A 1970 Wadsworth Jarrell Painting Could Command $150,000 (Updated December 10, 2020: RECORD!)

Subway, a Wadsworth Jarrell painting done at the height of his powers in 1970, could sell for $150,000 and a new world auction record for the artist at Swann Auction Galleries.

Update: The Wadsworth Jarrell painting sold for $125,000, setting a new world auction record for the artist.

What you see: Subway, a 1970 Wadsworth Jarrell painting. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

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

Who is Wadsworth Jarrell? He’s a living artist who turns 91 on November 20. He’s best known as a painter and a founding member of the AfriCOBRA movement in Chicago. [The group’s full name is “the African Commune Of Bad Relevant Artists”.] His work from the late 1960s and early 1970s is rising in stature and prominence.

Is Jarrell still working? I don’t know how much he’s painting at this moment, but he continues to paint and be active. He’s had a wonderful, long career.

Where was he in his career in 1970, when he painted Subway? By 1968, he had been living and working as an artist for quite some time. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and the growth of the Civil Rights movement, a lot of artists became more socially active. Jarrell was one of the founding members of AfriCOBRA, a group of artists who decided they wanted to reach a larger audience, and who felt that art should not be reserved for the gallery scene. AfriCOBRA brought these artists together, and they made a lot of strong artwork that culminated in a 1970 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem that really put them on the map.

Was Subway a part of that show? This artwork was not, but AfriCOBRA continued to do group exhibitions. In 1968, he cofounded AfriCOBRA, and by 1970 and 1971, he was reaching a peak with AfriCOBRA exhibitions.

Is AfriCOBRA still around? Not really, no, but many of the artists are still alive.

How does Jarrell’s experience with AfriCOBRA shape what we see in Subway? The AfriCOBRA movement wanted to depict art that everyday people could relate to. They did figurative subjects, not abstraction. They wanted to speak to social and political consciousness, and they wanted to show that art could change peoples’ lives with positive images. The AfriCOBRA style used bright colors, images of people without complex compositions, direct messages people could understand, and the artists brought themselves to their work.

How did Jarrell bring himself to his work? There’s a wonderful variety of things in his paintings. There’s the “coolade colors”–artificial colors not necessarily found in nature, but were bright and vibrant and got peoples’ attention. The floating letters, the “B”s, are representative of black power, blackness, and beauty. They permeate his paintings. The text [in his work] is sometimes explicit. It could be from a speech from Malcolm X or more subtle floating Bs, but there’s a message in his work. Subway fits right into the AfriCOBRA ethos and it’s typical of Jarrell’s work at the time.

I understand the letter referenced another b-word of the time that appears in AfriCOBRA’s name: Bad. Could you explain what “bad” meant in this context in 1970? It meant something good. But the Bs were more about blackness and beauty. They were positive signifiers. If you look at other paintings of Jarrell’s from this time, such as Revolutionary, they have Bs floating through the painting. The visual representation, along with the colors and the shapes, give the work a positive vibe. It’s not just a handsome portrait or a bustling subway scene. The floating letters became a device in his paintings for good things happening in the community–it’s in the air.

So the Bs sort of capture the spirit of the community, and the sense that things were changing for the better? I guess it’s the opposite of Edvard Munch’s The Scream and the anxious, nervous energy that emanates from that painting. Subway is the flipside of that.

Is the Chicago subway stop in the Wadsworth Jarrell painting identifiable? I don’t think it is. There’s nothing in the painting that says it’s this stop or that stop.

Did Jarrell include portraits of himself, his wife, or his friends in the painting? The artist might have done these things, but not that I’m aware of. What is specific in the painting is the details in the subway posters, the references to political campaigns that were going on at the time. It’s as if Trump or Biden posters were up today. But Subway is not about a specific group of people. It’s about part of everyday life in Chicago, going to work, going to school. It’s a great subject for an AfriCOBRA painting.

So it’s fair to say that this Wadsworth Jarrell painting is a good representation of his work in the early 1970s? The colors, the composition, the floating letter device–all those things make it typical of that time.

