A Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco Figure Could Command $24,000

A Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure, dubbed The Aristocrats and depicting a woman in medieval-esque clothing walking a pair of Borzoi dogs.

What you see: The Aristocrats, a cold-painted and carved ivory figural group in ivory and bronze on a green onyx base, created circa 1925 by Professor Otto Poertzel. Bonhams estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.

The expert: Gemma Sanders, head of the department of 20th century decorative arts and design at Bonhams.

Who was Professor Otto Poertzel? He was a successful German commercial artist. He’s best known for his Art Deco statuettes executed in bronze and ivory.

How did he get the title of “Professor”? The title was given to him in 1913 by Duke Carl Eduard, the last member of the ruling family of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He gave it possibly because Poertzel was a founding member of the Coburg Art Association. Perhaps the professor title was a nod to his academic associations.

Did Poertzel only create Art Deco statuettes, or did he work in other media as well? We know he honed his craft as a porcelain designer. He learned his craft in porcelain, as an apprentice. Once he was a commercial artist, he made large-scale public artworks in stone as well as statuettes for commercial production.

How prolific was Poertzel? It’s difficult to know exactly how many pieces he produced. He was as much a designer as an artist. As an auctioneer, I see his works less often than his contemporaries.

The Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure is described as “cold-painted”. What is cold-painting? It’s a way to apply color to a bronze after the casting process. Once it’s cold, the color can be applied.

It seems like there was a vogue for decorative figures and statuettes during the Art Deco period. Do we have any idea why they caught on then? It’s tricky. I don’t know why they took off or who was the first to produce the figures, but I know they were produced before the Art Deco period. Art Nouveau figures featured beautiful young women in flowing outfits, but with more gilt. The Art Deco period was about high-end materials and exotic, rare finishes. At the time, ivory was seen as the best material for intricate carving. I think the figures captured the glamorous, positive, upbeat feeling of the time.

Is this Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure unique, or was it part of an edition? We know it isn’t a one-off because others have come to market. I should stress that there have not been many–six in 20 years. Figures of this quality were expensive, even at that time. They were expensive because of the ivory components.

Do the other figures look identical to this one, or do they vary? I know examples where the hair is part of the bronze casting and examples where the hair is part of the ivory. And sometimes, there are contrasting details to the dress–the cold-painting might be different.

Where would something like this have been sold when it was new? They were most commonly offered in high-end department stores–Harrods, or that city’s equivalent. If one sold, another would have been requested from Priess Kassler [a foundry that produced the figures] or directly from the artist.

The Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure has a circa date of 1925. How do we know it was made around then? Does it have a date on its base? No. Other figures like it are very difficult to date. We use “circa 1925” for auction purposes. It could date to the mid-1920s, the late 1920s, the early 1930s, there’s no way of knowing.

I take it there’s no surviving production records? No, not for things like this.

This Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure is called “The Aristocrats”. Do we know how it got its name? Possibly it was given its name in the 1970s or 1980s, when these figures became popular again.

Do we know anything about how or why Professor Otto Poertzel created this particular Art Deco figure? We know he likes the medieval look. He adopted it for a few of his figures. The Borzoi dogs were fashionable at the time for their lean look. And in a book by Alberto Shayo, there’s an archival photo of Mrs. Edmund Guy at the Casino de Paris music hall that looks like her [the human figure in the group].

So Professor Otto Poertzel might have had that woman performer model for him for this figure? We don’t have images to back that up, but it’s what his contemporaries would have done. Demetre Chiparus had the Dolly Sisters model for him. Certainly, Poetzel would have had a model at the first part of the process. He would have sculpted his figure, and that figure would have been cast.

How involved might Poertzel have been with the creation of this Art Deco figure? Did he create the design and hand it off to others to fabricate, or did he participate in its physical creation? The design is certainly his. It’s not known if he carved every piece or was involved in the process, but it’s likely he had help with some of the processes. He was probably more involved because he was not as prolific as his contemporaries, and his ivory-carving is superior.

The quality of the carving on the ivory face convinces you that Poertzel personally did it? The face is exquisite–beautifully carved, and she’s actually a beautiful-looking woman. I see a lot [of these Art Deco figures], and others are not so good, not so real-looking. He is one of the best carvers. The quality is so good, I see it with only one other maker, Ferdinand Priess.

A detail shot of the female figure in Professor Otto Poertzel's The Aristocrats that shows off the quality of the carved ivory face.

And that would be your favorite detail of the piece–the woman’s face? The face is exquisite, and not easy to achieve in ivory. I also love the stride she’s taking under her long skirt. It’s quite fabulous in reality. It comes down to his modeling ability, to create a feeling of movement. That’s where a figure can look stiff and stifled. He designed it so perfectly… it’s probably from his years of training in porcelain modeling.

What is the Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? I talked about how beautiful the face is. She has a quiet confidence to her expression, in the way she’s looking down. A lot of figures just stare at you. She’s strikingly elegant, striding out and looking down. To give a figure like that emotion is very difficult to do.

What do we know about the provenance of this Poertzel figure? It’s been privately owned for a half-century or more.

What condition is it in? And what condition issues do you see with Art Deco figures like this one? Ivory is a natural material. If it heats and cools and heats and cools, it can crack. Cracks in the ivory are often engrained with dirt, and can be detrimental to the look of the piece. Sometimes, there’s a hairline crack in the face of a figure that creates a gray line. This is in very good condition–no hairline cracks to the ivory. Her ivory is very clean. She’s had careful ownership.

I’m doing this interview from the United States. May I bid on this Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure? No, unless you have a home in another part of the world where you can enjoy it. It cannot be imported into the United States. The laws governing ivory in the U.K. and Europe are different.

What’s the world auction record for this particular Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure? It was £43,700 [about $54,000], set at Sotheby’s in 2007.

Is that also the world auction record for any piece by Professor Otto Poertzel? I was not able to find a higher price, so it might be it. The highest that Bonhams has achieved is $40,000. We’re very excited to have this figure.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? For me, I think, the stride in her step, her movement, and the confidence in her face. I would like to bottle that confidence.

How to bid: The Professor Otto Poertzel statuette is lot 218 in a Decorative Art & Design sale taking place at Bonhams London on August 11, 2020.

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Thomas Edison Light Bulb Design Drawings, Plus a Period Edison Light Bulb, Could Command More Than $110,000 at Christie’s (Updated July 17, 2020)

A set of Thomas Edison design drawings for the light bulb, dated March 1886 and paired with a period light bulb, could sell for $110,000 or more at Christie's.

Update: The Thomas Edison light bulb and design drawings in his hand sold for £75,000, or about $93,900.

What you see: A page of design drawings of light bulbs and related objects, rendered by American inventor Thomas Edison in March 1886. The pencil sketches are paired with a period Edison light bulb. Christie’s London estimates the lot at £600,000 to £900,000, or $75,600 to $113,400.

The expert: Sophie Hopkins, specialist in manuscripts and archives at Christie’s London.

Who was Thomas Edison, and why is he still important? He was arguably the greatest inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His fabulous inventions shape our lives today, from radiography to microphones. His way of working was also distinctive. Before Edison, scientists did personal research with a few assistants. Edison took a more collaborative approach to things. His laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey was the first of its kind–the first proper, organized scientific lab. The best way to characterize him is to use an electrical engineering comparison: he was a dynamo. An unstoppable torrent of extraordinary ideas poured from him.

The seven pages of Thomas Edison drawings in the lot have a March 1886 date. Where was Edison in his career at that point, and how widely used was his light bulb by then? He had already gained a good amount of recognition. He had the phonograph and the microphone under his belt. And by 1884, over 10,000 “Edison lights” were in use in New York. He was very successful.

One of the pages of design drawings reflects a date of March 12, 1886. Edison was honeymooning with his second wife at the time.

