SOLD! That Curious 1865 Memorial Lincoln Lithograph Fetched $4,000 at Swann


Update: The hand-colored circa 1865 memorial Lincoln lithograph sold for $4,000.


What you see: In Memory of Abraham Lincoln, the Reward of the Just, a hand-colored lithograph by D.T. Wiest, printed circa 1865. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.


The expert: Rick Stattler, director of printed and manuscript Americana for Swann Auction Galleries.


Do we know how many of these Lincoln prints were made, and how many survive? There’s likely no way to know how many were produced. I imagine at least a couple of hundred were made. I’ve tracked down three in institutions and two at auction.


The print’s date is given as circa 1865, but is it fair to assume it would have been done very soon after Lincoln’s assassination in April of that year? Absolutely. It’s fairly laborious work to make a lithograph like this. It wasn’t made the day after, but it was made in response to the assassination, I’m pretty confident. The engraver, Wiest, is largely unknown. He didn’t have a long career as a lithographer. He was only active in 1865.


The Lincoln print is closely modeled after an 1801 image by John James Barralet known as The Apotheosis of Washington [scroll down to see the image]. How would Wiest have made his Lincoln-centric version? Would he have looked at the Barralet print and copied most of it onto a new lithographic stone? Right. The copy, I would say, is semi-pirated, but it’s got enough changes in style and composition. I don’t know what the copyright laws were then.


How well-known was the Barralet image in 1865? It was an image that might have been familiar to some people, but by 1865, I don’t expect it was probably terribly well-known.


So the Barralet image of Washington was not part of popular culture in 1865? Yes, and probably the creative process here was not all that sophisticated. The printer wanted something dramatic, something that would catch the eye and stir the emotions, and he wanted to get it in the hands of the public as quickly as possible. The printer probably showed the Barralet to Wiest and said, “Do something like this, but with Lincoln.” When Washington died, there would have been a small audience for the Barralet print, and it would have been a luxury item. The audience would have been sophisticated, and would have picked up on its classical analogies. By 1865, print-making was a much more mass-market endeavor. The audience didn’t care much about symbolism.


Is the Lincoln print as colorful as most lithographs of its era, or is it more colorful? For its period, it’s certainly one of the more eye-catching ones. The color is quite nice and rich. It definitely tilts toward the colorful end of the spectrum.


So it’s the sort of thing that a print shop would put in its shop window to draw in customers? That’s a likely way to advertise it, sure.


Wiest changed the face of Washington to the face of Lincoln, and he changed the inscription on the tomb, but he didn’t change several details that he could have changed and probably should have changed… The goal, when the print was produced, was to get it into the hands of the public quickly. I don’t know if we can say that some of those details should have been changed. It may not have been profitable for them to spend a week on changing them. If it was produced as fine art, then or now, they might have reconsidered the symbolism. The mourning Indian was a symbol of America in 1800, but clearly, for someone mourning Lincoln’s loss, it should have been changed to a freed slave. They probably should have taken the extra two days to do that, particularly if their main sales were in Philadelphia, an abolitionist city. But they didn’t.


Would the average American print-buyer in 1865 have cared that the American flag-decorated shield on the left has 15 stars in in its canton and not the 35 it should have had by then? Not necessarily. If you’re looking to buy a print for 50 cents–and I don’t know if that was its 1865 price, but that seems reasonable–you might not count the stars. Also, we grew up with a flag with 50 stars. We think of it as a fixed thing. In the 1800s, the stars changed with each new state.


So these Washington-centric details that Wiest copied over–the badges on the tomb that represent the Society of Cincinnati and the Freemasons, the out-of-date canton, the mourning Native American where a freed slave would be more appropriate–would an 1865 audience have seen them as errors? Errors on whose part? Wiest was given an assignment and he fulfilled it faithfully, with Lincoln’s face [in place of Washington’s]. They’re not exactly errors, but they’re things that could have been improved on if more thought had been given to it. But it gives us more to chew on. We can ponder the evolution.


