RECORD: Jesse Owens’s 1936 Olympic Gold Medal Sells for $1.46 Million at SCP Auctions

Owens Medal front

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

What you see: A 1936 Olympic gold medal, one of four earned by Jesse Owens during the Berlin games. SCP Auctions sold it in 2013 for $1.46 million, a world auction record for any piece of Olympic memorabilia.

Who was Jesse Owens? He was an African-American athlete who put the lie to Adolf Hitler’s racist Nazi policies when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin in track and field events: the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and the 4 x 100 relay. Sadly, his glory was cut short by American sports officials, who took away his amateur status and killed his career after he accepted endorsement deals. He struggled thereafter, resorting more than once to running against racehorses (and beating them). He died of lung cancer in 1980 at the age of 66.

How did you come up with an estimate for Jesse Owens’s Olympic gold medal? “Estimates are always educated guesses,” says Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions. “Nothing is directly comparable to Jesse Owens’s medal. We had the estimate at half a million and up, and we far exceeded our estimate.”

Do we know when Owens gave the medal to his friend, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson? “We can’t pinpoint the moment when Owens gave it to him, but their relationship is well-documented,” he says.

What was your role in the auction? “The bidding was all done online,” he says, noting that he dealt with prospective bidders and promoted the lot. “To be honest with you, when we’re in the final stage of bidding, most of our work is done. There’s a tremendous amount of research and marketing leading up to that point.”

When did the online bidding enter crunch time? “On the final day, at 5 pm PST, we went into extended bidding. The hours between 5 pm and 8 pm PST are when people make their moves and really competitive bidding, bidding wars, occur,” he says. “We entered extended bidding on the Owens medal at $447,000. It rose to $1.4 million over a period of three hours. I can’t say exactly how many people were bidding, for privacy reasons, but there were definitely more than two.”

When did you know you had a world auction record? “We weren’t really focused on setting a record,” he says. “We were more focused on getting a result that was worthy of the item. We were very pleased to see it pass the seven-figure mark, but we were not surprised.”

What do you remember most about that auction? “The exciting part for us was having the validation of people recognizing the historic significance and value of the item. It was nice to see it go for a figure commensurate with its importance,” he says. “We’ve sold items for more than this sold for, but I’m not sure we’ve sold anything more important from a cultural standpoint. It goes so far beyond the realm of sports memorabilia. Given what it represents, it’s very difficult to put a price on it. In my opinion, it’s worth more today than it was in 2013. If it sold again today, it would bring a higher price.”

Why do you think the Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal would sell for more than $1.4 million if it was consigned again today? “There are several factors,” he says. “The high-end collectible sports memorabilia market has advanced significantly in the last four years. Also, in that time, a major motion picture about Jesse Owens, Race, further raised his profile and raised awareness of what he accomplished. The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian recently opened an African-American sports exhibit. It wasn’t in place at the time the medal sold, but I can’t imagine a greater centerpiece for it. I think the medal’s magnitude has grown for all those reasons.”

Owens won three other gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, but they appear to be missing. If any of them turned up, along with ironclad documentation that proves they belonged to Owens, how might they do at auction? “If another two or three could be verified, none would be worth less than what we sold ours for, and they could sell for substantially more,” he says.

What was it like to hold Jesse Owens’s Olympic gold medal? “We’re in the business of handling historic artifacts on a daily basis. You can get numb to it. We really felt we were in a privileged position to be handling this,” Imler says. “After 20 years in the business, you don’t get goose bumps that often. This raises goose bumps. It’s very special.”

Why will the Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal stick in your memory? “It’s the ultimate symbol of triumph, and not just in the athletic realm,” he says. “It’s symbolic of civil rights, athletic greatness, courage, fortitude–it’s so far beyond sports, so far beyond anything we’ve handled in our company history. It will stand the test of time and provide inspiration for many generations to come.”

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SCP Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

SCP Auctions will offer the Jesse Owens Estate Collection in its 2018 Spring Auction, which takes place between March 7 and March 24, 2018. Lots will include the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to Owens by President Gerald Ford in 1976 (estimated at $250,000-plus); the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously awarded to Owens by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 (estimated at $150,000-plus); and two of the four First Place Olympic Winner Diplomas he received for his performances in the Long Jump and the 200 Meter race at the 1936 Berlin games (estimate pending).