How often do Wadsworth Jarrell paintings come to market? He’s had about 18 works at auction in the last ten years. His market has been slowly developing. He had a breakthrough in 2016 when we sold a painting of his from 1973. It was untitled, but a title was attributed to it later. It was estimated at $25,000 to $35,000 and it sold for $97,500. It was the first significant painting from his prime AfriCOBRA period at auction. That’s why we’re excited about this painting. It has the potential to change his market.

If Subway sells for its low estimate, it will automatically set a new world auction record for the artist, yes? Correct.

What makes this Wadsworth Jarrell painting likely to break the record? It checks all the boxes. It’s a work of his from that moment, it’s a great subject, a good size. Given the current interest in his work and the scarcity of these paintings at auction, we expect it to do well.

What is this Wadsworth Jarrell painting like in person? There’s a life and a character and a wonderful energy to his work that you have to experience in person, but the representation in the catalog is a pretty good one.

What’s your favorite detail of the painting? I like the composition of the figures. I like how he shows people relaxed and talking, and I like how your eye goes around to look at each one. There’s no prominent figure. I see something new and different in the painting every time I look at it.

What does Subway and the record-setting Wadsworth Jarrell painting have in common, aside from having been painted around the same time? They share the same kind of energy, with the floating letters and a lot of busy-ness. The 1973 painting has two saxophone players back to back. It’s a bit more abstract in its colors and patterns. This has more of a feel of city life and the subway.

With Subway, it seems to me that Jarrell is putting as much as he can in the composition without overcrowding it. He definitely pushes it. But there are quiet spaces in the painting. Subway is a little different in that you can identify the place. A lot of his paintings focus on the message and the people.

Why will this Wadsworth Jarrell painting stick in your memory? It’s a great painting with a lot of qualities we look for in his work. I enjoy seeing the subway scene and seeing all the thought he put into it. It’s not just a subject, it’s the message.

How to bid: The Wadsworth Jarrell painting is lot 73 in the African American Art sale taking place at Swann Auction Galleries on December 10, 2020.

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

Swann Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter.

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

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

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A Ralph Cahoon Painting of Sailors and Mermaids Dancing and Flying Kites Could Sell for $50,000 (Updated November 21, 2020)

"Wedding Dance", a circa 1960s work by the fanciful, folky Cape Cod artist Ralph Cahoon, could sell for $50,000.

Update: The Ralph Cahoon painting sold for $37,500.

What you see: Wedding Dance, a circa 1960s oil on masonite painting by Ralph Eugene Cahoon Jr. Eldred’s estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.

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

Who was Ralph Cahoon? He was a noted artist who lived here on the cape. He and his wife worked in Cotuit, Massachusetts for several decades.

Was he self-taught? He married a woman named Martha Farham, and her father was an artist who did a lot of furniture decorated in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. The only training I know he received was through his father-in-law. He started his career painting used antique furniture with folky-inspired scenes and slowly started to incorporate whimsical nautical scenes.

When did Ralph Cahoon move from painting furniture to actual paintings? He was painting furniture in the 1940s and switched in the mid- to late 1950s. Joan Whitney Payson, a socialite, was responsible for the switch. I don’t know that she discovered him, but she was one of his early backers. She encouraged him to move from furniture to two-dimensional work, and she helped expose him to wealthy clients who bought his art.

How prolific was Ralph Cahoon? Very. I would say he made thousands of paintings. There’s no catalog raisonné for him, but a book of prices will be printed in a year or two, and the Cahoon Museum in Cotuit, which is in his former house, has all his journals and records.

Is Wedding Dance a typical Ralph Cahoon painting? It’s a consistent scene, and a popular subject. We’ve handled a fair number of Cahoons, and we’ve seen this at least ten or 12 times in different forms.

How often do mermaids appear in Ralph Cahoon paintings? It’s more usual to have them than to not have them. It’s one of the key things in his work. If there are no mermaids, the Cahoon painting brings less money.

Why was Ralph Cahoon so into mermaids? I don’t know. There are some underwater scenes with mermaids, but most are on land, with them all doing silly things. It fits into the whole sailor narrative, though. They’re attracted to the mythical creature of the sea, which distracts them.

