Wendell Castle’s Spectacular Limited Edition Stainless Steel Abilene Rocking Chair Could Fetch $120,000 at LAMA


What you see: A limited edition stainless steel Abilene rocking chair, made in 2008 by Wendell Castle. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $80,000 to $120,000.


Who was Wendell Castle? The Kansas-born artist was a dean of the American studio furniture movement. He gleefully and deliberately erased the line between sculpture and furniture. He was an artist in residence at the Rochester Institute of Technology and kept a studio near Rochester, N.Y. His pieces are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Smithsonian Institution; and the White House. Castle died in January 2018 of complications of leukemia. He was 85.


Is the Abilene rocking chair a design that Castle originally made in the 1960s and revisited in 2008? “It’s purely 2008, but you can look at rocking chairs that he made in the 1960s, and you can see the through-line,” says Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA. “Wendell Castle thought he was part furniture-maker and part artist. The soft curves of this are maternal and embracing, and at the same time, it’s masculine. The 1960s chairs have the same thing–big and bold, yet soft and curvaceous.”


What makes this a Wendell Castle design? What visual signatures mark the Abilene rocking chair as his work? “Wendell Castle emerged when designers and craftspeople were working in a reductionist aesthetic,” he says. “He reacted against the reductionist aesthetic, people who were paring down and reducing forms. He had the capacity to combine masculine and maternal shapes in part by broadening his materials. His work has a thickness that ran contrary to others of the era. Others thought, ‘How can I create with the least amount of material?’ Castle thought, ‘I want to make a leg thicker than normal if it’s closer to my artistic vision.’ This certainly has that. The rails of the rocker that swoop into the warmest are bigger and more massive than you would expect.”


How often did Castle work in stainless steel? Is this the only instance of him using it? “He worked in various materials,” he says. “He’s best known for working in wood, but he worked in metal. I don’t know if he did another stainless steel chair, but he did bronze stools.”


This is number four of the edition of eight. Where are the other seven Abilene chairs? The second from the series sold for $81,250 on an estimate of $50,000 to $80,000 at Christie’s New York in March 2014. Loughrey believes the edition sold out and the rest likely remain in private hands or institutions.


What’s the auction record for a work by Castle? The record-holder is a 1980 ‘Victory’ chair and desk sold at Christie’s New York in December 2015 for $221,000 against an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000. The record for a single stand-alone work belongs to a 1963 rocking chair that sold for $204,000 against a $90,000 to $140,000 estimate at Rago in 2008. The next highest is a 2009 rocking chair that sold for about $180,000 against an estimate of about $134,000 to $201,000 at Tajan in Paris.


Do those results tell us anything about how this Wendell Castle rocking chair might perform at auction? “I would hope so!” he says. “The rocking chair is definitely a form he returns to. All three are completely different, but if you line them all up, you can see the Castle vocabulary flowing through them.”


What is it like to sit in? “It’s incredibly comfortable, and incredibly heavy,” he says, noting that it weighs about 400 pounds. “It takes two strong men to lift it. It’s a sculpture that sits in place. You can’t push it to another part of the room. When it’s set, it’s set.”


I imagine the Abilene rocking chair reflects Castle’s talent–he could make something so heavy look as light as a wisp of smoke and feel as comfortable as any other rocking chair. “Even as an artist, Castle understood the dynamics of the human form and how it interacts with the sculpture,” he says. “All his chairs are created to interact with the human form. It’s not something only to look at. It’s completely functional.”


Wendell Castle died in January 2018. How might that affect how this lot performs at auction on February 25, 2018? “It may affect it to some degree,” Loughrey says. “Typically, works are not dramatically affected when an artist dies. It may get a few more people’s attention. But it’s not easy to answer. It’s an old wives’ tale that if an artist dies, their prices immediately go up. If there’s a dramatic stock market selloff before the auction, that will affect it [the final price of the rocking chair] way more than him passing away.”