Jesse Owens has an official web site.

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

RECORD: Phillips Sells a Roy Lichtenstein Sculpture for $10.3 Million

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

What you see: Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight, a 1996 limited edition painted and patinated bronze sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein. Phillips New York sold it in May 2017 for $10.3 million, an auction record for a sculpture by the artist.

Who was Roy Lichtenstein? He was an American pop artist who rose to prominence on the strength of his brightly colored comic book-style works. While Lichtenstein sculpted several dozen pieces during his five-decade career, he is probably best known for his paintings. In January 2017, collector Agnes Gund consigned his 1962 oil on canvas, Masterpiece, to raise money for her criminal justice reform efforts; the painting made headlines when it sold for $165 million. Lichtenstein died in 1997, at the age of 73.

Before I saw this piece, I hadn’t thought of Lichtenstein as a sculptor. How prolific was he? “Sculpture was a big part of his practice from the very beginning. He started in the early to mid-1960s,” says Scott Nussbaum, Phillips’s head of 20th century and contemporary art in New York. “If you go to the website of his foundation, you can see year by year what his production was, in all media, shapes, and sizes.”

Why did Lichtenstein make Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight? “He painted it first–it was an element within a painting that he did in 1995, called Nude with Bust,” he says. “He created it after the original painting was done.”

The sculpture focuses on a female subject. Do Lichtenstein works that feature women do better at auction? “Yes, but I think that’s true of every artist,” he says. “The female form is the most commercial form. If it’s what most people would consider a sensual form, it’ll sell better. That’s true across the board.”

Lichtenstein himself actually owned this piece. How did that that fact enhance its value? “I think it added value in the sense that the provenance on this is excellent, coming directly from the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, and the fact that he held it and did not sell it adds to its allure,” he says. “People want to know that art was owned by great collectors, or institutions. The excellent provenance added to its reception in the market.”

What is Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight like in person? “It has an incredible presence to it,” he says. “You really feel you are near a significant work of art. The more time you spend with it, the more you appreciate it. It’s not just a depiction of a beautiful woman, it’s a beautiful moment–two moments, one in sunlight and one in moonlight. Our audience fell in love with it, and it drew people into the gallery just to see it.”

Why did the sculpture do so well? “It was a fantastic result that shattered the auction record for a sculpture by Lichtenstein,” he says. “It’s a very rare object. Though it’s an edition, it’s very closely held. All are in good homes, and it’s unclear if another example will appear on the market anytime soon.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “It’s impossible to say. With this market, it’s difficult to predict anything,” he says. “I think this sculpture is one of his best, if not the best. I think only if another from the series [comes up], or one of a handful of really monumental sculptures that he produced in the 1960s could exceed that price. I think it will stand for a while.”

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.

Phillips is on Twitter and Instagram.

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

Also, if you scroll down on the webpage for the Phillips lot notes on Woman: Sunlight, Moonlight, you can see a video that shows both sides of the sculpture.

RECORD: Sotheby’s Sells the Henry Graves Jr. Patek Philippe Supercomplication Pocket Watch for $24 Million

The Henry Graves Supercomplication - Siderial Time dial

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

What you see: The Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication pocket watch, commissioned by Graves from Patek Philippe. The Swiss company finished the timepiece in 1932 and delivered it in 1933. It is the most valuable timepiece of any kind sold at auction, and has been for almost two decades. It fetched a then-record $11 million at Sotheby’s in 1999, and commanded $24 million at Sotheby’s in 2014.

So American banker Henry Graves Jr., approaches Patek Philippe to create this timepiece in 1925. How serious a challenge is this project? Is it akin to the moon shot–America devoting itself to sending astronauts to the moon in the 1960s? “In the watch world, yes,” says Daryn Schnipper, chairman of Sotheby’s international watch division. “Patek Philippe would not do it again until 1989.”

Why did Patek Philippe wait until 1989 to do something like this again, with the Calibre 89? “Probably, they didn’t have a commission,” she says. “1989 was an anniversary year for Patek Philippe. They were talking about how to celebrate a very important anniversary [Patek Philippe’s 150th]. They decided to replicate the Graves, but then said, ‘Let’s not stop there, let’s surpass it.’ The people involved said it was not possible. They used computer assistance. One reason the Graves couldn’t be replicated was those who worked on it were dead by 1989.”

