A Tamara de Lempicka Portrait Could Set Yet Another New World Auction Record for the Artist (Update February 6: It Did!)

Update: Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (Portrait of Marjorie Ferry) by Tamara de Lempicka sold for £16,280,000, or $21.1 million–easily a new record for the artist at auction, and the third painting of hers to break her auction record in a span of 15 months.

What you see: Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (Portrait of Marjorie Ferry), a 1932 oil on canvas by Tamara de Lempicka. Christie’s London estimates it at £8 million to £12 million, or $10.4 million to $15.6 million.

The expert: Keith Gill, head of the Impressionist and Modern art evening sale held at Christie’s London.

Who was Tamara de Lempicka, and why does her work still speak to us today? She was a famous female artist of the 1920s and early 1930s, and very much in the celebrity mold of her time. She was probably almost ahead of her time in terms of her approach to things. I don’t think her art has dated as such. Her aesthetic appeals to people today as in the 20s and 30s. Her art has become timeless.

Aside from a six-month trip to Italy that she took as a 13-year-old with her grandmother, what art training did she have? She undertook some art studies in Saint Petersburg, and when she came to Paris in 1918, she went to classes as often as she could. She studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumeière, and enrolled with Maurice Denis at the Académie Ranson, and she traveled to Italy quite frequently. And she sat in cafes in Montparnasse and discussed art and fashion with the avant-garde. 

So, no traditional art studies that ended with a degree, but more than sufficient… I can’t say she was self-taught, but she didn’t take a formal qualification. She took every single opportunity to be taught.

How prolific was Tamara de Lempicka? Is there a catalogue raisonné? Yes. There are 218 recorded works on paper, and in terms of oils, there are 520 in the book. It’s worth pointing out that it includes works from the 1940s into the 1970s, where really, the key period is the late 1920s and early 1930s.

What happened in the 1940s? She did far fewer commissions, and more still lifes. She didn’t paint identified individuals. There’s a mix of imagery.

So she didn’t just do portraits, but she’s most famous for her portraits? She’s most famous for her portraits, and they’re the most highly valued works she did.

At what point in her career do her paintings start looking like the Portrait of Marjorie Ferry–the imagery we think of when we think of Tamara de Lempicka? I’d say she finds her way very early in the 1920s. I would argue her style evolved to what we recognize in 1925, and by 1927, she has her mature style, the style that propelled her to fame and fortune.

How did Tamara de Lempicka’s social life shape her business life? How did it help her attract clients and commissions? It’s incredibly difficult to say which way around it worked. Really, the two very much related to each other. The paintings built her social life. Her portraiture was almost instantaneously successful. She became a celebrity, and she got more commissions and became someone people wanted to have at parties. She wouldn’t have been invited to parties or have become famous if people didn’t like her work.

Where was Tamara de Lempicka in her career in 1932? She was very much the toast of Paris. She was absolutely at her peak. Her top 10 [works at] auction all date from 1925 through 1932, the year of this work.

I’ve seen Tamara de Lempicka’s work described as Art Deco in its style. What makes it Art Deco? The stage-like lighting and the very stylized backdrops it has. In a picture like this, it’s the greys, whites, and blacks in the background, and it’s [Ferry’s] very Art Deco hairstyle as well. The haircut is very much of that time.

How did the commission for Portrait of Marjorie Ferry come about? Did she know Ferry or her husband or both? The balance of probability is she knew them both. Around 1933, she did a portrait of Suzy Solidor, one of her lovers who was a cabaret singer. It’s likely she met Marjorie Ferry through her relationship with Solidor, and probably, Ferry’s other half, a wealthy banker who commissioned the portrait, was part of her circle at the time.

I understand one reason that Ferry’s husband commissioned the portrait was to immortalize a cabochon ring that he’d given her. Can you talk a bit about how Tamara de Lempicka structures the composition to showcase both the sitter and her jewelry? She does it through a very interesting device. You’re drawn to her face and hair, and the red of her lips. Then you have the very vertical line of her arm, drawing your eye down to her other hand, and the red in her nails. If you drew a straight line from the center of her lips, you’d land on the light in her ring. It’s very clever.

Does this work represent the only time that Marjorie Ferry appears in a painting by Tamara de Lempicka? Yes. It was a one-off commission. The only people she paints a number of times are her family or her lovers.

What do we know about how Tamara de Lempicka worked? Would she have had Marjorie Ferry pose in her studio, or would she have shot photographs of her and worked from those? The balance of probability is Ferry sat for the portrait in an old-fashioned sense. The background is very much in line with the design of the artist’s studio in Paris. It wasn’t exactly like this, but it was a very stripped-down steel interior with lots of reflections.

De Lempicka described her style of painting as “clean”, and credited her style with her success. Could you talk about what she meant when she said “clean”? In this work, the “clean” aspect is around the simplicity of it, a fundamental focus on the sitter and the simplistic background. It’s a stripped-back, minimalist aesthetic, both in the backgrounds and in the way she paints her figures. This work has a very flat surface, but the variation is all in the color and the paint, not in the surface. You can see the link between this and photography.

I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say you see the link between this and photography. It’s not going out of its way to look like a painting. It’s not painting for painting’s sake. It’s more about the subject and the use of light and dark rather than the physical surface of the painting.

A story about Tamara de Lempicka on the Christie’s website describes her work as “conspicuously luxurious pictures for conspicuously luxurious times”. Do you agree? What, in your opinion, makes them “conspicuously luxurious”? The look of the fabric, the dresses you see on the sitters–it’s a very luxurious, satin type of fabric. It creates a very luxurious feeling. And the ring Ferry has, the perfect nails, the perfect hair, it very much illustrates the wealth of the time.

And it’s very Old Masters-y to revel in the details of luxurious fabrics… Exactly. It goes back to the Medicis, and commissioning portraits as status symbols.

What’s the painting like in person? Are there any aspects that the camera fails to pick up? Not really. I think it’s incredibly striking in person. It feels almost lifelike, life-size. When it’s on the wall, you appreciate the incredible shades of light and dark.

What’s your favorite detail of this painting? It’s her hand with the ring and the nails, because it’s very much an intrinsic part of the story of the picture, the sitter, and the fiance. And one of the hardest things for artists to do is to paint hands, and Tamara de Lempicka paints hands incredibly well. She’s drawing attention to her prowess.

No fear. It’s very much in your face, “Look how good I am”. She wants to be compared to the Old Masters in terms of technical ability.

In 2018, Christie’s sold the artist’s La Musicienne for a record price. Last November, Sotheby’s sold La Tunique Rose for a new record. Is it a coincidence that the record for a work by Tamara de Lempicka has broken twice in the span of 18 months, or do the sales represent an acceleration in her market? We often find strong prices when we bring other works by the artist to market. There is that result we had in 2018, which was a record then. When you achieve a record for the artist, the market talks about the artist. Maybe it started people thinking more about Tamara de Lempicka. What’s nice is a lot of her works are in private collections. Clients see the price and think about parting with a certain painting.

