The Ten Most Expensive Lots on The Hot Bid in 2020 (THB: Year in Review)

When selecting lots to feature on The Hot Bid, estimates aren’t as big a factor as you might think. Even still, it’s fun to look back over a year’s worth of stories and see what sold for the most.

10. An untitled early 1980s Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring and his lover, Juan DuBose. Featured in an online Sotheby’s sale of art from Haring’s personal collection, it commanded $504,000, more than double its high estimate. “It’s a subject that burns like fire. It’s in-your-face and bold,” says Harrison Tenzer, head of Sotheby’s contemporary art online sales in New York. “There’s so much joy and eroticism and heat in the portrait, and we know what’s going to happen to each of these three men. Unlike Warhol, who was active for four decades in a major way, Haring only had one decade. But he burned so bright, like a candle lit at both ends.”

9. A Stevens model 44 .25-20 single shot rifle, given to Annie Oakley in the late 19th century. Offered at Morphy Auctions for $200,000 to $400,000, it sold for $528,900. The Stevens company bestowed this rifle on Oakley, and its competitors routinely did the same, according to Morphy Auctions Firearms Expert Michael Salisbury: “Every firearms manufacturer in the U.S. gave Annie Oakley firearms. It was no different than Nike sending Michael Jordan shoes he could wear. She was a rock star. Everybody wanted to go to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. It was a huge event. And I don’t know if it was her intellect or her desire to shoot different weapons, but Annie Oakley never settled on one type of gun. She used a wide variety of firearms. She’d hear about, for example, a new type of Winchester rifle, and would write to the manufacturer saying she’d like to have one, and of course they’d send her one.”

8. Abstraction, a sculpture modeled in 1946 by Georgia O’Keeffe and cast in bronze between 1979 and 1980. Featured in a March 2020 Sotheby’s auction, it fetched $668,000, more than double its high estimate. O’Keeffe explored sculpture three times in her career: in 1916, in 1946, and 1982. Abstraction takes a form that the artist favored. “The spiral form appears throughout Georgia O’Keeffe’s body of work. She returns to the shape time and time again, depicting it in many media,” says Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s. “The curvilinear lines you see and the powerful simplified shape reflects her interpretation of the natural world.”

7. An exceptionally early print of Ansel Adams’s photograph Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. Sotheby’s sold it in December 2020 for $685,500. Emily Bierman, head of the photography department at Sotheby’s, recounted the story of how Adams captured the legendary image: “He happened to make it in the Southwest, on a day when he wasn’t shooting for that [Department of the Interior murals] project. He was accompanied by his son and a fellow photographer. They were passing through Hernandez, New Mexico when Adams was immediately struck by the quality of light in the town and its cemetery. He pulled the car over and they all got out. The time was ticking down, and no one could find the light meter. Adams made a quick calculation [based on what he knew about the luminosity of the moon]. Before he had a second chance to shoot an exposure, the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the day was over. It was a one-shot wonder, a combination of pure luck, timing, and mastery behind the camera and in the darkroom.”



6. Angels Representing Seven Churches, a set of Tiffany windows created by the famed studio in 1902 for a Swedenborgian church in Ohio. The group sailed past its $150,000 to $250,000 estimate to command $705,000. In talking about how the windows reflect Tiffany Studios’s mastery of glass, Freeman’s head of 20th century design Tim Andreadis says, “First, there’s the overall design. The figures are beautifully rendered in the composition, in the style of dress, and in the way that each relates to one another. All the elements incorporated in the window are carefully designed to best illustrate that particular angel. Two, the glass reflects the firm’s penchant for richly saturated hues and a color palette that was arresting to the viewer. The feather glass not only suggests the texture of the wing, but the shading along the wing in deeply saturated striated reds and vibrant golden yellows makes each feather its own special element. Tiffany was able to paint in glass–to create all that rich texture and subtlety.”

5. Abraham Lincoln: The Man, aka Standing Lincoln, a reduced-size version of a sculpture commissioned from Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the late 19th century. It sold for $1.5 million against an estimate of $600,000 to $900,000. Sotheby’s specialist Charlotte Mitchell says, “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.”

4. A gold Eid Mar coin, dating to 42 B.C.E. Estimated at $500,000, it sold at Roma Numismatics Limited in London for roughly $4.2 million and set a new world auction record for an ancient coin. David Vagi, director of ancient coins at Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), says the coin did more than reflect a set monetary value. “There were many who considered Caesar a tyrant and were glad to be rid of him. With this coin, Brutus doubled down on what got him to this stage to begin with,” he says, adding, “This is an attempt by Brutus–a very blatant attempt–to make the case that Caesar’s assassination was not only good for Rome, it was justifiable. It’s a peek into the mind of Brutus. The stakes were life and death. He went with the justice of his cause.”

3. A 1959 Martin D-18E guitar, played by Kurt Cobain for Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged episode. It sold for $6 million, blasting past its $1 million estimate. Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, sees similarities between Cobain and another musician whose material is just as scarce and hard to find: “There’s a lot of crossover between Kurt Cobain and John Lennon. The Beatles transformed music and our attitude to music in the 1960s. Nirvana did it again in the 1990s.”

2. Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (Portrait of Marjorie Ferry) by Tamara de Lempicka. It commanded £16,280,000, or $21.1 million, and set a new world auction record for the artist. Keith Gill, head of the Impressionist and Modern art evening sale held at Christie’s London, speaks about the spellbinding power of the 1932 oil on canvas: “I like it because it has a very strong… almost insight into the strength of her [Ferry’s] personality. She looks directly at you, and she has grey eyes, which tie into the greys in her clothes and in the background. And I’m proud to be somebody who put a female artist on our [catalog] cover.”

  1. Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as STAN. Estimated at $6 million to $8 million, it sold for $31.8 million and a new world auction record for any dinosaur. James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history, detailed the tale told by STAN’s bones: “Many of his ribs cracked and healed during his lifetime. He has holes on his jaw that are not caused by disease–they are puncture wounds that are pretty much the size of a T. rex‘s tooth. And vertebrae in his neck fused together and healed, right behind the skull. STAN broke his neck, healed, and carried on being at the top of the food chain. That tells you how tough the T. rex was as an animal.”

Special thanks to the following for permitting re-use of their images for this story:

Sotheby’s, for the Andy Warhol portrait of Keith Haring and his lover; the Ansel Adams photograph Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico; the O’Keeffe bronze; and the Standing Lincoln bronze by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Morphy Auctions, for the Annie Oakley gun.

