A Maurice Sendak-designed Crocodile Costume from the Opera “Goose of Cairo” Could Fetch $5,000 at Rago


What you see: A crocodile costume designed by Maurice Sendak in the 1980s for a production of L’Oca del Cairo (Goose of Cairo), an unfinished opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rago Auctions estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.


The expert: Justin G. Schiller, a specialist in rare and collectible children’s books. He co-created the corporation that consigned the costume to Rago Auctions.


So, how many operas did Sendak design for? Altogether I believe he did 15 operas and ballets. He began in 1980, with The Magic Flute, and his career went through to 2004 or 2005, with Brundibar. He was very interested in the experience of developing not only the sets and costumes, but trying to make the characters interactive.


Was this character the only crocodile character in Goose of Cairo, or was it one of several crocodiles? I think there was only one involved in the production. This is one of the few Sendak costumes that is complete. The head and feet are the main parts of those costumes. The bodysuits were painted to fit, but the crocodile costume was so specific, they kept everything.


Why is this costume described in the lot heading as being “After Maurice Sendak” rather than designed by Maurice Sendak? Maurice would have done the design on paper. The costume was created by the seamstresses, the people who make the costumes. In some cases, you see Maurice fix up the costume once it’s on the actor or the actress. He did the pictures, they did the physical production.


So he wouldn’t have been involved with making sure the costume was comfortable for the actor to wear? Yes, but if there was any problem with the fitting, he would have been consulted.


What do we know about Sendak’s approach to costume design? He took it very seriously. For example, when he was doing Hansel and Gretel, he went to German forests and studied the landscaping. It took him seven years to create.


Apparently it’s rare for a Sendak costume to survive intact, as this one does. How did it manage to do that? The production for Goose of Cairo was very short-lived. They [the few Goose of Cairo items that were found] were in a separate storage unit. It’s one of only two pieces of the production that survive. The other is a mechanical goose of Cairo that gets wheeled onstage, which Richard Michelson has. Goose of Cairo was never considered a main production, because it was an unfinished opera by Mozart. It’s usually presented as an interlude. It ran for about half an hour, and something else would have come with it. Maybe that’s why there weren’t many costumes.


Why are Sendak-designed costumes so scarce, compared to Sendak-designed sets? Probably because sets get rolled on stage or lowered on stage, and when they’re not on stage, they’re protected. Costumes get handled and used constantly. The condition of the crocodile is unusually good. It’s a simpler costume: bodysuit, head, gloves, foot coverings.


Is this crocodile costume a good representative of his opera costume design work? I would think it’s a very good example. The head is probably papier-mâché molded on top of a helmet so it fits on the head of an actor. From there, they’d build out the rest of the head, the body suit, the painted fabric. Several of the costumes we had would have the names of actors inside them and the names of the production companies.


Is that true here? No. I believe the crocodile had only one actor. When you have multiple figures wearing the same cluster of costumes, like in The Love for Three Oranges, different actors play the roles, and they all need to be fitted. Having names on them makes it much simpler.


And the provenance for this costume–it went from the New York City Opera to you to Rago Auctions? Yes, exactly. We specialize in Sendak.


How did you come to own the costume? The New York City Opera decided to sell all [the sets and costumes] they didn’t plan to put into sequence again [in 2013]. We decided to acquire as much as we could from productions they still had examples of.


How many costumes did you acquire? It didn’t seem like a lot. We purchased ten or twelve.


How many complete Sendak-designed costumes survive? I don’t really know. There were a few major ones. There was a fabulous one with a very grand lady who was a pig, and a bear dressed up like a lord, [both] for a different opera, and they went for $4,000 to $6,000 each, as the hammer price [the price before the premium and other fees are applied]. I talked to the collector afterward. She was a very serious collector of opera and theater costumes. It was a unique opportunity to acquire a costume by Sendak.


When Sendak created book illustrations, he worked in two dimensions. When he created opera costumes, he had to think, to some extent, in three dimensions. How did he handle this challenge? Sometimes it’s the costume people, but Maurice’s drawings often show a profile, how it looks from the side. But sets are one thing, costumes are another. The catalog only shows side views of the crocodile head. Head on, it’s fantastic.


What details on the crocodile costume mark it as a Sendak design? Maybe with certain specific styles, you can look at it and say that’s a David Hockney or that’s a Picasso. With Sendak, I would say basically the [sense of] fantasy, of playfulness. His ogress would be friendly, even if the character was not.


