A Berlin Wall Segment Could Command More Than $23,000 at Summers Place

An original four-piece segment of the Berlin Wall, standing almost 12  almost eight feet deep, and spanning more than 15 feet (including the base slabs). It once belonged to the Parliament of Trees memorial in Berlin. The German phrase stencil-graffitied on the section, spoken by then-German president Richard von Weizsäcker, translates as: "To Unite Means to Learn to Share". It is gray, with black lettering, and was photographed outdoors against a blue sky.

What you see: An original four-piece segment of the Berlin Wall, standing almost 12 feet high, almost eight feet deep, and spanning more than 15 feet (including the base slabs). It once belonged to the Parliament of Trees memorial in Berlin. The German phrase stencil-graffitied on the section, spoken by then-German president Richard von Weizsäcker, translates as: “To Unite Means to Learn to Share”. Summers Place Auctions estimates it at £12,000 to £18,000 ($15,600 to $23,400).

The expert: James Rylands, director of Summers Place.

For those who don’t remember the Berlin Wall, let’s talk about it–why did it go up? Why was it notorious? Why was its dismemberment celebrated? The Berlin Wall was one of the most defining things of the 20th century, from a physical and a psychological point of view. It went up in 1961, and a huge amount of East Germans fled to the west by the time it went up. Something like 20 percent of the population fled to the west. It was put up by the German Democratic Republic, which is an oxymoron–it was an Eastern Bloc Soviet state that restricted movement, and personal movement. Barbed wire went up overnight, and over 10 to 15 years, they refined the wall. It became more elaborate and secure. Literally overnight, families were divided.

How many people tried to breach the Berlin Wall? About 5,000 did. We don’t know [exactly] how many died [in their attempt to escape], but it was about 150.

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall came down? I remember it very well. I’m 60, and I remember it so clearly. Through the Cold War years, we thought we would all die in our beds [from a nuclear bomb dropped by the USSR]. Total obliteration. When the wall came down, it was just huge. Scenes of euphoria. The Berlin Wall was a very obvious physical manifestation of the regime. It went from people attacking it as a symbol of oppression to being attacked by souvenir hunters. It became an instrument of capitalism, people chipping off sections and selling souvenirs. In the news section of our site, we have a story about 16 places around the world where sections of the Berlin Wall ended up–South Korea, the Vatican, Schengan in Luxembourg–it’s worth reading. The Berlin Wall ran for 96 miles, and most of it was turned to rubble and used to build highways.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of those ‘where were you when’ moments, but it’s unusual for being a happy moment. Most of those moments–Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, 9/11–are tragic. This isn’t. You’re right. It rarely gets concrete.

Literally! Exactly.

It must have been a heck of a party when the Berlin Wall came down. Can you imagine the hangovers after that?

I see in the lot notes that the Berlin Wall section in lot 22 stands almost 12 feet tall, but what does it weigh? It’s in four sections, and each bit weighs just under four tons. All together [with the base slabs] it’s about 15 tons, total.

The dimensions note that the section is more than 15 feet wide “overall.” What does that mean here? [In the photo ] you can see a bit that hasn’t been painted–

Like a stand? Yes. The same thing goes out on the other side. Front to back.

So the wall section sits on slabs? Yes. It’s not an easy thing to hop over, especially considering it [the vertical surface] would have been smooth, and it had things [deterrents] on the top as well. To get over that was quite a feat.

And this was once part of the Parliament of Trees monument in Berlin, but it was deaccessed? When? Artist Ben Wagin painted on it in 1990, when it became part of the Parliament of Trees. They [the stewards of the monument] built out at that stage and sold it or disposed of it [to reshape the monument]. The consigner acquired it literally after they sold it [later in 1990].

So the section was part of the Parliament of Trees very briefly, and then it was released? I think it was. With the Parliament of Trees, parts were moved because they were putting up other buildings on it [the site].

How did Wagin choose the von Weizsäcker quote–“To Unite Means to Learn to Share”–to stencil on this segment of the wall? Von Weizsäcker was then president of Germany, commenting on gathering and sharing. West Germany was one of the few countries that could afford to make that happen, to underwrite the whole of East Germany. It was only 45 years since World War II, and then it underwrote a whole new country.

Do you know how many other pieces of the Berlin Wall have gone to auction? I’ve been doing sales for 30 years. I started four years before the wall came down. This is the first time I’ve seen or been aware of a large section going up for sale.

How did you set the estimate? That was the most difficult thing of all. Most things in an auction have an intrinsic value. With something like this, I’m selling chunks of concrete. What price do you put on the provenance and the history? I think it’s a modest estimate. If it [and its consecutive sister lot] fetch £100,000, I’d be pleased and not surprised.

Were the two lots of Berlin Wall segments consigned by the same person? Yes.

What is the segment with the Von Weizsäcker quote on it like in person? It’s powerful. It’s got a real wow factor. We’ve got seven acres on the Summers Place grounds. We only managed to stand one section up. [They had crane issues.] A point I should make is it’s equally at home outside as inside. In a modern building, a corporate building, a museum with a glass atrium, it will look stunning. It really will. Brutalism and urban street art–it combines the two.

How will you sell the Berlin Wall segment on the day? I take it you won’t do the auction outdoors in England in March… Bear in mind that a lot of what we sell is very big. In the sale room, each lot will go up on a TV screen.

Who do you think is going to buy this? Who is the audience? In a way, that’s what makes it a rich man’s lot. It’s going to be an institution or someone with a sufficient indoor-outdoor space. And I don’t preclude selling this to the Russians. We sell quite a lot to Russians. I just pray, and this is me taking off my auctioneer hat here, I hope it ends up in a public institution.

What about an ex-East German? People who were young when it came down… Berlin is a rich city now. What a wonderful thing, to buy it back.

How to bid: The segment of the Berlin Wall is lot 22 in the Garden and Natural History sale on March 12, 2019 at Summers Place Auctions.

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THB Bonus! See My Robb Report Muse Story on Sotheby’s “By Women, For Tomorrow’s Women” Benefit Auction, Co-Chaired by Agnes Gund and Oprah Winfrey

Collector Agnes Gund, seated and wearing a red dress and pearls. Behind her are several selections from the 2019 By Women, For Tomorrow's Women auction at Sotheby's, including Carmen Herrera's Blanco y Verde.

Thought you all might enjoy my story for Robb Report Muse on By Women, For Tomorrow’s Women, a benefit auction with honorary co-chairs Oprah Winfrey and Agnes Gund.

Hosted by Sotheby’s, the auction lineup consists entirely of works by women artists. Proceeds will benefit the financial aid program at Miss Porter’s School.

Read the story here.

Giovanni Boldini’s Portrait of John Singer Sargent Could Fetch Almost $400,000 at Christie’s

Giovanni Boldini's oil on panel portrait of John Singer Sargent shows the man in full, facing the viewer but not locking eyes with us. He has hitched his thumbs into the band of his waistcoat. He has threaded his cane behind his back, resting the ends on his elbows. While the image of Sargent is finished, the portrait and especially its background have a sketchy feel, with dozens of visible brush strokes.

What you see: An oil on panel portrait of the artist John Singer Sargent, painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1890. Christie’s estimates it at £200,000 to £300,000 ($261,800 to $391,200).

The expert: Veronica Scarpati, specialist at Christie’s London.

How did Boldini and Sargent know one another? Sargent was 14 years’ Boldini’s junior, but they were in the same circles and painted the same subjects. As Sargent was leaving for London [in 1886], he gave his Paris studio to Boldini, and he made it his home for the rest of his life. They always knew of each other and each other’s work.

Do we know the circumstances of how the portrait came about? If you look at it, the scale of the work is very intimate [it measures 14 1/4 by 11 inches] and very quickly done. I would imagine it was very informally done. There’s nothing planned about it. It’s very spontaneous. What I love about it is you can see the board [the panel] coming through, especially on the edges. It doesn’t appear to be a commission, or a study. It’s an artist at play, looking up to and admiring [his friend]. That’s why it’s so special. It’s frank and intimate.

Do we have any idea how Boldini might have done this portrait? Would he have asked Sargent to pose, or would he have done this from memory? Without having been there, we could infer from the way it’s painted–very immediate and very loose–perhaps a bit of both. I don’t imagine Sargent in the studio holding this pose. Boldini might have had this image in his head and brought forth Sargent’s personality.

Yeah, Sargent standing there in the studio like that… that would be uncomfortable. (Laughs) With the stick behind his back…

Is this the first of the three known Boldini portraits of Sargent? Do the other two survive? If so, how do they compare to this one? The other two works do survive. One is more complete and lacking the sense of energy which exudes from ours, whilst the other is a sketchy watercolor head study. These are different kinds of works. Whereas ours is more immediate and full of energy, the other two are more posed. We expect they were all painted around 1889.

Where are the other two Boldini portraits of Sargent? Have either come to auction before? The less vibrant, composed sketch was owned by the artist Jean Gabriel Domergue, and it was offered in auction in 1965 and 1988. [One of the other two Boldini portraits of Sargent can be seen online; the watercolor head study has proven elusive.]

