Chirp! Skinner Sold That Jess Blackstone Robin for… (Scroll Down and See)

1576Miniature birds “Hand Carved and Painted by Blackstone”

Update: The Jess Blackstone robin sold for $584.

 

What you see: A miniature robin, carved and painted by Jess Blackstone circa 1968 or 1969. Skinner estimates it at $300 to $500.

 

The expert: Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner.

 

So, who was Jess Blackstone, and how did he come to carve and paint miniatures of birds? Born 1909, died 1988, a resident of Melrose, Massachusetts, and moved to New Hampshire in the late 1930s, when he became a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. His dad carved mini-songbirds, and he learned to paint and carve from him. That seemed to shape where Blackstone went. He and his dad would have good-natured competitions to paint the smallest bird, or the most elaborate bird. He definitely eclipsed his dad in quality and production, but it [carving and painting bird sculptures] was a family business at one point.

 

Did he live out his life in New Hampshire, or did he travel? He stayed there the rest of his life, in a simple house with a lot of land. He was able to support a wife and an adopted daughter with his carvings. When he was in the military in 1944 and 1945, he listed 58 birds that he encountered or identified in Germany, some of which he actually carved once he got home.

 

I take it he chose that place so he could look out his window and see birds? He had a lot of land, and he was a feeder type of guy. The birds were much more plentiful to see [in the mid-20th century], particularly warblers and tanagers and certain sparrows, which only come during the spring and fall migrations. He carved 92 different species of songbirds, based on an analysis of records at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

 

How prolific was Blackstone? He’s estimated to have carved 8,500 birds. More than 2,500 were chickadees. Since 2005, as far back as our digital records go, we’ve sold 132 Jess Blackstone carvings.

 

Did he carve duck decoys? Decoys, no, but there’s a distinction to be made between these decorative carvings and decoys. Blackstone birds were never meant to attract a member of its own species. He carved ducks, yes, but there aren’t many among his output. They’re all decorative, and the overwhelming majority are songbirds.

 

What do we know about how he worked? We think he observed birds a great deal. We think he bird-watched the way we bird-watch. He’d put out a feeder, or hike, and see them. There’s a story that if a bird hit his window, he would study it. He was so good at capturing the personality of a bird that he had to have watched them. Once he had a template for the shape and colors of a bird, it was almost paint-by-number. He would follow his template after producing one bird.

 

And what do we know about his approach to carving? We know he used white pine. In 2012 we sold a trade sign, a tabletop display mounted on a wood base, with a robin perched on it, that said ‘All birds are made of white pine.’ White pine is easy to carve, light, and plentiful. As far as I can tell, he never deviated from carving white pine.

 

What characteristics mark a Jess Blackstone bird carving? He was an inveterate record-keeper. He always signed his birds the same way, with an intertwined ‘JB’. There’s also a nice detail–he called it ‘feathering the bird’–a very subtle textured effect [of] parallel lines that run the length of the body. It prevents the bird from being completely flat. And the birds always stand on a grey stone-like base.

 

His birds are not photo-realistic, but they’re not folk art, either. Yes. They have a liveliness, a personality. They have a great presence. They straddle the line between realism and charm. Because they make you feel so good, they appeal to people who are not folk art collectors and not bird collectors, necessarily. The man who runs this department has a Jess Blackstone bluebird at his house. It speaks to how universal their appeal is. Though Blackstone created 8,500 of them, and 2,500 chickadees, he was never bored by them. It takes love to carve that many.

 

Why did he make so many chickadees? We don’t know, exactly. Maybe it dovetails with how he marketed and sold his work. He’d do shows at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and developed a following. I think the majority of his business was from craft shows. He knew his carvings were good, and he sought sophisticated audiences for them. People would ask him to carve a certain bird. He painted five times as many chickadees as any other bird. They’re great-looking, and they’re the state bird of Massachusetts. Maybe he carved so many because it was like playing the hits–certain bands out there have to play the one. He carved 267 robins, and this is number 240. Bluebirds and goldfinches, he did more than 500 each. He did 454 mallards, the biggest non-songbird. It looks like the robin is his tenth most popular songbird.