Freeman’s, for the Tiffany church windows.

Roma Numismatics Limited, for the gold Eid Mar coin.

Julien’s Auctions, for the Kurt Cobain guitar.

Christie’s, for the Tamara de Lempicka portrait of Marjorie Ferry and also STAN the T. rex.

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The Ten Most Popular Stories on The Hot Bid in 2020 (THB: Year in Review)

Which 2020 stories did readers of The Hot Bid like most? In order, they are…

10. A pair of Princess Doraldina fortune teller machines, both made in 1928, one restored, one unrestored. Both were offered in the same Morphy’s auction in June 2020; the restored model fetched $17,200, and the unrestored one, shown above, sold for $24,600. Tom Tolworthy, chief executive officer at Morphy Auctions, explains how the unrestored example managed to survive so well: “A lot of the time, the machines were placed on the boardwalk and brought in at night. This one sat inside a carousel in Seaside, New Jersey that had an inner enclosure. It [also] had to sit in a warehouse for a long time, and while it might not have been in climate-controlled conditions, it wasn’t in damp conditions. If it had sat in a damp place for a long period of time, the mechanism would have rusted. It still works the way it did almost 90 years ago. That’s what makes it a good survivor.”

9. A 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet, the earliest known example of the type. Don Creekmore, co-owner and founder of Nation’s Attic in Wichita, Kansas, says the century-old piece of equipment can be used today: “It would need new gaskets and glass, and it would need to be tested for leaks. Then it would be in dive-ready condition.”

8. D-Train, a monumental 1988 print by American photorealist artist Richard Estes. “When you get up close to it, the nature of how the ink sits on the board is almost painterly,” says Lindsay Griffith, specialist and head of sale for prints and multiples for Christie’s. “There’s an uncanny quality that makes Estes’s work interesting–I take the subway every day. It’s something I know and feel. Here, the perspective is flattened out, and there’s no people. It’s a very solitary scene.”

7. A Stevens model 44 .25-20 single shot rifle, given to the famous American sharp-shooter Annie Oakley. Consigned to Morphy’s Auctions, it sold for $528,900, above its estimate of $200,000 to $400,000. Michael Salisbury, firearms expert at Morphy Auctions, talked about details of the exceptional firearm that eluded the camera: “On most engraved guns, the engraving isn’t that deep. This is very deeply engraved and has an almost 3-D look to it. The finishes are so vivid, and the wood is incredibly well-figured–beautiful, beautiful wood. It’s very rare to find a gun of this age in near mint condition. It’s a work of art, and the canvas here is wood and steel.”

6. A circa 1900s Harry Houdini postcard depicting the legendary magician in chains, which was once part of his personal collection. Potter & Potter offered the postcard on Leap Year Day 2020 and sold it for $2,375. Speaking about the staying power of the image, Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter, says, “To play an amateur Dr. Freud here–Houdini was a diminutive guy, an immigrant to these shores, and he found a way to beat whatever was thrown at him. That’s a pretty powerful metaphor. It’s a concept that resonates even in modern times.”

5. A circa 1915 poster touting Alexander, The Man Who Knows, measuring 108 inches by 80 1/2 inches. Like the Houdini postcard, it, too, was offered by Potter & Potter. It sold for $1,560, slightly over its high estimate. Alexander’s reputation hasn’t fared nearly as well as Houdini’s, but his posters have lost none of their allure. “I think it’s the striking simplicity of the design. His eyes follow you. It leaves open a lot of room for interpretation,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter. “It’s tantalizing as a stand-alone object. It grabs your attention. It’s still doing its job more than 100 years later.”

4. A 1959 Martin D-18E guitar, played by Kurt Cobain during Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged episode. Estimated at $1 million, it sold for $6 million, setting several world auction records along the way. The MTV acoustic showcase was well-regarded before Nirvana agreed to appear, but its episode became legendary. Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, explains why: “Kurt Cobain ruled the roost with that production. He designed the stage, the candlelight, the chandelier–all his decision. There were 14 songs, including six covers from the Vaselines, David Bowie, Lead Belly, and the Meat Puppets. He had members of the Meat Puppets on stage during the performance. It was shot in one take, which is the first time that had happened for MTV Unplugged. Everything Kurt could give, every single ounce, he laid it out in that performance. Five months later, he was gone.”

3. Case Study House #22, a Julius Shulman photograph of the Stahl house, taken in 1960. Offered at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), it modestly overperformed its high estimate, selling for $4,063. Clo Pazera, specialist at LAMA, talked about why the photo remains powerful decades after it was taken: “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!'”

2. A vase by contemporary Native American ceramic artists Nancy Youngblood and Russell Sanchez, co-created in 2008. Mark Sublette, founder of an eponymous gallery and auction house in Tucson, Arizona, believes it is the sole collaboration by the two masters. “We can look at the pot and tell who did what,” he says. “Nancy would have done the ribs on the pot. Russell is known for sgraffito, the etchings on the pot. I don’t know who fired it, but they probably did it together, outdoors, over a fire. My guess is each polished the part they did, with Nancy doing the ribs and Russell doing the neck.”

  1. A set of cups and balls used by the late magician Johnny Thompson. Estimated at $2,000 to $4,000, the set, which was featured in the two-volume book The Magic of Johnny Thompson, commanded $14,400. Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter, had a notion that they might perform spectacularly well at auction: “Before the COVID-19 crisis closed the office, we had a few magicians here who had a chance to look at the cups. Their response was visceral. It certainly got a rise out of them. They were definitely affected by them. They’re little talismans.”

Special thanks to the following for permitting re-use of their images for this story:

Nation’s Attic, for the 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet.

Christie’s, for Richard Estes’s D-Train.

Morphy’s Auctions for the pair of Princess Doraldina fortune teller machines as well as the Annie Oakley gun.

Potter & Potter for the Houdini postcard, the Alexander poster, and the Johnny Thompson set of cups and balls.

Julien’s Auctions for the Kurt Cobain guitar.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) for the Julius Shulman photograph.

Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery & Auction for the vase by Nancy Youngblood and Russell Sanchez.





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Every Lot Featured on The Hot Bid in 2020 That Went On to Set a World Auction Record (THB: Year in Review)

An ancient gold Eid Mar, struck to memorialize the assassination of Julius Caesar, sold for $4.2 million in October 2020.

