SOLD! A Louis Vuitton Brass Explorer Trunk Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

An 1888 Louis Vuitton brass Explorer trunk, shown in full, from the front. It is gold in color and features impressive buckles and locks.

Update: The 1888 Louis Vuitton brass Explorer trunk sold for HKD $1.25 million, or about $159,200.

What you see: A rare Louis Vuitton brass Explorer trunk, dating to 1888. Christie’s estimates it at HKD $1 million to $1.5 million, or $128,000 to $192,000.

The expert: Winsy Tsang, vice president and head of sale, handbags and accessories, Christie’s Asia Pacific.

This trunk is described as “rare.” What does that mean in this context? Do we know how many brass Explorer trunks of this size that Louis Vuitton made in the 19th century? We don’t know exactly how many were made. All we know is that we haven’t seen another one like this on the market, and only very few in other sizes and models. This is, potentially, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for buyers, which is why it warrants the “rare” classification.

Do we know how long Vuitton made the Explorer line? Do we know how many sizes of trunk were offered in brass? Our understanding is that this special line of trunks was only produced in the late 1880s and 1890s. The materials used were highly expensive and difficult to work with at that time–this was long before the technological advances of today that have made brass a common material. There were three or four different sizes and models in the Explorer line, as well as some custom pieces, but it’s difficult to know which were produced in brass, as the production of all versions was extremely low, and very few remain.

Was the brass finish the most popular of the four? It depends if you mean at the time or today. At the time, these pieces were highly utilitarian. The metals being used were designed for adventurers traveling to the most exotic locations who required light-weight and waterproofing–at any cost. Today, arguably, the brass version is the most popular as it is the most eye-catching because of its gold color.

Do we have a notion of how many brass-finish Explorer trunks survive? Also, how many have you handled at Christie’s Hong Kong? This is the first brass version at international auction, so very few still survive. A handful of others remain in private hands, but this is the first of this size and model that we have seen.

Is it fair to assume that when this trunk was originally purchased, it was part of a suite or group of matching Vuitton luggage? If so, how often do you find that suites of Vuitton luggage are broken up over time? It is unlikely that an adventurer would have only needed one trunk, so it is likely that it was originally part of a set. Over time, we often see these collections broken up due to their size–they are difficult to store. In addition, now that most travelers do not use hard-sided luggage. They may only need a handful for interior decoration, not a whole collection.

An 1888  brass Explorer trunk, shown in full, from the front, with its lid open to show the Louis Vuitton label. Though the paneling is made from brass, it has acquired a golden color over the years.

What is your favorite detail on this trunk, and how does that detail speak to the craftsmanship of Louis Vuitton? My favorite thing about this trunk is certainly the brass paneling–this is what makes the piece truly stand out. But, one detail on this trunk that I really love is the interior Louis Vuitton logo with the serial number written in beautiful script. The last number –“1”– is a bit smudged and makes you imagine the craftsman who oversaw the creation of this incredible piece.

What do we know about how this trunk would have been made? Also, was this off the rack, or was it custom? The trunk would have been too expensive to have been produced without a client. It almost certainly would have been ordered by one of the most prominent adventurers of the day. It would have been made entirely by hand.

What do we know about the provenance of this trunk? Do we know anything about where and when it might have traveled over its lifetime? The trunk has changed hands a few times in its long life. As is often the case, at some point the trunk was forgotten about and re-discovered by a discerning buyer. It is currently being sold by a private collector.

Could you talk a bit about how the buyer would have used it–what sorts of things they would have put in it, and where would they have taken it? These trunks were produced only for the top explorers of the day who had the ambition and the means to adventure to the furthest corners of the earth. At the time, and the reason Louis Vuitton became as well-known and respected as it did, was because of its many technological advancements–the flat-topped trunk for easy stacking, special clasps, etc. This particular model, because of its small size, would have likely held its owner’s valuables and personal items. The trunk would have likely stayed with or near its owner.

What condition is it in? How original is it? What issues do you tend to see with brass-finished Explorer trunks, and does this one show any signs of having those issues? This trunk underwent a full restoration in 2015, so it looks quite like it would have in the 1800s. Over time, brass trunks can darken and become tarnished and oxidized. There are only a handful of restorers in the world who know how to handle these trunks – these restorations are extensive and timely, sometimes taking 100+ hours.

Are there signs of wear that can enhance the value of a vintage Vuitton trunk? When buying a vintage trunk, buyers want them to be “travelled”–if they wanted a brand new one, they would get it at Louis Vuitton! We love to see dings, dents, and scrapes that show the piece was really used. This mystery lets us imagine to what exotic locations the trunk may have travelled and who the explorer was who owned it.

How much does it weigh? The trunk is nearly as light as the more-common canvas version. The metal is quite thin and designed to protect the wooden architecture of the trunk from moisture and insects of exotic and humid locations.

The lot notes say it dates to 1888. How do we know this for sure? We were able to narrow the production to just a few years based on the material and model, and Louis Vuitton confirmed that a brass trunk with this serial number was sold in 1888.

The lot notes say it has a key. Would it be the original key? If so, how rare is it for a Vuitton trunk of this type to survive with its original key? Most trunk owners know to keep their keys safe–but after 131 years, you can imagine they might get lost. 20th century trunks often have their original keys, but it is quite rare for one of this age. The key with this trunk is a replacement.

How have you seen the market for Louis Vuitton vintage luggage change over time? Was there ever a point when something like this would just have been an old trunk, or were these Vuitton pieces always kept, valued, and collected? The market for Louis Vuitton trunks has been steadily growing for the last 20 to 30 years. People began to use them for interiors and collect them due to their mysterious histories around that time, which is why the value began to increase. A large canvas steamer with interesting travel stickers and markings can be very valuable.

What is the world auction record for a vintage Louis Vuitton trunk, and what is the record for a piece from the Vuitton Explorer line? The world record and the Explorer line record is the aluminum Explorer Trunk sold for £162,500 [about $205,000] in London last December. Although aluminum was equally rare to brass, the aesthetics of this one make it stand out–and a potential record-breaker. [Christie’s also did a 5 Minutes With… piece about the aluminum trunk ahead of its sale, which you can read here.]

How do modern collectors of vintage Vuitton luggage use their pieces? Or do they treat them as functional art? They are now most often used as interior decoration by collectors of rare art and sculptures, or by collectors of travel and trunks.

What is the trunk like in person? Are there aspects of it that don’t quite come through in the photographs? The brass itself is what makes this piece so precious and that is difficult to capture in an image. It is a bright, true gold color that is extremely eye-catching. The patina around the edges and the wooden trim give it an amazing vintage look and feel as well.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? This trunk is unforgettable–none of us will see one like it again.

How to bid: The 1888 Louis Vuitton brass explorer trunk is lot 3888 in the Handbags & Accessories auction at Christie’s Hong Kong on May 29, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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Edward Gorey’s Original Cat Fancy Cover Illustration Could Sell for $15,000 at Swann


A New Yorker cover by the late Edward Gorey. It depicts two tuxedo cats looking at each other on an oversize bed, fitted with ruffles, shams, and pillows festooned with intricate yellow flowers.

What you see: Cat Fancy, a cover illustration created for The New Yorker magazine by the late Edward Gorey. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

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

Do we know why Gorey only did two covers for The New Yorker, and why the commissions came so late in his life? He seems like a good fit for a cover illustrator for that magazine. Was he considered too well-known to commission? Gorey’s relationship with The New Yorker was a long and curious one. His first real review and introduction to the wider public, and certainly the New York cultural elite, appeared in the magazine’s pages in its December 26, 1959 issue. The great literary critic, Edmund Wilson, an admirer of Gorey’s work, wrote an appreciation titled The Albums of Edward Gorey. His relative obscurity, he felt, was due to his working mainly to amuse himself. In 1950, around the time of his first commissions, when he was drawing for the Harvard Advocate and smaller humor magazines, Gorey actually submitted his work to The New Yorker. Then-Cartoon Editor Frank Modell rejected it, suggesting that “less eccentric drawings might draw a more enthusiastic audience.” It would take 43 years before the sensibilities and ironic humor of the magazine, under Tina Brown’s editorship, finally embraces his irreverent, camp-goth style.

How did the magazine use the artwork commissioned from Gorey under Tina Brown’s editorship? Lot 188 is among the three pieces he submitted in 1993. Instead of being used as a cover, it was used as a memorial postscript in The New Yorker when he died in 2000.

Why was this Gorey illustration, Cat Fancy, not used by The New Yorker until 2018? Art editor Françoise Mouly explained in her Cover Story that The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, asked if they had any unpublished work by Gorey in their archives to accompany an appreciation of him by Joan Acocella for their December 10th issue. Mouly was delighted to find a file of this original artwork and used it on the cover. The original artworks were sent back to Gorey’s agent, John Locke, after they had been digitized.

Do we know why The New Yorker didn’t use it back when they commissioned it, in the early 1990s? There’s no indications about why they didn’t use it, but in general, The New Yorker doesn’t like to use the same illustrator in a calendar year. They did one in December 1992, the first time Edward Gorey was on the cover, of a fantastic image of a denuded, stick-like Christmas tree with a family enthusiastically wrapping it with holiday-themed wallpaper. Maybe other covers came in, and it sunk to the bottom of the pile.

How often do Edward Gorey originals come up at auction? Pieces do come up a few times a year. We’ve handled upwards of 60 originals.

So, they’re out there, but at any given time, what’s out there might not be the Goreys you’d want most. That’s true, and Gorey appeals to people in different ways. Some like his Goth style. They want Dracula, and they want anything related to his Mystery! drawings for PBS. Those two works tend to set the highest prices.

You’ve got eight Goreys in the June 4 sale. Is that an unusually high number? We’ve had as many as 12 in a single sale. It varies. We’ve had sales with no Goreys, and sales with three to four. Three to four is more typical.

What’s the record for an original work by Gorey? In March 2017, we sold a piece I named Skeletons and Hiding Figures. We believed it’s an illustration for PBS’s Mystery! series, circa the 1980s. It’s not terribly large and it’s unsigned, but it’s clearly in Gorey’s hand and it contains all his types–obelisks, hiding figures, mustachioed men in a garden setting. It sold for $18,750.

Where are most of Gorey’s originals? Are they in a library or another institution? The majority of his pieces are owned by the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. When Gorey died, anything in his possession became property of the trust. It has them at an off-site property and loans them to the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts.

Cat Fancy looks elaborate. Do we have any notion of how long it might have taken him to finish? His attention to detail is so strong, I imagine it took him several days. He drafted parts of it in pencil, then he went over it with ink, and then he colored it in with watercolors.

Could we talk about how this piece will appeal to Gorey collectors? What details does it have that Gorey collectors prize? First and foremost, its subject is cats. Gorey adopted several in his lifetime and thought of them as family, and as kindred spirits. They served as artistic inspiration, and sometimes he referred to them as people. His signature “Gorey Cat” pranced on the scene in 1972 with the publication of Amphigorey, his first anthology. Other works featuring cats include The Sopping Thursday, Category, Fletcher and Zenobia, T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and his famous ballet cats. Their style changed throughout the years, but they remain among his most popular. Cat Fancy also reflects his love of Victorian and Edwardian interiors—the overstuffed fussiness and detailed fabrics. It shows his skill and love of line work, much of which was influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts, the Surrealists, and the ink work of English artists like Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Ardizzone. His favorite colors were lemon yellow, olive green, and lavender, and this piece contains them in varying hues. In short, it hits on all cylinders.

Are there aspects of the illustration that the camera doesn’t quite capture? When you get up close to the artwork, you can see the flowers contain little insects. Not all of them–here and there throughout the quilt. Gorey loved insects. He often worked insects into his artwork.

Are there other aspects the camera doesn’t pick up? It draws you in. The composition, while incredibly complicated and busy, but part of its enchantment is that you find yourself, like the cats, getting lost in that big, soft bed.

Why will this illustration stick in your memory? I had an inkling where the two New Yorker pieces were, and I am thrilled to be able to be able to shepherd them from one appreciative owner into the hands of new, excited collectors. And I’m a Gorey groupie. I’m a book person, I adore cats, and lounging places, and it has my favorite color, so you’re making me want to bid on it! [Laughs]. It’s a terrific piece.

How to bid: Edward Gorey’s Cat Fancy is lot 187 in the Illustration Art auction taking place at Swann Auction Galleries on June 4, 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 Auction Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter.

