Diane Arbus Photographs Owned by Albino Sword Swallower Sandra Reed Could Together Command $80,000

A Diane Arbus double portrait photograph of albino sword-swallower Sandra Reed (right) and her sister, Doreen, could sell for $20,000 or more at Potter & Potter.

What you see: A gelatin silver print of albino sword-swallower Sandra Reed (right) and her sister, Doreen, taken in 1970 by Diane Arbus. It and three other images from the same session come directly from the estate of Sandra Reed. Potter and Potter estimates each at $10,000 to $20,000.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

Do we know the story behind how Diane Arbus and Sandra Reed met? Did Reed know who Arbus was? I don’t know the story behind that, but I’m sure it’s chronicled. Obviously, Arbus had a fascination with sideshows, circuses, and unusual people. It’s a hallmark of her work. Joe, who works for me, could relate it better. Johnny Fox (a sideshow performer whose collection Potter & Potter sold in November 2018) had Arbus photos that Sandra Reed had given him. When Joe was doing the research on the photos, he found Reed’s phone number and called her. She had a vague recollection of the photo session, but it wasn’t like, “Oh, by the way, I’m the sword-swallower in the pictures by Diane Arbus”. Again, I’m speaking for Joe, but [I get the sense that it was] “Oh, I remember a lady came to the fairground and took pictures”.

Is it possible that Reed never realized the significance of having posed for Diane Arbus? The photographs in this auction were Reed’s property. She’s deceased. She died last year. The family consigned them.

Do we know how the Arbus photos came to Sandra Reed? Would Arbus have sent them to her? That’s speculation. Her kids are so far removed [from Reed’s time as a sword-swallower], they have no memory of it.

A closeup shot of Doreen and Sandra Reed, taken by Diane Arbus circa 1970 on the grounds of the sideshow where Sandra performed as a sword-swallower. Both women happen to be albinos.

So we know these photos belonged to Sandra Reed because they come directly from her family? They’re not stamped by her, but they’re clearly from the session and they’re clearly from Reed’s collection. We also have Reed’s scrapbooks from her time on the shows [they comprise lots 236 and 237], and her traveling trunk, with her name on it. I really wanted the swords in the Arbus photos, but I can’t locate them.

Do we know how the photo session for the Arbus sword-swallower photos came about? Was it planned, or spontaneous? I don’t know, but her work is well-documented. I know that the large prints of Sandra Reed are some of her most iconic works. She took many different shots.

Many of the Arbus sword-swallower photos you’re offering include Sandra Reed’s sister, Doreen. Do we know why Doreen happened to be there? To me, that says they were both on the show. I think they were both albino.

Even though Doreen is not wearing a costume, and Sandra is? Right.

Also included in the sale is a circa 1965 group shot Diane Arbus took of the performers at Huber's Museum. It carries the same $10,000 to $20,000 estimate as the photos featuring Sandra Reed.

The auction includes a fifth Arbus photo, a group shot taken in 1965 at Huber’s Museum. What does it say about Arbus that she returned to these subjects so regularly? It’s clearly a big part of her life’s work. Obviously, she was interested in chronicling people who you did not see on the subway. Or if you do, you stare at them. There’s one guy in the Huber’s Museum photo who’s still alive, and performs as an Elvis impersonator and an escape artist. Mario Manzini. He’s up front, with dark hair, crouching, and in chains. If you ever need an Elvis who can escape from handcuffs, he’s your guy.

The two Arbus sword-swallower photos that you offered as one lot in the 2018 Johnny Fox sale sold for $28,800, and a record for a sideshow item at auction. Did that sale lead to the consignment of the four photos you’re offering now? One thousand percent, absolutely. It’s how Reed’s family found us.

What was your reaction to the 2018 sale? You had estimated those Arbus sword-swallower photos at $1,000 to $1,500, so I imagine it was a surprise. I thought they could get there, but the condition of the photos were less than great, and they were small. I estimated them conservatively. They had all the hallmarks of the potential to do very well–never before at auction, and the auction had a lot of buzz around it, because everybody knew Johnny.

A long shot of Sandra Reed (right) and her sister, Doreen, taken by Diane Arbus circa 1970.

How do these four Arbus sword-swallower photos compare to the two that set a record in 2018? These are much larger, and they have fewer condition issues. I put a higher estimate on them, but there’s no reserve. If you have $5,000, you can have a Diane Arbus photo, assuming no one else bids against them. And you can see three different versions of kind of the same photo–a distant shot, a close-up, and a medium-length shot. I can see someone wanting to buy all three for that reason.

None of the four Arbus sword-swallower photos show Sandra Reed with her sword. One of the two that sold for a record in 2018 did. Do you think that will matter? I don’t think so. Some of Arbus’s great photos of her have nothing to do with swords.

Diane Arbus also photographed the Reed sisters with two unidentified women, at least one of whom appears to be a performer in the sideshow.

What are the Arbus sword-swallower photos like in person? Are there aspects that don’t come across on camera? You’ll never have the same feeling as holding them in person. They’re the real thing.

But these are gelatin silver prints. I’m under the impression that those types of photographs have a silkiness to them– There’s that, but it’s not about the texture, it’s about the history. It’s a physical object, touched by a great photographer and touched by and owned by the subject of the photograph. Those are the things that speak to me. They’re imposing because of the story they tell and the people who interacted with them. They don’t carry physical weight, but they carry historical weight.

How much of the $10,000 to $20,000 estimate for each Arbus sword-swallower photo comes from the fact that Sandra Reed, the person shown in all four, owned them? It might not be half, but it’s certainly 25 percent of it. If you’re a photo collector, I’m not sure if you give a shit, but I certainly would. For me, that’s fantastic. Boy, is that a selling point.

Did the 2018 Arbus sword-swallower photos go to a sideshow memorabilia collector or a collector of Diane Arbus photographs? Neither. I don’t know them to be an Arbus collector, but I know them to be an art collector.

Why will these four Arbus sword-swallower photos stick in your memory? The serendipitous nature of it, whatever word you want to use that describes happenstance–the nature of getting the consignment like this. It’s like a giant puzzle that gets unassembled and reassembled, and we end up putting it together in surprising and potentially profitable patterns.

How to bid: The four Diane Arbus photographs from Sandra Reed are lots 232 to 235 in the Potter and Potter auction; the 1965 Arbus group portrait is lot 231. All appear in the Circus, Sideshow & Oddities sale taking place on September 26, 2020.

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Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a vintage Harry Houdini postcard from the magician’s personal collectionan oversize Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, a Daisy and Violet Hilton poster from the conjoined twins’ vaudeville years, an impressive talking skull automaton that went on to sell for $13,200, a magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, a rare book from the creator of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion,  a Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout–a device for cheating at cards–which sold for $9,000a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.

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An Andy Warhol Portrait of Keith Haring and His Lover Could Command $250,000

A circa 1983 Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring and his lover, Juan DuBose, could command $250,000 at Sotheby's.

What you see: An untitled Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring and his lover, Juan DuBose. Sotheby’s estimates it at $200,000 to $250,000.

The expert: Harrison Tenzer, Head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Online Sales in New York.

