Freeman’s Could Sell a Walker Percy-signed First Edition of “A Confederacy of Dunces” for $5,000

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What you see: A 1980 first edition copy of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, in its dust jacket. Freeman’s estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.

 

The expert: Darren Winston, head of the books, maps, and manuscripts department at Freeman’s.

 

How rare is it to find a first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces in its dust jacket, and how rare is it to find one that’s also signed by Walker Percy, who helped see the book into print and wrote its foreword? It was published in 1980. Since that time, 21 copies have come to auction. Of the 21, only two were signed by Walker Percy. They came up in 2002 and 2009. You could argue that only two copies have come up like ours in the last 38 years. Another interesting fact is the very first copy to come up at auction was in 1986.

 

Is that unusually quick, to see a book published in 1980 debut on the secondary market six years later? It is unusually quick. It has such an interesting history, and it’s so different from other books like it. It became an instant cult classic. Now it’s even more of a big deal. It sat around from 1969, when Toole killed himself and his mom [Thelma Toole] found the manuscript. She went around trying to get it published. Walker Percy, at the time, was at Loyola [Loyola University of New Orleans]. Toole’s mom got him to read the manuscript, and he made it his duty to get it published. LSU Press published it in 1980.

 

Yes, let’s hit the point squarely–why is it impossible to find a first-edition of A Confederacy of Dunces signed by the author? Because he died before it was published. He wrote it in 1963 and committed suicide in 1969. 1969 to 1980 was the period in which his mom set about finding a publisher for it.

 

So, Walker Percy’s signature is the closest thing to an author’s signature that we can get? Exactly right. He was sort of the midwife. In the world of book-collecting, the next-best thing is the mom’s signature. Two copies she signed were at auction in 2011 and 2012. Either [signature] is as charming as the other. If she hadn’t picked up the baton, the manuscript wouldn’t have gotten to Walker Percy, and he wouldn’t have done what he did.

 

Are there any first-edition copies signed by both Thelma Toole and Walker Percy? There are no recorded copies at auction. They might be in the world, but not at auction.

 

Who is shown on the dust jacket? It’s the protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly.

 

If A Confederacy of Dunces came up today as the debut novel of an unknown, dead author, I just can’t picture a modern publishing house green-lighting dust jacket art featuring a fat guy in a deerstalker holding a hot dog in one hand and a sword in the other, even if he is the lead character and he dresses that way. Was this a risky choice, even for a university press in 1980? You could argue that the title, which is from a Jonathan Swift poem, is a mouthful. It’s completely wacky. But maybe part of it was the publisher being a university press. Maybe it had more leeway.

 

How was the book received in 1980? The initial press run was 2,500. That’s part of its rarity–only 2,500 copies in the first edition, versus 50,000 for The Old Man and the Sea, which was printed 30 years before. Within three years, the unknown, dead author won the 1981 Pulitzer prize for fiction and sold 650,000 copies.

 

Why does A Confederacy of Dunces hold up almost 40 years after its publication? Certain books–The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird–come along and upend everything that came before. The Catcher in the Rye was 1951. To Kill a Mockingbird was about 10 years later, and A Confederacy of Dunces was 20 years after that. It was a book that became a touchstone. As a teen, you carried it with you. When you look at it as a collector, young people turn into adults, and when they have money, they want a talisman [of their youth]. When many people want the same talisman, it goes up and up.

 

This copy is described as “fine.” What does that mean? “Fine” is a tricky word because any wear marks it as less than fine. This copy looks like it’s unread, which leads to questions about the box. It was made early in the book’s life, and the book has lived in this box. There’s a relief image of Ignatius on the [box’s] cover. Someone went to some trouble to have it made. Thought went into it.

 

How many different groups of collectors will compete for this copy of A Confederacy of Dunces? There are many, but people who go after high spots–the biggest and best book by any author–will be interested. People who collect an author’s first book will be interested, as will people who just love the book. If you’re going to splash out, this is the copy you want. Another reason people will go after this book is to trade up to a better copy. Maybe someone has a gorgeous copy with no Walker Percy signature, or a gorgeous copy with no dust jacket–they trade up.

 

What’s the world auction record for a first-edition of A Confederacy of Dunces in its dust jacket? What are the odds of this copy meeting or exceeding that record? The most it’s brought at auction was $4,000, in 2002. I believe that copy was also signed by Walker Percy. That’s a good sign in our case.

 

Why will this book stick in your memory? Because of the story. There’s a poignancy, a sadness, and a lot of irony to the fact that Toole never saw it published. It was his life’s work, literally and figuratively. Father Time came through for it. It’s on its third generation of readers. Toole published one book, and he’s in the pantheon. That’s cool.

 

How to bid: The Walker Percy-signed first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces is lot 176 in Freeman’s September 27 Books & Manuscripts auction.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Freeman’s.