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Christine von der Linn has appeared before on The Hot Bid, speaking about a spellbinding 1938 Wanda Gág illustration for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfsan Arthur Rackham illustration of Danaë and the Infant Perseusa Rockwell Kent-illustrated edition of Moby Dick and original Erté artwork for a 1933 Harper’s Bazaar cover.

The Edward Gorey House has a website.

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

Ben Austrian’s White Hen with Chickens, the Leader of a Flock of Paintings at Freeman’s, Could Achieve $10,000

Ben Austrian's "White Hen with Chickens" shows a mother hen at left, with 13 yellow chicks clustering near her on a bed of straw. One of the chicks perches on her back.

What you see: White Hen with Chickens, painted in 1913 by American artist Ben Austrian. Freeman’s estimates it at $7,000 to $10,000.

The expert: Raphaël Chatroux, associate specialist in the fine art department at Freeman’s.

Who was Ben Austrian? What do we know about him and his work? He’s a local boy, born and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania. He had a lonely childhood, and he was sick very often. The air in Reading was quite polluted, so he had to spend his summers outside the city at a relative’s farm. He called it his vacation home. He went there for many years, from his early childhood until his mid-teens.

And he was self-taught, yes? Yes. Not by choice, but by necessity. Austrian’s family was very poor, and they didn’t have the means to send him to art school. At the age of five, his parents gave him a box of watercolors. During the summer, he was by himself and experimented with it. At an early age, he knew he wanted to become an artist. His mom was supportive, but his dad was wary. It was hard for a local artist to break through. He wanted him to work in the family business, which started as a dry-goods shop and evolved into a steam laundry. Austrian always painted on the side.

How did his career evolve? The first phase is from his early years until his father dies when Austrian is 27. He did have a few successes. He was very persistent in trying to show his art, though he wasn’t able to devote himself to it full time. His dad dying was a wake-up call to sell the family business and devote himself to art.

Did he paint hens and chicks exclusively? No, but it’s what he started painting in the very beginning–he painted what he knew. The first things he painted were chickens and landscapes. He painted other animals, such as ducks and horses, and at one point, his cat paintings were as popular as his chicken paintings. As he aged, he turned solely to landscapes.

And when he was a kid on the farm in the summer, he would feed the chickens? Exactly. He grew up surrounded by them. In a letter, he said, “I paint chickens because I love them.”

Was Austrian prolific? Do we have a count of how many works he made? There’s no catalogue raisonné. It’s hard to estimate the number of paintings he did, but he was prolific. It’s in the thousands. It’s difficult, too [to get a more precise count], because he wasn’t so good at keeping track of all of them, especially the early ones. A lot of the paintings are very similar, with similar names, like Mother Hen and Chicks. It’s tough to establish a chronology and an exhaustive summary of what he did. In the 1900s, he started putting dates on paintings.

Was he well-known in his time, or did his reputation grow later? He was well-known while he was alive. He was considered a Reading celebrity and he was smart about it–he was able to create a business out of it. When he worked for his dad, he knew to paint an original before meeting one of his dad’s clients. He was very strong-headed, and he did everything possible to break through. His partnership with the Bon Ami Company helped a lot. It assured his legacy, and it’s part of why he’s famous today. They made reproductions [of his works] that people could have on their fridge or in their wallet.

In reading about Austrian, I came across a claim that he taught his chickens to pose for him. Is that true? It seems crazy, but it’s true. You can find a lot of pictures of Austrian in his studio, surrounded by hens and chicks. He loved them. He talked to them every day, and he gave them names–some were elaborate. He raised them all on his own, so they only knew him. There was a special bond between the animals and Austrian. He had an incubator as well. [He did] whatever he needed to study their behavior and be as accurate as possible.

How did he teach chickens to pose for him? He always started by painting the hen first, and alone, because the chicks will always harass the mom. He’d put her in something like a nest, so she’d be quiet. With the chicks, the key to catching their attention was speaking to them–he could imitate their mom’s cackle. Or he’d use an object, like a piece of raw meat hanging from a stick. They’d gather round, infatuated with it, and that would give him a minute to catch the overall composition. Cigars would hypnotize them. They would freeze when they saw the light of a cigar. That would keep them quiet for a few moments.

In looking at the catalog for the sale, it’s clear that 100 years ago or so, there was a market for paintings of chicks and hens. I see several works by Austrian, and paintings of chicks by Mary Russell Smith and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait. Who was the audience for these works when they were new? Who bought and collected them? I’ll start by saying Austrian was not the first one [to paint chicks and hens] and not the only one. He was late in the game. When Mary Russell Smith died, he was very much a kid. Because Austrian was self-taught, he didn’t copy from other artists, but it [scenes of chickens] was a popular genre of the time. There were lots of dealers who handled these paintings, and Austrian often chased private collectors himself. He sold a lot to department stores and jewelry stores, which saw art as a way to get people to feel comfortable and spend more money. Wanamaker’s [a Philadelphia department store] had a lot of Austrians, and John Wanamaker bought directly from him–he bought for himself and for his stores. It was a good source of income.

What detail of White Hen with Chickens do you like best, and how does it speak to Austrian’s mastery? It’s quite a good painting because you have a lot of chicks, which is what matters, and an imposing motherly figure that anchors it all. What I like is the composition itself. I like the contrast between the quiet mom and the undisciplined children. They’re running around, some are on her back, and some are about out of the picture frame, but mom doesn’t move. She’s self-composed. That’s what I like, the organized chaos in the painting.

Have Austrian’s paintings always been collected, or was there a fall-off after his death? I think he’s always been steadily collected. There was never really a fall-off.

How often do Austrians come to market? And is it unusual to have this many in a single sale? What’s unusual here is the collection provenance. They’re from the Bon Ami Company itself, which helped shape his legacy and his image. It’s never sold works by Austrian before. It’s an event for them to come up for sale. Bon Ami is a golden provenance for a Ben Austrian painting.

Why are they selling the paintings now? They’re reshaping their collection and taking a more curated approach. They’re not trying to get every painting linked to Ben Austrian. And it’s a good way to raise brand awareness of the company, through Ben Austrian.

So this is the first time the Bon Ami Corporation has sold any of its Austrians? They’re fresh to market.

And that’s why you’re comfortable selling several in the same auction–because of the Bon Ami provenance? Exactly. The Bon Ami name helps because it ties the collection together.

White Hen with Chickens measures 20 inches by 26 inches. Is that an unusual size for Austrian? I wouldn’t say it’s typical, but it’s on a larger scale. It’s the largest devoted to chickens. At 20 inches by 26 inches, the birds are pretty much life size, which was something Austrian was well aware of. When hens are in the paintings, the paintings tend to be larger. When it’s just chicks, they tend to be smaller. It has to do with the emotions you’re supposed to feel. A small work with two chicks fighting over a bug is cute, and you can hold it in your hand. A hen is more serious. It has to be bigger, and it has to hang on the wall. He was very well aware of those visual tricks.

What’s the world auction record for a Ben Austrian painting? It’s a painting of a dog and a cat–no chickens–that sold at Pook & Pook in 2011 for $80,000. I dug a bit deeper and found the fourth-highest auction record is very similar to the White Hen with Chickens painting. It sold in 2004 for $40,000.

What is White Hen with Chickens like in person? What’s very nice about the painting is on one hand, you have a subject that’s very whimsical and cute–the children are agitated and the mom is quiet. It’s not a hen with chicks, it’s a mother and her children. That’s why you like it–he’s able to put humanity into the painting without being versed in sentimentalism. He’s very naturalistic in style, but he’s able to give some warmth to it, so it’s not kitsch. And if you look up close, the technique is perfect. The colors are not at all muddy or dark. They’re very pure, very bright, even though [the scene] takes place in a barn. For the chicks, he wanted something light and fuzzy, so he drew an outline and created a soft, sfumato-like blur, which gave that effect. You think it’s whimsical, but you can see the skills there. His technique is spot-on, and he learned it by himself.

How to bid: White Hen with Chickens is lot 48 in the American Art & Pennsylvania Impressionists auction at Freeman’s on June 9, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Freeman’s.

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SOLD! A Roberto Montenegro Painting from the 1920s Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

Roberto Montenegro's "Untitled (Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses)" features at least six Mexican women in regional dress that frames their faces in white rings of cloth. They carry colorful bouquets. Though they are dressed identically in white, each woman is individual and distinct. All are somber; none smile.

Update: Roberto Montenegro’s Untitled (Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses) sold for $81,250.

What you see: Untitled (Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses), painted in the 1920s by Roberto Montenegro. Christie’s estimates it at $70,000 to $90,000.

The expert: Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American art for Christie’s.

How prolific was Montenegro? He was very prolific. He worked for five decades. He continued to paint into his sixties. He died in 1968.

Why hasn’t he received the scholarly attention that some of his peers have gotten? He’s a very well-known artist, and he’s always included in surveys of Mexican art. The market likes him. What’s missing is a volume that captures the depth of his career and really studies his accomplishments.

How do we know that he painted this sometime in the 1920s? It’s not dated, but stylistically, it’s related to a Montenegro painting of Maya women that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) owns, and that dates to 1926.

When–on what occasions–do Tehuanas [women native to the Tehuantepec area of Mexico] don this distinctive ceremonial garb? Weddings and funerals? To me, in this particular painting, because they’re holding flowers and almost appear to be compressed in a tight space, almost stacked against each other, it appears to be a processsion. Their demeanor is serious. It’s more an expression of reverence. The faces are not laughing or smiling. Do you remember the Diego Rivera painting from the Rockefeller collection? That picture was Tehuanas too. That’s a feast, a very different atmosphere, celebrating. This seems to be a little more serious. A religious offering, maybe a funeral, but we can’t tell.

What is mexicanidad, and how is it reflected in this painting? It’s a term that refers to putting elements of Mexican culture in the forefront of a painting or an artistic expression. A lot of artists reflect mexicanidad in different ways. Frida Kahlo was a master of mexicanidad. Everything she did or said or wrote deeply embraced her Mexican identity. She took it to another level in dress and in how she expressed herself.

The lot notes say that Montenegro traveled in Europe almost continually from 1905 to 1920, looking at historic and contemporary European art. Do we know how soon he painted this after he returned to Mexico? I wish we could, but sadly, no. His sister [who owned the painting] has passed away. She would have known.

This looks really Cubist to me. Do we know if he looked at Cubist works during his travels? I think he had seen avant-garde art in Europe, like Diego Rivera had. Montenegro obviously knew the work of other artists like Rivera, who had a Cubist period.

Is this the first time he plays with the geometric potential of these Tehuana outfits? I think Diego did it too. What’s different about this treatment in this particular painting–it’s very graphic, very frontal. It seems to confront the viewer. That’s what’s attractive about the painting. And it’s very sculptural.

Sculptural? Is the paint piled up on the surface of the canvas? No, no, the painting is flat. When I say sculptural, the shapes almost appear to be 3-D in the way that Montenegro overlaps the headdresses with the faces in the back. There’s a sense of transparency, almost.

Are his other depictions of Tehuanas this geometric? No, they’re not. If you look at his murals, the Tejuanas are soft and others don’t have headdresses. I think this is one of the few that do.

Do we know anything about his working style? Did he pose models for this, or take reference photos, or did he imagine this scene? I think these women are archetypes.

From memory? Yeah, from memory.

Why is this painting so effective? I think it’s very striking. Part of that is you’re looking at this very frontally. It’s almost them looking at you rather than you looking at them.

Is this typical or atypical of his work? I think it’s an outlier. He used a lot of Mexican motifs, but it’s an outlier in the way the picture is constructed.

What is the painting like in person? What’s interesting about the painting is it’s very tight. It’s effective in that you feel this is a group of women in a small procession. They’re very strategically placed in the picture plane, but they have their own personalities.

How often do Montenegros appear at auction? Normally there’s one every season. They don’t circulate too much. He’s not an artist people are trading constantly. When collectors find a Montenegro, they tend to keep it for generations.

From the looks of the lot notes, this has never been to auction before–correct? No, never.

How rare is it to have a Montenegro that’s fresh to market? Every two years, there’s a surprise. This was a total surprise. We didn’t know about the picture until [the heirs] contacted us. It was owned by his sister. She lived in California. Montenegro gave it to her on one of his trips to visit, and it’s been in the family all these years. I don’t know if it’s been published. It’s really the first time it’s been seen. It’s really great. It’s one of my favorite things in the sale.

What condition is it in? Very good shape. We cleaned it superficially, but it’s in great shape.

What’s the auction record for a Montenegro? It was set at Christie’s. It was one of his self-portraits in a sphere, from 1955. It sold in 2017 for $187,500.