How does Portrait de Marjorie Ferry compare to the two recent record-holders? I know it once held the world auction record for a Tamara de Lempicka work… It held the record for one day, and it was broken the following night by Portrait of Madame M. But I think it’s very comparable to both of them in terms of quality, technique, and composition, and arguably more comparable to the 1929 work [La Musicienne], which has the second highest price. Her style evolves. In 1927, she wasn’t quite at her peak, but in 1929, she was absolutely at her peak in terms of style.

How long has Tamara de Lempicka been a feature of Impressionist and Modern evening sales? Is that recent? It goes back a long way. We had a strong piece in an evening sale in 2004 and others in 2006. What’s different here is we featured Portrait de Marjorie Ferry on the cover, and that’s the first time a female artist has been on the cover of the catalog for an Impressionist and Modern evening sale [at Christie’s London]. Everyone is saying how incredible it is as a catalog cover.

Is Portrait de Marjorie Ferry the first work by Tamara de Lempicka with an estimate that edges into the double-digit millions? Yes. The one that made a big price in New York [La Tunique Rose] had an estimate of $6 million to $8 million, and before that [La Musicienne] was $6 million to $8 million. This one is £8 million to £12 million, very much the highest starting price for the artist.

What are the odds that Portrait de Marjorie Ferry will break the record on February 5? All I would say is it has a very good chance.

Why will this painting stick in your memory? I like it because it has a very strong… almost insight into the strength of her [Ferry’s] personality. She looks directly at you, and she has grey eyes, which tie into the greys in her clothes and in the background. And I’m proud to be somebody who put a female artist on our cover.

How to bid: Tamara de Lempicka’s Portrait de Marjorie Ferry is lot 8 in the Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale taking place at Christie’s London on February 5, 2020.

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Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

Gill also speaks in an article about Tamara de Lempicka on the Christie’s site.

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A Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Pot with Cover Could Command $50,000 (Updated February 17)

A Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey Pot with cover, shown in full, with the four ghost figures at the center.

Update: The Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover sold for $18,750.

What you see: A Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover, standing 13 inches tall and produced sometime in the 1920s. Skinner estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.

The expert: Stuart Slavid, director of fine ceramics and senior vice president at Skinner.

Let’s start by talking about what Fairyland Lustre is, and how it came to be. I have to say–if I didn’t know it was Wedgwood, I’d never guess it was by them… Wedgwood, for a long time, was traditionalist. They made things that were classical designs, and they never stopped. Fairyland Lustre was beyond anything designed by Wedgwood, and it came from Daisy Makeig-Jones.

Who was Daisy Makeig-Jones? She was enthralled with nursery rhymes and fairy tales from a young age. She read them to her siblings, and they stuck with her. When she went to Wedgwood, she was pretty old for an apprentice. She started at 28, when most started at 14 or 15. She worked her way up through the ranks to become a designer, a position not held by a woman.

How did Daisy Makeig-Jones convince Wedgwood, which built its reputation on classical-looking ceramics, to produce the Fairyland Lustre line? She didn’t have to sell them on it. She only had to sell it to the art director, John Goodwin, who gave her her own studio. Fairyland Lustre was a new line that brought Wedgwood into the 20th century. It was a good cash cow as long as it lasted.

Are there technical advances that happened around 1915 that allowed Wedgwood to make the Fairyland Lustre line, or was Wedgwood able to realize it with the tools and techniques they already had? Fairyland Lustre was totally Daisy Makeig-Jones’s vision, and she realized it. Wedgwood hadn’t done anything like it before. It was quite revolutionary at the time. I toured the Wedgwood factory in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and I asked the head potter, “Why can’t you make Fairyland Lustre today with the technology you used to make it in the 1920s?” Wedgwood had tried [to revive the line] in the 1970s and it came out flat. He said, “Because we can’t use lead.” The lead in the glaze gave it its iridescence.

What was the reaction to the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre line when it debuted in 1915? Was it a hit right away? It was, but it was the ordinary lustrewares that were a hit, not the Fairyland Lustre. It wasn’t because of the beauty of it, but the price point. It would cost the average English person a month’s wages for a piece of Fairyland Lustre. Fast-forward to today, and the Fairyland Lustre price point is much higher than the ordinary lustrewares.

I take it, then, that fewer pieces of Fairyland Lustre sold when it was new? I might love a Ferrari, but I’m happy with a Toyota.

How many different types of Fairyland Lustre did Wedgwood make? There are three types. The first is the ordinary lustreware, with butterflies, birds, and dragons on it. The second is the Fairyland Lustre, which has fairies on it. The third is unknown, or other–designs within the line that have animals or something else on it, but are not ordinary.

I came across a description of a type of Fairyland Lustre as being “true” Fairyland Lustre. Which of the three types is the “true” Fairyland Lustre? It’s the second. There were a number of books Daisy used as influences. Some that she read to her siblings gave her inspiration.

…books illustrated by Arthur Rackham? Absolutely. And there was a whole series of fairy books by Andrew Lang that were published between 1890 and 1910, when Daisy was old enough to be the eldest sister [and read to her younger siblings].

And through the 15-odd years of the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre line’s existence, it was entirely the vision of Daisy Makeig-Jones? All are her designs. Some are signed and some are not. She could not possibly have done them all, but she is credited with them all.

Do we have any numbers on how many pieces of Fairyland Lustre Wedgwood made? I imagine they made more of the ordinary lustrewares… You’re probably correct, but there are no numbers on that. It’s hard to date Fairyland Lustre because so many of the designs were re-used for as many as 15 years. When Fairyland Lustre [the true Fairyland Lustre] arrived in 1916, there were as many as 62 variations.

Wedgwood discontinued the Fairyland Lustre line around 1929 or so. Why? The art director changed, and tastes changed. And it was right after the stock market crash. When [the new art director] called Daisy Makeig-Jones into his office to fire her, she continued to work. A short time later, Wedgwood discontinued most of the Fairyland Lustre patterns. She went back to her studio and smashed all the molds and instructed the staff to destroy the remaining stock. She left the factory and was never heard from again.

She didn’t try to launch her own studio after Wedgwood fired her? Daisy Makeig-Jones was an odd lady, and a heavy smoker. My favorite story about her is she had a kiln in her office, not for ceramics, but for making grilled cheese sandwiches. She died in 1945. She was only 63.

The piece I’m focusing on is a Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover. What scene do we see depicted on the piece? Is there a narrative? It depicts a land of illusion adapted from the legend of croquemitaine–a bogeyman. But if you read the story, you don’t know how [the scene on the Wedgwood piece] got from point A to point B. The translation of the story to the design makes no sense. [Makeig-Jones] may have gotten inspiration from the croquemitaine story, but there’s a rabbit at the bottom of the piece [look at the lower right] that’s running to Alice in Wonderland.

The piece is described as being a Malfrey pot with cover. What is that, exactly? A Malfrey pot, in our terms, is like a covered ginger jar. Sometimes it’s round, sometimes it’s oval, sometimes it’s vertical, but there’s always a domed cover on it.

And the four robed figures are the ghosts? Yes.

I only have one photograph of the piece. Does the design repeat on the other side? All Fairyland Lustre decorations cover all sides. I’m pretty sure the same scene is on the other side.

What’s your favorite detail of the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods piece? Probably the figures. They don’t show up on any other Wedgwood designs. They’re not scary ghosts–they’re just kind of fun.

