A P.G. Wodehouse-signed First Edition of His First Novel Could Command $3,000 (Updated May 7, 2020)

A first edition copy of The Pothunters, the debut novel by P.G. Wodehouse. The beloved English author also signed the book, which could command $3,000 or more.

Update: The first edition signed copy of The Pothunters by P.G. Wodehouse sold for $1,950.

What you see: A first edition signed copy of The Pothunters, P.G. Wodehouse’s debut novel. Freeman’s estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.

The expert: Darren Winston, head of the books, maps, and manuscripts department at Freeman’s.

Who was P.G. Wodehouse, and why does his work still resonate today? First, I should say, because I know it’s a pet peeve with collectors, it’s pronounced “Woodhouse”. When you’re talking with serious collectors and you say “Wodehouse,” they’ll shut you down immediately. Wodehouse is an English author, and he really is from another era. He was 20 when Queen Victoria died. When he realized he was a good writer, he became diligent about how he worked. He agonized over a sentence until he got it right. From a technical standpoint, he’s not dated–100 years later, the jokes are still funny.

That’s a good point. Why are P.G. Wodehouse’s jokes still funny? Good material is good material. Whether you like it or not, it’s just good writing.

The upper class, luxurious English-centric world that P.G. Wodehouse describes in his novels… he’s evoking a world that never really existed, strictly speaking. Certain things are real–the schools, the mansions, the cars–but it didn’t literally exist the way he imagines it. You’re right, it’s an imaginary place, except for the fact–and this is my interpretation–what I’ve learned is all his books and characters are his life experience, and it’s his life experience between the ages of 10 and 25. You could argue that every character is pastiche and parodies. Downton Abbey covers the same timeline as those books. If it took a comedic turn instead of a dramatic turn, you’d have it [Wodehouse].

How does The Pothunters fit in to P.G. Wodehouse’s world? The Pothunters is his experience. He went to a school like St. Austin’s. He knew those boys and those masters. It’s a tiny portion of English society, and there’s a lot of pain in that way of life–not in a depressing way, but it was what it was. To poke fun at it was a way of getting through it. I think the world of P.G. Wodehouse is [not dissimilar] to the way people talk about Tolkien and The Hobbit–he created a world and populated it. In his last books, it’s still basically 1919.

Why do you think Americans embraced P.G. Wodehouse’s books so firmly? He didn’t write down to anyone, ever. He did it respectfully, so the upper class laughed at themselves, and the lower class laughed, but not in a mean way. Never mean.

In thinking about why P.G. Wodehouse still hits the mark, I realized that most people know someone like Gussie Fink-Nottle, who’s utterly obsessed with an obscure topic, or Tuppy Glossup, a nice-enough guy who has character flaws. So even if they’re running around in white tie and tails, they seem familiar anyway. I married a Brit, and I think I have a different experience of England than some of my friends do. I want to point out–it’s absurd but true–those people are out there. The people in the books–I’ve met them. I knew a friend who went to an English boarding school and university, and he speaks that way, like it’s 1905. He’s very modern in some ways, but he’s on an archaic trajectory. It’s like having a dodo bird in front of you. It’s fascinating to see it exist.

The Pothunters is P.G. Wodehouse’s first novel. How did its publication come about? Did he have a hard time selling the manuscript? It was published when he was 20, but he’d been writing since he was a teen. I don’t know if he had trouble getting it published. It was serialized in three installments and published in what would have been called a boys’ magazine. He wrote very much in the tradition of what he read as a boy–what the Brits call a “boys’ own book”.

What is The Pothunters about? It’s about a bunch of boys at an English boarding school not unlike the one he went to. A “pot” is what they call a trophy. The pothunters are trying to find pots that have been stolen from the school. He was writing in the style that he was reared in, and the subject matter was his own life.

What themes and tropes appear in P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters that recur in later Wodehouse books? The Pothunters is really the school story. You could say it launched his entire career.

Without The Pothunters, we don’t get Psmith, and we don’t get the background that many of the upper class characters share in the Jeeves and Wooster books. Exactly. You can argue that Wodehouse has characters in his canon in all age strata. Some of them grew up with him.

Over the last few days, my family and I have been watching episodes of the 1990s television series adaption of Jeeves and Wooster, starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie… One of the lots for sale is a tweed waistcoat Fry wore in the series.

Seriously? Whoa. I’m a big fan of the show and a bigger fan of Fry and Laurie. It speaks to one thing I love about what I do–I can put on a Stephen Fry vest, and maybe you saw it last night. And I can hold this copy of The Pothunters, which P.G. Wodehouse had in his hands 100 years ago. There’s one degree between me and him. It never gets old.

Did you try on the Stephen Fry Jeeves vest? I put it on and jokingly said if it didn’t sell, I’d buy it.

Did it fit? It did! Dangerously, it did. My wife gave me a knowing look [as if to say] if it comes home, it’s OK.

To get back to P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters, how good a debut novel is it? I’m not a critic, but it can be argued it’s a very, very good debut. It’s his style. It didn’t change. That book came fully equipped.

This P.G. Wodehouse first edition of The Pothunters appeared in 1902. Does the copy predate the use of dust jackets? Or did it have a dust jacket and lose it at some point? Dust jackets were beginning to be a thing. As far as anyone knows, The Pothunters was issued without a dust jacket, but my feeling is it might have been. You can see others in the sale that are very much in the style of the period. The first edition we’re talking about is so clean, and the design is so simple, [I think] it had to have had a jacket.

Do we know how big the first edition of The Pothunters was? There’s no known quantities for the book. Wodehouse was paid a percentage on copies sold. I’d have to think closer to 500 than 5,000 were printed.

How often does a first edition copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters appear at auction? It shows up occasionally. If there are 50 copies of a Jeeves and Wooster online, there [might be] two Pothunters, and one will be a reprint and one will be a first edition.

P.G. Wodehouse wrote prolifically, but didn't sign all that many of his books. This first edition of The Pothunters, his debut novel, is among the few that he autographed. He lettered his name with a fountain pen, which indicates that he signed the book not long after its publication.

This copy is signed by P.G. Wodehouse. How rare is his signature, and how rare is it to see one on a first-edition copy of The Pothunters? Wodehouse signed for friends and fans. He didn’t sign a ton. What’s really cool about this signature on The Pothunters is it’s in fountain pen, and if you look at the ink, it’s old and brown. It makes me think it’s early. And it just says “P.G. Wodehouse”. He often signed with his nickname, Plum, or signed “Plum–P.G. Wodehouse”. Because this just says “P.G. Wodehouse”, it says to me he was young and not confident enough that the world would know him as Plum. It’s a big difference from the 90-year-old Wodehouse signing in ballpoint pen.

P.G. Wodehouse signed this copy of The Pothunters closer to when the book came out. Exactly. It’s uncommon to find a P.G. Wodehouse book signed. To find a copy of The Pothunters signed contemporaneously–that makes it much more interesting. Looking at auction records, I couldn’t find another.

What’s the world auction record for a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters, and what’s the world auction record for any P.G. Wodehouse book? The highest in general was 2013, at Bloomsbury in London, for The Globe By the Way Book, a 1908 collection of pieces he and a friend, Herbert Westbrook, published in The Globe. It’s one of the rarest pieces of Wodeiana. It sold for £26,840 ($42,192) against an estimate of £2,500 to £3,500 ($3,900 to $5,500), way more than ten times its high estimate. The record for The Pothunters was also set at Bloomsbury in 2014. It sold for £3,968 ($6,200) against an estimate of £1,200 to £1,800 ($1,900 to $2,800).

Was the record-setting copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters signed? It wasn’t. If we can beat $6,200, that would be fantastic.

What’s the condition of this first edition copy of The Pothunters? It was read. We’re lucky that it wasn’t abused. Its architectural parts are sound. If I had to distill it into two words: very good. The only thing that happened to this copy of The Pothunters over the last 120 years was that Wodehouse applied his name, which is a plus.

The first edition of The Pothunters is part of a larger single-owner P.G. Wodehouse collection that Freeman’s is offering on May 7. How well-regarded is the collection and its collector, William Toplis? He built the collection over 25 years and he had very high standards. There are no crappy copies. Everything is a home run. It’s a beautifully curated collection. The only thing that’s worth zero dollars is a copy of Big Money that he must have read at the beach.

How hard is it to build a P.G. Wodehouse collection such as this one? It’s difficult. Wodehouse is a popular subject to collect. He does have a following. This is a really good collection. Toplis was super-diligent. He knew what he wanted, he found it, and he paid for it.

