A Circa 1905 Double Ferris Wheel Toy Could Sell for $15,000 (Updated March 8, 2021–WOW!)

A double Ferris Wheel toy made around 1905 by Mohr & Krauss, a German company, could sell for $15,000.

Update: The Mohr & Krauss double Ferris Wheel toy sold for $115,000–more than seven times its high estimate. Wow!

What you see: A Mohr & Krauss double Ferris Wheel toy, dating to circa 1905. Bertoia Auctions estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

The expert: Auctioneer Michael Bertoia of Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, New Jersey.

Who were, or what was Mohr & Krauss? Mohr & Krauss was a German manufacturer out of Nuremberg. There’s not a ton of info about the company itself. This is actually a steam-powered toy. Steam engines were the focus of the company, and it made steam accessories, such as this.

How does the double Ferris Wheel toy work? The entire structure rotates at the top, and the inner wheels rotate as well. At the bottom rear of the toy is a double flywheel that spins a pulley run by a steam engine. You have to have a live steam engine to run it. It’s a steam engine accessory.

The double Ferris Wheel toy, shown from the rear, where the steam-driven toy would connect to a separate alcohol-powered steam engine.

Does the toy come with a steam engine? It does not.

If you wanted to operate the double Ferris Wheel toy, how would you do it? You can hand-crank it, or have an auxiliary engine of some sort.

What, like a two-stroke engine, or a lawnmower engine? Probably a battery-powered engine. All you need is a circular spinning engine or a pulley connected with a rope or a wire.

You said that Mohr & Krauss made steam engines and steam accessories, and this toy is considered a steam accessory. What else falls under the heading of “steam accessory”? An example would be a water fountain that uses a steam-driven flywheel to spritz water into the air. Windmills were popular. Any carousel or amusement-type wheel could be a steam accessory.

Is this double Ferris Wheel toy unique? This is the only one I’ve personally seen. Reportedly, two other examples are known. One is in the United States, and I don’t know where the other is. Sotheby’s had one of the others in the 1980s, I don’t know which.

Are the other two identical to this one, or do some of the details and colors vary? The only illustration I’ve seen is in black and white, but they very well could be different.

Another angle on the double Ferris Wheel toy. Only two other examples are known.

Why would Mohr & Krauss make a huge, delicate toy such as this? What convinced them they could turn a profit on it? That’s the big question mark here. Unless it was a special order or made as a commemorative… I can’t imagine the time, the labor, the materials it took to make it. It’s very large, and very ornate and intricate. To solder and assemble it had to take hours. It would have been a very expensive toy.

How expensive would it have been? Probably five to ten dollars in 1905, equivalent to the annual wage of the factory worker who would make the toy.

How big is this toy? About two feet from the base to the top of the tower. When it rotates, it spans about 36 inches.

Who was the audience for this double Ferris Wheel toy? Was it children, or was it really for a deep-pocketed adult? I think the audience was the parents as much as the children. We are talking about a toy powered by a live steam engine that burns alcohol. Obviously, you had to have a parent involved to play with it for the child.

The steam engine that powered the toy was driven by alcohol? That’s how the steam engine was fueled, by alcohol.

Might this have been a kind of show-off piece, maybe made for display at a World’s Fair or in the front window of a fancy toy store? It could have been, absolutely. You mention shop windows–Aaron and Abby Schroeder [the husband and wife who built the collection that comprises the auction] unearthed this in a small Pennsylvania town. There was a barber shop with large bay windows, and in one of them was this toy. They stopped and stayed overnight. Aaron got a haircut, and Abby carried out the double Ferris Wheel.

But we don’t know where the barber got the toy? We don’t.

Are the figures and the Ferris Wheel seats cast as one piece, or are the figures loose? They are removable. It’s impressive that they’re still intact and original to the toy.

A detail shot of the rider figures on the double Ferris Wheel. All are detachable from their gondolas, and all have survived intact.

And it has everything it ought to have–everything it would have left the factory with in the early 20th century? I believe so. The whole toy is quite delicate. Normally, bits and pieces that hang off a toy are the first to break off, such as the flags, or the even more delicate pair of lamp posts at the front. But they’re still intact and preserved.

About those flags at the top–it looks like one is a French flag and I can’t tell what the other country is supposed to be… I assume they’re decorative. There are times when a toymaker uses country flags for a specific market. I wouldn’t wager that to be the case here. They may have been [colored with what was] leftover from what they used to paint the gondolas.

What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this double Ferris Wheel toy would have been to make? The hardest part was probably keeping it all level and visually balanced. It was made by hand and soldered and pieced together. To make it uniform and parallel is tricky and impressive. And it has to be level for it to function and move.

How does something this large and fragile survive so well for 120-odd years? It’s a testament as to why so few are known. It’s miraculous for it to have survived in such good condition. The missing paint is a product of the age of the toy. When Abby bought it, it had 100 percent of its paint. Temperature and humidity changes caused the paint to start to lift and flake off. That’s very common in antiques [antique toys].

What is the double Ferris Wheel toy like in person? It has a very commanding presence. A lot of that has to do with the size of it. Artistically, it has an elegant beauty. You want to look at it at a slight angle. Not only is it tall and wide, it’s deep. As you look at it from different angles, your attraction grows.

When shown at an angle, the double Ferris Wheel toy reveals how completely and enthusiastically three-dimensional it is.

What is your favorite detail of the double Ferris Wheel toy? The negative space. The fact that it’s so ornately assembled, but with so much open air space, gives it a very attractive look. The framework of the wheels and the tower are not flat pieces of metal. They criss-cross. The Eiffel Tower is a good comparison–if you look at it dead on, it’s a triangle, but if you look at it at an angle, you see how deep the structure is, and how much intricacy there is in the assembly of it.

As we speak on February 23, 2021, the double Ferris Wheel toy has 41 watchers online and has drawn a single bid of $5,000. Is that at all meaningful? Not as of yet. When the toy is an example of this caliber, collectors hold their cards close to their chests and demonstrate their willingness and their desire in the heat of the moment at auction.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? A toy of this size is often crudely assembled or manufactured. This toy is put together artfully, not thrown together the way many toys of the time were. This had something more along the line of the Rolls-Royce treatment. It was constructed in refined style.

How to bid: The Mohr & Krauss double Ferris Wheel toy is lot 0364 in the Schroeder Collection I sale scheduled at Bertoia Auctions on March 6, 2021.

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Michael Bertoia has appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about a Jackie Robinson doll with its box and accoutrements, and a vintage Tremendous Mike robot toy with box that went on to sell for $11,000.

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A Thomas Hart Benton Lithograph Could Sell for $15,000 (Updated March 5, 2021)

A 1942 Thomas Hart Benton lithograph dubbed "The Race", based on an original Benton oil painting known as "Homeward Bound". The print could sell for $15,000.

Update: The Thomas Hart Benton lithograph sold for $18,750.

What you see: The Race, a 1942 Thomas Hart Benton lithograph based on his oil painting titled Homeward Bound. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

The expert: Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann and director of prints and drawings.

Who was Thomas Hart Benton, and where was he in his career in 1942? He was an American painter, and with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, was a leader in the American Regionalist movement, which focused on scenes of everyday life in America. In 1942, Benton was at the top of his career. He became well-known for murals he painted in 1933 for the Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago and another set in 1932, the Arts of Life in America murals, which were for the Whitney Museum in New York. They’re now at the New Britain Museum of American Art. And in 1934, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine on one of its earliest color covers. That got him mass recognition.