Editor’s Note: As of today, The Hot Bid shifts to holiday programming. Stories will appear on Tuesday from now until mid-January, after which the twice-weekly schedule resumes. I wish all readers of The Hot Bid happy holidays and a magnificent 2021.

It’s always delightful when a lot showcased on The Hot Bid goes on to sell for a world auction record. These spectacular items achieved that feat in 2020.

Mansion on Prairie Avenue by Irene Clark was among the treasures in a Swann Auction Galleries sale of African-American art from the collection of the Johnson Publishing Company. The oil on masonite board commanded $30,000, more than four times its high estimate, and set a new world auction record for the artist. “It’s definitely a significant work by her. It speaks to her work, and it’s something that meant a lot to her,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American Fine Art department. “It’s very similar to a work [by Clark] in the Art Institute of Chicago. If it’s good enough for an institution, I think it will be sought-after by many collectors. It’s a fascinating subject, and I think it will resonate with people.”

Tamara de Lempicka’s 1932 portrait of Marjorie Ferry was expected to do well, and it did, commanding $21.2 million and a new world auction record for the artist. The February 2020 sale marked the third time that the auction record for a de Lempicka broke within a 15 month span. Keith Gill, head of the Christie’s London Impressionist and Modern art evening sale that featured the painting, discusses his favorite detail: “It’s her hand with the ring and the nails, because it’s very much an intrinsic part of the story of the picture. And one of the hardest things for artists to do is to paint hands, and Tamara de Lempicka paints hands incredibly well. She’s drawing attention to her prowess. It’s very much in your face, ‘Look how good I am’. She wants to be compared to the Old Masters in terms of technical ability.”

A rare and possibly unique Nintendo PlayStation prototype, evidence of an early 1990s collaboration between Nintendo and Sony, was fated to set a world auction record regardless. It fetched the healthy sum of $360,000. “The controller really is my favorite part. It stands out the most,” says Valarie McLeckie, director of video games at Heritage Auctions. “It’s like you’re playing a Super Nintendo, but then you look down and you see the controller–it’s like an alternative universe where [the project] worked out. It works exactly the same [as an SNES controller] but it’s a weird feeling to see the controller in your hand.”

Galaxia, a 1977 print by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, sold for $15,000 and a world auction record for that particular print. Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann Auction Galleries and director of prints and drawings, speaks about how hard it is for cameras to convey the impact of the unusually large and long work, which was printed in thickly layered ink on handmade paper: “It’s difficult. The paper is wonderfully textured, and the colors are so vivid and deep. When you’re in front of it, it transports you. It’s not a characterless inked sheet of paper. There’s a mood about it, something about the colors and the view.”

The 1959 Martin D-18E guitar played by Kurt Cobain in the legendary 1993 Nirvana episode of MTV Unplugged was bound to sell. No one doubted that. But it ultimately commanded $6 million–five times its estimate–and set several world auction records, including the title of most expensive guitar. Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, lauds the humble nature of the instrument, which is, after all, a tool to do a job: “Cobain definitely had an affinity with the guitar and a sense of reverence for it. It’s a musical instrument built to deliver sound–that’s what it was used for. It doesn’t seem right to have it tricked up with all the bells and whistles. It’s a beautiful guitar with nothing ostentatious about it.”

It’s a big deal when a substantially complete T. rex skeleton comes to market. When the fossil dubbed STAN was consigned to Christie’s New York, the auction house went all-out, placing it in its October 20th Century Evening Sale lineup rather than a natural history auction. STAN rose to the challenge, commanding $31.8 million and a world auction record for any dinosaur. James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history, explains why STAN deserved the upgrade: “STAN really is the best of the best. The 20th Century Evening Sale is a marquee sale at Christie’s, and STAN is a natural fit for that reason. He was 67 million years in the making, but the T. rex is an icon of the 20th century. The first T. rex was found in Cezanne’s lifetime and was first published in 1905. Within 13 years, the T. rex had made its first appearance in Hollywood, doing battle with King Kong on Skull Island. More recently, the T. Rex was almost the lead actor in Jurassic Park.”

Dating to 42 B.C.E. (before common era), the Eid Mar is arguably the most desirable ancient coin. Only two gold examples were known before a third emerged and was consigned to Roma Numismatics Limited in London. It sold for roughly $4.2 million and a world auction record for any ancient coin. David Vagi, director of ancient coins at Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), describes himself as a “fan” of Brutus, whose profile appears on the coin. “He was a very motivated individual. He had a sense of destiny and was very committed to his cause,” he says. “To plan a coup, he had to have very strong political convictions. It may be my imagination, but I see it in the portrait. I see the intensity and the laser-focus of his ambitions. This is not an idealized portrait. It’s extremely individual. I could stare at it for hours.”

Subway, an exuberant 1970 work by AfriCOBRA founding member Wadsworth Jarrell, set a new world auction record for the artist when it sold for $125,000 at Swann Auction Galleries in December. “There’s a wonderful variety of things in his paintings,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department. “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.”

A group of eight Peanuts character portraits, drawn by Charles Schulz in 1953 for a promotional brochure, sold for $288,000 and a new world auction record for original Peanuts art. With this sale, Heritage Auctions broke the previous record for original Peanuts art, set by the auction house less than a month ago, on November 20, 2020, with an early daily Peanuts strip. Jim Lentz, director of animation art for Heritage Auctions, says of the portrait group, “You can tell the personalities of each in some small way, just by Schulz’s quaint depictions of each character: Charlie Brown with the baseball glove, Schroeder at the piano with the Beethoven head, Linus with building blocks.”


Special thanks to the following for permitting re-use of their images for this story:

Swann Auction Galleries, for Irene Clark’s Mansion on Prairie Avenue, Rufino Tamayo’s Galaxia, and Wadsworth Jarrett’s Subway.

Christie’s, for Tamara de Lempicka’s Portrait of Marjorie Ferry as well as STAN the T. rex.

Heritage Auctions, for the Nintendo PlayStation prototype and the group of eight original Peanuts character portraits from 1953.

Julien’s Auctions, for the Kurt Cobain guitar.

Roma Numismatics Limited, for the gold Eid Mar coin.

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A Botticelli Painting of an Unknown Sitter Could Sell for $80 Million at Sotheby’s (Whoa! Updated January 28, 2021)

The Botticelli painting Young Man Holding a Roundel, dating to the late 1470s or early 1480s, could sell for more than $80 million at Sotheby's in January 2021.