And because the Washington print wasn’t part of pop culture in 1865, we can’t assume that Wiest was being clever by tying the legacy of Lincoln directly to Washington by deliberately borrowing the visuals of the 1801 Barralet print? Yeah, but if it did happen, it would have been an additional selling point. Some might say, ‘Hey, it’s that old Washington print. That’s how we mourn our heroes.’ In Henry Holzer’s [the consigner’s] scholarship, this is the moment when Lincoln joined the pantheon. For 80 years, it was Washington, the founder of the country. Now we start to see Lincoln as his peer or equal. It’s hard to imagine that happening today. I can’t imagine such a print featuring Obama or Trump in place of Lincoln.


Do these details that look like errors make the print appealing to modern collectors? The first point of appeal to modern buyers is the same point that appealed to buyers in 1865. It’s patriotic, it’s colorful, Lincoln is in the center, and it’s an eye-catching print. From there, it’s a historical curiosity, designed for Washington but with Lincoln’s head awkwardly glued in where Washington’s head had been. It not only looks great on the wall, it’s something to chew on and discuss with friends. And it’s a tribute to Lincoln, who people still admire.


How to bid: The lithograph is lot 141 in Printed & Manuscript Americana Featuring the Holzer Collection of Lincolniana, taking place September 27, 2018 at Swann Auction Galleries.


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Rick Sattler spoke to The Hot Bid before about a lot of early 20th century copies of Gleanings in Bee Culture which included the issue that contained the first published account of the Wright brothers’ first successful flight. The lot sold for $5,000, double its high estimate.


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


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It’s No Humbug: Sotheby’s Could Sell an 1851 Daguerreotype of P.T. Barnum for $30,000

9919 lot 141.jpg

What you see: An 1851 daguerreotype of Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum in its original metal case, shot in Cincinnati, Ohio by Thomas Faris. Sotheby’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.


The expert: Emily Bierman, head of the photography department at Sotheby’s.


Where was Barnum in his career in 1851? He was already very well-established by this time. He made his first mark in the 1830s when he invested in a woman named Joice Heth, who was said to be 136 years old and the nurse of George Washington. That was his first humbug, as he’d call it. He discovered Charles Stratton, General Tom Thumb, in the 1840s. By 1850 and 1851, he set his sights larger than America. He was bringing acts from Europe to the United States. [Swedish singer] Jenny Lind was unknown [in America] until Barnum invested in her. It’s hard to equate the campaign to a modern campaign for an artist. He invested $150,000 in her and borrowed heavily to pay her costs up front. He ended up selling more than $700,000 in tickets. [Both numbers reflect 1850s dollar amounts, not contemporary updates.] He was clearly successful at this point.


Did Barnum have any daguerreotypes taken of Jenny Lind at the same time? Yes. There’s a portrait of Jenny Lind at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and one in the Cincinnati Art Museum. She returned to Cincinnati at the end of 1851 [so the photo may have been shot during her second 1851 visit]. Barnum was in Cincinnati from April 14 to April 22, 1851. Faris’s studio was right around the corner from where Lind performed and the hotel they were staying at. Everything was very walkable.


This is the second daguerreotype of Barnum to come to auction. Does that imply that he rarely sat for photos? Most of what exists is [dated] a little bit later, or they’re paper photos made after daguerreotypes or etchings. In his own writing about himself, he was not someone who talked about sitting for artists or photographers. His museum burned down twice, and his mansion, I’m pretty sure it burned down twice as well [implying that other photos of Barnum might have been lost to fire]. But in his 1854 autobiography, there’s a frontispiece that an artist made after a daguerreotype of Barnum. Barnum didn’t seem to retain any copyright. The fact that he allowed his image to be used any which way says he embraced photography.


Faris’s services would not have come cheap, and it’s hard to imagine Barnum paying a premium to have a photo shot of himself alone, rather than with one of his performers, which he could use to promote his shows. Why might he have sat for this daguerreotype? Faris may well have solicited the opportunity to photograph Barnum. An artist who’s recently had a notable figure in their studio is an advertisement in an age when they didn’t have digital advertising. Who you photographed was your calling card. I don’t know what the expense would have been for a portrait, or what the finances would have been. When the tickets were sold for the Lind tour, they were by public auction. They was a block of less expensive tickets for the masses, but others paid several hundred for tickets. In the Philly leg, [a high sum was bid] by a daguerreotypist who clearly wanted to have an in with Lind or Barnum.


