Quack! An Elmer Crowell Preening Black Duck Decoy Could Fly Away with $300,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

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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.

 

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.

 

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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RECORD! A Piece of Thomas Stearns’s Glass Masterpiece Sold for $737,000 at Wright–A New Auction Record for the Artist

Stearns La Sentinella di Venezia

Update: The segment from La Sentinella di Venezia (The Sentinel of Venice) sold for $737,000.

 

What you see: One of the three elements of La Sentinella di Venezia (The Sentinel of Venice), a 1962 glass sculpture by Thomas Stearns. Wright estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.

 

Who was Thomas Stearns? Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Stearns came to the glassworks of Venini in Murano, Italy in 1960, and stayed for two years. He spoke virtually no Italian, had no previous experience with blown glass, and saw his design ideas scorned by the Venini factory’s grand master. Undaunted, he collaborated with a young house master, Francesco “Checco” Ongaro, and produced innovative sculptural pieces that heralded the arrival of the studio glass movement. Stearns died in 2006, at the age of 69 or 70.

 

The expert: Sara Blumberg, a consultant for Wright.

 

How did Thomas Stearns come to have a residency at Venini? This is a two-part answer. He was given a grant by the Italian government for glass and fiber art, and it came with a Fulbright Travel Grant. It was a combination of the two things.

 

About a month after his arrival Stearns showed a clay model and drawings to the grand master of Venini. And the grand master was… is ‘offended’ the right word? I think it’s the right word. It’s an island industry. Sticking to historical references is part of that history. A young man came in with a completely different notion of what to attempt. It flew in the face of traditional ideas of not just the Venini glassworks, but every glassworks on Murano. He was offended by it because he felt it indicated no respect for glassmaking and the way it was being done.

 

Why did Ongaro take the risk of working with Stearns? I think he was curious. It was a chance to prove himself and step up in the glassworks, which was not easy to do. He saw it as an opportunity. It was a very unusual circumstance to have a person like Stearns in their midst. It was probably a very exciting event.

 

What made it exciting for the Venini workers to have Stearns there? His being a foreigner is a major piece of the puzzle. And he was there on the floor, among the workers. In terms of the social hierarchy–Stearns speaks to this in his essay [you may have to scroll down to locate it]–he gave mixed signals. He was there to work, but he would take the director’s private launch back to [the mainland at the end of the day]. He could not be pegged.

 

How many pieces did Stearns and Ongaro make? There’s no way we can answer that. What we do know is there’s a very limited number of works in general. They weren’t made with an eye toward mass production. His pieces were sculptural glass. Certainly there was a great deal of loss in the making of the pieces. Records weren’t kept. We rely on understanding their rarity rather than any real count.

 

Stearns spoke pretty much no Italian, and Ongaro spoke pretty much no English. How did the two manage to work together successfully? The basic answer is that Stearns prepared design drawings [that were like] comic strips–a series of frames that showed one step, then the next step. And he made clay models to indicate the idea. They developed a language in common. There was a back-and-forth that has to do with the more technical aspects, but they were able to communicate and share as artists do.

 

So, explain what happened at the 1962 Venice Biennale. Venini submitted six works by Stearns, and they win a gold medal, at least briefly… The Biennale was about showing what the glassworks were capable of. You put your best foot forward. There was a lot of excitement within the company and without [about Stearns’s work]. Venini got a call that it had won the Gold Medal for Glass, but when they got to the pavilion, they discovered a blob of glue [on the display case] and no medal. They got another call saying the medal was withdrawn when they [the judges] learned the works were not Italian-made. Had there been any indication up front [that Stearns being American was a problem] they would not have submitted.

 

What was the fallout from that? It’s not known to us. At the time, we didn’t have that answer. But if you consider the place and the culture… again, this is a very small place, a very tightly controlled place. There’s a sense of tradition. It would be a scandal here [for a medal to be taken away because the designer wasn’t a native] but it was not a scandal there. It had to do with the pride of Murano. It was an outpouring of devotion to tradition. It may not make sense to us, but it made sense to them.