Update: Sandro Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel sold for $92.1 million, setting a new record for the artist and a Sotheby’s house record for an Old Master painting. Huzzah!

What you see: Young Man Holding a Roundel, a portrait painted in the late 1470s or early 1480s by Sandro Botticelli. Sotheby’s estimates the Botticelli painting in excess of $80 million. It carries the highest estimate the auction house has ever given to an Old Master painting.

The expert: Elisabeth Lobkowicz, a specialist in Sotheby’s Old Master paintings department.

The materials from Sotheby’s describe the Botticelli painting as “The Ultimate Renaissance Portrait”. What makes it “The Ultimate Renaissance Portrait” and not just the ultimate Botticelli portrait? Botticelli is one of the most admired, beloved, and important artists of the Renaissance. He is the creator of many of the most iconic images of that age, and he was a leading master in the realm of portraiture. This sitter is the ultimate Renaissance man–beautiful, confident, erudite–and so this should be considered the ultimate Renaissance portrait. 

The portrait is believed to have been painted in the late 1470s or early 1480s. Where was Botticelli in his career at that point? These years are generally considered the height of Botticelli’s career. It was during this period that he created many of his best works, including the Primavera and The Birth of Venus and his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.  

How prolific was Botticelli? How many of his paintings survive? About 150 works by Botticelli survive, but only about a dozen or so portraits.  His portraits are much rarer, but they represent an important part of his corpus and provide for a deeper understanding of his genius.

The Botticelli painting contains an insert, painted a century earlier by a different artist, depicting a saint. Like the sitter, the identity of the saint is unknown.

What, if anything, do we know about the sitter? What clues lurking within the painting itself suggest who it might be? Are there any other figures depicted in Botticelli’s paintings who look like this man? The sitter’s identity remains a mystery. He’s probably a member of the Medici family or someone in their close circle, because Botticelli was one of their favored artists, and many of the Medici turned to him to paint their portraits. Images from the period show that there were many fair-haired youths in the Medici entourage, but it’s hard to definitively link the sitter to any particular likeness. Attempts have been made in the past. Suggestions include Piero de’ Medici (1472–1503), son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, but there’s no evidence to confirm these identifications.

The painting contains a roundel of a saint, painted in the previous century by a different artist. What, if anything, do we know about why the Botticelli painting took this form? Did Botticelli paint other portraits with inserted roundels, or is this a one-off? The roundel is a separate work of art altogether, painted by the Sienese artist Bartolommeo Bulgarini. He was active in Siena and Tuscany a century before Botticelli, and his works would have been known in Florence by Botticelli’s time. The roundel was not always circular–it was cut to this shape from a larger vertical panel, which may have once formed part of an altarpiece. There are no other known examples of Botticelli inserting a gold-ground painting into his works, but the closest comparable work is his Portrait of a Man Holding a Medal of Cosimo il Vecchio in the Uffizi, in which Botticelli includes a round, carved, pastiglia medallion–a three-dimensional sculpture in low relief. What I’m trying to say is in this case, in the Uffizi portrait, the young man is not holding a medal of Cosimo il Vecchio. The object in his hand is actually a sculpted and gilded gesso–a pastiglia, carved in such an illusionistic manner that we read it as a real object. In the case of our Botticelli portrait, however, the roundel is a real object, set into the panel and set into the sitter’s hands.

Do we know which saint is depicted in the roundel in the Botticelli painting? If we do, what might the presence of the saint’s image tell us about the sitter, and why he might have wanted to be shown with this saint? Unfortunately, because the saint depicted in the roundel lacks any specific attributes, his identity also remains a mystery. What I can say is the roundel itself remains a point of lively debate among scholars. Some consider the roundel as original to Botticelli’s intention. Others consider it a later addition that replaced some other object–perhaps something similar to what we see in the Uffizi portrait

Would Botticelli have painted this portrait alone, or would he have had assistants handle some parts of the work, such as the background? Botticelli would have painted this entire painting himself. It wasn’t until later in his career–the second half of 1480s onwards–that we see the regular intervention of his workshop.  

How do we know this is a genuine Botticelli painting? What details or features testify to its legitimacy? No living Botticelli scholar is known to have any doubt about Botticelli’s authorship of the painting. The portrait’s technique, style, and design process is wholly characteristic of his output and his innovative mind.  

How does the painting reflect Botticelli’s mastery as an artist? It is pure perfection – showing the best of his skills at the height of his creative powers. It is reflective of his confident and consummate skills.  

What is the Botticelli painting like in person? What details or aspects don’t come across in the photo? It is a truly wonderful experience to see the painting up close. Such a close perspective allows the amazing detail with which he rendered the work to shine even brighter. The aspects that come across more clearly in person are the condition, the brilliant technique, and the crisp colors. You can even see the incised lines he used to plan out the architectural elements and the frame of the roundel – it’s like a little glimpse into his mind and working process.   

What is your favorite detail of the Botticelli painting? I love how the setting is so simple, yet we understand the space as wholly three-dimensional. No dramatic lines or perspective needed, just a lifelike sitter. This illusion is further enhanced by the fingers of his left hand, which ever so slightly cross over the pictorial boundary into the realm of the viewer.   

What condition is the Botticelli painting in? It’s in excellent condition, which is quite remarkable and rare for a painting of this age–over 500 years old.  

What do we know about the provenance of the work? How far back does it go? The earliest recorded provenance is the Newborough Family in northern Wales. According to family tradition, the painting was acquired by the first Lord Newborough while he was living in Florence towards the end of the 18th century. The painting then descended in the Newborough family until the mid-1930s, when it was acquired by a dealer. By 1941, the painting had entered the collection of Sir Thomas Ralph Merton, who had an amazing collection himself–36 paintings of the highest caliber, including a Holbein, a Cranach, and other later religious works by Botticelli. Interesting fact: In addition to being a collector, Sir Thomas Merton was a famed scientist, inventor, and spectrometrist. He had a keen eye for works of a very high quality, and he was particularly attracted to colors and pigments. It’s not surprising that this portrait caught his eye and was one of the centerpieces of his collection. The Merton estate sold the painting at Christie’s London in 1982, where it was acquired by the present owner for the equivalent of about $1.3 million at the time. There are some earlier inventory numbers on the reverse of the panel that suggest even older owners than the Newborough family, but we have yet to be able to link them up to old inventories.  