What are the four ghosts carrying? Torches? Maybe, but our guess as to what they’re carrying–we interpret it the way we want to interpret it. At the top [above the ghosts] there’s a thing that looks like a big bat, but it’s actually a Roc bird.

I think I see a face in the tree on the right… You see all sorts of funny things like that [in Fairyland Lustre scenes]. At the bottom, there’s a huge toad in gold, right at the front.

What do we know about how the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods piece might have been made? It was printed [a print transfer was applied to the blank shape], then it was hand-painted over the print. Fairyland Lustre pieces [could go to] the kiln as many as five times. It was quite a process. It certainly wasn’t done in a day. The gilding was the last step.

Did Fairyland Lustre go through a period when it was unfashionable with collectors, or has it always been sought-after? When it was first produced, it was quite successful. You don’t produce it for 15 years unless it does well at the time. In terms of collecting, Fairyland Lustre didn’t become popular until the 1960s and 1970s. Wedgwood collectors had to be students of the 18th century. Not until the next generation came along and opened their eyes to the wider world of Wedgwood did they collect Fairyland Lustre as well.

Which group is bigger nowadays–the group of collectors who are only interested in Fairyland Lustre, or the group of collectors who are broadly interested in Wedgwood? The ones who are interested in Wedgwood A to Z, because there’s 260 years of production. People who only collect Fairyland Lustre have only 15 years of production. But at some point, someone is going to tell their story.

I count 14 pieces of Fairyland Lustre in the upcoming Skinner sale. Is it unusual to have so many? Are they all from the same consigner? No, they are two collections. We might have two, three, four, five pieces in a sale. This is a nice showing of Fairyland Lustre and should be a nice barometer of the market today. These pieces, and the magnitude of these pieces, will bring some [additional examples of Fairyland Lustre] out of the woodwork.

How often does a Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Malfrey pot with cover and a Ghostly Woods theme come to auction? This is at least the second one, and it might be the same one [the two recorded auction appearances might belong to this example]. It doesn’t show up very often.

What’s the world auction record for a piece of Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre? I don’t know what the record is, but no one sells more or has sold more Wedgwood than I have. In the time I’ve been at Skinner, the most expensive piece of Fairyland Lustre we’ve sold was a Temple on a Rock vase and cover that got $61,500 on an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000 last July. [A second Temple on the Rock vase and cover appears in the upcoming sale, estimated at $30,000 to $50,000.]

Does that healthy July 2019 result indicate an acceleration in the market for Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre, or is it a coincidence? There’s an acceleration at the high end with the true Fairyland Lustre. It was the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that got the Temple on a Rock vase and cover, but someone had to underbid it. [As of January 2020, the MFA Boston hasn’t included the acquisition in their online database.]

What is the piece like in person? It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like it, it’s amazing. If you look at Fairyland Lustre, you think it can’t possibly be Wedgwood. It’s wonderful. It’s the thing dreams are made of.

Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? The photographer did a really good job showing the colors and the iridescence of the thing. It’s a photographer’s nightmare to shoot this stuff. Because it’s so shiny and lustrous, it reflects off everything in the room. It really is a very difficult thing to shoot.

What condition is it in? It’s in tremendous condition. It has its original cover, and that makes a huge difference. The covers tend to slide off. It [the design of the ceramic piece] doesn’t have an inside rim. There’s nothing to secure it. If you’re carrying it across a room, you’d better be careful. The first thing to look for is if the cover has been repaired. This one has not.

Why will this piece of Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre stick in your memory? It’s one of my favorite subjects. There are so many Fairyland Lustre subjects, but they’re kind of redundant–fairies in the woods. Ghostly Woods, you don’t see it. The patterns you don’t see are much more interesting than the patterns you see often.

How to bid: The Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover is lot 365 in the European Furniture & Decorative Arts auction at Skinner on February 14, 2020. 

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An Irene Clark Painting Shown in Ebony Magazine Could Sell For $7,000 (Updated January 31: RECORD!)

Mansion on Prairie Avenue, a mid-20th century painting by African-American artist Irene Clark. A similar work by the same artist is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Update: Mansion on Prairie Avenue sold for $30,000–more than four times its high estimate, and a new world auction record for the artist.

What you see: Mansion on Prairie Avenue, a mid-century oil on masonite board by Irene V. Clark. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.

The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.

Let’s start by talking about Irene Clark–who she was, and why she’s still collected today. She’s an interesting artist. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was a modern painter at the time when there were few African-American women painters. She was interested in embracing different kinds of imagery and subject matter and embracing the African-American experience.

Was Irene Clark prolific? And do we know how many works she did with a mansion theme? This is a subject she did a number of versions of, but I don’t think it’s a series, in that those I’ve seen are the same subject. It was an interesting subject for her. If you like painting your dog and you keep painting your dog, that doesn’t mean you do dog portraits. Her other work is a little different, usually an isolated figure or a mask on a background. We know this painting is important to her because the other versions are well-known.

But as far as numbers go, do we have an idea of how many artworks Irene Clark produced? I don’t know. I don’t see her work that often. She had a long career, but her market is quite small. She’s had less than 20 works at auction. Most are paintings on wood or paper, in a similar size and format.

And the number of Irene Clark mansion works? I’ve seen two others and this one. The one in the Art Institute of Chicago is almost identical [to the one on offer at Swann]. They are very similar, but not identical. She’s revisiting the subject, not just copying it.

Did Irene Clark start painting mansion works while she was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, or did they come later? I believe they were done in the 1950s and 1960s, after her Works Progress Administration period. The one in the Art Institute of Chicago collection is circa 1955. I don’t know exactly when these were painted. They’re not dated. [The one offered at Swann has a circa date range of 1955 and 1962, and the one in the museum is circa 1955.]

Is Irene Clark best known for her mansion paintings? I think the best way to put it is because one’s in the Art Institute of Chicago and the other is in Cedric Dover’s book American Negro Art, yes, it’s probably her best known subject.

What makes Irene Clark’s mansions a compelling subject for an artwork? They show how the neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago were changing. With the Great Migration, the neighborhoods of 19th century mansions changed and became predominantly African-American.

Are the people Irene Clark shows in the windows and in front of the mansion specific characters that appear in every mansion painting? No, they’re a general kind of idea. The South Side of Chicago, with its big stone buildings, was kind of a historic district. They were built for rich white families in the 19th century. Now, African-Americans live there. She’s reflecting on that in the picture. She’s relating it to the African-American experience on the South Side of Chicago.

Is the mansion recognizable as a specific South Side Chicago mansion, or is it a fanciful invention of hers? It’s probably just a fanciful version. It’s just the idea of a mansion in the neighborhood and the people who live there. I guess it could have been done from a sketch, but it’s probably the artist’s interpretation. It seems very much her own. It’s playful and fanciful, with everybody in the windows. It’s her artistic license.

What is the Irene Clark painting like in person? It has a fair amount of texture. It’s painted on wood, and has an underlying solidity. It has texture and weight to it. I think the image gives a good sense of what it looks like in person.

Would the Johnson Publishing Company have commissioned this mansion painting from Irene Clark? I’m not aware of any direct commission, but I don’t have a lot of information. I can’t really say. My feeling is they would have been able to acquire work from the artist if they wanted to, but I don’t know where it was acquired.

