People Power! A 19th Century Sedan Chair Might Command $2,700 at Bonhams

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What you see: A French late 19th century polychrome decorated and parcel gilt sedan chair. Bonhams estimates it at £1,500 to £2,000, or $2,000 to $2,700.

What’s a sedan chair, and how was it used? Sedan chairs were popular in the 18th and 19th century. They seated a single rider who was borne along by two “chairmen,” who would carry it with the help of the poles (which are visible in this shot). “People were very fond of using them in the 1700s,” says Tom Moore, head of the furniture and works of art department for Bonhams. “The streets could be very dirty and there were unsafe areas as well. With a horse [riding a horse], you were more open to the elements and you were not necessarily very safe in traffic. These were much more mobile through the streets.”

Who used sedan chairs? “A very, very small percentage of the wealthiest people owned them,” he says. “If they didn’t have their own, they’d hire them, like taxis. A lot of the ones owned by wealthy people have lovely painted scenes on them, and incredible gilding that matched the interior of the home where it would sit. People who didn’t have as much hired plainer sedans, with no decorations at all.”

Were they only used in Europe? Nope. “They were used quite widely in Colonial America as well, most famously by Benjamin Franklin,” he says. “He was a big advocate until his demise in 1790.”

What can we figure out by looking at this sedan chair? “The very wealthy would often have a silk-lined interior [in their sedan chairs]. It’s got a velvet-lined interior that’s a little bit worn, but no more than you’d expect for the period,” he says. “Looking at the decoration, it’s been refreshed or repainted over at a later date, because the condition is so good. It’s colorful as well.”

So this was a mid-range model, owned by someone who was wealthy enough to have a private sedan chair, but not wealthy enough to have a fully blinged-out one? “It’s fair to say,” he says. “There are very small bits of gilded elements. The border decorations have gilt, but it’s very minimal. On some of the best examples in the 18th century, the [painted] flowers and the foliage can be quite ornate. It’s not plain. It’s somewhere in the middle.”

How did the rider get in and out of the sedan chair? “The door is on the front, between where the poles are,” he says.

Was this sedan chair actually used? “I think it was,” he says. “If not, why would it have metal brackets for the poles?”

What was it like to ride in a sedan chair? “From what I’ve read of accounts of people traveling in them, it could be quite bumpy,” Moore says. “People carried them, and even if the rider is quite light, it’s quite a chore. But sedan chairs didn’t have to stop for traffic. It’s an efficient means of travel. That’s why they were popular with people who could afford them.”

How many vintage sedan chairs survive? “In terms of 18th century examples, there aren’t a great deal left. They tend to be in private collections or museums,” he says. “The one in our sale is a 19th century revival. They’re very decorative pieces and can be quite sought-after and very attractive.”

How often do sedan chairs come up at auction? “I’ve been with Bonhams now for over six years in this capacity and in that time, I’ve only seen one other apart from this one,” he says.

Who buys sedan chairs now? “If you buy them, you’re not going to be using them,” he says. “It’s either someone who’s a collector, or they’re probably for a decorative purpose.”

Why will this sedan chair stick in your memory? “The nature of its decoration. It’s a colorful, bright piece of furniture. It’s really interesting, historically, and it’s rare for these to come up,” he says. “Sedan chairs are fascinating things that tell us quite a lot about certain periods in our history.”

How to bid: The vintage sedan chair is lot 612 in the Home and Interiors sale at Bonhams London, Knightsbridge, on December 19, 2017.

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

 

RECORD: A Gus Wilson Red-Breasted Merganser Sails Away With $330,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

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The Hot Bid is on Thanksgiving vacation today. I haven’t got anything turkey-related, so I’m celebrating by reposting a story on a record-breaking duck decoy. 

What you see: A red-breasted merganser drake duck decoy, carved circa 1900 by Augustus “Gus” Wilson. It had been described as the finest Wilson decoy ever offered at auction. Copley Fine Art Auctions sold it in July 2014 for $330,000, achieving an auction record for the artist.

