RECORD: A Stunning Bronze by Nigeria’s Ben Enwonwu Fetches $461,000 at Bonhams

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What you see: Anyanwu, a 1956 sculpture by Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, better known as Ben Enwonwu. It set an auction record for a bronze by the late Nigerian artist, selling for £353,000, or $461,066, at Bonhams London in February 2017.

Who is Ben Enwonwu? He was a Nigerian artist, and arguably, THE Nigerian artist of the 20th century. He embraced traditional Western art media, most notably painting and sculpture. He sculpted a portrait bronze of Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 and was made a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) two years later. A crater on the planet Mercury is named for him. He died in 1994 at the age of 72.

Why is Anyanwu regarded as his masterpiece? “One of the reasons is it garnered the greatest publicity,” says Giles Peppiatt, head of African art at Bonhams. “In the 1960s, a version of it was gifted from the Nigerian state to the United Nations for its new headquarters. For Nigeria to choose this image by this artist confirms him as one of the most important artists to come out of 20th century Nigeria.”

How many Anyanwu sculptures exist? “He produced quite a few variants, but he wasn’t a good record-keeper,” Peppiatt says. “If someone said they wanted one, then he had one cast.” He estimates there might be between half a dozen and a dozen castings at most of the largest version of Anyanwu, which is shown here and stands about seven and a half feet tall. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear there are another three or four out there,” he says. “They were expensive at the time. I can’t believe there are 30 of them.”

How does Anyanwu show Enwonwu’s strengths? “In conception, it is a very intelligent and clever piece. It refers back to Nigerian mythology, and the figure wears a traditional Nigerian headpiece. It obviously struck a chord when it was produced,” he says. “The execution is brilliant. The photo doesn’t capture the crispness of the bronze. The detailing of its features are superb.”

Anyanwu sold for £353,000, or $458,612. Is that a record for an Enwonwu bronze at auction, or a record for an Enwonwu sculpture at auction? “For a single piece, it’s a record. I think the record for a sculpture was set four years ago,” Peppiatt says, referencing a group of wooden Enwonwu sculptures sold for £361,250 ($469,300) at Bonhams in 2013. The final prices on the two lots are close enough to be affected by currency fluctuations.

You were the auctioneer for the sale that included Anyanwu. When did you know you had a record? “As soon as I hammered it down, I knew,” he says. “As the price went up, I was willing it to get to a record. I don’t think we expected it to perform as well as it did. The auction world is full of pleasant surprises.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “I think it will stand for a bit, and I’ll tell you why. You only get one debut, and this was it,” Peppiatt says. “If another [large] cast went to auction, it would probably fetch less. A bronze is almost like a print. It’s unusual for someone to want two of the same. That person won’t bid the next time it comes up. But the market changes, and new buyers come in, and you can never be sure.”

What else makes the bronze special? “When you stand in front of it, you look it in the eye. It’s an amazing piece of sculpture. I was delighted it did well. It deserved every penny,” he says.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

Enwonwu paintings and sculptures will appear in Bonhams’s October 5, 2017 sale Africa Now in London.

RECORD: Artist’s Artist Florine Stettheimer Steps From the Shadows at Skinner

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What you see: An undated floral still life by Florine Stettheimer. Skinner sold it in January 2016 for $375,000 against an estimate of $75,000 to $100,000, a record for the artist at auction.

Who was Florine Stettheimer? She was a wealthy American woman who was, and is, regarded as an artist’s artist. Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O’Keeffe attended her salon. She might be the first woman artist in history to paint a nude self-portrait. She wasn’t keen on self-promotion; she had one small solo show at the Knoedler gallery in 1916, which flopped, and she never did another. While Stettheimer’s sisters ignored her wish to have her art destroyed after she died, they gave most of it to museums, leaving little for collectors to acquire. Two years after her death, the Museum of Modern art staged a Stettheimer retrospective. The Jewish Museum in New York is showing Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, until September 24, 2017. She died in 1944 at the age of 72.

How did the Stettheimer painting come to Skinner? “It came out of a house where it had been for decades,” says Robin S. R. Starr, director of American and European Works of Art at Skinner. “It was an estate situation. The family didn’t know much about it.”

How does this still life show off Stettheimer’s skills as an artist? “What could be a smarmy, cutesy sort of subject has a wonderful, modernist, fresh vibe all its own,” Starr says. “She has a great, unique personal style. She doesn’t look like anybody else. She’s her own style. The fact that she wanted her work destroyed after she died says she didn’t think much of it, though now we’re rediscovering her and finding out how fantastic it really is.”

