My February 2019 “Sold!” column for Art & Object magazine features gorgeous tableware: Meissen Swan service porcelain, an 1870 American silver ice bowl with a polar theme, a ridiculously complete mid-century Georg Jensen flatware set in a custom case; and a Gustav Stickley copper charger.
Update: In July 2019, Neil Armstrong’s 14k gold Apollo 11-flown Robbins medal was offered at Heritage Auctions. It sold for just over $2 million, setting a new record for a Robbins medal.
What you see: A space-flown Apollo 17 Robbins medal owned by Dave Scott, commander of Apollo 15 and the seventh man to walk on the moon. RR Auction sold it in September 2016 for $68,750–a record for a Robbins medal.
The expert: Bobby Livingston, executive vice president at RR Auction.
How did Scott get this Apollo 17 Robbins medal? All astronauts had the opportunity to buy them. Dave Scott bought one for every Apollo mission, starting with Apollo 7. They’re a neat crossover between coin collecting and space flight memorabilia. These were meant for the astronauts–the general public couldn’t buy them. They had the mission logo on the front and their names [the names of the three crew members] struck on the back. They were great commemoratives.
Unlike stamps or flags, which are flat and light, silver medals have heft and weight. How did the Robbins company convince NASA to make room for several dozen medals on its Apollo spacecraft? I’m not familiar with the history of the decision. I do know it was a tradition of NASA to allow certain artifacts to be flown in space. NASA flew Robbins medals into the 1990s. It was a long tradition with the government and the astronauts.
What makes a Robbins medal valuable? Aside from being flown in space, having a letter of authenticity from an astronaut makes them extremely valuable. When Buzz Aldrin writes a letter saying, “I took this Robbins medal to the moon,” that adds value. The chain of custody matters.
If a space-flown Robbins medal lacks a letter of authenticity from an astronaut, is it still valuable? Yes. Each coin has a number stamped on its edge. We know which numbers flew [in space] and which did not. If it flew, it has value. With Dave, when he was on Apollo 15, he requested his to be number 15. Not only did he take a coin, he took a specific number because it related to the mission. I can’t imagine one more valuable.
How did Dave Scott snag the number 15 Robbins medal from the Apollo 17 series? Because he asked for it. Dave is a collector, so he understood what was neat and what made sense. These guys are engineers, they’re numbers guys.
That’s what I mean. There were two other guys on Apollo 15. How did Dave Scott claim the number 15 Apollo 17 Robbins medal for himself? Did he arm-wrestle them for it? Wrong. He was the mission commander. He outranked them. (Laughs)
How often do space-flown Robbins medals come up at auction? They appear at auction consistently, but the supply is limited and the price is going up. They’re becoming more commodified.
I understand the Robbins company struck 14-karat gold Robbins medals. How do they fit in here? They’re rarer and more desirable. They struck three to seven for each mission. All have serial numbers on them, and they were only available to the flight crew. They were made specifically to give to their wives.
Have any of the gold ones come to auction? One from Apollo 13 sold recently. We had one with a diamond in it from Apollo 11. They’re not giant coins–they’re smaller than a silver dollar, maybe a bit smaller. They’re beautiful.
Why are space-flown Apollo 17 medallions considered the most sought-after and difficult to obtain? Is it because of their limited numbers, or is it more than that? Only 80 Apollo 17 Robbins medals were flown. You can’t have a complete set of flown medals without Apollo 17. It was the last mission, and it’s rare. They come up once every couple of years, and we’re actively seeking them out. People are not willing to sell them.
This space-flown Robbins medal has a third-party grade of MS67. Did the high grade drive the medal’s record price? It was in great condition, but I don’t know if the grade made a difference to the person who bought it. He needed it for his collection.
