RECORD! Christie’s Sold the Rockefeller Emerald in June 2017 for $5.5 Million, a Price-per-carat Record

Rockefeller emerald in ring shot from the side sold Christie's June 2017

What you see: The Rockefeller emerald, an 18.04-carat gem set in a platinum and diamond ring designed in 1948 by Raymond Carter Yard. Estimated at $4 million to $6 million, it sold at Christie’s New York in June 2017 for $5.5 million. It set a world auction record for a price-per-carat for an emerald.


The expert: Angelina Chen, senior vice president and senior specialist in Christie’s jewelry department.


I’d like to start by talking about Yard and the Rockefeller family. How did they help Yard? How does this emerald ring show how they trusted him and his artistry? We always run into people who have a personal jeweler, someone you like and trust and who shares your vision. Marcus & Co. was the firm that the Rockefellers started with. As Raymond Carter Yard moved up the ranks at Marcus, they realized he was very talented and had shared views. The emerald was in a Van Cleef & Arpels brooch originally. They [the Rockefeller family] took it apart and gave the largest [stone] to David [Rockefeller]. They could have given it back to Van Cleef & Arpels to remount, but they gave it to Yard to do it.


You said you were surprised that the Rockefellers didn’t ask Van Cleef & Arpels to remount the components of the brooch. What did you find surprising about that? Typically when you buy something from the original house and take it apart, you go back to the house and ask, “Can you refashion it for me?”


Were the Rockefellers taking a risk in bringing the stone to Yard rather than going back to Van Cleef & Arpels? In a way, but the Rockefellers wanted their own vision and their own design. Van Cleef & Arpels is a French company. Yard was much more American.


And Yard created this ring in 1948? Probably the early 1950s. It says 1948, but ultimately, it might be one or two years later.


Where was Yard in his career by that point? He had set up his store in 1922, so he was pretty established by then.


What marks this ring as a Yard design? Also, was it considered cutting-edge in its time? I wouldn’t call it cutting-edge. It’s very minimalist for its period in some ways. He toned down everything else and put the focus on the stone. The lines are very clean and very modest. The emerald is at the center of attention. It’s beautifully made. I love the fact that the side diamonds are trapezoidal in shape–so unromantic, but they flank the emerald beautifully. They slope down just right so the emerald pops up.


I see he used platinum for the setting metal. Was that a cutting-edge choice in 1948? No, not at all. Platinum was well-established. It’s the metal Yard always worked in. Anything white would be platinum.


How rarely does an emerald of this size–18.04 carats–come to auction? The size is not so rare. What makes it rare is the lack of treatment. You rarely see emeralds over 10 carats with no enhancement.


What does “treatment” mean when we’re talking about emeralds? Usually that means it’s oiled with cedar oil. It makes the emerald’s crystal structure shine a little bit better. That’s a tradition from eons ago. It’s quite a porous stone. Opticon is a man-made material [that accomplishes much of what cedar oil does].


Do these treatments make an emerald more stable and less likely to chip? It all adds to it, yes. Emeralds are more fragile than other gemstones, but still wearable.


How can you be sure the emerald wasn’t treated? We sent it to two labs because it’s such an important stone. The provenance chain is good, but we always send it to two labs to certify it. [This time it was] Gübelin and AGL [American Gemological Laboratories].


Do we know when the emerald came out of the ground? No, there’s no notation for that at all. AGL said it was a “classic Colombia”. When “classic” precedes a Colombian stone, it alludes to the fact that it’s from an old mine source. It’s probably early 20th century or so. I’d be uncomfortable calling it before 1900.


What condition is the emerald in? It was in great condition. It wasn’t worn every day. It wasn’t chipped or anything like that when we received it. There’s always some wear and tear, but that’s from normal wear.


What is the inherent value of the emerald? What would it be worth without the Rockefeller provenance? The stone itself is an important stone. It’s 18-plus carats and it’s very clean, a beautiful color, a classic Colombian–that’s important in and of itself. It would have gotten a page in in the catalog [without the provenance]. Rockefeller adds a premium to this. I don’t know what the multiplier is, but I saw the Rockefeller sale, and it sold extremely well.


