A Howard Terpning Painting Could Command $500,000

Finding the Buffalo, a 1988 painting by contemporary Western artist Howard Terpning.

What you see: Finding the Buffalo, a 1988 oil on canvas by Howard Terpning. Bonhams estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.

The expert: Aaron Bastian, specialist in Bonhams’s California and Western art department.

Let’s start by talking about who Howard Terpning is, and what makes him interesting to collectors. I tried to think of another living artist who isn’t a mainstream contemporary artist, but whose works still sell for six or seven figures on the secondary market, and I couldn’t come up with one… Howard Terpning is a fascinating character, and a titan of contemporary Western art. Like many in this space, he has a background in illustration. He did it for a couple of decades before wandering over to this side of the fence. Pleasing an art director and working to a deadline carried over into his self-defined artistic practice. He’s one of if not the most decorated artists in this space. I don’t want to bore your readers, but it would take pages to list them all. He won the National Academy of Western Art’s Prix de West. It’s a big deal to win it once. He won it twice. He’s won the Thomas Moran Memorial Award for exceptional artistic merit [given at the annual Masters art exhibition and sale held at the Autry Museum of the American West] twelve times, including eleven straight between 2005 and 2016. He is immensely recognized in his field. Anyone in this space knows who he is.

What makes Howard Terpning paintings so exceptional? It’s not just that any one painting is spectacular, it’s consistent quality over the decades. I think that’s why the value is what we see. They’re so well-planned that you don’t see bad Howard Terpnings. They don’t make it onto the market. They fall apart earlier in the process.

How prolific is he? I’m sure the family has it [a total count for his body of work] but it’s not public. Big finished works take him a couple of months. I don’t know how many he might work on simultaneously.

Is he still painting, or has he retired? As of two years ago, when he was 90, he was still painting. He’s going to die with a pencil in his hand. If he can’t paint oils, he’s going to draw. I can’t see him ever stopping.

Howard Terpning has been painting Western art since the late 1970s. Are there periods or phases within his work that collectors prefer, or has his work been scarce enough that they can’t be that choosy? It’s a somewhat complicated answer. What we see for the top ten [for him] on the auction market is in a fairly narrow period for production in the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Is that indicative of what the market thinks is most valuable? Some of that is those are the works that are available. Maybe there’s a great late 1990s work out there that will blow us away if it comes to auction. I think this work [which dates to 1988] is in the sweet spot, but I don’t know if the sweet spot is real.

Finding the Buffalo measures 36 inches by 32 inches. Is that a typical size for a Howard Terpning painting? It’s sort of middle of the pack as far as scale goes. He does paint larger, and he does paint smaller. But he’s stretching his own canvases. He makes them any size he wants. The finished drawing he does [in the lead-up to creating the painting] always informs the size and proportions of the canvas.

What do we know about how he works, and how he might have made Finding the Buffalo? His technique is pretty well-documented. He starts with a series of sketches leading to a finished drawing. The drawing informs the size of the canvas. It’s traced and essentially transferred to the canvas, which is not a blank canvas. There’s one tone brushed onto the whole canvas. The drawing is transferred on, then he begins. There are videos of him doing this. [Jump to the 4:20 mark to watch Terpning embark on the first step of creating a painting.] Lights and darks are applied over the midtone. He can quickly define the whole composition.

Then he finishes it? That’s where the real time is spent.

So the drawing, the scaling-up for the canvas, and the transfer of the drawing–that’s a kind of scaffolding for creating the finished painting? Yes. I think it’s a rigorous approach he gets from his background in illustration.

How might he have arrived at the content and composition of the image we see in Finding the Buffalo? He has a huge archive of reference images. The rocks in the background could be a combination of images of a few different rocks. And he has a huge archive of objects. He’d have a quiver as a historic reference, but he’ll modify it to make it historically accurate to [the quiver of] a Comanche scout.

How often do Howard Terpning paintings feature the Comanche people, as we see in Finding the Buffalo? He always has a specific tribe in mind. Comanche, I hesitate to give a percentage, but he’s painted them many times. I don’t know if they’re a favorite per se. It’s the Plains peoples who are his fascination.

And the Comanches are among the Plains peoples? Yes. Terpning has a deep connection with and fascination with the nomadic style of life these people led.

Detail shot of the horned lizard from Howard Terpning's Finding the Buffalo.

How rare is it for Terpning to place an animal front-and-center in his works, as he does here with the horned lizard? I don’t know another work like it. It’s very unusual. The lizard is front and center, but it’s not the center point. You look at the scouts, look at what they’re looking at, and–oh. Everything is centered on the lizard, but the lizard is more like one of the rocks, and he puts the focus on the Comanche. Terpning is ultimately a figure painter, and Finding the Buffalo is no different. I think it’s a really neat painting in that it’s a subtle painting. In another Terpning painting in the sale, My Medicine Is Strong, the medicine man is on a rock and he’s clearly having a religious moment. Here, it’s a little quieter compared to some of the narratives Terpning likes to convey.

What’s going on in Finding the Buffalo? What’s the story? This is from Terpning himself: Comanche scouts believe that if they ask the horned lizard where the buffalo are, whatever direction he runs in is where the buffalo are. If he breaks left, go left. They’re watching the lizard very intently, especially the scout in the back–his anxiety is piqued. And I love that even the horses are staring at the lizard. [Laughs]

What’s your favorite detail of this Howard Terpning painting? There’s a splash of blue beadwork right at the very center of the painting. There are a few other touches where he uses bright blue, but this is the only spot where you get that color, and he does it right in the center of the painting. I love it as contrast. I look at the painting and it feels hot and oppressive under the bright sun, washed out. The splash of blue yanks your eye to the middle of the painting. Then you look down, and there’s the lizard. It’s so restrained, and it speaks to how valuable the beads would have been.

Detail shot of the blue beadwork dangling down the side of a Comanche scout's horse in Howard Terpning's Finding the Buffalo.

What is the Howard Terpning painting like in person? It’s more subtle in person. When you have a painting with large patches in the same tonal family, your eye is better at appreciating the subtle tonal shift than the camera is. The lizard blends into the rocks even a little more. The background behind the scouts is very rich, and I don’t think you get that in the reproduction. And the camera doesn’t capture the thickness of the paint. Terpning is reliant on impasto [the buildup of paint on the surface of a canvas], and it casts shadows. Not a big shadow, but a tiny ridge of paint can cast a tiny shadow. The camera can’t capture the change in physical height–that texture–but the eye can perceive it. He uses it to give the rocks a real three-dimensionality.

The back side of Howard Terpning's painting Finding the Buffalo, which shows the artist's notations.

On the webpage devoted to the lot, you at Bonhams have included a photograph of the back of the painting. Could you talk about the information Terpning put on the back of the painting, and how him bothering to do that helps collectors, dealers, and specialists like yourself? I would say this is true almost universally among art buyers–there’s going to be interest in the back of a painting. In this case, we have information from Terpning. He signs it, puts the title on the back, and says how big it is in his own handwriting. He signs it in two different places and reminds you that he retains the reproduction rights [laughs]. And there’s a brief narrative [that explains the scene] affixed to the back of the painting. It’s a printed label, but it is his language, his words. And there’s a CAA (Cowboy Artists of America) label still on the back [from when the painting was first shown and sold in 1988] that says $60,000.

How many Howard Terpning paintings have you handled? In the last five years, we’ve sold six. There aren’t a ton that circulate. At all the auction houses put together, ten or 15 go up at auction every year.

Is it unusual to have three Howard Terpning paintings in the same auction, as you do here? It’s only happened to us once before. [Laughs]. But it’s not unheard of. We’ve just been very lucky recently.

What’s the world auction record for a Howard Terpning painting? It’s $1.9 million, set in 2012 at the Scottsdale Art Auction. Its name was The Captured Ponies, and it’s not an outlier. Nine Howard Terpning paintings have sold for more than $1 million since 2006. We had one in 2019 that sold for just shy of $1.4 million.

Why will this Howard Terpning painting stick in your memory? There’s a real subtlety to this one. I like how quiet it is. It’s a painting that rewards you for looking at it longer. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like much is going on, but as you look at it, there’s a lot going on. It’s a sophisticated picture in terms of how it was painted and the narrative it conveys.

How to bid: The Howard Terpning painting Finding the Buffalo is lot 41 in The Eddie Basha Collection: A Selection of Western American Art, a sale taking place November 25, 2019, at Bonhams Los Angeles.

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SOLD! The Howard Finster Painting Sold For (Scroll Down to See)

Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a 1982 painting by the late American outsider artist Howard Finster.

Update: Howard Finster’s Vision of George on Planet Loraleon sold for $41,000.

What you see: Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, by the late American outsider artist Howard Finster. Slotin Folk Art Auction estimates it at $30,000 to $40,000.

The expert: Steve Slotin of Slotin Folk Art Auction in Buford, Georgia.

First, let’s discuss the story of Howard Finster–how he became an artist, and how his art career played out. He was a street preacher in the small town of Summerville, Georgia. He would stand on the hood of his car on Main Street and preach. He also had to make a living, so he’d put clock cases on the hood and sell them. One day, he was watching Billy Graham on TV. He watched the whole thing and couldn’t remember what he heard. Finster had a vision that he should put his sermons into art so they were always there to see, in the art. As a person of no means, he could not buy art supplies. He would say, “I take your garbage and turn it into art.” He would take refuse and any paint that was around. Early paintings were tractor enamel [paint] on board, scrap, whatever.

How was he discovered? People knew about his art but didn’t consider it art. But one day, the Talking Heads put his art on the cover [of their 1985 album Little Creatures] and R.E.M. put his art on the cover of [their 1984 album, Reckoning]. He was known and collected, but when the Talking Heads album went big, he became famous. People rushed to buy from him, and that’s when his career really soared.

Did the Talking Heads discover him? No. His work was known and in shows, but the masses–when the Talking Heads had that monster album and his art was on the cover, with David Byrne holding the world up–that’s when Howard Finster became a household name.

Not many outsider artists gain recognition while they are still alive and actively making art. How did Howard Finster react to his fame? He never changed. The only thing I think it did was let him by a nicer house for his wife. Otherwise he was the same street preacher who stayed up all night, eating coffee grounds and working on his art. It never went to his head.

How prolific was he? He started painting around 1976 and went into the 2000s. He had a good thirty-something years of painting. For the first ten years, no one really knew about him. He numbered every piece of his artwork. In his later years, his kids and grandkids helped him. I believe he got up to 40,000 pieces of art.

A detail of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster, featuring his signature and the painting's number.

He numbered every single piece of art he ever made? From the very first one forward? Yes. He was quite an unusual guy. He believed he was from another planet. He had visions, and conversations with people from the beyond.

And he was an insomniac? He worked all night and all day and hardly ever slept. He’d eat about a spoonful of Folger’s instant coffee. He had a very hard rural upbringing before he became a street preacher.

Where does Howard Finster rank among the titans of outsider and self-taught artists? He is by far the most recognized self-taught artist out there. Others may bring more at auction, but as far as making the field accessible and known to the masses, there’s no one like Howard Finster.

Really? Is he better-known than Grandma Moses? People know her stuff, but they knew it in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. It’s been two or three generations since Grandma Moses connected. Howard Finster was popular in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, and he still connects to the masses.

Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster.

What is the story of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon? Is it a stand-alone work or is it part of a dedicated series on a specific theme? That’s the thing. Howard is really not from this world. Where his thoughts take him are very strange and unique. He did a set of four-foot-by-four-foot paintings–I guess there are under 20 pieces. He probably made two or three of George Washington. I don’t know the story behind the planet Loraleon. It could truly be all going on in his mind.

Did Howard Finster think that he came from the planet Loraleon? I think he said he traveled to all these planets. He’s way out there in the universe on this stuff.

So he didn’t claim to be from planet Loraleon? No, but he was able to visit and travel in his own mind, his own visions.

Do we know why he did 20 paintings in four-by-four size? There just happen to be 20 at that size. One is called Superpower, and dealt with the Russian-American conflict. Some are George Washington. Some are Daniel Boone. Some are about getting to heaven. They vary in subject. A few years ago we sold one of Jesus’s mother–she was a central figure for that. It brought $51,600. That’s still a record for any Howard Finster piece.

Did he scavenge or receive a pile of four-by-four boards, and use those for paintings? After a certain time, he started to get better art supplies. He still used leftover tractor enamel. He could have ordered four-by-four boards. Normal plywood is four-by-eight. Maybe he had a bunch of these cut.

How often does George Washington appear in his work? Quite often. He would repeat a lot of icons, using them over and over. He did thousands of images of Elvis at three years old. He loved people in history, especially American history.

Does his George Washington always look like this–like the portrait we see on the dollar bill? That I can’t tell you. He comes up with portraits or images. It could be the dollar. It could be a cereal box. Who knows where this stuff comes from?

A detail of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster, showing Washington's collar, which has people walking on it.

I’d like to talk about some of the details of the Howard Finster painting–particularly Washington’s collar, which looks like a sidewalk with people strolling on it. What meaning did this have for him? For a lot of his paintings, there’s no rhyme or reason to what’s going on. A lot of clouds have faces, because it’s easier for him to have faces on them. That’s what makes self-taught art America’s greatest art. Nothing else out there [is like this] and everything else after this will be a copy of this. He’s only influenced by himself and religion and what was around him.

A detail of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster, which shows a handwritten message and part of a church.

I see a church in the background, and the handwritten religious messages, but this seems less religious than other Howard Finster paintings. This doesn’t seem really religious, but he’s trying to preach at the same time. He always has churches, he always talks about Jesus. There are proverbs and messages from the Bible. There’s always some kind of preaching going on, and he’s always trying to get the world right in his mind.

Am I right in thinking this Howard Finster painting has a less crowded composition than other works of his? It’s not as busy as most of his works, and it’s very bold. Even the details of his shirt–it’s charming.

This Howard Finster paintings measures four feet by four feet. Is this the largest size he worked in? These are the biggest paintings you can get. He did a painting as a full four-by-eight sheet, but he didn’t really paint it–the paintings are stuck on there. He was prolific in his paintings. Some are big. Some are small. Whatever he could get his hands on, it didn’t matter to him, he was just trying to get the word out. Wood, concrete, fabrics, rags, anything. We’ve seen stuff on mirrors, on glass, almost anything you can think of.

Picasso and Warhol were also prolific, and that has helped their secondary markets–the volume of stuff creates momentum that keeps their markets going. Is that true for Howard Finster’s market, too? Does the volume of his work create momentum for his market? It’s more true than with Warhol or Picasso. Finster signed and numbered his works, even his later works. It’s a lot easier [money-wise] to have a Howard Finster in your house than a Warhol or a Picasso. Howard Finster did original art, but he was able to mass-produce it because he just worked so hard at it.

This painting was featured in a show and a book named Passionate Visions, by Alice Rae Yellen. How might that fact affect the painting’s value to collectors? It’s very helpful, mainly because it shows provenance, it shows it’s been exhibited. Those little things always help a piece of art.

Several other works by Finster appear in the auction. How do they compare to this work? What makes this one especially interesting when compared to the other five? The size and the rarity and just the sheer–it’s an early, early classic piece with great size to it. Whoever gets this will always have a museum-quality piece. No one can debate that.

What condition is the Howard Finster painting in? Mint condition.

Which means what, in the context of a Howard Finster painting? It’s been maintained very well. No fading. No scratches. It’s as pristine as the day he made it.

A detail of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster, which shows the decorations he burned into the frame he made for the work.

The Howard Finster painting has a frame made by him. How many Finsters have Finster-made frames? Is that common? In the early days, when he was a street preacher, he’d put clock cases and other wooden items to sell [on the hood of his car]. He made frames for his works. He would burn little designs onto the frame with power tools. If you’re lucky, you can get an early work with a frame.

Is this a pretty typical frame for him, or does it stand out in any particular way? I like this frame. It’s multi-layered, like, three or four layers of wood burned on top of each other. It’s very well built-up, and it’s a heavy frame for him. I’d say it’s one of his best frames.

We know he made 40,000 or so pieces of art. Do collectors prefer Howard Finster paintings that have certain numbers? Are they less interested in paintings with higher numbers? The period when he was going from a paintbrush message to a Sharpie message–between 5,000 and 6,000, we see permanent marker come in to write the preaching down. That’s where most collectors want to be, 5,000 and earlier. Those are his most important pieces.

I don’t see much in the lot notes about the provenance of the Howard Finster painting. Has it been to auction before? Right, it hasn’t been on the market. A dealer probably sold it [to the consignor] 20 or 30 years ago.

What is the Howard Finster painting like in person? It’s powerful. It’s big and it’s bold and it’s striking. I guarantee a lot of people will take selfies next to it during the auction.

How did you arrive at the estimate for this Howard Finster painting? I imagine it was informed by the sale of the Virgin Mary painting of the same size? This would be the second-highest price paid for a Finster if it sells within the estimate. I’d be very happy if it exceeded the estimate, and my estimates are usually conservative anyhow. There’s no other chance to get a four-foot-by-four-foot Finster. To get one on the market is rare. The others are in private collections, and when I ask about them, [the owners] want over $100,000 for it. That’s nice, but a little high for the market right now.

Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster.

Why will this Howard Finster painting stick in your memory? When you look at an artist’s work–we’ve been in the auction business for self-taught art for 25 years, and we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of Finsters. Some you just gravitate to. Rarely do we have a piece like the Virgin Mary or the George Washington. Twenty-five years from now, it will be very difficult for anybody to pick up a masterpiece like this.

How to bid: The Howard Finster painting Vision of George on Planet Loraleon is lot 0186 in the Self-Taught, Outsider, & Folk Art auction at Slotin Folk Art Auction in Buford, Georgia on November 9, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Slotin Folk Art Auction.

Steve Slotin previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Sam Doyle painting on tin roofing material that went on to command $17,000; a work on paper by Minnie Evans that later sold for $8,000; and a sculpture by Ab the Flag Man which ultimately sold for $1,200.

Howard Finster has a website. So too does the Paradise Garden Foundation, which maintains the unique museum he created on four acres in Pennville, Georgia.

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

NEW RECORD, AGAIN! A Painted Boba Fett Rocket Launching Prototype Sold For (Scroll Down to See)

A fully painted Boba Fett rocket-launching prototype action figure, created in the late 1970s by Kenner, sold for $185,850 in November 2019.

Update: A fully painted rocket-launching Boba Fett prototype Star Wars action figure, dating to the late 1970s and pictured above, sold for $185,850 at Hake’s on November 7, 2019. The previous record, set by a different rocket-launching Boba Fett prototype, took place in July 2019, and marked the first time a Star Wars action figure crossed the six-figure threshold at auction.

The original text of this article for The Hot Bid, which showcased the action figure that set the July 2019 record and included discussion of the toy that just broke it, follows.

In the course of reporting this story, I learned about the next likely record-breaking Star Wars action figure–an even rarer Boba Fett prototype to be offered in a Hake’s auction that opens on October 15, 2019, and closes on November 6 and 7, 2019. That prototype could sell for as much as $200,000. You will see mentions of that toy, as well as pictures, woven into this article.

A circa 1979 Boba Fett rocket-launching prototype, which became the first Star Wars action figure to cross the $100k threshold at auction. It set the record in July 2019 only to see it broken in November 2019 by a different, fully painted, scarcer version of the prototype.

What you see: A circa 1979 Star Wars Boba Fett rocket-firing prototype, unpainted, with the L-slot configuration. It comes with a letter from Collectible Investment Brokerage (CIB) assigning the encapsulated toy an 85 (NM+) grade. It sold at Hake’s in July 2019 for $112,926–a new record for any Star Wars toy, and the first time a Star Wars toy has crossed the six-figure threshold at auction.

The expert: Alex Winter, President of Hake’s.

How often do late-1970s Star Wars prototype toys come to auction? What others have appeared? Prototypes for action figures are much more layered than for other things. They go through various stages, various color treatments. That’s why there’s so many Boba Fett prototypes. Only a handful have been at auction. It’s still fairly uncommon for them to come up. We happen to have had the luxury of two back to back, and one coming up. [Scroll down for news on the Boba Fett prototype that’s coming up.]

When I hear “prototype” I assume there’s just one, but you’re telling me that action figures require more than one. What number of prototypes is more typical for an action figure? Three to five? I think so. There’s a few for every figure. Boba Fett went through stages of the rocket-firing figure because it had a spring-loaded mechanism. They had to get it right, so more prototypes had to be produced.

Do we know how many Boba Fett prototypes exist? It’s all very vague and speculative, but there’s a very good article that has an accurate lineage of the Boba Fett action figure. [The 2016 story suggests that maybe 100 Boba Fett prototypes exist: about 80 of the L-slot variety, and 19 of the later J-slot version. The letters describe the shape of the rocket-firing mechanism built into Boba Fett’s backpack.]

Could you talk a bit about this rocket-firing Boba Fett toy, and why it’s legendary? It’s taken on a life of its own. Kenner documented what it was supposed to be and put it all into motion before realizing it was not going to work. [As described in the previously given link, the rocket-firing Boba Fett toy was touted in a winter 1979 Kenner catalog as free with four proofs of purchase of other Star Wars toys. Kids gathered the material, sent it off to Kenner, and waited six to eight weeks for the prize to arrive, only to discover that the much-celebrated rocket was fixed in place.] I was eight when Star Wars came out. I saw the original run and sent away for the Boba Fett figure. I don’t remember being disappointed, but everyone got a fixed rocket. Other kids could have been disappointed.

A circa 1979 Star Wars Boba Fett rocket-firing prototype, unpainted, with the L-slot configuration firing mechanism, shown with its certificate of authenticity from CIB.

This prototype is an example of the L-slot version of the toy. There was also a J-slot version. What is the significance of the slot configurations? The L-slot is the first version [of the rocket-firing mechanism]. It was very touchy–tap the figure, and it fired. The J-slot version made it a little more difficult to fire the rocket, but there was a problem. A piece of plastic could snap off that was very sharp, and could puncture [a kid’s] finger. Because they had already advertised it [as a rocket-firing toy], my guess is when they got to the deadline for when they were going to ship, they said, ‘Let’s just mount the rocket in place and get it out of here.’ [Another factor that might have led Kenner to fix the rocket in place] was a kid had choked to death on a rocket from a Battlestar Galactica toy. That could have been the reason for it. [A rocket-firing toy] sounds like a great concept, but it didn’t work. Kids got a stationary version in the mail.

