SOLD! This Vibrantly Colored William McKinley Campaign Poster from 1900 Fetched $11,875 at Heritage Auctions

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Update: The McKinley campaign poster from circa 1900 sold for $11,875.

What you see: A circa 1900 28-inch-by-42-inch near-mint condition campaign poster for President William McKinley, who was running for a second term. Heritage Auctions believes that the poster could sell for $10,000 to $15,000.

Who was William McKinley? He was the 25th president of the United States. He was a Republican and a Civil War veteran who defended the gold standard and led the country through the Spanish-American War, in which America gained Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines (this last eventually became independent). He also annexed Hawaii. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, went on to become president in his own right. An assassin shot McKinley in September 1901 and he succumbed to his wounds about a week later. He was 58.

Do we know how this campaign poster came to be? And did the campaign know they had a winner on their hands with this image? No, and probably not. “The two times he ran for president, McKinley stayed home in Canton, Ohio, and delegations came to visit him,” says Don Ackerman, consignment director for historical Americana and political material at Heritage Auctions. “Millionaire Mark Hanna financed the entire campaign. Most campaign materials were purchased and used by local Republican clubs and organizations. They didn’t have to be authorized by the national Republican clubs. Posters like this may have been custom-ordered, or may have been produced for Republican clubs.”

What details in this circa 1900 poster might be lost on 21st century viewers? “The word ‘Civilization’ is an unusual usage. It ties in with the expansionism of 1898 and the war with Spain. Republicans supported imperialism and justified that by saying they were bringing civilization to backward peoples,” he says, laughing. “Part of that is you see factories belching smoke. That was considered a higher level of civilization over people who fished and farmed. The large gold coin says ‘Sound Money’ on it, and refers to the gold standard. It was a big issue in 1896 and 1900. McKinley’s opponent, William Jennings Bryan, advocated greater use of silver. Republicans said that would devalue the currency and cause inflation, and if we stuck to the gold standard, it would maintain its value.”

What other details stand out? “The glowing sunrise in the background. Sort of like ‘Morning in America.’ Everything is bright,” he says. “And you have shipping on the left hand side and factories on the right–business is booming, we’re selling overseas, factories are at capacity. McKinley is shown with the flag, in an appeal to patriotism and showing America as a dominant world power. He’s supported by a group of men from all aspects of society. The man in the blue suit is a sailor. One on the left is a soldier, there to appeal to people who served in the armed forces and the Civil War–McKinley served in the Civil War. The man with the silk top hat is a banker or an industrialist. The guy in the center might be a waiter–they usually don’t wear hats. The man in the pale green shirt is a workman. McKinley is appealing to all segments of the voting population.”

I can’t help but notice that everyone shown in the poster is a white man. Is that deliberate? “Except for Wyoming and Colorado, women couldn’t vote [in 1900],” he says. “This [poster] is not necessarily a snub of minority voters. There were ‘Colored Republican Clubs’. The Democrats were associated with the south, and with slaveholders. Blacks were loyal Republican voters from the time of Ulysses S. Grant to FDR or later. I think the Republican Party figured that black voters who were permitted to vote were going to vote for them anyway.”

Where were these posters displayed in 1900? “They were in local Republican headquarters or in store windows,” he said. “The owners weren’t afraid to offend their customers. If they liked the Republican candidate, they’d put the Republican poster in the window.”

Maybe ten of these posters exist. How might this one have managed to survive? “If somebody liked it and thought it was nice, they would fold it and put it away,” he says, noting that this example has folding creases in it. “That’s how they got saved. If it’s properly stored and the paper is good, the colors will still be bright. This has a minor chip, but nothing that affects the image.”

The colors on this poster really pop, particularly the red and blue of the flag, and the yellow of the coin. How close are they to the colors that the poster would have had when it was fresh off the stone lithographic press? “Pretty close. They’re not faded or anything,” he says. “The ink they used doesn’t fade naturally. As long as it’s not exposed to sunlight, the colors are going to be as vibrant as in 1900.”

