Painters of the Peculiar, by Michael Papa and Johnny Meah (THB: Shelf Life)

The cover of Painters of the Peculiar, a book that gathers a wealth of information about sideshow banners and those who painted them.

What you seePainters of the Peculiar: A Guide to Sideshow Banner Artists & Their Respective Work, by Michael Papa and Johnny Meah. $24.99. *

Does it fit in my purse? I guess it could if I rolled it up, but I wouldn’t want to do that to it.

Cut to the chase. Should I buy this book? If you’re into sideshow banner art, yes. I am, and I loved it.

Painters of the Peculiar is review-proof in that, as far as I can tell, it’s the first book of its kind. Others have presented sideshow banners as art, but this appears to be alone in attempting to identify as many banner painters by name as possible, along with biographical information and images of their work, whenever it could be found.

The book also assumes you know why you’re holding it in your hands. It doesn’t kick off with a Sideshow 101 tutorial. It starts by breaking down the layout and features of a sideshow banner in detail and discusses each artist’s work through that lens.

Painters of the Peculiar performs a valuable service by doing its damndest to expand knowledge of American sideshow banners and those who painted them. Every fact gathered in its pages was rescued from an obscurity that almost consumed it.

Many objects have made the slow transformation from tool to art–weathervanes, figureheads, signs that hung outside shops. Sideshow banners are among the few that transitioned during the 20th century, when at least some alert and passionate folks could make a stab at documenting the shift.

As the book notes, more than 100 different sideshow companies once trekked across America. Now there are none. If you want to see a live sideshow, you need to make a pilgrimage to Coney Island USA in Coney Island, New York.

It’s telling that those who actually made sideshow banners never thought of themselves as artists-with-a-capital-A and would be startled to see their road-worn original images of sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, and fat ladies sell for four- and five-figure sums. Snap Wyatt, one of the greats, prided himself on his ability to finish a banner a day. Fine artists rarely boast of their speed, even if they are feverishly cranking out works on deadline to fill a gallery or an art fair booth.

I say the banner painters “would be startled” as most of them didn’t live to see the change. Johnny Meah, the rare painter who has, co-authored Painters of the Peculiar, contributes its cover art, and tells tales of his mid-century working life, both on the road and from his winter base in Florida. These stories alone justify getting the book.

Add the painter identifications, the field guides, and the black-and-white period images of banners on display, and you have a real winner.

Worth buying new, at full price.

How to buy Painters of the Peculiar: Co-author Michael Papa sells it directly through a dedicated website.

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Image is courtesy of Michael Papa.

* I received Painters of the Peculiar as a review copy, but it covers a topic I like and actively seek out. I’ve interviewed Johnny Meah before. I haven’t interviewed Michael Papa, but I did interview his father, John, for a story for Robb Report Collection that is not online. Michael Papa also deals in original sideshow banners.

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RECORD! An Indiana Jones Hat, Worn On Screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Set a Record at Prop Store in 2015

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

What you see: A fedora worn on screen by Harrison Ford while playing Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Prop Store sold it in September 2018 for £393,600 ($522,100) and a record for any piece of Indiana Jones memorabilia. [Scroll down for information on Prop Store’s first auction in Los Angeles, which takes place in late August, 2020 and includes another iconic prop from the 1981 movie.]

The expert: Brandon Alinger, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Prop Store Los Angeles.

Do we know why Director Steven Spielberg, Writer-Producer George Lucas, and Costume Designer Deborah Nadoolman decided that the Indiana Jones character should wear a hat, and how they decided what sort of hat he should wear? Spielberg and Lucas were very good about borrowing from existing ideas in cinema, and this was no exception. The look of Indiana Jones was patterned largely on the look of Charlton Heston in the 1954 film Secret of the Incas, where the character wears a Fedora and a leather jacket. The specific fedora was designed by Deborah Nadoolman to best compliment Ford’s face–you would have to ask her what exactly it was that made that *the* fedora.

What makes the fedora an important part of the Indiana Jones character, and why it is iconic? The character came to be known as “The man with the hat.” The look of Indiana Jones was just different enough to be memorable. It placed him in a certain time in history. Spielberg found many uses for the fedora in the Indiana Jones series–he could establish the character in a silhouette shadow shot based on the outline of the brim, or use it as a gag when Indy nearly loses it diving through a closing temple door and has to reach back and recover it with not an instant to spare.