This figure is unpainted. What’s the significance of that? Is it just further proof that it’s a prototype? This shows you the progression. With action figures, you go through so many stages until you get it right. Because they were still working out the firing mechanism, it was not painted. In the process, the concern is that the figure looks right, then making sure that the rocket works, and then they paint it in the final stages. It [the lack of paint] is a signpost.

Is this toy on a blank card? It’s encapsulated in plastic, in an acrylic case.

How did you set the estimate of $75,000 to $100,000? Was that the first time you’d given a Star Wars toy an estimate that includes a six-figure sum? It’s the second time. The first time was the Obi-Wan. It just got into that estimate. We based the estimate on what other Boba Fetts have sold for.

What’s the difference between this Boba Fett and the Obi-Wan Kenobi that set the record in November 2017? Is it down to one being a prototype and the other being a production toy? That’s really the big difference–one is a prototype and one is a production toy. Very few Obi-Wan have ever come to auction and sold. It’s probably a toss-up which one has fewer in existence.

The world auction record for a Star Wars toy broke three times from November 2017 to now [October 2019]–between the Obi-Wan and this Boba Fett prototype, you offered a different Boba Fett L-slot prototype in March 2018 that sold for more than $86,000. Why is there such strong movement in Star Wars toys now? Why has the record broken three times in less than two years? Five years ago, it [the Boba Fett prototype] was a $25,000 figure. Star Wars collectors are serious, and a lot are of the age where they have disposable income. It’s in the last five years or so that it’s been elevated to the level that it is.

The sale of this Boba Fett marks the first time any Star Wars toy has sold for more than $100,000. Could you discuss the significance of that? And did that milestone come when you expected it to come, or was it a little early, or a little late? The first comic book, the first baseball card, and the first original comic artwork breaking six figures was big news. This getting over $100,000 is a big deal, and a long time coming. A lot of that is [due to] third-party authentication. Other collectibles that have been encapsulated [sealed in plastic] have set the guideline for how the market is trending. That’s why we’re seeing what we see. As for the timing of the six figures, we had thought the Obi-Wan could do that. If it was one grade higher, it certainly would have. It’s trending upwards, as all Star Wars toys are. Collectors are there, and they’re ready and willing to pay what they have to.

What was your role in the auction? I tend to stay off the phones if I can. It’s all Internet bidding or phone bidding. I was monitoring things to make sure everything was running smoothly. I watched the whole auction unfold in front of me.

Did you have a dedicated screen for this Boba Fett lot? I have to watch the entire auction at once. It’s important that I watch everything unfurl.

That sounds tricky. I’ve been doing it for 34 years. But it’s hectic, for sure.

When did you know you had a new world auction record? We had a lot of activity for all three weeks online, to closing. On closing day, the Boba Fett prototype was around $85,000 with premium, which would have been $1,000 under the record. Even if we’d closed at that, we’d be happy, because it was right up to where the other sold. It came down to the wire. We got a bid at 9:19 pm, and that reopened the clock.

It reopened the clock? When you bid on an item, it resets the clock for 20 minutes.

So it extends the bidding life of the lot? Correct. When this was still going, much of the rest of the auction was over. It took to the very end until we eclipsed the record. It was a bit unnerving. A lot of people waited until the last minute, but that doesn’t work with us. We’re not eBay. There’s no sniping.

The Boba Fett sold for just under $113,000. Were you surprised by that? No. No. If it was twice its estimate, I would have been surprised, but it was just over the estimate. We were very pleased, but I wouldn’t say we were surprised.

And I understand Hake’s has another Boba Fett prototype coming up in November 2019 that could break the world auction record for any Star Wars toy again? This is the J-slot, the next version of the firing mechanism. It’s painted, and its grade is 85+. It’s the same grade [as the current record-holder], but it’s more desirable because it’s a J-slot, of which there are fewer. It looks like the one that was released.

Image of a painted rocket-firing Boba Fett prototype with a J-slot mechanism, which Hake's will offer in November 2019.
Image of a painted rocket-firing Boba Fett prototype with a J-slot mechanism, which broke the auction record for a Star Wars action figure in November 2019.

Do you have an estimate on that upcoming Boba Fett prototype? I haven’t committed to one yet. It literally showed up one day after the [July 2019] auction. It could be $100,000, it could be $200,000. It could beat the record substantially, based on what it is. It’s the more desirable of the two [styles] of rocket-firing mechanisms, it’s painted, and it appears in Star Wars collectibles reference books.

What did Kenner learn from the Boba Fett disaster, if anything? It changed the toy industry dramatically. After that, people were cautious and didn’t want to be sued [over a potential choking hazard]. [The toy industry] moved into a different era.

So it wasn’t just overpromising and underdelivering, it was eek, kids could die. Yep. They made sure every base was covered so nothing would come back on them. Now it’s obvious that a tiny piece of plastic that launches with great force was not the smartest [idea]. But it all led up to this legendary status for the rocket-fired Boba Fett.

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

Hake’s is on Twitter and Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Hake’s.

Alex Winter also spoke to The Hot Bid about a 1939 copy of Batman’s comic book debut, which ultimately sold for almost $570,000.

I also wrote a piece about record-setting Star Wars action figures for the Field Notes section of the October 2019 issue of Robb Report.

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

A Jackie Robinson Doll With Its Original Box Could Sell for $2,500

A circa 1950s Jackie Robinson doll in its original box. The Dodgers legend is pictured in the upper right corner.

What you see: A circa 1950 Jackie Robinson doll, with its original box and accoutrements. Bertoia Auctions estimates it at $1,500 to $2,500.

The expert: Auctioneer Michael Bertoia of Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, New Jersey.

Who made this doll? And is it possible to know how many of these Jackie Robinson dolls were made? I can tell you who made it: the Allied-Grand Doll Company in New York. I think the manufacturing was in Brooklyn, New York, but I’d want to double check. Based on the number of dolls I’ve seen, probably not many were made.

Apparently there were two versions of the Jackie Robinson doll, and this is the de luxe version. What does this have that the standard version lacks? This box is more elaborate, as opposed to the doll items. And it has a cardboard die cut of an actual baseball field on the front. I’ve never handled the other doll. Inside, there’s a Jackie Robinson pocket baseball game, with pinwheels and sliders that allow you to play a baseball game.

Closeup of the Jackie Robinson pocket baseball game that comes with the circa 1950s doll.

Yeah, I think I see the back sides of two wheels on the cover of the game in the full shot. There were three different gages for balls, strikes, and outs per inning. It runs up to 15 innings. It’s pretty complicated for what it is. It’s six inches by 8 inches and on cardstock. It’s pretty cool. All the dolls have a tag with a photo of Jackie Robinson, a ball with a mitt, and a wooden baseball bat that has Jackie Robinson’s signature on it.

Is the printed baseball diamond meant to be used with the pocket baseball game? The pocket baseball game, essentially, is the game. Outside of the visual, the baseball diamond has no significance. There are no figures to move around it.

And we think the Jackie Robinson doll appeared around 1950–well after his 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers–and it probably remained available until he retired from the sport in 1956? That’s my assumption. There are no dates written, no way for me to know for sure. [In holding off until 1950 or so] they were probably testing the waters to see how well Robinson was received by the audience. Once he was a success story, they jumped on the bandwagon. There’s no way to know if they continued to make it after he departed from the league, but following his retirement as a player, they probably ceased production. The life of the toy was probably a five-year run or so.

Did the Allied-Grand Doll Company tweak the design of the Jackie Robinson doll or the extras or the packaging over that span of time? Are there subtle changes that help us date individual examples? Nothing I had noticed, but there are few examples of the doll around. It’s possible it started as a large boxed set and it proved to be too expensive to produce [so they made a stripped-down version instead], or the doll itself was not enough and they sweetened it with the go-alongs [the extras, such as the printed baseball diamond and the pocket baseball game] Those are possible reasons why there are two different sets.

A closeup on the black-and-white photo of Jackie Robinson on the packaging for the doll.

Did Jackie Robinson or Major League Baseball or both approve of this doll? I see Robinson’s picture on the box, and you said the toy bat has his signature, but I’m guessing that doesn’t imply official approval? I couldn’t find anything linking to Jackie Robinson or the league. There’s only a copyright next to the signature on the box and on the [toy] bat itself, and the tags for the doll. It does not appear on the pocket baseball game.

And is there any proof that Robinson shared in the royalties for the doll? No, not at all. Interestingly enough, and not to say that it’s true, but on the cover of the pocket baseball game, it says, “Designed by the National League’s most valuable player of 1949,” so it’s possible he had something to do with it.

Is this the only Jackie Robinson doll created and marketed during his time with the Brooklyn Dodgers? It’s the only one I’ve been able to find in my digging around, and it’s the only one I’ve ever handled.

The Jackie Robinson doll, shown alone, from the front, in full Dodgers uniform. Robinson's signature is visible on the toy bat.

The 1950s predate the rise of the “action figure,” a phrase that made dolls acceptable to boys and their parents. This Jackie Robinson doll really is a doll, with toddler-like proportions. Might its appearance have affected its sales, and explain why so few survive? I presume the doll was marketed to a boy audience while also played with by a girl audience as well. It was probably for boys interested in baseball, but it has the proportions of a baby doll. It could have hit both markets. Predating action figures, it was probably a harder sell. It could indicate why it’s as scarce as it is. It might have missed the mark on the audience. The company might have been ahead of its time.

Is this the only doll that the Allied-Grand Doll Company made and marketed for a target audience of boys? Yes. The rest are girl dolls.

How did the company change its marketing to attract boys? Looking at the box, I take it they leaned heavily on baseball imagery? Yes, it’s very baseball-heavy, exactly. The corner shows Jackie Robinson at bat, but it’s very baseball-heavy, even more than Jackie Robinson himself.

The Jackie Robinson doll, shown in full, from the rear, with the baseball bat clearly attached to the right hand.

The Allied-Grand Doll Company was located in New York. Did they intend this Jackie Robinson doll to be a regional product, or did they market it nationally? There’s no way for me to tell. Allied-Grand did market nationally, and given that he was the first African-American to enter Major League Baseball, it’s very possible that the reach of the market for the doll went nationwide. I presume the majority of the demand for the doll to be close to home.

Is there any evidence that the company marketed the Jackie Robinson doll nationally? No, nothing like that.

How many examples of the Jackie Robinson doll have you handled? This is the first I’ve handled with a box, and the third I’ve seen in the last decade.

Another angle on the Jackie Robinson doll, shown in full from the left rear.

Does it come with everything it ought to have? I believe so. The tag, the bat, the baseball game, and the diamond complete the set. I’m shy to say it’s the most complete I’ve ever seen, but it’s the first I’ve seen with the pocket baseball game.

The lot notes describe the doll and its box as being in “Exc – Pristine Cond.” What does that mean here? It gives it an 85 to 90 percent condition grading, albeit with tears to the box. Given the rarity of the piece, this one grades to the 90th percentile of completeness and it’s 100 percent authentic, with no touch-ups.

I see some fading or bleaching to the doll’s baseball cap and its windbreaker. Would it have gotten that discoloration from being played with? Given the doll’s condition, it’s more age-related wear than play wear.

What is the Jackie Robinson doll like in person? It has an impressive size. It stands 13 inches tall or so–good scaling. The most important detail is the stitched uniform, albeit soiled and aged clothing. It’s cream-colored cloth with light blue stitching on it. And in my opinion, one of the neatest things is the pocket baseball game. It’s a handy little thing.

What is the provenance of the Jackie Robinson doll? It comes from a collector, a very advanced doll collector who’s had it for some years.

We’re speaking on November 4, and the Jackie Robinson doll has already been bid up to $850. Is that meaningful? It’s a soft indication of interest. We’ve had a few phone calls about the condition of the doll, but it’s a bit early to tell. I find that bidders hold their cards pretty tight until the auction is up and running.

Why will this Jackie Robinson doll stick in your memory? The rarity of it, and I think it’s going to draw very wide attention and interest. Sports-themed toys are well-received in the market. Doll collectors could easily go for it, baseball collectors–it hits all the bases.

How to bid: The Jackie Robinson doll is lot 1619, offered on day two of the Annual Fall Sale at Bertoia Auctions, scheduled for November 15, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Bertoia Auctions.

Michael Bertoia appeared on The Hot Bid once before, talking about a vintage Tremendous Mike robot toy with box that went on to sell for $11,000.

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An Oscar Howe Painting Could Command $35,000

What you see: Medicine Man, an undated painting by the late Native American artist Oscar Howe. The Santa Fe Art Auction estimates it at $25,000 to $35,000.

The expert: Gillian Blitch, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Art Auction.

Who was Oscar Howe? He was a Yanktonai Sioux from Dakota. He drew his first lines when he was three–he was always fascinated by lines. He was taken away from his parents in 1922, at age seven, and went to a federal boarding school at Pierre, South Dakota. He did two tours of duty in World War II, and did murals for the Works Progress Administration before he was called up. Throughout his career, he remained rooted in his Dakota ancestry. It was a motivation for his art. One or two academics suggested he was influenced by European Cubism and the avant-garde, but he emphatically rejected that. [The abstract elements of his art] tie into the symbology and the mythology of Sioux culture.

When did Oscar Howe’s art career gain momentum? When he went to the Santa Fe Indian School in 1938. Dorothy Dunn started the school for Indian painters and it was really focused on traditional Indian painting, which was supposed to be illustrative, and called the Studio style. The first part of his career, he was successful in the Studio style. He broke out in the 1950s–that’s why he’s important.

What happened to Oscar Howe in the 1950s? He became famous in 1958 when the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma held an exhibition of Indian painting. It started a project for Native American artists in 1946, and did juried exhibitions and provided a platform for exposure. The Studio style won prizes, and I guess it also unintentionally established a standard of style that prevented artists from developing their abilities. In 1958, the painting Howe sent to Philbrook was rejected. I think the term [they used to explain the rejection] was “not authentically Indian.” He was outraged, and he sent a very famous letter that said, “Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only the White Man knows what is best for him?  Now, even in Art, ‘You little child do what we think is best for you, nothing different.” Well, I am not going to stand for it. Indian Art can compete with any Art in the world, but not as a suppressed Art….” 

What inspired Oscar Howe to paint Medicine Man? It was an ancient story in Sioux culture. It’s from the tahokmu, which references a spider trap, or web [in his native language]. He used lines and planes in that painting in order to add dynamism to the figure. I think it [the lines and planes] looks like the spokes of a spider web–you look at it in a different way. Where Cubists break up the figure to flatten it, Howe uses lines to add energy to the image. You see a lot of movement. It’s not flat at all, though it’s broken into sharp geometric fields.

Ah, I was going to ask–I haven’t seen many works that straddle the line between figurative art and abstract art, but that is not what Oscar Howe is trying to do here, right? He’s combining a figure and abstraction as part of his Native American approach to art? That’s absolutely how he would argue it. It’s not abstract art in the way that Braques or Picassos were. It was about animating the figure so you’d understand what’s going on. He rejected any notion that his work was derivative of Cubism. That’s not what he was doing. In Medicine Man, the subject remains intact, unlike in Cubism, where the figures are fragmented and reorganized.

Oscar Howe used casein paint, a milk-based paint, for Medicine Man. Was that his preferred type of paint? And did he mix it himself? We see casein very often from traditional Indian painters, but I don’t know how often Howe used it. But he would have mixed the paints, yes. He was a very traditional artist.

Would he have used a live model for Medicine Man? No, it would have been from a story, and from the heritage he carried inside him. His purpose in painting was to visually articulate his language and culture, specifically Dakota and Sioux.

As of November 2019, only four Oscar Howe works have ever appeared at auction. Why do you think that’s the case? Are people just reluctant to sell–they want to keep them? As you can imagine, there’s so much interest in this piece. Most don’t want to sell his work, and he’s almost an iconic figure. Him and Joe Herrera are literally referenced as the first modernist American Indian painters. You don’t need to send [Howe’s works] to auction.

This Oscar Howe painting belonged to Patricia Janis Broder. How does that provenance affect collectors’ interest in the work? Tremendously, based on the very successful auction of her collection [with Santa Fe Art Auction in April 2019]. She was important to American Indian art history. She wrote about the material before a lot of people were paying attention. She knew what she was buying, and she lavishly illustrated [the art she bought] in her books. She definitely makes a difference.

What makes Medicine Man such a strong example of Oscar Howe’s work? This is classic Howe. The use of the tahokmu device is brilliant in this particular painting. It’s just a classic instance of energizing–the figure is there and moving and powerful and you get the force of it. It’s an expression of what the medicine man does. It articulates the medicine man’s magic and his role in Sioux culture.

Was the painting inspired by Howe’s personal encounters with medicine men? No. He spent an important part of his early life with his blind grandmother, who came from a long verbal tradition of story-telling in the Sioux culture. Though she was blind, she drew pictures in the sand to illustrate her stories.

The Oscar Howe painting is undated, but are there clues lurking in the work itself that helps us figure out when he might have made it? We know it’s definitely that later period [his modern period rather than his Studio period]. I would think it’s 1960s or 1970s, but it’s hard to say.

What’s the world auction record for an Oscar Howe painting? It was set in 1998 at Sotheby’s New York. The medium was also casein. It was called Modern Sioux Dancer and it went for $15,500. It was one of his modern pieces.

So if Medicine Man sells for even its bottom estimate, it’s a new world record for Oscar Howe… I looked at other auction records [when setting the estimate for this work] and there are so few of them, and none are comparable to this one. This is better and more typical of the best of his work. It’s more characteristic of the aspects of his art for which he is most highly prized.

What is the Oscar Howe painting like in person? Oh! [Sighs] It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s vibrant and vivacious. It’s in beautiful condition. I know it was in storage for a long time. It looks unfaded. It looks, I think, the way he wanted us to see it.

Are there aspects of the Oscar Howe painting that the camera doesn’t pick up? There’s no surface to this painting that you’re missing. It’s not an oil. Casein is very flat. You don’t see the brushwork in it.

Why will this Oscar Howe painting stick in your memory? I’ve been in the art world for more than 20 years, and I’ve never had an Oscar Howe in my hands. This artwork is so pleasing to the eye. And I have huge admiration for his conviction as an artist. I have huge respect for the letter he sent to Philbrook saying, ‘How date you tell me how to represent my culture.’ He was brave, and he was good.

How to bid: The Oscar Howe painting is lot 0185 in the 2019 Santa Fe Art Auction, taking place on November 9, 2019.

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Bonus: A La Vieille Russie’s Deceptively Modern Jewelry

A diamond and yellow sapphire ring by Cartier Paris, one of 72 pieces in the Deceptively Modern Jewelry selling exhibit at ALVR.
A winsome yellow sapphire and diamond ring by Cartier Paris, one of 72 mid-century pieces in A La Vieille Russie’s Deceptively Modern Jewelry selling exhibition.

A La Vieille Russie, a peerless gallery best known for showcasing the works of Carl Fabergé, opened a selling show in its Manhattan gallery last month.

Titled Deceptively Modern Jewelry: 1940s – 1980s, it features 72 stunning pieces by mid-century jewelers, including 10 signed pieces by Cartier.

An aquamarine and diamond necklace from the Deceptively Modern Jewelry show at ALVR.
An aquamarine and diamond necklace from the Deceptively Modern Jewelry show at ALVR.

I wrote about the show for Art & Object.

A circa 1940s "gas pipe" gold bracelet, featured in Deceptively Modern Jewelry at ALVR's Manhattan gallery.
A circa 1940s “gas pipe” gold bracelet, featured in Deceptively Modern Jewelry at ALVR’s Manhattan gallery.

Deceptively Modern Jewelry continues at ALVR until November 15. The gallery is located at 745 Fifth Avenue, fourth floor.

A Daisy and Violet Hilton Poster From The Conjoined Twins’ Vaudeville Days Could Command $900

A circa 1930s poster featuring Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who headlined the vaudeville circuit.

What you see: A circa 1930s poster for the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Potter & Potter estimates it at $600 to $900.

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

Could we start by talking about Daisy and Violet Hilton–who they were, and why they’re still interesting to us now? And how did they set themselves apart from other conjoined twins who appeared in public? They started out working for fairly well-established carnivals and graduated to theaters. From everything I’ve read, they were certainly talented performers and entertainers. They practiced assiduously to become talented musicians. They closed their act by dancing with two gentlemen in harmony, in concert. I think Bob Hope was one of the two men dancing at the end of the routine, before he became famous. By all accounts, it was a rousing performance. They commanded a huge salary–Houdini-level money. I can’t state that strongly enough. Literally thousands a week on the vaudeville circuit.

If they appeared in a sideshow, all they’d have to do is show up, but playing music and dancing let them rise in vaudeville? The carnival setting is literally a display of their deformity. They had something to offer above and beyond their unusual anatomy. They were entertainers. They were stars.

Other sets of conjoined twins didn’t go as far as the Hilton sisters in offering more than the fact of their uniqueness? Chang and Eng were very successful and retired wealthy. Some say the Hiltons tried to model themselves on their success that the Bunkers made. [Chang and Eng’s surname was Bunker.]

I see the poster is dated circa 1930s. I take it that it has to date before 1931, when the Hilton sisters won a lawsuit to emancipate themselves from their managers? I believe it’s pre-emancipation, yes.

How rare is this Daisy and Violet Hilton poster? How many have you handled? We’ve sold three, this being the third. I know of a couple others. They’re out there.

Was material featuring conjoined twins less likely to be saved for reasons of taste, or does it survive in roughly the same amounts as other forms of ephemera? I don’t think so. In some ways, it’s a benefit–“I can’t believe I saw it. Here’s a memento of what I saw.”

This Daisy and Violet Hilton poster has the highest estimate of any Hilton sisters material in the auction. Why? Its rarity and its aesthetic graces. [Material from] Chained for Life–I might even call it a C movie, but let’s call it a B movie–is much more readily available, and there’s much more sales history there. Probably the rarest Hilton sisters piece is the souvenir napkin. The collector who consigned it said in 30 years, they’d only seen two. But it’s less sexy than a one-sheet poster.