Thomas Edison was not the first to invent a light bulb, but he did make the first commercially viable one. He began working on designs in 1878 and filed for a patent in 1880. Why was he continuing to work on the light bulb in 1886? Was he trying to improve the design? It is relevant to point out that through the 1880s, Edison constantly tinkered with light bulb design, mainly to improve its durability. But not all of the drawings are about improvements to the light bulb, necessarily. Edison had conceptions for how light bulb technology could apply elsewhere. The first page of drawings shows him introducing electrodes into the circuit. The drawings cover a mixture of the two [motivations]–how the light bulb itself continues to occupy him, and how electric lamp technology could have applications beyond itself, such as for vacuum tubes.

What specific pages, or drawings on specific pages, show Thomas Edison grappling with applying electric lamp technology in other contexts? I think it’s better to see the pages in a holistic sense. You see a mind fizzing with ideas and working on them all simultaneously.

One page of the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings carries a March 1886 date. We know he was on honeymoon with his second wife at the time. What does it say about the nature of the light bulb that it kept calling him and tempting him to work on it, even when he was supposed to be vacationing? To me, at least, that’s what differentiates men and women like Edison from the majority of the population. For brilliant inventors, geniuses, people who make and change history, inventions aren’t something they can make and put down. It’s very simple–Edison was a man possessed. There were just too many ideas in his brain, and they came bubbling and pouring out. He couldn’t stop, even on his honeymoon. There’s a reason he filed just shy of 1,100 patents in his name in his lifetime.

Did Thomas Edison continue to work on the light bulb until he died? The light bulb continued to preoccupy him into the 20th century, decades after he filed the patent. From the late 1870s to the 1890s, he improved the durability of the filament in the light bulb. After that, we see him tweak it less. The light bulb was always something that his followers and fans liked to talk about, because it was so significant. It’s the thing that defined him. What’s great about these drawings is they’re from the middle of the period where the light bulb was clearly a work-in-progress. Everything was essentially moving toward a more durable light bulb, which happened in the early 1890s.

A Thomas Edison light bulb comes with the handwritten design drawings. Does the bulb date to 1886? If not, when was it made, and how do we know when it was made? The bulb is certainly a little earlier than 1886. It’s possible to say the light bulb that comes with the lot was made between the end of 1880 and early 1881.

A nearly complete Edison light bulb comes with the lot. It's believed to date to late 1880 or early 1881.

Have the Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings always been offered as a pair, or did someone bring them together at some point in the past? The first time we see the light bulb and the documents together is in 2009, when they were with a rare book dealer in America. They reappeared on the market ten years later, in a sale in Paris.

Do we know how the Thomas Edison light bulb drawings left his possession? We do know that his design notebooks became scattered for the same fact I pointed out earlier–the style of working in a laboratory. Because you’re working alongside others, there’s a culture of exchange of ideas, and a vast number of design drawings. You often find material such as this coming to the open market via one of Edison’s assistants or a colleague of his who was in Edison’s laboratory at some point.

When you’re inventing things, you’re not worrying about how and where to archive the raw design sketches. It’s important to think of them as in-the-moment design drawings, not formal. It’s the best instance we have of transmitting genius to paper. To me, [raw design sketches are] more interesting and more exciting, because they offer insight into the creative process. We see Edison working through his ideas. The drawings are part of a much broader chronological arc. This one moment is a flash of brilliance, but he was constantly working toward something.

How often do Thomas Edison design drawings come to market? And how often do you see them appear with an example of the object illustrated in the drawings? The first time that original Thomas Edison design drawings came up was in June 2000.

Whoa. Exactly. It’s fair to say it’s rare to see such material on the market. To have it paired with a finished object is rarer still.

I’d wondered how much, if any, Thomas Edison design drawings have been consigned to auction. I had a vague notion that after he died, most of his material went directly to an archive. The Thomas Edison National Historic Park is the main repository of his archived material. There are five million pages in there. It’s rare to see Thomas Edison design drawings on the market. We’re quite excited to have these pages and the light bulb.

Heck, the light bulb is an emoji. Thomas Edison’s breakthrough has become the visual representation of a breakthrough. Yes! The light bulb is the symbol for the dawn of the proper modern industrial age, a symbol for brilliance, a symbol for a great idea. Who wouldn’t want to have drawings from the world’s most brilliant inventor of his invention that sums up the idea of a good idea?

The world has seen many great inventors. Only one, Thomas Edison, saw his invention become the symbol for a good idea.

What are the Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? One thing I find pleasing is how big and bold and sculptural the light bulb is. It’s bigger than the light bulbs we use nowadays. I find something incredibly appealing about holding a light bulb in its earliest state, because it looks so different from the light bulbs of today. I think of how precious and alien it must have been to a 19th century observer.

And the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings? I like the fact that you get the sense of the pencil Edison uses for the drawings. I love drawings and letters in pencil. The texture of the pencil lead is more evocative than pen.

And by choosing a pencil, the user is kind of saying, “I might screw this up”. Exactly. These things are not finished works. The pencil is an admission of that. People who appreciate that person years later appreciate them more [for using a pencil to think through problems]. You want to see an unguarded moment of creation. You want to see the scientist struggling and working it out. You want to see the toil that went into it.

Yet another light bulb-related drawing from the group of Thomas Edison documents.

What’s your favorite detail in the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings, and why? I like the drawings that look most obviously like a light bulb. There’s something incredibly powerful and pleasing and emblematic about Thomas Edison drawing a light bulb.

The Thomas Edison light bulb that comes with this lot–does it work? [Laughs] It’s not working currently, but it’s in near original condition and it’s tantalizingly close to being functional. It would require technological intervention of the sort that very few are capable of doing without altering or changing the bulb.

What’s the most expensive Thomas Edison item sold at auction? It was an 82-page autograph manuscript, notes for his autobiography. It sold in New York in 1998 for $75,000. A more recent comparable lot sold at an American auction house in July 2014. It was a laboratory notebook from Edison in which he’s essentially doing experiments on rubber to find a suitable alternative for tires. That sold for $50,000. It was a full notebook, and it dated from the late 1920s, the end of his career. But to be quite honest, when collectors think of when they think of Thomas Edison is the light bulb. What’s more desirable–the light bulb, or experimenting with different forms of rubber?

So you think the Thomas Edison light bulb and design drawings have a shot at breaking the world auction record for an Edison item? If you reach the low estimate, you’ve pretty much done it. We’re hoping it contends for the title of most expensive item at auction for Thomas Edison. I think a lot of collectors see the value in design drawings of something so emblematic of modernity and progress and brilliance.

Why will this lot stick in your memory? The Eureka! sale focuses on inventions of the modern age. The electric light ushered in a society where sunset and sunrise don’t define productivity. It opens the door to everything that came afterward. To have it open the sale, as lot 1, makes perfect sense to me.

How to bid: The Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings are lot 1 in Eureka! Scientific Breakthroughs of the 20th Century, an online Christie’s sale that began on June 24, 2020 and continues until July 16, 2020.

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A Saint-Gaudens Lincoln Statue–a Reduced-Size Version of an Original in Chicago’s Lincoln Park–Could Sell for $900,000 (Updated June 26, 2020)

After Augustus Saint-Gaudens died, his widow fulfilled a wish to cast reduced-size versions of his Standing Lincoln statue. One of the 17 bronzes could command $900,000.

Update: The reduced-size Augustus Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue sold for $1.5 million.

What you see: Abraham Lincoln: The Man, aka Standing Lincoln, a reduced-size version of a sculpture commissioned from Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the late 19th century. Sotheby’s estimates it at $600,000 to $900,000.

The expert: Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s.

