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.

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


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.

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Tick, Tick, Tick, Wow! A Monumental Replica of Venice’s Piazza San Marco Clock Tower Could Fetch $1 Million at Sotheby’s

Lot 26 torre Dell'Orologio_£600,000 - 800,000 (low)

What you see: A painted and gilt copper model of the clock tower in Piazza San Marco, Venice. It stands nine feet, eight inches tall. The movement appears to date to the 18th century, and the case to the early 19th century. Sotheby’s estimates the model clock tower at £600,000 to £800,000, which is between $776,000 and $1 million.

Ok, there’s not much we can definitively say about how this clock came to be, but what’s your best guess? “The best theory I can come up with is the movement [the clock works] was made first and probably made about the same time the movement of the original was revamped by Bartolomeo Ferracina,” says Jonathan Hills, senior specialist for clocks at Sotheby’s. “I’ve got a feeling, nothing more than that, that it was made by someone involved with work [on the Venetian original]. It copies it almost exactly. It’s complicated. There are four individual weight-driven trains of wheels, each at a 90 degree angle to the other. That’s virtually unheard of. Usually they’re in a line, or are one behind the other.”

Is it a pain in the neck to arrange the movement’s wheel trains at 90 degree angles to each other? “It is. You have to wind it in four different directions,” he says, adding that the clock probably needs to be wound every day. At the time of the interview, it wasn’t operating, but Hills confirmed that it does indeed run.

The lot notes and your earlier answer mention that Bartolomeo Ferracina revamped the movement of the Venetian original in the 1750s. Do we have any evidence that the replica movement was built by him or someone on his team? “It’s very tempting to tie the two together, but there’s no proof,” Hills says. “Attention was very much focused on [the original] during the 1750s. It seems like a logical time for the replica movement to be done. Whoever made it had to have access to the real thing and had to have clock-making skills.”

Refurbishing the clock tower in the Piazza San Marco is a big job. Is there any chance Ferracina had the replica movement built as a test or a proof-of-concept? “The original was in such poor condition, they were effectively redesigning it. It’s possible they made a working model, but that tends to be done on the drawing board. You can calculate a movement a lot more easily than you can make one,” he says. “This was probably done for someone’s amusement or self-interest rather than a technical exercise, but we’ll never know, unfortunately.”

If it wasn’t placed outdoors, where would someone have put this clock? It’s nearly 10 feet tall! “It would have to be a large house, but Italian homes are known for their tall ceilings,” Hills says. “I can see it gracing the piano nobile of a Venetian home, or somebody who had a large home elsewhere, but was of Venetian origin. What better reminder could there be of home?”

Again, we have no records from the people who made the movement, nor do we have records from the people who made the case. But give us a notion–how much work does this clock represent? “To make the clock movement, on its own, we’re talking about hundreds of hours of work,” he says. “The case–I can’t fully appreciate or understand the techniques involved in creating that case. It appears to be rolled and pressed sheet copper. Where you’d go to find someone who does that today . . . I don’t know how it could be done. This clock is a huge amount of work, hundreds of hours at different times by different groups of people.”

What else makes this clock special? “I first saw it assembled in the photo studio,  and it took my breath away. The scale is so impressive, and the proportions are so impressive–it all just works,” Hills says, adding that he’s been with Sotheby’s for 25 years and represents the sixth generation of a clock-making family. “I am a clock person. What I really appreciate is what’s going on inside, seeing the beautiful four-sided movement. It’s so multi-faceted. There’s so much to look at, and so much to appreciate. I’ve never handled anything like it before. To see this scale replica–it’s not something I’ll ever forget.”

How to bid: The Piazza San Marco model clock tower is lot 26 in the Treasures auction at Sotheby’s London on July 5, 2017.

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

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