And that’s why it gets the highest estimate? It’s a striking image, it’s vivid, and we’re talking about people who, in a way, are cultural icons. I think a lot of people could see this item up on their wall, rather than a pinback [a button].

Is this circa 1930s poster scarcer than Chained for Life movie posters? I’m not sure I could quantify. If I remember right, the Hiltons kept working as entertainers only about five to seven years before they died, though work was scarce in their last few years. Toward the end they worked in burlesque houses, doing striptease, because they were desperate for work. In the last few years of their life, they were weighing produce in a grocery store. They had squandered their earnings, or it was spent by the family who took care of them and booked their shows.

Where do the Hiltons rank among the various sets of conjoined twins who appeared before the public? Is it Chang and Eng, and then the Hiltons? I’d say Chang and Eng, the Hiltons, and then the two-headed nightingale, Millie-Christine. The most recent biography was published about Chang and Eng, so perhaps they’re more popular. And they have that connection with P. T. Barnum, of course, which gives them a certain pedigree.

There’s a lot of material that features conjoined twins in this salenot just stuff that showcases Daisy and Violet Hilton. Is it a typical amount for your annual Circus, Sideshow, & Oddities sale, or is there more than you usually have? I think it’s about what we’ve had in previous sales. It’s on par with what we’ve had in the past.

When did Potter & Potter start doing annual Circus, Sideshow, & Oddities auctions? Not that long ago, actually. This will be our fourth annual auction. We’ve been fortunate to get nice things and become the go-to place for it. We’ve turned away twice as much for the auction as we have in it. Maybe we could do two next year.

And why not have this auction before Halloween? Why hold it in mid-November? We do a magic auction before Halloween. We’ve been doing that for 12 years.

Let me get back to the Daisy and Violet Hilton poster. What condition is it in? I’d give it a B-plus. Most condition issues are around the exterior.

How does it compare to the two other examples you’ve handled? It’s about on par with the others. It’s beautiful.

What is the Daisy and Violet Hilton poster like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? I think when you see it in person, at full size–you’ve got to remember, this would have gone on the side of a building, or in a lobby–it’s quite large. [It measures 42 inches by 27 and three-quarter inches.] We had one guy who came in for the magic auction [which Potter & Potter held on October 26] who said, “I’m so used to seeing it on a screen. When you stand up in front of it, it’s a completely different experience.” He was talking about magic stuff, but you can take it to heart about anything.

How to bid: The Daisy and Violet Hilton poster is lot 0133 in the Circus, Sideshow, & Oddities sale at Potter & Potter on November 16, 2019.


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Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter. 

In 2012, Dean Jensen wrote a biography of the Hilton sisters, dubbed The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins. It’s out of print, but worth tracking down.

Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about 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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NEW RECORD! The Miles Davis Trumpet Sold For (Scroll Down to See)

A model T3460 "Committee" trumpet with a midnight blue epoxy body and gilt moon and stars decorations, commissioned by jazz legend Miles Davis in the early 1980s.

Update: The Miles Davis trumpet sold for $275,000–well above its estimate. It set a world auction record for any trumpet, and it seems to have set a world auction record for any jazz instrument, beating the $225,000 that a Charlie Parker saxophone garnered at a 2005 auction to benefit Lincoln Center.

What you see: A model T3460 “Committee” trumpet with a midnight blue epoxy body and gilt moon and stars decorations, commissioned by jazz legend Miles Davis in the early 1980s. Christie’s estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.

The expert: Becky MacGuire, director of the Exceptional Sale at Christie’s.

So this trumpet was made by a company called Martin. Is that the same company that makes guitars? It’s not, actually. It’s a brass instrument company. It’s gone though several permutations since its heyday. It’s a funny coincidence. [Its full name was the Martin Band Instrument Company, and it went defunct in 2007.]

This is called a “Committee” trumpet. What does “Committee” mean here? Is it a brand name? It’s a brand that became renowned. The trumpet was supposedly designed by a committee of musicians, and it became a coveted horn for jazz musicians. When Martin was sold in the 1960s, it stopped making the Committee model as a part of its line, but made them on a commission basis for Miles Davis. Dizzy Gillespie played a Martin Committee, and he was one of Miles Davis’s heroes. That may have influenced his choice of a Committee trumpet.

This is one of three trumpets Miles Davis commissioned from Martin that have different body colors and the same decorative scheme. Do we know if they were commissioned together, or one at a time? We don’t know exactly if they were finished together. They were designed by Miles Davis and made by the same team, which was led by Larry Ramirez. He was a jazz trumpeter himself, and had a real understanding of instruments and what could be done. Davis was a visual artist as well as a musician. It’s not surprising to people who knew him that he was involved with the design of these trumpets.

An overhead view of Miles Davis's custom Martin Committee trumpet.

How did his visual sense affect the appearance of this trumpet? First of all, the color is not what one usually finds when you think of a trumpet. It’s blue, which is a color associated with Miles. He loved to dress in blue, and it has obvious associations with his music. All three trumpets have the moon and stars [motif], which is a unique design.

Do we know why Miles Davis chose a moon and stars motif for these trumpets? Not exactly. There’s no record of what Miles was really thinking.

This trumpet’s siblings are red and black, respectively. Where are those other two trumpets now? The black one is buried with Miles Davis in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The red one remains with the family.

So this is the first to go to auction? Yes. The other two are not to be sold.

Do we know why Miles Davis commissioned one Committee trumpet each in black, blue, and red? Not really. He made comments about color, and he was sensitive to color. It was an aesthetic choice. They were colors he liked, and they moved him.

Do any records or letters survive that documents the trumpet commissions? If they do, I don’t know where they are. It’s unclear where the archives might be, if they were saved. Over the years, Larry Ramirez has given many interviews about it. His stories have been recorded.

What does Ramirez recall about the trumpet commission for Miles Davis? The most notable thing Ramirez talks about is his experience delivering the trumpet to Miles. He revered Miles Davis, and he had the opportunity to deliver the trumpet in person to him in a Denver hotel room. The way he told the story was Cicely Tyson [Davis’s then-wife] was asleep in the hotel room, and he put the trumpet against Ramirez’s belly to try it out without waking her. It was one of the great experiences of his life, Miles Davis trying out the trumpet by playing it against his stomach.

A head-on view of the bell of Miles Davis's blue custom-made Martin Committee trumpet.

Are there any fittings or details that Miles Davis asked for that wouldn’t necessarily appear on a more standard trumpet? The Committee trumpets, in terms of technical design, are all pretty much the same. There’s a tapered tuning slide, a cone-shaped, cornet-like bell, and some people call the water keys [aka the water valves, or spit valves] quirky. A writer I quote in the lot notes said, “Nobody has deciphered the magic formula for that unique tone… they don’t slot well, so it’s easy to slide into and out of notes a la Miles Davis.” It was a sound that Miles Davis was particularly identified with. On these horns, he was able to create the sound he was after, because of their design.

The lot notes date the Miles Davis trumpet to the early 1980s. Is it possible to date it to a specific year? It’s just circa 1980. The factual information is based on Larry Ramirez presenting the trumpet to Miles Davis. He didn’t remember the exact year. Davis resumed his career at about that time. In the second half of the 1970s, he was more or less underground. He wasn’t performing or recording.

Was Davis’s commissioning of the trumpets part of a plan to return to the limelight? There’s no reason to believe that. There’s no supporting evidence for that. But he was definitely getting back into things, and this was part of the effort.

Miles Davis, shown holding the black version of the Martin Committee Moon and Stars trumpet that he commissioned.

Among the materials Christie’s is using to promote the sale is a photo of Miles Davis holding the black trumpet, the one he would literally take to his grave. Are there any photos of Miles Davis holding the blue trumpet? We weren’t able to find one.

What do we know about the provenance of the blue trumpet? Do we know when and why Miles Davis gave it to George Benson? We don’t know exactly. Benson and Davis had a lot of mutual friends, a lot of overlap. Benson was a huge musician, a jazz guitarist and on the side he was an active collector of musical instruments. I imagine he had it for ten years when he auctioned it at Skinner in Boston in 2007.

What condition is the trumpet in? Does it show signs of wear? It’s in good condition, and it’s in working order. There’s a wonderful video of Keyon Harrold playing it.

Have you held the Miles Davis trumpet? I have.

What was that like? It’s really thrilling to be touching something that an incredible musician used to convey his music. What I think is most cool about it is sort of indefinable, in the same walk that looking at a great painting is indefinable. There’s an emotional content. It moves us somehow. It puts us in touch with things that are indefinable.

What’s your favorite detail on the Miles Davis trumpet? I think it’s the entire design–the color, the gilt moon and stars–it’s a beautiful thing anyway. It’s the overall conception, the idea that this great musician was highly sensitive to his environment and to design, that he would even think about adding color. No one would take a violin and add stripes or polka dots. He was highly attuned to the visual as well as to music.

Does it have a mute? No, it doesn’t.

Did it come with one and it was lost, or did it never have one? There’s a fitted leather case [for the trumpet] that doesn’t seem to have space for something missing. I don’t know.

I take it the 2007 Skinner sale informed the estimate? Yes. It’s always difficult to know what something associated with an iconic figure is worth. How much will the extra magic be valued by the market? Obviously, we’ve sold other musical instruments from famous musicians. We had David Gilmour in June, and we had Carole King’s piano last year. It’s a little bit apples and oranges.

Do you always look for a significant musical instrument for The Exceptional Sale? We don’t actively seek them, but we’re always open to iconic pieces of popular culture.

What’s the world auction record for a trumpet? Would it belong to one owned by Dizzy Gillespie? No idea. [Post-interview digging unearthed a reference to a Dizzy Gillespie bent bell trumpet selling at Christie’s New York in April 1995 for $63,000, which might well be the record. Unfortunately, records of that age are not online.]

Why will this Miles Davis trumpet stick in your memory? Miles Davis has to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. To be handling something that was his and reflects him so beautifully is really thrilling.

How to bid: The Miles Davis trumpet is lot 1011 in The Exceptional Sale, taking place at Christie’s New York on October 29, 2019.

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In case you missed it above, Christie’s filmed contemporary jazz musician Keyon Harrold playing the Miles Davis trumpet and talking about its importance.

Images are courtesy of Christie’s.

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A Steiff Teddy Bear Could Sell for $9,000

A Steiff PB28 rod bear, measuring 15 and 3/4 inches tall and created circa 1903 or 1904, shown seated.

What you see: A Steiff PB28 rod bear, measuring 15 and 3/4 inches tall and created circa 1903 or 1904. Auction Team Breker estimates it at €6,000 to €9,000, or roughly $6,600 to $9,900.

The expert: Nick Hawkins, U.K. representative for Auction Team Breker, on behalf of founder Uwe Breker.

Could we start by discussing how the idea of the teddy bear came about, and how Steiff decided to produce teddy bears? Steiff had already been in existence for several years [when it made its first teddy bear]. In 1880, it made the first soft toy, an elephant. Bear toys existed for a long time before that–carved bears from the Black Forest region, and automaton bears, but they were not cuddly. Bear toys were not new [in the early 20th century] but jointed soft toy bears were new, and Steiff pioneered them.

A Steiff PB28 rod bear, created circa 1903 or 1904. When measured in a standing position, it tops out at 15 and 3/4 inches tall.

Was the story of President Theodore Roosevelt declining to shoot a bear cub while hunting in 1902 an inspiration for Steiff to create soft, jointed teddy bears? Yes, I know that story. How true it is, I’m not sure. Interestingly, the name “Teddy” attached to the bear after 1903. The earliest [Steiff bears] were not known as teddy bears.

So the creation of the Steiff teddy bears and the timing of the Roosevelt hunting trip was a coincidence? I think maybe it was a happy coincidence, you could say. The first Steiff bear was string-jointed, in 1902, and was called 55PB, with the “PB” standing for “Plush Bear”. [The Theodore Roosevelt Association discusses the origin story of the teddy bear on its website, and Steiff makes an appearance.}

And none of the string-jointed Steiff teddy bears are thought to survive, yes? I’m reluctant to say there are no survivors. It’s possible somewhere in America or Europe there’s a disjointed bear, or a bear that started life as a string bear.

Let’s also take a minute to talk about Germany’s reputation as a toy-making nation in the early 20th century. I’m under the impression that partly because it was home to Steiff and Marklin, Germany was tops in the world. There was always competition between France and Germany, but France was in decline in 1900 and Germany was in ascendance. German toymakers were very innovative during this period, making more childlike dolls and character dolls. A similar thing happened with bears. They made soft toys children wanted to hold, not expensive dolls that children had to be supervised [during play], as with French toys. Steiff and Marklin are still there and are very, very conscious of their history and identity as iconic German products. They have reproduced certain models in limited editions.

A Steiff PB28 rod bear, created circa 1903 or 1904, and shown in closeup. It seems to have been made before Steiff started sewing ID buttons in the ears of their teddy bears.

How do we know this Steiff teddy bear was made in 1903 or 1904? The rod bears were only produced for around two years, from 1903 to 1905. This one has no Steiff button in his ear. The buttons came in in 1903. It’s possible this bear had one early on and the button was removed, but there are no characteristic holes [that provide evidence there was once a button]. That’s our indication of the dating on this.

Is it possible to know how many rod bears Steiff produced from 1903 to 1905? It’s possible, if you go to Steiff, there are records, but sadly, we don’t have access to them. This is the only one Auction Team Breker has handled. I’ve personally handled and seen around 15 to 20, but I’m sure there are more than that.

But the Steiff PB28 rod bear isn’t common, correct? It is a rare item. It’s definitely not a common one. And it’s an iconic Steiff bear. String-jointed bears aren’t known to survive. If you want the first model of Steiff bear, it’s this one.

A Steiff PB28 rod bear, measuring 15 and 3/4 inches tall and created circa 1903 or 1904, shown seated.

The plush on this Steiff teddy bear is described as pale gold. Did the Steiff PB28 rod bear come in other colors? And is pale gold one of the more rare colors? There were other colors as well–dark golden mohair, blond mohair, apricot mohair. I think there is less of pale gold than light blonds. Pale gold does not turn up as much. Apricot is a rare color, and black is incredibly rare. Dark gold, light gold, blond, they do turn up.

What do we know about the provenance of this Steiff teddy bear? The anecdotal history from the family in France [who consigned it] is that it was left at the house during the occupation by a German soldier [in the 1940s, during World War II]. Like most stories from 80 years ago, you can’t verify them or contradict them. There’s no reason to contradict it, but you have to accept it with a pinch of salt.

So this Steiff teddy bear has never been to auction before? No. The Auction Team Breker sale is its first time at auction.

A Steiff PB28 rod bear, measuring 15 and 3/4 inches tall and created circa 1903 or 1904, shown standing and in profile.

I apologize if this is a silly question, but did the consigning family have a name for the Steiff teddy bear? Not that we know of.

I notice that as we speak, we don’t call the bear “it”, we call it “him”… Yes! It’s funny. With dolls and things, people do that.

What condition is the Steiff teddy bear in? He’s in great condition, but there are things that have been repaired or changed on him. The felt pads [on his paws] have been reinforced, and the original pads are underneath. Paw felt wears quickly. It’s probably one of the most common repairs. It’s lucky to have the originals under the replacements. It will be the decision of the future buyer to remove them and restore the originals or accept [the repairs] as part of his history. He’s also missing his original nose. He had a gutta-percha nose. It was one of the earliest forms of plastic. When it was new, it was a malleable material, but over time, it became brittle. The nose is now stitched, with wool or silk thread. It’s very, very hard to find one with a gutta-percha nose. I’ve seen one at auction.

The Steiff PB28 rod bear was made for children to play with. What forms of wear are visible on this bear, and what forms of wear are considered acceptable in a Steiff teddy bear of this vintage? I think teddy bear collectors are quite forgiving. These things were loved at the time and had a hard life. So often, you find bears that have been hugged so much that they’re bald in places. This bear was lucky. It has some thin patches, but most bears do.

A Steiff PB28 rod bear, measuring 15 and 3/4 inches tall and created circa 1903 or 1904, shown from the rear. Thin patches are visible on the back as well as the back of the head.

Thin patches? They normally turn up where a teddy bear has been hugged.

An X-ray of the Stieff PB28 bear, which reveals its internal rods.
An X-ray of the Stieff PB28 bear, which reveals its internal rods.

This is a rod bear, which means it has rods inside its limbs that make it posable. Do the rods still work smoothly and easily? The rods survive very well. He’s still moveable as originally intended. He’s clearly a poseable bear.

A Steiff PB28 rod bear, measuring 15 and 3/4 inches tall and created circa 1903 or 1904, proving it is just as poseable as it was when it left the factory.

What is this Steiff PB28 rod bear like in person? I think he definitely has character, and quite an appealing expression. He’s helped by the fact that his fur is quite bright and in good condition. He presents very well.

How does this Steiff PB28 rod bear compare to others that you’ve handled? I think he compares very well. He’s been looked after. He’s not pristine, but he’s definitely one of the better ones.

What is the world auction record for a Steiff teddy bear? It’s Teddy Girl, which sold in 1994 at Christie’s for £110,000, hammer price [the raw price, before adding the buyer’s premium. That sum roughly translates to $141,400 in contemporary dollars.]

Why will this Steiff teddy bear stick in your memory? Because it came to Auction Team Breker from a kind of odd way from France. It was a German bear, in France, which came back to Germany. It’s an interesting story. And it’s a rod bear, and if you meet him in person, he has a nice character. Rod bears have a really specific look. It has an almost triangular-shaped face and really long paws. If you see it in profile, you know it’s a rod bear. It makes up the special character of these bears.

How to bid: The Steiff rod bear is lot 0163 in the Mechanical Music, Science & Technology, Toys & Automata sale at Auction Team Breker in in Koeln, Germany on November 9, 2019.

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The folks at Auction Team Breker appeared on The Hot Bid once before, talking about a gorgeous, steampunk-looking Malling-Hansen writing ball, an early typewriter. It went on to sell for the equivalent of $111,600.

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SOLD! The Rossetti Proserpine Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

Proserpine, an 1878 watercolor rendition by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Jane Burden Morris modeled as the goddess.

Update: The 1878 Rossetti Proserpine sold for $3.49 million.

What you see: Proserpine, a watercolor painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1878. Christie’s estimates it at $3 million to $5 million.

The expert: Laura Mathis, specialist, 19th century European Art at Christie’s, and head of this European Art sale.

First off–do we know why Rossetti calls the goddess Proserpine rather than Persephone? Not sure. He might be the same as me–it’s what he learned in school, and that’s what he stuck with.

A colleague of yours in London calls this “the most important and beautiful painting by a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to appear at auction in a decade.” What makes it so? There’s a couple of different factors that go into that. The iconic status of Proserpine in Dante’s oeuvre and 19th century painting in general, and Jane’s [Jane Morris] importance as a model, and the technical virtuosity on display by the artist.

Rossetti was particularly excellent in watercolor, yes? What shines through is he’s an extraordinarily innovative watercolor artist. When people think of watercolor, they think of thin washes of color. That’s not how he’s working. He captures a texture in watercolor that’s almost like oil paint. He’s able to capture an almost 3-D quality. It’s really exceptional.

Could we talk about why Rossetti painted Proserpine, and the meaning that the subject had to him? Proserpine is the first subject Rossetti takes up after his breakdown in 1872. It was a reinvigoration of his artistic energy and definitely a reflection of his longing for Jane. [In the context of the Proserpine myth] he saw himself in the role of Ceres, who fell into anguish over her lost daughter, who had to spend six months on Earth and six months in Hell [Hades] every year. It was summer when he was with her [Jane] and winter without her. He saw himself in that role of Ceres–probably not literally as Ceres, but more a feeling of loss tied into his relationship with her, their time together and apart. The duality is key.

Could we talk about how he chooses to portray Proserpine, and the details he surrounds her with? It seems like almost everything is charged with meaning… The ivy is symbolic of life after death, and memory. It’s also thought of as a symbol of faithfulness. It might reflect his faithfulness to her. The cramped composition space is very typical of the artist and gives you an overwhelming sense of the underworld as well as the real sense that she’s trapped there. The pomegranate is taken from the myth, and considered the fruit of Hades. Because she ate six seeds, she’s bound to the underworld for six months a year. It also represents the idea of life after death.

Why is the incense there in the lower left? It indicates the figure is a goddess.

How does Rossetti’s Proserpine show his mastery as an artist? Rossetti viewed Proserpine as — it’s described as his very favorite design. He said to a friend that he wanted to make it the best thing he could do. It seems to be a preoccupation, and he returns to the idea [throughout his life]. This is wonderful because it’s one of his favorite designs, done in a technique that he had largely abandoned at this point in his career.

Do we know why this Rossetti Proserpine is in watercolor, and only this Proserpine? Was it a commission? It was commissioned, but we don’t know if he was asked to do it in watercolor.

Rossetti seems to have chosen to paint Jane Morris as Proserpine because the goddess was trapped in a bad marriage, and he saw Jane as being trapped by marriage also. But do we know how Jane actually felt about her marriage to William Morris? Do Rossetti’s Proserpines accurately reflect her feelings as well as his own? There’s no sense of her own feelings, but he makes his very clear. It’s clear that it’s his point of view. A friend described William Morris as tempestuous and exacting company. He was definitely known to have a temper. It was pretty common knowledge he was not a great guy to live with. When Jane broke off the affair with Rossetti, it was of her own accord.

What do we know of the affair between Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, beyond the fact that there was one? And did William Morris know about it? William Morris was fairly liberal. He didn’t view Jane as his property, as other men of the time did. He knew he was not making her happy. The manor [Kelmscott Manor, located in the Cotswolds] was leased dually by William Morris and Rossetti. There were two summers where William Morris went to Iceland and left Jane with Rossetti. Because he owned the house, it was perfectly acceptable for him to be there. They worked together to keep an air of propriety.

What other evidence of the affair survives? Victorian propriety means that any specifics were not preserved. Jane insisted to the end of her life it was not a physical relationship, but we know Rossetti definitely loved her. She did an interview at one point after his death saying she loved him at one point, and what drew her apart was his addiction. She wanted to get away from that for the sake of her daughters.