 

He signed his birds, but did he date them? He didn’t typically date them, no. There are numbers on the bottom, but there’s disagreement about what the numbers mean. He started numbering each bird by species. There may not be a number one chickadee, but there is a number 1,150 chickadee. He carved about 30 to 40 birds in a typical month, and up to 60 in a really productive month. The higher the number, the closer to his death [it was made]. He stopped around 1980 because he wasn’t well enough to carve in the last eight years of his life. Some of the ones from the late 1970s are not as high-quality as this robin.

 

Does his having made about 2,500 chickadees mean that chickadees were his favorite bird? Or does that just reflect what the market wanted? I wish I knew the answer to that question. I couldn’t find if he made observations about the birds themselves, other than his output. There’s no indication of if he weighted one bird more than another in his mind.

 

Where do collectors put his birds? Any flat surface. Mantelpieces, bookshelves, custom-made cabinets. They’re easy to amass. People who have one tend to have more than one.

 

What was Jess Blackstone’s golden age? It depends on how you define it. His output seems to have been regular. Toward the end of his career, he was better-known. In 1947, he asked $2 for a bluebird. By the early 1980s [after he had stopped working, but presumably had a stock of finished works], he charged up to $100 per bird. He had good days and he had bad days, but I don’t think his quality dipped very far, if at all. Because he was prolific, well-known, and consistent, [collectors judge based on] the condition of the bird, and the earlier the number, the better it does.

 

What’s the auction record for a Jess Blackstone carving? We’ve had one sell for $2,600–a a pair of purple finches mounted on driftwood. It’s rare for him to have two birds in one piece. [For individual birds,] in 2012, we sold a European bird for more than $2,100. It was a crowd-pleasing bird that was odd for him. If you turned it one way, it looked like a yellow wagtail, and if you turned it another way, it looked like a pied wagtail. It appears to be unique, and it was carved from a drawing he gathered overseas, when he was in the service. Rarer birds are the ones that tend to bring the most.

 

What is this Blackstone robin like in person? Is it actual size? It’s been on my desk all day. It’s tentative, it has an inquisitive stance, but it’s confident in its own way. It’s looking for its next worm. It’s probably an eighth of the size of a real robin, maybe a tenth of the size. The bigger it is, the harder it is to collect and display. One of the appeals of Jess Blackstone birds is they’re so easy to collect. Four look fine, and 30 doesn’t look overwhelming. They display nicely together. With 30 birds at full size, you have to commit. You don’t have to commit as readily to 30 miniature birds.

 

How to bid: The Jess Blackstone robin is lot 1576 in Skinner‘s Americana Online auction, which opened on October 25, 2018 and closes on November 4, 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.

 

You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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

 

Chris Barber spoke to The Hot Bid in February 2017 for a piece on an unusually charming double folk portrait that ultimately sold for $9,840.

 

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

Chirp! Skinner Has a Flock of Jess Blackstone Bird Carvings, Including a Robin That Could Fly Away With $500

1576Miniature birds “Hand Carved and Painted by Blackstone”

What you see: A miniature robin, carved and painted by Jess Blackstone circa 1968 or 1969. Skinner estimates it at $300 to $500.

 

The expert: Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner.

 

So, who was Jess Blackstone, and how did he come to carve and paint miniatures of birds? Born 1909, died 1988, a resident of Melrose, Massachusetts, and moved to New Hampshire in the late 1930s, when he became a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. His dad carved mini-songbirds, and he learned to paint and carve from him. That seemed to shape where Blackstone went. He and his dad would have good-natured competitions to paint the smallest bird, or the most elaborate bird. He definitely eclipsed his dad in quality and production, but it [carving and painting bird sculptures] was a family business at one point.