Who was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and why was he chosen for this commission? He was regarded as the most celebrated American sculptor of his era. He was awarded the commission for a statue of Lincoln in Chicago due to his success with earlier Civil War-related projects, specifically the Farragut monument and the Sherman memorial in Manhattan. By the 1880s, he was a known American sculptor, and a good choice.

Does the Standing Lincoln sculpture represent his first attempt at sculpting Abraham Lincoln? Yes, it does.

How did Augustus Saint-Gaudens approach the Lincoln commission? He prepared diligently before modeling the full-scale Lincoln. He studied his speeches and contemporary photography to get a sense of his physical likeness. Saint-Gaudens had encountered Lincoln twice: in 1861, before his presidency, and during his funeral procession in 1865. Those two moments stuck in his mind.

Saint-Gaudens managed to really capture Lincoln despite not being able to have him pose in his studio… It really does speak to his mastery of the field. He began work on the sculpture in the summer of 1885, in Cornish, New Hampshire. While he was there, he recruited a local farmer who stood around six-foot-four to serve as a likeness for Lincoln. Being able to reference a person like that was very helpful.

I understand Saint-Gaudens also had access to a cast of Lincoln’s face and both of his hands? I know he referenced them and did spend significant time with them. They enriched the authenticity of the finished work.

Do we know why the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue includes a chair? Why not just show him standing? The chair is meant to be a chair of state. I’m not sure if you can see it in the photo online, but there’s an eagle on the back of the chair, which represents Lincoln’s role as president of the United States. The chair is based on the throne of a priest from the third century in Athens. I do think it was helpful to include the chair of state to contextualize the moment Saint-Gaudens captured.

What moment does the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue capture? It shows a contemplative Lincoln, his head down, one foot stepping forward, and preparing to give a speech. You can tell he’s deep in thought, and preparing for what’s to come.

What is the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue like in person? It’s incredibly beautiful in person, with a rich brown patina that stands out and draws the eye in. You can see the details in Lincoln’s face and the emotion that Augustus Saint-Gaudens really captured. There are also details on the chair and the hands as well–the hands really read true-to-life.

What is your favorite detail of the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? It’s Saint-Gaudens’s ability to infuse the work with emotion, and his ability to capture Lincoln’s character. You see the figure looking down, deep in thought. I think the details capture where he was in this moment and reflects everything that happened in his presidency, and what he was preparing for.

It’s tough to give a hunk of bronze an inner life… It is. He does it very successfully here. It’s very true to life, down to the creases in his jacket.

How heavy is the reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? Do you need more than one person to move it? It’s solid bronze, and weighs about 230 pounds, so you do need more than one person to move it.

I understand that 17 casts of the reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue were made. Do we know how many survive, and how many are in private hands? There are approximately 17, based on records that his wife kept. In 1982, a publication on the artist identified the locations of 12 of the bronze casts. Most were in public collections and institutions, indicating that this is one of the last ones in private hands.

What was Augusta Saint-Gaudens’s role in the production of the reduced-size version of Standing Lincoln? She oversaw the whole production process of the statues. She was very, very careful and kept good records. She only used his preferred foundries. Her advocacy on the behalf of her late husband contributed to the resulting quality of the bronzes, and contributed to Saint-Gaudens’s legacy.

Of the 17 bronzes cast, 11 were done by Gorham, and six by Tiffany. Does that matter at all to collectors? Or are there so few examples available that it’s not an issue? With the Standing Lincoln, there’s no preference. This one was cast by Gorham in 1917, but it was probably sent to Tiffany [the boutique] to be sold based on the provenance for this example.

Was the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue cast in one piece, or was it cast in multiple pieces and soldered into a whole? It’s probable it was cast in several pieces, but cast from a single bronze pattern [a tray-like mold that would have contained all the components]. We’re certain different aspects were cast and joined. But the finishing is highly exquisite. We can’t see where the joins are.

Are the bronzes in the series numbered? No, not to my knowledge. I don’t think it was standard practice to number them.

What’s the patina like on the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? And do the patinas on the other examples vary, or do they all share the same general coloration? This example presents with a beautiful warm brown patina with gold undertones. To my knowledge, it’s consistent with the others, but because I haven’t seen the other 16, I can’t confirm.

How often does this reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue come to auction? This is actually the first time at auction, at least in the past 30 years. If you go online and check the art auction sales databases, you won’t find another one.

What condition is the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue in? I can tell you it’s in excellent condition. The work was recently waxed and cleaned as well, which is a good way to maintain the sculpture.

The entire run of the reduced-size Standing Lincoln statues were cast posthumously. Does that matter to collectors at all? Do they prefer Saint-Gaudens bronzes that were cast during his lifetime? The debate is moot here. It was only ever cast posthumously. It’s not a concern for people.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a true pleasure to handle works that are as rare as this. It could be the first and last time I handle one of these. Its meticulous details and exceptional quality resonates with me, and sticks with me. It’s one of my favorite works in the sale.

How to bid: The Saint-Gaudens Lincoln sculpture is lot 40 in the American Art sale scheduled to take place at Sotheby’s New York on June 26, 2020.

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Charlotte Mitchell appeared on The Hot Bid previously to discuss a Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture and a Paul Manship sculpture.

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The Earliest U.S. Navy Mark V Diving Helmet Could Set a World Auction Record (Updated July 20, 2020)

A U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet from 1916, the earliest example known. Nation's Attic could sell it for $40,000 or more.

Update: The 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet sold for $21,000, hammer price.

What you see: A 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet, the earliest known example of the type. Nation’s Attic estimates it at $20,000 to $40,000.

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

What is the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet, and why did the Navy commission it? The Mark V was the first standardized diving helmet that the Navy used. Before that, there was no standard diving helmet design. As they were developing it, entering World War I was a distinct possibility. With any war, there’s a certain amount of salvage work to be done.

Salvage work? Such as? Recovering sunken ships, or material salvaged from ships to keep the war going.

The U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet was in use for a long time, from 1916 to the mid-1980s. What made it such a useful and durable design? The job of the Navy diver who used this kind of helmet was essentially the same–doing salvage work. They’re not fighters. They’re very brave people, but their job is not combat. The Mark V really was an improvement over what was available prior to this. It has a lot of redundancy and safety [built in]. That’s why it was used by the Navy for such a long time. It was a proven safe design, the pinnacle of what’s called “hard hat diving”.

Do we have any idea how many U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmets were made, and how many survive? During the entire production run, tens of thousands were made, but I don’t know if it was closer to 20,000 or 50,000. The majority, probably 85 percent, were made during World War II, between 1942 and 1945. Another majority were made around 1918, for World War I, and a very small number were made between those two wars. It was simply due to demand from the government.

And the manufacturers didn’t build many more because the earlier-made ones didn’t need to be replaced? Exactly. The large number that was made around 1918 were relied on in the 1920s, the 1930s, and the very early 1940s. Around the 1940s, the Navy realized it drastically needed to increase its inventory.

Are there any big differences between the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmets made for the two world wars, and those made later? The only difference on the ones made later in the 20th century is the windows that the diver looks through changed from glass to plastic. That’s it. That’s how good and reliable this helmet was.

How do we know this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet was made in 1916? This one has a clear identifying plate from the manufacturer showing the day, month, and year it was made. And the serial number is in six different places on the helmet. That’s the nice thing about anything military. Commercial diving helmets from the same company had serial numbers, but not the dates. For commercial divers, who cares? But the military wants redundancy.

A detail shot of the identification plate on the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet, confirming it was made in 1916.

How do we know this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet is a prototype? There’s a number of minor differences in this helmet from the standard production helmet. On the back of the helmet, the places where the air line and the communication line would attach are opposite from where they normally would be on a standard production helmet. It also has parts from an English diving helmet. The manufacturer was trying to figure out what the U.S. Navy wanted and what would work best.