On the inside of the ring I see something that looks like a brace. What is it? It’s a ring guard. A lot of times when you have a ring, it tends to roll around. This is a grip so it won’t roll around so much.


Did you try it on? I did. [Laughs,] It’s wonderful to have a rare gem on your finger. It’s special. It’s stunning. Anything that’s rich in color like this, it’s very different. Color tends to elicit a different emotion for sure, and you can’t help but think of where this ring has been.


The size of the stone isn’t awkward on your hand? The rule of thumb is it’s never too big. Eighteen carats is not too big. It’s very wearable, not ostentatious.


What was the bidding like? It was definitely longer than a minute. Only a handful of collectors would be bidding at this level. The ones who were not prepared to go to that level left quite quickly. One of the bidders was in the room and another was on the phone. It was tense. The winning bidder was in the room.


The Harry Winston company revealed itself as the winner. Do we know what its plans are for the ring? Harry Winston is famous for buying famous gems. If they got an offer they couldn’t refuse, I wouldn’t be surprised if they offered it in a Winston setting.


How long do you think the price-per-carat record for an emerald will stand? What could challenge it? That’s the best part of my job. I discover things all the time. I never know what’s going to come up.


So you’re not aware of anything out there that could come forward and sell for more? Not that I know of, but you’ll be the first to know.


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


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See My New Column at “Art & Object” Magazine: “Sold!”

A&O decadent mancave whiskey Macallan.png

What you see: A bottle of Macallan 1926 60 Year-Old, handprinted by Irish artist Michael Dillon. It commanded £1.2 million ($1,530,484) at Christie’s London in late November, and it’s the lead story of my new column for Art & Object magazine.


Read my first Sold! column:


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RECORD! Julien’s Sells Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday Mr. President” Dress for $4.8 Million


What you see: The gown that Marilyn Monroe wore to serenade President John F. Kennedy in May 1962 at a Democratic fundraiser that also marked his 45th birthday. Julien’s sold it in November 2016 for $4.8 million, a record for any dress sold at auction.


The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.


Looking at black-and-white tape of Monroe’s performance on YouTube, it seems that a dimension has been lost. Can you talk about why the dress made the crowd gasp, and why JFK joked that he could “retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to him in such a sweet and wholesome way”? First of all, she had agreed that she’d wear a conservative black dress. But she knew the power of voting, and knew the power of singing at Madison Square Garden, and it was just before her 36th birthday. She was so in tune with the importance of that event. She took her white stole off and stepped to the left of the podium because she didn’t want it to block her in anyway. There was an amazing reaction when the lights bounced off the crystals–15,000 gasps. It looked like she was wearing nothing. You and I are talking about it today, and 50 years from now, we’ll talk about that moment.


So the skin-tight, flesh-colored dress was her idea? She asked [costumier] Jean Louis to make her something that would wow the crowd. Bob Mackie, who was just out of college and 22 years old, drew the sketches for the dress. We sold them a few years ago. 2,500 crystals were hand-stitched onto the dress. Monroe paid for it herself and had matching shoes. We sold the receipt for the dress as well. She spent $6,000 on it [the outfit and related items] which is over $60,000 today–a huge amount of money, a huge investment. She didn’t think about the cost factor. She was thinking about the ‘Wow’ factor. She was very aware of the importance of the event.


Could you talk about what Monroe went through when she wore this dress? I understand that she was sewn into it. Also, in looking at the period tape, her movements are clearly restricted. At one point we see her jumping very vertically to rally the crowd to sing. Was the dress as uncomfortable as it looked? The dress was fragile and difficult to walk in. The stitching was done just below the zip line at the back of the dress. It took a few minutes for her to get from the dressing room to the stage. It was distant, and she could not run, because she was wearing heels. She shimmied her way on stage, wrapped in the cloak, and master of ceremonies Peter Lawford announced her as “the late Marilyn Monroe.” Three months later, she was the late Marilyn Monroe. [She died on August 5, 1962.] Fox promised to fire her if she was late [she was filming Something’s Got to Give at the time, and the studio did not want her to travel across the country and potentially delay the shoot.] She risked it all to go to New York. When she got back, she was fired from the set.