Didn’t the people who worked on the Henry Graves Supercomplication leave behind technical drawings of the timepiece? “When they developed a one-off, it was in the watchmaker’s head,” she says, noting that a team of twelve was assembled for the Henry Graves Supercomplication project, and they worked on it for seven years. “I know it sounds crazy, but I didn’t see a drawing [for it] except what was done afterward.”

How does the Henry Graves Supercomplication differ from the Calibre 89? “The Graves had 24 complications and was 74 mm (almost three inches) in diameter. It was never done before. When they did the Calibre 89, [which had 33 complications], it was significantly bigger. It almost didn’t seem like a watch,” she says. “The Graves is not crazy big like the Calibre 89, which weighs almost two and a half pounds. The Graves is one pound, three ounces. They [the Calibre 89 team] couldn’t come close at all. The Graves is a tour-de-force. I think it shows you really can’t replace people with machines.”

Did Graves require Patek Philippe to include any specific complications? “He probably asked for the night-time sky,” she says. “The timepiece that Patek Philippe made for James Ward Packard [Graves’s rival in watch-commissioning] had the night-time sky over Cleveland. Graves wanted one with the sky over New York. At that time, you only saw it on three watches. The Graves timepiece shows the night sky with the Milky Way and various stars. It’s mesmerizing, and it’s done to the latitude and longitude of Henry Graves’s home near Central Park at 834 5th Avenue.”

What was the hardest complication for the Patek Philippe team to integrate? “Making sure they [the 24 complications] worked with each other. Just to sync everything together and make sure it works accurately,” she says, noting that the Graves timepiece is less than an inch and a half thick. “It’s organic. It works together as a system. It’s very complex. If it doesn’t all sync together and work accurately, it’s a failed idea.”

Why do watch-heads love the Henry Graves Supercomplication? “Because it’s everything. It’s a technical tour-de-force,” she says. “It’s the fact that it’s the Supercomplication, the whole ball of wax, and the fact that it was entirely handmade–no use of any computer technology.”

The Henry Graves Supercomplication set a world auction record when it sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 for $11 million. When Sotheby’s sold it again in 2014, it set the record anew by fetching $24 million. You were present for both records. Could you talk about what they were like? “The first time, we didn’t know what to expect, because it had never sold at auction before,” she says, noting that Sotheby’s put an unprecedentedly high $3 million to $4 million estimate on the Henry Graves Supercomplication in 1999. “The second time, there was a lot more writing on it. ‘Will it break the record?’ ‘Will it find a buyer?’ I knew the consignor was sad to sell it but wanted to pass it along. There was a lot of emotion involved. It was a roller coaster, those few days. There was so much more emphasis on it. It was a big, big deal.”

How did you experience both auctions? “The first time, I was in a state of shock as it exceeded five million. It was very exciting, and I remember holding my breath until the hammer went down,” she says. “The second time, it was exciting because it was all in the room. It came down to two people. It was still exciting for me to watch, it was just a different environment.”

What is the Henry Graves Supercomplication like in person? “It feels good. It feels right. It feels high-quality. It’s a perfect kind of watch,” she says, and launches into a memory that compares aspects of the two auctions. “In 1999, we hand-carried it from Rockford, Illinois, to Sotheby’s in New York City. [We thought] If it sold for $3 million to $5 million, that’s a lot. Once it went for $11 million and beyond–we had estimated it [the second time] at $17 million to $20 million–we no longer hand-carried it. We had armed guards. We were still handling it, but yeah. As important as it was the first time, it was that much more important the second time. Its value was greater, and its fame was greater.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “I don’t know. So far, it’s been three years,” she says. “Aside from something like the Paul Newman wristwatch, which was about provenance, you know, records are meant to be broken. The fact that it held the record from 1999 to 2014 was something, but with that Paul Newman bringing $18 million, who knows? It’s kind of hard to speculate. Anything’s possible.”

Might one of the four Calibre 89 timepieces challenge it? “Not even close,” Schnipper says. “The Calibre 89 is very important, but it’s not the same. They made more, they had engineers, they had computer-assisted design–it’s just different.” [Editor’s note: The yellow-gold version of the Calibre 89 was consigned to Christie’s in 2016 for $11 million and went unsold. Sotheby’s offered it in May 2017 with an estimate of about $6.4 million to $9.9 million, and it went unsold again. Also, Vacheron Constantin has since claimed the ‘most complicated watch ever made’ title with the 2015 release of the Reference 57260. It measured almost four inches across, weighed just over two pounds, and boasted 57 complications.]