Do we know how and why the film team chose the Herbert Johnson company to create the Indiana Jones hat? Herbert Johnson is a preeminent manufacturer of custom hats in London, where the production of Raiders of the Lost Ark was based. It would have been a logical choice for Nadoolman and her costume team.

The mark of Herbert Johnson, the milliner who created the Indiana Jones hat for the Raiders of the Lost Ark film team.

Do we know how many Indiana Jones fedoras the company made and delivered to the film team? It’s not known exactly how many fedoras were made for each film. For the first film, at least two fedoras are known to exist. Studying the hats in the film, we can see that these same two show up again and again. Of course, there may have been a few others made and on standby if needed–it’s hard to say with certainty.

Could you discuss what techniques and tricks Nadoolman and her colleagues used with the Indiana Jones hat to give it an aged, weathered look? The primary weathering on the fedora in Raiders is the addition of a dirt-like product, possibly Fuller’s earth. The idea was to make the hat look as if it had been worn on many adventures before.

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

How do we know that this particular fedora was indeed worn on screen? What features or details of the Indiana Jones hat mark it as the one Harrison Ford wore in particular scenes? There are a number of unique identifying marks on the hat, including the previously mentioned Fuller’s earth application, and the folds and stitching in the bow of the hat’s ribbon. Each hat ribbon is created by hand and takes on a unique appearance, providing a fingerprint to trace a fedora through the film.

A close-up on the bow on the Indiana Jones hat. Its particular shape and stitching helps experts identify when and in what scenes Ford wore it.

What is the provenance of this Indiana Jones hat? What happened to it after the film wrapped? The hat originated with someone who worked on the film and it passed through the hands of a few collectors before we brought it to the auction block. 

I understand that Harrison Ford signed the hat. Where on the hat did he sign it, and when did he sign it-during the shoot? The signature was obtained by a prior collector who owned it, probably a number of years after filming. It was signed in the hat liner band. 

At some point after Raiders of the Lost Ark was filmed, a collector asked Harrison Ford to sign the Indiana Jones hat. He obliged, applying his signature in the hat liner band.

What is the Indiana Jones hat like in person? Are there details or aspects that don’t come across on camera? When I first handled the hat, I was struck by how soft the felt actually is. You might expect the hat to feel rigid and hold its shape, but in actuality, the felt is quite soft and malleable. A lot of the form that the hat exhibits on screen comes from the way Harrison Ford’s head fits into it-the specific stretching of his head into the hat band causes the edges of the brim to curl up.   

Did you try on the Indiana Jones hat? I did not! At Prop Store, we revere these artifacts and handle them with great care and respect. The Raiders fedora is a historic piece, and deserves to be treated as such.

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

Is this the first screen-worn Indiana Jones fedora to come to auction? If not, is it the first screen-worn Indiana Jones hat from Raiders of the Lost Ark to come up? Certainly from Raiders, yes, and I believe it’s the first screen-matched fedora to be offered at auction from any Indiana Jones film. 

Was the September 2018 sale the Indiana Jones hat’s auction debut? If not, when has it sold at auction before? The hat had traded hands between private collectors in the past, but never through public auction.

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

How did you set the estimate for the Indiana Jones hat? What comparables did you look to? We looked at Indiana Jones items that have sold through our auctions in the past, as well as private-party transactions for other fedoras that we were aware of. We knew this fedora was in a class on its own-possibly the most significant artefact from the Indy film franchise in private hands, and the price reflected that.      

What was your role in the auction? How many bidders were there at the start, and how long did it take to drop to two? As Chief Operating Officer, I am involved with all aspects of the auction, and I’m very hands-on with high-profile pieces like this. I worked with the consignor on sourcing and cataloging the pieces, I worked with our photography team and graphics team on the look and presentation of the piece in the catalog, and I did the research to screen-match the hat to various stills. I don’t recall the specifics on bidder volume.    

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

What do you recall about the sale of the Indiana Jones hat? Certainly the hat was a star lot in the auction, and we had a number of serious pre-sale inquiries. We expected strong bidding activity and we saw that on the day, with the final hammer price outpacing the upper end of the estimate we had placed on it.

The Indiana Jones hat ultimately sold for more than $520,000. Were you surprised by that? I believe this is a record price for any Indiana Jones fedora, but we expected it would be. It is almost certainly the best example of a fedora in any private collection.

