RECORD! Robby the Robot, Star of Forbidden Planet, Fetches $5.3 Million at Bonhams

Robby the Robot

Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records. 

 

What you see: The original Robby the Robot suit, created for the 1956 MGM sci-fi film Forbidden Planet. It was offered along with a jeep used in the film. It sold in November 2017 for $5.3 million–a world auction record for a screen-used prop.

 

I understand that the MGM designers built only one Robby the Robot suit. Is that unusual? “It’s unusual, but it cost so much money they couldn’t afford a backup,” says Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of books and manuscripts and entertainment memorabilia for Bonhams. “He’s well-built, and he wasn’t just in Forbidden Planet. MGM made one more movie with him, and he had other appearances, too.”

 

How much of a special effects advance was Robby the Robot? “He’s sort of amazing. He’s a technological wonder. He works whether someone’s inside him or not,” she says. “Artistically, he really encapsulates what we thought the future would look like, and what we thought robots would do for us. In the movie, anything that needs to be done on the planet can be done by Robby.”

 

It seems like Robby the Robot survived as a remarkably complete prop. Is that unusual? “That’s pretty miraculous, too,” she says. “It was built by MGM, and it was on the lot until the big liquidation prop and costume sale in the 1970s. It was not sold in that sale, but it sold privately in 1970. That guy [the first private owner] bought everything that belonged to Robby. Bill [William Malone, the consigner] wanted all of that, too. Bill was pretty young, in his early 20s, when he bought it.”

 

What restorations did William Malone perform on Robby the Robot? “The owner between the studio and Bill had not been as careful a steward,” she says. “Robby’s hands were foam rubber, and they had disintegrated. Bill had to recast the hands. The dome has been replaced, but the original plexiglass does still exist. It yellowed over time. Bill had the paint touched up, and bulbs needed to be replaced. The restoration took a long time. Bill was a young man, and he didn’t have a lot of resources. He sought guys at MGM who worked on Robby before he did one lick of restoration to be sure it was consistent with the original.”

 

What was the estimate on Robby the Robot? How did you place a value on the lot? “It had a low to mid-seven figure estimate, and we blew past it,” she says. “In the last five years, we’ve sold a bunch of high-profile pieces of movie memorabilia for seven figures–The Maltese Falcon, the Cowardly Lion costume, the piano from Casablanca, and a Dorothy dress worn by Judy Garland. Top, top, top hero props from top, top, top movies can command that kind of price. Robby is up there with those things.”

 

What puts Robby the Robot up there with those film artifacts? “First of all, the original movie itself has to be universally admired and celebrated. It has to be a film that is still current in the marketplace of ideas. Wizard of Oz is in there, Casablanca is in there, Forbidden Planet is in there,” she says. ‘Two, the thing needs to be not just a hero prop, but a central plot device. In Wizard of Oz, it’s the ruby slippers. The Casablanca piano is not just recognizable, it’s where Rick hides the transit papers. Robby is a central character and a plot device. He’s on the poster–not the spaceship or any of the actors–it’s Robby.”

 

Is Robby the Robot a costume or a prop? “He is so much more than a costume. He is so much more than a prop,” she says.

 

I notice that you haven’t called Robby the Robot an ‘it.’ You’ve only said ‘he’. “To me, he’s a he,” she says. “They do ask him in the movie if he’s a he or a she, and he says, ‘Neither of those terms apply.'”

 

A screen-used jeep comes with Robby the Robot. Is it functional? “It could be made drivable,” she says. “It originally had a golf cart motor that was obviously cannibalized for some other project. Robby rides in front. The seats and the plexiglass dome are for the humans. I’m not even sure how they steered it.”

 

What is Robby the Robot like in person? “He’s amazing,” she says. “He’s seven feet tall, and he lights up–he’s got all these little gears and keys that spin and convey motion and intelligence, which is what they wanted in the movie.”

 

Did you try on Robby the Robot? “I didn’t try it on, but Bill has a friend who is the right height. You’ve got to be slim, short, and strong enough. Robby the Robot weighs north of 200 pounds,” she says, adding, “When the guy gets out, he’s dripping with sweat even if he’s only been in it for ten minutes.”