Do we know where that white fur stole went? It got separated from the dress. Monroe passed away in August 1962. She had no family members. Attorneys for her estate put everything from her house into storage. The boxes got shipped back to Lee Strasberg [her  mentor and acting teacher], where they stayed until 1999. The dress was first uncovered for the Christie’s estate sale [in October 1999]. We have not found the fur stole, but believe me, I’m searching for it and the shoes.


How much more would the dress be worth if it were part of a complete stage-worn Marilyn Monroe outfit? It’d be hundreds of thousands extra if we found the shoes and the stole. It would be phenomenal to have them all together.


What condition is the dress in? It’s in perfect condition, absolutely perfect condition. The consigner [who won the Christie’s auction in 1999] enlisted experts to build a ‘conservative’ mannequin to preserve the shape of the dress. The knee is positioned out so it supports the weight of the dress. The special mannequin was in a special display case with UV-protective glass. Very clever. He [the winner] believed he’d sell it for a profit. The underbidder [in 1999] was Ripley’s Believe It or Not! When the dress came back to auction, Ripley’s was bound and determined not to let it get away.


Do we know how much the dress weighs? It would weigh several pounds. Place 2,500 crystals in a bag or a bowl–that’s a lot of weight right there.


How did you arrive at the estimate of $2 million to $3 million? We truly believed that if it fetched $1.27 million in 1999, there had to be a level of appreciation in the dress. It had to double its money. Its historic and political value, matched up with Hollywood history, affected the value of the dress. We felt it would sell for at least $2 million.


What was your role in the auction? I was on the phone with a museum. Everyone [who bid] had to be pre-qualified. It came down to two bidders in the room. The energy in the room was just phenomenal. Marilyn Monroe is beloved worldwide. She’s still relevant and still gets high prices.


Marilyn Monroe dominates the auction records for clothing, but it’s interesting that this dress, which she wore in real life, is now number one, ahead of a white dress she might have worn while standing over the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch. It’s definitely significant. She was not in character in a movie. This was purely Marilyn Monroe singing to JFK, a love affair made public. There was a lot of speculation and a lot of rumors about a romantic relationship between Monroe and JFK, and after this event, people realized there was something to the rumors [laughs]. She disregarded the 15,000 people in the room. It was just her and President Kennedy in those 90 seconds.


How long will this auction record stand? What else is out there that could beat it? I can’t think of anything else that would be so iconic.


Why will this dress stick in your memory? In 2005, I had a wish list. I said what I’d love to auction is Michael Jackson’s red jacket from Thriller, and that came true in 2011.  The next was Monroe’s Happy Birthday Mr. President dress. Now I’m looking for a pair of ruby slippers [worn in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz]. That could potentially be $5 million, but there’s only one Happy Birthday dress. It’s presidential history and Hollywood mixed together.


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


Martin Nolan previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Joseff of Hollywood simulated diamond necklace worn by Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and several other Hollywood actresses; a once-lost 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar belonging to John Lennon that sold for $2.4 million–a record for any guitar at auction; and a purple tunic worn by Prince.


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RECORD! Prop Store Sold a Wooden Clapperboard from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” for More Than (Updated December 2018)


Update: The Jaws clapperboard sold again as lot 1423 in a Profiles in History auction in December 2018. PIH estimated it at $60,000 to $80,000, and reported on its Twitter account that it sold for $128,000.


What you see: A wooden clapperboard that Steven Spielberg used on the set of the 1975 blockbuster horror movie, Jaws. Prop Store sold it in September 2016 for £84,000, or $109,000–a record for any filmset-used clapperboard at auction.


The expert: Stephen Lane, CEO and founder of Prop Store.


When did major film productions stop using wooden clapperboards and start using digital ones? That’s tough to answer. Probably in the early 1990s it started to happen. There are still productions today that use analog acrylic clapperboards. There’s still a crossover going on.


How often do set-used wooden clapperboards from legendary films come to auction? I don’t know of any clapperboards sold at this level previously.


What was the previous auction record for a set-used clapperboard? Probably a second unit Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back clapperboard, which sold for £27,500 a few years ago. Clapperboards are something that collectors locked onto within the last five years. The collectors we speak with aspire to collect objects that were used before the camera.