How prolific was he as a printmaker? He made 93 documented lithographs between 1929 and 1974.

This Thomas Hart Benton lithograph is based on an oil painting by Benton titled Homeward Bound. Do we know anything about how he came up with the idea for the image? There’s a quote by him which is not an explanation for why he painted it, but it’s about a study for the painting, in which he says, “Common enough scene in the days of the steam engine. Why did horses so often run with the steam trains while they now pay no attention to the diesels?” The quote gives insight into why he did it–a glimpse of a bygone era. I thought it was about horse versus machine, but the quote shows how we romanticize the past and this view of the American West, which was vanishing.

Did Benton’s approach to printmaking differ when he was translating a painting into a print, and when he was creating an image that would debut as a print? No, it doesn’t differ. It’s standard in that aspect. The majority are derived from his paintings and drawings. When you look at his lithographs from 1929 through 1974, they’re technically and stylistically similar, though they were produced over a 45-year span. There’s virtually no alterations to the style or the technique. After he appeared on the cover of Time in 1934, Benton was approached by a fine art publishing company in New York, Associated American Artists (AAA), which had the idea of democratizing art collecting. It was a mail order publishing outfit. You’d pay a dollar or two dollars and pick a lithograph.

So Associated American Artists was kind of like Columbia House, which promised a bunch of records for a penny, that sort of thing? Yes. The general idea was to make art affordable for the masses. Associated American Artists approached well-known artists like Benton to give oomph to their venture. Benton was associated with AAA for most of his lithographs. They weren’t really original things. The art was made previously to pulling and submitting it to AAA for a lithograph. Because he was better-known, AAA lithographs by Benton might be $2, and those by lesser-known artists might be $1.

How hands-on was Benton in the creation of his lithographs? Did he hand off the artwork and stay away until it was time to correct the proofs, or did he do more than that? He was fairly well-involved. He worked with the lithographer to create the image. He drew the lithograph on the lithographic stones, and sometimes on a zinc plate.

The print run for this Thomas Hart Benton lithograph was 250. Is that a pretty typical edition size for Benton? That is typical, because Benton worked so frequently with the AAA. 250 is the edition size for most of the editions issued by AAA.

How well does the image exploit the advantages that lithography has to offer? I’d say it makes very full use of lithography. The main two points are the fluidity of the drawing and the tonal nuances–they are the touchstones of lithography. You don’t see Benton produce prints in etchings. Lithography suits his work. Another point is his painting style is colorful, and he never worked in color lithography. It would have been available, but not with AAA. Benton never sought it out, and he never hand-colored lithographs, which other artists sought to do.

So Benton was really more interested in painting. I think that’s it, and that color lithography is more work. For Benton, his work went into painting, not printmaking.

Can you talk a bit about how the darks and lights come across here–the tonal nuances? In Benton paintings, as in his lithographs, there’s strong chiaroscuro, the play of light and dark. He used it to create a mood that’s present in his oils. It harkens back to the modern art movements that he would have seen while studying in Paris between 1909 and 1912: Fauvism, Synchromism. It comes out in his paintings.

How much did George Miller, the printmaker who translated Benton’s images into lithographs, add to the quality and the impact of the lithographs? Tons. George Miller was a genius printer. Benton could not have been lined up with a better lithographer.

What is the Thomas Hart Benton lithograph like in person? What I take away from it is how rich the ink is and how it stands out on the sheet. It’s not terribly thick–it’s more of a sheen against the whiteness of the paper. When you photograph it, it becomes matte and flat. It loses something.

What’s your favorite detail of the lithograph? The shadow of the horse in the pond in the foreground, just how the light catches the horse and creates the shadow in the water. I think that’s cool. I also love the clouds in Benton’s work. Jackson Pollock was a student of Benton’s. If you block out the ground and look at the clouds in the upper half of the lithograph, you get the start of abstract expressionism.

We know how many lithographs of The Race were printed. Do we know how many survive? Based on what we see, it’s likely that most of the edition of 250 is around. Benton was a famous artist. This print would have been carefully preserved.

How often do you see this Thomas Hart Benton lithograph come up at auction? I see at least one a year. It’s not such a scarce image.

What condition is the lithograph in? It’s in excellent condition. It has full margins. A side note on AAA prints in particular–AAA sold them matted and framed as well. It was standard practice to paper-tape the back of the lithograph to the front of the matte. When people removed the prints from the frames, they’d cut it from the matte and remove half an inch off the margins. With AAA prints, collectors ask, “Does it have full margins or not?” Frequently, they do not. When an AAA print has full margins like this one does, it’s definitely a boost.

There are five other Thomas Hart Benton lithographs in the auction. How does The Race compare to them? This is less of a static image. It has more of the feel of a frame from a motion picture reel. That’s probably part of why collectors are drawn to this image. It puts it over other lithographs that feel more posed.

Was Benton a movie-goer? Might he have been thinking cinematically when he executed this image? Not only would he have had it in mind, he did promotional lithographs for the 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath, commissioned by 20th Century Fox.

The Grapes of Wrath set by Benton–those were purely lithographs? Not paintings first? Yes.

What’s the world auction record for The Race, and for any Thomas Hart Benton lithograph? For The Race, we do have the world auction record, set in November 2015. It was $37,500. We had the overall world auction record for a Benton lithograph until two years ago. The current record of $45,000 was set in January 2019 at Kamelot Auctions by a lithograph from 1936 called Jesse James.

Why will this image stick in your memory? The image itself is a rendering of a bygone era, this nostalgia for the American old West, with the combination of the galloping horse and the steam engine. It’s gripping, and there’s something iconic about it.

How to bid: The Thomas Hart Benton lithograph of The Race is lot 161 in the 19th & 20th Century Art sale taking place at Swann Auction Galleries on March 4, 2021.

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Todd Weyman has appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about a 1977 Mixografía Rufino Tamayo printa Howard Cook print that depicts the Chrysler Building and a print of M.C. Escher’s Night and Day.

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A Girl Skipping Rope Mechanical Bank Could Sell for $90,000 (Updated March 1, 2021)

A mechanical bank in the form of a girl skipping rope could command $90,000 at Morphy Auctions.

Update: The girl skipping rope mechanical bank sold for $73,800.

What you see: An antique mechanical bank in the form of a girl skipping rope. Morphy Auctions estimates it at $60,000 to $90,000.

The expert: Collector Bob Brady, consigner of the girl skipping rope mechanical bank.

This mechanical bank was made by the J. & E. Stevens Company. Did it have a good reputation as a maker of mechanical banks? Also, when did it go out of business? J. & E. Stevens was the largest mechanical bank manufacturer. It was probably responsible for 50 or so of the mechanical banks that are out there. They made some of the best action mechanical banks and they made banks that were extremely colorful. Before World War II, they were out of the business of making mechanical banks. I believe what happened is the cost of manufacturing became prohibitive.

The lot notes for the girl skipping rope mechanical bank don’t give a date. Do we know when the bank was in production, and when this example might have been made? The patent was approved in the late 1890s. It was probably manufactured until the 1920s, maybe a little into the 1930s. There were variations in production styles on the girl skipping rope. There’s color variations on the girl’s dress–blue, brown, and yellow dresses are out there–but the main part of the bank stayed the same. The rope was originally cast iron, but because they had problems with the rope, they ended up casting it in brass. On this one, the rope is cast iron.