 

What was your role in the auction? “I was on the podium. I had the gavel,” she says. “Going into it we had four people registered and interested in it. They were all eager and they bid quickly. It was exciting. Most lots sell in under a minute. This was more like five to ten minutes. We got all the way up to $4.5 million, and the underbidder asked for a minute [to consider] going for another bid. There was a bit of tension. Then they did not [bid], and it hammered at $4.5 million.”

 

When did you know you had a world auction record? “I don’t think I knew until I got off the podium,” she says. ” I know I sold the Maltese Falcon [hero prop] for $3 million, so it passed the company [house] record. I didn’t know it beat everything else until I looked it up.”

 

How long do you think the record will stand? “It depends on what shakes out,” she says. “I think there’s one more pair of ruby slippers in private hands. That might challenge it. There probably are other things out there that are still attracting attention.”

 

Why will Robby the Robot stick in your memory? “Of all the things we’ve sold, he’s pretty special,” she says. “The way people respond to him–it’s amazing. Robby the Robot is just as magical in person as he is on screen.”

 

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

 

The Hot Bid featured another piece from the same November 2017 Bonhams auction–the original poster artwork for the Italian release of Sylvia Scarlett, a 1935 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

 

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SOLD! That Scarce 1908 Chung Ling Soo Magic Poster Commanded $9,225 at Potter & Potter

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Update: The 1908 Chung Ling Soo poster sold for $9,225.

 

What you see: A 1908 poster touting the talent of magician Chung Ling Soo. Potter & Potter estimates it at $5,000 to $6,000.

 

Who was Chung Ling Soo? Born William Ellsworth Robinson in Westchester County, New York in 1861, he was a behind-the-scenes designer of magic tricks for headliners Harry Keller and Alexander Herrmann before he struck out on his own. Around 1900, while in Europe, he adopted the Chung Ling Soo persona. He went to great lengths to preserve the illusion, limiting his speech on stage to the occasional bit of broken English and relying on an interpreter to talk to journalists. He died in 1918 at the age of 56.

 

Are vintage posters featuring Chung Ling Soo rare in general? “Yes, I would say they’re uncommon or scarce,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter. “The one we’re talking about is a bit harder to find than the others.”

 

This is one of eight different Chung Ling Soo posters in the auction. Did they all come from the same consigner? One comes from one consigner, and the rest come from a second.

 

Other famous magic posters of the era show the magician receiving supernatural help. Here, Chung Ling Soo shows what he purports to be the source of his magical talent–his own hands. No supernatural help required. Is this an unusual theme for a vintage magic poster? “There are plenty of portraits [on magic posters],” he says. “We have sold other posters of magicians showing their hands and doing maneuvers, but they’re not as artful as saying ‘My Ten Assistants.’ It got reworked by Ricky Jay into ‘My 52 Assistants.’ It’s not the only example of a magician showing sleight of hand on a poster or referring to sleight of hand, or how they accomplish their tricks.”

 

Is Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the first person to move from a backstage magic designer role to an on-stage magician role? “He was the great secret weapon for these guys. He was designing and inventing illusions,” he says. “In any professional situation, someone will say, ‘Oh yeah, my boss doesn’t know what he’s doing. I can do a better job.’ He proved he could do as good a job. It took work, and a different persona, but his success is pretty significant.”

 

Would you talk about how Robinson/Soo died? “He was performing a bullet catch trick in London, England. It was one of the big theatrical showpieces of his performance,” Fajuri says. “I wrote a long time ago that instead of catching the bullet on a plate, he caught the bullet in his chest. They brought the curtain down, and he died not long after.”

 

Was he the first magician to die doing the bullet catch trick? No. “It wasn’t a new trick. It had been around for decades [by 1918, when Robinson/Soo died], and it had killed people,” he says. “Keller advised Houdini against it in a very famous letter. Robinson did have experience backstage with the trick, and he was familiar with other ways of performing the feat. There’s controversy surrounding what happened. Not thoroughly checking his props led to his demise. It’s a tragic story. He was at the top of his game.”

 

How rare is the ‘Chung Ling Soo and His Ten Assistants’ poster? “I haven’t had one before in ten years of auctioning magic memorabilia,” he says, adding that he’s aware of at least six copies. “This one was owned by a magician in England. He died years ago, and his family consigned it. It’s in A- condition. Very little was done to it. You’re not going to get much better than this.”