Dave Scott is still alive. Could you talk about what prompted him to consign back in September 2016? Why did he sell the space-flown Robbins medal then? Most of the astronauts donated lots of material to universities, and a lot gave things to their children and grandchildren. There’s stuff left over that their families don’t want, and they want to get it into the hands of people who would want them. Dave Scott cares a lot. He’s got things that went to the moon, he’s in his eighties, and he’s a collector. He will write a whole dissertation about what it [a given piece he owned during his NASA career] meant. These things will be lost unless they’re documented and put in the hands of people. On a side note, Alan Shepard lived in Derry, New Hampshire. His family had a garage sale. Someone bought a bureau for $50, and in it was a letter he wrote to his parents, talking about being considered for the Mercury 7 selection program. We sold it for $106,000. These astronauts–if things are not documented and curated, they’ll be put on the curb, like [those countless mothers who infamously threw out their kids’] baseball cards. It happens! (Laughs)
What was the previous record for a space-flown Robbins medal? Was it an Apollo 11? We sold an Apollo 11 for $56,000. It was an interesting one, owned by a nephew of Neil Armstrong, but it wasn’t the previous record. In May 2013, we sold Gene Cernan’s Apollo 17 Robbins medal for $61,000. The Apollo 17, because it’s rarest, sold for more.
The September 2016 auction took place entirely online. When did you know you had a record for a space-flown Robbins medal? We realized it that night, and we put a press release out right away. We’re very proud every time we set a record.
How long do you think the record for a space-flown Robbins medal will stand? I don’t know, but records are made to be broken. With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 coming up, we may see a lot of excitement in the space collectibles market. The attention is going to be intense. I wouldn’t be surprised if we break the record in a year or two.
What else could challenge it? Maybe Neil Armstrong’s 14-karat gold Robbins medal? I don’t know if that’s ever going to come to market. If it did, it would have a pretty high estimate. It would be incredibly valuable, and it would break the record.
Image is courtesy of RR Auction.
Livingston spoke to The Hot Bid in 2017 about a ring that Clyde Barrow made in prison to give to his girlfriend, Bonnie Parker.
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Update: The Man Ray 1938 London Underground poster did indeed sell for a way out price–$149,000.
What you see: A 1938 London Transport poster designed by Man Ray. Swann Galleries estimates it at $80,000 to $120,000.
Who was Man Ray? Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1890 as Emmanuel Radnitsky, Man Ray was vital to the Dada and Surrealist movements of the early 20th century. He was wildly creative in several media, especially photography and film-making. His art appeared in the first Surrealist exhibition in Paris in 1925, alongside that of Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp, and Max Ernst. Man Ray befriended Marcel Duchamp and worked with him often. He died in Paris in 1976 at the age of 86.
The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.
How was Man Ray chosen for this London Transport poster commission? Hard to say exactly. Man Ray was living in Paris at the time. One school of thought is he went through London on his way back to the United States because of the war, but he may have designed the poster earlier than that, in 1936. He was chosen because Frank Pick, the head of London Transport advertising, was a real visionary. He employed a lot of fabulous artists and he pushed the envelope. He worked with László Moholy-Nagy, and probably through those connections, Pick became acquainted with Man Ray.
This looks like it’s one poster of a set of two. The second has the same image and asymmetric border structure. It’s meant to be a pair. This one says “Keeps London Going.” The other says “London Transport.“
Does the other Man Ray poster survive? It survives, but to the best of my knowledge, none have ever come up for public auction.
Apparently the design of the poster recalls Man Ray’s rayographs? A rayograph was Man Ray’s personal spin on the photogram. Objects are placed on paper, light is turned on, and shapes are left on the paper. The poster is more nuanced than a rayograph, which would not have had shades of gray.
And people enjoy debating what the Man Ray poster might mean? A lot have surmised what it could mean, but to my mind, it’s pretty straightforward. My interpretation is, basically, he’s comparing the London Transport system to the solar system. The image at the top is the London Transport logo, which is called a roundel. On the bottom is Saturn. The way the planets move around the solar system is the way that London Transport moves you around London.
The lot notes call this Man Ray poster ‘rare.’ I was under the impression it was unique? Unique means one of a kind. Salvator Mundi is unique. It’s an original work of art. Posters are never unique. Between 1,000 and 2,000 [copies of the Man Ray poster] were printed.
How often has the Man Ray London Transport poster been offered at auction? There are four auction records since 1994. One sold at Sotheby’s, and the other three sold at Christie’s. I think we have the one that Christie’s sold in 1994 for $39,800. The high-water mark was in June 2007 at Christie’s, when one sold for $100,906.