I ask because I see in the lot notes that the painting was pictured in a December 1973 issue of Ebony, which was the company’s flagship magazine. Yes, it was illustrated in a later magazine. They were publicizing the [art] collection in the 1970s after the building had opened [at 820 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 1971; in 2017, the city of Chicago declared it as a local landmark.] I’m quite positive it was acquired directly from the artist. A lot of artists were contacted directly for works for the collection, but I don’t have documentation.

How often do Irene Clark works come up at auction? Maybe one every couple of years. There haven’t been many. It depends on the year. It’s infrequent.

What’s the world auction record for an Irene Clark? It was set two years ago at Ripley Auctions in Indianapolis. It was called South Chicago Scene and it sold for $4,750.

So if Mansion on Prairie Avenue sells for its low estimate, that will be a new auction record for Irene Clark. Right.

What are the odds of that happening? I think it will do well for a couple of reasons. It’s a well-known subject of hers. It’s known within the collection because it was featured in Ebony. It’s a good representation of the African-American experience in Chicago. It ticks the boxes.

Is everything in the Johnson Publishing Company sale fresh to market–nothing has appeared at auction before? They did acquire works from galleries and dealers. I don’t believe any works were acquired at auction. Many of these artists, especially works from the 1970s, were acquired directly, and many are new to auction or have few auction records. I think 25 artists [represented] in this collection don’t have auction records.

Wow. I imagine you haven’t had that many debut artists in one sale since you founded the African-American art department at Swann in 2006. That’s right. I wrote a lot of biographical information for this sale. It’s a great collection, because it brings together well-known, important African-American artists across the country.

But I imagine there will be a lot of competition for this Irene Clark work because of its strong Chicago connection? It definitely appeals to collectors of Chicago art and Chicago artists, and it appeals to people who collect early African-American art, and people who known the Johnson Publishing Company collection and know the importance of the company. It will resonate with different types of collectors.

Why will this Irene Clark work stick in your memory? It’s definitely a significant work by her. It speaks to her work, and it’s something that meant a lot to her. It’s very similar to the work in the Art Institute of Chicago. If it’s good enough for an institution, I think it will be sought-after by many collectors. It’s a fascinating subject, and I think it will resonate with people.

How to bid: Mansion on Prairie Avenue by Irene Clark is lot 12 in the January 30, 2020 sale of African-American Art from the Johnson Publishing Company at Swann Auction Galleries.

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Nigel Freeman spoke to The Hot Bid previously about an Elizabeth Catlett sculpture that went on to set a new world auction record for the artist; an Emma Amos mixed-media work that ultimately sold for an auction record for the artist;  a set of Emperor Jones prints by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglasa story quilt that Oprah Winfrey commissioned Faith Ringgold to make about Dr. Maya Angelouan Elizabeth Catlett painting, and a Sargent Johnson copper mask

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

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Special Note: RIP Terry Jones

In March 1987, I was fourteen years old and obsessed with Monty Python.

I learned about the existence of fanzines and decided I wanted to do one about the British comedy troupe.

I have no idea why I thought it would work, but I dialed the London phone directory, or operator, or whatever body helped you locate London phone numbers back then, and asked for the number for Terry Jones.

He was listed.

I sat there holding a piece of paper with the numbers on it for a bit. I dialed.

He answered.

I did not die of a heart attack.

I told him, in what I am certain must have been a high-pitched, terrified voice while rushing my words, that I wanted to start a Monty Python fanzine, and asked for his help.

He did not flinch. He did not slam the phone into its cradle. He did not tell me off. Instead, he volunteered the phone number for what was then the main Python office and gave me a specific name to ask for.

A few months later, I started my zine. I ran it for five years.

When I came to London at age seventeen, he was one of the three Pythons who were in the city at the time and invited me to visit them in their homes. (The others were Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam.)

He was never anything less than 100 percent supportive and kindly toward me. Never.

If I hadn’t started that Python fanzine as a teenager, I would not be where I am today–no question.

And I could not have started the fanzine without Terry Jones’s spontaneous and unhesitant act of kindness, bestowed on a weird American girl he had never met, who cold-called him at home and breathlessly asked for his help.

RIP, Terry, and thank you, for everything.

Here’s the BBC story about Jones’s death. If his family announces plans for a public celebration of his life, I’ll update this post with the news.

An Alexander: The Man Who Knows Poster Could Command $1,500 (Updated Jan 28)

Alexander: The Man Who Knows, an eight-sheet vintage poster printed circa 1915 to tout the act of Alexander, an American performer who claimed to read minds.

Update: The circa 1915 Alexander, The Man Who Knows poster sold for $1,560.

What you see: A circa 1915 poster touting Alexander, The Man Who Knows. It measures 108 inches by 80 1/2 inches. Potter & Potter estimates the oversize vintage poster at $1,000 to $1,500.

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

Let’s start by talking about Alexander–who he was, where he performed, and where he was in his career around 1915, when this poster was printed. He was at the peak of his powers. He was an American, no real city of birth, but a west coaster. I don’t believe he ever performed outside the U.S., but he certainly traveled across the U.S. over his career.

I understand that Alexander was a mentalist. Could you explain the difference between a magician and a mentalist? He did also do magic tricks. The thing that set him apart from other people was his ability to apparently read minds in such a believable way. He would answer questions people would write down and seal in an envelope–some deeply personal, some frivolous. It set him apart from other people who did the same kinds of tricks.

And the turban Alexander wears in the poster was part of his costume? It was also integral to his act. It was built for him for his mentalism routine. There were mechanical devices in the turban that he used to communicate with his assistants offstage. It was a way for backstage assistants to whisper in his ear. This was in the teens, the 20s, probably back a little further than that. It was pre-radio, a combination of induction coils and telephone technology. David Copperfield has the turban now on display in his place in Las Vegas. [While it doesn’t show the Alexander turban, this video gives a decent overview of Copperfield’s private museum.]

So Alexander was best known for answering questions from his audience? Hence “Alexander: The Man Who Knows”? The Q & A was one of his trademark routines. A dozen or a hundred people would write a question they were seeking an answer to. Without opening and reading the envelope, Alexander would answer the question and reveal personal details of the people in the audience. He’d give their names, the number of children they had, their address, and he’d answer the question in the envelope. [Only after we spoke did it occur to me that Johnny Carson must have been riffing off of Alexander with his “Carnac the Magnificent” routine on The Tonight Show.]

And I take it Alexander relied on his assistants to relay that information through the devices in the turban? It was more complicated than that. He used everything in his arsenal to acquire and deliver information. The material he was best known for made people believe he could actually read your mind.

Did Alexander use cold reading and hot reading? Yes, I would say that’s fair. I imagine there was a combination of the two. Probably a lot of hot reading.

I read the Wikipedia entry on Alexander and it seems pretty outlandish–killing four men? Marrying between seven to fourteen times? Escapes from jail? What information do we have about him that can be trusted? There’s a wonderful biography written by a man named David Charvet that draws on sources including diaries. David’s book is the final word on Alexander’s story. Killing four men… I’m not sure that’s ever been proven. Tax evasion, there are public records as far as that kind of thing. Polyamorous lifestyle, there’s not much doubt about that. Certainly his theatrical successes are provable. His is a tantalizing story and a lot is verifiable. Can I prove he murdered people? No. Can I prove he was an opportunist? Yeah.