 

What else makes this Chung Ling Soo poster special? “This is more scarce. The image is realistic. The turn of phrase is nice, and the colors are not garish,” he says. “It has a lot going for it by way of aesthetics, the story, and the man it depicts. It has a little bit of everything.”

 

How to bid: The ‘Chung Ling Soo and His Ten Assistants’ poster is lot 10 in Potter & Potter‘s Winter Magic Auction on December 16.

 

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If you’re intrigued by the story of Chung Ling Soo, you need to read The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, The ‘Marvelous Chinese Conjuror,‘ by Jim Steinmeyer. Really, you ought to read everything Jim Steinmeyer has ever written, but start there, and please buy your copy from an independent bookstore.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

 

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RECORD: Heritage Sells Patrick Nagel’s 1980s Painting, Bold, for $200,000

Patrick Nagel (American, 1945-1984). Bold World Record $200,000 Heritage...

Editor’s note: With the approach of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records. 

What you see: Bold, a circa 1980s painting by Patrick Nagel. Heritage Auctions sold it on October 13, 2017, for $200,000–an auction record for the artist.

Who was Patrick Nagel? He was an American commercial illustrator who gained fame for his portrayals of beautiful dark-haired women. His best-known works are like Bold–images that focus on the woman’s face. Nagel (pronounced to rhyme with ‘bagel’) did commissions for Playboy and is probably best known for creating the artwork for the cover of Duran Duran’s 1982 album, Rio. He died in 1984 of a heart attack that might have been caused by a congenital heart defect that was first noticed during his autopsy. Nagel was 38.

Did Nagel have a specific woman who he relied on as a model? “He did use models, specific models, but he would alter them so they’re not portraits, they’re idealized,” says Ed Jaster, senior vice president at Heritage Auctions, adding, “In May, we sold a Nagel titled Joan Collins, #411, for $100,000. [If you know its title,] you say, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see it,’ but if you just saw it [without knowing the title], you wouldn’t think it was Joan Collins.”

Why, or for whom, did Nagel make this painting? “In the 1980s, he hooked up with Mirage Studios, and they had him do paintings on spec,” he says. “Bold is from that body of work. He only did them during the last two or three years of his life.”

Why is it called Bold? “In general, Nagel didn’t title his paintings,” Jaster says. “To the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t a title for this painting. It was [named] by me or the cataloger. If we’re going to coin a title, it’s nice if it’s based on information we have. If we know who the sitter is, it’s obvious.”

How rarely do original works by Nagel come to auction? “Paintings rendered on canvas are a little more rare,” he says. “The untimely nature of his death–he died a young man–means they are very limited, maybe along the lines of 40 to 50 paintings for Mirage Studios. If we’ve sold 20 of them, which is about right, we’ve probably sold half of his body of work from that period.”

When did the secondary market for Patrick Nagel gain momentum? “The earliest Nagel [auction sales] I can find in our records are in 2008,” he says. “From 2008 to 2012, we sold a fair amount of Nagel, but they were all illustrations, not paintings on canvas. We had one in 2012 that brought $56,000 and one in 2013 that brought $158,500. The first on canvas, to the best of my knowledge, was October 2012. From that point on, every one on canvas got [at least] $50,000, but probably the average is more like $125,000.”

Why did Bold do so well? Why did it set a new record for Nagel? “She’s got a very alluring, very hypnotic gaze. Very typical Nagel,” he says, adding, “It was a timing thing. If two people want something, it gets a high price. Sometimes it’s predictable, sometimes it’s not.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “I hope not too long,” says Jaster, laughing. “I’m being a little cheeky, but it’s a strong piece, and it deserves to be the record-holder. It’s quintessential Nagel.”

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

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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! Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, Jeanette MacDonald, Fay Wray, and Lana Turner All Wore This Fake Diamond Necklace On Screen. It Fetched $2,025 at Julien’s

61764.00

Update: The simulated diamond necklace made by Joseff of Hollywood and worn by more than half a dozen celebrities on screen sold for $2,025.

What you see: A simulated diamond necklace by Joseff of Hollywood, dating to the mid-1930s. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.