How do we know the daguerreotype shows P. T. Barnum? There are several identifying clues to the sitter’s identity. Most interesting is the tie tack with the starburst design on it. That same design was worn by Barnum in the best-known images of him, in his autobiography and in another photo from 1951 known as a later cabinet card. [The image at the top of Barnum’s Wikipedia page shows him wearing the starburst tie tack.] Then, of course, the face. The enlarged ears and certain heavyset wrinkles are also great clues. He’s generally shown clean-shaven, but not exclusively. It’s hard to speculate why he preferred one style over another. His hair, through his life, was rather unruly and was something he did not address. Especially above his ears, he has great wavy curls even through to when he was an older man.


This is described as a quarter plate daguerreotype. How big is a quarter plate? It’s four and a half inches by three and one-quarter inches, cut down from a whole plate that measured eight and a half inches by six and a half inches. In the printed catalog, we reproduce the daguerreotype at actual size. It would lay quite well in your hand.


What is the daguerreotype like in person? To hold a really great daguerreotype in person is to have a world of detail available to you. You can see the texture of his jacket, the folds of his clothing, and you can make out individual hairs on his head. The clarity is really hard to render in a digital format. It comes to life when you have it in front of you. You really see him looking back at you.


How to bid: The Barnum daguerreotype is lot 141 in the Photographs sale taking place October 3, 2018 at Sotheby’s.


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


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SOLD! A Copy of “Aurora Australis”, the First Book Made in Antarctica, Fetched $97,500 at Bonhams


Update: Bonhams sold the copy of Aurora Australis for $97,500.


What you see: A copy of Aurora Australis, created by members of the 1908-1909 British Antarctic Expedition, led by Ernest Shackleton. It is the first book to be written and produced on the continent of Antarctica. Bonhams estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.


The expert: Ian Ehling, director of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams New York.


So, how much of a pain in the ass was it for Shackleton and his crew to haul a printing press down to east Antarctica along with all the other stuff they needed for the 1908-1909 polar expedition? It was a small printing press, described as being the size of an oven–picture the size of a four-burner gas oven. It was a very heavy piece of equipment. And take into consideration that they brought the type and the paper and a special printing press to do etchings.


They brought two printing presses? Yes. You can’t do the printing and the etchings on the same press. The thing about Antarctic winters is they’re very dark and very cold. If you have a bunch of guys sitting in close quarters all winter, it’s great to have a project to occupy them. Shackleton, having been on previous expeditions, thought ahead and came up with an interesting project.


What challenges did the explorers face when making this book? That was really one of the most difficult things. They were in very small quarters in extreme temperatures and dealing with poor lighting–it’s dark all winter long. They had to be incredibly careful when going about printing the thing. The type was metal, which freezes to your fingertips, and the ink congeals because of the cold. They used candles to heat up the ink, and they had to move the candle around to get the ink to the right temperature. They had to limit the number of types they brought with them, so the printer could only print two pages at a time. In addition to that, the floors were filthy and it was damp everywhere. They needed to keep the pages dry. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to produce a fair number of copies under those conditions.


The lot notes say there’s a blind-stamped penguin motif on the spine. What is blind-stamping, and how did the explorers apply the motif? Blind-stamping means there isn’t any color used. It’s just the impression of the stamp. They must have brought a hand tool with them to decorate the binding. Shackleton sent two or three crew members to a London print shop to apprentice for two or three weeks before the expedition. They probably arrived at a penguin as a printer’s device, which would have been metal on a wooden handle. They would have pressed it against the spine to bang it into the spine’s leather before it was bound.


How often have copies of Aurora Australis come up at auction? It’s an incredibly rare book that doesn’t come up often. The initial idea was they would print 100 copies of the book, but in a letter Shackleton wrote to Pierpont Morgan he says they bound 80 copies. A good third of them are in institutions. The others are very likely in private collections. I checked the auction records and seven copies have been offered in the U.S. and Europe in the last 20 years. This is the third copy that we have handled.


To make the covers of the copies, the explorers scavenged wood from their own expedition supply crates. The covers of this book have the word ‘OATMEAL’ stenciled on one side and ‘ISH ANTARCT … EDITION 190’ on another. How does the presence of those words and partial words affect the book’s value? That is to be determined, but this copy in particular is great because it has the full word ‘OATMEAL’ on it and the truncated ‘ISH ANTARCT … EDITION 190’. It’s incredibly beautiful and makes it attractive to have. Others just say ‘BUTTER’ or ‘BAKED BEANS’. Having the ‘OATMEAL’ and the extra bits on the back is very attractive. As a collector I’d definitely be drawn to a copy because of its stenciling and wording.


