RECORD: A Game-Worn 1920 Babe Ruth Jersey Hits a Grand Slam at SCP Auctions in 2012

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What you see: A road gray, game-worn New York Yankees jersey that was worn by Babe Ruth. SCP Auctions sold it for $4.4 million in May 2012, setting a record for any item of sports memorabilia at auction.

How rare are game-worn Babe Ruth baseball uniforms? “If you count them all, it’s ten. If you’re talking Yankees, it’s less than half a dozen,” says SCP Vice President Dan Imler, adding that SCP has handled five of the ten.

Ruth was recognized as a superstar in his time. Why weren’t more game-worn Babe Ruth uniforms saved, even as mementoes? “In his era, even the Yankees were fairly frugal,” he says. “It was typical to issue only two home uniforms and two road uniforms for the entire season, and they were considered to be disposable. [Once the season was over,] they would send them to the minor leagues as a cost-saving measure. That’s how a lot of [pre-1970 game-worn baseball uniforms] come to market–a player in the minors is issued a major-league jersey and doesn’t go on to a career, but he keeps his jersey.”

I understand that SCP Auctions uncovered some information that made the jersey even more valuable? “There was an undiscovered element to the jersey,” Imler says. “Before it came to us, we knew it was a Babe Ruth Yankees road uniform in all-original condition, but it was not dated until it reached us. We were able to date it to 1920, which elevated it quite a bit.”

How did you pinpoint the jersey’s date to 1920? “Through photo-matching. Also, it has cut sleeves [shorter sleeves than standard issue]. We were able to find images of Ruth with cut sleeves from that period,” he says.

Your colleague, SCP President David Kohler, called the Ruth road jersey “The finest sports artifact we’ve handled in our 30-year history.” Do you agree? “I absolutely agree with that. It’s arguably the finest piece of baseball memorabilia to surface anywhere,” Imler says. “You have to start with Ruth. Ruth is on a level all his own. When it comes to baseball memorabilia, he is the king. There’s nothing more coveted than a jersey or a uniform he work on his back in the most critical period of baseball history. Any Ruth uniform would be paramount, but he wore it in the earliest part of his career, when he transformed and resurrected the game. It checks all the boxes. It has everything you could ask for.”

Well, maybe not everything. Would it have sold for even more if it was a home jersey–if it had the famous Yankees pinstripes? “I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone looked at it as if it was lacking anything,” he says. “I don’t think anyone was wanting more from it.”

SCP estimated the jersey at $2 million and up. Was it difficult to arrive at that estimate?  “Any sports object in seven figures is very uncommon. Multiple seven figures is very rare territory,” he says. “It was a lofty estimate at the time, but the market spoke and it sold for more than double that estimate. It validated the quality we believed it possessed.”

What factors drove the record price? “It was the best of the best in every category,” Imler says. “It was Babe Ruth. The quality was off the charts. It was completely original. It was from the most pivotal point in his career. And the fact that so few Ruth-worn jerseys come up–it was a huge call to action for high-end clients. When an item like this presents itself, you never know when you’re going to get another shot.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “Certainly this same jersey, if it was ever offered again, would surpass the previous sale price. I could see the record being topped in the next five years if something comparable surfaced,” Imler says, adding that he is not aware of another item, aside from the jersey itself, that could beat the auction record.

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Image is courtesy of SCP Auctions.

 

RECORD: A Lucie Rie Bowl from the Late 1970s Commands $212,500 at Phillips

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What you see: A flaring footed bowl made by Lucie Rie around 1978. It sold at Phillips New York in December 2016 for $212,500 against an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000–a record for the artist.

Who was Lucie Rie? She was an Austrian-born Jewish artist who moved to England in 1938 to escape the approach of the Nazis. There, she gained a reputation as a ceramicist, though she insisted on modestly calling herself a potter. She died in 1995 at the age of 93, a few years after she retired.

How early does this shape show up in her work? “It appears much earlier, but we associate this bowl form with the late 70s and early 80s,” says Cordelia Lembo, a design specialist at Phillips. “There was no particular exhibit or moment in 1978. The late 70s and early 80s were an important time for her. When you think about it, it’s still so impressive she developed her career in this way at that age.”

How does this bowl show off Rie’s strengths as an artist? “What sets Rie apart from her contemporaries is her ability to create pottery that speaks to larger themes,” she says. “It’s a truly incredible work. You can see it in the photo, but with this bowl in particular, you’re able to understand it when you hold it in your hand.”