How do we know that the helmet is in “original unaltered condition”, as it says in the lot notes? When a diving helmet comes from the factory, it has tinning, a finish that covered the copper body of the helmet and prevented corrosion. It was standard on all helmets the U.S. Navy ordered. The top half of this helmet has well over 90 percent of its original tinning remaining, and the lower half has about 60 percent remaining. That’s quite unusual. The copper is exposed on the lower front half because weight belts were strapped across it, and the tinning wore off prematurely.

But no one has tried to touch it up. Correct. And nothing on here has been repaired, altered, or moved. Other than age, everything appears the way it did on the last day the U.S. Navy used it.

A rear three-quarters view of the diving helmet. The ports for the air line and the communications line are visible.

I’d like some help identifying what some of the fittings on the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet are. In the photo that shows the helmet from the back, there’s a long fitting that juts out at an angle. What is that for? That’s for the air line.

And the shorter, stubbier fitting at the right? Was that for the communications line? Yes. At the time, it was a relatively new feature. The U.S. Navy wanted the most advanced technology incorporated in the helmet. The line itself was a big, thick telephone cable. It hooked up to the helmet, and there was a speaker inside the helmet. You could hear through it and also talk into it, but the helmet was loud.

What made the diving helmet so loud inside? Air was blasting in there at high volume. It was very hard to hear. But it was better than what was used before. Prior to this, they had a signaling system that involved pulling on the air line. Very crude communications. The telephone line was a big advancement.

A front three-quarters view of the diving helmet, clearly showing the speaker fitting at the left temple and the spitcock valve on the left side of the jaw.

What is that solid, round, flat fitting that lines up with the wearer’s temple? That was where the telephone, or the speaker, was housed. It was positioned so it didn’t hit the diver’s head. It’s more flush with the inside of the body of the helmet rather than sticking inside it.

What’s the fitting sticking out of the jaw, which has a lever handle? That’s the spitcock valve. It was a crude thing that allowed water into the helmet, if needed, so you could spit it onto the insides of the windows if they were fogging up. It was a redundancy thing. Commercial helmets generally didn’t have a spitcock valve.

So the spitcock valve was kind of like a defogger? A secondary defogger. Air blowing inside the helmet was the primary defogger. Of course you couldn’t use your hands to wipe the insides of the windows.

A front three-quarters view from the right, clearly showing the eight-pointed star wheel on the exhaust valve. The shape of the wheel helps prove how early the helmet is. Models made after 1918 have four-pointed star wheels.

What’s the gear-shaped fitting on the other side of the jaw? That’s the exhaust valve. It allows you to regulate how much air is coming into the helmet and the suit itself, to make you more buoyant or make you sink more. It’s a part that’s particularly important to this helmet, because it’s an eight-pointed star wheel. After 1918, the U.S. Navy required the wheel be changed to have four points on it. It’s very unusual and rare to see an early one still on a helmet.

What does the pattern of wear seen on the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet tell us about how it was used? It indicates it was used and tested, but I would not say it was used as primary equipment. Normally, on the very top of the helmet, you see working dents. They’re dents from using the helmet underwater, and from when the top half of the helmet is removed and set on the ground. This has working dents, but they’re fewer, and they’re minor. It indicates limited use, and careful use as well.

How would the U.S. Navy have tested this helmet? Would it have been tested empty, or with a diver wearing it, or both? It would have been primarily tested in water, at a U.S. Navy shipyard. Maybe in Washington, D.C., but it could have been tested elsewhere. The U.S. Navy may have had a tank to test the pressure and see how much the helmet could take. It would always have had a person in it.

How does this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet compare to other early Mark V helmets you’ve handled? I’ve never had one this old. Essentially, it’s the oldest. I’ve had some from 1918 in similar condition. But this Mark V being incredibly old–you don’t expect to see one in complete original condition like this. It’s almost as good as you could hope for.

What’s the story behind the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet? How was it discovered? How did it manage to survive so well? The earliest we could document it is to the 1950s, when it was purchased by two brothers in Wisconsin as a curiosity. They put it in their house with other amazing antiques that were not nautical- or diving-related. It was discovered when the brothers sold the helmet and other non-related items. That buyer contacted us in January of this year. We let them know the significance of it, and they ultimately chose to consign with us.

Do we know how the diving helmet ended up in Wisconsin? It’s hard to say how it made its way there, but the U.S. Navy did make ships up there in the Great Lakes.

A profile view of the 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet. Don Creekmore of Nation's Attic believes it could set a new world auction record for an antique diving helmet.

What is the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? The feeling of picking it up. It’s over 60 pounds. It retains all the elements that Navy divers would know in 1916. You look through the same old glass looked through by the guy who tested this potentially dangerous equipment. It hasn’t been polished, it hasn’t been messed with. The experience of it–that’s what the camera can’t capture.

If someone wanted to use this antique helmet on an actual dive, could they? It would need new gaskets and glass, and it would need to be tested for leaks. Then it would be in dive-ready condition.

How did you arrive at the estimate for this diving helmet? There has never been a 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet to sell at auction. I sold a 1917 Schrader helmet in 2010, for $15,100. I’ve sold other helmets from 1917 and 1918 in the $14,000 range directly, not at auction. This one, though, is the cream of the crop. This is the best and earliest Mark V you could hope to have. I feel the low end being $20,000 is very conservative, and doubling it is not too crazy. It could possibly exceed that.

What’s the world auction record for an antique diving helmet? It was set in London by a helmet made by C.E. Heinke Company and sold in the UK by Christies in 1997. At the time, based on the exchange rate, it went for $62,390, or £36,700. A diving helmet made in the United States by A.J. Morse & Son sold for $61,360 in 2010.

Why do you think this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet is likely to meet or beat the world auction record? In my experience, the Mark V, regardless of what year it’s made, is the most popular diving helmet worldwide. We have the most demand for it. It is the style people think of when they think of diving helmets. This is the earliest one, in good condition. It has the potential to sell for the highest amount at public auction.

As of June 11, 2020, the day we’re speaking, the diving helmet has attracted two bids, the higher of which is $14,500. The auction doesn’t take place until July 18, 2020. Is it meaningful for the diving helmet to have drawn two five-figure bids this early? It’s a big plus, I think. It indicates that even this far out, it has the potential to reach its high estimate and exceed it.

Why will this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet stick in your memory? The Mark V is our bread and butter. I’ve always wanted to find the earliest one. This is the earliest one, and it’s in incredible condition. As a dealer, it’s what you dream of. To me, it’s my one chance at handling the best, earliest example. I’m never going to forget this one.

How to bid: The 1916 prototype U.S. Navy Mark 5 diving helmet is lot 0181 in the antique diving helmet and SCUBA auction taking place at Nation’s Attic on July 18, 2020.


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A Lock of George Washington’s Hair Could Sell for $25,000 (Updated June 24, 2020)

A lock of George Washington's hair, taken late in 1798 in Philadelphia. It was preserved in an elaborate locket decorated with gold leaf. The memento of America's first president could sell for $25,000 or more.

Update: The lock of George Washington’s hair sold for $25,000.

What you see: A lock of George Washington’s hair, taken late in 1798 in Philadelphia. William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.

The expert: William Bunch, owner of William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals.

Who was the Hopkinson family? They’re a family from Philadelphia, one of the founding families, if you would. A very significant family politically, economically, and socially in colonial Philadelphia. They were friends with Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, any number of people.

How did the Hopkinson family become friends with George Washington? They were involved in the Revolution and fought the war together. They were upper echelon, not in the trenches with rifles. They drove the political process. The new American government capital was in Philadelphia then, and George Washington spent a lot of time there. In those days, the city had a much smaller footprint. What was called Society Hill was the nucleus of colonial Philadelphia.