Who was Joseff of Hollywood? Eugene Joseff was once a commercial artist for an advertising firm who enjoyed making jewelry as a hobby. He went to Los Angeles on vacation in 1928, just as the Great Depression started to take hold and advertisting work started to drop off. He never found his way back to Chicago. Joseff befriended costume designer Walter Plunkett and railed to him about the historical inaccuracy of the jewelry he paired with his screen clothes. Plunkett challenged him to do better. That challenge gave rise to Joseff of Hollywood, which supplied period-correct, camera-friendly costume jewelry to Golden Age Hollywood. Joseff conjured Shirley Temple’s tiara and scepter for The Little Princess, matched the spark of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara with appropriate jewels for Gone With the Wind, and turned Elizabeth Taylor into an Egyptian queen in the notorious big-budget flop Cleopatra. Joseff died in a plane crash in 1949, when he was in his early forties. His widow, Joan Castle Joseff, took over Joseff of Hollywood until she died in 2010 at the age of 97.

How much of its archives has Joseff of Hollywood consigned for sale? “A good deal of it, but Joseff of Hollywood is still in business, still renting to studios, and still at work,” says Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions. “We were allowed to come in and go through the archive. It was like a treasure hunt, opening drawer after drawer. We’ve been working on the auction since January.”

Eugene Joseff died more than 50 years ago, and his wife, Joan, who ran the business after his death, passed away seven years ago. Why is this trove of vintage costume jewelry being sold now? “In the auction world, there’s something we call ‘the window’–the optimum time to let something go, when there are collectors and fans who know who these people are,” he says. “It’s a good time to let go. These pieces are going to go to homes that appreciate them and museums that will exhibit them, and continue the legacy of the stars who wore them.”

I picked lot 484 because–and I’m going to appropriate a verb here–it’s traveled. Seven different actresses wore the fake diamond necklace in seven different movies between 1934 and 1952, and it appeared on the cover of Life twice to promote two different productions in the mid-1940s. And that’s just counting the rentals that actually carried through–shoots get cancelled, scenes get cut, costume directors decide at the last minute that they need something different. Is this the most ‘traveled’ piece in the auction? “I’d say up to 20 percent of the collection selling now was worn by more than one star in more than one movie,” he says. “With this particular one, we can document that it was worn seven times by various stars. It’s one of the most popular pieces. It was used many times.”

The necklace first appears around the neck of Fay Wray in the 1934 film The Affairs of Cellini. Joseff was a stickler for historical accuracy in jewelry, so presumably, his workshop made it to look like it belonged in the Italian Renaissance. After that, Jeanette MacDonald wore it in The Firefly (1937); Anita Louise wore it in Marie Antoinette (1938); Hedy Lamarr wore it in Her Highness and The Bellboy (1945); June Haver wore it in I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1947); Ava Gardner wore it in her hair in The Great Sinner (1949); and Lana Turner wore it in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). In addition, Ann Sheridan and Lucille Bremer wore it in publicity photos for two other movies, and one of Bremer’s images appeared on the cover of Life. What makes this jewelry design so ludicrously adaptable? “The most important thing is, it’s sort of bland, almost. It’s not jumping out at you,” he says. “You don’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, Fay Wray wore that in The Affairs of Cellini.’ It blended in.”

What did Eugene Joseff and his workshop do to the necklace to make it so adaptable? “I don’t know [what he did to this specific necklace], but all his pieces are able to have parts removed, or be shortened or lengthened,” Nolan says. “He was a man at work in his studio with a team of jewelers who were able to make adjustments easily.”

What else did Joseff do to adapt his pieces to the needs of Hollywood film production? In addition to inventing a formula for a matte gold that was easier for film crews to light, Nolan says Joseff created “a special resin to go in back of a stone to absorb its light, so the camera could get its true color.”

Have you handled the necklace? Yes. “It’s exquisite, it’s beautiful. It looks like a priceless piece of jewelry,” he says. “It’s a costume piece, but it’s important given that it was worn by so many stars.”

Is it fragile? “The pieces are very robust,” he says. “It speaks to the genius of the jeweler who made the piece. They look exquisite, but they’re quite sturdy.”