 

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WHOA! Heritage Auctions Sold That Exceptionally Scarce and Gorgeous 1834 Ornithological Book for $100,000

Oiseaux brillans du Brésil Courlis Rouge credit Heritage Auctions

Update: The 1834 first edition of Oiseaux brillans du Brésil by Jean Théodore Descourtilz sold for $100,000–about five times what Heritage Auctions expected, and a record for this book at auction.

 

What you see: An 1834 first edition of Oiseaux brillans du Brésil by Jean Théodore Descourtilz. Heritage Auctions estimates it around $20,000. Featured above is the Red Curlew plate from the book.

 

The expert: James Gannon, director of rare books for Heritage Auctions.

 

I see the quote in the lot notes from Rubens Borba de Moraes, the former director of the United Nations library in New York, saying, “This book is so rare that I had begun to doubt its existence,” but how many copies are there? Do we know? From what we can tell, we think this is the fifth known copy.

 

Can you talk about how the book came to be? Was Descourtilz the illustrator? He did illustrate it. It was toward the end of the color plate period, which ran from 1790 to 1830. It was fairly early for a hand-colored ornithological [bird] book. Audubon was contemporaneous in the 1830s. This book was never published. It was issued, and someone made lithographs that were then hand-colored, but it was never published, and never had a table of contents or text. The lithographic plates were put together in a book. I don’t know much about Descourtilz. I’d never heard of him before the book crossed my path. His dad was a botanist and a physician who did a book on the flora of the Antilles. Descourtilz did the illustrations for his father’s book. It’s better known because it was published.

 

The book is described as a first edition, but it was not published. Why might it have been made? It was probably a mockup, made to engender interest from publishers and get the money to be able to produce the book.

 

Was it intended to be sold by subscription, as Audubon’s Birds of America was?Maybe the [60] plates were issued in five groups of 12. That was the style then. Audubon published in parts. The reason they did it was so they could start reaping profits against their costs sooner.

 

The lot notes say the book has 60 plates. Does that mean it’s complete? I don’t know, but there’s no reason to think there were more. We call it complete. Other copies might have a similar number or a lesser number. Whether he envisioned an epic work like Audubon, we don’t know.

 

Are all the plates in the book as vibrant as the Red Curlew plate, shown above? Pretty much. I think it’s just a matter of [the book] being closed. We don’t know much about where it came from beyond being in the same family for decades. It probably was not handled very much over the almost 200 years since it was made.

 

The lot notes say the book’s illustrations are “heightened with gum arabic.” How did that detailing enhance the plates? Gum arabic is a clear sheen, almost a clear varnish. Lots of color plate books use it. You’d put it over the color in certain places so it created a sheen when you looked at it. It makes the plates look more vibrant, and it catches the light in different places. It would help make the plates stand out. [The effect is not visible in the photo shown.]

 

The book is French, but it has no text. Does that make it more appealing to American collectors, or does it not matter? It doesn’t matter in this case, because it wasn’t issued with text. The collector for this is someone who collects bird books or hand-colored plate books. Anyone sophisticated enough to spend tens of thousands on a book understands why it has no text.

 

And we don’t know why it wasn’t published? Descourtilz may never have found the backing. Maybe there were other reasons why it was never published. It was certainly publishable if the right circumstances existed. If there was a similar kind of thing for Audubon [Birds of America], where Audubon made lithographs and had them hand-colored to get the backing, get the money [to make it]–if that existed, it’d really be worth a lot, because it predated the book.

 

How did this book come to you? It came through another person on staff. She told me the family had had it for a long time, decades. The consigner had a connection to one of the people listed in the front of the book, which is why I think it sat for 80 to 100 years on a shelf. It didn’t get looked at by book fairs and dealers. They [the family] probably didn’t think about it for a long time.

 

How did you arrive at a value for this book? It hasn’t come on the auction market. There are so few copies around. Probably, other collectors and dealers have never seen it. There may be more copies we don’t know about that have never become public. If it sold for mid-five figures, we’d be satisfied.

 

What was it like to look at it for the first time? I didn’t see it until it had been researched by [Heritage Auctions] staff. We knew it was special, and we knew we wanted to use it in the advertising campaign [for the auction].

 

What is it like to leaf through it, and how does that experience compare to handling Audubon’s Birds of America? I’ve seen Audubon many times. Here, everything is a surprise, everything is new. Many of the plates are stunningly beautiful.

 

Why will it stick in your memory? How rare it is to see this book. There aren’t many around. Many more people have seen our catalog cover with the Red Curlew on it than have actually seen the book.

 

How to bidOiseaux brillans du Brésil is lot #45090 in the Rare Books & Maps Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions on September 13, 2018.