How are the mermaids depicted in this Ralph Cahoon painting? I don’t generally read much into them. I think his motivation is fun and whimsy. His paintings are not overly deep.

This Ralph Cahoon painting is described as “Chinese-influenced”. Does that imagery come up often in his work? It pops up now and again. Some paintings emulate the imagery of China Trade School paintings of the 19th century.

Do we know why Cahoon might have painted this? We believe it was painted for one of his first shows at the Vose Gallery in Boston. The Vose Gallery was a very early proponent of his work and gave him one or two dedicated shows in the 1960s. The family story of the consigner is it was bought in the 1960s at that gallery.

Is this landscape in the painting 100 percent fanciful, or do any features of it–say, the tea house, or the harbor–correspond to places in the real world? I think it’s 100 percent fanciful. It’s possible the backdrop is Canton, but it’s not a slam dunk.

What is the Ralph Cahoon painting like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? It’s lovely, the colors are strong, and it has a very strong presence. He used an antique varnish to make it appear as if it’s a 19th century work.

What is your favorite detail of the painting? The kites, partly because they’re fun and partly because I haven’t seen them in a Cahoon painting before. They’re a wonderful Asian design, and it’s fun to see something new and different.

Is it possible to guess why he might have included kites that look like this? He probably did it because it pleased him. It could be similar to Chinese export paintings he saw in person, or in an image. He based some works off of 19th century prints.

What condition is the Ralph Cahoon painting in, and what condition issues do you tend to see with his works? I rarely see a Cahoon with significant condition issues. He painted almost exclusively on masonite, which is not prone to tears.

As we speak on November 10, 2020, the painting has been bid up to $13,000. Is that meaningful at all? Not particularly. I’d say half the lots in the auction have bids. It really doesn’t tell you much, other than two people are interested in it. Some bid as a bookmark and come back later.

What’s the world auction record for a Ralph Cahoon painting? Was it set at Eldred’s? It was set with us, in August 2010, by A Shocking Incident at the Boston Public Garden. It sold for $207,000. It was very different from Wedding Dance. It has Swan Boats, mermaids and sailors, and the State House in the background. The Swan Boats are an iconic image of Boston. A collector had to have it.

How do Cahoon paintings make you feel? I think they’re fun. You don’t have to be a Ph.D to understand them. They’re lighthearted, and they don’t try too hard. They’re pleasing.

How to bid: The Ralph Cahoon painting Wedding Dance is lot 727 in The Fall Sale: Day II, which takes place at Eldred’s on November 20, 2020.

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

Eldred’s is also on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Eldred’s.

Josh Eldred has appeared on The Hot Bid three other times, talking about a Joseph Whiting stock portrait of an unknown sea captain, an Antonio Jacobsen schooner portrait, and a record-setting painting by Cape Cod artist Harold Dunbar.

The Cahoon Museum of American Art has a website.

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A Vintage Penguin Cocktail Shaker Could Fetch $3,500 (Updated November 21, 2020)

A vintage penguin cocktail shaker, designed by Emil Schuelke for Napier Company in 1936, could sell for $3,500.

Update: The penguin cocktail shaker sold for $4,375.

What you see: A penguin cocktail shaker designed by Emil Schuelke for the Napier Company in 1936. Rago Arts and Auction estimates it at $2,500 to $3,500.

The expert: Megan Whippen, senior specialist at Wright.

Who was Emil Schuelke? There really isn’t much known about him aside from the fact that he was American, he was born in 1901, and died in 1986. This penguin cocktail shaker is probably what he’s best known for.

Do we know how the penguin cocktail shaker came to be? We do have some information. What’s wonderful about this particular design is we have a patent for it. We also know it was launched at Hammacher Schlemmer for the 1936 Christmas season.

What was Emil Schuelke’s involvement with the penguin cocktail shaker? Did he render a prototype? He’s always been credited as its designer. We don’t know of the existence of a prototype.

Was the penguin cocktail shaker an instant hit with the public? That’s hard to say, but it was one of Napier’s most successful cocktail shaker designs during this time period. It was discontinued in 1941. [The Napier Company largely ceased to exist after it was sold in 1999.]