So this could set a new record for the artist, maybe. Let’s just say it’s conceivable.

Why will this painting stick in your memory? It is a memorable painting. It’s very graphic. And it’s lovely in the flesh, really, really lovely. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get a rediscovered artwork. This example has never been seen or published in color. Now the image is out there, and people can refer to it. We love to sell things, and we love to contribute to the understanding of an artist by presenting something that’s so good and special.

How to bid: Untitled (Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses) is lot 13 in the Latin American Art sale taking place at Christie’s New York on May 22 and 23, 2019.

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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

Virgilio Garza has appeared twice before on The Hot Bid, speaking about a record-setting Diego Rivera painting from the Rockefeller family and a Fernando Botero circus painting.

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A Louis Vuitton Brass Explorer Trunk from 1888 Could Sell for $192,000

An 1888 Louis Vuitton brass Explorer trunk, shown in full, from the front. It is gold in color and features impressive buckles and locks.

What you see: A rare Louis Vuitton brass Explorer trunk, dating to 1888. Christie’s estimates it at HKD $1 million to $1.5 million, or $128,000 to $192,000.

The expert: Winsy Tsang, vice president and head of sale, handbags and accessories, Christie’s Asia Pacific.

This trunk is described as “rare.” What does that mean in this context? Do we know how many brass Explorer trunks of this size that Louis Vuitton made in the 19th century? We don’t know exactly how many were made. All we know is that we haven’t seen another one like this on the market, and only very few in other sizes and models. This is, potentially, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for buyers, which is why it warrants the “rare” classification.

Do we know how long Vuitton made the Explorer line? Do we know how many sizes of trunk were offered in brass? Our understanding is that this special line of trunks was only produced in the late 1880s and 1890s. The materials used were highly expensive and difficult to work with at that time–this was long before the technological advances of today that have made brass a common material. There were three or four different sizes and models in the Explorer line, as well as some custom pieces, but it’s difficult to know which were produced in brass, as the production of all versions was extremely low, and very few remain.

Was the brass finish the most popular of the four? It depends if you mean at the time or today. At the time, these pieces were highly utilitarian. The metals being used were designed for adventurers traveling to the most exotic locations who required light-weight and waterproofing–at any cost. Today, arguably, the brass version is the most popular as it is the most eye-catching because of its gold color.

Do we have a notion of how many brass-finish Explorer trunks survive? Also, how many have you handled at Christie’s Hong Kong? This is the first brass version at international auction, so very few still survive. A handful of others remain in private hands, but this is the first of this size and model that we have seen.

Is it fair to assume that when this trunk was originally purchased, it was part of a suite or group of matching Vuitton luggage? If so, how often do you find that suites of Vuitton luggage are broken up over time? It is unlikely that an adventurer would have only needed one trunk, so it is likely that it was originally part of a set. Over time, we often see these collections broken up due to their size–they are difficult to store. In addition, now that most travelers do not use hard-sided luggage. They may only need a handful for interior decoration, not a whole collection.

An 1888 brass Explorer trunk, shown in full, from the front, with its lid open to show the Louis Vuitton label. Though the paneling is made from brass, it has acquired a golden color over the years.

What is your favorite detail on this trunk, and how does that detail speak to the craftsmanship of Louis Vuitton? My favorite thing about this trunk is certainly the brass paneling–this is what makes the piece truly stand out. But, one detail on this trunk that I really love is the interior Louis Vuitton logo with the serial number written in beautiful script. The last number –“1”– is a bit smudged and makes you imagine the craftsman who oversaw the creation of this incredible piece.

What do we know about how this trunk would have been made? Also, was this off the rack, or was it custom? The trunk would have been too expensive to have been produced without a client. It almost certainly would have been ordered by one of the most prominent adventurers of the day. It would have been made entirely by hand.

What do we know about the provenance of this trunk? Do we know anything about where and when it might have traveled over its lifetime? The trunk has changed hands a few times in its long life. As is often the case, at some point the trunk was forgotten about and re-discovered by a discerning buyer. It is currently being sold by a private collector.

Could you talk a bit about how the buyer would have used it–what sorts of things they would have put in it, and where would they have taken it? These trunks were produced only for the top explorers of the day who had the ambition and the means to adventure to the furthest corners of the earth. At the time, and the reason Louis Vuitton became as well-known and respected as it did, was because of its many technological advancements–the flat-topped trunk for easy stacking, special clasps, etc. This particular model, because of its small size, would have likely held its owner’s valuables and personal items. The trunk would have likely stayed with or near its owner.

What condition is it in? How original is it? What issues do you tend to see with brass-finished Explorer trunks, and does this one show any signs of having those issues? This trunk underwent a full restoration in 2015, so it looks quite like it would have in the 1800s. Over time, brass trunks can darken and become tarnished and oxidized. There are only a handful of restorers in the world who know how to handle these trunks – these restorations are extensive and timely, sometimes taking 100+ hours.

Are there signs of wear that can enhance the value of a vintage Vuitton trunk? When buying a vintage trunk, buyers want them to be “travelled”–if they wanted a brand new one, they would get it at Louis Vuitton! We love to see dings, dents, and scrapes that show the piece was really used. This mystery lets us imagine to what exotic locations the trunk may have travelled and who the explorer was who owned it.

How much does it weigh? The trunk is nearly as light as the more-common canvas version. The metal is quite thin and designed to protect the wooden architecture of the trunk from moisture and insects of exotic and humid locations.

The lot notes say it dates to 1888. How do we know this for sure? We were able to narrow the production to just a few years based on the material and model, and Louis Vuitton confirmed that a brass trunk with this serial number was sold in 1888.

The lot notes say it has a key. Would it be the original key? If so, how rare is it for a Vuitton trunk of this type to survive with its original key? Most trunk owners know to keep their keys safe–but after 131 years, you can imagine they might get lost. 20th century trunks often have their original keys, but it is quite rare for one of this age. The key with this trunk is a replacement.

How have you seen the market for Louis Vuitton vintage luggage change over time? Was there ever a point when something like this would just have been an old trunk, or were these Vuitton pieces always kept, valued, and collected? The market for Louis Vuitton trunks has been steadily growing for the last 20 to 30 years. People began to use them for interiors and collect them due to their mysterious histories around that time, which is why the value began to increase. A large canvas steamer with interesting travel stickers and markings can be very valuable.

What is the world auction record for a vintage Louis Vuitton trunk, and what is the record for a piece from the Vuitton Explorer line? The world record and the Explorer line record is the aluminum Explorer Trunk sold for £162,500 [about $205,000] in London last December. Although aluminum was equally rare to brass, the aesthetics of this one make it stand out–and a potential record-breaker. [Christie’s also did a 5 Minutes With… piece about the aluminum trunk ahead of its sale, which you can read here.]

How do modern collectors of vintage Vuitton luggage use their pieces? Or do they treat them as functional art? They are now most often used as interior decoration by collectors of rare art and sculptures, or by collectors of travel and trunks.

What is the trunk like in person? Are there aspects of it that don’t quite come through in the photographs? The brass itself is what makes this piece so precious and that is difficult to capture in an image. It is a bright, true gold color that is extremely eye-catching. The patina around the edges and the wooden trim give it an amazing vintage look and feel as well.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? This trunk is unforgettable–none of us will see one like it again.

How to bid: The 1888 Louis Vuitton brass explorer trunk is lot 3888 in the Handbags & Accessories auction at Christie’s Hong Kong on May 29, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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SOLD! The Malling-Hansen “Writing Ball,” An Example of the First Commercial Typewriter, Sold For (Scroll Down to See)

A Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, shown in three-quarter view. Its semi-circular keyboard appears above its curved typing surface.

Update: The Malling-Hansen “Writing Ball” sold for €100,000, or about $111,600.

What you see: A Malling-Hansen “Writing Ball,” the first commercially produced typewriter, circa the 1870s or so. Auction Team Breker estimates it at €70,000 to €90,000, or $78,000 to $100,000.

The expert: Nick Hawkins, U.K. representative for Auction Team Breker, on behalf of founder Uwe Breker.

Who was Rasmus Malling-Hansen and how did he come to create the Writing Ball? Was he an inventor, or is this the only thing he made? He was a Danish pastor and also the director of the Royal Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Copenhagen. He didn’t have an inventor’s background. He designed it with his students in mind, to help them “speak with their fingers.” That was the objective of making the Writing Ball.

A Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, shown in profile.

The lot notes say Malling-Hansen claimed those who used the Writing Ball could achieve a speed “easily two to three times as fast as normal,” presumably meaning “normal” was handwriting speed. Was the device able to do that? I’m not sure about it compared to handwriting, but compared to other machines that came later, yes, and for two reasons. One, its spherical shape made the positioning of the fingers easier and more natural. Two, the placement of the keys, with the vowels at the left hand and the consonants at the right, made the schematics of the machine easier to grasp. And it was a relatively compact machine compared to typewriters that came later. It also had spring-loaded keys, so the pressure needed to type was less–you didn’t have to work as hard.

What innovations did the Writing Ball introduce that became standard features on later typewriters? The main ones were the automatic carriage return, the space bar, the bell to signal the end of the line, carbon copies, and visible writing–when you lift the hemisphere away from the curvature [the beige-colored curved piece below the keyboard] you can see what you wrote on the paper.

Did the Writing Ball debut all these features, or was it the first to bring them together? It was the first one to put them together. His machine was really revolutionary when you look back on it now. It was almost too modern for its time.

An angle on a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, that shows the undersides of several of its keys.

How many Writing Balls were made? Do we know? And is the serial number on this one, 103, a clue that helps us figure out how many were made? Yes, it is a clue. Mr. Breker estimates 180 were produced, and 35 survive.

Do we know how long the production run was? In the space of ten to 12 years, and they were all made to order. You couldn’t walk into a shop and buy one.  It took a while [to make one]. Friedrich Nietzche’s, I think, took nine months to be delivered. He ordered his quite late in the production cycle. He was a famous customer, but not a satisfied customer. There’s an article about how his was damaged on a trip to Geneva. He blamed the machine, but it was probably the roads or rails of the time.

How many Writing Balls has Auction Team Breker handled? Our electronic records start in 1999. Since then, we have sold six. Mr. Breker thinks that before 1999, we sold another six.

What’s the auction record for a Writing Ball? Was it set at Auction Team Breker? Yes. The highest result was around €150,000 [roughly $168,000].

Does this Writing Ball work? It does, yes. I haven’t used this particular machine, but I have used another.

An overhead view of a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter. The semi-circular keyboard appears above its curved typing surface.

What does it sound like when in use? Does it sound like the typewriters we’re familiar with from 20th-century movies and TV shows? It has a softer sound than the classic typewriter because the materials are lighter. Brass is softer than steel. I’d say it’s more mellow than the classic clacking of typewriter keys.

And it’s been in the family of the original recipient until now? As far as we know, it’s been in the family since it was originally owned.

How often do Writing Balls come up at auction? It seems like they appear every two to three years. I would say so. They are very rare, but they’ve made some big prices in the last two to three years. That’s brought more to market.

What is it like in person? I think one of the things that’s remarkable about the design is it’s very organic, the curvature of the top and the keys. The things you see in person are the complexity of the appearance, combined with the function. And it has a beautiful patina. It has a very soft look, like the lacquer you see on an antique microscope or telephone. And it’s not been restored, which you really appreciate it when you look at it. All the keys are original as well. This is all-original.

So, no parts have been replaced? As far as we know, it’s all-original and functional.

Is that unusual? It’s quite unusual, and it’s probably [survived so well] because it’s been in one family. When something comes to market from one family or collection, the condition is usually very good.

A side view of a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, that shows the keyboard pulled up and away from its curved typing surface.

The lot notes describe the Writing Ball as being in “excellent general condition.” What does that mean here? Auction Team Breker uses a coding system. Mr. Breker coded this as a 2-2. The first 2 means very good, one step down from mint. I don’t think any antique typewriter is mint. The other 2 means it’s in fully functional condition. If you’re inclined, you can write a letter on it. It’s better if it doesn’t need to be restored. In reality, most Malling-Hansen Writing Balls are in museums or advanced private collections. Another element with antique metal is the brass lacquer. The original patina is very sensitive to touch. To preserve it in good condition, you shouldn’t type–maybe a once-a-year special demonstration is enough.

Why will this Writing Ball stick in your memory? They’re all special. This one has a nice family history, which makes it stand out, but they’re all special in their own way. They all have something different about them.