Why will this P.G. Wodehouse first edition and this collection stick in your memory? I think it will stick in my memory because it was a collection. I never met Bill Toplis, but I feel I got much closer to him because I got the gift of handling his books. I saw where his heart was. These 190-odd items might go to 190 places, and Bill’s mojo is in them.

But isn’t it difficult to conduct and oversee the single-owner sale? I mean, you’re dismantling decades of work. In theory, yes. In practice, and this is going to sound corny, the collection is like a tree, and 190 acorns have come from it. Now they’re going back into the wild to seed 190 collections. It’s what I think should happen with beautiful things. They should move around, and lots of people should get to enjoy them.

How to bid: The P.G. Wodehouse first edition of The Pothunters is lot 105 in the P.G. Wodehouse Collection of William Toplis auction at Freeman’s on May 7, 2020.

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An Art Deco Silver Tureen by Jean Puiforcat Could Command $15,000 (Updated May 7, 2020)

Shown here is an Art Deco silver tureen with cover by French silversmith Puiforcat, and dating to 1925. Christie's could sell it for $15,000.

Update: The Art Deco silver tureen by Jean Puiforcat sold for $16,250.

What you see: An Art Deco silver tureen with cover by Jean Puiforcat. Christie’s estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

The expert: Jill Waddell, vice president and senior specialist in Christie’s silver department.

Who was Jean Puiforcat? He really is the one who brought Art Deco silver to the forefront, but the Puiforcat name–he’s fourth generation. He was born into a well-established family silver firm.

How is “Puiforcat” pronounced? Pwee-fo-cah.

What style of silver tureen would have been more standard in 1925, when Jean Puiforcat designed the one we see here? The late 19th century Beaux Arts style was more typical–shaped circular, oval, or rectangular pieces. You see a lot of grape vines and acanthus leaves.

So a more typical silver tureen design of the period would be fussier-looking, and more loaded with decorations? Yes, it would.

Would silver be a more conservative form of decorative art? Is it less likely to reflect the trends of the day? I wouldn’t really say that. It can be the first to show new artistic movements, because [old silver pieces in outdated styles] can be melted down. You see movements represented in silver five years before [they appear in] furniture, because silver can be melted down and reshaped.

In poking around, I noticed a quote on the Wikipedia page for Jean Puiforcat that calls him “the most important French Art Deco silversmith”. Do you agree with that statement? Maybe it takes it a little too far. He was the most well-known and most renowned Art Deco silversmith. The statement is a little bold, but mostly accurate.

Can we quantify how prolific Jean Puiforcat was, as opposed to earlier and later generations of Puiforcats? It’s really tricky. Jean Puiforcat uses the same hallmark–[that of] Emile Puiforcat–which has been used since the 19th century. Jean Puiforcat is responsible for introducing Art Deco, but he didn’t design everything himself, and he certainly didn’t hammer out the silver. There was a team behind him. It’s hard to determine what to ascribe to Jean Puiforcat unless it’s documented in literature. He probably wasn’t responsible for a single design from A to Z. It was more like [the studio of ] Louis Comfort Tiffany. He sketched it out, and another took it and finished the product, but he was the one credited with the design.

If a Puiforcat design in silver has an Art Deco look, is it reasonable to attribute it to Jean Puiforcat? A fair amount, but how many [designs] were put into large-scale production, we don’t know. But Puiforcat didn’t put all its eggs into one basket. Art Deco was a new style that took time to catch on. A good portion of their customers were looking to buy traditional flatware and dishes similar to what their mothers and grandmothers had. With Art Deco pieces, Puiforcat was saying, “You know we’re good and we have quality products, but look what we can do with forward-thinking design.” And it was. Puiforcat used jade with this piece. [With others] they also used rose quartz, rock crystal, and stone materials. Puiforcat took it up to another level of luxury.

Where was Jean Puiforcat in his career in 1925, when he designs this Art Deco silver tureen with cover? He was 28 years old, and grew up in the firm. He’s young, he’s got lots of ideas, he’s got forward-thinking friends, he’s got a good eye, and he understands the material, but he’s not so tied to a staid, established design.

Was Jean Puiforcat leading the family firm at that point? That I’m not sure.

But he would have been in the family business, with an eye toward taking over someday? And an eye toward modernizing it.

Is this Art Deco silver tureen with cover typical or atypical of Jean Puiforcat’s work? I’d say it’s pretty typical of the work that we see from him at that time. It’s geometric, streamlined, and simple, with an elegant silhouette, and it incorporates elegant materials.

I understand that Jean Puiforcat created the silver tureen with cover for the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, aka the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, which was held in Paris and later credited with launching Art Deco design. How did Jean Puiforcat come to be involved in the show? Was he invited? Did he win a competition? The fair was established for decorative art. [Word went out to all that] You’ve got to have modern ideas to promote and you have to adhere to that. If you’re willing to push forward, you can participate. Jean Puiforcat was responsible for taking on that tangent and putting Puiforcat on the map for Art Deco.

Do those lines on the Art Deco silver tureen and its cover have a specific name? They’re called radiating lobes. It’s pretty typical of his work from the time.

And I understand that while this Art Deco silver tureen design appeared in the Puiforcat display at the 1925 exhibition, we can’t confirm that this individual example was on view? We know the design was exhibited at the exhibition, but we don’t think this particular piece went there. The display was rotated. Things that didn’t sell well were probably moved out.

So the Puiforcat firm was also selling silver pieces directly to visitors to the 1925 Paris exhibition? Yes, people were purchasing.

And Jean Puiforcat would have put the Art Deco silver tureen with cover into production? Yes, it was put into production with different variants on it. The following lot has a glass body. It’s a different variant on the same design.

Do we have any idea how many of these Art Deco silver tureens that Puiforcat made? No idea, but they don’t pop up all that often. I see a lot of trays and platters, but I don’t see a lot of tureens.

Would the Art Deco silver tureen have been a top-of-the-line model? Might that explain its scarcity? It certainly would have been a top-of-the-line piece. It wouldn’t have a jade handle if it wasn’t a top-of-the-line piece.

Do we know how people reacted to this Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver tureen at the time? Was it shocking? I’m sure some people were there [at the 1925 Paris exhibition] to gawk, but it probably also attracted a lot of like-minded people. The tureen probably would have been pretty shocking, and probably would have been super-modern, and probably did what they expected it to do. It showed people who were familiar with Puiforcat quality and design just how far they could take it.

In the context of a dinner service, a tureen is a splashy item–not literally a centerpiece, but meant to be spectacular to look at. How does Jean Puiforcat carry forward that tradition in this piece? It was intended to live on a sideboard or in a glass cabinet, where it could be seen. It was not going to live in the butler’s pantry. Why keep it locked away?

So, it’s very much a showpiece. My catalogs ten years ago are nothing like my catalogs now. The population of buyers has shifted. They don’t want things that will live in the butler’s pantry. They want things that can live in a room as sculpture, and not necessarily in the dining room. They want things that are fun, that have character, that will draw the eye over to them. This tureen is exactly what people are looking for right now.

It looks like it could have been made last week. It’s a shockingly modern design for 1925. It looks modern today, and it proved to be timeless.

What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this Art Deco silver tureen might have been to make? I don’t think it was terribly difficult to make. Simplifying the design and getting the proportions right was probably more difficult. It’s a pretty plain form. What do you do to make it elegant and forward-thinking without it being boring and plain? You have to get rid of the motifs you’ve been using over and over, throw all that out, and start fresh, but keep it modern and elegant, and keep the same level of craftsmanship.

And its simplicity gives the silversmith fewer places to hide. You can’t bury a mistake under a decorative vine or sprig of leaves. The design proves how good you are. You’re probably right. There’s no room to hide a flaw.

What is the Art Deco silver tureen like in person? It’s really elegant, and it’s a nice size. I don’t think it had a matching ladle, because there’s no insert in [the lip for a ladle rest], but you could use it for soup. It’s lovely, and it’s a manageable size.

The size–does that reflect Art Deco as well? The move away from grand houses with dozens of servants and toward entertaining in smaller spaces? This is more intimate. It would be perfect in a Paris or a New York apartment.

What is it like to handle the Art Deco silver tureen? It feels nice, and has a nice weight to it. The jade handle feels really nice in the hand. You can feel the quality in it. It feels luxurious.

What condition is the Art Deco silver tureen in? What sorts of issues do you tend to see with tureens of this type? This is in very nice condition. The issues we tend to see are scratches to the interior, and bruises and bumps to the side.

Would this Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver tureen and the variant in lot 14 have been consigned by the same person? Yes. I don’t believe they were meant as a set.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? I really like the jade. The inclusion of jade is an interesting way of incorporating color. I don’t see a lot of color in my silver world. It’s a nice way of elevating the tureen.