When activated, the girl's head looks left and right and her feet kick as the rope rotates over and under her.

Did J. & E. Stevens invent the girl skipping rope form of mechanical bank, or did they see it elsewhere, put their own spin on it, and popularize it? This was their design and their manufacturing. No one else tried to replicate the girl skipping rope.

Do we have any idea how many girl skipping rope mechanical banks were made? Did J. & E. Stevens keep production records? I don’t know anybody who had ever had those kinds of records for J. & E. Stevens.

How many examples of the girl skipping rope mechanical bank survive? There might be, oh, possibly less than 100 in varying conditions. Maybe 15 to 20 are original, without repairs. This example is the second-best I know.

While there's no circa date on this bank, its production run spanned the 1890s to the 1920s. Early examples, such as this one, are all-cast iron. Later examples have skipping ropes made from brass.

What makes this one the second-best example you’ve seen? Basically, the number of chips on the bank. I’m comparing all-original banks. It’s just the wear. Other factors that come into play is there’s a lot of red on the bank. If it came into contact with daylight, the red would turn to a light, faded pinkish color, or it goes back to the base, prime color, which is white. That’s pretty much only on red. The other colors survive well.

While I haven’t seen a ton of mechanical banks, most of the ones I’ve seen feature animals, or groups of men, or people with animals, or a boy–not an individual girl. Is it unusual for a bank to showcase a girl, as this one does? There are a few other girl-type banks, but their actions aren’t nearly as drastic as on the girl skipping rope.

The girl skipping rope mechanical bank, shown with its key.

How does she work? The coin gets put in the bank in the green area just below the squirrel. It sits there until the motion starts, then it falls to the bottom of the bank, where it’s stored. There’s a lever at the level of the girl’s feet if she’s standing up straight. [In the above photo, it looks like a doorknob, and it’s at the level of her knees.] That starts the girl swinging. As it makes a 360-degree rotation, the girl’s head looks left and right, and her feet move forward. She jumps the rope three or four times, but in examples I’ve operated, I’ve seen as high as 20.

I see that the girl skipping rope mechanical bank comes with a key. What did it do? The bank had a difficult mechanism in it. It had to have a strong enough spring to rotate a flywheel that was six inches in diameter. It had a bit of weight to it. You had to turn it 270 degrees, three-quarters of a turn, to lock it into position and activate it. Even an adult could have trouble turning the key. And if the key slipped off, the spring-loaded mechanism could break internally.

And that’d be the end of the bank. Pretty much. People like myself try to stay away from repaired banks. I strive for the best condition imaginable.

The bank is made entirely of cast iron. How much does it weigh? Probably about four pounds. A young girl who had one was probably an exception.

A rear view of the girl skipping rope mechanical bank.

Who were mechanical banks made for? Who was the target audience? Were they made for children, to encourage them to save money, or were they actually enjoyed by adults? I’ll tell you what appealed to me when I saw them. I grew up poor. These banks imply thrift. And you’ve got the action associated with it, and this has the best action of any of the banks. It’s a pretty intricate working bank. I think the reason why J. & E. Stevens had a girl on it was it was aiming at a female market. But I think girls and boys would find it equally desirable.

What makes the girl skipping rope mechanical bank so beloved among collectors? And how much of it has to do with its action–how it moves? It’s such an appealing bank and a desirable bank. Everybody strives to have a girl skipping rope. Its popularity and its availability is such that it’s an expensive bank to own. I’d say it has the most elaborate movement, and there’s the symbolism–the girl skipping rope is the logo of the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America. They thought enough of that bank to pick it as their logo.

So the girl skipping rope is literally the symbol for mechanical banks? [Laughs] It’s kind of the tip of the spear for mechanical banks. If someone has a girl skipping rope, they’ve had 50 or 100 banks before getting to that level. Unless you’re an heir to Nike, you’re not going to buy one of these early in the collecting cycle.

A close-up of the figure on the girl skipping rope mechanical bank. It's one of the few to feature an individual female figure.

The figure on the girl skipping rope mechanical bank is wearing a dress that’s a lot more dull in color than the rest of the bank. Why? Is a beige-colored dress closer to what little girls actually would have worn when the bank was new? Generally, I would say yeah. I wasn’t around in 1890, but it was an acceptable style of the time.

Coins are placed in the green area below the squirrel. Why depict a squirrel? It's unclear.

The mechanical bank has a squirrel on it. Do we know why? Was it the mascot of J. & E. Stevens or something? [Laughs] I’m purely speculating, but they were probably looking for some animal a girl would be familiar with. It probably could just have easily been a rabbit.

What coins does the bank accept? Pennies on up to quarters? Yeah. I’ve never tried a quarter. Generally, I never put a coin in. I just operate it.

How do you operate it without putting a coin in it? You can release the spring by pushing the lever down [the gold doorknob-like thing sticking out of the colorfully-painted structure that lines up with the girl’s feet or knees, depending]. That operates the bank. I can also move it manually by putting my fingers on the rope and rotating it.

Coins were removed by using a screwdriver or similar tool to open the Swiss lock on the bottom of the bank.

How do you get the coins out? Do you turn it upside down and take off the bottom plate? You can use a screwdriver on the little Swiss lock on the bottom of the bank. There’s nothing sophisticated about it.

The mechanical bank is described as being in “near mint” condition. What does that mean? It means it’s all-original, no repairs, no repaints, nothing done to it. It’s the way it looked 125 years ago. That’s what people strive for.

The impressive-looking cast-iron key, which is original to the bank.

This example of the girl skipping rope mechanical bank comes with its original cast iron key. How rare is that? It’s very rare to have its original key. They do make reproductions, but they’re not nearly as good.

When did you get this mechanical bank? I bought it in 2007, at the Stephen and Marilyn Steckbeck sale at Morphy’s. At the time, it was the biggest mechanical bank collection to come to auction.

Would the sum you paid in 2007 represent a world auction record for a girl skipping rope mechanical bank? To the best of my knowledge, that was the record.

A side view of the girl skipping rope mechanical bank. Its movements are so pleasing and iconic that the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America chose this design for its logo.

How does your mechanical bank collection make you happy? Also, why sell it now? Mechanical banks are true American antiques. Only so many were made. What’s left are the survivors. I enjoy seeing the shapes of the banks and knowing what their actions are. They represent savings and my undergraduate degree, which was in mechanical engineering. I look at my mechanical banks every day. I’ve got them showcased throughout the house. I’m only selling them now because I’m 78 and my kids never took an interest in them and my wife has terminal cancer. And they hold special memories for me. I’ve met people from all over the world through collecting, types of associations I’d never have if not through collecting mechanical banks. Some of my best friends are actively involved in bank-collecting.

Why not delay the sale until COVID-19 is no longer a concern, so you can enjoy seeing your friends gather to bid on your collection? I did my will, which is pretty important with my wife’s condition. Also, Morphy’s has an option–it has a theater auction room. Morphy’s can seat 75 people in that room with face masks and the required spacing needed in Pennsylvania. And they’ve gotten to the point now where you can do so much online. We have the best of both worlds.

Have you decided yet if you’ll be there in person for the sale? [Laughs] I’m not sure. It’s going to be hard. It’s a big part of me. I have decided if I do go, I’m going to sit up front, to be away from any of the interactions.

How to bid: The girl skipping rope mechanical bank is lot 1070 in The Bob and Judy Brady Mechanical Bank Auction, scheduled at Morphy Auctions on February 27, 2021.

