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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