There are at least eight versions of Rossetti’s Proserpine in oils. Do we know how many times he depicted this subject? He began eight oils, but that doesn’t mean there are eight extant copies with clear and exact provenances. The catalog raisonné is not exactly clear. More than one was left unfinished, and one was turned into another composition altogether. There are three key oils: The 1874 version in the Tate; the Birmingham version, which was the last one he worked on, up to his death in 1882, and an 1877 oil in a private collection.

Is this Rossetti Proserpine in watercolor typically counted among the eight? I don’t know how closely we can cling to eight. There are versions in chalk and pastel. It makes giving an exact number a bit complicated.

Is it possible to know if Jane Morris posed for Proserpine just once, and Rossetti burned it into his memory, or if she modeled for him for Proserpine many times? It’s hard to know. She spent extended periods of time with him. She could have sat more than once.

This Rossetti Proserpine is in an original Rossetti-made frame. Is that unusual, or do most Rossetti paintings with Rossetti frames tend to survive with their frames intact? Generally, when there’s a Rossetti-made frame, they remain together.

Does the Rossetti-made frame add any value in this context, or is a Rossetti Proserpine so desirable on its own that it’s hard to say? It’s a bit of a tricky question, but they make a lively package together.

Does the fact that this Rossetti Proserpine is done in watercolor, and is the only Rossetti Proserpine done in watercolor, make it more interesting to collectors? I think it does, because he was such an innovative watercolorist. It’s great to have an iconic composition in watercolor, especially when he largely had stopped doing it [by 1878]. It makes it special.

What is this Rossetti Prosperine like in person? It is incredibly beautiful. The thing the camera doesn’t capture is the texture of the watercolor technique. It’s subtle, but it’s a wonderfully thick application. Look at the curl of her hair, the way it adds textural elements to the drapery. It makes it ever so slightly 3-D.

What is your favorite detail of the Rossetti Proserpine? The strength of the figure, and the power of her expression. The female figures at the center of Rossetti’s later works have thought behind their eyes, and they have an agency I find truly compelling.

You can see the gears of Prosperine’s mind turning. Exactly, but she’s not a victim. She’s thinking about her predicament, but she doesn’t feel trapped. There’s a power and an intelligence that’s wonderfully captured.

It’s hard to do. It’s not easy to get that intelligence in an expression. [Rossetti was able to] because he spent so much time with her.

When was the last time a Rossetti Proserpine came to auction? There was one in London in 2013, a version done in chalk, which sold for $3.2 million. Prior to that, a pastel version came up in 2007.

So it’s thinkable that this Rossetti Proserpine could beat it. I hope so. I think it deserves to.

Did the chalk Rossetti Proserpine set a world auction record for the artist? No, the world auction record is one that sold in London at Sotheby’s in 2013. It was called A Christmas Carol, and it sold for £4.5 million, or just over $7.4 million.

Why will this Rossetti Proserpine stick in your memory? Too often, the originality of Victorian paintings goes unrecognized. When you look at Proserpine, you’re bowled over by how strikingly modern it is–that expression, and the inherent power in her figure. He’s really sort of creating a new idea of beauty. Those who don’t know the Victorian era well may not associate Prosperine with that era. That’s what’s so modern about it.

How to bid: The Rossetti Proserpine is lot 208 in the European Art Part I sale at Christie’s New York on October 28, 2019.

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Laura Mathis appeared on The Hot Bid once before, discussing a John Atkinson Grimshaw painting that ultimately sold for $362,500.

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

Christie’s devoted a story to the 1878 watercolor Proserpine on its website.

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SOLD! The Talking Skull Automation Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

A Willman talking skull automaton, created circa 1930, shown sitting on the convincing false book that houses its mechanics.


Update: The Willmann talking skull automaton sold for $13,200.

What you see: A Willmann talking skull automaton, made circa 1930 in Germany by designer John Willmann. Potter & Potter Auctions estimates it at $6,000 to $9,000.

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

So, how far back does the talking skull routine go in magic? How old is it? It’s over 100 years old. There are catalogs from the 1870s showing talking skulls in them. There are many different ways the trick can be accomplished. This is one very elaborate method.

A willman talking skull automaton, created circa 1930, shown sitting on the convincing false book that houses its mechanics.

How do magicians tend to use a talking skull in their acts? It’s actually a conversation between the performer and the audience, carried on with a disembodied skull. The skull is introduced with whatever patter the magician chooses to use. Then the skull is put on display and the magician or the audience asks the skull a question–“What card did I choose?” Its jaw will click the answer out as if it were alive.

Was John Willmann known for creating top-of-the-line automata around 1930, when he made this talking skull automaton? Yes. John Willmann was probably the.. I’m not sure if “famous” is the right word, but he was the most prolific builder of illusions and stage effects of this period [in Europe]. He was kind of known as the master craftsman from pocket tricks to automata and everything in between.

The faux book component of the Willmann talking skull automaton, shown alone. It conceals the clockwork that makes the skull's jaw tap.

The lot notes describe the Willmann talking skull automaton as “perhaps the most elaborate talking skull ever constructed.” What makes it so? The fact that it uses a real human skull, and the way it artfully conceals [its clockwork] in the faux book. Without revealing too much, most have a very simple mechanism to animate the skull. This is so elaborate as to almost be ridiculous. We’ve sold many examples of the talking skull. We’ve never sold one as complicated or as fanciful as this. This is truly an automaton.

But isn’t it risky for a magician to depend on an elaborate device to make a trick work? I would agree with that. You better make sure you wound it up.

What advantage does the Willmann talking skull automaton give to a magician that a simpler version of the trick does not? It requires no secret assistants to operate, which many other methods do. And a magician does not need to touch it or be near it. He could sit in the front row and carry on a conversation. The McElroy talking skull sells very well and has literally no mechanism. It’s literally a skull made out of composite material. The Willmann thing is the antithesis of that. It’s a robot.

The lot notes describe the book as “a true masterpiece of Willmann’s mechanical abilities.” What makes it a masterpiece? It combines the aesthetics and mechanics into a shining example of what he was capable of. He literally had a small factory in Germany to make these things. It’s a combination of art and science. And you know it’s a real human skull.

The Willman talking skull automaton, incorporated a genuine human skull.

Do we know where Willmann would have gotten a genuine human skull? A medical school.

When I saw it was German and circa 1930s I freaked out a little and checked to make sure the timing didn’t overlap with the concentration camps. His career was over and done with by the time the war began. I believe the factory was bombed out. And the talking skull could date earlier than the date in the catalog. It’s hard to say.

How did the clockwork inside the book make the skull’s jaw tap? It activated a mechanism that popped out of the book clandestinely, and that’s what moves the jaw.

Clockwork mechanisms, hidden inside a faux book, made the jaw of the Willmann talking skull automaton move.

Is all the clockwork I see in the photographs actually needed to make the jaw tap, or is some of it for show? No. Nobody was supposed to ever see this. Nobody was supposed to know it’s in there. The book is supposed to look like a book. I’m not a mechanic. I don’t know that every last piece is required. But there’s no reason to put in anything that’s extraneous.

Does the clockwork make any noise? It’s pretty quiet. And you [the magician] are going to be talking, and the audience is going to be interacting. There are others [other clockwork-driven devices] in the catalog–an old joke is you need to play a Sousa march to cover it up.

So the magician’s patter and the ambient audience noise is enough to cloak the sounds the clockwork makes? If it’s even that loud. Magicians use silent clockwork mechanisms.

John Willmann went all-out when designing the deluxe version of his talking skull automata. He included several hand-lettered pages inside the fake book that hid the clockwork that moved the skull's jawbone.

I understand that the fake book contains several leaves, aka pages. Willmann didn’t have to bother with that, but he did. How does the time and effort he lavished on making the book pages show the high craftsmanship that he achieved? It gives you another layer of deception. If you try to “prove” it’s a real book, you can show the hand-lettered leaves. You can “prove,” if you so desire, it’s an ancient book of spells by leafing through it. The cheaper way [of making a talking skull illusion] is a fake book that you can’t open up. He went the extra mile.

Was this Willmann talking skull automaton a one-off, or did he offer it in a catalog? I’m sure he made them one at a time when he received orders. I’ve seen two. That doesn’t mean that others don’t exist.

Paperwork, written in German, that accompanies the Willmann talking skull automaton. It describes the workings of the trick and references a less deluxe version of the automaton.

Is the Willmann talking skull automaton shown in one of his catalogs? I’ve looked through John Willmann catalogs, but I wasn’t looking specifically for this item. It wouldn’t surprise me [if it was in there]. Paperwork that comes with it–it’s all in German–some of it describes the effect, and some of it references a slightly lower-grade version at a lower price.

How many other talking skull devices have you seen that include a genuine human skull? One.

Is that one a Willmann talking skull automaton? No, but I have it here. It was in the same collection. It’s quite different in the way it works, its composition and its method. We’ll offer it next year in the second part of the sale.

Is the automaton fully functional? Yeah. Did I have a conversation in German with it? No, but it is fully functional.

When it’s fully wound up, how long does it operate? I did not time it.

A Willman talking skull automaton, created circa 1930, shown sitting on the convincing false book that houses its mechanics.

What is the Willmann talking skull automaton like in person? It’s creepy. It’s a real human skull, that talks to you.

Why will this Willmann talking skull automaton stick in your memory? It’s rarity, its aesthetics, its ingenuity. We’ve handled a lot of weird things. This ranks right up there.

How to bid: The Willmann talking skull automaton is lot 281 in The Magic Collection of Rüdiger Deutsch: Part I, taking place at Potter & Potter on October 26, 2019.

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Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about 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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A Howard Finster Painting Could Command $40,000

Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a 1982 painting by the late American outsider artist Howard Finster.

What you see: Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, by the late American outsider artist Howard Finster. Slotin Folk Art Auction estimates it at $30,000 to $40,000.

The expert: Steve Slotin of Slotin Folk Art Auction in Buford, Georgia.

First, let’s discuss the story of Howard Finster–how he became an artist, and how his art career played out. He was a street preacher in the small town of Summerville, Georgia. He would stand on the hood of his car on Main Street and preach. He also had to make a living, so he’d put clock cases on the hood and sell them. One day, he was watching Billy Graham on TV. He watched the whole thing and couldn’t remember what he heard. Finster had a vision that he should put his sermons into art so they were always there to see, in the art. As a person of no means, he could not buy art supplies. He would say, “I take your garbage and turn it into art.” He would take refuse and any paint that was around. Early paintings were tractor enamel [paint] on board, scrap, whatever.

How was he discovered? People knew about his art but didn’t consider it art. But one day, the Talking Heads put his art on the cover [of their 1985 album Little Creatures] and R.E.M. put his art on the cover of [their 1984 album, Reckoning]. He was known and collected, but when the Talking Heads album went big, he became famous. People rushed to buy from him, and that’s when his career really soared.

Did the Talking Heads discover him? No. His work was known and in shows, but the masses–when the Talking Heads had that monster album and his art was on the cover, with David Byrne holding the world up–that’s when Howard Finster became a household name.

Not many outsider artists gain recognition while they are still alive and actively making art. How did Howard Finster react to his fame? He never changed. The only thing I think it did was let him by a nicer house for his wife. Otherwise he was the same street preacher who stayed up all night, eating coffee grounds and working on his art. It never went to his head.

How prolific was he? He started painting around 1976 and went into the 2000s. He had a good thirty-something years of painting. For the first ten years, no one really knew about him. He numbered every piece of his artwork. In his later years, his kids and grandkids helped him. I believe he got up to 40,000 pieces of art.

A detail of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster, featuring his signature and the painting's number.

He numbered every single piece of art he ever made? From the very first one forward? Yes. He was quite an unusual guy. He believed he was from another planet. He had visions, and conversations with people from the beyond.

And he was an insomniac? He worked all night and all day and hardly ever slept. He’d eat about a spoonful of Folger’s instant coffee. He had a very hard rural upbringing before he became a street preacher.

Where does Howard Finster rank among the titans of outsider and self-taught artists? He is by far the most recognized self-taught artist out there. Others may bring more at auction, but as far as making the field accessible and known to the masses, there’s no one like Howard Finster.

Really? Is he better-known than Grandma Moses? People know her stuff, but they knew it in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. It’s been two or three generations since Grandma Moses connected. Howard Finster was popular in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, and he still connects to the masses.

Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster.

What is the story of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon? Is it a stand-alone work or is it part of a dedicated series on a specific theme? That’s the thing. Howard is really not from this world. Where his thoughts take him are very strange and unique. He did a set of four-foot-by-four-foot paintings–I guess there are under 20 pieces. He probably made two or three of George Washington. I don’t know the story behind the planet Loraleon. It could truly be all going on in his mind.

Did Howard Finster think that he came from the planet Loraleon? I think he said he traveled to all these planets. He’s way out there in the universe on this stuff.

So he didn’t claim to be from planet Loraleon? No, but he was able to visit and travel in his own mind, his own visions.

Do we know why he did 20 paintings in four-by-four size? There just happen to be 20 at that size. One is called Superpower, and dealt with the Russian-American conflict. Some are George Washington. Some are Daniel Boone. Some are about getting to heaven. They vary in subject. A few years ago we sold one of Jesus’s mother–she was a central figure for that. It brought $51,600. That’s still a record for any Howard Finster piece.

Did he scavenge or receive a pile of four-by-four boards, and use those for paintings? After a certain time, he started to get better art supplies. He still used leftover tractor enamel. He could have ordered four-by-four boards. Normal plywood is four-by-eight. Maybe he had a bunch of these cut.

How often does George Washington appear in his work? Quite often. He would repeat a lot of icons, using them over and over. He did thousands of images of Elvis at three years old. He loved people in history, especially American history.

Does his George Washington always look like this–like the portrait we see on the dollar bill? That I can’t tell you. He comes up with portraits or images. It could be the dollar. It could be a cereal box. Who knows where this stuff comes from?

A detail of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster, showing Washington's collar, which has people walking on it.

I’d like to talk about some of the details of the Howard Finster painting–particularly Washington’s collar, which looks like a sidewalk with people strolling on it. What meaning did this have for him? For a lot of his paintings, there’s no rhyme or reason to what’s going on. A lot of clouds have faces, because it’s easier for him to have faces on them. That’s what makes self-taught art America’s greatest art. Nothing else out there [is like this] and everything else after this will be a copy of this. He’s only influenced by himself and religion and what was around him.

A detail of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster, which shows a handwritten message and part of a church.

I see a church in the background, and the handwritten religious messages, but this seems less religious than other Howard Finster paintings. This doesn’t seem really religious, but he’s trying to preach at the same time. He always has churches, he always talks about Jesus. There are proverbs and messages from the Bible. There’s always some kind of preaching going on, and he’s always trying to get the world right in his mind.

Am I right in thinking this Howard Finster painting has a less crowded composition than other works of his? It’s not as busy as most of his works, and it’s very bold. Even the details of his shirt–it’s charming.

This Howard Finster paintings measures four feet by four feet. Is this the largest size he worked in? These are the biggest paintings you can get. He did a painting as a full four-by-eight sheet, but he didn’t really paint it–the paintings are stuck on there. He was prolific in his paintings. Some are big. Some are small. Whatever he could get his hands on, it didn’t matter to him, he was just trying to get the word out. Wood, concrete, fabrics, rags, anything. We’ve seen stuff on mirrors, on glass, almost anything you can think of.

Picasso and Warhol were also prolific, and that has helped their secondary markets–the volume of stuff creates momentum that keeps their markets going. Is that true for Howard Finster’s market, too? Does the volume of his work create momentum for his market? It’s more true than with Warhol or Picasso. Finster signed and numbered his works, even his later works. It’s a lot easier [money-wise] to have a Howard Finster in your house than a Warhol or a Picasso. Howard Finster did original art, but he was able to mass-produce it because he just worked so hard at it.

This painting was featured in a show and a book named Passionate Visions, by Alice Rae Yellen. How might that fact affect the painting’s value to collectors? It’s very helpful, mainly because it shows provenance, it shows it’s been exhibited. Those little things always help a piece of art.

Several other works by Finster appear in the auction. How do they compare to this work? What makes this one especially interesting when compared to the other five? The size and the rarity and just the sheer–it’s an early, early classic piece with great size to it. Whoever gets this will always have a museum-quality piece. No one can debate that.

What condition is the Howard Finster painting in? Mint condition.

Which means what, in the context of a Howard Finster painting? It’s been maintained very well. No fading. No scratches. It’s as pristine as the day he made it.

A detail of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster, which shows the decorations he burned into the frame he made for the work.

The Howard Finster painting has a frame made by him. How many Finsters have Finster-made frames? Is that common? In the early days, when he was a street preacher, he’d put clock cases and other wooden items to sell [on the hood of his car]. He made frames for his works. He would burn little designs onto the frame with power tools. If you’re lucky, you can get an early work with a frame.

Is this a pretty typical frame for him, or does it stand out in any particular way? I like this frame. It’s multi-layered, like, three or four layers of wood burned on top of each other. It’s very well built-up, and it’s a heavy frame for him. I’d say it’s one of his best frames.

We know he made 40,000 or so pieces of art. Do collectors prefer Howard Finster paintings that have certain numbers? Are they less interested in paintings with higher numbers? The period when he was going from a paintbrush message to a Sharpie message–between 5,000 and 6,000, we see permanent marker come in to write the preaching down. That’s where most collectors want to be, 5,000 and earlier. Those are his most important pieces.

I don’t see much in the lot notes about the provenance of the Howard Finster painting. Has it been to auction before? Right, it hasn’t been on the market. A dealer probably sold it [to the consignor] 20 or 30 years ago.

What is the Howard Finster painting like in person? It’s powerful. It’s big and it’s bold and it’s striking. I guarantee a lot of people will take selfies next to it during the auction.

How did you arrive at the estimate for this Howard Finster painting? I imagine it was informed by the sale of the Virgin Mary painting of the same size? This would be the second-highest price paid for a Finster if it sells within the estimate. I’d be very happy if it exceeded the estimate, and my estimates are usually conservative anyhow. There’s no other chance to get a four-foot-by-four-foot Finster. To get one on the market is rare. The others are in private collections, and when I ask about them, [the owners] want over $100,000 for it. That’s nice, but a little high for the market right now.

Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, a painting by the late American self-taught artist Howard Finster.

Why will this Howard Finster painting stick in your memory? When you look at an artist’s work–we’ve been in the auction business for self-taught art for 25 years, and we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of Finsters. Some you just gravitate to. Rarely do we have a piece like the Virgin Mary or the George Washington. Twenty-five years from now, it will be very difficult for anybody to pick up a masterpiece like this.

How to bid: The Howard Finster painting Vision of George on Planet Loraleon is lot 0186 in the Self-Taught, Outsider, & Folk Art auction at Slotin Folk Art Auction in Buford, Georgia on November 9, 2019.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page.

Image is courtesy of Slotin Folk Art Auction.

Steve Slotin previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Sam Doyle painting on tin roofing material that went on to command $17,000; a work on paper by Minnie Evans that later sold for $8,000; and a sculpture by Ab the Flag Man which ultimately sold for $1,200.

Howard Finster has a website. So too does the Paradise Garden Foundation, which maintains the unique museum he created on four acres in Pennville, Georgia.

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

A Rossetti Proserpine–the Only Version Painted in Watercolor–Could Sell for $5 Million at Christie’s

Proserpine, an 1878 watercolor rendition by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Jane Burden Morris modeled as the goddess.

What you see: Proserpine, a watercolor painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1878. Christie’s estimates it at $3 million to $5 million.

The expert: Laura Mathis, specialist, 19th century European Art at Christie’s, and head of this European Art sale.

First off–do we know why Rossetti calls the goddess Proserpine rather than Persephone? Not sure. He might be the same as me–it’s what he learned in school, and that’s what he stuck with.

A colleague of yours in London calls this “the most important and beautiful painting by a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to appear at auction in a decade.” What makes it so? There’s a couple of different factors that go into that. The iconic status of Proserpine in Dante’s oeuvre and 19th century painting in general, and Jane’s [Jane Morris] importance as a model, and the technical virtuosity on display by the artist.

Rossetti was particularly excellent in watercolor, yes? What shines through is he’s an extraordinarily innovative watercolor artist. When people think of watercolor, they think of thin washes of color. That’s not how he’s working. He captures a texture in watercolor that’s almost like oil paint. He’s able to capture an almost 3-D quality. It’s really exceptional.

Could we talk about why Rossetti painted Proserpine, and the meaning that the subject had to him? Proserpine is the first subject Rossetti takes up after his breakdown in 1872. It was a reinvigoration of his artistic energy and definitely a reflection of his longing for Jane. [In the context of the Proserpine myth] he saw himself in the role of Ceres, who fell into anguish over her lost daughter, who had to spend six months on Earth and six months in Hell [Hades] every year. It was summer when he was with her [Jane] and winter without her. He saw himself in that role of Ceres–probably not literally as Ceres, but more a feeling of loss tied into his relationship with her, their time together and apart. The duality is key.

Could we talk about how he chooses to portray Proserpine, and the details he surrounds her with? It seems like almost everything is charged with meaning… The ivy is symbolic of life after death, and memory. It’s also thought of as a symbol of faithfulness. It might reflect his faithfulness to her. The cramped composition space is very typical of the artist and gives you an overwhelming sense of the underworld as well as the real sense that she’s trapped there. The pomegranate is taken from the myth, and considered the fruit of Hades. Because she ate six seeds, she’s bound to the underworld for six months a year. It also represents the idea of life after death.

Why is the incense there in the lower left? It indicates the figure is a goddess.

How does Rossetti’s Proserpine show his mastery as an artist? Rossetti viewed Proserpine as — it’s described as his very favorite design. He said to a friend that he wanted to make it the best thing he could do. It seems to be a preoccupation, and he returns to the idea [throughout his life]. This is wonderful because it’s one of his favorite designs, done in a technique that he had largely abandoned at this point in his career.

Do we know why this Rossetti Proserpine is in watercolor, and only this Proserpine? Was it a commission? It was commissioned, but we don’t know if he was asked to do it in watercolor.