How does it feel to hold it in your hands? “It’s a soft matte. Not like sandpaper,” Lembo says. “It’s extraordinarily lightweight and extremely delicate. You can feel its fragility. You understand the level of skill she would have needed to create such a delicate vessel.”

The blue-on-white motif brings to mind Asian ceramics and European ones, too. “The bowl is certainly in dialogue with the tradition of blue and white ceramics in the U.K., Japan, and China,” she says. “This is a worldwide ceramic type that she speaks to in a refined and simplified manner.”

Did Rie intend the bowl to be a functional object, or is it purely aesthetic? “It has a matte glaze, but you want to be careful what you put in it,” Lembo says. “She was able to distinguish between functional works and very special, often unique pieces. You could use them in a tea ceremony, but it wasn’t necessarily the intention.”

Were you surprised when this piece set a new auction record for Rie? “We were very curious to see how it would perform,” she says. “Because it was early in the auction–it was the fourth lot–it was a great way to begin the sale.”

The auction record for Rie has broken four times in the last two years, with three of the records taking place at Phillips. A unique piece in the December 2016 sale fell $13,000 short of breaking the record a second time in the same auction. To what do you attribute the rising interest in Rie’s work? “Ceramics are a subject of great interest at the moment. The secondary market and gallery shows are broadening interest in ceramic artists,” she says. “We were lucky to offer real masterpieces by Lucie Rie. There are a group of educated buyers who are able to pursue them when they arise.”

Given how volatile the Rie auction record has been, how long do you think this one will stand? “The flaring footed bowl was an exceptional example of the artist’s output, so I think it will hold the title for a bit. However, it is always exciting to see what consignments appear on the horizon for upcoming seasons and to see what lots appeal most to collectors,” Lembo says. “We are delighted to have seen such a strong market for Lucie Rie’s work and are optimistic that the demand for her highest quality pieces will continue to rise.”

What else makes this piece stand out? “I personally love Lucie Rie. I’ve been an admirer of her work for so long. This piece is just extraordinary. It’s striking in person. Its minimalist quality really speaks to Lucie Rie’s ability.”

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Of course, Phillips is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Image is courtesy of Phillips.

RECORD: John Lennon’s Long-Lost 1962 Gibson Commands $2.4 Million at Julien’s

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What you see: A 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar, owned and used by John Lennon. Julien’s Auctions sold it in November 2015 for $2.4 million–a record for any guitar at auction.

How rare are John Lennon-owned and -played guitars? “They’re very rare, and it’s especially rare for them to come to market. Yoko would have most of them, and he gave very few away,” says Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, who notes that the house has handled four Lennon guitars in the last 15 years. “This particular guitar was a lost guitar. There was intrigue about it. He and George Harrison bought two together in 1961. It cost $165 for each, and it took Lennon a whole year to pay his off.”

Your colleague, Darren Julien, describes this as a “Holy Grail Beatles instrument.” What makes it a Holy Grail Beatles instrument? “Because it came to John at a very important time, at an early stage of the Beatles,” Nolan says. “Paul and John were going to each others’ homes to write songs. Such important songs were written on it. Then it disappeared at a show and no one knew where it ended up. Lennon never saw it again.”

How did Lennon’s guitar go missing? “What probably happened was–this was during some Christmas concerts in 1963 in the U.K. The Beatles were one of the acts performing. It was Christmas, and there was alcohol and other drugs involved. It could have been a completely innocent mistake, picked up by another band,” he says, adding that Lennon filed a police report when he realized his guitar was gone.

How do we know that Lennon used this instrument to write All My Loving, I Want to Hold Your Hand, Please, Please Me, and other Beatles hits? “We know when those songs were written, and we know John had this particular guitar,” he says. “He was a young guy. He didn’t have a massive amount of guitars [then]. He didn’t have endorsements from Fender and Gibson. And we have [period] photos from the living room of Paul.”

How did the consignor, John McCaw, end up with the guitar? Somehow it found its way to San Diego, where McCaw bought it in 1967 for $220. “He got 47 years of absolute enjoyment from it,” Nolan says. “He taught his kids to play guitar on it. He had no idea what it was. To see him standing in that massively crowded auction room, and to see the guitar go higher and higher–it was a life-changing event for him. He retired soon after, and he’s enjoying life.”

What was it like to be in that sale room when the Lennon guitar reached the block? “We hoped it would be the guitar to break one million. That was our goal. When it broke two million, we were on the floor,” he says. “There was a frenzy of bidding. It was a moving moment, emotional for us and for John McCaw, to set the world record. I wish we could have those every day.”