Do we have any idea how many penguin cocktail shakers Napier made? Unfortunately, we do not.

Was the penguin cocktail shaker a stand-alone piece, or did it come with matching cups and a serving tray? The patent in 1936 was only for a shaker. Stand-alone cocktail shaker designs weren’t uncommon in the 1930s and there was precedent for them in Napier’s designs.

What makes the penguin cocktail shaker such a powerful example of commercial design? It has a wonderfully whimsical and playful shape, and it’s streamlined and modern and ultimately a functional piece of design.

The Emil Schuelke vintage penguin cocktail shaker, shown from the side. The inventive design turns its beak into a spout.

I’m impressed by how neatly Emil Schuelke translated the shape of a penguin, which is an exquisitely streamlined bird in the water but comical on land, into a cocktail shaker. The beak becomes the spout, and then there’s the feet… the only departure is the handle. The functional part of it is what makes it cool. It’s a wonderful zoomorphic figure, a nuanced animalistic design, but in the end, it needed a handle. It doesn’t all play into the design paradigm.

This example is silver-plated. Did Napier make other variations on the form? There are examples in gilt silver plate. The one at the Dallas Museum of Art has that–the beak and wings are gilt silver. And there was an example done for the 1939 World’s Fair that’s in the Royal Collection.

What is the penguin cocktail shaker like in person? I haven’t held this one, but I’ve had a model for a number of years. It’s very sleek and modern, and it has a nice weight in the hand. Because it’s a plated silver object, it’s a bit heavier than other cocktail shakers. It’s a functional work of design, meant to be used.

Who doesn't love penguins? Who wouldn't love this penguin cocktail shaker's feet?

What’s your favorite detail of the penguin cocktail shaker? When you see it in person, it’s very sleek and modern, but you see the whimsy in the feet. It’s a functional element that makes sure the cocktail shaker stands upright, and it’s a little bit playful.

What condition is the penguin cocktail shaker in? It has a little light wear from use, from twisting it to take the top off to put in liquor and ice. Otherwise, it’s in very good condition.

Do contemporary collectors of vintage cocktail shakers treat them as sculpture, or do they generally intend to put them to work? There are people who view them as sculpture, but as we come back into an era when we appreciate cocktails, collectors view vintage cocktail shakers as objects to be used.

How often do penguin cocktail shakers come to auction? I see about one a year. It was something produced in larger numbers. It was not a one-off piece, and you have an end in 1941.

Did Napier ever re-issue the penguin cocktail shaker? Other people have issued homages or replicas, but not Napier.

Are fakes a problem? Vintage penguin cocktail shakers are usually marked and stamped, and you see age to the plated silver. Something created recently doesn’t look like this, and it feels different in the hand.

What’s the world auction record for a penguin cocktail shaker? That’s hard to answer. One of the top prices achieved was in the United Kingdom. An example sold for £5,250 (roughly $7,000) at Christie’s in 2013.

Does the penguin cocktail shaker hold its value well? Prices have remained strong. The Cooper Hewitt has a wonderful example and uses it in some of its marketing material because it’s a 1930s icon.

It seems as if the penguin cocktail shaker has become emblematic of the cocktail shakers of the period. Why do you think that is? It has a wonderful whimsy to it. It’s hard to forget a penguin serving a beverage. And major institutions have examples of it–you see it more frequently when you go to museums.

How to bid: The penguin cocktail shaker is lot 717 in Object & Home Day 2, an auction taking place at Rago Arts and Auction on November 20, 2020.

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

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Images are courtesy of Rago/Wright.

Megan Whippen appeared on The Hot Bid previously to discuss a chair by George Hunzinger.

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A Woolsey Bunny Figure Could Sell For $6,000 (Updated November 15, 2020)

A Woolsey bunny figure, made from bottle caps applied to a wooden frame by Iowa folk artists Clarence and Grace Woolsey. This piece could sell for $6,000 at Slotin Folk Art Auction.

Update: The Woolsey bunny figure sold for $9,700.