Why will the Henry Graves Supercomplication stick in your memory? “It was the most important watch known in private hands at that time [1933], and it’s still in private hands,” she says. “It’s like selling the Mona Lisa. How do you get your head around that? That’s kind of where it is for me.”

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Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can watch Daryn Schnipper talk about the Henry Graves Supercomplication in this 2014 Sotheby’s video.

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

 

RECORD: Los Angeles Modern Auctions Sells an Ed Ruscha Print for More Than $200,000 in 2014

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

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

What you see: Double Standard, a 1969 screenprint by Ed Ruscha. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) set a record for a print by the artist in October 2014 when it sold for $206,250 against an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000.

Who is Ed Ruscha? Edward Joseph Ruscha IV is an Oklahoma-born artist who embraced California and became part of the Pop Art movement. He works in several media–printmaking is just one of them. He might be most famous for his paintings that showcase single words or phrases. He is 79.

Where does Double Standard fit in the pantheon of Ed Ruscha images? “The Standard series is one of his most iconic. Double Standard is a little tongue-in-cheek, as is a lot of his work,” says Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA. “He infuses humor and irony into a lot of his work, along with pop art sensibilities.”

Is this a depiction of a real Standard gas station, or is it an invention of Ruscha? “I don’t think this is an actual representation. I think it’s a combination of things,” he says. “In 1961, Dennis Hopper took a picture of a station with two Standard signs, like this [print has]. Ruscha would certainly have been aware of that. It’s very similar to Ruscha’s imagery. I can only assume Ed used that as part of his process as well as the stations he saw on his Kerouac-like travels from Oklahoma to get to Los Angeles.”

The print is signed by Ed Ruscha and also Mason Williams. Who is Williams, and what was his contribution to Double Standard? Williams is a musician, writer, and comedian who worked on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Saturday Night Live. He’s a friend of Ruscha’s, who goes back to his Oklahoma days. “A lot of the humor and wry snarky sensibility had to do with Mason,” he says. “Mason’s ability to satirize a subject is fairly important to this. It was more conceptual. It was more about bringing to Ed’s attention that Standard was too serious, and Double Standard took some air out of it.”

What sort of condition is this Double Standard print in? “It’s in pristine condition, which is why it sold for so much,” he says. “I met an original owner who said they paid $180 for it. When you pay $180 for a print, you don’t go to dramatic lengths to frame it and preserve it and prevent archival issues in the future. The fact that these were not that expensive when new led a lot to be ultimately mishandled in ways that we can identify. It’s clear that this example was treated as a work of art from the beginning. The rarity of a survivor in this condition drove a lot of the interest.”

Double Standard was printed in an edition of 40. How often does it come up at auction? “Mine was the last one, in 2014. About 18 months before that, another sold for $182,500. Before that, one sold in 2008,” he says.

Why did this Double Standard do so well? Was it purely its exceptional condition? “The condition drove a lot of the aggression, but there are a lot of external factors that you can never really quantify,” Loughrey says. “Dennis Hopper came to one of my auctions and bought a piece on his birthday. He paid four or five times what was expected. I said, ‘I can’t believe you paid so much for it.’ Hopper said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s my birthday, and I want it.”

What was your role in the sale? “I was the auctioneer. It was very exciting,” he says. “The room was aware and burst into applause. They knew the record for his [print] work could be broken. The gasps and sighs of relief are expected and fun in the moment. The [winning] bidder was in the room. You could see determination from the bidder–‘This opportunity is not going to get away from me.’

How long did the auction of the lot last? “When you start at $50,000 and end at $206,000, it does take a while,” he says. “I don’t remember how long it took. I remember the person on the phone [the eventual underbidder] took time. I saw the anxiety on the face of the person in the room–‘Sell it already!’ It did take a while, but it was probably less than five minutes. That is an extremely long time on an auction block. I usually sell a lot every 45 seconds. Five minutes is an eternity when you’re up there.”