Why is Alexander: The Man Who Knows such a powerful poster? I think it’s the striking simplicity of the design. His eyes follow you. It leaves open a lot of room for interpretation. It’s tantalizing as a stand-alone object. It grabs your attention. It’s still doing its job more than 100 years later.

And I take it Alexander is best known today for these Alexander: The Man Who Knows posters, and not the substance of his act? 100 percent. No one knows who this guy was in the real world. His biography is great, but it was never on the best-seller list.

How involved would he have been in the design of this Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster? He was probably intimately involved. If he was so involved as to modify the name of the printer to something more theatrical, he was probably involved in the design.

The “Av Yaga Bombay” tag is in the lower right corner of the poster.

Alexander modified the name of the printer to something more theatrical? All his posters bear the mark of Av Yaga, a phony printing company in Bombay. No one has been able to determine who printed the poster. He did it [invented Av Yaga] to deliberately create a mystic aura of the east around him.

To extend the illusion? Yeah. He’s a gringo, but he’s wearing a turban and pretending to be privy to the secrets of the ages. This guy’s life should be a movie.

This Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster is big–108 inches by 80 1/2 inches. Where would it have been displayed? On the side of a building. Probably more than one poster if the bill poster had space. I’ve often wanted to buy one of these to put it up on the side of a building.

I don’t see a blank band on the top or the bottom of the Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster to tell people the venue and the dates of his performance. How did local promoters tell people when and where Alexander would appear? Occasionally they would overprint the theater and the date on posters like this one. Or the theater and the date would be posted adjacent to it.

Usually, with desirable vintage posters, only a few examples survive in varying states of condition. I understand that’s not the case with Alexander posters. Could you explain what happened? When Alexander retired, he was still a relatively young man. He sold his entire show to a man, Robert Nelson. A truck showed up at Nelson’s house and he thought it was a done deal. Then a second truck showed up with unused posters. Reportedly, there were several tons of paper. For years, he was selling posters, and eventually, they found their way into the hands of poster dealers.

Was there only this red background style of Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, or were there others? There were many different varieties. There were probably more of the red one-sheet size than most others.

The one we’re discussing is the red eight-sheet version. How rare is that? It’s less common. I’ve only had two or three in 12 years.

What condition is it in? A. About as good as it gets for a poster this size.

Is it in better condition than the other examples you’ve handled? Actually, yes.

What’s the world auction record for an Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster? For a one-sheet, I don’t remember. We sold a unique signed window card in December 2017 for $15,600. I think, because of its size, most collectors will stay away from it [this example], but I hope I’m proven wrong.

What is the Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster like in person? Almost overwhelming. Definitely hard to avoid. It’d be great in a bowling alley or a restaurant that has vibrant ambience. It’s kind of a traffic stopper.

Why will this poster stick in your memory? His life should be a movie. He was a bootlegger, a tax-evader, a bigamist, a mentalist, the list goes on and on. And it’s a great poster with a great aesthetic. Alexander understood how to sell the sizzle and the steak.

How to bid: The oversize Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster is lot 538 in the Vintage Posters sale taking place at Potter & Potter on January 25, 2020.

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.

Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter. 

Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a Daisy and Violet Hilton poster from the conjoined twins’ vaudeville years, an impressive talking skull automaton that went on to sell for $13,200,  a magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, 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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Afghan Girl, an Iconic Photograph by Steve McCurry, Could Sell for $9,000

Afghan Girl (Sharbat Gula), a portrait of a young refugee shot in 1985 by Steve McCurry for National Geographic. A large print of the iconic image could sell at Skinner for $9,000.

What you see: Afghan Girl, an image shot by American photographer Steve McCurry in 1984 of a 12- or 13-year-old girl later identified as Sharbat Gula. It appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic magazine. Skinner estimates a photographic print of the image at $7,000 to $9,000.

The expert: Robin S. R. Starr, director of American and European Works of Art at Skinner.

So let’s begin by talking about how this photo came to be–who shot it, how the photographer got the opportunity to shoot it, etc. Steve McCurry started out as a documentary photographer and a photojournalist. In the late 1970s, he was certainly known, but not with an uppercase K, for becoming the go-to guy photographing in the region on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And this particular photo arose from one of those assignments? In 1984, National Geographic wanted to put together a feature article on the growing number of refugees in the camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and they approached him to do it. In the process of touring one camp, Nasir Bagh, he was looking for a subject and overheard voices in a tent that was set up as a girls’ school. Sitting in the tent was a stunning girl with amazing green eyes. She was the oldest [student], off by herself, and shy. She was 12 years old.

How did Steve McCurry get the shot? He came into the tent, spoke to the teacher, and asked for permission to photograph the students. He wanted the girl because of her green eyes, which were so amazing, but he started with other students in hopes she would loosen up. The kids had never seen a camera before. It was all new to them.

Did McCurry know right away what he had, or did he only realize it later? He knew that intense look was something he was looking for, but it wasn’t until he went through the images back home that he realized how striking and amazing the photograph was.

And I understand that National Geographic nearly went with a different McCurry shot of the same sitter? National Geographic went back and forth on which shot to use–you can see the other, which is her holding her veil in front of her face. They realized this was so much more striking, they went with it instead on the cover.

Might part of the reason that Afghan Girl is so compelling is the sitter did not grow up with a camera, and had never seen a camera before? Sure, that was part of it. I certainly suspect she hadn’t seen a lot of white guys, and she was of an age when she [as a Muslim] was supposed to be covering up in front of strangers. She might have been uncomfortable uncovering for a foreigner with a strange contraption.

Steve McCurry has shot countless photographs. Is it fair to say that Afghan Girl is his best-known image? Absolutely. Absolutely. You may not know Steve McCurry, but you know this image.

Afghan Girl has been described as the “most recognized image” ever published by National Geographic. Can you talk about why that’s such a big deal? I mean, it’s the last survivor among the photo-driven magazines of the 20th century, such as Look and LifeThat’s huge. I’m a big fan of National Geographic. I love the articles, and love learning about new places, new cultures, new things, but it’s the images. They’ve had some really phenomenal photographs over the years. They’re timeless.

Did McCurry make note of the sitter’s name at the time? No, he did not know her name. I don’t think he was in the tent for more than an hour.

How did he and National Geographic figure out who the Afghan girl was? After the September 11 attacks, National Geographic wanted to send a TV crew to find her.

Wait, how are the September 11 attacks relevant to National Geographic wanting to find her? Wouldn’t they have gotten enough questions from people asking who she was and them having to say “no idea” that they were moved to try to track her down? I think it was some of both. They wanted to know who she was, and Afghanistan was in the news again–do we attack? Do we not attack?

So National Geographic wanted to cover Afghanistan, and they saw the search for the Afghan girl as a way to approach the story. Exactly. In finding her, they could see what the Afghan people had been through.