How long do you think the record is going to stand? “I think it’s going to be a long time. It’s hard to think of a guitar that could smash that record,” he says. “The Bob Dylan guitar was a very historically important guitar, and it sold for $965,000. The John Lennon guitar sold for $2.4 million. It’ll be a long time before the record breaks.”

How does the guitar play? “It plays really well,” he says. “John McCaw himself played it at the exhibition [before the sale]. It’s a really nice guitar, in excellent condition.”

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Julien’s Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram. You can also watch the YouTube video recap of the December 2015 Julien’s auction. The segment on the Lennon guitar begins around 2:50 and ends around 5:12.

RECORD: An Edward S. Curtis Portrait of Oglala Lakota Leader Red Cloud Sells for $32,500 at Swann

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What you see: Red Cloud, Oglala, a platinum print by Edward Curtis, who took the photograph in 1905. Offered at Swann Auction Galleries in April 2017, it sold for $32,500 against an estimate of $6,000 to $9,000. It set an auction record for this particular Red Cloud image by Curtis.

Who was Edward S. Curtis? He was an American photographer who spent much of his life recording the cultures and people of Native American tribal communities for a sprawling multi-year project. Dubbed The North American Indian and backed by financier J.P. Morgan, it was designed to comprise 20 volumes and 1,500 photographs. He ultimately produced 222 complete sets of a planned 500. Curtis died in 1952 at the age of 84.

Who was Red Cloud? He was one of the finest, most skilled leaders that the Oglala Lakota community ever had. He made war on American forces between 1866 and 1868, killing 81 in the largest battle of what came to be called Red Cloud’s War. After signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, his people moved to a reservation. Red Cloud sat for more than 100 photographs during his life. He died in 1909 at the age of 86 or 87.

This is an amazing portrait. It looks like it could have been shot last week. “I think that’s where Edward Curtis’s sensibility comes into play,” says Daile Kaplan, director of the photographs and photo books department at Swann. “You feel the gravitas. It’s a poignant image of Red Cloud, taken later on life. These figures [Red Cloud and his Native American peers] were leaders, were warriors. The severity of the situation of Native American people was written on their faces.”

Did Curtis develop and finish this platinum print on his own, without assistants? “Exactly, and he’s a consummate technician,” she says. “Not only does he pre-visualize and compose in rather magisterial ways, because of his familiarity in the dark room, he was exceptional in crafting prints.”

The humanity of Red Cloud really comes through. “I think the size of the image and the august nature of the figure–you can’t walk away from it,” she says. “This was part of Curtis’s genius. It was his passion to engage with his subjects. That’s why they [his photographs] are so powerful today.”

Did treating his subjects as human beings make Curtis’s photographs controversial in his time? “They were very controversial,” Kaplan says. “There was not a lot of empathy for native people. There was a tremendous fear of anyone who is other, not unlike today.”

How often does this Red Cloud image comes up at auction? “This is the first one that’s been at auction not only at Swann, but in a while,” she says. “Its rarity, its condition, and the context of its provenance all figured prominently in why it performed so well.”

Were you surprised by how well it did? “Yes, we were very pleasantly surprised. Clearly, this image is one for which there was a tremendous response, and a tremendous response across the board from dealers, collectors, and curators. In the sale, we offered a platinum print of Geronimo, estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, and at a similar size. It sold for $22,000. This image surpassed the image of Geronimo. It illustrates that a figure like Red Cloud is on a par with other names of Native American leadership.”

Why did the Red Cloud image perform so strongly? “I think that with a platinum print of this size, the notion is that they are rarer than many people anticipate, and that this material is not going to become available again,” she says. “It’s odd that the platinum Geronimo didn’t perform at the same level, but the image of Red Cloud is clearly rarer.”

What else makes this Red Cloud image so powerful? “When an artist has an opportunity to stand before someone who is august, you have to step into their power,” she says. “The  image of Red Cloud almost commemorates the meeting of two great minds, and two great visions.”

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You can follow Swann Auction Galleries on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

 

SO CLOSE! Swann Galleries Sells the Iconic I Want You Poster for $14,300–$101 Shy of a Record

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Update: Swann sold the 1917 ‘I Want You’ World War I recruiting poster for $14,300–a strong result, and just $101 short of a new world auction record for the poster.

What you see: A 1917 American recruiting poster for World War I, illustrated by James Montgomery Flagg. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $7,000 to $10,000.