How long do you think this record will last? “If someone came along with another [Double Standard print] that’s as good, or a Standard print that’s as good–a Standard print with a bright red sky–it’s ready to fall. I have people who are interested [in both]. I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes over $250,000,” he says, adding, “Consider the perspective of the seller. He agreed to let me sell it for as little as $50,000. If the universe didn’t align, it could have sold as low as $50,000. He was a bit nervous, but he took a leap of faith. He knew the venue [LAMA] attracted Ed Ruscha people more than any other venue. This is an artist we focus on and specialize in.”

Do you think another print will come to market soon? “Believe me, I’m on it,” he says. “I’m conversing with original owners who’ve had it [a Double Standard print] since 1970. I’ve tried to cajole them, but they’re not interested in selling.”

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

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

Ed Ruscha maintains an online catalogue raisonné.

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 consignor] 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.”

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.

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.

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

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

RECORD: The Story Quilt that Oprah Winfrey Commissioned from Faith Ringgold for Dr. Maya Angelou’s Birthday Sold for $461,000 at Swann

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

What you see: Maya’s Quilt of Life, a 1989 narrative quilt by artist Faith Ringgold, who Oprah Winfrey commissioned to make it as a birthday gift for Dr. Maya Angelou. At Swann Auction Galleries in 2015, it sold for $461,000–a record for a narrative quilt by the artist.

Who is Faith Ringgold? Born Faith Willi Jones, she is an African-American artist who has worked in several media but is best known for her paintings and textile works of art. She grew up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance and is an activist who fights sexism and racism. She began creating narrative quilts in 1980, in part because she had trouble interesting publishers in her autobiography. To date, she has created almost 100 narrative quilts. Ringgold is 87.

What makes Maya’s Quilt of Life a strong example of Ringgold’s work? “It has all the elements she incorporates in her story quilts. They’re called story quilts because they tell a story–they have a narrative,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department. “This scene has text taken from Maya Angelou’s writings. It’s an unusual work, but it’s instantly recognizable as Faith Ringgold’s work. It’s a special piece for a special occasion.”

It looks like Ringgold used the Angelou texts like columns that frame the painting. Is that typical of her work? “That’s not the only way she does it. They could be at the top, or the sides. Sometimes they wrap around,” he says. “The important thing is it’s Angelou’s writing. It’s not just the visual creativity of the artist, it’s the voice of the artist and the women involved.”

It strikes me that with Maya’s Quilt of Life, we have an extraordinary black woman, Oprah Winfrey, commissioning a second extraordinary black woman, Faith Ringgold, to commemorate a third extraordinary black woman, Dr. Maya Angelou. Are you aware of anything other artwork that’s quite like this? “I thought that was pretty cool,” he says. “It’s a great testament to the fiercely independent spirit of Maya Angelou, and a testament to what she inspires in people, and in artists like Faith Ringgold and cultural figures like Oprah Winfrey. It was an affinity between all three women, a great coming-together. It was a birthday present [for Angelou], and it was the prize piece in her art collection.”

This was the first narrative quilt by Ringgold to come to auction. Why was it consigned? “Because Dr. Angelou died [in 2014], it was consigned as part of a single-owner sale. It came from Dr. Angelou’s estate,” he says. “This is the way the family wanted to distribute a large part of her estate.”

How did you arrive at the estimate of $150,000 to $250,000? “Ringgold narrative quilts are very precious, and owners don’t give them up easily. They’re certainly prized objects,” he says. “Many artists we handle don’t have auction records. We looked at gallery prices and what would be a fair market value. Of course we had to know how to factor in the specialness of the piece, but enough was out there to be able to make a reasonable estimate. Like a lot of contemporary artists, Ringgold’s market is just developing. We had to start somewhere. We were just fortunate to start with a really fantastic one that sets the bar high.”

Were you in the sale room for the auction? “It was a packed room. It was almost the perfect auction. Only one piece didn’t sell,” he says. “It was a moment to savor. I was in the back of the room. People applauded when things went high. And Faith Ringgold was there! She and I posed in front of the quilt. It was quite an event. Everyone left happy.”

Were you surprised that the narrative quilt sold for $461,000? “Yes, because it was uncharted territory,” Freeman says. “We knew we had something really wonderful. She’s an important American artist. Her work is in a lot of museums already. But you never know on a given day how the market will respond. We knew it would do well. We didn’t know how well.”

Do we know who bought Maya’s Quilt of Life? “It ended up going to the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Arkansas,” he says. “They made it public shortly after the sale. Faith Ringgold gave a talk there subsequently. That’s always a terrific outcome. It was a win-win-win.”