How did they find her? McCurry knew which camp she had been in, and some of the camps were still there. Nasir Bagh still existed in 2002, but it was due to be demolished. The film crew went around with her picture, asking, “Do you know her?” A lot of people claimed to know her, and some claimed to be her. Finally somebody who had been associated with the camp said, “I know her brother.” They put the film crew in touch with the brother, who united them.

What happened when the National Geographic crew met the sitter, who we now know is Sharbat Gula? She remembered being photographed, but had never seen the picture. She had no idea it was world famous. They had another photo shoot, very quick, and she agreed to uncover. She was wearing a purple burka and held a copy of the original magazine in her hands.

How did the Afghan Girl photo change the life of Steve McCurry? It put him on the map. I can’t imagine how it changed his life in terms of jobs, grants, and funding. Anybody can take a picture of the downtrodden, but to take it well, with humanity and dignity–that’s hard. Steve McCurry can do it. Not many people can.

How did the Afghan Girl photo change the life of Sharbat Gula? It didn’t affect her life much at all until she was told, 20 years later, that the image was world-famous. Then, all of a sudden, it changed her life. In the aftermath of the second meeting, Steve McCurry wanted to help her family. She lived in a really dangerous area on the Afghan-Pakistani border. He and National Geographic got medication for her, her husband, and her children, and paid for her and her husband to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. National Geographic also created a fund, the Afghan Girls Fund, that provided education to girls and women. Later it was changed to the Afghan Children’s Fund. I think it still exists.

When was the Afghan Girl image released as a fine photographic print? It’s an open edition [this means Afghan Girl prints are available now, and there’s no explicit limit on the total number that may be produced during McCurry’s lifetime]. I know some were printed in the late 1980s or early 1990s. There have been lots of printings.

So it appears fairly often at auction? If it doesn’t come up today, wait until tomorrow. I think Artnet has 115 results. It’s not rare, and it’s not getting more rare.

What’s the world auction record for an Afghan Girl print? It was a unique dye-bleach print made in 2012, measuring 33 by 22 inches–quite large. It was sold in 2012 at a Christie’s auction called The National Geographic Collection: The Art of Exploration. It brought $178,900.

Steve McCurry signed the Afghan Girl print you’re offering for sale. Does that matter? I would be concerned if it didn’t have a signature. It doesn’t make it more valuable, it makes it valid.

What’s the image like in person? Are there aspects of the photograph that don’t come across on a screen? And I imagine it has to be different from seeing it on a magazine cover. One thing is the scale, obviously. Looking at it at 20 inches tall is different than looking at it on a phone or a computer screen. It’s life size. When someone life size is staring directly at you, it’s compelling. You pick up on the flecks of white in her scarf, and get a sense of the depth of her hair. Also, some people who claimed to be her didn’t have the scar–she has a dark mark down the middle of her nose. [If you’re not looking at a large print of the image,] You don’t pick up on that otherwise.

In January 2019, Skinner sold an Afghan Girl print of the same size for $19,680 against an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. How does this example compare to that one? It’s very similar. They’re the same size, and both were signed on the back. More specifically, the provenance to it [the 2019 example] was from the Howard Greenberg Gallery. Outside of that, there’s not a lot of difference.

What makes Afghan Girl such a strong image? It’s such a perfect picture of a refugee. Her clothes are ragged, and there’s no obvious Hollywood smudge of dirt on her face, but she doesn’t look airbrushed. There’s a lot within those young eyes–her gaze is direct and unflinching, and a little frightened and curious. It’s such a riveting face. How could it not attract the attention of those who want to know what’s going on with the Afghan people? …No one image can sum up a moment. Some get pretty damn close. This is one of them. It’s beautiful and so striking. That’s why it speaks to so many people.

In particular, what makes Afghan Girl such a strong photographic portrait? There are so many emotions in her face. I think that’s it, in a nutshell. We don’t look at that face and say, “She’s angry, end of story”, or “she’s happy” or “she’s innocent”. That complexity of emotions is what makes people human and real. That striking, perceptive gaze makes her so present, and so real.

How to bid: The Afghan Girl photograph is lot 135 in the American & European Works of Art sale at Skinner on January 23, 2020.

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.

Robin S. R. Starr first appeared on The Hot Bid discussing a record-setting painting by Florine Stettheimer.

You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram.

Steve McCurry has a website. He’s also on Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Skinner.

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The Future of Auctions, a THB Bonus from the January 2020 Issue of Robb Report

The January 2020 issue of Robb Report includes a story by me on the future of auctions.

Today’s collectors are more likely to experience the rush of their first auction win in front of a screen or holding a phone instead of raising a paddle in a sale room.

What does that mean for the auction world?

Is the sale room doomed?

And could a digital-only auction house someday dethrone Christie’s or Sotheby’s?

See what I have to say.

Robb Report is the premier luxury lifestyle magazine. I encourage you to subscribe.

Robb Report is, of course, on Twitter and Instagram.

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

Two Pedro Friedeberg Hand Chairs Could Each Sell for $9,000 (Updated January 24, 2020)

Update: Both of the Pedro Friedeberg Hand chairs sold for at least double their high estimates. The unadorned mahogany example commanded $18,750, and the silver leaf version sold for $23,750.

What you see: A Hand chair, covered in silver leaf and designed by Mexican artist Pedro Friedeberg. Shown further along in this story is a second Hand chair in unadorned mahogany. Both chairs date to circa 1965, both will be offered at Rago in the same auction, and each carries an estimate of $7,000 to $9,000.

The expert: Richard Wright, president of Wright auction house. [Rago and Wright merged in 2019.]

Who is Pedro Friedeberg, and why is his work still collected today? He’s a self-styled eccentric and a surrealist. I should say–I’ve never met him, and I’m not an expert on Pedro Friedeberg, but I’ve handled a good bit of his work and referenced his website and his statements. He comes off as a 21st century Dalí. He’s proudly eccentric. That seems to be his brand.

Would the Hand chair be Friedeberg’s best-known work? I think that’s fair to say. It’s his most widely produced.

Do we know how he came up with the idea of the Hand chair? I don’t know that, but to me, his art is all about… if you look at Surrealism, Salvador Dalí does the Lips sofa in the 1930s and reintroduces it in the 1960s. A bit of a Pop sensibility comes to Surrealism in the 1960s. There’s a body consciousness. The Hand is evocative. It draws on motifs that appear earlier in his work. You can make an art-historical case that there’s threads of it in Mexican fine art, in Frida Kahlo, and Catholic iconography.

Yeah, the Hand chair strikes me as having a sort of retablo feel to it. Exactly. I’m sure Friedeberg would tell a fantastical story of how the Hand chair came to be. He could be an unreliable narrator.

You said the Hand chair draws on motifs that appear earlier in Friedeberg’s work. Could you elaborate? He has a fine art practice [as well as his design work]. The same surrealistic elements are in his painting–hands that point. I’m sure he was working with the motif in two-dimensional art before it manifested as a chair.

A Pedro Friedeberg Hand chair in unadorned mahogany, dating to circa 1965. It, too, could sell for $9,000 or more at Rago.

How is the Hand chair produced? Is it mass-produced, or is it created in a more artisanal manner, like studio furniture? It’s all studio-produced in Mexico. It’s not widely distributed, but he’s worked within the art gallery system. It’s not true production furniture. [Hand chairs produced] while he is alive are considered original Pedro Friedeberg furniture.