Anything else you’d like to point out about this piece? In the catalog description is a translation of a sonnet that Nietzsche wrote about the machine in frustration: “The writing ball is a thing like me:/ Made of iron yet easily twisted on journeys/Patience and tact are required in abundance/As well as fine fingers to use us.” It was nice to include.

It’s funny to see that Nietzche got frustrated by his typewriter in the 19th century. Machines seem to possess a life of their own. They don’t do what we want when we need them the most. The great philosopher had similar problems as we have today with our laptops and iPhones. Modern technology and being alienated from technology probably goes back as long as people have had machines.

How to bid: The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball is lot 0076 in the 150th Science & Technology, Mechanical Music, and Toys auction taking place May 18, 2019 at Auction Team Breker in Koeln, Germany.

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Auction Team Breker has a website.

There’s also a society devoted to Rasmus Malling-Hansen.

Images are courtesy of Auction Team Breker.

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SOLD! A Roy Lichtenstein Unique Ceramic Panel, Commissioned by Gunter Sachs for His St. Moritz Penthouse, Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

COMPOSITION, a unique ceramic panel by Roy Lichtenstein, is a long, horizontal work that features a yellow sun with streaming rays, a rainbow in primary colors, and green tendrils. It is curvy and geometric and is shown as it was displayed in Gunter Sachs's St. Moritz bathroom: upside down.

Update: Roy Lichtenstein’s COMPOSITION sold for $1.28 million.

What you see: COMPOSITION, a porcelain enamel panel commissioned from Roy Lichtenstein in 1969. Sotheby’s estimates it at $900,000 to $1.2 million. [Note: It’s shown here upside-down.]

The expert: Nicole Schloss, Head of Sotheby’s Day Auctions of Contemporary Art in New York.

How often did Lichtenstein make porcelain enamel panels? Is this it? There are a few nuances to unpack here. In 1964, Lichtenstein began creating enameled panels in limited editions of six or eight. He’d send schematic drawings to the fabricator, who would make the pieces. Unlike the other panels Lichtenstein did, this one is unique.

Did Gunter Sachs see one of those limited edition Lichtenstein panels and commission one from him for his St. Moritz residence? Essentially, yes. Lichtenstein met Sachs on the beach at Southampton in 1968. Sachs, by then, was well-known in the art world as a patron and a critic. I think he came to meet Lichtenstein through Andy Warhol. Once they met, they started a discussion about commissioned works. Sachs made this fabulous apartment in the penthouse [of Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz, Switzerland] dedicated to displaying pop art in every form. It was a pop art haven, almost. It spoke to the type of person Gunter Sachs was, loving and living with his art.

What are the dimensions of the panel? 24 by 77 1/2 inches, a shape that was meant to fit a specific area in Sachs’s apartment.

Where in the bathroom was this panel installed? Sachs had a bedroom and bathroom en suite. This panel ran the width of the area below his double sink in the bathroom.

So it needed to be enamel. Exactly. Sachs and Lichtenstein exchanged letters about the subject, and they developed it together. There were two panels–the other has a Leda and the Swan theme, and it ran the width of his bathtub. The two panels are considered a conceptual pair, but two very different works. The other one has been in a private collection for seven to eight years now.

Is any of the correspondence between Sachs and Lichtenstein included with the panel? It’s not part of the lot. We don’t have it. We have asked the Lichtenstein Foundation for a copy of it. It’s a dialogue–not just one-sided by either party. Sachs wanted objects that were beautiful in his home, and Lichtenstein wanted to produce something current with what he was working on. He was starting to conceptualize other vehicles for his Pop vernacular–sunrises, hot dogs. In the late 1960s, it merges into his Modern painting series, a comment on modernity and Modernism. He was looking at Léger and Sonia Delaunay, and he put his own very colorful, Pop-y spin on it.

When was the panel removed from the penthouse apartment? Sotheby’s sold Sachs’s estate in May 2012. The panel was taken out ahead of the sale.

What condition is it in? It’s in exceptional condition. The enamel has stayed bright and fresh and reflective throughout its existence. It looks like it was made yesterday. It [this condition] is what you look for, especially if it’s used.

Is this one panel or two? It’s one single panel, a single piece of metal with enamel on top of it. The sun over the lake looks like it’s a dividing element, but it’s one single panel.

What’s it like in person? It’s impressive. It holds its own in our gallery. It pulls you in. Your eye wants to follow the curve of the rainbow. It’s really an exciting work to see in the flesh. It’s much brighter than it looks in the illustration. It’s quite vibrant.

What’s the world auction record for a Lichtenstein porcelain enamel panel? It’s Crying Girl, from 1964, the fourth in an edition of five. It sold at Christie’s New York in November 2015 for $13.3 million.

How did you come up with the estimate? We looked up what it sold for last time–$800,000 to $850,000 in 2012 [converted from British pounds]. The market for Lichtenstein has changed significantly since then. Lichtenstein’s record is $95.3 million. We’ve seen $40 million and $50 million prices for the artist for canvases from the 1960s. We also looked at editioned enamel works. They’ve sold for four million to $12 million when they feature the iconic women Lichtenstein was known for in the 1960s. It’s an abstract work, and it’s an enticing estimate. And there’s truly nothing like it available.

How does the Gunter Sachs provenance add value? It’s a great name to attach to any work. The fact that he commissioned it, had a hand in what it looked like, and lived with it for 50 years really adds to it. Having a huge name associated with a work of art adds quality and rarity. That’s what collectors look for.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a fantastic summation of everything Lichtenstein was doing in the 1960s. You have the BEN-Day dots and the primary colors. It really stands out as a unique and exceptional work. Your eye wants to linger over it.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the Lichtenstein panel? It was displayed upside-down in Gunter Sachs’s apartment. The correct orientation is as we have it in the catalog, with the moon on top and the reflection at the bottom. But you can display it in your home however you like.

Why did Sachs display it upside-down? Was it an error? I wouldn’t say it’s an error. Owner’s artistic license, we’ll call it. He liked it that way, for whatever reason. We’ll never know the true reason.

How to bid: Roy Lichtenstein’s COMPOSITION is lot 137 in the Contemporary Art Day Auction at Sotheby’s New York on May 17, 2019.

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A Unique Civil War Battle Flag, Carried by African-American Union Troops and Painted by David Bustill Bowser, Might Find Glory at Morphy Auctions

A Civil War-era flag carried by the 127th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops and painted by African-American artist David Bustill Bowser. It shows a black Union soldier and Columbia, the female personification of America. She has pale skin and dark hair and she carries the American flag. The image is bordered by gold laurel leaves. Above it we see the motto that reads, "We Will Prove Ourselves Men". The blue cloth of the flag is ragged in places.

What you see: The battle flag of the 127th Regiment of the USCT (United States Colored Troops), from Pennsylvania, which fought in the Civil War in 1864 and 1865. It was painted by African-American artist David Bustill Bowser.

The expert: Craig D. Womeldorf, chief executive officer, Morphy Auctions.

How rare are battle-used Civil War regiment flags of any kind? It’s such a wide range. There are battle flags from many regiments, Union and Confederate. They had to have flags in battle to identify the regiment. As you can imagine, they were used heavily. Some got lost and destroyed. They’re very rare.

How rare are United States Colored Troops (USCT) flags, and how rare are USCT flags made by an African-American artist? There were eleven African-American regiments raised in Pennsylvania, and there was one flag per regiment. Of the eleven, this is the only one left. Seven [of the other ten] are known from photographic images. USCT flags were not issued by state or federal governments. They were created by supporters. After the war, [military officials] didn’t need to send them back to government entities. They went back to the USCT. Several went to the archives at West Point in 1906, and they were removed and destroyed in 1942. This one happened to go back to the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans] and survived.

And it went back to the artist, David Bustill Bowser, after the war? It’s believed, but not confirmed, that Commander Louis Wagner of Camp William Penn transferred the flag to Bowser after the war. [Camp William Penn, in what is now LaMott, Pennsylvania, was the state’s training camp for African-American Civil War soldiers.] Bowser transferred it to GAR Post 2, which is where we got it.

And that GAR post collection, which morphed into the GAR Civil War Museum and Library, is deaccessing the flag? What is your definition of deaccessing?

A museum releasing objects from its inventory by selling them or giving them to another institution. Yes. They went through the first stage of restoring the flag. We took it to the next step. We took it to someone who specialized in antique flag restoration, preserving it for posterity forever.

How prolific was David Bustill Bowser? We think he was prolific in certain commercial categories, but his paintings and Civil War banners are rare and unique.

Do we know how Bowser was chosen for the Pennsylvania USCT flag commission? He was a prominent Philadelphia artist. We didn’t research how he was chosen, but we know there was opposition, and how it was pushed back. [From the lot notes: When opposition to the choice of Bowser as the artist to paint the flags developed within the Supervisory Committee of the camp, Bowser persuaded John Forney, a powerful Republican Philadelphia politician and newspaper owner, to argue that “he is a poor man, and certainly professes very remarkable talent. He has been active in the cause and is himself a colored man, and it seems to me there would be peculiar hardship in taking away this little job from him and giving it to a wealthy house.”]

Did Bowser fight in the Civil War? He did not.

Could you talk a bit about Bowser’s importance to African-American art history? He studied with the best artists of the era, and he inspired Henry Ossawa Tanner, one of the best African-American artists of the 19th century.

Could you discuss what the 127th Regiment did during the war? The lot notes say that it was “in battle once” at Deep Bottom, Virginia, a week before General Robert E. Lee surrendered, but the notes also say the regiment “saw action” at several points in 1864 and 1865. What does “saw action” mean here, and how is it distinct from formally being in battle? “Action” can mean additional activity in battle and campaign support. Most battles are a logistical supply chain issue. Bringing up food, water, rifles, and material is as critical to the battle as the actual battle.

How does this flag match the iconography of other Civil War battle flags, and how does it depart from it? UCST regimental flags generally had a similar motif, usually involving a soldier and Columbia [a female personification of America], but with different text. Each had its own motto. This one says “We Will Prove Ourselves Men.” It’s different from other [Union] regimental flags, which are variations on the American flag. You find variations, different orientations of the stars, the eagle, the stripes, the regimental number, but you don’t see pictorial representations.

Would the makers of USCT flags have had more freedom with their designs because they weren’t government-issued? I don’t know about regimental flag distribution, but they [the UCST regiments] were not considered regular troops. Maybe they had more latitude, maybe they didn’t, I don’t know.

And is the phrase “We Will Prove Ourselves Men” unique to this flag? It’s unique in the Pennsylvania group.

The flag depicts a black male soldier with a white woman, Columbia, who symbolizes America. Would this have been a controversial image in mid-1860s America? Clearly the flag depicts race consciousness, and we can imagine it would have had an element of controversy at the time, although we have no specific indications or stories associated with any controversy. Battle flags needed to be an identifiable for their purpose. If you’ve seen a Civil War reenactment or a movie, it’s smoky, it’s mayhem. A lot of regimental battle flags are similar and can be confused [in the heat of battle], but this would stand out. And it shows the pride of the unit–We Will Prove Ourselves Men. You don’t see that on other flags. We can imagine the uniquely-painted, colorful banner met it intentions well.

What condition is the flag in? Does it show signs of having been in battle? It shows signs of wear, for sure, because it was in pieces and had to be restored. It was probably worn from use in battle, and at the end of the war, [veterans from the regiment] took pieces as souvenirs.

I think I see a hole near the word “Men” in the motto, and I think I see paler blue spots at the lower left, which might be thin spots. Is that, in fact, what I see? If you blow up the image so that the word “Men” is in the middle of the screen, you’ll see fine mesh netting and lots and lots of tiny stitches that match the color of blue. [Click on the main shot of the lot and then click the area once or twice.] They were extremely meticulous about that. Those are original sections and restored sections attached to a support net, and that is attached to an acid-free cotton batting. And that is inside a UV-protected enclosure.

How did you arrive at an estimate for this, especially with it being the only survivor of the eleven Bowser Pennsylvania regimental flags, which has never gone to auction before? We got a team of experts together. We looked at other flags…

Did you look at other works by Bowser? There’s nothing like this that survives, so there’s nothing else to compare it to. In the last Edged Weapon, Armor, and Militaria sale, we had a North Carolina [Confederate] battle flag, a pretty basic flag, captured on the retreat from Gettysburg. It sold for $96,000. It was not as pictorial, with a different legacy, a different significance, a whole different genre of flag. We believe this, in many ways, is more significant and rare.