Who was Gus Wilson? He was a Maine native, boat builder, lighthouse keeper, and carver. He took up carving in his teens, probably learning the art from family members, and he remained active for most of his life. He died in 1950 at the age of 85 or 86.

How often do you see a Wilson duck decoy carved with an open bill, as this one is? “It’s very infrequent,” says Stephen B. O’Brien Jr., owner of Copley Fine Art Auctions in Boston, Mass. “There’s less than a handful, and many of those [beaks] are broken off and replaced. The fact that this one is intact makes it a real survivor.”

What makes this duck decoy exceptional? “It’s a big, bold carving. Wilson regularly produced larger, almost oversize carvings,” he says, alluding to the decoy’s generous measurements: seven inches wide, seven inches high, and more than 16 inches long. “It’s got a wonderful sense of sculpture. Combine that with the open bill, which is almost never seen, and it makes it a pinnacle work.

This is described as a “hunted” or “hunt-used” decoy, which means that a hunter actually put it out on the water to lure ducks. Are most Wilson decoys hunt-used? And do collectors prefer hunt-used decoys? “The vast majority of Gus Wilsons found were actually hunted,” O’Brien says. As for hunt-used versus pristine, he says, “It’s a very personal choice. It almost comes down to, in the art world, how some people are attracted to the real world and some people are attached to abstraction. I’m a hunter. I come at it from that perspective. I love a utility decoy that’s been hunted over, that has some wear that shows it was put to its intended use. But you don’t want it to have too much. With replaced heads, tail chips, and shot scars, it starts to take on some negatives. But you can miss out if all you want is pristine birds. They’re pretty hard to find.”

The decoy was carved around 1900. Where was Wilson in his career then? “It places him at about age 35. What’s nice about this merganser is the artist is at the height of his craft. There are subtleties that take more time to create,” he says, explaining that decoy carvers sometimes go through a period when they feel free to indulge in artistic flourishes that transcend the standard shape of the duck decoy–open beaks, fan tails, slightly extended wings–and abruptly stop when they see how their hand-carved treasures suffer nicks and breaks in the field.

How long do you think this auction record will stand? “It’s hard to say. As with any market, if the right piece came up and two people wanted it, the record could easily fall,” O’Brien says. “The decoy market has held up strong over the last 10 years relative to other [categories] in the antiques market. It wouldn’t shock me if it fell. Looking at it from the standpoint of being a great Gus Wilson, it’s probably a bargain price for what it went for.”

Are there any other Gus Wilson duck decoys that rival this one? “For me, I haven’t really seen it,” he says. “That’s why we put a heavy estimate on it. [The presale estimate was $350,000 to $450,000]. “He’s a pretty colorful, proud, bright bird. He had all the bells and whistles that collectors look for–the open bill, the cocked-back head, nice original paint, the paddle tail, and the original rigging [the weight on the bottom that lets the decoy float upright]. I can’t think of a better Gus Wilson decoy. If you asked me to own one Gus Wilson decoy, this would be it.”

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Copley Fine Art Auctions will hold its 2017 Sporting Sale on July 27 and 28 in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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

Quack!

 

SOLD! The Cover Model For Rago’s Curiouser and Curiouser Auction–A 19th Century Life-Size French Artist’s Mannequin–Fetched $45,000

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Update: The antique French life-size articulated wooden artist’s mannequin sold for $45,000.

What you see: A life-size articulated wooden artist’s mannequin, made in France, dating to around 1860, and measuring about 60 inches tall. Rago Auctions estimates it at $20,000 to $25,000.

If you were an artist in the 19th century and could afford a life-size articulated wooden mannequin, couldn’t you afford to hire a live model instead? “Possibly, but live models were not always available. And a mannequin can hold a pose forever. It’s almost more posable than a real person,” says Marion Harris, a specialist in antique mannequins and curator of the Curiouser and Curiouser sale for Rago. “Life-size artist’s mannequins were expensive, and they were valued in their own right. They became something of worth in an artist’s inventory. Mannequins were often listed in the estates of artists when they died.”