 

How did Stearns come to create The Sentinel of Venice? This is the last work he created [at Venini]. It was intended to be a three-part conceptual piece that was meant to speak to his time in Venice. He felt strongly about Venice as a place and feared for its safety. It was a tribute to a place where he spent a short but meaningful time. All his feelings about Venice are what he intended to imbue in the piece.

 

Does this piece of The Sentinel of Venice resemble the other two? It’s not markedly different, but it’s different. We’re talking a very similar coloration and idea. If you want to see the other two, you can see them online. [Here’s one of the three, which sold at Christie’s in 2001 for $102,800 against an estimate of $80,000 to $100,000; the other was broken and only exists as a shard.]

 

I realize we can’t hop in a time machine and watch Stearns and Ongaro make this piece, but can you give me a notion of how difficult it would have been to realize this segment of The Sentinel of Venice? A variety of techniques were employed. There are multiple elements here, all working in concert. That’s really where you encounter the difficulty. Combining techniques is exceptionally difficult because they fuse and anneal at different rates. It’s hard to control when you get this complicated or this large. What makes this piece unique is these techniques had not been combined in the past in this way, and in such a sculptural way.

 

How did Stearns’s work at Venini influence the American studio glass movement, which got its start around the same time he was in Italy? In a couple of ways. One was the sheer artistry and the experimentation of it all, experimenting with forms in a new way. That was one aspect. Another was the studio work–one or two people working in concert, doing very small projects. It’s different from making piece after piece as the glassworks was. There is no feeling that [Stearns works] are prototypes for mass production. They were viewed as sculptures, as artistic endeavors. It’s more about sculpture than utilitarian objects.

 

How often do glass works by Stearns come to auction? They’re rare. There were great losses [when he and Ongaro were making them]. A limited number of works come up. We’ve [Blumberg and her partner, Jim Oliveira] curated auctions for seven years and we’ve handled glass for almost 30 years. We see them every two or three years or so.

 

What’s the auction record for a Stearns, and for a work from Venini? The answer for both is Facades of Venice, which sold for $612,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2016. There were two vessels in the lot, and they were sold as one lot.

 

What are the chances that The Sentinel of Venice will meet or exceed that sum? I hesitate to answer that, because I don’t know. It’s a possibility, absolutely. It’s an extraordinary event for it to come to auction and to have it in a collection that’s so focused on postwar glass. Facades, they got a good price for them. I think this is as exciting, if not more exciting. It’s very particular and thrilling.

 

Have you handled The Sentinel of Venice? Many times. It’s unlike anything I’ve held in glass. It has a beautiful weight. It’s a large piece for a piece of glass, very monumental. It’s a very exciting feeling to look at it and hold it. You can understand what his intention was, and you can feel the strength in it. Visually, it feels like a painting, from every angle. It’s really a painting in three dimensions.

 

How to bid: The piece from Stearns’s La Sentinella di Venezia is lot 160 in Important Italian Glass: A Private Chicago Collection, which takes place on May 23, 2018 at Wright.

 

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 Wright.

 

See Wright’s short biography of Thomas Stearns and read Stearns’s 1989 essay, The Facades of Venice: Recollections of My Residency in Venice, 1960-1962. [You may have to scroll down a bit to find it.]

 

Sara Blumberg appeared on The Hot Bid in June 2017, talking about a 19th century Italian macchie vase that ultimately sold for $8,450.

 

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No One Can Do What British Potter George Owen Did. No One. A Covered Vase He Made in 1913 Could Sell for $21,000 at Bonhams

Fine Royal Worcester Reticulated Vase and Cover Bonhams

What you see: A Royal Worcester reticulated vase and cover, made by George Owen in 1913 and standing just over five inches tall. Bonhams estimates it at £10,000 to £15,000, or $14,000 to $21,000.