On the Wikipedia page for Pedro Friedeberg, there’s a reference to maybe 5,000 Hand chairs having been produced since the design debuted in 1962. Is that accurate? I can’t imagine there are 5,000 of them. In reading things that he writes, you have to take everything with a large grain of salt.

Even throwing in the Hand-Foot variants, we don’t get to 5,000? Even so, I think, based on what comes up in a year, 5,000 is a lot to be circulating.

What number do you think is more likely, based on your gut feeling? I would say–and there are a lot of variations–half that number.

How many variations of the Hand chair are there? And is the Hand-Foot chair considered a Hand chair? It’s considered a form of the Hand chair. There’s the Hand chair in natural wood, and with silver or gold leaf. There are at least two Hand-Foot variations: a single foot, and a cluster of feet.

Do collectors clearly prefer any one variation over the others? I don’t think it’s that rigorous a collecting mentality. They buy them because they’re cool, and they make a statement in a room, rather than buying them as a significant investment in a serious work of art. I don’t know if there’s a clear hierarchy. Gold and silver leaf is an upgrade from the standard wood–that feels true to me. Visually, I think the silver and the gold are nicest. The silver is rarer than the gold. It’s up to you which one you find more interesting.

Both these chairs are undated, but both have a circa date of 1965. What clues point to a relatively early date for the two Hand chairs? There’s not a ton of info out there. You can’t just send them [Pedro Friedeberg and his studio] infomation. There’s not an archivist to help you. These dates are based on facts that come from the consigners.

From the look of his website, having an archivist would be antithetical to Pedro Friedeberg’s brand… That seems to be apparent to me. [Laughs] He’s a fine artist who doesn’t want to work within the system. Friedeberg’s work floats outside of that.

And these two Hand chairs are from two different consigners? Yes.

Why does it make sense to have two versions of the same chair, made around the same time? Is it because they’re just different enough from each other? That was the thinking. There’s enough depth and interest in the market to have two, a wood and a silver. And they are opposing–a left-handed example and a right-handed example. You can take the two and put them next to each other to form a settee.

The silver leaf Hand chair is signed by Friedeberg and the plain mahogany one is not. Does that matter at all? Again, it comes down to… people are not approaching it as a fine art purchase, but as a decorative art purchase. The wood one is unsigned, but we have the provenance, which guarantees it’s original. The silver is signed. Obviously, it’s nice to have it signed.

Why do the two different Hand chairs have the same estimate? The silver variation is the better chair. In giving them a $7,000 to $9,000 estimate, we didn’t bother making the distinction to say that the silver chair is slightly rarer, and signed. It’s a more pragmatic decision, to think of it as a Hand chair.

What condition are the Hand chairs in? And what issues do you tend to see with vintage Hand chairs? Both are in good condition, and in general, they actually tend to be in good condition. The worst that happens, with the leaf examples, is scratching to the leaf. Hand chairs are lightly used, and if they’re cared for at all, they’re in good shape.

Have you sat in a Hand chair? What is that like? The seat is deeply carved. It does have a contour to make it practical to sit in. It’s great for the Instagram era. It’s theatrical. It’s not uncomfortable to sit in, but I wouldn’t put a suite of Hand chairs around a conference table to conduct meetings. [Laughs]

So, comfortable, but only just? They’re functional chairs, but you don’t sit in them often, or for very long. You may perch on one to put on your shoes, but you won’t watch a movie in a Hand chair.

What’s the world auction record for a Hand chair? It’s a gold, single Hand chair sold at Rago in September 2018 for $28,750 on a $6,000 to $8,000 estimate.

Is there any chance that the silver leaf Hand chair might take off like that record-setting gold leaf one did a little while ago? People buy these because they’re looking for a cool chair to make a statement. When Hand chairs do well, they’re bought by decorators or clients who use it as a punctuation mark in a room. [Whether a chair takes off at auction is] really driven by are there two people who really want that chair?

Has the Hand chair always been sought-after, or was there a time when it was considered unfashionable? It’s always been a chair that would garner your attention. It’s never been a chair that there’s no interest in. It’s pretty cool, but I think his market has risen and it looks better than it was in the 1990s. Friedeberg is well overdue for a proper retrospective. I’d love to see that happen while he’s alive, but I think it will be in the future. He fits in in an interesting way with the Surrealist Pop sensibility, and with motifs from Mexico. I think there’s a real story there.

So, right now, the Hand chairs are regarded as decorative art, not fine art. Is it possible in the years to come that general opinion might morph, and they might be seen as fine art? And if so, have you seen that sort of shift–first seen as decorative art, now seen as fine art–happen with other furnishings or fittings? I do believe Friedeberg’s work will be reassessed at some future date. As he is a fine artist, the chairs may be seen in that context, but as they also serve a function, they will always be in a middle ground. The sculptor Franz West made decorative art works that sit in that middle ground, and they are viewed in both ways. Scott Burton is another example. Future curators and scholars will decide.

Why does Pedro Friedeberg’s Hand chair design endure? How has it avoided being dated or dismissed as kitsch to remain collectible in the 21st century? I just think it’s visually cool. In its classic configuration with the pedestal base, it’s chic. You can mix it with several different types of decoration, and it fits in. It seems to accomplish walking the line between weird and chic.

How to bid: The silver leaf version of the Hand chair, which is left-handed, is lot 663 in Rago‘s Modern Design sale, scheduled for January 19, 2020. The right-handed mahogany version is lot 641.

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.

Richard Wright has appeared on The Hot Bid previously, discussing a record-setting Walter Dorwin Teague-designed Nocturne radio, a record-setting Isamu Noguchi table, and an Isamu Noguchi sculpture.

Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram, and Wright is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Pedro Friedeberg has a website.

Images are courtesy of Rago.

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Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems In Flea-Market America (THB: Shelf Life)

killer stuff and tons of money cover

What you seeKiller Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems In Flea-Market America by Maureen Stanton. $17.00 (paperback), Penguin Books.

Does it fit in my purse? Yes.

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

I like Curt Avery, though I haven’t met him. Or maybe I have, and I didn’t know it; Curt Avery is not his name. (He asked the author for anonymity, and she granted it.)

Avery is the center, the linchpin, the load-bearing wall of Killer Stuff. If Stanton chose wrong, the book would fall apart.

Stanton did not choose wrong. Killer Stuff kills.

It does this despite its obviously neutered title (it’s drawn from a quote by Avery that appears on page 257, and he didn’t say “stuff”) and despite tackling a topic the uninitiated regard as bloodless–the world of antiques.

By putting an exceptional human being at the center of her book, Stanton gets at the endless, grinding challenge of the hunt for killer stuff in a visceral way.

Having Avery as the focus allows her to weave in the obligatory bits of historical information and industry-specific terms into his story, seamlessly and painlessly.

We see Avery tested and challenged out in the wild, in auction sale rooms and antiques fairs, sometimes winning and sometimes not.

She shows how winning in the world of antiques is not just spotting a prize that others have overlooked, or getting to the right booth at the right time. It means passing on the golden-looking thing that you sense, in your gut, is not on the up-and-up.