 

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

 

James Gannon has appeared three other times on The Hot Bid, speaking about the typewriters Larry McMurtry used to write Lonesome Dove; a British first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that ultimately sold for a world auction record; and an inscribed presentation copy of Jack Keroauc’s On the Road.

 

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Spot the Differences: A Curious 1865 Memorial Lincoln Lithograph, Based on an 1801 Image That Featured George Washington, Could Command $3,000 at Swann

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What you see: In Memory of Abraham Lincoln, the Reward of the Just, a hand-colored lithograph by D.T. Wiest, printed circa 1865. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.

 

The expert: Rick Stattler, director of printed and manuscript Americana for Swann Auction Galleries.

 

Do we know how many of these Lincoln prints were made, and how many survive? There’s likely no way to know how many were produced. I imagine at least a couple of hundred were made. I’ve tracked down three in institutions and two at auction.

 

The print’s date is given as circa 1865, but is it fair to assume it would have been done very soon after Lincoln’s assassination in April of that year? Absolutely. It’s fairly laborious work to make a lithograph like this. It wasn’t made the day after, but it was made in response to the assassination, I’m pretty confident. The engraver, Wiest, is largely unknown. He didn’t have a long career as a lithographer. He was only active in 1865.

 

The Lincoln print is closely modeled after an 1801 image by John James Barralet known as The Apotheosis of Washington [scroll down to see the image]. How would Wiest have made his Lincoln-centric version? Would he have looked at the Barralet print and copied most of it onto a new lithographic stone? Right. The copy, I would say, is semi-pirated, but it’s got enough changes in style and composition. I don’t know what the copyright laws were then.

 

How well-known was the Barralet image in 1865? It was an image that might have been familiar to some people, but by 1865, I don’t expect it was probably terribly well-known.

 

So the Barralet image of Washington was not part of popular culture in 1865? Yes, and probably the creative process here was not all that sophisticated. The printer wanted something dramatic, something that would catch the eye and stir the emotions, and he wanted to get it in the hands of the public as quickly as possible. The printer probably showed the Barralet to Wiest and said, “Do something like this, but with Lincoln.” When Washington died, there would have been a small audience for the Barralet print, and it would have been a luxury item. The audience would have been sophisticated, and would have picked up on its classical analogies. By 1865, print-making was a much more mass-market endeavor. The audience didn’t care much about symbolism.

 

Is the Lincoln print as colorful as most lithographs of its era, or is it more colorful? For its period, it’s certainly one of the more eye-catching ones. The color is quite nice and rich. It definitely tilts toward the colorful end of the spectrum.

 

So it’s the sort of thing that a print shop would put in its shop window to draw in customers? That’s a likely way to advertise it, sure.

 

Wiest changed the face of Washington to the face of Lincoln, and he changed the inscription on the tomb, but he didn’t change several details that he could have changed and probably should have changed… The goal, when the print was produced, was to get it into the hands of the public quickly. I don’t know if we can say that some of those details should have been changed. It may not have been profitable for them to spend a week on changing them. If it was produced as fine art, then or now, they might have reconsidered the symbolism. The mourning Indian was a symbol of America in 1800, but clearly, for someone mourning Lincoln’s loss, it should have been changed to a freed slave. They probably should have taken the extra two days to do that, particularly if their main sales were in Philadelphia, an abolitionist city. But they didn’t.

 

Would the average American print-buyer in 1865 have cared that the American flag-decorated shield on the left has 15 stars in in its canton and not the 35 it should have had by then? Not necessarily. If you’re looking to buy a print for 50 cents–and I don’t know if that was its 1865 price, but that seems reasonable–you might not count the stars. Also, we grew up with a flag with 50 stars. We think of it as a fixed thing. In the 1800s, the stars changed with each new state.

 

So these Washington-centric details that Wiest copied over–the badges on the tomb that represent the Society of Cincinnati and the Freemasons, the out-of-date canton, the mourning Native American where a freed slave would be more appropriate–would an 1865 audience have seen them as errors? Errors on whose part? Wiest was given an assignment and he fulfilled it faithfully, with Lincoln’s face [in place of Washington’s]. They’re not exactly errors, but they’re things that could have been improved on if more thought had been given to it. But it gives us more to chew on. We can ponder the evolution.

 

And because the Washington print wasn’t part of pop culture in 1865, we can’t assume that Wiest was being clever by tying the legacy of Lincoln directly to Washington by deliberately borrowing the visuals of the 1801 Barralet print? Yeah, but if it did happen, it would have been an additional selling point. Some might say, ‘Hey, it’s that old Washington print. That’s how we mourn our heroes.’ In Henry Holzer’s [the consigner’s] scholarship, this is the moment when Lincoln joined the pantheon. For 80 years, it was Washington, the founder of the country. Now we start to see Lincoln as his peer or equal. It’s hard to imagine that happening today. I can’t imagine such a print featuring Obama or Trump in place of Lincoln.