How much of that $100,906 auction record for a London Transport poster was driven by the fact that Man Ray designed the poster? I think it’s almost entirely [driven by Man Ray]. No other London Transport poster has commanded that kind of money. The qualities of a poster that make it valuable are image, artist, condition, and rarity, not necessarily in that order. László Moholy-Nagy is a super-famous artist. We have a poster he designed as lot 75 in this sale–
…I got the impression that Moholy-Nagy’s London Transport posters weren’t all that spectacular. The consensus [on lot 75, which is for Imperial Airways] is it’s a rare poster, but not that great an image. Here [with the Man Ray] you have a famous artist and an extraordinary image. He put all his technique and his creativity into the design. It’s rare, and its condition is fine.
If you lined up the ten best London Transport posters and asked me to pick the one that holds the world auction record, I doubt I’d pick the Man Ray because it’s black and white, and I think of great posters as being colorful… That’s a slight misconception on your part. You’re right, great posters have great color, but great posters are supposed to catch your eye, and there’s no methodology on how to do that. This catches your eye. The imagery makes you think about what’s going on. It’s a good advertisement because it makes you think. And it might have stood out [in its time] because it was black and white.
Why will this Man Ray poster stick in your memory? Because for many years, it was the most expensive travel poster ever sold. That travel poster record was beaten by us in 2012 when we sold an A.M. Cassandre poster for British Rail for $162,500. In the poster world, you deal in $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 posters. It’s wonderful, out of this world, that it [the Man Ray London Transport poster] would sell for $100,000. From that point of view, it sticks in my mind as exceptional.
Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
Nicholas Lowry has appeared several times on The Hot Bid. Read past entries in which he talks about a trio of Mont Blanc posters from 1928, a mid-1930s German travel poster featuring the Hindenburg, a 1968 MoMA poster by Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo, an I Want You 1917 World War I recruiting poster that introduced the modern concept of Uncle Sam, and an Alphonse Mucha poster featuring Sarah Bernhardt.
In case you missed it above, the London Transport Museum has the other poster from the pair in its online collection, and it includes a link to a period photo of the posters on display outside St. Paul’s station in London.
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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 Frederick Hurten 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 Frederick Hurten 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  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 Frederick Hurten 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.”
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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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 I Want You 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 I Want You 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 I Want You 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.”
Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
Update: The Apollo 13 flown flight plan sold for $275,000–more than six times its high estimate.
What you see: A page from the flight plan used during the Apollo 13 lunar mission. Sotheby’s estimates it at $30,000 to $40,000.
What was Apollo 13? It was a 1970 moon voyage that never made it to the moon. An oxygen tank exploded 56 hours after liftoff, transforming the lunar mission into a rescue mission. The wounded vessel returned to Earth after four tense and terrifying days. The crew of three drank little, ate less, and slept even less than that. They arrived home on April 17, 1970, alive but collectively 31 and a half pounds lighter. The tale of Apollo 13 might be best known through the 1995 Academy Award-winning film that stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton.
Astronaut Fred Haise inscribed the Apollo 13 flight plan to “Bob.” Who is Bob? He is Robert “Bob” Lindsey, the lead flight planner for Apollo 13. “This plan contained all the steps they had to follow to get into space. Lindsey figured out everything that needed to be done. Of course, the spacecraft did not comply,” says Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s. “Though they didn’t make it to the moon, Lindsey was instrumental in getting them out there, and instrumental in getting them back.” His descendants consigned the flight plan to Sotheby’s.
Wait, so there was only one flight plan aboard Apollo 13? Was it a NASA tradition for Apollo crews to give the flown flight plan to the lead flight planner when they got back to Earth? “Yes, this is it,” Hatton says of the document, and adds that giving the flight plan to the lead planner was not routine: “It was just something the Apollo 13 crew decided to do as an extra thank-you to the people who saved their lives.”