This portrait was first sold at auction at Christie’s in 2003 [the lot is too far in the past to find through the auction house’s website search engine]. How did it do then? How did that performance shape its current estimate? What other factors shaped its estimate? Back in 2003, the market was much smaller, and concentrated on connoisseurship, whereas in the last few years in particular, we have seen more openness within our collectors—who, despite being traditional buyers in one category or another, will both recognize and appreciate the skill and importance of artists they wouldn’t normally collect, and translate that enthusiasm into active bidding. Alongside this, we have had more and more cross-category sales in recent seasons, which has helped with the cross-pollination. The Adventurous Spirit Collection, from which this work is offered, is a perfect example of this.

Is there a contingent of collectors out there who deliberately seek artists’ portraits of other artists, who would be keen to go after this? Definitely. Working at an auction house such as Christie’s, you find that there are collectors for pretty much everything. There are some that love self-portraits of artists. There’s something to be said for artists’ portraits of artists. I’d be lying if I said I could think of three names off the top of my head [of collectors who’d want it] but it’s exactly what speaks to cross-category buyers. If you love Boldini or Sargent, it’s a jewel, and you’re drawn to it because of the narrative between them.

This strikes me as being more lively than Boldini’s formal portraits of sitters. Does the Singer portrait represent a departure for him? It’s really comfortable in its intimacy. Every time I view it with a colleague or a client, they say, “Wow, that’s so modern.” The way he attacks the board with the paint–the red in the tie is very strong, and just above the shoulder, there’s green. They’re contrasts on the color wheel, but it works. It’s immediate. It’s not structured. There’s no sense of having a patron watching over his shoulder. Just one artist who understands and admires another artist, just painting. That’s what makes it modern and unbridled.

Did Boldini choose that sense of sketchiness to impart movement to the portrait? Definitely. There’s a sense of movement, a sense of dynamism. Look at the lines in the background, the left quadrant. There’s one very strong, deep black line. Very strong diagonals and verticals in the background add energy. The trouser leg is a couple of lines–that’s it. You definitely get a sense of movement, even though the figure is standing still.

This is an oil on panel, but if you’d told me this was a chalk or a pastel, I’d have believed you. How is Boldini getting that effect? He’s using very rapid brushstrokes. There’s no hesitation whatsoever. It’s him attacking the board, building up the colors of his composition as he goes. See where he spends his time–on the hands, the head, the neck. He spends less time on the right foot. That’s almost a ghost of where the shoe should be. I think the eyes are very warm and soft. The hands still look sketchlike, but he’s definitely concentrating, paying attention, because what is an artist without his hands? For all the looseness, there’s a sense of a triangular composition. You’re drawn to the face, then the hands, and back up. It’s really brilliant. It’s almost as if he didn’t think about it, but there’s definitely rhythm and reason behind the composition.

What is the portrait like in person? It’s a jewel, an absolute jewel. Our photo studio is amazing, and worked hard to get the colors as true as they are. Though they came very close, it’s never the same as seeing a piece in the room. With this piece, the pictures don’t do it justice. It’s really luminous. The colors are richer and more saturated. It seems more alive than it looks. It vibrates with energy when you see it in the flesh. And the scale of it is small and helps create the sense of it being jewel-like.

From the looks of the provenance, Boldini never gave this portrait to Sargent. Why might he have kept it? There’s no hard and fast reason why. I imagine because it’s a really lovely piece, a nice memento, he kept it close to his heart because he really treasured it. We can only speculate, and imagine where this testament of friendship would have sat in his studio, possibly making an interesting talking point with his clients.

How to bid: The Giovanni Boldini portrait of John Singer Sargent is lot 29 in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s London on February 27, 2019.

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A Paul Manship Bronze Could Command $250,000

Indian Hunter, a 1914 bronze by Paul Manship, depicts a Native American down on one knee, pulling back the string of his bow. His face is serious and focused.

What you see: Indian Hunter, sculpted in 1914 by Paul Manship. Sotheby’s estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.

The expert: Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s.

How many versions of Indian Hunter did Paul Manship make? He cast the tabletop version in an edition of 15 in 1914. He cast a monumental version as a commission in 1917. It was the only one of those versions he cast. There are two authorized reproductions, including the one outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There are no others outside those.

Do we know how he made this sculpture? Did he rely on a live model, or pose a model for a reference photograph, or create it from memory? The image of the Native American is something Manship drew upon time and time again in his career. We don’t know exactly how the sculpture was done, but we can say a lot was drawn from memory or experience. After a time of study in Europe he gained an appreciation for archaic Greek art and translated it into this subject.

What makes this sculpture a Paul Manship bronze? What details or aspects mark this as his work? I think this really embodies a distinct aesthetic. It’s uniquely naturalistic and detail-oriented, and simultaneously, it’s contemporary and simplified. A few aspects I love about his work on Indian Hunter are the braids–they’re incredibly detailed. The ribs are muscular and realistic. With the left hand gripping the bow, you see the detail on the fingers and the fingernails.

Manship sculpted Pronghorn Antelope first, earlier in 1914. How do the sculptures relate to each other and complement each other? They were cast together and meant to be viewed as a pair. He drew upon his interpretation of the myth of the labors of Hercules. He recast Hercules as a Native American hunter and cast the Cerynian Hind as an antelope. He translated a Greek myth that would have been familiar with while abroad in Rome and put his own unique spin on it, in a language that would have been more familiar to him.

Did this tabletop version of Indian Hunter originally come with a similar-size version of Pronghorn Antelope? Though they were cast together, they weren’t always sold together. This was sold as a single piece. Seeing them together is certainly wonderful. There’s an activation of energy with the release of the imaginary arrow.

Was Pronghorn Antelope done in a limited edition of 15? To the best of our knowledge, it was.

He initially created the sculptures for himself, to decorate his New York apartment. Did he approach these differently than he did his commissioned pieces? Is that visible in the works? They’re completely indistinguishable from something he did on commission. Though maybe he made one for New York and the other 14 were created and intended for distribution. What he created for his home is not separate from other commissions.

Manship’s interest in Greek art shines through here and ennobles his subject. But was that controversial in 1914–to ennoble a Native American as a figure equal to the heroic male sculptures of ancient Greek art? I don’t know how to answer that. I can say that when they were produced, they were received very well by the public at the time. Herbert Pratt [a head of Standard Oil] saw them and commissioned large-scale versions with Manship.

How hands-on was Manship in the casting of the bronzes? He didn’t produce on a mass scale, making us think he was quite involved in the process.

How often does this Paul Manship bronze come up at auction? They don’t come up very often. At least 11 are in museums. Three or four have come up previously in pairs, and there was a sterling silver version, separate from the 15 that were cast. You could consider it a sixteenth version. It sold in May 2013 for $425,000.

What’s the record for an Indian Hunter at auction? A pair sold for $782,500 at Christie’s in 2012.

And this sculpture was originally sold alone? It was passed down in the collector’s family for decades. They’ve only ever owned Indian Hunter. It seems they only acquired this work.

This is the first time this particular one has come to auction. How rare is it to have a Paul Manship bronze that’s fresh to market? It depends on the version we’re discussing, but it’s not that many. He didn’t produce anything en masse. One of my favorite things about the work is it’s fresh to market. We’ve never seen this exact work before. I think that’s something generally exciting for the client as well.

Did Manship number the bronze? No. That’s not generally something he did with his casts.

What is it like in person? It has a beautiful, rich surface. The patina is very rich and soft as well. One of my favorite aspects is the braids. The detail is quite crisp and precise.

How to bid: Indian Hunter is lot 81 in the American Art sale at Sotheby’s New York on March 6, 2019.

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SOLD! The Dr. Mary Edwards Walker Tintype Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

In this circa 1865 tintype, American physician Mary Edwards Walker wears her Medal of Honor. It appears on the upper left of her chest. She wears matching trousers under her black dress. She's depicted in three-quarter view, looking to the right, with her hands clasped.

Update: The circa 1865 tintype of American physician Mary Edwards Walker wearing her Medal of Honor sold for $9,375.

What you see: A circa 1865 tintype of American physician Mary Edwards Walker, taken in the year she received the Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $6,000 to $9,000.

The expert: Deborah Rogal, associate director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.

How often was Walker photographed around this time, and during her life? Do we know how many photos of her exist, tintype or otherwise? There are several known photos of her from all periods of her life, but fewer than ten, I’d say.

Do we have a more precise date on the tintype than 1865? I’m wondering if this is the first portrait of her wearing her Medal of Honor. No. I wish we did. There’s no way for us to pinpoint a more specific date. It’s dated primarily on the presence of the medal, which she won in 1865, and the overall appearance.

Could we talk a bit about Walker’s life story? I did not know about her until I spotted this lot in the Swann catalog. I also didn’t know about her until we received the object. She was an extraordinary person. It’s amazing she’s not more widely appreciated for who she was.

Her parents were progressive. They encouraged her education and encouraged her to dress how she wanted. She went to Syracuse Medical College and graduated as a doctor. She married [a fellow medical student] and privately practiced together. As far as I understand, trusting female doctors was not something patients found easy to do [so the practice struggled]. From her youth, she wore uncommon dress. In some ways, that was the most radical thing she did. She carried on, progressively getting more masculine [in her choice of clothing], but she wouldn’t refer to it that way. She didn’t wear corsets and was really outspoken about it. It caused a lot of backlash.