How to bid: The Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver tureen with cover is lot 13 in The Collector: English & European 18th & 19th Century Furniture, Ceramics, Silver & Works of Art, an online sale taking place at Christie’s between April 28, 2020 and May 7, 2020.

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Inaugural License Plates from the Eisenhower-Nixon Years Could Sell for $6,000 (Updated May 15, 2020)

An inaugural license plate issued to President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957. It's one of the only two inaugural plates to include photographic portraits, and both feature Eisenhower and Nixon.

Update: The single 1957 inaugural license plate issued to President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower, sold for $7,995. The pair of 1953 inaugural license plates issued to Vice President-elect Richard M. Nixon sold for $2,767.50.

What you see: An inaugural license plate issued to President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, for his second inaugural celebration. It’s one of two lots of inaugural license plates from the Eisenhower-Nixon years in a mid-May sale at Morphy’s; the second lot is a pair issued to Vice President-elect Richard M. Nixon in 1953. Both lots carry estimates of $3,000 to $6,000.

The expert: Jim Fox, consultant for Morphy Auctions.

What were the first inaugural license plates ever issued, and would those plates be most sought-after by collectors? The answer is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1933. Those were the first inaugural plates.

I’m surprised it was that late. Keep in mind that automobiles weren’t popular until the teens. But yes, the FDR 1933 plates are the rarest, the least common, and fewer survived. We don’t know how many FDR 1933 plates were issued, and we don’t know how many survived.

I found a 2017 Washington Post article that shows several different inaugural license plates, and it looks like the two designs issued in the 1950s for Eisenhower and Nixon are the only inaugural plates that picture the inaugurees. Is that correct? Yes. These are the only plates that picture the inaugurees.

Do we know how or why the 1950s inaugural license plates came to feature actual black-and-white portrait photographs of Eisenhower and Nixon? I don’t know why they did it, other than it’s an attractive design. I don’t know that there’s more to it than that.

I realize I’m asking you to speculate, but do we have any idea why no other inaugural license plate designs include pictures of the president and the vice president? If it was going to happen [again], I thought it would have happened with the last inaugural. To be honest, I doubt the presidents and vice presidents themselves spent a lot of time on inaugural license plates. The inaugural committees make decisions like that. [Putting portraits on inaugural plates is] a great idea, and looking back, it looks like a better and better idea. But I can’t tell you what the logic was.

I find it odd that no one since Eisenhower and Nixon have included their pictures in an inaugural license plate design. It seems like a natural. We’re Americans. We love our cars, and we love telling the world what we think about politics by sticking things onto our cars. Lots of people would buy an inaugural license plate that shows the faces of the president and the vice president. In today’s culture, it does seem natural, and it [putting imagery on license plates] is a proven technology. I wish I had a better answer for you, but I’m sorry to say I don’t. Somebody thought it was a good idea, and went with it.

It’s weird, looking at the other inaugural license plates–they’re kind of interchangeable. If you covered up the year, there’d be no way to guess which plate belonged to which inaugural, except for the Eisenhower-Nixon plates. Absolutely true. Block the date and they’re the same.

This pair of inaugural license plates was issued to Vice President Richard Nixon in 1953. Note that both men are smiling in their 1953 photos, and not smiling in their 1957 photos.

It seems extra-weird that only Eisenhower and Nixon appear on inaugural license plates because the president who came after them, John F. Kennedy, was one of the most telegenic presidents we’ve ever had. You’d think he or his inaugural committee would want to put his picture on the plates. Kennedy switched, and for whatever reason, they didn’t see it as necessary. Maybe they thought it was too expensive. I don’t think the minds of people worked the same then as they do now. Now, everything’s telegenic. Hollywood, let’s call it Hollywood. But license plates are legal documents. That’s all they are–legal documents. They validate a vehicle for a short period of time.

Would the inaugural license plates have come with registrations? Yes. They were legitimate. They were just legitimate for a short time. [Neither of the two lots of inaugural license plates have retained their registration paperwork.]

I take it the registrations would have been placed in the glove boxes of the cars that rolled along D.C. streets in those 1950s inaugural parades? You can bet that no one [would have pulled over Eisenhower or Nixon and] said, “Excuse me, can I see your registration?” On a practical level, it’s worthless. On a historical level, it’s priceless.

Were inaugural license plates only used in inaugural parades? They were used just for inaugural parades, but by the 1960s, the plates were good for the month of the inaugural. Later, it was extended to 90 days. You could put the plates on your car and do what you wanted with them. I put a Nixon second inaugural plate on my car in the 1970s, and the police stopped me within the hour, asking, “Is that a real plate?” The policeman looked at me for the longest time and finally said, “I don’t know what to do with this.” I said, “You don’t have to. It’s legitimate.”

Where were you pulled over? This was in Ohio. Anything [any inaugural license plate appearing on a car] outside of D.C. and the police think, “What the heck?” The policeman finally said goodbye. He never figured it out.

Do we know what technique or tool was used in the 1950s to print black-and-white photographic portraits onto steel to create these inaugural license plates? Whatever they used must have been effective, because the images still look good after sixty-odd years. That’s right, they look great. But that question is out of my league, that’s all I can say.

My best guess–and it’s definitely a guess–is someone on the first Eisenhower-Nixon inaugural committee either created the printing process or knew the company that did, and told the committee members about it, and they went for it. That’s as likely to be the case as anything. Or it could have been curiosity–“I wonder if we can get their photographs onto a plate?” As far as I know, it was never used outside those two inaugurals.

Did both lots of inaugural plates come from the same consigner? Yes.

Do we know how long the consigner had them? As far as I’m aware, he had them in the 70s.

Lot 2008, the inaugural license plate issued to Eisenhower for his second ceremony, consists of one plate. Do we know where its mate is? Might the Eisenhower family have kept it? That’s not out of the question, but it’s not known what happened to the other plate.

The condition of the 1957 Eisenhower inaugural license plate is rated at 9.0. What does that mean? Morphy’s has a way of grading plates that is not widely used [among license plate collectors]. A 10 would be perfect. In the world of license plates, we give letters: F for fair, G for good, EX for excellent.

How does the 9.0 translate into a grade on the letter scale? Probably very good (VG) to very good plus (VG+). All the plates in those two lots are nice. One [one of the two Nixon plates from 1953] has a slight distortion of a bolt hole that brings it down a bit [to an 8.5 rating]. But a VG+ plate is still a beautiful plate, or it should be.

Inaugural license plates issued to presidents and vice presidents weren’t left on the cars for long. But do collectors like to see some wear on them? Something that proves they were actually on a car that a president or vice president rode in during an inaugural parade? My answer is absolutely. You want a little bit of road dust to prove it was on the road.

As I was preparing my questions, my nine-year-old pointed out to me that the two men are smiling on the 1953 inaugural license plate and aren’t smiling on the 1957 plate. Does that matter at all to collectors? Or is the 1953 a bit more valuable because it’s from the first Eisenhower-Nixon inaugural? [Laughs] I got a kick out of that. I think it’s perfect that a nine-year-old made that observation. Though it probably has no significance whatsoever, it’s a fascinating observation.

It is kind of startling to see Nixon smiling. That doesn’t strike me as being his natural state. And you can see these guys age a ton in those four years.

The Eisenhower lot consists of a single inaugural license plate from 1957. The Nixon lot has both plates from 1953, the first inaugural. Both lots have the same estimate: $3,000 to $6,000. Why? Can you explain why things shake out this way? Number one is more desirable than number two. As a result, a single inaugural plate from a president compares to a pair from the vice president.

What are the inaugural license plates like in person? They’re more substantial than modern plates, which are made of aluminum. These plates are steel, and the plates were made from steel up to the 1980s.

What’s the world auction record for an inaugural license plate? Might one of these lots set a new record? The record would have to be an FDR 1933 plate. I think it’s possible one of these could set a record. It’s a matter of who tunes in. [Since this story went live, the folks at Hake’s pointed me to what appears to be the world auction record: A set of inaugural plates that graced President Ronald Reagan’s parade car in 1981. The set sold for almost $15,000 in 2005 at Hake’s.]

How to bid: The 1957 Eisenhower inaugural plate is lot 2008 in the Automobilia & Petroliana sale at Morphy Auctions on May 13 and 14, 2020. The pair of 1953 Nixon inaugural plates is lot 2009.

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Magician Johnny Thompson’s Cups and Balls Set Could Fetch $4,000 (Updated May 3, 2020)

The late magician Johnny Thompson's personal set of cups and balls could command $4,000 at Potter & Potter.

Update: Magician Johnny Thompson’s customized set of cups and balls sold for $14,400.

