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

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What you see: A Phillips rig preening black duck decoy, carved circa 1912 by A. Elmer Crowell for his patron, Dr. John C. Phillips. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

 

Who was A. Elmer Crowell? Born in 1862 in East Harwich, Massachusetts, he’s the king of American duck decoy carvers. Initially, he carved in the course of his work at duck-hunting camps, but over time, his magnificent wooden birds won fans who loved them as decorative objects. His decoys have sold at auction for six-figure sums, and two sold privately for more than $1 million each. Crowell died in 1952, at the age of 89.

 

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but is this preening black duck a hen or a drake? Black ducks get a pass on being hens or drakes. 99 percent of the time, they’re just black ducks. This is just a black duck, with no clear designation on being one or the other.

 

It’s also described as being a “rig mate” to other duck decoys that belonged to the late Dr. Phillips. What does it mean for a decoy to be a rig mate? A rig is a group of birds [decoys] owned by and hunted over by one person. It doesn’t always mean the decoys are exactly alike, or made side by side. There can be a lot of variation, depending on how they were made and used. In the context of the Phillips rig, a decoy can be anything out of that group of rig mates. There are Phillips rig mates that look nothing like Crowell’s work.

 

Crowell carved and painted hundreds of decoys that depicted black ducks. Where does this one rank among his lifetime output? It’s among his very finest. As you mention, he did hundreds of them. This bird is as good as they come, in my personal opinion.

 

Did he carve the decoy from a single piece of wood? The bird is made of two pieces, one for the body and one for the head. One thing that makes the bird so strong is the masterful sculpture of the duck in a preening position. It’s not easy to capture well, and Crowell did it nearly perfectly. The finer details of the carving show Crowell’s tremendous effort to do his best work for his best patron. We see him coming into a sweet spot in his career–he was as good a carver as he would be, and this was on the early side of showing his command of his wet-on-wet painting technique, which gives a natural, soft look to the feathers.

 

This looks gorgeous enough to have been destined for a mantle, but the lot notes say it shows evidence of being used on a hunt… It’s a working decoy, and at the same time, it represents one of the best carved decoys in a decorative sense. The bird was hardly used. It was probably retired early because of an appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. I suspect the patron deemed it too precious to hunt over. What’s interesting about the Phillips rig is Crowell didn’t just make this decoy for Phillips, he was his stand manager. He created the decoys, and decided where they would be hunted, and how they would be hunted over. Crowell knew he was going to be involved with handling the decoy after it left his workshop. He wasn’t handing it over to a hunter who might break it. It’s unknowable, but it’s possible because of the relationship Crowell and Phillips had.

 

Do we know when Crowell made this decoy? He used a hot brand [on his decoys]. We can date his birds to some extent on the quality of the brand. Every time a brand is heated, it corrodes a little. Over the years, a brand can be seen burning out, leaving a softer and softer impression. It’s a great dating tool that Crowell inadvertently left behind. This has a perfectly crisp oval brand, which suggests it was 1912.

 

Carving the duck’s head to make it hover in a natural-looking way over the body seems difficult. Is it harder to carve a preening duck? You can think of a preener as the decoy maker’s deluxe model. It’s harder to carve and harder to paint. But it adds variety to the rig, making it look more lifelike as a group. An additional benefit is they’re less breakable because the body can protect the head. We have a 200-year-old decoy in the sale with an intact bill because it’s protected by the body in the preening pose.

 

What is your favorite detail on this decoy? When I look at this bird, the first thing it does is hold together as a phenomenal piece of sculpture. You can go from tip to tail picking out fine details that were expertly executed, but the bird is better than any one single detail.

 

What is it like to hold the decoy? [Laughs] Being in the presence of the decoy before handling it is a real pleasure. It’s excellent from every angle. And it feels just right in the hand. It’s full, robust, and you can feel the finer subtleties in the carving details. I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

To explain what a big deal it is to auction Donal C. O’Brien, Jr.’s collection of decoys and sporting art, can you draw an analogy to other notable auctions of lots consigned by great collectors? It would be somewhat like the Rockefeller collection or the Yves St. Laurent collection in its breadth and quality, and that’s been reflected in the market response to the birds so far.