 

Who was George Owen? He was a British artisan who spent his entire career with Royal Worcester, which was founded in 1751 and still produces porcelain and earthenware. Born in 1845, Owen began his career in 1859, while he was barely into his teens. He enjoyed watching his colleagues who handled piercing work–making porcelain decorated with artful holes–and thought he could do a better job. He was right. He invented his own tools and techniques and he jealously guarded his methods. Owen died in 1917.

 

The expert: John Sandon, international director of European ceramics and glass at Bonhams.

 

How rarely do George Owen pieces come up at auction? Individually, they are scarce. We [Bonhams] sell more than anyone else, about half a dozen a year. Over the last ten years, we’ve had 50 pieces. Maybe a dozen a year are on the market worldwide.

 

Has anyone done a count or survey of the number of pieces Owen made? Because he was always secretive, he didn’t keep records. But I imagine maybe there’s a thousand. Over 40 years he produced pieces, each taking several months stretched over a long period of time.

 

Is the shape he used for this reticulated vase unique, or did he return to this shape over and over again? The shapes are never unique. They’re the factory’s vases. The same vase could be painted with flowers or other decorations. Owen adapted them by cutting holes in them. He added the pearls around the top–they’re his own invention. I don’t know of another piece that’s precisely like this. He did a small number of each shape, but no two are ever the same.

 

And he came up with his own tools and techniques to create these pieces? He worked in the Royal Worcester factory’s ornamental casting department. The [pierced pieces] were molded and they cut holes out. He thought he could do better without the molded pattern. He was the only one who tried to cut out holes without any guide in the mold. He developed his own tools to cut the tiny holes. A great many in the pottery industry like to make their own tools–there’s a long tradition of that. He supposedly got the steel for his tools from the staves of corsets.

 

How did Owen remove the tiny piece of wet clay waste from the body of the vase after he finished cutting a hole? He would dip the tool into something sticky [most likely oil or honey – Ed.] so with the last cut, it would stick to the tool. If it [the waste clay] did fall inside the piece, there was no way to get it out.

 

Punching thousands of tiny holes in a wet clay vessel makes it vulnerable to falling in on itself. How did Owen stop his works from collapsing before they reached the kiln? That’s a skill. If it was too wet, it would collapse. Potters learn over the years to get the right consistency. Owen’s difficulty was stopping the clay from getting too dry. To keep the shape, he had to handle it very carefully so it wouldn’t become distorted. Usually he managed to pick it up by the base or the top so it wouldn’t lose its shape. He must have been very careful with it. He had to cut each hole without putting pressure on it [the surface of the vessel].

 

Owen used what he called ‘wet boxes’ to rehumidify a piece so he could continue to work on it. How many wet boxes might he have going at once? He must have had a room full of these being worked on. Owen could work a piece for half an hour or an hour before it became too dry to carry on. His work took many hours. A bigger, more elaborate piece might go back into the wet box ten, twenty, forty times. We just don’t know.

 

Moving a piece in and out of a wet box raises the risk that it won’t make it to the kiln. The losses must… Once it was out of the biscuit kiln, there must have been a great sigh of relief.

 

And Owen didn’t let anyone at the factory watch him work? Not even his son, George Potter Owen? That’s always been claimed, but I don’t know how true that is. Craftsmen tend to be secretive to protect their livelihoods. If others learn to do it, they lose their work. They certainly don’t let apprentices learn too much. George Potter Owen may have had a go [at learning his father’s techniques] but he might not have been any good. That’s probably the case. It’s said that no one else, including his son, could do it. Different people at different times have tried to emulate George Owen. I tried too, and made a mess of it. It’s easy to cut big holes. Trying to cut smaller and smaller holes, keeping the holes even, and keeping them in even rows that are the same size–that was his great skill. No one has come close to what George Owen did, and they’ve certainly tried.

 

And while this might be an obvious point, let me hit it anyway–Owen did this on his own, without the help of a computer, which wouldn’t have been available to him anyway. He worked out the geometry for himself. He measured the circumference of a piece and planned it by putting tiny dots [on the surface]. We’d use 3-D printers to do this nowadays. Other than the little dots that you see on the clay sometimes, that’s all he did. Each piece is unique in that sense. There’s no other guide than what he achieved himself.