How did Andy Warhol and Keith Haring become friends? In 1989, Haring told Rolling Stone: “Before I knew [Warhol], he had been an image to me. He was totally unapproachable. I met him finally through Christopher Makos, who brought me to the Factory. At first Andy was very distant. It was difficult for him to be comfortable with people if he didn’t know them. Then he came to another exhibition at the Fun Gallery, which was soon after the show at Shafrazi. He was more friendly. We started talking, going out. We traded a lot of works at that time.”

When would these meetings have happened? I don’t know, but it was probably the early 1980s.

The release for the auction says Haring was “greatly influenced by Andy Warhol”. How did that influence show up in Haring’s work? Warhol was really an elder statesman of the art world for Haring’s generation. All the artists who came up in the 1980s really looked up to him. Haring was influenced by his pop iconography and the idea of art as a business. Haring was interested in making his art available to the largest number of people–he drew his work in the subway, and printed it on hats and t-shirts. At the Pop Shop [Haring’s boutique in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan] you could buy things for very little. It was all directly influenced by Warhol. Haring even invented a character, Andy Mouse, which was a mash-up of Andy Warhol and Mickey Mouse. Both Warhol and Haring were obsessed with Walt Disney and saw Mickey Mouse as a symbol of American culture. Warhol, in his own way, was an American legend like Mickey Mouse.

Did Andy Warhol and Keith Haring ever collaborate? I’ve done some research and the only true collaboration I can find–and I can’t confirm it’s the only one–is a poster they did for the 1986 Montreux Jazz Festival. This is speculation, but Warhol did a number of collaborations with Basquiat that were not well received by the art community. It caused a rift between Warhol and Basquiat. After that experience, I think Warhol was pretty spooked by collaborating with young artists.

I’ve seen some of the Warhol-Basquiat things. I didn’t realize they were flops at the time. They weren’t seen as great examples of either of their work. Now, there’s a lot more appreciation for them, but they were not as successful as Warhol or Basquiat wanted.

So Haring and Warhol rarely worked together to make art, but it was strong enough to have meaningful effects? There are so many photographs of Haring and Warhol at parties. It’s clear from documentary archives that they spent a lot of time together. It’s interesting, because the two men were very different. Warhol was shy and withdrawn, and Haring was out dancing every night. They’re very different artists.

Do we know how this particular Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring came about? We don’t know the specifics of how it came to be, but this was a time in Warhol’s career when he was doing a lot of commissioned portraits of celebrities and friends in his network. He’d start with Polaroids and made silkscreens from selected images.

When was the Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring made? 1983.

So everyone was happy and producing art when this silkscreen was made. AIDS was just starting to bubble up, but Haring was still healthy.

Is this the only portrait Andy Warhol made featuring Keith Haring? The catalog raisonné that covers this Warhol period hasn’t been created. It’s hard to know for certain. We sold another double portrait in 2018. It’s the same dimensions and the same image, but in different colors. If we have had one come up and sold it, I imagine there are others.

So there’s more than one variation on the Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring. It’s a unique painting, not an editioned work. Warhol would have done the same silkscreen of Haring, but painting it with different color ways. They’re unique paintings, not prints.

Do we know how this particular one, with the orange background, ended up with Haring? Did Warhol give it to Haring, or did Haring choose it? That, we’re not sure. In 1983, Haring had just blown up and just become a sensation. I’m not sure Haring would have been in a place to ask Warhol [for the variation he liked best]. He would accept any gift he gave him.

Is this the only known portrait of Keith Haring and Juan DuBose, regardless of who made it? Or are there others? I don’t know. There might be photographs. I haven’t researched it.

The Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring has no title. Do we know why? Is that deliberate? We’re still doing research on it. But it was a gift to Haring, and it was a fully finished piece of artwork. I want to make it clear that it wasn’t a drawing or a a provisional castoff. It’s a unique, well-painted 1980s Warhol portrait, given to his friend.

Haring lived with this Warhol portrait. Sotheby’s sent along a photo that shows it hanging in Haring’s apartment. What does that say about how Haring regarded the work? He lived in many different apartments. I can’t confirm it was always on display. But it moved with him, and we have images of the work in different contexts.

Was it in Haring’s final apartment? Yes.

…But when you’re an artist, wall space in your own home is always scarce, no matter how big your home is. What does it say that Haring usually or always found room for this Warhol portrait of him and his lover? This particular work was pretty major. Juan DuBose was in Haring’s life for pretty much the decade of his major success. They had a contentious relationship at the time. Haring would have regarded the painting with mixed emotions. But he was from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and in his twenties, he was painted by the most famous artist alive. He was also out as a gay man. To be painted by Warhol with his African-American male lover… that’s a pretty major departure from five to six years earlier, when he was playing it straight in Pennsylvania.

So it wasn’t just a portrait to Haring. It captured milestones in his life. He claimed his identity as an artist, as a gay man, and as an important man in the community. And it ticks the box of celebrity, because Warhol painted him.

What is the Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring like in person? Are there aspects that don’t come over on camera? It pops so much in person. It’s in great condition, and very vibrant. It appears much flatter in the photo. When you experience it in person, it’s a very well-executed, crisp screen.

With regard to the sale itself–how much of Haring’s personal art collection does it include? This represents all of it, to my knowledge.

Haring died in 1990. Why sell his personal art collection now? Why not earlier? For some time, the Haring foundation wanted to do a sale. Now is a perfect time because the market for many of the artists in the auction has matured. Street artists and graffiti artists, at the time of Haring’s death, were not valuable. The interest in a more inclusive market just wasn’t there in the early 1990s.

Why will this Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring and his lover stick in your memory? It’s a subject that burns like fire. It’s in-your-face and bold. There’s so much joy and eroticism and heat in the portrait, and we know what’s going to happen to each of these three men. Unlike Warhol, who was active for four decades in a major way, Haring only had one decade. But he burned so bright, like a candle lit at both ends.

How to bid: The Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring and Juan DuBose will appear in Dear Keith: Works from the Personal Collection of Keith Haring, a Sotheby’s online sale taking place from September 24 through October 1, 2020.

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RECORD! A Wedgwood First Day’s Vase Sold at Christie’s for More Than $600,000

A Wedgwood First Day's Vase, rendered in black basalt and orange-red encaustic enamel and dating to 1769. It became the most expensive piece of Wedgwood at auction when Christie's offered it in 2016.

What you see: A Wedgwood “First Day’s Vase”, dating to 1769. Estimated at £120,000 to £180,000 ($151,000 to $226,000), it sold for £482,500 ($607,000) at Christie’s in 2016, setting a record for any piece of Wedgwood.

The expert: Jody Wilkie, international specialist head of European ceramics at Christie’s, as well as a senior vice president and co-chairman of decorative arts.

Who was Josiah Wedgwood? He’s known for several different things. He’s a master potter, a master businessman, and arguably, the first person to do modern marketing for his works. He had a whole coterie of friends–artists and intellectuals–who traded ideas off each other. In the late 18th century, all things scientific were just having their birth, and potting was arguably a science. When Josiah Wedgwood made these [ceramics, he noted] the chemistry of how the clays reacted. He developed whole new materials that didn’t exist. And he would have been considered a cutting-edge contemporary artist.

So Josiah Wedgwood is the sort of person we could pluck from the 18th century and drop in the 21st, and he’d hit the ground running? Except he had a bad leg. [Josiah Wedgwood’s right leg was amputated below the knee due to complications from smallpox.]