Let’s talk about her work during the Civil War, which led to her becoming the first, and so far, only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. When war broke out, she volunteered her services as a doctor. She crossed enemy lines [to tend to patients]. I think she believed powerfully in the ability to serve, and she was proud of her service. She wore her Medal of Honor in almost every photo taken of her after the war, and she refused to relinquish it. She was very proud of it, and deservedly so. After the war, she became a vocal proponent of women’s rights.

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How did she win the Medal of Honor? As far as I understand, she attempted to retroactively receive a commission from the Army, partly to receive benefits. People didn’t know what to do with her. I think the medal was a way for them to give her recognition without giving her formal status as a veteran, which she was asking for. It was the first time a woman was awarded the medal. She believed she earned it for her bravery. She was very brave. She traveled in the south, and she was taken as a prisoner of war. [She was captured in April 1864 and released in a prisoner exchange four months later.]

The government rescinded the medal in 1917, two years before she died. But her medal was NOT taken away because she was an outspoken activist for women’s rights, correct? I do think her being a woman was an element, but it was not because of that. [The government of the time] questioned how the Medal of Honor was awarded in the past. Many others had theirs retroactively rescinded. [More than 900 recipients suffered the same fate as Walker. Some were removed because they were not technically members of the military when they earned the honor.] She got it back after her death. [President Jimmy Carter restored the honor to Walker in 1977.]

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The tintype shows her wearing pants. Was it a brave act for a woman to pose for a photo in 1865 while wearing pants? Absolutely. There are women willing to record themselves wearing pants–women in bloomers, and women who served in the army and dressed as men to do that. But I don’t think they dressed that way as a matter of course through their lives. What sets Walker apart is her commitment. She dressed this way throughout her life. [She felt] women should not be forced to wear clothing that impacted their health and denied them the range of possibilities that men had. There was another level on which she was very brave. There are anecdotal stories of her wearing pants and being chased or having objects thrown at her, and she was arrested at least once for dressing this way. But she was very sure of herself. An appealing aspect to her personality was that she was so confident and articulate about her choices.

Would she have worn an outfit like this on the battlefield, or are these more formal clothes? The outfit in the tintype, I’d say, is certainly more formal than what she wore during the war. She would have dressed in a more casual manner. I understand that she styled herself a uniform like the Army uniform.

Is there any information recorded on the tintype itself? There is not, which is typical for tintypes of the period. Tintypes were an incredibly popular medium for doing portraits. There were studios, and there were itinerant tintypists. They were accessible and quick to produce. You see a lot of soldiers commemorating their own service or giving them to family members while they are away.

Can we tell by looking why Walker might have had this tintype made–whether she did it for herself, or for someone else, or to promote herself? It’s impossible to know for sure, given that tintypes are unique objects by definition. It’s possible to imagine she made it for herself or someone close to her.

What’s that light-colored thing that’s behind her in the picture? It looks like a studio prop. It could be a partially obscured portrait stand, which was used to position your body so you don’t make a move during the exposure and make a blurry image.

How did this tintype come to you? Was Walker identified as the sitter when it was consigned, or did you identify her? It came from a consigner we have a relationship with, who has a lot of expertise in the period and its images. He came to us with the attribution, and we did additional research. We were not able to find a previous publication of the piece, and we believe it’s unique and undocumented.

How did the tintype manage to go unpublished until now? Anything I could say would be guessing. It probably descended through family members. It was not part of her estate when she died. We do see this all the time–things appear out of nowhere, and we’re able to rediscover them.

I imagine Walker would have been easy to identify regardless, given that she’s wearing pants and a Medal of Honor. The object is small, but an aspect of tintypes is the detail. The medal is really quite clear when you look at it with magnification. It’s incredible to see that.

Have any other images of Walker gone to auction? What did they fetch? Records for Walker are very scarce. Christie’s sold a signed 1877 photograph of her in April 1996 for $4,370.

I imagine you’ll get cross-competition for this from several groups–tintype collectors, fans of early photographs, medical historians, military history fans, people interested in women’s rights… We expect that, certainly. It touches a lot of aspects of history in America, and it appeals to a wide audience. The conversations happening in the country now are relevant to the conversations that happened in Walker’s lifetime–what she could wear, could women vote, how we respond to women who have strong opinions. I see the line of conversation through history. Has it changed or not changed? She’s clearly still relevant. Her passion and her strength resonates strongly, and I hope collectors will feel that.

What condition is the tintype in? The image itself has not faded. I do see handling issues that are common with this piece, but the details retained in the image are incredible. I was looking at it yesterday. Her hands are clasped, and under the loupe, you can see the veins in her hands. The tintype format allows us to retain a sense of immediacy. I felt her presence strongly in the image. Paper images of the period don’t retain detail at the same level.

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When I saw this lot, I felt angry, because I had never heard about Walker before, and this is how I learned about her–not in school, but by leafing through an online auction catalog. Do you understand what I mean? Exactly. I felt some of the things you’re describing. I feel lucky to be able to offer the image and expose her more. She was a bit of a difficult person, so opinionated, so strong, and so unable to cede to the [women’s rights] movement around her. It had an impact on how she’s remembered today. It’s unfortunate. She should be remembered for her foresight and her contributions. History is not written by women. That’s not new, but we can change that. She’s the only female Medal of Honor winner. She’s one of the first female doctors in the country. She’s incredible, and I hope we’ll be able to reenter her in our history.

How to bid: The circa 1865 tintype of Mary Edwards Walker wearing her Medal of Honor is lot 15 in the Photographs: Art & Visual Culture auction at Swann, taking place February 21, 2019.

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This Civil War-era Quilt Has a Heartbreaking Backstory. Skinner Could Sell It for $60,000

A stunning pieced and appliquéd cotton memorial quilt, created circa 1863 by Mary (aka Polly) Bell Shawvan. Its background is a warm yellow, almost a school bus yellow. At its center is a spread-winged eagle with an American shield on its chest. It is surrounded by blooming branches and vines in a winding but symmetrical pattern. Several small birds with black wings perch on the branches. Unlike most quilt-makers, Shawvan treated the quilt as a large canvas to spread her imagery upon, rather than stitching blocks together.

What you see: A pieced and appliquéd cotton memorial quilt, created circa 1863 by Mary (aka Polly) Bell Shawvan. Skinner estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

The expert: Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner.

How do we know that Mary Shawvan made this quilt around 1863? The answer to both is family tradition. [The family] consigned it in 2003, and it was well-enough documented when it was made to know it was 1863, more or less. He [John, Mary’s husband] died later in 1863. The supposition is she finished it in 1863, then he died. We found no reason to argue. The family always thought that she finished it before he died.

And the family showed it in quilt competitions after John’s death? They showed it because Mary was proud of her work, and it was a symbol of lamentation in the family. It was meant to be a homecoming gift for John [who was fighting for the Union in the Civil War when he was killed in the Battle of Chickamauga]. It was put away after his death. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s a pure distillation of folk quiltwork. Mary Shawvan shows herself at her most artistic. She didn’t follow a pattern. This is a fully freehand design.

How often do you see 19th century quilts designed like this–as if the entire thing is a single canvas? Not often. Certainly not to this degree. Quilts with one overarching design throughout are not unprecedented, but they’re rare.

What challenges did she face in making this quilt? To distill an image across 84 by 81 1/2 inches is difficult. It would require a lot of planning and effort. It’s easier to lay out 36 blocks. That’s why you don’t see many done like this.

Would she have worked alone on this quilt, or might her children have helped? Traditionally, this kind of thing was done by one person. There’s no reason to believe she had help. Certainly, she would have worked it over the course of several months. She was essentially a single mother when he was at war, and they had six children. She probably put hundreds of hours into it unless she was really good and really fast.

I was going to ask if she was inspired to make the quilt after learning that he died at the Battle of Chickamauga, but it sounds like he died after or around the time she finished it. We term it a memorial quilt, but it’s a memorial quilt by circumstance. It was not intentional. It imbues the whole thing with a sense of melancholy, but it doesn’t diminish its beauty.

Is it unusual to see a 19th century quilt with a yellow background? That is a lot of yellow. It is. You probably can’t see it, but there’s a pattern to it. It’s printed. It’s a very subtle pattern in the color itself. It’s not sewn on. It gives the background color of the quilt a bit more life.

Are there other details that don’t quite show up on camera? Every single bird is done by what’s called stuffed work. It’s cotton batting that gives them a three-dimensionality. It’s very unusual in quilt-making. The kind of stuffed work you see on this quilt is especially difficult work, requiring an incredibly talented hand to do it.

Are the birds and the flowers there just because they look nice, or is there an iconography to the quilt? Do the birds represent John, Mary, and the kids, for example? As far as I can tell, the only real symbol is the eagle, which denotes patriotism. It [any iconographic significance] was possibly known to Mary, but it was not passed down in the family. What you’re looking at are choices of design and color. There’s no memorial imagery here.

The quilt measures 84 by 81 1/2 inches. Is that a typical size for a 19th century American quilt? It’s about the typical size. The smallest dimensions you see are six feet, or 72 inches, and maybe they go up to 100 inches. It’s no bigger or smaller than typical quilts of the period.