 

Was this vase a commission, or did he make it on spec? It wasn’t on spec, though he occasionally made special orders. He made the vases and the Royal Worcester factory bought them off him and sold them at a profit to a china shop or a department store. It would have cost two pounds when it was made in 1912, and it would have sold for three or four pounds. At the time, that would have been quite a lot for a single piece of china. Another in the factory would have done the gilding.

 

Bonhams has seven George Owen pieces in the May 2 sale. Is it unusual to have so many? It is. Most often there’s one or two. Sometimes there’s none. Sometimes there’s four. It’s a coincidence on this occasion that we attracted seven pieces. Lot 449 is one of two from the same consigner.

 

How have you seen the George Owen market change over time? George Owen works have always been expensive and costly. They were not appreciated in the 1960s, but in the late ’70s and early ’80s collectors realized they were something special and paid real money for them. I joined [the profession] in 1975, when a nice George Owen would sell for £700 to £1,000. At that time, that was a lot of money. It seems cheap now that they’re getting £15,000 to £20,000.

 

What condition is this piece in? And how much does condition matter with a George Owen? It’s as it left the kiln. It’s perfect. No problems. But George Owen vases don’t bounce if they hit the floor. They can smash into dust if broken. Even tiny damage can make a difference. If a tiny little hole is nicked in a piercing, that can halve the value. I have to check carefully, row by row. If there’s a tiny nick, it’s no longer perfect, and a restorer can’t bring it back to life again. The fact that this vase is perfect is to its favor.

 

What is it like to hold? Every time you pick it up, it’s a pleasure. It’s light. It feels so fragile that the fact that it’s here at all gives you a bit of a buzz. It’s always exciting to have a piece like this. It calls you over to admire it–it’s one of those pieces.

 

How to bid: The George Owen reticulated vase with cover is lot 449 in the Fine Glass and British Ceramics auction at Bonhams on May 2, 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.

 

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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

 

Also see a 2014 Bonhams video in which John Sandon and his father, Henry, enthuse over the artistry of a different Royal Worcester George Owen vase. Estimated at £60,000 to £80,000, Bonhams sold it for £65,200, or $92,623.

 

And also see the Museum of Royal Worcester’s web pages on its peerless artisan, George Owen, which shows him “working” on a reticulated vase that’s actually finished.

 

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RECORD! A Dutch Silver Masterpiece by Adam van Vianen Sells for $5.3 Million at Christie’s

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Update: The Adam van Vianen silver ewer sold for $5.3 million–a world auction record for the artist, and for any piece of Dutch silver.

 

What you see: A silver ewer created by Dutch silversmith Adam van Vianen in 1619. Christie’s gives the estimate as on request, but it could sell for seven figures.

 

The expert: Harry Williams-Bulkeley, Christie’s European head of silver.

 

What is a ewer? Why might Adam van Vianen have chosen this form? A ewer is a jug. This ewer is not standard. Work by Adam van Vianen was only in the richest homes. One should think of this as a work of sculpture, though it’s of ewer form. It’s made from a single sheet of silver. It’s an extraordinary demonstration of how he was able to manipulate silver to create fluid forms.

 

Adam van Vianen signed and dated the ewer in addition to placing his maker’s mark on it. Why might he have done that? He wanted to be seen as a sculptor in precious metal rather than a producer of workaday objects. This is not meant to be used. It’s meant to be marveled at.

 

Was this ewer commissioned? Do we know? It’s possible it was commissioned for presentation. The choice of the Marcus Curtius narrative [A Roman tale of a soldier who sacrificed himself to save the city] suggests a display of bravery, sacrifice, and loyalty. It may have been presented to a military figure. It could have been Prince Maurice of Orange, who liberated Utrecht, which was van Vianen’s hometown. It’s conjecture, but it’s a possibility.

 

How rare is it for an Adam van Vianen piece to come to auction? Incredibly rare. Two years ago, Christie’s had a plaque by him with a scene on it. Prior to that, we had a small sweetmeat dish in 2001.