What is the story behind the lock of George Washington’s hair? What led to him agreeing to have it clipped? It was collected in 1798 by Mrs. Oliver Wolcott, who was a friend of Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson. [Wolcott served as the country’s second secretary of the treasury from 1795 to 1800; Alexander Hamilton held the post first.] George Washington was retiring from government service after having been president. He was highly revered. He just wanted to be a farmer, but society and the politics of the day would not let him do that. President John Adams wanted to get him back in service, and Washington agreed, but only if the French invaded the United States. A November 10, 1798 letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his wife, Eliza, states he was staying at the Wolcott residence in Philadelphia and that Washington “will be here about twelve to-day”. [The auction house produced a detailed story about the background of the locket. Scroll down a bit to see the text of the Hamilton letter that contains the quote.]

So we can pin down almost precisely when the lock of George Washington’s hair was taken? We have documents outside of the Hopkinson family that provide evidence? Right, right down to who was there and why they were there. The final assumption is the lock was cut to be given to Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson as a sign of friendship and camaraderie [between Mrs. Wolcott and Mrs. Hopkinson]. Washington died a year after this was taken. I’m not going to say it’s the last lock taken from him–it was common to take locks of hair at death–but it might be the last one taken in a high-profile, ceremonial setting.

These handwritten provenance notes detail when, and for whom, the lock of George Washington's hair was taken. It's unclear when the notes were written, or which member of the Hopkinson family wrote them.
The lot includes handwritten provenance notes that detail when, and for whom, the lock of George Washington’s hair was taken.

Do we know when the lock of George Washington’s hair was placed in the locket? We don’t know for sure, but I had the locket out of its frame because I wanted to test the metal to see if it was gold, and it’s not. It’s gold leaf. But it [the locket] certainly seems to be 19th century. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t mount something like that at an early time.

How do we know this is a genuine lock of George Washington’s hair? Because of where it came from. A couple dozen steamer trunks descended in the Hopkinson family. The archive was undisturbed for decades. There was no chance to play with it or mess with it. It all, pardon the expression, smells right. Given the family it comes from and the documents, books, manuscripts, and family ephemera that came out of the trunks, there’s no reason to doubt anything in there.

But the hair hasn’t been subjected to DNA testing, correct? If the future owner wants to confirm it with DNA testing, they can do that. Because it came from that family archive, and it’s backed with research that shows who did what and when, it makes all the sense in the world [for it to be genuine]. I would be astounded if it proved through DNA testing not to be George Washington’s hair.

The headline on the lot listing describes this as a “substantial” lock of George Washington’s hair. What does “substantial” mean here? As opposed to half a dozen wisps. It’s a pretty good chunk of hair. If you took the strands of hair out and stretched them out, they’d be six to eight inches in length. For the most part, I’d say it’s a sandy-silvery color that some of us get as we age–not a totally silver-haired person, like I am.

A detail shot of the lock of Washington's hair. It's described as a "substantial" lock because it consists of several long strands of reddish-brownish-greyish hair, and not just a few wisps.

What is the locket containing the lock of George Washington’s hair like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? I don’t think so. But these objects are–inanimate objects can speak volumes about where they’ve been and what they’ve done. I’m always in awe when certain things cross my desk. All these objects have their own stories, and they all stand as silent witnesses.

How does this lock of George Washington’s hair fit that idea–how does it speak? The fact that it bore witness to a gathering of such important people, but they were no more than neighbors getting together for a farewell dinner. This is a piece of everyday life from one of the families that helped create our country. To have American history sitting on my desk is so overwhelmingly powerful… I sit in awe of the ability to touch it, handle it, learn from it, and hand it on to someone who will take care of it.

I see a blue ribbon strung through the top of the locket frame. Does that imply that the locket might have been worn as a piece of jewelry? Or is it more likely it was always displayed inside a frame? I think it was a keepsake. It was never a piece of jewelry, I think. It’s too big. It might have been hung on a wall with the ribbon as decoration.

And the lock of Washington’s hair and the rest of the Hopkinson family archive–it’s all fresh to market? Never been to auction before? This is the first time any of it has been on the marketplace.

How often do you see locks of hair from this period at auction? In my experience, it’s rare. I’ve certainly never handled anything this important. Most of the time, when hair is saved as a memento, it’s from [between] the Civil War and the end of the 19th century–things such as hair jewelry.

And to clarify–what does this lot consist of? What does the winning bidder receive? The locket, which contains the hair, and the provenance notes that were fastened to the back of the frame.

What’s the world auction record for a lock of George Washington’s hair? It was at Leland’s last year [2019] and sold for $35,764. For material such as this, the market is not going to go down. I have no doubt [the lock of George Washington’s hair that he is handling] will hit the top end of the estimate, and it may well exceed it.

What condition is the locket in? I can’t find anything negative in terms of condition. It doesn’t look as if the hair has been out of the frame since it was placed in it.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? Because of the emotional and adrenaline boost it gives me in pursuing my auction business. Over the last 45 years, I’ve sold a lot of things. Things like this–you remember them. You just do. It’s not about the money. The money comes and goes. You cannot replace the thrill of handling things like this.

How to bid: The lock of George Washington’s hair is lot 0227 in the Francis Hopkinson Family Americana Collection sale at William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals on June 23, 2020.


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An Iconic Julius Shulman Photograph, Case Study House #22, Could Fetch $3,000 (Updated June 15, 2020)

Case Study House #22, an iconic black-and-white Julius Shulman photograph of a Modernist home in Los Angeles, could sell for $3,000.

Update: The Julius Shulman photograph sold for $4,063.

What you see: Case Study House #22, a Julius Shulman photograph of the Stahl house, taken in 1960. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.

The expert: Clo Pazera, specialist at LAMA.

Who was Julius Shulman? He was an architectural photographer, born in 1910 and moved to Los Angeles fairly early, at age 10. He took up photography mainly as a hobby, taking mostly nature shots. A friend of his was an assistant to architect Richard Neutra. When he was executing the Kun residence in 1936, he went with his friend and shot pictures of the building. They were shown to Neutra, who liked them. That’s how Shulman grew into an architectural photographer. He had a natural eye and a sense of composition that suited the modern architecture movement of the moment, which was to bring the outside in. His photos complimented the aesthetic.

What was the Case Study House project? The Case Study House project was a vision by John Entenza, the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. It sponsored a competition for architects [to create] low-cost modern architecture for the post-war period. Entenza sought out particular architects, who submitted projects they were already working on or things they hoped would happen. The project ran from 1945 to 1964.

How did Julius Shulman become involved with the Case Study House project? He didn’t necessarily have a formal role in the project, but he was the go-to guy for photos at that point. A lot of architects invited to the project were people who Shulman had a working relationship with. He might have been invited by one of the architects to shoot a house. He also worked with a lot of magazines. His high-contrast photographs were very suited to the black-and-white magazines of the time.

Is the composition we see in Case Study House #22 the only version that Julius Shulman shot, or have others surfaced? The two most famous shots both have people in them. There’s another from the same angle showing a man facing the city. [Scroll down a bit on this link and you’ll see it, in color, on the left.] The Shulman archives were donated to the Getty. You can access most of the images there. Shulman shot an angle that had no people in it, but it looked pretty rough.

Because the Stahl house wasn’t fully dressed. Exactly. He probably shot a few angles to see what worked, and realized it worked pretty well.

What can we tell, just by looking, how hard it was for Julius Shulman to get this shot? It seems like it was pretty difficult, but by 1960, Shulman had been a professional photographer for 20 years or more. There’s a nice oral history of the house by Curbed L.A., which includes this photo. Evidently, it did require a double exposure–a long exposure to get the city lights, and a flash bulb exposure for the interior. It’s essentially two photos, which he overlaid.