I take it more than one group of collectors will be interested in this copy of Aurora Australis. How many different constituencies will be in the hunt? Anyone who collects travel and exploration is interested. Then there are people who collect books on the Arctic and Antarctic. And I would say this is considered a high-spot publication because it was the first book printed on Antarctica. It’s a very cool book. There are collectors who go for the best of the best, and this book appeals to those collectors. People collecting limited editions would go after this as well. It’s not just the first book printed in Antarctica–the explorers looked after the aesthetic beauty of the book. If you look at the colophon page, the typography is beautiful, and it’s printed in two colors, red and black. It indicates the book was published as a fine press book.


What condition is this copy in? It’s in good condition. There’s some slight rubbing to the leather spine, which is kind of inevitable. The boards are perfect.


Over the years I’ve heard a lot about Aurora Australis as a book first and as symbol of Shackleton and polar exploration, but I haven’t heard much about its actual contents. Is Aurora Australis a good book? [Laughs] Well, I haven’t read through it. It’s fun. Many people who were on the expedition were published authors. There is some talent there, but there aren’t earth-shattering, amazing stories.


What’s the world auction record for a copy of Aurora Australis? It’s £122,500, ($185,894), set at the Franklin Brooke-Hitching sale at Sotheby’s in 2015. That collection was incredibly beautiful. Brooke-Hitching was one of those collectors who collected the absolute best copies he could get. Everything in that sale achieved enormous prices. Our copy is estimated at $70,000 to $100,000 and I would expect it to go in that range.


Why will this book stick in your memory? It’s about the whole discussion we had about producing something blindfolded, essentially. It’s incredible to have it bound on these boards. You feel like you’re close to the event. To have an object that was produced there, with materials there, the shipping crates–that’s one of a kind. I’ll never forget that.


How to bid: The copy of Aurora Australis is lot 55 in Bonhams‘s Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana sale scheduled for September 25, 2018.


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Ian Ehling spoke to The Hot Bid previously about a 1935 Albert Einstein passport photo that ultimately sold for $17,500.


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


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Perfect Balance: Los Angeles Modern Auctions Could Sell Carole Feuerman’s Hyperrealistic Sculpture “Bibi on the Ball” for $80,000

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

What you see: Bibi on the Ball, a 2015 oil on resin sculpture by Carole Feuerman. It’s the first of an edition of six. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $60,000 to $80,000.


Who is Carole Feuerman? She is a contemporary sculptor who explores hyperrealism, an approach that strives for life-like qualities in a work of art. Her sculptures have appeared at the Venice Biennale, the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. She lives in New York City and just turned 78.


The expert: Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA.


Is this the first sculpture of the limited edition of six to go to auction? It is that I’m aware of. I searched the auction databases, and I haven’t seen this one come up before.


Are the six Bibi on the Ball sculptures identical, or do the colors of the ball change? The colors of the ball don’t change, but the swimsuit color and other parts of the sculpture can vary.


Is Bibi on the Ball a stand-alone limited edition, or is it part of a larger group of associated works? There are two other very similar editions which the artist commonly calls “variants.” One edition has a mirror-like reflective surface on the ball, and another variant has the subject’s eyes open. Each of these variants are different editions. There is a group of Feuerman works people generally refer to as “bathing beauties” or “swimmers.” They’ve been the focus of a good part of her career for the last 30 years. They’re typically female subjects in swimsuits or bathing suits, shown in a supreme state of relaxation or satisfaction, with closed eyes in a state of bliss. That theme has continued for much of her career. 


How does Feuerman create the hyperrealistic effects of wet skin and fabric on her sculptures? With her resin sculptures, the artist first creates a plaster or resin maquette. Then she makes a mold of the maquette that is filled with epoxy resin to form the edition. She creates the water droplets by mixing epoxy and placing each drop in strategic locations with a toothpick. In addition, the artist hand-applies lifelike qualities such as veins, sunspots, and freckles, so no two examples will be exactly alike.


Is Bibi a real person? Does Feuerman feature her in other works? Most of the pieces are not created from any live model, but rather are based on the artist’s creative vision. Bibi is simply a character.