Do we know how the Shawvans used the quilt? All we know is what we were told from family lore. John was such a beloved husband and father that [the quilt] represented melancholy, and it was put away and not used. Because it was not used, it remained as vibrant as the day it was made when it was consigned to us 130 years later. That’s unusual for a quilt of any kind, never mind a folk art masterpiece like this one. Usually, the reds and pinks have a tendency to go light brown quicker than others, or lose their vitality. The fact that they’re as vibrant as they are speaks to it not seeing the light of day for a century and a half. In addition, I think the birds’ wings use silk, which has a tendency to shatter in place, and shred. “Shatter” is a word used to describe what happens to silk when it loses its integrity. It shatters like glass, but it doesn’t come out of where it is. The black silk [on the birds’ wings] is totally intact.

Skinner first sold the quilt in 2003. How did it perform then? We offered it at $50,000 to $75,000 at the time, and it sold for $149,000. It was purchased by a private collector in the Boston area who knew the story, and knew it was put away in melancholy circumstances. He put it away in the same plastic bag that the family consigned it in. This is undoubtedly the best quilt we’ve ever sold.

Really? What makes it the best quilt Skinner has ever sold? All the different ways a piece of folk art can be valuable, this is [valuable]. It has a great story, it has great artistry, it has a charming and whimsical approach to composition, and the condition is as good as any quilt can be.

How many different types of collectors will compete for this quilt? Certainly quilt and textile people. Also, folk art people, which can include quilt people. The person who bought it in 2003 was not a quilt collector, but a folk art collector. And lovers of history, and American history, specifically. John Shawvan was a color sergeant and a father of six. He enlisted when he didn’t have to, for a cause he believed in. There’s a huge group of collectors of American historical items who appreciate it when you can identify specific persons and families [connected to the item].

How do we know he believed in the Union cause? He enlisted in October of 1861 though he had substantial family obligations. That implies to me that he believed so strongly in the cause he was almost compelled to leave his family. What other reason could there be?

Were you at Skinner when the quilt sold the first time? No. I was here in 2003, but it predates my tenure by about seven months.

Why will this quilt stick in your memory? I will never forget it because it’s so rare to have this confluence of characteristics. It’s a fully realized folk masterpiece of a quilt, with a full family history, a compelling story, and impeccable condition.

How to bid: The Shawvan memorial quilt is lot 65 in the American Furniture & Decorative Arts sale scheduled at Skinner on March 2, 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.

You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Skinner.

Chris Barber spoke to The Hot Bid last year about a Jess Blackstone robin and in February 2017 about an unusually charming double folk portrait that ultimately sold for $9,840.

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SOLD! Kenneth Nolan’s Songs: Yesterdays Fetched (Scroll Down to See) Also! Happy Birthday to The Hot Bid

Kenneth Noland's Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas, features a large chevron at the top of the canvas, pointing down. It's colored in bands of silver, black, red, and yellow. All four are textured. The pink backdrop is smooth.

Update: Kenneth Noland’s Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas, sold for $550,000 at LAMA–just over five times its low estimate.

And a special note: Today is the second anniversary of the debut of The Hot Bid. The first post featured LAMA’s Peter Loughrey talking about an Alma Thomas oil on canvas that went on to set an auction record for the artist.

What you see: Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas from the late Kenneth Noland. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

The expert: Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA.

How prolific was Noland? He was very prolific. He quickly became a prominent figure in the Color Field school. Of all the artists who emerged from that movement, he became one of the most celebrated, with the target series in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1963, he was fairly well-established.

How often do his works come up at auction? Fairly often. There’s a lot of material out there. It trades hands with good regularity.

Is Songs: Yesterdays a one-off, or part of a series? It’s part of a series from the 1980s, when he returned to the chevron shape. He started it in the 1960s and he revisited it. The [1980s] works were named after songs. I don’t think this one was named after the Beatles song. I think he named it after an older song called Yesterdays. He not only revisited the shape of the icon, but he goes back to his own history, the music of his youth.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Chevrons are a recurring theme in Noland’s work. Is there a ranked order to the popularity of specific themes in his work? Do collectors prefer his circles/targets to his chevrons, for example? If you asked the artist that, he would say “Absolutely not,” but the market has spoken. Circles/targets sell for the most. The chevrons are a very iconic part of his work. If you ranked [the themes] by their price in the market, the place of chevrons seems to be second.

I understand that Noland stained his canvases rather than brushing the color on with paints. Has he done that here? His earliest works, yes, were part of the stained canvases. Many artists were disengaging with the brush after [Jackson] Pollock. In this case, in the 1980s, Noland returned to the brush and palette knife.

How did he produce the texture on the chevrons? Did he use a palette knife? Definitely with a scraping device. A palette knife is typically how an artist would get this type of texture. If not a palette knife, a variation on the palette knife. A trowel, for example.

The pink area doesn’t show any evidence of brush strokes. Do we know what Noland did there? I looked for the technique in anticipation of your call. I didn’t find something that proved how he got it. The pink area is very flat. He’s playing with texture with paint. He contrasts an area where there’s no sign of the artist’s hand to an area with overt sign of the artist’s hand.

Songs: Yesterdays measures 88.5 inches by 69.1 inches. Is that a typical size for Noland? It’s a typical size from the 1980s. His 80s works tend to be fairly robust in scale.

Did Noland name the painting? He would have.

He painted this in 1985 and died in 2010. Is this considered a late work for him? It’s a late period work. I spoke to him in 2008 or 2009 on a very early abstract piece I was selling, and he was very quick to point out that he was busier now than ever. Past his mid-career, he still had a fairly long, strong output. He returned to the circles after the chevrons. It’s interesting that when he returned to the old icons, he returned to the chevrons first.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Has the market for Noland works changed over time? Are there things collectors want now that they didn’t want as much ten years ago? It comes down to supply and demand. Paintings from 1963 are just rarer. There are not many opportunities [to bid], so they tend to sell for much higher. Works from the 1980s are much more available. In the last two or three years large 1980s chevrons have come up on the market. On December 3 in France, one estimated at $70,000 to $90,000 sold for $272,000. It was a chevron that was an almost identical-looking picture, and it was the same size [as this one]. There’s definitely a trend where the prices tend to be going upward. I imagine this last one selling for $272,000 is going to trigger a lot of people to sell, if they’ve been paying attention to the market.

How often have you handled works by Noland? Not very often. This is probably the first major painting I’ve had. I’ve certainly sold a lot of his prints and graphics. I think most of his material has likely surfaced in New York and Washington, D.C. L.A. is not one of the obvious places where people collect his work.

What is it like in person? It’s vibrant. It’s really quite impressive. It’s in flawless condition, which is always nice. It almost vibrates right in front of your eyes. It’s not subtle like some of his chevrons. This is really bold, and pops out.

Are there any details that elude the camera? Not really. The subtlety of the pink area, which we discussed as being devoid of the sign of the artist’s hand, is definitely much more obvious in person. There’s a stark contrast between the purity of the color field and the texture of the stripes of the chevrons.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Why will this painting stick in your memory? I tend to like colorful, bright, optimistic works. It’s sort of who I am. If you look at the chevron work up for sale, it’s one of the brightest and most optimistic. In others, I think the colors tend to be more muted and a little darker.

How to bid: Songs: Yesterdays is lot 197 in the Modern Art & Design Auction at LAMA on February 17, 2019.

How to subscribe to The Hot Bid: Click the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

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

Peter Loughrey has appeared on The Hot Bid since the beginning–literally. The blog’s first post was on an Alma Thomas painting that LAMA ultimately sold for a world auction record. He has also discussed works by Jonathan Borofsky and Wendell Castlean exceptional 1969 dune buggy, an Ed Ruscha print that set a world auction record at LAMA, and a hyperrealistic sculpture by Carole Feuerman that ultimately set an auction record for the artist.

Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

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SOLD! An Ira Hudson Flying Black Duck Sold at Copley Fine Art Auctions For … (Scroll Down to See)

A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947. It faces left, its head in profile. The body is brown and its wings are spread. Its back is to us. A foot peeks out from under the tail.

Update: The Ira Hudson flying black duck sold for $18,000.

What you see: A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

The lot notes call Ira Hudson “the South’s greatest waterfowl folk artist of the era.” What makes him so? He appears to be self-taught, and he quickly imparted his own style into his work. He seemed to put a much higher emphasis on his style and sensibility over realism. That direction goes toward what I call whimsical. It’s more toward folk art than realism.

What do you mean when you say “whimsical”? He had a very pure and raw confidence that comes forth in his carvings. He was very efficient in every aspect of his methods. You get a high quality standard throughout his body of work, because he did it so much.

I understand that he did not rely on patterns when carving his decoys. How did that affect his work? A lot of decoy makers use patterns for the side profile and the top profile  [of a duck decoy]. It would make sense that he doesn’t use patterns. He would take a block with a rectangular cross section, turn it 45 degrees, and he’d carve from that. Patterns don’t apply to that approach to carving. In addition, we know he used wood he salvaged from the shore. When you use found material, patterns are a hindrance. And when you’re looking at someone with the confidence he had, you wouldn’t need a pattern. He could chop wood with a hatchet and make it look like a duck. You see the form influenced by the wood he had available.

Does Hudson’s avoidance of patterns make his work more interesting to collectors? Absolutely. His freestyle approach to carving created some incredibly lively, animated forms. You’ll notice with this form that the bird arches to one side. The structure of the bird is turned from tip to tail. It’s a crescent. It’s not realistic, but it’s pleasing and exciting to see, and it’s unique to his work. I don’t think anyone else has decoys with a crescent shape to them.