Rossetti seems to have chosen to paint Jane Morris as Proserpine because the goddess was trapped in a bad marriage, and he saw Jane as being trapped by marriage also. But do we know how Jane actually felt about her marriage to William Morris? Do Rossetti’s Proserpines accurately reflect her feelings as well as his own? There’s no sense of her own feelings, but he makes his very clear. It’s clear that it’s his point of view. A friend described William Morris as tempestuous and exacting company. He was definitely known to have a temper. It was pretty common knowledge he was not a great guy to live with. When Jane broke off the affair with Rossetti, it was of her own accord.

What do we know of the affair between Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, beyond the fact that there was one? And did William Morris know about it? William Morris was fairly liberal. He didn’t view Jane as his property, as other men of the time did. He knew he was not making her happy. The manor [Kelmscott Manor, located in the Cotswolds] was leased dually by William Morris and Rossetti. There were two summers where William Morris went to Iceland and left Jane with Rossetti. Because he owned the house, it was perfectly acceptable for him to be there. They worked together to keep an air of propriety.

What other evidence of the affair survives? Victorian propriety means that any specifics were not preserved. Jane insisted to the end of her life it was not a physical relationship, but we know Rossetti definitely loved her. She did an interview at one point after his death saying she loved him at one point, and what drew her apart was his addiction. She wanted to get away from that for the sake of her daughters.

There are at least eight versions of Rossetti’s Proserpine in oils. Do we know how many times he depicted this subject? He began eight oils, but that doesn’t mean there are eight extant copies with clear and exact provenances. The catalog raisonné is not exactly clear. More than one was left unfinished, and one was turned into another composition altogether. There are three key oils: The 1874 version in the Tate; the Birmingham version, which was the last one he worked on, up to his death in 1882, and an 1877 oil in a private collection.

Is this Rossetti Proserpine in watercolor typically counted among the eight? I don’t know how closely we can cling to eight. There are versions in chalk and pastel. It makes giving an exact number a bit complicated.

Is it possible to know if Jane Morris posed for Proserpine just once, and Rossetti burned it into his memory, or if she modeled for him for Proserpine many times? It’s hard to know. She spent extended periods of time with him. She could have sat more than once.

This Rossetti Proserpine is in an original Rossetti-made frame. Is that unusual, or do most Rossetti paintings with Rossetti frames tend to survive with their frames intact? Generally, when there’s a Rossetti-made frame, they remain together.

Does the Rossetti-made frame add any value in this context, or is a Rossetti Proserpine so desirable on its own that it’s hard to say? It’s a bit of a tricky question, but they make a lively package together.

Does the fact that this Rossetti Proserpine is done in watercolor, and is the only Rossetti Proserpine done in watercolor, make it more interesting to collectors? I think it does, because he was such an innovative watercolorist. It’s great to have an iconic composition in watercolor, especially when he largely had stopped doing it [by 1878]. It makes it special.

What is this Rossetti Prosperine like in person? It is incredibly beautiful. The thing the camera doesn’t capture is the texture of the watercolor technique. It’s subtle, but it’s a wonderfully thick application. Look at the curl of her hair, the way it adds textural elements to the drapery. It makes it ever so slightly 3-D.

What is your favorite detail of the Rossetti Proserpine? The strength of the figure, and the power of her expression. The female figures at the center of Rossetti’s later works have thought behind their eyes, and they have an agency I find truly compelling.

You can see the gears of Prosperine’s mind turning. Exactly, but she’s not a victim. She’s thinking about her predicament, but she doesn’t feel trapped. There’s a power and an intelligence that’s wonderfully captured.

It’s hard to do. It’s not easy to get that intelligence in an expression. [Rossetti was able to] because he spent so much time with her.

When was the last time a Rossetti Proserpine came to auction? There was one in London in 2013, a version done in chalk, which sold for $3.2 million. Prior to that, a pastel version came up in 2007.

So it’s thinkable that this Rossetti Proserpine could beat it. I hope so. I think it deserves to.

Did the chalk Rossetti Proserpine set a world auction record for the artist? No, the world auction record is one that sold in London at Sotheby’s in 2013. It was called A Christmas Carol, and it sold for £4.5 million, or just over $7.4 million.

Why will this Rossetti Proserpine stick in your memory? Too often, the originality of Victorian paintings goes unrecognized. When you look at Proserpine, you’re bowled over by how strikingly modern it is–that expression, and the inherent power in her figure. He’s really sort of creating a new idea of beauty. Those who don’t know the Victorian era well may not associate Prosperine with that era. That’s what’s so modern about it.

How to bid: The Rossetti Proserpine is lot 208 in the European Art Part I sale at Christie’s New York on October 28, 2019.

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

Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

Laura Mathis appeared on The Hot Bid once before, discussing a John Atkinson Grimshaw painting that ultimately sold for $362,500.

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

Christie’s devoted a story to the 1878 watercolor Proserpine on its website.

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

A Talking Skull Automaton Could Command $9,000 at Potter & Potter

A Willman talking skull automaton, created circa 1930, shown sitting on the convincing false book that houses its mechanics.


What you see: A Willmann talking skull automaton, made circa 1930 in Germany by designer John Willmann. Potter & Potter Auctions estimates it at $6,000 to $9,000.

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

So, how far back does the talking skull routine go in magic? How old is it? It’s over 100 years old. There are catalogs from the 1870s showing talking skulls in them. There are many different ways the trick can be accomplished. This is one very elaborate method.

A willman talking skull automaton, created circa 1930, shown sitting on the convincing false book that houses its mechanics.

How do magicians tend to use a talking skull in their acts? It’s actually a conversation between the performer and the audience, carried on with a disembodied skull. The skull is introduced with whatever patter the magician chooses to use. Then the skull is put on display and the magician or the audience asks the skull a question–“What card did I choose?” Its jaw will click the answer out as if it were alive.

Was John Willmann known for creating top-of-the-line automata around 1930, when he made this talking skull automaton? Yes. John Willmann was probably the.. I’m not sure if “famous” is the right word, but he was the most prolific builder of illusions and stage effects of this period [in Europe]. He was kind of known as the master craftsman from pocket tricks to automata and everything in between.

The faux book component of the Willmann talking skull automaton, shown alone. It conceals the clockwork that makes the skull's jaw tap.

The lot notes describe the Willmann talking skull automaton as “perhaps the most elaborate talking skull ever constructed.” What makes it so? The fact that it uses a real human skull, and the way it artfully conceals [its clockwork] in the faux book. Without revealing too much, most have a very simple mechanism to animate the skull. This is so elaborate as to almost be ridiculous. We’ve sold many examples of the talking skull. We’ve never sold one as complicated or as fanciful as this. This is truly an automaton.

But isn’t it risky for a magician to depend on an elaborate device to make a trick work? I would agree with that. You better make sure you wound it up.

What advantage does the Willmann talking skull automaton give to a magician that a simpler version of the trick does not? It requires no secret assistants to operate, which many other methods do. And a magician does not need to touch it or be near it. He could sit in the front row and carry on a conversation. The McElroy talking skull sells very well and has literally no mechanism. It’s literally a skull made out of composite material. The Willmann thing is the antithesis of that. It’s a robot.

The lot notes describe the book as “a true masterpiece of Willmann’s mechanical abilities.” What makes it a masterpiece? It combines the aesthetics and mechanics into a shining example of what he was capable of. He literally had a small factory in Germany to make these things. It’s a combination of art and science. And you know it’s a real human skull.

The Willman talking skull automaton, incorporated a genuine human skull.

Do we know where Willmann would have gotten a genuine human skull? A medical school.

When I saw it was German and circa 1930s I freaked out a little and checked to make sure the timing didn’t overlap with the concentration camps. His career was over and done with by the time the war began. I believe the factory was bombed out. And the talking skull could date earlier than the date in the catalog. It’s hard to say.

How did the clockwork inside the book make the skull’s jaw tap? It activated a mechanism that popped out of the book clandestinely, and that’s what moves the jaw.

Clockwork mechanisms, hidden inside a faux book, made the jaw of the Willmann talking skull automaton move.

Is all the clockwork I see in the photographs actually needed to make the jaw tap, or is some of it for show? No. Nobody was supposed to ever see this. Nobody was supposed to know it’s in there. The book is supposed to look like a book. I’m not a mechanic. I don’t know that every last piece is required. But there’s no reason to put in anything that’s extraneous.

Does the clockwork make any noise? It’s pretty quiet. And you [the magician] are going to be talking, and the audience is going to be interacting. There are others [other clockwork-driven devices] in the catalog–an old joke is you need to play a Sousa march to cover it up.

So the magician’s patter and the ambient audience noise is enough to cloak the sounds the clockwork makes? If it’s even that loud. Magicians use silent clockwork mechanisms.

John Willmann went all-out when designing the deluxe version of his talking skull automata. He included several hand-lettered pages inside the fake book that hid the clockwork that moved the skull's jawbone.

I understand that the fake book contains several leaves, aka pages. Willmann didn’t have to bother with that, but he did. How does the time and effort he lavished on making the book pages show the high craftsmanship that he achieved? It gives you another layer of deception. If you try to “prove” it’s a real book, you can show the hand-lettered leaves. You can “prove,” if you so desire, it’s an ancient book of spells by leafing through it. The cheaper way [of making a talking skull illusion] is a fake book that you can’t open up. He went the extra mile.

Was this Willmann talking skull automaton a one-off, or did he offer it in a catalog? I’m sure he made them one at a time when he received orders. I’ve seen two. That doesn’t mean that others don’t exist.

Paperwork, written in German, that accompanies the Willmann talking skull automaton. It describes the workings of the trick and references a less deluxe version of the automaton.

Is the Willmann talking skull automaton shown in one of his catalogs? I’ve looked through John Willmann catalogs, but I wasn’t looking specifically for this item. It wouldn’t surprise me [if it was in there]. Paperwork that comes with it–it’s all in German–some of it describes the effect, and some of it references a slightly lower-grade version at a lower price.

How many other talking skull devices have you seen that include a genuine human skull? One.

Is that one a Willmann talking skull automaton? No, but I have it here. It was in the same collection. It’s quite different in the way it works, its composition and its method. We’ll offer it next year in the second part of the sale.

Is the automaton fully functional? Yeah. Did I have a conversation in German with it? No, but it is fully functional.

When it’s fully wound up, how long does it operate? I did not time it.

A Willman talking skull automaton, created circa 1930, shown sitting on the convincing false book that houses its mechanics.

What is the Willmann talking skull automaton like in person? It’s creepy. It’s a real human skull, that talks to you.

Why will this Willmann talking skull automaton stick in your memory? It’s rarity, its aesthetics, its ingenuity. We’ve handled a lot of weird things. This ranks right up there.

How to bid: The Willmann talking skull automaton is lot 281 in The Magic Collection of Rüdiger Deutsch: Part I, taking place at Potter & Potter on October 26, 2019.

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

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Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter. 

Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about 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.

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

A Miles Davis Trumpet Could Command $100,000 at Christie’s

A model T3460 "Committee" trumpet with a midnight blue epoxy body and gilt moon and stars decorations, commissioned by jazz legend Miles Davis in the early 1980s.

What you see: A model T3460 “Committee” trumpet with a midnight blue epoxy body and gilt moon and stars decorations, commissioned by jazz legend Miles Davis in the early 1980s. Christie’s estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.

The expert: Becky MacGuire, director of the Exceptional Sale at Christie’s.

So this trumpet was made by a company called Martin. Is that the same company that makes guitars? It’s not, actually. It’s a brass instrument company. It’s gone though several permutations since its heyday. It’s a funny coincidence. [Its full name was the Martin Band Instrument Company, and it went defunct in 2007.]

This is called a “Committee” trumpet. What does “Committee” mean here? Is it a brand name? It’s a brand that became renowned. The trumpet was supposedly designed by a committee of musicians, and it became a coveted horn for jazz musicians. When Martin was sold in the 1960s, it stopped making the Committee model as a part of its line, but made them on a commission basis for Miles Davis. Dizzy Gillespie played a Martin Committee, and he was one of Miles Davis’s heroes. That may have influenced his choice of a Committee trumpet.

This is one of three trumpets Miles Davis commissioned from Martin that have different body colors and the same decorative scheme. Do we know if they were commissioned together, or one at a time? We don’t know exactly if they were finished together. They were designed by Miles Davis and made by the same team, which was led by Larry Ramirez. He was a jazz trumpeter himself, and had a real understanding of instruments and what could be done. Davis was a visual artist as well as a musician. It’s not surprising to people who knew him that he was involved with the design of these trumpets.

An overhead view of Miles Davis's custom Martin Committee trumpet.

How did his visual sense affect the appearance of this trumpet? First of all, the color is not what one usually finds when you think of a trumpet. It’s blue, which is a color associated with Miles. He loved to dress in blue, and it has obvious associations with his music. All three trumpets have the moon and stars [motif], which is a unique design.

Do we know why Miles Davis chose a moon and stars motif for these trumpets? Not exactly. There’s no record of what Miles was really thinking.

This trumpet’s siblings are red and black, respectively. Where are those other two trumpets now? The black one is buried with Miles Davis in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The red one remains with the family.

So this is the first to go to auction? Yes. The other two are not to be sold.

Do we know why Miles Davis commissioned one Committee trumpet each in black, blue, and red? Not really. He made comments about color, and he was sensitive to color. It was an aesthetic choice. They were colors he liked, and they moved him.

Do any records or letters survive that documents the trumpet commissions? If they do, I don’t know where they are. It’s unclear where the archives might be, if they were saved. Over the years, Larry Ramirez has given many interviews about it. His stories have been recorded.

What does Ramirez recall about the trumpet commission for Miles Davis? The most notable thing Ramirez talks about is his experience delivering the trumpet to Miles. He revered Miles Davis, and he had the opportunity to deliver the trumpet in person to him in a Denver hotel room. The way he told the story was Cicely Tyson [Davis’s then-wife] was asleep in the hotel room, and he put the trumpet against Ramirez’s belly to try it out without waking her. It was one of the great experiences of his life, Miles Davis trying out the trumpet by playing it against his stomach.

A head-on view of the bell of Miles Davis's blue custom-made Martin Committee trumpet.

Are there any fittings or details that Miles Davis asked for that wouldn’t necessarily appear on a more standard trumpet? The Committee trumpets, in terms of technical design, are all pretty much the same. There’s a tapered tuning slide, a cone-shaped, cornet-like bell, and some people call the water keys [aka the water valves, or spit valves] quirky. A writer I quote in the lot notes said, “Nobody has deciphered the magic formula for that unique tone… they don’t slot well, so it’s easy to slide into and out of notes a la Miles Davis.” It was a sound that Miles Davis was particularly identified with. On these horns, he was able to create the sound he was after, because of their design.

The lot notes date the Miles Davis trumpet to the early 1980s. Is it possible to date it to a specific year? It’s just circa 1980. The factual information is based on Larry Ramirez presenting the trumpet to Miles Davis. He didn’t remember the exact year. Davis resumed his career at about that time. In the second half of the 1970s, he was more or less underground. He wasn’t performing or recording.

Was Davis’s commissioning of the trumpets part of a plan to return to the limelight? There’s no reason to believe that. There’s no supporting evidence for that. But he was definitely getting back into things, and this was part of the effort.

Miles Davis, shown holding the black version of the Martin Committee Moon and Stars trumpet that he commissioned.

Among the materials Christie’s is using to promote the sale is a photo of Miles Davis holding the black trumpet, the one he would literally take to his grave. Are there any photos of Miles Davis holding the blue trumpet? We weren’t able to find one.

What do we know about the provenance of the blue trumpet? Do we know when and why Miles Davis gave it to George Benson? We don’t know exactly. Benson and Davis had a lot of mutual friends, a lot of overlap. Benson was a huge musician, a jazz guitarist and on the side he was an active collector of musical instruments. I imagine he had it for ten years when he auctioned it at Skinner in Boston in 2007.

What condition is the trumpet in? Does it show signs of wear? It’s in good condition, and it’s in working order. There’s a wonderful video of Keyon Harrold playing it.

Have you held the Miles Davis trumpet? I have.

What was that like? It’s really thrilling to be touching something that an incredible musician used to convey his music. What I think is most cool about it is sort of indefinable, in the same walk that looking at a great painting is indefinable. There’s an emotional content. It moves us somehow. It puts us in touch with things that are indefinable.

What’s your favorite detail on the Miles Davis trumpet? I think it’s the entire design–the color, the gilt moon and stars–it’s a beautiful thing anyway. It’s the overall conception, the idea that this great musician was highly sensitive to his environment and to design, that he would even think about adding color. No one would take a violin and add stripes or polka dots. He was highly attuned to the visual as well as to music.

Does it have a mute? No, it doesn’t.

Did it come with one and it was lost, or did it never have one? There’s a fitted leather case [for the trumpet] that doesn’t seem to have space for something missing. I don’t know.

I take it the 2007 Skinner sale informed the estimate? Yes. It’s always difficult to know what something associated with an iconic figure is worth. How much will the extra magic be valued by the market? Obviously, we’ve sold other musical instruments from famous musicians. We had David Gilmour in June, and we had Carole King’s piano last year. It’s a little bit apples and oranges.

Do you always look for a significant musical instrument for The Exceptional Sale? We don’t actively seek them, but we’re always open to iconic pieces of popular culture.

What’s the world auction record for a trumpet? Would it belong to one owned by Dizzy Gillespie? No idea. [Post-interview digging unearthed a reference to a Dizzy Gillespie bent bell trumpet selling at Christie’s New York in April 1995 for $63,000, which might well be the record. Unfortunately, records of that age are not online.]

Why will this Miles Davis trumpet stick in your memory? Miles Davis has to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. To be handling something that was his and reflects him so beautifully is really thrilling.

How to bid: The Miles Davis trumpet is lot 1011 in The Exceptional Sale, taking place at Christie’s New York on October 29, 2019.

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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

In case you missed it above, Christie’s filmed contemporary jazz musician Keyon Harrold playing the Miles Davis trumpet and talking about its importance.

Images are courtesy of Christie’s.

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SOLD! The Kennedy Wedding Photos, Including an Unpublished Shot of Jacqueline Bouvier in Her Bridal Gown, Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

Update: The Kennedy wedding photographs sold for $3,750.

What you see: A previously unpublished shot of Jacqueline Bouvier at Hammersmith Farm on her wedding day in 1953. It’s one of three black-and-white photos and a few negatives depicting the wedding of Bouvier and John F. Kennedy in Newport, Rhode Island. John McInnis Auctioneers estimates them at $500 to $1,000.

The expert: Dan Meader, gallery director for John McInnis Auctioneers.

Could we start by talking about the importance of Hammersmith Farm to Jacqueline Bouvier during her life? Did its presence near Newport convince Jacqueline and Jack to have their wedding in Newport? Hammersmith Farm was extremely important to Jackie. She explains her love of the farm in her own words in an inscription in The Architectural Heritage of Newport Rhode Island: “For Uncle Hugh [her stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss] on his seventieth birthday–a book about the place you brought us to–but the most beautiful house there for me will forever be Hammersmith Farm. That is my beloved architectural heritage of Newport — and thank you for it — with all love, Jackie, August 28, 1967.” She absolutely loved the place so much, and Jack loved it too. It was more removed and less stressful for him. It was on the ocean, the gardens were spectacular, and they could go to the America’s Cup [yacht race].

Was Hammersmith Farm John F. Kennedy’s introduction to Newport? He had connections there, but it gave him his true love for Newport.

Do we know who shot these Kennedy wedding photos? It was Bachrach, a very famous photography studio.

So the images in the lot were not taken by someone who lived at Hammersmith Farm? No, these were professional photos, not snapshots.

A collection of photos and negatives from the 1953 wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy in Newport, Rhode Island.

How were they discovered? They were moved directly from Hammersmith Farm, where Jackie lived, her mother lived, her brother lived. They were stored on the property. Colleen Townsend Pilat was an assistant to Yusha, the brother, and helped clear out the property after he died. She was bequeathed all these things. When I got them, it was a mishmash of Jackie’s wedding, [her sister] Lee Radziwill, and her sister Janet, all mixed in. I had to pull them out. I had to figure out who the people were and who the weddings were. Lots of weddings were done on the property.

So these Jack and Jackie wedding images were one of three sets of wedding images in the same pile? Yes. Lee’s first wedding, which took place just a few months earlier than Jackie’s, and Janet’s wedding. It was almost a two-year project, doing all the research and the curating of it. I had to figure out what was what. It was really… fun. [Laughs] It was a challenge.

How big a deal was the wedding in 1953? Clearly it’s regional news, because Jack Kennedy is a sitting Massachusetts senator. Did it make national news? Positively. It was covered throughout the United States and to a degree, overseas. In an earlier lot, there’s a press release for the wedding. The release was modeled after [the one written for] Eunice [Kennedy’s] wedding. Joe Kennedy rules the roost on everything. Eunice’s was a big wedding, but this would be the biggest one. Joe had his eye on a specific thing–his son being president. Joe was Jack’s press agent. You could say he was behind the scenes on everything. Jack had his own thoughts, but he had an overseer on everything.

The photo of Jackie, solo, in her wedding dress has never been published before. How did this photo managed to go unpublished before now? I think the shot of Jackie with her veil billowing was chosen over this. I’ve had other issues of these pictures [the two outdoors shots] and they’re all well-known. These particular ones have not been. I haven’t seen those particular versions.

Where on the grounds of Hammersmith Farm were the outdoor shots taken? Near an equestrian area? At the front lawn, I believe. If you turn your head to the left, you’d see the ocean. At that point, [the family] was raising Guernsey cows and they had horses as well.

A group shot of the wedding party for John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier shot in September 1953 at Hammersmith Farm.

And the group shot shows the bridesmaids, the bridesmatron, and the groomsmen? Yes. This particular group shot shows Jackie looking down at a dog.

In reading up on the wedding, it sounds like Jackie didn’t get much of what she wanted from her “special day”–that Joe Kennedy stuck his nose in and was very controlling. How did things unfurl? [Laughs] He oversaw… it was just the kind of guy he was. She knew when she got into [it] there were limitations on what would happen.

