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.

RECORD: Artist’s Artist Florine Stettheimer Steps From the Shadows at Skinner

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What you see: An undated floral still life by Florine Stettheimer. Skinner sold it in January 2016 for $375,000 against an estimate of $75,000 to $100,000, a record for the artist at auction.

Who was Florine Stettheimer? She was a wealthy American woman who was, and is, regarded as an artist’s artist. Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O’Keeffe attended her salon. She might be the first woman artist in history to paint a nude self-portrait. She wasn’t keen on self-promotion; she had one small solo show at the Knoedler gallery in 1916, which flopped, and she never did another. While Stettheimer’s sisters ignored her wish to have her art destroyed after she died, they gave most of it to museums, leaving little for collectors to acquire. Two years after her death, the Museum of Modern art staged a Stettheimer retrospective. The Jewish Museum in New York is showing Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, until September 24, 2017. She died in 1944 at the age of 72.

How did the Stettheimer painting come to Skinner? “It came out of a house where it had been for decades,” says Robin S. R. Starr, director of American and European Works of Art at Skinner. “It was an estate situation. The family didn’t know much about it.”

How does this still life show off Stettheimer’s skills as an artist? “What could be a smarmy, cutesy sort of subject has a wonderful, modernist, fresh vibe all its own,” Starr says. “She has a great, unique personal style. She doesn’t look like anybody else. She’s her own style. The fact that she wanted her work destroyed after she died says she didn’t think much of it, though now we’re rediscovering her and finding out how fantastic it really is.”

How does this floral still life compare to other Stettheimer paintings? “This is a wonderful work, but in comparison, it is relatively minor,” she says. “This is a record-breaker because none of those works [of hers] in museums have come up at auction.”

How did you decide on the estimate of $75,000 to $100,000? “It takes a lot of chutzpah to put an estimate on something that you know is going to sell for a world record,” she says, noting that the previous record for a Stettheimer was set in 1997 by a painting that commanded $145,000 against an identical estimate. “Artnet has six records [for Stettheimer], and only one [of the six artworks] has real figures in it,” she says, adding, “It was really more of a gut instinct. You’ve got to decide what’s a fair estimate based on what little track record there is and how wonderful you think the picture is. Ultimately, an estimate is a guess. It’s a well-educated guess, but a guess.”

Were you surprised that the painting did so well? “Yes and no, which isn’t a fair answer,” Starr says, laughing. “Yes, I was thrilled. I didn’t think it would do that well. I thought there was a very good chance it would go over its estimate. I didn’t think it would go two or three times over.”

How much of a role did Stettheimer’s personal story play in driving the record auction price? Did it help? “That was absolutely a part of it,” she says. “The story is important–just watch Antiques Roadshow. But ultimately, it has to come down to an object that’s beautiful enough or inventive enough to sell the story. If she was a mediocre painter, it’s not going to matter. The story isn’t enough.”

What else makes this Stettheimer floral still life special? “That palette is just–apparently, I’m going to keep using food terms–it’s so delicious. Instead of saccharine, we get that acidity, and that combination is just a gut punch. It’s one of those objects you see and you’re just stopped in your tracks. There’s nothing like it. It’s just its own thing.”

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You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow Robin S. R. Starr on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Image is courtesy of Skinner.

RECORD: Wharton Esherick’s 1933 Sculpture essie/rebecca Commands $123,750 at Freeman’s

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What you see: Wharton Esherick’s 1933 sculpture “essie”/”rebecca”, fashioned from cocobolo wood. Estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, it sold for $123,750 in November 2014 at Freeman’s. The sculpture now belongs to the Modernism Museum Mount Dora in Mount Dora, Fla.

Who is Wharton Esherick? He’s an American artist who is best known for his sculptural furnishings, which foreshadowed the American studio furniture movement. Esherick started out as a painter but shifted his focus when people reacted to his hand-carved frames more than his canvases. He died in 1970 at the age of 82.