 

Do these details that look like errors make the print appealing to modern collectors? The first point of appeal to modern buyers is the same point that appealed to buyers in 1865. It’s patriotic, it’s colorful, Lincoln is in the center, and it’s an eye-catching print. From there, it’s a historical curiosity, designed for Washington but with Lincoln’s head awkwardly glued in where Washington’s head had been. It not only looks great on the wall, it’s something to chew on and discuss with friends. And it’s a tribute to Lincoln, who people still admire.

 

How to bid: The lithograph is lot 141 in Printed & Manuscript Americana Featuring the Holzer Collection of Lincolniana, taking place September 27, 2018 at Swann Auction Galleries.

 

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Rick Sattler spoke to The Hot Bid before about a lot of early 20th century copies of Gleanings in Bee Culture which included the issue that contained the first published account of the Wright brothers’ first successful flight. The lot sold for $5,000, double its high estimate.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

 

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SOLD! Gerard Sekoto’s “Three School Girls” Fetches More Than $400,000 At Bonhams–Almost Double Its Low Estimate

Sekoto school girls

Update: Gerard Sekoto’s Three School Girls sold for £308,750 ($401,207)–almost double its low estimate.

 

What you see: Three School Girls, an oil on board painted by South African artist Gerard Sekoto sometime between 1940 and 1947. Bonhams estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000 ($160,000 to $230,000).

 

Who was Gerard Sekoto? Born in 1913 in what was then the South African province of Eastern Transvaal, he began showing artistic talent as a teenager. Art schools aimed at black students didn’t exist in South Africa in the early 20th century, so he trained as a teacher instead and studied art as best he could. He lived in several different areas in South Africa before leaving for Paris in 1947 for what’s been described as a “self-imposed exile”. Sekoto spent a year in Senegal in 1966, but he never made his home on the African continent again. In his final years, he started to gain recognition for his work. He died in Paris in 1993, at the age of 79.

 

The expert: Eliza Sawyer, a specialist in modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams.

 

How prolific was Sekoto? It largely depends on which period you’re talking about. The period of Three School Girls was not so prolific. It was before he left South Africa for Paris. Those works are rarer, and hard to come by. He didn’t have easy access to materials, and he was still finding his voice. He was much more prolific after he left for Paris in 1947.

 

How often do pre-1947 Sekoto works come to market? There have been a handful in the last few years. When they come up, they tend to fetch high sums. His most valuable period is between when he left Sophiatown [a township near Johannesburg] and when he left for Paris. It was a very short period of his life–seven years. Maybe one Sekoto work a year comes up from that time. What’s rare for this sale we have in September is a particular collector bought two works from a Sekoto show in 1947 [and consigned them both]. To have two works from that period in the same sale is quite extraordinary, but they’re from the same collection.

 

How do we know this Sekoto painting dates to between 1940 and 1947? The most obvious point would be the subject matter–three little girls on an almost-mud street in a township. Parisian pictures tend to be of jazz bars and the Seine. The other thing that’s distinctive is the color palette. Up to 1947, Sekoto gravitated toward a very earthy palette of reds, browns, and yellows that reflected the colors of the ground in South African townships, and reflected the kinds of clothes people wore and the dyes that were available. Also, in 1940, he met Judith Gluckman, an artist who introduced him to oil painting. The fact that this is painted in oils and not household poster paint suggests it was executed after 1940.

 

The surface of the paint looks rugged and thick. Is that typical for Sekoto? What I’d say is unusual about the surface of the work is how unspoiled it is. Gerard Sekoto did use impasto [he painted in thick layers] and he mixed sand and grit in to create texture. Gritty, thick texture is more characteristic of his early style. But most of his works from this period don’t survive well. They have craquelure [the paint is covered with a network of cracks], and the surface attracted dirt. To see a work in this good a condition, with no paint loss and minor dirt, is incredibly unusual. Later, he worked in watercolors and gouache, and his brush strokes were more fluid and loose.

 

How did Sekoto work doing that seven-year period in the 1940s, when he painted Three School Girls? He would carry notepaper in his pockets. The people he saw were not accustomed to people making their portraits, so he would pull out a piece of scrap paper, sketch quickly, and come to his studio with his pockets full of ideas.

 

This painting is relatively small, measuring 15 15/16 inches by 19 7/8 inches. Is that because he was working from small sketches done on scrap paper? Earlier pieces tend to be smaller than works created in Paris. It’s partly related to the Post-It note size of his sketches and partly from an awareness of using up all his material. In this period, we see him work the same piece of canvas over and over, particularly as he tried to learn  his craft.