How many life-size artist’s mannequins have you dealt with? How many are known? Harris says she has handled 15 to 20 over the last quarter-century. She suspects that maybe as many as 100 were made between the 16th and 19th centuries, and as many as half might survive. “They’re just about always androgynous,” she says. “I’ve looked at the same one and seen it as male, then seen it as female.”

Would one artisan have carved the face, and other artisans have carved the rest of the body? “I don’t know how they did it, but it’s likely. Four or five ateliers were known for carving them. Even the bad mannequins are very good. It’s so hard to do,” she says. “This mannequin has a particular sensitivity to the carving. It’s so lifelike.”

Ribs were carved into the mannequin’s torso. Why? “That’s another sign of quality, when the ribs are evident,” she says. “You do want to see the ribs, if you can. It lets the piece look more realistic. Without the ribs, it looks more puppet-like. Anything that gives the mannequin a more realistic human quality to its features makes it more efficient and effective for the artist.”

Does the mannequin have a patina? “It has a brilliant patina–not just from being handled, but from age. It glows with pride as well as age, I like to say,” she says.

How much does it weigh? About 100 pounds. “I could almost carry it. But it would have been on a stand. Once it’s on a stand, it’s completely posable,” she says. “It’s almost like a real person.”

People might know the mannequin from the Manhattan shop window of Ann-Morris. How did you convince the shop’s owners to consign it? “Everybody wanted to buy it. They would rent it to films, but they would never sell it. Now that the son has taken over the business, I finally got him to part with it,” she says. “It’s a fitting way to part with it. They wanted to give it a rather grand farewell. They’ve had others, but this one was always the queen.” (Harris later confirmed that though the mannequin had appeared in the window since the 1970s, the family never gave it a name, surprising as that might seem.)

What else makes the mannequin special? “I’ve seen other mannequins. This one almost calls out to you to say, ‘Touch me, love me, hold me, pose me, care for me. I’m here for you and you’re here for me,'” she says. “Even people who’ve never seen it before stop in their tracks. And a number of people would have seen it and looked at it adoringly [when it was in the Ann-Morris window].”

How to bid: The life-size articulated artist mannequin is lot 39 in the Curiouser and Curiouser auction on October 22 at Rago Auctions.

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

RECORD: Eldred’s Sets a New World Record for Scrimshaw

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What you see: A scrimshaw whale’s tooth by Edward Burdett, made in the early 1830s and inscribed, in block letters, “Engraved by Edward Burdett of Nantucket Onboard the Ship William Tell.” It shows a scene of the William Tell capturing a whale while another ship, the George and Susan, floats nearby. On the back, it shows another whaleship, the William Thomson, sailing near a coastline. Eldred’s sold it in July 2017 for $456,000, an auction record for any piece of scrimshaw.

Who was Edward Burdett? He was a Nantucket native and whaleman who was among the earliest to take up scrimshaw–carving or engraving images into the teeth or jawbones of whales. He ranks among the best scrimshanders to practice the art. He’s believed to have made between 20 and 30 pieces, and signed about six. He died while serving as a first officer aboard the Nantucket whale ship Montano. While his team chased a harpooned whale, Burdett became tangled in the line and was pulled overboard. His body was never found. He was 27 years old.

How many pieces of scrimshaw have sold for six figures at auction? “About 11, all in the 21st century. But if there’s 10 over six figures, there’s another 10 that are unreported,” says Bill Bourne, vice president and head of the marine art department at Eldred’s. “Some auction houses just don’t report scrimshaw sales to sites.”