 

Why will this Crowell preening black duck decoy stick in your memory? Crowell is a quintessential representative of great American bird carving. He was self-taught. He started making decoys because he needed to, and his working decoys led to the birth of American decorative bird carving. This bird is at the nexus of his carving career, where his working decoys became so good, they’re indistinguishable from decorative carving. He’s one of the best makers, making his best effort, carving one of his favorite species for his most important client. It fires on all cylinders from a historic standpoint and an aesthetic standpoint.

 

How to bid: The Crowell preening black duck is lot 14 in the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Collection of Important American Sporting Art and Decoys, Session III, taking place July 19, 2018 at Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

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

 

Copley Fine Art Auctions appeared on The Hot Bid last summer in a post about a record-setting Gus Wilson duck decoy.

 

Quack!

 

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SOLD! A Painting by Self-Taught African-American Artist Sam Doyle Drums Up $17,000 at Slotin Folk Art

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Update: Penn Drummer Boy sold for $17,000.

 

What you see: Penn Drummer Boy, rendered in house paint on discarded tin roofing material around 1983 by Sam Doyle. Slotin Folk Art estimates it at $15,000 to $20,000.

 

Who was Sam Doyle? He was an African-American self-taught artist who painted images of people and events in the Gullah community of Saint Helena Island in South Carolina. He made his art with what he could scavenge. Born in 1906, he began painting in 1944 and displayed his works outside his home. Eventually, it evolved into the Saint Helena Out Door Art Gallery. Doyle gained fame after he was included in a groundbreaking 1982 show, Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He died in 1985, at the age of 79.

 

The expert: Steve Slotin of Slotin Folk Art in Buford, Georgia.

 

How prolific was Sam Doyle? Do we know? There probably is a finite number of works because he was producing for quite a few years and decorating his environment with images. When he got discovered, collectors bought them and he replaced them. There’s at least a thousand works, or it’s in the thousands.

 

Penn Drummer Boy is undated. Can we narrow down when he might have painted it? The family who owned it bought it directly from his environment. This is 1983 or just right after the Corcoran exhibit. The painting could have been in the yard for a year or two, or he could have just made it.

 

How often did he paint on metal? The majority of his works are painted on old, used roofing tin. Discarded roofing and discarded house paint was almost free material.

 

Is Penn Drummer Boy from his Penn series? This image was repeated. That wasn’t uncommon. It’s an image he’d already done, and when it was bought, he made another, and another, and another. When you’re extremely poor and white people come to your community and say, ‘I want one of those,’ you’re going to make one of those. If you wanted a Penn Drummer Boy, he’d make you a Penn Drummer Boy. His paintings reported what went on in his community. He painted people he knew. No one else was documenting what was going on in his community except for him. He would record people of importance, such as the first black butcher. You get a lot of history in his paintings, but you don’t necessarily realize it.

 

How many Penn Drummer Boy paintings are there? No one knows, but we’ve seen three or four in the last 25 years we’ve been doing this, and we’ve handled two or three.

 

How similar are they? Pretty much everything is similar to the one before it.  If it’s a midwife holding a baby, it’s the same midwife holding a baby. There’s not a lot of variation.

 

Doyle attended the Penn school when he was young, and later he became a father. Is there any chance that Penn Drummer Boy is a self-portrait, or maybe a portrait of one of his kids? I would not know that. I’ve studied this guy and what he looks like, and it’s probably not the same person. It could be a very young version of him, but I wouldn’t even go there. There’s no indication. It didn’t occur to me that it would ever be a self-portrait. He may have done one or two self-portraits [in his career].

 

Was Penn Drummer Boy ever displayed at the outdoor gallery? Everything was displayed in his yard until someone bought it. If you found him and walked onto his property, you could buy it. Nothing was there just for looksies. That was his gallery.

 

Did Doyle call it a gallery? Who knows what he called it. Everything was nailed to the outside of the walls. It was really an all-outdoor environment. Paintings were leaning against each other. It was not what me and you would say is a gallery.

 

How rare is it for a Sam Doyle to come to auction? We’ve been really lucky. We get one or two pieces in every sale, which happens every six months. We’ve certainly sold more than anybody else. We have a really good track record of getting the highest prices for our sellers and for the buyers, making sure what we have is correct. We do a really good job of vetting.

