SOLD! The Magician Automaton from Sleuth Sold for (Scroll Down to See)

A circa 1925-1930 magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, which starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It stands 56 1/2 inches tall and performs eight movements.

Update: The magician automaton from Sleuth sold for $24,000.

What you see: A circa 1925-1930 magician automaton built in Paris that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, which starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It stands 56 1/2 inches tall and performs seven movements. Potter & Potter estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

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

I wanted to start by asking why so many automata have a magic theme. How much overlap is there between magic trick designers and designers of automata? Why do automata fit well within the realm of performative magic? I guess I’d say because by nature, they’re magical objects, so they lend themselves to performing magic tricks. How they work, why they work–it’s all a wonder-making proposition. Magic and automata have kind of gone hand in hand for centuries.

What, if anything, do we know about why this automaton was made? Also, who might have purchased or commissioned this piece—what sort of person was likeliest to buy something like this when it was new? I don’t have the name in front of me, but he [the person who ordered it] had a number of commissions from JAF [the Parisian company believed to have built this automaton]. He wanted something special. It’s larger than many others out there. I think he was interested in automata. I don’t think he was a magician at all.

Is it reasonable to assume that this automaton was a custom commission, given its size and the number of movements it performs? Or are automata generally created as one-offs? There are catalogs of automata going back over a century. In the sale, we have a peacock that walks around, spreads its feathers, and keeps walking. In the Roullet & Decamps catalog, it was offered in three different sizes. That doesn’t mean there was a storage room that had 500 of each [size] sitting on the shelves. [The catalog said], ‘Here’s what we can do for you.’ They’d build them as they got orders, or they’d build six and when they ran out, they’d build six more.

The magician automaton from Sleuth, shown in full and in profile.

But would this magician automaton have been custom made, judging by its size and the number of movements it performs? I don’t think the movements point to that, but the size and the finish point to it being a custom commission. There are automata that are similarly complex or a lot more complex. It’s large and finely finished. I’m sure it was built to the specifications of the customer.

Why might someone have commissioned a large automaton such as this one? I believe this was for a private collector, but many were meant to be in shop windows, something to attract attention. It was a business expense, but it was an employee who required no salary. Hopefully people in the pre-television era would stop and be fascinated by what they saw.

How do we know this was built in Paris between 1925 and 1930? I was given the information by the consigner. Between his research and the [expertise of the] person who was working on his automata, I believe that’s how they pieced it together.

Does its large size–it stands almost five feet tall–hint at how it might have been used? And would its size have been harder to make than most automata? It’s perfect for use in a film, of course, because it’s a background player. I don’t think its size made it harder to build. I think it made it easier to build. There’s just more room [to hide the works].

The lot notes for the automaton from Sleuth say it has eight movements. Is that a lot for an automaton? And what are the movements? It’s on the higher end. I don’t mean to put it down–it’s certainly a complex mechanism. What I mean to say is it’s not playing checkers with anyone. It’s not elaborate. [Fajuri later corrects the total to seven movements, which include: moving its head up and down; moving its head back and forth; moving its lips; moving its eyes; an arm moving a wand; an arm moving a cone; and items changing under the table. If you wanted to count this last as a separate movement for every object the magician automaton produces, it would add several to the total. You can see the automaton performing in this video.]

But the more movements there are, the more chances that something will break or go wrong… Absolutely, the more complex it is, the more complex it is. But in Paris at the time, certainly [the first owner] had a choice of people in a three-mile radius to fix it. They were in spitting distance of each other.

A closeup of the magician automaton from Sleuth shows the figure lifting a cap to reveal a white rabbit sitting on the tabletop.

Does the magician automaton from Sleuth still perform all its movements? Yes.

Does it perform the movements in a set order, or can you choose which ones it does? It’s a set order, as is the case with most automata.

What can we tell by looking about how difficult it was to make? By watching it from the outside, you can’t tell anything, which is the point.

How original is this magician automaton from Sleuth? And how unusual is it for a nearly hundred-year-old automaton to retain its fabric elements–its original costume and turban? Earlier examples in the [August 24 auction] catalog are more remarkable for retaining their clothes. It had things that needed tending to when [the consigner] bought it. It got a tune-up and a polishing as opposed to an entirely new “chassis”. But we’ve sold automata that have been missing 50 percent of their works.

The magician automaton from Sleuth, shown lifting a wizard's cap.

Do any of the symbols on the front and the top of the table mean anything? Are they just gibberish? I believe they’re gibberish. They’re not recognizable to me.

What, if anything, do we know about how this automaton was chosen to appear in the film Sleuth? We don’t really have additional information.

Do we know if the filmmakers tweaked the automaton for the movie, or built a backup model? Not that we’re aware of.

What’s it like in person? It’s scary. He’s not smiling. He has a furrowed brow, and a stern, serious look. It’s the kind of thing where if you walk into the gallery before you turn on the lights and [you] feel someone standing there. It’s kind of scary.

Does it make noise? It’s not all that noticeable, but you do hear the mechanics working. It’s not distracting.

The magician automaton from Sleuth, shown head-on, about to lift a wizard's cap from a table carved with mysterious symbols.

What’s your favorite detail of the magician automaton from Sleuth? You mentioned it already. It’s the carving in the table. It shows an extra level of care that the builder went to to make it special. It adds an extra level of quality and craft to what could be a plain, wooden table, or could have had a cloth thrown over it. It adds to the charm, and adds a mysterious element to it.

Is it heavy? Yeah. It’s not 500 pounds or anything, but it requires a few people to move it.

How did you arrive at the $40,000 to $60,000 estimate? It was difficult. It was at Skinner in 2008 and sold for $40,000, which was a help. Like a lot of things we sell, there’s not a huge track record to compare it to. We seem to be the place that writes the books on a lot of things we sell. The Skinner auction record was the only one we could find.

