SOLD! Bonhams Auctioned the Frank Tenney Johnson Nocturne For (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell sold for $348,500.

 

What you see: A portrait of Alphonzo Bell painted in 1928 by Frank Tenney Johnson. Bonhams estimates it at $250,000 to $350,000.

 

The expert: Kathy Wong, specialist in fine arts at Bonhams.

 

How prolific was Johnson? He was quite prolific. Over 500 works have been offered at auction alone, and there’s a large number of works in private collections and institutional collections. He was quite in demand from the 1920s onward. There was in particular in Los Angeles a commission for a drop curtain for a theater. The popularity of that worked to launch him in this area.

 

How often did he accept portrait commissions such as this one? As he grew in popularity, especially with Hollywood, he did accept portrait commissions through Stendahl Galleries [the Los Angeles gallery that represented him]. This portrait was negotiated through Stendahl. At least three other equestrian portraits have been identified. Sometimes they’re foremen as well. They’re not just wealthy ranchers.

 

Do we know anything about how Johnson would have made this painting? Would he have had Bell pose with his horse in this landscape and painted him plein air? There are no notes beyond what was written in the Stendahl Galleries ledger. What we know about Johnson’s working technique–there is some scaffolding involved. Certain compositions he favored might repeat in parts. The grouping of cattle is reminiscent of Frank Tenney Johnsons we’ve sold in the past. I strongly suspect because Johnson was an accomplished horseman himself, he had Bell mount his palomino horse and did a photo, but we don’t know for certain. There are no documents of how the commission was carried out.

 

How often did Johnson use photography in his work? We don’t know. But he was a very prolific photographer and it was part of his working process as well.

 

Is it reasonable to assume he used photos to create this commission? I think so, given that there were photos used for other works.

 

Do we know if Bell had any input into the appearance of the portrait? We simply don’t know. It was commissioned, per the ledger, on his [Bell’s] Bel Bar Ranch in Colorado. How much artistic license was taken is unknown. There’s nothing in the landscape that would identify it as Bel Bar Ranch. It’s most likely supposed to depict Colorado.

 

Is this scene typical of Johnson’s work? It’s fairly typical compositionally and in its coloration. A lone rider against a backdrop like this is pretty recognizable as his work. It’s intended to be a dusky landscape. We believe it to actually be one of his moonlight paintings.

 

Wait, this is a night scene? But there’s a blue sky with white clouds… As far as we are aware, it’s meant to be an evening scene. It’s more like twilight. There’s a very theatrical aspect to his nocturnes. The whites are highlighted. Much in the way that Maxfield Parrish scenes are not what you observe at nighttime, this is a romantic, dramatic depiction of evening.

 

This measures 32 inches by 40 inches. Is that a typical painting size for him? It’s toward the larger [end of the spectrum]. He did work in a full range of sizes. This is a common desirable size for him.

 

Could you talk a bit about the equestrian aspect of the painting? I understand that was a strength for Johnson. I think Bell would have been familiar enough with Frank Tenney Johnson’s nocturnes that a cream-colored horse would be a very visually striking feature in the landscape.

 

Bell chose his horse for visual effect? I think so. Per his biography, he was an aesthete. He was visually sensitive. It’s very possible he saw another [nocturne] example Frank Tenney Johnson did of a rider on a white horse and asked for something similar. There’s a lovely luminosity to white or cream-colored horses in his compositions. I’m sure Bell must have been aware of that.

 

Do we know how many nocturnes Johnson did? They’re not very rare. His nocturnes became his most commercially sought-after type of landscape. What makes this particular work desirable and interesting is it speaks to ranch culture. There was an interesting moment in Los Angeles in the 1920s when it transformed from an agricultural economy to a film-based economy. It comes at a time when the ranch way of life in LA gave way to oil and gas coming in, and film industry studios coming in. Bell, like Frank Tenney Johnson, had artistic sensitivity. He could straddle the agrarian and ranch world and the mythic depiction of that in Hollywood. This Western way of life was opening up to a larger audience.

 

What is this work like in person? It’s really stunning. There’s a lot of active brushwork, probably more than you can see online. The saturation of colors is what I wish everyone could see in person. There’s a luminosity that the catalog doesn’t do justice. It’s a work you can stand before and this quietude comes over you. Bell looks to be deep in thought. His absorption is quite captivating here.

 

It’s kind of meditative. It is. All the nocturnes have that quality. Many works in the Brinkman Collection [from which this painting comes] show action. This is one of the few that shows a quiet, introspective moment.

 

We know who the sitter is. Does that matter? Does that make the painting more interesting to collectors, even though he isn’t a celebrity or a famous historical figure? I do think so. Buyers want to know the story behind the work. His biography is quite fascinating. The way he found oil on his family ranch is quite dramatic. I think potentially some bidders may identify with the sitter or find his life story interesting.

 

What’s the auction record for a Frank Tenney Johnson? It was over 10 years ago. It was a similar size, depicting two horses in the evening, called Silent Night. It sold in 2007 for $1.1 million with a $300,000 to $500,000 estimate. The market was quite robust at the time, but it has changed since. We think this work is priced accordingly for the current market.