How often does this poster appear at auction? “We’ve sold three of them in the past, for prices ranging from $10,000 to $17,000,” he says. “The one that sold for $17,925 probably is the record for this poster, but I can’t say definitively.”

Why will this poster stick in your memory? “It’s a masterpiece of graphic political Americana, and probably the best McKinley poster, for sure,” Ackerman says. “It’s head and shoulders above most of the stuff we see from the period. This really grabs you. Political posters of this quality were only issued between 1900 and 1904, and of the different designs known, this is the most appealing. It’s got all the great elements you want to see on a poster. It tells a story, it refers to policies that were prominent then, and it reflects the exuberance that people felt for the political process. It was a new century, a new age, and people really felt good about themselves.”

How to bid: The circa 1900 William McKinley campaign poster is lot #43382 in The David and Janice Frent Collection of Political & Presidential Americana, Part 2, taking place at Heritage Auctions on February 24, 2018.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

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TIE! Heritage Auctions Sold an Original Sunday Christmas-Themed Peanuts Strip from 1958 for $113,525, Tying the World Auction Record

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Update: Well, this doesn’t happen often. Heritage sold the original Sunday Peanuts comic strip from 1958 for $113,525–tying the record it set in 2007 for original Sunday Peanuts comic art.

What you see: An original Sunday Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles Schulz and dated 12-21-58. Heritage Auctions believes it could sell for $100,000 or more.

Who was Charles Schulz? The Minnesota-born Schulz is one of the most influential cartoonists ever. His comic strip, Peanuts, ran from October 2, 1950 until February 13, 2000 and featured the enduring characters of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, his pet beagle. At its peak, Peanuts appeared in more than 2,500 newspapers and reached more than 350 million readers in 75 countries. The 1965 animated television special A Charlie Brown Christmas became a hit that remains must-see holiday viewing today. Schulz died in 2000, one day before his final Peanuts strip was published. He was 77.

How rare are original Sunday Peanuts comic strips? “There are only so many Sundays between 1950 and when the strip ended,” says Weldon Adams, a comic book cataloging specialist at Heritage Auctions. “Every time we get one, it’s cooler than the last one we saw.”

How does original Peanuts comic strip art manage to get to the market? Didn’t Schulz keep all his originals at his studio? “Charles Schulz was one of the most gracious and kind souls you could encounter. He was beloved by fans,” he says. “When a fan would write a really nice letter, he would autograph the art and send it to them. A lot were personalized to friends and fans, and he just gave them away.” This particular Sunday strip is not inscribed, however, and not every original strip left his studio as gifts. “Some of these were just sold,” Adams says.

Snoopy isn’t in this Peanuts strip. Does that affect its value? “Not necessarily,” he says. “There are so many recurring favorite themes in Peanuts–Lucy at the psychiatrists’s booth, baseball strips with Charlie Brown at the pitcher’s mound, Snoopy as a World War I flying ace, Charlie Brown with the kite-eating tree, Lucy with the football–running gags that are funny every time you see them. There are so many scenes, and fans go out to look for particular ones.”

This Sunday Peanuts strip has a Christmas theme, but it appeared in 1958, well before the famous Christmas special. How unusual is that? “It’s extremely rare to have a Christmas-themed strip to market before the special in 1965. There are only 15 years predating the special, so there are limited opportunities in the first place,” he says. “It pushes it above and beyond. It’s specifically about a Christmas recital at school, which is an element of the special. Ironically, it has a different outcome from what happens in the TV special. Here, Linus can’t remember his line. In the special, he gives a wonderful, beautiful speech. This is the flip side of that.”

The strip has eight panels, and it shows nine Peanuts characters in each panel. How rare is that? “Very rare. It’s going to be a major driving factor [in its final price],” he says. “This is a huge collection of all the regular cast members at that point. There are only a few who are not there. And it’s unique to have so many characters in every single panel. I haven’t seen another one like it.”