How does this floral still life compare to other Stettheimer paintings? “This is a wonderful work, but in comparison, it is relatively minor,” she says. “This is a record-breaker because none of those works [of hers] in museums have come up at auction.”

How did you decide on the estimate of $75,000 to $100,000? “It takes a lot of chutzpah to put an estimate on something that you know is going to sell for a world record,” she says, noting that the previous record for a Stettheimer was set in 1997 by a painting that commanded $145,000 against an identical estimate. “Artnet has six records [for Stettheimer], and only one [of the six artworks] has real figures in it,” she says, adding, “It was really more of a gut instinct. You’ve got to decide what’s a fair estimate based on what little track record there is and how wonderful you think the picture is. Ultimately, an estimate is a guess. It’s a well-educated guess, but a guess.”

Were you surprised that the painting did so well? “Yes and no, which isn’t a fair answer,” Starr says, laughing. “Yes, I was thrilled. I didn’t think it would do that well. I thought there was a very good chance it would go over its estimate. I didn’t think it would go two or three times over.”

How much of a role did Stettheimer’s personal story play in driving the record auction price? Did it help? “That was absolutely a part of it,” she says. “The story is important–just watch Antiques Roadshow. But ultimately, it has to come down to an object that’s beautiful enough or inventive enough to sell the story. If she was a mediocre painter, it’s not going to matter. The story isn’t enough.”

What else makes this Stettheimer floral still life special? “That palette is just–apparently, I’m going to keep using food terms–it’s so delicious. Instead of saccharine, we get that acidity, and that combination is just a gut punch. It’s one of those objects you see and you’re just stopped in your tracks. There’s nothing like it. It’s just its own thing.”

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You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow Robin S. R. Starr on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Skinner.

RECORD: Wharton Esherick’s 1933 Sculpture essie/rebecca Commands $123,750 at Freeman’s

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What you see: Wharton Esherick’s 1933 sculpture “essie”/”rebecca”, fashioned from cocobolo wood. Estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, it sold for $123,750 in November 2014 at Freeman’s. The sculpture now belongs to the Modernism Museum Mount Dora in Mount Dora, Fla.

Who is Wharton Esherick? He’s an American artist who is best known for his sculptural furnishings, which foreshadowed the American studio furniture movement. Esherick started out as a painter but shifted his focus when people reacted to his hand-carved frames more than his canvases. He died in 1970 at the age of 82.

How rare are Esherick’s sculptures? “They’re incredibly rare,” says Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s. “All of Esherick’s things are rare in comparison to the generation of craftsmen who came after him. Esherick produced maybe a few thousand pieces and maybe a hundred sculptures, if that.”

Is “essie”/”rebecca” based on a human model? It was his daughter, Mary, who played a character named Essie in a production at a local theater that the Eshericks supported. “He often used family members and friends as models, and turned the sketches and maquettes into fully realized sculptures,” Andreadis says. “This was later named Rebecca after the Biblical figure of Rebecca at the well. In the 1960s, it finally found a buyer, and it had been with that family ever since.”

What makes “essie”/”rebecca” stand out among Esherick’s works? “This would have been a little more unusual. He would have carved it in one solid piece. It makes it much more challenging,” he says. “It was a celebrated piece, one of those works that were really personal to the artist. And it’s beautiful from any angle. It’s definitely made to be viewed in the round.”

Why did the sculpture do so well? “The stars were perfectly aligned,” Andreadis says. “It was a sculpture of grand scale. Esherick used cocobolo, a rare, exotic wood. Its patina has never been touched. There aren’t many Esherick pieces in private hands. And it’s really personal subject matter, using his daughter as a model for the work. It’s beautifully signed by Esherick. And you can never ask for anything better than to see period photos of the artist standing with the work. Buyers just responded to that. They recognized a rare opportunity that’s not going to come up again for some time.”

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Freeman’s.

 

SOLD! The Apollo 13 Flight Plan Gets $275,000 at Sotheby’s–More Than Six Times Its High Estimate

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Update: The Apollo 13 flown flight plan sold for $275,000–more than six times its high estimate.

What you see: A page from the flight plan used during the Apollo 13 lunar mission. Sotheby’s estimates it at $30,000 to $40,000.

What was Apollo 13?  It was a 1970 moon voyage that never made it to the moon. An oxygen tank exploded 56 hours after liftoff, transforming the lunar mission into a rescue mission. The wounded vessel returned to Earth after four tense and terrifying days. The crew of three drank little, ate less, and slept even less than that. They arrived home on April 17, 1970, alive but collectively 31 and a half pounds lighter. The tale of Apollo 13 might be best known through the 1995 Academy Award-winning film that stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton.