 

What makes this painting memorable? Even if you don’t know anything about Frank Tenney Johnson, it’s visually compelling. We’re all familiar with the myth of the Marlboro Man, which was based on a real ranch hand. Whether you’re a fan of Western art or not, there’s something heroic about the figure, communicated by a composition that explains its enduring appeal.

 

How to bid: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell is lot 47 in the sale of the L.D. “Brink” Brinkman Collection of Western American art, taking place February 8, 2019 at Bonhams Los Angeles.

 

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.

 

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram. Kathy Wong is on Twitter.

 

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

 

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SOLD! Swann Sold That 1927 Josephine Baker Movie Poster For (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: The 1927 Josephine Baker poster commanded $9,750.

 

What you see: A 1927 Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s silent film The Siren of the Tropics. Swann Galleries estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.

 

The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.

 

This poster image is based on a color photograph from an interior page of a Folies Bergère program. How common was it to base poster graphics on photos in the late 1920s? Is this unusual? Good question. I don’t know the answer to that. Some posters were photographic. I’m not sure I know of others, but the fact that it’s unusual doesn’t make it important.

 

Can we tell by looking how the poster artist sized up the photograph? Did they just blow up the photo, or did they trace it or draw it? It has been enlarged, to be sure. I assume it would have been hand-drawn, but I’m not sure about that at all.

 

The original photo was in color. Did the poster artist change the colors, or are these the same colors in the Folies Bergère program photograph? The colors are basically the same. It’s not like they were changed from red to blue. The only change was to cover up her immodesty.

 

It’s interesting that the poster artist went with the same colors seen in the picture, rather than brighter colors that are more suited to the poster medium. I think the poster attracts attention very well without bright colors. Forget the fact that she’s scantily clad–it’s an incredible getup. And it’s a great portrait of her.

 

The movie the poster advertises, The Siren of the Tropics, had its world premiere in Stockholm. Do we know why the premiere was held there rather than, say, Paris? I haven’t found anything about that anywhere. But there was a Swedish fascination with Josephine Baker. They were transfixed by her. All of Europe was transfixed by her to some degree.

 

It’s an odd choice of venue for a Josephine Baker film debut. I couldn’t agree more. I do think the fact that the image is from the Folies Bergère program and not from the film–I think it must have been done quickly. Maybe that’s why they used an image that already existed. The show from the Folies Bergère has nothing to do with the movie. I don’t think she wears the pearls and feathers costume in the film.

 

The poster artist definitely altered the picture when translating it into a poster. What, exactly, was added? Her nipples [are covered], and four strands of pearls emanating from each of her pasties have been added. [You can see the original photo at this link.]

 

It looks like whoever added the pasties and pearls for the poster version did a good job. Is the touch-up work more obvious in person? It took a while to make the realization that [the original] is not covered up. Certainly, the work is good. Seamlessly done. It looks like how it was meant to be.

 

And this is the only copy of the poster that has come to auction? It has been seen before, but it has never come up for sale before. Given how popular Josephine Baker is, and that it was a world premiere of a film, you’d think more copies would surface, but none have come to market.

 

Baker isn’t shown topless, but the poster is still pretty risqué. Where would this have been displayed in Sweden in 1927? Presumably, it was hung up all over Sweden. That doesn’t explain why so few have surfaced. [They would have] posted them wherever they could to get the maximum effect from the advertising.

 

And some of them, certainly, would have been stolen by fans… Stolen, peeled off, maybe a remainder was not posted. It’s a sexy image, even if you don’t like it. I do think it’s eye-catching. She has a very becoming smile, and she’s staring right at you. A fetching pose, an improbable costume. People walking down the street would think, “WTF is that?” She was topless in the Folies Bergère program, but that’s a lot less public than a poster siding.

 

How did the poster come to you? Through the inventory of a dealer who passed away. I think it was purchased in the last five years.

 

You’ve given it a condition grade of B. Collectors would prefer a higher grade, but does that matter when a poster is unique? It’s not a situation where you can sit back and wait for another to come along. There’s no indication there’s another one out there. They have to be forgiving.

 

How did you arrive at the estimate? It’s based on sales of other Josephine Baker posters. Baker is one of the most sought-after music hall performers of her time. Like Chaplin and the Titanic, her name really transcends her genre. She was a black woman making her name performing half-naked in France. That could not happen in America. From a racial point of view, it’s astounding. And it was incredible for a black woman to appear in a movie. Not only appear in it, but star in it.

 

Does the silent film the poster advertises survive? Clips are online. The film was panned, but it’s certainly around.

 

How does this Josephine Baker poster measure up to other posters that feature her? It’s a great depiction of her. We’ve sold several Josephine Baker posters over the years. Some sell for $25,000 to $45,000. This one combines scarcity, an appealing image, and a performer who is remembered and sought after in the collectors’ market. For example, two years ago, we had the French version of Siren of the Tropics poster. It didn’t actually sell. If you looked at it, you couldn’t tell it was Josephine Baker. In 2010, we sold a Danish poster for her film Princess Tam Tam for $9,000.