And Schulz would have drawn all eight panels by hand, with no assistance? “This is old school. He drew it all,” he says. He also notes that Sunday strips were printed in color in 1958, but someone in production at United Features Syndicate, which distributed the Peanuts strip, would have handled that task.

As of February 3, bidding on this original Peanuts comic strip art had reached $26,000, and the auction is still weeks away. Are you surprised it’s risen so high, so fast?The record for an original Sunday Peanuts strip was $113,525. It had a baseball theme, it was from 1955, and it sold in 2007 at Heritage,” he says. “It was similar in that there were several characters in it, but not nearly as many as this one. Given that this has so many characters, and a Christmas theme before the Christmas special, I have a sneaking suspicion it might top the record. This is unique and it has a lot of good things going for it. It will be interesting to see the bidding at the end. I expect it will be fierce and fast.”

The comic strip art, which is in ink over graphite on Bristol board, is described as being in “excellent condition.” What does that mean? “It indicates that the Bristol board is intact, with no major stains or marks, and no pieces missing,” he says. “There’s a little bit of corner wear, but nothing that would affect the image area. It does allow for a certain amount of toning–discoloration in the paper due to aging. ‘Excellent’ is the highest grade we grant on an artwork. You don’t run into one in pristine condition.”

Why will this Peanuts strip stick in your memory?Peanuts is an American icon,” Adams says. “Charles Schulz tapped into something with that strip, a childlike wonder that crosses all boundaries. Having so many characters in the strip is phenomenal. It’s a unique collection of highly beloved characters.”

How to bid: The original 1958 Sunday Peanuts strip is lot #92220 in the Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction on February 22 – 24, 2018, at Heritage Auctions.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

You can see more original Peanuts comic strip art at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. The Peanuts strip continues as reruns in newspapers and on the web, too.

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UPDATE: WORLD RECORD AT AUCTION FOR ALMA THOMAS: LAMA’s Fresh-to-Market Canvas by African-American Artist Alma Thomas Sells for Almost $400,000

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Editor’s Note: Today is the first anniversary of The Hot Bid. To celebrate, I’m reposting the first entry–a piece on an Alma Thomas painting at LAMA that ultimately sold for a record sum.

Update: Thomas’s Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. sold for $387,500 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions on Sunday, March 5, 2017–well above its $125,000 to $175,000 estimate. It also represents a world record at auction for the artist.

What you see: Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C., a 1969 oil on canvas by Alma Thomas.

Who was Alma Thomas? She was a member of the Washington Color School, a mid-20th century abstract art movement based in Washington, D.C. that also included Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. Thomas was under-appreciated during her lifetime, but she was not unknown; in 1972, she became the first African-American woman to receive a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Thomas died in 1978, at the age of 86. Her art gained fresh attention when President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama displayed her works in the White House. Resurrection, a 1966 Thomas canvas that the Obamas chose for the White House family dining room, shares a mandala-like motif in common with Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C.

Why is Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. so compelling? “It has an intimacy that you only get when you contemplate a solitary blossom,” says Peter Loughrey, director of modern design and fine art at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA). “There’s something Zen and eastern about it. The progression of color draws you in to the center of the work. It really lends itself to a one-on-one, personal interaction.”

How does the painting call to mind Washington, D.C.? “It’s extremely abstracted, but it does reference the cherry blossoms that bloom every spring,” says Loughrey, who grew up in the nation’s capital. “It’s inescapable, that pinkish color in the background. It’s what you remember and walk away with.”

Why is the painting estimated at $125,000 to $175,000? Thomas wasn’t as prolific as other Washington Color School artists, and today’s collectors are keen to own her works. Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. has never gone to auction before; the consigner’s father bought it directly from the artist in 1969. He was a medical student at the time, and he paid her in installments. The lot includes a handwritten letter from Thomas to the proud young owner, telling him,”I hope you will love the painting. So many of my friends wanted to buy it.”