Does the Apollo 13 flight plan contain handwritten notes from the astronauts after the oxygen tank exploded? Yes. The flight plan covers the voyage from liftoff to the point when astronauts Jack Swigert, Jim Lovell, and Haise abandoned the command module for the lunar lander, which they used as a lifeboat. The document also contains notes in red ink from Ken Mattingly, the original Apollo 13 command module pilot. He was removed from the crew days before the launch after fellow astronaut Charlie Duke unwittingly exposed him to German measles. Swigert replaced Mattingly.
What notes in the Apollo 13 flight plan show the reaction to the explosion? Page 3-38 corresponds to the time of the accident. Lovell, the mission commander, crossed out the typewritten plans and wrote new ones, which include leaving the main vessel for the lunar module (LM). Lovell observed the need to “insure proper 02 concentration in LM.” Maintaining oxygen levels in the LM did pose a challenge. NASA engineers later had to teach the astronauts to jerry-rig a carbon dioxide filter that would work in the LM with parts that the astronauts had on hand.
How do we know which astronaut wrote which notes? Hatton referenced the air-to-ground transcript that NASA took for Apollo 13. By matching the transcript against the flight plan, she was able to identify each author. “If you take the time to go through it and read it, page by page, and compare it to the transcript, it solidifies our perception of them as being heroes,” she says. “‘Ok, we have no heat, no water, no food, and we can’t get any sleep, but we’re not going to panic and we’re going to get home.’ My heart was pounding. It’s an incredible thing.”
Why are there cartoons in the Apollo 13 flight plan? NASA asked Johnson Space Centre artist Barbara Matelski to sketch caricatures of the crew in the flight plan before the launch as a jokey surprise for them to discover as they leafed through its pages. Shown here is the caricature of Swigert, who takes a ribbing over his political ambitions. He won the House of Representatives race for Colorado’s 6th district in November 1982, but died of bone cancer before he could be sworn in. He was 51 when he passed away. Lovell is now 89, Haise is 83, and Mattingly is 81.
The Apollo 13 flight plan’s presale estimate is $30,000 to $40,000. Isn’t that kind of low? “The estimate is very, very conservative. It is. I’m confident it will far exceed its estimate,” she says, adding that its closest analog is a document that was embroiled in controversy. In 2011, Lovell consigned the flown LM Apollo 13 checklist–which takes over where this flight plan leaves off–to auction. It sold for $388,375, but the transaction was voided when NASA objected. President Barack Obama subsequently signed a law that gives clear title to memorabilia received by astronauts during the course of their work with the Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo programs. “It’s interesting to see what the impact of the new law will be,” she says. “It’s very clear about who the title lays with, so bidders can have confidence in this.”
Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow Cassandra Hatton on Twitter and Instagram and read a story she wrote for Sotheby’s on the flown Apollo 13 flight plan.
Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
What you see: A 10-inch-tall Chinese cloisonné bottle vase, initially believed to date to the 18th or 19th century, and estimated at $400 to $600. In April 2017 it sold for $812,500 at Quinn’s Auctions, via the iGavel online platform.
How did you arrive at the $400 to $600 estimate for the Chinese Cloisonné vase? “The first thing we did was look at the condition. It was heavily restored,” says Matthew Quinn, executive vice president of Quinn’s Auction Galleries. “We try always to have super-conservative estimates. We didn’t know the full extent until we watched it play out. We thought the vase might be 18th century. We didn’t know it was 14th century.”
Why did you describe the Chinese Cloisonné vase as dating to the 18th or 19th century? “It looked like it had sufficient age to fit that category. We were still wrong. That’s the beauty of the marketplace,” he says, laughing.
What marks the Chinese Cloisonné vase as being from the 14th century? “The form more than anything. The bottle form, and the colors of the enamels. We were told it’s from the late 14th or early 15th century. The bottle form was only done then, and it wasn’t copied until late in the 20th century. And the yellow and red–those particular colors were only used in that time frame,” he says.
Were you the auctioneer during the sale? “We sold it through iGavel, an online-only site,” he says. “Bidding comes in on iGavel every five minutes toward the end. It mimics what goes on in a sale room. With the five minute extensions, it took a long time to sell the vase–an hour, an hour and a half at least. It was fascinating to watch it go.”