What you see: Magician Johnny Thompson’s cups and balls set. Potter & Potter estimates it at $2,000 to $4,000.

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

Who was Johnny Thompson, and what made him stand out from his magician peers? Whatever the job required, he was not only capable, but supremely capable. He was a general practitioner of magic, in a sense. He could do it all–trade shows, amusement parks, Las Vegas stages, cabaret, the Playboy club circuit–and he really could do it well.

I understand he was good at both close-up magic and stage magic, and that’s relatively rare? Thompson was an extremely talented close-up performer, but his stage act is what everybody knew him for, and which he did the most: The Great Tomsoni and Company.

Being good at both close-up and stage magic… is that the magician’s version of being ambidextrous? Do many magicians do both? More than you’d think, but usually, you find your strength and stick with it. Not many are at the level that Johnny Thompson was.

How important was the cups and balls routine to Johnny Thompson’s act? It was one of his signature pieces. He managed to relate the stories of the people who influenced his magic and paid tribute to them during the performance.

The cups in Johnny Thompson's set are silver-plated and feature engravings of Egyptian hieroglyphs. At the time they were made, a tomb in Egypt was believed to picture men performing the cups and balls routine. The hieroglyphs on Thompson's cups appear to be purely decorative and do not replicate the famous, since-debunked ones in the scene in the tomb.

And how important is the cups and balls routine within the history of magic? It’s vital. It’s the… what would a good analogy be? It is the standard. People often say a magician can be judged by his facility with this routine. This is the raw stuff, vital stuff as far as magic is concerned. If you can master the routine, you truly have arrived. If you can develop your own cups and balls routine at a masterful level, it sets you in another class.

Do we know when the Johnny Thompson cups were made? I don’t. They were obviously made after the Charlie Miller cups were first put on the market, because they’re a modification of a commercially available product. I guess the 60s or the 70s. I don’t have an exact date.

Do we know who or what company made the Johnny Thompson cups? I don’t. The cups themselves are by Magic Inc., which was and still is a shop in Chicago. The cups were copper. Who silver-plated them and engraved them for him, I don’t know.

He didn’t leave behind any notes about when and who modified the cups for him? Not that we’ve been able to find. Even in the book about Johnny Thompson’s life, I don’t believe it mentions who the engraver or the silver-plater was.

And I take it that the balls and the imitation lemons are probably from Magic Inc.? It’s hard to know. The lemons are some sort of latex or rubber. They’re solid. He kept performing until the year he passed away. He could have added [new sets of balls and lemons] at any time.

Thompson's cups and balls set includes imitation lemons, which he would produce during the finale.

The cups were originally all-copper. Why might Johnny Thompson have had them silver-plated? Does the contrast of the silver outside and copper inside make the routine easier to perform, or more interesting to watch? I don’t think it has any effect on the actual trick as performed or viewed by an audience. He was paying homage to Dai Vernon, who had his own spectacular engraved set of cups–it was a tip of the hat to him.

The lot notes say that Johnny Thompson “paid tribute to his forebears: Max Malini, Pop Krieger, Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, and Jacob Daley” in his routine. How did he do that? Those were people, some he knew and some he didn’t, who shaped the way that the trick was done in the 19th and 20th centuries. He swept them together into a narrative about these men. He actually performed as them. He would assume their stance, their posture, their voices, and perform the routine as if he were them. His imitation of Dai Vernon was very, very funny. [A circa 1979 video shows Thompson performing the cups and balls, celebrating each man in turn. The cups and balls performance starts at 2:13, but a close-up shot at 3:33 makes it clear that Thompson is not using the set in the auction.]

It looks like the Johnny Thompson cups are engraved with Egyptian hieroglyphs. Do the hieroglyphs carry a message? Can they be translated? Or are they just decorative? I have not attempted to translate them, but for years it was assumed an Egyptian tomb showed men performing the cups and balls. [That theory] has been discredited in the last 20 years or so. They’re probably doing something else. But the cups and balls is an ancient feat, and one of the most fundamental magic tricks there is. Some postulate that it’s the first trick. There’s no way to state that with ultimate certainty, but it’s a pretty basic trick, and certainly, people performed it in ancient times, if not in Egyptian times.

Johnny Thompson's cups were originally all-copper, but he had them silver-plated and engraved with images of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

When this set of cups and balls was customized, the Egyptian tomb was believed to show people performing the earliest known magic trick. Are the hieroglyphs on the Johnny Thompson cups the same as those on the wall of that tomb? They do not appear to be. They appear to be entirely different. They probably are Egyptian hieroglyphs. They look entirely authentic. But they’re not the ones that people thought for years were men performing the cups and balls.

Was this Johnny Thompson’s favorite set of cups and balls? Did he usually perform with it? He would have used it all the time, but I don’t know if it was his favorite. Certainly, it was one of his favorite effects, and it was one of his signature pieces.

I understand there was or is a second set of Johnny Thompson cups and balls. Do we know where it is? There was a second set, but it’s a different shape. I don’t know where it is.

The Johnny Thompson cups and balls set appears in his 2018 two-volume book, The Magic of Johnny Thompson. Does that make the set more interesting to collectors? I think it does, a fair amount. Here’s his signature piece, recorded for all posterity in the book. He’s literally teaching you how to do the routine [with this set]. I think it adds quite a lot.

What is the Johnny Thompson cups and balls set like in person? Are there details that the camera doesn’t capture? There’s a functionality to them, but also an aesthetic interest. They’re not just plain cups, and they are substantial.

Penn and Teller are the filter through which I view magic, and they do a cups and balls routine with red Solo cups and clear plastic cupsIt’s interesting to note that Thompson worked with them on, essentially, every routine in [their] show. He’s the third man, so to speak. Thompson was behind the scenes, contributing to the art form. He developed material for Criss Angel, Mat Franco, and Lance Burton. He was the guy you could count on. His list of credits could literally fill a book.

Do you perform the cups and balls routine? Have you tried performing with the Johnny Thompson cups and balls set? I haven’t tried doing it with this set. When I considered myself an entertainer, I did do the cups and balls, but those kinds of things are best left to the professionals.

Have you spoken with others who have had a chance to work with the Johnny Thompson cups and balls set? Before the COVID-19 crisis closed the office, we had a few magicians here who had a chance to look at the cups. Their response was visceral. It certainly got a rise out of them. They were definitely affected by them. They’re little talismans.

Have you sold sets of cups and balls that belonged to any of the five magicians Johnny Thompson included in his routine? We’ve sold more than one set that Dai Vernon owned, but the silver-engraved set that’s so famous is held by a private collection. And we’ve sold cups and balls from Pop Krieger.

Why will this set of Johnny Thompson cups and balls stick in your memory? I’m in a curious position, personally. I know people whose material I sell. Johnny Thompson gave a lecture for magicians in Chicago in April 2018, after his book came out. Afterward, he came up to me, gave me a hug and a kiss, and said, “If anything happens to me, you sell this stuff and make sure my wife gets the money.” Now here it is, happening. It’s very different from getting a letter from an estate or an institution. I am by no means one of Johnny Thompson’s great friends. but we were friends. That’s why it will stick in my memory. He entertained me with the cups and balls like he entertained tens of thousands of people. It’s poignant and bizarre at the same time.

How to bid: Magician Johnny Thompson’s cups and balls set is lot 470 in the May Magic Auction at Potter & Potter on May 2, 2020.

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Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a vintage Harry Houdini postcard from the magician’s personal collectionan oversize Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, 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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A Liberty Cap Flag Finial That Was Hoisted at the Pratt Street Riot, an Early Clash During the Civil War, Could Command $25,000 (Updated April 29)

A Liberty cap flag finial that was hoisted during the Pratt Street Riot, one of the earliest deadly incidents of the Civil War, could sell for $25,000.

Update: The Liberty cap flag finial sold for $18,750.

What you see: A painted tinware and zinc Liberty cap flag finial that was part of one of the earliest deadly incidents of the Civil War–the Pratt Street Riot of April 1861. Freeman’s estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.

The Expert: Lynda Cain, vice president and department head for American furniture, folk and decorative arts at Freeman’s.

How often do you see an antique flag finial that’s worth anything on its own? Are other flag finials of the period as visually interesting as this one? It clearly looks like a parade finial, meant for parades and political things. Figural pieces like this are very rare. This is the only example I’ve seen like this. I don’t know that anyone has seen one like this.

How would this Liberty cap flag finial have been used? It’s meant to be raised on the top of a flagpole. With this one, it has a history of being raised and used. The only others I’ve seen like this have been political lanterns [used in torchlight parades].