What jumped out and me and said “Sendak” was the crocodile’s eyes, and the snout. It certainly was the eyes that got us. They’re wonderful, almost yolk-colored eyes. The snout–most artists would draw it as menacing. Sendak’s snout is friendly instead of menacing, despite all the teeth.


The condition report states that the costume has “wear commensurate with theatrical use.” What does that mean in this context? It’s got scuffs or scrapes on the bottom of the tail and the foot coverings? That [the language] is mostly so people don’t think it’s brand new. The bodysuit may have a tear in the stitching, but overall, it’s quite good, and very dramatic.


Have you or your gallery partner or anyone at Rago Auctions tried on the costume? You need a slim body [to wear it]. We told Rago they’d need some kind of body form [to display it and photograph it]. They were able to find a person on staff who could do the pictures. We were surprised and pleased that they were able to do that.


How does the wearer see? There are eyeholes in the neck.


Do you know what size the costume is? I don’t. Dennis [Dennis David, Schiller’s gallery partner] is suggesting it’s probably more of a medium. Maybe that’s why the crocodile is not looking too hungry.


Is the head attached to the tail, or are they separate pieces? The head is certainly separate. The tail is attached with button snaps to the back of the bodysuit. The gloves are part of the bodysuit. The head, in itself, is very decorative.


What’s the auction record for a Sendak-designed costume? The only auction I know of is from the New York City Opera sale, three costumes that were very elaborate in themselves. We were the underbidder. They were probably from The Love of Three Oranges. Those sold for between $4,000 and $6,000 each.


How to bid: The Sendak-designed crocodile costume is lot 1141 in the Curiouser and Curiouser sale at Rago Auctions on December 1, 2018.


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Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.


Justin G. Schiller has a website. Two, actually.


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


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Snow White Couldn’t Resist the Queen’s Poisoned Apple. Bidders Could Push Wanda Gág’s Spellbinding 1938 Study for “The Poisoned Apple” Past $7,000 at Swann

M38702-7 006

What you see: The Poisoned Apple, a study by Wanda Gág [pronounced ‘Gahg’] for an illustration in a 1938 edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.


The expert: Christine von der Linn, specialist in art books and original illustration at Swann Auction Galleries.


How did this Snow White book project come about? Was it a reaction to the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? It is, it absolutely is. 1937 was the Disney film. While it was popular and became an iconic film, the depiction of the witch frightened children. Because of that, one year later, Anne Carroll Moore, a writer, reviewer, and critic of children’s books and an advocate for children’s libraries, wanted to go back to the original Brothers Grimm and soften some of the elements that Disney portrayed.


How did the 1938 version achieve what Moore wanted? It keeps more of the folkloric charm of the original. You asked if the fact that Gág translated it herself, if it shaped the story–it did. Gág’s father was from Bohemia, and they moved to Minnesota. She grew up with those fairy tales and stories. She understood folklore and fairy tales, and she knew the language. She was able to translate it and come up with a more accurate version of the Brothers Grimm tale.


The study for The Poisoned Apple is far more elaborate than the same scene in the Disney movie. Can you talk about how Gág approached this scene, and how she chose certain details? In the original Grimm, the queen made four attempts to kill Snow White…


It sounds kind of like the Michael Palin character in A Fish Called Wanda trying to kill the old lady and accidentally killing her dogs instead. Exactly! Exactly. The queen tries her damnedest. She comes to the door as a corset peddler. The dwarfs told Snow White was told she was not supposed to answer the door to anyone. The queen puts her in a corset and ties her in so tightly that she passes out. The dwarfs find her and revive her. Next, she went as a comb vendor. The different attempts to disguise herself are discarded on the floor [the pile of masks and clothes at the left of the illustration]–the peddler didn’t work, the comb didn’t work. She gets her with the poisoned apple. Snow White was hesitant to take it. She had the good sense to be wary. The queen makes the apple half poison and half safe, and takes her bite out of the apple pulp side, the safe side. I love that Gág is showing the recipe, how she created the poisoned apple to give to her stepdaughter. It looks kind of delightful until you look at the elements and realize how dark they really are.


The late 1930s were a time when the notion of “better living through chemistry” wasn’t laughable. Nylon had been invented a few years earlier. Do you think that the positive view of chemical breakthroughs shaped how Gág approached this illustration? The Disney scene has the witch standing over the traditional cauldron, but this scene is half lab, half kitchen. It’s an interesting connection to make, but I’m not sure if I’d 100 percent go there. Domestic science came in the teens. By 1937 and 1938, it was established. You definitely have those elements to it.