Where were you as you watched the sale? “I was on the road. I expected it to do OK. A minute to close, it was at $12,000, then $15,000. I thought, ‘Eh, it’s doing OK.’ It got close to close. Then it was $30,000, and it went pretty handily up to $50,000. I called Lark [Mason, founder of iGavel] at that point. It kept going and going and going. It was wild. Bidders were taking two to three minutes to place each bid. They were taking their time, not like the high pace of an auction room, where the bids come in two or three seconds. I’m not sure if it was part of their strategy or not.”
Did the Chinese Cloisonné vase set an auction record? “We haven’t been able to find much [corroborating information],” Quinn says. “Lark thought it might have been in record territory for a bottle vase, but there are so few of them [reflected in auction archives] we weren’t able to find much. Rarity is not always a good thing. Just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it’s valuable, but in this case, it was.”
What else makes this vase interesting? “Everybody wants to know how we find these treasures. You find them in the places you least expect. This vase was stuck up in a barn, in the back of the butler’s pantry,” he says, explaining he was called in to sort through the contents of a family farm to prepare it for sale.
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Image is courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries.
Update: The portrait of Elisabet the court jester sold for £2.1 million, or $2.8 million–well above its six-digit presale estimate.
What you see: A 16th century oil on oak panel portrait of Elisabet, court fool of Anne of Hungary, painted by Jan Sanders van Hemessen. Sotheby’s estimates it at £400,000 to £600,000 ($511,947 to $767,921).
Who was Jan Sanders van Hemessen? He was a Netherlandish painter who was born in Belgium and who traveled to Italy to study before his career fully took off. “He painted important people throughout his life,” says Andrew Fletcher, senior director and head of auction sales of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s. “He was one of the more sought-after painters of his time.”
This female court jester portrait has been attributed to different artists over the centuries. How unusual is that? Not at all. “Early Netherlandish paintings are notoriously difficult to attribute,” he says. “The fact that the attribution swung [over time] is very typical of works of this type and this date.”
How odd is it to find a formal portrait of a court jester from the 16th century? “An actual commissioned portrait of a court fool or jester, where the court fool or jester sits for a portrait as a lady or a gentleman might, is exceptionally rare,” Fletcher says. “There’s a tiny number of paintings of court fools in fool guise.”
What’s with the rings around her neck? Fletcher and his colleagues consulted multiple art historians on several aspects of the painting. A second portrait of Elisabet, located in Vienna, depicts her with rings on her neck. That portrait further cements her importance, but it does not explain why she wore the rings in that manner. The current best guess is the rings might have something to do with magic tricks. “One of the traits of a court fool is to be a conjuror,” he says. “That’s the only trait we could think of that the rings would be relevant to. Someone could come up with another idea tomorrow. We can’t be more specific than that.”
Elisabet is shown holding a letter in this female court jester portrait. Apparently, that might mean she was literate. Why would a 16th century female court jester need to know how to read? “Given that a large part of a jester’s role [could be] making wordplay with puns, they must have been literate people. The letter suggests she has a level of education you might not normally expect. Chances are she probably did, and she may have had responsibility toward the children,” Fletcher says, explaining that she might have served in a governess-like role to the children of Anne of Hungary, who was the wife of Ferdinand I, an Austrian archduke who became Holy Roman Emperor.
Someone–probably Anne of Hungary–paid to have this portrait done, and Elisabet sat for portraits more than once. What does that say about her, and about what she meant to those who knew her? “It’s a portrait of exceptionally high quality, but it’s of a court jester. Those two facts, combined, suggest she must have been held in incredibly high regard,” he says. “You get the impression that she played an important role in the court, and the court had an emotional attachment to her. You don’t go to the expense of commissioning a portrait of a court fool unless she means more to you than a court fool might mean.”
Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Update: The Martial Raysse work sold for $50,000–ten times its low estimate.
What you see: UNTITLED (EYES), a 1963 mixed media collage by the French artist Martial Raysse. He inscribed it, “To Stanley Bard Avec l’amitié de Martial Raysse (To Stanley Bard, with the friendship of Martial Raysse).” Freeman’s estimates it at $5,000 to $8,000.