How many different audiences of collectors will fight for this flag? Military historians, art historians, African-American, Civil War, Grand Army of the Republic enthusiasts–a pretty wide group. We hope it will generate a lot of interest.

What is the flag like in person? I’m kind of a Civil War buff. I look at it, and to me, it’s suspended in time because it’s preserved so well. If you’ve been to Gettysburg or the museums in Virginia, you get a weighty feeling. Emotionally, it’s intense, but somber at the same time, because you know what these people dealt with.

What’s the auction record for a UCST flag, and for any Civil War battle flag? I don’t know about UCST. I looked, but couldn’t find any. The most expensive flag I could find was Confederate general JEB Stuart’s personal battle flag. It sold for $956,000 in December 2006. But I think this has the opportunity to be more important than that. It’s got a different combination of factors. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I think it’s worth at least the estimate.

Why will this flag stick in your memory? It connects to so many elements of the Civil War and American history. It’s astounding and unique. I haven’t seen or heard of anything like it. People say something is unique–this is the definition of unique.

How to bid: The 127th Regiment USCT flag is lot 2161 in the Edged Weapon, Armor, and Militaria sale taking place June 12 and 13 at Morphy Auctions. It will come to the block on the second day of the sale.

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Image is courtesy of Morphy Auctions.

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A Roberto Montenegro Painting, Done in the 1920s and Newly Rediscovered, Could Sell for $90,000

Roberto Montenegro's "Untitled (Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses)" features at least six Mexican women in regional dress that frames their faces in white rings of cloth. They carry colorful bouquets. Though they are dressed identically in white, each woman is individual and distinct. All are somber; none smile.

What you see: Untitled (Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses), painted in the 1920s by Roberto Montenegro. Christie’s estimates it at $70,000 to $90,000.

The expert: Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American art for Christie’s.

How prolific was Montenegro? He was very prolific. He worked for five decades. He continued to paint into his sixties. He died in 1968.

Why hasn’t he received the scholarly attention that some of his peers have gotten? He’s a very well-known artist, and he’s always included in surveys of Mexican art. The market likes him. What’s missing is a volume that captures the depth of his career and really studies his accomplishments.

How do we know that he painted this sometime in the 1920s? It’s not dated, but stylistically, it’s related to a Montenegro painting of Maya women that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) owns, and that dates to 1926.

When–on what occasions–do Tehuanas [women native to the Tehuantepec area of Mexico] don this distinctive ceremonial garb? Weddings and funerals? To me, in this particular painting, because they’re holding flowers and almost appear to be compressed in a tight space, almost stacked against each other, it appears to be a processsion. Their demeanor is serious. It’s more an expression of reverence. The faces are not laughing or smiling. Do you remember the Diego Rivera painting from the Rockefeller collection? That picture was Tehuanas too. That’s a feast, a very different atmosphere, celebrating. This seems to be a little more serious. A religious offering, maybe a funeral, but we can’t tell.

What is mexicanidad, and how is it reflected in this painting? It’s a term that refers to putting elements of Mexican culture in the forefront of a painting or an artistic expression. A lot of artists reflect mexicanidad in different ways. Frida Kahlo was a master of mexicanidad. Everything she did or said or wrote deeply embraced her Mexican identity. She took it to another level in dress and in how she expressed herself.

The lot notes say that Montenegro traveled in Europe almost continually from 1905 to 1920, looking at historic and contemporary European art. Do we know how soon he painted this after he returned to Mexico? I wish we could, but sadly, no. His sister [who owned the painting] has passed away. She would have known.

This looks really Cubist to me. Do we know if he looked at Cubist works during his travels? I think he had seen avant-garde art in Europe, like Diego Rivera had. Montenegro obviously knew the work of other artists like Rivera, who had a Cubist period.

Is this the first time he plays with the geometric potential of these Tehuana outfits? I think Diego did it too. What’s different about this treatment in this particular painting–it’s very graphic, very frontal. It seems to confront the viewer. That’s what’s attractive about the painting. And it’s very sculptural.

Sculptural? Is the paint piled up on the surface of the canvas? No, no, the painting is flat. When I say sculptural, the shapes almost appear to be 3-D in the way that Montenegro overlaps the headdresses with the faces in the back. There’s a sense of transparency, almost.

Are his other depictions of Tehuanas this geometric? No, they’re not. If you look at his murals, the Tejuanas are soft and others don’t have headdresses. I think this is one of the few that do.

Do we know anything about his working style? Did he pose models for this, or take reference photos, or did he imagine this scene? I think these women are archetypes.

From memory? Yeah, from memory.

Why is this painting so effective? I think it’s very striking. Part of that is you’re looking at this very frontally. It’s almost them looking at you rather than you looking at them.

Is this typical or atypical of his work? I think it’s an outlier. He used a lot of Mexican motifs, but it’s an outlier in the way the picture is constructed.

What is the painting like in person? What’s interesting about the painting is it’s very tight. It’s effective in that you feel this is a group of women in a small procession. They’re very strategically placed in the picture plane, but they have their own personalities.

How often do Montenegros appear at auction? Normally there’s one every season. They don’t circulate too much. He’s not an artist people are trading constantly. When collectors find a Montenegro, they tend to keep it for generations.

From the looks of the lot notes, this has never been to auction before–correct? No, never.

How rare is it to have a Montenegro that’s fresh to market? Every two years, there’s a surprise. This was a total surprise. We didn’t know about the picture until [the heirs] contacted us. It was owned by his sister. She lived in California. Montenegro gave it to her on one of his trips to visit, and it’s been in the family all these years. I don’t know if it’s been published. It’s really the first time it’s been seen. It’s really great. It’s one of my favorite things in the sale.

What condition is it in? Very good shape. We cleaned it superficially, but it’s in great shape.

What’s the auction record for a Montenegro? It was set at Christie’s. It was one of his self-portraits in a sphere, from 1955. It sold in 2017 for $187,500.

So this could set a new record for the artist, maybe. Let’s just say it’s conceivable.

Why will this painting stick in your memory? It is a memorable painting. It’s very graphic. And it’s lovely in the flesh, really, really lovely. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get a rediscovered artwork. This example has never been seen or published in color. Now the image is out there, and people can refer to it. We love to sell things, and we love to contribute to the understanding of an artist by presenting something that’s so good and special.

How to bid: Untitled (Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses) is lot 13 in the Latin American Art sale taking place at Christie’s New York on May 22 and 23, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

Virgilio Garza has appeared twice before on The Hot Bid, speaking about a record-setting Diego Rivera painting from the Rockefeller family and a Fernando Botero circus painting.

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A Seriously Steampunk Writing Ball, the First Commercially Produced Typewriter, Could Command $100,000 at Auction Team Breker

A Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, shown in three-quarter view. Its semi-circular keyboard appears above its curved typing surface.

What you see: A Malling-Hansen “Writing Ball,” the first commercially produced typewriter, circa the 1870s or so. Auction Team Breker estimates it at €70,000 to €90,000, or $78,000 to $100,000.

The expert: Nick Hawkins, U.K. representative for Auction Team Breker, on behalf of founder Uwe Breker.

Who was Rasmus Malling-Hansen and how did he come to create the Writing Ball? Was he an inventor, or is this the only thing he made? He was a Danish pastor and also the director of the Royal Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Copenhagen. He didn’t have an inventor’s background. He designed it with his students in mind, to help them “speak with their fingers.” That was the objective of making the Writing Ball.

A Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, shown in profile.

The lot notes say Malling-Hansen claimed those who used the Writing Ball could achieve a speed “easily two to three times as fast as normal,” presumably meaning “normal” was handwriting speed. Was the device able to do that? I’m not sure about it compared to handwriting, but compared to other machines that came later, yes, and for two reasons. One, its spherical shape made the positioning of the fingers easier and more natural. Two, the placement of the keys, with the vowels at the left hand and the consonants at the right, made the schematics of the machine easier to grasp. And it was a relatively compact machine compared to typewriters that came later. It also had spring-loaded keys, so the pressure needed to type was less–you didn’t have to work as hard.

What innovations did the Writing Ball introduce that became standard features on later typewriters? The main ones were the automatic carriage return, the space bar, the bell to signal the end of the line, carbon copies, and visible writing–when you lift the hemisphere away from the curvature [the beige-colored curved piece below the keyboard] you can see what you wrote on the paper.

Did the Writing Ball debut all these features, or was it the first to bring them together? It was the first one to put them together. His machine was really revolutionary when you look back on it now. It was almost too modern for its time.

An angle on a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, that shows the undersides of several of its keys.

How many Writing Balls were made? Do we know? And is the serial number on this one, 103, a clue that helps us figure out how many were made? Yes, it is a clue. Mr. Breker estimates 180 were produced, and 35 survive.

Do we know how long the production run was? In the space of ten to 12 years, and they were all made to order. You couldn’t walk into a shop and buy one.  It took a while [to make one]. Friedrich Nietzche’s, I think, took nine months to be delivered. He ordered his quite late in the production cycle. He was a famous customer, but not a satisfied customer. There’s an article about how his was damaged on a trip to Geneva. He blamed the machine, but it was probably the roads or rails of the time.

How many Writing Balls has Auction Team Breker handled? Our electronic records start in 1999. Since then, we have sold six. Mr. Breker thinks that before 1999, we sold another six.

What’s the auction record for a Writing Ball? Was it set at Auction Team Breker? Yes. The highest result was around €150,000 [roughly $168,000].

Does this Writing Ball work? It does, yes. I haven’t used this particular machine, but I have used another.

An overhead view of a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter. The semi-circular keyboard appears above its curved typing surface.

What does it sound like when in use? Does it sound like the typewriters we’re familiar with from 20th-century movies and TV shows? It has a softer sound than the classic typewriter because the materials are lighter. Brass is softer than steel. I’d say it’s more mellow than the classic clacking of typewriter keys.

And it’s been in the family of the original recipient until now? As far as we know, it’s been in the family since it was originally owned.

How often do Writing Balls come up at auction? It seems like they appear every two to three years. I would say so. They are very rare, but they’ve made some big prices in the last two to three years. That’s brought more to market.

What is it like in person? I think one of the things that’s remarkable about the design is it’s very organic, the curvature of the top and the keys. The things you see in person are the complexity of the appearance, combined with the function. And it has a beautiful patina. It has a very soft look, like the lacquer you see on an antique microscope or telephone. And it’s not been restored, which you really appreciate it when you look at it. All the keys are original as well. This is all-original.

So, no parts have been replaced? As far as we know, it’s all-original and functional.

Is that unusual? It’s quite unusual, and it’s probably [survived so well] because it’s been in one family. When something comes to market from one family or collection, the condition is usually very good.

A side view of a Malling-Hansen "Writing Ball", an early typewriter, that shows the keyboard pulled up and away from its curved typing surface.

The lot notes describe the Writing Ball as being in “excellent general condition.” What does that mean here? Auction Team Breker uses a coding system. Mr. Breker coded this as a 2-2. The first 2 means very good, one step down from mint. I don’t think any antique typewriter is mint. The other 2 means it’s in fully functional condition. If you’re inclined, you can write a letter on it. It’s better if it doesn’t need to be restored. In reality, most Malling-Hansen Writing Balls are in museums or advanced private collections. Another element with antique metal is the brass lacquer. The original patina is very sensitive to touch. To preserve it in good condition, you shouldn’t type–maybe a once-a-year special demonstration is enough.

Why will this Writing Ball stick in your memory? They’re all special. This one has a nice family history, which makes it stand out, but they’re all special in their own way. They all have something different about them.

Anything else you’d like to point out about this piece? In the catalog description is a translation of a sonnet that Nietzsche wrote about the machine in frustration: “The writing ball is a thing like me:/ Made of iron yet easily twisted on journeys/Patience and tact are required in abundance/As well as fine fingers to use us.” It was nice to include.

It’s funny to see that Nietzche got frustrated by his typewriter in the 19th century. Machines seem to possess a life of their own. They don’t do what we want when we need them the most. The great philosopher had similar problems as we have today with our laptops and iPhones. Modern technology and being alienated from technology probably goes back as long as people have had machines.

How to bid: The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball is lot 0076 in the 150th Science & Technology, Mechanical Music, and Toys auction taking place May 18, 2019 at Auction Team Breker in Koeln, Germany.

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Auction Team Breker has a website.

There’s also a society devoted to Rasmus Malling-Hansen.

Images are courtesy of Auction Team Breker.