Would this have been a common, easily obtainable decorative piece in the mid-19th century? Or was it closer to handmade? I don’t know. In the mid-19th century, there were all sorts of companies making political and military material. It was popular, especially lanterns, and especially at mid-century. At the same time, many [metal] weathervanes were made. The finial is tin and zinc. It’s rather sophisticated.

So, a company that made weathervanes might also have made something like this Liberty cap flag finial? It could have. A very talented tinsmith made it.

So it’s not homebrew. No, no.

Could you talk a bit about the Liberty cap form, and the symbolic significance of the Liberty cap? It traces its origins to antiquity. It was originally from Anatolia, in Turkey. People who the Romans considered barbarians wore this kind of cap. They were a free-spirited people. Later, freed slaves in Rome wore the cap to indicate they were free citizens. You even see it in Roman statuary. But we most closely associate it with the French Revolution. Today, it’s used on many state crests, and on the panoply of arms of the U.S. Army. It’s become one with liberty.

Is the Liberty cap flag finial solid? It’s hollow.

What do I see dangling from the end of the Liberty cap flag finial? It looks like a tassel, but it’s gilded heavy wire.

What might the tassel material have looked like when the Liberty cap flag finial was new? I think it probably looked a bit more like a tassel, and the paint would have been brighter and fresher.

The tassel-like stuff at the back wouldn’t have been longer? Maybe it was a bit longer, but the gilt is pretty much there.

This Liberty cap flag finial was carried by someone at what became known as the Pratt Street Riot, in 1861. What was the Pratt Street Riot? It was in the very early days of the Civil War, five days after Fort Sumter was surrendered. A Massachusetts regiment was headed to Washington, D.C. to defend the capital. They had to change trains in Baltimore, and they had to move from one train to another. A crowd gathered that was unhappy.

And the crowd would have been supporters of the South? They were definitely on the side of the South, this group of people. They followed the soldiers to the trains, and there was kind of a stand-off. Supposedly in this group, the finial was on the flagpole, flying a Southern flag, but it wasn’t really an official Southern flag at that moment. Shots were fired, and people were killed, along with innocent bystanders. They were the first casualties of the Civil War. Someone has inscribed the finial on the front: “From the staff of which the Rebel Flag was carried on April 19th 1861 in Baltimore Md. in the attack on the Mass 6th.” [A total of 11 civilians and five soldiers died in the incident.]

A detail shot of the Liberty cap flag finial that displays the inked inscription, which reads: "From the staff of which the Rebel Flag was carried on April 19th 1861 in Baltimore Md. in the attack on the Mass 6th."

I see a lot of nicks and dings on the painted surface of the Liberty cap flag finial. Is that the wear you would expect from a metal piece of this vintage, or do these nicks and dings represent damage it may have received during the Pratt Street Riot? We don’t know any of those things. We don’t know anything about when it was carried at the Pratt Street Riot. The consigner, who is a Pennsylvanian on the Main Line, purchased it from a couple, and it did descend in their family. He probably purchased it about 15 years ago.

So there’s no way to be sure that the paint loss we see on the Liberty cap flag finial was caused by being knocked around at the Pratt Street Riot? We don’t know. We can’t really call it ephemera, but I don’t think it was put on a pedestal. It could have been beat up. It could have been in other parades. We don’t know.

People didn’t have much of a collecting mentality in 1861. Why might someone have kept this Liberty cap flag finial and recorded its role in the Pratt Street Riot directly on it? You’ve got to remember, there were early collectors, who had the idea that the [American] centennial was not too far away. There were people who hung on to things, and they did save things from the Civil War. Things were retained and treasured.

Depending on when the inscription was written, couldn’t it have been evidence of the Liberty cap flag finial having been present at the scene of a violent crime? We don’t know when the inscription was put on. It could have been the late 19th century. It’s not uncommon to have it done later or at the time. So many times, we see notes on things, pinned to an object because they wanted to keep the history with the piece.

So we don’t have any idea who inked the inscription on the Liberty cap flag finial, or when they might have done it? I can’t tell, but it looks like 19th-century handwriting to me.

Do we have any notion of why the person who inscribed it wrote directly on the white part of the Liberty cap flag finial? I suppose they put it there because it’s the largest flat surface. At the back, it’s sort of ridged. And I think it shows on the white part. They could have put the inscription on the underside, but I don’t think they thought about where they were making it. They really wanted to make the point that it was an important piece, [that it was] at the Pratt Street Riot. That meant more to the person who marked it than anything else. They wanted to make it permanent.

What is the Liberty cap flag finial like in person? It’s very cool, just a fabulous object. It looks sculptural, really amazing. I’ve just never seen anything like this.

What’s it like to handle this piece? It’s kind of chubby on the bottom, and it tapers. It’s got a nice feel to it, a nice weight.

A head-on full shot of the Liberty cap flag finial, dating to the mid-19th century, rendered in tin and zinc, and painted in bands of red, white, and blue.

Is that pole-like whitish thing sticking out from the bottom of the Liberty cap flag finial part of the piece, or is it just something you placed it on to photograph it? It’s all attached. The extension is part of it. There’s a conical section that’s been hollowed out [at the bottom of the extension]. The pole goes into that.

What comparables did you look to when writing the estimate for the Liberty cap flag finial? I didn’t find any. It may be unique. It’s got a great presence. It’s a very rare object. Is it a folk art object? Almost. It’s political history, it’s military history. It’s an extreme rarity. And it’s a Liberty cap, a symbol of liberty since ancient times–an inescapable association. It’s significant as a piece of Americana. $15,000 to $25,000 is not crazy.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? I’ve never seen one like it. [Laughs.] I find it highly satisfying. As a hat form, I think it’s a fabulous object. It really does look like a Liberty cap. Whoever created this did a magnificent job of creating the appearance of a soft cap out of tin. You can see the lines where it folds over, as if it’s a soft material. I think it’s remarkable. I’m hoping another will come out of the woodwork. It’s always good to find another one, I think.

How to bid: The Liberty cap flag finial is lot 95 in the American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts sale taking place at Freeman’s on April 28, 2020.

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Lynda Cain previously spoke to The Hot Bid about an 1858 Know-Nothing American flag and a mid-19th century Franklin Fire Company parade hat.

Images are courtesy of Freeman’s.

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A Wilson Franks Baseball Cards Complete Set on a Single Uncut Sheet Could Command $20,000

A complete set of 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards on an uncut sheet could command $20,000.

What you see: An uncut sheet of 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards, representing the complete set of 20 cards. Robert Edward Auctions (REA) estimates it at $20,000.

The expert: Brian Dwyer, president of REA.

What was the Wilson Franks company? Does this 1954 series of baseball cards represent its only foray into offering baseball cards as promotional items? Yes. Wilson Franks was in the hot dog business and produced a 20-card set, packaged with its hot dogs.

How rare is it to come across any uncut sheet of baseball cards? The older the set, the more difficult it is, generally, to find sheets. The 70s and 80s are much more plentiful in uncut form. The 50s are largely devoid of uncut sheets.

The lot notes say the 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards are “highly prized by collectors as one of the most attractive and desirable of all 1950s regional issues.” Could you elaborate? It’s a very colorful set. For 20 cards, 17 of them have non-white, colored backgrounds–bright blue, yellow, purple. It’s very visually appealing, featuring prominent images of the players and images of a floating package of franks near the player. The color, the rarity, and the design makes them prized.

Do you know how the Wilson Franks baseball cards were received when they were new? It’s hard to say what people thought of them in 1954, but I know in our hobby, Wilson Franks cards are universally regarded as tough to find. I don’t imagine they were heavily produced or distributed over a wide area.

And I take it that because Wilson Franks never did a second set, the baseball cards didn’t work out for them? Yeah. A lot of the time, they’re done as promotional vehicles. If they don’t drive sales or engage customers, they’d move on to something different.

I understand that baseball cards issued in a set of 20 are unusual–it’s more typical to have 100 or more. Does its relatively small size make the 1954 Wilson Franks baseball card set more interesting to collectors? I would say that the smaller size makes it a set that collectors… I struggle to say “easily”, because they are tough to collect even still, but 20 makes it a manageable set, if you’re up to the challenge. If it was 200, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to manage.

The best-known way to collect baseball cards is by purchasing a pack with a stick of gum inside. Wilson Franks sold hot dogs. It makes logical sense that a hot dog company might try giving away baseball cards–people go to a game and eat hot dogs. How many other hot dog companies did what Wilson Franks did? There are a number of companies outside of the bubblegum world that tried the promotional vehicle of baseball cards. Hunter Wieners did players’ pictures on the side of their boxes. Briggs Meats and Rodeo Meats offered baseball cards as well. All date to the early 1950s. Kahn’s, a meat company, had the longest and most successful run with baseball cards, from 1955 through the 1970s. But bubblegum is the main product associated with baseball cards.