How long do you think the auction record will stand? “It’ll stand for a good while. It was a really great piece, and Faith Ringgold is a great artist,” he says. “If one of her early large canvases–a significant part of her work [came to auction]–that could give this record a run for the money. But you don’t see many at auction. I’m going to enjoy it while it’s a record. It’s a wonderful piece, and the story behind it is great.”

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 Auction Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter.

Nigel Freeman is on Twitter. Faith Ringgold has her own website.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, an exhibit that originated at the Tate Modern in London, features the work of 60 black artists, including Ringgold. It will appear at Crystal Bridges from February 3 to April 23, 2018.

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

RECORD: A Gus Wilson Red-Breasted Merganser Sails Away With $330,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

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The Hot Bid is on Thanksgiving vacation today. I haven’t got anything turkey-related, so I’m celebrating by reposting a story on a record-breaking duck decoy. 

What you see: A red-breasted merganser drake duck decoy, carved circa 1900 by Augustus “Gus” Wilson. It had been described as the finest Wilson decoy ever offered at auction. Copley Fine Art Auctions sold it in July 2014 for $330,000, achieving an auction record for the artist.

Who was Gus Wilson? He was a Maine native, boat builder, lighthouse keeper, and carver. He took up carving in his teens, probably learning the art from family members, and he remained active for most of his life. He died in 1950 at the age of 85 or 86.

How often do you see a Wilson duck decoy carved with an open bill, as this one is? “It’s very infrequent,” says Stephen B. O’Brien Jr., owner of Copley Fine Art Auctions in Boston, Mass. “There’s less than a handful, and many of those [beaks] are broken off and replaced. The fact that this one is intact makes it a real survivor.”

What makes this duck decoy exceptional? “It’s a big, bold carving. Wilson regularly produced larger, almost oversize carvings,” he says, alluding to the decoy’s generous measurements: seven inches wide, seven inches high, and more than 16 inches long. “It’s got a wonderful sense of sculpture. Combine that with the open bill, which is almost never seen, and it makes it a pinnacle work.

This is described as a “hunted” or “hunt-used” decoy, which means that a hunter actually put it out on the water to lure ducks. Are most Wilson decoys hunt-used? And do collectors prefer hunt-used decoys? “The vast majority of Gus Wilsons found were actually hunted,” O’Brien says. As for hunt-used versus pristine, he says, “It’s a very personal choice. It almost comes down to, in the art world, how some people are attracted to the real world and some people are attached to abstraction. I’m a hunter. I come at it from that perspective. I love a utility decoy that’s been hunted over, that has some wear that shows it was put to its intended use. But you don’t want it to have too much. With replaced heads, tail chips, and shot scars, it starts to take on some negatives. But you can miss out if all you want is pristine birds. They’re pretty hard to find.”

The decoy was carved around 1900. Where was Wilson in his career then? “It places him at about age 35. What’s nice about this merganser is the artist is at the height of his craft. There are subtleties that take more time to create,” he says, explaining that decoy carvers sometimes go through a period when they feel free to indulge in artistic flourishes that transcend the standard shape of the duck decoy–open beaks, fan tails, slightly extended wings–and abruptly stop when they see how their hand-carved treasures suffer nicks and breaks in the field.

How long do you think this auction record will stand? “It’s hard to say. As with any market, if the right piece came up and two people wanted it, the record could easily fall,” O’Brien says. “The decoy market has held up strong over the last 10 years relative to other [categories] in the antiques market. It wouldn’t shock me if it fell. Looking at it from the standpoint of being a great Gus Wilson, it’s probably a bargain price for what it went for.”

Are there any other Gus Wilson duck decoys that rival this one? “For me, I haven’t really seen it,” he says. “That’s why we put a heavy estimate on it. [The presale estimate was $350,000 to $450,000]. “He’s a pretty colorful, proud, bright bird. He had all the bells and whistles that collectors look for–the open bill, the cocked-back head, nice original paint, the paddle tail, and the original rigging [the weight on the bottom that lets the decoy float upright]. I can’t think of a better Gus Wilson decoy. If you asked me to own one Gus Wilson decoy, this would be it.”

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Copley Fine Art Auctions will hold its 2017 Sporting Sale on July 27 and 28 in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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

Quack!