How different is the study from the illustration that appears in the book? Not terribly. It takes you a while to realize the differences. The composition is almost identical. In the book version, she defines the elements more. The vapors coming off the apple look more like a corona. It’s interesting to see the subtleties of how she directs the eye.


I don’t have the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White in front of me, and I can’t recall it, but wouldn’t it have been harsher than the Disney version? It was. In the movie, the dwarfs dance around her and love Snow White. It’s symbiotic. In the book, they’re almost like little opportunists:”You can stay here and we will help keep you protected if you become our housekeeper.” They’re in the more classic tradition of dwarfs as mischievous and devious. They’re going to use her services. In the movie, when she falls under the spell, they put her in a glass coffin. In the book, the prince decides to take Snow White to a better resting place and attempts to move her to his castle, and one of his carriers trips. An act of clumsiness dislodges the apple from her throat and wakes her. She and the prince then decide to get married. In dark, grim fashion, the prince reveals to Snow White that the queen tried to murder her. They make the queen wear molten hot dance shoes and in a messed up Circus Maximus scene, they make her dance until she dies and they carry on with the rest of the wedding. Gág kept it. It’s still a violent image, but she kept it.


Is this the first piece of art from the Snow White book to come to auction? I didn’t find any others when I searched the Swann online archives. It is our first Snow White. Her other work does come up. She was a printmaker and a very skilled lithographer. The record-keeping for her work is really erratic. We seem to have the top price for a fine art work by her [an undated print, titled Outside Looking In, which sold in September 2008 for $6,480]. Skinner sold an ink on paper of a cat in a laundry basket in May 2016. That could be the top price for a Wanda Gág illustration.


Where are the rest of Gág’s illustrations for the Snow White book? The rest reside in the Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota. Minnesota is where she grew up. A couple of studies have entered the market. The provenance for this piece is it was acquired by a German rare book and manuscripts dealer, Walter Schatzki. He had them and then he sold them in the early 1970s to another dealer, Justin G. Schiller. It went from Schiller to the current owner. That’s one of the reasons why the price is higher. It’s her best-known work outside of Millions of Cats. It’s a crucial scene from the book, and you can’t acquire [the final illustration] because it’s in the Kerlan collection.


What are the odds that The Poisoned Apple will set a new record for Gág at auction? The estimate straddles the price of Outside Looking In. It might, it might. I’d like to see it set a record. We’re still celebrating the 80th anniversary of the movie and the publication of the book. It’s one of her most important and defining creations. And this is its first time at auction. With enough luck and enough bidders, we’ll see it set a new record.


Why will this piece stick in your memory? [Laughs] A couple of reasons. I like it because, in general, I love food and fairy tale images. For me, it’s a two-in-one. I’m the vice president of a local farmer’s market. I often deal with farmers and apples. I love any illustration that’s food- and fairy tale-based. I also like that it’s cartoon-like. The dark, thick lines lend that element to it.


How to bid: The study for The Poisoned Apple is lot 22 in Swann Auction Galleries‘s Illustration Art sale on December 6, 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.


Swann Auction Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter.


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


Christine von der Linn has appeared before on The Hot Bid, speaking about an Arthur Rackham illustration of Danaë and the Infant Perseusa Rockwell Kent-illustrated edition of Moby Dick and original Erté artwork for a 1933 Harper’s Bazaar cover.


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THB Shelf Life: “Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places”, by Rebecca Rego Barry

Rare Books Uncovered Paperback


What you see: Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places by Rebecca Rego Barry. * $19.99, Voyageur Press.


Does it fit in my purse? Yes, but with difficulty.


Cut to the chase. Should I buy this book? Yes.


Fair warning: I’m a complete sucker for books like this. It is The Sort Of Thing I Like, And I Like That Sort of Thing. Rare Books Uncovered is a perfect example of a book I’d put on my wish list and end up buying for myself less than 20 minutes later because I couldn’t hold out until my birthday or Christmas to read it.


This book made me happy. Every page of it. Am I biased? I suppose, but if Rare Books Uncovered had been poorly written, it would have made me sad, and I would not hold back from detailing exactly how it saddened me. Make of that what you will.


I do not have the book-collecting affliction, but I empathize with and celebrate those who do. Rare Books Uncovered is a 254-page celebration of them and those who enable them.


All the stories in the book take place between 1976 and 2014. All feature tales of the hunt–finding or rediscovering treasures that lurked across the country and the world.