How do other magician automata you’ve handled compare to this magician automaton from Sleuth? It’s the largest, and on the auction day, it may be the most expensive we’ve ever sold. Sleuth was nominated for four Academy Awards. It was a pretty serious film with well-known actors. Laurence Olivier was no slouch. It’s fair to say more people saw it in the film than ever saw it in a store window.

So it’s in the upper ranks? I’d say so, yeah. The way it does its tricks is amazing in its own right. Other automata in the auction do similar tricks, but when you combine that with its history, its size, and its aesthetics, it’s certainly right up there. It’s got a lot going for it.

How to bid: The automaton from Sleuth is lot 45 in Automata: Life and Other Illusions, taking place August 24, 2019 at Potter & Potter.

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In case you missed it above, here’s film of the magician automaton in action.

Images are courtesy of Potter & Potter.

Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a rare book from the creator of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion,  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.

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RECORD! A Cygnet Swan Ladies Bicycle Sold for $24,150

An 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, which has a striking looped frame painted in white.

During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.

What you see: An 1898 Cygnet “Swan” Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, by the Stoddard Manufacturing Company of Dayton, Ohio. Copake Auction sold it in April 2013 for $24,150, a record for this type of bike.

The expert: Mike Fallon, owner of Copake Auction.

How were ladies’ bikes different from mens’ bikes at the turn of the previous century? You had to have room for skirts. The crossbar, which goes from the steering head to the seat, had to dip down to accommodate bloomers or skirts. It was always lower. Ladies’ bikes often had a skirt guard on the rear tire and guards on the chain, also, where you pedal.

Was this the first example of this bicycle to go to auction? I don’t know, but in my 30 years of experience, only one has sold at auction. Though I could be 100 percent wrong about that. In the antiques world, there are no absolutes.

Detail of the 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle that shows the front wheel.

How long was the Stoddard Manufacturing Company in business? From 1897 to 1898.

Do we know how many Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycles they made? No.

Was the Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle a popular bike? I don’t know, but here’s my guess. If they were only in business for one year, it was probably an expensive bike. There were probably thousands of brands [of bicycles available at the time]. It didn’t catch on. My guess is it was hard to make. It’s a labor-intensive design. Sometimes, really expensive utilitarian items don’t do very well.

Why was its looped frame considered to have an advantage over a diamond-shaped frame? Their idea was to add strength through a continuous stress member, as opposed to hard angles with stress points. I think it probably wasn’t a factor. Welding was a fairly new science at that point. Everyone struggled to be the newest, best, most innovative, except the plain Jane bikes. Probably, people were hesitant to buy things that were very expensive and different.

An 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, shown in full profile.

But the looped frame has a purpose, right? It wasn’t just there to look cool? It was one of its selling points. It was not just for looks. It was industrial design as art. I think it’s the best-looking bike of the period. At the point I sold it, I was told there were only ten [still in existence], but who knows?

Yeah, you never know when someone will stumble across an old warehouse that has ten of them in it. Yes. I’ve heard stories throughout my career [like that], and I’ve been doing this quite a while.

Did the Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle get its name from its frame? “Cygnet” is French for “swan.” If you look at it, it has a swan-y look.

A close-up of the brand badge on the 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle.

Was it only sold in white? Nobody knows.

The lot notes describe the Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle as “one of the most stunning bicycles ever made.” Could you elaborate? What makes it stunning? I think the Cygnet is the most beautiful bike ever made, from my perspective. If that bike as sitting with 100 other bikes, it’d be the one 50 people are standing around, looking at.

A detail shot of the back wheel of the 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, which shows decorative gold vines painted on the back fender.

The lot notes describe this example as being in “excellent restored condition”. What does that mean in this context? “Restored condition” means it was refurbished. When I say “excellent”, it means when he [the restorer] finishes, it looks like it came out of the factory, maybe better. I can’t tell you what was repaired on it. I never did find out.

Must an antique bike be rideable, or does that not matter to collectors? One of the interesting things about bicycles in general, and bicycle collectors specifically, is bicycle collectors tend to ride [their] bikes. I don’t ride them. I don’t think it’s appropriate to ride them. If I got on one and it gave way because of a bad weld… The big deal with bike-riders is riding first and rarity second. I’ve sold bikes that are really rare and been told, “It’s rare, but I can’t ride it.” To me, if you have a bike where there’s only ten in existence, I don’t care if it’s hard to ride, I want it in my collection.

But you choose not to ride the antique bikes you sell? I’ll get on a high-wheel if I’m feeling really stupid, but I don’t really ride the bikes. We look at them and know what to look at, and know how to describe them and photograph them. When things come in, they’re not my property. And riding a bike is riding a bike. They’re all about the same.

Detail shot of the seat of the 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle.

Are unrideable antique bikes always worthless? I’ll tell you a story. Someone called me and said they had a Lindbergh bike–pretty rare and very desirable. It had been outside. The frame was totally rotted, the handlebars were rusted, the wheels were gone. The main thing was the badge [which said “Lindbergh”]. I sold it for $1,400. The man who bought it came from California specifically to buy it. He took the name badge off and put the rest in a Dumpster.

Are ladies’ bikes rarer than mens’ bikes of the period? I think ladies’ bikes were more plentiful, and I’ll tell you why. The 1890s was ladies’ liberation, out on a ride with a boyfriend and without a chaperone. Millions and millions of bikes were made, and ladies tended to take care of their bikes.

What was your role in the auction? I was selling at the podium.

What do you recall of the sale? There was a lot of apprehension about how it would do. One of the kahunas of the bike world told me it’d go for over $10,000. Others said no way. They tend to be a conservative bunch.