How rare are Esherick’s sculptures? “They’re incredibly rare,” says Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s. “All of Esherick’s things are rare in comparison to the generation of craftsmen who came after him. Esherick produced maybe a few thousand pieces and maybe a hundred sculptures, if that.”

Is “essie”/”rebecca” based on a human model? It was his daughter, Mary, who played a character named Essie in a production at a local theater that the Eshericks supported. “He often used family members and friends as models, and turned the sketches and maquettes into fully realized sculptures,” Andreadis says. “This was later named Rebecca after the Biblical figure of Rebecca at the well. In the 1960s, it finally found a buyer, and it had been with that family ever since.”

What makes “essie”/”rebecca” stand out among Esherick’s works? “This would have been a little more unusual. He would have carved it in one solid piece. It makes it much more challenging,” he says. “It was a celebrated piece, one of those works that were really personal to the artist. And it’s beautiful from any angle. It’s definitely made to be viewed in the round.”

Why did the sculpture do so well? “The stars were perfectly aligned,” Andreadis says. “It was a sculpture of grand scale. Esherick used cocobolo, a rare, exotic wood. Its patina has never been touched. There aren’t many Esherick pieces in private hands. And it’s really personal subject matter, using his daughter as a model for the work. It’s beautifully signed by Esherick. And you can never ask for anything better than to see period photos of the artist standing with the work. Buyers just responded to that. They recognized a rare opportunity that’s not going to come up again for some time.”

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Image is courtesy of Freeman’s.

 

HUZZAH! The Portrait of Elisabet the Court Jester Sold for $2.8 MILLION at Sotheby’s

LOT 5 - Jan Sanders van Hemessen (£400,000 - 600,000)

Update: The portrait of Elisabet the court jester sold for £2.1 million, or $2.8 million–well above its six-digit presale estimate.

What you see: A 16th century oil on oak panel portrait of Elisabet, court fool of Anne of Hungary, painted by Jan Sanders van Hemessen. Sotheby’s estimates it at £400,000 to £600,000 ($511,947 to $767,921).

Who was Jan Sanders van Hemessen? He was a Netherlandish painter who was born in Belgium and who traveled to Italy to study before his career fully took off. “He painted important people throughout his life,” says Andrew Fletcher, senior director and head of auction sales of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s. “He was one of the more sought-after painters of his time.”

This painting has been attributed to different artists over the centuries. How unusual is that? Not at all. “Early Netherlandish paintings are notoriously difficult to attribute,” he says. “The fact that the attribution swung [over time] is very typical of works of this type and this date.”

How odd is it to find a formal portrait of a court fool from the 16th century? “An actual commissioned portrait of a court fool or jester, where the court fool or jester sits for a portrait as a lady or a gentleman might, is exceptionally rare,” Fletcher says. “There’s a tiny number of paintings of court fools in fool guise.”

What’s with the rings around her neck? Fletcher and his colleagues consulted multiple art historians on several aspects of the painting. A second portrait of Elisabet, located in Vienna, depicts her with rings on her neck. That portrait further cements her importance, but it does not explain why she wore the rings in that manner. The current best guess is the rings might have something to do with magic tricks. “One of the traits of a court fool is to be a conjuror,” he says. “That’s the only trait we could think of that the rings would be relevant to. Someone could come up with another idea tomorrow. We can’t be more specific than that.”

Elisabet is shown holding a letter. Apparently, that might mean she was literate. Why would a 16th century female court jester need to know how to read? “Given that a large part of a jester’s role [could be] making wordplay with puns, they must have been literate people. The letter suggests she has a level of education you might not normally expect. Chances are she probably did, and she may have had responsibility toward the children,” Fletcher says, explaining that she might have served in a governess-like role to the children of Anne of Hungary, who was the wife of Ferdinand I, an Austrian archduke who became Holy Roman Emperor.

Someone–probably Anne of Hungary–paid to have this portrait done, and Elisabet sat for portraits more than once. What does that say about her, and about what she meant to those who knew her? “It’s a portrait of exceptionally high quality, but it’s of a court jester. Those two facts, combined, suggest she must have been held in incredibly high regard,” he says. “You get the impression that she played an important role in the court, and the court had an emotional attachment to her. You don’t go to the expense of commissioning a portrait of a court fool unless she means more to you than a court fool might mean.”