 

Are fakes a problem with Sam Doyle works? There were a few times people tried to pass things off as Sam Doyles, but they’re really quick and easy to spot. We won’t accept those pieces. Anytime money is involved, somebody will try to capitalize and make a quick buck.

 

So faking a Sam Doyle piece is harder than it looks? Right. A trained artist who mimics folk, self-taught, and outsider art still has training in art. After 25 years of doing this we’re pretty aware of what to look for.

 

Penn Drummer Boy is fresh to market–it went from Doyle to the consigner to Slotin. Is that rare? For Sam Doyle and for most of the works in the auction, that’s not rare at all. During the period of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, collectors were visiting artists and buying directly from them. The original buyers have started getting older and need to figure out what to do with their art. If the children don’t want it, they sell it. We get a lot of stuff that’s never been sold or offered before.

 

As of April 6, 2018, about three weeks before the auction, Penn Drummer Boy has been bid up to $3,700. Does that mean anything? What you see online is basically lookie-loos. Most of the action on the piece will be in-house, online, or on the phone. The second that piece hits the auction block, and it’s on the block for 40 seconds to a minute, lots of hands in the auction will bid it up. $3,700 is nothing. It will hit the highest price in-house. That’s where it will go to $15,000, $20,000, $30,000.

 

What condition is it in? Self-taught artists, especially Sam Doyle, work with found material. This has rust, and holes for nails–that’s expected. You want to see that in a piece. You know it’s real. The colors are strong. It didn’t sit in the environment that long. It’s a pristine piece.

 

Why will Penn Drummer Boy stick in your memory? This is a really strong piece, in great condition. Those who bought it bought it right from the environment. I like everything it has going on. Everything you want to see in a Sam Doyle is there. It’s got the history. It’s got the colors. It’s easy on the eyes. It’s an all-around nice piece.

 

How to bid: Sam Doyle’s Penn Drummer Boy is lot 0132 in the Self Taught, Outsider & Folk Art sale on April 28 and 29, 2018 at Slotin Folk Art in Buford, Georgia.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Slotin Folk Art Auction.

 

Steve Slotin previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a sculpture by Ab the Flag Man which ultimately sold for $1,200.

 

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SOLD! This Vibrantly Colored William McKinley Campaign Poster from 1900 Fetched $11,875 at Heritage Auctions

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Update: The McKinley campaign poster from circa 1900 sold for $11,875.

What you see: A circa 1900 28-inch-by-42-inch near-mint condition campaign poster for President William McKinley, who was running for a second term. Heritage Auctions believes that the poster could sell for $10,000 to $15,000.

Who was William McKinley? He was the 25th president of the United States. He was a Republican and a Civil War veteran who defended the gold standard and led the country through the Spanish-American War, in which America gained Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines (this last eventually became independent). He also annexed Hawaii. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, went on to become president in his own right. An assassin shot McKinley in September 1901 and he succumbed to his wounds about a week later. He was 58.

Do we know how this campaign poster came to be? And did the campaign know they had a winner on their hands with this image? No, and probably not. “The two times he ran for president, McKinley stayed home in Canton, Ohio, and delegations came to visit him,” says Don Ackerman, consignment director for historical Americana and political material at Heritage Auctions. “Millionaire Mark Hanna financed the entire campaign. Most campaign materials were purchased and used by local Republican clubs and organizations. They didn’t have to be authorized by the national Republican clubs. Posters like this may have been custom-ordered, or may have been produced for Republican clubs.”

What details in this circa 1900 poster might be lost on 21st century viewers? “The word ‘Civilization’ is an unusual usage. It ties in with the expansionism of 1898 and the war with Spain. Republicans supported imperialism and justified that by saying they were bringing civilization to backward peoples,” he says, laughing. “Part of that is you see factories belching smoke. That was considered a higher level of civilization over people who fished and farmed. The large gold coin says ‘Sound Money’ on it, and refers to the gold standard. It was a big issue in 1896 and 1900. McKinley’s opponent, William Jennings Bryan, advocated greater use of silver. Republicans said that would devalue the currency and cause inflation, and if we stuck to the gold standard, it would maintain its value.”