He’d be all over Instagram today. Without question. There’s a story told about him and how he realized that marketing was the key to unlocking financial success in his business. In 18th century England, there was a huge industry in pottery, and particularly creamware, which was pale ivory-colored in imitation of porcelain. The middle classes couldn’t afford porcelain, so they had creamware. In 1759, Wedgwood had a showroom [in London], and Queen Charlotte came and bought a creamware tea service. Wedgwood decided his creamware could be called Queen’s ware. Everyone wanted to buy it because it was Queen’s ware.

Josiah Wedgwood understood the power of celebrity influencers. He recognized something like that could be helpful to him, so he did it. You could say he was the father of modern marketing.

Where was Josiah Wedgwood in his career in 1769, when he made this First Day’s Vase? He was ten years into his business and starting a new factory in England called Etruria, outside of Stoke-on-Trent, where the Wedgwood Museum is today. That whole area of England used to be one pottery after another. He decided to start a bigger enterprise, a modern factory.

A Wedgwood First Day's Vase, rendered in black basalt and orange-red encaustic enamel and dating to 1769. It became the most expensive piece of Wedgwood at auction when Christie's offered it in 2016.

Why did he call it a First Day’s Vase? The reason for the name is it was one of the first pots to come out of the brand new kiln. It’s known that he potted them, and his business partner, Thomas Bentley, turned the wheel.

Was it unusual for Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley to physically create the ceramics themselves in 1769? I think so. They did it because the First Day’s Vases were what they were. I don’t think Wedgwood was necessarily potting every day at the factory, but he was very much a hands-on owner. When doing tests to come up with new material, he would have been involved, for sure.

I understand that six First Day’s Vases went into the kiln, and four emerged. Are they all decorated identically, or do they differ? They’re basically identical. They definitely all have the same inscription on the back. The inscription is in Latin, and it translates as, “The arts of Etruria are reborn”.

Josiah Wedgwood was not aiming low. He definitely had a high opinion of himself. That’s why he got where he was.

Why did Josiah Wedgwood choose to decorate the First Day’s Vase in the manner that we see here? The whole point of the exercise was to copy Greek vases. At that point in the 18th century, Neoclassical art was in vogue. One of the great antiquities collectors was William Hamilton, the English ambassador to Naples. The shape of this vase was based on a piece in the William Hamilton collection, as is the decoration.

This Wedgwood First Day’s Vase and similar-looking Wedgwood pieces would have connected with the sorts of people who went on the Grand Tour? The 18th century was the height of the Grand Tour. They’d see the original, then go to a Wedgwood showroom and buy one just like it.

What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult this Wedgwood First Day’s Vase might have been to make? We know it posed challenges–six went into the kiln, and only four came out… Making any pottery, any vase, was a highly tricky enterprise because all the kilns were wood-fired. All kinds of physical problems could exist. Things would explode, things would crack. The reason they put six in was they were praying one or two would come out in a usable form. The fact that four came out–that’s a really good yield.

The Wedgwood First Day’s Vase measures 10 inches high. I know that the bigger a pot gets, the harder it is to see the design through to completion. Was Josiah Wedgwood pushing his luck by rendering the vase at this size? Ten inches, to my mind, is a doable size. It’s big enough to make a statement. The perfection of the First Day’s Vase is in its proportions and its shape. If it slumped to one side [in the kiln] or the curve of a shoulder wasn’t perfect, you’ve lost it.

Do we know where the other Wedgwood First Day’s Vases are? Yes. Two are at the Wedgwood Museum, and one is still in a private collection.

What is the Wedgwood First Day’s Vase like in person? My colleagues in London were the ones who really dealt with it and cataloged it. I came over for the sale. When I came over, I was surprised at how small it was. In my mind, it was such a big deal. In the photographs, it had presence. One of the beauties of black basalt [the type of Wedgwood ceramic used for the vase] is it has a wonderful silken surface, very smooth, and it has a light weight. Because of its shape, it fits in your hand very well. That’s the whole point of ceramics–they’re very tactile.

I’ve been told by people who have handled the full range of Wedgwood–pieces dating to the 18th century up to now–that the 18th century pieces feel different. Do you agree? I definitely agree. I’d say it’s lighter, and that silken surface… it draws you. If you touch it with your fingers, you can feel the difference. It’s the craftsmanship. There are techniques that were done in the 18th century that you can’t do now.

What, because of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-type rules coming in? There are an awful lot of techniques that are highly caustic and couldn’t be used today. But at a certain point in the 18th century, labor was dead cheap. The artist could take the time to develop his technique and make these things perfect. Later, labor became more expensive, and the objects have a more manufactured quality.

What condition was the Wedgwood First Day’s Vase in prior to the auction? A-maze-ing. It had two little tiny surface chips to the underside of the foot rim, and a tiny little nick at the mouth that could have been there when it was made. That’s it. No cracks, no wear, nothing. The finial was in one piece, but it had come off the surface of the cover and been stuck back on. In the general scheme of things, that’s nothing.

The provenance reflected in the lot notes show that the First Day’s Vase descended in the Wedgwood family for centuries. How might that have made it more interesting to collectors? It’s not that Wedgwood owned it and it hadn’t changed hands. That didn’t matter as much as it having stayed in one piece and having been taken care of. But it was the Wedgwood family that had it.

Was this the first of the Wedgwood First Day’s Vases to go to auction? It’s the only one to go to auction. The two in the Wedgwood Museum I don’t think ever left the factory, so, by default, they went into the museum. This one was owned by the Wedgwood family. The other, I understand, is with the family. It hasn’t gone anywhere.

What was your role in the auction? I was on the phone with a buyer. It was very exciting. We went into it knowing it was sold. We didn’t know at what level it would sell.

Did you think it would set a new record for any piece of Wedgwood? No, no, I didn’t go into it thinking it would make a record price. Personally, I don’t care about records. [Laughs.] For me, it’s the object that speaks.

Well, isn’t it good and right that a First Day’s Vase, of all of Wedgwood’s many pieces, holds the world auction record? If anything is going to set the record for the manufacturer, the first piece made [at Etruria] should be it. As a footnote, on the last day of operations, Wedgwood did a modern version of the vase and called it the Last Day’s Vase. For collectors, having a Last Day’s vase is a big deal. It’s a landmark.

Do you remember how many bidders there were at the start of the battle for the First Day’s Vase, and how long it took to drop to two? As I recall, the whole thing, from start to finish, was six or seven minutes. It went back and forth a lot. Getting any bidding started on any major lot is a game of chicken. No one wants to be the first to open their mouth. It started slowly, which was no surprise.

Were you surprised by the final price? I was. I thought it would sell for around £250,000.

Were you shocked to see it get £482,500? It was a lot of money for the period, and a lot of money for English ceramics. It proves that when you’ve got something unique, an object out of the ordinary, of exquisite quality and an icon of the time in which it was made, it’s going to perform like that. That’s why we put it in an Exceptional Sale rather than a ceramics sale.

I had noticed that and was wondering about that. That particular object is a standout that would appeal to audiences beyond the field of Wedgwood ceramics. Museums and private collectors bid on it because it was what it was. When it was on view, it was in a single standing case, surrounded by silver and all kinds of grand objects. People who walked into the gallery were drawn to it.