Why will this stainless steel Wendell Castle rocking chair stick in your memory? “To me, it’s exciting to see the arc of his career,’ he says. “Very early on, he created rocking chairs, and returned to the form and expanded on it and used his vocabulary in new and different ways. There’s distinct rocking chair progress over a 50-year period. This is instantly recognizable as a chair. At the same time, it’s functional as a piece of modern sculpture,” he says, adding, “And it will be memorable to me because I had a connection to him. I sat on panels with him, I interviewed him, and he was incredibly generous in helping me with cataloging things correctly. Now that he’s gone, it’s going to be a little emotional for me.”


How to bid: The Abilene rocking chair is lot 144 in LAMA‘s Modern Art & Design Auction on February 25, 2018.


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Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) is on Twitter and Instagram.


Wendell Castle has a website for himself and another for his art-furniture collection.


Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.


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SOLD! A 19th Century Sedan Chair Commanded More Than $2,300 at Bonhams


Update: The French 19th century sedan chair sold for £1,750, or about $2,347.

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 20, 2017.

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

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SOLD! The Kem Weber-Designed Walt Disney Animation Desk Fetched $13,145 at Heritage

Kem Weber Designed Disney Animation Desk and Eric Larson Pencil Tray (Wa...

Update: The Kem Weber-designed vintage Walt Disney animation desk sold for $13,145.

What you see: An animation desk designed by Kem Weber for the Walt Disney Company circa 1939 or 1940. It’s shown here decorated with the accoutrements of a working animator, but the lot consists solely of the desk, the bulletin board, and a pencil tray that once belonged to Eric Larson. Heritage Auctions estimates the desk at $20,000 to $25,000.

Who was Kem Weber? Karl Emanuel Martin Weber was a German designer who moved to the United States during World War I and became a citizen in 1924. He coined a new first name from his initials. Disney chose him as the main architect of his corporate headquarters in Burbank, California. Weber is best known for his airline armchair, a streamlined design that appears in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He died in 1963 at the age of 73 or 74.

How did Walt Disney come to hire Kem Weber as the architect and interior designer for his new facility? “Disney traveled in some high-end circles. He wanted the best of the best, a state-of-the-art facility,” says Jim Lentz, director of animation art for Heritage Auctions. “Kem Weber designed nearly every aspect of the studio, even the font types on the building.”

How did Weber design the desk to meet the needs of Disney’s animators? “It’s made for these guys to animate,” he says. “It has all kinds of shelving and places to put paper and pencils.” One thing Weber didn’t include was an ashtray. Animators balanced their cigarettes on one of the metal bars on either side of the drawing surface. The circle you see in the center of the surface is an animation disc, which is lit from underneath and allows the artist to attach a piece of paper and rotate it horizontally or vertically.

Do we know how many animation desks Weber made, and how many survive? And do we know who at the Disney studio used it when it was new? “We don’t know. Only a handful of desks have ever come up for sale. They’re rare,” he says, adding that this is the first Kem Weber Walt Disney animation desk he has handled. As for who used it–Lentz believes that animator Hal Ambro is the likeliest choice, but he takes pains to stress that only the pencil tray belonged to Eric Larson, one of the supervising animators who formed the Disney group dubbed the Nine Old Men.

How did Disney animator David Pruiksma come to own this desk? “He got it for his home studio. Eric Larson was his mentor at Disney, and he gave him the pencil tray,” Lentz says, noting that Pruiksma animated the Disney characters Flounder from The Little Mermaid, Mrs. Potts and Chip from Beauty and the Beast, the Sultan from Aladdin, the gargoyles Victor and Hugo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and more.

The animation desk is described as being in “good” condition. What does that mean? “That means it’s not falling apart,” he says, laughing. “Pruiksma used it in his home studio before deciding to sell it. He’s retired now. He did a lot of work at his home studio. It’s a working desk.”

What else makes the desk stand out? “It’s a beautiful piece of furniture that has quite a history,” he says. “This desk would have been used to make Peter Pan, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, and Lady and the Tramp. It’s amazing. It’s a piece of Walt Disney’s studio, it was a significant piece in creating all the films we talk about, and it was designed by one of the most famous furniture designers of the time.”

