A Winter Dance Party Poster Touting Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens Days Before They Died in a 1959 Plane Crash Could Set a New World Auction Record (Update April 2020: So Close!)

An original 1959 Winter Dance Party concert poster, touting Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, all of whom would later die in a February 3 plane crash mythologized as "The Day the Music Died". The poster could sell for $100,000 or more at Heritage Auctions.

Update: The Winter Dance Party concert poster sold for $125,000–$7,000 shy of the world auction record for any concert poster. Wow!

What you see: A Winter Dance Party concert poster, touting Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, all of whom would die in a plane crash on February 3, 1959–aka The Day the Music Died. Heritage Auctions issued no formal estimate for the poster, but its likely range is between $50,000 and $100,000.

The expert: Pete Howard, consignment director at Heritage Auctions for entertainment and music.

How rare are pre-1960 concert posters in general? I get the impression that the further back you go, the less likely they are to survive. Exactly. There’s a saying: People didn’t save much from the 1960s because they were having too much fun. But people didn’t save anything from the 1950s. I often say many if not most of the concert posters from the 1950s and back were saved by accident, and found by accident.

Found in walls, as insulation… Exactly. “This is cool, I’m gonna save this,”–that kind of thinking didn’t happen until the 70s.

I understand that five examples of the Winter Dance Party poster survive–three printed with dates before the plane crash that became known as The Day the Music Died, and two after. How does this poster compare to the other four? This is the only four-color Winter Dance Party poster. On all the others, the information at the top is printed in black. This is a nice teal color. It’s the only four-color to survive. This is a good one. There are no mint ones.

In a video that appears on the Heritage Auctions lot page for the Winter Dance Party poster, you say the poster is “Arguably the best and rarest rock concert poster in history.” That’s quite a statement. Could you elaborate? What makes it the one that rules them all? It has tremendous, off-the-charts cachet to it. It’s rock’s first tragedy, and the music is still so alive today. The poster is visually charismatic–everyone loves the graphics on it. And the wording: “Parents invited, no charge.” All those elements come together to make it arguably the most collectible or best concert poster. Some prefer the psychedelic concert posters of Jimi Hendrix or the Grateful Dead, but for Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, I think there are over 100 first printings that exist. This thing is stupid-rare by comparison.

Concert posters of the era were often printed with a blank space on them where the specific date and venue for the show would be added later. Has anyone found a stash of Winter Dance Party posters with blank tops, which would have gone unused after the plane crash that we now call The Day the Music Died? One would think it [such a stash] could possibly survive. Anyone with a sense of nostalgia and foresight would have saved it. But it was just trash can, trash can, trash can.

Immediately after the plane crash, when the accident hadn’t yet grown into The Day the Music Died, the blank posters would have been seen as so much useless paper, and trashed? That’s right. There could be blanks out there, but they’ve never come forward.

You mentioned the graphics before. Could you say more about them? I’ve seen other concert posters of this type that look terrible–trying to cram too many acts into the space, or using eye-stabbing colors, or both. But the Winter Dance Party poster is beautiful. It certainly is, and it’s symmetrical. It plays nicely on the eyes. It was intentional. And the black and yellow–they got away cheaply enough to use one other color than black in the design. It’s an iconic image. A lot of people who know nothing about rock ‘n roll recognize this image.

The Winter Dance Party poster lists Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens and names their biggest hits, not their newest singles. Would you talk about why that’s important, and how it makes the poster more interesting? Generally, when an artist is on tour, they’re promoting their newest singles. Often the poster designer and the [concert tour] management would put the newest single on the poster. [But] do you want to sell tickets, or sell records? My thought is, if you put the biggest hit on the poster, people think, “Wow, let’s go.” It’s just happenstance that “Let’s sell tickets” won the vote. The Big Bopper’s newest single was Big Bopper’s Wedding. Imagine how silly that would look–Big Bopper’s Wedding. It’s pure happenstance that they used big hits to sell tickets and didn’t focus on promoting the new singles.

How did this particular example of the Winter Dance Party poster manage to survive? This one was not saved by accident. It was taken down off the wall of the Kato Ballroom by a teenage girl who was walking out. She had no idea of investment value, or it being worth something someday. She had a fun time and took it home as a memento. Why more people didn’t do that, I don’t know. Some do, and throw it away in later years.

They get older and move out and don’t take it with them… There’s a hundred scenarios for why posters don’t survive. The basement floods and there’s water damage. There’s a vengeful brother or sister. Having taken it down in the first place is unusual. Not screwing up the poster in the decades since is really unusual.

Do we know how, exactly, this particular one managed to survive so well? We don’t know. It was a bit worse for wear, but it was touched up by a paper conservation expert.

The lot notes mention that the Winter Dance Party poster “has been reproduced and bootlegged ad infinitum over the ensuing decades.” Can you talk about how we know this example is a genuine 1959 original? This might be a bit of a complicated answer. After doing something for so long–I’ve been doing this 30 years–an expert like me has a built-in radar detection system that kicks in. It’s almost this unconscious feeling coming over you, merging all the red flags and green flags in your life. Either you feel uncomfortable with the piece, or you feel comfortable and move ahead with due diligence. The fact that it came from the original girl, now woman, who attended the show and saved it and gave a great letter of provenance, and I examined the piece in person… it’s hard to put into words what you look for. It’s a feeling you get when you examine something. If something is all green flags, no red flags, you get excited. This was green flags every step of the way.

This Winter Dance Party poster is described as a “window card”. What does that mean? The term “window card” is 100 percent synonymous with a cardboard concert poster, not a paper one. It was put in store windows and thumbtacked on telephone poles, where it might last for days or weeks. That’s why they’re tall and thin. [It measures 14 inches by 22 inches.] You can put them up on a telephone pole and not lose anything.

What is the Winter Dance Party poster like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? No, but there’s a feeling of history that comes over you as you hold it. It’s wonderful–the show really happened, and this person [who took the poster off the wall] stood near the stage and watched the musicians. You get an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and genuineness when you hold it.

What’s your favorite detail of the poster? “Parents invited, no charge.” I think that’s just stunning.

Ok, when I was a teenager, I was pretty much a square, but even I would have considered a concert with a poster that said, “Parents invited, no charge” as kryptonite, straight-up. But in the late 1950s, how many parents were hip enough to want to go to it anyway? What’s ironic is that 50 years later, you may as well have said, “Parents invited. Witness rock ‘n roll history, make everyone else green with envy that you were there, and have a story you can regale your grandchildren with for the rest of your life, no charge.”

Was “Parents invited, no charge” a common phrase seen on concert posters in the late 1950s? I’ve seen tens of thousands of concert posters, and I would guess that I’ve seen the phrase less than five times on a poster.

And the phrase shows up on posters from the late 1950s and early 1960s? Yes. They didn’t put it on Beatles posters, that’s for sure.

Didn’t the concert promoters run the risk of scaring off their target audience by proclaiming that parents were invited to the show? That’s a good point, but maybe… it’s not New York City, where there are four cool concerts a month. This is the dead of winter. Nothing exciting happens in Mankato, Minnesota–no offense–and the biggest hitmakers are coming to town. I don’t think the kids would be dissuaded by a few parents being there.

