Nice Slice: Christie’s Could Sell a Bewitching Seymchan Meteorite with Pallasites for $30,000


What you see: A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.


The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.


Was the Seymchan meteorite fall witnessed? Or were the meteorites simply discovered at some point after they hit the Earth’s surface? I believe they were found by metal detector in the 1960s, and people went back to the area to find more.


How often do Seymchan meteorites come to auction? They’re probably disproportionately [represented] because they’re so beautiful. You get a skewed view of meteorites from sales. We really present the best of the best. Pick a meteorite at random, and it’s an ugly rock. For every one I offer, I reject nine. There are some Seymchans in most of my sales.


Is Seymchan a marquee name for meteorite collectors? Are they must-haves? Collectors want Seymchans. This is a great example, and it appeals to collectors who have never seen meteorites before. People who buy in the jewelry sales, the contemporary art sales, the antiquities sales, and the Old Masters sales buy in these sales.


The lot notes say less than 0.2 percent of all meteorites contain pallasites, the extraterrestrial peridots visible on the right side of the meteorite. How are pallasites created? What has to happen? Four and a half billion years ago, there were early bodies like Earth that had iron cores and stony mantles. When these proto-planets broke up, their outsides became stony meteorites, their insides became iron meteorites, and at the boundary between the two [the iron core and the stony mantle], there were pallasites.


Why do pallasites show up in meteorites? Why not emeralds, or diamonds, or other gemstones? It has to do with the geology of the proto-planetary body, but you do find nano-diamonds in meteorites. We had one in the last sale. By nano, I mean on the nano scale. They’re nothing you could put in an engagement ring.


I get that pallasites are gem-quality stones, and olivine isn’t, but can you point out which is which on the photo of the meteorite with the lot? The ones that sparkle, shine, and catch the light–those are pallasites. Olivine is the mineral. Those that look brown are more olivine than pallasite.


Do you typically have both in a meteorite, or can you have all-pallasite meteorites? You do get slices of pallasite meteorite that might miss any olivine. You get some slices that are nicely homogenous, with peridot in an iron matrix. You can get meteorites that are just iron, which are slightly further away from the boundary [between the proto-planetary stony mantle and iron core]. Then you’ve got some that are more transitional, with seas of olivine and pallasite and seas of metal.


Who cuts meteorites, and how does that person decide where and how much to cut? Seymchan is a good meteorite for cutting in that the meteorites on their own do not have much going for them, aesthetically. You don’t destroy much by cutting them open. The shape determines how to cut–slices, cubes, even spheres. An American football-sized meteorite is easy to cut into a sphere. One that has an arm shape is easier to cut into slices.


Who cuts the meteorite? A gem-cutter? No, there are specialized people who do that. It’s not easy. When you cut, you always want the smallest amount of wastage possible. You want to do it as carefully as possible, in lab-like conditions. The iron in pallasites are relatively soft, but for some, you need a diamond blade to cut through them.


This example was cut from a larger meteorite. Do we know how large it was? We don’t, but I would bet it’s under 50 kilos [110 pounds].


How rare is it to come across what we see here–a clear boundary between the iron and the pallasites? That will have informed how to cut it, to bring out the transition between the two. There may have been the temptation to cut the gems off and fashion it into a sphere. I’m glad they didn’t. I like the contrast between the two sides.


I’ve been lying in wait to write about a meteorite like lot 1–one entirely shot through with pallasites–but this jumped out at me because I’ve never seen one like it. Is it as unusual as it seems? This is the first I’ve had with this presentation. That’s why I’m so fond of it. I’ve had a slice where the pallasites looked like a river of metal was running through it. This is a more substantial piece. You don’t see much like this at all, even if you look at the best Seymchans out there.


This meteorite weighs 8.4 pounds–not small, and not huge. Does that matter? As with artworks and sculpture, there does come a point where the size becomes difficult for collectors. We have one in the sale that’s 88 kilos [187 pounds]–probably too big for a desk. 8.4 pounds is a nice size. Conversely, if you get something really heavy, it’s more valuable again. If you can sit it outside a museum and no one can run off with it, its weight becomes a virtue again.


Why does lot 1 have a lower estimate than this meteorite, given that it’s shot through with gemstones, and this is not? It’s smaller. That’s what it comes down to. In gems, they use the four Cs [color, cut, clarity, and carat]. I use the four Ss: size, shape, story, and science. Science–What’s interesting about meteorites is they provide data on the early solar system. Lunar or Martian meteorites have more scientific interest. Story–did it explode over Siberia in the 1950s? Did it take out the dinosaurs? Did it destroy a car? Size–bigger is better. Shape–that encompasses aesthetics. Some meteorites are intrinsically more beautiful than others, and more desirable, and fetch more money.


And how would you judge this meteorite by your four Ss? Size… if you had everything else equal but you cut it in half, it’s $10,000 to $15,000. If it was a bit larger, $40,000 to $60,000. I really like the aesthetics of this–the outer crust, the metal, the pallasite, and the  roughly triangular, pleasing shape. In terms of science, it’s rare, and it’s a pallasite. The story originates with a proto-planetary body. We don’t know when it fell to earth, but it was relatively recent. Seymchan was only discovered in the 1960s.


Have you held it? Yes, but not for a while.


What was that like? I still have this [feeling] every time I hold a meteorite–they are four and half billion years old, which is a number so large as to almost be meaningless. The philosophical quandary when you hold it in your hand is it’s an object that comes from space. That’s mind-blowing. And four and a half billion years makes it one-third as old as the universe.