How long do you think this world auction record for Wedgwood will stand? What could beat it? Would the other First Day’s Vase in private hands have to come to market? I think this record is going to stand for a while. It would take one of the other ones [being consigned], but I don’t know if it would make the same money. I think the odds of it being denied an export permit because the British want to keep it [in their country] is great. If it can’t leave the country, why bid on it?

Why will the Wedgwood First Day’s Vase stick in your memory? Because of the whole story behind the vase, and also because the man who bought it is a longtime client. He’s an extraordinary gentleman, and it’s all tied in. Being on the phone [representing the buyer] made it more personal than standing there, taking down prices.

Could you clarify what happened after the collector won the bidding? The original buyer of the First Day’s Vase was American. The museum that has it now was not the direct underbidder. Because of the system of [issuing] export papers in Britain, they were able to make a case and raise the money [to keep it in the country]. They felt it was taken away from its home and it needed to come back home. I advocated for my client to have it for his lifetime, and put in his will that it would go back to the museum, but that’s not the way it works. It was ultimately put back in the same case it had been in since 1979.

The winning bidder had a place for it in his house? He absolutely knew where it was going. I’m extremely disappointed that the collector never got to see it in person. He was 94 when he bought it. He never got to have it in his hands.

Is he still alive? He is still alive, and he’s that much older. If the piece came up now, in 2020, I don’t know if he would be bidding on it. I can’t say [for sure], obviously, but I do think there comes a tipping point.

But the First Day’s Vase remains the Holy Grail of Wedgwood collectors? It is the Holy Grail, as it were.

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RECORD! A Natee Utarit Painting Set a World Auction Record for the Artist at Phillips Hong Kong in November 2019

King, a monumental 2011 painting by Natee Utarit. It holds the world auction record for any work by the Southeast Asian artist.

What you see: King, a 2011 oil on linen by Natee Utarit. It set the world auction record for any work by the artist when Phillips Hong Kong sold it in November 2019 for HK $2.7 million (about $353,000) against an estimate of HK $1 million to $1.5 million ($128,000 to $192,000).

The expert: Sandy Ma, international specialist at Phillips.

Who is Natee Utarit? He’s a Thai artist who works in Bangkok. He’s been deemed one of the most significant and important artists in Southeast Asia right now. He’s known for his distinct style of painting and famously has a track record of works being exhibited in museums and institutions.

How prolific has Natee Utarit been? He’s been painting all through his life. He was born in 1970, and had his first show as early as 1990. As for a total [on output to date], I’m not sure, but on average, for the last year or two, he’s been doing as many as five to ten shows a year. He’s not only a painter. He sculpts and works in mixed media.

How often does Natee Utarit paint in the style we see in King? He’s primarily known for his figurative works. What really draws people in is not just the richness of the canvas and how beautiful it looks, but the complexity in the images as well. He puts in a lot of effort and thought in his works to talk about important socio-political issues.

Has he talked about what drew him to this style of still life painting, and why it suits his approach to creating art? Primarily, he uses his painterly style and traditional framing because he wants to lull the viewer into a false sense of familiarity. The subjects are painted from arrangements of figurines and found objects in his studio. He’s able to infuse a lot of messages into his work by using this language [the visual language of the still life]. I think it really does play to his idea of blurring reality and artifices in his work.

How does he do that? With scale and the juxtaposition of the objects he finds. One object is bigger than the other, making you think that the object is distorted.

He might show an object bigger than it would be in real life? Yes.

Does he make preparatory sketches? Usually there is a sketch. I’m sure he reworks and reworks the composition until it’s exactly how he wants.

King is an allegorical still life that references the life and legacy of the 19th century Thai King Rama IV.

King is big. It measures 78 and 3/4 inches by 125 and 7/8 inches. Does Natee Utarit normally work at this scale? He doesn’t always work this big. King is considered one of his very major works. It’s from the Illustration of the Crisis series, and this is already one of the largest paintings in the series. It’s from a trio of works called God, King, and Country.

Wait, so God, King, and Country are in turn part of a larger series by Natee Utarit, called the Illustration of the Crisis? It’s a series within a series? Yes. It’s a series of his major series. He started painting it around 2010 or 2011. People really love this particular series of works. It captures the turmoil in Thailand’s political landscape in the mid-2000s.

How does King compare to God and Country, the other two works in the trio? In terms of composition, this one has a lot more stage presence and a figurative approach where the other two are more abstract. God and Country are in private hands.

King Rama IV of Thailand shapes the narrative of King. Is this the only Natee Utarit work that explores his reign and its effect on the country? I’m not sure if it’s the only one, but it’s the only one I know of that addresses the story and the legacy of King Rama IV in such a prominent way. [The King ruled Thailand from 1851 to 1868.]

Now I’m going to ask you to walk me through the composition of King. How has Natee Utarit loaded it with messages and meaning? The golden stature of the deity represents King Rama IV himself. The statue looks through a telescope at a scientific model of a dissected cow. Utarit’s talking about the legacy of King Rama IV, who was known as the father of science and technology–he’s immortalzing that part here. The model of the cow perches on top of scales, which supports the idea of King Rama IV’s reign as a proponent of knowledge and the rule of law. The fallen crown [a white object at the lower left, which overlaps the wheel] is a Western-type of crown. It alludes to the fact that Thailand was never colonized, which is a source of pride for Thai people. Utarit himself doesn’t go deep into the meanings of each part of his work. Part of the charm is he wants us to discover meanings on our own, ourselves.

Is that a golf club bag at the left? The deity is not facing the golf club bag. It almost looks like a cannon. The story of King Rama IV is he’s a proponent of knowledge, science, and technology rather than using cannons and military might to rule over the kingdom.

What does the white classical-looking statue represent? It’s a statue of the French enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire.

What does Voltaire represent here? He’s gesturing toward a book he wrote in his lifetime arguing for freedom of thought, civil liberty, religious tolerance, and a constitutional monarchy. It [the painting lets Utarit] talk about the story of Thailand through the lens of King Rama IV versus Western civilization, and he’s really in favor of the rule of law, constitutional monarchy, and freedom of thought.

When did the secondary market for Natee Utarit works begin? It started as early as the 1990s. It really has been over that many decades, and it’s been growing steadily. My recollection is that the previous auction record for Utarit was in 2018 at Phillips Hong Kong with a work from the Illustration of the Crisis series. Another record was set in 2015 at Christie’s Hong Kong.

Does the price fetched by King represent a large advance on the earlier records, or was the rise more steady? There’s a very steady progression of prices for Natee Utarit [represented by the records for his work], from $180,000 to $220,000 to $350,000.

What is King like in person? Are there any aspects that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? I think the camera doesn’t get the scale of the work. It’s stunning in real life. The massive scale of the work is really prominent when you stand in front of it. It not only shows you how well Natee Utarit can paint–the surface is so bright and smooth–but it’s filled with the luminosity of the oil paint itself.

Are there any other things about King that a digital reproduction wouldn’t show? About the scale–there’s an interesting point. The painting is so heavy that we had to reinforce the wall it was hanging on. The frame is very heavy, and the whole is very heavy. It had to have eight art handlers to lift it at one time.