Julius Shulman shot many photographs for the Case Study House project, but this Case Study House #22 shot has unusual staying power. Time magazine included it among the 100 most influential photographs ever taken, and Los Angeles magazine called it “perhaps the most famous picture ever taken of Los Angeles”. Why do you think it resonates so strongly? It’s a really dynamic image. There’s a lot of artistry to it, in the way the lines of the house jut out and match the grid of the city, and the way that Shulman saw that and solidified the architectural vision. It’s a really amazing contrast. There’s a lot to draw the eye. And it has an aspirational quality. When you look at it today, you think, “Oh, I wish I could be living that life!”

The Case Study Houses are meant to showcase Modernist architecture, but the Julius Shulman photo of Case Study House #22 that became legendary includes human beings–the two women talking indoors. Why is this image, which is supposed to be about the architecture, better with people in it? The image of the man with his back to the camera is interesting, but has a lonely quality to it. There’s a warmth to the image of the two women, like it’s a small party on a Saturday night. They add energy that suits the image.

Did Julius Shulman know what he had the instant he shot it, or did he realize it later? I’m not really sure, but he put a lot of effort into the shot. Based on the effort he put into it, he probably thought it was going to be one that made an impact.

What was the general attitude toward Moderism in 1960, when he took this photo? I think it was sort of similar to how it is nowadays. Some are enthusiastic about it, but most prefer traditional homes. It was a fashionable thing to have a Modernist home then, but for most of the country, it was aspirational. And most Modernist homes were built in Los Angeles. Modernism may have changed the vision of what L.A. glamour was, and what the aspiration was.

How did this 1960 Julius Shulman photograph change the general perception of L.A.? This was a new idea of Hollywood glamour. The upcoming Hollywood set was more excited to live there [in a house like the Stahl house] than in a big mansion in the Hollywood hills.

What is this Julius Shulman photograph like in person? Are there aspects that the camera can’t capture? The paper itself is very glossy, and the tones of black are very deep. The contrast he’s known for comes through in the image. There’s definitely a dimensionality to it that doesn’t come through on screen.

Do we know when this 1960 Julius Shulman photo of Case Study House #22 was printed? Not really. This was definitely printed later [than 1960]. How much later is hard to say. It’s signed on the back, but there’s no Shulman studio stamp, which he sometimes used to date things. My guess is it was printed in the 1970s, based on the aging of the piece, but it’s just a guess.

Shulman shot this photograph in 1960, well before there was a secondary market for fine art photography. Do we know why he would have had it printed? He kept some for his archives. He would have printed some for publication, and sometimes, he gave them as gifts. We have another Shulman photo in the auction that he gave to the owner of the house. This was a famous image, so he may have made some to sell, or give to friends. But we’re not entirely sure [of the story] with this one.

Would Julius Shulman have been physically involved in the printing of this photo, or would he have handed that task off to others? At this point in his career, I’m guessing he had assistants to do the physical printing. It’s a pretty arduous process. I’d be surprised if he did the printing himself.

Are all the prints of Case Study House #22 gelatin silver prints, and are they all the size this one is–20 inches by not-quite-16 inches? No. They do come in a range of sizes. We had this one in 2019 in a slightly smaller size. Also, there are color versions, called chromagenic prints, or C-prints. They’re the counterpart to gelatin silver prints. It’s a similar process, but for color.

And this Julius Shulman photo is signed, but not editioned, correct? Yes. It’s signed on the back, but he really didn’t do editions.

Many of the homes that Julius Shulman photographed for the Case Study House project have since been demolished or significantly altered. Does the Stahl house still exist? If so, does it look like it did when Shulman shot it? Yes, it does still exist. In the late 1970s, the original owners largely converted it to a filming location. No one lives there, but it’s well-preserved. You can set up architectural tours, too–not at this moment, with COVID-19, but when things settle down. They happened once a week.

How often do you see this Julius Shulman photo at auction? Fairly often. I’d say a few a year. It’s one of his most popular images.

What condition is this Julius Shulman photo in? This one does have some condition issues–some creasing to the sheet, and signs of handling around the margins. We might have been more aggressive with the estimate if it didn’t have those issues.

What’s the world auction record for a Case Study House #22 image, and for any Julius Shulman photo? The record for any Shulman is $47,500 for Neutra’s Kaufmann house. It was an early to mid-1950s printing that sold in 2010 at Sotheby’s. It looks like the record for Case Study House #22 may be at an auction house in Germany. Grisebach had one in 2014 that sold for about $14,200 in 2015.

Why will this Julius Shulman photo stick in your memory? It has the key aspect you really want from a Julius Shulman photo–a combination of a striking exterior shot of a city contrasted with an interior shot. You can really see yourself being there today.

How to bid: The Julius Shulman photograph Case Study House #22 is lot 24 in LAMA‘s Modern Art & Design Auction, which opened online on June 7, 2020, and ends on June 14, 2020.

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Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

Clo Pazera appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about an untitled Ed Moses abstract.

The Stahl house has a website.

In case you missed the links above:

Much of the Shulman archive is accessible online through the Getty’s digital collections.

Los Angeles magazine, Curbed, and Time have all written about the Stahl home and Shulman’s iconic photographs of the property.

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An Ancient Roman Ring Engraved With the Image of an Indian Ringneck Parrot Could Fetch $15,000 (Updated June 17, 2020)

An ancient Roman ring, featuring a green chalcedony carved with the image of an Indian Ringneck parrot could command $15,000.

Update: Squawk! The ancient Roman ring carved with an Indian Ringneck parrot sold for $87,000–almost six times its high estimate.

What you see: An ancient Roman ring featuring a parrot engraved on a green chalcedony stone. Christie’s estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

The expert: G. Max Bernheimer, senior vice president and international specialist head of antiquities at Christie’s.

When did engraved gems and jewelry featuring engraved gems start appearing in the historical record? In the Near East, they go back to the fourth millennium. In the Greek world, you don’t get them until the Bronze Age. At the end of the Bronze Age in 1200 B.C., there’s a gap until the late Geometric period in Greece. Seemingly with contact with the Near East, hard stones [appear] in the sixth century B.C. From there, there’s continuous usage to medieval Europe, and the context is never lost.

Is the parrot on the green chalcedony an intaglio or a cameo style of engraving? It’s an intaglio, which means it’s carved in the negative with the idea that it will be impressed into malleable material such as clay or wax, and an image will be left behind in relief. Cameos didn’t come into existence until the Hellenistic period of Alexander the Great. Cameos don’t have any function except for decoration or propaganda.

Is the stone in the ancient Roman ring in its original mount? It is. I would say for every hundred stones I might see, I find one or two in their original settings. In antiquity, they used three possible settings for finger rings: gold, silver, or bronze. Gold survives very well. Some engraved gems pop out of rings also. During excavations of Roman baths, [archeologists] have found dozens and dozens in the drains, because that’s where they ended up.

Now I’m thinking of all the stories I’ve heard about engagement rings being lost down the kitchen sink or the bathtub… There’s nothing new under the sun.

Are ancient Roman rings with gold settings more likely to survive intact? There’s a much higher possibility for them to survive because of their gold.

How often do you see birds portrayed on ancient Roman rings? Animals are always a popular subject. As for parrots, there are quite a few out there. Parrots are pretty popular. They were portrayed decoratively on mosaic floors, in reliefs, and on sculptures–they weren’t a rare sight. Having said that, this is only the second one I’ve seen on the market.

I understand that the engraving on this green chalcedony is so precise, we can identify the species of parrot as an Indian Ringneck. How often do you come across an ancient Roman ring with an engraved gemstone that has that level of accuracy in its portrayal? I’d say it’s a unique thing to be able to identify the species of bird that precisely.

What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult it would have been to engrave the image of the parrot into the green chalcedony? The carver probably used a kick wheel, which is similar to a potter’s wheel, or a bow and drill. It’s like a bow and arrow bow. There’s a string that coils around the bow, and the bow moves back and forth, causing the drill to spin. As for how they would have carved a hard stone with iron tools when iron is softer than quartz–they used [applied] powdered emery, which has a rating of eight, harder than quartz.