Is it heavy? Actually, with this one, I fell in love with it before I held it. To see the contrast in the stone is stunning.


Why will this meteorite stick in your memory? Having those three different colors to it–the weathered surface, the polished pattern of the metal, and the pallasite crystals–it really stands out from the others. I’ll definitely remember it for a while. This is not really a word, but this is a very covetous object. When I see it, I want it. Some people get that when they see a native gold nugget. It transmits a desire to acquire it.


How to bid: The Seymchan meteorite is lot 22 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and other Rare Meteorites, a sale Christie’s will hold online between February 6 through February 14, 2019.


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


Hyslop previously appeared on The Hot Bid, talking about a Canyon Diablo meteorite that ultimately sold for $237,500.


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


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Bonhams Could Auction a Frank Tenney Johnson Nocturne for $350,000


What you see: A portrait of Alphonzo Bell painted in 1928 by Frank Tenney Johnson. Bonhams estimates it at $250,000 to $350,000.


The expert: Kathy Wong, specialist in fine arts at Bonhams.


How prolific was Johnson? He was quite prolific. Over 500 works have been offered at auction alone, and there’s a large number of works in private collections and institutional collections. He was quite in demand from the 1920s onward. There was in particular in Los Angeles a commission for a drop curtain for a theater. The popularity of that worked to launch him in this area.


How often did he accept portrait commissions such as this one? As he grew in popularity, especially with Hollywood, he did accept portrait commissions through Stendahl Galleries [the Los Angeles gallery that represented him]. This portrait was negotiated through Stendahl. At least three other equestrian portraits have been identified. Sometimes they’re foremen as well. They’re not just wealthy ranchers.


Do we know anything about how Johnson would have made this painting? Would he have had Bell pose with his horse in this landscape and painted him plein air? There are no notes beyond what was written in the Stendahl Galleries ledger. What we know about Johnson’s working technique–there is some scaffolding involved. Certain compositions he favored might repeat in parts. The grouping of cattle is reminiscent of Frank Tenney Johnsons we’ve sold in the past. I strongly suspect because Johnson was an accomplished horseman himself, he had Bell mount his palomino horse and did a photo, but we don’t know for certain. There are no documents of how the commission was carried out.


How often did Johnson use photography in his work? We don’t know. But he was a very prolific photographer and it was part of his working process as well.


Is it reasonable to assume he used photos to create this commission? I think so, given that there were photos used for other works.


Do we know if Bell had any input into the appearance of the portrait? We simply don’t know. It was commissioned, per the ledger, on his [Bell’s] Bel Bar Ranch in Colorado. How much artistic license was taken is unknown. There’s nothing in the landscape that would identify it as Bel Bar Ranch. It’s most likely supposed to depict Colorado.


Is this scene typical of Johnson’s work? It’s fairly typical compositionally and in its coloration. A lone rider against a backdrop like this is pretty recognizable as his work. It’s intended to be a dusky landscape. We believe it to actually be one of his moonlight paintings.


Wait, this is a night scene? But there’s a blue sky with white clouds… As far as we are aware, it’s meant to be an evening scene. It’s more like twilight. There’s a very theatrical aspect to his nocturnes. The whites are highlighted. Much in the way that Maxfield Parrish scenes are not what you observe at nighttime, this is a romantic, dramatic depiction of evening.


This measures 32 inches by 40 inches. Is that a typical painting size for him? It’s toward the larger [end of the spectrum]. He did work in a full range of sizes. This is a common desirable size for him.


Could you talk a bit about the equestrian aspect of the painting? I understand that was a strength for Johnson. I think Bell would have been familiar enough with Frank Tenney Johnson’s nocturnes that a cream-colored horse would be a very visually striking feature in the landscape.


Bell chose his horse for visual effect? I think so. Per his biography, he was an aesthete. He was visually sensitive. It’s very possible he saw another [nocturne] example Frank Tenney Johnson did of a rider on a white horse and asked for something similar. There’s a lovely luminosity to white or cream-colored horses in his compositions. I’m sure Bell must have been aware of that.


Do we know how many nocturnes Johnson did? They’re not very rare. His nocturnes became his most commercially sought-after type of landscape. What makes this particular work desirable and interesting is it speaks to ranch culture. There was an interesting moment in Los Angeles in the 1920s when it transformed from an agricultural economy to a film-based economy. It comes at a time when the ranch way of life in LA gave way to oil and gas coming in, and film industry studios coming in. Bell, like Frank Tenney Johnson, had artistic sensitivity. He could straddle the agrarian and ranch world and the mythic depiction of that in Hollywood. This Western way of life was opening up to a larger audience.


What is this work like in person? It’s really stunning. There’s a lot of active brushwork, probably more than you can see online. The saturation of colors is what I wish everyone could see in person. There’s a luminosity that the catalog doesn’t do justice. It’s a work you can stand before and this quietude comes over you. Bell looks to be deep in thought. His absorption is quite captivating here.


It’s kind of meditative. It is. All the nocturnes have that quality. Many works in the Brinkman Collection [from which this painting comes] show action. This is one of the few that shows a quiet, introspective moment.


We know who the sitter is. Does that matter? Does that make the painting more interesting to collectors, even though he isn’t a celebrity or a famous historical figure? I do think so. Buyers want to know the story behind the work. His biography is quite fascinating. The way he found oil on his family ranch is quite dramatic. I think potentially some bidders may identify with the sitter or find his life story interesting.


What’s the auction record for a Frank Tenney Johnson? It was over 10 years ago. It was a similar size, depicting two horses in the evening, called Silent Night. It sold in 2007 for $1.1 million with a $300,000 to $500,000 estimate. The market was quite robust at the time, but it has changed since. We think this work is priced accordingly for the current market.