I devoured the book methodically in one straight shot. Reading it was like emptying the bonbons from an oversize assortment one by one, but without the guilt.


Rare Books Uncovered avoids hyper-focusing on the priciest scores. Some of the items described have mostly or only sentimental value. Others are delights I had no idea existed. I am forever jealous of the person who found a copy of a Jorge Luis Borges book illustrated by Sol LeWitt.


Readers of Rare Books Uncovered will meet Martin Stone, a rare book hunter who ought to have his own hour-long TV procedural [Book Hunter, Crime Solver! Based on the life of Martin Stone, coming soon to ABC!]. You’ll encounter a family Bible that’s actually worth something, and you’ll learn why so many are not.


You’ll stumble upon books from the library of Mark Twain, inexplicably stored in barrels. You’ll thrill to the tale of the discovery of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster.


You’ll follow along as the copy of Frankenstein that author Mary Shelley inscribed and gave to Lord Byron emerges from the shadows. You’ll contemplate the author’s own find, a first edition of Death of a Salesman that might have belong to Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Shirer.


Munch, munch, munch until all the bonbons are gone. They are tasty, and they go fast.


The stories have more substance than bonbons, though. The author snuck in fiber in the form of capsule anecdotes, asides that define book-world terms, and by making sure the parade of chapters aren’t just about the score. You see the struggle, You glimpse the tedium, and you confront ethical questions, too.


Worth buying new, for full price.


How to buy Rare Books Uncovered: Please purchase it from an independent bookstore near you. If there isn’t one near you, try ordering it from Powell’s.


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.


Rebecca Rego Barry is on Twitter, and she has a website. She’s also the editor of Fine Books Magazine, which is on Twitter and has a website.


Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Rebecca Rego Barry.


* I received Rare Books Uncovered as a review copy, but I’d had it on my wish list for a while before the offer was made.


Rare Books Uncovered was first published in Winter 2015.


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SOLD! Christie’s Sold the 1903 Maxfield Parrish for… (Scroll Down to See)


Update: The Maxfield Parrish work sold for just over $2 million.


What you see: Maxfield Parrish’s A Venetian Night’s Entertainment, a 1903 oil on paper laid down on panel. Christie’s estimates it at $1 million to $1.5 million.


The expert: Tylee Abbott, Vice President and specialist in American art at Christie’s.


What characteristics mark this work as a Maxfield Parrish? What details tell you that only he could have painted it? Certainly one of the things that defines a Maxfield Parrish is luminosity. It tends to glow, regardless of subject matter. It has to do with his technique. He applied an Old Master technique where he built a white ground and added layers and layers of washes and colors, and he used intricate varnishes to achieve the luminous surface. And he’s very well-known for doing fantastical, wonderful scenes. It’s as much his subject matter as his technique.


How does his use of lanterns mark this work as distinctly his? Did he depict them often? They actually occur in a couple of different paintings. An interest of his was in luminous paintings that glowed. Obviously, lanterns lend themselves to achieving that aesthetic. Lanterns also allow for really soft points of light.


This is what I describe as a “Jenga painting”: the composition is loaded with so many elements that it should fall apart, but because it’s put together well, it holds together well. How does Parrish’s deftness with a crowded composition speak to his mastery? It is chaos, but it’s ordered chaos. It’s overflowing with figures and elements, and it was carefully designed by Maxfield Parrish. It conveys the revelry of Venice, and the party. All the figures in there are complementing each other. The gestures of their hands are expressive, and they’re all looking in different directions–across each other, at each other. It’s a bit overwhelming, but it is balanced. It starts with the architectural space at the top, and it’s balanced by the figures at the bottom. The center is illuminated by lanterns. The dark [areas] on the top and the bottom allow a more cohesive balance in the composition.


Might he have done anything differently than he normally would to work out this unusually complex composition? His technique could be very labor-intensive. He relied heavily on models for his paintings. Oftentimes, he would choose friends. He would not have had twelve people sitting in his studio. He would explore them and simulate positions.


He made this work after joining the Cornish community in Cornish, New Hampshire, which orbited around Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Is there any chance that Parrish recruited his neighbors to pose for this? And do we know who might have modeled for him for this piece? He may well have had folks prominent in the community sit for him. The communal nature of the Cornish community lends itself to painting a theatrical party scene. But we haven’t identified any of the models, unfortunately.