How did you present the lot when it came up? We wheeled it onto the stage back then. Now, we wouldn’t.

The Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle sold for $24,150 against an estimate of $6,000 to $7,000. Did that surprise you? I would say yes, I was surprised. It was an unknown. I’d be surprised if it only went for that today.

Detail shot of the 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, with the swan badge visible.

What is the bike like in person? Stunning is the word I used. It IS stunning. Even if you don’t like bicycles, it’s pretty cool-looking. I’m a pretty critical type of person when it comes to… anything. I can look at something and tell if something’s wrong with it. This bike, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Why will it stick in your memory? Because of its style. It’s a great-looking machine. For industrial design as art, it’s as good as it gets. This thing is just a fabulous object.

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Images are courtesy of Copake Auction.

Copake Auction holds an antique bicycle sale annually, in April, usually around the third weekend of the month.

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

RECORD! President Kennedy’s Air Force One Bomber Jacket Sells in 2013 at John McInnis Auctioneers

An Air Force One brown leather bomber jacket worn by President John F. Kennedy, shown in full.

During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.

What you see: A brown Air Force One bomber jacket, size 44, which President John F. Kennedy gave to Dave Powers circa 1962. Estimated at $20,000 to $40,000, it sold at John McInnis Auctioneers in February 2013 for $655,500, a record for a presidential Air Force One bomber jacket.

The expert: Dan Meader, gallery director for John McInnis Auctioneers.

Who was David Powers, and what was his connection to John F. Kennedy? It started in 1946, when Kennedy was running for Congress. He needed to be a real player in the Charlestown area near Boston, and he was told by people in the know he had to befriend Dave Powers. He was the one who could really affect the local community. Kennedy knocked on his door, and brought him to a Gold Star Mother event. It was a really emotional meeting. Powers was blown away by his words, his actions, and how the audience took to him. He worked in the West Wing as a special assistant, and he remained a friend and confidant until the end. When things were tense in the White House, if people saw the president with Powers, they knew things were going to be OK.

How did John McInnis Auctioneers win the opportunity to auction Powers’s personal collection? We got a call from a person in Massachusetts who had things related to President Kennedy, and would we like to take a look? It was Powers’s son, who was in contact with Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, all the big players. Someone recommended he contact us. We gave our presentation after we looked over the things. They chose us because of our desire, our ability, and our personal touch. They wanted to keep it [the sale] in Massachusetts, and the others only wanted to pick and choose. We had 750 lots, with literally thousands of objects [overall]. We were able to give [the collection] the honor it deserved.

How did President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomber jacket come to Powers? Did the president give it to him? The president had, I forget how many. It was an odd number of bomber jackets he had. Some he never wore, and gave to people. We believe he gave him this jacket in 1962. That’s how Dave got it. That’s how Dave got everything. He was the first creator of the JFK Library, and he gave thousands and thousands of objects to it. These [the collection McInnis sold] were the personal things he kept–things Dave had in drawers and files, a whole treasure trove. They [the family] didn’t understand what they had.

Did Powers wear it? I think he wore it on occasion. There’s a family story that when Powers passed away, his son hung it in the closet. He knew it was a special jacket, but he didn’t think of it in terms of dollars. It had been hanging there maybe a year or so, or two years. Then one of his [the son’s] kids was going away on an overseas trip, and was told, “You need a jacket to keep you warm at night.” The dad saw the jacket sticking out of the kid’s duffel bag and said, “Whoa, whoa, that’s JFK’s jacket.” If he hadn’t noticed that, it could have ended up lost and gone overseas. The kid just thought, “Oh, this will work, it’s leather.” He didn’t think about it, he didn’t understand. $655,000 later… [laughs] It was a good find for dad to see it sticking out of the bag.

How did you arrive at the estimate of $20,000 to $40,000? If you look at the estimates in the catalog, we tried to make things attainable. It was an unreserved sale across the board. It [the estimate] made people understand this is real, it’s going to be sold, and it’s going to sell for what it sells for. If we put the highest price on it, people would lose interest right away. If it felt attainable, they might get hooked, and maybe it would continue to go higher. That happened. I can tell you the person that won didn’t know what they would pay for it.

What condition was President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomber jacket in? It was in worn condition, but very good. There was a tiny hole in the stretchy material at the bottom of the jacket, but it wasn’t abused or anything like that. Dave didn’t wear it as an everyday jacket.

Do we know where the other JFK-era Air Force One bomber jackets are? JFK gave one to Peter Lawford, which sold for $14,000. I don’t know where that one is. There’s one at the JFK library. Bobby Kennedy had one, but Ethel Kennedy didn’t know where [it ended up].

Did you try it on? [Laughs] Yes. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that.

What is President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomber jacket like in person? I think the most amazing thing for me about the jacket–I don’t want to say I was jaded. I saw all the personal things [Powers kept from his relationship with JFK] and got a sense of what it was all about, but during the previews [for the auction], we had two television camera crews come from Russia. JFK was so well-known to them because of Castro and Cuba. They were dying for the jacket. It brought him to life.

This jacket is actually connected to two presidents. Ronald Reagan asked to borrow it from Powers, and he agreed. How might that have affected its value? That was kind of an unknown. Ronald Reagan wrote Dave Powers a nice letter. He wanted it for his museum. Powers was kind enough to let it out. He only loaned it to President Reagan. [Reagan’s thank-you note to Powers was part of the lot.] When you can see another president enamored of the jacket, it’s just incredible, just incredible.

What was your role in the auction? I’m the gallery director here. I do behind-the-scenes stuff. John McInnis is the auctioneer. We believe the Powers auction broke the record for a continuous live auction of antiques. We began at 11 am on Sunday, February 17, 2013, President’s Day weekend, and it went around the clock, ending with lot 732 at 5:31 in the morning [on Monday, February 18, 2013]. We stood right there without a break. It took forever to sell stuff. All the major television stations came. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people wanted to participate.

