A Unique Scrimshaw Wall Pocket from Nantucket Could Fetch $3,500

A scrimshaw wall pocket, carved and assembled circa 1870 on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, could sell for $3,500.

What you see: A whalebone scrimshaw wall pocket, created circa 1870 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Sotheby’s estimates it at $2,500 to $3,500.

The expert: Erik Gronning, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of the Americana department.

When I think of scrimshaw, I think of the decoratively carved whale teeth and pie crimpers, not wall pockets. Is this form unique? To my knowledge, it is unique. I haven’t seen another.

The mid-19th century represented the peak of the American whaling industry. This scrimshaw wall pocket dates to circa 1870. Does the date plus its intricate nature point to this piece having been made on land rather than at sea? It’s hard to know. It could have been made on land or at sea.

But those facts are not proof it had to have been made on land? No. Very, very many delicate things were brought onto ships. We had a fabulous 18th century games table that had hand-forged hooks in the back to tether it to the floor so it wouldn’t move around.

So it wasn’t impossible to make something like this at sea, particularly if the ship was stuck in the doldrums. Right. Back then, you went by wind. If there was no wind or current to take you anywhere, you’d hang out for a couple of days.

Do we know anything about how this scrimshaw wall pocket came to be, and who might have made it? Since it’s a one-off, and because of the labor that went into it, they had to saw it. I can only imagine it was made for letters–to save precious letters from ports around the world. A lot of sailors’ art was made for loved ones. These guys were lonely at sea, and were thinking of loved ones back at home.

I wanted to clarify something. The lot notes call the scrimshaw wall pocket “one of the largest genuine single pieces of scrimshaw in existence”, but you mean one of the largest finished pieces in existence, yes? This is made from several pieces of whale bone, not a single one? Exactly.

How many pieces of whale bone went into it? There are seven main pieces and at least a dozen smaller pieces that are attached to it.

What can we tell, just by looking, about how hard the scrimshaw wall pocket was to make? It would have been hard because whale bone is brittle. Look at the stars. The stars come to a tiny point before they attach to the circles. When you’re cutting it, you’d have to be so careful not to crack the bone. People tend to forget the most difficult part is not the beginning, it’s the end. Imagine cooking a soufflé. If you pull it out at the wrong time, it collapses.

So we can assume that whoever made this had at least a few failed attempts at carving parts of the whole? Whoever made this… this was not their first time at the rodeo. They were skilled enough to make it, skilled enough to cut it and say, ‘This doesn’t look right, it’s the wrong scale’.

And one person would have made this scrimshaw wall pocket, working alone? Yes, we can assume one person did this.

Shown from the side, the scrimshaw wall pocket looks more solid and less delicate.

What condition is the scrimshaw wall pocket in? It’s in remarkably good condition. One of the protrusions on the front–a little button–has been replaced. There are no breaks in it.

Does it show signs of having been used? It hung off the central circle from a wall. I’m sure someplace along coastal Massachusetts or Connecticut, somebody was lucky enough to have it in their hallway and threw letters in it. Or they had it in their bedroom and threw love letters in it. Who knows?

What is the scrimshaw wall pocket like in person? What does the camera not quite capture? What’s hard to grasp is the actual scale of it. It is big, and impressive for its size. I think a copy of Vogue magazine could fit in it, though you wouldn’t necessarily want to put Vogue magazine in it. Copper pins secure the parts.

Have the copper pins oxidized? There’s slight verdigris around them from the salty air. It’s wonderful.

What’s your favorite detail of the scrimshaw wall pocket? I love the central panel with the five stars. There’s good balance between the positive and the negative spaces. The artist had a great sense of scale. It was well thought out. I’m sure they drew it out on a piece of paper.

Yes. Today, we’d use computers to design something like this. You can tell it was fabricated by hand. A computer could not think it up as well as this. Because it’s handmade, there are slight, subtle incongruities. If it was done on a computer, out of plastic, it wouldn’t look like this. It would have no life to it. This has life to it. It looks mechanical because of the squares, but if you examine it, you can see the craftsmanship.

It looks delicate. Is it delicate? It’s light, but it’s a lot less delicate than you might think. It’s sturdy. It’s a minimum of an eighth of an inch to three-sixteenths of an inch thick. If you dropped it on the ground, it would shatter, but it’s stronger than you’d think. If you took it off its board and put it on a wall in your house, it’d be fine. You’d just want to make sure your hook is strong. But I think most collectors today would leave it as is, and make sure it’s preserved.