Parrish was commissioned to paint this to illustrate an Edith Wharton story. Could we talk about what scene he’s showing here? I take it the main character is the man in profile in Colonial-looking clothes at the left? In the story, a young man wanders the streets of Venice as a tourist, out of place. Count Rialto [at right] befriends him–‘Have a drink, I’ll show you what Venice nightlife is all about.’ Parrish has taken an austere young Massachusetts gentleman with a tricorn hat and upright posture and thrown him into a very Italian, expressive scene of frivolity.


To use a slightly dismissive phrase that Parrish coined, his most famous works feature a “girl on a rock.” This is not a girl on a rock. Does that matter? The top auction price for his most famous painting, and one of the most famous paintings in art history, is Daybreak, which shows two Neoclassical figures in a fantastical landscape. That was made in the 1920s. This was made in 1903, and this is a purposeful illustration, executing a narrative. These painted illustrations, in today’s market for American illustration, which is very strong, can be every bit as popular as the girl-on-the-rock subject matter.


What is the auction record for a Maxfield Parrish? $7.6 million, for Daybreak, sold at Christie’s in May 2006. The next-highest result is for The Lantern Bearers, sold at Christie’s in the same auction for $4.2 million.


How often does an original Maxfield Parrish come to auction? Almost every season there’s a Parrish or a couple of Parrishes on the market. What type of Parrish varies widely. How often is something as significant as this available? Once a year, or every other year.


*Architect Stanford White designed the frame. How does it enhance the painting? The frame is something that sets this painting apart from all other Parrishes. It’s a very special thing. There’s one other Parrish in a Stanford White frame known, and it’s in a private collection.


*So this is the first time one of the two has come to auction? I believe so. I think the prominence of Stanford White as a secondary artist contributes to its value. The frame furthers the architectural design where the scene takes place. The vegetative scrolls on the frame add to the fluidity of the gestures and compliments the overall motion of the painting.


What is the work like in person? The photo is fairly good in terms of a likeness, but with Maxfield Parrish, the luminous nature of the painting is important. It glows a lot more in person than in reproduction.


Why will this painting stick in your memory? The frame is really unique. Rarely are frames made by Stanford White, and rarely are frames so complementary to the work. The amount of people in the painting and the lanterns are definitely memorable. They lend a lot to the glowing nature of the composition.


How to bid: A Venetian Night’s Entertainment is lot 40 in the American Art sale at Christie’s, scheduled for November 20, 2018.


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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 


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


*Since taking the interview and posting the piece, Christie’s learned that the frame is not original, and thus not by Stanford White.


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SOLD! Huggins & Scott Sold a 1903 World Series Program for (Scroll Down to See)


Update: The 1903 World Series program sold for $228,780.


What you see: The front and back cover of a 12-page 1903 World Series program, printed for and sold during the championship games held in Pittsburgh. Huggins and Scott estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.


The expert: Bill Huggins of Huggins and Scott.


Why do so few of these inaugural World Series programs survive? They were actually sold only at Pittsburgh games. Boston won the series, five games to three. [It was a best of nine.] I think only four of those games were played in Pittsburgh. Twenty to 30 copies of the Boston version of the program have surfaced over the years. Only three have surfaced for the Pittsburgh games. One is in Cooperstown, and one is in a private collection. This one here was purchased by the consigner in the 1970s and has been in a safe deposit box ever since.


Why should there be fewer surviving Pittsburgh programs than Boston programs? Was the Pittsburgh park smaller, or the program less interesting than the Boston one? Being that it was the first World Series, I’m not sure they were expecting a huge turnout. They didn’t know if if would even catch on.


To stay on that point about the Pittsburgh program maybe being less interesting–the cover does not show any players… It’s mostly ads. As you open it up, there are lots and lots of ads, 90 percent advertising.


Maybe that explains why so few of these programs survive? People didn’t buy the Pittsburgh program because it was so full of ads? Possibly. In and among a page of ads is a picture of [Pittsburgh Pirate] Honus Wagner, who was the star of the series. [The images of the players] are only silhouettes, two by two inch black and white head shots, in a bunch of ads. They had the player’s last name underneath. The players are in business suits with ties. They’re not even in uniform.


What condition is the program in? I see pieces of tape on the cover… It must have been coming apart a little, because it has three pieces of tape on it. I don’t know if that was done in 1903, but it was done a very, very long time ago. And it’s got some wear on the corners, and things like that. When I get an old publication, I pick it up and smell it. It smells like old paper. That’s a telltale sign it’s not a reproduction. The pages are very. very thin compared to today’s programs. But there are no pages missing, no tears, no rips, no excessive writing.