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A Cyrus Edwin Dallin Bronze Could Command $70,000 (Updated February 26, 2021)

A 22-inch bronze of Cyrus Edwin Dallin's masterwork, Appeal to the Great Spirit, could command $70,000.

Update: The 22-inch high Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze, Appeal to the Great Spirit, sold for $100,312.

What you see: A 22-inch-high version of Appeal to the Great Spirit, a Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze. Bonhams estimates it at $50,000 to $70,000.

The expert: Katherine Halligan, Western art specialist at Bonhams.

Who was Cyrus Edwin Dallin? He was a late 19th century and early 20th century artist born in Springville, Utah Territory. That’s important because he’s one of the first American artists to recognize the rights of Native Americans. He didn’t just focus on Native American subjects. It constitutes some of his most iconic work.

Where did he train? His earliest training–he had friendly relations with the Ute Indians, and as a child, he made rudimentary animal models from the clay at their clay beds. Later, he went to Boston to study with Truman Howe Bartlett, and in Paris with Henri Chapu.

What drew him to Native American subjects? Where did that come from? Certainly, from his childhood. He grew up in a Latter-day Saints (LDS) settlement in a very small town and was exposed culturally to the local Indians. It informed his decision to depict Native American subjects and fight for the rights of Native Americans. Because of his firsthand experiences, he had a sense of ownership in protecting Native American cultures and depicting them as best he could in his work.

Cyrus Edwin Dallin was progressive for his time, but would his views on Native Americans be considered progressive by contemporary standards? That’s a tough thing to answer, because he was of his time. I think his values and his political activism was very forward-thinking in many ways, so forward-thinking that it could meet the standards of social justice today. [The website for the Cyrus Edwin Dallin museum includes many statements and initiatives that support social justice.] He was politically active and formed a group that [after merging with similar groups] became the Association on American Indian Affairs.

Cyrus Edwin Dallin's signature on the 22-inch bronze of Appeal to the Great Spirit. The 1913 date refers only to the year in which the reduced-size version was sculpted, not its casting date.

How did he conceive the idea behind Appeal to the Great Spirit? I don’t know of any first-hand writings that explain his ideas. It was the fourth sculpture in his The Epic of the Indian cycle, a series of monumental-size works on equestrian subjects. It’s a very bold presentation that reflects his own growing confidence as an artist.

Did he come up with the idea in Paris? He was studying in Paris in 1889, and Buffalo Bill came to the city–

Oh, I’m guessing Buffalo Bill’s show didn’t sit well with Cyrus Edwin Dallin. Interestingly, no–you’ve got to keep it in the context of the time. Dallin went multiple times during its run and befriended the Native American actors and sketched them. The sketches became the basis for the models in The Epic of the Indian.

Did he rely on photographs at all? I haven’t read that he used photographs, but it was a very typical practice of his contemporaries.

Frontal view of the mounted figure of the Sioux chief, imploring the Great Spirit.

What makes Appeal to the Great Spirit such an effective sculpture? From an artistic perspective, it’s very powerful. It’s the last story in The Epic of the Indian cycle. What it represents is the recognition–he’s realizing his way of life has been lost due to the imposition of white culture. We relate to the vulnerability of the figure, with his hands out and his head thrown back. It’s universal. Its supercharged emotions make it different from the other three in the cycle.

In looking at the backing material for Appeal to the Great Spirit, I don’t see any information that identifies the tribal community to which the male figure belongs. Did I miss it, or did Cyrus Edwin Dallin deliberately make it vague? I think this figure is a Sioux chief. I think the identity is in the [style of] headdress. Some artists were intentionally or unintentionally inaccurate with the details of Native American clothing. Dallin’s intention was to be accurate. He had a tremendous amount of respect for the different communities.

He’s not the sort of guy who would switch in the headdress of a different tribal community because to him, it looked better than a Sioux chief’s headdress. His approach was much more respectful, with the intent of authenticity.

This Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze is a reduced-size version of Appeal to the Great Spirit. What challenges did he face in sizing the work down to 22 inches? The main consideration would be to get the fine details right. The Gorham foundries were very skilled in the lost wax process. This has exceptionally fine detail.

I understand there are 107 examples of this Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze. Do we know how long–over what span of years–it was produced? I don’t know the answer to this, and I don’t know how many survive. I do know the number that have been at auction is hardly 107.

A detail of the 22-inch bronze Appeal to the Great Spirit, showing the signature of the foundry.

Was the Gorham bronze foundry connected to the Gorham silver company? Yes, it is. Gorham was really one of the top American foundries of that period. The most significant American sculptors used them.

Elsewhere in the auction you offer an 8 3/4 inch version of Appeal to the Great Spirit. How many different sizes were offered? The 22-inch version is the middle size. There’s a third, larger size as well. It was a one-foot, two-foot, three-foot kind of thing. I believe the largest size was a significantly smaller edition. There are up to 280 of the smallest edition.

Also in the sale is a 14 1/2 inch high Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze of The Signal of Peace. Taking all three lots together, I see a jumble of sizes. Is it possible to collect a group of four reduced-size bronzes of the works in The Epic of the Indian that match in size? I don’t know for sure, but I believe you should be able to, with the smallest size. The measurement on The Signal of Peace includes the figure’s spear, which adds four or five inches.

Is the Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze solid or hollow? It’s more solid than hollow. It’s hefty.

Were all 107 of the 22-inch Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronzes cast during his lifetime, or were some posthumous? I don’t know for sure, but I would imagine they’re all lifetime casts.

This example is number 12 in the edition of 107. Does that matter? Is it more desirable to collectors because of its lower number? Savvier collectors like the lower numbers because the details are crisper.

Rear view of the reduced-size Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze, Appeal to the Great Spirit.

What is the Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze like in person? What aspects elude the camera? Certainly I would say the detail–the face and hands, the horse’s face, the headdress are incredibly crisp and detailed. In the smaller version and in later versions, the fingers tend to be less crisp, but these are beautifully rendered. And the presence–it’s been cleaned and re-waxed and it absolutely glows. It’s got a rich golden brown color.

Do all 107 have that same general patina of a rich golden brown, or are there variants? I’ve never seen something else. They’re all in a medium brown.

What condition is the Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze in? It’s really in amazing condition. The reins were recreated and replaced, but it was in the same family for four generations, and they left it alone.

I take it that it’s common to have the reins replaced on a reduced-size Appeal to the Great Spirit? Yes it is. They’re removable, and frequently, they’re kinked or bent. The reins are an add-on, and they usually don’t last. There are small holes in the sculpture where the reins attach.

How often does the 22-inch Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze appear at auction? There have been five at auction since 2015. They’re not always identified by edition number, but I assume none were the same ones reappearing at auction over the last six years. Speaking about the edition, it’s rare to have an example with such a low number.

What’s the world auction record for a 22-inch bronze of Appeal to the Great Spirit? It sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2005 for $120,000.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? This particular bronze is one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of working with. And it has good auction karma. It’s been in a nice family, and they’ve been wonderful to work with. This is my first Bonhams sale, and it will be an unforgettable one.

How to bid: The Cyrus Edwin Dallin bronze is lot 11 in the Western Art sale scheduled at Bonhams Los Angeles on February 26, 2021.

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Images are courtesy of Bonhams.