When I spoke to people at Sotheby’s about giving an estimate to Vivien Leigh’s personal charm bracelet, they told me they went by the intrinsic value of its gold and gems alone. How did you arrive at an estimate for this necklace, which does not contain real gold or gems? “What people are buying here is a tangible item that tells a story. It’s a great conversation piece,” he says. “All the stars who wore it–that’s where the value is.”

How to bid: The simulated diamond necklace is lot 484 in Joseff of Hollywood: Treasures from the Vault, which takes place November 18 at Julien’s Auctions.

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

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Fact: Billie Holiday Is The Greatest Female Jazz Singer. Also Fact: This Scarce 1949 Concert Poster Sold For $13,750 At Heritage Auctions

Billie Holiday Sacramento Auditorium Concert Poster (Joe Glaser Presents...

Update: The vintage 1949 Billie Holiday poster sold for $13,750.

What you see: A vintage 1949 concert poster for jazz singer Billie Holiday. Heritage Auctions doesn’t explicitly give estimates on vintage concert posters, but officials confirmed it at $10,000, or double its opening bid.

Who was Billie Holiday? Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday is arguably the best female jazz singer who ever stepped before a microphone. Born to a teenage single mother in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Holiday had a hair-raising childhood. By the time she was discovered in a Harlem nightclub at age 18, she had done a stint in reform school, dropped out of school entirely, fought off a rapist, took work as a prostitute, and served time in a workhouse. She sang with the bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw. She gravitated toward men who beat her and exploited her, and in her later years, she struggled with drug addiction. She died in 1959 at the age of 44, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver.

How rare was it to show a black woman performer’s photo on a concert poster in 1949? “It was fairly common to see photos on concert posters by 1949, but it was less common for a female artist, and virtually unknown for Billie Holiday,” says Giles Moon, consignment director of entertainment and music memorabilia at Heritage Auctions, adding that the poster shown above is one of two copies that are known.

Where was Billie Holiday in her career by 1949? “She was a big enough star at that point to be a huge draw,” he says. “She didn’t have to have a huge band. She was a star in her own right. She was continuing to have legal problems and continuing to have drug problems, which didn’t help, but she was very successful by this point and would continue [to be] through the 1950s.”

By 1949, she had lost her cabaret license–Harry Anslinger, then the head of the predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Agency, made Holiday a prime target. Might that be why she played the Sacramento Auditorium? She would not have needed a cabaret license for that venue? Moon agrees and points out that the name of the city is spelled incorrectly on the poster. “It’s a common trait with a lot of posters from this period,” he says. “Maybe they didn’t have time to reprint it.”

Last year, Heritage sold the first known example of this poster, which happens to advertise the same show at the same place, for $35,000. Did the owner of this poster come forward as a direct result of that spectacular sale? “Yes, it did come because [of the 2016 auction], and that is often the case,” he says, explaining that it was consigned by the descendants of someone who distributed the poster to record stores and other public places ahead of the 1949 show. “It got a lot of attention when it sold for $35,000. We believe this is only the second.”

What tends to happen at auction when a second copy of a multiple that has only appeared once before goes to the block? “It could go one of two ways. It might not sell for as much because the person who was in the first auction won’t bid for a second copy, because he’s already got one. But it could go the other way,” Moon says. “Those who weren’t in on the bidding at the time, or who were shy [could jump in] and it could reach that level again. Though original concert posters have been around for a while, only in the past two or three years have people started to understand their rarity. Paying $35,000 for a poster–ten or 15 years ago, that would have been unheard of. Many of the lots in this sale are the only known copies, or are extremely rare. People are beginning to realize that if you miss out, the chances are it won’t appear again.”

Are Billie Holiday posters rare, whether they show her face or not? Yes. More than once, posters for concerts that featured her didn’t even mention her name, odd as that might seem. Elsewhere in the same lineup, Heritage is offering an original concert poster for the first Newport Jazz Festival, which took place in 1954. It’s the only known copy of the poster. Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald both appeared at the Rhode Island show, but neither woman is named, and nor are any other artists who performed. “It’s very, very hard to find anything related to Billie Holiday,” Moon says, noting that the situation extends to memorabilia, too. “If it has her signature on it, it can get $2,000 to $4,000. Few if any jazz artists can rival that. Maybe Charlie Parker.”