What other details stand out? “The glowing sunrise in the background. Sort of like ‘Morning in America.’ Everything is bright,” he says. “And you have shipping on the left hand side and factories on the right–business is booming, we’re selling overseas, factories are at capacity. McKinley is shown with the flag, in an appeal to patriotism and showing America as a dominant world power. He’s supported by a group of men from all aspects of society. The man in the blue suit is a sailor. One on the left is a soldier, there to appeal to people who served in the armed forces and the Civil War–McKinley served in the Civil War. The man with the silk top hat is a banker or an industrialist. The guy in the center might be a waiter–they usually don’t wear hats. The man in the pale green shirt is a workman. McKinley is appealing to all segments of the voting population.”

I can’t help but notice that everyone shown in the poster is a white man. Is that deliberate? “Except for Wyoming and Colorado, women couldn’t vote [in 1900],” he says. “This [poster] is not necessarily a snub of minority voters. There were ‘Colored Republican Clubs’. The Democrats were associated with the south, and with slaveholders. Blacks were loyal Republican voters from the time of Ulysses S. Grant to FDR or later. I think the Republican Party figured that black voters who were permitted to vote were going to vote for them anyway.”

Where were these posters displayed in 1900? “They were in local Republican headquarters or in store windows,” he said. “The owners weren’t afraid to offend their customers. If they liked the Republican candidate, they’d put the Republican poster in the window.”

Maybe ten of these posters exist. How might this one have managed to survive? “If somebody liked it and thought it was nice, they would fold it and put it away,” he says, noting that this example has folding creases in it. “That’s how they got saved. If it’s properly stored and the paper is good, the colors will still be bright. This has a minor chip, but nothing that affects the image.”

The colors on this poster really pop, particularly the red and blue of the flag, and the yellow of the coin. How close are they to the colors that the poster would have had when it was fresh off the stone lithographic press? “Pretty close. They’re not faded or anything,” he says. “The ink they used doesn’t fade naturally. As long as it’s not exposed to sunlight, the colors are going to be as vibrant as in 1900.”

How often does this poster appear at auction? “We’ve sold three of them in the past, for prices ranging from $10,000 to $17,000,” he says. “The one that sold for $17,925 probably is the record for this poster, but I can’t say definitively.”

Why will this poster stick in your memory? “It’s a masterpiece of graphic political Americana, and probably the best McKinley poster, for sure,” Ackerman says. “It’s head and shoulders above most of the stuff we see from the period. This really grabs you. Political posters of this quality were only issued between 1900 and 1904, and of the different designs known, this is the most appealing. It’s got all the great elements you want to see on a poster. It tells a story, it refers to policies that were prominent then, and it reflects the exuberance that people felt for the political process. It was a new century, a new age, and people really felt good about themselves.”

How to bid: The circa 1900 William McKinley campaign poster is lot #43382 in The David and Janice Frent Collection of Political & Presidential Americana, Part 2, taking place at Heritage Auctions on February 24, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Young Abraham Lincoln Made This Wooden Mallet. Christie’s Could Sell It For Half a Million Dollars.

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What you see: A wooden bench mallet bearing the initials ‘A.L.’ and the date ‘1829’, and made by Abraham Lincoln as a young man. It’s one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Lincoln artifacts in private hands. Christie’s estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.

Who was Abraham Lincoln? He was the 16th president of the United States, and second only to George Washington in the pantheon of great presidents. He steered the country through the crisis of the Civil War, ultimately holding the union together and defeating the system of slavery. He was fatally shot on April 14, 1865 by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., and died the following day. He was 56.

So, this mallet is made entirely of wood? Yes. “The top part is the burl of a cherry tree, which is where two branches come together–it’s a nice, dense piece of wood–and the handle is hickory,” says Peter Klarnet, senior specialist in Americana, books, and manuscripts at Christie’s.

Would Lincoln and his neighbors on the Indiana frontier have used it like a hammer? “Not exactly,” he says. “Most housing at that time (the 1820s), when they were constructing the frame of a house, they wouldn’t use nails. They’d use wooden pegs, because they’d breathe with the frame of the house. An iron hammer on a wooden peg is just too much force [so they used a wooden mallet instead].”