This piece is fresh to market–never auctioned before. Fakes have been an issue with scrimshaw, as they have been in every collecting field. How do you know this is by Burdett? “As far as scrimshaw goes, I have a really good background in it,” Bourne says, noting that his father founded the maritime collectibles field in 1963 and he literally grew up in it. In addition, the consignor drove to New Bedford in May 2012, where a scrimshaw symposium was being held, and had the leading experts look it over. “The tooth itself, and the work done on the tooth is unmistakably his hand,” he says.

You described the Burdett scrimshaw as “a masterpiece.” What makes it a masterpiece? “The tooth just has everything,” he says. “He uses the whole surface of the tooth, and it has the smallest of details. The William Tell has a wonderful blowing flag. On the obverse side, in the central mast of the William Thomson, there’s a watch–a man up there. And there’s a shoreline with a lighthouse with a rooster weathervane. Not many teeth have everything, like this. They might have a whaleship with a flag, but just the ship–no land, no whaling scene.”

How did the auction go, and what was it like as you approached the old auction record for scrimshaw? “I was the auctioneer. I started at $100,000 and five or six hands went up instantly and drove it to $210,000 to $220,000. It came down to two people,” Bourne says. “I focused on the two bidders at that point. I kept it at $10,000 raises. Both bidders were pretty firm in going after it. Until it hit $380,000, there wasn’t any hesitation at all. When you’ve got two bidders like that, you don’t look at anyone else. You focus on those two bidders. The underbidder dropped out, I looked around the room, bang, and a round of applause. It was over in four minutes. It was a lot of fun. It was wonderful to see active bidding throughout the whole auction and on this tooth. It was like being back in 1985.

How long do you think the record will last? “It’s so hard to tell. I’m not aware of something that could come up and challenge it,” he says. “All it takes is another piece coming out of a blanket box in Connecticut, or a few 45 to 50-year-old collectors coming in with unlimited funds.”

What else makes this Burdett scrimshaw special? “I’ve seen spectacular pieces at my dad’s, and here, and at other auction houses. If you google ‘antique scrimshaw,’ put in ‘Edward Burdett’ and you look at what’s there, you’ll realize this is something special compared to the others,” Bourne says. “Novice collectors can see this is something special compared to the others. When you look at this tooth, you can see that it’s a cut above.”

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

 

RECORD: A Lucie Rie Bowl from the Late 1970s Commands $212,500 at Phillips

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What you see: A flaring footed bowl made by Lucie Rie around 1978. It sold at Phillips New York in December 2016 for $212,500 against an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000–a record for the artist.

Who was Lucie Rie? She was an Austrian-born Jewish artist who moved to England in 1938 to escape the approach of the Nazis. There, she gained a reputation as a ceramicist, though she insisted on modestly calling herself a potter. She died in 1995 at the age of 93, a few years after she retired.

How early does this shape show up in her work? “It appears much earlier, but we associate this bowl form with the late 70s and early 80s,” says Cordelia Lembo, a design specialist at Phillips. “There was no particular exhibit or moment in 1978. The late 70s and early 80s were an important time for her. When you think about it, it’s still so impressive she developed her career in this way at that age.”

How does this bowl show off Rie’s strengths as an artist? “What sets Rie apart from her contemporaries is her ability to create pottery that speaks to larger themes,” she says. “It’s a truly incredible work. You can see it in the photo, but with this bowl in particular, you’re able to understand it when you hold it in your hand.”

How does it feel to hold it in your hands? “It’s a soft matte. Not like sandpaper,” Lembo says. “It’s extraordinarily lightweight and extremely delicate. You can feel its fragility. You understand the level of skill she would have needed to create such a delicate vessel.”

The blue-on-white motif brings to mind Asian ceramics and European ones, too. “The bowl is certainly in dialogue with the tradition of blue and white ceramics in the U.K., Japan, and China,” she says. “This is a worldwide ceramic type that she speaks to in a refined and simplified manner.”