 

Did he live out his life in New Hampshire, or did he travel? He stayed there the rest of his life, in a simple house with a lot of land. He was able to support a wife and an adopted daughter with his carvings. When he was in the military in 1944 and 1945, he listed 58 birds that he encountered or identified in Germany, some of which he actually carved once he got home.

 

I take it he chose that place so he could look out his window and see birds? He had a lot of land, and he was a feeder type of guy. The birds were much more plentiful to see [in the mid-20th century], particularly warblers and tanagers and certain sparrows, which only come during the spring and fall migrations. He carved 92 different species of songbirds, based on an analysis of records at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

 

How prolific was Blackstone? He’s estimated to have carved 8,500 birds. More than 2,500 were chickadees. Since 2005, as far back as our digital records go, we’ve sold 132 Jess Blackstone carvings.

 

Did he carve duck decoys? Decoys, no, but there’s a distinction to be made between these decorative carvings and decoys. Blackstone birds were never meant to attract a member of its own species. He carved ducks, yes, but there aren’t many among his output. They’re all decorative, and the overwhelming majority are songbirds.

 

What do we know about how he worked? We think he observed birds a great deal. We think he bird-watched the way we bird-watch. He’d put out a feeder, or hike, and see them. There’s a story that if a bird hit his window, he would study it. He was so good at capturing the personality of a bird that he had to have watched them. Once he had a template for the shape and colors of a bird, it was almost paint-by-number. He would follow his template after producing one bird.

 

And what do we know about his approach to carving? We know he used white pine. In 2012 we sold a trade sign, a tabletop display mounted on a wood base, with a robin perched on it, that said ‘All birds are made of white pine.’ White pine is easy to carve, light, and plentiful. As far as I can tell, he never deviated from carving white pine.

 

What characteristics mark a Jess Blackstone bird carving? He was an inveterate record-keeper. He always signed his birds the same way, with an intertwined ‘JB’. There’s also a nice detail–he called it ‘feathering the bird’–a very subtle textured effect [of] parallel lines that run the length of the body. It prevents the bird from being completely flat. And the birds always stand on a grey stone-like base.

 

His birds are not photo-realistic, but they’re not folk art, either. Yes. They have a liveliness, a personality. They have a great presence. They straddle the line between realism and charm. Because they make you feel so good, they appeal to people who are not folk art collectors and not bird collectors, necessarily. The man who runs this department has a Jess Blackstone bluebird at his house. It speaks to how universal their appeal is. Though Blackstone created 8,500 of them, and 2,500 chickadees, he was never bored by them. It takes love to carve that many.

 

Why did he make so many chickadees? We don’t know, exactly. Maybe it dovetails with how he marketed and sold his work. He’d do shows at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and developed a following. I think the majority of his business was from craft shows. He knew his carvings were good, and he sought sophisticated audiences for them. People would ask him to carve a certain bird. He painted five times as many chickadees as any other bird. They’re great-looking, and they’re the state bird of Massachusetts. Maybe he carved so many because it was like playing the hits–certain bands out there have to play the one. He carved 267 robins, and this is number 240. Bluebirds and goldfinches, he did more than 500 each. He did 454 mallards, the biggest non-songbird. It looks like the robin is his tenth most popular songbird.

 

He signed his birds, but did he date them? He didn’t typically date them, no. There are numbers on the bottom, but there’s disagreement about what the numbers mean. He started numbering each bird by species. There may not be a number one chickadee, but there is a number 1,150 chickadee. He carved about 30 to 40 birds in a typical month, and up to 60 in a really productive month. The higher the number, the closer to his death [it was made]. He stopped around 1980 because he wasn’t well enough to carve in the last eight years of his life. Some of the ones from the late 1970s are not as high-quality as this robin.

 

Does his having made about 2,500 chickadees mean that chickadees were his favorite bird? Or does that just reflect what the market wanted? I wish I knew the answer to that question. I couldn’t find if he made observations about the birds themselves, other than his output. There’s no indication of if he weighted one bird more than another in his mind.