How rarely do complete cut sets of the 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards come to auction? Ironically, we have one in the current auction. It’s a unique pairing to have a complete set as issued alongside its uncut form. Complete sets show up relatively frequently. You might see one or two sets a year if you’re lucky.

How many uncut sheets of 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards have you seen or handled? We’ve handled two and seen two others. There are probably no more than … ten would be the high estimate.

While this is a visually compelling set of baseball cards, I see some flaws. The designer could have done a better job of working the package of hot dogs into each card–too often, it hovers awkwardly near the player. And Ted Williams appears to have lost his bat. Do collectors care about these things, or do they find them charming? They are what they are. To some collectors, there’s a charm to the lack of sophistication [in the design], the quirky charm of floating meat. They look past any issues with the images.

Am I seeing the Ted Williams card correctly? I can’t blow up the thumbnail as big as I’d like. Is his bat in fact missing? The knob is visible in his hands. An argument can be made that the bat should intersect with the area between his head and the hot dogs.

Is it possible that the designer took the bat out to make room for the hot dogs and never put it back in? We don’t have the true [source] image, so it’s hard to say where the bat should be positioned. It’s possible it was removed entirely for design purposes.

What’s your favorite baseball card in this group, or your favorite detail? I’ve always liked the Ted Williams card for its simplicity. It’s one of only three in the set with a white background. I like the Ted Williams because it’s a clean card, but the Roy Campanella is my favorite. It’s him in a catching position, with a bright-color background. It sums up baseball to me.

What is this uncut sheet of 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards like in person? Are there any aspects that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? Aside from its size–it’s 19 inches tall by 10 1/2 inches wide–every other detail carries over accurately online. In person, you’re struck by the size, but on a computer, the colors and the images translate perfectly.

Do we know how this particular sheet of uncut Wilson Franks baseball cards survived? And in general, what sorts of things have to happen to allow a full sheet of circa 1950s uncut baseball cards to survive intact? We see a number of different paths for uncut sheets. Some are strictly excess. We’ve heard stories about them being rescued from Dumpsters at the end of projects. We’ve heard stories about executives taking them home. We’ve heard about pressmen taking a sheet home. There are a number of different circumstances. Normally, they fall in one of two categories. One is discarded, then saved, and two is purposefully saved by an executive, an art department, or someone associated with the production of the cards, and later put into circulation as a collectible.

But we don’t know the story behind the survival of the sheet you’re offering currently? Correct.

The uncut sheet of Wilson Franks baseball cards is described as being in “Overall Very Good Condition”. What does that mean here? It takes into consideration all aspects of the sheet and cards. The evaluation is much different than a single card that we might sell. “Very Good” means it presents well, but it’s not without flaws. There are spots of paper loss on the back, and evidence of an adhesive strip along the top edge. And due to its size, it has creasing, and abrasions around the edges.

The reverse of the 1954 Wilson Franks uncut sheet of baseball cards shows stats and facts for all 20 players, as well as some minor damage to the paper.

As we speak on April 9, ten days before the auction closes, the sheet of Wilson Franks baseball cards has been bid up to $6,250. Does that mean anything at this stage? It’s only meaningful in the sense that there’s good early interest in it. Ten days out is still very early in the process. We expect more bids, but it’s a good early start for something that should sell in the $15,000 to $20,000 range.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s the first one I’ve personally handled, and it’s very neat anytime something this rare crosses your desk. It sticks out. It’s a tough-to-find set and it’s got an iconic Ted Williams card. Seeing it in one piece, uncut, is pretty special.

How to bid: The 1954 Wilson Franks uncut sheet of baseball cards is lot 1110 in the Spring 2020 auction at REA, closing on April 19, 2020.

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Image is courtesy of Robert Edward Auctions.

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An Untitled David Hammons Work from 1965 Could Command $180,000 (Updated June 4, 2020)

An untitled David Hammons work depicting shackles disappearing from the wrists of a pair of raised fists. The exceptionally early work by the noted contemporary artist could sell for $180,000 or more.

Update: The untitled David Hammons work sold for $137,000.

What you see: An untitled David Hammons paper collage and tempera on board from 1965. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $120,000 to $180,000.


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

Who is David Hammons? He’s a very interesting artist, a contemporary artist, still living and working. He’s an interesting artist because he uses many different media and makes them his own. And there is socio-political commentary in his work, about the African-American experience or something larger than the object itself. He’s an artist who’s seen a meteoric rise in his value in the last ten years. Some of his most famous works are performance pieces. He once set up a blanket on the streets of New York and sold snowballs. He’s had a long career, and he’s part of a group of contemporary artists who are highly prized by collectors.

Where was David Hammons in his career in 1965? He was a young artist then, in Los Angeles, working with other artists in starting to explore non-traditional art mediums.

David Hammons made this work in 1965, while he was still a student.  He gave it to a roommate, possibly as a wedding present.

But this untitled David Hammons work is a more traditional work–paper collage and tempera on masonite board… That speaks to its early beginnings as a student living in Los Angeles, starting his odyssey. He didn’t settle into the work we know today until the late 1960s. It’s exciting because it’s an early work, but with a quality that’s very much his own.

What was the state of the black power movement in Los Angeles in 1965, in the wake of the Watts riots? Do we know if and how aware Hammons was of such things? I’m no social historian, but it was a politically active time. I think it would have been impossible for someone of his position not to be affected by the political and social climate of the time. 1965 was definitely an important time in the civil rights movement. Black power was more of a recognized movement in the later 1960s. To relate it to another piece, Elizabeth Catlett did a piece with raised fists after the 1968 Olympic [athlete protest] in Mexico City. This raised fist is about struggle and a symbol of freedom. I don’t know if it was a political symbol then as it would be later.

Could you discuss the significance of this raised fist image? It’s not one raised fist. It’s two raised fists, bound by shackles. It’s hard to see–the shackles are disappearing. You can just make it out in the paper collage. The moment [portrayed] is just as the fists are freed. It’s obviously a powerful symbol as we look at it now.

Do we know anything about why David Hammons might have made this particular image in 1965? It’s hard to know the artist’s intent without speaking to him, but 1965 was a turbulent time. In that period, everything had a political meaning, especially for African-American students. It’s something you can’t separate from the political and social meaning. This is about breaking free, and freedom and liberty. It’s very much a product of its time.

David Hammons was a student when he made this untitled work. Might he have done it for a class assignment? That I don’t know. I think he was very much an independent-thinking person. He gave this as a wedding present to a friend who was his roommate at the time.

It was a wedding present? An image of shackled fists being freed is kind of a weird choice when you’re celebrating people binding themselves to one another. [Laughs] I didn’t think about that aspect. Maybe there’s a joke there. Maybe it’s not meant to relate to the wedding. Who knows? This person lived with the artist, and they shared a lot. I don’t think Hammons was making a comment on his friend’s ceremony. The owner and the artist kept in touch. There’s only been one owner [of this work]. It was a personal gift at an early point in Hammons’s career. It speaks to their relationship, and their time together.

Is this untitled 1965 David Hammons work the first instance of him portraying a raised fist? I haven’t seen anything like this from this period, so it could be.

How does the raised fist show up in his work in later years? It does show up, but what’s interesting about this artwork is not just the subject, but the medium. David Hammons developed a body of work based on the body. He made body prints where the face, the hands, part of the body would be covered with what almost looked like margarine, pressed against pigment and pressed on paper. Yves Klein and Robert Rauschenberg have done similar works. It’s printmaking, with your body as the block. The prints hold up well. In the early to mid-1970s, Hammons added collage. This piece is a window into what would become his first major body of work.

Are the hands and arms in this untitled David Hammons work life-size, as they are in his body prints? They’re pretty close, yeah. They might be a bit bigger.

So you can draw a direct line between this untitled David Hammons work and his series of body prints? That’s what’s exciting about this piece. Collage is part of it, and the painting is a very direct, simple representation of the body and disappearing shackles.

Could you discuss how David Hammons chose to portray and compose the hands and shackles in this untitled work? The hands are direct and outlined in black. They’re the only part that got a heavy outline. There’s no outline for the shackles. They kind of disappear. The heavy black outline is what makes a statement. It has a bold quality to it.

Could you also talk about the colors David Hammons chose? The brown of the arms seems to blend in with the frame… [Laughs] We included the frame because it set off the work really nicely. It’s hard to talk about the colors without having another work to compare it to. In the body prints, there are very few colors. He’s trying to be very direct. Not until the 70s does he use more colors and become more painterly. It’s all about the image, I think.