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

What factors drove the Indiana Jones hat to its record price? The fact that it was screen-matched to multiple key scenes from the first Indiana Jones film, which is almost universally regarded as the best film. If you’re a fan of the series, it’s hard to imagine a much better piece that you could own.

It appears that the Indiana Jones hat is NOT the most expensive hat ever sold at auction-that appears to belong to a riding helmet worn by Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, which sold for $6.5 million at a charity auction in 2015. Does the hat hold any records aside from the most-expensive Indiana Jones screen-used prop? Might it hold the record for any screen-worn hat? It certainly may hold that title! I think you’ll have to reach out to Guinness to see what they have in their books. I can tell you it’s the highest priced Indiana Jones piece we have ever sold.

An Indiana Jones hat worn on screen by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark sold for more than $520,000 at Prop Store in 2015.

How long do you believe this world auction record will stand? What’s out there that could challenge the Indiana Jones hat? It’s hard to imagine a better Indy piece, but the market is always moving. Indiana Jones has been a consistently strong performer at auctions, along with other landmark titles of the era such as Star Wars. Who knows what the future may bring? That’s the fun part of auctions.

We know that the London milliner made at least two fedoras for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do we know where the second fedora is? If it came to auction, would it challenge the record set by this Indiana Jones hat? At least one Raiders fedora is still in the collection of George Lucas. I’m not aware of any others at this time, and I think it’s extremely unlikely it [the Lucas fedora] will ever reach the auction block.

Why will the Indiana Jones hat stick in your memory? I’m a massive fan of the Indiana Jones films myself, so it was a real privilege to have this piece in house, to study it, catalog it, and prepare it for sale. It was a wonderful item to work with and an embodiment of what Prop Store is all about.

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On August 26 and August 27, 2020, Prop Store will hold its first auction in Los Angeles. The 850 lots will include a large Nostromo principal filming model miniature from Alien, estimated at $300,000 to $500,000; a screen-matched, blank-firing hero prop Colt Walker-style revolver used by Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, estimated at $40,000 to $60,000; and a Staff of Ra headpiece from Raiders of the Lost Ark, estimated at $100,000 to $200,000.

Prop Store is on Twitter and Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Prop Store.

Herbert Johnson is still a going concern, and you can order an authentic Indiana Jones hat directly from the company.

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RECORD! A Shepard Fairey Work, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Fetched Almost $260,000 At Artcurial in 2019

Shepard Fairey created the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité image in November 2015 as a response to the Bataclan attacks. He painted it twice on canvas. The first hangs in French President Emmanuel Macron's office. The second set a world auction record for the artist.

What you see: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, a 2018 work on canvas by American artist Shepard Fairey. Artcurial sold it on November 5, 2019 for €232,200 ($259,089) against an estimate of €80,000 to €120,000 (roughly $90,300 to $135,500), setting a world auction record for the artist.

The expert: Arnaud Oliveux, associate director and auctioneer in Artcurial’s urban art department.

Who is Shepard Fairey? He’s one of the most important contemporary urban artists. He’s very well-known for the image of Andre the Giant that he stickered all around the world at the beginning of his career in the late 1980s. Andre the Giant was a famous French wrestler who had a very particular and impressive body. Shepard used, and still uses, this image to do some posters with the word OBEY, which became its tagline. It references George Orwell’s book 1984 and John Carpenter’s movie Invasion Los Angeles [known in the United States as They Live]. Fairey’s works often deal with subjects such as mass manipulation and propaganda images, as well as with musicians who play rap or punk music. It can easily be said that Fairey is a committed artist.

When you say that Shepard Fairey is a committed artist, could you elaborate on what you mean by that? I mean that Shepard’s work deals with political and ecological issues. I think he himself is very committed, and that’s the reason why his works deals with these issues–Big Brother [the symbol of the surveillance state that reigns in 1984], war . . .