 

Where do collectors put his birds? Any flat surface. Mantelpieces, bookshelves, custom-made cabinets. They’re easy to amass. People who have one tend to have more than one.

 

What was Jess Blackstone’s golden age? It depends on how you define it. His output seems to have been regular. Toward the end of his career, he was better-known. In 1947, he asked $2 for a bluebird. By the early 1980s [after he had stopped working, but presumably had a stock of finished works], he charged up to $100 per bird. He had good days and he had bad days, but I don’t think his quality dipped very far, if at all. Because he was prolific, well-known, and consistent, [collectors judge based on] the condition of the bird, and the earlier the number, the better it does.

 

What’s the auction record for a Jess Blackstone carving? We’ve had one sell for $2,600–a a pair of purple finches mounted on driftwood. It’s rare for him to have two birds in one piece. [For individual birds,] in 2012, we sold a European bird for more than $2,100. It was a crowd-pleasing bird that was odd for him. If you turned it one way, it looked like a yellow wagtail, and if you turned it another way, it looked like a pied wagtail. It appears to be unique, and it was carved from a drawing he gathered overseas, when he was in the service. Rarer birds are the ones that tend to bring the most.

 

What is this Blackstone robin like in person? Is it actual size? It’s been on my desk all day. It’s tentative, it has an inquisitive stance, but it’s confident in its own way. It’s looking for its next worm. It’s probably an eighth of the size of a real robin, maybe a tenth of the size. The bigger it is, the harder it is to collect and display. One of the appeals of Jess Blackstone birds is they’re so easy to collect. Four look fine, and 30 doesn’t look overwhelming. They display nicely together. With 30 birds at full size, you have to commit. You don’t have to commit as readily to 30 miniature birds.

 

How to bid: The Jess Blackstone robin is lot 1576 in Skinner‘s Americana Online auction, which opened on October 25, 2018 and closes on November 4, 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.

 

You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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

 

Chris Barber spoke to The Hot Bid in February 2017 for a piece on an unusually charming double folk portrait that ultimately sold for $9,840.

 

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

A Grand Souvenir of the Grand Tour: Christie’s Could Sell a Circa 1835, 61-Inch-tall Bronze Model of The Vendôme Column for $60,000

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What you see: A French patinated bronze model of the Vendôme Column, made circa 1835 and standing just over five feet tall. Christie’s estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

 

The expert: David Weingarten, a partner in Piraneseum, the gallery that consigned the work. Piraneseum focuses on artwork and souvenirs of the Grand Tour, a trip through Europe that wealthy young Englishmen took to finish their educations in the 17th through 19th centuries.

 

Let’s start with Trajan’s Column and why Napoleon would want his own version of it. One emperor liked the way another emperor was remembered. [Laughs] There are other parallels of Napoleonic France to Imperial Rome, but Napoleon saw himself in the same light as Trajan, as an equal. The Vendôme Column is very closely modeled on Trajan’s Column. The initial statue of Napoleon at the column’s summit had him dressed in a toga, like a Roman emperor. The column was part of a much wider enthusiasm in this period for Roman architecture and art, which in Paris included the Arc de Triomphe, which was modeled on the Arch of Titus, and the Luxor obelisk, which was retrieved from Egypt, just as the Romans had. There are more ancient Egyptian obelisks in Rome than in Egypt!

 

How did the artisans create such a precisely detailed replica of Trajan’s column around 1835, when they would have had to rely on sketches and engravings instead of photography? Rome wasn’t so terribly far away. They had very accurate records of it in the beginning of the 19th century. The Vendôme Column’s details are quite different, of course. Trajan’s Column depicts him humiliating the Dacians. The Vendôme Column shows Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, with French cannons and horses. Trajan had different actors and different weapons.