 

Three School Girls is fresh to market, having gone from the late 1940s selling exhibition to the consigner to Bonhams. Is that unusual for a Sekoto? Yes, it is quite unusual. I’d say Sekoto works have hugely appreciated in value over the last 10 years, partly due to his status as a pioneer of South African modernism.

 

Did Bonhams play a role in raising Sekoto’s profile? In 2008, we were the first international auction house to hold a stand-alone sale of South African art, and Gerard Sekoto was one of the artists we featured. We put up a work from his District 6 period, which is a few years before the period when he made Three School Girls, for an estimate of £200,000 to £300,000, and it made in excess of £600,000. It was an eye-opening moment for us and for the art market as well–it showed that Sekoto is an artist to take very seriously.

 

What’s the world auction record for a Sekoto? It’s held by Bonhams for a work sold for £602,400 ($784,694) in 2011, depicting a yellow house he saw in District 6. He didn’t live in this particular house, but he’d walk past it on a day-to-day basis between 1942 and 1945. It’s very similar in style and period to Three School Girls, which probably dates to 1945 to 1947. It was also painted in gritty impasto, and is around the same size as Three School Girls.

 

Does Three School Girls have the potential to set a new auction record for the artist? When I saw the work, my first thought was it really is something special, potentially a record painting. We haven’t seen one of comparable quality and style since 2011 [the year that Bonhams sold Yellow Houses, District Six]. The market has changed and demand has changed, but if any painting has a shot at breaking the record for a Sekoto, it could be this one.

 

What about Portrait of a Man (Lentswana)the other Sekoto painting that the consigner sent to this auction? It’s from the same period and is around the same size. The reason we put a slightly higher estimate on Three School Girls is it’s a more universal image. The other is a wonderfully intimate human portrait, but some collectors are not comfortable having particular likenesses hanging in their home. It’s like having a picture of another person’s grandfather. That’s the thought behind this particular estimate.

 

What is Three School Girls like in person? The first thing that strikes you is the size. In this day and age, particularly if you collect contemporary art, you’re used to monumental canvases. This painting is different. It’s intimate in scale, and it draws you in. The colors are warm and earthy. They’re not colors that are considered colorful or sexy for an urban apartment. But it transports you to a totally different time, a totally different country. You can feel the heat rising up from the dusty road the girls are walking on.

 

Why will this painting stick in your memory? Having been a schoolgirl myself, it’s quite a nostalgic image. I’m a white British woman living in London, and looking at it brings back memories. I remember being dressed in my schoolgirl uniform, walking to school with my friends. The artist somehow manages to forge a connection I find quite touching.

 

How to bid: Three School Girls is lot 25 in The South African Sale, which takes place at Bonhams London on September 12, 2018.

 

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A namesake foundation celebrates Gerard Sekoto’s lifetime of work.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

 

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Explorer Ernest Shackleton and His Crew Printed “Aurora Australis”, the First Book Made in Antarctica. Bonhams Might Sell a Copy for $100,000.

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What you see: A copy of Aurora Australis, created by members of the 1908-1909 British Antarctic Expedition, led by Ernest Shackleton. It is the first book to be written and produced on the continent of Antarctica. Bonhams estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.

 

The expert: Ian Ehling, director of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams New York.

 

So, how much of a pain in the ass was it for Shackleton and his crew to haul a printing press down to east Antarctica along with all the other stuff they needed for the 1908-1909 polar expedition? It was a small printing press, described as being the size of an oven–picture the size of a four-burner gas oven. It was a very heavy piece of equipment. And take into consideration that they brought the type and the paper and a special printing press to do etchings.

 

They brought two printing presses? Yes. You can’t do the printing and the etchings on the same press. The thing about Antarctic winters is they’re very dark and very cold. If you have a bunch of guys sitting in close quarters all winter, it’s great to have a project to occupy them. Shackleton, having been on previous expeditions, thought ahead and came up with an interesting project.

 

What challenges did the explorers face when making this book? That was really one of the most difficult things. They were in very small quarters in extreme temperatures and dealing with poor lighting–it’s dark all winter long. They had to be incredibly careful when going about printing the thing. The type was metal, which freezes to your fingertips, and the ink congeals because of the cold. They used candles to heat up the ink, and they had to move the candle around to get the ink to the right temperature. They had to limit the number of types they brought with them, so the printer could only print two pages at a time. In addition to that, the floors were filthy and it was damp everywhere. They needed to keep the pages dry. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to produce a fair number of copies under those conditions.

 

The lot notes say there’s a blind-stamped penguin motif on the spine. What is blind-stamping, and how did the explorers apply the motif? Blind-stamping means there isn’t any color used. It’s just the impression of the stamp. They must have brought a hand tool with them to decorate the binding. Shackleton sent two or three crew members to a London print shop to apprentice for two or three weeks before the expedition. They probably arrived at a penguin as a printer’s device, which would have been metal on a wooden handle. They would have pressed it against the spine to bang it into the spine’s leather before it was bound.