The scrimshaw wall pocket appears in two books that were published in the 1970s: a Time-Life book called The Whalers, and American Folk Sculpture by Robert Bishop. How, if at all, does its appearance in these books make it more interesting to collectors? Whenever an object has a history of publication in well-known books, it helps. American Folk Sculpture is still the bible of three-dimensional American folk art. It’s fantastic to have a piece from it.

Why will this scrimshaw wall pocket stick in your memory? Because of its scale and the overall artistic composition of it. It has a timeless quality, and it can go with any decor. When you look at it, it always puts a smile on your face. I think that’s good art, when you have an emotional connection to it.

How to bid: The scrimshaw wall pocket is lot 362 in Vineyard Dreams: Property from a Martha’s Vineyard Collection, a Sotheby’s online sale that opened on January 8, 2021 and continues to January 22, 2021.

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Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa (THB: Shelf Life)

The cover of Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa features a 1951 color photograph of the artist, taken by Imogen Cunningham. It captures her story: Asawa has always been here, hiding in plain sight. Her brilliance persists whether we choose to see it or not.

What you see: Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa, by Marilyn Chase. $29.95 (Hardback). Chronicle Books.*

Does it fit in my purse? No. It’s a hardback and it’s just slightly too big to fit.

Cut to the chase. Should I buy this book? Yes, especially if you have no idea who Ruth Asawa was.

Ruth Asawa was traditional in many respects, but she was not conventional.

Moreover, she knew she was not conventional. She knew she didn’t really fit anywhere, she accepted that fact early and firmly, and she never let it trouble her.

That fundamental self-acceptance and lack of doubt seems to be key to Asawa’s success as an artist. At least, that’s what I get from Everything She Touched. Ruth Asawa was unique, spectacularly so. She got what she wanted because she knew what she wanted, and she stuck with it even if her wants didn’t match the 20th century white male artist’s definition of success.

What she wanted, even more than she wanted art-world renown, was a large family. Asawa was the middle child of seven, and she was determined to have six children of her own, even though she suffered from ghastly bouts of morning sickness. (Ever the pragmatist, she met her goal by birthing four children and adopting two.)

Asawa’s works–the wire sculptures and public fountains for which she is best known–didn’t take primacy in her mind, either. The book states that when her daughter Aiko asked her what she considered her most important legacy, she responded “the schools”, referencing her decades-long campaign to improve art education for K-12 students in San Francisco, California. (With reluctance, she allowed the art-centric alternative high school she established and championed to bear her name.)

The book, which is the first major biography of the artist, lays out the facts of her life crisply in chronological order. She and her parents and siblings suffered the injustice of internment in camps during World War II because of their Japanese ties, and the U.S. government arrested and held Asawa’s father, Umakichi, apart from them over concerns he might be involved with a Japanese ultranationalist group. (He wasn’t.)

The author, Marilyn Chase, manages the trick of relaying the positive aspects of Ruth Asawa’s camp years without implying the experience was a good thing. She also captures the bitterness Asawa felt upon learning, three years into her studies, that the teachers’ college she attended in Milwaukee, Wisconsin denied her a student-teacher position–which she needed to complete her degree–over fears for her safety as a person of Japanese ancestry.

Running headlong into that racist barrier ultimately led Asawa to North Carolina to attend Black Mountain College, an experience that changed her life, and her art, for the better. But, again, the author takes care to avoid suggesting that the college’s act of discrimination, veiled in paternalism, should be forgiven because things turned out fine in the end. Chase lets it stand alone and apart as an incident of rank bigotry, one of many Asawa faced as a Japanese-American woman in the 20th century.

In reading the many pages on Ruth Asawa’s experience at Black Mountain College, I grew annoyed that I didn’t really know her before picking up Everything She Touched. Her classmates included Robert Rauschenberg and Ray Johnson. Merce Cunningham taught her modern dance. She knew R. Buckminster Fuller as “Bucky”, and he designed her wedding ring. (It’s pictured on page 70, and, frankly, I’m jealous of it.)

Asawa also forged a deep, decades-long connection to Josef Albers, who taught at Black Mountain and saw her potential almost immediately.

Albers wasn’t the only one. In the 1950s, Asawa and her art received coverage in Time, Vogue, and other big-deal publications (though the language quoted from the stories shows that critics and editors didn’t know how to regard her; because she took family friend Imogen Cunningham’s advice to make art under her maiden name, the articles invariably describe her as “Miss Asawa”, a term that has the unfortunate effect of erasing the existence of the family that meant so much to her).

