What you see:Wallace Draws the King’s Sword, an illustration that N.C. Wyeth painted for the 1921 book The Scottish Chiefs. Skinner estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.
Who was N.C. Wyeth? Newell Convers Wyeth was an American illustrator who brought rousing manly-man adventure tales to life like no other. If you were enamored with pirates as a small child, you have Wyeth’s illustrations for Treasure Island to thank for that. While Wyeth’s commercial illustrations made him immortal, he preferred creating fine art. He was the father of artist Andrew Wyeth and the grandfather of artist Jamie Wyeth. He died in 1945, along with his young namesake grandson, after his car stalled on railroad tracks and was hit by a train. He was 62.
How prolific was N.C. Wyeth? “He did almost 2,000 illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post alone,” says Elizabeth Haff, specialist in American and European Works of Art for Skinner. “I don’t know how much he did for Scribner’s.”
This painting has a Scribner’s provenance–there’s a Scribner’s Magazine label on the back, and it comes to Skinner directly from the Scribner family. Does that add to its value? “I think it does add value. He did some of his most exciting work for those [Scribner’s Illustrated Classics] novels,” she says, adding, “In 1919, he struck a deal with Scribner’s where he owned his paintings, but they kept the copyright. With this, he either gave it to Scribner’s, or they bought it from him.”
How did author Jane Porter recruit N.C. Wyeth to illustrate her book? “Scribner used him quite a bit,” Haff says, noting his legendary work for the Scribner’s Illustrated Classics series. “The subject matter was his thing, his niche–heroes.” The book must have been a hit; it went through more than one printing.
So what’s going on in this scene? I take it that the unruly Scots are encroaching on their leader, William Wallace, intending to take him prisoner, and he’s drawing his sword and saying, ‘Back off.’ Yes, pretty much. The painting depicts a scene where William Wallace shouts, “He that first makes a stroke at me shall find his death on this Southron steel! This sword I made the arm of the usurper yield to me; and this sword shall defend the regent of Scotland.” As Haff explains, “It’s a distinguished sword. It had belonged to the King of England. In 1297, Wallace turned back the English army and captured the sword.”
Why will this N.C. Wyeth painting of William Wallace stick in your memory? “It’s a great painting, and a very exciting painting. The colors are quite rich, very radiant. The tartans and kilts are so painterly and beautiful in person,” Haff says. “And the attackers’ faces are so expressive. The grimaces are so gruesome. He’s caught William Wallace at a moment where he draws his sword–it’s so dramatic, so arresting. It’s jewel-like, and it’s 100 percent N.C. Wyeth.”
Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records. Also, after choosing this Frederick Hurten Rhead piece and interviewing David Rago, the world auction record for any American work of ceramics was claimed by Peter Voulkos’s 1958 piece Rondena, which sold for $915,000 at Phillips on December 12, 2017. I expect to devote a post to Rondena in the future.
Who was Frederick Hurten Rhead? Born in England to an artistically talented family, Rhead came to America in 1902 to work in a series of factories that produced art pottery. High points included his tenure at University City, Missouri, where a wealthy patron assembled and bankrolled a dream team of ceramicists (sadly, the patron suffered money troubles in 1911 that killed the project). Rhead moved to California, where he directed a pottery program at a tuberculosis sanatorium and later ran his own pottery studio for a few years. His last major job was as an art director for the Homer Laughlin China Company in West Virginia, where he created the famous Fiesta line of dinnerware. He died in 1942 of cancer at the age of 61 or 62.
Why was Frederick Hurten Rhead an important artist? “I call him the Forrest Gump of American ceramicists,” says David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions. “It was not so much about where he was and what he did, but how he influenced and mirrored the field. He was an influence on and reflective of American ceramics.”
Are the ceramics he made in America more valuable, generally, than those he made in England? “Yes, but if you look at his University City works, there are some English elements of design in those pieces,” he says. “Rhead would have grown as an artist if he had stayed in England. He just grew differently because he was here. I think the California desert blew his socks off, and Santa Barbara did the same. He was there before the highways, before the sprawl of civilization, in an artist’s colony, with like-minded souls. It had to be deeply influential.”