It strikes me that even before the collecting mentality became ingrained, clapperboards were likely to have been saved because they say, ‘Hey! We made a film!’ Is that a fair assumption? It’s a double-edged sword. A lot of clapperboards come directly from crew members who worked on the films. A lot bring them home from every film they’ve ever worked on, and hang them on the wall and will never part with them. With some clapperboards, the information was taken off to rewrite it for the next film. I’ve seen clapperboards from Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but I’ve never seen one for Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind. They probably finished the film, got the paint off it, and got the clapperboard ready for the next film. There was a huge amount of recycling.


Have you handled any other clapperboards from Steven Spielberg films? We had a Raiders of the Lost Ark clapperboard in 2014, a small insert clapperboard. They make them in a variety of different sizes. For a shot on the top of a mountain in Lord of the Rings, they [the LOTR crew] made one that was 8 feet wide. I’ve seen other Indiana Jones ones but clapperboards are tough to pin down. There’s not a huge volume of those around and they don’t pop up very often.


What details on this clapperboard, aside from the obvious, prove that it is a genuine set-used clapperboard from the filming of Jaws? It’s incredibly distinctive. It’s very specific, with the cut teeth, which was hugely endearing to a number of collectors. And there’s a photo of Steven Spielberg holding the clapperboard on the set. It was not only used in Jaws and made for Jaws, Steven Spielberg held it on the set. That’s part of the huge appeal of this particular piece.


How big a deal is it to have this period photo of Spielberg holding the clapperboard? Would the clapperboard be worth less if the photo did not exist? Yes, I would say so. Because they were wiped and redetailed with chalk, it’s very unusual for final shot info to be retained on an individual clapperboard. A lot of these slates originated as rental items that productions used to hire. To get one with all the info on it and match it against a photo, it’s very tough.


Is it unique? No, I’ve had a couple of screen-matched boards in the past. But it’s rare, especially for a significant film.


Do we know how many clapperboards were made for Jaws and used on the set? There’s no record whatsoever. I can say quite comfortably that’s the only Jaws clapperboard that’s ever come to market.


As you mentioned before, the clapperboard is decorated with a line of shark teeth. If it lacked that cool little flourish, would it still have made a record price? Again it’s tough for me to speculate. I hadn’t seen a Jaws clapperboard before. I think it [the lack of the teeth detail] would have definitely impacted it, but I can’t say it’d be 20 percent less valuable. It is one of the most endearing features of the board.


How often do you see decorative flourishes like that on a clapperboard? Almost never. The most elaborate thing you get these days is the film logo laser etched on an acrylic clapperboard. You don’t see ones that are nearly as entertaining as this.


What was your role in the auction? I was in the room. I went and sat with the consigner. He wanted to be part of the experience of it selling. Because of the level of interest prior to the auction, we knew it was going to be an exciting moment. It got a massive amount of publicity. People loved it and the press ran with it. It was such an exciting moment for him and for me. He was over the moon, and I was over the moon with him.


Can you talk about how the consigner reacted? He got more and more excited. He looked at the screen, he looked at me, then back at the screen, and his jaw dropped a bit more. After it finished he had to leave the room, he was so excited. He had to have a drink to calm his nerves.


When did you know you had a new world auction record? By the time it got to £30,000. At that point, we were there.


How long do you think this record will stand? I haven’t seen anything that comes remotely close to this. Maybe if a Star Wars: A New Hope clapperboard came up, but it’s unlikely any survive. If a Wizard of Oz or a Gone With the Wind clapperboard came up, they’d be worth tens of thousands. This really was the perfect storm. An interesting-looking clapperboard, the most interesting film in Spielberg’s back catalog, brilliantly documented, and a huge amount of production use. It ticked all the boxes you want to tick.


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Prop Store’s September 20, 2018 auction will include Harrison Ford’s screen-worn Han Solo jacket from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Rose’s farewell note from Titanic, and also a Jaws lot with 40 storyboard pages and a crew t-shirt.


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


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NEW RECORD! Phillips Sells the Sir Edwin Lutyens Clock, Designed for the Viceroy’s House in India, for More Than $146,000


Update: Phillips sold the mantel clock that Sir Edwin Lutyens designed for the Viceroy’s House circa 1930 for £112,500, or more than $146,000–a new auction record for Lutyens.