Why would Lincoln have put his initials on the wooden mallet? To make sure no one else would take it? “That, and it was also a mark of pride–‘I made this,'” he says. “His father was a cabinet-maker, and he would have learned the [mallet-making] skills from his father.”

Why would Lincoln have put the date on the mallet? Did he initial and date it at the same time? “He probably marked it ‘1829’ because it was 1829. He was 20 years old, and he was becoming a man,” he says. “We can’t determine if he initialed and dated it at the same time, but all the materials would have been available to him at the time.”

And a wooden mallet would have been a must-have on the frontier back then? “Absolutely. This was a necessary tool for any frontier farm to have,” Klarnet says, adding that it explains why Lincoln might have given it to his neighbor, Barnabas Carter, Jr., as a wedding gift–it was the sort of thing that a newlywed young man needed. Carter married in January 1830, around the time when Lincoln moved to Illinois, and was giving away possessions ahead of the move. “It’s conjecture, but it makes a lot of sense for [Lincoln to give the mallet to] someone establishing a household,” he says.

How did the Lincolns and the Carters know each other? “We know from the historical record that they were neighbors,” he says. “Family tradition shows that Barnabas Carter, Jr., was the original owner of the mallet, and Lincoln gave it to him around 1829. In examining census records and church records, we see that they went to the same church and voted in the same place.”

When did the mallet stop being a tool and start being a relic? “Not until 1858, with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, when he rose to national prominence,” he says. “After Abraham Lincoln was famous, the family actually hid the mallet away, in a basement, and kept it out of sight.” In the late 20th century, Carter’s descendants displayed the mallet on the family hearth (scroll down to see the picture), and one of them brought it to show-and-tell when she was a child of five.

Does the mallet show signs of wear? Yes. “You can see where it’s been pulverized by repeated strokes,” he says. “It was used for maybe 20 years [after Carter received it from Lincoln], then it stopped.”

The mallet head was scavenged from the remains of a broken rail-splitting maul. Do any other artifacts that reflect Lincoln’s image as a rail-splitter survive? The National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. has an iron wedge for splitting wood that features Abraham Lincoln’s initials on one side. According to legend, Lincoln applied the letters to the wedge himself when the blacksmith shied away from the task.

What else convinces you that Abraham Lincoln personally made this mallet? “Those people decided to keep quiet, which makes me more confident in its authenticity,” he says. “It had a more special meaning to them. They didn’t want publicity.”

Why is the family selling it now? “I don’t know the specific motivation. In every generation, it went to one person. This time, it went to two. That might be behind it,” he says, adding, “And they wanted to share it with the world. They think it belongs in a major museum collection, as do I. It’s very evocative of an early period of Lincoln’s life.”

How did you put an estimate on the mallet? Klarnet laughs heartily, then says, “To a certain extent, it’s an educated guess. In terms of manuscripts, we had his 1864 victory speech and his last speech as president, and both brought in excess of $3 million. It was based on those high points and other material that sold in excess of $1 million. We hedged our bets. We thought $300,000 to $500,000 was a relatively conservative estimate that underscores its importance to the Lincoln story.”

How does it feel to hold the mallet in your hand? “I’m not going to swing it!” he says, laughing. “I held it very, very gingerly. But it felt pretty cool. To think that it’s a tool that was actually used by Lincoln… I’ve handled letters by George Washington, by Lincoln, by FDR, by Teddy Roosevelt. It still gives you goosebumps when you’re given the opportunity to handle something like this.”

What else makes the Lincoln mallet special? “I have never had anything quite like this before,” he says. “It offers a view of a not-well-documented portion of Lincoln’s life. To have something that was his from this period, which is so difficult to source–that’s why it will always stick with me.”

How to bid: Abraham Lincoln’s wooden bench mallet is lot 67 in the December 5 auction of Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts Including Americana at Christie’s New York.

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SOLD! Marlene Dietrich’s World War II Autograph Collection Sells For $5,250 at Swann

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Update: Marlene Dietrich’s short snorter sold for $5,250.