Did Rie intend the bowl to be a functional object, or is it purely aesthetic? “It has a matte glaze, but you want to be careful what you put in it,” Lembo says. “She was able to distinguish between functional works and very special, often unique pieces. You could use them in a tea ceremony, but it wasn’t necessarily the intention.”

Were you surprised when this piece set a new auction record for Rie? “We were very curious to see how it would perform,” she says. “Because it was early in the auction–it was the fourth lot–it was a great way to begin the sale.”

The auction record for Rie has broken four times in the last two years, with three of the records taking place at Phillips. A unique piece in the December 2016 sale fell $13,000 short of breaking the record a second time in the same auction. To what do you attribute the rising interest in Rie’s work? “Ceramics are a subject of great interest at the moment. The secondary market and gallery shows are broadening interest in ceramic artists,” she says. “We were lucky to offer real masterpieces by Lucie Rie. There are a group of educated buyers who are able to pursue them when they arise.”

Given how volatile the Rie auction record has been, how long do you think this one will stand? “The flaring footed bowl was an exceptional example of the artist’s output, so I think it will hold the title for a bit. However, it is always exciting to see what consignments appear on the horizon for upcoming seasons and to see what lots appeal most to collectors,” Lembo says. “We are delighted to have seen such a strong market for Lucie Rie’s work and are optimistic that the demand for her highest quality pieces will continue to rise.”

What else makes this piece stand out? “I personally love Lucie Rie. I’ve been an admirer of her work for so long. This piece is just extraordinary. It’s striking in person. Its minimalist quality really speaks to Lucie Rie’s ability.”

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

SO CLOSE! Swann Galleries Sells the Iconic I Want You Poster for $14,300–$101 Shy of a Record

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Update: Swann sold the 1917 ‘I Want You’ World War I recruiting poster for $14,300–a strong result, and just $101 short of a new world auction record for the poster.

What you see: A 1917 American recruiting poster for World War I, illustrated by James Montgomery Flagg. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $7,000 to $10,000.

Who was James Montgomery Flagg? He was an American artist and illustrator. Unquestionably, his illustration for this poster is his most famous work. While he did not create the concept of Uncle Sam–credit for that goes to cartoonist Thomas Nast–Flagg codified the costume and appearance of America’s avatar with this image. He didn’t draw  a finger-pointing Uncle Sam expressly for the poster; he did it in 1916 as cover art for Leslie magazine and repurposed it. Flagg also unintentionally immortalized himself by using a self-portrait for Uncle Sam. Flagg died in 1960 at the age of 82.

Why was this poster such a huge hit during World War I? “It trips all the bells and whistles–psychology, guilt, alpha male power, patriotism. And it’s an attractive image,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.

It looks like there’s a direct relationship between Flagg’s illustration and a 1914 British WWI recruiting poster featuring Lord Kitchener “There’s arguably more than a direct relationship. He lifted the premise straight from it,” Lowry says. “But it’s so different from the Kitchener poster. And can you copyright a gesture? There are World War I posters from Italy, Canada, and Germany that have the same motif, calling you out, putting you on the spot. The Kitchener is rare as hell and not nearly as attractive as this one [Flagg’s take].”

How many ‘I Want You’ posters were printed in America in 1917? “It was THE most printed poster during the war,” says Lowry, adding that an estimated four million were produced. “It instantly resonated. Everybody who saw it was gripped by it.”

Flagg’s poster was so famous that it was re-issued during World War II. How many were printed for World War II? And how do you tell the two versions apart? Lowry says about 400,000 were printed for World War II, and the later version isn’t nearly as valuable as the 1917, though there are fewer of them. Swann has sold the WWII-era poster for as much as $3,600, but it sold the 1917 original for $14,400 in 2013–a world auction record. Fortunately, telling them apart is easy. “They’re very different,” Lowry says, noting that the 1917 original is bigger, and the slogan on the World War II version rephrased the slogan to add a “the,” making it less grammatically awkward.