What you see: A mantel clock designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens [pronounced “Letchens”] for the Viceroy’s House, New Delhi, circa 1930. Phillips estimates it at £80,000 to £120,000 ($105,200 to $157,800).


The expert: Marcus McDonald, senior design specialist at Phillips.


How often do pieces designed by Lutyens for the Viceroy’s House come to market? To my knowledge I’m not aware of any. I tried all the search engines.


And how rare is it to have a Lutyens piece that’s fresh to market and consigned by a member of the Lutyens family? It’s exceptionally rare. It hasn’t happened before to my knowledge. It has an impeccable provenance.


What does that suggest about how this clock will do at auction? We’re about to find out. The Viceroy’s House was by far his largest commission and possibly his most important commission. We have high hopes.


I understand the clock is not unique, and that Lutyens sometimes had copies made of designs of his that he especially liked. How many of these clocks exist, and where are they? Lady Willingdon’s clock [the wife of the first Viceroy to live in the home], I don’t know what happened to hers. She would have brought it back to the U.K. She had no descendants. Mary Lutyens, his daughter or granddaughter, still has hers. The third clock is the one we have, from the Lutyens family. Lutyens had it made for himself, and it’s by descent to the current owner. The three clocks are identical as far as I’m aware.


Did Lutyens design other clocks? I found another Lutyens clock in a Sotheby’s auction  in 1987, and he designed a children’s clock for a nursery. I spoke to a horologist [about this clock]. The design is all Lutyens. The movement is a typical movement for the time, adapted to fit the oval face. The expanding hands are bespoke.


The body of the clock is painted mahogany. I’ve never encountered painted mahogany before. Did he use it often? It’s slightly peculiar. Pearwood is traditional for clocks. But you can see quite clearly when you remove the finial from the clock that it’s mahogany. I guess it weathered better in India. It seems like a sensible solution.


Why does it have expanding hands? Was that done because of India’s humidity? No, it’s because of the clock’s oval face. The minute hand has to expand to be in line with the Roman numerals. The hands are blued steel, to make them rustproof.


How is this clock an example of Lutyens’s “wit and vitality”? He always had jokes hidden within his work. Here, the pansy at the top of the clock is a key [the winding key]. Pansy is a pun on penser, the French word for “to think.” The play on words–pansy as in flower and the French word “to think”– is meant to be a reminder to wind the clock. We have a separate key-winder for it. It’s perfectly fine [to use the original key] but it’s [using the key-winder is] easier than using the one on the top of the clock.


Is the pansy pun one of his better puns? It depends on the observer, I suppose. But I think it’s a fairly good one.


What other details mark this clock as a Lutyens design? The truncated bun feet on the base. You see them in his furniture.


What is the clock like in person? It has a presence, certainly. When I first saw it in the client’s house, I was immediately drawn to it on the mantle.


What does it sound like? I haven’t heard it chime. I’ve only heard it ticking. You can hear it as you’re approaching. The sound of the ticking is lively and quite loud.


What’s the auction record for a piece of Lutyens-designed furniture? The highest at auction I’m aware of is a table that Sotheby’s sold in March 2014 for £62,500 ($104,500).


Why will this clock stick in your memory? It’s just such a captivating object. The provenance, the original location, and the designer are three elements that make it such an amazing work.


How to bid: The Lutyens clock is lot 91 in the Important Design sale at Phillips London on October 18, 2018.


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


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WHOA! Heritage Auctions Sold That Exceptionally Scarce and Gorgeous 1834 Ornithological Book for $100,000

Oiseaux brillans du Brésil Courlis Rouge credit Heritage Auctions

Update: The 1834 first edition of Oiseaux brillans du Brésil by Jean Théodore Descourtilz sold for $100,000–about five times what Heritage Auctions expected, and a record for this book at auction.


What you see: An 1834 first edition of Oiseaux brillans du Brésil by Jean Théodore Descourtilz. Heritage Auctions estimates it around $20,000. Featured above is the Red Curlew plate from the book.


The expert: James Gannon, director of rare books for Heritage Auctions.


I see the quote in the lot notes from Rubens Borba de Moraes, the former director of the United Nations library in New York, saying, “This book is so rare that I had begun to doubt its existence,” but how many copies are there? Do we know? From what we can tell, we think this is the fifth known copy.