Who was James Montgomery Flagg? He was an American artist and illustrator. Unquestionably, his illustration for this poster is his most famous work. While he did not create the concept of Uncle Sam–credit for that goes to cartoonist Thomas Nast–Flagg codified the costume and appearance of America’s avatar with this image. He didn’t draw  a finger-pointing Uncle Sam expressly for the poster; he did it in 1916 as cover art for Leslie magazine and repurposed it. Flagg also unintentionally immortalized himself by using a self-portrait for Uncle Sam. Flagg died in 1960 at the age of 82.

Why was this poster such a huge hit during World War I? “It trips all the bells and whistles–psychology, guilt, alpha male power, patriotism. And it’s an attractive image,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.

It looks like there’s a direct relationship between Flagg’s illustration and a 1914 British WWI recruiting poster featuring Lord Kitchener “There’s arguably more than a direct relationship. He lifted the premise straight from it,” Lowry says. “But it’s so different from the Kitchener poster. And can you copyright a gesture? There are World War I posters from Italy, Canada, and Germany that have the same motif, calling you out, putting you on the spot. The Kitchener is rare as hell and not nearly as attractive as this one [Flagg’s take].”

How many ‘I Want You’ posters were printed in America in 1917? “It was THE most printed poster during the war,” says Lowry, adding that an estimated four million were produced. “It instantly resonated. Everybody who saw it was gripped by it.”

Flagg’s poster was so famous that it was re-issued during World War II. How many were printed for World War II? And how do you tell the two versions apart? Lowry says about 400,000 were printed for World War II, and the later version isn’t nearly as valuable as the 1917, though there are fewer of them. Swann has sold the WWII-era poster for as much as $3,600, but it sold the 1917 original for $14,400 in 2013–a world auction record. Fortunately, telling them apart is easy. “They’re very different,” Lowry says, noting that the 1917 original is bigger, and the slogan on the World War II version rephrased the slogan to add a “the,” making it less grammatically awkward.

How has the poster performed at auction over time? “The August 6, 2003 Swann poster auction was the year of the Iraq war,” says Lowry, explaining that the sale contained a 1917 Flagg poster with an estimate of $3,000 to $4,000. “We put it on the cover not because it was a rare poster, and not because it hasn’t been seen, but because America was at war. The poster resonates somehow. It sold for $12,650 in 2003. From that point on, the poster has brought dramatic prices, and the prices are even bigger when the poster shows up in really good condition.”

The particular poster in the August 2017 sale has a grade of A–the top grade of the condition scale–and house records show that Swann has never before handled a grade A example of this poster. What are the odds that it sets a new record at auction? “It’s in as good a position to break the world record as any,” he says. “It’s so famous, it belies conventional collecting norms.”

How to bid: The ‘I Want You for U.S. Army’ poster is lot 141 in Swann Auction Galleries’s Vintage Posters sale on August 2.

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Swann Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter, and Nicholas Lowry is on Instagram and Twitter as well.

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

RECORD: R. Crumb’s Original Cover Art for His Best-Selling Fritz the Cat Book Commands $717,000 at Heritage

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What you see: R. Crumb’s original cover art for the best-selling 1969 book Fritz the Cat. Heritage Auctions sold it in May 2017 for $717,000–a record for Crumb, and a record for any original piece of American comic art.

Who is R. Crumb? He is an American artist who led the underground comix movement. He co-founded Zap Comix and created one of the counterculture’s most enduring images with his Keep On Truckin’ single-page comic, which appeared in the first issue of Zap. Much of Crumb’s output is proudly NSFW, so Google at your own risk. In 2009, he published a graphic novel based on the Biblical Book of Genesis. He will turn 74 on August 30.

How rare are original pieces of Crumb comic art at auction? “We sell a lot of it. There’s been kind of a boom lately,” says Ed Jaster, senior vice president at Heritage Auctions. “Crumb has always been a staple of what we offer in our Comic and Comic Art sales, but we’ve never had the wealth and breadth up and down the line with what we’ve had in the last year and a half.”

This work by R. Crumb is the most valuable original comic art ever sold at auction, beating a 1990 cover from the Amazing Spider-Man #328 and a 1974 page from an Incredible Hulk comic that shows the debut of Wolverine. What’s the significance of that? “Put it this way. If you want to buy a Picasso pen-and-ink drawing, $717,000 will get you a really good pen-and-ink drawing,” he says. “You certainly could buy a more expensive Picasso drawing, but this is right there.”