How has the poster performed at auction over time? “The August 6, 2003 Swann poster auction was the year of the Iraq war,” says Lowry, explaining that the sale contained a 1917 Flagg poster with an estimate of $3,000 to $4,000. “We put it on the cover not because it was a rare poster, and not because it hasn’t been seen, but because America was at war. The poster resonates somehow. It sold for $12,650 in 2003. From that point on, the poster has brought dramatic prices, and the prices are even bigger when the poster shows up in really good condition.”

The particular poster in the August 2017 sale has a grade of A–the top grade of the condition scale–and house records show that Swann has never before handled a grade A example of this poster. What are the odds that it sets a new record at auction? “It’s in as good a position to break the world record as any,” he says. “It’s so famous, it belies conventional collecting norms.”

How to bid: The ‘I Want You for U.S. Army’ poster is lot 141 in Swann Auction Galleries’s Vintage Posters sale on August 2.

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

SOLD! The Qianlong Chinese Vase Decorated in Europe Commanded More Than $224,000 at Christie’s

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Update: The vase sold for £173,000, or about $224,300.

What you see: A Regency ormolu-mounted Chinese flambe-glazed vase and cover. The porcelain vase has a Qianlong incised seal mark of the period (1736-1795). The ormolu mounts are attributed to Vulliamy & Son, circa 1806. Christie’s estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000, or $153,000 to about $229,000.

Is flambe glaze a Qianlong-era Chinese invention? Was it difficult to make a flambe-glazed vase? Yes and yes. “It was a development of the late 18th century and it was desirable almost from the moment it was developed. It must have been very experimental at the time. This is probably one of the rarer types of glazes,” says Marcus Rädecke, director and head of the department of European furniture and works of art at Christie’s, explaining that the viscous glaze slowly ran down the curving body of the vase during the firing process, and the heat of the kiln caused a chemical change that created the multi-color effect.

The lot notes say the vase has a “Qianlong incised seal mark and of the period (1736-1795).” Could you explain that aspect in more detail? “The six-character reign mark identifies it as an Imperial piece,” he says. “In three rows, from right to left it gives the dynasty, the emperor, and the reign. It lets us date it precisely, and it gives the vase extra value.”

How many flambe-glazed vases managed to leave China in the 18th century? “Few made it over to Europe at that time,” Rädecke says. “They must already have been incredibly valued then. When they [the European artisans, known as bronziers, who added the ormolu] mounted it, they took great care not to damage the porcelain or pierce it. You cannot lift the vase by the handles. They’re purely decorative. They’re not attached to the vase.”

The mounts are attributed to Vulliamy & Son, an elite British clockmaker that would have had an ormolu workshop. Why would this have been a challenging commission for them? “It must have been quite complicated to construct this without drilling holes in the porcelain to hold the bottom ends of the handles,” he says. “If you carefully pull and turn the lid, it comes off with no marks on the porcelain. The stopper [not visible in the picture] comes out completely and you can look into the mount. The handles are attached to the neck and sit loosely on it. The mounts are so precisely made. The neck fits without any gaps anywhere. It reflects the quality and precision you’d only find with a clockmaker.”

This vase was made in China and has European decorations that were added later, perhaps decades later. Does it appeal equally to Asian and European bidders? Oh gosh yes. “We sold it five years ago when it came from Harewood [House] and there was great interest at that time,” Rädecke says. “The winner and the underbidder were Chinese clients, but we had bids from English and American clients. It appealed to an incredibly wide audience.”

What else makes this vase special? “To me, as a specialist, there are items I like because they’re beautiful and items I like because they’re incredibly well-made. Sometimes it all works together. I’d love to take this vase home,” he says. “The porcelain is fantastic and enriched in Europe, but not too much. Both cultures do their bit. The harmonies are perfect, I feel.”

How to bid: The vase is lot 8 in The Exceptional Sale, scheduled at Christie’s London for July 6, 2017.

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