 

Are there other Josephine Baker posters from her lifetime that are based on photos? There’s one from the end of her career that’s very horrible and very common, which sells for $600 on a good day. It’s not a good comparison. None of the others are photographic.

 

Why will this poster stick in your memory? Several reasons. It’s a sexy image. It really is a rare Josephine Baker piece. It’s a very good poster, because it’s a good likeness of her. And as a poster geek, I appreciate that no others have come up for sale publicly.

 

How to bid: The Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s 1927 silent film, The Siren of the Tropics, is lot 429 in the Vintage Posters sale at Swann Galleries on February 7, 2019.

 

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.

 

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

 

Nicholas Lowry has appeared several times on The Hot Bid. Read past entries in which he  talks about a 1928 Roger Broders poster that later sold for $7,500Swann setting the world auction record for any travel postera 1938 London Transport poster by Man Ray that ultimately sold for $149,000a trio of Mont Blanc posters from 1928, a mid-1930s German travel poster featuring the Hindenburg, a 1968 MoMA poster by Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo, an I Want You1917 World War I recruiting poster that introduced the modern concept of Uncle Sam, and an Alphonse Mucha poster featuring Sarah Bernhardt.

 

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

 

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Bonhams Could Auction a Frank Tenney Johnson Nocturne for $350,000

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What you see: A portrait of Alphonzo Bell painted in 1928 by Frank Tenney Johnson. Bonhams estimates it at $250,000 to $350,000.

 

The expert: Kathy Wong, specialist in fine arts at Bonhams.

 

How prolific was Johnson? He was quite prolific. Over 500 works have been offered at auction alone, and there’s a large number of works in private collections and institutional collections. He was quite in demand from the 1920s onward. There was in particular in Los Angeles a commission for a drop curtain for a theater. The popularity of that worked to launch him in this area.

 

How often did he accept portrait commissions such as this one? As he grew in popularity, especially with Hollywood, he did accept portrait commissions through Stendahl Galleries [the Los Angeles gallery that represented him]. This portrait was negotiated through Stendahl. At least three other equestrian portraits have been identified. Sometimes they’re foremen as well. They’re not just wealthy ranchers.

 

Do we know anything about how Johnson would have made this painting? Would he have had Bell pose with his horse in this landscape and painted him plein air? There are no notes beyond what was written in the Stendahl Galleries ledger. What we know about Johnson’s working technique–there is some scaffolding involved. Certain compositions he favored might repeat in parts. The grouping of cattle is reminiscent of Frank Tenney Johnsons we’ve sold in the past. I strongly suspect because Johnson was an accomplished horseman himself, he had Bell mount his palomino horse and did a photo, but we don’t know for certain. There are no documents of how the commission was carried out.

 

How often did Johnson use photography in his work? We don’t know. But he was a very prolific photographer and it was part of his working process as well.

 

Is it reasonable to assume he used photos to create this commission? I think so, given that there were photos used for other works.

 

Do we know if Bell had any input into the appearance of the portrait? We simply don’t know. It was commissioned, per the ledger, on his [Bell’s] Bel Bar Ranch in Colorado. How much artistic license was taken is unknown. There’s nothing in the landscape that would identify it as Bel Bar Ranch. It’s most likely supposed to depict Colorado.

 

Is this scene typical of Johnson’s work? It’s fairly typical compositionally and in its coloration. A lone rider against a backdrop like this is pretty recognizable as his work. It’s intended to be a dusky landscape. We believe it to actually be one of his moonlight paintings.

 

Wait, this is a night scene? But there’s a blue sky with white clouds… As far as we are aware, it’s meant to be an evening scene. It’s more like twilight. There’s a very theatrical aspect to his nocturnes. The whites are highlighted. Much in the way that Maxfield Parrish scenes are not what you observe at nighttime, this is a romantic, dramatic depiction of evening.

 

This measures 32 inches by 40 inches. Is that a typical painting size for him? It’s toward the larger [end of the spectrum]. He did work in a full range of sizes. This is a common desirable size for him.

 

Could you talk a bit about the equestrian aspect of the painting? I understand that was a strength for Johnson. I think Bell would have been familiar enough with Frank Tenney Johnson’s nocturnes that a cream-colored horse would be a very visually striking feature in the landscape.

 

Bell chose his horse for visual effect? I think so. Per his biography, he was an aesthete. He was visually sensitive. It’s very possible he saw another [nocturne] example Frank Tenney Johnson did of a rider on a white horse and asked for something similar. There’s a lovely luminosity to white or cream-colored horses in his compositions. I’m sure Bell must have been aware of that.

 

Do we know how many nocturnes Johnson did? They’re not very rare. His nocturnes became his most commercially sought-after type of landscape. What makes this particular work desirable and interesting is it speaks to ranch culture. There was an interesting moment in Los Angeles in the 1920s when it transformed from an agricultural economy to a film-based economy. It comes at a time when the ranch way of life in LA gave way to oil and gas coming in, and film industry studios coming in. Bell, like Frank Tenney Johnson, had artistic sensitivity. He could straddle the agrarian and ranch world and the mythic depiction of that in Hollywood. This Western way of life was opening up to a larger audience.