How to bid: Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. is lot 323 in the Modern Art & Design Auction that takes place on March 5, 2017 at LAMA in Van Nuys, Calif.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

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Wendell Castle’s Spectacular Limited Edition Stainless Steel Abilene Rocking Chair Could Fetch $120,000 at LAMA

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What you see: A limited edition stainless steel Abilene rocking chair, made in 2008 by Wendell Castle. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $80,000 to $120,000.

 

Who was Wendell Castle? The Kansas-born artist was a dean of the American studio furniture movement. He gleefully and deliberately erased the line between sculpture and furniture. He was an artist in residence at the Rochester Institute of Technology and kept a studio near Rochester, N.Y. His pieces are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Smithsonian Institution; and the White House. Castle died in January 2018 of complications of leukemia. He was 85.

 

Is the Abilene rocking chair a design that Castle originally made in the 1960s and revisited in 2008? “It’s purely 2008, but you can look at rocking chairs that he made in the 1960s, and you can see the through-line,” says Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA. “Wendell Castle thought he was part furniture-maker and part artist. The soft curves of this are maternal and embracing, and at the same time, it’s masculine. The 1960s chairs have the same thing–big and bold, yet soft and curvaceous.”

 

What makes this a Wendell Castle design? What visual signatures mark the Abilene rocking chair as his work? “Wendell Castle emerged when designers and craftspeople were working in a reductionist aesthetic,” he says. “He reacted against the reductionist aesthetic, people who were paring down and reducing forms. He had the capacity to combine masculine and maternal shapes in part by broadening his materials. His work has a thickness that ran contrary to others of the era. Others thought, ‘How can I create with the least amount of material?’ Castle thought, ‘I want to make a leg thicker than normal if it’s closer to my artistic vision.’ This certainly has that. The rails of the rocker that swoop into the warmest are bigger and more massive than you would expect.”

 

How often did Castle work in stainless steel? Is this the only instance of him using it? “He worked in various materials,” he says. “He’s best known for working in wood, but he worked in metal. I don’t know if he did another stainless steel chair, but he did bronze stools.”

 

This is number four of the edition of eight. Where are the other seven Abilene chairs? The second from the series sold for $81,250 on an estimate of $50,000 to $80,000 at Christie’s New York in March 2014. Loughrey believes the edition sold out and the rest likely remain in private hands or institutions.

 

What’s the auction record for a work by Castle? The record-holder is a 1980 ‘Victory’ chair and desk sold at Christie’s New York in December 2015 for $221,000 against an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000. The record for a single stand-alone work belongs to a 1963 rocking chair that sold for $204,000 against a $90,000 to $140,000 estimate at Rago in 2008. The next highest is a 2009 rocking chair that sold for about $180,000 against an estimate of about $134,000 to $201,000 at Tajan in Paris.

 

Do those results tell us anything about how this Wendell Castle rocking chair might perform at auction? “I would hope so!” he says. “The rocking chair is definitely a form he returns to. All three are completely different, but if you line them all up, you can see the Castle vocabulary flowing through them.”

 

What is it like to sit in? “It’s incredibly comfortable, and incredibly heavy,” he says, noting that it weighs about 400 pounds. “It takes two strong men to lift it. It’s a sculpture that sits in place. You can’t push it to another part of the room. When it’s set, it’s set.”

 

I imagine the Abilene rocking chair reflects Castle’s talent–he could make something so heavy look as light as a wisp of smoke and feel as comfortable as any other rocking chair. “Even as an artist, Castle understood the dynamics of the human form and how it interacts with the sculpture,” he says. “All his chairs are created to interact with the human form. It’s not something only to look at. It’s completely functional.”

 

Wendell Castle died in January 2018. How might that affect how this lot performs at auction on February 25, 2018? “It may affect it to some degree,” Loughrey says. “Typically, works are not dramatically affected when an artist dies. It may get a few more people’s attention. But it’s not easy to answer. It’s an old wives’ tale that if an artist dies, their prices immediately go up. If there’s a dramatic stock market selloff before the auction, that will affect it [the final price of the rocking chair] way more than him passing away.”