What was your role in the sale of King? I was in the room for the auction. I believe I was bidding on behalf of a client. The room was packed. Even before the auction, we knew King was going to be a huge success, because of how many people registered to bid on the work. I think there were around ten bidders on the work itself. Bidding went on for a while before the record was set. When it was, there was a huge sense of achievement and happiness that the work was being appreciated by so many people.

When did you know you had set a new world auction record for Natee Utarit? When the work came in for sale, we were quite sure it was going to be a record for Utarit. It was reinforced by the fact that before the sale, it toured to Singapore and Hong Kong for preview exhibitions, and there was a lot of interest in the work.

How long do you think the Natee Utarit record will last? My guess is… it would be possible [to set a new record] whenever a work from the Altarpiece series appears at auction, but that’s quite unlikely. They’re said to be in institutions.

Would it have to be King coming back to auction? The Illustration of the Crisis series is his most sought-after series. I think this is the best work of the three [from the God, King, and Country group]. It’s hard to say how long it will stand. It’s unlikely it’ll be toppled anytime soon, but you never know.

Why will this Natee Utarit painting stick in your memory? The first time I looked at this work in person, I knew it was going to be a huge hit at auction. It’s really one of the most major pieces to come to auction by the artist, and so many symbolisms and hidden meanings are within the work. We knew what a rare chance it was to represent the work and we knew going into the sale it would be a major success.

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RECORD! Stack’s Bowers Sells a 1794 Silver Dollar for $10 Million

The front of a 1794 "flowing hair" sliver dollar, so called because of the luxuriant locks on Liberty's head. The coin sold for just over $10 million in 2013, setting a world auction record for any coin.

What you see: A 1794 “Flowing Hair” silver dollar, described as a “unique superb gem specimen”. Stack’s Bowers auctioned it in January 2013 for just over $10 million and a world auction record for any coin. [Since writing this story, news broke that the coin would go to auction as part of the Bruce Morelan collection in Las Vegas in October 2020.]

The expert: Vicken Yegparian, vice president of numismatics at Stack’s Bowers.

What is the 1794 flowing hair silver dollar, and why is it considered one of the rarest and most valuable American coins? It’s America’s first silver dollar. It’s important for that one simple reason. It predates everything our currency stands for today.

How many 1794 flowing hair silver dollars are known to exist? Estimates range between 135 and 150. Undocumented ones still come out of the woodwork on occasion, but that’s the best guess on how many survive.

And how many 1794 flowing hair silver dollars are believed to have been produced? Records say 1,758 pieces were made.

How were they lost? Were they melted down? Actually, that’s a pretty good survival rate for coins from that era. People recognized what they were back then, and saved them.

And I take it it’s called the “flowing hair” silver dollar because the woman shown in profile on the coin has flowing hair? Exactly. If you look at designs for coins from the mid-1790s period, they show the personification of Liberty. They’re all patterned after the Libertas Americana medal in Paris at the Paris Mint. She has the same flowing locks, but with a liberty cap behind her.

Why was the 1794 flowing hair silver dollar created? What need did it meet? It was a necessary coin for the economy, and for the needs of civic coinage. It’s the product of money as a sovereign right. America was starting to flex its muscles, and what does a sovereign state do? Make its own money.

So issuing the 1794 flowing hair silver dollar was just as much about announcing America’s arrival as a country as creating money for its citizens to use? It was a tool for building our reputation? It’s all of that–making our mark in international waters, so to speak. Establishing a mint was one element of nation-building. When they [the U.S. Mint] started, they decided to start with the silver dollar, because the silver dollar was obviously bigger. It’s weightier and more impressive in the hand.

What would $1 in 1794 be worth in 2020 dollars? How much spending power did this coin represent when it was new? It was a very good amount of money. Talking in terms of inflation, it’s worth $25 today.

How much silver is in the 1794 silver dollar? Just over three-quarters of a troy ounce of silver, or .4735 ounces troy of silver, net.

And that’s important, because the government promised there’d be a specific minimum amount of silver in its silver dollars, yes? Exactly. The weight of coppers was stipulated within a certain range, but silver was much more stringent. The Mint was a fledgling, low-budget operation when it launched. It didn’t have the scientific standards we have today. Back then, if it made an underweight silver dollar, it’d scrap it. If it was over, it’d be filed down to the right weight. This coin had very few adjustment lines, but they’re common on all 1794 silver dollars and 1790s coinage.

The back side of the 1794 silver dollar features a spread-winged eagle. This particular example of the coveted coin sold for slightly more than $10 million in 2013, setting a world auction record for any coin.

How many 1794 silver dollars has Stack’s Bowers handled? Many of them. We’ve been in business since the 1930s. There’s a book documenting all known 1794 silver dollars. At least 75 in that book have passed through our doors–two-thirds of the known pieces traded through Stack’s Bowers or its predecessor.

This example is believed to be the first silver dollar ever struck in the United States. What evidence supports that claim? Before you strike a production run of coins, you test the example in a softer metal. The Smithsonian has a copper version. It’s in the same die state as this piece.

We should pause and explain how coins are physically produced… Stamps that make money are called dies. They’re heavy pieces of iron, with the design at one end. There’s one die on the top, and one on the bottom, with the metal between them. You activate the press and stamp the coin.

The lot notes say the coin shows “prooflike reflectivity in the fields”. What does that mean, and why is that important? Does it support the idea that it could be the first silver dollar ever struck in the United States? The overall surface quality has a prooflike appearance. That describes the reflectivity of the surfaces. It’s mirrorlike. That’s a quality of the die and its ability to impart that surface. That quality diminishes with each strike of the coin. This coin is very well-struck, very well-impressed. All the detail is fine and very visible.

So a coin with prooflike reflectivity is kind of like a print from an early state? That’s a good comparison, but coins are a little bit different. They go from a very reflective finish to a frosty and lustrous surface. Frosty and lustrous is not undesirable, just different.

What other clues support the notion that this 1794 silver dollar might have been the first to be struck? This coin was specially made from specially prepared dies. It didn’t go into a bag with other pieces. They [whoever struck the coin] might have wanted to present special coins to somebody. We don’t know who made it or who saved it, but someone put it aside, and someone saved it for it to have been in such perfect condition.

So we can say this 1794 silver dollar was among the earliest struck, for sure, but we can’t definitively prove it was the first? Today, each die has a serial number and we record the number of strikes. None of that existed in 1794. They had to jury-rig a press to make a coin this big. But we can say beyond a reasonable doubt it was among the first strikes, and among the first prepared. They polished the die to a glossy state so it would create a glass-smooth surface in the metal and impart a glass-smooth surface to it.

Do any other 1794 silver dollars come close to this one? Nothing. Nothing.

The 1794 silver dollar is described as being “Specimen-66”, as graded by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). What does that mean, and why is that important? That’s a very high grade for a U.S. coin. Anything remotely near it in silver dollars is huge. The scale is from one to 70. A grade of 67 is super-high. For this coin to be a 66 is a big deal. And it’s a big coin. It’s much easier to hurt a larger coin. If you drop a silver dollar on the ground, you can get a big dent in the edge. To have a 1794 silver dollar that’s so well-preserved and flaw-free relative to its peers… it’s a big deal.