Does this sale mark the first time that a Botticelli painting—as opposed to a sketch or preparatory work by him—has gone to auction in modern times? Nothing even remotely similar in quality or importance has come to the market for several generations. There have been a number of late devotional works which Botticelli produced in large numbers with his workshop from the mid-1480s onwards, when his business became more of a commercial enterprise. But no major commission, be it a portrait or devotional work, has appeared on the market since the 1980s until the so-called “Last Botticelli”–Portrait of Michele Marullo–was offered at Frieze Masters in 2019 for around $30 million. The Rockefeller Madonna, Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist, offered at Christie’s New York in 2013, sold for $10.4 million.  

I understand this is one of three Botticellis remaining in private hands. If one or both of the remaining two go to auction, would they perform as well or better than we expect this portrait to perform? In other words, is this the best of the three? This portrait is considered by many to be one of Botticelli’s best portraits, comparable in inventiveness and quality to his Portrait of a young man with the medal of Cosimo de’ Medici and his Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici.

What is the world auction record for a Botticelli?  The Rockefeller Madonna, sold at Christie’s in 2013 for $10.4 million, is currently the world record for Botticelli.  

A telling detail: The Sotheby's porters have donned white gloves as well as face masks to handle this 15th century Botticelli masterpiece.

I understand the estimate placed on this work is the highest Sotheby’s has assigned to an Old Master painting. If it sells for at or above $80 million, what world auction records will it set or break? In addition to being one of the most significant portraits of any period to appear at auction, it could very well be the next to surpass the $100 million threshold. The last painting to achieve that level at auction was Claude Monet’s Meules at Sotheby’s New York in 2019. [It sold for $110.7 million.]

What comparables did you look to when setting the estimate? One notable Old Master comparable is the Rubens masterpiece Massacre of the Innocents, which sold at Sotheby’s London in July 2002 for around $76.5 million. We also considered iconic works by famed artists of other genres that have come to market, such as Monet’s Meules, and a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream that sold for $119.9 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2012, and Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, which sold at Christie’s New York in November 2006 for $87.9 million.

Why will this Botticelli painting stick in your memory? I’ve spent a lot of time with this young man over the past few months, and certainly, he has left an indelible impression on my mind. He’s rather handsome, no? His incredibly modern feel–one imparted by his condition, his simple setting, and his lifelike presence–is unforgettable. This portrait is the definition of a masterpiece. We have all been incredibly honored to work with this one-of-a-kind object over these past few months. I’ll surely miss him when he’s off to a new home.

How to bid: The Sandro Botticelli portrait Young Man Holding a Roundel is lot 15 in Master Paintings and Sculpture Part I, a sale taking place at Sotheby’s New York on January 28, 2021.

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Original Peanuts artwork by Charles Schultz–Eight Character Portraits Created for a 1953 Promotional Brochure–Could Command $100,000 (Updated December 11, 2020–NEW RECORD!)

A group of eight character portraits of the leads of Peanuts as of 1953, drawn by Charles Schulz for a promotional brochure. Offered as a collection of original Peanuts artwork, it could sell for $100,000 or more.

Update: The original Peanuts artwork by Charles Schulz sold for $288,000–a new world auction record for original Peanuts artwork, set less than a month after a different Heritage Auctions sale broke the previous record.

What you see: Original Peanuts artwork by Charles Schulz, created in 1953 for a promotional brochure. Heritage Auctions generally doesn’t assign estimates to its lots, but when asked, it gave a $50,000-$100,000 range to the group of character portraits.

The expert: Jim Lentz, director of animation art for Heritage Auctions.

How well-known was the Peanuts comic strip in 1953, when Schulz created these eight portrait panels of its main characters? The comic strip and its characters were in their infancy, having only come to market in 1950.

Why would Charles Schulz or his newspaper syndicate have wanted to make this promotional booklet in 1953? Who was the target audience? It was created to introduce these relatively new comic strip characters to new cities, and to get people to buy newspapers and follow the strip. Schulz didn’t do this. His newspaper syndicate [United Feature Syndicate] did.

Schulz created the original Peanuts artwork for a promotional brochure for the syndicate that distributed his strip to newspapers.
An example of the finished brochure, with each of the eight Peanuts character portraits occupying a page. (The brochure is not described as being part of the lot.)

But the syndicate would have gone to Schulz and asked for supporting artwork for the brochure, yes? It would have said, “We need artwork for a brochure to introduce Charlie Brown and the new Peanuts characters to the growing newspaper audience.” Charles Schulz would have worked hand-in-hand with the syndicate to provide artwork to promote the strip.

This quartet of Peanuts portraits shows a still-doglike Snoopy and a young Linus who has yet to acquire his iconic security blanket.

Do we know why Schulz chose these eight characters to showcase? Also, how do these depictions reveal where the strip was in its evolution in 1953? I see that Schroeder’s habit of playing the piano has been formalized, but Snoopy still looks very much like a dog, and Linus hasn’t yet acquired his blanket… These were the main Peanuts characters at the time, with several just being introduced. Not all the characters had been introduced by 1953. Pigpen arrived in 1954, and Woodstock in 1970.

The original Peanuts artwork captures Good ol' Charlie Brown, ready to pitch a baseball game, and shows that Schroeder, his team's catcher, had already acquired his penchant for playing the piano.

How was the original Peanuts artwork rediscovered? Do we know how it left the possession of Schulz? It would have been retained not by Schulz, but by the syndicate. It was most likely given out by someone as a gift. There is no definitive answer as to when, just how, possibly.

Had you been on the lookout for this group of Peanuts character portraits, or did its existence come as a surprise? One is always on the lookout for anything and everything drawn by the hand of Charles Schulz. This is one of the single biggest surprises of Schulz artwork I have seen, and it’s some of the earliest artwork of the characters seen outside of a published strip. A 1950 daily Strip just sold at Heritage for $192,000.

This original Peanuts artwork dates to 1953, which is early in the strip’s run. Why do Peanuts collectors tend to favor original artwork with the earliest possible dates, rather than later strips that feature the characters as we have come to know them? In the early days, few people knew of Charles Schulz and these characters. As the strip grew in popularity, and television specials and movies began, Schulz’s artwork was much more well-known and the audience became huge. Scarcity is the factor. Their was no guarantee this strip would take off to global proportions back then.

Are the drawings on eight individual pieces of paper, or four drawings on two sheets, or some other configuration? They’re individual drawings, all framed in one common frame.