What makes this painting memorable? Even if you don’t know anything about Frank Tenney Johnson, it’s visually compelling. We’re all familiar with the myth of the Marlboro Man, which was based on a real ranch hand. Whether you’re a fan of Western art or not, there’s something heroic about the figure, communicated by a composition that explains its enduring appeal.


How to bid: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell is lot 47 in the sale of the L.D. “Brink” Brinkman Collection of Western American art, taking place February 8, 2019 at Bonhams Los Angeles.


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Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram. Kathy Wong is on Twitter.


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


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SOLD! This Snarky-looking Tall Wally Bird Fetched (Scroll Down to See)


Update: The tall Wally Bird tobacco jar sold for $50,000.


What you see: A tall bird tobacco jar, aka a “Wally Bird,” by the Martin Brothers, created in London circa 1900. The head is signed by R.W. (Robert Wallace) Martin, and the base is signed as the Martin Brothers. Rago Auctions estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.


The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.


Why do people love Wally Birds? What makes them great is they [the Martin Brothers] were world-class modelers, at the top of their game, with an idea no one else had. They’re really expressive creatures, and a lot of fun. It’s like they [the birds] are having a conversation with each other. Expression is so much of what these things are about. They’re pretty snarky. I don’t know of any that are benign.


Are those made between 1880 and 1900 the most desirable? I think so. I’m not a scholar or an academic. I’m hands on. I touch this stuff. What I know is not out of a book. The power alley [for Wally Birds] is from 1883 to 1893. I would peg this bird a little earlier than 1900. I’d say 1895. [After 1900 or so] you can see them start to lose their edge. Maybe after 25 years they [the Martin Brothers] wanted to move on to something else.


What details of this Wally Bird make you think it’s from 1895 and not 1900? I just think he’s a better bird. Better modeling, better detailing, better expression, better gradation of color. He’s tall, and he’s got a lot of character. I think he was made during the prime of their production.


Who was the best modeler among the brothers? I think Robert Wallace was a cut above.


Do Wally Birds with his signature sell for more? I always find it’s better to have “Robert Wallace” on a piece than not. But I’d rather have a great unsigned Wally Bird than a mediocre one with R.W.’s initials on it.


Does height matter with Wally Birds? Do collectors prefer the taller ones? It’s a factor in the price. Birds tend to be seven or eight inches tall. Over one foot, 15 inches, you’ve got a big bird. The vast majority are 10 inches or less.


Do the expressions on the faces of the birds matter? Yes, and being colorful helps. The important things are the expression, the size, and the condition, but it’s not hard to sell a Wally Bird with minor damage.


Were Wally Birds actively collected when they were new, or did that come later? I don’t know that people collected things in 1885. We were still dealing with the early days of the Industrial Revolution.


So it was more like people thought, ‘This is too nice to throw away’? [More like] “I saw a jar that looks like someone I know, I’ll buy it and keep it.”


The Wally Birds were designed to hold pipe tobacco. Were they used that way? I’ve literally handled 200 of these and I haven’t found tobacco in any of them. I think they were called tobacco jars to give them a functional purpose, maybe to appeal to men. Everybody smoked back then. You can’t use a bird, but you can use a tobacco jar. Who knows what the rationale was?


And the Martin Brothers made Wally Birds from 1880 up until 1914? I’ve had pieces dated that late. There’s a thought that some were finished later than that by a son of one of the brothers in the 1930s. The dating might not be clear on the later ones. They tend to be blue and white, and the expressions tend to be shallower.


Do we know how the birds were made? They were sculpted. You can look inside [a Wally Bird] and see the way the clay has been cut back. They gouged the clay out to make the interior. You can see the tooling of the construction.


Are Wally Birds based on real birds? To some extent, yes. But I think the birds they looked at was a departure point for their imaginations.


Do British collectors dominate the field of Wally Birds? Americans have been bringing Wally Birds here for 50 years. I even know Brits who buy them from Americans and sell them back to Americans. I would guess that 75 percent of known Martinware [a term that describes the Wally Birds and other ceramics by the Martin Brothers] is in the U.S.


How often do Wally Birds come up at auction? There’s been a generational change. People who bought in the 1980s are selling off now. I sold Lillian Hoffman’s collection four years ago. Wait ten years, and the people who bought in the Harriman Judd collection sale [at Sotheby’s in January 2001] will sell off.


So they come up every five or ten years or so? Yeah. Even if they [collectors] have to pare down, they don’t put up one Wally Bird. They put up two or three. They sell them in flocks.


What’s it like to hold this Wally Bird in your hand? For a ceramic, it’s hefty. There’s nothing eggshell about Wally Birds, nothing delicate.


What condition is it in? There’s a repair on one of the feathers, and at the very bottom of the clay base, there’s an unevenness to the edge. But it’s an 125-year-old piece of ceramic sculpture.


In your experience, how do collectors display Wally Birds in their homes? They’re displayed how you’d expect a $50,000 piece of clay to be displayed–usually on a shelf, with half a dozen birds side by side. They’re not left on desktops, where they’re too easily knocked over.


You’ve got several pieces of Martinware in this auction, including another Wally Bird in Lot 5 that’s estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. What’s the difference between this bird and that bird? Why is Lot 1 one worth more? Size is a significant factor. Lot 1 is a big bird. Lot 5 is interesting because it’s a friar bird. [Look closely at its head and you’ll see it has a tonsure–a monk’s hairstyle. You can also click on the 360-degree view button at the lower right and spin it to better see the back of its head.] But it’s the nature of the beast–it’s clumsier, it’s not as free-flowing a bird. Both are good birds, but one is one and a half times the size of the other one.