When did the jacket come up? After 8 pm.

And bidding lasted 17 minutes? It was 17 or 17 1/2 minutes. It’s a huge amount of time. It’s an eternity. There were people online, people in the audience, and at least eight phone lines, if not ten, for the jacket alone.

Physically, how were you all doing at that point, having auctioned for eight straight hours and gotten to lot 327 of 723? I worked until 3 am before the auction. I was back here by six. I got a half-hour of sleep, but I couldn’t sleep anyway. It was unbelievable. I was handling all facets of the press, all the questions from bidders, and I was trying to keep the place looking good. At the time, I was drinking Rock Stars and Monsters [energy drinks] to keep me going. I was a zombie afterward. The auction ended at 5:30 am and I didn’t get home until 8:30. I had to bring the jacket home with me [laughs], because I had insurance. Physically, I was… so much adrenalin was going through me. It was kind of a high, I guess. It was so exciting–no lulls. People would come and go, watch it online, and come back again. I knew when something big was coming up because the hall would fill up again.

Did you physically bring out the jacket, or did you show a photo behind John McInnis as bidding started? We had it in a glass case behind the podium. Just prior to the sale, three or four lots ahead, we took it out so people could take pictures of it. We laid it on Dave Powers’s desk from the West Wing.

An Air Force One brown leather bomber jacket worn by President John F. Kennedy, shown in full.

What do you remember of the sale of President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomber jacket? The hall started to fill back up again. Don’t forget, there was a snowstorm, and it was getting late. I realized it was coming up. We didn’t know we were going to sell it for that kind of money. Personally, I thought it would sell for $75,000. I never thought it would go over half a million.

So you were surprised at the final figure? I was surprised, but I wasn’t. It had so much activity on it, [I realized] it could do $150,000 or $200,000. The beauty of the auction is the public determines the value of the object that day. On that particular day, that was what the public decided.

Did the snowstorm have any effect on the bidding? It had an effect on the crowd. [The sale room could hold about 450 attendees.] A lot of people couldn’t get here. I tried not to think about it. I had enough to worry about. But it didn’t have an effect on prices. It had an effect on the crowd being there in person, rather than online. That [the Internet option] made it much easier for them to bid without the stress of worrying about getting into an accident.

Did any members of the Powers family attend the sale? We don’t recommend [consigners] come to the auction. We had a private preview for the family, so they had their own time to shed their emotions. One of Powers’s grandchildren was having her Broadway debut in New York City that night. After 8:15 or 8:30, I got off the podium, went over, and left a message [with a family member]: “I wanted you to know what it just sold for.” Within two minutes, my phone was beeping. “I want to make sure I’ve got this right–WHAT did you say it sold for?” Prices were extremely strong across the board–10 times, 20 times, 30 times the estimates. It was incredible.

Did you have any notion that the auction would last as long as it did? No! No! Another auctioneer we’ve known forever texted me probably one hour in, “Do you realize, at the pace you’re going, it’s not going to end until 4 am?” [I texted back,] “I don’t care what it takes, so be it.” When you see the other end of it–the prices rise and rise and rise–it’s very exciting. It doesn’t happen often. It was a lot of fun. We run auctions of 700 or 800 lots in a day. We can usually do 60 to 75 lots an hour. We thought we’d be done by eight or nine at night. We could never have anticipated going for 30-something hours. [We thought,] “Eh, we can do it all in a day. We’ve done it a million times.” We never anticipated going through the night. We felt in full confidence we’d get through and be done by 9 pm.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It was the most valuable thing to sell at the auction, by far, and the only item in the sale that brought over $100,000. But honestly, a few other things in the sale had a bigger impact on me. There’s the book Jackie Kennedy signed to Powers [after the assassination, saying] “You and I will miss him most.” There’s the typewritten schedule for November 21 and 22, 1963. Dave had annotated the whole, entire schedule. When the murder happened, Powers was the guy who brought him to the hospital. He was in a Secret Service car behind the president. He was there through the whole thing. He was his most loyal person. It was a true bromance. He never had a better friend.

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John McInnis Auctioneers is on Twitter.

Film of the 2013 auction does not appear to be online, but you can hear Meader discuss the sale in an episode of the Antique Auction Forum podcast that is up on YouTube. A photo of Meader with the jacket appears at the 1:15 mark.

Meader is at work on a Columbus Day 2019 auction of presidential material at John McInnis Auctioneers. Check the website or follow the house on Twitter for more information as the fall approaches.

Image is courtesy of John McInnis Auctioneers.

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

RECORD! An Isamu Noguchi Dining Table Sold for $1.6 Million

A unique pink marble dining room table designed by Isamu Noguchi for Mr. and Mrs. Milton Greene.

During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.

What you see: A unique dining room table designed circa 1948 or 1949 by Isamu Noguchi for Mr. and Mrs. Milton Greene. Wright sold it in June 2018 for $1.6 million against an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million, a record for a Noguchi dining table.

The expert: Richard Wright, president of Wright auction house.

How often did Noguchi accept commissions? He did do commissioned works. He did a relatively small amount of commissioned furniture. Definitely less than ten.

How unusual is it to have a commissioned Noguchi piece as well-documented as this one? [Milton Greene, who commissioned it, recorded the design and creation of the table and two other furnishings in a series of photos that are shown within the lot listing.] It’s pretty exceptional [laughs]. It’s not unusual to have documentation, but it’s unusual that it’s so prolific. Because it was commissioned by a photographer, we were able to find wonderful photo documentation. We have photos of Noguchi planning the installation, and on the installation day, reshaping the leg of a sofa.