Why is Frederick Hurten Rhead’s material so rare at auction? “There just isn’t much of it,” Rago says. “Not until he got to University City and had already been here the better part of a decade did he have a chance to make great, one-of-a-kind pieces. One sold at Moran’s in California in April 2014–it was a masterpiece. But it’s pottery. It breaks. I don’t know how many broke over the years. And University City lasted a year, a year and a half. There were not many pieces to begin with. In Santa Barbara, Rhead was a crappy businessman. He could not have been making money. And he wasn’t whipping these out in a day. The best pieces took weeks to do, maybe more.”
The peacock tile panel was a gift from Frederick Hurten Rhead to a friend, Levi Burgess. Are any of the other Rhead pieces sold at auction as personal as the pieces that he made for Burgess? “I don’t know of any others,” he says, noting that Burgess installed the peacock panel and other Rhead ceramics in his Ohio home. A subsequent owner removed the tiles from the home before selling it 15 to 20 years ago. “A woman walked into the Rago auction gallery in New Jersey with the first set [this peacock panel]. She got one, and her husband got the other. We put them in the  auction for $40,000 to $60,000, and all hell broke loose. The [works Rhead gave to Burgess] were known and talked about. They’re the pinnacle of American prewar [ceramic] design. On a scale of one to ten, this is a ten. He gave Burgess a couple of masterpieces to put in his house–$1 million worth of pottery. He must have liked him.”
How did the tile panel’s connection to University City enhance its value? “The main reason it figures in is University City had the best kilns, the best material, and the best support staff,” he says. “It was state-of-the-art. Rhead didn’t have to worry about money. He didn’t have that at Santa Barbara, and he certainly didn’t have that at Arequipa [the tuberculosis sanatorium].”
Rudy Ciccarello, the collector behind the Two Red Roses Foundation in Palm Harbor, Florida, bought the Rhead vase from Rago in 2007. Did Ciccarello buy the peacock tile, too? And does it pose problems when one collector is so dominant in a particular auction market? Yes, Ciccarello did buy the peacock tile. “He bought a lot of the Rhead pieces that sold for big money at public auction,” he says. As for Ciccarello’s dominance being a problem, he says that auction categories being driven by one or two big bidders “…is true of all these markets. This is American pottery we’re talking about. There aren’t 50 people who will buy once the price is over $100,000. The high-end market is limited. Masterpieces are always in demand.”
What was your role in the sale? “I was the auctioneer,” Rago says. “It was very exciting. Once the bidding hit $100,000, I thought, ‘Wow.’ When it hit $150,000, I thought, ‘Wow.’ But I couldn’t say it. I’ve got to be chill up there. Once it hit $510,00 hammer [the price before standard fees are added], that was it.”
Were you surprised that it sold for $637,500? “Yes, I was really quite surprised,” he says. “I knew it was going to bring good money. I’m known for ceramics, and it was the best of the best. We [he and the keenest bidders] knew what it was, and knew what condition it was in, and we knew where it ranked within the artist’s work, and it was the first time [one of the Burgess tiles] was offered for sale.”
Why will the Frederick Hurten Rhead peacock tile stick in your memory? “I’m a pottery guy. I love great pottery. Those [Burgess tiles] are legendary things–‘Will I get to see them turn up?’ I wouldn’t mind selling them,” he says. “This is my 46th year [in the auction world]. I’ve been chasing these things for a long time. To handle a masterpiece–a legendary masterpiece–it’s what you live for. To have it set the record for American pottery–that’s a singular moment.”
Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records.
What you see: A 1936 Olympic gold medal, one of four earned by Jesse Owens during the Berlin games. SCP Auctions sold it in 2013 for $1.46 million, a world auction record for any piece of Olympic memorabilia.
Who was Jesse Owens? He was an African-American athlete who put the lie to Adolf Hitler’s racist Nazi policies when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin in track and field events: the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and the 4 x 100 relay. Sadly, his glory was cut short by American sports officials, who took away his amateur status and killed his career after he accepted endorsement deals. He struggled thereafter, resorting more than once to running against racehorses (and beating them). He died of lung cancer in 1980 at the age of 66.