Have you personally seen the other two known copies? I have not, but I can only imagine, barring the tape, I couldn’t find one nicer than this.


Do we know who the program’s first owner was–the person who made the notations on the cover and the scorecard inside? And do we know any of its subsequent owners, aside from the consigner? We don’t. However, the style of the scoring is very much of the period. Today, scorecards are much more elaborate.


And those handmade notations–that’s how we know it’s a World Series program from Game 7, yes? Yes. The World Series is the only time the American League met the National League in 1903. They didn’t play each other during the year.


The printers used three colors on this program: blue, red, and black. Does that mean the people who commissioned the program splashed out on it? Actually, this is a bit more primitive. Some scorecards produced in the late 1800s were more elaborate. They might have four or five or more colors on some of them.


The words “World Series” don’t appear anywhere on the front or back cover of this program. Do they appear anywhere inside it? No. Actually, it looks very similar to programs that the Pittsburgh ball club put out for regular games, if not identical. The defining part is the center page scorecard. I’d imagine the center page is a thing that could be a separate insert on its own, changed on a day to day basis. [FWIW, the cover of the counterpart Boston program doesn’t say “World Series”, but it does say “World’s Championship Games.” To learn more about how the contest got its modern name, follow this link and scroll down to the section called The Origin of the Name ‘the World Series’,]


What else marks this as ephemera from 1903? Are there ads in the program that would never appear in a World Series program today? There are whiskey ads, and one for cigars, three for five cents. Another says ‘Drink Crystal Water and live for 200 years.’


The Federal Trade Commission would not be cool with an ad like that today. No. There’s an ad for OK beer. Another cigar ad–almost everybody smoked. There’s literally page after page of advertising.


Why will this piece stick in your memory? Knowing what it is and knowing the significance of it, it’s very cool. In our industry, rookie cards are very, very hot. This is sort of the rookie card of World Series programs. The rarity of it is key, the firstness of it is key, and only three have surfaced. But there could be some in attics, basements, or drawers that haven’t come out.


How to bid: The 1903 World Series program from Pittsburgh is lot 2 in Huggins and Scott‘s November Auction, which runs from November 2 to November 15, 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.


Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Huggins and Scott.


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Become Technology’s Greatest Visionary! Prop Store Has the Picturephone from “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”, Which Could Sell for $15,000

peewee playhouse.jpg

What you see: The Picturephone Booth from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Prop Store estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.


The expert: James Comisar, president of the Comisar collection. He’s also the consigner.


Let’s start by talking about the place in the culture that Pee-Wee’s Playhouse holds. What makes it a good television show, and why does it endure? It continues to resonate because it was loved by schoolkids, college kids, and adults. It was the perfect mix of everything, and it appealed to everybody. Just as Mr. Rogers is getting his due, I think Paul Reubens [creator of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the actor who played the main character, Pee-Wee Herman], in 20 years, will get his due. He created an amazing, organic, joyful world where kids could be kids. He spoke down to nobody, and it was incredibly inclusive. It’s one of the most perfect pieces of television in the last 70 years. I think the secret sauce was its authenticity, and the main character was positive. That never goes out of style.


Why did you want to acquire the Picture Phonebooth? What made it important enough for you to pursue? I should back up. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is situated in Puppetland. Pee-Wee is sequestered in his own fantasy world. His conduit to the world is this Picturephone Booth. In that way, it’s very special. And in the 80s [the show ran on CBS from 1986 through 1990] the idea of a video phone booth was interesting. Reubens gave it his own spin. He had his own sensibility for everything.


Is the Picturephone Booth well-built? It’s built to look great on camera. As a general rule, pieces look better on camera than they do in person. When a show is in production and a prop is being used, it has an economic value to the production. It’s cared for well. After the show ends production, there’s a mad dash to get it off the stage so a new show can come in and the studio can continue to earn revenue. It’s an indelicate process. When we first received these pieces, they were in studio storage and they had a bit of wear. There was damage to the paint. There were cracks.


Did you have to restore or conserve it? First, we had to stabilize it. It’s a pretty strong and durable piece, but it had been banged around a bit after production [after the show ended]. Once we dealt with the structural issues… No professional archivist wants to take a historic piece and make it look fresh and pretty again. The goal is to get rid of any damaging influences. When pieces live in studio storage, it’s not a climate-controlled facility. It’s on the outskirts of town, 65 cents a foot. It’s 35 degrees in winter and 110 degrees in summer. Bad things happen in studio storage rather quickly. They shove it into a warehouse, and shove stuff around it, and on top of it. [With the Picturephone,] there was nothing catastrophic to be sure, but it still took over a year to accomplish the intake. It required a textile conservator to come in. Then you have wood, and leather, and foam, which is worse than any material, certain to deteriorate. We went slowly and cautiously. Our job was to do the minimum, not the maximum.