 

Do we know how many pieces Adam van Vianen made? A survey done by a Dutch academic notes 22 items either signed by him or bearing his maker’s mark. Of those, only two [in addition to the ewer] are in private collections. One is a beaker, and the other is a sweetmeat dish. Van Vianen’s brother and son worked in a similar style. If a piece is unmarked, it can be attributed to the family.

 

Did Adam van Vianen work alone, or did he have a team? There’s always that 19th century romantic image of silversmiths working alone. Van Vianen would have worked with shop assistants on manufacturing, but the ewer shows his individual skill at manipulating metal. And he signed and dated it, which is unusual.

 

He would have produced the decorative elements on the ewer through a technique called ‘chasing.’ What, exactly, would he have done? Here, he’s working with very pure silver, softer than sterling standard. If you hammer the silver, you give it tensile strength. If you heat it to pink-hot and quench it, it’s soft again, and you can work with it [you can fashion the decorative elements on the ewer]. It’s an incredibly long process to work it again and again–it’s so intricately chased.

 

I realize we can’t hop in a time machine and watch him work, but is it possible to tell how long he would have worked on the ewer? Would it have been, say, two months or more? Yes. Something as important as this would have been a real focus for him.

 

What is it like to hold the ewer? It’s incredibly tactile. Once you pick it up, you want to keep on turning it. The eye just dances across it.

 

Is it heavy? No. Because it’s so beautifully made, it feels like it’s the right weight. Heaviness would imply that it was cast, which makes it a different object, created with a different skill.

 

Do you have a favorite detail? That face peeking out from under the foot [of the ewer], because it’s so unexpected. It’s the last place you’d expect to see a human face. It’s looking out at you, and it has an ambiguous expression. [The face is shown in the fourth image on the lot page.]

 

Why will this silver ewer stick in your memory? As an object, it’s incredibly rare. This is the last chance for the market to acquire something of this importance by Adam van Vianen. It captures everything he’s known for–technical skill and extraordinary imagination. Work by the van Vianen family of silversmiths has never ceased to be celebrated. It’s like an incredible piece of jewelry, something to be marveled at.

 

How to bid: The Adam van Vianen silver ewer is lot 21 in the Exceptional Sale at Christie’s on April 20, 2018.

 

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

 

See a Christie’s video of Harry Williams-Bulkeley showing and talking about Adam van Vianen’s spectacular silver ewer.

 

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SOLD! An 18k Gold Freedom Box Awarded to Commodore Stephen Decatur in 1812 Fetches $70,000 at James Julia

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Update: The 18-karat gold Commodore Stephen Decatur freedom box sold for $70,000.

What you see: A 18-karat gold freedom box awarded to Commodore Stephen Decatur by the City of New York in 1812. The James D. Julia auction house estimates it at $125,000 to $175,000.

Who was Stephen Decatur? Born to a seagoing American family, Decatur became the young country’s first great naval hero by fighting the Barbary states–Mediterranean countries whose pirates had a nasty habit of capturing American vessels and ransoming their crews. (Do you remember the line from the U.S. Marines hymn, ‘From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli’? Tripoli is a reference to the Barbary Wars.) Decatur also distinguished himself in the War of 1812. He died in 1820 from a gunshot wound suffered in a duel with Commodore James Barron. Decatur was 41.

How did the custom of giving heroic people a gold freedom box get started? “The way it originated was the gold or silver box held the key to the city,” says John Sexton, senior consultant and sales representative in James D. Julia’s firearms division. “The ‘freedom box’ terminology comes from giving them ‘the freedom of the city.’ By this time [1812], they were just giving them the boxes.”

Why did the City of New York give Decatur this gold freedom box? During an October 1812 battle, he captured the HMS Macedonian, a 38-gun British frigate, saved it from sinking, and towed it to New York to be refitted and made part of America’s naval fleet. “It was the most important naval battle ever fought to that point,” he says. “Decatur was a household name in 1812. He was such a hero.”