Bibi on the Ball is pretty colorful, maybe a bit more colorful than most Feuerman sculptures. Does that matter? If so, how does that matter? Do the more colorful sculptures of hers do better at auction? All of her works featuring beach balls are colorful, but the colors themselves have no particular meaning. From a market perspective, her more colorful works do tend to be more consistently desirable than the less colorful examples. It fits with the subject matter, too. The beach ball and the swimsuit lend themselves to bright, sunny color schemes.


What’s the world auction record for a Carole Feuerman artwork? It’s $104,500, set in 2016 by Innertube variant II, a 2013 sculpture.


What’s the likelihood that Bibi on the Ball could meet or exceed the record? Bibi on the Ball is in fairly pristine condition, and condition drives the market. When a sculpture has natural or synthetic hair loose under the bathing cap, as Bibi does, it’s easily damaged. Feuerman has had to restore and replace the hair on older models. [The hair peeking out from under Bibi‘s cap is hard to see in the photo, but it is there. The figure in Innertube variant II has a bit of hair coming out from under its bathing cap as well.] Bibi is extremely well-kept and well-cared-for. We could get double our estimate.


What is Bibi on the Ball like in person? It’s life-size and a full figure where a lot of Feuerman’s other works don’t necessarily show a full figure. This is not just part of a scene–it’s a scene of a figure and what it’s interacting with. Bibi is fairly exquisite, with painted fingernails and toenails and strands of hair escaping the bathing cap, and there’s a hyperreal feeling of water on the skin and the bathing suit. It’s technically more difficult to get an entire figure correct and doing what you’d expect a figure to do when it sits on a beach ball. The figure has to be rendered perfectly lifelike. There’s a completeness to Bibi, and thus there is complexity.


Is Bibi on the Ball a single sculpture, or is it comprised of several parts? It is technically multiple pieces. I don’t know if the swimsuit or the cap can be removed, but you can pick the figure up separately from the beach ball. It’s perfectly balanced. It can’t be visually lopsided or physically lopsided.


There are hollows in the ball that are designed to receive the figure? Yes. There are impressions that are equal to the shape of the figure. The hands, the calves–it fits perfectly.


How to bid: Bibi on the Ball is lot 239 in LAMA‘s Modern Art & Design Auction, which takes place on September 30, 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.


Peter Loughrey has appeared on The Hot Bid since the beginning–literally. The blog’s first post was on an Alma Thomas painting that LAMA ultimately sold for a world auction record. He has also discussed works by Jonathan Borofsky and Wendell Castle, as well as an exceptional 1969 dune buggy. Prior to this entry, he spoke about an Ed Ruscha print that set a world auction record at LAMA.


Carole Feuerman has a website and a namesake foundation.


This post for The Hot Bid debuted on the LAMA Blog on September 14, 2018.


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


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SOLD! An Exquisite Piano-playing Automaton Commanded $11,000 at Bertoia


Update: The Gustave Vichy piano-playing automaton sold for $11,000.


What you see: A piano-playing automaton, created by Gustave Vichy between 1890 and 1910. Bertoia Auctions estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.


What is an automaton? It’s a form of robot or proto-computer that’s designed to entertain. The machine executes a series of movements or acts in a specific order, such as performing a magic trick or riding a bicycle. Clock- and watchmakers naturally gravitate to building automata because many of them run on clockwork. If you have a cuckoo clock in your house, you own an automaton.


The expert: Jeanne Bertoia, proprietor of Bertoia Auctions.


This is described as a “Vichy” automaton because it was made by Gustave Vichy, a French designer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But why is it called a “Vichy Piano Watteau Automaton”? Is the “Watteau” a reference to the painter? The company catalog [which is in French] calls it “piano Watteau.” I suspect it probably has to do with the pastoral type of paintings Watteau was known for. If you look at the painting on the piano, the gold, it has a very Watteau feel.


And the figure kind of looks like a woman from a Watteau painting Yes, exactly. She’s very elaborate, with silk and lace and pearl jewelry. She has heeled shoes and stockings on. [Unfortunately, none of the photos of the lot show this.] She’s very elegant.


To when does the automaton date? Probably 1890 to 1910, the turn of the last century. It was probably the later part of the 19th century. The peak of automata production was the mid-1800s into the 1900s. Automata were luxurious items. They had moving parts that were powered by clockwork, and they played only for about a minute.