Do we see evidence of how the carver made use of their tools? If you blow up the image, you can see little blobs in the feet, and in where the legs join the feathered portion of the legs. That’s the shape of the drill that was used. [If you have trouble seeing the details in the image below, follow this link and use the magnification tool.]

Ah yes! I see the blobs on the parrot’s feet. It’s kind of how they articulated the feet. Those are the tips of the drill. A larger one was used for the eye.

And I think you said you can see evidence that a wheel was used? You have two kinds of cutting devices: a pointed drill, which makes the little blobs, and you have wheels of different sizes. They’re like buzz saws, but smaller and without serrated edges. The straight lines you see in the feathers? Those are wheel cuts. The ground line on which the bird is standing is also a wheel cut.

How much work does the carving on the stone in the ancient Roman ring represent? I don’t know, but I think a day or two is quite right for a stone of this size and quality.

The stone in the ancient Roman ring is green chalcedony, and green features prominently in the plumage of the Indian Ringneck parrot. Is it reasonable to assume that the carver deliberately chose a green stone to match the parrot’s green feathers? I have to think yes, but there’s no way to prove it. It’s logical.

And the ring that the carver placed at the parrot’s neck helped identify the bird as an Indian Ringneck? Yes. I’d like to claim that for my own, but previous catalogers identified it. I took a look and agreed.

What is your favorite detail of the engraving on the gem in this ancient Roman ring, and why? I love the quality of it. When I looked through my books to find other examples of parrots, of all the ones I saw, this was the best of the group. The others were good, but not as good as this. I think it’s the finest example of a parrot on a Roman gem.

I realize we can’t hop in a time machine and go back and watch the creation and sale of this ancient Roman ring, but why might someone have wanted a gold finger ring with a gemstone carved to look like a very specific exotic parrot? Why this bird? It could have been a pun on the owner’s name. He could have had an Indian Ringneck as a cherished pet. He could have been in the animal business. We just don’t know, and we’ll never know.

But the level of detail we see in the parrot–that points to it being a custom commission, surely? In the ruins of Pompeii, there’s a gem carver’s workshop, and there were a lot of gems finished and ready to go. We don’t know if they were commissioned, or on spec, and there’s no way to know.

What is the ancient Roman ring like in person? It’s a heavy, beautiful, high-carat gold. Almost all ancient gold tends to be that way, 97 percent gold. It’s a nice, solid hoop that tapers a little bit from the widest point of the bezel at the back.

Have you tried on the ancient Roman ring? I can’t tell you what size it is, but I know I had it on my finger. I can’t remember if it slid all the way down or not. I remember it feeling heavy. Some rings are made out of thin sheet gold hammered over softer material. This is made out of more gold than some. It has a very nice feel to it.

How big is the green chalcedony? The whole thing is 1 1/16th of an inch wide at its widest point. I’d guess the gem is 3/4 of an inch wide.

Could you use this ancient Roman ring if you wanted to? Could you stamp the stone into clay or wax and see the parrot impression? Absolutely. If we were not under a pandemic, I would have an exhibition. I would have knobs of clay under the jewelry cases, and I’d take impressions for people.

And I understand its provenance is notable? What makes it so special is it’s documented back to the 17th century. It was known in the collection of Francesco Boncompagni, who died in 1641, and it passed down in his family for generations until Giorgio Sangiorgi bought it. We know he bought it in 1933 because he published a journal article about it in that year.

How does condition come into play with something that’s as old as this ancient Roman ring? Again, it’s about the beauty of the object. The setting has some surface scratches, but overall, its condition is very, very good.

What’s the world auction record for an ancient engraved gem or a piece of ancient jewelry with an engraved gem? Was it set with you at Christie’s? Yes and yes. The record was set in part one of this collection, which sold in April of 2019. It was a black chalcedony intaglio portrait of Antinous, a young man we know was a favorite of Emperor Hadrian. He died tragically in an accident in the Nile. It was estimated, conservatively, at $300,000 to $500,000 and sold for $2.1 million. It’s a fragment, but what a fragment!

Why will this ancient Roman ring stick in your memory? It’s just so delightful. When you look at this thing, it makes you happy. And you see it exactly the way it was meant to be seen. It’s a connection to the ancient world–it’s personal, it’s immediate, and you experience it the way an ancient person would have experienced it.

How to bid: The ancient Roman ring featuring a parrot carved engraved on a green chalcedony stone is lot 223 in Masterpieces in Miniature: Ancient Engraved Gems formerly in the G. Sangiorgi Collection Part II. The online Christie’s auction began on June 2, 2020 and continues until June 16, 2020.

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Images are courtesy of Christie’s.

Bernheimer also features in a story Christie’s did on engraved classical gems.

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A Joseph Whiting Stock Portrait of a Sea Captain Could Fetch $15,000

A Joseph Whiting Stock portrait of an unknown sea captain, painted around 1847 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, could fetch $15,000. The captain is shown seated in a fashionable Empire chair and holding a telescope. A window behind him looks out on a harbor.

What you see: A Joseph Whiting Stock portrait of an unknown sea captain, rendered circa 1847 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Eldred’s estimates it at $12,000 to $15,000.

The expert: Joshua Eldred, president of Eldred’s and head of its fine arts department.

Who was Joseph Whiting Stock? Do we know much about him? We know a fair bit. He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and like most itinerant artists, he went where the work took him. He had an accident as a kid [when he was eleven, an oxcart fell on him, paralyzing his lower body], and his doctor encouraged him to take up painting. Most of these people were self-taught. It was before photographs, so there was a demand for portraits.

How prolific was he? Has anyone done a census of his works? I think it’s more in the hundreds than the thousands. He died young, at 40, of tuberculosis. Looking at auction records, only 27 Joseph Whiting Stock paintings have sold over the last 25 years.

Did he make a specialty of painting sea captains? No. For the most part, he painted children, women, and family portraits from what I’ve seen.

Do we know who the sitter is in this Joseph Whiting stock portrait? We do not. I wish I did.

This Joseph Whiting Stock portrait follows what seems to be a template for sea captain and ship owner portraits–the sitter is pictured indoors, in a well-appointed room. He holds something connected to his work: a letter, a sextant, or a telescope, like we see here. And over one shoulder is a window that looks out on a harbor. What do we know about this painting convention? Was it invented in America? I would say it started in Europe and America adapted to it. You can tell [what it is] without knowing he’s a sea captain or a ship owner. I think he’s a sea captain because he’s holding a tool of the trade–a telescope. He’s an expert navigator. He’s sitting in an Empire chair, which would have been fashionable. He’s well-dressed, so he’s a man of importance. Stock put a ship there. Whether it’s his ship or not, he is of the seafaring trade.

But the ship Stock painted in the background offers no clues as to who the sitter is? There’s no name on the ship that we can read, and no figurehead that could help identify it. If we can figure out the name of the ship, we can figure out who the captain is. Unfortunately, we can’t ascertain that. With a lot of diligence, it [the identity of the sitter] could be figured out. We have the clue of New Bedford, Massachusetts, which narrows it down a bit.

How do we know that the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait was painted in New Bedford, Massachusetts? Purely the card on the back. [Stock’s artist’s card is attached to the back of the painting.] We can see remnants of it, and it gives a New Bedford studio address.

How do we know the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait was painted around 1847? We know from research that he was in New Bedford in 1842, and it’s very similar to a work he executed in 1847. We figure it was painted between 1842 and 1847, but it’s impossible to know for sure.

When did this style of sea captain portrait disappear? Late 19th century? It faded out toward the Victorian era. This was painted right in the height of it. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was most prevalent.