How often do gold freedom boxes come up at auction? “The last one I could find was one awarded to John Jay and sold at Sotheby’s in 1991,” he says. “They’re beautiful boxes, exceptionally ornate. There’s another one in the sale from the Civil War that’s just as elaborate. They quit using the term ‘freedom box’ in the mid-19th century.”

Were the boxes meant to be used to hold anything, such as snuff? Or were they just meant to be beautiful boxes? “It was just the box, but they were snuff box-size,” he says.

The Decatur gold freedom box also has its red leather presentation case. Is that unusual? “It’s probably unique,” he says.

And the box is entirely made of gold? “It’s all gold, including the hinge,” he says. “There’s not a part that’s not.”

How does it feel to hold the box in your hand? “It’s quite heavy! It weighs 100 grams. It’s a nice, heavy little box,” he says. “Whoever did the engraving had a lot of skill. The engraving style is fantastic, beautiful–a lost art.”

How did you put an estimate on the Decatur box? “We made a conservative estimate,” he says. “We expect it to bring several hundred thousand dollars. Compared to John Jay, Stephen Decatur is probably more of a household name. But I don’t know what it will bring at auction.”

Decatur’s descendants have passed the box from generation to generation. Why are they consigning it now? “There are about 80 lots from the same family,” Sexton says, noting that the lots include the carnelian and gold signet ring that the Bey of Tunis surrendered to Decatur in 1805. It appears the current owner within the family thought it wiser to consign the material rather than try to split it among seven or eight heirs. “Decatur was a very important person in his day. The treasures he had were phenomenal,” he says. “It’s amazing that the family retained them.”

Why will this gold freedom box stick in your memory? “There are so few objects associated with someone as important as Stephen Decatur. There are 25 states that have cities named after him,” he says. “This is a piece of history. You just know it’s a gem. It’s something so unique and wonderful.”

How to bid: The Stephen Decatur gold freedom box is lot 2068 in James D. Julia’s Fine Art, Asian, & Antiques Winter 2018 sale, taking place February 8 and 9, 2018.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Photograph courtesy of James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine, USA, www.jamesdjulia.com.

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RECORD: A Unique Tile Panel by Ceramics Wizard Frederick Hurten Rhead Commands $637,500 at Rago

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Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records. Also, after choosing this Frederick Hurten Rhead piece and interviewing David Rago, the world auction record for any American work of ceramics was claimed by Peter Voulkos’s 1958 piece Rondena, which sold for $915,000 at Phillips on December 12, 2017. I expect to devote a post to Rondena in the future.

What you see: A unique, large four-tile panel depicting a peacock, made by Frederick Hurten Rhead in 1910 for a friend, Levi Burgess. Rago Auctions estimated the panel at $35,000 to $45,000 and sold it in October 2012 for $637,500–a then-record for any American work of ceramics at auction.

Who was Frederick Hurten Rhead? Born in England to an artistically talented family, Rhead came to America in 1902 to work in a series of factories that produced art pottery. High points included his tenure at University City, Missouri, where a wealthy patron assembled and bankrolled a dream team of ceramicists (sadly, the patron suffered money troubles in 1911 that killed the project). Rhead moved to California, where he directed a pottery program at a tuberculosis sanatorium and later ran his own pottery studio for a few years. His last major job was as an art director for the Homer Laughlin China Company in West Virginia, where he created the famous Fiesta line of dinnerware. He died in 1942 of cancer at the age of 61 or 62.

Why was Frederick Hurten Rhead an important artist? “I call him the Forrest Gump of American ceramicists,” says David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions. “It was not so much about where he was and what he did, but how he influenced and mirrored the field. He was an influence on and reflective of American ceramics.”

Are the ceramics he made in America more valuable, generally, than those he made in England? “Yes, but if you look at his University City works, there are some English elements of design in those pieces,” he says. “Rhead would have grown as an artist if he had stayed in England. He just grew differently because he was here. I think the California desert blew his socks off, and Santa Barbara did the same. He was there before the highways, before the sprawl of civilization, in an artist’s colony, with like-minded souls. It had to be deeply influential.”