How did you come up with an estimate for Jesse Owens’s Olympic gold medal? “Estimates are always educated guesses,” says Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions. “Nothing is directly comparable to Jesse Owens’s medal. We had the estimate at half a million and up, and we far exceeded our estimate.”
Do we know when Jesse Owens gave the medal to his friend, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson? “We can’t pinpoint the moment when Owens gave it to him, but their relationship is well-documented,” he says.
What was your role in the auction of Jesse Owens’s Olympic gold medal? “The bidding was all done online,” he says, noting that he dealt with prospective bidders and promoted the lot. “To be honest with you, when we’re in the final stage of bidding, most of our work is done. There’s a tremendous amount of research and marketing leading up to that point.”
When did the online bidding enter crunch time? “On the final day, at 5 pm PST, we went into extended bidding. The hours between 5 pm and 8 pm PST are when people make their moves and really competitive bidding, bidding wars, occur,” he says. “We entered extended bidding on the Owens medal at $447,000. It rose to $1.4 million over a period of three hours. I can’t say exactly how many people were bidding, for privacy reasons, but there were definitely more than two.”
When did you know you had a world auction record? “We weren’t really focused on setting a record,” he says. “We were more focused on getting a result that was worthy of the item. We were very pleased to see it pass the seven-figure mark, but we were not surprised.”
What do you remember most about the auction of the Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal? “The exciting part for us was having the validation of people recognizing the historic significance and value of the item. It was nice to see it go for a figure commensurate with its importance,” he says. “We’ve sold items for more than this sold for, but I’m not sure we’ve sold anything more important from a cultural standpoint. It goes so far beyond the realm of sports memorabilia. Given what it represents, it’s very difficult to put a price on it. In my opinion, it’s worth more today than it was in 2013. If it sold again today, it would bring a higher price.”
Why do you think the Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal would sell for more than $1.4 million if it was consigned again today? “There are several factors,” he says. “The high-end collectible sports memorabilia market has advanced significantly in the last four years. Also, in that time, a major motion picture about Jesse Owens, Race, further raised his profile and raised awareness of what he accomplished. The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian recently opened an African-American sports exhibit. It wasn’t in place at the time the medal sold, but I can’t imagine a greater centerpiece for it. I think the medal’s magnitude has grown for all those reasons.”
JesseOwens won three other gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, but they appear to be missing. If any of them turned up, along with ironclad documentation that proves they belonged to Owens, how might they do at auction? “If another two or three could be verified, none would be worth less than what we sold ours for, and they could sell for substantially more,” he says.
What was it like to hold Jesse Owens’s Olympic gold medal? “We’re in the business of handling historic artifacts on a daily basis. You can get numb to it. We really felt we were in a privileged position to be handling this,” Imler says. “After 20 years in the business, you don’t get goose bumps that often. This raises goose bumps. It’s very special.”
Why will the Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal stick in your memory? “It’s the ultimate symbol of triumph, and not just in the athletic realm,” he says. “It’s symbolic of civil rights, athletic greatness, courage, fortitude–it’s so far beyond sports, so far beyond anything we’ve handled in our company history. It will stand the test of time and provide inspiration for many generations to come.”
SCP Auctions will offer the Jesse Owens Estate Collection in its 2018 Spring Auction, which takes place between March 7 and March 24, 2018. Lots will include the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to Owens by President Gerald Ford in 1976 (estimated at $250,000-plus); the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously awarded to Owens by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 (estimated at $150,000-plus); and two of the four First Place Olympic Winner Diplomas he received for his performances in the Long Jump and the 200 Meter race at the 1936 Berlin games (estimate pending).
Who was Roy Lichtenstein? He was an American pop artist who rose to prominence on the strength of his brightly colored comic book-style works. While Lichtenstein sculpted several dozen pieces during his five-decade career, he is probably best known for his paintings. In January 2017, collector Agnes Gund consigned his 1962 oil on canvas, Masterpiece, to raise money for her criminal justice reform efforts; the painting made headlines when it sold for $165 million. Lichtenstein died in 1997, at the age of 73.