How to bid: The Kem Weber Walt Disney animation desk is lot #95012 in the Animation Art auction on December 9 – 10 at Heritage Auctions in Beverly Hills.

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The Animation Art sale includes related lots that might be of interest–a Kem Weber airline armchair; a modern Disney studios television animation desk, which was used when Duck Tales and Goof Troop were in production; and a modern Disney feature film animation desk which was used during the period that spans The Little Mermaid to Tarzan.

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

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SOLD! The George Nakashima Sanso Table with Conoid Chairs Fetches $187,500


Update: The Nakashima Sanso table with Conoid chairs sold for $187,500.

What you see: A Sanso “Reception House” table and six Conoid chairs, designed and made by George Nakashima in 1981. The table is 28 inches high, 60 inches wide, and 84 1/2 inches in diameter. All seven pieces are signed with the surname of the client. Freeman’s estimates the group at $100,000 to $150,000.

Who was George Nakashima? He was an American woodworker who became one of the most influential furniture-makers of the 20th century. Born to Japanese immigrants, Nakashima had traveled extensively in Japan by the time he was forced into an internment camp in Idaho during World War II. There he met an inmate who taught him Japanese carpentry techniques. Architect Antonin Raymond helped free Nakashima in 1943 and invited him to stay in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Nakashima never left. He developed a style that respected and celebrated the rugged, natural aspects of wood, and which turned its flaws into strengths. He died in 1990 at the age of 85.

Why are Sanso tables so rare? Was it difficult for Nakashima to find suitable pieces of lumber? “It was tough to get really good slabs of wood at this size,” says Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s, adding that fewer than a dozen Sanso tables exist. “Finding a board that was conducive to this purpose was more difficult and more costly. This one is a really nice English walnut, which is what the client wanted.”

The table comes with six Conoid chairs. Is this the full original set of chairs? Yes. “What’s really nice about them is they’re single slab seats,” he says. “Single slab seats were three times more expensive to purchase. They’re usually better-quality wood, and they’re all very even in color. There’s a nice contrast between the American black walnut chairs and the English walnut Sanso table.”

We know the client was Stanley Frosh and his family. What do we know about the Froshes? “They [the furniture] were made as a set and originally used in Stanley’s judge’s chambers before moving them to his home as a reception-slash-dining table for the family to use,” Andreadis says. “The Frosh family was extremely close to the Nakashimas. When George passed, the whole [Nakashima] family sat around this table to discuss the future of the George Nakashima studio. It did become a table around which big decisions were made.”

This Sanso table has several butterfly joints in it–bow-tie like fittings that help hold the tabletop together. Did Nakashima invent the butterfly joint, or did he make it his own? “Butterfly joints were used for centuries, but he made them his own,” Andreadis says. “They were used on the undersides of furnishings. You didn’t see butterfly joints. George respected the honesty of the construction process, and he wanted to make it visible. He thought it was something to be celebrated rather than hidden.”

Does the large number of butterfly joints increase the value of the Frosh Sanso table? “That’s definitely true,” he says. “It shows that George wanted to preserve the piece of lumber. In order to do that, he needed to use more butterfly joints to shore up the piece of wood. He didn’t put them on willy-nilly as a decoration. The joints prevented splits in areas that would have split over time. George worked through all the problems. He didn’t put a Band-Aid on them. He embellished them and drew your eye to them.”

And has the table held together well? What condition is it in? “It’s in fantastic condition,” he says. “The family always recognized it as a masterpiece, and revered it as such, and treated it as such. George made it later in his career, in the sweet spot between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when he was catching his stride and reflecting what his design ethos was about. It’s a beautiful thing to behold in person.”