How rarely do you find automata that have porcelain parts? It’s rarer, though it was done. There are others with porcelain parts, but most of them were papier-mâché. Some automata makers used parts from doll companies. You actually get a doll. This has a Jumeau porcelain head. Jumeau usually made French fashion dolls. The doll head is the most important part of the doll. The hands and the head are made of bisque porcelain.


Do we know how many other Vichy Watteau piano automatons survive? Unfortunately, we don’t know. This is the first we’ve had the opportunity to handle, and we go back to 1986. There may be a few in some of the grander collections.


Does the automaton have all the details and fittings it had when it was new? Can we know? We believe it’s all-original. It’s very well-taken-care-of and in generally excellent condition. It still works beautifully. The mechanism and the music functions well. In the [Vichy] catalog, it’s just a drawing. It looks the same. It has a different costume, but that doesn’t mean it was dressed differently. There was no mass-production clothing line then. A dress as elaborate as this would have been individually handmade.


Who would have been the audience for this automaton? I’m guessing it wasn’t intended as a toy. It was probably for the newly rich. Again, it’s an elaborate, luxurious piece to own. It was not treated as a toy. It was treated as a piece of moving art.


What instrument is the figure playing? It’s a piano harp. I don’t know if it’s a real instrument. It looks pretty fanciful to me. I think those are original harp strings.


The lot notes for the automaton describe its condition as “excellent to pristine”. What does that mean in this context? It means that it’s all-original, the mechanism works, the music plays fine. Maybe there’s a little restoration to the clothing, which is very accepted.


Has it been restored, beyond touching up the dress? Not that we saw, no.


Will you post audio and video of the automaton playing the piano? Good question. We’ve been discussing it. We probably will put something on the website. We have at least a dozen different automata in the sale that are so unique.


The lot notes say that the music that the automaton plays “consists of four different ‘airs’,” which repeat. What are ‘airs’? And are any of the four pieces of music familiar to modern listeners? It’s a song, a tune, a piece of music. It’s French, it’s what they call it in the [Vichy] catalog. I don’t recognize the music. I can’t put a name to any of them.


How does the automaton move? Oh! The mechanism is fabulous! She has multiple movements. The hands gracefully move across the piano keys. Her chest breathes. The papier-mâché shoulder plate allows her to look like she’s breathing. She plays the piano, turns her head, puts her head up, and breathes in as if she’s breathing in beauty. Then she puts her head down and continues to play. That is her movement.


Have you seen other automata that simulate breathing? I haven’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are others. We haven’t had such an elegant doll figure as the main part of an automaton. We have had automata with lots of movement–this is just a different style. It almost falls into the doll world. It’s a beautiful doll, gracefully playing the piano.


Was this automaton intended for girls and women? I don’t think so. It’s just an elegant piece for the times. In today’s marketplace, doll collectors are very excited to get an automaton that has such a great doll. It stands on its own as an elegant, beautiful piece. If you had a daughter who plays the piano, it’d be a fabulous gift.


How to bid: The Vichy piano Watteau automaton is lot 272 in Bertoia Auctions’s Signature Sale on September 22, 2018.


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


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Freeman’s Could Sell a Walker Percy-signed First Edition of “A Confederacy of Dunces” for $5,000


What you see: A 1980 first edition copy of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, in its dust jacket. Freeman’s estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.


The expert: Darren Winston, head of the books, maps, and manuscripts department at Freeman’s.


How rare is it to find a first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces in its dust jacket, and how rare is it to find one that’s also signed by Walker Percy, who helped see the book into print and wrote its foreword? It was published in 1980. Since that time, 21 copies have come to auction. Of the 21, only two were signed by Walker Percy. They came up in 2002 and 2009. You could argue that only two copies have come up like ours in the last 38 years. Another interesting fact is the very first copy to come up at auction was in 1986.


Is that unusually quick, to see a book published in 1980 debut on the secondary market six years later? It is unusually quick. It has such an interesting history, and it’s so different from other books like it. It became an instant cult classic. Now it’s even more of a big deal. It sat around from 1969, when Toole killed himself and his mom [Thelma Toole] found the manuscript. She went around trying to get it published. Walker Percy, at the time, was at Loyola [Loyola University of New Orleans]. Toole’s mom got him to read the manuscript, and he made it his duty to get it published. LSU Press published it in 1980.