As of March 27, 2020, the Winter Dance Party poster had been bid up to $19,500, with eight days to go before the auction. Is that meaningful at all, to have such a large bid well before the sale date? Posters like this are driven by emotion. I’ve seen posters sit there, dead in the water in the leadup time, and explode on auction day as everybody jumps in at once. I’ve seen posters jump out weeks before the auction and just not grow much from there. Trying to predict when excited bidders will place bids is folly, but it’s part of what makes the auction game fun–not so much for bidders, but for sellers.

Heritage Auctions did not require a formal estimate for the poster, but if you assigned an estimate, what would it be? It’s hard to mess with a window between $50,000 and $100,000.

This is the first Winter Dance Party poster to go to auction. What comparables–other items that have sold at public auction–would you look to when writing the estimate? I’d look at private sales. That’s often a gauge. Winter Dance Party posters have changed hands privately for $175,000.

What’s the significance of such an important original concert poster making its auction debut? What’s fun about auctioning a Winter Dance Party poster for the first time is, is this going to pull out previously unknown Winter Dance Party posters? When John and Mary Smith in the upper midwest see the result, they might think, “Maybe it’s time to sell ours.” I once calculated that there’s a quarter-billion garages, attics, and basements in the United States. Quarter-billion, with a “b”. Are there five more Winter Dance Party posters in closets or attics? Are there no more? This auction has the potential to smoke out others.

What’s the world auction record for an original concert poster? It’s $132,000, for a Beatles Shea Stadium poster sold in 2004. I have felt all along that we have a chance of surpassing that.

Why will this Winter Dance Party concert poster stick in your memory? It’s the first time in history one has been to auction. As I’ve said, it’s arguably the coolest and greatest rock concert poster out there. There’s no Elvis Presley I’d want more, no Beatles I’d want more, no Jimi Hendrix I’d want more, no Bob Dylan I’d want more. I’m not taking this for granted. This might be the peak of my poster auction career. It might be peaking right now.

How to bid: The Winter Dance Party poster is lot 89140 in the Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Auction at Heritage Auctions on April 4 and 5, 2020.

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A Nicolò Barovier Mosaico Vase Could Command $500,000

A large Mosaico vase, made in the mid 1920s by Nicolò Barovier. It could command half a million dollars at Wright in early April.

What you see: A rare and important Mosaico vase by Nicolò Barovier, dating to the mid-1920s. Wright estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.

The expert: Sara Blumberg, a consultant for Wright.

Who was Nicolò Barovier, and what was Artisti Barovier? Barovier is the name of the company and the family. It’s one of the oldest glass furnaces in the world, and one of the oldest companies in the world. [The Barovier family business dates back to 1295.] Nicolò Barovier was related to Ercole Barovier, and both were the sons of Benvenuto Barovier. As it [the company] went forward, its name changed over time, and it became Barovier & Toso, which still exists.

Do we know how many Mosaico vases Nicolò Barovier made? We have ways of tracking them, but we don’t know how many were made. We can say quite easily that not many remain, and we can’t have definitive numbers. I can only tell you they’re very, very rare.

What does “very rare” mean in this context? In terms of the Mosaico vase, there’s somewhere around 100. There may be slightly more or less.

Is it difficult to tease out which Mosaico vases were made by Nicolò Barovier, and which were made by his brother? It’s very difficult to do. Nicolò didn’t sign all his pieces, and Ercole didn’t sign all his pieces. Sometimes we know [the authorship] through archival materials. Nicolò favored more plant-like patterning, where Ercole seemed to experiment with more specific kinds of patterns, almost geometric patterns. But they were made with the same spirit, in the same way, based on the same method.

I notice that elsewhere in the sale, there’s an Ercole Barovier Mosaico vase dating to the same time and having the same dominant blue color, but Ercole’s vase has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 while Nicolò’s is estimated at $300,000 to $500,000. Why do the estimates vary so much, given that they were made at the same time, in the same way, in the same general style? The Nicolò Barovier might be seen as having a slightly rarer form and patterning. There’s only one other known Nicolò Barovier like this. I personally see them as equal in importance and rarity, but the Nicolò Barovier is stunning to see, with exceptionally complicated patterning. In the Ercole Barovier, there’s a grid-like pattern. The Nicolò Barovier has stems and flowers–it’s a very complicated piece of glass.

How did the Baroviers make Mosaico vases? I get the impression that the glass-making technique wasn’t new in the 1920s, but they revived it and added to it? It’s rooted in an ancient technique involving murrine, or sliced canes of glass. The slices of glass are arranged on a plate that makes a pattern, whatever that might be. That was the first step in the ancient world. The difference [between then and the 1920s is the ancient pieces] weren’t blown, but slumped. They laid a configuration of glass over it and heated it.

And the heat would knit the glass slices and the glass matrix into a whole? Yes. What was new was the Baroviers figured out how to do it with blown glass–a miraculous feat.

The Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase, shown from the other side.

How did they make the ancient technique work with blown glass? Picture a blob of clear glass on the end of a blowpipe. The molten glass is constantly spinning. The glass slices are laid out in a pattern on a plate. The glassblower puts the blob into the plate in a rolling fashion. The blowpipe keeps spinning. It never stops, ever. The glass slices are blown out, expanding them and the clear glass simultaneously. If it sounds difficult, it absolutely is. The finesse required is absolutely unbelievable.

…Uh, how strong do you have to be to execute a Mosaico vase? Very, very strong. It’s not for the faint of heart. A lot of the best [glassblowers] were strong, burly people who made very delicate things.

Did Nicolò Barovier participate in the actual glass-blowing, or did he create the Mosaico vase design and hand it off to others to execute? In almost every case, the designer of the glass never executes the glass. They hand it off to others.

And glass-blowing is a team effort, yes? What are the other people doing as the glassblower rolls the blob of clear glass in the plate of colored glass slices? They’re doing basically every task imaginable. They’re opening up the furnace so the glassblower can put it in and take it out, and they make sure the placement of the murrine is such so it [the required maneuvers] can happen quickly and easily. It’s quick because it has to be.

Sounds like a ballet. It is quite like that. Everyone has to work with absolute fluidity.

…and if one of the little glass slices slides out of place…? One mistake, and that can be enough to lose the piece.

And that’s why there aren’t that many Mosaico vases? They’re a pain in the butt to produce? Right, because there was so much loss and they were incredibly expensive to make. It was like studio glass. It was a way for the company to get attention, to show what they’re capable of. They’re very effective as a marketing tool.

Did the Barovier company sell these Mosaico vases? People did buy these things. They could go to the company and request that something be made. But we have no real records for this. We don’t know how many were sold and how many were made by request. But they were so expensive and difficult, they wouldn’t do it without a buyer.

So, you couldn’t buy a Mosaico vase at, say, Tiffany & Co., but if you saw one at a Biennale and were so moved that you approached the company and asked to buy one, you could get one. Exactly right. It’s like commissioning a painting.

A closeup of the Nicolò Barovier Mosaico Vase, showing the flower design worked into the overall pattern.

The Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase measures nine inches in diameter and 13 inches high. That’s big. Did its size make it more difficult to create? The larger it is, the more difficult it is to make. So many things can occur. It [the molten glass] becomes harder and harder to control.

How do we know this Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase dates to between 1924 and 1925? There’s enough archival information to substantiate the date. We know when Nicolò Barovier was working, and we know precisely what was going on at the company.

The glass art takes the form of a vase, but would anyone have used it as a vase? I get asked that all the time. It’s certainly possible, but with the Mosaico, it’s unlikely. There’s no way to know how many people used them in this way.

This Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase features his incised signature. Did he typically sign his vases, or is the signature inconsistent? It’s very inconsistent. As far as I can tell, less than half the Mosaico vases were signed. It’s an amazing thing to me to [think he could] make something so sublime and then not sign it. It’s a bit of a mystery why it’s inconsistent. It might have been that he didn’t sign them generally, but did if people asked him to do so.

What is the Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? It’s absolutely brilliant in person. Jim [Jim Oliveira, her business partner] describes it as three-dimensional stained glass, and that is what it feels like when you hold it in your hand. The only thing you can’t see in the photo is the beautiful rounded form, which doesn’t translate well.

Another detail shot of the Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase that features the stems of the flowers.

What is your favorite detail of the Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase? The stems that run down from the clusters of flowers. It’s a beautiful aspect of the pattern, very much like a natural element from the ground.

Could you also talk about the choice of color here–the dominant blue matched with orange and green? If you look at the body of work for Mosaico vases, generally speaking, the colors are quite vivid. There are Mosaico pieces in paler tones, but Nicolò Barovier looked at color as an important part of the design, to make it as alive as possible. And you do have this level of transparency–that dynamism is encouraged and enhanced by the use of strong colors.

Dynamism in the glass? Could you elaborate? When you look at the design, you can see the other side of the vase simultaneously. The color just heightens the experience.

What’s the world auction record for a Nicolò Barovier piece, and what’s the world auction record for any Barovier piece? The Nicolò Barovier record is ours, set in January 2019 by a Mosaico vase that sold for $317,000. The Barovier record belongs to a Bosco di Betulle vase sold at Christie’s London in October 2019 for £707,250 (about $837,000).

Why will this Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase stick in your memory? I’ve had the great fortune of handling many of these over the years. I could easily describe every one in detail. Every single Mosaico vase I’ve seen and handled has had an impact on me. I’m very taken with them. Great art never leaves you.

How to bid: The Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase is lot 160 in the Important Italian Glass auction at Wright on April 2, 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.

Wright is on Twitter and Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Wright.

Sara Blumberg has appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about a Thomas Stearns glass masterpiece and a stunning Italian macchie vase.

Sara Blumberg and Jim Oliveira have a website, Glass Past.

Barovier & Toso has a website.

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

RIP Peter Loughrey, Founder of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (Updated March 25, 2020)

A photograph of Peter Loughrey, founder of Los Angeles Modern Auctions. He died on March 16, 2020 at the too-damn-young age of 52.

Peter Loughrey, founder of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), died of cancer on March 16, 2020, at the age of 52.

Loughrey holds a special place in the history of The Hot Bid. He was the interviewee in the first story ever posted to the website, on February 20, 2017–which happened to be his 49th birthday.

Loughrey was among a select group of people who I’ve schemed to feature on The Hot Bid as often as possible, simply because they’re so damn smart, interesting, knowledgable, and enthusiastic about their wares. (No, I will not tell you who the other people are.)

Below you will find links to stories from The Hot Bid in which Peter Loughrey appeared, followed by links to appreciations of Loughrey from other publications.

His loss is being felt deeply and keenly in Los Angeles and across the country and the world. A March 19, 2020 LAMA press release on his life and his passing described an earlier battle Loughrey had with a different cancer, and included this quote: “I was given the gift of living another 25 years after my first diagnosis and have no regrets. The best thing that ever happened to me was having cancer at a young age–as it defined my life. I lived my days to their fullest and on my own terms with the underlying thread that each day was a gift.”

My condolences to his wife, Shannon, president of LAMA, and to all at the auction house.

Please consider making a donation in Loughrey’s memory to the Decorative Arts and Design department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

An Alma Thomas painting sells for almost $400,000.

SOLD! A Jonathan Borofsky work fetches $9,375 at LAMA.

A Bounty Hunter dune buggy sold for $36,250 at LAMA.

A Wendell Castle rocking chair could fetch $120,000 at LAMA.

RECORD! An Ed Ruscha Print Sold for More Than $200,000 in 2014.

RECORD! Carole Feuerman’s Bibi on the Ball sold for $118,750–a new record for the artist.

SOLD! Kenneth Noland’s Songs: Yesterdays fetched (click to see). Also! Happy birthday to The Hot Bid.

Peter Loughrey, esteemed auctioneer and curator, dies after battle with cancer. Architectural Digest, Mallery Roberts Morgan.

Peter Loughrey, founder of Los Angeles Modern Auctions, leaves us at 52. KCRW, Frances Anderton.

Appreciation: My “Antiques Roadshow” moment with Peter Loughrey, champion of California modernism, Los Angeles Times, David A. Keeps.

Also? Cancer can go drop-kick itself directly into the sun. Directly. Into. The. Goddamn. Sun. Just sayin’.

A Wharton Esherick Table Made for Hedgerow Theatre Could Fetch $250,000 (Updated October 28, 2020)

The Thunder Table, made by Wharton Esherick for Hedgerow Theater in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Long a mainstay of the theater, it could sell for $250,000 or more at Freeman's.

Update: The Thunder Table sold for $187,500.

What you see: The Thunder Table, created by Wharton Esherick in 1929 for the Hedgerow Theatre Company in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Freeman’s estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.

The expert: Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s.

Who was Wharton Esherick? He was an artist, a sculptor in wood, and a furniture maker who was active in Paoli, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s up to his death in 1970. He thought he would make it as a painter. He carved up wood for frames, and people who saw his artwork responded to the frames more than they did the pictures. [After that] he started to experiment more with furniture and sculpture. He experienced the Arts and Crafts community of Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, or the legacy of it–it was on its last legs at that point. Seeing Rose Valley furniture inspired him to get increasingly creative in his designs. If you see a piece by Esherick, you know it’s by him. He is from that first generation of artists who looked at a utilitarian object made of wood and thought, “Can I make this into a work of art on its own? Can I make it into a sculptural piece?”

So, though Esherick took formal art training, he taught himself to make furniture? He did. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do, and he didn’t have people around him telling him, “You can’t do that, you can’t make a chair like that.” Fortuitously, he had a neighbor, John Schmidt, who had trained in Germany in the guild system and knew how to construct chairs and cabinets. Esherick leaned on John [for technical help].

How prolific was Wharton Esherick? When you look at his whole body of work–if you include all the pieces of artwork, counting every little doodle, it’s probably somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 pieces. Of that, 300 to 400 could count as furniture.

He didn’t think of his furniture as art? He very famously considered himself an artist. He didn’t consider himself a woodworker or a craftsman. Wood or metal or paintings, they were all the same thing to him.

How did his furniture work find favor? The 1920s, 30s, and 40s were a Colonial moment [in American furniture]. People who could afford a piece by Esherick, which was not inexpensive, were buying Chippendale chairs. Fortunately for Esherick, influential people encountered his works. Hedgerow Theatre operated as a sort of gallery for him.

Where was Wharton Esherick in his career in 1929, when he made the Thunder Table? He was really at a transitional moment. He dipped his toes in the pond of furniture, so to speak, and he made some of his earliest designs. He was very involved with Hedgerow Theatre, making set designs for them, costume designs, sitting in the balcony and sketching performers. From these, he gained inspiration to create furniture. He made some of his really great pieces in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a very fruitful period for him, but certainly not his most productive period. He was making what are effectively one-offs, wholly original works that are not replicated designs with serialized production.