How often do black ducks appear in his work? He lived on Chincoteague, an island off the eastern shore of Virginia. It’s a prime black duck habitat, and black ducks are great birds to hunt. They’re respected for table fare and sport hunting. Hudson made a good number of black ducks to hunt over. That said, his full size carvings of flying black ducks are exceptionally rare. I’ve never seen another full size flying black duck.

Did Hudson introduce the concept of the flyer–a decoy depicted in the act of flying? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he originated the flyer. However, it doesn’t appear to take the idea from anyone else, and it was made around the time the first flyers were made in various regions. There’s no one around him we’d expect to be exposed to anything like this. He doesn’t get full credit, but he was a pioneer, especially for his region.

When did he start carving flyers? He started carving during the early 20th century, around 1910 or so. The first flyers started showing up in the 1930s and continued into the 1940s. It’s a natural progression considering that waterfowl laws were changing. A decorative flyer was something a sport hunter could afford and be interested in, whereas a market hunter [someone who hunts ducks to sell as food] would only be interested in the decoy.

How many flyers did Hudson make? For full size flyers in total, I’ve probably seen a few dozen.

The lot notes call this a “rare” flying black duck. What makes it rare? We look at his flyers and say, “Ok, there’s a few dozen flyers out there. Among those, you’re down to a couple of flying black ducks.” Others represented are mergansers and mallards. It’s one of the only black duck flyers.

This bird cannot be used as a duck decoy. You can’t hunt with it. It’s purely decorative. Was Hudson among the earliest creators to carve ducks that are purely decorative, or did the changing waterfowl laws nudge him in that direction? This bird is made purely as decorative rather than a decoy. His son [Delbert] painted it exactly how he would paint a decoy. Its purpose was to attract an affluent buyer to decorate a cabin with it. I would say Hudson is in sync with the top makers around the country in the era in starting to do more with decoratives. He was following market trends.

Did he carve this bird in a single piece, or is it assembled from multiple pieces? With this bird, the body is made from one piece of wood. The wings are attached, as are the head and neck. The feet are separate pieces which attach. There are six pieces in a typical flyer as opposed to two pieces in a standard decoy.

He carved the decoy from balsa wood. Is that why he needed to create six pieces? Using multiple pieces of wood for a complex form works for a couple of reasons. One, it minimizes waste. Two, you have to consider the strength of the wood, which comes from the direction of its grain. It’s projecting in different directions, so you have to have the grain aligned in the wood or you’ll have weak points that are going to break. The reason he used balsa is it’s a nice, soft, very easy material to carve. Balsa is not as good for decoys because they wear quickly. On decoratives, it’s far less important, because they’re not taking wear. Wall hangers are lighter weight to reduce the chance of it falling off the wall.

Is it possible to know why Hudson made this? Does the fact that this is one of two known flying black ducks imply this one might have been commissioned? Or might he have made it for his own pleasure? Almost certainly, he would have made it for sale, and to generate income to support his family. We can’t get too deep into the pure reasoning, but he would make anything that would sell. He made clothespins during the war, when there were rations on things. This was made during a time of demand for decorative waterfowl, and he was more than capable of the job.

His son, Delbert, painted this decoy. Do we know when his children started taking on significant roles in the production of decoys? Reportedly, all of his children were involved with production at one time or another. [Hudson had nine.] Delbert and Norman went on to be very competent carvers in their own right. You have to look at Hudson’s work as his workshop. Hudson decoys would have been a joint effort. We judge each bird on its merits.

This flyer dates to 1947, two years before Hudson died. Do collectors prefer any specific time of his career? I’d say this carving is a testament to the high level of quality he maintained over the course of decades. Because of that quality standard, there’s no preference for an era of carving. The date of a carving is less important than its individual qualities.

What’s its condition? Its paint is in ideal original condition. It has one small repair to a wingtip.

It’s made from balsa wood. Would that make it more vulnerable to condition issues? It is, but because it’s a decoy for decorative purposes, it would have had an easy life hanging on a wall.

Would it have been made as a one-off, or would it have been one of a flock of flying black ducks that would hang on a wall together? It would have been made as a single object.

Why will it stick in your memory? First of all, the rarity. A flying black duck stands out. And it has the quality I like to see in any Hudson carving, including a plump body, a fine head carving, a dynamic pose, and exceptional scratch feather paint.

How to bid: The Ira Hudson flying black duck is lot 171 in the 2019 Winter Sale at Copley Fine Art Auctions on February 16, 2019 in Charleston, South Carolina.

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.

Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Colin McNair appeared on The Hot Bid last year, talking about an Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy that ultimately sold for $600,000.

Quack!

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A Patriotic Sand Art Bottle by Andrew Clemens Could Command $45,000


Andrew Clemens created this example of bottled sand art in 1887. It has a patriotic theme that showcases a flying eagle and a streaming American flag. Clemens developed his own techniques for arranging the layers and sections of colored sand to create elaborate, distinct imagery.

What you see: A patriotic-themed sand bottle by Andrew Clemens, dated 1887. Cowan’s Auctions estimates it at $35,000 to $45,000.

The expert: Wes Cowan, founder, Cowan’s Auctions.

Did Clemens invent this form of sand art? We don’t know entirely, but near McGregor, Iowa, there’s what is now a state park, Pikes Peak State Park. There’s a sandstone formation where different colored sand is exposed in layers. At some point, some enterprising person in McGregor collected sand and put it into bottles. I don’t think Clemens was the guy who invented it, but he took it to a level others could only dream of. Once Clemens started to do it, others imitated him.

So the artistic sand bottles made before Clemens appeared were what, just stacked colors of sand? I think so. The McGregor Historical Society has examples of bottles made by other folks–stacked colors or very simple geometric designs. They don’t look anything like Andrew Clemens bottles.

How did Clemens make these artistic bottles of sand? I think a large part of Clemens’ genius was he spent a lot of time preparing the sand–sorting it, sifting it, and he may have ground it so it could be packed. The sand granules coming out of the deposit are not the same size. It’s an advantage to make it as uniform as you can to arrange it in the bottle.

What tools did he use to arrange the grains of sand? He’d use tiny scoops to add sand to the bottle where he wanted it to be. He’d manipulate the colors with what looked like little hooks. And he would pack the sand–imagine a wooden tamping tool inside the bottle to pack the sand.

Did he or anyone else document his methods in detail? There are contemporary accounts that describe the process, but they’re not detailed enough to provide information on it. The bottom line is he practiced and practiced and became expert at doing this. That’s the secret of his work.

What challenges did he face in creating these artistic bottles? It was not physically difficult to do at all. Obviously, it was mentally challenging. The fact that he was deaf [means he] had no outside distractions. [Clemens came down with encephalitis at the age of five, and lost the ability to speak as well.] That’s part of the genius of this guy. [His deafness] allowed for intense levels of focus or concentration. By the end of his career, he could make them with relative ease. An upside-down bottle took him two days to make. He came up with techniques to make bottles faster and more efficiently.

Did he sell the bottles? Apparently, he got so good, and was recognized as such, that he printed a price list. He said he could do any design inside a bottle. I’ve seen a piano, an angel, a horse’s head, and a house. This is a standard spread-wing eagle with an urn and flowers on the other side. There are trains and steamboats, but the eagle [motif] is most common.

The other side of the bottle is dated. Is that typical? I wouldn’t say it’s typical. I would say sometimes the side with the floral urn would have a presentation: “To Clara, 1873.” He’d do anything you wanted. Sometimes it’s block letters, sometimes it’s script. [The third photo in the series of images below the main lot shows the other side of the bottle.]

Did he work alone, or did he train others to help him? Newspaper accounts from the time suggest his brother helped by going to Pikes Peak to get sand. But he did it by himself. He didn’t train anyone else. There are no pictures of himself in his studio with his bottles, and there are no pictures of him working. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It means no one has come up with any so far.

So when he died, the knowledge went with him? I don’t know that you could teach anybody [how to do what he did]. He was a self-taught genius. He mastered the technique and no one ever came close.

And he didn’t use any glue when making these bottles? Zero. It’s all hand-packed sand.

Where did he get the bottles? An apothecary supplier? I’m sure he ordered apothecary bottles eventually. He had a thriving business. McGregor is a town on the Mississippi River. There was no problem shipping to McGregor.

Because they were alive at the same time, I should ask–was Andrew Clemens related to the author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain)? No, he was not related to Samuel Clemens.

How was Clemens’s work received in his day? He was incredibly well-regarded. He was recognized as a genius then and now. Anyone who holds a bottle in their hands is flabbergasted.

How did he choose his subject matter? His earliest bottles were strictly geometric, block shapes. I don’t know how he was inspired to create the spread-winged eagle, but it could have had to do with the centennial. But he wasn’t making these things up. He saw things in brochures and copied them. Eighty percent of them [the bottles] are eagles with flags and floral urns.

Do we have a notion of how many bottles he made? If he kept records, we don’t know where they are. He worked for 15, 16 years. Assuming he could make a bottle once every two days, or three to four a week, my guess is he made between 1,500 and 2,000 bottles. Maybe 150 are known to exist today, and they keep popping up. People curated these because they recognized the genius needed to make them, and how fragile they are. I’ve handled about 40, publicly and privately. I think I played a role in rediscovering the bottles when taping an episode of Antiques Roadshow in Hot Springs, Arkansas 17 years ago. It was the first seen outside of McGregor. People in Iowa knew who he was. No one had really done too much research on him.