What is this untitled David Hammons piece like in person? Are there aspects of it that don’t show up on camera? I do think in person the collage is more apparent. It’s made of see-through pieces of paper, almost tissue paper, and the paper is glued down. The tactile quality of the paper and how it’s made is more apparent in person.

Is the effect of the disappearing shackles more obvious in person? It still is kind of subtle in person. It takes a moment to make out where the links of the chain are. You can make out the shapes because the shapes are there in the paper. If it was on flat white paper, the shapes may have been raised. Here, he’s able to suggest shapes, though there’s no outline.

What condition is the untitled David Hammons piece in? It’s in very good condition. There appears to be no significant defects or damage. It’s had one owner and it’s held up very well. It looks good.

David Hammons is notoriously private. How has that affected the secondary market for his work? He has not followed the traditional path of being associated with one gallery or dealer. He has worked with galleries to mount exhibits, but he has no direct representation. He’s charted his own course. He has a mystique about being an outlier, an independent person, a mystery. He’s had a fascinating career, doing it his way, and now his work is among the most sought-after contemporary works today.

What’s the world auction record for a piece by David Hammons? The current sales record was set at Phillips in November 2013 by an untitled piece, a basketball backboard chandelier from 2000. It sold for $8.5 million.

How might this early David Hammons untitled piece do? His works sell for millions of dollars on the primary market today. If something like that [his world auction record] came back to the market today, it would be [sell for] considerably higher. We’ve had body prints of his. Typically, they sell for six figures or up to a million for complex or large ones. This is such an early work and a different work, not a body print. It’s something else. That’s where my estimate is.

What’s the world auction record for a David Hammons body print? Was it set at Swann? No, it was another auction house. It was an untitled mixed media collage from 1975 that sold at Sotheby’s in November 2017 for $1.6 million.

So the world auction record David Hammons piece is untitled, and the record for a David Hammons body print is untitled, and this piece is untitled, too. Does David Hammons usually decline to title his works? Rarely is there a title. Most body prints are untitled, and I think with early works, there are few if any titles.

Why will this untitled David Hammons piece stick in your memory? Because it’s a really strong image by David Hammons. It’s unusual, it’s strong, and it’s an early work that gives us a window into the development of a young artist who would go on to do incredible work. It’s very interesting, very exciting.

How to bid: The 1965 untitled David Hammons piece is lot 69 in the African-American Fine Art sale scheduled for June 4, 2020 at Swann Galleries. (The original auction date was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.)

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

Swann Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter.

Nigel Freeman spoke to The Hot Bid previously about an Irene V. Clark painting from the Johnson Publishing Company collectionan 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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A Jim Dine Screen Could Sell for $9,000

A limited edition screen, created in 1969 by Jim Dine. Shown in full, each of the five panels depicts a different aspect of the outdoors: a blue sky, a yellow field, green grass, a black starry night, and a rainbow.

What you see: A Jim Dine landscape screen, created in a limited edition of 30 in 1969. Wright estimates it at $7,000 to $9,000.

The expert: Richard Wright, CEO of Rago/Wright.

Who is Jim Dine, and what makes his work compelling? Jim Dine is a pretty famous artist. He starts working in the late 1950s and very early 1960s, and participates in the very first Happenings in New York City. His work is not really Pop Art, but there’s Pop Art sensibilities in early work of his. He’s famous for his heart paintings and his bathrobe prints. Dine’s art is very human. It’s about being alive. To me, there’s a sense of joy and wonder about the world in the screen. The panels refer to the sky, the grass, a rainbow, and–it’s open to interpretation–a starry night.

How prolific is Jim Dine? Has anyone done a catalogue raisonné on him? There might be a catalogue raisonné of his prints and multiples. This screen is a multiple [an artwork deliberately produced in a series of identical pieces]. He’s a master printmaker from the early 1960s to today, and it’s a really important part of his output.

Is it fair to say he’s done several thousand artworks over his seven-decade career? Oh yes, sure.

Where was Jim Dine in his career in 1969, when he made this limited edition screen? By 1969, I think he’d left New York and was coming into his very personal style. The colors and the mood of this piece is pretty 1960s. It’s of its place and time.

Do we know how he came to make this limited edition screen? I don’t. He’s definitely always worked in prints, and done other multiples. I don’t know of other screens he’s done.

A detail shot of the Jim Dine screen, showing his signature on the yellow panel.

What can we tell, just by looking, about how challenging this Jim Dine screen might have been to make? It’s a screenprint, published by Petersburg Press, London. It’s all individual panels hinged together. I don’t think it was that complicated. It’s a screenprint on linen canvas, so it gives the feel of a painting. It’s always interesting when an artist conceives of a painting in three dimensions. He could have had it [the screen] totally flat, have it read as 2-D. The fact that it can stand freely in space… painters want [their works to be] strong enough to get off the wall. That’s what this does. It has the presence of a painting in space.

Do you think that’s what Jim Dine was trying to achieve here–a painting in space? I do. There’s no reason to pursue a folding screen other than wanting to be out in space, a divider standing apart from the wall.

Is the Jim Dine screen double-sided? It is double-sided.

Did he design it and hand it off to others to fabricate, or was he physically involved in the creation of the limited edition? I think he designed the prototype and handed it off for production. He would have overseen the final production and okayed it by signing it.

What motifs and details present in the Jim Dine screen appear in his later work? Definitely the rainbow. There’s a great little rainbow painting in the Whitney’s permanent collection–The Black Rainbow, from 1959 to 1960. I don’t know how long he used the motif, but he definitely used it throughout the 1960s.

Another detail shot of the Jim Dine screen, showing the starry night and rainbow panels.

In what ways is this Jim Dine screen typical of his work, and in what ways is it atypical? I don’t think he did a lot of screens. The screen, in and of itself, is atypical. It feels to me, looking at it, as pretty identifiable as Jim Dine. The color palette and the juxtaposition of imagery feels like his work.

Is the color palette part of his visual signature? I think, from the 1960s, yes. Again, there’s a kind of Pop-iness to the color palette and the way it’s put together–blue to yellow to green to black to rainbow–the colors are almost banging up against each other, a cacophony of color. He uses color in an almost riotous way, almost a discordant way.

In prepping for this story, I found a 2017 Chicago Reader article in which Dine was quoted as saying, “I’ve always viewed my work as self-portraits, no matter what it’s been.” Do you think that holds true here? If so, in what ways might the screen serve as a Jim Dine self-portrait? Yes, I think it’s kind of what I said about his work being very human. I think his work is less about him and more about being alive, the essence of the vitality of life. The landscape screen [reflects] all hours of day and night. The rainbow is up against what I think is a night sky. Summer grass is up against yellow and a blue sky. Obviously it’s not literally a self-portrait. I read it as the feeling of being alive and outside, of being in the world and seeing it all.

What is the Jim Dine screen like in person? Are there any aspects or details that the camera doesn’t pick up? In person, you get the nice texture of the canvas, which gives more warmth than you would get with paper. And you get the height–it’s six feet high. It has a bodily presence as well.

The photos make the Jim Dine screen seem cheerful-looking. Is it a mood-lifter in person? Particularly now, with everyone stuck in place because of COVID-19? [Laughs] Yeah. Again, what I value about his work is his sense of humanity. In a time of social isolation, you feel the joy of feeling alive. It can be one of the hardest things to tune in to and be aware of. The screen reminds you to look at the sky, the grass, take a deep breath, smell the earth. It’s all pretty real stuff.

The Jim Dine screen shown in full, folded, with the rainbow panel prominent.

How heavy is the Jim Dine screen? It’s easy to move around. One person can move it, but I haven’t actually moved it.

This Jim Dine screen is number three in an edition of 30. How often do they tend to come to market? On the world-wide auction market, it appears roughly once in 18 months.

This particular screen was owned by Gene Summers, who was a friend of Jim Dine. Does that provenance make it more interesting to collectors? Gene was a dear friend of Jim and wanted to buy one example of everything he produced in prints and multiples. Summers was an architect, and he worked with Dine on hotels and restaurants. It’s always wonderful when something is acquired directly from an artist by someone who had a long relationship with him, and has never been on the market. I don’t want to overstate it. It’s a multiple. I don’t know if [the provenance] adds that much. But if you’re a connoisseur, it’s a really great one, and it has a story that’s quite nice.

What condition is the Jim Dine screen in? It’s definitely in very good condition. With careful use, it’s pretty easy to maintain the condition of this piece.

In your experience, do clients use the Jim Dine screen as a screen, or do they treat it more like a work of art? Kind of both. I think a lot use it against a wall, or up against a window that shows another building, or in an ugly corner, creative uses like that.