 

What is this work like in person? It’s really stunning. There’s a lot of active brushwork, probably more than you can see online. The saturation of colors is what I wish everyone could see in person. There’s a luminosity that the catalog doesn’t do justice. It’s a work you can stand before and this quietude comes over you. Bell looks to be deep in thought. His absorption is quite captivating here.

 

It’s kind of meditative. It is. All the nocturnes have that quality. Many works in the Brinkman Collection [from which this painting comes] show action. This is one of the few that shows a quiet, introspective moment.

 

We know who the sitter is. Does that matter? Does that make the painting more interesting to collectors, even though he isn’t a celebrity or a famous historical figure? I do think so. Buyers want to know the story behind the work. His biography is quite fascinating. The way he found oil on his family ranch is quite dramatic. I think potentially some bidders may identify with the sitter or find his life story interesting.

 

What’s the auction record for a Frank Tenney Johnson? It was over 10 years ago. It was a similar size, depicting two horses in the evening, called Silent Night. It sold in 2007 for $1.1 million with a $300,000 to $500,000 estimate. The market was quite robust at the time, but it has changed since. We think this work is priced accordingly for the current market.

 

What makes this painting memorable? Even if you don’t know anything about Frank Tenney Johnson, it’s visually compelling. We’re all familiar with the myth of the Marlboro Man, which was based on a real ranch hand. Whether you’re a fan of Western art or not, there’s something heroic about the figure, communicated by a composition that explains its enduring appeal.

 

How to bid: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell is lot 47 in the sale of the L.D. “Brink” Brinkman Collection of Western American art, taking place February 8, 2019 at Bonhams Los Angeles.

 

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.

 

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram. Kathy Wong is on Twitter.

 

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

 

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

SOLD! This Snarky-looking Tall Wally Bird Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: The tall Wally Bird tobacco jar sold for $50,000.

 

What you see: A tall bird tobacco jar, aka a “Wally Bird,” by the Martin Brothers, created in London circa 1900. The head is signed by R.W. (Robert Wallace) Martin, and the base is signed as the Martin Brothers. Rago Auctions estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

 

The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.

 

Why do people love Wally Birds? What makes them great is they [the Martin Brothers] were world-class modelers, at the top of their game, with an idea no one else had. They’re really expressive creatures, and a lot of fun. It’s like they [the birds] are having a conversation with each other. Expression is so much of what these things are about. They’re pretty snarky. I don’t know of any that are benign.

 

Are those made between 1880 and 1900 the most desirable? I think so. I’m not a scholar or an academic. I’m hands on. I touch this stuff. What I know is not out of a book. The power alley [for Wally Birds] is from 1883 to 1893. I would peg this bird a little earlier than 1900. I’d say 1895. [After 1900 or so] you can see them start to lose their edge. Maybe after 25 years they [the Martin Brothers] wanted to move on to something else.

 

What details of this Wally Bird make you think it’s from 1895 and not 1900? I just think he’s a better bird. Better modeling, better detailing, better expression, better gradation of color. He’s tall, and he’s got a lot of character. I think he was made during the prime of their production.

 

Who was the best modeler among the brothers? I think Robert Wallace was a cut above.

 

Do Wally Birds with his signature sell for more? I always find it’s better to have “Robert Wallace” on a piece than not. But I’d rather have a great unsigned Wally Bird than a mediocre one with R.W.’s initials on it.

 

Does height matter with Wally Birds? Do collectors prefer the taller ones? It’s a factor in the price. Birds tend to be seven or eight inches tall. Over one foot, 15 inches, you’ve got a big bird. The vast majority are 10 inches or less.

 

Do the expressions on the faces of the birds matter? Yes, and being colorful helps. The important things are the expression, the size, and the condition, but it’s not hard to sell a Wally Bird with minor damage.

 

Were Wally Birds actively collected when they were new, or did that come later? I don’t know that people collected things in 1885. We were still dealing with the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

 

So it was more like people thought, ‘This is too nice to throw away’? [More like] “I saw a jar that looks like someone I know, I’ll buy it and keep it.”

 

The Wally Birds were designed to hold pipe tobacco. Were they used that way? I’ve literally handled 200 of these and I haven’t found tobacco in any of them. I think they were called tobacco jars to give them a functional purpose, maybe to appeal to men. Everybody smoked back then. You can’t use a bird, but you can use a tobacco jar. Who knows what the rationale was?

 

And the Martin Brothers made Wally Birds from 1880 up until 1914? I’ve had pieces dated that late. There’s a thought that some were finished later than that by a son of one of the brothers in the 1930s. The dating might not be clear on the later ones. They tend to be blue and white, and the expressions tend to be shallower.

 

Do we know how the birds were made? They were sculpted. You can look inside [a Wally Bird] and see the way the clay has been cut back. They gouged the clay out to make the interior. You can see the tooling of the construction.

 

Are Wally Birds based on real birds? To some extent, yes. But I think the birds they looked at was a departure point for their imaginations.

 

Do British collectors dominate the field of Wally Birds? Americans have been bringing Wally Birds here for 50 years. I even know Brits who buy them from Americans and sell them back to Americans. I would guess that 75 percent of known Martinware [a term that describes the Wally Birds and other ceramics by the Martin Brothers] is in the U.S.