Cyrus Edwin Dallin has a namesake museum in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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A Barbotan Meteorite Could Sell for Triple Its Weight in Gold (Updated February 23, 2021)

This tiny Barbotan meteorite, estimated at $2,000 to $3,000, could sell for triple its weight in gold at Christie's.

Update: The Barbotan meteorite sold for $2,750.

What you see: A Barbotan meteorite, which fell over rural France in July 1790. Christie’s estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.

The expert: Darryl Pitt, curator of the Macovich collection of meteorites and consigner of this and other meteorites in the sale.

Let’s start with the story of the Barbotan meteorite fall. When did it happen? What do we know about it? It was the evening of Saturday, July 24, 1790, the sort of summer night when one might go out for a stroll. And those who were out—it’s been estimated there were more than 1,000 witnesses—saw a fireball blazing through the night sky with attendant sonic booms, pressure waves, and thunderous rumbling, culminating in a shower of stones raining down. The event was documented in newspapers and journals. 

The Barbotan meteorite fall took place over Gers, France in 1790. What do we know about Gers and what it would have been like then? Was it a rural village? Gers is a département in the southwest corner of France—like what we would call a county. Gers was one of the original counties of France and was created during the French Revolution, just four months before the Barbotan event. Barbotan lies within Gers and is a small, rural spa town about 80 kilometers [roughly 50 miles] from both Toulouse and Bordeaux.   

If the fall hadn’t happened around 10:30 pm on a cloudless night in late July, might it have gone unnoticed? Or was it so loud and spectacular that it would have woken the townsfolk no matter what season it was or what time of day it happened? The event would not have gone unnoticed, but seeing a fireball would have been less likely. It’s hard not to notice rocks falling around you, but it’s something more easily perceived in the light of day. 

Who investigated the Barbotan fall first, soon after it happened? Fortunately, a noted physicist, Professor Baudin, was among the folks who were out that night. The Annals of Physics published an extensive account of his experience. Montpellier’s Journal of Science published a similar account.  

How did the Barbotan meteorite fall come to be dismissed as a “collective delusion”? The two accounts I just mentioned were dismissed by civic leaders and scientists as being wholly absurd. When the Montpellier account was published, a scientist demanded official testimony. When a mayor provided a notarized document indicating that 300 people had seen what would later be known as the Barbotan meteorite shower, the scientist then wrote something to the effect of how pathetic it was for a municipality to certify an “impossible phenomenon.”  If one insists on wearing blinders, one simply cannot see. Rocks falling out of the sky was a notion that did not fit with the preconceived order of things in 1790s France, and so there was a collective interest in maintaining the delusion that meteorites didn’t exist.  

How did it come to light that a Barbotan meteorite had struck and possibly killed a herdsman? Was he asleep on a bed that would have been in the path of the meteorite that punched a hole in his roof? Did it leave marks on his body, or is the evidence circumstantial? For those who experienced the meteorite shower and then checked on a missing friend and found his body, a rock, and a hole in the roof, it seems intuitive to make the connection, right? Occam’s razor—look for the simplest explanation. Unfortunately, documentation is scant because of a conundrum: How could a meteorite impact cause a death at a time when meteorites were not believed to exist? This conundrum also would explain why there are so few Barbotan meteorites today—nobody believed rocks could just fall from the sky, so no one kept them. I don’t know that we know anything about the herdsman, but I know there is a great research paper waiting to be done. 

I recall being told that no meteorite, to date, is known to have killed a human being. Is the Barbotan incident considered not to count as a human death, for lack of evidence? Exactly right. Until that research paper is written, the herdsman’s death indeed does not count due to a lack of evidence. There has only been one documented death due to a meteorite impact: it was a cow in Venezuela

How much material was recovered from the Barbotan fall? According to the standard source of such matters, only 6.4 kilograms [14 pounds] are known to exist, and about half of that is in museums. This is despite the fact that Barbotan was a massive meteorite shower including rocks ranging in size from modest pebbles to stones weighing up to 45 kilograms [99 pounds]. I believe the scarcity of material is due to the prevailing notion that the rocks were not worth keeping.

How often do Barbotan meteorites appear at auction? Almost never. Whether in an auction environment or not, Barbotan meteorites are largely unavailable and specimens are coveted. It’s one of the great historic meteorite falls that dates from a time when Western civilization was wrestling with the notion of rocks being able to fall out of the sky.

What is this particular Barbotan meteorite like in person? What is it like to hold it? The first feeling is the humbling sensation that comes from touching any meteorite: here is something that originates with an asteroid shattered during the early history of the solar system, which was then deflected from somewhere between Mars and Jupiter into an Earth-crossing orbit. Whoa. As for this specimen, well, any Barbotan specimen is just so special. It does feel somewhat heavier than one might expect as a result of the amount of iron-nickel in the matrix, and it becomes heavier still when considering its history. Per unit weight, meteorites inspire more awe for me than just about anything, except vaccines.

At two inches by two inches, this example is relatively small in size. Are most Barbotan meteorites small? Most of the specimens that become available to collectors are smaller. There are bigger fragments—this partial slice was removed from one such fragment—but most of the larger material is in major research collections and museums and is pretty much untouchable. 

Do we know who gathered this Barbotan meteorite? We don’t, and I wish we did, as it would add to the provenance and the value of this specimen.  

This Barbotan meteorite looks much more like a standard rock than others I’ve covered on The Hot Bid. Could you talk a bit about that issue–how it can be hard to distinguish a meteorite from a mundane rock when in the field? Most often, distinguishing terrestrial from extraterrestrial rocks is not so hard. With time and familiarity, all rocks will not look alike. What’s more challenging —and this depends on whether the rock fell in an arid environment or a moist environment—is being able to identify an anomalous stone meteorite that’s been sitting on the surface of the Earth for a while. What’s even more difficult to do in the field is make an accurate assessment of precisely what type of meteorite it is. More and more meteorite hunters are taking handheld XRF [x-ray fluorescence] analyzers into the field to provide quick insight into elemental ratios, which does help, to a degree. A typical fresh stony meteorite will possess, just as the Barbotan meteorite does, a fusion crust from its fiery descent through Earth’s atmosphere, as well as spherules of silica minerals called chondrules and a profusion of tiny flakes of iron-nickel suspended throughout the stone’s matrix. If you spend time enlarging catalog photos of the Christie’s sale, you’ll get a sense of the attributes of different types of meteorites. 

What do we know about the provenance of this Barbotan meteorite? The earliest history of this meteorite is lost. We’d love to know who picked it up in France in 1790, and their relationship with the rock. More recently, it came from the collection of Alain Carion, one of the most respected mineral dealers in Europe.

This sample is described as having “fusion crust”. What does that mean? When a meteoroid— think “small asteroid”—plunges through the atmosphere, frictional heating begins. When the meteoroid achieves terminal velocity and begins to cool off as it falls to Earth, the liquified material solidifies into a kind of rind or crust, which envelops what will be called a meteorite upon its impact. Fusion crust is a sought-after aerodynamic artifact. Its presence commands a premium, and at times, the crust itself can be really beautiful. 

The Barbotan meteorite also displays “metal flake”. What metal might it be? Iron? Nickel? Both. Primarily iron, with some nickel and a lot of trace elements.  

What is the world auction record for a Barbotan meteorite? It will be established on February 23 in this auction. The only Barbotan specimen previously offered that I know of did not sell as it had an appropriately hefty reserve. The specimen in this sale has no reserve. I assure you it will sell for at least double or triple its weight in gold. 