Who is Martial Raysse? In the 1960s Raysse cofounded the Nouveau Réalisme art movement with Yves Klein and Arman, two fellow residents of the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan. His compatriots banished him from the group after he abandoned making art from consumer objects to paint on canvas instead. It’s unclear when he moved out of the Hotel Chelsea. Raysse set the auction record for the most expensive painting by a living French artist when his Last Year in Capri (Exotic Title) garnered $6.58 million at Christie’s London in 2011. He turned 81 in February.
Who is Stanley Bard? He managed the Hotel Chelsea for more than 40 years, enhancing and cementing its reputation as an artists’ sanctuary. He died in February at the age of 82. Freeman’s is selling almost 100 works from his personal collection–art that graced his own apartment rather than the walls of the hotel he ran.
What led Martial Raysse to give Stanley Bard this work? We’re not sure what the circumstances were, but the two would have met at the Chelsea. “We didn’t know what it was at first,” says Alasdair Nichol, vice chairman at Freeman’s. “Nobody seemed to know. The writing was hard to make out. I loved it as an image even by an anonymous artist. When it turned out to be a Martial Raysse, it made it a more interesting proposition.”
What makes the Martial Raysse work so strong? “The bright red color, and the eyes,” Nichol says. “I love it. The moment you see it, it stays with you. It’s a pretty indelible image. It feels very much of its time as well, with the 1960s model eyelashes. The neon color reinforces it. It’s electric.”
Image is courtesy of Freeman’s.
UPDATE: The Ty Cobb baseball postcard, which Cobb used and mailed just before playing his first World Series game, commanded $84,000–seven times its estimate.
What you see: A 1907 Seamless Steel Tubes postcard picturing Ty Cobb in his rookie year. Cobb wrote a message on it and mailed it from Chicago on October 7, 1907, the day before he played in the World Series against the Cubs, who ultimately won in four games. Heritage Auctions estimates the postcard at $10,000 plus.
What Cobb wrote on the postcard: “Well, we have won the pennant and here for world series. I led in hitting, stolen bases 60, assists, and second 100 runs, hit 355 unofficially – hope you lots of luck, will be glad to hear at any time. Royston GA., have an offer to go with all-Americans out to California. Excuse this advertising card.”
So, just how rare is this Ty Cobb baseball postcard? “The card itself, without writing, is $3,500 to $5,000 because a handful of them are known,” says Heritage sports card expert Peter Calderon. “A note on a vintage card is extremely hard to find, and a message from a player is very, very rare.”
This Ty Cobb baseball postcard was commissioned by a Detroit factory that made exhaust systems for steam locomotives–not a tobacco company or a gum manufacturer. Why would a company like that want to offer something like this? “It was based out of Detroit, and using players was common,” says Calderon. “Considering how rare the card is, it probably wasn’t produced in large numbers. It may have been just a giveaway [in Detroit] by the company.”
Who did Cobb send this to? Tom Bird, who was a teammate of his when he was playing in the minor leagues with the Augusta Tourists. The postcard has descended in Bird’s family and comes directly to Heritage from them. “He probably had it sitting around and wanted to send a note. That’s one of the neat things about it,” says Calderon. “Cobb had a reputation of being a dirty player, but he signs it ‘Tyrus,’ like he’s signing a Christmas card, and he says, ‘Excuse this advertising card.’ It shows the humbler and humane side of him, which he is not known for.”
The Ty Cobb baseball postcard has an estimate of $10,000 and up, but as of April 24, the high bid was $28,000–$33,600 with buyer’s premium. Where do you think it is headed? “It could go to $40,000, $50,000–who knows?” says Calderon. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a used postcard like this. It’s one of a kind. On every level, it has everything. It’s Ty Cobb. It’s a full message. It’s about baseball. It’s everything a collector could want.”
Images are courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
Update: Phillips sold the 1931 Willi Ruge photo Berlin Parachute Jumper for $65,000–more than double its high estimate.
What you see: Berlin Fallschirmspringer, which translates as Berlin Parachute Jumper, from Willi Ruge’s 1931 series, I Photograph Myself During a Parachute Jump. Phillips estimates the gelatin silver print at $20,000 to $30,000.