Wally Birds are 80 to 120 years old. Almost no one smokes a pipe anymore. What’s been keeping up the profile of Wally Birds? Was there a big, influential museum show? Is there a collectors’ society that’s active and media-savvy? Several things. Number one is the right number of them were made. With Martinware, there’s enough material out there but not too much–just enough to create and sustain a market. Number two, both sides of the pond are buying this stuff. If it’s supported by collectors in Europe and America, it’s healthy. Number three, they’re really good. World-class ceramics. They’re sculpted, best in the world at the time it was made, and I haven’t seen much to rival it. The quality has held up.


The world auction record for a Wally Bird belongs to an 1889 example that stands just over 14 inches tall and resembles the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. It sold in December 2015 in New York for $233,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. I realize Rago did not handle that bird, but can you tell me why it did so well? It was a fabulous bird. It was huge, and it was a historic figure from the land where they were made. It was the pinnacle. I don’t know if you get better than [the Wally Birds that resemble] Disraeli and [British prime minister William] Gladstone. Those are the best.


And Americans are just as interested in the Disraeli and Gladstone Wally Birds, even though they depict British political figures? Absolutely. I’m sure they’re in America. If you’re going to buy British pottery, you’re going to buy the best out there.


Why will this Wally Bird stick in your memory? The expression is really good. The quality is top-notch. The condition is excellent. That’s true of most birds I handle. And it’s just big. The production of the larger birds is quite limited. I’d say five percent are this size or bigger. If 250 [a possible rough count for surviving Wally Birds] is accurate, there are 10 to 15 in this range. In a September 2018 auction, I had one that big, and it sold for $112,500. It’s really, really rare to have another that size. I would dare say I have this bird because I sold the other one.


How to bid: The Martin Brothers tall bird tobacco jar is lot 1 in the Early 20th Century Design sale at Rago Auctions on January 19, 2019.


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Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.


Alison Davey of AD Antiques in Gloucestershire, England, has devised a way to track Wally Birds without banding their ankles. In 2018, she began creating “passports” for the coveted works. The document, which resembles a British passport, contains a photo of the Wally Bird, its height, its condition, and its known provenance.


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


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Swann Could Sell a Ridiculously Scarce 1927 Josephine Baker Poster for $18,000

M38503-2 001

What you see: A 1927 Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s silent film The Siren of the Tropics. Swann Galleries estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.


The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.


This poster image is based on a color photograph from an interior page of a Folies Bergère program. How common was it to base poster graphics on photos in the late 1920s? Is this unusual? Good question. I don’t know the answer to that. Some posters were photographic. I’m not sure I know of others, but the fact that it’s unusual doesn’t make it important.


Can we tell by looking how the poster artist sized up the photograph? Did they just blow up the photo, or did they trace it or draw it? It has been enlarged, to be sure. I assume it would have been hand-drawn, but I’m not sure about that at all.


The original photo was in color. Did the poster artist change the colors, or are these the same colors in the Folies Bergère program photograph? The colors are basically the same. It’s not like they were changed from red to blue. The only change was to cover up her immodesty.


It’s interesting that the poster artist went with the same colors seen in the picture, rather than brighter colors that are more suited to the poster medium. I think the poster attracts attention very well without bright colors. Forget the fact that she’s scantily clad–it’s an incredible getup. And it’s a great portrait of her.


The movie the poster advertises, The Siren of the Tropics, had its world premiere in Stockholm. Do we know why the premiere was held there rather than, say, Paris? I haven’t found anything about that anywhere. But there was a Swedish fascination with Josephine Baker. They were transfixed by her. All of Europe was transfixed by her to some degree.


It’s an odd choice of venue for a Josephine Baker film debut. I couldn’t agree more. I do think the fact that the image is from the Folies Bergère program and not from the film–I think it must have been done quickly. Maybe that’s why they used an image that already existed. The show from the Folies Bergère has nothing to do with the movie. I don’t think she wears the pearls and feathers costume in the film.


The poster artist definitely altered the picture when translating it into a poster. What, exactly, was added? Her nipples [are covered], and four strands of pearls emanating from each of her pasties have been added. [You can see the original photo at this link.]


It looks like whoever added the pasties and pearls for the poster version did a good job. Is the touch-up work more obvious in person? It took a while to make the realization that [the original] is not covered up. Certainly, the work is good. Seamlessly done. It looks like how it was meant to be.


And this is the only copy of the poster that has come to auction? It has been seen before, but it has never come up for sale before. Given how popular Josephine Baker is, and that it was a world premiere of a film, you’d think more copies would surface, but none have come to market.


Baker isn’t shown topless, but the poster is still pretty risqué. Where would this have been displayed in Sweden in 1927? Presumably, it was hung up all over Sweden. That doesn’t explain why so few have surfaced. [They would have] posted them wherever they could to get the maximum effect from the advertising.


And some of them, certainly, would have been stolen by fans… Stolen, peeled off, maybe a remainder was not posted. It’s a sexy image, even if you don’t like it. I do think it’s eye-catching. She has a very becoming smile, and she’s staring right at you. A fetching pose, an improbable costume. People walking down the street would think, “WTF is that?” She was topless in the Folies Bergère program, but that’s a lot less public than a poster siding.


How did the poster come to you? Through the inventory of a dealer who passed away. I think it was purchased in the last five years.