Why is Rhead’s material so rare at auction? “There just isn’t much of it,” Rago says. “Not until he got to University City and had already been here the better part of a decade did he have a chance to make great, one-of-a-kind pieces. One sold at Moran’s in California in April 2014–it was a masterpiece. But it’s pottery. It breaks. I don’t know how many broke over the years. And University City lasted a year, a year and a half. There were not many pieces to begin with. In Santa Barbara, Rhead was a crappy businessman. He could not have been making money. And he wasn’t whipping these out in a day. The best pieces took weeks to do, maybe more.”

When Rago sold a Frederick Hurten Rhead vase in May 2007 for $516,000, was that the first time the artist broke six figures at auction? “Yes, it was the first time something of his sold for six figures, privately or at auction,” he says.

The peacock tile panel was a gift from Rhead to a friend, Levi Burgess. Are any of the other Rhead pieces sold at auction as personal as the pieces that he made for Burgess? “I don’t know of any others,” he says, noting that Burgess installed the peacock panel and other Rhead ceramics in his Ohio home. A subsequent owner removed the tiles from the home before selling it 15 to 20 years ago. “A woman walked into the Rago auction gallery in New Jersey with the first set [this peacock panel]. She got one, and her husband got the other. We put them in the [2014] auction for $40,000 to $60,000, and all hell broke loose. The [works Rhead gave to Burgess] were known and talked about. They’re the pinnacle of American prewar [ceramic] design. On a scale of one to ten, this is a ten. He gave Burgess a couple of masterpieces to put in his house–$1 million worth of pottery. He must have liked him.”

How did the tile panel’s connection to University City enhance its value? “The main reason it figures in is University City had the best kilns, the best material, and the best support staff,” he says. “It was state-of-the-art. Rhead didn’t have to worry about money. He didn’t have that at Santa Barbara, and he certainly didn’t have that at Arequipa [the tuberculosis sanatorium].”

Rudy Ciccarello, the collector behind the Two Red Roses Foundation in Palm Harbor, Florida, bought the Rhead vase from Rago in 2007. Did Ciccarello buy the peacock tile, too? And does it pose problems when one collector is so dominant in a particular auction market? Yes, Ciccarello did buy the peacock tile. “He bought a lot of the Rhead pieces that sold for big money at public auction,” he says. As for Ciccarello’s dominance being a problem, he says that auction categories being driven by one or two big bidders “…is true of all these markets. This is American pottery we’re talking about. There aren’t 50 people who will buy once the price is over $100,000. The high-end market is limited. Masterpieces are always in demand.”

What was your role in the sale? “I was the auctioneer,” Rago says. “It was very exciting. Once the bidding hit $100,000, I thought, ‘Wow.’ When it hit $150,000, I thought, ‘Wow.’ But I couldn’t say it. I’ve got to be chill up there. Once it hit $510,00 hammer [the price before standard fees are added], that was it.”

Were you surprised that it sold for $637,500? “Yes, I was really quite surprised,” he says. “I knew it was going to bring good money. I’m known for ceramics, and it was the best of the best. We [he and the keenest bidders] knew what it was, and knew what condition it was in, and we knew where it ranked within the artist’s work, and it was the first time [one of the Burgess tiles] was offered for sale.”

Why will the Rhead peacock tile stick in your memory? “I’m a pottery guy. I love great pottery. Those [Burgess tiles] are legendary things–‘Will I get to see them turn up?’ I wouldn’t mind selling them,” he says. “This is my 46th year [in the auction world]. I’ve been chasing these things for a long time. To handle a masterpiece–a legendary masterpiece–it’s what you live for. To have it set the record for American pottery–that’s a singular moment.”

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

On January 20, 2018, on the second day of a three-day sale, Rago will offer a 1912 vase that Frederick Hurten Rhead made at Arequipa. It is estimated at $75,000 to $100,000.

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