Yes, let’s hit the point squarely–why is it impossible to find a first-edition of A Confederacy of Dunces signed by the author? Because he died before it was published. He wrote it in 1963 and committed suicide in 1969. 1969 to 1980 was the period in which his mom set about finding a publisher for it.


So, Walker Percy’s signature is the closest thing to an author’s signature that we can get? Exactly right. He was sort of the midwife. In the world of book-collecting, the next-best thing is the mom’s signature. Two copies she signed were at auction in 2011 and 2012. Either [signature] is as charming as the other. If she hadn’t picked up the baton, the manuscript wouldn’t have gotten to Walker Percy, and he wouldn’t have done what he did.


Are there any first-edition copies signed by both Thelma Toole and Walker Percy? There are no recorded copies at auction. They might be in the world, but not at auction.


Who is shown on the dust jacket? It’s the protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly.


If A Confederacy of Dunces came up today as the debut novel of an unknown, dead author, I just can’t picture a modern publishing house green-lighting dust jacket art featuring a fat guy in a deerstalker holding a hot dog in one hand and a sword in the other, even if he is the lead character and he dresses that way. Was this a risky choice, even for a university press in 1980? You could argue that the title, which is from a Jonathan Swift poem, is a mouthful. It’s completely wacky. But maybe part of it was the publisher being a university press. Maybe it had more leeway.


How was the book received in 1980? The initial press run was 2,500. That’s part of its rarity–only 2,500 copies in the first edition, versus 50,000 for The Old Man and the Sea, which was printed 30 years before. Within three years, the unknown, dead author won the 1981 Pulitzer prize for fiction and sold 650,000 copies.


Why does A Confederacy of Dunces hold up almost 40 years after its publication? Certain books–The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird–come along and upend everything that came before. The Catcher in the Rye was 1951. To Kill a Mockingbird was about 10 years later, and A Confederacy of Dunces was 20 years after that. It was a book that became a touchstone. As a teen, you carried it with you. When you look at it as a collector, young people turn into adults, and when they have money, they want a talisman [of their youth]. When many people want the same talisman, it goes up and up.


This copy is described as “fine.” What does that mean? “Fine” is a tricky word because any wear marks it as less than fine. This copy looks like it’s unread, which leads to questions about the box. It was made early in the book’s life, and the book has lived in this box. There’s a relief image of Ignatius on the [box’s] cover. Someone went to some trouble to have it made. Thought went into it.


How many different groups of collectors will compete for this copy of A Confederacy of Dunces? There are many, but people who go after high spots–the biggest and best book by any author–will be interested. People who collect an author’s first book will be interested, as will people who just love the book. If you’re going to splash out, this is the copy you want. Another reason people will go after this book is to trade up to a better copy. Maybe someone has a gorgeous copy with no Walker Percy signature, or a gorgeous copy with no dust jacket–they trade up.


What’s the world auction record for a first-edition of A Confederacy of Dunces in its dust jacket? What are the odds of this copy meeting or exceeding that record? The most it’s brought at auction was $4,000, in 2002. I believe that copy was also signed by Walker Percy. That’s a good sign in our case.


Why will this book stick in your memory? Because of the story. There’s a poignancy, a sadness, and a lot of irony to the fact that Toole never saw it published. It was his life’s work, literally and figuratively. Father Time came through for it. It’s on its third generation of readers. Toole published one book, and he’s in the pantheon. That’s cool.


How to bid: The Walker Percy-signed first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces is lot 176 in Freeman’s September 27 Books & Manuscripts auction.


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


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WHOA! Heritage Auctions Sold That Exceptionally Scarce and Gorgeous 1834 Ornithological Book for $100,000

Oiseaux brillans du Brésil Courlis Rouge credit Heritage Auctions

Update: The 1834 first edition of Oiseaux brillans du Brésil by Jean Théodore Descourtilz sold for $100,000–about five times what Heritage Auctions expected, and a record for this book at auction.


What you see: An 1834 first edition of Oiseaux brillans du Brésil by Jean Théodore Descourtilz. Heritage Auctions estimates it around $20,000. Featured above is the Red Curlew plate from the book.