Greene also commissioned what came to be called the Cloud sofa and Cloud ottoman from Noguchi. Were the three meant as a suite of furniture, or did they happen to be commissioned around the same time? The sofa and the ottoman were conceived together. Those elements directly relate. The dining table is unrelated, but aesthetically, it’s his work. They’re sympathetic to each other, but they’re not really designed for each other. [The sofa and ottoman went to auction at some point, but their whereabouts are unknown.]

The lot notes say, ‘in a letter, Noguchi wrote that Greene gave him a Leica camera in exchange for the designing of some furniture for him.’ Was that camera the extent of the payment that Noguchi accepted for the creation of the Cloud pieces and this table? It appears to be. That’s the only documentation we have. Financial records are not available. I don’t know if he gave him cash for the production. Leica cameras are not inexpensive, but they certainly haven’t appreciated in the same way [laughs].

How often did Noguchi use pink Georgia marble? He did a very famous sculpture that’s in the Met in the same stone. It’s in his vocabulary, especially at this time. There was something he liked about the expression of the marble–the color spoke to him. It was not widely used, but he used it before on a major sculpture.

What characteristics mark this as a Noguchi? First of all, the overall form of it–the three legs, the ovoid shape of the top, the sunken planter–but it’s really the overall shape and form of the table that identifies it as a Noguchi.

Is this table the first time he uses a hole or a depression in a piece of furniture? It’s a little hard to know for sure. His formal sculptures have voids. They became present in his sculpture before they were in his designed works. At the same time [as he was creating this table], he was developing a coffee table for Herman Miller that looks a bit like the dining table shrunk down. The bowl [the aluminum bowl in the center] is clever. You rotate it to lock it into place. You do it from under the table–seamless integration into the void. It was designed for flower arrangements in the Japanese tradition. It adds a tension point and a visual focus to the table.

The table’s legs do not match. Is that unusual for a Noguchi furnishing? It’s pretty unusual that all three are different–it may be the only time. It’s like he was thinking out the design as he was making it. If it was in production, he may not have articulated the legs individually.

How do the legs add to the appearance of the Isamu Noguchi dining table? It makes it visually light. It’s not a light table, but it adds visual dynamism and visual lightness that comes from having three legs versus four.

And how does the asymmetry of the top and the asymmetry in the placement of the legs of the Isamu Noguchi dining table add to its appeal? The subtle shape of the top versus the legs versus the void placement creates a composition I find dynamic and pleasing. That’s the artistry of it.

The Isamu Noguchi dining table stands 26 inches high, which is lower than most people would expect. Does that make it hard to use? It does. It requires you to use chairs that have a low seat. Standard height chairs make the table feel low. A standard height table is 29 inches. The consigner lived with this his whole life. He wasn’t six foot four, he was an average height. He never had an issue, never thought twice about the height of it. If the table was closer to a standard height, it might have had broader appeal, but it did just fine as it was.

A 1954 photograph included with the lot shows the table set and with three chairs around it. Did it come with chairs? They are Eames chairs, and that particular Eames design has a pretty low seat. Whether they were designed for the table or paired up with it, I don’t know.

How many people can the table seat? Comfortably, six. When we looked at it in the original house, five sat around it and had coffee and we could have had one more.

Has it been restored? No. It’s really in completely original condition, which is fantastic.

Is it heavy? Yup, it’s heavy. I don’t know its actual weight, but it’s probably 500 pounds. Not insignificant. It [the tabletop] is a serious piece of marble, and a single piece of marble.

Does it show signs of wear? Sure. It had a very nice patina. It’s hard to how polished the stone had been originally. There are small chips around the edge, and no significant stains. The surface had become very matte. The legs had nicks, vacuum cleaner marks. But it had been carefully used for 50 years. The presence of the patina, the feel of it is very organic, very honest.

What is the Isamu Noguchi dining table like in person? It has a real presence. It feels bigger in person. It has some qualities about it that are very hard to translate photographically, but I think [the lot photos] did a pretty good job.

What was your role in the auction? What do you remember of the sale? I was the auctioneer. We had multiple bidders. For us, it was a lot of money. As an auctioneer, it’s not often that I say “One million.” I had to practice my increments before, it was such a big dollar amount.

When did you know you had a record for an Isamu Noguchi dining table? I had a pretty good sense by the time we got over the lower estimate [$1 million]. By selling it, we set a record. It was pretty nerve-wracking. It would have been fine to sell it for $1 million but it was better to sell it for $1.4 million. It better reflected the importance and worth of the table. We worked very hard to present it and tell its full story. To sell it well is gratifying. A lot of thought and care went into this. It’s fun when it all works out.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s just going to always be one of the most special pieces I’ll ever handle. There are very few pieces that you come across and say, “Wow, that’s really special.” This checks all the boxes.

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RECORD! A Gang of Five Machine Man Japanese Robot Toy Sold at Morphy Auctions for $86,100 (Updated October 6, 2020)

A bright red tin lithographic Machine Man robot toy, circa 1960, the rarest of the Japanese robot toys known as the Gang of Five.

Update, October 6, 2020: Morphy Auctions offered a Machine Man with box in its September 23-24, 2020 Toy, Doll, & Figural Cast Iron auction. It commanded a staggering $159,900, easily setting a new record. That number also beat Sage’s speculation in this 2019 story about how well a Machine Man with box might sell. (Scroll down to see his educated guess.)

What you see: A tin lithographic Machine Man Japanese robot toy, circa 1960. Morphy Auctions sold it in March 2019 for $86,100–a record for this toy and for any “Gang of Five” Japanese robot toy.

The expert: Tommy Sage Jr., head of toys and trains at Morphy Auctions.