What is the artwork like in person? Are there aspects or details that don’t come across in the images? It is spectacular. You can tell the personalities of each in some small way, just by Schulz’s quaint depictions of each character: Charlie Brown with the baseball glove, Schroeder at the piano with the Beethoven head, Linus with building blocks.

What is your favorite detail from this collection of original Peanuts artwork? The TV antenna on Snoopy’s dog house. I just like the mid-century Modern feel of an old TV antenna. It seems to disappear in future depictions of the dog house.

The collection of original Peanuts artwork is described as being in “very good” condition. What does that mean in this context? There are no folds, no tears, and the ink still vibrant.

While these character portraits are original Peanuts artwork by Schulz, they are atypical—they’re not daily or Sunday strip art. Have you seen anything else that’s comparable to this group? Peanuts calendar art, perhaps? The key is it’s “published” art, meaning it was used for something very specific, and not done for fans or for reference. It was for a very early promotional piece to introduce Charlie Brown and the Peanuts characters to an emerging audience. Key also is the time, 1953 to 1954, when these characters were still being fleshed out.

As of November 30, 2020, the collection of original Peanuts artwork had been bid up to $25,000. Is that at all meaningful? What’s meaningful is where it ends up. It is one of the most viewed pieces in an auction of over 2,000 pieces as of November 30, but the auction is still almost two weeks away.

On November 20, 2020, Heritage Auctions reset the record for any piece of original art by Schulz with an exceptionally early daily strip featuring Shermy and Snoopy. What are the chances that this group of character portraits will meet or beat that sum? I never venture any auction guess. I just know it’s a special piece in Schulz and Charlie Brown and Peanuts history. 

If this lot breaks the record for original Peanuts artwork, Heritage Auctions will have broken that record twice in less than a month. How rarely does that happen? What would that say about the nature of the record-breaking Schulz art, and what would it say about the market for original Schulz art? Heritage has a long track record with setting record prices for Schulz artwork. It is all on HA.com in our archives. Every piece ever sold with prices realized is there. The significance is that we have a global audience to present this important art to.

You say the audience is global—has this always been true, or has the global aspect grown over time? It’s been true since the strip received global distribution and since the television specials and the animated movies went global. We just had A Peanuts Movie released in the last few years to rave reviews. It also was a global release.

Why do you think the appetite for original Peanuts artwork is so strong now, twenty years after the last strip ran? You know it’s the holidays when A Charlie Brown Christmas comes on television each year. You know its Halloween when It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown comes on. The strips, the books, the television specials are rarely dated, with timeless messages of hope and joy.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a piece that no one even knew existed. And each portrait showcases how Charles Schulz wanted to present his characters to the world.

How to bid: The collection of original Peanuts artwork from 1953, featuring character portraits of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, and five others, is lot #98273 in the Animation Art Signature Auction taking place at Heritage Auctions from December 11 through December 13, 2020.

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Images are courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Jim Lentz has appeared on The Hot Bid four other times, talking about a circa 1940s Disney “model drawing” of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia; a Rocky and Bullwinkle scene cel signed by Bullwinkle voice actor Bill Scott to Rocky voice actor June Foray; a vintage Kem Weber-designed Walt Disney Studios animation desk that sold for $13,145; and a Walt Disney-signed original animation cel from Song of the South that fetched just under $9,000.

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A Protona Minifon Mi-51 Watch–Actually a Cold War-era Concealed Recording Device–Could Sell for About $300 (Updated December 9, 2020)

This Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch is not what it seems. The Cold War-era piece is not a watch, but a recording device.

Update: The Protona Minifon Mi-51 sold for £466.60, or about $600.

What you see: A Minifon Mi-51 concealed recording device by Protona, a now-defunct German company. The watch and its wire survives, but its recording device and carrying case do not. Fellows estimates it at £140 to £200, or $187.50 to $268.

The expert: Kes Crockett, a horologist and a cataloger in the watch department at Fellows.

What do we know about how the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch came to be? Why did Protona make it? Protona was a company that manufactured covert recording equipment. Originally, it was called Monske & Co., and it appeared after World War II, in 1951. It was based in Hamburg, Germany, and it closed its doors in 1967.

Was the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch made for sale to the general public, or was it aimed at a niche audience? I should stress–I’m a watch specialist rather than a surveillance specialist. But because of the way the watch was designed and the way the wire was hidden, I believe it was designed for intelligence agencies.

So the Protona spying device watch wasn’t a novelty item–this was serious, legitimate spying equipment? I looked back at the original advertisements and press releases for it, and it cost $289.50, which works out to $2,800 today.

That price would scare off the hobbyists, that’s for sure. It was a specialist piece of equipment. To us, it may not look impressive, but it was an important piece of technology. I don’t know if it’s the first or one of the first battery-driven devices, but it’s certainly very portable, compared to things that came before. It’s a serious piece of kit.

Was Protona alone in making a spying device that looks like a wristwatch, or did it have competitors? There were three to four other companies making specialist recording devices, but I wasn’t able to find any other making a watch-based one. It’s important to say Protona was not a watch manufacturer making a recording device, it was a recording device company that made a recording device hidden in the shell of a watch.

The materials I have date the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch to the 1950s, but is it possible to narrow it down to a specific year? It was difficult to find the answer to that. Because the company did not become Protona until 1952, we can say it’s after 1952.

Though its wire is comically obvious to us now, the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch appeared in the mid-1950s, well before the debut of the first James Bond movie.

Do we know anything about the production run for the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch, and do we know how many might have been shipped to America? I wasn’t able to find any production numbers, but I did find something that said an order for “120,000 machines”–whether it was for the specific Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch or the watch and other products isn’t clear–but 120,000 were ordered by an American company in the early 1950s. Certainly a lot were sent to America at that point in time.

I imagine, given the nature of which American entities might need 120,000 recording devices hidden inside wristwatches, the paperwork for the order doesn’t specify where it ultimately went. It doesn’t specify, but with that number, I have to imagine it was one of the agencies. Interesting bit of trivia: Jack Ruby, the assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, apparently owned one.

How did the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch work when used as a concealed recording device? First, we only have the watch and the wire. The recording device is another part of the product. The microphone wire [that attached to the watch] would go up your shirt sleeve and into the recording device. There were no controls on the watch at all. They were all on the recording device.

Where did the wearer conceal the recording device? In the images I’ve seen, it’s in a carrying bag on the shoulder, or under the arm, between the arm and the chest, where it can be hidden under clothing.