How would the sitter have used this Joseph Whiting Stock portrait? What did he want it to communicate? And would he have displayed it in the same room where he sat for the portrait? Quite possibly. There’d be artistic license, but it’s quite likely this was a room in the sitter’s house. He’s trying to show he’s a man of importance and wealth.

How is the artist’s card attached to the painting? There are four old brads patching it on. Someone put plastic over it, so it’s not going anywhere. It’s incredibly unusual to see that.

So, Joseph Whiting Stock portraits don’t usually have an artist’s card fastened to the back of the canvas? In my experience, I’ve not seen another with a card. I can’t say there’s not another example out there. We also don’t know who put the card on there. We’re not sure if it was the artist or the owner of the painting.

Are Joseph Whiting Stock portraits usually unsigned? Yes. He and most portrait painters [of the era] did not sign their works. Many were not considered trained artists. They fulfilled a need. We have to identify it by its stylistic similarity to other Stock works and this card on the back.

Maybe the clients generally didn’t want the artists to sign the works? I don’t know that it had anything to do with the clients. These were traveling artists. I don’t think they’d be considered important artists on either side. This was a trade. These artists weren’t showing at the National Academy.

What is the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait like in person? I think the photograph represents it pretty well. The only thing I’d say is when you walk around the room, the eyes tend to follow you a bit. Obviously, it’s an optical illusion, but he does have a presence to him.

What’s the world auction record for a Joseph Whiting Stock portrait? It was set back in January 2008 at Christie’s by A Portrait of Martha Otis Bullock (Girl in a Blue Dress). It sold for $145,000, and it’s a bit of an outlier. The next year, Sotheby’s sold one for $68,000. Those are the only two to exceed $50,000.

I understand that Joseph Whiting Stock was disabled, and used a wheelchair. Do you see any collectors seeking his work for that reason? I haven’t heard of that interest in him, but maybe it’s an angle to play up.

Why will this Joseph Whiting Stock portrait stick in your memory? Other than not knowing who the sitter is, this checks a lot of boxes. It’s a known artist, from the right period for this sort of work, and it’s a classic example of what you look for in this type of portrait. And the sitter is a handsome man with distinctive muttonchops.

How to bid: The Joseph Whiting Stock portrait of a sea captain is lot 289 in session one of The Spring Sale taking place at Eldred’s on June 11 and June 12, 2020.

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Image is courtesy of Eldred’s.

Joshua Eldred appeared on The Hot Bid previously, talking about an Antonio Jacobsen schooner portrait and a record-setting painting by Harold Dunbar.

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A Charles Burton Barber Painting Could Sell for $220,000

Only a Shower, an 1884 painting by Charles Burton Barber, shows a girl slumped in sadness, staring out the window at the weather that has cancelled her plans. A trio of dogs attend her. The painting could sell for $220,000.

What you see: Only a Shower, an 1884 painting by Charles Burton Barber. Bonhams estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000, or $150,000 to $220,000.

The expert: Charles O’Brien, head of the 19th century paintings department at Bonhams.

Who was Charles Burton Barber? He was an English artist who studied at the Royal Academy. He was eventually a London-based artist who became a favorite of Queen Victoria from the 1870s onward.

How prolific was he? We don’t know how many pictures he painted. He doesn’t appear to have kept an account book. Given the meticulous detail of his exhibition pictures–he showed over 30 works at the Royal Academy–and the fact that he was only 49 when he died, I don’t think he was particularly prolific.

Where was he in his career when he painted this picture? He was probably at the top of his game. He was a well-known artist, and some of his best works were painted in the 1880s. A successful artist of this period would be a wealthy man.

Do we know how this Charles Burton Barber painting came to be? Did he paint it as a commission, or on spec [without a buyer in mind]? It was painted specifically for an exhibition, with an eye toward being sold. He was elected a member of the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in 1883, and in 1884, he would have wanted to make an impression as a newly elected member. He wanted to put his best foot forward.

What do we know about how Charles Burton Barber worked? Would he have used reference photographs, or posed models in his studio? We don’t know whether he used photographs. To me, Only a Shower is a bit too stylized to be based on a photo. He probably used live models. There’s a very similar girl who seems to appear in many of his pictures. Whether the model is a member of his family, we’re not entirely sure. There’s a lot we don’t know. A lot is supposition.

So the girl pictured here might be his daughter? We know he had children, but we don’t know that he had a daughter. I think it’s quite likely she is [his daughter]. You don’t have to pay a daughter to model.

Are the dogs his? We don’t know. The dog in the foreground looks a bit like a collie that’s reminiscent of a dog that belonged to Queen Victoria. But it’s all supposition. I’m sure they would have been actual dogs, but where he saw them, we don’t know.

Is it typical for Charles Burton Barber paintings to have a narrative, as Only a Shower does? Completely. He wasn’t formulaic, but single figures and animals–usually girls and dogs–were very much his thing at the time. I’ve tried to work out how old she is in the painting. She’s got a very young face, but she [looks to be] mid- to late teens. I think Only a Shower is about a liaison with an admirer. There’s a letter on the table to the right, which was very often used in Victorian paintings to suggest a person who’s involved who can’t be seen. This is not just wanting a ride on a horse. It’s an assignation delayed by the weather. She’s upset because she’s not in the arms of her beau. That’s my reading of it. The flowers on the table might be a gift from him.

I admit I completely missed the letter on the table, and the flowers. I genuinely thought she was sad only because the weather cancelled her ride. Because we don’t have commentary from Charles Burton Barber, a lot of it is left to the imagination. Clues are left in the picture, and you cam make up what the story is about.

The lot notes quote Harry Furniss, the artist’s biographer, saying that Barber “discovered the fact that the public bought pictures of children and dogs.” Is that still true? Yes, absolutely. Within the 19th century market, subject matter is really important. Paintings featuring children and/or dogs are very popular, and always have been.

What is your favorite detail of this Charles Burton Barber painting? I like the head of the terrier. It’s fantastically well painted. Your eye is drawn to her face, and then the top right-hand corner, to the dog. It’s beautifully modeled, really alert and alive. For me, it’s the best part of the picture.

He really nails her body language–the despondent face, and the full-body slump. He was trained at the Royal Academy. He knew body forms. For me, it’s brought together by the incredible light and shade. It’s a remarkable painting, it really is.

He seems to impart attitudes to the dogs as well, particularly the grey one lurking near the window. Its sadness seems to reflect hers. Completely, absolutely. He worked with dogs for a long time, and understood how they empathize with humans, and he was able to paint in an extraordinary manner. It comes through in the composition. Other Victorian artists could paint as well as Charles Burton Barber, but they weren’t able to paint a narrative.

What is the Charles Burton Barber painting like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? It has better depth than the reproduction that appears in the catalog. The area around the top of the window, where the curtain is pulled back to one side, has a feeling of the outside that’s lacking in the reproduction.

How often do Charles Burton Barber paintings appear at auction? There have been about 70 sales in the last 35 years. Many have been watercolors or sketches. Pictures like this–exhibition pictures–don’t come up often. Only six or seven have been comparable to this in quality or importance.

What’s the world auction record for a Charles Burton Barber painting? It was £322,000 [roughly $396,000], set in 2007, not at Bonhams. It was called In Disgrace.

Why will this Charles Burton Barber painting stick in your memory? It’s a really, really, really top-class Victorian painting. Works of this quality don’t come around all the time. To me, it works because the narrative is strong, sentimental without being mawkish. And it’s a poignant subject, given what we’re living through right now–we’re in a ghastly lockdown, and this is a lockdown by nature. It will live in my mind simply because of the times we’re living in.

How to bid: The Charles Burton Barber painting is lot 50 in the 19th Century and British Impressionist Art auction taking place at Bonhams London on June 3, 2020.

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Images are courtesy of Bonhams.

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