. Is that meant to be a reference to the original 13 colonies? Yeah, I think they’re envisioning some sort of purer time that never was. Again, it’s comparable to the present–longing for some idyllic past that was not idyllic for everyone and not as idyllic as it seemed.
Redesigning the look of the American flag would not have been offensive in 1858? Not until 1912 was there a flag act that started to regulate things–48 stars and 13 stripes. This… I don’t think it’s a public piece. It’s private, or for a small group of like-thinking individuals.
The Know Nothing flag has 17 stripes. Does the number of stripes have any special significance to the group or its ideology? Or does it just happen to have 17 stripes for reasons known only to the person who stitched it? Very interesting. I don’t know why. I don’t know if that meant something to the Know Nothings.
The Know Nothings put a portrait of George Washington on the flag. Why did they hold Washington, of all the founders, in such high esteem? According to legendary flag collector Boleslaw Mastai, the Know Nothing Party “professed a veritable cult for George Washington”. They took partial quotes from a Washington letter of April 30, 1777, which he wrote in the wake of an assassination plot involving members of his own guard: “You will therefore send me none but Natives, & Men of some property, if you have them- I must insist that in that in making this Choice you give no intimation of my preference of Natives, as I do not want to create any invidious Distinction between them & Foreigner….”
George Washington is shown with his hand on the hilt of a sword. Did that have particular meaning to the Know Nothings, or is that just how the company who printed the textile wanted Washington to look? You often get that, even in formal portraits. It’s not uncommon for portraits of the 18th century and the early 19th century to show [leaders] with swords to allude to their military past.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how the Know Nothing flag was made? It’s all hand-sewn. They cut out a patch from a length of printed fabric, and appliquéd it onto the stripes.
The initials “JWL” are embroidered on the Know Nothing flag. Do we have any idea who JWL is? We don’t.
The flag also has a date on it–December 1858. Is it unusual to see a dated flag? Yes, it is unusual. We do have a couple of flags in the sale that were made by or presented to people and often, there are inscriptions on them. It’s a little different to embroider [the date], but it’s not unknown.
Does the December 1858 date have any special meaning to the Know Nothings? I don’t think so. I think it’s just when they made it [the flag].
I see what looks like scorch marks in places on the flag. What are they? There could be a number of things that cause that. Sometimes it happens if it’s folded for a long time. Something could have been spilled on it. Perhaps it was nailed to something metal and rust transferred onto the fabric.
How rare is this Know Nothing flag? I don’t know of any others. It comes from a very important flag collection, the Mastai Collection.
Have any others appeared at auction? The first Know Nothing flag at auction was this one, in 2002, when the Mastai collection sold at Sotheby’s. It was passed [it failed to sell at auction] and was sold later, within a year of the auction.
What is the Know Nothing flag like in person? It’s very colorful and bright. The reds are very vibrant. The Washington patch is a trifle faded, but not horribly. It makes an impact.
Why will the Know Nothing flag stick in your memory? Because I’ve never seen anything like it. Everybody heard about the Know Nothings in history class, but I’ve never seen a living, breathing artifact associated with the group. It’s a reminder that history repeats itself. Anti-immigration–we have that going on today.
Update: The Battleship Potemkin poster sold for $108,000.
What you see: A 1929 Russian movie poster for the noted Russian film Battleship Potemkin. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $50,000 to $100,000.
The expert: Grey Smith, director of vintage movie poster auctions at Heritage Auctions.
First, could we talk about Battleship Potemkin–what it’s about, why it’s considered such an effective propaganda film, why film scholars still study it? What I know is it’s considered one of the greatest foreign films in history. It was about a mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin, and it was made for the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the [Bolshevik] revolution. Director Sergei Eisenstein was a proponent of the montage theory in film–juxtaposition of images to create emotion. Every scene within the film took a different angle. It was very exploratory for the age. When it was released in Russia [in 1925], it didn’t do very well. Only on overseas distribution did people go, “Whoa, this is quite a propaganda piece.”
Why was Battleship Potemkin re-released in Russia in 1929 if it did so poorly in the country its original run? This is purely a guess but I think it had something to do with the advent of sound. I would almost bet that the 1929 re-release had a sound element. [The 1925 version was a silent film.] I do not know that, and I can’t find evidence of it, but 1929 was when the change was being made. Also, the film governing body, Goskino, wanted to push it out again domestically after the overseas response, to see if it would get a better response.
Do we have any notion of why the Stenberg brothers, Vladimir and Georgii, were chosen to design the 1929 re-release Battleship Potemkin poster? I don’t think we’ll ever know beyond [the fact that] they were so well-known in this period, the late 1920s. They were the premier Constructivist artists. They did 300 posters in total in their ten-year career.