Why might this piece stick in your memory? For me, it’s a meteorite of special interest, not only because of its story, but it fell on July 24th, which, centuries later, became my birthday.

How to bid: The Barbotan meteorite is lot 19 in the Christie’s online sale Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar, and Other Rare Meteorites, taking place between February 9, 2021 and February 23, 2021.

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A 1651 Copy of The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot Could Fetch $12,000 (Updated March 1, 2021)

A 1651 second edition copy of Reginald Scot's The Discovery of Witchcraft could sell for $12,000.

Update: The 1651 copy of Reginald Scot’s The Discovery of Witchcraft sold for $9,000.

What you see: A 1651 second edition, second issue of The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot. Potter & Potter estimates it at $7,000 to $12,000.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

Who was Reginald Scot? He was an English gentleman of some station in that era, a landowning gentleman near Ashford in Kent. I believe he was a member of Parliament.

Do we know why he published The Discovery of Witchcraft in 1584? The story people have latched onto is he was a freethinker, and able to see the big picture. He held the Calvinist idea that it was all the work of God, not witches or spells or magical forces–that the things people were witnessing were accomplished by natural means.

Though it is believed to be the first English-language book that describes in detail how to perform magic tricks, only two chapters of sixteen cover the subject.

So it was a debunking book? That’s a way to put it. The thing that the magic community latched onto for a century or longer was he said, “This is not sorcery, this is magic.” But it’s not all magic tricks. I believe one, maybe two chapters are about magic tricks. Magic is a focus, but it’s not the bulk of the work.

We should also stop briefly and point out that Reginald Scot uses the term “juggling” in the book, but “juggling” would have been another word for “magic” back then. Exactly.

First published in 1584, Scot endeavored to explain that seemingly supernatural phenomena were in fact entirely natural.

Who was Reginald Scot’s audience in 1584? Who did he write The Discovery of Witchcraft for? I suppose it was his peer group. Not only were books a luxury item in 1584, but how many people could read? Books were not commodities the way they are today. I imagine he wrote it for people with a similar or adjacent educational background. Only an educated, moneyed group of people was able to buy the book and read what it was describing.

I notice that the lot notes describe the Discovery of Witchcraft as “perhaps the most influential work in the English language on the history of conjuring” and does not call it the first book of its kind in English, as I’ve read elsewhere. Is it in fact not the first English-language book that details how to perform specific magic tricks? Recent scholarship would say it gets too much credit for being that. I say it deserves credit for recording tricks that are truly classic. The tricks are elementally the same, centuries later, as they were when Scot described them. He talks about picking up a rope, cutting it in half through the middle, and restoring it. I have a friend who performs the rope trick in a Las Vegas show every day. You could perform the tricks described in the book and make a good living.

The magic trick described here is still performed today, pretty much as Scot detailed it.

So, Reginald Scot describes the tricks well enough in The Discovery of Witchcraft that a modern reader could learn to do them by relying on the book alone? If you can get past the “s”s rendered as “f”s, yeah, you can do the tricks based on the descriptions.

The magicians’ community frowns on those who share the secrets behind the performance of a magic trick. Might that attitude have prevented magicians from writing down and printing detailed descriptions of tricks before Reginald Scot published The Discovery of Witchcraft in 1584? Mentorship has always been a tool for teaching magicians how to perform. It was probably common at that time, and there’s a better chance magicians learned that way as opposed to reading. With Scot, probably no one told him not to write the tricks down, because it had never been done that way–they hadn’t been published in a book.

Do we know where Reginald Scot got his source information? I don’t know, and I wish I did. It’d be wonderful to say he watched an itinerant conjurer, sat him down with a glass of beer, and got the info. Some version of that story is likely.

But we don’t have any evidence that Scot performed any magic tricks himself? Not that I’m aware of.

But he was able to describe the magic tricks in a way that others could read what he wrote, learn how the tricks work, and perform them accurately, which is a skill unto itself. Absolutely. He must have been a smart dude.

What magic tricks appear in The Discovery of Witchcraft? Tricks with cards, tricks with coins, tricks with rope, even tricks with living humans. The image that people have latched on to is the decapitation of a man, where the body and the head are separated from each other, and the head’s on a plate and talking and interacting with someone. It’s a fairly diverse assortment of tricks, and they’re good tricks.

I understand there’s a discussion of gimmicked knives. Does that have to do with the decapitation trick? There’s one here that goes through your arm–“to thrust a knife through your arm and to cut half your nose asunder”. Another is about “to thrust a bodkin into your head and through your tongue”–a bodkin is like an ice pick. You can buy these tricks today.

Gimmicked knives that appear to cut deep into an arm or a hand were detailed in Scot's seminal book.

I’m under the impression that if you’re building a first-rate library of books on magic, you need an antique copy of The Discovery of Witchcraft. Correct? Yes. That’s been true for at least a century, probably longer.

How was The Discovery of Witchcraft received on its first publication in 1584? I’m not a scholar of the reception, but I know that King James was not enamored of exposing these things and ordered the books burned. I haven’t done the research to verify that story, but the books are scarce. The first edition is not the rarest of books, but in all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve sold three.

Is the 1651 second edition just as scarce? Some say the edition in the auction is the scarcest of the editions. Someone who called me said there were four. I’m hesitant to say there’s four of anything, but this second edition, second state is more difficult to locate than the first edition.

How many copies of the second edition have you handled? Only two, so about the same number as the first edition.

Did the contents of The Discovery of Witchcraft change in any significant way between 1584 and 1651? Not that I’m aware of, but I’m not a scholar of the editions. I know the type was reset, and it’s a different printer.

Has anyone done a census of antique copies of The Discovery of Witchcraft? I have a running count in my head of where the copies are, but there’s no formal census.

Do you know how many copies of the first edition exist, and how many of the second? I don’t. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the third edition is still scarce but more readily available.

What’s the world auction record for a copy of The Discovery of Witchcraft? We had it for three weeks in 2015 when a first edition sold for $45,000 and change. Then Christie’s sold one for $68,750.

What condition is the book in? The binding is attractive and the pages are generally clean and bright and easy to read. It’s not like it’s missing words.

It has all its pages? Yes, it’s been collated. I believe the binding is later. It’s a classic full leather binding, and it’s not overdone, either. Some turn books into trophies. In 1651, they wouldn’t have done it that way.

What is the book like in person? It fits in your hand nicely. It’s not compact, but it’s easy to hold. It’s unassuming, in a way. It’s well-kept, and showing signs of its age.

Do you have a favorite plate or illustration? Probably the decapitation. I guess I’m a sucker for magic tricks.

How to bid: The 1651 copy of The Discovery of Witchcraft is lot 118 in Select Secrets: Rare & Important Magicana, an auction taking place at Potter & Potter on February 27, 2021.

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Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a replica demon’s head card trick device created by the late Rüdiger Deutsch; a group of Diane Arbus photographs owned by their subject, albino sword-swallower Sandra Reeda vintage Harry Houdini postcard from the magician’s personal collectionan oversize Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, a Daisy and Violet Hilton poster from the conjoined twins’ vaudeville years, an impressive talking skull automaton that went on to sell for $13,200, a magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, a rare book from the creator of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion,  a Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout–a device for cheating at cards–which sold for $9,000a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.

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A Pair of Jess Heisler Duck Decoys Could Fetch $30,000 (Updated February 22, 2021)

A pair of Jess Heisler duck decoys, carved in the form of sleeping mallards around 1920, could fetch $30,000.