What is the “Gang of Five,” and what Japanese mid-century toy robots belong to the Gang of Five? They were all made between the late 1950s and early 1960s, by the same company, Masudaya. They’re kind of all uniform. They’re called “large skirt” robots because it looks like they’re wearing skirts. They’re all the same body type.

Is it the latest of the Gang of Five robots? Probably. It had to be ordered specifically. You could not buy it from a catalog. The other four, you could. It was fairly expensive for the time. It was probably over $10.

Do we have any notion why Masudaya made the Machine Man robot toy? Why would they make something oversize–it’s 15 inches tall–and not even put it in their catalog? Probably because the first four they made did sell well here. Maybe they figured this one would too. It would make logical sense. As for the catalog, maybe it was a test thing, to see how many people would want to get it.

How did the consigner receive the Machine Man robot toy? How old was he? He got it in 1960 on Christmas morning. He was nine. He doesn’t remember getting it with the box, which would be worth $40,000.

How did the consigner display the… restraint needed to keep the toy in this good a condition? He didn’t play with it much. He took good care of it. He put it in a closet. And he was an American guy, too. They had to order it special for him. I don’t know how they did it in 1960, but they did. You had to be in the know.

Was his father a toy retailer or something? How did the adults in the consigner’s life know enough to get this for him? I talked to his dad, but I didn’t ask that question. Maybe he knew somebody who had a toy store 60 years ago.

Is this the only robot toy the consigner got? It was. He’s lucky he got the best one. It’s crazy. He kept it all these years. He’s probably 67 or 68 and decided to sell it now.

Do we have any notion how many Machine Man robot toys Masudaya made, and how many survive? I don’t know that, but as far as what’s out there, there are about one dozen, including two boxed ones. For the other four [in the Gang of Five] there are many, many more than that.

How did this example of the Machine Man robot toy come to you? A friend of mine who also deals in robots knew he was going to sell and talked him into selling at auction. I don’t know the guy personally, but he did.

So, how often does a Machine Man robot toy come up at auction? Every five to seven years? In 16 years, this is the second one we’ve had.

Is the Machine Man robot toy always red, or are there variations? They’re all red. You never see variations. With any Gang of Five robot, they’re all the same.

The lot notes described the toy as a “stunning example” and “Near Mint – Mint.” Could you elaborate? It’s one of the best ones known, and the best ones I’ve ever seen. It’s just about mint.

Does it work? It works. When you turn it on, it moves in a pattern. There’s a metal circle on the bottom with wheels and spins around in a little pattern.

Does it light up or make noise? It just moves.

Do its arms move independently? They do, but they kind of swing. They don’t move up and down.

Is it heavy? It’s not heavy. It’s all tin litho. It’s very well made for what it is. It’s actually quite beautiful. It’s almost like the weight of a baby. Most robots are half this size. Most are six to 12 inches.

A bright red tin lithographic Machine Man robot toy, circa 1960, the rarest of the Japanese robot toys known as the Gang of Five.

What is it like in person? It’s beautiful. It’s very red, very colorful, very vibrant colors. I can imagine being a kid, getting it, would be incredible.

What was your role in the auction? I was on the phone with the winner. I’ve been friendly with them for ten years. They asked my advice. I said, “When are you going to get another one this nice?”

The Machine Man robot toy sold for $86,100. Did that surprise you? No, it didn’t surprise me at all. Personally, I thought it would bring $80,000. If it had had its box, it would have sold for $125,000. The box is incredibly important.

How long will this record stand? What else is out there that could meet or beat it? A few other really rare robots from the 1950s and 1960s I’ve never had at all might push the $100,000 barrier.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? We get a lot of stuff, but we don’t get a lot of things that are quite so special. If you approach $100,000, that’s a lot for a toy. The person who bought it is very, very happy, I can tell you that.

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RECORD! A Karl Lagerfeld Fashion Drawing Sold at Palm Beach Modern Auctions for $6,500

An early Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawing, done in the 1960s for the House of Tiziani. It shows a woman in an evening gown posing with her hands on her hips and looking to the left.

During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.

What you see: A Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawing, done in the 1960s while he was working for the House of Tiziani. Palm Beach Modern Auctions sold it in April 2019 for $6,500, a record for a Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawing.

The expert: Rico Baca, auctioneer for Palm Beach Modern Auctions.

How rare are Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawings? We can start by talking about how rare fashion drawings are, period. Anytime you talk about fashion houses, you have people on staff producing [the drawings]. None are able to retain them for themselves. They belong to the house. It’s even more rare when you find someone signed their name to it. The drawings [Lagerfeld did for] Tiziani weren’t his. Because he worked for Tiziani, they were property of the house.

Are you aware of any other Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawings that he did for other houses? That I don’t know. I don’t have access to that information. But Lagerfeld was quoted as saying he saved none of his sketches. When they [the fashion house] started production, he’d throw them away. He’s been quoted saying that.

How did these Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawings for Tiziani emerge and survive? The consigner inherited them from his partner. The partner had been in a relationship with Tiziani. When it passed to the consigner, I went to the apartment Tiziani owned. He had saved several boxes of sketches. There were sketches Lagerfeld signed and he hadn’t signed.

How could you tell which unsigned drawings were by Lagerfeld? The style. Karl Lagerfeld would finish [them]. He’d put a face on [the model] with makeup and hair. He would finish the hands sometimes, and he might finish a foot with a shoe. Some had fabric attached to the sketches. It was easy to see which was his.

What’s the difference between the Lagerfeld drawings you sold in 2014 and the ones you sold in 2019? I think there were more sketches in the first group. There was more of a variety of finished product, and some had signatures. The second sale had no [drawings with] signatures. And Lagerfeld knew when we had the first auction. He would tweet as his cat, Choupette, and his cat tweeted, “If you want some of Daddy’s early drawings, they’re at Palm Beach Modern Auctions on Saturday.” If there were any questions about the authenticity of the drawings, Lagerfeld would have done it [spoken up] then.