What was that experience like, 17 years ago, when you saw that Clemens bottle? As an auctioneer, it’s rare to see something that you’ve absolutely never seen before. I think I was at the folk art table with representatives from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, thinking, “What? Where did this come from? How have we never heard of this?” It was pretty fun. I was able to Google his name and find a very primitive website where there were a few bottles and a bio. I thought, “Oh, he’s not unknown, he’s just unknown to us.” I think we [Cowan’s] were the first auction house to promote him nationally. The first bottle brought $11,000 or $12,000 and I think I estimated it at $3,500 to $4,500. It’s gone up and up since then.

How does this bottle compare to other bottles of his that you’ve handled? It’s an outstanding example of his late period work, but he didn’t make any crappy examples [laughs]. The only thing that happens is if they’re put out in the sun, the color might fade a bit. This one is very vibrant.

This bottle has an 1887 date. Clemens died in 1894. Do collectors prefer specific periods or eras of his work? No. The collectors I know are happy to get one.

What’s the world auction record for a Clemens sand bottle? And was it similar to this bottle? It was $132,000. It’s on the site. [The record was set at Cowan’s Auctions in October 2018]. It was a typical eagle. There just happened to be two people who really wanted it. That’s all that was.

What’s it like to hold the bottle in your hands? Is it substantial? It probably weighs about a pound, a pound and a half. The bigger they are, the more substantial they get. This is not by any means the biggest bottle he made. That’s in the State Historical Museum of Iowa. It took him two years to make, and he made it for his mom. It’s remarkable. [Scroll down a bit to see both sides of that bottle.]

And what’s it like to hold it in your hands and examine it? You hold one of these bottles and just marvel at the genius who made it. That’s the real reward. But the real story here is not necessarily the genius of the guy, It’s about a guy who had a disability in the 19th century [Clemens was a deaf-mute] who found a way to make a living.

How to bid: The Andrew Clemens 1887 sand bottle is lot 815 in the Fine and Decorative Art, Including Americana auction on February 23, 2019 at Cowan’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.

Cowan’s is on Twitter and Instagram.

Speaking of Antiques RoadshowSeason 22 began in January 2019 and continues through late May. I’m one of several who live-tweet new episodes of the show with the #antiquesroadshow hash tag at 8 pm EST. See you there on Twitter?

Image is courtesy of Cowan’s.

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SOLD! A Seymchan Meteorite with Pallasites Commanded… (Scroll Down to See)

A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. It's roughly triangular-shaped, and cut to show the clear, firm bands of solid iron and pallasites.

Update: The slab Seymchan meteorite with pallasites sold for $27,500.

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.

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

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.

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

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].

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

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.

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

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.

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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A 1949 George Nelson Ball Wall Clock, an Atomic Age Design Legend, Could Sell for $450 at Rago

George Nelson's ball wall clock is a mid-century design icon. It resembles a sun with rays streaming from it. Each of the twelve "rays" ends with a ball that represents an hour. This particular version featured balls that had different colors: black, green, yellow, white, and orange.

What you see: A George Nelson ball wall clock, designed for the Howard Miller company and dating to 1949. Rago Arts and Auctions estimates it at $250 to $450.

The expert: Michael Ingham, Rago’s COO and director of its Unreserved department.

The Howard Miller company produced the ball wall Clock from 1948 to 1969. Do we know how many it made? There are no records that I know of. They made them for 21 years. That shows you how much people liked them. They were very popular and remain so today.

So the clock was a hit from day one? From the day it arrived on the market. 1948 was right at the beginning of the atomic age. The Trinity test was July of 1945, and by August 1946, we dropped Little Boy at Hiroshima. Americans were feeling pretty powerful at that point.

Why was it such a hit right away? It was the end of the war and the beginning of a great boom in America. It was considered radically modern–it was the first clock not to have numbers on the face. That was a big departure. And it looked perfect on a kitchen wall.

Howard Miller offered the clock in six different versions. How popular is the multi-color example coming up for sale at Rago? I call it polychrome. They were, in my opinion, the most popular model, and the one we’ve seen the most of.  The runner up is the black ball version, which looks a bit sleeker. The polychrome version is the epitome of the design, and it’s what people look for. [Vitra creates reproductions of all six versions of the clock.]

George Nelson didn’t personally design everything that bears his name. Did he design this clock, or did someone else in his studio do it? Nelson was not the designer of this. Nelson felt it was important, as a branding thing, that he get the credit in the public arena. He would name the designers in technical journals. That’s how Nelson chose to run his firm. It was not a secret that others made the designs, it just wasn’t out for public consumption. Irving Harper designed this. He was a famous guy in his own right.

Officially, the name of this timepieces is “Clock 4755.” A quick glance makes clear why people call it “The Ball Clock,” but do we know when and how it got its popular name? The model number is the driest name possible. I don’t know how it got the name “The Ball Clock.” It was possibly a savvy marketer at Howard Miller. But in my 20 years here, no one has referred to it as anything but.

The original run of this clock was long, and while we don’t know exactly how many were made, we know there had to be a whole honking lot of them. What does it take for a mass-produced object to remain popular enough to command a three-figure auction estimate seventy years after it left the factory? Most of the 20th century design market was made for mass production, but good design is always good design. Fifty years ago, it was a good design, and now, it’s still a good design.

The ball clock is definitely of its era, and yet it manages not to look old. How does it pull off that neat little trick? It definitely references a specific period in history, and I think people like that. Speaking as an older guy, I can remember them hanging on the walls of parents’ houses as a kid. It’s a very clean, modern design. It is radically modern in its way. It’s so clean, you can project what you want onto it. And it’s small. It’s not a big commitment. It’s not like buying a giant sofa. It’s like buying a throw pillow, in the design world.

What condition is it in? And do collectors tend to be fussy about these clocks, given that there’s so many from the original run still out there? People can be very fussy. This one is not in the greatest of condition. The hands are a little bit loose. The enamel on the body of the clock got stained and chipped over time. The enameling on the balls is pretty good, and these are good colors. This particular one is electric, and is meant to plug into a wall.

What condition issues do you tend to see with the Ball wall clocks? The hands often are a bit bent because [the metal] is very thin and very soft. The balls can often be repainted. Most auction houses don’t sell them guaranteed to function. I’ve never plugged it in, so I don’t know if it functions.

How often do original-run George Nelson Ball wall clocks come up at auction? We’ve handled at least one for every year I’ve worked here. Probably closer to 25.

How did you arrive at the estimate? It’s a pretty standard item for us. This particular model, in this particular condition, should go in the $250 to $300 range. A really, really pristine one would get $600 to $800. The dirty little secret of auctions is that estimates should be a little bit enticing, they should be a tad lower. If I can get you to raise your hand once, I can get you to raise your hand again.

What’s the auction record for a George Nelson Ball wall clock? The early 2000s were the hottest moment for these things. The record was $1,527 at at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) in June 2004.

When I think of George Nelson, I think of his marshmallow sofa, and this clock. Why has it come to symbolize his work? It was right at the beginning of his career. It was considered radically modern at the time, and it summed up a period of time [in America]. A lot of what Nelson did was square, with clean lines. And Nelson designs are clever. Not that they’re funny, but they make you smile. This clock has that same sort of feeling to it.

How to bid: The George Nelson Ball Wall clock is lot 1530 in the Rago Unreserved auction at Rago on February 24, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.

Special thanks to Shannon Loughrey at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) for digging into auction records that aren’t online to confirm the record sale price for the ball clock.

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My Latest “Sold!” Column for Art & Object Showcases Gorgeous Tableware

Meissen Monteiths Sold! column.png

My February 2019 “Sold!” column for Art & Object magazine features gorgeous tableware: Meissen Swan service porcelain, an 1870 American silver ice bowl with a polar theme, a ridiculously complete mid-century Georg Jensen flatware set in a custom case; and a Gustav Stickley copper charger.

https://www.artandobject.com/articles/sold-highlights-auction-block-0

SOLD! A Frank Tenney Johnson Nocturne Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

A portrait of Alphonzo Bell painted in 1928 by Frank Tenney Johnson. It features the man in Western-style clothing (hat, chaps, boots) atop a cream-colored horse. Cattle are in the background, some drinking from a stream. The landscape is majestic, with rolling hills and suggestions of plants.

Update: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell sold for $348,500.

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 Frank Tenney 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 Frank Tenney 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 Alphonzo 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.

Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

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A Tintype of Mary Edwards Walker–the First and, So Far, Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient– for $9,000

In this circa 1865 tintype, American physician Mary Edwards Walker wears her Medal of Honor. It appears on the upper left of her chest. She wears matching trousers under her black dress. She's depicted in three-quarter view, looking to the right, with her hands clasped.

What you see: A circa 1865 tintype of American physician Mary Edwards Walker, taken in the year she received the Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $6,000 to $9,000.

The expert: Deborah Rogal, associate director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.

How often was Walker photographed around this time, and during her life? Do we know how many photos of her exist, tintype or otherwise? There are several known photos of her from all periods of her life, but fewer than ten, I’d say.

Do we have a more precise date on the tintype than 1865? I’m wondering if this is the first portrait of her wearing her Medal of Honor. No. I wish we did. There’s no way for us to pinpoint a more specific date. It’s dated primarily on the presence of the medal, which she won in 1865, and the overall appearance.