The lot notes also describe it as a “unique superb gem specimen”. Could you break that phrase down and explain it? “Unique” means it’s the only specimen or specially struck 1794 silver dollar that we know of. “Superb” is an old term used in numismatics for over 100 years, from before numeric grading of coins. “Gem” is the best one on the tray. Calling it a “superb gem specimen” is gilding the lily.

What had to happen between 1794 and now for the coin to survive in such good condition? Someone had to forget about it and let it sit in a family collection for 200 years, or be really cautious in its handling. It’s a miracle that it’s survived this well. It’s indicative that it was specially made and specially saved.

Why didn’t Stack’s Bowers sell this 1794 silver dollar as a single lot in a stand-alone auction? It was part of a collection, so we kept it as such.

Have you seen this 1794 silver dollar or any other 1794 silver dollars out of their plastic capsules? By the time I saw it, it had been encapsulated for a while. I have held other 1794s, before they were certified. Getting a chance to hold it in its raw state is almost impossible. But even one that’s beat up and well-worn is very cool.

What estimate did Stack’s Bowers put on this 1794 silver dollar? We don’t provide printed estimates for most of our auctions, and we didn’t publish an estimate on the coin. Bidding started at $2.2 million and rose from there.

What was the previous world auction record for any coin prior to the 1794 silver dollar? It was $7.5 million, for a 1933 double eagle sold by Stack’s Bowers and Sotheby’s in 2002.

What was your role in the auction of the 1794 silver dollar? I was on the phone with a client.

Was the winning bidder in the room? A representative of the winner was in the room, doing the actual bidding–Laura Sperber, on behalf of her client, Bruce Morelan. It’s still in his collection today. [Since taking this interview with Yegparian, PGCS announced that Morelan will auction his collection, including the record-setting 1794 silver dollar, in October 2020 in Las Vegas.]

The 1794 silver dollar sold for just over $10 million. Were you surprised? I was super surprised. There were no previous comparables [similar lots offered previously at auction] that would say the coin would bring $10 million that day. The closest was the 1933 gold piece.

When did you know you had a new world auction record? The minute the hammer fell. I think everyone was gobsmacked when the number was presented. We all knew the record for the 1933 double eagle. To get to $10 million–that’s faraway an obvious record. No one thought it would happen. I think the bidders kept their cards close to their chests. I don’t think a new record was a glimmer in anyone’s eye.

This coin was the first to cross the $10 million threshold at auction. Could you talk about what that meant to the world of coin-collecting? It seems that coins are like books, in that sales records go back fairly far. I recall reading that a coin crossed the $1,000 auction threshold in the 19th century… It was huge. I don’t know when the $10,000 sale happened, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that one hit $100,000. It took another 20 years to pass $1 million. Twenty years after that, one hit $10 million. I don’t think we’ll cross $100 million any time soon. The next realistic threshold will be $20 million. Many “greats” can be attributed to this coin. This one could break its own record.

How long do you think this record will stand? I don’t think it will fall tomorrow, but I hope it doesn’t take 30 years. I hope the record will break in the near term.

Why would it be better for this coin or one like it to come to auction relatively soon? Sometimes, you need a coin to trade to get it into peoples’ consciousness. If it goes away for 50 years, people might forget about it or think they aren’t able to own it. This coin last sold in 1984, and it brought $250,000, or thereabouts. In 30 years, it’s gone from $250,000 to $10 million.

To what do you credit the rise in price? Is demand higher? There are more well-heeled collectors in numismatics. Liquidity in the market plays into the desire to own those things. With the stay-at-home orders [the shelter-in-place recommendations due to the COVID-19 pandemic], collectors might have extra time to put into hobbies.

What else could meet or beat it? Is it pretty much this coin or an 1804 silver dollar? Exactly. This coin, or an 1804 silver dollar. That’s where story and value meet. Another coin we talked about [that could do it] is the pattern coin for the $20 gold piece.

What’s a pattern coin? An artist or a sculptor might put out a design for a coin. The iterations don’t always survive in any form, never mind the coin. For 1907 [the year in which Augustus Saint-Gaudens died, after creating but not finalizing designs for an eagle and a double eagle coin] there’s one iteration of an individual head design that was used on the $10 coin [the single eagle]. It definitely hasn’t traded in recent decades at auction. A coin like that would have all the factors that would produce a price above $10 million.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? If it were a common coin from that era, of this quality, it’d be memorable. It’s a special coin in many regards, and it was a crowning moment in my career. It’s just superior.

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RECORD! A Beatles Shea Stadium Poster Sets the World Auction Record for Any Original Concert Poster

A 1966 Beatles Shea Stadium concert poster--one of a handful of surviving originals--set a world auction record for any concert poster at Heritage Auctions in April 2020.

What you see: An original 1966 Beatles Shea Stadium concert poster. It sold at Heritage Auctions in April 2020 for $137,500 and a new world auction record for an original concert poster.

The expert: Pete Howard, consignment director at Heritage Auctions for entertainment and music.

How often do you find original 1960s posters for Beatles concerts of any kind, not just the Shea Stadium one? It’s very unusual. There’s not a lot out there. I’m not going to say [genuine originals] are nonexistent, but when somebody calls me and tells me they have an old Beatles poster, I get bored pretty quick. It’s always some bootleg.

Do Beatles concert posters survive in larger numbers than concert posters that feature their contemporaries? Were concert-goers more likely to peel one off the wall and bring it home because it showed the Beatles? Surprisingly, and almost shockingly, that’s not the case. Beatles and Elvis posters are as rare as posters for Paul Revere and the Raiders. No one got the coolness of original Beatles posters then. No collectibles market was established at all.

So concert-goers were rarely moved to spontaneously grab a poster during or after the show? Yes. In the case of the Winter Dance Party poster, a person walking by saw it and took it down. Most of the time, they’d walk by. The show was over. Nobody said, “Gee, this will be worth money to somebody.” Nobody. Zero.

I have to say, the Beatles poster itself is not very interesting-looking. The band photo looks like it was shot in 1962–But that’s totally how the Beatles looked in 1966. Their current publicity photos from 1962 to 1966 would look the same. 1967 is when the sideburns happen. When they were touring, it was mop tops and suits and ties.

Still, it looks like whoever did it put five minutes of work into designing this thing. I can’t rubber stamp the five-minutes comment. They put a little work into it. They were following a template: Promoter, name of band, photo, venue, date, when tickets were available. It was boilerplate. The only creative thing in the format is the letters of the word “Beatles” are tilted a little bit to make it look more fun.

And I understand that some time after the show, the promoter started selling reprints of this Beatles concert poster? Sid Bernstein promoted the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 and 1966. In 1965, he didn’t make a collectible or worthwhile poster. The concert sold out instantly, so there was no need. In 1966, the Beatles didn’t sell out, so he made this poster. I can’t date when Bernstein did reproductions, but he did not pass them off as real. Plenty did some without his permission. Bootlegs are out there by the millions.