When did the House of Tiziani close? I know the designer worked until the 1980s. These designers never stop. [Laughs]

Is it possible to know how many of the Lagerfeld drawings for Tiziani went to auction with you? Was it everything? You never know. They haven’t been under lock and key since the 1960s.

Do the two sales represent a good chunk of those drawings? It’s hard to know how many sketches are still out there. If you research fashion houses, you get a sense of the volume they do. Today they do even more than they did then, when they had two lines, one for each season. Now they put out lines every three weeks. It’s incomprehensible what they have to produce to maintain the houses.

What was Lagerfeld’s role at Tiziani? Was he the right-hand man? I don’t know, but he had to be high in the food chain. He helped Tiziani design for Elizabeth Taylor, and he helped him when he was working on movies for Elizabeth Taylor. He certainly wasn’t the person who brought in the tassels. He was there.

An early Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawing, done in the 1960s for the House of Tiziani. It shows a woman in an evening gown posing with her hands on her hips and looking to the left. A swatch of brown, semi-opaque fabric is attached to the right side of the drawing.

What do these drawings tell us about Lagerfeld’s skills? These were more than just sketches. They were works of art. And you really get that feeling when you look at the dresses. The reason they became sought-after sketches–look at that dress. It’s a beautiful dress. It’s timeless. This stuff is good. There’s nothing not to like about it. The quality is there.

A detail of an early Karl Lagerfeld fashion drawing, done in the 1960s for the House of Tiziani. It shows the upper part of the dress, which has a plunging neckline bordered by ruffles.

Do the sketches hint at the career that Lagerfeld had ahead of him? What you see in his sketches is his attention to detail is painstaking. I can’t imagine seeing that attention to detail in other sketches [by other people]. He took his time and gave thought to it. He’s doing a whole look when he’s doing these sketches.

If these drawings couldn’t be attributed to Lagerfeld, would they still be valuable? I wouldn’t go that far. Since then [the first auction], we’ve had James Galanos, who is a greater designer than Lagerfeld. We had eight folders of his sketches, and they only hammered for $2,000. [“Hammered” is the raw final price, without any premiums.] Not everyone reached Lagerfeld’s pinnacle. No one stays relevant to their death. They peak, they wane, they retire. What makes Lagerfeld unique is he was famous and relevant until he died.

What can you tell me about the sketch from the April 2019 sale pictured in lot 101? Do we know why it was commissioned, and for who, and who the model might have been? No. [Laughs] I wish I could give you a story that makes it more interesting. If you look at the sketch, it’s classic, and the colors are right. It’s a great dress.

What is the sketch like in person? It doesn’t really stand out to me from any of the other sketches. It’s just a beautiful dress.

Why did this particular sketch do well enough to set the world auction record for a Lagerfeld fashion sketch? That’s the mystery of an auction. All you need are two people who want the same thing. Who knows? Maybe it was two brides who thought that was the perfect dress. Part of what happened is we knew Lagerfeld had died. [He succumbed to pancreatic cancer in February 2019.] That was our only indication there might be more interest, but you don’t know how much until it happens.

So, before the sale, you would not have singled this one out as a likely record-setter. I wouldn’t have put my money on it. I did speak to a lot of people who bought them as gifts. Mothers bought them for daughters, daughters bought them for mothers, friends bought them for friends. Many bought two or three.

A fabric swatch was attached to this drawing. To what extent, if at all, did its presence drive the bidding? I think it did. Very few of them had cloth swatches.

You were the auctioneer at the sale. What do you recall of the experience? I generally do 60 lots an hour. I thought I’d be at the podium two hours max. Max. I had bronchitis and a cold. I got an inhaler and cough drops and thought, “I can do this.” It ended up going five hours. I opened the bidding up and it kept going and going. The last hour, I kept using the inhaler to get through it. It [the sale results] was good news, but it was a real surprise.

How long did it take you to recover? Quite a few days.

What do you remember of the experience of the sale? It was a pleasant one even though I was ill. [Laughs].

Were you hanging on to the podium for dear life? A little bit, but when the numbers are happening, it’s easy to walk through. It’s showtime. Run up to the podium and do your thing.

How long do you think this record will stand? Do you expect a drawing sold at one of your two auctions to come back eventually and meet or beat the $6,500 sum? The original sale had a number of sketches done on larger media. They were really finished pieces and they had signatures. At the same time, maybe Lagerfeld’s relevance will dim. I’m always amazed today about famous peoples’ relevance, and how it really does wane in today’s world. We move on so quickly.

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RECORD! A Schlüsselgerät 41, Successor to the Enigma Machine, Commands More Than $137,000 at Hermann Historica

The Schlüsselgerät 41 cryptographic machine, shown in full. It looks kind of like a typewriter, and it has a handle crank on its right side.

During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.

What you see: A Schlüsselgerät 41 (SG 41) encryption machine, dating from World War II. Hermann Historica sold it for €122,500, or about $137,000, a world auction record for this rare machine.

The expert: Bernhard Pacher, executive managing director of Hermann Historica.

What does “Schlüsselgerät” mean in English? It’s a very simple technical term. Schlüssel means key, or cipher. Gerät is a piece of hardware. It literally means “cypher machine” or “encryption machine”.

How did it improve on the Enigma encryption machine that the German military relied on in World War II? If you look at the layout, the standard Enigma machine used by all but the German navy used three wheels. Three wheels gives you a certain number of combinations. The navy had Enigmas with four wheels. The Schlüsselgerät 41, from the beginning, had five wheels, and the top wheel, a sixth wheel, performed “not” operations. If it expected a certain operation [a particular pattern of encryption] based on the five wheels, the sixth wheel could say, “not going to do that.” The sixth wheel added extreme irregularity, making decryption very hard. Also, the Enigma, when it encoded an “A”, it could never be [it could never stand for] an “A”. On the SG 41, an “A” could be an “A.” It could be anything.