You’ve given it a condition grade of B. Collectors would prefer a higher grade, but does that matter when a poster is unique? It’s not a situation where you can sit back and wait for another to come along. There’s no indication there’s another one out there. They have to be forgiving.


How did you arrive at the estimate? It’s based on sales of other Josephine Baker posters. Baker is one of the most sought-after music hall performers of her time. Like Chaplin and the Titanic, her name really transcends her genre. She was a black woman making her name performing half-naked in France. That could not happen in America. From a racial point of view, it’s astounding. And it was incredible for a black woman to appear in a movie. Not only appear in it, but star in it.


Does the silent film the poster advertises survive? Clips are online. The film was panned, but it’s certainly around.


How does this Josephine Baker poster measure up to other posters that feature her? It’s a great depiction of her. We’ve sold several Josephine Baker posters over the years. Some sell for $25,000 to $45,000. This one combines scarcity, an appealing image, and a performer who is remembered and sought after in the collectors’ market. For example, two years ago, we had the French version of Siren of the Tropics poster. It didn’t actually sell. If you looked at it, you couldn’t tell it was Josephine Baker. In 2010, we sold a Danish poster for her film Princess Tam Tam for $9,000.


Are there other Josephine Baker posters from her lifetime that are based on photos? There’s one from the end of her career that’s very horrible and very common, which sells for $600 on a good day. It’s not a good comparison. None of the others are photographic.


Why will this poster stick in your memory? Several reasons. It’s a sexy image. It really is a rare Josephine Baker piece. It’s a very good poster, because it’s a good likeness of her. And as a poster geek, I appreciate that no others have come up for sale publicly.


How to bid: The Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s 1927 silent film, The Siren of the Tropics, is lot 429 in the Vintage Posters sale at Swann Galleries on February 7, 2019.


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 Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter, and Nicholas Lowry is on Instagram and Twitter as well.


Nicholas Lowry has appeared several times on The Hot Bid. Read past entries in which he  talks about a 1928 Roger Broders poster that later sold for $7,500Swann setting the world auction record for any travel postera 1938 London Transport poster by Man Ray that ultimately sold for $149,000a trio of Mont Blanc posters from 1928, a mid-1930s German travel poster featuring the Hindenburg, a 1968 MoMA poster by Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo, an I Want You1917 World War I recruiting poster that introduced the modern concept of Uncle Sam, and an Alphonse Mucha poster featuring Sarah Bernhardt.


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


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SOLD! The White Delftware 17th-century Fuddling Cup Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

10003 lot 696 fuddling cup

Update: The white delftware 17th-century fuddling cup sold for $2,375.


What you see: A white delftware fuddling cup made in London and dating to the mid-17th century. Sotheby’s estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.


The expert: Richard Hird, specialist in the ceramics department at Sotheby’s.


This piece is known as a “fuddling cup.” What does “fuddling” mean here? It means to confuse or intoxicate the person who was handling the object.


Does the finished form tell us anything about how the cup was made? I don’t think anyone knows for certain, but the vessel was probably made in a two-part mold, and the entwined clay handles were probably twisted by hand and applied to the vessel. It’s quite a simple thing to make.


Where was it used? It could have been in a private home, but it was very much a tavern object. It was a drinking game. It was certainly meant to be in a tavern setting.


How did the drinking game work? There’s some speculation here, but each container would be filled with a different kind of alcoholic drink, and it would be shaken until they were blended. The object was to try to identify each spirit in each vessel.


How do the spirits mix? When you look at it, you can’t quite see it, but within the three chambers there’s a hole that connects all three together. It looks like three separate cups, but they are connected by the hole into one big cup. You have to really look in there to see the piercing. The bulbous shapes in the lower part is where they touch, where the hole has been made.


The cup is pretty small, measuring three and a half inches tall. But do we know how much liquid it could hold? I don’t know, and I don’t know if there were specific measurements like that. Fuddling cups all tend to be small-size. They don’t get any bigger than that.


How do we know that the fuddling cup is probably from the mid-17th century? So far, there are nine recorded with inscribed dates. The earliest is 1633, and the latest is 1649. They probably contain [were probably made in] the second half of the 17th century, but we don’t have dates.


Were fuddling cups popular then? It’s hard to judge. It’s a rare object, but they do appear at auction almost annually. Quite a few survive, but a lot were probably lost as well. It was quite a popular drinking game.


The cup is white, with no decoration. Is that typical? I guess it is typical, in a way. You do find them decorated in blue, in chinoiserie style. Having it painted would be more expensive, and it was for a tavern. White was the cheapest option, in that sense.


What condition is it in? I see some chips in the glaze here and there. The chips are actually a good sign. If there were no chips, you start to question the age of the object. It’s over 200 years old. It has to have signs of age. If it’s perfect, it would raise questions. And it does have some restoration around the rim of one of the vessels.


This was a novelty object. Does its having been restored matter less to a collector? I wouldn’t say so. Early 17th century objects are rare and becoming rarer on the market. People are starting to turn a blind eye to issues because they don’t come around that often.


Does it show any signs of wear on its interior? No, but it’s quite unusual to see that. On something this small, the vessel spout is probably two centimeters in diameter. You can’t put much in there.


Is the fuddling cup connected at all to puzzle jugs? I think so. I don’t know if you’d find a puzzle jug that early in the 17th century, but it’s the similar idea of a tavern game and confusing the user.


Do collectors see fuddling cups as art objects, or do they try to use them at least once? I think they do see them as art objects, but I’d be tempted to try to use it to see how it would work.


What is it like to hold this cup in your hands? It’s a very light object. It almost fits in the palm of one hand.