 

How often have copies of Aurora Australis come up at auction? It’s an incredibly rare book that doesn’t come up often. The initial idea was they would print 100 copies of the book, but in a letter Shackleton wrote to Pierpont Morgan he says they bound 80 copies. A good third of them are in institutions. The others are very likely in private collections. I checked the auction records and seven copies have been offered in the U.S. and Europe in the last 20 years. This is the third copy that we have handled.

 

To make the covers of the copies, the explorers scavenged wood from their own expedition supply crates. The covers of this book have the word ‘OATMEAL’ stenciled on one side and ‘ISH ANTARCT … EDITION 190’ on another. How does the presence of those words and partial words affect the book’s value? That is to be determined, but this copy in particular is great because it has the full word ‘OATMEAL’ on it and the truncated ‘ISH ANTARCT … EDITION 190’. It’s incredibly beautiful and makes it attractive to have. Others just say ‘BUTTER’ or ‘BAKED BEANS’. Having the ‘OATMEAL’ and the extra bits on the back is very attractive. As a collector I’d definitely be drawn to a copy because of its stenciling and wording.

 

I take it more than one group of collectors will be interested in this copy of Aurora Australis. How many different constituencies will be in the hunt? Anyone who collects travel and exploration is interested. Then there are people who collect books on the Arctic and Antarctic. And I would say this is considered a high-spot publication because it was the first book printed on Antarctica. It’s a very cool book. There are collectors who go for the best of the best, and this book appeals to those collectors. People collecting limited editions would go after this as well. It’s not just the first book printed in Antarctica–the explorers looked after the aesthetic beauty of the book. If you look at the colophon page, the typography is beautiful, and it’s printed in two colors, red and black. It indicates the book was published as a fine press book.

 

What condition is this copy in? It’s in good condition. There’s some slight rubbing to the leather spine, which is kind of inevitable. The boards are perfect.

 

Over the years I’ve heard a lot about Aurora Australis as a book first and as symbol of Shackleton and polar exploration, but I haven’t heard much about its actual contents. Is Aurora Australis a good book? [Laughs] Well, I haven’t read through it. It’s fun. Many people who were on the expedition were published authors. There is some talent there, but there aren’t earth-shattering, amazing stories.

 

What’s the world auction record for a copy of Aurora Australis? It’s £122,500, ($185,894), set at the Franklin Brooke-Hitching sale at Sotheby’s in 2015. That collection was incredibly beautiful. Brooke-Hitching was one of those collectors who collected the absolute best copies he could get. Everything in that sale achieved enormous prices. Our copy is estimated at $70,000 to $100,000 and I would expect it to go in that range.

 

Why will this book stick in your memory? It’s about the whole discussion we had about producing something blindfolded, essentially. It’s incredible to have it bound on these boards. You feel like you’re close to the event. To have an object that was produced there, with materials there, the shipping crates–that’s one of a kind. I’ll never forget that.

 

How to bid: The copy of Aurora Australis is lot 55 in Bonhams‘s Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana sale scheduled for September 25, 2018.

 

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Ian Ehling spoke to The Hot Bid previously about a 1935 Albert Einstein passport photo that ultimately sold for $17,500.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

 

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Pay Attention, Class: Bonhams Could Sell South African Artist Gerard Sekoto’s “Three School Girls” for $230,000

Sekoto school girls

What you see: Three School Girls, an oil on board painted by South African artist Gerard Sekoto sometime between 1940 and 1947. Bonhams estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000 ($160,000 to $230,000).

 

Who was Gerard Sekoto? Born in 1913 in what was then the South African province of Eastern Transvaal, he began showing artistic talent as a teenager. Art schools aimed at black students didn’t exist in South Africa in the early 20th century, so he trained as a teacher instead and studied art as best he could. He lived in several different areas in South Africa before leaving for Paris in 1947 for what’s been described as a “self-imposed exile”. Sekoto spent a year in Senegal in 1966, but he never made his home on the African continent again. In his final years, he started to gain recognition for his work. He died in Paris in 1993, at the age of 79.

 

The expert: Eliza Sawyer, a specialist in modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams.

 

How prolific was Sekoto? It largely depends on which period you’re talking about. The period of Three School Girls was not so prolific. It was before he left South Africa for Paris. Those works are rarer, and hard to come by. He didn’t have easy access to materials, and he was still finding his voice. He was much more prolific after he left for Paris in 1947.

 

How often do pre-1947 Sekoto works come to market? There have been a handful in the last few years. When they come up, they tend to fetch high sums. His most valuable period is between when he left Sophiatown [a township near Johannesburg] and when he left for Paris. It was a very short period of his life–seven years. Maybe one Sekoto work a year comes up from that time. What’s rare for this sale we have in September is a particular collector bought two works from a Sekoto show in 1947 [and consigned them both]. To have two works from that period in the same sale is quite extraordinary, but they’re from the same collection.