 

How often do Wally Birds come up at auction? There’s been a generational change. People who bought in the 1980s are selling off now. I sold Lillian Hoffman’s collection four years ago. Wait ten years, and the people who bought in the Harriman Judd collection sale [at Sotheby’s in January 2001] will sell off.

 

So they come up every five or ten years or so? Yeah. Even if they [collectors] have to pare down, they don’t put up one Wally Bird. They put up two or three. They sell them in flocks.

 

What’s it like to hold this Wally Bird in your hand? For a ceramic, it’s hefty. There’s nothing eggshell about Wally Birds, nothing delicate.

 

What condition is it in? There’s a repair on one of the feathers, and at the very bottom of the clay base, there’s an unevenness to the edge. But it’s an 125-year-old piece of ceramic sculpture.

 

In your experience, how do collectors display Wally Birds in their homes? They’re displayed how you’d expect a $50,000 piece of clay to be displayed–usually on a shelf, with half a dozen birds side by side. They’re not left on desktops, where they’re too easily knocked over.

 

You’ve got several pieces of Martinware in this auction, including another Wally Bird in Lot 5 that’s estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. What’s the difference between this bird and that bird? Why is Lot 1 one worth more? Size is a significant factor. Lot 1 is a big bird. Lot 5 is interesting because it’s a friar bird. [Look closely at its head and you’ll see it has a tonsure–a monk’s hairstyle. You can also click on the 360-degree view button at the lower right and spin it to better see the back of its head.] But it’s the nature of the beast–it’s clumsier, it’s not as free-flowing a bird. Both are good birds, but one is one and a half times the size of the other one.

 

Wally Birds are 80 to 120 years old. Almost no one smokes a pipe anymore. What’s been keeping up the profile of Wally Birds? Was there a big, influential museum show? Is there a collectors’ society that’s active and media-savvy? Several things. Number one is the right number of them were made. With Martinware, there’s enough material out there but not too much–just enough to create and sustain a market. Number two, both sides of the pond are buying this stuff. If it’s supported by collectors in Europe and America, it’s healthy. Number three, they’re really good. World-class ceramics. They’re sculpted, best in the world at the time it was made, and I haven’t seen much to rival it. The quality has held up.

 

The world auction record for a Wally Bird belongs to an 1889 example that stands just over 14 inches tall and resembles the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. It sold in December 2015 in New York for $233,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. I realize Rago did not handle that bird, but can you tell me why it did so well? It was a fabulous bird. It was huge, and it was a historic figure from the land where they were made. It was the pinnacle. I don’t know if you get better than [the Wally Birds that resemble] Disraeli and [British prime minister William] Gladstone. Those are the best.

 

And Americans are just as interested in the Disraeli and Gladstone Wally Birds, even though they depict British political figures? Absolutely. I’m sure they’re in America. If you’re going to buy British pottery, you’re going to buy the best out there.

 

Why will this Wally Bird stick in your memory? The expression is really good. The quality is top-notch. The condition is excellent. That’s true of most birds I handle. And it’s just big. The production of the larger birds is quite limited. I’d say five percent are this size or bigger. If 250 [a possible rough count for surviving Wally Birds] is accurate, there are 10 to 15 in this range. In a September 2018 auction, I had one that big, and it sold for $112,500. It’s really, really rare to have another that size. I would dare say I have this bird because I sold the other one.

 

How to bid: The Martin Brothers tall bird tobacco jar is lot 1 in the Early 20th Century Design sale at Rago Auctions on January 19, 2019.

 

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.

 

Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Alison Davey of AD Antiques in Gloucestershire, England, has devised a way to track Wally Birds without banding their ankles. In 2018, she began creating “passports” for the coveted works. The document, which resembles a British passport, contains a photo of the Wally Bird, its height, its condition, and its known provenance.

 

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

 

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Swann Could Sell a Ridiculously Scarce 1927 Josephine Baker Poster for $18,000

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What you see: A 1927 Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s silent film The Siren of the Tropics. Swann Galleries estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.

 

The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.

 

This poster image is based on a color photograph from an interior page of a Folies Bergère program. How common was it to base poster graphics on photos in the late 1920s? Is this unusual? Good question. I don’t know the answer to that. Some posters were photographic. I’m not sure I know of others, but the fact that it’s unusual doesn’t make it important.

 

Can we tell by looking how the poster artist sized up the photograph? Did they just blow up the photo, or did they trace it or draw it? It has been enlarged, to be sure. I assume it would have been hand-drawn, but I’m not sure about that at all.

 

The original photo was in color. Did the poster artist change the colors, or are these the same colors in the Folies Bergère program photograph? The colors are basically the same. It’s not like they were changed from red to blue. The only change was to cover up her immodesty.

 

It’s interesting that the poster artist went with the same colors seen in the picture, rather than brighter colors that are more suited to the poster medium. I think the poster attracts attention very well without bright colors. Forget the fact that she’s scantily clad–it’s an incredible getup. And it’s a great portrait of her.