What you see: A short snorter–a collection of paper money covered with autographs–compiled by Marlene Dietrich during World War II. It comes directly from Dietrich’s descendants to Swann Auction Galleries, which estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.

Who was Marlene Dietrich? She was a Berlin-born actress and singer who became an international star from her role in the 1930 German film, The Blue Angel. She actively resisted the Nazis, who assumed power in her home country, by funding efforts to help refugees flee Hitler’s regime. She renounced her German citizenship in 1939 and threw herself into the U.S. war effort, touting war bonds and embarking on two long tours in 1944 and 1945 with the United Service Organization (USO). Her war work earned her the Légion d’honneur from the French government and the Medal of Freedom from America. She regarded the latter award as her proudest accomplishment. After the war’s end, she continued to act in films and perform as a cabaret singer. She died in 1992 at the age of 90.

What is the purpose of a short snorter? The tradition seems to have started among aviators in the 1920s. If two flyers met, each would sign a piece of paper money belonging to the other. If they met again, one could challenge the other to produce the signed bill, or else buy the challenger a drink–but a small one, as full-on drunkenness and flying don’t mix. The small drink, known as a short snort, gave its name to the signed roll of bills. At some point the tradition spread beyond aviators to military personnel.

Do we know when Dietrich started her short snorter? “We have the story of how it likely happened, but not how it actually happened,” says Marco Tomaschett, autographs specialist at Swann, explaining that Dietrich’s collection dates to the 1940s, and she might have started it on one of her USO tours. “Someone who was collecting signatures for his short snorter asked her to sign his, and she thought it was a cool idea and decided to start one herself.”

Dietrich’s short snorter measures 38 feet long. That’s kind of unwieldy. Did she really carry the bill roll on her person during her war travels? “The tradition at the time was you were supposed to have all of them [the signed bills], so if a compatriot asked to see a signature, she could present the signature so she wouldn’t have to buy a drink for them,” he says. “Most short snorters were easier to carry, because most could fit the signatures on a single bill. If you ran out of room, you got a second bill. But not everyone was called to the front repeatedly, and not everyone did as much travel as she was doing.”

Do we know if she was ever challenged to produce a signed bill? “I don’t know. Probably not,” he says, laughing. “But she did use it to demonstrate solidarity with the soldiers.” He adds that seeing Dietrich’s short snorter inspired Army Air Force Captain John L. Gillen to start his own, and his bill roll ultimately grew to contain paper money from 36 countries and measure 100 feet long.

How often do you, as an autograph specialist, handle short snorters? “They don’t come up, mainly because they generally don’t have the value that brings them to auction,” he says. “This is unusual in that it has collectible autographs and it was owned by a celebrated figure.”

Has the short snorter tradition disappeared? “The historical factors that made it exciting at the time have dropped away,” he says. “The drinking game has completely vanished. The last time you get a serious collection of signatures on a bill is in the 1960s, connected with the space race. The analogy of space exploration to aviation made it a natural continuation.”

Who are some of the notable people who signed Dietrich’s short snorter? Author Ernest Hemingway, whose friendship with the actress predated World War II, wrote, “She’s long gone She never stands to fight knowing etc. Oct 4 1944.” Tomaschett is unsure of what the message might mean, but suspects it’s an inside reference of some sort. Military signers include George S. Patton, Omar Bradley, and Nathan Farragut Twining; entertainers include Danny Thomas and Burgess Meredith.

What is your favorite signature on the Dietrich short snorter? Tomaschett cited the inscription of Lieutenant Buck Dawson, who wrote, “Even a paratrooper must admire your courage. You volunteer for many things we have to do. Thanks. The 82nd Div.” “The courage he’s referring to is that she performed in these conditions,” he says, referring to the rugged environment of the war’s front lines. “We’re certainly not used to being shot at or bombed, but she did it [staged her USO act] repeatedly, for years.”

How to bid: The Marlene Dietrich short snorter is lot 46 in the November 7 Autographs sale at Swann Auction Galleries.

If you click the link to lot 46, you can see a period black-and-white photo of Dietrich draped in her short snorter.

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

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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.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Swann Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter, and Nicholas Lowry is on Instagram and Twitter as well.

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

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.