Who was Willi Ruge? He was a press photographer in the early 20th century who worked with the German counterparts of magazines such as Life and Look. “He distinguished himself by putting himself in the center of the action,” says Christopher Mahoney, a consultant at Phillips’s photography department. “He was a photojournalist, but he was a bit of a daredevil, too.” Ruge (pronounced Roo-guh) was also a pilot and a certified parachutist. He died in 1961.
How hard was it for Willi Ruge to get this shot? After laughing heartily, Mahoney says, “Pretty darn hard. First, you have to have the guts to jump out of a plane with a parachute. Getting up the gumption to do that is a considerable feat in itself. And I can’t imagine it’s easy, hurtling toward the earth with a parachute over you, to concentrate on the complex act of taking a photo, but he did that. And it was all manual. He figured out the focus and the exposure on the fly, and he would have been winding by hand.”
Did Ruge manipulate the photograph in the dark room at all? “It was standard procedure for photographers to fix blemishes in the negative. There may have been a little bit of that. But there’s no major kind of retouching,” Mahoney says. “This really is what he was seeing as he parachuted down.”
Why did Willi Ruge take this photograph? It was part of a photo story for a German magazine. A friend in a nearby plane photographed Ruge as he jumped, and a second photographer on the ground captured the faces of witnesses who watched him land. The final product enjoyed the 1930s version of going viral–photo magazines in Britain and America ran it. “To me, it’s lost none of its impact,” Mahoney says. “It still induces a sense of vertigo. And it’s confounding–those shoes dangling over Berlin. It still packs a wallop, many decades later.”
What else makes this Willi Ruge photograph special? It’s rare, as are all Ruge images (his archive was bombed in 1943), and it does not appear to have gone to auction before. And there’s not much else like it out there. “This is an image that couldn’t exist in other media,” Mahoney says. “It is photography doing what photography does best–documenting the moment so other people can see it. This is a very dramatic moment Willi Ruge has documented.”
How to bid: Berlin Fallschirmspringer is lot 6 in The Odyssey of Collecting: Photographs from Joy of Giving Foundation, taking place April 3 and April 4, 2017 at Phillips New York.
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Image is courtesy of Phillips/Phillips.com
Update: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove typewriters sold for $37,500 on March 8, 2017.
What you see: A pair of pale green Hermes 3000 typewriters, made between 1963-1970, which belonged to Larry McMurtry.
Who is Larry McMurtry? He operates Booked Up, a used bookstore in Archer City, Texas, but he’s probably better known as the author of Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment. All three books became movies or miniseries; Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer Prize, and films based on McMurtry’s books have won 10 Academy Awards. He and a co-writer won three more Oscars for their adaption of the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.
Why are these typewriters special? McMurtry used them to write Lonesome Dove, his masterpiece about Texas rangers on a cattle drive, which was published in 1985. The author is particular about his tools; even now, at age 80, he has no interest in switching to a computer.
Why are there two Lonesome Dove typewriters? McMurtry kept one typewriter in Archer City, Texas, and the other in Washington, D.C., the site of the original Booked Up store (it has since closed). Each weighs 16 pounds. It made more sense for McMurtry to keep a typewriter in Texas and another in D.C. rather than lug one machine between both places.
How do we know that McMurtry definitely wrote Lonesome Dove on them? “Larry McMurtry gave them to me and said, ‘I wrote Lonesome Dove on them,” says James Gannon, director of Rare Books for Heritage Auctions of Dallas, who collected the typewriters from the author on November 1 of last year. Gannon is obtaining a letter of provenance from McMurtry.
Why do the Lonesome Dove typewriters carry an estimate of $10,000? Typewriters that can be linked to prominent authors are rare; typewriters that were unquestionably and exclusively used to write legendary books are even rarer. The Lettera 32 Olivetti typewriter that author Cormac McCarthy relied on to write The Road, Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and All the Pretty Horses sold at Christie’s in 2009 for $254,500–well above its $20,000 estimate. “It’s like owning one of Dickens’s pens or one of Shakespeare’s quills,” says Gannon. “A typewriter is the focus of a writer’s day-in, day-out existence. That seems to resonate with collectors.”
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Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions, HA.com.