 

The movie the poster advertises, The Siren of the Tropics, had its world premiere in Stockholm. Do we know why the premiere was held there rather than, say, Paris? I haven’t found anything about that anywhere. But there was a Swedish fascination with Josephine Baker. They were transfixed by her. All of Europe was transfixed by her to some degree.

 

It’s an odd choice of venue for a Josephine Baker film debut. I couldn’t agree more. I do think the fact that the image is from the Folies Bergère program and not from the film–I think it must have been done quickly. Maybe that’s why they used an image that already existed. The show from the Folies Bergère has nothing to do with the movie. I don’t think she wears the pearls and feathers costume in the film.

 

The poster artist definitely altered the picture when translating it into a poster. What, exactly, was added? Her nipples [are covered], and four strands of pearls emanating from each of her pasties have been added. [You can see the original photo at this link.]

 

It looks like whoever added the pasties and pearls for the poster version did a good job. Is the touch-up work more obvious in person? It took a while to make the realization that [the original] is not covered up. Certainly, the work is good. Seamlessly done. It looks like how it was meant to be.

 

And this is the only copy of the poster that has come to auction? It has been seen before, but it has never come up for sale before. Given how popular Josephine Baker is, and that it was a world premiere of a film, you’d think more copies would surface, but none have come to market.

 

Baker isn’t shown topless, but the poster is still pretty risqué. Where would this have been displayed in Sweden in 1927? Presumably, it was hung up all over Sweden. That doesn’t explain why so few have surfaced. [They would have] posted them wherever they could to get the maximum effect from the advertising.

 

And some of them, certainly, would have been stolen by fans… Stolen, peeled off, maybe a remainder was not posted. It’s a sexy image, even if you don’t like it. I do think it’s eye-catching. She has a very becoming smile, and she’s staring right at you. A fetching pose, an improbable costume. People walking down the street would think, “WTF is that?” She was topless in the Folies Bergère program, but that’s a lot less public than a poster siding.

 

How did the poster come to you? Through the inventory of a dealer who passed away. I think it was purchased in the last five years.

 

You’ve given it a condition grade of B. Collectors would prefer a higher grade, but does that matter when a poster is unique? It’s not a situation where you can sit back and wait for another to come along. There’s no indication there’s another one out there. They have to be forgiving.

 

How did you arrive at the estimate? It’s based on sales of other Josephine Baker posters. Baker is one of the most sought-after music hall performers of her time. Like Chaplin and the Titanic, her name really transcends her genre. She was a black woman making her name performing half-naked in France. That could not happen in America. From a racial point of view, it’s astounding. And it was incredible for a black woman to appear in a movie. Not only appear in it, but star in it.

 

Does the silent film the poster advertises survive? Clips are online. The film was panned, but it’s certainly around.

 

How does this Josephine Baker poster measure up to other posters that feature her? It’s a great depiction of her. We’ve sold several Josephine Baker posters over the years. Some sell for $25,000 to $45,000. This one combines scarcity, an appealing image, and a performer who is remembered and sought after in the collectors’ market. For example, two years ago, we had the French version of Siren of the Tropics poster. It didn’t actually sell. If you looked at it, you couldn’t tell it was Josephine Baker. In 2010, we sold a Danish poster for her film Princess Tam Tam for $9,000.

 

Are there other Josephine Baker posters from her lifetime that are based on photos? There’s one from the end of her career that’s very horrible and very common, which sells for $600 on a good day. It’s not a good comparison. None of the others are photographic.

 

Why will this poster stick in your memory? Several reasons. It’s a sexy image. It really is a rare Josephine Baker piece. It’s a very good poster, because it’s a good likeness of her. And as a poster geek, I appreciate that no others have come up for sale publicly.

 

How to bid: The Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s 1927 silent film, The Siren of the Tropics, is lot 429 in the Vintage Posters sale at Swann Galleries on February 7, 2019.

 

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.

 

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

 

Nicholas Lowry has appeared several times on The Hot Bid. Read past entries in which he  talks about a 1928 Roger Broders poster that later sold for $7,500Swann setting the world auction record for any travel postera 1938 London Transport poster by Man Ray that ultimately sold for $149,000a trio of Mont Blanc posters from 1928, a mid-1930s German travel poster featuring the Hindenburg, a 1968 MoMA poster by Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo, an I Want You1917 World War I recruiting poster that introduced the modern concept of Uncle Sam, and an Alphonse Mucha poster featuring Sarah Bernhardt.

 

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

 

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SOLD! The White Delftware 17th-century Fuddling Cup Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

10003 lot 696 fuddling cup

Update: The white delftware 17th-century fuddling cup sold for $2,375.

 

What you see: A white delftware fuddling cup made in London and dating to the mid-17th century. Sotheby’s estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

 

The expert: Richard Hird, specialist in the ceramics department at Sotheby’s.

 

This piece is known as a “fuddling cup.” What does “fuddling” mean here? It means to confuse or intoxicate the person who was handling the object.

 

Does the finished form tell us anything about how the cup was made? I don’t think anyone knows for certain, but the vessel was probably made in a two-part mold, and the entwined clay handles were probably twisted by hand and applied to the vessel. It’s quite a simple thing to make.