Could you tell the story of why Fairey made this French-themed work? What prompted him to create it? He created it just after the Bataclan attacks of November 2015 in Paris. [ISIL terrorists conducted several attacks on civilian targets in the city in mid-November 2015. The deadliest happened at the Bataclan theater, during a performance by the American band Eagles of Death Metal. Of the 130 victims who died in the November 15 attacks, 90 were killed at the Bataclan.] Fairey was in Paris for the Cop 21 event in December [the shorthand name for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 21st Conference of the Parties]. He was working on this incredible Earth Crisis Globe under the Eiffel Tower. And then the Bataclan attacks happened. Four days later, he wanted to do a tribute by using French symbols: the Marianne figure; the French flag colors, blue, white and red; and the French motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. For Fairey, this work was a symbol of harmony and fraternity.

I understand that Fairey made a version of this canvas and gave it to Emmanuel Macron, who hung it in his office after he won the presidency. Is there any chance that the record-setting Fairey work is the one from Macron’s office? The first version of the canvas was purchased by a French collector who is a close friend of Emmanuel Macron. This work is a real symbol here, so this collector decided to loan the canvas to the president’s office. Our record-setting work was the second one, not the one from Macron’s office, which is always there. 

What makes this Shepard Fairey work so powerful? Why is it such a successful design? This work is really compelling. I think there are two reasons. First, as I said earlier, is its symbolism in relation to the Bataclan. And then the image hung in our president’s office. It is really effective. It’s the reason that the prints from 2016 that originally sold for €70 [$60] can sell now for €6,000, and the reason that our buyer in November 2019, a business leader, purchased it for his company. It’s not so easy to answer your second question, but I think the composition of the work is very easy to understand. The wall in Paris with the same image is very impressive. The meaning is easy.

I searched for this piece in Fairey’s online archives and found two editions that resemble the record-setter, but do not match its size–both are smaller. What can you tell me about the 2018 version that set a record? Is it a one-off? If it’s not a one-off, how big was its limited edition? The work we sold, and which set a new world record in November 2019, is a different work. It’s a mixed media on canvas with spray paint, stencil, and collage. The image is the same visual in the two links on the artist’s website, but they are not the same work. The works shown in the links are prints, one in an edition of 450, and the other in an edition of 1,000. Shepard Fairey is a master of using the power of an image. He often develops the same image in different media: print, paper, wood, metal, and canvas. He wants the image to be seen by many people. Fairey created the second canvas version for an exhibition in Detroit in 2018. It was bought by a French collector.

I noticed there was a 2016 version of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité in the same November 2019 Artcurial auction, and it sold for far less than the record-breaker. Was the 2016 example one of the poster editions? Yes. That was a poster from an edition of 450. The record-setting work was an original canvas. These works are really very different, and the prices are really very different.

What is the Shepard Fairey work like in person? Are there details or aspects that the camera doesn’t quite capture? You can see more details on the work when you are physically in front of it. A stencil die stuck on the canvas creates depth in the work. But the essentials are the symbols–Marianne, the colors red, white, and blue, and the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité motto–that you can see on the image. 

While I have not seen this Shepard Fairey work in person, I did attend his 2009 show in Boston and saw a very large version of one of his Hope posters. I was surprised by the amount of visual texture it had–imagery that isn’t evident unless you get close to the real thing. Does the record-setting Shepard Fairey work have that same sort of “visual texture”? You’re totally right. There are many symbols in most of Fairey’s works. He is so very committed. The Obama Hope poster series and Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité are committed works which tell a story–a social, political story.

How many Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité images have you handled at Artcurial? Do you tend to sell more of this particular Shepard Fairey work than other auction houses? In the past, we’ve sold six Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité posters–the print editioned in 450 copies in 2016, and this version on canvas. So, seven works, with this image. I think we tend to sell more of this one than other auction houses for several reasons. This visual has a French theme, and it’s been seen often during President Macron’s speeches. And Artcurial has realized the best aution prices for Shepard Fairey. We have ten of the 15 best prices in the world for him, according to Artnet. We have the current record for Fairey and the previous record. We have a very good database of collectors.

What was your role in the auction? I was the auctioneer of the sale. The buyer, who I know very well, was in the auction room, just in front of me. 

What do you recall of the auction? How many bidders were there at the start, and how long did it take to drop to two? During this particular auction, the bids were very quick. We had six or seven bidders on the phone and in the room. They all wanted the work until it hit its high estimate. Maybe 30 seconds after the start, the bids reached €150,000 [about $169,200]. The auction continued between two persons until it reached €180,000 [$203,200], which was the final hammer price. [The complete price was €232,200, or $259,100.]