What you see: A Woolsey bunny figure, created from wood and bottle caps between the 1960s and 1980s by Clarence and Grace Woolsey. Slotin Folk Art Auction estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

The expert: Steve Slotin of Slotin Folk Art Auction in Buford, Georgia.

Who were Clarence and Grace Woolsey? They were farmers in Iowa, very rural, isolated, and living off the land. They had cattle and crops and that was it. Though they came from families that had lots of kids, they had no children.

Where did they get the idea to make art out of bottle caps? They were children of the Great Depression, raised in a time when people made arts and crafts from discarded items. During World War II, bottle caps were gathered for metal drives. After the war, they were still collected. The Woolseys collected bottle caps and the townsfolk helped them. They first made a little church out of bottle caps, to resemble the one they went to. Then Grace encouraged Clarence to make bodies [wooden structures] to attach the bottle caps to. He didn’t have power tools–just jigsaws and pocket knives. He started making fanciful figures, and she would decorate them.

And that’s how they divided the labor–he built the frameworks, and she added the bottle caps? He would whittle the solid wood structure. She applied the caps. The caps were nailed into the structures or she’d punch holes in the caps and string them on wires.

How prolific were the Woolseys? They made about 400 pieces. Out of that 400, a lot are teepees, churches, and wagons, but it was the figures that captured the imagination. Some call them bears, or bunnies, or aliens, though they’re not really bears or bunnies or aliens. They’re totally original, not like anything anyone has seen or done before.

The upper half of the body of the Woolsey bunny figure clearly shows rings of bottle caps, which Grace pierced and strung on wires before incorporating them into the piece.

So other people made things out of bottle caps, but there’s everyone else, and then there’s the Woolseys? In the folk art world, you’ll come across bottle cap baskets and snakes. The Woolseys took that idea and went to a whole different stratosphere with their art. They took the craft and made it into a personal art form.

Grace Woolsey was the one who fostered the idea? She was the one who originally said “Let’s do something”. They were in Iowa, and they didn’t even have working heat. In winter, they’d be snowed in for weeks at a time. That’s when they started making things from bottle caps. From there, it blossomed into an art form. They took something other people would have thrown away and made something beautiful and original out of it.

After a while, the Woolseys launched a tourist attraction that they called the Caparena. What was that? Clarence did rodeos and circuses when he was younger. The Caparena was a cross between a circus and a rodeo, but with bottlecaps. It was a whole environment he set up. You’d spend 25 cents to see it, but it didn’t get many visitors. This was a period when the cattle in the area outnumbered the people. Clarence got sick after he put the Caparena together. It wasn’t up for very long when he was no longer able to take care of it. The figures were put in his brother-in-law’s barn.

Where was Grace Woolsey during all of this? The Caparena was their idea, but Clarence got sick, and then she got sick. They died within a year of each other in the late 1980s. The figures stayed in the brother-in-law’s barn for years.

How was the cache of bottle cap art rediscovered? After it went into the barn, it disappeared, and no one paid it any mind. Then the brother-in-law moved or left and everything in the barn was sold in 1993. One guy bought all the art for $100. It hit the folk art market and things snowballed quickly. Other folk art dealers and antique dealers–everyone who saw them–fell in love with them.

You said earlier that the Woolseys made about 400 pieces. How many of those are bunny figures? Do we have a count? No, but in 30 years, I’ve sold a total of 32 Woolseys. Of those, 16 were bunny figures.

Another angle on the upper half of the Woolsey bunny figure, which features a few thousand metal bottle caps.

Do we know how many bottle caps went into this Woolsey bunny figure? There’s a couple of thousand on this piece.

Can we say how much work this Woolsey bunny figure represents? We can only guess at all the time they put into building a thing like this. They had no TV, and they had their evenings free. Whatever time was available was spent on this.

Was this Woolsey bunny figure part of the Caparena? Do any period photos of the Caparena survive? I don’t believe there were any photos of the Caparena installation, so it’s hard to know if this piece was exhibited. I’m inclined to believe that all of the pieces they created were displayed.