How did his relationship with the Hedgerow Theatre start, and how long did it last? It lasted his entire life. Esherick’s wife, Letty, was friends with Dr. Ruth Deeter, who was the sister of Jasper Deeter, a theatrical type from New York City who was coming to Rose Valley to start a repertory theater. Wharton, being Wharton, wanted to check it out. He met Jasper, and found each other very kindred spirits. Esherick helped repair the theater in some cases. If the theater needed a table, he’d carve a table. If it needed chairs, he’d make some chairs. He created [the furniture] with love and artistic integrity. You can’t separate Hedgerow Theatre from Esherick in this early period. It infiltrated everything he was doing.

Was Esherick was involved with Hedgerow Theatre until he died? He created his last piece for the theater in the 1930s, but he was involved with it for many more years. He was still kind of on hand if something needed to be fixed. There wasn’t much need for additional pieces. What he made in the 1920s and 1930s stood up to the test of time.

An image that Wharton Esherick carved into the surface of the Thunder Table. It references a pose taken by lead actors in Thunder on the Left, a play staged at Hedgerow Theatre around the time Esherick made the table.

How did this piece get the name “The Thunder Table”? In 1929, the theater staged a production of Thunder on the Left. I don’t know a lot about the production, but the carving that exists on the table was taken directly from a pose that the two lead actors had in the production. Esherick saw the actors in the dramatic pose, and that inspired the carving he put on the tabletop.

How did the people at the Hedgerow Theatre use the Thunder Table? It was meant to serve at least two functions. It was in use [at the residence] where the actors lived and worked. They sat around the table for meals and for meetings. At some point, the table moved to the theater’s green room, a reception area. That’s where it spent the majority of the past several decades.

The Thunder Table is big–almost ten feet long. How often did Esherick work on that scale? It’s not atypical to see a table this large, but there aren’t many. It’s among his masterworks. There’s nothing quite like this table for Hedgerow Theatre.

What do we know about how Esherick made the Thunder Table? He probably had help with this table, from Schmidt. The table is primarily made from oak with the exception of a handful of walnut butterflies. What’s interesting is the table was deliberately warped to have ends that kind of drop off. Looking at it, you’d think it happened over time, but looking at old photos, it’s clear that’s how Esherick created it. It’s stabilized by a central stretcher [visible under the table, and spanning its length]. The whole stretcher can be removed so the table can be moved.

Esherick signed the central stretcher of the Thunder Table with an inscription that includes his initials and the name of the theater. He carved the year-date (1929) in Roman numerals on the other side.

So “stretcher” is the name for that long piece under the table? Yes. What’s cool about the central stretcher is it’s signed and dated. On one side, it says, “WE, Hedgerow,” and the other side has 1929 in Roman numerals. It’s typical for Esherick to sign and date his work.

But I imagine the signature and date on the Thunder Table stretcher is fancier than most? It’s certainly indicative of what he did earlier [in his career]. Because of his connection to Hedgerow Theatre, you expect him to speak to that partnership in the signature, and he did.

Why are the Thunder Table’s legs diagonal? The legs being slanted gives the table a bit more support than if the legs came straight down.

I take it the Thunder Table is heavy? It has a pretty decent weight, mostly due to the fact that it’s made from oak, a very heavy wood.

How many people do you need to move it? Two strong guys can move it. Otherwise, it’s a four-man job.

What is the Thunder Table like in person? It’s imposing. It’s a big table. You kind of stand in reverence of it. There’s a certain air of importance about this table that you sense immediately because of its imposing proportions and the attention paid to every detail. People who are not familiar with Wharton Esherick or Hedgerow Theatre look at it and say, “Wow.”

Have you sat at the Thunder Table? I have. It’s interesting, when you sit at the table, you’re not very far from the person at the other side. You can reach out and touch them. It lends a sense of intimacy to the table and [shows] how Esherick envisioned people living and acting together in close quarters.

A detail shot showing one end of the Thunder Table. Its legs are tilted to allow for better support of the heavy oak tabletop.

What’s your favorite detail of the Thunder Table? It’s hard to pick one, but the way the legs are constructed is very visually interesting. It’s a very Esherick type of shape, the trapezoidal element of the legs. And the signature, combining him and Hedgerow Theatre in the table itself, is a very special element not seen on other furniture. It’s clear there was an artistic kinship here.

Do we know why he carved the image of the two figures into the surface of the Thunder Table? Carvings only exist in early Wharton Esherick pieces from the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a true crossover from sculpting and drawing to his furniture. He thought of them as a way to add dramatic qualities to his furniture. Pieces by Esherick that have carvings on them are very, very scarce. The carving brands this work as a piece made for Hedgerow Theatre, and it speaks to Esherick’s journey as an artist influenced by Deeter and the actors at Hedgerow.

Is the Thunder Table unique among Wharton Esherick’s artistic furnishings? Very unique. It’s certainly among what I would consider his masterpieces. The table itself is a spectacular piece of artistry on its own. Considering it in relation to the theater and the countless number of individuals who lived and worked with it… there are pictures of actors folding clothes on it, and wiping it down after drinking their morning coffee. It was very much a part of Hedgerow Theatre. It’s one of the special Wharton Esherick pieces that [embodies] not just the story of Wharton Esherick, but the story of a community and its significance to his life and work.

How did Hedgerow Theatre influence Wharton Esherick? It gave him license. He had the support of a nearby community steeped in artistic traditions, and a group of people who understood what he was after. The influence Hedgerow Theatre had on Wharton Esherick can’t be overstated. It’s not clear what Esherick’s work and his life would look like without being exposed to Hedgerow Theatre for so many years.

Did Wharton Esherick make matching chairs for the Thunder Table? There were chairs made for use with the table, but not made en suite with either of the big tables. He makes the Thunder Table in 1929, the Sawbuck Table in 1934, and the chairs in 1938. He made the set of 36 chairs out of hammer and axe handles, which functioned as legs and stretchers. They were so well-regarded that people would ask Esherick for a hammer handle chair, and he had run out of handles, so he sculpted handles to resemble them out of oak and ash. The later iterations of the design are called his ash chairs.

Do any of the hammer handle chairs that Esherick made for Hedgerow Theatre survive? Over the decades, as actors would leave the theater or retire, it was not uncommon for a chair to be taken or given to them because they were so emblematic of the community. Some are in museum collections, and some are in private collections. Eight stayed with Hedgerow Theatre through the years.

How many Wharton Esherick pieces from Hedgerow Theatre will be in the upcoming Design sale? The chairs, a staircase, three tables… 12, total.

A detail of Wharton Esherick's Thunder Table, showing the tabletop and the signed central stretcher.

The Thunder Table carries an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000. How did you arrive at that number? What comparables did you consider? There aren’t a lot of comparables. Esherick was not as prolific as George Nakashima or some of the others. He doesn’t come to market as frequently. But when I learned of Wharton Esherick, it never occurred to me that pieces from the Hedgerow Theatre might be available on the market [someday]. They seemed so seminal to Esherick’s body of work–that’s why the collection is so important. There are no other collections like it, no collections made in the 1920s and 1930s, on this scale, that exist in situ being brought to market in this way.

Do the dozen pieces by Wharton Esherick in the upcoming sale represent everything that remains that he made for Hedgerow Theatre? This represents everything he made in the way of furniture and woodworking.

What’s the world auction record for a piece by Wharton Esherick? It’s a sculpted-top buffet that sold at Rago in 2009 for $335,500.