Before I saw this piece, I hadn’t thought of Roy Lichtenstein as a sculptor. How prolific was he? “Sculpture was a big part of his practice from the very beginning. He started in the early to mid-1960s,” says Scott Nussbaum, Phillips’s head of 20th century and contemporary art in New York. “If you go to the website of his foundation, you can see year by year what his production was, in all media, shapes, and sizes.”
Why did Roy Lichtenstein make Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight? “He painted it first–it was an element within a painting that he did in 1995, called Nude with Bust,” he says. “He created it after the original painting was done.”
The Roy Lichtensteinsculpture focuses on a female subject. Do Lichtenstein works that feature women do better at auction? “Yes, but I think that’s true of every artist,” he says. “The female form is the most commercial form. If it’s what most people would consider a sensual form, it’ll sell better. That’s true across the board.”
Lichtenstein himself actually owned this piece. How did that that fact enhance its value? “I think it added value in the sense that the provenance on this is excellent, coming directly from the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, and the fact that he held it and did not sell it adds to its allure,” he says. “People want to know that art was owned by great collectors, or institutions. The excellent provenance added to its reception in the market.”
What isWoman: Sunlight, Moonlight like in person? “It has an incredible presence to it,” he says. “You really feel you are near a significant work of art. The more time you spend with it, the more you appreciate it. It’s not just a depiction of a beautiful woman, it’s a beautiful moment–two moments, one in sunlight and one in moonlight. Our audience fell in love with it, and it drew people into the gallery just to see it.”
Why did the Roy Lichtensteinsculpture do so well? “It was a fantastic result that shattered the auction record for a sculpture by Lichtenstein,” he says. “It’s a very rare object. Though it’s an edition, it’s very closely held. All are in good homes, and it’s unclear if another example will appear on the market anytime soon.”
How long do you think the Roy Lichtensteinsculpture record will stand? “It’s impossible to say. With this market, it’s difficult to predict anything,” he says. “I think this sculpture is one of his best, if not the best. I think only if another from the series [comes up], or one of a handful of really monumental sculptures that he produced in the 1960s could exceed that price. I think it will stand for a while.”
Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records.
What you see: The Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication pocket watch, commissioned by Graves from Patek Philippe. The Swiss company finished the timepiece in 1932 and delivered it in 1933. It is the most valuable timepiece of any kind sold at auction, and has been for almost two decades. It fetched a then-record $11 million at Sotheby’s in 1999, and commanded $24 million at Sotheby’s in 2014.
So American banker Henry Graves Jr., approaches Patek Philippe to create this timepiece in 1925. How serious a challenge is this project? Is it akin to the moon shot–America devoting itself to sending astronauts to the moon in the 1960s? “In the watch world, yes,” says Daryn Schnipper, chairman of Sotheby’s international watch division. “Patek Philippe would not do it again until 1989.”
Why did Patek Philippe wait until 1989 to do something like this again, with the Calibre 89? “Probably, they didn’t have a commission,” she says. “1989 was an anniversary year for Patek Philippe. They were talking about how to celebrate a very important anniversary [Patek Philippe’s 150th]. They decided to replicate the Graves, but then said, ‘Let’s not stop there, let’s surpass it.’ The people involved said it was not possible. They used computer assistance. One reason the Graves couldn’t be replicated was those who worked on it were dead by 1989.”
Didn’t the people who worked on the Henry Graves Patek PhilippeSupercomplication pocket watch leave behind technical drawings of the timepiece? “When they developed a one-off, it was in the watchmaker’s head,” she says, noting that a team of twelve was assembled for the Henry Graves Supercomplication project, and they worked on it for seven years. “I know it sounds crazy, but I didn’t see a drawing [for it] except what was done afterward.”
How does the Henry Graves Patek PhilippeSupercomplication pocket watch differ from the Calibre 89? “The Graves had 24 complications and was 74 mm (almost three inches) in diameter. It was never done before. When they did the Calibre 89, [which had 33 complications], it was significantly bigger. It almost didn’t seem like a watch,” she says. “The Graves is not crazy big like the Calibre 89, which weighs almost two and a half pounds. The Graves is one pound, three ounces. They [the Calibre 89 team] couldn’t come close at all. The Graves is a tour-de-force. I think it shows you really can’t replace people with machines.”