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SOLD! John Lennon’s Copy of the Beatles’ Infamous “Butcher” Cover Sold for (Scroll Down to See)

John Lennon drew a speech bubble for the inscription on his copy of the infamous Beatles "Butcher cover". The image shows McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr in white lab coats and draped with dismembered dolls and raw meat. McCartney signed it below Lennon's speech bubble. Starr signed the area over his right shoulder.

Update: John Lennon’s personal copy of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today with the infamous “Butcher” cover, which he inscribed, dated, and drew upon, and which was later autographed by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, sold for $234,400–a record for a Beatles “Butcher” album.

What you see: A U.S first state Butcher album prototype, stereo example, of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today, which was owned by John Lennon. He inscribed and dated it and drew a sketch on the back cover. Later, the recipient obtained signatures from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $160,000 to $180,000.

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

So, let’s start with how this album cover came about. It was offensive in 1966, and many would find it offensive now. How did this image get chosen for the album cover? How did it advance as far as getting a press run of 750,000 before it was stopped and recalled? It was a time toward the end of the Beatles as a group, working together. They were jaded and tired and exhausted [with] another photo shoot, another album. Bob Whitaker shot the photo. Some say it was a message against the war in Vietnam. Another theory was that Beatles albums in the USA were not exactly the same as the format in the UK, and the four guys felt their albums were being butchered.

But it was not shot as an album cover. How did it end up on the cover? I think they got together and decided it would be amazing and send a message, whatever the message they thought they were sending. They were young lads. They had produced a new album every year. They had this experience [the photo shoot with Whitaker], this fun event, and decided it would be the cover of the album.

All four Beatles were in favor of putting it on the cover? Yeah, I think they were. Their lives were changing. They wanted something that was almost rebellious in a way, and they went along with it.

Do we know how many copies of the first state version of the Butcher cover–the ones that escaped into the market, and were not covered with the shot of the Beatles posing in and around the trunk–exist? Capitol Records sent it to retailers and radio stations and leaders in getting the message out about the upcoming album. Advance copies. Once it was out, [people] started to question it. Capitol Records recalled it. I expect at the time the sentiment of the people who didn’t like it returned it to Capitol Records and wanted a replacement one.

But do we have numbers on how many first state Butcher covers are out there? I’ve seen maybe five in the last 15 years. We also had the original album, the replacement, and additional photos related to the whole debacle. [Juliens’s sold the collection as a single lot in 2013 for $38,400 against an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000.]

Do we know how many first state Butcher prototype covers are out there? We do not. But what we should really focus on is it was John Lennon’s first state Butcher prototype cover. We sold Ringo Starr’s copy of the White Album for $790,000. Before that, the highest [the record for the most expensive record sold at auction] was an Elvis Presley record that sold for $300,000. This was Lennon’s, and he had a quote saying the cover was a comment on the Vietnam War–“If the public can accept something as cruel as the war, they can accept this cover.”

So Lennon was a proponent of the cover? Exactly. And the fact that this hung in Lennon’s apartment [in The Dakota in New York City], and it has John’s drawing on it–it’s an amazing part of this.

This is why I want to break it down, because there are a lot of moving parts here. Let’s subtract the Lennon provenance. A first state Butcher album cover prototype is pretty damn valuable on its own. It’s valuable. It’s really important. Collectors love to handle something like that and ideally it hasn’t been handled or opened or played. John Lennon did open and play it.

The John Lennon inscription is valuable on its own. Obviously, John Lennon is no longer with us. Anything signed by John Lennon has value in and of itself. Among the Beatles, he’s the most highly collectible.

Lennon did a sketch of a boy with a shovel and a dog on a blank area of his copy of the Beatles "Butcher" album cover.

The John Lennon artwork is valuable on its own. His drawings sell for a lot. We sold a concept sketch drawing for Sargent Pepper for $87,500 in 2017.

And it’s signed by all the Beatles except George Harrison. [Laughs] Dave Morrell [who received the record from Lennon] was a young guy in 1971. Later, when he saw how the collectibility of the Beatles was going, he thought it would be good to have all four signatures. George Harrison passed in 2001, but he got Paul and Ringo to sign. It’s hard to  do [get signatures from the surviving Beatles]. They rarely sign anything these days.

I imagine he tried to get George Harrison’s signature? Surely, he would have tried. Harrison was reclusive, and not as accessible as Paul or Ringo.

If the album had signatures from all four Beatles, would that raise the estimate? No, it wouldn’t. It would factor into the winning bid, not the estimate. Three out of four isn’t bad.

You sold Ringo Starr’s copy of the White Album for $790,000 against an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. Is the estimate on Lennon’s Butcher cover conservative? When we did the Ringo auction, he was a gentleman to work with. We had everything finished on the catalog, and he asked to meet with us in London. He told us, “I’m going to give you something very special.” It had been in a bank vault for about 35 years. Everyone speculated that John Lennon had the first copy of the White Album, but it was Ringo. He wanted a reserve of $60,000. We said absolutely. We were so amazed by the reactions. It was just phenomenal, a world record. But to answer the question–we placed a conservative estimate. We can’t determine where it will end up.

What are the odds that Lennon’s Butcher cover will break seven figures? [Laughs] I certainly hope so, but you never know. It’s an auction. The sky’s the limit. We’re doing the auction in Liverpool, which adds to the hype. John Lennon’s artwork, the signatures, it’s a prototype of an album that was recalled, it all plays into what goes down on May 9.

Lennon traded this to Morrell for a reel-to-reel bootleg. For those who don’t know, can you explain a bit about bootleg culture, and explain why Lennon would have traded this album for a bootleg? It’s still happening today, exchanging and swapping [recordings made at concerts and other venues]. With Beatles memorabilia, there’s a huge network of people plugged into that. John Lennon was no different. Morrell had a Yellow Matter Custard bootleg. Lennon wanted it.

But we value that Lennon Butcher cover a lot differently in 2019 than Lennon and Morrell did in 1971. Can you explain why the trade made sense to them? Even though the concept of collectibility wasn’t as strong then as now, it was recognized as a collectible album, because of its notoriety. In 1971, people were keeping the cover with the original, controversial art. It wasn’t that unusual back in 1971 not to place a value on an item. They wanted to say they owned it. It was not monetarily driven like it is today. Lennon surely thought that getting his hands on the recording was more important to him at the time. He could get another album cover on his wall if he still needed it. Morrell was not interested in monetary value. He in turn got something he wanted.

It was as simple as, “I have this, and you don’t have it. Give me something I don’t have in trade for it.” Like trading baseball cards. If you have something really good, you can get something really good. If you have a B-rated item, you get a B-rated item in exchange.

An image of the vinyl record from John Lennon's personal copy of the Beatles "Butcher" album cover. He did take it out and play it.

Are there any period pictures that show the album hanging on the walls of Lennon’s apartment in the Dakota? I don’t know, but I’m not aware.

Is this the first time it’s come to auction? As far as I’m aware, yes.

The auction is planned for Liverpool. Did you get the consignment first, and then choose Liverpool, or did you choose Liverpool and then secure the consignment? We’ve been working with Liverpool for many years. We’ve done discovery days for the last three years, and we’ve uncovered some really interesting items. We thought it would be cool to hold a Beatles auction there at the Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool. This album came as a result of the call. Once the press release [about the sale] went out, we got the call.

Have you held the album in your hands? I had it in my hands Monday morning [March 25]. This gives me chills. There was so much controversy when it came out. John Lennon signed it, and it was on his wall. 50 years later, we’re talking about it. I’ve never seen an album like this. There are so many variations of collectibility in one album. There’s so much history, so many stories to be told.

How to bid: John Lennon’s copy of the first state prototype Butcher album cover is lot 266 in Music Icons: The Beatles in Liverpool, an all-Beatles auction conducted by Julien’s Auctions. It contains more than 200 items, and takes place on May 9, 2019.

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Julien’s Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Julien’s Auctions.

Martin Nolan previously spoke to The Hot Bid about Marilyn Monroe’s record-setting Happy Birthday, Mr. President dress,  a Joseff of Hollywood simulated diamond necklace worn by Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and several other Hollywood actresses; a once-lost 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar belonging to John Lennon that sold for $2.4 million–a record for any guitar at auction; and a purple tunic worn by Prince.

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A Roy Lichtenstein Unique Ceramic Panel Hung Upside-down in a Bathroom in a St. Moritz Penthouse. Sotheby’s Could Sell It for $1.2 Million.

0033 Lichtenstein Roy composition 1969-1 (1)

What you see: COMPOSITION, a porcelain enamel panel commissioned from Roy Lichtenstein in 1969. Sotheby’s estimates it at $900,000 to $1.2 million. [Note: It’s shown here upside-down.]

The expert: Nicole Schloss, Head of Sotheby’s Day Auctions of Contemporary Art in New York.

How often did Lichtenstein make porcelain enamel panels? Is this it? There are a few nuances to unpack here. In 1964, Lichtenstein began creating enameled panels in limited editions of six or eight. He’d send schematic drawings to the fabricator, who would make the pieces. Unlike the other panels Lichtenstein did, this one is unique.

Did Gunter Sachs see one of those limited edition Lichtenstein panels and commission one from him for his St. Moritz residence? Essentially, yes. Lichtenstein met Sachs on the beach at Southampton in 1968. Sachs, by then, was well-known in the art world as a patron and a critic. I think he came to meet Lichtenstein through Andy Warhol. Once they met, they started a discussion about commissioned works. Sachs made this fabulous apartment in the penthouse [of Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz, Switzerland] dedicated to displaying pop art in every form. It was a pop art haven, almost. It spoke to the type of person Gunter Sachs was, loving and living with his art.

What are the dimensions of the panel? 24 by 77 1/2 inches, a shape that was meant to fit a specific area in Sachs’s apartment.

Where in the bathroom was this panel installed? Sachs had a bedroom and bathroom en suite. This panel ran the width of the area below his double sink in the bathroom.

So it needed to be enamel. Exactly. Sachs and Lichtenstein exchanged letters about the subject, and they developed it together. There were two panels–the other has a Leda and the Swan theme, and it ran the width of his bathtub. The two panels are considered a conceptual pair, but two very different works. The other one has been in a private collection for seven to eight years now.

Is any of the correspondence between Sachs and Lichtenstein included with the panel? It’s not part of the lot. We don’t have it. We have asked the Lichtenstein Foundation for a copy of it. It’s a dialogue–not just one-sided by either party. Sachs wanted objects that were beautiful in his home, and Lichtenstein wanted to produce something current with what he was working on. He was starting to conceptualize other vehicles for his Pop vernacular–sunrises, hot dogs. In the late 1960s, it merges into his Modern painting series, a comment on modernity and Modernism. He was looking at Léger and Sonia Delaunay, and he put his own very colorful, Pop-y spin on it.

When was the panel removed from the penthouse apartment? Sotheby’s sold Sachs’s estate in May 2012. The panel was taken out ahead of the sale.

What condition is it in? It’s in exceptional condition. The enamel has stayed bright and fresh and reflective throughout its existence. It looks like it was made yesterday. It [this condition] is what you look for, especially if it’s used.

Is this one panel or two? It’s one single panel, a single piece of metal with enamel on top of it. The sun over the lake looks like it’s a dividing element, but it’s one single panel.

What’s it like in person? It’s impressive. It holds its own in our gallery. It pulls you in. Your eye wants to follow the curve of the rainbow. It’s really an exciting work to see in the flesh. It’s much brighter than it looks in the illustration. It’s quite vibrant.

What’s the world auction record for a Lichtenstein porcelain enamel panel? It’s Crying Girl, from 1964, the fourth in an edition of five. It sold at Christie’s New York in November 2015 for $13.3 million.

How did you come up with the estimate? We looked up what it sold for last time–$800,000 to $850,000 in 2012 [converted from British pounds]. The market for Lichtenstein has changed significantly since then. Lichtenstein’s record is $95.3 million. We’ve seen $40 million and $50 million prices for the artist for canvases from the 1960s. We also looked at editioned enamel works. They’ve sold for four million to $12 million when they feature the iconic women Lichtenstein was known for in the 1960s. It’s an abstract work, and it’s an enticing estimate. And there’s truly nothing like it available.

How does the Gunter Sachs provenance add value? It’s a great name to attach to any work. The fact that he commissioned it, had a hand in what it looked like, and lived with it for 50 years really adds to it. Having a huge name associated with a work of art adds quality and rarity. That’s what collectors look for.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a fantastic summation of everything Lichtenstein was doing in the 1960s. You have the BEN-Day dots and the primary colors. It really stands out as a unique and exceptional work. Your eye wants to linger over it.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the Lichtenstein panel? It was displayed upside-down in Gunter Sachs’s apartment. The correct orientation is as we have it in the catalog, with the moon on top and the reflection at the bottom. But you can display it in your home however you like.