 

Where was it used? It could have been in a private home, but it was very much a tavern object. It was a drinking game. It was certainly meant to be in a tavern setting.

 

How did the drinking game work? There’s some speculation here, but each container would be filled with a different kind of alcoholic drink, and it would be shaken until they were blended. The object was to try to identify each spirit in each vessel.

 

How do the spirits mix? When you look at it, you can’t quite see it, but within the three chambers there’s a hole that connects all three together. It looks like three separate cups, but they are connected by the hole into one big cup. You have to really look in there to see the piercing. The bulbous shapes in the lower part is where they touch, where the hole has been made.

 

The cup is pretty small, measuring three and a half inches tall. But do we know how much liquid it could hold? I don’t know, and I don’t know if there were specific measurements like that. Fuddling cups all tend to be small-size. They don’t get any bigger than that.

 

How do we know that the fuddling cup is probably from the mid-17th century? So far, there are nine recorded with inscribed dates. The earliest is 1633, and the latest is 1649. They probably contain [were probably made in] the second half of the 17th century, but we don’t have dates.

 

Were fuddling cups popular then? It’s hard to judge. It’s a rare object, but they do appear at auction almost annually. Quite a few survive, but a lot were probably lost as well. It was quite a popular drinking game.

 

The cup is white, with no decoration. Is that typical? I guess it is typical, in a way. You do find them decorated in blue, in chinoiserie style. Having it painted would be more expensive, and it was for a tavern. White was the cheapest option, in that sense.

 

What condition is it in? I see some chips in the glaze here and there. The chips are actually a good sign. If there were no chips, you start to question the age of the object. It’s over 200 years old. It has to have signs of age. If it’s perfect, it would raise questions. And it does have some restoration around the rim of one of the vessels.

 

This was a novelty object. Does its having been restored matter less to a collector? I wouldn’t say so. Early 17th century objects are rare and becoming rarer on the market. People are starting to turn a blind eye to issues because they don’t come around that often.

 

Does it show any signs of wear on its interior? No, but it’s quite unusual to see that. On something this small, the vessel spout is probably two centimeters in diameter. You can’t put much in there.

 

Is the fuddling cup connected at all to puzzle jugs? I think so. I don’t know if you’d find a puzzle jug that early in the 17th century, but it’s the similar idea of a tavern game and confusing the user.

 

Do collectors see fuddling cups as art objects, or do they try to use them at least once? I think they do see them as art objects, but I’d be tempted to try to use it to see how it would work.

 

What is it like to hold this cup in your hands? It’s a very light object. It almost fits in the palm of one hand.

 

How to bid: The fuddling cup is lot 696 in The Collection of Anne H. & Frederick Vogel III sale, taking place January 19, 2019 at Sotheby’s New York.

 

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 Sotheby’s.

 

This is the closest I’ll get to showcasing a jigsaw puzzle on this blog, so here’s a shout-out to my faithful suppliers Chris at Serious Puzzles and Andy at Eureka! Puzzles & Games in Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Massachusetts. Thanks!

 

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This Snarky-looking, Super-tall Wally Bird Could Command $60,000 at Rago

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What you see: A tall bird tobacco jar, aka a “Wally Bird,” by the Martin Brothers, created in London circa 1900. The head is signed by R.W. (Robert Wallace) Martin, and the base is signed as the Martin Brothers. Rago Auctions estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

 

The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.

 

Why do people love Wally Birds? What makes them great is they [the Martin Brothers] were world-class modelers, at the top of their game, with an idea no one else had. They’re really expressive creatures, and a lot of fun. It’s like they [the birds] are having a conversation with each other. Expression is so much of what these things are about. They’re pretty snarky. I don’t know of any that are benign.

 

Are those made between 1880 and 1900 the most desirable? I think so. I’m not a scholar or an academic. I’m hands on. I touch this stuff. What I know is not out of a book. The power alley [for Wally Birds] is from 1883 to 1893. I would peg this bird a little earlier than 1900. I’d say 1895. [After 1900 or so] you can see them start to lose their edge. Maybe after 25 years they [the Martin Brothers] wanted to move on to something else.

 

What details of this Wally Bird make you think it’s from 1895 and not 1900? I just think he’s a better bird. Better modeling, better detailing, better expression, better gradation of color. He’s tall, and he’s got a lot of character. I think he was made during the prime of their production.

 

Who was the best modeler among the brothers? I think Robert Wallace was a cut above.

 

Do Wally Birds with his signature sell for more? I always find it’s better to have “Robert Wallace” on a piece than not. But I’d rather have a great unsigned Wally Bird than a mediocre one with R.W.’s initials on it.

 

Does height matter with Wally Birds? Do collectors prefer the taller ones? It’s a factor in the price. Birds tend to be seven or eight inches tall. Over one foot, 15 inches, you’ve got a big bird. The vast majority are 10 inches or less.

 

Do the expressions on the faces of the birds matter? Yes, and being colorful helps. The important things are the expression, the size, and the condition, but it’s not hard to sell a Wally Bird with minor damage.