How to bid: The portrait of Elisabet is lot 5 in the Old Masters evening sale at Sotheby’s London on July 5.

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Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

SOLD! An Original Song of the South Animation Cel with Walt Disney’s Signature Gets Almost $9,000 at Heritage Auctions

Song of the South Br'er Rabbit Production Cel with Walt Disney Signature...

Update: The production cel from Song of the South, signed by Walt Disney, sold for $8,962.50.

What you see: An original production cel from Song of the South, a Disney film released in 1946. It pictures Br’er Rabbit, the lead character of the stories depicted in the film. Walt Disney signed it on its cream-colored mat. Jim Lentz, director of animation art for Heritage Auctions, says it could sell for as much as $5,000.

Are original production cels from Song of the South scarcer than original cels from other Disney movies? “There are fewer in that Song of the South wasn’t all animated. Some was live action,” Lentz says.

Are cels from Song of the South more sought-after than other Disney cels? “They’re considered highly desirable because they have an aura of the unknown,” he says. “Disney has not released the film in any format in the United States because of political incorrectness.” Set in the Reconstruction-era South, the film follows young Johnny’s visit to his grandfather’s plantation in Georgia, where he meets Uncle Remus, a plantation worker who tells the boy folk tales.

How rare is it to find an original Song of the South cel with a Walt Disney signature? “The thing about Walt Disney was he was a very, very busy man. A lot of Disney signatures were done by studio artists. Even secretaries did them. So when you get one done by Walt, that is rare,” Lentz says, noting that he has handled fewer than three Disney-signed original production cels from Song of the South.

How do we know that the Walt Disney signature is genuine? Lentz consulted another expert for verification. “I sent it to someone in the business who specializes,” he says.

According to the lot notes, this piece has an ‘original Courvoisier cel setup’ and is in its ‘original Courvoisier mat.’ What does that mean, and why is that good? In the 1930s and 1940s, Disney worked with Gustav Courvoisier to sell animation cels through the latter’s San Francisco gallery. “The studio thought it was a great way to promote the films,” Lentz says. Disney studio artists painted backgrounds for cels offered through Courvoisier. These cels usually have a cream-colored mat and notations in tiny script that identify which films they brought to life. Courvoisier died around the time Song of the South came out.

How does this cel stack up to other Song of the South cels you’ve handled? “It’s one of the few I’ve seen with a Walt Disney signature and a happy Br’er Rabbit, who is the star of the show,” he says. “It’s a great, great piece. This is as good as it gets.”

How to bid: The Disney-signed Song of the South cel is lot #95187 in the Animation Art sale Heritage Auctions will hold in Dallas on July 1-2.

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Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

SOLD! Ernest Biéler’s Swiss Misses Fetch $700,000 at Sotheby’s

Lot 41- Trois jeunes Filles de Granois- Bieler- Sotheby's Zurich June 2017

Update: Ernest Biéler’s Trois Jeunes Filles de Granois (Three Young Girls of Granois) sold for $699,000 (672,500 CHF).

What you see: Trois Jeunes Filles de Granois (Three Young Girls of Granois), a 1920 work on paper by Swiss artist Ernest Biéler. Sotheby’s estimates it at 500,000 to 700,000 in Swiss francs, which is pretty much the same amount in US dollars.

Who is Ernest Biéler? He was a Swiss artist who succeeded in virtually every media he tried, from painting to drawing to mosaics to stained glass windows. He cofounded the Ecole of Savièse, an artistic movement that celebrated rural Swiss peasant life. He died in 1948 at age 84.

What makes Trois Jeunes Filles de Granois an iconic Biéler work? “It’s really an important work, and it’s a good summary of what he attempted to do,” says Stéphanie Schleining Deschanel, director and co-head of Swiss art for Sotheby’s, explaining that the Ecole of Savièse artists “wanted to discover the purity and the traditions of the Swiss 19th century world.”