Update: The Jess Heisler pair of sleeping duck decoys sold for $28,800.

What you see: A pair of sleeping mallard duck decoys by Delaware River region carver Jess Heisler around 1920. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates the pair at $20,000 to $30,000.

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Who was Jess Heisler? Where was he in his career around 1920, when he made this pair of decoys? Jess Heisler is remembered as one of most competent early decoy makers from the Delaware River region, where he was perhaps the most talented disciple of the early master John English. He lived and worked just south of Trenton, New Jersey. During his life, he was highly regarded not only for decoys but also for exceptional boats, perhaps the region’s finest. I’ve heard he was also skilled with vintage furniture restoration.  

How prolific was he? Estimates of his output are between 1,000 and 2,000 decoys. That said, most years only see a small handful of his carvings cross the auction block, really just a few in original condition. 

Did Jess Heisler both carve and paint his decoys, or did he only carve? Did he have assistants? Jess was a one-man operation, carving and painting all of his own decoys. This one-man operation is very typical for the Delaware River carvers.

The lot notes describe the Jess Heisler duck decoy pair as “exceedingly rare”. Why? First, they are mallards, which are far less common than his black ducks and other species. Secondly, the sleeping pose. It only seems to appear two or three times in a decade. Third, they are a pair–most of his rigs have been broken down to singles. Capping it off, they are from his golden period, and they survive in virtually ideal condition. 

The Jeff Heisler duck decoys are rare because they are mallards, a rare species for him to carve; they survive as a pair; and they are "sleepers"--depicted as nodding off.

Did Jess Heisler sign his work? If not, how do we know the pair is by him? Like most makers, Heisler did not sign his work. That said, his craftsmanship and nuance of style practically act as a big John Hancock for anyone familiar with the decoys of the mid-Atlantic region. Paired with that, his presence was very much alive when the decoy collecting community began taking notes in the 1950s and 1960s.  

Do we know anything about how this pair of Jess Heisler duck decoys came to be—why he might have made it? While we do not know the history of this specific pair, we can make some deductions. I would bet they were made for a wealthy sportsman. This is because they were barely used, they are in a special pose, and they are of an uncommon species.

The Jess Heisler duck decoy pair dates to circa 1920. Do decoys start to become more decorative and less functional around that time? Or would these work perfectly well in the wild? It’s more complex than that. Heisler pretty clearly seems to be going far beyond what was needed in order to impress more than just the ducks. He was trying to impress a wealthy client with those long thin tails, sharp raised wing tips, and that fine featherwork on the hen. So, they were 100 percent honest working decoys that also had the hunter in mind. 

Unlike other vintage rigs of duck decoys, this Jess Heisler drake-and-hen pair have avoided divorce.

Why carve duck decoys that appear to be sleeping? This topic has been the subject of intrigue for as long as decoys have been in play. While we don’t know Heisler’s logic, we do believe that he was the originator of this sleeping pattern. One theory is that resting birds help make the rig [the string of decoys placed on the water] look at ease and invite passing birds. Who knows if that works, but as a hunter, I can assure you it is harder to break a head off of one of these sleeping decoys than a regular decoy. 

Do we know how many sleeping duck decoy pairs Jess Heisler did, either of mallards or of any other species of duck? I looked back over a quarter-century of auction reports and this pair represents one half of all known Heissler sleepers. And they are the two finest. 

You say Jess Heisler is believed to have invented the sleeping duck decoy form. This pair dates to circa 1920. Does that make it an early Heisler take on the sleeper? If so, does that make the pair more interesting to collectors? Or does the timing not matter? To clarify this point, Heisler did not invent the sleeper in general. Albert Laing is the earliest known maker of sleepers, and his date back to the antebellum period. Heisler appears to have originated this variation of the sleeper. I’d place these in the early to middle golden period of his carving arc, so timing is a factor, and these benefit from that.           

Is it rare to see an intact pair of male-female duck decoys, or do pairs tend to stay together through the decades? This Winter Sale catalog has hundreds of single decoys that began their lives in rigs ranging from six to 200-plus birds. Today rig mate pair numbers appear to have just bounced off an all-time low, and the pendulum is swinging back towards the rejoining of pairs and sometimes larger rig groupings, especially with shorebird decoys. I love it. Decoys were intended to be seen en masse

Does the provenance tell us if this pair has stayed together since they were made? Or were they ever divorced and reunited? The provenance suggests they’ve always been together, which is highly probable in this instance.

What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult the pair of duck decoys would have been to make? For example, how difficult is it to get the two to look nearly identical, aside from sex-based markings? This is actually a fairly elaborate duo. Having handled and X-rayed these, I can tell you the bodies are made from three joined pieces of wood with watertight body seams. The inside of the body is hollow, which adds layers of work and complexity to the construction. The heads are fitted to the body with a scribe-line inlay around an edge of the bills. From the photos anyone can make out the elaborate and stylish wing tip and tail carvings with some carved feather detail… and then again that hen’s painted feathering! I could go on, but Heisler seems to have casually created a highly complex and functional pair that work perfectly together. 

What is the pair of duck decoys like in person? What aspects elude the camera? Their hollow bodies make them super light. Their undersides have chamfered lead pad weights, which allow them to almost hover above a surface. In the hand they have a lovely dry surface. And while one hand embraces a round and compact head and breast the other is literally on edge with the tactile contrast of the wing tips and tail. Our photographer did a great job, but they only get better in person, I assure you. 

When the duck decoy pair is shown from the rear, the charm of the feather pattern Jess Heisler painted on the hen stands out.

What is your favorite detail of the pair of Jess Heisler duck decoys? Like any successful sculpture, they only succeed as complete form. With that established… I… I do love Heisler’s exaggerated take on John English’s raised wing-tips and protruding tail. 

What condition is the pair in? Do they show signs of having been used by a hunter? They were definitely used, but not too much, and only in freshwater. They have what I consider to be a Goldilocks level of light gunning wear, just enough to build character and tell a story and not so much as to distract. 

The hollow-bodied Jess Heisler duck decoy pair have chamfered lead pad weights on their undersides, which allow them to almost hover above a surface.

What is the world auction record for a Jess Heisler duck decoy? According to the Decoy Magazine Year in Review for 2020, the Heisler record is $36,800. That was for a pintail in 2007. This sleeping pair could break that on a good day. We’ll know soon enough. Copley smashed the record for the entire Delaware River region a couple years ago, hammering down a John English decoy at a quarter million, so that helped make some room. 

Why will this pair of Jess Heisler duck decoys stick in your memory? Well, for me, decoy memories can be made where excellence meets rarity. To illustrate the rarity–while cataloging, I flipped through every single page of the leading book on the Delaware River region decoys and found exactly zero sleepers like these.

How to bid: The pair of Jess Heisler duck decoys is lot 0121 in The Winter Sale 2021, offered by Copley Fine Art Auctions on February 19 and 20, 2021.

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Images are courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Copley Fine Art Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

Colin McNair has appeared on The Hot Bid to talk about an Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy, an Ira Hudson flying black duck, and an Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose decoy.

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Quack Quack!

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A Discovery Expedition Medal, Awarded in Antarctica, Could Sell for $16,000 (Updated February 10, 2021)

The obverse, or front, of a silver sporting medal given out during the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904. It could sell for as much as $16,000.