 

Why will this stainless steel Wendell Castle rocking chair stick in your memory? “To me, it’s exciting to see the arc of his career,’ he says. “Very early on, he created rocking chairs, and returned to the form and expanded on it and used his vocabulary in new and different ways. There’s distinct rocking chair progress over a 50-year period. This is instantly recognizable as a chair. At the same time, it’s functional as a piece of modern sculpture,” he says, adding, “And it will be memorable to me because I had a connection to him. I sat on panels with him, I interviewed him, and he was incredibly generous in helping me with cataloging things correctly. Now that he’s gone, it’s going to be a little emotional for me.”

 

How to bid: The Abilene rocking chair is lot 144 in LAMA‘s Modern Art & Design Auction on February 25, 2018.

 

How to subscribe to The Hot Bid: Click 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.

 

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Wendell Castle has a website for himself and another for his art-furniture collection.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

 

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SOLD! An Exceptional Circa 1921 Print of Lewis Hine’s Powerhouse Mechanic Fetched $81,250 at Swann Auction Galleries

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Update: Lewis Hine’s Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House sold for $81,250.

What you see: Lewis Hine’s Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House, a photograph printed circa 1921. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.

Who was Lewis Hine? He was an American photographer who used his camera to document society in hopes of changing it for the better. He captured images of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island; child laborers in Southern cotton mills; and the workers who constructed the Empire State Building. Hine died in 1940 at the age of 66.

Where does Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House rank among Hine’s most iconic images? “It’s probably one of his most important, if not his most important. It’s a significant photo,” says Daile Kaplan, vice president of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.

Why is it such a strong image? “The visual appeal of the photo is rather direct and stunning,” she says. “It has harmony, it has visual balance, and at the same time, he positions the worker in a way that he’s controlling the machine. It reflects a new visual vocabulary that addresses the machine age, but it privileges the person with the machine.”

To what extent did Hine shape the appearance of this image? “The idea of the photographer arranging the subject is to some extent, to me, a specious issue,” she says. “Hine used a Graflex camera, a handheld camera that predated the 35 mm camera. It had technical aspects that may elude the 21st century viewer. The images are not easy to make. The Graflex is not a cell phone camera. It’s not on a tripod. It’s made of wood. It’s heavy. In all likelihood, flash powder was required for illumination. The image appeared in ground glass, upside down. It takes a bit of mental acuity just to frame the photograph. There were very different handling issues. Capturing an image in an informal manner was extremely difficult with a Graflex camera.”

Hine made several attempts at photographing a laborer using a wrench on a machine. Why did this particular one succeed so well? “The elements of the machine are writ large in this image, and the physicality of the laborer is very beautifully defined. And it shows how prescient Hine was,” she says, noting that he shot the image around 1921, when the phrase “machine age” was yet to be coined. “He was essentially visualizing a cultural idea, and was at the forefront of articulating it in a pictorial fashion. He understood and saw the trend before it was verified or confirmed.”

This print was made circa 1921–exceptionally early. Just how rare is it? “This is a very rare, very rare print, a stunning image,” she says, noting that it’s the first she’s handled a Mechanic photograph of this vintage. “In the body of work he produced during this time, it’s uncommon to find a stamp by Lewis Hine [the stamp mark reads ‘Hine’s Interpretive Photography, Hastings-on-Hudson’]. It’s extremely uncommon and rare and it has all the beauty of the finest photographs.”

There was no collectors’ market for photographs in 1921, and there wouldn’t be one for at least 50 years. Why might Hine have had this print made then? “Photographers are always making prints from their negatives,” she says. “Sometimes they give them to their family members or colleagues. He was important in the social welfare community, the progressive community. Undeniably, he would have been proud of this image. This picture is a real winner.”