Were you surprised at how well the Shepard Fairey work did? What did you think it was going to sell for, and how close was that number to the final number? Surprised? Yes and no. I knew when I took this work on consignment that we could have a new record for Shepard Fairey. The image is already iconic. During the exhibition, I thought we could sell it for €120,000 to €150,000 [$135,500 to $169,200], which is a very important price for a Shepard work. But I did not think it would sell for €232,200. And during the bidding, when we reached €180,000, I dreamed of a €200,000 [$225,800] hammer price. €232,200, including fees, is a great price–nearly $260,000. 

When did you know you had a world auction record for any work by Shepard Fairey? I knew it before the auction, in fact. During the exhibition, I knew that some collectors wanted to bid it up above the previous Shepard Fairey record. During the auction, we broke the record very quickly.

How long do you think this Shepard Fairey auction record will last? What other Shepard Fairey works out there could dethrone this one? It’s difficult to know. But now, with the COVID-19 situation, maybe things will change on the art market. Maybe the record won’t be broken immediately.

Why will this Shepard Fairey work stick in your memory? First, we broke the record for Shepard Fairey. That’s always an event for us, we did a good job. And I love Shepard Fairey’s works. I spent time with him three years ago, and he is very committed. His works are political, social, and environmental.

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Image is courtesy of Artcurial.

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RECORD! A Four-Rotor Enigma Machine Sold at Sotheby's for $800,000

An M4, or four-rotor, Enigma machine, recovered from a bunker in Trondheim toward the end of World War II. It set a record for any Enigma machine at Sotheby's in December 2019.

What you see: A four-rotor (“M4”) Kriegsmarine Enigma cipher machine, in its original case. It sold at Sotheby’s New York in December 2019 for $800,000 against an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000, setting a new world auction record for an Enigma machine.

The expert: Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s.

Let’s start by explaining what an Enigma machine is. An Enigma machine is a machine used to encrypt messages. It doesn’t send messages. It simply encodes them so they can be sent in a secret manner. They were usually sent by Morse code. In order for encryption and decryption to function, you need two machines. The Enigma machine was not invented by the Nazis, but the Nazis chose to use it because it was the best model of encryption machine. Before the war, they were used in the commercial realm, to keep business secrets.

Were there different types or varieties of Enigma machine? When World War II broke out, the Nazis chose to adapt and use the three-rotor machine, also known as the E1. It was primarily used by the army. Three-rotors tend to be banged up. They were on the ground.

Were three-rotors the most common model of Enigma machine used during World War II? Those are the most common, which is not to say any are common. They’re the ones I see the most.

So, Enigma machines predate World War II and were used commercially. Were they available to the Allies? They were. My understanding is the Nazis had a contract with the companies that manufactured them. I don’t think the companies had a choice [to decline the German contract], but during the war they exclusively produced a more sophisticated machine than was previously available in the commercial realm. The Nazis swooped in when the machines were on the verge of having an extra layer of encryption invented, and bought it all out. If the Allies had a machine in their hands, they’d captured it.

The example that set the world auction record is a four-rotor Enigma machine. How is it different? The Nazis knew that the Allies were working to break the code, but they weren’t aware of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. The commander of the German naval fleet, Karl Doenitz, was particularly concerned about it. He had a four-rotor Enigma machine developed in secret, to be used by the German navy. The body is slightly different. Both the three-rotor and the four-rotor are in an oak case, but the four-rotor has a handle on the side, so you can slide it into a slot on a U-boat so it doesn’t roll around. The majority of four-rotors were on U-boats, and the majority are trashed, rusted out, because of exposure to salt water and air. I’ve seen them completely rusted, with just the chassis surviving. To find a machine that’s complete and in fantastic condition is so rare, and to find one with a traceable provenance… it’s a unicorn. This is the unicorn of Enigma machines.

How did this four-rotor Enigma machine manage to survive in such good condition? The story is fantastic. We do know where the machine originated. It was in a bunker in Trondheim, Norway, in a major communications center. The crew had 15 of these machines.

Wow, 15? Was each four-rotor Enigma machine in that Trondheim bunker dedicated to a single U-boat, or could each machine only handle one message request at a time? A machine couldn’t handle more than one at a time.