Could we talk a bit about Walker’s life story? I did not know about her until I spotted this lot in the Swann catalog. I also didn’t know about her until we received the object. She was an extraordinary person. It’s amazing she’s not more widely appreciated for who she was.

Her parents were progressive. They encouraged her education and encouraged her to dress how she wanted. She went to Syracuse Medical College and graduated as a doctor. She married [a fellow medical student] and privately practiced together. As far as I understand, trusting female doctors was not something patients found easy to do [so the practice struggled]. From her youth, she wore uncommon dress. In some ways, that was the most radical thing she did. She carried on, progressively getting more masculine [in her choice of clothing], but she wouldn’t refer to it that way. She didn’t wear corsets and was really outspoken about it. It caused a lot of backlash.

Let’s talk about her work during the Civil War, which led to her becoming the first, and so far, only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. When war broke out, she volunteered her services as a doctor. She crossed enemy lines [to tend to patients]. I think she believed powerfully in the ability to serve, and she was proud of her service. She wore her Medal of Honor in almost every photo taken of her after the war, and she refused to relinquish it. She was very proud of it, and deservedly so. After the war, she became a vocal proponent of women’s rights.

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How did she win the Medal of Honor? As far as I understand, she attempted to retroactively receive a commission from the Army, partly to receive benefits. People didn’t know what to do with her. I think the medal was a way for them to give her recognition without giving her formal status as a veteran, which she was asking for. It was the first time a woman was awarded the medal. She believed she earned it for her bravery. She was very brave. She traveled in the south, and she was taken as a prisoner of war. [She was captured in April 1864 and released in a prisoner exchange four months later.]

The government rescinded the medal in 1917, two years before she died. But her medal was NOT taken away because she was an outspoken activist for women’s rights, correct? I do think her being a woman was an element, but it was not because of that. [The government of the time] questioned how the Medal of Honor was awarded in the past. Many others had theirs retroactively rescinded. [More than 900 recipients suffered the same fate as Walker. Some were removed because they were not technically members of the military when they earned the honor.] She got it back after her death. [President Jimmy Carter restored the honor to Walker in 1977.]

M38897-6_8 002

The tintype shows her wearing pants. Was it a brave act for a woman to pose for a photo in 1865 while wearing pants? Absolutely. There are women willing to record themselves wearing pants–women in bloomers, and women who served in the army and dressed as men to do that. But I don’t think they dressed that way as a matter of course through their lives. What sets Walker apart is her commitment. She dressed this way throughout her life. [She felt] women should not be forced to wear clothing that impacted their health and denied them the range of possibilities that men had. There was another level on which she was very brave. There are anecdotal stories of her wearing pants and being chased or having objects thrown at her, and she was arrested at least once for dressing this way. But she was very sure of herself. An appealing aspect to her personality was that she was so confident and articulate about her choices.

Would she have worn an outfit like this on the battlefield, or are these more formal clothes? The outfit in the tintype, I’d say, is certainly more formal than what she wore during the war. She would have dressed in a more casual manner. I understand that she styled herself a uniform like the Army uniform.

Is there any information recorded on the tintype itself? There is not, which is typical for tintypes of the period. Tintypes were an incredibly popular medium for doing portraits. There were studios, and there were itinerant tintypists. They were accessible and quick to produce. You see a lot of soldiers commemorating their own service or giving them to family members while they are away.

Can we tell by looking why Walker might have had this tintype made–whether she did it for herself, or for someone else, or to promote herself? It’s impossible to know for sure, given that tintypes are unique objects by definition. It’s possible to imagine she made it for herself or someone close to her.

What’s that light-colored thing that’s behind her in the picture? It looks like a studio prop. It could be a partially obscured portrait stand, which was used to position your body so you don’t make a move during the exposure and make a blurry image.

How did this tintype come to you? Was Walker identified as the sitter when it was consigned, or did you identify her? It came from a consigner we have a relationship with, who has a lot of expertise in the period and its images. He came to us with the attribution, and we did additional research. We were not able to find a previous publication of the piece, and we believe it’s unique and undocumented.

How did the tintype manage to go unpublished until now? Anything I could say would be guessing. It probably descended through family members. It was not part of her estate when she died. We do see this all the time–things appear out of nowhere, and we’re able to rediscover them.

I imagine Walker would have been easy to identify regardless, given that she’s wearing pants and a Medal of Honor. The object is small, but an aspect of tintypes is the detail. The medal is really quite clear when you look at it with magnification. It’s incredible to see that.

Have any other images of Walker gone to auction? What did they fetch? Records for Walker are very scarce. Christie’s sold a signed 1877 photograph of her in April 1996 for $4,370.

I imagine you’ll get cross-competition for this from several groups–tintype collectors, fans of early photographs, medical historians, military history fans, people interested in women’s rights… We expect that, certainly. It touches a lot of aspects of history in America, and it appeals to a wide audience. The conversations happening in the country now are relevant to the conversations that happened in Walker’s lifetime–what she could wear, could women vote, how we respond to women who have strong opinions. I see the line of conversation through history. Has it changed or not changed? She’s clearly still relevant. Her passion and her strength resonates strongly, and I hope collectors will feel that.

What condition is the tintype in? The image itself has not faded. I do see handling issues that are common with this piece, but the details retained in the image are incredible. I was looking at it yesterday. Her hands are clasped, and under the loupe, you can see the veins in her hands. The tintype format allows us to retain a sense of immediacy. I felt her presence strongly in the image. Paper images of the period don’t retain detail at the same level.

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When I saw this lot, I felt angry, because I had never heard about Walker before, and this is how I learned about her–not in school, but by leafing through an online auction catalog. Do you understand what I mean? Exactly. I felt some of the things you’re describing. I feel lucky to be able to offer the image and expose her more. She was a bit of a difficult person, so opinionated, so strong, and so unable to cede to the [women’s rights] movement around her. It had an impact on how she’s remembered today. It’s unfortunate. She should be remembered for her foresight and her contributions. History is not written by women. That’s not new, but we can change that. She’s the only female Medal of Honor winner. She’s one of the first female doctors in the country. She’s incredible, and I hope we’ll be able to reenter her in our history.

How to bid: The circa 1865 tintype of Mary Edwards Walker wearing her Medal of Honor is lot 15 in the Photographs: Art & Visual Culture auction at Swann, taking place February 21, 2019.

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SOLD! Swann Sold That 1927 Josephine Baker Movie Poster For (Scroll Down to See)

A 1927 Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker's silent film The Siren of the Tropics. It depicts her smiling directly at the viewer, wearing a scanty costume of strategically placed strings of pearls. She also wears pearl arm cuffs, elaborate pearl earrings. A large fan of red feathers, evidently attached to her back, spreads behind her.

Update: The 1927 Josephine Baker poster commanded $9,750.

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.

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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.]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

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

Will a 1985 Chevron Painting by Kenneth Noland Point to a $150,000 Result at LAMA?

Kenneth Noland's Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas, features a large chevron at the top of the canvas, pointing down. It's colored in bands of silver, black, red, and yellow. All four are textured. The pink backdrop is smooth.

What you see: Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas from the late Kenneth Noland. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

The expert: Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA.

How prolific was Noland? He was very prolific. He quickly became a prominent figure in the Color Field school. Of all the artists who emerged from that movement, he became one of the most celebrated, with the target series in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1963, he was fairly well-established.

How often do his works come up at auction? Fairly often. There’s a lot of material out there. It trades hands with good regularity.

Is Songs: Yesterdays a one-off, or part of a series? It’s part of a series from the 1980s, when he returned to the chevron shape. He started it in the 1960s and he revisited it. The [1980s] works were named after songs. I don’t think this one was named after the Beatles song. I think he named it after an older song called Yesterdays. He not only revisited the shape of the icon, but he goes back to his own history, the music of his youth.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Chevrons are a recurring theme in Noland’s work. Is there a ranked order to the popularity of specific themes in his work? Do collectors prefer his circles/targets to his chevrons, for example? If you asked the artist that, he would say “Absolutely not,” but the market has spoken. Circles/targets sell for the most. The chevrons are a very iconic part of his work. If you ranked [the themes] by their price in the market, the place of chevrons seems to be second.

I understand that Noland stained his canvases rather than brushing the color on with paints. Has he done that here? His earliest works, yes, were part of the stained canvases. Many artists were disengaging with the brush after [Jackson] Pollock. In this case, in the 1980s, Noland returned to the brush and palette knife.

How did he produce the texture on the chevrons? Did he use a palette knife? Definitely with a scraping device. A palette knife is typically how an artist would get this type of texture. If not a palette knife, a variation on the palette knife. A trowel, for example.

The pink area doesn’t show any evidence of brush strokes. Do we know what Noland did there? I looked for the technique in anticipation of your call. I didn’t find something that proved how he got it. The pink area is very flat. He’s playing with texture with paint. He contrasts an area where there’s no sign of the artist’s hand to an area with overt sign of the artist’s hand.

Songs: Yesterdays measures 88.5 inches by 69.1 inches. Is that a typical size for Noland? It’s a typical size from the 1980s. His 80s works tend to be fairly robust in scale.

Did Noland name the painting? He would have.