What role does Tom van Deest, whose name appears in the provenance for this Woolsey bunny figure, play in the story of the Woolseys? Is he the person who paid $100 for the whole group of works at the 1993 sale? I don’t know if he bought them or was responsible for buying them from the person who got them, but he was in on it very early. He did follow-up research and tried to learn more about them so the story wasn’t lost. He was very important to getting the word out.

What is this Woolsey bunny figure like in person? What aspects or details don’t come across on camera? You don’t get the details–all the work that goes into stringing every bottle cap to make circles around the arms, the legs, the body. It’s very fun-looking, very enjoyable. You see it and it makes you happy. It really has a personality to it.

A closeup of the face of the Woolsey bunny figure, which has eyes and a nose but no mouth.

The Woolsey bunny figure’s face is engaging… It’s got eyes, and a little button nose, but no mouth. It also has short, stubby arms and protruding ears. It’s really cute.

What’s your favorite detail of the Woolsey bunny figure? By far, it’s the antenna, or the rabbit ears, on top of the head. It’s hilarious. The whole face is fun and it’s kind of alien-looking.

What makes them hilarious? Try to think about anybody now making a figure of a bear or a rabbit or an alien–you’d never get this idea. It’s a really strange, bizarre way to approach it. It’s really unique.

The Woolsey bunny figure shown full-length from the back.

Have you held the Woolsey bunny figure? Yes. It’s thousands of bottle caps attached to wood, so it’s got weight to it. It’s a good example, and it stands up by itself, though the feet are way too big for the body.

What condition is the Woolsey bunny figure in? It is what it is. Some of the bottle caps are rusty, probably because they were rusty when the Woolseys got them. There’s no reason to do any kind of restoration. Its age and its patina is what makes it wonderful, what makes it fun and folky.

What’s the world auction record for a Woolsey bunny figure? Was it set with you? We have the world auction record. We got $10,200 for a bunny figure in 2007. [The link reflects the hammer price, without premium.]

Why will this Woolsey bunny figure stick in your memory? It’s a great example–what you look for when you look for examples of the Woolseys’ work. It’s nice to have one as nice as this. For folk art collectors, it’s exactly what you’re looking for. This is truly an American art form. The Woolseys were in the heartland, and they were very isolated artists. There were no European masters, no outsiders telling them what to do. And it’s a story of something lost and then found. To have something lost and then appreciating it is what this field is all about.

How to bid: The Woolsey bunny figure is lot 0106 in the Self-Taught, Outsider, and Folk Art sale scheduled for November 14, 2020 at Slotin Folk Art Auction.

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Images are courtesy of Slotin Folk Art Auction.

Steve Slotin previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Sam Doyle painting on tin roofing material that went on to command $17,000a work on paper by Minnie Evans that later sold for $8,000; and a sculpture by Ab the Flag Manwhich ultimately sold for $1,200.

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

A Coelacanth Fossil Could Fetch Almost $65,000

This coelacanth fossil was recovered in Germany in 2017. It measures a foot and a half long, which makes it an unusually large specimen. It could sell for $65,000.

What you see: A coelacanth fossil from Painten, Germany. Summers Place Auctions estimates it at £30,000 to £50,000, or $38,800 to $64,700.

The expert: Rupert van der Werff, director of Summers Place Auctions.

Why is a coelacanth fossil a big deal? The coelacanth is quite a famous animal. It was known from examples in the fossil record that are more than 400 million years old. In 1938, one was spotted in a fish market in South Africa. Since then, living specimens were caught, and the coelacanth became a cause celebre in the world of natural history.

A cause celebre in the world of natural history? How so? It’s a crossover animal. It’s believed the fish derived from amphibians, because of the fact that its fins are so short and muscular and not designed for actual swimming. It walked as much as it swam. It gives insight into the emergence of an important group of animals in our current world.

How do we know this fossil is a coelacanth? By its general makeup and appearance, and by where it was found on the fossil record timeline. Coelacanths are pretty unique. It has quite a bony skeleton. Its skull is pretty massive and its fins are pretty short and stocky. It’s not a terribly streamlined animal. It’s a bit of a plodder and [lived] toward the bottom of the sea.