If you failed to spot the fact that the watch's hands never move, the perforations on the back of the case would give it away. No real watch needs these--they exist to help the concealed microphone pick up sound.

How good was the quality of the sound picked up by the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch? It was good quality. The watch had holes around the back of the case that allowed sound to get to the microphone more effectively. I think it was designed to pick up conversations between you and someone else you were speaking with. The further away you were, the worse the sound would have been.

So this device was ideal for one-on-one work, like infiltrating the Mob. Exactly.

And the wire went from the watch, up the shirt sleeve, and into the recording device? Absolutely right. You wanted your cuffs in place or you’d be exposed.

The wearer would thread a microphone wire up a sleeve and connect it to a recording device hidden in a shoulder strap or under the arm.

But if you were paranoid enough to teach yourself to look for wires coming out of a watch in the early 1950s, you could bust a spy who wore this. The watch doesn’t function at all. There’s not only a wire coming out of the case, it’s stopped at 7:25. Any observant person would notice you were wearing a broken watch.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the first James Bond movie debuted in 1963. Spies and spying devices weren’t part of popular culture when the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch was new. Exactly. It looks obvious to us now, but at the time, people would not have noticed this sort of thing.

This particular example of the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch survives with its false watch and its wire. The recording device and the carrying case are lost.

What were the limits on the recording device? How much audio could it capture? Depending on the spool size, it was half an hour up to two hours of continuous conversation. You couldn’t sit there for 24 hours and hope to pick something up.

The button to start recording was on the device, not the watch, so you always lost a little time reaching under your clothes to turn it on, and you couldn’t rely on the watch to help you figure out how much time was left on the tape, because the watch didn’t work… You’d have to ask what time it was, or you had to have a good sense of time in your head. It’s quite nerve-wracking.

I realize the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch was used for spy work, and spies are… not forthcoming. But is there any proof this type of concealed recording device was used during any notable incidents? Protona was still trading as a company until 1967, and there was another company that repaired [Protona devices], so it must have been fairly useful. But I wasn’t able to find specific cases where people used it.

What is the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? At first glance, it looks like a watch, especially from six feet away. The case is the same proportion and size as a normal watch. But once you start looking more closely, you notice the winding crown doesn’t turn, and the dials are purely decorative.

Other details that might tip off the paranoid: The crown button is fixed in place and cannot wind the watch.

If the little dials on the watch face worked, what would they do? They’re chronograph dials. They’re for timing things like a stopwatch. The dial at 9 am would count the number of seconds, and the dial at 3 pm would have counted every minute up to 30 minutes. The large red hand in the middle of the face is the chronograph second hand. If it worked, you’d press the button at the top right of the case and it would start moving.

Have you worn the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch? I’ve tried it on, but I’m not able to test the eavesdropping function. That’s why I can’t be more helpful about that. As far as aesthetics, it looks like a standard watch if you don’t see the wire. If that didn’t give it away, the perimeter holes all the way around the back of the case would. If it was a real watch, it’d never have that. If you saw the holes, you’d know it’s not what it seemed.

Do we know how or when the watch and the wire parted ways with its recording device and storage case? We don’t have that part of the item, unfortunately, and we have very little information on it.

Is it possible to plug the wire into a different period recording device and enable it to work? I’m not sure. I’m not an electrical specialist. I’m not able to tell you if the jack at the end of the wire is able to fit into any [other devices]. I’m not able to test it, so I can’t say if it’s in working order. The buyer should assume it’s not in working order. If it is, it’s a pleasant surprise.

When plugged into its recording device, the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch could capture up to two hours of conversation.

What condition is the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch in? Good condition. There’s no moving parts, so it’s not going to wear the same way that a 1950s watch might. There’s some aging to the dial and the hands, and some scratches on the case, but there’s no big dents. It looks like it would have come with a green or brown zip-up satchel that fit everything. Inside was the recording device, in its own separate case. The satchel appears to have been made of artificial leather. Because of that, I don’t think many cases survive.

Is it fair to assume that Protona would have subcontracted the production of the watch parts of the device to a different company? It’s much easier for a spy equipment company to make a watch then it is for a watch company to make a recording device. Because the watch has no moving parts, it’s not hard to manufacture. Assuming the company was without any watchmaking expertise, it’s not going to make the dial or the case unless the project was so secret they couldn’t outsource them.

How often do Protona Minifon Mi-51 watches come up at auction? This is the first one we’ve seen at Fellows. One sold last year at another house, and I found a couple more sales in 2005 and 2011.

So they’re not common at auction, but not rare? Well, they aren’t watches, but they look like watches, so they can sell in a watch auction. But they may not find their way to watch auctions. They could appear in military auctions, or gentleman’s auctions. Certainly with one American company ordering 120,000 from Protona–that’s a very big number. If there were 120,000, you’d expect to see them more often than this. There are watches limited to 1,000 that we see more often than these.

As we speak on December 1, 2020, the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch has been bid up to £135. Is that significant at all? There are seven days to go for this auction. The fact that it’s got interest is encouraging. I hope to see enthusiastic bidding as the end of the auction approaches.

What’s the world auction record for a Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch? The highest record I was able to find was from a 2005 Christie’s Geneva sale, when a complete set sold for 1,800 Swiss Francs [roughly $2,000 or so].

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It shows how far technology has advanced in seven decades. I think a smartwatch could do what it does with ease now, and would be able to tell the time as well. But at the point that this was made, it was seen as cutting-edge.

How to bid: The Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch is lot 433 in the Online Watches & Watch Accessories sale held by Fellows through December 8, 2020.

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An Early Print of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”, a Legendary Ansel Adams Photograph, Could Command $1 Million (Updated December 14, 2020)

An exceptionally early print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, arguably Ansel Adams's greatest photograph, could sell for $1 million at Sotheby's.

Update: The exceptionally early print of Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico sold for $685,500.

What you see: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, a gelatin silver print created in 1941 or 1942 by Ansel Adams. Sotheby’s estimates it at $700,000 to $1 million.

The expert: Emily Bierman, head of the photography department at Sotheby’s.

Who was Ansel Adams? He defies easy categorization. His work is synonymous with images of the American landscape. He was an exacting printmaker and an advisor to Edwin Land and the Polaroid corporation. He worked with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. It’s hard to overstate Adams’s activity over his seven-decade career.