Astronaut Fred Haise inscribed the flight plan to “Bob.” Who is Bob? He is Robert “Bob” Lindsey, the lead flight planner for Apollo 13. “This plan contained all the steps they had to follow to get into space. Lindsey figured out everything that needed to be done. Of course, the spacecraft did not comply,” says Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s. “Though they didn’t make it to the moon, Lindsey was instrumental in getting them out there, and instrumental in getting them back.” His descendants consigned the flight plan to Sotheby’s.

Wait, so there was only one flight plan aboard Apollo 13? Was it a NASA tradition for Apollo crews to give the flown flight plan to the lead flight planner when they got back to Earth? “Yes, this is it,” Hatton says of the document, and adds that giving the flight plan to the lead planner was not routine: “It was just something the Apollo 13 crew decided to do as an extra thank-you to the people who saved their lives.”

Does the flight plan contain handwritten notes from the astronauts after the oxygen tank exploded? Yes. The flight plan covers the voyage from liftoff to the point when astronauts Jack Swigert, Jim Lovell, and Haise abandoned the command module for the lunar lander, which they used as a lifeboat. The document also contains notes in red ink from Ken Mattingly, the original Apollo 13 command module pilot. He was removed from the crew days before the launch after fellow astronaut Charlie Duke unwittingly exposed him to German measles. Swigert replaced Mattingly.

What notes show the reaction to the explosion? Page 3-38 corresponds to the time of the accident. Lovell, the mission commander, crossed out the typewritten plans and wrote new ones, which include leaving the main vessel for the lunar module (LM). Lovell observed the need to “insure proper 02 concentration in LM.” Maintaining oxygen levels in the LM did pose a challenge. NASA engineers later had to teach the astronauts to jerry-rig a carbon dioxide filter that would work in the LM with parts that the astronauts had on hand.

How do we know which astronaut wrote which notes? Hatton referenced the air-to-ground transcript that NASA took for Apollo 13. By matching the transcript against the flight plan, she was able to identify each author. “If you take the time to go through it and read it, page by page, and compare it to the transcript, it solidifies our perception of them as being heroes,” she says. “‘Ok, we have no heat, no water, no food, and we can’t get any sleep, but we’re not going to panic and we’re going to get home.’ My heart was pounding. It’s an incredible thing.”

Why are there cartoons in the flight plan? NASA asked Johnson Space Centre artist Barbara Matelski to sketch caricatures of the crew in the flight plan before the launch as a jokey surprise for them to discover as they leafed through its pages. Shown here is the caricature of Swigert, who takes a ribbing over his political ambitions. He won the House of Representatives race for Colorado’s 6th district in November 1982, but died of bone cancer before he could be sworn in. He was 51 when he passed away. Lovell is now 89, Haise is 83, and Mattingly is 81.

The flight plan’s presale estimate is $30,000 to $40,000. Isn’t that kind of low? “The estimate is very, very conservative. It is. I’m confident it will far exceed its estimate,” she says, adding that its closest analog is a document that was embroiled in controversy. In 2011, Lovell consigned the flown LM Apollo 13 checklist–which takes over where this flight plan leaves off–to auction. It sold for $388,375, but the transaction was voided when NASA objected. President Barack Obama subsequently signed a law that gives clear title to memorabilia received by astronauts during the course of their work with the Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo programs. “It’s interesting to see what the impact of the new law will be,” she says. “It’s very clear about who the title lays with, so bidders can have confidence in this.”

How to bid: The flown Apollo 13 flight plan is lot 140 in Sotheby’s Space Exploration auction in New York, scheduled for–of course–July 20, 2017.

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Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow Cassandra Hatton on Twitter and Instagram and read a story she wrote for Sotheby’s on the flown Apollo 13 flight plan.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

RECORD: A Unique Paul Evans Piece Sparked Cabinet Fever at Rago in January 2017

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What you see: A unique vertical cabinet made by Paul Evans, featuring steel, 23 karat gold leaf, brass, and enameled finish. It stands just over seven feet tall, about four feet wide, and about 18 inches deep. It sold for $382,000 against a $140,000 to $160,000 estimate at Rago Auctions in January 2017, an auction record for Evans.

Who is Paul Evans? He was an American studio furniture maker based in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He was best known for furniture with distinctive, elaborate, sculpted metal fronts. He died in 1987, at 55.