I understand she wanted a much smaller wedding and reception than she had, but anywhere from 700 to 800 were at the church, and more than 1200 were at the reception at Hammersmith Farm. That would be Joe [his doing]. The biggest thing for Jackie was her father, Black Jack. He was supposed to give her away.

From what I’ve read, allegedly, Jackie’s mom, who was Black Jack’s ex, tempted him into getting drunk in hopes that would make him fail to show up… It was very disappointing for her. She loved her father. Her stepfather, who she called Uncle Hugh [stepped in and did the honors.] She loved him too, but I think she wanted her birth father there. It was probably a big issue in her mind. I haven’t heard of anything else being out of place.

I haven’t been inside the church, but I have been in that area of Newport, and it’s… pretty congested. How did the church physically accommodate all those people? If you’ve seen some of the photos, there are throngs of people on the street, ten to 15 deep. They weren’t all in the church. In the auction, [there are lots with typewritten documents of] the procession for the church, where the bridal party was staying, who was going in which car. It’s very interesting. They had everything right down to a science.

That’s good preparation for life at the White House… [Laughs]

Another arrangement of the Kennedy wedding images in the lot, shown with negatives.

Hammersmith Farm was a 300-acre property, so it could handle 1,200-plus people. How did the reception go? I see a photo in the group that shows guests at a long table. There was a huge tent, and there were tables outside the tent–the reception sprawled onto the lawn as well. It was kind of like a picnic at some point. It was very difficult, I am sure, for everyone to have time with the couple. But what I’ve heard from people who were there was they had a great time. No one felt slighted. The next lot after shows [wedding guests] individuals, couples, and kids with smiles on their faces. That was a different part of the property. What would be really nice is if people find themselves in those pictures, or their children find them.

How do these Kennedy wedding photos reflect the image that Joe Kennedy was trying to project for his family, and how do they foreshadow the glamour of the Kennedy White House? They played very well for what Joe Kennedy had in mind for his son. They played extremely well. He couldn’t ask for a better backdrop.

How did you arrive at the estimate of $500 to $1,000? It’s what we felt was reasonable. It’s an unreserved sale. They’re gonna sell for whatever they sell for. But what we have here are personal photos from Jackie’s family, right from Hammersmith Farm. That’s what separates them from other photographs. It could possibly go much higher.

How well do Kennedy wedding photos do at auction? They’re always highly sought-after. The Kennedy wedding invitations sell for thousands. Any of those kinds of things maintain a human interest. Price-wise, they could go for higher than a wedding invite.

Why will these Kennedy wedding photos stick in your memory? Because of where they came from. We love what we do here, and we get sought out to handle these things because of our past experience with them. For me, the most important thing is the provenance. When it comes right from the source, there’s no doubt about how valuable it was within the family.

How to bid: The Jack and Jackie Kennedy wedding photos are lot 0126 in the Camelot with a Twist auction at John McInnis Auctioneers on October 13, 2019.

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Dan Meader appeared before on The Hot Bid talking about a record-setting Presidential Air Force One bomber jacket, given by John F. Kennedy to loyal aide Dave Powers.

Image is courtesy of John McInnis Auctioneers.

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A Morton Bartlett Figure Could Sell for $150,000 at Rago

What you see: Daydreaming Girl, a circa 1950 sculpture by the late American outsider artist Morton Bartlett. It’s one of 15 he made between 1936 and 1963, when he created a series of highly detailed figures of children in order to photograph them. Rago Auctions estimates Daydreaming Girl at $100,000 to $150,000.

The expert: Marion Harris, an independent specialist for Rago’s Outsider & Fine Art, Curious Objects auction.

How does Morton Bartlett fit the definition of an “outsider artist”? “Outsider artist” means outside the mainstream, for various reasons. You can be in prison. You can not be informed by the art world. Another way is being obsessive. Morton Bartlett falls into the “obsessive” category. This was his life, and he didn’t have traditional [art] training.

Was Bartlett entirely self-taught? He taught himself to sculpt, make clothing, make wigs, and shoot photographs? He didn’t take classes, but he went to Harvard and left after two years. He certainly had no help with sculpting. His downstairs neighbor was a sculptor, and he clearly saw him working.

The front of an alternate outfit, made by Bartlett, comes with Daydreaming Girl.
The front of an alternate outfit, made by Bartlett, which comes with Daydreaming Girl.

He taught himself to sew? Yes, yes. He bought wigs and altered them, but otherwise, he made everything. He didn’t make anything he wasn’t going to photograph.

He made the chair that goes with Daydreaming Girl? No, he bought the chair. I think that’s a commercial thing.

And he had no assistants? No, no, there weren’t. Nobody to help him. But if he wanted help, he would have gotten it. It [his project] wasn’t secret, it was private.

Do we know how much time he spent on creating each figure? We do. He tells us in a 1962 Yankee magazine story that each figure took up to a year, and each head took three to six months, depending on the head.

A closeup on Daydreaming Girl, showing her face and upper body.

What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult these Morton Bartlett figures were to make? The level of difficulty was quite high. He clearly was a perfectionist.

What do we know about how he worked? My sense, and it’s only a sense, is he worked mainly on one figure until it was done. He started with metal armatures for the arms and the legs and built around them with clay and plaster.

Daydreaming Girl shown in full against a white background, with scuffed knees and dangling feet clearly visible.

How does Daydreaming Girl compare to the other Morton Bartlett figures? I’d put her quite near the top. Her knees are just slightly scuffed, and her toe just skims the floor. He captures the essence of childhood in this figure.

And that facial expression… so fleeting, and he gets it. Exactly.

What book is the Morton Bartlett figure reading? I have photos of Daydreaming Girl from several angles, but none shows the cover or the pages of the book clearly enough to identify it. It’s a book the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore supplied for us. [The museum recently displayed Daydreaming Girl in a themed exhibit on parenthood.] It’s a 1950s children’s book about airplanes, but it’s not the original book. We don’t know what the original book was, but everything else is original–the clothes, the chair.

Do we know if Bartlett had any opportunities to observe actual children when he was making these figures and photographing them? We do. I researched carefully, and that’s why I’m comfortable saying [the figures] are a fantasy family, with no dark intent. He worked for a toy manufacturer and distributor in Boston called Scharf, which is how we know that if he wanted help [making his figures], he could have had it. He took pictures of Scharf’s daughter and Scharf was delighted, very happy with them. Bartlett also took pictures of children on the beach at Cohasset. When the Yankee magazine article came out, he received letters from people who recognized the dolls. People wrote to him, asking, “Are you the same Morton Bartlett who took pictures of my daughter at Cohasset? I send my regards.” It’s obvious he had nice relations with everybody.

Daydreaming Girl, a figure by outsider artist Morton Bartlett, shown in full on a white background.

Bartlett made his figures in order to photograph them, but I looked through everything I could find for Bartlett online and I did not see any photographs of Daydreaming Girl. Did I miss them somehow? No. Two or three of the figures aren’t photographed. When I bought it [the collection of material that came from Bartlett’s estate], it was boxes of arms, legs, hands, hundreds of bits. It took two years to assemble them. The paint finish was so precise–not every arm goes in every arm socket. Once I had the 15 dolls [assembled based on Bartlett’s photographs] I had to go do the catalog. If I had bits that didn’t relate to a specific doll, I set them aside to deal with them later. Twenty-five years passed. The Met bought them. Bartlett became an icon. I didn’t forget about the extra box, but I didn’t give it extra attention. Then we [she and her husband] moved. Then we assembled this doll.

Are there any other Morton Bartlett figures that don’t survive–they appear in his photos but don’t correspond to anything in the storage boxes of parts? I don’t think so. I don’t believe there are any more. The two he didn’t photograph–perhaps he wasn’t happy with them. That’s probably the answer to that.

Are any of the Morton Bartlett figures intended to be pairs of siblings, or are they all individual? I don’t see them as siblings, myself. They’re all quite individual. A lot of people believe the three boy figures are self-portraits. The boys are always seven or eight, the age Bartlett was when he was orphaned and adopted.

Is there any evidence that he named these figures? Yes, there is some. There were little cards with typed names [that she found in the trove of material from his estate]. I don’t know if this was his record-keeping technique, but there’s no other evidence of names.

And there’s no way to know which name goes with which Morton Bartlett figure… Exactly.

How many photographs did Morton Bartlett take of these figures? About 220. When I bought them, I didn’t know there were photos. It really was boxes of arms and legs and heads. That’s why it took so long to assemble them. The photos are a small body of work, which makes it more amazing.

What I find the strangest fact about all of this is the 1962 Yankee magazine article. With the biography that Morton Bartlett wrote for Harvard, he was kind of in a walled garden, speaking to peers who would tolerate some eccentricity, and even with that piece, his reference to the figure-photographing project is oblique. It does not hint at the scope of what he was doing. The Yankee magazine article shows the Morton Bartlett figures and goes into detail about them. Do we know why he agreed to do that piece, and why he never again sought or allowed media coverage? When I bought everything, I started my research, which led me to the writer [of the Yankee magazine piece], Michael Tatistcheff. He’s now dead–he died ten years ago–but he did remember it. He was engaged to Patricia Beals, Bartlett’s goddaughter. Bartlett loved them both, but he had no money. It all went into the dolls. As an engagement gift, he said to Mike, who had just graduated in communications, “Would you like to write about my dolls?” The twist was Yankee magazine told Mike they would pay him $6. It was meant to be one of three articles on Boston craftsmen. But they only paid him $4, and he decided he didn’t want to be a journalist, and went into teaching.

I wouldn’t have guessed that would be the explanation. I wouldn’t have guessed it either, but it’s ordinary. Not a big fancy complicated answer. It spoke to his kindness and generosity. But Pat and Mike never got married.

It was an engagement gift for his goddaughter that got him to step forward during his life. That’s right. That also means he was proud of it. It was private, but not a secret. I think that’s very important.

Daydreaming Girl, a figure by outsider artist Morton Bartlett, shown in full.

Morton Bartlett stopped making the figures in 1963. Was the Yankee magazine article a catalyst for that? I don’t think it was. He moved in 1963, to a house two doors down. We asked his neighbor about that [why Bartlett stopped] in the Family Found documentary. He looked at us and said, “Because he was finished.”

Can you talk about what it was like to discover Morton Bartlett’s work at the Pier Show in New York in 1993? I just stopped in my tracks. Ironically, it was the first year I hadn’t done the fair. I just went in with the public. It didn’t look complete–boxes of heads–I think people didn’t know what to do with them. But I love dolls, and I felt immediately attracted to them. When I got there, it had just come off hold [a hold is imposed on an artwork when a dealer at a fair has a commitment from a buyer]. Right away, I said I’d have them. It was a bit of money, but it was a fortune in assembling and doing the catalog and the research. Up until a couple of years ago, people said to me, “I was just behind you when you bought.” [They were a few minutes late and would have bought if she hadn’t.] There’s a moral to not panicking and getting there when you’re relaxed.

So, you getting the Morton Bartlett figures was down to luck? Isn’t it always? Everyone was talking about them. Clearly, there was a lot of work to do [to make them saleable]. About 60 boxes were delivered.

Sixty is a lot! It is. But I had a visceral connection–I’ve got to know what it is. I was fascinated, and I wanted to find out more.

Do we know how Morton Bartlett’s figures came to be saved? And could you talk about the inherent power of this material? So many outsider artists have gone unknown because whoever cleaned out their place decided to chuck their stuff in the Dumpster or the landfill rather than saving it and finding a place for it. Whoever found Bartlett’s stuff recognized it was worth saving, even though all they saw was boxes of plaster heads and limbs. I don’t know about powerful, but I think it’s interesting and tender. I do love dolls. Maybe it was luck, again, or the power of the work. Henry Darger is another example. It does take someone to present it.

But Bartlett himself didn’t see the figures as inherently valuable as art. He didn’t see in them what we see now. I don’t know what he saw. I know he saw them as a family, because he carried the photos with him. They were 4 x 3, very small.

A closeup, in profile, of the face of the Daydreaming Girl figure.

What, like wallet-size school portraits? Yes, exactly. That’s how I know the photos were his reality. He wrapped [the elements of the figures] up very carefully in newspapers dated to 1963, but he made the dolls only in order to photograph them, and he made the clothes only to clothe them. The end product was the photos.

Who saved the Morton Bartlett figures? Pat Beals was the one who told me this. He had a house, and after he died, his lawyer had the house cleaned out. This [the figures and the related material] was virtually all that was there. The cleaner contacted a dealer she knew and that dealer took it to the show on their behalf.

Why do you think he kept them? Because they were so beautiful, and they were part of the process. They were a means to an end. I’m quite comfortable in saying the photos are his reality, the end product. For 30 years, they were all in boxes. He didn’t need them any more–they had served their purpose. But it was 30 years of work. It was too special to throw away.

The Morton Bartlett figures were not mentioned in his will. Why do you think he left no instructions on what to do with them after he died? I don’t think he thought they were worth anything. And they weren’t, until they were complete. It took me five years to sell the first, and it was not easy.

I’m struck by the fact that he only did three boy figures, and all look to be around seven or eight years of age, which was roughly how old he was when his parents died and he was adopted. Why do you think he sculpted himself at the age when he suffered his greatest loss? Was he frozen in time? I don’t know. It’s just speculation that they look like him.

How reasonable is the speculation that the boy figures look like him? I don’t think I ever asked Pat Beals that. It is speculation, no more and no less than that.

A full shot of Daydreaming Girl, created by the late outsider artist Morton Bartlett.

Different art critics and art historians have different ideas about why Morton Bartlett made these figures. Why do you think he did it? I think it was a fantasy family. It was fulfilling the fantasy of having brothers and sisters.

The only reason the Morton Bartlett figures were recognized as art is because he died and they were found among his belongings. If we could somehow show him how people have received his creations, how do you think he would react? I think he’d be thrilled, I really do. And I think he’d be glad they survived. If he wanted to throw them away, he could have.

When did you finish assembling the Morton Bartlett figure titled Daydreaming Girl? About two years ago. Then we moved [she and her husband], and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore contacted me. They had exhibitions of Morton Bartlett before, twice. They asked, “Do you have any Morton Bartlett sculptures? Our next show is on parenthood.” I said, “If you had called six months ago, I’d have said no, but I just completed another one.” [She loaned it to the AVAM show.]

What condition is the Morton Bartlett figure Daydreaming Girl in? Everything was perfect. There’s slight surface paint restoration and a very good cleaning and there’s really nothing else. It’s like finding an old painting in a cellar. It didn’t need very much at all.

How many Morton Bartlett figures have come to auction? There was one at Christie’s in 2003. It was a seven-year-old girl. The estimate was $20,000 to $30,000, and I think it sold for $35,000.

How many of the 15 Morton Bartlett figures remain in private hands? I think maybe three or four.

How did you arrive at the estimate of $100,000 to $150,000? It was a bit of a struggle. Morton Bartlett figures have sold for more than that privately. At auction, you start below what they go for. I believe it will find its level. I’m not at all worried.

How to bid: The Morton Bartlett figure is lot 1052 in the Outsider & Fine Art, Curious Objects sale at Rago Auctions on October 20, 2019.

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Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

Marion Harris has appeared on The Hot Bid once before, talking about a 19th century life-size French wooden artist’s mannequin that ultimately sold for $45,000.

Marion Harris also deals in antiques. Her website devotes a section to Morton Bartlett and offers the Family Found catalog. A short version of the Family Found documentary is on YouTube.

Images are courtesy of Rago Auctions.

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NEW RECORD! Elizabeth Catlett’s Sculpture Seated Woman Sold for (Scroll Down to See)

Update: Elizabeth Catlett’s Seated Woman sold for $389,000, more than doubling the high estimate and setting a new world auction record for the artist.

What you see: Seated Woman, a 1962 sculpture in mahogany by Elizabeth Catlett. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.

Do we know how many sculptures Elizabeth Catlett made? There’s easily over 100, and probably close to 200. What’s interesting about the sculpture is it’s an early piece. She didn’t begin working in wood until she studied woodcarving in Mexico in the late 1950s. Her earliest dates to 1956. This is a significant work of refined sculpture. It shows how quickly she took to wood, and wood quickly became one of her materials.

Seated Woman, a 1962 sculpture in mahogany by Elizabeth Catlett.

Did she normally work in mahogany? She did do a number of works in mahogany. There are several mahogany works early in her career. She would do works in tropical woods, cedar, pecan. Mahogany, for a lot of reasons–beauty and durability–was a wood she would use often. It lends itself to the carving that she did.

Is Seated Woman a subject that she returns to over her career as a sculptor, or is this the only instance? Strong representations of women are part of her work, part of her creative impulse, and what she wanted to do. A woman seated on a box appears in the late 1950s in her work, and you see it throughout her work.

Seated Woman, a 1962 sculpture in mahogany by Elizabeth Catlett.

Was this sculpture based on a live model, or did Catlett imagine the figure? Most of these were done from her imagination. She may have had a model at some point. She may have done drawings of a model, but I’m not aware of a model for this piece. It’s an anonymous figure. There are later works where we do know the model. Here, the identity is not specific to a particular person. It’s more a universal idea.

What, if anything, do we know about how Catlett carved, and how she might have carved this work? This was actually made from several blocks of wood. She would find blocks of wood she would make into the figure she wanted, and glue them together. This is quite a complex thing to carve in wood.

And I imagine she had to wait to get blocks of wood that would match well. The wood has to be pieced together carefully. It’s stained and polished and made to fit together. It’s kind of the magic of these pieces. This is a typical way she would construct the general form. There were many different stages in the carving, down to the fine modeling and the polishing–very labor-intensive. This is a very finished, polished piece of wood.

Seated Woman, a 1962 sculpture in mahogany by Elizabeth Catlett.

And she wouldn’t have had any assistants at this point? I don’t think so.

Seated Woman was purchased by George Crockett, Jr. and his wife, Ethelene J. Crockett. He put his name and his social security number on the base of the sculpture. Do we know why? I understand why he might want to put his name on it, but… his social security number? [Laughs] I think it’s sort of sweet, in a way. He really valued Seated Woman. [He thought, if he put his social security number on it] if it was ever lost or stolen, it would come back to him. His grandchildren, who were involved in consigning it, weren’t aware of it [his unusual anti-theft precaution], but it rang true with his character. It’s endearing. He prized it, and he didn’t want anyone else to claim ownership. [The ID carving] is very small, on the back of the sculpture, on the bottom of the base. You’ll only find it if you look very closely. [It’s not visible in any of the pictures Swann provided.]

Have you handled the Elizabeth Catlett sculpture? It’s in my office. One of the nice perks of the job is getting to live with the art for a while.

What is the Elizabeth Catlett sculpture like in person? It’s got a wonderful presence.

This, more than many things I cover on The Hot Bid, I want to pick up and handle. [Laughs] It has a beautiful surface. It is a thing people want to handle. It stands about two feet tall. It’s larger than its size–it’s got a bigger presence. It’s got a certain heft and weight to it. You’re drawn to it. It’s very attractive.

Are there any aspects or details of the Elizabeth Catlett sculpture that the camera does not pick up? The experiential part of the sculpture. Your eye can move around it. She’s not just square on the base. It’s got a visceral quality and a very animated quality. She gives it life. It works on so many different levels–how dynamic and complicated the pose is, all the curves to it.

What condition is the Elizabeth Catlett sculpture in? It’s in very good condition. This work was in the Crockett family for a long time. With all wood, there’s some aging, and there’s always a few cracks. It was professionally cleaned and preserved for its appearance and to take care of the wood. Now it looks really fantastic.

How does it compare to other Elizabeth Catlett sculptures you’ve handled? We have had other works of hers in terra-cotta and wood. The record is Homage to My Black Sisters, a 68-inch high piece from 1968 that still stands as her auction record. We sold it in October 2009 for $288,000. It’s a decidedly different market today. In 2009, we’d only been doing African-American fine art auctions for two years, and there had been very few Elizabeth Catlett works at auction at that time. It was still early days.

How often do Elizabeth Catlett sculptures come to auction? From time to time. For wood, there have probably been half a dozen at auction. They’re all different. Homage to My Black Sisters was much more abstract, very modern.

Does Seated Woman have a different sort of presence than her later sculptures? This one is much more intense, I think, more intimate. It’s a small figure. The others are more abstracted. This is more representative. It’s an intricate carving, and very complex. It has a life to it. Her earlier works are more realistic and imbued with emotion. In her later works, though they are abstract, they’re more political works of art. This is more subtle. It’s part of its appeal. And she was getting into the prime of her career in the 1960s, which is wonderful.

Why will this Elizabeth Catlett sculpture stick in your memory? It’s from an interesting point in her career, and for the gorgeousness of the sculpture. It’s a really beautiful work. You can see all that went into it and the skill to pull it off–you can see it in the sculpture. It’s an impressive sculpture, and when you see it, you can’t help but be impressed.

How to bid: The Elizabeth Catlett sculpture is lot 63 in the African-American Fine Art sale at Swann Auction Galleries on October 8, 2019.

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Nigel Freeman spoke to The Hot Bid previously about an Emma Amos mixed-media work that ultimately sold for an auction record for the artist;  a set of Emperor Jones prints by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglasa story quilt that Oprah Winfrey commissioned Faith Ringgold to make about Dr. Maya Angelouan Elizabeth Catlett painting, and a Sargent Johnson copper mask.

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

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Kennedy Wedding Photos, Including an Unpublished Shot of Jacqueline Bouvier in Her Bridal Gown, Could Sell for $1,000

What you see: A previously unpublished shot of Jacqueline Bouvier at Hammersmith Farm on her wedding day in 1953. It’s one of three black-and-white photos and a few negatives depicting the wedding of Bouvier and John F. Kennedy in Newport, Rhode Island. John McInnis Auctioneers estimates them at $500 to $1,000.

The expert: Dan Meader, gallery director for John McInnis Auctioneers.