 

So this is an update? A refresh. Column 2.0. [Laughs]

 

Does the Napoleon statue on the top date-stamp it to 1835? One of the most interesting things about the Vendôme Column is how it’s changed dramatically over time. When it went up, there was no statue on the top. Then there was a fleur-de-lis, then a flag, then a statue of Napoleon in a toga. Then the people who were politically in charge, Napoleon’s family, didn’t care for the toga statue. That’s when Le Petit Corporal went up [the Napoleon statue on this model]. It lasted until the 1860s, when Napoleon’s grandchildren thought it was demeaning, and put up a new statue of Napoleon in a toga.

 

Was this a souvenir of the Grand Tour, the trip through Europe that rich young Englishmen took after they finished school, or was this a custom commission of some sort? It wasn’t like a souvenir that you go down to the souvenir shop and get. It certainly is the right period, and it’s a very grand sort of thing. You get the grandest of the Grand Tourists bringing this thing back.

 

Is it solid or hollow? And do we know why the finish looks black? The Vendôme Column isn’t black. The model is hollow-cast bronze, and is remarkably detailed and highly accurate. The model’s finish – a very dark, inky green – is typical of many French bronzes in this period. As you point out, this differs considerably from the monument’s green-oxidized bronze panels, which we see today. Whether this oxidized patina was original or intended, I don’t know.

 

How heavy is this thing? I wouldn’t say it was lightweight, but one person can lift it with no problem. You can put it on a table. It cohabitates nicely with other things of its period.

 

Do we know who made this model Vendôme Column? In the last 15 years, since the sale of a Vendôme Column at the Bill Blass Collection auction at Sotheby’s in 2003, there have been a half dozen or so of these offered at auction. All have shared the same general characteristics–patina, method of manufacture, topped by Le Petit Corporal, etc. And yet, there has been one intriguing difference–almost all are different heights, something very unexpected with pieces cast in a mold. This suggests there wasn’t a vendor in any conventional sense, but a foundry producing models on order, for a very limited clientele. I wish I knew the name of this foundry. Perhaps time will reveal it.

What is it like in person? The idea of a souvenir is to jog your memory, but this giant Vendôme Column inverts that idea. At the Place Vendôme, you don’t get very close to the column. The real thing is great, but you can’t see what’s going on. This column is tremendously well- and accurately detailed. You can get very close to it. The architectural experience of the model is more profound than the experience of the real thing.

 

How to bid: The circa 1835 Vendôme Column replica souvenir is lot 331 in The Collector: English and European 18th and 19th Century Furniture, Ceramics, Silver & Works of Art, taking place at Christie’s New York on October 23, 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.

 

Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

 

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

 

Piraneseum has a website.

 

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SOLD! An Exquisite Piano-playing Automaton Commanded $11,000 at Bertoia

bertoia-auctions-antiques-september-sale-272

Update: The Gustave Vichy piano-playing automaton sold for $11,000.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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

 

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RECORD! Doyle Sells the 1953 Preakness Trophy Given to Alfred Vanderbilt, Jr, Owner of Native Dancer, for $100,000

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What you see: A sterling silver Preakness Trophy, won in 1953 by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Jr., owner of the thoroughbred Native Dancer. Doyle sold it in May 2018 for $100,000 against an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000, which is a world auction record for a Preakness Trophy.

 

The expert: Peter Costanzo, senior vice president at Doyle as well as its executive director for books, autographs, and photographs; coins, bank notes, and postage stamps; and estate and appraisal services.

 

How often do Triple Crown trophies come to auction? Infrequently, and for the Preakness, it’s even less frequently. What you normally see are Kentucky Derby Trophies. They’re highly prized by the families who win them. Kentucky Derby Trophies tend to be valuable. The race has name recognition and the trophy is made out of high-karat gold. The Preakness Trophy is made of silver. A Preakness trophy sold at Christie’s on January 17, 2008, won in 1970 by Personality, which was owned by Ethel D.Jacobs, a very notable horse owner, sort of on a par with Vanderbilt. [He later provided a link to a story that mentioned a third sale of a Preakness Trophy at SCP Auctions in November 2017. Scroll down for the mention.]