Before we spoke, I received a flyer from Heritage Auctions in the mail that showed this record-setting Beatles concert poster and a Grateful Dead “Skeleton & Roses” poster from 1966, which sold for $118,750. No disrespect to the Beatles poster, but the Grateful Dead poster… some designer lavished some time on it. They’re very different. Both are from the same year, and both were created for one reason only–to sell tickets. But the Grateful Dead design is a completely different concept and ethos, and there are different reasons to collect each poster. The Beatles poster is a rarity. The Grateful Dead poster was condition grade 9.8, which made it expensive. There are hundreds of first printings of the Grateful Dead poster out there. For the Beatles poster, there’s four. There are probably as many 9.8 grade Grateful Dead posters as there are Beatles [Shea Stadium] posters in any condition. That’s why they soared past $100,000.

As you just said, few copies of the original 1966 Beatles Shea Stadium concert poster survive. Is it possible to know how many were printed? A couple hundred is a good guess.

What’s the provenance of this Beatles concert poster? We don’t know whether the consigner went to the 1966 show together with his sister or if he went alone, but he saw the Beatles in Shea Stadium in the 1960s. Whether she went or not, she took down the poster. Fifty years went by. The sister passed away. He went through her stuff and found the poster. It wasn’t a new revelation. She’d hung it on her wall at home.

In November 2019, Heritage Auctions sold a different example of this poster for $125,000. Six months later, the record broke again. Could you discuss whether and how the two events were related? I get the impression the April poster might not have come out if the November poster hadn’t done so well. It’s not a coincidence at all. It shows you how strong and coveted the poster is.

The Beatles concert poster had a rating of Very Good Plus. What does that mean in this context? The image area is undamaged, and the poster is whole. There are minor folds or tack holes, but no major tears.

The Beatles concert poster advertises a show at Shea Stadium. Does the venue matter, or is it just gravy? It’s more than gravy. Shea Stadium is an iconic venue and it’s a huge part of Beatles history. It was considered the biggest rock concert in history at the time. If the poster said “Forest Hills Stadium, New York,” I’d expect it to go for a lot less.

What other Beatles concert posters are made more interesting to collectors because of the venue name? In America, nothing touches Shea Stadium. It’s the iconic venue, and it’s New York City. A German Beatles concert poster could hit six figures at auction. The right Cavern Club poster–where they honed their skills–could reach this [record sum].

Do any genuine Beatles Cavern Club posters survive? It’s iffy. There’s a “June 11, Beatles” poster in marquee style, which doesn’t have a band picture. There might be two or three that survive. But the rarity’s there, and the venue is there. It could challenge a Shea Stadium poster. A German one that would blow right by it is the Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg. The Beatles played there for a couple of months. There are only three handpainted Beatles signs, but they’re still posters.

What is the 1966 Beatles Shea Stadium concert poster like in person? It’s on cardboard, but it shows its age. One has to be careful in how they handle it.

What was your role in the April 2020 auction? Were you the auctioneer? No. Usually, I’m at the front of the podium, but it was the first coronavirus sale. I had to watch it from my computer, like everyone else did.

Did that make the auction of the Beatles concert poster less dramatic? I don’t think so. It was quite exciting to see it go up and up. I was completely on the edge of my seat, just dying.

When did you know you had a new world auction record for a Beatles concert poster? As soon as the hammer hit.

Were you surprised that the Beatles concert poster sold for $137,500? No, because it’s a great poster and it [the record sum] was very close to the last one we sold. We did have the 2004 result to measure things against. November 2019 was just short of that, and April 2020 was just beyond that.

How long do you think this world auction record will stand? What else is out there that could meet or beat the Beatles concert poster? I’d venture to say between 10 or 20 different posters could set a new world auction record. In the psychedelic poster world, a super-iconic Jimi Hendrix flying eyeball, if it came up in a high grade–9.8, 9.9, or 10.0–it wouldn’t surprise me if it beat the record. A large Elvis Presley from the 1950s with a picture on it–that wouldn’t surprise me. A Grateful Dead Skeleton and Roses poster, the next 9.8 grade could blow by a Beatles Shea Stadium and set a new world auction record.

Why will this Beatles Shea Stadium concert poster stick in your memory? Anything that sets a world auction record is going to completely stick in my memory. It’s bragging rights for the company, and it’s wonderful for the hobby. And it happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is another reason it’s memorable.

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Images are courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Pete Howard appeared previously on The Hot Bid talking about an original 1959 Winter Dance Party poster that featured Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper.

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RECORD! Pelé’s 1970 World Cup Winner’s Medal Commanded More Than $400,000

The front of the World Cup winner's medal awarded to Pelé in 1970. It sold for more than $400,000 in 2016, setting records for any Pelé item and any football or soccer medal.

What you see: The 1970 World Cup winner’s medal awarded to Pelé. Estimated at £70,000 to £140,000 ($86,400 to $172,800), it sold for £346,000 ($427,100) at a Julien’s Auctions sale in London in 2016. It’s the most expensive Pelé item sold at auction, as well as the most expensive football (aka soccer) medal ever auctioned.

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

Who is Pelé, and why is he important? He’s regarded as one of the greatest football players of all time. He won three World Cups. He’s from Brazil, and he’s a humanitarian–he’s done a fantastic amount of work for charity. In 1999, he was named the athlete of the century by the International Olympic Committee, and FIFA (the International Federation of Association Football) named him Player of the Century. (Pelé shared the honor with Diego Maradona.)

Ah. So he’s kind of a big deal. A huge deal. When it comes to stars, he’s an absolute superstar.

Pelé’s birth name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how you get “Pelé” from that. How did he get that name? And what does it mean? He was born into poor circumstances in Brazil to a family of Portuguese origin. He was named after Thomas Edison, but it was misspelled as Edson. When he went to school, his favorite player was someone by the name of Bilé, but he mispronounced it as Pelé. The more he protested, the more it stuck. He became known as Pelé, and we know him as Pelé. In Portuguese, there’s no translation for “Pelé”.

Now, this 1970 World Cup winner’s medal–everyone on the 1970 Brazilian World Cup team received it, yes? It’s not the equivalent of a most valuable player award? Absolutely. Everyone who won got the medal.

Pelé won the World Cup in 1958, 1962, and 1970. Julien’s offered all three over the course of a three-day auction of Pelé’s personal collection in 2016, and this medal sold for the largest sum. Why? What makes the 1970 medal more valuable than the other two? Winning three World Cups is unusual and rare. No one else has done it to this day. It’s such a massive achievement.

Could you talk about what an absolute physical feat it is to win three World Cups? I see that Pelé was not quite 18 at the start of the tournament in 1958, and 22 in 1962, and 30 in 1970, which had to help, but still… when I watch a top-level soccer match, I’m always struck by how much running the players do. There’s a lot of running, and the game is played all with the feet, no hands. It’s the running, and the skill with moving the ball and passing the ball and moving the ball into the net–it’s a huge physical demand, and the World Cup is typically played in hot weather. Think about the huge demands on your body and your fitness level. And the speed you need to have is exceptional. Playing for 12 years at the international level is a phenomenal achievement. To win in 1958 and 1962 and still play in 1970–it speaks to the magnitude of Pelé as a person and an athlete.

While other players have won two World Cups, Pelé stands alone as the only three-time winner 50 years after he accomplished that feat. What does that say about how the game of football has changed over time? Is it pretty much impossible for a player to win three World Cups now? I think it’s changed and become more technical than the free-flowing play during his era. I won’t say it’s impossible, but football has become more technical than skillful.