She also manages to include Antiques Roadshow, the San Diego Comic-con, and the Brimfield Flea Market.

The great test comes at the end, when we say goodbye to Curt Avery, newly 50, in the year 2010. Do you want to know what happened next? I know I did. I still wonder about Curt Avery, and I still hope he’ll find the score of a lifetime.

Worth buying new, at full price.

How to buy Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Please purchase it from an independent bookstore near you.

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

Image is courtesy of Penguin Books.

Maureen Stanton has a website. She’s also on Twitter and Instagram.

Killer Stuff and Tons of Money was originally published in 2011.

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! A Phillip Lloyd Powell Fireplace Sold for $96,000 at Rago

A black walnut fireplace, measuring seven and a half feet tall, created by Phillip Lloyd Powell in the mid-1950s. It set a world auction record for the artist at Rago in 2008.

What you see: A carved and sculpted black walnut fireplace, created circa 1956 and 1958 by Phillip Lloyd Powell. It set a record for any piece by Powell when it sold for $96,000 against an estimate of $25,000 to $45,000 at Rago in April 2008.

The expert
: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.

Let’s start by discussing Phillip Lloyd Powell and why his work still speaks to us. It’s a complicated answer. The first is he’s part of the New Hope school, and the New Hope school is considered a very relevant school of design, which includes George Nakashima and Paul Evans. Two, Powell is really good. His idea of furniture design is singular. Three, he was very hands-on. Paul Evans made 35,000 pieces. George Nakashima, 35,000 to 40,000. Phillip Lloyd Powell, maybe 1,000. Of the three of them, it works to his detriment. It’s hard to create a market if there’s not much there. But when you buy a piece by Phillip Lloyd Powell, you buy something he had his hands on. With Powell, it was personal.

In what ways is this Powell fireplace typical of his output, and in what ways is it unusual? Powell’s gift with wood was to draw out drama in grain flow, knots, and the overall organic form and feel. He did this by carefully choosing where in the grain carving and shaping would occur. He started with an overall vision and worked a piece down to creating contrasts between honed and chipped carved surfaces, often on the very same board. That’s what’s typical here. What’s unusual here is the grandness of the gesture.

The grandness of the gesture? What I’d say is the scale of it. It’s big and imposing. It almost imitates the flames of the fire in the way he treats the wood.

Is this the only fireplace Powell made? He did stuff for fireplaces, such as mantels. A sculpted wall like this–it’s the only one I’ve seen.

What’s the story behind the Powell fireplace? Did he create it on commission, or did he make it on spec as a showpiece for his New Hope showroom? My understanding is it was an on-spec piece for the showroom, probably to show his chops as an artist.

The Powell fireplace looks very powerful to me. Almost masculine. It is, but the treatment of the wood is more delicate. It’s like a fire licking a fireplace. It’s more organic. It certainly defines the New Hope school of woodworking. George Nakashima let the wood speak. Phil had more of a hand in letting it talk.

What, if anything, do we know about how the Powell fireplace was made–how it was carved and sculpted? If Powell left no notes, what can we tell, just by looking, how challenging this would have been to make? From living artists that worked with Phil, such as Dorsey Reading and Charles Tiffany, we know that his most important tools were custom-made pneumatic chisels. An automotive-use air chisel was modified and specially shaped to make deep gauges in small areas. To finish off roughly chiseled surfaces, semi-flexible shapes of rubber and foam were cut out of larger sheets and used as backing for sanding wood smooth.

Is this Powell fireplace made from a single piece of wood, or is it made from several pieces that have been joined? It’s made from a number of slabs of American black walnut. There was a few sources for the lumber. Traveling salesmen would sell lumber to artists like George Nakashima. Powell would get the pieces most others didn’t buy or want because they were too irregular for conventional use. Powell also used to source similar boards from a mill in Plumsteadville, Pennsylvania.

How did Powell fireproof the fireplace? I’m guessing that the fire itself is set far enough back. It was in fabulous condition–no indication even of it being dried out by fire.

How does the Powell fireplace show his mastery? He used wood, and he used great wood. The scale of the piece shows his capacity to sculpt. This is on a grand scale and gives him a lot of room to roam with his particular talents and his particular eye. You can see it as mirroring the fire in the fireplace, the sensuous, organic movement to it.

I see that the Powell fireplace lacks a mantel, or a shelf to put things on. I suspect this was a deliberate choice by the artist… Exactly. We can only guess, but why interrupt that? Leave it alone. Just leave it be.

I realize you last handled the Powell fireplace in 2008, but could you tell me what it was like in person? Are there aspects of the piece that the image doesn’t quite get across? I can remember what it looks like in person because it’s out on display at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It has a presence to it. I’ve seen hundreds of pieces of his work. Powell was on that day. Though it is large, it’s more captivating than imposing, like the scale is ameliorated by the treatment of the wood and the overall design, curvaceous sculpting that unifies all the elements of it.

The provenance of the Powell fireplace includes Dorsey Reading, a noted craftsman who worked with Paul Evans. How did that enhance its interest to collectors? It’s nice to know it was a bench-made piece, made to spec to show off his chops, but the authorship was never in doubt. Pieces like this are so self-explanatory. If you understand organic mid-century woodworking–if you’re into that–this thing’ll talk to you.

What do you recall of the auction? We knew the piece was going to do well. We knew there was institutional interest [interest from museums]. There was a buzz before the sale.

The sale took place in April 2008. Powell passed away in March 2008. Might the timing of his death have helped push the fireplace to a record auction result? It’s certainly possible, though I think the fireplace stood on its own merits well enough. The Michener Art Museum needed a stellar example of his work, and I’m confident they’d have chased it in any case. 

Were you surprised that the Powell fireplace set a world auction record for the artist? I think I was a bit surprised, but that says more about my lack of knowledge of the material at the time. And fireplaces are not easy to sell. It’s a site-specific object. They usually don’t go well.

Are you surprised the Powell fireplace still holds the record, eleven years later? No. No. Of the thousand or so things he made, I’ve personally seen 400 or 500. I’ve had others that are special. This is the best of them. My guess is if it sold now, it would bring more.

Even though it’s a fireplace, and comes with the issues fireplaces pose? Yes.

Do pieces that Powell made to wow people in his showroom tend to sell better at auction than those he did on commission? I don’t know. I don’t know how many he made on spec for the showroom. I would say it’s a small percentage. I didn’t know the fireplace was on spec until I got it from Dorsey Reading, who was there at the time. But those guys didn’t keep records. The showroom was open on Saturdays from 9 pm to midnight, after the Bucks County Playhouse got out. They were artists during the 1960s. They were having fun, doing their thing. It was very slapdash.

Why does this Powell fireplace stick in your memory? I’m something of an expert on Phillip Lloyd Powell. I’ve been selling Powell’s work since the 1990s, and I’ve handled many pieces. I really do think I’ve seen more of Powell’s work than anybody. This is the best I’ve come across. It’s not one of the best, it’s the one.

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David Rago has appeared on The Hot Bid several times before, speaking about a George Ohr vase,  a super-tall Wally Birda record-setting unique ceramic tile by Frederick Hurten Rheada Paul Evans cabinet, and a René Lalique vase.

Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.

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