 

How do we know this Sekoto painting dates to between 1940 and 1947? The most obvious point would be the subject matter–three little girls on an almost-mud street in a township. Parisian pictures tend to be of jazz bars and the Seine. The other thing that’s distinctive is the color palette. Up to 1947, Sekoto gravitated toward a very earthy palette of reds, browns, and yellows that reflected the colors of the ground in South African townships, and reflected the kinds of clothes people wore and the dyes that were available. Also, in 1940, he met Judith Gluckman, an artist who introduced him to oil painting. The fact that this is painted in oils and not household poster paint suggests it was executed after 1940.

 

The surface of the paint looks rugged and thick. Is that typical for Sekoto? What I’d say is unusual about the surface of the work is how unspoiled it is. Gerard Sekoto did use impasto [he painted in thick layers] and he mixed sand and grit in to create texture. Gritty, thick texture is more characteristic of his early style. But most of his works from this period don’t survive well. They have craquelure [the paint is covered with a network of cracks], and the surface attracted dirt. To see a work in this good a condition, with no paint loss and minor dirt, is incredibly unusual. Later, he worked in watercolors and gouache, and his brush strokes were more fluid and loose.

 

How did Sekoto work doing that seven-year period in the 1940s, when he painted Three School Girls? He would carry notepaper in his pockets. The people he saw were not accustomed to people making their portraits, so he would pull out a piece of scrap paper, sketch quickly, and come to his studio with his pockets full of ideas.

 

This painting is relatively small, measuring 15 15/16 inches by 19 7/8 inches. Is that because he was working from small sketches done on scrap paper? Earlier pieces tend to be smaller than works created in Paris. It’s partly related to the Post-It note size of his sketches and partly from an awareness of using up all his material. In this period, we see him work the same piece of canvas over and over, particularly as he tried to learn  his craft.

 

Three School Girls is fresh to market, having gone from the late 1940s selling exhibition to the consigner to Bonhams. Is that unusual for a Sekoto? Yes, it is quite unusual. I’d say Sekoto works have hugely appreciated in value over the last 10 years, partly due to his status as a pioneer of South African modernism.

 

Did Bonhams play a role in raising Sekoto’s profile? In 2008, we were the first international auction house to hold a stand-alone sale of South African art, and Gerard Sekoto was one of the artists we featured. We put up a work from his District 6 period, which is a few years before the period when he made Three School Girls, for an estimate of £200,000 to £300,000, and it made in excess of £600,000. It was an eye-opening moment for us and for the art market as well–it showed that Sekoto is an artist to take very seriously.

 

What’s the world auction record for a Sekoto? It’s held by Bonhams for a work sold for £602,400 ($784,694) in 2011, depicting a yellow house he saw in District 6. He didn’t live in this particular house, but he’d walk past it on a day-to-day basis between 1942 and 1945. It’s very similar in style and period to Three School Girls, which probably dates to 1945 to 1947. It was also painted in gritty impasto, and is around the same size as Three School Girls.

 

Does Three School Girls have the potential to set a new auction record for the artist? When I saw the work, my first thought was it really is something special, potentially a record painting. We haven’t seen one of comparable quality and style since 2011 [the year that Bonhams sold Yellow Houses, District Six]. The market has changed and demand has changed, but if any painting has a shot at breaking the record for a Sekoto, it could be this one.

 

What about Portrait of a Man (Lentswana)the other Sekoto painting that the consigner sent to this auction? It’s from the same period and is around the same size. The reason we put a slightly higher estimate on Three School Girls is it’s a more universal image. The other is a wonderfully intimate human portrait, but some collectors are not comfortable having particular likenesses hanging in their home. It’s like having a picture of another person’s grandfather. That’s the thought behind this particular estimate.

 

What is Three School Girls like in person? The first thing that strikes you is the size. In this day and age, particularly if you collect contemporary art, you’re used to monumental canvases. This painting is different. It’s intimate in scale, and it draws you in. The colors are warm and earthy. They’re not colors that are considered colorful or sexy for an urban apartment. But it transports you to a totally different time, a totally different country. You can feel the heat rising up from the dusty road the girls are walking on.

 

Why will this painting stick in your memory? Having been a schoolgirl myself, it’s quite a nostalgic image. I’m a white British woman living in London, and looking at it brings back memories. I remember being dressed in my schoolgirl uniform, walking to school with my friends. The artist somehow manages to forge a connection I find quite touching.

 

How to bid: Three School Girls is lot 25 in The South African Sale, which takes place at Bonhams London on September 12, 2018.