 

Were Wally Birds actively collected when they were new, or did that come later? I don’t know that people collected things in 1885. We were still dealing with the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

 

So it was more like people thought, ‘This is too nice to throw away’? [More like] “I saw a jar that looks like someone I know, I’ll buy it and keep it.”

 

The Wally Birds were designed to hold pipe tobacco. Were they used that way? I’ve literally handled 200 of these and I haven’t found tobacco in any of them. I think they were called tobacco jars to give them a functional purpose, maybe to appeal to men. Everybody smoked back then. You can’t use a bird, but you can use a tobacco jar. Who knows what the rationale was?

 

And the Martin Brothers made Wally Birds from 1880 up until 1914? I’ve had pieces dated that late. There’s a thought that some were finished later than that by a son of one of the brothers in the 1930s. The dating might not be clear on the later ones. They tend to be blue and white, and the expressions tend to be shallower.

 

Do we know how the birds were made? They were sculpted. You can look inside [a Wally Bird] and see the way the clay has been cut back. They gouged the clay out to make the interior. You can see the tooling of the construction.

 

Are Wally Birds based on real birds? To some extent, yes. But I think the birds they looked at was a departure point for their imaginations.

 

Do British collectors dominate the field of Wally Birds? Americans have been bringing Wally Birds here for 50 years. I even know Brits who buy them from Americans and sell them back to Americans. I would guess that 75 percent of known Martinware [a term that describes the Wally Birds and other ceramics by the Martin Brothers] is in the U.S.

 

How often do Wally Birds come up at auction? There’s been a generational change. People who bought in the 1980s are selling off now. I sold Lillian Hoffman’s collection four years ago. Wait ten years, and the people who bought in the Harriman Judd collection sale [at Sotheby’s in January 2001] will sell off.

 

So they come up every five or ten years or so? Yeah. Even if they [collectors] have to pare down, they don’t put up one Wally Bird. They put up two or three. They sell them in flocks.

 

What’s it like to hold this Wally Bird in your hand? For a ceramic, it’s hefty. There’s nothing eggshell about Wally Birds, nothing delicate.

 

What condition is it in? There’s a repair on one of the feathers, and at the very bottom of the clay base, there’s an unevenness to the edge. But it’s an 125-year-old piece of ceramic sculpture.

 

In your experience, how do collectors display Wally Birds in their homes? They’re displayed how you’d expect a $50,000 piece of clay to be displayed–usually on a shelf, with half a dozen birds side by side. They’re not left on desktops, where they’re too easily knocked over.

 

You’ve got several pieces of Martinware in this auction, including another Wally Bird in Lot 5 that’s estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. What’s the difference between this bird and that bird? Why is Lot 1 one worth more? Size is a significant factor. Lot 1 is a big bird. Lot 5 is interesting because it’s a friar bird. [Look closely at its head and you’ll see it has a tonsure–a monk’s hairstyle. You can also click on the 360-degree view button at the lower right and spin it to better see the back of its head.] But it’s the nature of the beast–it’s clumsier, it’s not as free-flowing a bird. Both are good birds, but one is one and a half times the size of the other one.

 

Wally Birds are 80 to 120 years old. Almost no one smokes a pipe anymore. What’s been keeping up the profile of Wally Birds? Was there a big, influential museum show? Is there a collectors’ society that’s active and media-savvy? Several things. Number one is the right number of them were made. With Martinware, there’s enough material out there but not too much–just enough to create and sustain a market. Number two, both sides of the pond are buying this stuff. If it’s supported by collectors in Europe and America, it’s healthy. Number three, they’re really good. World-class ceramics. They’re sculpted, best in the world at the time it was made, and I haven’t seen much to rival it. The quality has held up.

 

The world auction record for a Wally Bird belongs to an 1889 example that stands just over 14 inches tall and resembles the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. It sold in December 2015 in New York for $233,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. I realize Rago did not handle that bird, but can you tell me why it did so well? It was a fabulous bird. It was huge, and it was a historic figure from the land where they were made. It was the pinnacle. I don’t know if you get better than [the Wally Birds that resemble] Disraeli and [British prime minister William] Gladstone. Those are the best.

 

And Americans are just as interested in the Disraeli and Gladstone Wally Birds, even though they depict British political figures? Absolutely. I’m sure they’re in America. If you’re going to buy British pottery, you’re going to buy the best out there.

 

Why will this Wally Bird stick in your memory? The expression is really good. The quality is top-notch. The condition is excellent. That’s true of most birds I handle. And it’s just big. The production of the larger birds is quite limited. I’d say five percent are this size or bigger. If 250 [a possible rough count for surviving Wally Birds] is accurate, there are 10 to 15 in this range. In a September 2018 auction, I had one that big, and it sold for $112,500. It’s really, really rare to have another that size. I would dare say I have this bird because I sold the other one.

 

How to bid: The Martin Brothers tall bird tobacco jar is lot 1 in the Early 20th Century Design sale at Rago Auctions on January 19, 2019.

 

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Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Alison Davey of AD Antiques in Gloucestershire, England, has devised a way to track Wally Birds without banding their ankles. In 2018, she began creating “passports” for the coveted works. The document, which resembles a British passport, contains a photo of the Wally Bird, its height, its condition, and its known provenance.

 

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

 

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