Can you talk about how the book came to be? Was Descourtilz the illustrator? He did illustrate it. It was toward the end of the color plate period, which ran from 1790 to 1830. It was fairly early for a hand-colored ornithological [bird] book. Audubon was contemporaneous in the 1830s. This book was never published. It was issued, and someone made lithographs that were then hand-colored, but it was never published, and never had a table of contents or text. The lithographic plates were put together in a book. I don’t know much about Descourtilz. I’d never heard of him before the book crossed my path. His dad was a botanist and a physician who did a book on the flora of the Antilles. Descourtilz did the illustrations for his father’s book. It’s better known because it was published.


The book is described as a first edition, but it was not published. Why might it have been made? It was probably a mockup, made to engender interest from publishers and get the money to be able to produce the book.


Was it intended to be sold by subscription, as Audubon’s Birds of America was?Maybe the [60] plates were issued in five groups of 12. That was the style then. Audubon published in parts. The reason they did it was so they could start reaping profits against their costs sooner.


The lot notes say the book has 60 plates. Does that mean it’s complete? I don’t know, but there’s no reason to think there were more. We call it complete. Other copies might have a similar number or a lesser number. Whether he envisioned an epic work like Audubon, we don’t know.


Are all the plates in the book as vibrant as the Red Curlew plate, shown above? Pretty much. I think it’s just a matter of [the book] being closed. We don’t know much about where it came from beyond being in the same family for decades. It probably was not handled very much over the almost 200 years since it was made.


The lot notes say the book’s illustrations are “heightened with gum arabic.” How did that detailing enhance the plates? Gum arabic is a clear sheen, almost a clear varnish. Lots of color plate books use it. You’d put it over the color in certain places so it created a sheen when you looked at it. It makes the plates look more vibrant, and it catches the light in different places. It would help make the plates stand out. [The effect is not visible in the photo shown.]


The book is French, but it has no text. Does that make it more appealing to American collectors, or does it not matter? It doesn’t matter in this case, because it wasn’t issued with text. The collector for this is someone who collects bird books or hand-colored plate books. Anyone sophisticated enough to spend tens of thousands on a book understands why it has no text.


And we don’t know why it wasn’t published? Descourtilz may never have found the backing. Maybe there were other reasons why it was never published. It was certainly publishable if the right circumstances existed. If there was a similar kind of thing for Audubon [Birds of America], where Audubon made lithographs and had them hand-colored to get the backing, get the money [to make it]–if that existed, it’d really be worth a lot, because it predated the book.


How did this book come to you? It came through another person on staff. She told me the family had had it for a long time, decades. The consigner had a connection to one of the people listed in the front of the book, which is why I think it sat for 80 to 100 years on a shelf. It didn’t get looked at by book fairs and dealers. They [the family] probably didn’t think about it for a long time.


How did you arrive at a value for this book? It hasn’t come on the auction market. There are so few copies around. Probably, other collectors and dealers have never seen it. There may be more copies we don’t know about that have never become public. If it sold for mid-five figures, we’d be satisfied.


What was it like to look at it for the first time? I didn’t see it until it had been researched by [Heritage Auctions] staff. We knew it was special, and we knew we wanted to use it in the advertising campaign [for the auction].


What is it like to leaf through it, and how does that experience compare to handling Audubon’s Birds of America? I’ve seen Audubon many times. Here, everything is a surprise, everything is new. Many of the plates are stunningly beautiful.


Why will it stick in your memory? How rare it is to see this book. There aren’t many around. Many more people have seen our catalog cover with the Red Curlew on it than have actually seen the book.


How to bidOiseaux brillans du Brésil is lot #45090 in the Rare Books & Maps Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions on September 13, 2018.


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


James Gannon has appeared three other times on The Hot Bid, speaking about the typewriters Larry McMurtry used to write Lonesome Dove; a British first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that ultimately sold for a world auction record; and an inscribed presentation copy of Jack Keroauc’s On the Road.


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RECORD! Christie’s Sells Diego Rivera’s The Rivals for $9.7 Million–A Record for Rivera and ANY Latin American Artwork


What you see: The Rivals, a 1931 painting by Diego Rivera. Christie’s sold it in May 2018 for $9.7 million, a record for the artist and for any Latin American artwork.