This cabinet is a custom commission. How often did Evans accept commissions? “I haven’t heard of a lot of them,” says David Rago of Rago Auctions. “Custom commissions were often made to scale for certain interiors with only so much wall space or ceiling height. This is one of the few where [the commissioner] said, ‘I don’t like the other stuff you do, I want something like this.’ Paul Evans probably didn’t like to be told what to do. That’s probably why you don’t see many.”

The cabinet came directly from the person who commissioned it to your auction house. How rare is that? “Not as rare as you might think,” he says. “One of the reasons we get the prices we get [for Evans], is because we get them from the owners.”

Are the opportunities to receive Paul Evans consignments direct from original buyers drying up? “Not for us. Not yet,” Rago says. “He made furniture into the 1980s.”

Why did this Paul Evans cabinet do so well? “One, it was a one-of-a-kind bench-made piece. Two, it was consigned by the original owner, who worked with Paul Evans to get it made. Three, it’s a vertical cabinet, and most of these are horizontal,” he says. “Four, this is big, a big two-door vertical cabinet, so it has scale. Six, the New York Times highlighted this piece with a story titled Is This Cabinet Worth $500,000? That was a bit of a problem for me–I didn’t want people to think they had to spend $500,000 or they shouldn’t bother to bid. And the market was in a good place. People spend a lot of money on great things. There’s a lot of wealth in America.”

Were you surprised when it broke the auction record? “I thought it had potential, but I didn’t want to jinx it. I didn’t want to go there,” Rago says. “I was surprised it broke the record by that much. To break it by almost $100,000 is really unusual.”

Prior to the January 2017 Rago sale, the Paul Evans record seemed to change every six or eight months or 12 months, by $5,000 here and $10,000 there. Why do you think his auction record has been so volatile? “The more accepted Paul Evans becomes as an important, high-end designer, the more tastes change to accept other designs of his,” he says, adding that the cabinet is “A hybridized piece. It’s a little bit of a sculpture front, and a little bit of a wavy front. He put in a little of this and a little of that and he came up with a bench-made masterpiece.”

What does it feel like to have founded the auction house that set the record for Paul Evans furniture? “There’s probably one person on the planet who’s seen more Paul Evans than I have, and that’s Dorsey Reading, and he made the stuff. I grew up here. Some people say I’m geographically blessed as far as New Hope Modernism is concerned,” Rago says. “I have a lot of gratitude. It’s an honor for me to do this for a living. I started as a flea market three miles from here in 1977. To survive so long–this cabinet wasn’t made when I was at the flea market. It was made two miles from here. To do this, and handle stuff like this–I feel a bit of Jersey pride in that.”

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Rago Arts and Auctions.

 

RECORD: A Gus Wilson Red-Breasted Merganser Sails Away With $330,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

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What you see: A red-breasted merganser drake duck decoy, carved circa 1900 by Augustus “Gus” Wilson. It had been described as the finest Wilson decoy ever offered at auction. Copley Fine Art Auctions sold it in July 2014 for $330,000, achieving an auction record for the artist.

Who was Gus Wilson? He was a Maine native, boat builder, lighthouse keeper, and carver. He took up carving in his teens, probably learning the art from family members, and he remained active for most of his life. He died in 1950 at the age of 85 or 86.

How often do you see a Wilson duck decoy carved with an open bill, as this one is? “It’s very infrequent,” says Stephen B. O’Brien Jr., owner of Copley Fine Art Auctions in Boston, Mass. “There’s less than a handful, and many of those [beaks] are broken off and replaced. The fact that this one is intact makes it a real survivor.”

What makes this duck decoy exceptional? “It’s a big, bold carving. Wilson regularly produced larger, almost oversize carvings,” he says, alluding to the decoy’s generous measurements: seven inches wide, seven inches high, and more than 16 inches long. “It’s got a wonderful sense of sculpture. Combine that with the open bill, which is almost never seen, and it makes it a pinnacle work.

This is described as a “hunted” or “hunt-used” decoy, which means that a hunter actually put it out on the water to lure ducks. Are most Wilson decoys hunt-used? And do collectors prefer hunt-used decoys? “The vast majority of Gus Wilsons found were actually hunted,” O’Brien says. As for hunt-used versus pristine, he says, “It’s a very personal choice. It almost comes down to, in the art world, how some people are attracted to the real world and some people are attached to abstraction. I’m a hunter. I come at it from that perspective. I love a utility decoy that’s been hunted over, that has some wear that shows it was put to its intended use. But you don’t want it to have too much. With replaced heads, tail chips, and shot scars, it starts to take on some negatives. But you can miss out if all you want is pristine birds. They’re pretty hard to find.”