Are there other prints of this image made at later dates? “I’ve seen others, but nothing as beautiful as this,” she says.

What makes this print so beautiful? “The detail, the clarity, the ability to coax out the middle tones of the black and white–I think this print really sings. It stands alone,” she says. “It’s in excellent condition. It’s a stunning representation of the image, and the print itself is gorgeous.”

Why else will this Hine photograph stick in your memory? “It’s such a privilege to handle a photograph like this. In some ways, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kaplan says. “I’ve published two books about Lewis Hine. It’s an extraordinary privilege.”

Is it the finest Lewis Hine photograph you’ve ever handled? “When you work in an auction house, everything you handle is your baby,” she says, laughing. “Let’s say I recognize the integrity and the value of this image.”

How to bid: Lewis Hine’s Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House is lot 60 in Swann’s Icons & Images: Photographs & Photobooks sale on February 15, 2018.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

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SOLD! The Canyon Diablo Meteorite Commanded $237,500 at Christie’s

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Update: The Canyon Diablo meteorite sold for $237,500.

What you see: A meteorite from the Canyon Diablo fall, which occurred about 50,000 years ago in what is now the American state of Arizona. Christie’s estimates the meteorite at $150,000 to $250,000.

What is a meteorite? “A meteorite has managed to make its way all the way down to the earth,” says James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history. “A meteor is what you see flashing across the sky. It has to be a certain size to avoid the destructive forces of entering the earth’s atmosphere.”

It’s described as a “matchless” meteorite. Why? “It’s unlike and better than any Canyon Diablo meteorite I’ve seen,” he says. “And the holes on it are astonishing. They really add to the sculptural aesthetic collectors look for. For every 200 Canyon Diablo meteorites I see, maybe five are pretty or aesthetic, and probably one has a hole. To have as many holes as this–I can’t think of a meteorite at that size with that many holes. It looks like a Barbara Hepworth or a Henry Moore sculpture. It’s a class above other meteorites from that event.”

Why does the meteorite look this way? “As the meteor falls to earth, the fricative forces in the atmosphere heat it up and will blow it up eventually. The fragments plow into the earth,” he says. “Then they undergo terrestrialization–they weather. If within a parent body there’s a natural weakness in the rock, it will slowly carve away and form a hole. For this particular fragment, tumbling toward the earth created the conditions that allowed it to form holes. ”

The meteorite is also described as having an “uncommon smooth metallic surface.” What does that mean? “Most Canyon Diablo meteorites you come across have a jagged surface,” he says. “This looks like the stereotyped ideal of how we want meteorites to look.”

What is the meteorite made of? “Iron and nickel, with several other trace metals,” he says.

The meteorite measures thirteen and a half inches by eight inches by seven and a quarter inches. Is that unusually large? “For something as pretty as that, yes,” he says. “You do get bigger than that. The most famous is the Willamette in New York.”

What does it feel like to hold it in your hands? “It weighs 70 pounds. It’s heavy. If you dropped it on your toes, you could cause real mischief,” he says. “But when you have one of these iron meteorites in your hand, you do have a moment when you step back and think about it. These objects are four and a half billion years old. In our day to day experience, we struggle to understand millions and billions. These objects are one-third as old as time itself. I find it an amazing philosophical puzzle to unravel. The meteorite has a presence that really drives the question home.”

How often do Canyon Diablo meteorites come up at auction? “We have about one every six months at Christie’s, but in ten years, I’ve never seen one that looked like this,” he says. “It’s one of the most extraordinarily beautiful meteorites we’ve had. It has a sculpture-like quality to it. Great art and great objects hold their own next to masterpieces. I’d love to have this with a Franz Kline on the wall and a Barbara Hepworth on the table. It would have a wonderful presence.”

Why else will the meteorite stick in your memory? “I’d go back to its sculpture-like quality. It just screams ‘Barbara Hepworth’ to me,” Hyslop says. “A lot of found objects have that aesthetic. And it looks like the stereotype of a meteorite. It’s perfect.”