Why has Crumb bested the more traditional superhero comic book artists? “What’s special about Crumb is he’s transcendental. He’s transcended his given media,” Jaster says. “There’s no comic book artist I can think of who’s had as many museum shows and international shows as he has. Crumb has been relevant ever since the hippie days and he’s never gone out of style.”

How long do you think these records will stand? “The original comic book art one, maybe not too long. Comic book art is incredibly popular,” he says. “Those two $657,000 sales were as pleasant a surprise as the Crumb art was. There are scores of things more desirable than them out there. It’s just a matter of them coming to the market. There’s probably an amazing thing out there that will get five or ten million, if it exists. As far as breaking the record for Crumb, I know the cover art for the Cheap Thrills record album is out there. The first Keep on Truckin’ or the cover of Zap Comics #1, a very small distribution comic, are the things that could sell for more.”

What else makes this piece of original Crumb comic book art special? “There’s some irony here in that Crumb is known for pushing the envelope with his subject matter and political views, but Fritz and his girlfriend are quite demure. It’s PG-13 for Crumb, who is known for adult material. It’s kind of a sweet thing,” he says. “And the book, Fritz the Cat, moved Crumb up in importance to be maybe the most famous cartoonist of his generation. It catapulted him from the guy who does sleazy, objectionable stuff to a guy who was really important, and this was the piece that did that.”

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Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Graham Nash’s collection of original Crumb comic artworks is up for bid in Heritage Auction’s Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction in Dallas from August 10 to 12.

 

RECORD: A Stunning Bronze by Nigeria’s Ben Enwonwu Fetches $461,000 at Bonhams

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What you see: Anyanwu, a 1956 sculpture by Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, better known as Ben Enwonwu. It set an auction record for a bronze by the late Nigerian artist, selling for £353,000, or $461,066, at Bonhams London in February 2017.

Who is Ben Enwonwu? He was a Nigerian artist, and arguably, THE Nigerian artist of the 20th century. He embraced traditional Western art media, most notably painting and sculpture. He sculpted a portrait bronze of Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 and was made a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) two years later. A crater on the planet Mercury is named for him. He died in 1994 at the age of 72.

Why is Anyanwu regarded as his masterpiece? “One of the reasons is it garnered the greatest publicity,” says Giles Peppiatt, head of African art at Bonhams. “In the 1960s, a version of it was gifted from the Nigerian state to the United Nations for its new headquarters. For Nigeria to choose this image by this artist confirms him as one of the most important artists to come out of 20th century Nigeria.”

How many Anyanwu sculptures exist? “He produced quite a few variants, but he wasn’t a good record-keeper,” Peppiatt says. “If someone said they wanted one, then he had one cast.” He estimates there might be between half a dozen and a dozen castings at most of the largest version of Anyanwu, which is shown here and stands about seven and a half feet tall. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear there are another three or four out there,” he says. “They were expensive at the time. I can’t believe there are 30 of them.”

How does Anyanwu show Enwonwu’s strengths? “In conception, it is a very intelligent and clever piece. It refers back to Nigerian mythology, and the figure wears a traditional Nigerian headpiece. It obviously struck a chord when it was produced,” he says. “The execution is brilliant. The photo doesn’t capture the crispness of the bronze. The detailing of its features are superb.”

Anyanwu sold for £353,000, or $458,612. Is that a record for an Enwonwu bronze at auction, or a record for an Enwonwu sculpture at auction? “For a single piece, it’s a record. I think the record for a sculpture was set four years ago,” Peppiatt says, referencing a group of wooden Enwonwu sculptures sold for £361,250 ($469,300) at Bonhams in 2013. The final prices on the two lots are close enough to be affected by currency fluctuations.

You were the auctioneer for the sale that included Anyanwu. When did you know you had a record? “As soon as I hammered it down, I knew,” he says. “As the price went up, I was willing it to get to a record. I don’t think we expected it to perform as well as it did. The auction world is full of pleasant surprises.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “I think it will stand for a bit, and I’ll tell you why. You only get one debut, and this was it,” Peppiatt says. “If another [large] cast went to auction, it would probably fetch less. A bronze is almost like a print. It’s unusual for someone to want two of the same. That person won’t bid the next time it comes up. But the market changes, and new buyers come in, and you can never be sure.”

What else makes the bronze special? “When you stand in front of it, you look it in the eye. It’s an amazing piece of sculpture. I was delighted it did well. It deserved every penny,” he says.

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Enwonwu paintings and sculptures will appear in Bonhams’s October 5, 2017 sale Africa Now in London.