The expert: James Gannon, director of rare books for Heritage Auctions.


I see the quote in the lot notes from Rubens Borba de Moraes, the former director of the United Nations library in New York, saying, “This book is so rare that I had begun to doubt its existence,” but how many copies are there? Do we know? From what we can tell, we think this is the fifth known copy.


Can you talk about how the book came to be? Was Descourtilz the illustrator? He did illustrate it. It was toward the end of the color plate period, which ran from 1790 to 1830. It was fairly early for a hand-colored ornithological [bird] book. Audubon was contemporaneous in the 1830s. This book was never published. It was issued, and someone made lithographs that were then hand-colored, but it was never published, and never had a table of contents or text. The lithographic plates were put together in a book. I don’t know much about Descourtilz. I’d never heard of him before the book crossed my path. His dad was a botanist and a physician who did a book on the flora of the Antilles. Descourtilz did the illustrations for his father’s book. It’s better known because it was published.


The book is described as a first edition, but it was not published. Why might it have been made? It was probably a mockup, made to engender interest from publishers and get the money to be able to produce the book.


Was it intended to be sold by subscription, as Audubon’s Birds of America was?Maybe the [60] plates were issued in five groups of 12. That was the style then. Audubon published in parts. The reason they did it was so they could start reaping profits against their costs sooner.


The lot notes say the book has 60 plates. Does that mean it’s complete? I don’t know, but there’s no reason to think there were more. We call it complete. Other copies might have a similar number or a lesser number. Whether he envisioned an epic work like Audubon, we don’t know.


Are all the plates in the book as vibrant as the Red Curlew plate, shown above? Pretty much. I think it’s just a matter of [the book] being closed. We don’t know much about where it came from beyond being in the same family for decades. It probably was not handled very much over the almost 200 years since it was made.


The lot notes say the book’s illustrations are “heightened with gum arabic.” How did that detailing enhance the plates? Gum arabic is a clear sheen, almost a clear varnish. Lots of color plate books use it. You’d put it over the color in certain places so it created a sheen when you looked at it. It makes the plates look more vibrant, and it catches the light in different places. It would help make the plates stand out. [The effect is not visible in the photo shown.]


The book is French, but it has no text. Does that make it more appealing to American collectors, or does it not matter? It doesn’t matter in this case, because it wasn’t issued with text. The collector for this is someone who collects bird books or hand-colored plate books. Anyone sophisticated enough to spend tens of thousands on a book understands why it has no text.


And we don’t know why it wasn’t published? Descourtilz may never have found the backing. Maybe there were other reasons why it was never published. It was certainly publishable if the right circumstances existed. If there was a similar kind of thing for Audubon [Birds of America], where Audubon made lithographs and had them hand-colored to get the backing, get the money [to make it]–if that existed, it’d really be worth a lot, because it predated the book.


How did this book come to you? It came through another person on staff. She told me the family had had it for a long time, decades. The consigner had a connection to one of the people listed in the front of the book, which is why I think it sat for 80 to 100 years on a shelf. It didn’t get looked at by book fairs and dealers. They [the family] probably didn’t think about it for a long time.


How did you arrive at a value for this book? It hasn’t come on the auction market. There are so few copies around. Probably, other collectors and dealers have never seen it. There may be more copies we don’t know about that have never become public. If it sold for mid-five figures, we’d be satisfied.


What was it like to look at it for the first time? I didn’t see it until it had been researched by [Heritage Auctions] staff. We knew it was special, and we knew we wanted to use it in the advertising campaign [for the auction].


What is it like to leaf through it, and how does that experience compare to handling Audubon’s Birds of America? I’ve seen Audubon many times. Here, everything is a surprise, everything is new. Many of the plates are stunningly beautiful.


Why will it stick in your memory? How rare it is to see this book. There aren’t many around. Many more people have seen our catalog cover with the Red Curlew on it than have actually seen the book.


How to bidOiseaux brillans du Brésil is lot #45090 in the Rare Books & Maps Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions on September 13, 2018.


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.


Heritage Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.


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


James Gannon has appeared three other times on The Hot Bid, speaking about the typewriters Larry McMurtry used to write Lonesome Dove; a British first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that ultimately sold for a world auction record; and an inscribed presentation copy of Jack Keroauc’s On the Road.


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