 

How much is this trophy worth simply as a Preakness Trophy, without factoring in the names of Vanderbilt and Native Dancer? Any winner of the Preakness would be a notable horse, bred and raised and trained by notable owners. You’ve got to go back a ways to find a no-name. The Preakness trophy was not available before 1953. The original trophy was the Woodlawn Vase, a pre-Civil War trophy made by Tiffany & Co. for a racecourse in Kentucky called Woodlawn. Not until the late 19th or the early 20th century did Pimlico host the Preakness–the vase was not made for Pimlico. It passed to the next winner until 1953, when Native Dancer won. Vanderbilt decided that the original trophy was too valuable, and should be safely held in the Baltimore Art Museum. 1953 was the first time a replica trophy was issued, and that’s what we sold. It’s notable in that it was the first one you could get. I think that helped its price in the end.

 

How did the Vanderbilt name affect the value of the trophy? Lots of people collect things related to prominent Vanderbilts. The cross-current of competition [with collectors of horse-racing memorabilia] helped drive the price up. This trophy belonged to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Jr., and was sold [consigned] by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt III. Vanderbilt Jr., was very influential in the history of American racing and particularly in Maryland.

 

And how did the Native Dancer name affect the value of the trophy? Native Dancer is one of a small group of horses that lost the Kentucky Derby but won the Preakness. That’s the only mar on his record. He was a big favorite going into the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. In 1953, the Preakness was shown on live television and got huge national attention. The country fell in love with Native Dancer.

 

How did you arrive at the estimate of $20,000 to $30,000? We matched the estimate on the trophy sold at Christie’s in 2008. That sold for $32,200. Ours really took off.

 

What is the trophy like in person? It wasn’t huge, but it was imposing, though. It had a very nice look to it, and it was in good condition. I think it was two-thirds the size of the original Woodlawn Vase. It’s a good, presentable size.

 

What was your role in the auction? Were you in the room? I acted as a specialist. I wrote the essay about the horse and its owner. The silver specialist cataloged it. And I was there, watching it sell. The whole thing took maybe two minutes. There was a pretty big pool of bidders that dropped down to two once it was over $60,000.

 

How long do you think the record will stand? I think this Preakness record should stand for a while. Probably none of the owners of horses that won the Preakness have the name recognition of the Vanderbilt family. It would probably have to belong to a horse that won the Triple Crown.

 

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a major sports collectible, probably the highest-ranking sports collectible I’ve ever sold. It’s a case of a fantastic owner, Vanderbilt, with a fantastic horse, Native Dancer, and the Preakness. It’s hard to get trophies for major horses. That’s why it’s special. The trophy clearly spoke to a lot of people.

 

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

 

Doyle is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

 

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WHOA! That Elmer Crowell Preening Black Duck Decoy Flew Away With $600,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions–Double Its High Estimate

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Update: The circa 1912 A. Elmer Crowell Phillips rig preening black duck decoy sold for $600,000—double its high estimate.

 

What you see: A Phillips rig preening black duck decoy, carved circa 1912 by A. Elmer Crowell for his patron, Dr. John C. Phillips. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

 

Who was A. Elmer Crowell? Born in 1862 in East Harwich, Massachusetts, he’s the king of American duck decoy carvers. Initially, he carved in the course of his work at duck-hunting camps, but over time, his magnificent wooden birds won fans who loved them as decorative objects. His decoys have sold at auction for six-figure sums, and two sold privately for more than $1 million each. Crowell died in 1952, at the age of 89.

 

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

 

Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but is this preening black duck a hen or a drake? Black ducks get a pass on being hens or drakes. 99 percent of the time, they’re just black ducks. This is just a black duck, with no clear designation on being one or the other.