The lot notes describe this coelacanth fossil as “impressive”. What makes it so? For its completeness and its size. This is quite a big specimen, as far as coelacanths go. [It measures 46 centimeters, or 18 inches, in length.]

Is it possible to tell how old the coelacanth was, or what its sex was, by examining the fossil? I don’t believe so. Coelacanths are rare. More T. rexes have been discovered than coelacanths. There’s not that much knowledge to bear. I couldn’t tell you if it’s an adult, or tell you its sex, and I don’t think anybody could.

What can we reasonably tell about the coelacanth fossil just by looking at it? It’s complete. It wasn’t attacked by a predator. As far as I can see, there’s no signs of it being diseased or unhealthy. Exactly what it died of, I can’t say.

Living coelacanths have been caught. Do they look a lot like this coelacanth fossil? Yes. It’s a successful design for what it was doing. There was no need for it to change.

This coelacanth fossil came from Painten, Germany. Where is Painten? It’s an hour away from Munich, in Bavaria. The rocks are composed of really fine sediment. It’s pretty phenomenal stuff for fossils. You couldn’t hope for more. The fine sediment produces the best resolution as long as the conditions are compatible.

When was this coelacanth fossil found? In 2017, which is one of the reasons why it’s such a good specimen. Modern techniques for preparing fossils are so much better than the older ways of doing it. You can really reveal what lies within the stone.

I imagine we should probably stop here and explain that it’s not as if the coelacanth fossil was hanging around, exposed, just waiting for someone to stumble on it. How was it recovered? An expert paleontologist knows what layers of a quarry are likely to yield fossils, and pays particular attention to those layers. If the expert sees an anomaly in a layer, that’s possibly a fossil. They collect the rock around it and work on it later with fine dental tools, hoping that something is in there and they got it all. It’s like searching for treasure.

Is that area of Germany a known source for coelacanth fossils? In terms of numbers, I don’t know. I know the big ones are jolly rare. The availability of fossils in general fluctuates. Some are always rare, and this fits that category. If coelacanths were more common when they were alive, more would have been found by now.

What is the coelacanth fossil like in person? I suppose it almost has an attitude. It does have a bit of a character to it. It looks almost sad. It’s quite unusual to be captured in a lump of stone, but to me, it has an emotion attached to it.

Kind of an Eeyore sensibility? Yes. It looks a bit like it knew it was the end. Resigned might be another way to put it.

Was this coelacanth fossil found alone, or were there other coelacanth fossils near it? And are coelacanths, living or fossilized, found alone, or in schools? Usually alone. Maybe that’s a reason why it looks sad.

Have you held the coelacanth fossil? It’s quite a big plaque–probably 50 or 60 pounds–so it’s quite heavy. You wouldn’t hold it up to admire it for very long. But I’m an enthusiast for fossils. To get my hands on something as exciting as this is a real treat.

Does it feel rough, or smooth? Pretty smooth, because the particles it’s composed of are so tiny. It’s almost like holding something made of plaster of paris, or chalk.

What is your favorite detail of the coelacanth fossil? Probably its skull, because it does really convey a sense of emotion, which is unusual in a fossil.

What’s the world auction record for a coelacanth fossil? Was it set with you? I don’t know. I very much hope it will be set by us at the next auction. We sold a few Indonesian ones three or four years ago, but they were smaller, and relatively more common specimens. This one deserves to go on to make a lot of money. It really is a tremendous specimen. I think this is the first German coelacanth ever to be offered at auction. I didn’t find reference to someone offering another.

You called the Indonesian specimens “more common”. What does “more common” mean when we’re talking about something as rare as a coelacanth fossil? Common as in I’ve seen four or five. We’re still talking about something very rare. This coelacanth fossil is the only one of this sort I’ve had the pleasure of handling.

Why will this coelacanth fossil stick in your memory? Fossils, because of their nature, are pretty neutral in appearance. But this one does appear to convey a sort of emotion.

How to bid: The coelacanth fossil is lot 65 in the annual Evolution Auction offered by Summers Place Auctions on November 24, 2020.

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