The expert: Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American art for Christie’s.


First off, how rarely do Diego Rivera canvases of any kind come up for sale, let alone fresh-to-market works from the Rockefeller family? We get them from time to time. We actually just had a smaller canvas in the regular Latin American art sale. They are rare, but every now and then we do get some.


Have any other Diego Rivera canvases painted for members of the Rockefeller family come to auction? No, not directly from the Rockefeller family. The collection of David Rockefeller’s mother was bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and became part of their collection. MoMA deaccessed one in the 1960s, but it had been in the collection for decades. Technically the answer is no, no Diego Riveras for Rockefellers at auction.


Why is it called The Rivals? Do we see the rivals in the lower left corner? It’s actually the narrative of a festival in Oaxaca, Las Velas. Here, the confrontation goes on in the foreground. The third male [the man in the black hat] looks like he’s going to intervene, but we don’t know if they’re about to have a fight. That’s why it’s called The Rivals–the male characters.


The lot notes describes The Rivals as the ‘most important Rivera offered at auction in decades.’ What makes it so? A picture on this scale has not been seen for 20 years. The last great Diego Rivera was at auction in the 1990s, a much larger painting than ours, but similar subject matter. It was from the collection of IBM, and it sold at Sotheby’s.


How did you arrive at the estimate of $5 million to $7 million? We had some notion of  work that had transacted privately recently. $5 million to $7 million became the low estimate of what we had in mind. We thought it would be [would sell] closer to $10 million, which it did. Not that we expected that–it was a wonderful surprise. The estimate needed to be fair but with room to grow and create competition. Sometimes bidders are guarded. Everything came together in the last two days. Six to eight people were interested in the painting and pursued it to the end.


Can you talk a bit about the importance of its having been commissioned from Rivera in 1931 by a member of the Rockefeller family? That is important. People like to know where things have been. Only the Rockefeller family owned it. That’s one aspect. The other aspect is that 1931 is a prime year for the artist. He was much-celebrated in Mexico and globally. It made his relationship with America very fruitful and complicated. It [The Rivals] precedes the painting of the Detroit murals. In 1931, MoMA did a Rivera retrospective, and this painting was part of it. All those factors make it very special.


What is The Rivals like in person? Beautiful. The colors are vibrant and fresh. All we did was have a conservator superficially clean it. Some of the characters are very abstracted, especially the women in the background–just the idea of a face. It really draws you in, almost like you’re watching a movie. It’s very cinematic in that way.


What was your role in the auction? I had a phone [he represented a bidder on the phone], but I didn’t have the winning bid. It was a multi-departmental sale for Christie’s. It had pre-war material, American art, and Latin American art. It was very dynamic for that reason alone. It was one of my favorite sales. Not only was it important, but it felt so energetic and dynamic, and there were some surprises. Everything that sold that night, five or six parties were interested. People love to see that. It’s exciting.


Were you there when the previous world auction record for Latin American art was set in 2016? Yes, I was in the room. I didn’t have the winning bid that evening.


A work by Frida Kahlo was the previous Latin American art record-holder. Could you talk about the significance of Kahlo, Rivera’s wife, handing the honor off to him? The Frida Kahlo sold in 2016 for $8 million. The market for Diego Rivera had not really moved in the high end. We really wanted it to be at the level of Frida Kahlo. We sold it [The Rivals] and surpassed it. Now Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo hold the top prices in Latin American art. I think it’s well-deserved.


How long do you think the records–for Rivera at auction, and for any work of Latin American art–will stand? It’s really unpredictable. Obviously, every season you hope, but the reality is you don’t really know. I’d like to see other Latin American artists get Mexican prices [Rivera and Kahlo were both Mexican].


The Rivals is pretty hard to beat, though. What could challenge it? Would it have to wait until this artwork comes back to auction? No, no. It would have to be something from a private collection. A few Frida Kahlos remain in private hands in Mexico. There are no plans for them to be sold, but maybe someday they could be. A few Wifredo Lams in Europe could do it. But it’s unpredictable, that’s the thing.


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


Garza spoke to The Hot Bid earlier in 2018 about a Fernando Botero Circus painting.


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