How often did Biéler portray small groups, as he does here? “He usually depicted individual figures. It’s very rare to have three people in the same composition,” she says. “In this case, the village of Savièse is very important. It’s the subject of the painting. The three girls have different dresses, but their faces are slightly the same. For him, it was more important to depict Swiss traditions rather than the people themselves.”

Why did he and his compatriots find inspiration in Savièse? “It was a space in the middle of nowhere. It was totally unknown by the world and by Switzerland,” she says. “Those costumes are really what they wore. They are well-depicted, and the hats are also very typical of Swiss tradition. It’s a good testimony to the fashion of the time.”

Did Biéler use live models? “They’re real people, from his direct environment, but he had no models. He found inspiration in observing people,” she says.

This work is currently the third most-expensive Biéler sold at auction. How do you think it will do this time around? “It’s very difficult to predict. It’s an iconic work, and it has potential,” she says, noting that she witnessed its previous sale in November 2007, when it commanded 601,000 Swiss francs ($543,616) against an estimate of 300,000 to 400,000 Swiss francs ($271,356 to $361,808). “It’s very powerful. Fantastic quality. It’s really a museum piece. I think the painting has the potential to achieve a higher price than it achieved 10 years ago.”

How to bid: Trois Jeunes Filles de Granois is lot 41 in the Swiss Art / Swiss Made auction at Sotheby’s Zurich on June 27.

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Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

WHOA! David Jagger’s Intense Self-Portrait Fetched More Than $281,000–and a New Record–at Bonhams

David Jagger R.O.I. (British, 1891-1958) Self Portrait 40.6 x 30.5 cm. (16 x 12 in.) (Painted in 1928)

NEW RECORD FOR THE ARTIST AT AUCTION: The David Jagger self-portrait sold for £221,000 ($281,570)–a new record for Jagger at auction, beating the previous record by more than £100,000.

What you see: A self-portrait by David Jagger, painted in 1928. Bonhams estimates it at £20,000 to £30,000, or $26,000 to $39,000.

Who is David Jagger? He’s a 20th century British painter who specialized in portraits of aristocrats. Winston Churchill, Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell, and several members of the British royal family sat for him. It’s unclear if or how he might be related to Mick Jagger. He died in 1958, at the age of 66 or 67.

Do we know any more about Jagger? “There’s been very little written about David Jagger. Right now, there’s a catalogue raisonne being written, and will be published at the end of the year. That’s going to fill an art-historical gap in the appreciation of the artist,” says Matthew Bradbury, director of modern British and Irish art at Bonhams. “He came from an artistic family. He’s always been a respected artist, but for many years he’s been in the shadow of his brother, Charles, a very reputable and talented sculptor.”

What changed for Jagger? “Prior to 2008 or so, many of his works had been to auction and made unspectacular prices. We set the record for a David Jagger society portrait, Olga, in 2006, which sold for £46,800 ($60,158),” Bradbury says. “It was a far-and-away record for the artist, and it set the ball rolling, really. It flushed a few other paintings out that made even higher prices.”

But why did Jagger paintings take off all of a sudden? “Why in the last 10 years those prices started to develop is a little difficult to pinpoint,” Bradbury says. “It comes down to one or two collectors taking it upon themselves to collect the artist and having the deep pockets to do so.”

Is this self-portrait unique? “If you google David Jagger and look at Wikipedia, there’s a self portrait in black and white that I believe is a larger version of the same one. Where it is, I don’t know,” he says. “It’s almost identical in how the shoulders are eradicated so that it’s a suspended face on a black background. It’s very similar in style.”

What makes this self portrait so strong? “It has an incredibly modern feel about it,” Bradbury says. “It stands apart from his traditional society portraits. You can’t escape his gaze at all. It follows you. It’s absolutely intense, and very powerful when you stand in front of it, for sure. The two record portraits that sold previously had the same feel about them.”

How to bid: The Jagger self-portrait is lot 25 in Bonhams’s Modern British and Irish Art auction scheduled for June 14 at London, New Bond Street.

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Image is courtesy of Bonhams.