Were the Germans aware that the Allies had cracked the Enigma code when it started work on the Schlüsselgerät 41 in 1941? No. Their own encryption guys analyzed the Enigma for flaws in its design. When it was designed, it had way more options [for encryption] than the final, simplified one. [They saw the] inherent problem that an “A” can never be an “A”. [They realized] if you really analyzed that thing, you could come up with a chance to decipher it, and they needed something new. The Germans thought, even with the flaws, it would take the Allies three or four weeks to decipher the messages, and by then, who cares? They could not imagine the British could come up with a machine that goes through all the permutations in 30 minutes. They still somehow convinced themselves that the Enigma would be enough. Somehow the Schlüsselgerät 41 wasn’t given the priority it should have had.

Did the Schlüsselgerät 41 really weigh 13 kilos (28.6 pounds)? Yes, it did, and that’s the problem. This one doesn’t have a cover. Without it, it’s 11 kilos [24.2 pounds]. For that, it was considered too heavy for front-line use. It’s a bit crazy, because the Enigma was almost the same weight.

I understand the Schlüsselgerät 41 was made of steel. Was that an issue that might have delayed its production? Steel was one of the few materials that was not really in short supply [during World War II]. It came from all over the Reich. What should have made it lighter–aluminum, magnesium–was in short supply, and that was needed for the aircraft industry.

What did the crank on the right-hand side of the SG 41 do? That crank did what the motor did in the Enigma. You pushed a key, turned the crank, and got a result. It was a one by one by one operation. There was no battery needed, no electrics, but it slowed things down a bit. If the Schlüsselgerät 41 had an electric motor and a battery, taking over the job of the crank, that would add, easily, three kilos to the machine, and it really would have gotten out of hand. And it’s a delicate machine. You can’t push the crank full speed. You have to go fairly slowly.

The Enigma was more sturdy? Yes. It was all-electric. It was much quicker and much easier.

The lot notes say about 500 SG 41 units were built. Do we know how many survive? In April and May 1945, the order to destroy them went out. A total of 10 survived the war in operable condition.

How did this one survive? We can only trace it back to 1955, when the previous owner purchased it from a private collector. The speculation is the guy was supposed to destroy it [but] took it back home. For 30 years, it was given to a Swiss military museum as a loan. It was there until last year, when it was retrieved.

And this is the first one to go to auction? Yes. There was one on eBay 10 years ago at a fairly high price, which didn’t sell. It was in way worse condition than the one we had.

How did you set the estimate of €75,000 [$84,300]? Did you look at Enigma auction results? That was the minimum the consigner said they’d expect to receive. I personally would have given it a six-digit estimate. I was very, very disappointed it didn’t make €100,000 as the hammer price. We’ve sold Enigmas for €150,000, €160,000. A Schlüsselgerät 41 in perfect working condition should get at least what an Enigma gets.

It was in perfect condition? There were a few little pieces missing. That’s it. It’s not tampered with. There are no nicks, no dings, no scratches. The only thing missing is the cover.

A closer shot of the Schlüsselgerät 41, with its keyboard visible. The bottom door is open, showing a spool of white paper.

How did you describe its condition? I actually said it was almost “as new” with very few traces of wear and tear. It was built at the end of 1944. It didn’t see much operation. It probably sat in an office for five months. Then the guy got his hands on it in 1945, and we’re pretty sure that guy hid the machine. By 1955, he was probably happy to get rid of it.

Why not give an estimate range? We never give a range. How do you give a range for an object that’s absolutely unique? It’s another reason the result is damaging. If another Schlüsselgerät 41 pops up, [people will think] “Ah, that’s what it’s worth.” Wrong! That’s not what it’s worth. It’s what the top bidder was willing to pay, and no one was willing to bid higher than that. It should have been a bit higher than Enigmas we’ve sold, not just because of the rarity, but its complexity. It’s on a different level than the Enigma ever was. And to achieve that with moving parts is astonishing. It took until the 1960s to have a similar encryption in software. That thing was really good.

What does it sound like? It has a really nice mechanical sound. [You can hear some of its native audio around the 1:09 mark in this video that Hermann Historica made about the Schlüsselgerät 41.]

Were you in the sale room when the SG 41 came to the auction block? Emotionally, I was so tied to it, I needed to auction it myself. It didn’t quite work as I planned.

What do you recall of the actual sale? There were two people on the phone, bidding against each other, and I had a written bid. I had to disclose the highest written bid. The man on the phone went one step higher, and it was his. I tried to stimulate the Internet–there were so many bidders logged in, I was sure someone would bid. I was very disappointed it didn’t get past an Enigma machine. It didn’t come close.

Did the Schlüsselgerät 41 have any effect on World War II, at all? It would have changed the war if it was available in 1941. By then, the blitzkrieg strategy was working. By the time the units were delivered, the Manhattan Project was underway. We should be happy they weren’t deployed in larger numbers. It would have cost many more lives by not doing any good. It wouldn’t be a game-changer. It would be a war-extender. It would make the war last long enough to drop Fat Man and Little Boy on Berlin.

Why will the Schlüsselgerät 41 stick in your memory? Technical fascination. I have a background of 15 years in the computer business. Seeing binary code when no one was yet thinking in binary code–a living piece of mechanical software–is fascinating. That’s why I like it. It’s fascinating not just for its accuracy, it allows [for] translating binary thinking into mechanical action.

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Image is courtesy of Hermann Historica.

In case you missed it above, here’s the video that Hermann Historica created about the Schlüsselgerät 41.

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