Do you think the Thunder Table will meet or beat that number? There are several reasons it could set a new record for Wharton Esherick: because it’s from his early period, because of its connections to Hedgerow Theatre, and because it stands alone as a singular piece of studio furniture from the period. With this table, you are able to tell the story of Wharton Esherick’s connection to Hedgerow Theatre, arguably his single biggest influence as an artist. You’re not only able to show a masterwork by the dean of American woodworking, you’re able to tell the story of what made Wharton Esherick who he was.

Why is Hedgerow Theatre selling these Wharton Esherick pieces now? When Esherick created furniture for Hedgerow Theatre, it was utilitarian and used almost daily. Today, the value of the Thunder Table makes it very difficult to operate [the theater’s green room as a reception area] because it becomes a room that houses a table–not very functional for a theater. They’re selling so they can continue to produce theater and let another institution take over the stewardship of these pieces.

Why will Wharton Esherick’s Thunder Table stick in your memory? It’s the kind of piece you never forget. It’s a piece you know about, read about, and see at Hedgerow Theatre, knowing the relationship between Esherick and the theatre. It will forever carry that history with it. It captures a moment in time and all the years of service. It represents the artistic spirit of the theater and Esherick’s own ideals–can you live true to yourself in the arts? It tells the story of Hedgerow Theatre and Wharton Esherick, and [it lets an] audience experience both in a way they can’t experience it otherwise.

How to bid: The Wharton Esherick Thunder Table, made for Hedgerow Theatre, will be in an upcoming Pennsylvania Sale at Freeman’s. Originally scheduled for March 31, 2020, the auction containing Esherick’s Hedgerow Theatre material was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions. The new sale date is October 28, 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.

Freeman’s is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Tim Andreadis previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Phillip Lloyd Powell double bed, a George Nakashima Sanso table with Conoid chairs, which sold for $187,500; an Albert Paley coffee table that commanded $8,125; and a Wharton Esherick sculpture that set a world auction record for the artist.

Images are courtesy of Freeman’s.

Wharton Esherick’s studio is now a museum. You can follow it on Instagram. It also maintains a page on Wharton Esherick and the Hedgerow Theatre.

The Hedgerow Theatre Company has a website.

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

Two Princess Doraldina Fortune Teller Machines–One Original and One Restored–Go to Auction at Morphy (Updated June 22, 2020)

An unrestored 1928 Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine, shown in full. Morphy Auctions could sell it for $30,000 or more.

Update: The unrestored Princess Doraldina machine shown above sold for $24,600. Its “sister”, featuring a white-clad mannequin, garnered $17,220.

What you see: A Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine. Morphy Auctions is offering the vintage coin-op and a second Princess Doraldina machine in the same auction. Both were made by the same Rochester, New York company in 1928. The estimate on the machine shown above is $20,000 to $30,000. Its “sister,” shown below and featuring a mannequin clad in white, carries an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000.

The expert: Tom Tolworthy, chief executive officer at Morphy Auctions.

Another 1928 Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine, which has been restored. It will appear in the same Morphy sale and could command $25,000.

I have to admit, I’m more familiar with the Zoltar style of fortune-telling machine–the ones that feature a man wearing a turban. How popular was the Princess Doraldina style of machine in 1928? You’d see her before you’d see Zoltar. Most Zoltars are not that old. There were several manufacturers of gypsy fortune-telling machines. The Princess Doraldina machines were made between 1928 and 1930.

I’ve never met anyone named Doraldina. Do we know where the name comes from? Is it the name of the wife or daughter of a higher-up at the company that made the machine? Nobody really knows, but the company in Rochester, New York that made it was named the Doraldina Fortune Telling Machine Company.

What do we know about the company? It was only in business for a couple of years, from what anybody knows. I wasn’t able to find much research on it. In the world of fortune-telling machines, it was late to the party.

What can we tell, just by looking, how hard these Princess Doraldina fortune teller machines were to make? They were very advanced for the time, and the operation was really simple. Some fortune tellers early on, such as Madame Zita, had clockwork mechanisms. The Princess Doraldina was electric. The body was covered with a nice outfit, the head was made out of wax, and it had an articulating hand. You’d put the coin in, and the hand would move over the cards in front of her. The mechanism would dispense a card with a fortune on it.

Detail shot of the restored Princess Doraldina machine, with its glass glue chip sign visible below the mannequin.
Detail shot of the restored Princess Doraldina machine, with its glass glue chip sign visible below the mannequin.

Both of these Princess Doraldina fortune telling machines were made by the same company in the same year. The cabinets look different, and the Princess Doraldina mannequins are dressed differently. Are there other significant differences between the two? One is considered a restored machine, and one is considered original. The front of the restored one has a glass glue chip sign underneath the mannequin. The other one doesn’t have that, and never did. [It has a sign on top of its cabinet.] The glue chip sign could have been an add-on for an operator–when they bought it, the sign could have been an option. What you find with arcade machines is sometimes, variations are based on what materials the manufacturer had at the time. They might have run out of [the first run of] signs, or decided to make one without it.

Do both Princess Doraldina mannequins perform the same movements? Yes.

Do the differences in the cabinets and the outfits on the mannequins indicate that the Doraldina company was customizing the machines? With the restored one… many times, the clothing is moth-ridden and not usable, so it’s changed out with period clothing. My guess is whoever restored it added the clothing. The clothing on the unrestored one is original.

Detail shot of the unrestored Princess Doraldina mannequin. The mechanism that moved her hand connected to a bellows that made it look like she was breathing.

Does the clothing on either or both the Princess Doraldina mannequins reflect styles that appeared in the company catalog? I believe the unrestored one was ordered that way. It could have been a distributor or a leasing agent who ordered the machines that way [mannequins with a specific outfit], so they could tell it was theirs. There were definitely other Doraldina machines. They might have wanted them to be identified differently.

We know that the unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine was placed in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Do we know where the restored one might have been? We don’t. We’re sure it would have been in a penny arcade at the time, but there are no marks on it, and the person who consigned it doesn’t know the provenance.

And the company wouldn’t have been selling its coin-op machines privately in 1928? Yes, they did not sell to individuals. The machines only became collectible in the 1960s and 1970s.

Do both of the Princess Doraldina fortune teller machines work? Both do work. The one that has the tin sign on top of it is in all-original condition. Collectors refer to it as a “survivor”. It has its original clothes, original lamp, top sign, and paint, which is unbelievable. Original-condition is more valuable because it’s impossible to find them like that.

If either or both of the Princess Doraldina machines didn’t work, would they be less interesting to collectors? No. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t bring as much. We’d certainly list it as not working, and we’d tell as much about it as possible so the person buying it knows they’re getting into. But not working doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

The unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine, with its assorted cabinets open to display its inner workings.

What had to happen to allow the unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine to survive so well? A lot of the time, the machines were placed on the boardwalk and brought in at night. This one sat inside a carousel in Seaside, New Jersey that had an inner enclosure. It [also] had to sit in a warehouse for a long time, and while it might not have been in climate-controlled conditions, it wasn’t in damp conditions. If it had sat in a damp place for a long period of time, the mechanism would have rusted. It still works the way it did almost 90 years ago. That’s what makes it a good survivor.