What else makes this Billie Holiday poster special? “I’ve seen many original concert posters. I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years now. This one and the one last year are the first [examples] that I have seen. It’s a really rare and really striking poster,” he says. “It’s interesting. She’s one of the most enduring jazz artists of the period. The market for jazz is still strong for the top artists. But it’s not generally the strongest market. It doesn’t compare to rock ‘n roll or R & B. But because she has such star power, such star quality, this is the most desirable poster in the sale.”

How to bid: The Billie Holiday poster is lot #89114 in the Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions on November 11.

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

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The Original Poster Artwork For A 1935 Movie Starring Katharine Hepburn Could Command $6,000 at Bonhams

An original artwork of Sylvia Scarlett by Anselmo Ballester

What you see: Original gouache and pencil artwork by Anselmo Ballester for a mid-1930s Italian movie poster for Sylvia Scarlett, a 1935 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Bonhams estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

Who was Anselmo Ballester? He was an Italian artist, based in Rome, who spent almost five decades creating movie poster art for Italian and American studios. “He was one of a handful of artists U.S. studios turned to to create the Italian versions of their movie posters. You had to redesign the entire poster for overseas audiences, and they were designed in the country of exhibition,” says Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of books and manuscripts and entertainment memorabilia for Bonhams. His posters featuring actress Rita Hayworth are absolute standouts. Ballester died in 1974 at the age of 77.

How rare is it for the original artwork for a vintage movie poster–any vintage movie poster–to survive and come to auction? “It is rare-ish,” she says, explaining that Bonhams has held an annual movie poster sale for three or four years, and there have been two to five pieces of original movie poster art in each. “Often, they’re drafts–not final versions of the work,” she says. “I haven’t seen a lot of his artwork come onto the market.”

Sylvia Scarlett was considered a flop in the United States, and some suspected that it had to do with Hepburn’s character, who spends most of the film cross-dressing to pass herself off as a boy. Was Ballester aware of the film’s box office troubles when he got the commission for the Italian movie poster? “The artists didn’t have a lot of information about the movies. Often, it’s clear they didn’t watch the movie or read the script before making the poster,” she says. “The studio probably knew Sylvia Scarlett was not successful, and that might have to do with the decision to foreground Katharine Hepburn in men’s garb [and let a more feminine image, rendered in red, dominate the composition.] Hepburn with long, curly hair is not an accurate depiction of what she looked like in that film.”

Sylvia Scarlett featured the first on-screen pairing of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but Ballester’s poster design focuses on Hepburn alone. Why? “He understood that moviegoers wanted to see stars,” she says. “His posters are very star-forward. He placed the most beautiful Hollywood stars front and center, and they look even more beautiful [on his posters] than they are on screen. That was his signature.”

But… he left out Cary Grant. Cary Grant! “Honestly, his posters are all about beautiful women,” Williamson says. “Sometimes, male stars make it onto his posters, but they don’t get the same treatment. If he can put women on the poster, he certainly does.”

Ballester rendered the gouache and pencil in two colors. Is that unusual, or did he normally limit his palette? “It depends. Maybe it tells us it’s a preliminary piece,” she says. “The fully executed ones are not monochromatic or bichromatic. They show the full range of colors.”

Did the studio go ahead with Ballester’s poster design for Sylvia Scarlett for the Italian market? “I think what we have is not what was used,” she says, noting that the final version gives the title as Le Grand Aventura de Sylvia and the art doesn’t seem to look like his work.

I understand it’s common for the original artwork for a movie poster, which is unique, to sell for less than the actual movie poster, which had a press run in the hundreds or the thousands. Why? “Poster collectors collect posters. People who collect art are perhaps less interested in poster art,” Williamson says, adding, “There’s not a lot of original movie poster art, and there’s not really people who just collect original movie poster art. There’s not enough to support it as a collecting discipline. It’s too hard. There’d be no fun in it.”

When do collectors prefer foreign market movie posters over the American versions? “In general, the poster from [the film’s] country of origin are more valuable,” she says. “The exception is when the artwork is so superior, collectors decide they would rather have a gorgeous version of the Italian poster with Rita Hayworth than the American version of the same film.”

How to bid: The Sylvia Scarlett original poster art is lot 91 in TCM Presents… Vintage Movie Posters Featuring the Ira Resnick Collection, taking place November 20, 2017 at Bonhams New York.

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

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