How to bid: The fuddling cup is lot 696 in The Collection of Anne H. & Frederick Vogel III sale, taking place January 19, 2019 at Sotheby’s New York.


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


This is the closest I’ll get to showcasing a jigsaw puzzle on this blog, so here’s a shout-out to my faithful suppliers Chris at Serious Puzzles and Andy at Eureka! Puzzles & Games in Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Massachusetts. Thanks!


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RECORD! Christie’s Sells Ammi Phillips’s “Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog” for Almost $1.7 Million


Update: Christie’s sold Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog for $1.69 million–a new world auction record for the 19th century American folk artist.


What you see: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, a portrait that American folk artist Ammi (pronounced Ah-mi) Phillips painted circa 1830-1835. Christie’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.


The expert: John Hays, deputy chairman, Christie’s Americas.


I’d like to start with some discussion of how Ammi Phillips was recognized and discovered. It seems like he could have disappeared, or far less would be known, if scholars had not done incredible work with identifying paintings by him. There’s a long version and a short version. The short version is like many painters who were not in the annals of art history, he was not known until people started piecing together his work in the 1960s. It was a grassroots effort. It was Mary Black who galvanized the research being done. Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter, 1788-1865 was a pioneering exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in 1968, and it traveled around. [Scholars] figured it out [what was his] because he depicted sitters holding newspapers and he signed some of his work. The family histories of the sitters also helped piece together the show. He was prolific. As the count began, they realized he did a few thousand portraits.


The lot notes call Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog a “quintessentially American work of art” and “strikingly modern”. What makes it so? Every country has its folk art, painted by people who didn’t go to the national academy. What makes it quintessentially American is he was painting Americans–successful sitters who were documenting their lives. The other aspect that makes it quintessentially American is [the notion that] time is money. The quicker he was able to render a portrait, the quicker he was on his way.


And what makes the portrait “strikingly modern”? Stacy Hollander [of the American Folk Art Museum] did a show in 2008, The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red that showed the urge to modernity, the idea of reduction to the pure form. Isn’t it interesting that it started in 1830? If you look at the dress [the sitter in Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is wearing], it’s geometric forms with little lines, a broad expanse of red. It’s a knockout, a home run. There’s no question what the statement is–a girl in a red dress. It looks forward, but it distills the form to the essence of the form. That’s an idea that the Color Field artists Clyfford Still and Rothko [embraced]. Phillips did it from a more economic point of view, but he succeeded.


Why do his portraits of children perform so well at auction? Phillips is at his best with children because there were no rules [for painting them]. A lot of Phillips works are dour. Some of his sitters are ministers and older people with bibles in their laps. With children, he captures the spirit of young America. That’s where he hits the home run, and that’s why there’s a huge price difference with the artist. Depicting a child evokes much more.


The lot notes also refers to ‘record-breaking sales in the 1980s.’ Could you elaborate? Phillips did a group of four children in red dresses, three girls and a boy, with their hands almost in the same positions. One was discovered in an appraisal day at the Corcoran Gallery in 1984. I was here [at Christie’s then]. We looked at it. The family didn’t know what it was. It was over their fireplace. By that time, the [groundbreaking 1968] Ammi Phillips show had happened, and we knew what it was. We put it in [a 1985 Christie’s auction] with an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000 and it sold for $682,000. It went to Dan Terra of the Terra Foundation. It made the front page of the New York Times. The other known portrait [of a girl sitter from the foursome, aside from this one], Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, was bought by Ralph Esmerian for the American Folk Art Museum. [After the 1985 sale], the owner [of this portrait] called us and said, ‘We think we have one.’ That’s how we discovered it 33 years ago. We’ve been quietly hoping it would come out one day.


That must have been delightful and startling, to have a folk art portrait sell for so much in 1985. You could acquire a major Impressionist picture [for $682,000] at that time. I put the Phillips in a jewelry vault that night. We were not prepared to have it sell for that price.


What makes this portrait so strong? It captures the essence of what folk art collectors want and what they look for. It’s hard to define it in words, but it has a universality to it. It’s just riveting, and kind of mesmerizing. You say, ‘God, he gets it.’


Do we know why the girls in the Phillips red dress portraits are wearing coral necklaces? Did coral have some sort of symbolic meaning in America in the 1830s? Coral necklaces were very popular in the 1820s and 1830s. In this portrait, she holds a bead of coral as if she’s a little nervous. She seems to say, ‘Hurry up and finish this picture, why am I here?’ As for iconography, there’s nothing we’re aware of. Coral was fashionable at the time for teething rings. The three girls [in the group of red dress portraits] each have a coral necklace. The one at Terra has two strands, this one has three strands, and the one at the American Folk Art Museum has four.


What is she holding in her left hand? It could be parsley. The girl in the Terra portrait is holding a strawberry. They [the items the child sitters hold] all have coded iconography that you could linger over. But it could be something Phillips gave her to hold while he painted her.


And what’s with the dog at the left? Is that her dog? The beagle is in all four of these portraits. Maybe it’s Ammi Phillips’s dog. Maybe it’s for the comfort of the child.


Yeah, about that. One of the skills Phillips had to develop as an itinerant portrait painter was to convince small children to sit still long enough for him to do his work in an age before screens. Might the dog have played the role that a screen would now–helped entertain the kid and keep her sitting in one place? It’s an idea, and it’s the same stylized beagle [in the four portraits], with the spoon-shaped lozenge on the forehead. I have a beagle. I know beagles very well. He captured the essence of a beagle, and its wry smile. If you have a beagle, you’d recognize it too.