When you say “technical,” do you mean it’s become more about knowing the rules over playing the game? Exactly. And there’s the technology available to us today, the competitors’ knowledge of how you play the game before you’re on the field.

You mean the ability to review tapes of previous games and study how rival teams play? Yes. That wasn’t applicable to Pelé.

Do you think Pelé will always stand alone as the sole three-time winner of the World Cup? To win it three times is so phenomenal for a player… there’s nothing to say no one can ever do it again, but so many things have to line up. There has to be luck involved as well as stamina and skill. It would be phenomenal to see it happen, but I think Pelé’s title is safe for another few years.

The reverse side of the World Cup winner's medal that was awarded to Pelé in 1970. It represents his third World Cup win, and 50 years later, he's still the only player, male or female, to propel the winning team to victory three times.

You had three Pelé World Cup winner’s medals to offer in the 2016 sale. What strategy did you use when scheduling them? Did you offer one on each day of the three-day auction, with the 1970 medal going up last? There was a lot of debate about that within our group at Julien’s. It was a three-day auction, six auction sessions, two each day. We worked closely with Pelé. He put his heart and soul into the project. He was inclined to sell the medals in one lot. I think he hoped to keep them together. In the end, we decided it was fairest to do one each day, in chronological order. That’s how it ended up. The three medals went to three different buyers.

Does the Pelé 1970 World Cup winner’s medal have inherent value? I see that it’s gold-colored, but I don’t see any information about a carat weight. Intrinsically, not really, but we didn’t focus on the intrinsic value of the medal itself. It represents a fantastic achievement by Pelé. That’s where the value was and is. It was his third World Cup win, and he scored the opening goal in the 18th minute of the game. That’s the story, that’s the history, that’s the value. That’s what we were selling.

What is the Pelé 1970 World Cup winner’s medal like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? If you looked at it, you’d be underwhelmed by it. You’d walk past it and it wouldn’t get your attention. But if you put a picture of Pelé with it, it’s game over. It’s so incredibly light and thin, and yet it represents so many years of hard work, grit, perseverance, and stamina. For me, personally, holding it gave me chills.

I see that the Pelé 1970 World Cup winner’s medal has a ring at the top, so it could be worn on a ribbon or a chain. Did Pelé ever wear this medal after he won it? He probably wore it on special occasions, but he was the most humble, non-egotistical gentleman I’ve ever worked with. I’m a fan of Pelé. I work with celebrities all the time. To see someone who’s achieved so much be so down-to-earth and normal and take an interest in how you were as a person… working with him was an honor.

He didn’t flaunt it. Exactly. Of course he was proud of his achievements for his country, but on a personal level, it was not something he would flaunt.

How did people react in the lead-up to the Pelé auction? It was phenomenal. Even people who weren’t bidding in the auction were curious and came to the exhibit. Pelé was so unselfish with his time. We had two parties, one for VIPs and one for the public. He attended both. Everybody who wanted a photo with him, he took a photo with them.

Pelé has seven kids, so it makes sense for him to consign his collection to auction rather than try to decide who should get what. I imagine it wasn’t easy for him to sell, though. How did he react to the auction? Sad as it was, it was cathartic, it was liberating. He had been caring for and insuring the items. Now they’re all over the world, safe, and being enjoyed, appreciated, and celebrated. Pelé loves the auction catalog, and that’s a historical book–his collection is all documented now. He can look to the catalog to see what he achieved, and know the items are loved and will be appreciated for many years to come, and there will be no family fights.

Was the group of bidders that participated in the Pelé auction more international than that of other Julien’s auctions? Yes, definitely. South Americans were hugely involved, Europe was involved. The Middle East was buying, and North America, of course–a tremendously international auction.

What do you recall of the Pelé auction? We made it a fun event. On the first day, the Julien’s Auctions team all wore black shirts. On the second, we wore green shirts, and on the third, yellow shirts. [The shirt colors reflected the colors of each of the three volumes of the auction catalog.] For me, it was one of my all-time favorite auctions we’ve ever done.

What was your role in the Pelé auction? I was on the phone with a client who was bidding in the auction. We had two different auctioneers who would rotate. My days were busy. We brought a lot of staff from Los Angeles. It was such a big project, we needed all hands on deck. And my family are such big fans of Pelé, it became like a family event as well.

What do you remember about the sale of this particular lot–the Pelé 1970 World Cup winner’s medal? There was a lot of tension beforehand. You could feel it as we got closer to the lot. It was all building up to a crescendo, a frenzy. The two who got the other two medals bid, but it ultimately went to an individual in the U.K.

The Pelé 1970 World Cup winner’s medal ultimately sold for more than $427,000. Did that surprise you? Yeah, I was pleasantly surprised. It was estimated at £70,000 to £140,000–that’s a big-ticket item. I hoped we could meet that amount. To have it sell for more than three times the estimate was exciting. It’s almost half a million for something you can almost fit in your hand. If you close your fist around it, you can’t see it. It adds to the story of Pelé and brings it to life.

Was Pelé in the room during the auction? There’s a certain amount of emotion involved in letting a collection go. We encouraged him to watch it online.

What was Pelé’s reaction to the news of how his 1970 World Cup winner’s medal did? He was very pleasantly surprised. I recall at the time that we thought all three medals would sell for half a million. This, alone, sold for almost half a million. He was so happy with the result.

The Pelé 1970 World Cup winner’s medal set a world auction record for a Pelé item and a record for any football or soccer medal. How long do you think those records will stand? Would this medal have to come back to auction? Or maybe something from the 1966 World Cup could beat it? Some of those medals could. A U.K. player sold one of his [1966 World Cup] medals, but it was nothing close to this piece. If the Pelé medal came back again, it would set a new record, yes. In 2016, we were close to an election about Brexit, and unsure about spending money. There were 1,600 items in the auction. For one person, that’s a lot. Now there’s so little Pelé material out there. If it came back, the focus would be on this medal, and it would set a new record.

Why will the Pelé 1970 World Cup winner’s medal stick in your memory? You know what I deal with. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather have. The great hard work, what it required to keep his fitness level and his sanity and play the game before a cheering crowd in Mexico and score the first goal for his country… and to stand next to Pelé, who I came to know, and to sell it for a record amount–I’ll never forget. I’m so happy with what we achieved for him, and so happy with the result. I could talk all day about Pelé.


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

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Every Bird on The Hot Bid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth buying new, at full price.

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

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Image is courtesy of Michael Papa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prop Store is on Twitter and Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Prop Store.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the winner? Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cassandra Hatton has appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about a group of Apollo 11 moon walk videotape recordings, Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize, and an Apollo 13 flight plan

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News: Summer 2020 on The Hot Bid

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

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

Most will feature items that set world auction records.

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

Enjoy your summer, and enjoy The Hot Bid!

A Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco Figure Could Command $24,000 (Updated August 13, 2020)

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

Update: The Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure sold for £18,812, or $24,475.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Charlotte Mitchell appeared on The Hot Bid previously to discuss a Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture and a Paul Manship sculpture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The expert: Clo Pazera, specialist at LAMA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

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

The Stahl house has a website.

In case you missed the links above:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Images are courtesy of Christie’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The expert: Megan Whippen, senior specialist at Wright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Annie Oakley gun, shown in full.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Images are courtesy of Julien’s Auctions.

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

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

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