What are these Princess Doraldina coin-op machines like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? They stand about nine feet tall and they’re relatively large. They take up a three-foot-by-three-foot footprint. The mannequin is the size of a five-foot or a five-foot-two woman. She’s pretty life-like, and she’s wearing costume jewelry. In a world of arcade machines and Pac-man, it’s a very impressive-looking fortune teller.

Is there anything about how Princess Doraldina moves that doesn’t come across in a still photo? She has a bellows in her chest that makes it look like she’s breathing. It’s interesting to see the articulation of the movement in the chest as it simulates breathing.

And the breathing mechanism also moves Princess Doraldina’s hand? Yes. The coin triggers an electric motor, which triggers the cycle [of actions the mannequin performs]. She breathes, moves her hand, selects a card, and the card shoots out the front. The cards would be loaded randomly in a stack, and the electric movement would push the next card out.

Is Princess Doraldina the only fortune-telling machine of the time with a mannequin that seemed to breathe? It wasn’t the only one. There was another company in Cleveland that made a grandma fortune teller that had a breathing motion, but Princess Doraldina was rather unique among fortune tellers. A lot of the time, fortune-telling machines didn’t have figures, or they didn’t have the movement mechanisms of Princess Doraldina to make the experience complete.

Do the Princess Doraldina coin-op machines make noise? I understand that it wouldn’t have been heard over the noise of an arcade or a boardwalk, but still. There’s a very light mechanical noise as it dispenses the fortune card. It’s not much more noise than a fridge.

What sorts of fortunes does Princess Doraldina give out? What do the cards tend to say? They mostly had to do with happiness in life, live long and prosper. All positive, no negative fortunes. We have cards for both machines. We have some originals, and some reproductions.

Do the two Princess Doraldina coin-op machines come from the same consinger? They are from two different consigners.

The restored Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine, with its cabinet door opened to show its interior.

How unusual is it to have two Princess Doraldina coin-op machines in the same sale? It’s very unusual to have two in the same sale, and very unusual to have them in subsequent auctions, one after another. But that’s the nature of supply in the business of antiques. I’m not aware of an auction that ever sold two.

If the Princess Doraldina coin-op machines had been identical, would you have put them in the same sale? I wouldn’t. If it was our choice, I would have delayed the second [the restored example] to November. The consigner wants to sell and is not concerned about it bringing less because there’s two in the auction.

Why will these Princess Doraldina coin-op machines stick in your memory? Having two at a time will stick in my memory. Having one in original condition will stick in my memory. This is the nicest original-condition one I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many of them. Most that you find in original condition need to be restored or conserved. I think this one could move into somebody’s house after a little clean-up and a little oil in the mechanism.

How to bid: The unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune teller with the red and black box is lot 1297 in the Coin-Op & Advertising sale at Morphy Auctions on June 20, 2020. [It was originally set for late April, but COVID-19 restrictions forced a reschedule.] The restored Princess Doraldina coin-op machine with a figure clad in white is lot 1196.

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.

Images are courtesy of Morphy Auctions.

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A Piece of Crystallized Gold Could Sell for $300,000 (Updated March 15, 2020)

An unusually large (379-gram) specimen of crystallized gold, found relatively recently in Brazil. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

Update: The large specimen of crystallized gold sold for $156,250.

What you see: A large (379-gram) specimen of crystallized gold, found relatively recently in Brazil. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

The expert: Craig Kissick, director of nature and science for Heritage Auctions.

What is crystallized gold, and how is it different from standard gold? Some 98 percent of all gold ever mined on earth is refined. Gold in its natural form is rare already. Even a one-ounce nugget is rarer than a five-carat diamond. Crystallized gold is, basically, where the gold occurs naturally, but in a leafy form where you can see the crystallization.

So, all gold has crystals, but in crystallized gold, the crystals are visible? In layman’s terms, that’s essentially true. And crystallized gold has very high purity, at least with the ones from South America. It’s darn near 99.9 percent pure, which is pretty much unheard of.

How does crystallized gold form? That’s above my pay grade, but a lot of that hard science is known. Most crystallized gold tends to occur with quartz–the quartz will be a matrix, or a host rock it attaches to. But you do have examples of crystallized gold with no other visible constituents.

The lot notes describe this specimen as being “extremely rare and desirable for gold”. Why is that the case? Very little gold exists in its natural mined form. A lot doesn’t necessarily have the intrinsic aesthetic value of crystallized pieces. It’s a subset of a rare pot.

This specimen of crystallized gold weighs 379 grams, which is relatively hefty. How much of its value comes from its weight? Crystallized gold is looked at for its aesthetic beauty rather than its inherent value. With a crystallized specimen, it’s “How pretty is it?” With a gold nugget, it’s “How big is it?”

So inherent value doesn’t really play a role here, because no one in their right minds would melt a piece of crystallized gold? One hundred percent correct. It’s valued for its form over its melt price. Crystallized gold commands a premium well beyond the commodity value of industrial gold.

And crystallized gold gains its shape and appearance directly from the process of crystallization? Yes, it’s a natural function. Samples are cleaned to make sure they have the most lustrous appearance, but they’re nature’s art, not man-made art.

How often do samples of crystallized gold of this size come to auction? This might not be fair, because I’m a big guy, but samples that are palm-sized or bigger are pretty rarified air. We see maybe half a dozen per year.

What is it like to handle this specimen of crystallized gold? Is it heavy? When you pick up a 40-ounce gold nugget, the size of a softball, you say, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m holding so much gold! I don’t want to drop it on the floor.” With crystallized gold, you don’t have any heaviness. It’s delicate. It’s foil-like, very leafy. Gold is the most malleable metal on earth. You can bend gold, but you can’t break it.

It sounds like you want to be extra-careful when handling crystallized gold, for fear of bending or distorting the little branches. I would say that’s not a bad idea. You don’t want anything to come off. It’s naturally thin and delicate.

So how did the photographer get the specimen to safely stand on one end to take the picture? We’ve got ways to finagle things. You can lean it against a sheet of plexiglass and magic it away in Photoshop. Or you might stick something very small [on the end you’re standing it on], something that wouldn’t impact or damage the specimen, to keep it vertical long enough to take the shot.

And I’m guessing it’d be a very silly idea to try to make jewelry out of crystallized gold, then? It’s just not done? You really don’t. Gold nugget jewelry was a rage for a while there, but crystallized gold would probably be too soft for that. Some samples of crystallized gold are more durable than others, but [making it into] something you’d wear every day and touch all the time–you don’t want to do that.

The lot notes say this specimen was “found by sheer luck in a farm field in Brazil”. Can you tell me more? [Laughs] A lot of times, luck trumps science. It was probably a farmer in a field who realized it was gold, started a mine, and found more examples. This piece was also displayed recently at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show.

Is it possible to say when it was found in that field in Brazil? This is a relatively new thing, a phenomenon of the last five years. It’s probably someone who wasn’t a gold prospector who came across it, brought it to town, and then word got out. It ultimately made its way to our auction. That’s more story than we get for most, but it came from a very reputable source. There’s no doubts there, no reason to question the provenance of this piece.

You said earlier that weight doesn’t really matter much with a piece of crystallized gold. Yet its 379-gram weight is clearly stated in the lot notes. How much does its weight matter, really? You can see individual crystal faces on it, but it’s also like a nugget, because it’s a really solid piece. It has some dimensionality to it. 379 grams… keep in mind that there’s 31.103 grams in a troy ounce. This is over 12 ounces. That is a lot of gold.