 

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A namesake foundation celebrates Gerard Sekoto’s lifetime of work.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

 

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Play Time: Bertoia Has an Exquisite Piano-playing Automaton That Could Sell for $25,000

bertoia-auctions-antiques-september-sale-272

What you see: A piano-playing automaton, created by Gustave Vichy between 1890 and 1910. Bertoia Auctions estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.

 

What is an automaton? It’s a form of robot or proto-computer that’s designed to entertain. The machine executes a series of movements or acts in a specific order, such as performing a magic trick or riding a bicycle. Clock- and watchmakers naturally gravitate to building automata because many of them run on clockwork. If you have a cuckoo clock in your house, you own an automaton.

 

The expert: Jeanne Bertoia, proprietor of Bertoia Auctions.

 

This is described as a “Vichy” automaton because it was made by Gustave Vichy, a French designer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But why is it called a “Vichy Piano Watteau Automaton”? Is the “Watteau” a reference to the painter? The company catalog [which is in French] calls it “piano Watteau.” I suspect it probably has to do with the pastoral type of paintings Watteau was known for. If you look at the painting on the piano, the gold, it has a very Watteau feel.

 

And the figure kind of looks like a woman from a Watteau painting Yes, exactly. She’s very elaborate, with silk and lace and pearl jewelry. She has heeled shoes and stockings on. [Unfortunately, none of the photos of the lot show this.] She’s very elegant.

 

To when does the automaton date? Probably 1890 to 1910, the turn of the last century. It was probably the later part of the 19th century. The peak of automata production was the mid-1800s into the 1900s. Automata were luxurious items. They had moving parts that were powered by clockwork, and they played only for about a minute.

 

How rarely do you find automata that have porcelain parts? It’s rarer, though it was done. There are others with porcelain parts, but most of them were papier-mâché. Some automata makers used parts from doll companies. You actually get a doll. This has a Jumeau porcelain head. Jumeau usually made French fashion dolls. The doll head is the most important part of the doll. The hands and the head are made of bisque porcelain.

 

Do we know how many other Vichy Watteau piano automatons survive? Unfortunately, we don’t know. This is the first we’ve had the opportunity to handle, and we go back to 1986. There may be a few in some of the grander collections.

 

Does the automaton have all the details and fittings it had when it was new? Can we know? We believe it’s all-original. It’s very well-taken-care-of and in generally excellent condition. It still works beautifully. The mechanism and the music functions well. In the [Vichy] catalog, it’s just a drawing. It looks the same. It has a different costume, but that doesn’t mean it was dressed differently. There was no mass-production clothing line then. A dress as elaborate as this would have been individually handmade.

 

Who would have been the audience for this automaton? I’m guessing it wasn’t intended as a toy. It was probably for the newly rich. Again, it’s an elaborate, luxurious piece to own. It was not treated as a toy. It was treated as a piece of moving art.

 

What instrument is the figure playing? It’s a piano harp. I don’t know if it’s a real instrument. It looks pretty fanciful to me. I think those are original harp strings.

 

The lot notes for the automaton describe its condition as “excellent to pristine”. What does that mean in this context? It means that it’s all-original, the mechanism works, the music plays fine. Maybe there’s a little restoration to the clothing, which is very accepted.

 

Has it been restored, beyond touching up the dress? Not that we saw, no.

 

Will you post audio and video of the automaton playing the piano? Good question. We’ve been discussing it. We probably will put something on the website. We have at least a dozen different automata in the sale that are so unique.

 

The lot notes say that the music that the automaton plays “consists of four different ‘airs’,” which repeat. What are ‘airs’? And are any of the four pieces of music familiar to modern listeners? It’s a song, a tune, a piece of music. It’s French, it’s what they call it in the [Vichy] catalog. I don’t recognize the music. I can’t put a name to any of them.

 

How does the automaton move? Oh! The mechanism is fabulous! She has multiple movements. The hands gracefully move across the piano keys. Her chest breathes. The papier-mâché shoulder plate allows her to look like she’s breathing. She plays the piano, turns her head, puts her head up, and breathes in as if she’s breathing in beauty. Then she puts her head down and continues to play. That is her movement.

 

Have you seen other automata that simulate breathing? I haven’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are others. We haven’t had such an elegant doll figure as the main part of an automaton. We have had automata with lots of movement–this is just a different style. It almost falls into the doll world. It’s a beautiful doll, gracefully playing the piano.

 

Was this automaton intended for girls and women? I don’t think so. It’s just an elegant piece for the times. In today’s marketplace, doll collectors are very excited to get an automaton that has such a great doll. It stands on its own as an elegant, beautiful piece. If you had a daughter who plays the piano, it’d be a fabulous gift.

 

How to bid: The Vichy piano Watteau automaton is lot 272 in Bertoia Auctions’s Signature Sale on September 22, 2018.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bertoia Auctions.

 

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