 

It’s also described as being a “rig mate” to other duck decoys that belonged to the late Dr. Phillips. What does it mean for a decoy to be a rig mate? A rig is a group of birds [decoys] owned by and hunted over by one person. It doesn’t always mean the decoys are exactly alike, or made side by side. There can be a lot of variation, depending on how they were made and used. In the context of the Phillips rig, a decoy can be anything out of that group of rig mates. There are Phillips rig mates that look nothing like Crowell’s work.

 

Crowell carved and painted hundreds of decoys that depicted black ducks. Where does this one rank among his lifetime output? It’s among his very finest. As you mention, he did hundreds of them. This bird is as good as they come, in my personal opinion.

 

Did he carve the decoy from a single piece of wood? The bird is made of two pieces, one for the body and one for the head. One thing that makes the bird so strong is the masterful sculpture of the duck in a preening position. It’s not easy to capture well, and Crowell did it nearly perfectly. The finer details of the carving show Crowell’s tremendous effort to do his best work for his best patron. We see him coming into a sweet spot in his career–he was as good a carver as he would be, and this was on the early side of showing his command of his wet-on-wet painting technique, which gives a natural, soft look to the feathers.

 

This looks gorgeous enough to have been destined for a mantle, but the lot notes say it shows evidence of being used on a hunt… It’s a working decoy, and at the same time, it represents one of the best carved decoys in a decorative sense. The bird was hardly used. It was probably retired early because of an appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. I suspect the patron deemed it too precious to hunt over. What’s interesting about the Phillips rig is Crowell didn’t just make this decoy for Phillips, he was his stand manager. He created the decoys, and decided where they would be hunted, and how they would be hunted over. Crowell knew he was going to be involved with handling the decoy after it left his workshop. He wasn’t handing it over to a hunter who might break it. It’s unknowable, but it’s possible because of the relationship Crowell and Phillips had.

 

Do we know when Crowell made this decoy? He used a hot brand [on his decoys]. We can date his birds to some extent on the quality of the brand. Every time a brand is heated, it corrodes a little. Over the years, a brand can be seen burning out, leaving a softer and softer impression. It’s a great dating tool that Crowell inadvertently left behind. This has a perfectly crisp oval brand, which suggests it was 1912.

 

Carving the duck’s head to make it hover in a natural-looking way over the body seems difficult. Is it harder to carve a preening duck? You can think of a preener as the decoy maker’s deluxe model. It’s harder to carve and harder to paint. But it adds variety to the rig, making it look more lifelike as a group. An additional benefit is they’re less breakable because the body can protect the head. We have a 200-year-old decoy in the sale with an intact bill because it’s protected by the body in the preening pose.

 

What is your favorite detail on this decoy? When I look at this bird, the first thing it does is hold together as a phenomenal piece of sculpture. You can go from tip to tail picking out fine details that were expertly executed, but the bird is better than any one single detail.

 

What is it like to hold the decoy? [Laughs] Being in the presence of the decoy before handling it is a real pleasure. It’s excellent from every angle. And it feels just right in the hand. It’s full, robust, and you can feel the finer subtleties in the carving details. I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

To explain what a big deal it is to auction Donal C. O’Brien, Jr.’s collection of decoys and sporting art, can you draw an analogy to other notable auctions of lots consigned by great collectors? It would be somewhat like the Rockefeller collection or the Yves St. Laurent collection in its breadth and quality, and that’s been reflected in the market response to the birds so far.

 

Why will this Crowell preening black duck decoy stick in your memory? Crowell is a quintessential representative of great American bird carving. He was self-taught. He started making decoys because he needed to, and his working decoys led to the birth of American decorative bird carving. This bird is at the nexus of his carving career, where his working decoys became so good, they’re indistinguishable from decorative carving. He’s one of the best makers, making his best effort, carving one of his favorite species for his most important client. It fires on all cylinders from a historic standpoint and an aesthetic standpoint.