A Paris auction house sold a Sanso table in American black walnut, without chairs, for roughly $207,000 in May. Do you think this suite of Nakashima furniture will do better? “I think it certainly has that potential. It’s one of the most dramatic Sanso tables to come to market. Even if it was just the table, I’d gush about it. It’s absolutely a blue-chip masterwork by George Nakashima,” he says. “To have Mira [George’s daughter, who now leads the studio] and the family’s memory at a pivotal point in the studio’s history speaks even further to the history with the Frosh family, and to why George chose a special table for Stanley Frosh. We have the climax point where George dies, and they talk about the studio’s future [around this table.] It could not only set a record for a Sanso table, it could set a record for any George Nakashima.”

What else makes this Nakashima furniture special? “If you’ve been waiting for a special piece by Nakashima, this is that type of piece. It will transcend market shifts over the years,” he says. “And you can look at it time after time and not get bored. I’ve been looking at it for four months and every time, I find something new. You get chills standing near it. A Nakashima like this belongs in a museum or a private collection. One lucky bidder will get to own this table, and I envy them.”

How to bid: The George Nakashima Frosh family Sanso table and its six Conoid chairs are lot 81 in the Design sale at Freeman’s on October 8, 2017.

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Freeman’s is on Twitter and Instagram as well. Also, you can read a short article on the Frosh family table and chairs set on the Freeman’s site.

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

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SOLD! Grotto Fabulous: A Pair of 19th Century Venetian Lobster Chairs Commanded $7,500 at Christie’s


Update: The Venetian lobster-form chairs sold for $7,500.

What you see: A pair of late 19th century Venetian lobster-form hinged chairs attributed to the manufacturer Pauly Et Cie. Christie’s estimates that they will sell for $10,000 to $15,000.

Lobster-form chairs? Well, they’re European-made, so technically, they’re langoustine-form chairs. But the American family who consigned them to Christie’s calls them lobster chairs, and they look lobster-y enough, don’t they?

Lobster-form chairs? This was a thing in late 19th-century Venice? Yes, it was a thing, but it wasn’t limited to chairs that resembled tasty crustaceans. “It’s a wonderful interpretation of grotto furniture,” says Casey Rogers, specialist head of 19th century furniture and sculpture for Christie’s. “Grotto furniture was created for an affluent clientele who were creating pleasure palaces with folly rooms, such as a grotto room.” A grotto room would resemble a grotto–a pretty little artificial cave decorated with shells, coral, and nautical things. Only select guests were allowed in to these showpiece spaces. “They weren’t public,” Rogers says. “They were a bit of a secret. They were certainly meant to be a feast for the eye.”

So subtlety was never the goal here? “Grotto rooms were meant for… you wouldn’t go halfway,” Rogers says. “You would take it to the max and make sure every surface evoked the theme.”

Are the chairs comfortable? “Would I spend the afternoon on one? Probably not,” she says, noting that they have padded seats, and the padding can be replaced with still more comfortable material. “But they’re fine for sitting for a cup of tea, or a short meeting. They’re certainly not like a lounge chair.”

How often do chairs like these come to auction? Not often. In 2008, Christie’s London sold a single hinged crab-form chair, from the same general time period and attributed to the same maker, for £11,875, or just over $22,000, against an estimate of £8,000 to £12,000 ($16,000 to $24,000).

How to bid: The lobster-form chairs are lot 195 in the Opulence sale taking place at Christie’s New York on April 13.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2017

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RECORD: A Unique Paul Evans Piece Sparked Cabinet Fever at Rago in January 2017


What you see: A unique vertical cabinet made by Paul Evans, featuring steel, 23 karat gold leaf, brass, and enameled finish. It stands just over seven feet tall, about four feet wide, and about 18 inches deep. It sold for $382,000 against a $140,000 to $160,000 estimate at Rago Auctions in January 2017, an auction record for Evans.

Who is Paul Evans? He was an American studio furniture maker based in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He was best known for furniture with distinctive, elaborate, sculpted metal fronts. He died in 1987, at 55.

This cabinet is a custom commission. How often did Evans accept commissions? “I haven’t heard of a lot of them,” says David Rago of Rago Auctions. “Custom commissions were often made to scale for certain interiors with only so much wall space or ceiling height. This is one of the few where [the commissioner] said, ‘I don’t like the other stuff you do, I want something like this.’ Paul Evans probably didn’t like to be told what to do. That’s probably why you don’t see many.”