Update: The Discovery expedition medal sold for $14,112.

What you see: A silver sporting medal awarded to First Lieutenant Charles W.R. Royds during the British National Antarctic Expedition, better known as the Discovery Expedition, between 1901 and 1904. Bonhams estimates it at $11,000 to $16,000.

The expert: Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams.

What was the Discovery Expedition? It was the first official British expedition to the Antarctic region in more than 60 years. Both Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton were on the expedition, and it was a launch pad for both of them in terms of Antarctic exploration.

What were the Discovery Expedition’s notable accomplishments, and how successful was it, compared to other British expeditions to the Antarctic and other countries’ expeditions? They reached a new further south, they got a little further to the South Pole. It was pretty successful in as much as others proved particularly fatal. It laid the trail for expeditions that followed.

Who was Charles Royds, and why would he have been selected for the Discovery Expedition? He was in the British Navy already, and had built himself a career in the navy. What’s interesting is the Discovery Expedition was driven and instigated by naval officer Clements Markham. It had a very naval core to it. Royds served as a first lieutenant in the British expedition, and there’s a cape in Antarctica named after him.

Do we know how many of these Discovery Expedition medals were struck, and how many survive? No, sadly, to either question. Bonhams has handled two–this one and another. I’ve found traces of records of other ones, but they’re pretty rare. I’d say there’s a dozen or fewer, but that’s a pure guess.

The Discovery Expedition medal is silver. Does silver mean “second place” in this context, or were all the sporting medals given out on the expedition made of silver? All the ones we’ve seen are silver. I think that’s just what they were. Other 19th century medals that aren’t sporting medals–medals for valor and achievement–tend to be silver as well. I think this continues the theme.

Do we know if the Discovery Expedition medal is 100 percent silver, or sterling silver, or a silver alloy? I don’t think I could say without having it in my hands, but it looks like it’s solid silver.

I see what looks like a penguin on the front of the Discovery Expedition medal, but I can’t identify which species of penguin it is. Is it a penguin? The neck of the bird seems too long to be a penguin. It was probably designed to be a penguin, and probably designed to be a King penguin, based on the dimensions. I agree that the neck seems too long to be a penguin. I think it’s like Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros–trying to depict an animal without having seen it in real life.

Do we know what Charles Royds won the silver sporting medal for, and when? We know that on King Edward VII’s birthday on November 8, 1902, they declared a holiday and decorated the ship with flags and organized a sports day. That’s the day we believe the medal was won.

But we don’t know what Royds won it for? We don’t know for what, but it’s confusing. On the day of the event, Royds was on a sledging expedition, and probably did not participate in the sports day. The hypothesis is maybe there was another sporting event after he got back one to two weeks later, or he was awarded the prize even though he wasn’t there.

I see a hoop on top of the Discovery Expedition medal, and I’m guessing it’s for stringing a ribbon. It strikes me, though, that it makes no sense to wear a metal disc around your neck in Antarctic temperatures. How did the winners wear their silver sporting medals? I think rather than wearing a ribbon around their necks, they wore it like they wear medals in the military–hanging from a bar pinned to their chests. The idea of pinning it to their chests would have seemed more natural than hanging it around their necks.

What does it say about the people who planned the Discovery Expedition that they were far-sighted enough to strike silver medals to give out in Antarctica as awards for sports and games to be held on the ice? I find it pretty extraordinary, honestly. They had to arrange for food, tools, sledges, protective clothing–I find it remarkable they went to that level of detail.

It occurs to me that sports and games–they engaged in sledge-pulling, skiing, and rifle shooting–that all costs calories. The planners of the Discovery Expedition felt it was important to include enough food so the men could spend calories on having fun while they explored Antarctica. Yes. I always find it remarkable. They had a relief ship that went on runs to New Zealand, but they had no sense of what they would be consuming. When they actually made sledging expeditions to the South Pole, they were constantly thinking about rationing. When I go to the store for groceries, it’s hard for me to think a week ahead.

I’ve marinated in Monty Python and British culture, and it strikes me that holding sports days on the Antarctic ice is a very public school, very Boy’s Own thing to do… Totally. What’s key to the British public school system, which is actually the private school system, is it was keen on sport. Sport was a huge part of British upper class culture, and these guys were in the British Navy as well–there were sports competitions between forces in the military. It makes sense as a pastime. But there were intellectual pursuits as well. Shackleton was responsible for The South Polar Times, and others on the Discovery Expedition contributed to it. Another lot in the same sale features a watercolor from The South Polar Times.

The back of the Discovery Expedition medal has Charles Royds’s name engraved on it. I had assumed Royds had it done in Britain, after returning home, but I should ask if it was done in Antarctica, to be sure. The explorers were capable of doing a lot of surprising things in Antarctica, such as publishing booksMy guess is he did it back in England. I say that because the other Antarctic medal we sold was blank on the back, and that came through Royds–he gave it as a gift to a woman he was courting.

The reverse, or back, of the silver sporting medal given out during the 1901-1904 Discovery Expedition to the Antarctic. Apparently its recipient, Charles Royds, had his name engraved on the medal after he returned to Britain.

Did Charles Royds leave a memoir or a diary? If he did, did he talk about the sporting day at all? He kept a diary, and it was published in 2001 in Australia. I have not seen it. It may shed light on things and it may not. Very often, they [the explorers] were more interested in the wider picture: “We landed here and sledged to here,” not the smaller stuff that we’d be more interested in.

Very much in the style of a Captain’s log? No emotions, just facts? Exactly, yeah. Very occasionally, they introduce medical issues. Often, these are slightly whitewashed for the public.

...Because they’re British and Edwardian and they didn’t talk about emotional stuff, even in their own diaries? Yes. [laughs]

The Discovery Expedition medals are so weird in that they seem utterly frivolous and on second thought, they seem absolutely necessary to buck up morale among a group of people who had no radio and virtually no mail. It’s completely bizarre, and I think also absolutely brilliant. You forget the extent of time they had there when they were not achieving heroic deeds. A lot of it was very dull and ordinary. And they were stuck with the same group of people for years. Tempers flared. It was tough.

What is the Discovery Expedition medal like in person? It’s pretty unremarkable, really. It’s pleasantly tarnished with age. It looks like something that’s 120 years old. It’s not particularly large, an ordinary size of medal. Nothing striking about it except the actual context.

What is it like to hold the medal? It’s quite a satisfying object. It’s bigger than a coin, and thicker. It begs to be held, and it’s connected with the Antarctica of the period.

What’s your favorite detail of the medal? The fact that they actually chose to put a penguin on it. They could have picked so many other things–the ship, someone skiing… there are no human figures, and that’s odd. Usually, there’s a member of the royal family or the leader of the expedition, but here, they put a penguin on it. And is it even really a penguin?

Why will this piece stick in your memory? You mentioned Monty Python earlier. There’s an element of the surreal nature of Olympics on ice. There’s also the optimism that it symbolizes, the optimism of keeping spirits up in adversity. If you want to be topical, there’s an element of similarity with the COVID-19 lockdowns. We’re confined with the same people all the time. The explorers’ solution was to get involved in sport.

How to bid: The silver Discovery Expedition medal is lot 176 in the Travel & Exploration sale taking place at Bonhams London, Knightsbridge, on February 10. 2021.

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Matthew Haley has appeared once before on The Hot Bid, speaking about a pair of mittens worn by Apsley Cherry-Garrard during the Terra Nova expedition.

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