The decoy was carved around 1900. Where was Wilson in his career then? “It places him at about age 35. What’s nice about this merganser is the artist is at the height of his craft. There are subtleties that take more time to create,” he says, explaining that decoy carvers sometimes go through a period when they feel free to indulge in artistic flourishes that transcend the standard shape of the duck decoy–open beaks, fan tails, slightly extended wings–and abruptly stop when they see how their hand-carved treasures suffer nicks and breaks in the field.

How long do you think this auction record will stand? “It’s hard to say. As with any market, if the right piece came up and two people wanted it, the record could easily fall,” O’Brien says. “The decoy market has held up strong over the last 10 years relative to other [categories] in the antiques market. It wouldn’t shock me if it fell. Looking at it from the standpoint of being a great Gus Wilson, it’s probably a bargain price for what it went for.”

Are there any other Gus Wilson duck decoys that rival this one? “For me, I haven’t really seen it,” he says. “That’s why we put a heavy estimate on it. [The presale estimate was $350,000 to $450,000]. “He’s a pretty colorful, proud, bright bird. He had all the bells and whistles that collectors look for–the open bill, the cocked-back head, nice original paint, the paddle tail, and the original rigging [the weight on the bottom that lets the decoy float upright]. I can’t think of a better Gus Wilson decoy. If you asked me to own one Gus Wilson decoy, this would be it.”

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Copley Fine Art Auctions will hold its 2017 Sporting Sale on July 27 and 28 in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Quack!

 

RECORD: The Pink Star Diamond Shines at Sotheby’s, Winning $71.2 Million

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What you see: The Pink Star, a 59.60-carat oval mixed-cut fancy vivid pink internally flawless diamond. It sold for HK $553 million, or $71.2 million, at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April 2017–a world auction record for any diamond or jewel. The winning bidder revealed himself as jeweler Chow Tai Fook. In keeping with traditions that allow owners of great diamonds to name the stone, the Pink Star is now known as the CTF Pink Star.

This diamond is described as being “fancy vivid pink.” What does that mean? “Colored diamonds are graded on what’s called a ‘fancy’ color scale,” says Quig Bruning, New York jewelry specialist for Sotheby’s. “Any colored diamond is rare. ‘Fancy’ is the first determinant. [It denotes] not having a lot of color to having a predominance of that color. Once it’s more saturated, it’s ‘fancy intense.’ The highest amount of saturation is ‘fancy vivid.’ That’s how the color scale scales up. ‘Fancy vivid’ means it’s as pink as it could possibly be on the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) scale. It’s the best pink diamond that exists.”

It’s also described as being “internally flawless.” What does that mean? “There are absolutely no inclusions in the diamond. There are no imperfections or fractures inside the stone whatsoever,” he says.

The Pink Star is cut into an oval shape. What does that say about the diamond? “That shape, for whatever reason, is very much desired on the international market,” Bruning says. “Other colored diamonds tend to be modified brilliant cuts, which are square or rectangular. Oval, you tend not to see very often. It doesn’t do the color many favors. When [the jewelers who cut it] were plotting out how the polished stone would look, they must have been thrilled to find they could develop an oval cut.”

Sotheby’s offered the Pink Star in Geneva in November 2013. What happened, and why did you wait four years to offer it again? “It did sell in 2013 [for $83.1 million], and the buyer defaulted on the diamond. At the time, it had a guarantee on it, so it became Sotheby’s inventory,” he says. “Whenever you have a piece like this, you want to wait a little bit before putting it back on the market.”

Have you held the Pink Star? “I handled it in 2013. It’s one of those experiences that make you smile about where you work,” he says. “It has a softness and a beauty to it. It’s odd to say that a $71 million object is charming, but it’s the kind of stone that you hold in your hands and you forget what it’s worth and you lose yourself looking at the diamond.”

How heavy is it? “It certainly has a weight to it, but not so much that it drags your hand down. It suits,” he says.

The photos make the stone look like it’s bubblegum pink. Does the camera capture it accurately? “It does depict the true color. ‘Bubblegum’ is the word I’d use to describe it,” he says, adding, “Not that many vivid pink diamonds come up for auction. A year ago at Geneva, we had a 15-carat vivid pink that just screamed pink. It had extraordinary saturation. Before that, we had the Graff Pink, which had more of a softness. Of those three [pinks], this is the Goldilocks one, right in the middle.”

For about a decade or so, the world auction record for a diamond has passed from one colored diamond to another. Why? “Colored diamonds are very, very rare. It may not seem that way because you see them at auction frequently, but they represent a fraction of the total graded by the GIA,” Bruning says. “When you find a really spectacular colored diamond, you find a lot of people chasing after them.”

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.