 

How to bid: The Crowell preening black duck is lot 14 in the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Collection of Important American Sporting Art and Decoys, Session III, taking place July 19, 2018 at Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

Copley Fine Art Auctions appeared on The Hot Bid last summer in a post about a record-setting Gus Wilson duck decoy.

 

Quack!

 

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SOLD! A Scarce Robert-Houdin Mystery Clock Fetches $36,000 at Potter & Potter

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Update: The Robert-Houdin mystery clock sold for $36,000.

 

What you see: A mid-nineteenth century glass column mystery clock by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Potter & Potter Auctions estimates it at $40,000 to $50,000.

 

Who was Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin? He was a self-taught French magician as well as a horologist, or clockmaker. His father, Prosper Robert, made watches, and Robert-Houdin later married into a clock- and watchmaking family, adding his wife’s surname to his own. At some point between 1831 and 1844, Robert-Houdin invented the mystery clock, a device that baffles by keeping time without any visible gears or clockwork. He invented or refined many magic tricks that are still performed today, and his 1859 autobiography became a best-seller. Eric Weiss, a struggling young American immigrant, was so inspired by Robert-Houdin’s life story that he referenced the Frenchman in his stage name: Harry Houdini. Robert-Houdin died in 1871 at the age of 65.

 

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

 

How rare are Robert-Houdin clocks at auction? They’re very hard to come by.

 

Is there a catalog raisonné of his clocks, or an accepted count, or… There’s no great count. Even his own property got scattered to family members.

 

How many Robert-Houdin clocks have you handled? Two other mystery clocks, and one electromagnetic that wasn’t a mystery clock. It was one of the most expensive ones we’ve sold.

 

How do you know this clock is by Robert-Houdin and not his son, who made some mystery clocks after his father’s death? That’s a tough one, especially because they worked in conjunction to some degree. Two expert horologists took it apart [for Potter & Potter] and did a 12-page report on all the clocks in the David Baldwin collection. Other clocks in the auction, on examination, were pieced together with old parts or done in the style of Robert-Houdin. Their estimates would be five times higher if they were original, maybe more.

 

How often do you see a Robert-Houdin mystery clock with this magnifying glass-like shape, as opposed to the one in lot 30, which has a square dial sitting in a frame on a marble base? You see just one glass dial most often. This [lot 28] is a double mystery. The single mystery is the glass dial–how does it keep time? The double mystery is the glass dial plus the glass tube.

 

And Robert-Houdin invented the mystery clock? For a Paris exposition, yes. If he wasn’t a magician, he would have been a clockmaker. He invented a lot of things, and he was fascinated by electricity. He was one smart dude.

 

How does the mystery clock reflect his inventiveness? It’s interesting because it’s the confluence of two things in his life–clockmaking and magic. Here’s a beautiful clock that you’d be happy to put in your salon, but at the same time, you think, how does it work? It’s both beautiful and miraculous.

 

Does it work? I got it to chime, but I haven’t seen its hand move. Robert-Houdin mystery clocks are notorious for needing adjustments. You’ll need to have a clockmaker look at it.

 

This clock has an estimate of $40,000 to $50,000. The square dial clock in lot 30 carries an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. What accounts for the difference? It’s [the clock in lot 28] a much more uncommon form. One of the guys who did the examination for me thought it was quite unusual and original enough to be exciting to a clock collector.

 

Who fights more fiercely for Robert-Houdin mystery clocks–magicians, or clock collectors? I’ve had winners in both of those camps. It’s hard to predict.

 

What is this clock like in person? Does it make an impression? It certainly did when I walked into the [consigner’s] house to look at it the first time I saw the collection. He had 15 of them. You can instantly tell it’s something special.

 

How to bid: The Robert-Houdin mystery clock is lot 28 in the David Baldwin Magic Collection II auction at Potter & Potter on June 16, 2018.

 

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Follow Potter & Potter on Instagram and Twitter.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

 

Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He talked about a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.

 

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