Did Henry Graves require Patek Philippe to include any specific complications? “He probably asked for the night-time sky,” she says. “The timepiece that Patek Philippe made for James Ward Packard [Graves’s rival in watch-commissioning] had the night-time sky over Cleveland. Graves wanted one with the sky over New York. At that time, you only saw it on three watches. The Graves timepiece shows the night sky with the Milky Way and various stars. It’s mesmerizing, and it’s done to the latitude and longitude of Henry Graves’s home near Central Park at 834 5th Avenue.”
What was the hardest complication for the Patek Philippe team to integrate? “Making sure they [the 24 complications] worked with each other. Just to sync everything together and make sure it works accurately,” she says, noting that the Graves timepiece is less than an inch and a half thick. “It’s organic. It works together as a system. It’s very complex. If it doesn’t all sync together and work accurately, it’s a failed idea.”
Why do watch-heads love the Henry Graves Patek PhilippeSupercomplication pocket watch? “Because it’s everything. It’s a technical tour-de-force,” she says. “It’s the fact that it’s the Supercomplication, the whole ball of wax, and the fact that it was entirely handmade–no use of any computer technology.”
The Henry Graves Supercomplication set a world auction record when it sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 for $11 million. When Sotheby’s sold it again in 2014, it set the record anew by fetching $24 million. You were present for both records. Could you talk about what they were like? “The first time, we didn’t know what to expect, because it had never sold at auction before,” she says, noting that Sotheby’s put an unusually high $3 million to $4 million estimate on the Henry Graves Supercomplication in 1999. “The second time, there was a lot more writing on it. ‘Will it break the record?’ ‘Will it find a buyer?’ I knew the consigner was sad to sell it but wanted to pass it along. There was a lot of emotion involved. It was a roller coaster, those few days. There was so much more emphasis on it. It was a big, big deal.”
How did you experience both auctions? “The first time, I was in a state of shock as it exceeded five million. It was very exciting, and I remember holding my breath until the hammer went down,” she says. “The second time, it was exciting because it was all in the room. It came down to two people. It was still exciting for me to watch, it was just a different environment.”
What is the Henry Graves Patek PhilippeSupercomplication pocket watch like in person? “It feels good. It feels right. It feels high-quality. It’s a perfect kind of watch,” she says, and launches into a memory that compares aspects of the two auctions. “In 1999, we hand-carried it from Rockford, Illinois, to Sotheby’s in New York City. [We thought] If it sold for $3 million to $5 million, that’s a lot. Once it went for $11 million and beyond–we had estimated it [the second time] at $17 million to $20 million–we no longer hand-carried it. We had armed guards. We were still handling it, but yeah. As important as it was the first time, it was that much more important the second time. Its value was greater, and its fame was greater.”
How long do you think the record will stand? “I don’t know. So far, it’s been three years,” she says. “Aside from something like the Paul Newman wristwatch, which was about provenance, you know, records are meant to be broken. The fact that it held the record from 1999 to 2014 was something, but with that Paul Newman bringing $18 million, who knows? It’s kind of hard to speculate. Anything’s possible.”
Might one of the four Calibre 89 timepieces challenge it? “Not even close,” Schnipper says. “The Calibre 89 is very important, but it’s not the same. They made more, they had engineers, they had computer-assisted design–it’s just different.” [Editor’s note: The yellow-gold version of the Calibre 89 was consigned to Christie’s in 2016 for $11 million and went unsold. Sotheby’s offered it in May 2017 with an estimate of about $6.4 million to $9.9 million, and it went unsold again. Also, Vacheron Constantin has since claimed the ‘most complicated watch ever made’ title with the 2015 release of the Reference 57260. It measured almost four inches across, weighed just over two pounds, and boasted 57 complications.]
Why will the Henry Graves Supercomplication stick in your memory? “It was the most important watch known in private hands at that time , and it’s still in private hands,” she says. “It’s like selling the Mona Lisa. How do you get your head around that? That’s kind of where it is for me.”