He painted this in 1985 and died in 2010. Is this considered a late work for him? It’s a late period work. I spoke to him in 2008 or 2009 on a very early abstract piece I was selling, and he was very quick to point out that he was busier now than ever. Past his mid-career, he still had a fairly long, strong output. He returned to the circles after the chevrons. It’s interesting that when he returned to the old icons, he returned to the chevrons first.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Has the market for Noland works changed over time? Are there things collectors want now that they didn’t want as much ten years ago? It comes down to supply and demand. Paintings from 1963 are just rarer. There are not many opportunities [to bid], so they tend to sell for much higher. Works from the 1980s are much more available. In the last two or three years large 1980s chevrons have come up on the market. On December 3 in France, one estimated at $70,000 to $90,000 sold for $272,000. It was a chevron that was an almost identical-looking picture, and it was the same size [as this one]. There’s definitely a trend where the prices tend to be going upward. I imagine this last one selling for $272,000 is going to trigger a lot of people to sell, if they’ve been paying attention to the market.

How often have you handled works by Noland? Not very often. This is probably the first major painting I’ve had. I’ve certainly sold a lot of his prints and graphics. I think most of his material has likely surfaced in New York and Washington, D.C. L.A. is not one of the obvious places where people collect his work.

What is it like in person? It’s vibrant. It’s really quite impressive. It’s in flawless condition, which is always nice. It almost vibrates right in front of your eyes. It’s not subtle like some of his chevrons. This is really bold, and pops out.

Are there any details that elude the camera? Not really. The subtlety of the pink area, which we discussed as being devoid of the sign of the artist’s hand, is definitely much more obvious in person. There’s a stark contrast between the purity of the color field and the texture of the stripes of the chevrons.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Why will this painting stick in your memory? I tend to like colorful, bright, optimistic works. It’s sort of who I am. If you look at the chevron work up for sale, it’s one of the brightest and most optimistic. In others, I think the colors tend to be more muted and a little darker.

How to bid: Songs: Yesterdays is lot 197 in the Modern Art & Design Auction at LAMA on February 17, 2019.

How to subscribe to The Hot Bid: Click the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

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

Peter Loughrey has appeared on The Hot Bid since the beginning–literally. The blog’s first post was on an Alma Thomas painting that LAMA ultimately sold for a world auction record. He has also discussed works by Jonathan Borofsky and Wendell Castlean exceptional 1969 dune buggy, an Ed Ruscha print that set a world auction record at LAMA, and a hyperrealistic sculpture by Carole Feuerman that ultimately set an auction record for the artist.

Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

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This Ira Hudson Flying Black Duck Could Soar to $24,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947.

What you see: A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

The lot notes call Ira Hudson “the South’s greatest waterfowl folk artist of the era.” What makes him so? He appears to be self-taught, and he quickly imparted his own style into his work. He seemed to put a much higher emphasis on his style and sensibility over realism. That direction goes toward what I call whimsical. It’s more toward folk art than realism.

What do you mean when you say “whimsical”? He had a very pure and raw confidence that comes forth in his carvings. He was very efficient in every aspect of his methods. You get a high quality standard throughout his body of work, because he did it so much.

I understand that he did not rely on patterns when carving his decoys. How did that affect his work? A lot of decoy makers use patterns for the side profile and the top profile  [of a duck decoy]. It would make sense that he doesn’t use patterns. He would take a block with a rectangular cross section, turn it 45 degrees, and he’d carve from that. Patterns don’t apply to that approach to carving. In addition, we know he used wood he salvaged from the shore. When you use found material, patterns are a hindrance. And when you’re looking at someone with the confidence he had, you wouldn’t need a pattern. He could chop wood with a hatchet and make it look like a duck. You see the form influenced by the wood he had available.

Does Hudson’s avoidance of patterns make his work more interesting to collectors? Absolutely. His freestyle approach to carving created some incredibly lively, animated forms. You’ll notice with this form that the bird arches to one side. The structure of the bird is turned from tip to tail. It’s a crescent. It’s not realistic, but it’s pleasing and exciting to see, and it’s unique to his work. I don’t think anyone else has decoys with a crescent shape to them.

How often do black ducks appear in his work? He lived on Chincoteague, an island off the eastern shore of Virginia. It’s a prime black duck habitat, and black ducks are great birds to hunt. They’re respected for table fare and sport hunting. Hudson made a good number of black ducks to hunt over. That said, his full size carvings of flying black ducks are exceptionally rare. I’ve never seen another full size flying black duck.

Did Hudson introduce the concept of the flyer–a decoy depicted in the act of flying? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he originated the flyer. However, it doesn’t appear to take the idea from anyone else, and it was made around the time the first flyers were made in various regions. There’s no one around him we’d expect to be exposed to anything like this. He doesn’t get full credit, but he was a pioneer, especially for his region.

When did he start carving flyers? He started carving during the early 20th century, around 1910 or so. The first flyers started showing up in the 1930s and continued into the 1940s. It’s a natural progression considering that waterfowl laws were changing. A decorative flyer was something a sport hunter could afford and be interested in, whereas a market hunter [someone who hunts ducks to sell as food] would only be interested in the decoy.

How many flyers did Hudson make? For full size flyers in total, I’ve probably seen a few dozen.

The lot notes call this a “rare” flying black duck. What makes it rare? We look at his flyers and say, “Ok, there’s a few dozen flyers out there. Among those, you’re down to a couple of flying black ducks.” Others represented are mergansers and mallards. It’s one of the only black duck flyers.

This bird cannot be used as a duck decoy. You can’t hunt with it. It’s purely decorative. Was Hudson among the earliest creators to carve ducks that are purely decorative, or did the changing waterfowl laws nudge him in that direction? This bird is made purely as decorative rather than a decoy. His son [Delbert] painted it exactly how he would paint a decoy. Its purpose was to attract an affluent buyer to decorate a cabin with it. I would say Hudson is in sync with the top makers around the country in the era in starting to do more with decoratives. He was following market trends.

Did he carve this bird in a single piece, or is it assembled from multiple pieces? With this bird, the body is made from one piece of wood. The wings are attached, as are the head and neck. The feet are separate pieces which attach. There are six pieces in a typical flyer as opposed to two pieces in a standard decoy.

He carved the decoy from balsa wood. Is that why he needed to create six pieces? Using multiple pieces of wood for a complex form works for a couple of reasons. One, it minimizes waste. Two, you have to consider the strength of the wood, which comes from the direction of its grain. It’s projecting in different directions, so you have to have the grain aligned in the wood or you’ll have weak points that are going to break. The reason he used balsa is it’s a nice, soft, very easy material to carve. Balsa is not as good for decoys because they wear quickly. On decoratives, it’s far less important, because they’re not taking wear. Wall hangers are lighter weight to reduce the chance of it falling off the wall.

Is it possible to know why Hudson made this? Does the fact that this is one of two known flying black ducks imply this one might have been commissioned? Or might he have made it for his own pleasure? Almost certainly, he would have made it for sale, and to generate income to support his family. We can’t get too deep into the pure reasoning, but he would make anything that would sell. He made clothespins during the war, when there were rations on things. This was made during a time of demand for decorative waterfowl, and he was more than capable of the job.

His son, Delbert, painted this decoy. Do we know when his children started taking on significant roles in the production of decoys? Reportedly, all of his children were involved with production at one time or another. [Hudson had nine.] Delbert and Norman went on to be very competent carvers in their own right. You have to look at Hudson’s work as his workshop. Hudson decoys would have been a joint effort. We judge each bird on its merits.

This flyer dates to 1947, two years before Hudson died. Do collectors prefer any specific time of his career? I’d say this carving is a testament to the high level of quality he maintained over the course of decades. Because of that quality standard, there’s no preference for an era of carving. The date of a carving is less important than its individual qualities.

What’s its condition? Its paint is in ideal original condition. It has one small repair to a wingtip.

It’s made from balsa wood. Would that make it more vulnerable to condition issues? It is, but because it’s a decoy for decorative purposes, it would have had an easy life hanging on a wall.

Would it have been made as a one-off, or would it have been one of a flock of flying black ducks that would hang on a wall together? It would have been made as a single object.

Why will it stick in your memory? First of all, the rarity. A flying black duck stands out. And it has the quality I like to see in any Hudson carving, including a plump body, a fine head carving, a dynamic pose, and exceptional scratch feather paint.

How to bid: The Ira Hudson flying black duck is lot 171 in the 2019 Winter Sale at Copley Fine Art Auctions on February 16, 2019 in Charleston, South Carolina.

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.

Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Colin McNair appeared on The Hot Bid last year, talking about an Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy that ultimately sold for $600,000.

Quack!

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RECORD! Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Stunning 1788 Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan Commands Almost $7.2 Million at Sotheby’s

Vigee le brun's 1788 portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan depicts him at full length, outdoors, against a clouded blue sky. He's clad mostly in white, and he looks to the right. Long robes reach to his ankles, and a shorter robe, decorated with flowers, covers his upper arms and extends to his knees. He has a length of cloth braided around his waist, acting as a belt. The gold-decorated ends of the cloth drape over his front. He wears a gold and white turban. He rests his right hand on the hilt of a curved sword.

Update: Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s 1788 Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape sold for almost $7.2 million–a record for the artist, and a record for any female artist of the pre-modern era (it sold in an Old Masters auction).

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.

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.

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