I take it we don’t know who the young sitter is, even though scholars have tried to identify her? Yes. She’s adorable, that’s all I would say.


Is it possible that the three girls in the group of four red dress portraits are sisters or cousins? Initially we thought, ‘Are they sisters?’ But there are little differences, actually very subtle differences. The idea that they’re related is not ruled out at all. There are many unanswered questions.


The portraits in the group of four show kids in a virtually identical red dress. Is there a chance that Phillips traveled with the dress, as part of a small wardrobe, and offered it to the parents to use for the sitting? That’s an interesting idea, but the thing that emerges from Phillips is a spontaneity. It’s the quickly-rendered moment that folk art collectors love so much. A portrait was for a wealthy client that he poured his heart into would be worth a fraction of those that he did more quickly and got down to the essence.


What’s the world auction record for a Phillips? Portrait of a Young Girl and her Cat, which we sold in 2007 for $1.2 million. It’s a great picture, but it’s not in the narrow group of four. It’s one of 11 he did of children in red dresses. The girl [in the portrait sold in 2007] has a different stance.


What are the odds that Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog will meet or beat that sum? To be really candid, that’s the one question I can’t answer. I’m as intrigued as anybody to see what will happen in January.


What is it like in person? It has what my colleagues in fine art call “wall power.” It just jumps off the wall. It makes everything around it pale.


Why will it stick in your memory? For me, personally, I was here when we sold the first one, and it changed a lot of things in my life. It makes me reflect on the last 33 years in the art world, and how exciting it’s been. Not every day does an Ammi Phillips girl in a red dress cross my computer screen. And it expresses a sort of humanity that the experiment of America allowed. I dare you to tell me where such a portrait has emerged in any other country. That’s why I do what I do. It’s unique to portraiture in this country.


How to bid: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is lot 1205 in the Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver and Prints auction taking place at Christie’s New York on January 17 and 18, 2019.


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


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Sotheby’s Could Sell Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Stunning 1788 Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan for $6 Million

10007 lot 48 vigee le brun, portrait of muhammad dervish khan

What you see: Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape, a life-size oil on canvas painted in 1788 by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. Sotheby’s estimates it at $4 million to $6 million.


The expert: Calvine Harvey, specialist and vice president in the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s.


Let’s start by talking about how extraordinary Vigée Le Brun was, and how extraordinary she had to be to work as a portrait painter in 18th-century Europe. Technical competence is just the price of admission for a woman then, I take it. What other skills and talents did she have besides the obvious? She was really an absolutely remarkable woman and probably the most successful woman painter in the 17th and 18th centuries in terms of renown in her lifetime. She was unbelievable. She trained with her father originally, but he died when she was eleven years old. She certainly used the connections he set her up with to keep herself in that world. Her skill was absolutely amazing, and she was prolific. [A key skill was] her use of her connections and the way she was able to ingratiate herself in the royal court. She painted Queen Marie-Antoinette for ten years. Then the French Revolution happened. She fled France and traveled through Europe. She brought her daughter with her, not her husband–he stayed.


We should point out that a woman traveling Europe in the 18th century without her husband is a very different thing from a woman traveling Europe without her husband in the 21st century… Yes. She had a gentleman carriage driver and a governess for her daughter. For all her success in France, she left without anything. When she arrived in Rome, she painted an amazing self-portrait, showing herself painting Marie-Antoinette. She needed to make it for her business to survive. It’s in the Uffizi now. [The self-portrait] helped her meet people and make connections. In her memoirs, only two chapters are in France. Then she travels the world, painting people.


About those memoirs. Are they the source of most of what we know about the story of the Khan portrait? Are there contemporary accounts by third-party observers? There are some contemporary accounts. One is from the translator for King Louis’s court. I don’t think we have an amazingly detailed account [from the translator] and there’s no account from the other side. I wish we had one from Khan’s side. On their side, [Khan was one of three ambassadors from India, sent to France by Tipu Sultan to solicit help in pushing back against the British] we don’t have an accounting from them. They were beheaded [by Tipu Sultan after they returned to India, for falling short of the goals he set for their mission.] It’s too bad.


Vigée Le Brun is the master of “Make me look exactly like myself, only 20 percent more attractive.” Is she generally regarded as a reliable narrator? She was a pretty reliable narrator. Her memoir is pretty detailed, but it’s a fun read. She liked to tell stories of interesting characters [who sat for her]. She described who the people are–a lot of it is that. Her recounting is what’s used over and over in many books about the subject. From all sides, different people use her as a source, for sure.


Khan and his two colleagues, who Tipu Sultan sent to France, were faithful muslims. Islam maintains a taboo against depicting the image of Muhammad, the main human figure within the religion. Would the three men have had a baseline objection to having their images recorded? Certainly. Being captured pictorially was very foreign to them. Which is why Le Brun knew why she had to make the request of the king wanting something [wanting their portraits] for them to go for it. There was hesitation.


Yeah, about that. In her memoirs, Vigée Le Brun writes, “I saw these Indians at the opera and they appeared to me so remarkably picturesque that I thought I should like to paint them. But as they communicated to their interpreter that they would never allow themselves to be painted unless the request came from the King, I managed to secure that favour from His Majesty.” She makes it sound like getting the French king to do what she wanted was easy. I realize she was tight with the queen and the French court, but come on, it had to be tougher then she lets on, yes? It was definitely not as easy as that, but it reflects back on her resourcefulness. She knew she had to be strategic about it. I think she would say the queen [helped her] if it was the queen. She probably arranged it through her contacts at court. She knew them, and they knew her. She was part of the circle.