Could we start by talking about the importance of Hammersmith Farm to Jacqueline Bouvier during her life? Did its presence near Newport convince Jacqueline and Jack to have their wedding in Newport? Hammersmith Farm was extremely important to Jackie. She explains her love of the farm in her own words in an inscription in The Architectural Heritage of Newport Rhode Island: “For Uncle Hugh [her stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss] on his seventieth birthday–a book about the place you brought us to–but the most beautiful house there for me will forever be Hammersmith Farm. That is my beloved architectural heritage of Newport — and thank you for it — with all love, Jackie, August 28, 1967.” She absolutely loved the place so much, and Jack loved it too. It was more removed and less stressful for him. It was on the ocean, the gardens were spectacular, and they could go to the America’s Cup [yacht race].

Was Hammersmith Farm John F. Kennedy’s introduction to Newport? He had connections there, but it gave him his true love for Newport.

Do we know who shot these Kennedy wedding photos? It was Bachrach, a very famous photography studio.

So the images in the lot were not taken by someone who lived at Hammersmith Farm? No, these were professional photos, not snapshots.

A collection of photos and negatives from the 1953 wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy in Newport, Rhode Island.

How were they discovered? They were moved directly from Hammersmith Farm, where Jackie lived, her mother lived, her brother lived. They were stored on the property. Colleen Townsend Pilat was an assistant to Yusha, the brother, and helped clear out the property after he died. She was bequeathed all these things. When I got them, it was a mishmash of Jackie’s wedding, [her sister] Lee Radziwill, and her sister Janet, all mixed in. I had to pull them out. I had to figure out who the people were and who the weddings were. Lots of weddings were done on the property.

So these Jack and Jackie wedding images were one of three sets of wedding images in the same pile? Yes. Lee’s first wedding, which took place just a few months earlier than Jackie’s, and Janet’s wedding. It was almost a two-year project, doing all the research and the curating of it. I had to figure out what was what. It was really… fun. [Laughs] It was a challenge.

How big a deal was the wedding in 1953? Clearly it’s regional news, because Jack Kennedy is a sitting Massachusetts senator. Did it make national news? Positively. It was covered throughout the United States and to a degree, overseas. In an earlier lot, there’s a press release for the wedding. The release was modeled after [the one written for] Eunice [Kennedy’s] wedding. Joe Kennedy rules the roost on everything. Eunice’s was a big wedding, but this would be the biggest one. Joe had his eye on a specific thing–his son being president. Joe was Jack’s press agent. You could say he was behind the scenes on everything. Jack had his own thoughts, but he had an overseer on everything.

The photo of Jackie, solo, in her wedding dress has never been published before. How did this photo managed to go unpublished before now? I think the shot of Jackie with her veil billowing was chosen over this. I’ve had other issues of these pictures [the two outdoors shots] and they’re all well-known. These particular ones have not been. I haven’t seen those particular versions.

Where on the grounds of Hammersmith Farm were the outdoor shots taken? Near an equestrian area? At the front lawn, I believe. If you turn your head to the left, you’d see the ocean. At that point, [the family] was raising Guernsey cows and they had horses as well.

A group shot of the wedding party for John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier shot in September 1953 at Hammersmith Farm.

And the group shot shows the bridesmaids, the bridesmatron, and the groomsmen? Yes. This particular group shot shows Jackie looking down at a dog.

In reading up on the wedding, it sounds like Jackie didn’t get much of what she wanted from her “special day”–that Joe Kennedy stuck his nose in and was very controlling. How did things unfurl? [Laughs] He oversaw… it was just the kind of guy he was. She knew when she got into [it] there were limitations on what would happen.

I understand she wanted a much smaller wedding and reception than she had, but anywhere from 700 to 800 were at the church, and more than 1200 were at the reception at Hammersmith Farm. That would be Joe [his doing]. The biggest thing for Jackie was her father, Black Jack. He was supposed to give her away.

From what I’ve read, allegedly, Jackie’s mom, who was Black Jack’s ex, tempted him into getting drunk in hopes that would make him fail to show up… It was very disappointing for her. She loved her father. Her stepfather, who she called Uncle Hugh [stepped in and did the honors.] She loved him too, but I think she wanted her birth father there. It was probably a big issue in her mind. I haven’t heard of anything else being out of place.

I haven’t been inside the church, but I have been in that area of Newport, and it’s… pretty congested. How did the church physically accommodate all those people? If you’ve seen some of the photos, there are throngs of people on the street, ten to 15 deep. They weren’t all in the church. In the auction, [there are lots with typewritten documents of] the procession for the church, where the bridal party was staying, who was going in which car. It’s very interesting. They had everything right down to a science.

That’s good preparation for life at the White House… [Laughs]

Another arrangement of the Kennedy wedding images in the lot, shown with negatives.

Hammersmith Farm was a 300-acre property, so it could handle 1,200-plus people. How did the reception go? I see a photo in the group that shows guests at a long table. There was a huge tent, and there were tables outside the tent–the reception sprawled onto the lawn as well. It was kind of like a picnic at some point. It was very difficult, I am sure, for everyone to have time with the couple. But what I’ve heard from people who were there was they had a great time. No one felt slighted. The next lot after shows [wedding guests] individuals, couples, and kids with smiles on their faces. That was a different part of the property. What would be really nice is if people find themselves in those pictures, or their children find them.

How do these Kennedy wedding photos reflect the image that Joe Kennedy was trying to project for his family, and how do they foreshadow the glamour of the Kennedy White House? They played very well for what Joe Kennedy had in mind for his son. They played extremely well. He couldn’t ask for a better backdrop.

How did you arrive at the estimate of $500 to $1,000? It’s what we felt was reasonable. It’s an unreserved sale. They’re gonna sell for whatever they sell for. But what we have here are personal photos from Jackie’s family, right from Hammersmith Farm. That’s what separates them from other photographs. It could possibly go much higher.

How well do Kennedy wedding photos do at auction? They’re always highly sought-after. The Kennedy wedding invitations sell for thousands. Any of those kinds of things maintain a human interest. Price-wise, they could go for higher than a wedding invite.

Why will these Kennedy wedding photos stick in your memory? Because of where they came from. We love what we do here, and we get sought out to handle these things because of our past experience with them. For me, the most important thing is the provenance. When it comes right from the source, there’s no doubt about how valuable it was within the family.

How to bid: The Jack and Jackie Kennedy wedding photos are lot 0126 in the Camelot with a Twist auction at John McInnis Auctioneers on October 13, 2019.

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Dan Meader appeared before on The Hot Bid talking about a record-setting Presidential Air Force One bomber jacket, given by John F. Kennedy to loyal aide Dave Powers.

Image is courtesy of John McInnis Auctioneers.

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SOLD! The Wilson Bentley Snowflake Photos Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

Update: The Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs sold for $10,000.

What you see: One of a group of ten images of snowflakes captured between the late 1890s and the 1920s by photographer Wilson Bentley. Sotheby’s estimates the group at $8,000 to $12,000.

The expert: Hermione Sharp, associate specialist in the photographs department at Sotheby’s New York.

Let’s start by talking about Wilson Bentley–who he was, and how he became interested in photographing snowflakes. He was a farmer from Jericho, Vermont. I understand he lived on the farm his whole life. At some point, his mother had a microscope. For his birthday, as a teen, he asked for a better one. He was in Vermont, and he was around snow a lot. Around the age of 20, he wanted to document snowflakes on camera. It took him a while to figure out how to do that. Once he did, he ran with it.

Was he the first to tackle the problem of how to capture snowflakes on film before they melted? More or less. Some had tried here and there, but no one had the interest that he did. He was determined to get good pictures of snowflakes. They melted so quickly, it was hard to do.

One of a group of ten images of snowflakes captured between the late 1890s and the 1920s by photographer Wilson Bentley.

How did he solve the problem? He put together an apparatus, a microscope attached to a camera. That’s how he was able to capture the images we see today.

I understand the invention relied on a bellows. What’s a bellows? In 19th century pictures, you’ll see cameras with a long accordion thing at the front. That’s a bellows. That extension allowed him to get to the microscope, to get the image taken through the microscope itself. Later, he added a piece of wood with [attached to] a band of leather to pull the focus back and forth on the microscope.

One of a group of ten images of snowflakes captured between the late 1890s and the 1920s by photographer Wilson Bentley.

How did Bentley create these images? He would run around his backyard, catching snowflakes on a piece of velvet. He’d run back to the camera and move the snowflakes around with a feather to get the one he wanted. When he got one he liked, he’d move it onto a microscope slide, stick it in the camera, run to the other side of the camera, and focus. Then he got the picture. He would do a lot of this outside in the cold.

And he did it before we had Gore-tex or other modern cold-weather gear. No Gore-tex, and no electricity. To expose the pictures, he used natural daylight.

What sort of shutter speed did he need to use? He had about two minutes before the snowflake would melt. The exposure, I think, was a minute and a half long.

Did he have any assistants? I don’t believe so. There’s no mention of assistants in the records I found. He would have been helping his family on the farm to some extent, but I think they didn’t understand why he was doing that, and why he wasn’t helping them more.

One of a group of ten images of snowflakes captured between the late 1890s and the 1920s by photographer Wilson Bentley.

How many snowflake images did Bentley take? He took over 5,300 by the end of his life.

The Wilson Bentley snowflake photos are described as “photomicrographs”. What are photomicrographs? Did Bentley invent the photomicrograph process? A photomicrograph is a photograph of a microscopic object, taken with the aid of a microscope. He did not invent the process. I don’t know who’s really credited with it. It was used before Bentley used it, to photograph blood cells in the mid-19th century.

What can we tell, just by looking at these photomicrographs, how difficult they were to make? We all know how small a snowflake is. You can see how much he was able to magnify it himself, with 19th century equipment. You can see how detailed they are. They show the work put into the images. You can see not just the outsides [of the snowflakes] but the unique designs, the details in the prints themselves.

One of a group of ten images of snowflakes captured between the late 1890s and the 1920s by photographer Wilson Bentley.

I found a quote on Wikipedia about Bentley that said, “He did it so well that hardly anybody bothered to photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years.” What was it about the quality and strength of his photographs that convinced everyone else to leave the field to him? He really was the first to be able to photograph snowflakes the way that he did–over 5,000, and he did publish a book in the final year of his life. He devoted himself entirely to this. We don’t really see snowflake photos by anyone else [during this period]. I can see how that would be true.

How responsible were Wilson Bentley’s snowflake photos for promoting the idea that no two snowflakes are alike? Very important. He basically figured it out. Nobody knew that before. He shot the first image in 1885, and he died in 1931. He never saw two that were the same.

Did he ever deliberately market and sell any of his snowflake images as collectible works of art? Might he have sold some of them to fund his snowflake photography work? I actually don’t know. I could not find anywhere [evidence or discussion] if he sold prints during his life. He would have sold some slides to American schools and museums, and sold them to fashion designers and jewelers as inspiration for design. But I don’t know if he sold them for money. In 1904, he contacted the Smithsonian. He had taken 2,000 images [by then] and he wanted them to take the best images for long-term preservation. They did, and they sent him some money for supplies.

One of a group of ten images of snowflakes captured between the late 1890s and the 1920s by photographer Wilson Bentley.

So Wilson Bentley’s snowflake photos were not seen as artistic images during his lifetime? I would say they were mostly viewed as scientific images. I’m sure a lay person could understand the beauty of seeing snowflakes up close. But I can’t imagine him framing them and sticking them up on the walls. He did not try to decorate his house [with them]. He wanted people to know his research he was doing, scientifically speaking.

So people start seeing Wilson Bentley snowflake photos as art some time after he dies in 1931? In terms of the art market, I didn’t find auction records for these before 2005. Dealers sold them here and there over the years. They didn’t get to the secondary art market for a long time.

The date range for this group of ten Wilson Bentley snowflake photos spans the late 1890s to the 1920s. Why is the span so wide? We just don’t know when they were taken. They’re not dated. When we get a set, we use the widest range we can. We err on the side of caution.

It’s odd that he did not date the snowflake images, given that he saw himself as doing scientific work. You’d think he’d want to, if only to see if certain patterns emerged over time. It is interesting, and we don’t know why [he didn’t date them]. In general, photographers did not sign or date all their things until the 20th century. It’s not unusual to see prints like this that are unsigned.

The lot notes describe the group as “selected images”. Who did the selecting? Were the Wilson Bentley snowflake photos released originally as this specific group of ten, or did someone along the way pull them together? “Selected” is just what we say when we have a group of photographs from one photographer. It came to us this way from one collector.

How often do Wilson Bentley snowflake photos come to auction? On a fairly regular basis. We see a set once a season, maybe.

Are they always in some sort of group, or do individuals come up? We have not offered individuals at Sotheby’s. They sell on their own for a few hundred.

What are the Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs like in person? They’re not black and white. They have deep, dark brown tones, and some are slightly lighter than others. The darks are not just black–they’re almost black-brown. In person, you can really see the lovely dark chocolate browns. The whites are not white–they’re a creamy color. And there’s a bit of silvering in some of the dark areas, which is typical of something of this age. It adds a beautiful look to each object on its own. They’re quite small–four inches by three inches, which is the size they always are.

Do you have a favorite among the ten? This [above] is the one we chose to reproduce in the catalog, and it remains my favorite. It is a beautifully symmetrical shape, from the center all the way to the formation of the six “arms”, which I think are called dendrites. There is so much detail captured in this tiny print.

What condition are the Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs in? They’re really in quite excellent condition for prints of the late 19th century. There’s barely anything to report. The silvering is not distracting. It’s in the darks. You’ve got to hold them in high, raking light, at an angle, to notice it.

I understand the Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs are framed. Is that unusual? Do we know when they were framed? They were framed pretty recently by the owner. The frames wouldn’t be original to them. I can’t imagine Bentley would have framed anything.

How many groups of Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs have you handled? I started in 2015. Since then, this is the sixth group.

How does this set compare to the other five? It’s really nice, but they’re all very comparable sets. He clearly uses the same process over and over. All six sets that have come up during my time have sold. In October 2016, we sold a group for $22,500.

Is that the world auction record for a set of Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs? It’s up there. Swann sold an album of 25 in February 2016 for $52,000. The next three records are all Sotheby’s, including the one I mentioned.

Why will this group of Wilson Bentley snowflake photographs stick in your memory? It’s a nice selection of different snowflakes, as good a variety of shapes that you can have. What seems to be important to Bentley–he really was passionate about what he did. In his book, he documents snowflakes by shape. That was important to him. He died right after his book came out, of pnemonia, after walking around in the snow. His legacy lives on. He achieved his goal.

How to bid: The group of 10 Wilson Bentley Snowflake photographs is lot 142 in the Classic Photographs sale at Sotheby’s New York on October 3, 2019.

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RECORD! A Star Wars Boba Fett Rocket-firing Prototype Crosses the $100k Threshold at Hake’s

A circa 1979 Star Wars Boba Fett rocket-firing prototype, unpainted, with the L-slot configuration firing mechanism. It set a new world auction record for a Star Wars toy at Hake's in July 2019.

In the course of reporting this story, I learned about the next likely record-breaking Star Wars action figure–an even rarer Boba Fett prototype to be offered in a Hake’s auction that opens on October 15, 2019, and closes on November 6 and 7, 2019. That prototype could sell for as much as $200,000. You will see mentions of that toy, as well as pictures, woven into this article.

What you see: A circa 1979 Star Wars Boba Fett rocket-firing prototype, unpainted, with the L-slot configuration. It comes with a letter from Collectible Investment Brokerage (CIB) assigning the encapsulated toy an 85 (NM+) grade. It sold at Hake’s in July 2019 for $112,926–a new record for any Star Wars toy, and the first time a Star Wars toy has crossed the six-figure threshold at auction.

The expert: Alex Winter, President of Hake’s.

How often do late-1970s Star Wars prototype toys come to auction? What others have appeared? Prototypes for action figures are much more layered than for other things. They go through various stages, various color treatments. That’s why there’s so many Boba Fett prototypes. Only a handful have been at auction. It’s still fairly uncommon for them to come up. We happen to have had the luxury of two back to back, and one coming up. [Scroll down for news on the Boba Fett prototype that’s coming up.]

When I hear “prototype” I assume there’s just one, but you’re telling me that action figures require more than one. What number of prototypes is more typical for an action figure? Three to five? I think so. There’s a few for every figure. Boba Fett went through stages of the rocket-firing figure because it had a spring-loaded mechanism. They had to get it right, so more prototypes had to be produced.

Do we know how many Boba Fett prototypes exist? It’s all very vague and speculative, but there’s a very good article that has an accurate lineage of the Boba Fett action figure. [The 2016 story suggests that maybe 100 Boba Fett prototypes exist: about 80 of the L-slot variety, and 19 of the later J-slot version. The letters describe the shape of the rocket-firing mechanism built into Boba Fett’s backpack.]

Could you talk a bit about this rocket-firing Boba Fett toy, and why it’s legendary? It’s taken on a life of its own. Kenner documented what it was supposed to be and put it all into motion before realizing it was not going to work. [As described in the previously given link, the rocket-firing Boba Fett toy was touted in a winter 1979 Kenner catalog as free with four proofs of purchase of other Star Wars toys. Kids gathered the material, sent it off to Kenner, and waited six to eight weeks for the prize to arrive, only to discover that the much-celebrated rocket was fixed in place.] I was eight when Star Wars came out. I saw the original run and sent away for the Boba Fett figure. I don’t remember being disappointed, but everyone got a fixed rocket. Other kids could have been disappointed.

A circa 1979 Star Wars Boba Fett rocket-firing prototype, unpainted, with the L-slot configuration firing mechanism, shown with its certificate of authenticity from CIB.

This prototype is an example of the L-slot version of the toy. There was also a J-slot version. What is the significance of the slot configurations? The L-slot is the first version [of the rocket-firing mechanism]. It was very touchy–tap the figure, and it fired. The J-slot version made it a little more difficult to fire the rocket, but there was a problem. A piece of plastic could snap off that was very sharp, and could puncture [a kid’s] finger. Because they had already advertised it [as a rocket-firing toy], my guess is when they got to the deadline for when they were going to ship, they said, ‘Let’s just mount the rocket in place and get it out of here.’ [Another factor that might have led Kenner to fix the rocket in place] was a kid had choked to death on a rocket from a Battlestar Galactica toy. That could have been the reason for it. [A rocket-firing toy] sounds like a great concept, but it didn’t work. Kids got a stationary version in the mail.

This figure is unpainted. What’s the significance of that? Is it just further proof that it’s a prototype? This shows you the progression. With action figures, you go through so many stages until you get it right. Because they were still working out the firing mechanism, it was not painted. In the process, the concern is that the figure looks right, then making sure that the rocket works, and then they paint it in the final stages. It [the lack of paint] is a signpost.

Is this toy on a blank card? It’s encapsulated in plastic, in an acrylic case.

How did you set the estimate of $75,000 to $100,000? Was that the first time you’d given a Star Wars toy an estimate that includes a six-figure sum? It’s the second time. The first time was the Obi-Wan. It just got into that estimate. We based the estimate on what other Boba Fetts have sold for.

What’s the difference between this Boba Fett and the Obi-Wan Kenobi that set the record in November 2017? Is it down to one being a prototype and the other being a production toy? That’s really the big difference–one is a prototype and one is a production toy. Very few Obi-Wan have ever come to auction and sold. It’s probably a toss-up which one has fewer in existence.

The world auction record for a Star Wars toy broke three times from November 2017 to now–between the Obi-Wan and this Boba Fett prototype, you offered a different Boba Fett L-slot prototype in March 2018 that sold for more than $86,000. Why is there such strong movement in Star Wars toys now? Why has the record broken three times in less than two years? Five years ago, it [the Boba Fett prototype] was a $25,000 figure. Star Wars collectors are serious, and a lot are of the age where they have disposable income. It’s in the last five years or so that it’s been elevated to the level that it is.

The sale of this Boba Fett marks the first time any Star Wars toy has sold for more than $100,000. Could you discuss the significance of that? And did that milestone come when you expected it to come, or was it a little early, or a little late? The first comic book, the first baseball card, and the first original comic artwork breaking six figures was big news. This getting over $100,000 is a big deal, and a long time coming. A lot of that is [due to] third-party authentication. Other collectibles that have been encapsulated [sealed in plastic] have set the guideline for how the market is trending. That’s why we’re seeing what we see. As for the timing of the six figures, we had thought the Obi-Wan could do that. If it was one grade higher, it certainly would have. It’s trending upwards, as all Star Wars toys are. Collectors are there, and they’re ready and willing to pay what they have to.

What was your role in the auction? I tend to stay off the phones if I can. It’s all Internet bidding or phone bidding. I was monitoring things to make sure everything was running smoothly. I watched the whole auction unfold in front of me.

Did you have a dedicated screen for this Boba Fett lot? I have to watch the entire auction at once. It’s important that I watch everything unfurl.

That sounds tricky. I’ve been doing it for 34 years. But it’s hectic, for sure.

When did you know you had a new world auction record? We had a lot of activity for all three weeks online, to closing. On closing day, the Boba Fett prototype was around $85,000 with premium, which would have been $1,000 under the record. Even if we’d closed at that, we’d be happy, because it was right up to where the other sold. It came down to the wire. We got a bid at 9:19 pm, and that reopened the clock.

It reopened the clock? When you bid on an item, it resets the clock for 20 minutes.

So it extends the bidding life of the lot? Correct. When this was still going, much of the rest of the auction was over. It took to the very end until we eclipsed the record. It was a bit unnerving. A lot of people waited until the last minute, but that doesn’t work with us. We’re not eBay. There’s no sniping.

The Boba Fett sold for just under $113,000. Were you surprised by that? No. No. If it was twice its estimate, I would have been surprised, but it was just over the estimate. We were very pleased, but I wouldn’t say we were surprised.

And I understand Hake’s has another Boba Fett prototype coming up in November 2019 that could break the world auction record for any Star Wars toy again? This is the J-slot, the next version of the firing mechanism. It’s painted, and its grade is 85+. It’s the same grade [as the current record-holder], but it’s more desirable because it’s a J-slot, of which there are fewer. It looks like the one that was released.

Image of a painted rocket-firing Boba Fett prototype with a J-slot mechanism, which Hake's will offer in November 2019.
Image of a painted rocket-firing Boba Fett prototype with a J-slot mechanism, which Hake’s will offer in November 2019.