I see that only one name is in the provenance, and it’s Paul Reubens. How did you acquire this from him? I believe the initial contact was around 1992, a year after the show had gone off the air. I had numerous conversations with his business manager before I met Paul. The way I found this stuff was I was [in a studio storage warehouse] working for another client, and I found a recognizable puppet for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. I thought, “No, could it be?” Once Paul’s team was made aware of what was going on, he wanted the pieces to have a more appropriate configuration than studio dead storage.


Did Reubens take some of the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse props back? Absolutely, absolutely. But even if you have a 15,000-square-foot home, you have space limitations. The reality eventually sets in that you cannot keep everything. Paul Rubens kept a lot from the show, and it’s evident that the pieces meant a lot to him. It wasn’t just stuff. It sprung from his brain. It’s still influencing people decades later. It was painful to decide what to save and what to give to another archive.


Well, the Picturephone is furniture, isn’t it? It’s furniture, but it’s an amazing, sculptural piece of artwork. It was created with an almost avant-garde sensibility. It’s almost like folk art in the way it’s put together.


How original is it? It’s two percent restored to 98 percent original. A couple of the dowels that form the eyelashes were broken or missing and had to be replaced. There was paint [the paint required touching up], and surface cleaning. The curtain, which extends across the front for privacy, is original. The textile conservator carefully cleaned it. Even the rings that attach the curtain to the front are original, scrubbed by hand.


Sounds like a lot of work went into it. If this piece sells for $10,000 to $15,000, oh, my dear god in heaven, we spent so much more than that restoring it and caring for it for 25 years. Whoever gets that, if they get it for $10,000, that represents a loss to us. But you can’t keep everything. A piece like that takes up a lot of room on the floor, and you can’t stack anything in it or on it. If you can tell the story of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with three smaller objects [rather] than one that will take up real estate, you’re going to do it.


It’s amazing it survived so well. I believe the universe put me where I needed to be to advocate for these pieces. The puppet head was poking out, I know, so I could see it and advocate for it. This is much more than a job to me. It’s what I do. I don’t question it. I’m grateful I was there at a time when I could rescue it. [I asked him if he remembered which Pee-Wee’s Playhouse puppet caught his eye that day in the early 1990s; he could not say for sure.]


How did you get what you managed to get from the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse props? When I met Paul at the warehouse, he was very passionate, but a very practical man. There was a Paul pile, a Goodwill pile, with appliances from the set and toys that someone else could use, and a Dump pile. A studio truck was hired to take the discarded pieces to the landfill. That was the end of the road for those things. There was no James pile. My job was to convince him to give me what pieces I could get from the Paul pile and the Dump pile. It was difficult for him to part with any of them, which I respected.


What’s the Picturephone like in person? Monumental. This is a big, hulking piece, but it’s got a joyful character. It’s got eyes, and pouty lips that open up like saloon doors. It’s colorful, joyful, and recognizable. It’s a home run in every way.


How many people can fit inside? One, comfortably. I think it’s meant for one person. We don’t normally sit in the pieces. I think it was made just for him.


So you haven’t sat inside it? Absolutely not. It would be sacrilege, treacherous. It’s a piece of history and art. It’s not for me to degrade it by sitting in it.


Ok, I’ve gotta ask. Where is Chairry? Did Paul Reubens claim Chairry? That falls into the area of client privilege. I’m not able to say what he did and didn’t do. Rest assured the iconic pieces from the show are in his collection or an archival collection. Don’t worry. Chairry is cherished.


How to bid: The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Picturephone Booth is lot 156 in Prop Store‘s TV Treasures auction on December 1, 2018.


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Comisar is also the president of the Museum of Television.


The Picturephone appears at three or four points in the background in the opening credits of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. And that’s an uncredited Cyndi Lauper singing the theme song.


Yes, there is a Pee-Wee Wiki. Here’s the entry for the Picturephone.


Also! Google “Technology’s Greatest Visionary,” on Google Images, and take in the top row of images that the search engine spits back at you.


Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Prop Store.