How does the four-rotor Enigma machine work? When you open it up, you see that there are rotors inside–wheels. Each wheel has 26 positions. In the four-rotor, the wheels have letters, A to Z. Each wheel has to be set to a specific letter. Patched cables also have to be set in very specific ways at the front of the machine. For Machine A to encrypt the message, it has to be set up in a specific way. For Machine B to decrypt the message, the cables and the rotors must be set up in the same way. It takes 45 seconds to reset a machine, but during war, there’s no time for that. Each machine had a different setting, set up to speak to a specific machine.

But I don’t think this is the rarest form of Enigma machine. Didn’t they make a 10-rotor? That wasn’t used in wartime, really, and it’s not exactly a 10-rotor. There are double rotors, and I don’t completely understand how those machines function. I would compare a three-rotor to a Volvo. A 10-rotor is more of a Prius. I can change the oil in an old Volvo, but I can’t in a Prius.

How did this four-rotor Enigma machine leave the bunker? The bunker was sieged, taken by surprise. When a machine was captured, the first thing that the Nazis were supposed to do was destroy the machine–open it, smash the rotors, smash the keyboard, throw it in a lake. The most important thing to get rid of was the rotors. The secret of the rotors was not just in their secret positions. Each has internal wiring that’s different. If you can figure out the internal wiring, it all falls apart.

“It all falls apart,” meaning if you learn the way the rotors are wired, you can easily figure out whatever messages come over? Exactly. But if the rotors are destroyed, you can’t figure it out.

What happened to the other 14 machines in the Trondheim bunker? They did survive the war, but I think they were disposed of later. The fact that this machine’s rotors are in perfect condition shows they were taken by surprise. They were not able to destroy the machine. They [the people working in the bunker] were kept prisoner and forced to teach a Norwegian naval officer how to use the machine.

So this would have been after Vidkun Quisling was overthrown? Yes.

What happened to the four-rotor Engima machine after it left the bunker? After the war, Churchill ordered all types of Enigma machines destroyed. Most from the bunker were trashed. One member of the Norwegian naval forces took this one home and kept it. His son consigned it, and told me that kids in his village used rotor boxes to keep change in. This was something kept in his house, not hidden, just there. There was no sense they were not supposed to have it, or it was stolen.

Is that how most Enigma machines come down to us now? Someone kept it? It’s what I understand to be the case with every Enigma machine that comes to market. The majority were kept as souvenirs. Someone’s Swiss grandpa took one and kept it in the attic, or they’re left behind in homes that were used as Nazi bases. I haven’t encountered any machine that came to the market in any other way.

When did Enigma machines start arriving on the auction market? Probably the late 1990s or early 2000s. They were previously placed in scientific instrument sales or World War II sales. Those buyers looked at them more as relics. They put them on a shelf, and they wouldn’t be touched. They were part of history. The biggest leap in prices was in 2015, when I was at Bonhams. The sale with the Alan Turing manuscript also had an Enigma machine, and I want to say it made $269,000. It was a record price and a big leap for a three-rotor. It was fully operational.

How did the 2015 Bonhams sale of the three-rotor Enigma machine change things? It was a big shift. They were no longer World War II relics sitting on a shelf. Now they were objects from the history of computing that you could play with. Interest in Alan Turing’s manuscript came from the tech world. The shift in interest in the machines went from World War II to tech–a different client base. That’s when things took off, I think. Christie’s sold a four-rotor Enigma machine in 2017 for $547,500, which was a new world record. The one we sold in December was way above that.

Why did the four-rotor Enigma machine that Sotheby’s sold in December 2019 do so much better than any other offered at auction? It had a combination of everything you want. This machine had fantastic condition and a really killer history. It’s the only one I’ve seen or know of with an unbroken chain of provenance. Condition plus provenance plus rarity is where you find higher prices. Buyers understood it was a trifecta.

How often do three-rotor Enigma machines come to auction, and how often do four-rotor Enigma machines come up? The E1 [the three-rotor], once or twice a year, maybe. A really, really good one comes up every other year. I could probably sell many E1s every year but they wouldn’t be in great condition, or wouldn’t have a great provenance, or they wouldn’t function. The M4 [four-rotor], there have been four I’m aware of in the past six years. Two have been at Sotheby’s since I’ve been here. One was at Christie’s, and one was at Bonhams. I always look for four-rotors. I know where to find three-rotors. It’s not difficult to acquire one. Getting an M4 is a different story, much more difficult to do.