Is the specimen more interesting because it’s nugget-like? I’d say this variety of gold, which has been coming from South America, is very complex but robust, and the purity of the material is unusually high. This specimen is 12 ounces of darn near pure gold. It’s something special.

What is the specimen of crystallized gold like in person? It’s intricate and complex and rather robust–it’s not a flat piece. You can look at it from any angle. You can see how the crystals go from top to bottom, all around. If

I only have one photo of the crystallized gold specimen, from one angle. What does the other side look like? My recollection from seeing it is it’s pretty similar on the other side. Some specimens have a pretty side and a side that’s no use to anybody. This has a three-dimensional presentation.

The headline for the lot includes several place names: “Serra do Caldeirão claims. Pontes e Lacerda, Mato Grosso. Brazil”. What do they mean here? “Claims” is akin to a mine. The others are simply geographic, like we’re doing city, county, state, and country. Pontes e Lacerda is like the city, Mato Grosso is the region, and Brazil is the country. That’s important information to collectors.

What condition is the specimen in? It’s in pristine condition. I don’t see any flaws in it. If there was a big break in it, it’d definitely be problematic.

How does this specimen of crystallized gold compare to others you’ve handled? Another one in the sale is a little bit larger and is not as aesthetically idyllic as this is. I’ve seen spectacular examples from South America, but I’ve rarely seen pieces this large. These are two of the largest I’ve handled, for sure.

Why will this piece of crystallized gold stick in your memory? It’s one of the newer finds from Mato Grosso. I’m used to seeing small pieces of high value. This is massive compared to others from that place. And it’s striking. Anytime I see a superlative singular specimen of gold, of course I’m going to remember it. And I hope it’s going to sell for a high amount, and that will be what I’m going to remember.

How to bid: The 379-gram specimen of crystallized gold is lot #72032 in the Nature & Science Signature Auction taking place at Heritage Auctions, Dallas on March 14, 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.

Heritage Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Craig Kissick has appeared on The Hot Bid once before, discussing a matched set of bull mammoth tusks.

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Franz Jozef Ponstingl, An Underappreciated Pennsylvania Artist, Gets His Due in the March 2020 Issue of Art & Antiques (THB Bonus)

Isotopes of Furniture, a 1971 painting by Franz Jozef Ponstingl that appears in the 2020 show at the Michener Art Museum.

In the March 2020 issue of Art & Antiques, I wrote about Franz Jozef Ponstingl, a 20th century artist from Pennsylvania whose works look like the covers of science fiction novels to-be-written.

Ponstingl’s story is a classic tale of an undiscovered artist. Once, in frustration, he hauled his entire output to the local Salvation Army. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t stay there).

The Art & Antiques story references Ponstingl: Dreams of Past Futures, an exhibit at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, until June 20, 2020.

Here’s a direct link to the story.

Art & Antiques is available at Barnes & Noble. I’d be delighted if you’d subscribe to the magazine.

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A Schrader Five-Bolt Diving Helmet Could Command $7,000 (Updated March 15, 2020)

A Schrader five-bolt diving helmet, made by Schrader in the early 21st century after its own 19th-century design. It has never touched the water.

Update: the Schrader five-bolt diving helmet sold for $4,250.

What you see: A Schrader five-bolt diving helmet. It’s based on a late 19th century design by the company, but it was produced by Schrader in the 2000s. Nation’s Attic estimates the helmet at $4,500 to $7,000.

The expert: Don Creekmore, co-owner and founder of Nation’s Attic in Wichita, Kansas.

A detail shot of the name plate affixed to the front of the Schrader diving helmet.

What was the A. Schrader Diving Equipment Company? The company started in 1844. Around 1849, it started producing diving helmets on a limited basis. [Founder] August Schrader observed divers using crude helmets in New York and thought he could do a better job.

This Schrader five-bolt diving helmet is described as dating to the late 19th century. Can we pin it down more precisely? There’s one thing I want to mention. It’s a 19th century design and style, but it was probably made in the last 20 years, custom made as a a 19th century five-bolt.

The Schrader company made the diving helmet in the last 20 years, as a faithful rendition of one of its 19th century designs? Probably in the early 2000s. There’s not a specific record for this particular helmet. The company was sold in 1999.

But because it was made by the same company that produced this five-bolt design in the late 19th century, it has continuity and value? Yeah. Schrader would produce something like this if you ordered it in the 1950s or the 1850s.

The lot notes describe this Schrader diving helmet as “one of the most impressive and rarely seen diving helmet designs of the 19th century”. What makes it so? The five-bolt style was an option in the 19th and 20th centuries. You could request that it be made. It was more expensive, and not all divers wanted that configuration.

A detail shot showing two of the five bolts that secure the top, or bonnet of the Schrader diving helmet to the bottom, or neck ring.
A closeup shot that shows two of the five bolts that give this Schrader diving helmet its name.

What made the five-bolt style of diving helmet different? It has five large bolts around the neck ring. The top [the part that encloses the head, known as the bonnet] and the bottom [known as the neck ring] separate. The bolts are tightened with thumbscrews to create a seal. Though the five-bolt might sound easy or nice, it was a bit less popular than threading the top and bottom together.

The more popular diving helmet design of the time threaded the two component pieces in place? The vast majority of helmets that survive have the interrupted thread pattern. They’d thread the top onto the bottom and use a rubber gasket or seal [to make it watertight]. The five-bolt was not a problematic design, but it was more expensive, and people shied away from it.

How did Schrader sell its diving helmets? Did it produce a catalog and only start work once it received an order, or did they tend to have a few finished helmets on hand, ready to pack and ship? They didn’t have them in inventory, waiting to be purchased. They had a catalog with two designs–the five-bolt or the threaded, and options could be added.

How would a Schrader diving helmet have been used in the late 19th century? It was used by the military and by commercial divers. The military wasn’t putting specific markings on the helmets in that time period. A lot of the time, they were worn for salvage work–ships would sink, and salvage companies would employ divers to retrieve valuables.

And there wouldn’t have been any recreational divers in the late 19th century, right? Not at all. There was no recreational use of these. Diving was way too dangerous and expensive. And there was no formal training. Whoever had the guts to get into it, that was the requirement, more or less. As long as you were willing to do it and you had someone up top to pump the air [down to you], you were qualified.

You couldn’t be claustrophobic and work as a diver in the 19th century. Once the helmet is closed, you know immediately if you can do it or not.

This Schrader diving helmet is also described as a “four light” model. What does that mean? “Light” is a term for the windows in the diving helmet. Typically, there are three or four windows. The fourth is on the top of the helmet. At the turn of the century, it was a $10 option to have a window on top.

A full three-quarter view of the Schrader diving helmet. It's called a "four light" model because it has four lights, or windows. The one installed at the top was an option that cost $10 extra.

When did it make sense to spring for the fourth light? If your work involved working under a ship hull and looking up, an extra window would help with that. If you were looking down mostly, why bother with the $10?

And $10 in the late 19th century is not the same thing as $10 today… Do we know how much the complete two-piece Schrader diving helmet would have cost back then? Was the five-bolt version $100? Probably a little bit more. Between $120 to $160 at the turn of the previous century. Another thing to keep in mind is there’s a lot more equipment needed to support a diver. The bill could get up there–$1,000 to $1,500.

A full three-quarter rear view of the Schrader diving helmet.
The dozen brails appear on the outer edge of the neck ring, or lower part of the diving helmet. If you look at the left side of the image, you can see a gap between the collar and the breastplate that hints at how the collar could be detached and removed.