Why did Sachs display it upside-down? Was it an error? I wouldn’t say it’s an error. Owner’s artistic license, we’ll call it. He liked it that way, for whatever reason. We’ll never know the true reason.

How to bid: Roy Lichtenstein’s COMPOSITION is lot 137 in the Contemporary Art Day Auction at Sotheby’s New York on May 17, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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NEW RECORD! Demas Nwoko’s Children on Cycles Sold for (Scroll Down to See)

Children on Cycles by Demas Nwoko features a black truck at the top, with four black children, some in white and some in yellow on a red background. The four children are streamlined and abstract, with heads but no faces.

Update: Children on Cycles sold for $225,075–a new world auction record for Demas Nwoko, and more than double his previous record.

What you see: Children on Cycles, a circa 1961 painting by Nigerian artist Demas Nwoko. Bonhams estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.

The expert: Giles Peppiatt, head of African art at Bonhams.

How prolific is Nwoko? Not at all, really. His later career was as an architect. In the last 10 years, I’ve only seen four or five come to market. We’ve been lucky enough to sell three in the last four years.

When did he stop painting? I would say by the end of the 1960s he had pretty much stopped painting to concentrate on architecture.

He hasn’t gone back? No. He was born in 1935. He’s a very elderly gentleman. I think he’s hung up his paintbrush.

Do collectors prefer works from this point in his artistic career? The early 1960s is more unusual and very nice to have in some ways. He was at his most formative.

The painting is undated. How do we know he made it circa 1961? Because it was bought at the Mbari Exhibition in 1961 [in Nigeria], and it was painted for that. It was his first exhibition.

Is this image typical of his work? I would say it’s typical. When I was sent the image, I recognized it immediately. It’s definitely his kind of subject and his manner of painting. His output is not large, and he’s not a household name, but that doesn’t make him less important as an artist.

Could you tell the story of how the painting was rediscovered? I was just sent this image by the Bonhams representative in Boston. It came from the son of the collector. It had been under a bed. We knew the collector had been in Nigeria in the 1960s. They asked, “What about this, is it special?” I said it was very special indeed. It’s nice to liberate it from its dusty lair under the bed.

Speaking of it having been stashed under a bed for 50-odd years, what sort of condition is it in? Putting it under a bed keeps it pretty safe. It got a bit dusty, but the dust can be taken off. [Under a bed] is the safest place, normally. It’s important not to move it because it can get damaged.

The family didn’t display it? It’s so easy for us, knowing what it’s value is, to say, “What are they doing? Are they mad?” If you didn’t think it was anything, you wouldn’t know it was anything.

Still, I’m surprised they didn’t hang it up. It has wall presence, yes? I agree. Every piece of art is taken a different way. For whatever reason, they didn’t display it.

So Children on Cycles was known, but considered lost until now? In some ways, it was. The only previously known image of it was a black and white photo in the archives of the Harmon Foundation.

People hear stories like this all the time, of some amazing piece of art discovered in an attic or a basement after decades… this stuff actually happens. What’s nice about the story as well is the artist is like a J.D. Salinger figure. He was an incredibly talented artist who became a recluse. He became an architect and became known as an architect. I think it’s glorious, the fact that his art is coming to light and fetching strong prices.

Is he reclusive, or does he just not promote his artistic career? I would say the latter. He’s not in any way promoting his art. He’s not a hermit, but he doesn’t go to art events.

Did he paint Children on Cycles from his observations of his surroundings, or is this an invented image? I don’t know. It could be his imagination, but he’d certainly see children on cycles. The red road is redolent of the baked clay roads they have in Africa. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s what he observed.

What is it like in person? Are there aspects of the painting that the camera doesn’t pick up? In my view, it looks better in the flesh. When you get in front of the original work, it’s a lot more impressive. It’s the simplicity and the spareness of the work. The colors are strong and glowing.

How did you arrive at the estimate of $70,000 to $100,000? We’ve sold two or three Nwokos in the past two or three years. It [the range] is about right. I won’t be surprised if it performs a bit better. It’s one of the nicest and best Nwokos I’ve seen.

What’s the world auction record for a Nwoko? Was it set at Bonhams? Yes, we did set it. We sold Metro Ride in October 2017 in London and Rickshaw Ride in October 2018 in London for the same sum–$106,503.

What are the odds that Children on Cycles will set a new auction record for Nwoko? At the risk of giving it the kiss of death, I think there’s a chance it will break the record. Nothing is certain at auction, but at $107,000, it hasn’t got far to go.

Why will this painting stick in your memory? Probably because of the way it was discovered! [Laughs] Quite often, one goes to a collector and [the work to be consigned] is hanging on a wall to great fanfare. This came along rather gently.

How to bid: Children on Cycles is lot 6 in the Modern & Contemporary African Art sale at Bonhams New York on May 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.

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

Giles Peppiatt appeared on The Hot Bid once before, speaking about a record-setting sculpture by Ben Enwonwu.

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Art Collecting Today: Market Insights for Everyone Passionate About Art by Doug Woodham (THB: Shelf Life)

The cover of Doug Woodham's book Art Collecting Today: Market Insights for Everyone Passionate About Art is orange with a nondescript painting at the upper right.

What you see: Art Collecting Today: Market Insights for Everyone Passionate About Art by Doug Woodham. *$24.99, Allworth Press.

Does it fit in my purse? Yes, just.

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

You could call this Everything You Wanted to Know About the Art World, But Were Afraid to Ask, but Woodham wouldn’t, because he knows better than to reach for a joke that last got laughs in 1975.

Still, ACT serves that sort of role, explaining all the things you should know about art-collecting, but might not, or might have forgotten, and it does it without condescension.

ACT came out in Spring 2017 and has aged well overall (the GOP tax bill passed later that year affected the information on art and taxes, but c’mon,).

Woodham knows whereof he speaks, having embraced contemporary art as a 15-year-old and having followed a path that took him to a PhD in economics, a stint at McKinsey, and president of the Americas at Christie’s from 2012 to 2015.

This background helped him obtain almost 100 interviews for the book with collectors, art advisors (which is his current profession), auction house and gallery folks, lawyers, and others who might not normally speak as freely.

The material Woodham gathered from the anonymous dozens ensures that ACT is not a dry recitation of dos and don’ts. It pulls in topical art controversies that were live before May 2017, including the unusual threat that the Detroit Institute of the Arts faced in the wake of the city of Detroit declaring bankruptcy. It acknowledges the rise of Instagram and details its impact. It spends a chapter showing how six artists–Christopher Wool, Amedeo Modigliani, Yayoi Kusama, Rene Magritte, Ruth Asawa, and Elizabeth Murray–have seen their market reputations rise and fall.

And it deals head-on with the emotions of buyers and sellers. For ages, the tenets of economics assumed that market movers generally acted rationally. That’s never been true for art, and could never be true for art, because loving art isn’t rational. And art that goes unloved eventually goes unloved by the art marketplace.

ACT excels at grappling with the inherent irrationality of the art market, shedding light on its mysteries without killing its romance. It explores the alchemy of how love turns into money, or fails to, with deftness and brevity.

This book is perfect for subway journey reading and just-before-you-fall-asleep reading in that you can jump into it and out of it at will with the confidence that you’ll learn something, enjoy yourself, or both. Usually both.

Worth buying new, at full price.

How to buy Art Collecting Today: Please purchase it from an independent bookstore near you. If there isn’t one near you, try ordering it from the Strand Bookstore.

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.

Doug Woodham is on Instagram, and he has a website. He also publishes a quarterly e-newsletter, dubbed Art and Money. Scroll to the bottom of this page to subscribe.

Image is courtesy of Doug Woodham.

* I received Art Collecting Today as an advance review copy through one of the five people whose brains I picked when I was working out whether and how to do this blog. I’m confident that if I’d heard about it later, I would have bought it or put it on my wish list.

Art Collecting Today was originally published in Spring 2017.

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SOLD! John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Spirit of Night Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

John Atkinson Grimshaw's Spirit of Night shows a fairy-like woman with delicate wings, wrapped in a see-through gown festooned with stars. She holds a wand and hovers over a seaside city. Her face, shown in profile, is haloed in gold.

Update: John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Spirit of Night sold for $362,500.

What you see: Spirit of Night, an 1879 oil on canvas by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Christie’s estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.

The expert: Laura Mathis, specialist, 19th century European Art at Christie’s, and head of this European Art sale.

Do we know why Grimshaw might have painted Spirit of Night? Was this a book illustration? It’s not clear why Grimshaw picked up this subject matter, but it doesn’t seem to be a book illustration. This is more from his love of poetry. It inspired him to turn to this subject, that’s my feeling.

About that. The lot notes say the painting had a tablet with a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, To Night. Was the painting directly inspired by the Shelley poem?  I think it’s all but certain he was. The words “Spirit of Night” appear as the second line of the Shelley poem. He was interested in Keats and Browning. Tennyson was a favorite. Five of his 16 kids got their names from Tennyson’s poetry.

How does the painting depict the poem? In Shelley’s poem, the poet describes the personification of night emerging from her cave, ushering the personification of day from the world, putting all the creatures to sleep. I think that’s what’s happening here.

Is the city below her identifiable as a specific place? I don’t think the city is meant to be identifiable. It’s probably meant to stand in for any town. It’s by the water, which is mentioned in the poem. He wanted to explore [the effects] of reflected light.

How many fairy pictures did Grimshaw make? It’s hard to give an exact number, but there were approximately seven or eight. They were quite popular in Victorian times but the subject was on the wane by the time Grimshaw turned to it.

Where does Spirit of Night rank among them? I would say definitely it has an interesting and important place in the corpus of fairy painting.

Grimshaw was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Where do we see that influence in Spirit of Night? Grimshaw starts painting in a lot of ways by looking at the Pre-Raphaelites. The use of color in the fairy wings speaks to the influence on his art and the level of detail as well, the lacy details of the fairy wings. If you get up close to the painting, the veining looks like dragonfly wings. The Pre-Raphaelites were almost fanatically interested in the most minute details of nature. That very close attention to nature is very Pre-Raphaelite.

How does the painting testify to his talent? To me, all of Grimshaw’s paintings testify to his talent. Not only was he self-taught, his family actively discouraged his painting. That he became an artist at all is a triumph. His mother would throw his paints on the fire and turn off the gas to his room, so he didn’t have heat. When he got married, he left home, and his wife, who was also his first cousin, was very instrumental in encouraging him to become a painter.

How does he achieve the luminescent effects? Because he didn’t have formal training, he taught himself. He would look at the beveled edges of mirrors to learn what the effect looks like, and his kids would bring home opalescent glass that he would keep by his easel as a reference.

Is the fairy outlined in white or silver? It’s a sort of silvery-white. It’s a very hard color to describe. The diaphanous cloth that covers her is a tour-de-force. The stars woven into the cloth is a direct reference to the poem. He doesn’t always have the easiest time painting the human form, but he really gets it spot on here.

Is that because he had a model for the Spirit of Night? Yes.

Let’s talk about that–his relationship with Agnes Leefe, and whether it was unusual or not. It sounds a bit sketchy to modern ears, but it seemed to be above board. Leefe was a ward who modeled for him and became a companion to his wife and children as well. It was like taking in a distant relative. The Grimshaws had a sad life. Of the 16 kids, six survived to adulthood. He would jokingly refer to Leefe as Little Orphan Annie.

How did they meet? I don’t know how they met, except it was in Leeds [where Leefe performed as an actress]. His daughter recalls her mom being not super thrilled when he brought her home, but she came around quick. There didn’t seem to be any impropriety. He and his wife were very happy, though Leefe’s death [from tuberculosis] was hard on them. It probably brought back memories of the losses of their other children.

How often do Grimshaw fairy paintings appear at auction? Fairly infrequently. There were two in the 1990s and two, including this one, in the 2000s. His landscapes appear more reliably.

When was the last time a Grimshaw fairy painting came up? The most recent one was in 2004, at Christie’s London. It went for just over $500,000. This one came up at Christie’s New York in 2002. It brought $537,500. The fairy pictures are tricky to price because they appear so infrequently. They’re atypical, compared to the landscapes. But 19th century European art is very image-driven. You have to take that into account when estimating.

What’s the record for a Grimshaw fairy painting? It’s this one, sold in 2002.

So there’s a chance it could reset the record? We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

What condition is the painting in? It’s in really nice condition. It does have an old lining on it but all the artist’s glazes are intact.