Do you have an estimate on that upcoming Boba Fett prototype? I haven’t committed to one yet. It literally showed up one day after the [July 2019] auction. It could be $100,000, it could be $200,000. It could beat the record substantially, based on what it is. It’s the more desirable of the two [styles] of rocket-firing mechanisms, it’s painted, and it appears in Star Wars collectibles reference books.

What did Kenner learn from the Boba Fett disaster, if anything? It changed the toy industry dramatically. After that, people were cautious and didn’t want to be sued [over a potential choking hazard]. [The toy industry] moved into a different era.

So it wasn’t just overpromising and underdelivering, it was eek, kids could die. Yep. They made sure every base was covered so nothing would come back on them. Now it’s obvious that a tiny piece of plastic that launches with great force was not the smartest [idea]. But it all led up to this legendary status for the rocket-fired Boba Fett.

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

Hake’s is on Twitter and Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Hake’s.

Alex Winter also spoke to The Hot Bid about a 1939 copy of Batman’s comic book debut, which ultimately sold for almost $570,000.

I also wrote a piece about record-setting Star Wars action figures for the Field Notes section of the October 2019 issue of Robb Report.

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

Every Antiques Roadshow Appraiser Who Has Appeared on The Hot Bid

A patriotic Andrew Clemens sand bottle, discussed on The Hot Bid by Wes Cowan
A patriotic Andrew Clemens sand bottle, discussed on The Hot Bid by Wes Cowan.

To mark the return of Antiques Roadshow tonight (check your local PBS listings), here is every story ever published on The Hot Bid that features appraisers who have appeared on the program. It includes a lot of people, and even more stories. Enjoy!

A Tremendous Mike toy robot, with original box.

Michael Bertoia, Bertoia Auctions, Tremendous Mike toy robot. The winsome red robot commanded $11,000.

The Crucifixion, a limestone carving by self-taught African American artist William Edmondson.

* Sebastian Clarke, Rago Auctions, carving by William Edmondson. The Crucifixion, a circa 1930s carving by the African-American outsider artist, ultimately sold for $175,000.

Wes Cowan, Cowan’s Auctions, patriotic sand bottle by Andrew Clemens. In the story, Cowan talks about first encountering Clemens’s art on Antiques Roadshow. This bottle ultimately sold for $102,000.

Let Me Off Uptown, a mixed-media work by Emma Amos.

Nigel Freeman, Swann Auction Galleries, Emma Amos’s Let Me Off Uptown. The mixed-media fabric work set a world auction record for the artist, selling for $125,000.

Defiance, a print from the Emperor Jones series.

Nigel Freeman, Swann Auction Galleries, Emperor Jones prints by Aaron Douglas. Shown from the group of four 1972 reprints is Defiance.

A narrative quilt made by Faith Ringgold. Oprah Winfrey commissioned her to make it for Dr. Maya Angelou.

Nigel Freeman, Swann Auction Galleries, record-setting Faith Ringgold story quilt. Commissioned by Oprah Winfrey as a birthday gift for Dr. Maya Angelou, it sold at Swann in 2015 for $461,000.

War Worker, a painting by Elizabeth Catlett.

Nigel Freeman, Swann Auction Galleries, Elizabeth Catlett’s painting, War Worker. The 1943 tempera-on-board commanded $149,000.

Untitled (Negro Mother), a copper repoussé mask by Sargent Johnson.

Nigel Freeman, Swann Auction Galleries, Sargent Johnson’s Untitled (Negro Mother). The rare mid-1930s copper repoussé mask sold for $100,000 and a record for the artist at auction.

Milk Drop Coronet, a photograph by Harold Edgerton.

Daile Kaplan, Swann Auction Galleries, Milk Drop Coronet by Harold Edgerton. This print of the iconic image shot by the MIT professor sold for $4,250.

Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House, aka Powerhouse Mechanic, by Lewis Hine.

Daile Kaplan, Swann Auction Galleries, Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House, aka PowerHouse Mechanic, by Lewis Hine. This was an exceptionally early print, dating to circa 1921.

Edward S. Curtis's portrait of Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud.

Daile Kaplan, Swann Auction Galleries, an Edward S. Curtis portrait of the Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud. The platinum print commanded $32,500.

An image of seven nude women from a portfolio by Albert Arthur Allen.

Daile Kaplan, Swann Auction Galleries, a 1925 portfolio of nudes by Albert Arthur Allen. The rare complete set of 15 images from The Model, Series No. 1 fetched $2,860.

Kenneth Nolan's Songs: Yesterday, a chevron painting from 1985.

Peter Loughrey, Los Angeles Modern Auctions, Kenneth Nolan’s Songs: Yesterdays. The 1985 chevron painting sold for $550,000, well over its estimate.

Bibi on the Ball, a hyperrealistic sculpture by Carole Feuerman.

Peter Loughrey, Los Angeles Modern Auctions, Bibi on the Ball by Carole Feuerman. The hyperrealistic sculpture went on to set a world auction record for the artist.

Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C., a colorful abstract by Alma Thomas.

Peter Loughrey, Los Angeles Modern Auctions, Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. by Alma Thomas. This was the debut post on The Hot Bid. The painting sold for $387,500 and set a world auction record for Thomas.

A Bounty Hunter dune buggy, completed in 1969.

Peter Loughrey, Los Angeles Modern Auctions, Bounty Hunter dune buggy. An unusually well-built example of the mid-century off-road vehicle sold for $36,250.

Jonathan Borofsky's Man with Briefcase (C), a woodcut with collage on handmade paper.

Peter Loughrey, Los Angeles Modern Auctions, Man with a Briefcase (C) by Jonathan Borofsky. The woodcut with collage on handmade paper fetched $9,375.

Wendell Castle's 2008 limited edition Abilene rocking chair, fashioned from stainless steel.

Peter Loughrey, Los Angeles Modern Auctions, Wendell Castle Abilene rocking chair. The stainless steel limited edition appeared at LAMA roughly a month after Castle died.

Ed Ruscha's print Double Standard.

Peter Loughrey, Los Angeles Modern Auctions, Ed Ruscha’s Double Standard. When it sold for $206,250 at LAMA in October 2014, it set a record for a print by the artist.

Word Image, Tadanori Yokoo's poster for a 1968 MoMA show.

Nicho Lowry, Swann Auction Galleries, Tadanori Yokoo’s Word Image poster. Created for a 1968 MoMA show, it sold for $4,250.

The famous 1917 "I Want You" U.S. Army recruiting poster.

Nicho Lowry, Swann Auction Galleries, a 1917 “I Want You” recruiting poster. It fetched $14,300, just $101 shy of the world auction record.

A rare 1927 movie poster for The Siren of the Tropics, starring Josephine Baker.

Nicho Lowry, Swann Auction Galleries, 1927 movie poster for The Siren of the Tropics, starring Josephine Baker. The rare poster garnered $9,750.

A triptych of posters touting the merits of Mont Blanc.

Nicho Lowry, Swann Auction Galleries, a 1928 trio of Mont Blanc travel posters. Showing the famous mountain at day, twilight, and night, the triptych sold for $13,750.

An Alphonse Mucha poster showcasing actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Nicho Lowry, Swann Auction Galleries, Alphonse Mucha poster of Sarah Bernhardt. The 1896 poster, created to advertise the actress’s American tour, commanded $8,750.

A mid-1930s German travel poster that includes the Hindenburg zeppelin.

Nicho Lowry, Swann Auction Galleries, a circa 1935 German travel poster. The “pleasant trip to Germany” image, which pictured the Hindenburg, sold for $6,000.

A 1928 travel poster touting Corsica, designed by Roger Broders, who clearly took inspiration from Botticelli.

Nicho Lowry, Swann Auction Galleries, a 1928 Corsica travel poster by Roger Broders. Does the pose of the woman seem familiar to you? It should, especially if you’ve visited the Uffizi Gallery.

An exceptionally rare 1938 London Transport poster designed by Man Ray.

Nicho Lowry, Swann Auction Galleries, a 1938 London Transport poster by Man Ray. Yes, that Man Ray. The exceptionally rare poster fetched $149,000.

A.M. Cassandre's L.M.S/Best Way, which holds the world auction record for any travel poster.

Nicho Lowry, Swann Auction Galleries, L.M.S./Best Way, by A.M. Cassandre. It earned the world auction record for any travel poster in 2012 when it sold for $162,500.

A scarce 1949 concert poster for Billie Holiday, which pictures the singer.

Giles Moon, Heritage Auctions*, Billie Holiday concert poster. The rare poster, which dates to 1949, commanded $13,750.

An original 1969 Woodstock concert poster that lacks its small text and is autographed by designer Arnold Skolnik.

Giles Moon, Heritage Auctions*, an original 1969 Woodstock concert poster. It stands apart for lacking its small text and for bearing a signature from Arnold Skolnik, the artist who designed it.

UNTITLED (EYES), a work that French artist Martial Raysse gave to Hotel Chelsea manager Stanley Bard.

Alasdair Nichol, Freeman’s, UNTITLED (EYES) by Martial Raysse. Inscribed to Stanley Bard, the longtime manager of the Hotel Chelsea, it fetched $50,000–ten times its low estimate.

An amber, white, and gold glass chandelier, from the studio of Dale Chihuly.

Suzanne Perrault, Rago Auctions, Dale Chihuly chandelier. The ten-foot-tall work set a record for a Chihuly chandelier at auction in 2015.

Suzanne Perrault, Rago Auctions, Lino Tagliapietra dinosaur. The exquisite glass sculpture sold for $17,500.

A Chinese cloisonné bottle vase that provoked a frenzy at Quinn's Auctions, ultimately selling for $812,500 against an estimate of $400 to $600,

Matthew Quinn, Quinn’s Auctions, a Chinese cloisonné bottle vase. It sold for $812,500 against an estimate of $400 to $600 thanks to bidders who were convinced that it dated to the 14th century, and not the 18th or 19th centuries. The bidders were right.

A version of Rene Lalique's Tortues vase in amber glass with white patina.

David Rago, Rago Auctions, a Lalique Tortues vase. The amber glass vase with white patina garnered $25,000.

An unusually tall Wally Bird with a markedly snarky expression.

David Rago, Rago Auctions, a tall Wally Bird. Designed as a tobacco jar, the snarky-faced ceramic bird sold for $50,000.

A handsome vertical Paul Evans cabinet.

David Rago, Rago Auctions, a Paul Evans cabinet. The seven-foot-tall furnishing sold for a record $382,000.

A large four-panel ceramic tile by Frederick Hurten Rhead that features a peacock.

David Rago, Rago Auctions, a Frederick Hurten Rhead peacock tile. The unique, large, four-panel tile sold for the staggering sum of $637,500.

David Rago, Rago Auctions, George Ohr vase. The exceptional large vase with ear handles and a serrated rim commanded $10,625.

A circa 1865 tintype of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the first female recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Deborah Rogel, Swann Auction Galleries, tintype of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. The circa 1865 image of the first female winner of the Medal of Honor sold for $9.375.

A record-setting Peter Hujar portrait of David Wojnarowicz.

Deborah Rogel, Swann Auction Galleries, a Peter Hujar Portrait of David Wojnarowicz. Dubbed David Wojnarowicz: Manhattan-Night (III), the 1985 silver print commanded $106,250 and a world auction record for the artist.

A still life of flowers in a vase on a yellow background by Florine Stettheimer.

Robin Starr, Skinner, a Florine Stettheimer still life. Offered in 2016, it garnered $375,000 and a world auction record for the artist.

Chrysler Building, a print by Howard Cook completed in the same year the skyscraper went up.

Todd Weyman, Swann Auction Galleries, Howard Cook’s Chrysler Building. The 1930 print sold for $10,625.

Day and Night, a magnificent, complex 1935 print by M.C. Escher.

Todd Weyman, Swann Auction Galleries, M.C. Escher’s Day and Night. The mind-bending 1935 print sold for $40,000.

The original artwork for the Italian poster for Sylvia Scarlett, a 1935 film starring Katharine Hepburn.

Dr. Catherine Williamson, Bonhams, original artwork for the Italian movie poster for Sylvia Scarlett. The 1935 film starred Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, but artist Anselmo Ballester kept the focus on the female star.

Robby the Robot. The one, the only, the original. Who doesn't love Robby the Robot? No one, that's who.

Dr. Catherine Williamson, Bonhams, Robby the Robot. The star of Forbidden Planet sold for $5.3 million and set a world auction record for a screen-used prop.

Grant Zahajko, Grant Zahajko Auctions, a 1936 Olympic basketball gold medal. The prize was awarded to John Haskell “Tex” Gibbons, a player on the winning American team.

Special thanks to Bertoia Auctions for the image of Tremendous Mike.

Special thanks to Cowan’s for the image of the Andrew Clemens sand bottle.

Special thanks to Rago Auctions for the images of the William Edmondson carving; the Dale Chihuly chandelier; the Lalique vase; the Rhead tile panel; the Paul Evans cabinet; and the tall Wally Bird.

Special thanks to Swann Auction Galleries for the images of Emma Amos’s Let Me Off Uptown; the Faith Ringgold narrative quilt; the Emperor Jones prints; the Elizabeth Catlett painting; the Sargent Johnson mask; the Albert Arthur Allen image; the Lewis Hine photograph; the Harold Edgerton photograph; the portrait by Edward S. Curtis; the Tadanori Yokoo poster; the I Want You poster; the Josephine Baker movie poster; the trio of Mont Blanc postes; the Mucha poster; the 1930s German travel poster; the Borders Corsica poster; the Man Ray London Transport poster; the A.M. Cassandre poster; the Mary Edwards Walker tintype; the Peter Hujar photograph; the Howard Cook print; and the M.C. Escher print.

Special thanks to Los Angeles Modern Auctions for the images of the Kenneth Nolan painting; the Carole Feuerman sculpture; the dune buggy; the Wendell Castle rocking chair; the Alma Thomas painting; and the Ed Ruscha print.

Special thanks to Heritage Auctions for the images of the Billie Holiday concert poster and the Woodstock concert poster.

Special thanks to Freeman’s for the images of the Martial Raysse work.

Special thanks to Quinn’s Auctions for the image of the Chinese cloisonné bottle vase.

Special thanks to Skinner for the image of the Florine Stettheimer still life.

Special thanks to Grant Zahajko Auctions for the image of the 1936 Olympic gold medal.

And special thanks to Marsha Bemko and all at Antiques Roadshow, for generally being awesome.

*Clarke has since moved to Doyle, and Moon has since moved to Bonhams.

SOLD! The Frank Lloyd Wright Armchair Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

A casual armchair, aka a sloped armchair, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956 for the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and shown in profile.

Update: The Frank Lloyd Wright casual armchair from Price Tower sold for $13,750.

What you see: A casual armchair, aka a sloped armchair, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956 for the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.

The expert: Brent Lewis, director of design at Heritage Auctions.

Could we start by telling the story of Price Tower, and how it came to be, and how it fits within the body of work of Frank Lloyd Wright? Price Tower was built in 1956. It’s a really interesting example of the work Wright was doing at the end of his life and career. [He died in 1959 at the age of 91.] He was approached by the Price family from Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Harold Price Sr. had a family business in oil and energy. Bartlesville is just outside Tulsa, a center of that [oil and energy businesses] at the time. He wanted to build a new headquarters for his company, and was looking for an architect. His sons, who were taking classes in architecture, initially recommended Bruce Goff, the truly maverick architect of this period. He taught at the University of Oklahoma. He met with Price and recommended meeting with Wright instead.

What happened when the Prices met Wright? They asked him to build something three to four stories tall. He proposed a 19-story skyscraper instead, in the middle of the prairie. They were swept along with his enthusiasm for the project and it was built. Wright called it “the tree that escaped the crowded forest”.

A casual armchair, aka a sloped armchair, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956 for the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Here, it is shown in full from the front.

Is this the first time a Frank Lloyd Wright armchair from Price Tower has gone to auction? No. There have been a handful that have come up over the years. I count at least four of this model. About 15 years ago, an initial group of furniture from Price Tower sold in New York, and a handful have circulated and been on the market since.

Do all the Frank Lloyd Wright armchairs of this design look like this one–silver-colored frame with red upholstery? There are different variations, with different finishes and different colors of paint. We believe this one has its original paint finish. It’s been reupholstered, but in fabric that’s as close to the original as possible.

The lot notes say “some forty were originally specified”. Were 40 in fact made? I don’t know, but I suspect there were about 40 made. Some were sold and circulated over the years. The Price Tower Arts Center has many in their collection. Price Tower, the building, is now owned and operated by the nonprofit Price Tower Arts Center. It’s preserving, and in the process of preserving, more period rooms in the building, restoring them to how they were created. The funds from the sale will help them continue their core mission of preserving Price Tower.

The Frank Lloyd Wright armchair for Price Tower, shown from the rear in three-quarter view.

The seat and the back of this armchair have a hexagonal shape. I also see hexagons in the back and seat of a different Frank Lloyd Wright Price Tower chair offered in the sale. Are hexagons a main design motif of the building? I wouldn’t say hexagons, as such, are specifically a formal motif Wright used, but the building is entirely about angles. It’s formed as a series of triangles locked together at 30 degrees, 60 degrees. Wright was exploring geometry in a more complex way than boxes and rectangles. The angular design is mimicked and repeated in the furniture that was designed.

So they’re not so much hexagons as joined triangles? Yeah, I would say so.

How many Frank Lloyd Wright lots are in the October 1 sale? About 20 lots. Many are works for Price Tower, and many are duplicates from within the Price Tower Arts Center collection. Some were donated by Carolyn Price, the wife of Harold Price, Jr., who passed away last year.

A design drawing for the Frank Lloyd Wright armchair for Price Tower.

We have that great quote from Wright talking about the Price Tower, but do we have any quotes from Harold Price, Sr., or others in his family about this particular chair design? I don’t have anything at hand for you, but generally, the furniture was greeted with mixed reviews by the people who had to use it. It was designed for company offices, and the staff was meant to use the furniture. There are stories of people bringing their own chairs or desks in. The Price family must have been happy enough, because they were patrons of Frank Lloyd Wright for many years.

A detail shot of the Frank Lloyd Wright Price Tower armchair, showing the spine-like appearance of the back strut.

The metal spine of the Frank Lloyd Wright armchair makes me think of vertebrae. Is that deliberate? Is the back of the chair meant to imitate a spine? I think it’s an innovative use of material. Cast aluminum was not usually done at the time. Wright found a local person to do the work. He used a single material to provide the frame of the chair and provide a decorative layer to the chair at the same time. It’s one of the reasons I find the chair so compelling.

To me, it looks like the Frank Lloyd Wright armchair would have been seen as futuristic in 1956. Was the chair design considered futuristic? I don’t know how it was considered, but Price Tower was completed at a time when Wright was doing a very forward, very unique type of architecture. A couple of years later, he completed the Guggenheim in New York. His residential projects of the time were different and new. To a certain extent, people came to expect it from Wright. It was 20 years since he had done Fallingwater. He had moved quite a bit past his early and mid-career periods. At the same time, it was the mid-1950s. There were a lot of new ideas being generated through the applied arts, and seen throughout the American mid-century movement. I’m not sure the degree to which it was so surprising. Also, the armchair was not made for the mass market. It was a private commission. Wright had the freedom to experiment.

This is described as a “casual armchair”. Why? What makes it casual? I think it’s probably a reference to the slope of the arms, which allows for a more casual sitting position.

The Frank Lloyd Wright armchair for Price Tower, shown in full from the rear.

Have you sat in the Frank Lloyd Wright armchair? I have.

What’s that like? It’s fine. It’s like many chairs. It felt absolutely comfortable, but I don’t know what it’s like for eight or nine hours for a workday. It feels good to sit in. I don’t know if it would win any awards for ergonomic design.

Yeah, I’ve heard tell of how… how shall I put this… Wright making designs to please himself, and perhaps not thinking much about the people who would actually have to use his designs on a daily basis. I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. The more I learn about Wright, [I am convinced] Wright cared about what his clients felt, and he did care about the function of his designs. But the wanted to consider the whole, and the unified whole, for that matter.

A three-quarter rear view of the Frank Lloyd Wright Price Tower armchair.

What’s your favorite detail of this Frank Lloyd Wright armchair? I’d say it’s the interpretation of the pattern into the structure itself, primarily in the use of triangles. It’s an echo of the design of the building. It has very few right angles.

What’s the world auction record for this Frank Lloyd Wright armchair? I can find £48,000 (roughly $60,000) in 2007 at Christie’s South Kensington, London.

Is there any chance this example will meet or beat the one that sold at Christie’s? Is its provenance better? I think we have to wait and see. It’s a very strong market for Wright right now. This is a great example, and I hope collectors will recognize it as such. I hope we’ll get a good price for the Price Tower Arts Center.

Why will this Frank Lloyd Wright armchair stick in your memory? It has its own visual language, its own aesthetic vocabulary, that can’t be mistaken for anything else. Once you see it, you’ll remember it. In that way, it’s iconic.

How to bid: The Frank Lloyd Wright armchair for Price Tower in Oklahoma is lot #67050 in the October 1, 2019 Design sale at Heritage Auctions.

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Brent Lewis appeared on The Hot Bid once before, discussing Widow of a King, a 2006 work by Pae White.

Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

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An Elizabeth Catlett Sculpture Could Sell for $150,000 at Swann

What you see: Seated Woman, a 1962 sculpture in mahogany by Elizabeth Catlett. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.

Do we know how many sculptures Elizabeth Catlett made? There’s easily over 100, and probably close to 200. What’s interesting about the sculpture is it’s an early piece. She didn’t begin working in wood until she studied woodcarving in Mexico in the late 1950s. Her earliest dates to 1956. This is a significant work of refined sculpture. It shows how quickly she took to wood, and wood quickly became one of her materials.

Seated Woman, a 1962 sculpture in mahogany by Elizabeth Catlett.

Did she normally work in mahogany? She did do a number of works in mahogany. There are several mahogany works early in her career. She would do works in tropical woods, cedar, pecan. Mahogany, for a lot of reasons–beauty and durability–was a wood she would use often. It lends itself to the carving that she did.

Is Seated Woman a subject that she returns to over her career as a sculptor, or is this the only instance? Strong rep