The cabinet came directly from the person who commissioned it to your auction house. How rare is that? “Not as rare as you might think,” he says. “One of the reasons we get the prices we get [for Evans], is because we get them from the owners.”

Are the opportunities to receive Paul Evans consignments direct from original buyers drying up? “Not for us. Not yet,” Rago says. “He made furniture into the 1980s.”

Why did this Paul Evans cabinet do so well? “One, it was a one-of-a-kind bench-made piece. Two, it was consigned by the original owner, who worked with Paul Evans to get it made. Three, it’s a vertical cabinet, and most of these are horizontal,” he says. “Four, this is big, a big two-door vertical cabinet, so it has scale. Six, the New York Times highlighted this piece with a story titled Is This Cabinet Worth $500,000? That was a bit of a problem for me–I didn’t want people to think they had to spend $500,000 or they shouldn’t bother to bid. And the market was in a good place. People spend a lot of money on great things. There’s a lot of wealth in America.”

Were you surprised when it broke the auction record? “I thought it had potential, but I didn’t want to jinx it. I didn’t want to go there,” Rago says. “I was surprised it broke the record by that much. To break it by almost $100,000 is really unusual.”

Prior to the January 2017 Rago sale, the Paul Evans record seemed to change every six or eight months or 12 months, by $5,000 here and $10,000 there. Why do you think his auction record has been so volatile? “The more accepted Paul Evans becomes as an important, high-end designer, the more tastes change to accept other designs of his,” he says, adding that the cabinet is “A hybridized piece. It’s a little bit of a sculpture front, and a little bit of a wavy front. He put in a little of this and a little of that and he came up with a bench-made masterpiece.”

What does it feel like to have founded the auction house that set the record for Paul Evans furniture? “There’s probably one person on the planet who’s seen more Paul Evans than I have, and that’s Dorsey Reading, and he made the stuff. I grew up here. Some people say I’m geographically blessed as far as New Hope Modernism is concerned,” Rago says. “I have a lot of gratitude. It’s an honor for me to do this for a living. I started as a flea market three miles from here in 1977. To survive so long–this cabinet wasn’t made when I was at the flea market. It was made two miles from here. To do this, and handle stuff like this–I feel a bit of Jersey pride in that.”

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

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SOLD! Albert Paley’s Alluring Coffee Table Commands $8,125 at Freeman’s

Albert Paley “Coffee Table

Update: The Albert Paley coffee table sold for $8,125.

What you see: A coffee table created in 1991 by American sculptor Albert Paley. It is estimated at $8,000 to $12,000.

Who is Albert Paley? He is one of the world’s foremost metal sculptors. He might be best known for the Portal Gates that he created for the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He’s made about 50 coffee tables to date.

What makes this coffee table a powerful example of Paley’s work? “What people find appealing about Paley is he takes metal and makes it feel like flowing drapery,” says Tim Andreadis, department head for 20th century design at Freeman’s. “He bends and manipulates it like fabric, or pulled taffy. It’s inviting, and yet sort of curious. A lot goes into controlling the metal and getting it to look the way he wants.”

What else makes the Paley coffee table stand out? “If you took the glass top off it, you’d think it was a really beautiful sculpture, and you wouldn’t question it,” says Andreadis. “That’s what’s so great about Paley–the combination of art, craft, technique, and design, all melded together to create pieces that are unique. It could look amazing in a Silicon Valley tech executive’s home, with edgy contemporary pieces, or something a bit more traditional.”

Who is Jeffrey Kaplan? Did he commission the table directly from Paley? Kaplan, a retired lawyer, placed the coffee table in the living room of his Washington, D.C. apartment. He bought it from a gallery in the city and kept the receipts. (The winning bidder will receive copies of the paperwork.)

How to bid: The Albert Paley coffee table is lot 450 in 1,000 Years of Collecting: The Jeffrey M. Kaplan Collection on April 6, 2017 at Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia.

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

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