How to bid: The Canyon Diablo meteorite is lot 41 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar, and Other Rare Meteorites, a Christie’s online sale taking place from February 7 to February 14, 2018.

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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. James Hyslop is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

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

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SOLD! An 18k Gold Freedom Box Awarded to Commodore Stephen Decatur in 1812 Fetches $70,000 at James Julia

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Update: The 18-karat gold Commodore Stephen Decatur freedom box sold for $70,000.

What you see: A 18-karat gold freedom box awarded to Commodore Stephen Decatur by the City of New York in 1812. The James D. Julia auction house estimates it at $125,000 to $175,000.

Who was Stephen Decatur? Born to a seagoing American family, Decatur became the young country’s first great naval hero by fighting the Barbary states–Mediterranean countries whose pirates had a nasty habit of capturing American vessels and ransoming their crews. (Do you remember the line from the U.S. Marines hymn, ‘From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli’? Tripoli is a reference to the Barbary Wars.) Decatur also distinguished himself in the War of 1812. He died in 1820 from a gunshot wound suffered in a duel with Commodore James Barron. Decatur was 41.

How did the custom of giving heroic people a gold freedom box get started? “The way it originated was the gold or silver box held the key to the city,” says John Sexton, senior consultant and sales representative in James D. Julia’s firearms division. “The ‘freedom box’ terminology comes from giving them ‘the freedom of the city.’ By this time [1812], they were just giving them the boxes.”

Why did the City of New York give Decatur this gold freedom box? During an October 1812 battle, he captured the HMS Macedonian, a 38-gun British frigate, saved it from sinking, and towed it to New York to be refitted and made part of America’s naval fleet. “It was the most important naval battle ever fought to that point,” he says. “Decatur was a household name in 1812. He was such a hero.”

How often do gold freedom boxes come up at auction? “The last one I could find was one awarded to John Jay and sold at Sotheby’s in 1991,” he says. “They’re beautiful boxes, exceptionally ornate. There’s another one in the sale from the Civil War that’s just as elaborate. They quit using the term ‘freedom box’ in the mid-19th century.”

Were the boxes meant to be used to hold anything, such as snuff? Or were they just meant to be beautiful boxes? “It was just the box, but they were snuff box-size,” he says.

The Decatur gold freedom box also has its red leather presentation case. Is that unusual? “It’s probably unique,” he says.

And the box is entirely made of gold? “It’s all gold, including the hinge,” he says. “There’s not a part that’s not.”

How does it feel to hold the box in your hand? “It’s quite heavy! It weighs 100 grams. It’s a nice, heavy little box,” he says. “Whoever did the engraving had a lot of skill. The engraving style is fantastic, beautiful–a lost art.”

How did you put an estimate on the Decatur box? “We made a conservative estimate,” he says. “We expect it to bring several hundred thousand dollars. Compared to John Jay, Stephen Decatur is probably more of a household name. But I don’t know what it will bring at auction.”

Decatur’s descendants have passed the box from generation to generation. Why are they consigning it now? “There are about 80 lots from the same family,” Sexton says, noting that the lots include the carnelian and gold signet ring that the Bey of Tunis surrendered to Decatur in 1805. It appears the current owner within the family thought it wiser to consign the material rather than try to split it among seven or eight heirs. “Decatur was a very important person in his day. The treasures he had were phenomenal,” he says. “It’s amazing that the family retained them.”

Why will this gold freedom box stick in your memory? “There are so few objects associated with someone as important as Stephen Decatur. There are 25 states that have cities named after him,” he says. “This is a piece of history. You just know it’s a gem. It’s something so unique and wonderful.”

How to bid: The Stephen Decatur gold freedom box is lot 2068 in James D. Julia’s Fine Art, Asian, & Antiques Winter 2018 sale, taking place February 8 and 9, 2018.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Photograph courtesy of James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine, USA, www.jamesdjulia.com.

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