What is it like in person? The figure really does seem to be glowing. It pops and glows. The detail in the wings, too–you don’t pick up their lacy dragonfly quality until you get close to the painting.

Why will this painting stick in your memory? The fun of working in 19th century painting is covering so many schools and styles, and getting to see new things. I love to see an artist who’s so controlled and staid go completely outside the box. This definitely falls into that. The opalescent effect in the wings and the drapery–you don’t get that in Grimshaw’s moonlight scenes. Those are more about reflecting the light off of moss and brick. They’re beautiful, but this is in a class of its own.

How to bid: Grimshaw’s Spirit of Night is lot 51 in the European Art auction at Christie’s New York on April 30, 2019.

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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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John Lennon’s Copy of the Infamous “Butcher” Beatles Album Cover Could Set a World Auction Record in Liverpool

John Lennon drew a speech bubble for the inscription on his copy of the infamous Beatles "Butcher cover". The image shows McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr in white lab coats and draped with dismembered dolls and raw meat. McCartney signed it below Lennon's speech bubble. Starr signed the area over his right shoulder.

What you see: A U.S first state Butcher album prototype, stereo example, of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today, which was owned by John Lennon. He inscribed and dated it and drew a sketch on the back cover. Later, the recipient obtained signatures from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $160,000 to $180,000.

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

So, let’s start with how this album cover came about. It was offensive in 1966, and many would find it offensive now. How did this image get chosen for the album cover? How did it advance as far as getting a press run of 750,000 before it was stopped and recalled? It was a time toward the end of the Beatles as a group, working together. They were jaded and tired and exhausted [with] another photo shoot, another album. Bob Whitaker shot the photo. Some say it was a message against the war in Vietnam. Another theory was that Beatles albums in the USA were not exactly the same as the format in the UK, and the four guys felt their albums were being butchered.

But it was not shot as an album cover. How did it end up on the cover? I think they got together and decided it would be amazing and send a message, whatever the message they thought they were sending. They were young lads. They had produced a new album every year. They had this experience [the photo shoot with Whitaker], this fun event, and decided it would be the cover of the album.

All four Beatles were in favor of putting it on the cover? Yeah, I think they were. Their lives were changing. They wanted something that was almost rebellious in a way, and they went along with it.

Do we know how many copies of the first state version of the Butcher cover–the ones that escaped into the market, and were not covered with the shot of the Beatles posing in and around the trunk–exist? Capitol Records sent it to retailers and radio stations and leaders in getting the message out about the upcoming album. Advance copies. Once it was out, [people] started to question it. Capitol Records recalled it. I expect at the time the sentiment of the people who didn’t like it returned it to Capitol Records and wanted a replacement one.

But do we have numbers on how many first state Butcher covers are out there? I’ve seen maybe five in the last 15 years. We also had the original album, the replacement, and additional photos related to the whole debacle. [Juliens’s sold the collection as a single lot in 2013 for $38,400 against an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000.]

Do we know how many first state Butcher prototype covers are out there? We do not. But what we should really focus on is it was John Lennon’s first state Butcher prototype cover. We sold Ringo Starr’s copy of the White Album for $790,000. Before that, the highest [the record for the most expensive record sold at auction] was an Elvis Presley record that sold for $300,000. This was Lennon’s, and he had a quote saying the cover was a comment on the Vietnam War–“If the public can accept something as cruel as the war, they can accept this cover.”

So Lennon was a proponent of the cover? Exactly. And the fact that this hung in Lennon’s apartment [in The Dakota in New York City], and it has John’s drawing on it–it’s an amazing part of this.

This is why I want to break it down, because there are a lot of moving parts here. Let’s subtract the Lennon provenance. A first state Butcher album cover prototype is pretty damn valuable on its own. It’s valuable. It’s really important. Collectors love to handle something like that and ideally it hasn’t been handled or opened or played. John Lennon did open and play it.

The John Lennon inscription is valuable on its own. Obviously, John Lennon is no longer with us. Anything signed by John Lennon has value in and of itself. Among the Beatles, he’s the most highly collectible.

Lennon did a sketch of a boy with a shovel and a dog on a blank area of his copy of the Beatles "Butcher" album cover.

The John Lennon artwork is valuable on its own. His drawings sell for a lot. We sold a concept sketch drawing for Sargent Pepper for $87,500 in 2017.

And it’s signed by all the Beatles except George Harrison. [Laughs] Dave Morrell [who received the record from Lennon] was a young guy in 1971. Later, when he saw how the collectibility of the Beatles was going, he thought it would be good to have all four signatures. George Harrison passed in 2001, but he got Paul and Ringo to sign. It’s hard to  do [get signatures from the surviving Beatles]. They rarely sign anything these days.

I imagine he tried to get George Harrison’s signature? Surely, he would have tried. Harrison was reclusive, and not as accessible as Paul or Ringo.

If the album had signatures from all four Beatles, would that raise the estimate? No, it wouldn’t. It would factor into the winning bid, not the estimate. Three out of four isn’t bad.

You sold Ringo Starr’s copy of the White Album for $790,000 against an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. Is the estimate on Lennon’s Butcher cover conservative? When we did the Ringo auction, he was a gentleman to work with. We had everything finished on the catalog, and he asked to meet with us in London. He told us, “I’m going to give you something very special.” It had been in a bank vault for about 35 years. Everyone speculated that John Lennon had the first copy of the White Album, but it was Ringo. He wanted a reserve of $60,000. We said absolutely. We were so amazed by the reactions. It was just phenomenal, a world record. But to answer the question–we placed a conservative estimate. We can’t determine where it will end up.

What are the odds that Lennon’s Butcher cover will break seven figures? [Laughs] I certainly hope so, but you never know. It’s an auction. The sky’s the limit. We’re doing the auction in Liverpool, which adds to the hype. John Lennon’s artwork, the signatures, it’s a prototype of an album that was recalled, it all plays into what goes down on May 9.

Lennon traded this to Morrell for a reel-to-reel bootleg. For those who don’t know, can you explain a bit about bootleg culture, and explain why Lennon would have traded this album for a bootleg? It’s still happening today, exchanging and swapping [recordings made at concerts and other venues]. With Beatles memorabilia, there’s a huge network of people plugged into that. John Lennon was no different. Morrell had a Yellow Matter Custard bootleg. Lennon wanted it.

But we value that Lennon Butcher cover a lot differently in 2019 than Lennon and Morrell did in 1971. Can you explain why the trade made sense to them? Even though the concept of collectibility wasn’t as strong then as now, it was recognized as a collectible album, because of its notoriety. In 1971, people were keeping the cover with the original, controversial art. It wasn’t that unusual back in 1971 not to place a value on an item. They wanted to say they owned it. It was not monetarily driven like it is today. Lennon surely thought that getting his hands on the recording was more important to him at the time. He could get another album cover on his wall if he still needed it. Morrell was not interested in monetary value. He in turn got something he wanted.

It was as simple as, “I have this, and you don’t have it. Give me something I don’t have in trade for it.” Like trading baseball cards. If you have something really good, you can get something really good. If you have a B-rated item, you get a B-rated item in exchange.

An image of the vinyl record from John Lennon's personal copy of the Beatles "Butcher" album cover. He did take it out and play it.

Are there any period pictures that show the album hanging on the walls of Lennon’s apartment in the Dakota? I don’t know, but I’m not aware.

Is this the first time it’s come to auction? As far as I’m aware, yes.

The auction is planned for Liverpool. Did you get the consignment first, and then choose Liverpool, or did you choose Liverpool and then secure the consignment? We’ve been working with Liverpool for many years. We’ve done discovery days for the last three years, and we’ve uncovered some really interesting items. We thought it would be cool to hold a Beatles auction there at the Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool. This album came as a result of the call. Once the press release [about the sale] went out, we got the call.

Have you held the album in your hands? I had it in my hands Monday morning [March 25]. This gives me chills. There was so much controversy when it came out. John Lennon signed it, and it was on his wall. 50 years later, we’re talking about it. I’ve never seen an album like this. There are so many variations of collectibility in one album. There’s so much history, so many stories to be told.

How to bid: John Lennon’s copy of the first state prototype Butcher album cover is lot 266 in Music Icons: The Beatles in Liverpool, an all-Beatles auction conducted by Julien’s Auctions. It contains more than 200 items, and takes place on May 9, 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.

Julien’s Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Julien’s Auctions.

Martin Nolan previously spoke to The Hot Bid about Marilyn Monroe’s record-setting Happy Birthday, Mr. President dress,  a Joseff of Hollywood simulated diamond necklace worn by Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and several other Hollywood actresses; a once-lost 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar belonging to John Lennon that sold for $2.4 million–a record for any guitar at auction; and a purple tunic worn by Prince.

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SOLD! The True History of Pepper’s Ghost Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

The cover of The True History of Pepper's Ghost depicts a skeleton seated cross-legged and lifting a white cloth or veil off itself. The book cover has a black background.

Update: Potter & Potter sold the copy of The True History of Pepper’s Ghost for $1,020.

What you see: A copy of The True History of Pepper’s Ghost, an 1890 book by Professor John Henry Pepper. Potter & Potter estimates it at $600 to $900.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

What is Pepper’s Ghost, and how was John Pepper involved in it? It’s a theatrical effect used to manifest figures on a stage. They could be ghosts, they could be people, they could be objects, even. It was devised in the mid-19th century by Henry Dircks and popularized by John Pepper.

How did he popularize it? Pepper came up with a way to streamline the installation of the device. Dircks wanted to modify every theater in a major way to install the invention. Pepper made it adaptable and practical.

Why was the special effect such a big deal when it debuted in 1862? Because it made ghosts walk on stage.

Were there previous attempts to do something like Pepper’s Ghost, which fell short? I’m not aware of any, and I’m not an authority, but people had played with using glass in a similar way going back centuries.

To what extent, if at all, was the impact of Pepper’s Ghost amplified by debuting in a play based on a book by Charles Dickens? My recollection is the play it was used in involved the appearance of a ghost. What I like about that was Charles Dickens was an amateur magician. They probably chose it [the debut of the effect] coincidentally, but there’s some serendipity there.

What I find interesting is Pepper tried, almost heroically, to give due credit to Dircks, but the public persisted in calling the effect “Pepper’s Ghost.” But look at songwriting. Maybe it’s a stretch, but how many of Whitney Houston’s songs did she actually write? It’s the performance that makes the memory in the public mind.

But it’s not typical for someone to try as hard as Pepper did to share credit. No, especially when the profit motive is involved. But, eventually, Henry Dircks signed the patent over to Pepper. It shows he had no animosity to Pepper. It helped cement it in the public mind, I suppose, but the public doesn’t go back and read patent papers.

Have you read the book? Do we know why Pepper felt he had to write a book titled The True History of Pepper’s Ghost? I have not read it, and I don’t know his motivation.

Does it go into detail about how to produce the Pepper’s Ghost effect? Oh, yeah. The folding frontispiece shows you how to set it up. It’s literally the first page.

How is the Pepper’s Ghost effect used today? I know it’s been adapted for many practical and entertaining purposes. One you probably don’t think of is the headsup display on a car’s windshield. A more frivolous use brought Tupac Shakur to life on stage. It’s been used for decades in carnivals to turn a girl into a gorilla.

It’s a surprisingly durable special effect, given that it’s more than 150 years old. Sometimes, you know, simplicity is an art. It’s hard to improve upon something so direct and effective.

Do we know how many copies of the book were printed? Also, how many copies have you handled? I don’t know the number printed, but I’ve handled two or three in 11 years.

What condition is the book in? Lovely. It’s not in fine condition, but considering its age and scarcity, it’s good, in bookseller’s terms.

Who would have been the audience for this book? I imagine it would be scientists, or theater owners, or people who wanted to incorporate effects into a production. It could have been magicians or curiosity seekers as well. The cover is beautiful–one of its main attractions these days. The skeleton on the cover says it all.

How to bid: The True History of Pepper’s Ghost is lot 405 in The Magic Collection of Ray Goulet, a sale taking place at Potter & Potter on April 27, 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.

Follow Potter & Potter on Instagram and Twitter.

Gabe Fajuri is a favorite on The Hot Bid. He’s talked about a Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout–a device for cheating at cards–which sold for $9,000a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.

Gabe rightly points out that the peerless Jim Steinmeyer wrote the definitive book on the Pepper’s Ghost special effect: The Science Behind the Ghost, which you can purchase from Steinmeyer’s website.

Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

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