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SOLD! The First Taking Care of Business in a Flash Necklace That Elvis Presley Gave Away Sold For… (Scroll Down to See)


Update: The Taking Care of Business necklace that Elvis Presley gave to Sonny West sold for $38,400.


What you see: A 14k gold necklace with a Taking Care of Business (TCB) logo, given by Elvis Presley to Sonny West circa 1970. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.


The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.


What was the Memphis Mafia, and how did it serve Elvis Presley? “Memphis Mafia” was the name given to the group of friends and close confidants of Elvis Presley. The media gave them the name “Memphis Mafia” around 1960. Elvis liked the name and it stuck.


Where did the phrase “Taking Care of Business” come from? Elvis’s band was called Taking Care of Business. He always gave away gifts, especially jewelry, and he came up with the idea for an identifying piece of jewelry that he only gave to the Memphis Mafia. There were probably 12 to 20 people [in the group]. Elvis loved Taking Care of Business. It was the logo on his plane. Priscilla was involved with the design of the logo. They were on the plane when a lightning bolt went through it. She got out her sketch pad and came up with Taking Care of Business in a flash.


When did that happen? We don’t know for sure, but we presume it was the late 1950s or early 1960s, probably after he came out of the military.


How was the material and the carat weight chosen? Elvis loved bling, he loved gold. There were some variants on the necklace. The one he gave Doctor Nick [George Nichopoulos, Presley’s personal physician] had diamonds on it. We sold that one for $120,000. The overall look of the 14k gold necklace is probably based on a collaboration with the jeweler in Beverly Hills and what they could do within their budget.


This is believed to be the first TCB necklace that Elvis Presley gave out. Does that make it more interesting to collectors? Yes. Collectors love something when it’s original, or the first. TCB went on to be a significant Elvis signature, in a way. Its being the first definitely adds value on auction day.


Why is Sonny West a logical recipient of the first TCB necklace? He was Elvis’s bodyguard, responsible for security at his concerts. He was one of the original members of the Memphis Mafia, which was a very close, tight circle. My guess is because he was Elvis’s bodyguard, he was right there when Elvis went to the jewelry shop in Beverly Hills. Because he was right there, and a member of the Memphis Mafia group, he got the first necklace.


Do the TCB necklaces always look like this one does, or did the design change over time? They’re not all exactly the same. The TCB logo with the flash remains the same, but the chains change.


How many owners did the necklace have after Sonny West relinquished it? He passed it on to the consigner, who brought it to us. Jeffrey, the consigner, created a video which is on our site of Sonny West taking the necklace off himself and putting it on Jeffrey. The provenance is 100 percent solid. That plays into the value.


How many TCB necklaces have you handled, and how many TCB necklaces did Elvis give out? Do we know? I think we’ve handled four to sixprobably four, with two coming back to auction again. I don’t know how many there are, but there were somewhere between 12 and 20 people in the Memphis Mafia. Not a huge amount. Maybe 30, max.


Do any period photos exist of Sonny West wearing the TCB necklace and standing alongside Elvis? I presume there would be period photos. He was with Elvis for 16 years, and he was with Elvis a lot. We didn’t license any, but I’m sure there are photos.


How did you arrive at the estimate of $30,000 to $50,000? Obviously we looked at the intrinsic value first. Then we looked at other TCB necklaces we’ve sold. The provenance is so solid because of Sonny West. Then there’s the collectibility of Elvis himself. He has a huge amount of fans out there.


As of October 19, the necklace has its first bid, amounting to $7,500. Does that mean anything? No, it doesn’t mean anything. But we have 55,000 views on this auction already. To have so many so early on, that’s amazing.


What condition is the necklace in? It’s in great condition, given its age and the life it’s had up to now.


Why will this particular TCB necklace stick in your memory? The fact that it was the first one–wow, it was the start of something. The very first one created, for Sonny West, the bodyguard and confidant of Elvis. Within the history of Elvis and the Memphis Mafia, it’s almost like branding, or a tattoo. Taking care of business in a flash was what the Memphis Mafia represented: getting business done. That was what was important to Elvis.


How to bid: The TCB necklace is lot 466 in the Icons and Idols: Rock “N” Roll auction Julien’s will hold in New York on November 9 and 10, 2018.


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


Martin Nolan previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a purple Prince-worn tunic that the star donned for a 1998 BET interview, which yielded a famous GIF; a Joseff of Hollywood simulated diamond necklace worn by Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and several other Hollywood actresses, as well as a once-lost 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar belonging to John Lennon that sold for $2.4 million–a record for any guitar at auction.


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