How did someone get in and out of a diving suit in the 19th century? How many other people did they need to help them put it on and take it off? Usually you’d need a few guys to get in the big canvas suit. The diving helmet has a series of 12 bolts, or brails, along the collar. It lifts off the breastplate and comes off. Threaded studs stick up or go through the collar of the canvas suit…

It sounds like trying to do up buttons without being able to see where the buttons are. And it’s heavy rubber, and brass, and copper, and it’s wet. Usually, it was a struggle. You’d secure the brails, then the bolts, and you were in the suit. When the brails press down on the rubber, it creates a seal.

So, with one assistant, you’ll get dressed, but it’ll be slow. With two, it goes much faster. That’s why there was usually two guys, and one or two guys to manually turn the pump that pumps air to the diver. [The assistants, called “tenders”, helped the divers with their gear and pumped the air during the dive.] If one is tired or his back seizes up, hopefully, the other can relieve them.

Whoa. Because you have to keep the air coming. You’ve got to trust your guy. [Laughs].

A rear view of the Schrader diving helmet with the all-important non-return valve visible at the center back.

And I take it the brass fitting poking out of the back of the head piece, or bonnet, is where the air hose would have attached? Yes. Another feature on the back is the non-return valve. [The valve is part of the fitting that accepts the air hose. It’s at the center of the back of the bonnet in the picture above.] It was a safety feature conceived of in the 19th century. Before, if the diver was 100 feet deep and the air line got cut suddenly, the air would quickly escape. It meant death for the diver immediately. This valve stopped the air from escaping if the hose got cut.

Yikes, the pressure… …is not your friend at those depths.

How much does the Schrader diving helmet weigh? Do we know what each piece weighs, and what it weighs as a whole? The total weight is around 70 pounds. I haven’t weighed the parts separately, but they’re similar, so, about 35 pounds. The Schrader five-bolt is about five pounds heavier than the other style.

Who could wear such a thing, even if they only spent a short time out of the water? With the helmet, you’ve got your suit, and very heavy boots made out of brass and lead, plus a belt weighted with brass ingots. Without the weight, you wouldn’t sink. It was hundreds of pounds to have on. It’s comfortable once you’re in the water. But you’ve got to be a tough guy.

Not everyone could do it. Not even if they were young and strong, it seems. You needed two people under your shoulders lifting you up to walk you to the ladder. You needed assistance to get in the water and get out.

Oh gosh, and if you’re coming back out, you’re hundreds of pounds heavier than normal AND you’re wet. And you’ve been working, and you’re tired. Lots of times, these were tough guys who didn’t want people to assist them. But they required assistance to get in and out of the water.

Don Creekmore's collection includes this circa 1940s newspaper photo, which he kindly shared. While the diving helmet is not a precise match for the Schrader five-bolt, it illustrates how pre-modern diving equipment was worn and used.
Don Creekmore’s collection includes this circa 1940s newspaper photo, which he kindly shared. While the diving helmet is not a precise match for the Schrader five-bolt, it illustrates how pre-modern diving equipment was worn and used.

How much did a full diving suit weigh, with helmet and belt and boots? It was substantial. Between 225 and 300 pounds is a good, broad range, depending on the work being done.

Why is the Schrader diving helmet made from copper and brass? Why were those the best metals to use? They don’t rust. That’s the major concern there.

To our 21st century eyes, the Schrader diving helmet looks beautiful. But was it made with beauty in mind? Or was it as “beautiful” to 19th century divers as a dock full of container ships is to us now? It was strictly functional. There were no aesthetic considerations at all. They were not meant to be collectible, but people kept them because they were visually interesting. That’s why we collect them today–they’re cool-looking.

This diving helmet was never used, and there are several others in the March 14 auction that clearly were. Do collectors show a preference for either type? There are two reasons why people buy them. One, to have an impressive display piece in their collection. Two, historical dive groups around the country wear vintage diving helmets. You could use this right now if it was checked out [by a certified dive expert]. For a commercial dive, it probably wouldn’t be allowed, but for historic recreation purposes, if it holds air, it’s good to go.

So who buys Schrader diving helmets now? Do most collectors view them as functional sculpture? Probably 90 percent of people who collect them never take the helmet and use it. It’s historic and for display. For 50 percent of people, this was their occupation. For the other 50 percent, they saw a helmet in an old movie or a magazine article and thought, “Oh my God, that’s really cool-looking.” Half the customer base is people who simply find them interesting. They look visually interesting, and they know the risks and the dangers undertaken by the divers originally. It gets people interested in having such a thing.

I can only imagine what a 19th century diver would think of all of this. They probably could not fathom it. “You want to dive? No one is paying you to do it?” But groups around the country do it.

The lot notes describe the Schrader diving helmet as “100 percent authentic”. What does that mean here? Some diving helmets have components that might have been replaced for whatever reason. This is as it left the factory in the 2000s. This was made by the Schrader company in a configuration it offered in the 19th century.

Ok, so if you wanted to use this Schrader diving helmet on an actual, honest-to-goodness dive, you could. But how? I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to hook it up to period-correct air hoses, even if there were any that survived in good enough condition to use… In a diving group, when you’re using an antique helmet, usually the helmet is the only thing that’s antique. [Laughs] Everything else is new, for safety purposes. A lot of times, when a group gets together, they bring all their equipment.

It seems that historic diving is social and anti-social at the same time. It is. You’re down there by yourself, doing your thing, but you rely on other people. As a group, it’s a tight-knit community, especially among people who are professional or military divers.

Have you worn this Schrader five-bolt diving helmet, or one similar to it? Yes.

What was that like? Uncomfortable. The first time you’re put into the helmet and the front is closed, it’s real loud, because you’ve got air being pumped into it–a very loud hissing noise. Once you’re committed, in the water, you’re in it. [Laughs]. You have to stay calm and trust the safety of the helmet and the people monitoring what you’re doing. It’s claustrophobic, at least the first time, but it’s something you get used to.

Did you dive while wearing a Schrader five-bolt diving helmet? Multiple people help you suit up and get in the water. Communications with the five-bolt are done by pulling on the rope: one pull for “more rope”, and two for “get me out of here.”

Were any supports for the helmet built into canvas diving suits in the 19th century, or did divers have to take the full weight of the helmet directly on their shoulders? When you’re out of the water, the helmet rests directly on your shoulder blades. It’s uncomfortable. There is a pad you could use [between the helmet and your shoulders] but tough guys don’t want to appear to need special assistance.

Is the pad kind of like the neck pillows they sell at airport gift shops? Yes, but without the polka dots and the colors.

What condition is the Schrader diving helmet in? Essentially, it’s new old stock. It’s never been used or put in the water.

Why will this Schrader diving helmet stick in your memory? It’s a five-bolt pattern. The military used to use five-bolt helmets, but around 1916 it introduced the U.S. Navy Mark V, and it became the standard helmet. Those that were in stock were modified to make them similar to the Mark V, which was a threaded style. There aren’t many surviving examples of the five-bolt style. It’s visually different, it’s mechanically different, and the military took a lot of them and made them into something different. To collectors, it’s the visual component that’s key.

How to bid: The Schrader five-bolt diving helmet, made in the early 21st century by Schrader after its own 19th century design, is lot 0061 in the Spring 2020 Historic Diving Auction, offered on March 14, 2020 by Nation’s Attic.

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