When I think of paintings by Vigée Le Brun, I think of portraits like lot 51, the 1804 pastel of Mrs. Spencer Perceval. The Khan portrait is unusual in the artist’s output, and I’d like to discuss what marks it out. I see that Khan is not looking at the viewer. How atypical is that for a Vigée Le Brun portrait? It’s not unique. It’s not common, but there are definitely other examples [of sitters not making eye contact]. In some of her Marie-Antoinette portraits, the queen is not looking directly at the viewer, especially the ones painted at full length. She said in her memoirs that Khan stood in this pose and she did not direct him. He stood, grabbed his sword, and looked off in that direction with fierce power. That was that. She was blown away, and she went with it.


I realize that full-length portraits often reflect the purse of the sitter–the wealthier you were, the larger your portrait could be–but obviously, she wouldn’t have charged Khan for this. Most of her full-length portraits are of Marie-Antoinette. To me, it shows how important this painting is in her entire oeuvre.


The lot notes comment on how Khan looks “imposing and formidable.” That’s not a typical trait we see in those who sit for Vigée Le Brun, Lot 51 is kind of like an image of a kitten with a bow, and the Khan image is like an image of a tiger. How does the artist communicate Khan’s ferocity? It’s the look on his face, but a lot of it is the pose. It’s amazing to me, the masculine power–“Let me hold a large sharp sword”–but the sword has beautiful detailed carving. It’s a work of art in itself. There’s a balance to the sense of power that comes from the sword, the pose, and the look.


Does she depict anyone else who looks as fierce as Khan? Not that I can think of. To me, there’s nothing like this one.


To get back to skills that she had to have beyond the ability to paint–she would have had to have kept Khan standing and engaged long enough to finish her work in an age before television, radio, video games, podcasts, the Internet, smart phones, and the like. Did she talk about how she managed him while she painted him? In her memoirs, she talks about how she loved the theater, and loved to sing. Marie-Antoinette and she would sing during sittings. Other than that, she didn’t talk about strategies to keep sitters engaged. But she must have some, because she did a lot of painting.


And would she have, say, finished Khan’s face on the spot and simply laid in details of his costume and sword and finished them later, back at her studio? I imagine a lot of what she did, she did there and then. The details of the costume were probably done then. Certainly she would have finished the background separately.


The notes say she painted Khan’s two colleagues as well, and the portrait of Osman Khan has since been lost. Do we know where the third painting is? She painted the other two ambassadors together, with the elder ambassador seated and the other standing behind him. That portrait is now lost. There’s a drawing of the 1789 Salon [a prestigious annual art exhibit then held in France] that shows it mapped out. That portrait is in it, and it’s the only record we had of it. [If you scroll down on this link, you can see the drawing of the 1789 Salon on the lower right. It’s figure four.] It was the final Salon under the king’s reign. Vigée Le Brun left France in October.


The drama continued after she finished the portrait. Khan hid it behind his bed and refused to give it to her. She persuaded his servant to steal it back, and that caused a worse problem. Evidently Khan was angry enough to kill the servant over the theft, and an interpreter had to intervene. He convinced him that punishing the underling with death was a breach of French custom, and that the man handed it over at the request of the king. Do we have a notion of why Khan would have refused to give the painting back to the artist? I imagine it had something to do with religion. In her memoirs, she says he hid it behind the bed and told her ‘the painting needed a soul.’ He might have been frightened by the image of himself. It was probably a very foreign concept to him. He might have been frightened by it and not wanted to give it back to her. The servant was probably a French servant, arranged for by the king. The painting was at the hotel where Khan stayed. The servant ended up going in to get the painting. We don’t have the exact details [of how he retrieved it]. The translator said he had to say no, no, you can’t just behead a servant for something like this. Everyone was OK in the end, and she got the painting, for which we are all grateful.


If I walk into a room full of Old Masters that includes a work by Vigée Le Brun, it calls me right over to it. Why was Vigée Le Brun so damn good at what she did? She was a brilliant painter and a brilliant portraitist, able to capture the subject with a sense of knowing them. I think her early training as a pastelist shows a sense of softness and light that comes from the pastel medium. Her social skills were advanced, and she used them to her advantage to get the sittings she got and to draw out her sitters. She studied them and knew who they were, and she focused on them.


In scanning the lot notes, it looks like the Khan portrait was last at auction in 1893. Is that right? I believe so.


How did you arrive at the estimate for this? It was not an easy one to price. It’s so atypical for her. We had to see how it was different than a portrait by Vigée Le Brun. The comparables we looked to were Joshua Reynolds’s circa 1776 Portrait of Omai, It’s a full-length portrait of a person in Polynesian dress. We sold it in November 2015 for $13 million to $14 million. [Scroll down on this link to see the portrait. It’s figure three on the lower right.] For us, the Khan portrait is more like pictures like that–a capable and impressive artist of the Western tradition, painting someone in exotic dress who has a sense of power and intrigue.


What is the painting like in person? It’s enormous. It’s so impressive and grand. It’s just huge. It’s unbelievably powerful. You step back when you see it. He is big, and he is grand and magnificent.


How to bid: Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape is lot 48 in the Master Paintings Evening Sale scheduled for January 30, 2019 at Sotheby’s New York.


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.


Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram.


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


You can buy Vigée Le Brun’s memoirs from Powell’s or another independent bookseller.


Sotheby’s also published two pieces on its website about Vigée Le Brun and about a larger group of women artists whose works appear in the January 30 auction: The volatile Saga Behind Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of India’s Ambassador to France, and The Women Who Dared to Paint.


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