Asawa also earned the ripest of plums: representation by a New York City gallery. That relationship, with Peridot Gallery, ended when she literally outgrew the space. Its ceilings were only so high, forcing Asawa to size her hanging wire sculptures to fit its dimensions. Leaving the gallery meant dropping off the New York City radar. Others more desperate for fame and fortune would have reduced their artistic visions to fit inside the white-walled box. Not Asawa. The West Coast resident plowed ahead, raising children and making art on her own terms.

In performing the task of describing her life story, the book overlooks a thing or two. The Japanese concept of gaman, or endurance with dignity, appears early, as does Asawa’s long-held belief that “crying doesn’t help”. As a grown woman and a mother, she transmitted these values to her children, and she took this approach to her art; in the passage about her wedding ring, the book notes that Asawa’s fingers were often bound with masking tape because of cuts and scrapes inflicted by the wires she wove. But the potential downsides of this stoic philosophy–and come on, they had to exist–go unexplored. There’s brief, general discussion of how she made her wire works, but not much beyond that, and no details about the creation of any specific wire work.

Ruth Asawa’s story could have slipped away, but it did not. Long after his death, Josef Albers helped her one last time by indirectly bringing her to the attention of someone who could raise her profile. When Asawa’s family contacted Christie’s about selling a study in green from the Homage to the Square series that he gave her as a gift, Jonathan Laib took the call. He realized Asawa must have meant a great deal to Albers to favor her with such a standout piece.

Laib kept asking questions of the family, and saw the chance to bring Asawa her due. The Albers study sold for $116,500; with Laib’s help, Asawa’s works brought much more.

Laib directed a national spotlight at her starting in 2010, a time when the public was ready and eager to embrace tales of artists who are neither white nor male. Still, Asawa’s rediscovery was not inevitable. The cover of Everything She Touched sums up the conundrum she poses. It’s a color photograph, taken by Imogen Cunningham in 1951, posing Asawa behind, and partly obscured by, one of her hanging wire sculptures.

Ruth Asawa has always been here, hiding in plain sight. Her work and her brilliance persist whether we see her or not. Everything She Touched lets us see her in full.

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Every Chair on The Hot Bid

Fine furnishings often earn the spotlight on The Hot Bid. Have a seat and gaze at every chair featured

to date.

A magnificent chair by German-American designer George Hunzinger sold for $1,750 at Wright in June 2020.

A pair of Pedro Friedeberg Hand chairs–one in silver leaf, the other in unadorned mahogany–appeared in the same January 2020 Rago auction. Richard Wright of Wright (Rago and Wright merged last year) contrasted and compared the two.

A Frank Lloyd Wright casual armchair, designed for Price Tower, led a group of Price Tower-related lots at Heritage Auctions in October 2019. Proceeds benefitted the Price Tower Arts Center.

A Marcel Wanders gold Bon Bon chair set a new world record for the artist at Phillips New York in June 2019.

An Eileen Gray Transat armchair came up at Christie’s in June 2018 and sold for a record price.

A double rocking chair by the late furniture artist Sam Maloof came up at Bonhams Los Angeles in April 2018.

A stainless steel Wendell Castle Abilene rocking chair appeared at Los Angeles Modern Auctions in February 2018.

A French late 19th century sedan chair came up at Bonhams London, Knightsbridge in December 2017.

A pair of late 19th century Venetian lobster-form chairs appeared at Christie’s New York in April 2017.

A deck chair salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic came up at Henry Aldridge & Son in April 2015.

The images of the Eileen Gray Transat armchair and the Venetian lobster-form chairs are courtesy of Christie’s.

The image of the Marcel Wanders gold Bon Bon chair is courtesy of Phillips.

The image of the Titanic deck chair is courtesy of Henry Aldridge & Son.

The image of the Wendell Castle Abilene rocking chair is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

The images of the French sedan chair and the Sam Maloof double rocking chair are courtesy of Bonhams.

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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Every Antiques Roadshow Appraiser Who Has Appeared on The Hot Bid–Updated for the Debut of the 2021 Season

In October 2019, The Hot Bid published a round-up of every story that features an interview with an auction house expert who appeared on Antiques Roadshow.

With the beloved PBS show set to begin its 2021 season on January 4, 2021, I’ve updated the roundup to include stories published between then and now.

Click these words to see the updated roundup story.

Enjoy! And Happy New Year!

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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