What’s the world auction record for this Jim Dine screen? It was $15,000, set at Swann in May 2015.

Why will this Jim Dine screen stick in your memory? We’re dealing with Gene Summers’ family. I never got to know Gene personally, but I’ve worked with the widow and the extended family. I’ll remember the piece because it was part of Gene’s life. That’s how it stays with me.

How to bid: The Jim Dine landscape screen is lot 128 in the Art + Design Part 1 sale taking place at Wright on April 9, 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.

Richard Wright has appeared on The Hot Bid previously, discussing a pair of Pedro Friedeberg Hand chairs that were offered in the same Rago auction, a record-setting Walter Dorwin Teague-designed Nocturne radio, a record-setting Isamu Noguchi table, and an Isamu Noguchi sculpture.

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A Beatles-signed Baseball from Their Final Concert Could Command $100,000

A baseball signed by all four Beatles at what would turn out to be their final live concert. Shown here is the George Harrison signature, which he rendered in green ink.

What you see: A baseball signed by all four of the Beatles at what proved to be their final official concert, performed on August 29, 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $80,000 to $100,000.


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

First off, how rare is it to find anything signed by all four of the Beatles? It’s fairly rare, but what’s rare about this is it’s a baseball.

How many baseballs are out there that were signed by all four Beatles? There are four known to exist.

Have you seen any of the other three? Yes. We sold one a couple of years ago for $100,000.

This isn’t the first baseball I’ve seen that’s signed by celebrities who don’t play baseball. Heck, I’m not even sure if any of the Beatles were into cricket, a distant British cousin of the sport. Why is this a thing–famous people who aren’t baseball players signing baseballs? This was the Beatles’ last U.S. concert tour, and the last performance on the tour, in Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The baseball is appropriate because the concert was in a baseball stadium. The nice thing about it for us is it’s not just Beatles collectors vying to own it, but sports collectors. Music collectors and sports collectors are the two biggest genres of collectors out there.

How did this Beatles-signed baseball come to be? Mike Murphy was a new employee in the clubhouse there in 1966. His sister, Anna, was a huge fan of the Beatles and asked him if he’d try to get tickets for her. He was new, so he didn’t want to rock the boat. He didn’t get her tickets. She stayed at home. He was working the concert and saw it was only half-sold, and he felt bad. He could have easily gotten tickets for his sister. He got the Spaulding baseball, and got each member of the Beatles to sign it and gifted it to Anna. But she had no interest in it. She had wanted to see the Beatles perform live. A baseball had no meaning to her. She threw it into a closet and it sat there for 35 years.

This Beatles-signed baseball is one of four known to sport a complete set of signatures. Shown here is the side with John Lennon's signature.

How did the Beatles-signed baseball leave Anna’s possession? Did she give it away? She sold it to collector Terry Flores, who knew her nephew. He acquired it from her in 2001.

It looks like the four Beatles didn’t use the same pen when they signed this ball–George Harrison’s signature is green, Paul McCartney’s is red, and the other two are in a more standard color of pen ink. Do we know why it shook out that way? It’s likely that whatever pen they had in hand at the time was used. One was red, and another was green. They always got requests to sign things backstage. They signed with whatever they had in hand.

A baseball signed by all four Beatles at what would turn out to be their final live concert, performed at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Shown here is the Paul McCartney signature, which he rendered in red ink.

You mentioned above that Candlestick Park was only half-full for the August 1966 Beatles concert. I realize no one knew at the time that it would end up being the last Beatles performance during a concert tour, but I have to admit I’m surprised that the show didn’t sell out, and didn’t come near selling out. Do we know why? The Asian tour [the Phillipines section of the Beatles’ 1966 tour] was sort of controversial. They snubbed the leaders of the Phillipines, but it wasn’t intentional. The government removed all police protection for them and all proceeds from the concert as well, and they got beaten up by people. George Harrison said, “We’re going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans.” Also, John Lennon had made the comment about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus” [in March 1966] and it caused a huge outcry, particularly below the Mason-Dixon line. There was negativity about the Beatles at the time.

And why did the August 29, 1966 show end up being the final official Beatles concert? I think they themselves felt they couldn’t do this anymore. They were jaded by it all. 100-watt amplifiers were designed to work great in the Cavern Club, but not for a stadium of 50,000 to 60,000 people. John Lennon would change the words [of songs as he sang live] because the audience couldn’t hear the words–that’s how bad the sound system was. Ringo would watch the backs of his three colleagues, their body movements, to get the rhythm. They weren’t able to work their craft, and [concert-goers weren’t able] to appreciate what they were performing. And there was a sense of… they were young guys, and if they weren’t touring, they were in the studio, recording. They wanted to live life.

What condition is the Beatles-signed baseball in? You have to keep in mind that the baseball is 54 years old, but it’s in good condition. Anna, who got it first, put it in a closet. It was not exposed to light, she wasn’t touching it, it stayed intact. The signatures are covered by a protective coating, so if you hold it in your hand, you won’t erase the signatures.

You’ve seen many sets of genuine Beatles signatures. Where would you rank this set? The quality is good. You can see it yourself online. You know exactly who’s signing. The George Harrison signature is especially legible.

I understand that the Ringo Starr signature had some conservation work. What was done? I’m not exactly sure. The signature has not been altered in any way. They’ve done something to it to make it more evident. It may have been fading. The signature, as an original, is intact.

Only four Beatles-signed baseballs exist. This one carries Beatles history as well, having been signed during what turned out to be their final concert. Shown here is the Ringo Starr signature.

The Beatles signatures are distributed over the surface of the ball, making it hard to show all four at once. How would you recommend displaying it? All four signatures is key. You don’t want to show just one. What we would advise is having a glass case, a cube case–it should be UV light protective–to go over the ball, and the ball could sit on a carousel and spin.

How did you set the estimate for this Beatles-signed baseball? We thought $80,000 to $100,000 was a fair estimate. Again, there are only four Beatles-signed baseballs, and it [the final Beatles concert] is a pretty historic event. Maybe it’s not their greatest moment, but it’s certainly a milestone. The baseball tells the story of what went down that night.

How does this Beatles-signed baseball compare to the other three? This one is historic because it’s so well-documented, and the provenance is so solid.

This same Beatles-signed baseball was in your May 2019 Beatles auction in Liverpool, and it’s coming up for sale again less than a year later. I understand that stuff happens–death, divorce, et cetera–but why is it coming back now, and how does its returning to auction relatively soon change your strategy for selling it? Yes, the buyer who bought Lot 111 in this upcoming sale bought it last year as an investment. It was reconsigned as we believe it will do better now even though it’s only a year later. The April 2020 auction is celebrating 50 years since the Beatles formally disbanded, and we anticipate, with the current climate and uncertainty in the stock market, our clients and investors are looking to diversify their portfolios. This baseball, signed by all four of the Beatles, is a tangible asset, a great conversation piece, and an important part of our pop culture history. We expect it will sell for a much higher amount on April 10.

Do you think it might set a new world auction record for a Beatles-signed baseball? Yes.

And this is only the second of the four Beatles-signed baseballs to go to auction, correct? You sold the other one that was auctioned? Yes. The two others are in private hands and haven’t come to auction.

And you think it will set a new record because of its connection to the final Beatles concert? Yes, and it’s in a Beatles-dedicated auction. It’s been 50 years since they disbanded on April 10, 1970. You can’t take away the music, you can’t take away the memories, you can’t take away from this item’s importance. It was signed by all four, and two are gone. You can’t get another baseball signed by the Beatles. It’s part of the storyline of what was happening with the Beatles at that time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with everything, auction schedules included. How will Julien’s conduct this sale? We won’t be gathering in the room, but it will be a live auction, with phone bids and online bids. There will be an auctioneer, and you can follow along online.

What is the Beatles-signed baseball like in person? Are there aspects or details that don’t come across on camera? No, but when I hold it–gently, to make sure I’m not touching the signatures–I think of the history it represents, and how incredible it is that it’s survived until now. It’s in pretty good nick, I must say.

How to bid: The Beatles-signed baseball is lot 111 in Julien’s Auctions sale, The Beatles at the Hard Rock, taking place April 10, 2020 in New York.

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Image is courtesy of Julien’s Auctions.

Martin Nolan previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Lucille guitar played on stage by B.B. King,  the “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to serenade JFKthe first TCB necklace given away by Elvis Presley, a purple Prince-worn tunic that the star donned for a 1998 BET interview, which yielded a famous GIF; a Joseff of Hollywood simulated diamond necklace worn by Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and several other Hollywood actresses, as well as a once-lost 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar belonging to John Lennon that sold for $2.4 million–a record for any guitar at auction.

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