How many Enigma machines have you personally handled? Quite a few. I’d say at least one dozen, if not more. I’m including ones that clients own but need to figure out if it’s working or not.

Do Enigma machines have to work to have value to collectors? They definitely wouldn’t be worthless, but there would be less interest in it. I’ve previously seen them come up in World War II and scientific instrument sales not working and they were still sold. I have seen machines missing most of their hardware still sell. But I’ll see a higher price for an operational machine.

Why do functional Enigma machines command higher prices? A functional Enigma machine is a totally different thing. It becomes an interactive piece that can encode messages, and you can show people how to decode messages. They come into the gallery and I ask, “You want to see how this thing works?” The looks on peoples’ faces… going from a box on a shelf to showing them how it works, it blows peoples’ minds every time. If the choice is between a machine that blows peoples’ minds versus a box sitting on a shelf, you’re going to go for this machine.

How easy or difficult is it to operate a four-rotor Enigma machine? It seems easy to me because I’ve played with the machines for a long time. They’re not difficult to operate. They’re actually pretty clean and elegant. I understand the math behind it is more difficult.

Do Enigma machines make any noise? What do they sound like? They make a very satisfying kind of thunk sound, very similar to old typewriters, but very distinctive. It’s louder than an old typewriter. You couldn’t use it in secret.

That’s why you need a bunker… Yes! [Laughs]

What is the four-rotor Enigma machine like in person? I think it’s very difficult to understand what these machines really are just with a camera. You need to put your hands on them and play with them. I love Enigma machines. I’m obsessed with them. If I could have two M4s and two E1s, I’d be very happy and very broke. If you can forget about what they were used for, they’re amazing technical marvels. It’s impossible to convey in a video. The experience is a different thing. And it’s heavy. It takes a strong person to lug it around.

Do you know how much it weighs? I think the E1 and the M4 are about the same weight. This is a two-arm job. It comes with a leather strap, but there’s no way I’d try to carry it with a leather strap.

In what ways does the four-rotor Enigma machine bring pleasure to someone who loves all things analog? Opening the machine up and seeing the guts, seeing how the rotors are put together, how it’s engineered to fit together, nest together, it’s so satisfying. I’m a person who likes to look under the hoods of cars. I like taking things apart and putting them back together. If you’re that person, an Enigma machine is so fun.

What was your role in the auction? Were you on the phone? Yes.

With the winner? Yes.

Did you have a notion that the four-rotor Enigma machine might break the world auction record? I always hoped for that. I didn’t think it was unreasonable. I think it was a fair price, and it was right for it to sell for that price. The provenance and the condition were beyond the others [that have been] at auction. I thought it should, at minimum, sell for the high estimate. I was happy with where the sale ended up.

What role did the provenance play in driving it toward the record price? I think it played a big role. It really did. People were excited about the story. If you take the provenance away, it gets closer to the high estimate.

And its condition, what role did that play in the record price? The machine was issued with, I believe, seven rotors. Each rotor has a serial number. One way to determine if a machine was used during wartime is if the serial number of the rotors match the serial number of the machine. The serial numbers on the rotors do not match the machine–that means it was used. When it sat in a bunker, all the rotors were piled on a table, because they were interchangeable in terms of wiring. You could use an R7 [a seventh rotor] in any machine. When the machine was taken, it had a full complement of rotors and [the original private owner] grabbed a box with extra rotors. The rotors in the box had different serial numbers than the machine, which is totally fine. If they matched, that means the machine was never used, or used in isolation.

So the world of Enigma machines is not at all like the world of classic cars, where you want the number on the engine to match the number on the chassis. Exactly.

What do you think it would take for an Enigma machine to cross the seven-figure threshold? Would this particular one have to return to auction? I think it’s definitely possible. It’s hard to say what kind of machine would do that. It’d have to be a famous machine with some sort of super-celebrity provenance to it, like Admiral Doenitz’s own.

Does Admiral Doenitz’s four-rotor Enigma machine still exist? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out!

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News: Summer 2020 on The Hot Bid

As of today, The Hot Bid shifts to a summer schedule.

New posts will appear on Tuesdays during July, August, and early September.

Most will feature items that set world auction records.

When The Hot Bid resumes its twice-a-week schedule, new posts will appear on Tuesdays and Fridays, rather than Mondays and Thursdays.

Enjoy your summer, and enjoy The Hot Bid!