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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