Where was Ansel Adams in his career in 1941, when he shot Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico? He was a known entity. He had produced the Parmelian prints of the High Sierras, and his photographs had been exhibited at An American Place, Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, in 1936. He was contracting with the U.S. Department of the Interior to create photographic murals. He had much to recommend him.

How did Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico come to be? It was not intended for the photographic murals. He happened to make it in the Southwest, on a day when he wasn’t shooting for that project. He was accompanied by his son and a fellow photographer. They were passing through Hernandez, New Mexico when Adams was immediately struck by the quality of light in the town and its cemetery. He pulled the car over and they all got out. The time was ticking down, and no one could find the light meter. Adams made a quick calculation [based on what he knew about the luminosity of the moon]. Before he had a second chance to shoot an exposure, the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the day was over. It was a one-shot wonder, a combination of pure luck, timing, and mastery behind the camera and in the darkroom.

The creation of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico seems to be a story Adams keeps telling, and elaborating on, over the years… And many other people wrote about it as well. The story of taking the negative is legendary at this point. What’s most important is the end result, the photo Adams made. It was one in a million.

By happening to remember a fact about the luminosity of the moon at just the right time, Ansel Adams got a shot that everyone else would have missed. Exactly, but it’s also the mood he was able to capture in the photo. Only Ansel Adams could really pull out that emotion and the visceral response we get to the best of his photos.

Did Ansel Adams know what he had the instant he shot it? Or did that only become clear later, in the darkroom? It was probably a mixture of both. He had visualized what it should look like. When he developed the negatives, the exposures were difficult to get to a point where they looked like what he had visualized. It took work in the darkroom.

Was Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico an instant hit? It’s one of his most popular images, and it was immediately sought after. He started getting orders for prints, but only a handful are known to date from the 1940s. The developing process was so laborious, and Adams was such an exacting printmaker, it was time-consuming. To have an early print is beyond exciting. It stands in stark contrast to later prints.

How does Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico show Ansel Adams’s mastery of his medium? It’s so exceptionally nuanced. The landscape has great detail in the brush in the foreground. You see the late afternoon sun hitting the grave markers and a vast band of inky darkness punctuated by bands of wispy clouds. Then you have the totally luminous central point of the moon. From a composition standpoint, it’s a beautiful photo. How it was delivered by Adams is pure magic.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico was first published in the U.S. Camera Annual 1943. Was this print made for that publication? This is not that print.

How do we know this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is the earliest to come to market? We’ve done the research–there’s a long history of auction records to look back to. Its provenance is pretty remarkable. It was acquired directly by Sidney Liebes, a family friend of Adams, to mark his fourteenth wedding anniversary. We know Liebes and his wife, Marjorie, married in November 1927. The print was made in late 1941, possibly early 1942. There’s also the physical characteristics. Its dimensions are consistent with prints that Ansel Adams sent to the State Department early in 1942. It’s a magnificent print, and its condition is exceptional.

When we call an Ansel Adams print an “early” print, what does that mean, exactly? Looking at Moonrise, early prints are relatively close to the time of the negative. Here, we mean early 1940s to the mid-1940s. This is the earliest one to come to market, and possibly the earliest one in existence. The next-earliest to come to market dates to 1948. Sotheby’s sold it in 2006 for $609,600.

Adams personally made about 1,300 prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. I realize this is a uniquely desirable example, but how does the print’s relative abundance affect the market? What one primarily sees on the market is later prints, from the 1970s, with the demand for fine art prints. They tend to be standard in sizing–15 inches by 19 inches. Adams also did a handful of mural-size prints. We sold one at the Photographs from the Polaroid Collection sale in 2010 for $518,500. In terms of collector preference… there are two ways of collecting, really. One is seeking the early prints, the rare examples that clearly shows what the photographer intended. They’re very hard to find, and few in number. Finding an early print of Moonrise is like searching for treasure. Later prints have a different type of emotion. They’re higher in contrast, and the mood of the day is totally different.

Can you elaborate on how later prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico differ from earlier prints? Earlier prints are much more detailed and nuanced. With later prints, the band of clouds remains at the horizon line, but you lose all the clouds higher up.

You lose the twilight. Exactly, and the magic of the fleeting instant.

The later prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico were done by Ansel Adams, so no one can claim they aren’t true representations of his work. But why did he make those changes? Why did he squish some of the details and the nuances in those later prints? As the years went on, Adams’s style evolved. He sought higher contrast and greater intensity of dark versus light tones, and greater dramatic intensity.

What is this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico like in person? I’ve had the good fortune to stand in front of it as it hung on a wall, and to hold it unframed in different light. The detail you get out of the photo throughout is like nothing I’ve seen before. It comes to life in person. If you’re someone who appreciates print and object quality, this photo will make your heart sing. It’s a special experience to stand in front of it.

What jumps out at you that doesn’t quite come over in a reproduction? You don’t understand how much there is in the sky and how exacting Adams had to be to coaxed information out of the negative, and the print negative, to have a nuanced range of tones. It’s not too heavy on the darks, and not too hot in the highlights. It’s an absolutely perfectly balanced photograph.

How many prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico have you handled? I’ve been with Sotheby’s since 2007. I cut my teeth cataloging the Polaroid collection for the 2010 sale, and there were many Ansel Adams photographs in it. I’ve handled many different prints of Moonrise at Sotheby’s. I can say this is in a class of its own. Its scale is more intimate than the later enlargements we most often see. Its visual power and its object quality pack a punch that’s unparalleled.

The early print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico that Sotheby’s sold in 2006–is that the world auction record for the image? It was the world auction record for Ansel Adams–any print–until 2010. It’s still the record for Moonrise. The world auction record is a mural from the Polaroid collection sale, called Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park.

What’s the likelihood that this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico will meet or beat them? The photograph is poised to break both those records, certainly, and it deserves them. The Ansel Adams market is deep and international. It’s been quite some time since an early print came up. If you’re a collector of Ansel Adams, a collector of photography, or a collector of American masterworks, this is a holy grail, an impossible-to-find jewel.

Why will this print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico stick in your memory? I remember this image from the beginning of my photography education. To have an opportunity to lay my hands on, and spend quality time with, the best example Ansel Adams made–I won’t have that again. Hopefully I’ll get to visit it in its next home.

How to bid: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico will headline A Grand Vision: The David H. Arrington Collection of Ansel Adams Masterworks, which takes place at Sotheby’s on December 14, 2020.

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