SOLD! A Copy of “Aurora Australis”, the First Book Made in Antarctica, Fetched $97,500 at Bonhams

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Update: Bonhams sold the copy of Aurora Australis for $97,500.

 

What you see: A copy of Aurora Australis, created by members of the 1908-1909 British Antarctic Expedition, led by Ernest Shackleton. It is the first book to be written and produced on the continent of Antarctica. Bonhams estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.

 

The expert: Ian Ehling, director of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams New York.

 

So, how much of a pain in the ass was it for Shackleton and his crew to haul a printing press down to east Antarctica along with all the other stuff they needed for the 1908-1909 polar expedition? It was a small printing press, described as being the size of an oven–picture the size of a four-burner gas oven. It was a very heavy piece of equipment. And take into consideration that they brought the type and the paper and a special printing press to do etchings.

 

They brought two printing presses? Yes. You can’t do the printing and the etchings on the same press. The thing about Antarctic winters is they’re very dark and very cold. If you have a bunch of guys sitting in close quarters all winter, it’s great to have a project to occupy them. Shackleton, having been on previous expeditions, thought ahead and came up with an interesting project.

 

What challenges did the explorers face when making this book? That was really one of the most difficult things. They were in very small quarters in extreme temperatures and dealing with poor lighting–it’s dark all winter long. They had to be incredibly careful when going about printing the thing. The type was metal, which freezes to your fingertips, and the ink congeals because of the cold. They used candles to heat up the ink, and they had to move the candle around to get the ink to the right temperature. They had to limit the number of types they brought with them, so the printer could only print two pages at a time. In addition to that, the floors were filthy and it was damp everywhere. They needed to keep the pages dry. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to produce a fair number of copies under those conditions.

 

The lot notes say there’s a blind-stamped penguin motif on the spine. What is blind-stamping, and how did the explorers apply the motif? Blind-stamping means there isn’t any color used. It’s just the impression of the stamp. They must have brought a hand tool with them to decorate the binding. Shackleton sent two or three crew members to a London print shop to apprentice for two or three weeks before the expedition. They probably arrived at a penguin as a printer’s device, which would have been metal on a wooden handle. They would have pressed it against the spine to bang it into the spine’s leather before it was bound.

 

How often have copies of Aurora Australis come up at auction? It’s an incredibly rare book that doesn’t come up often. The initial idea was they would print 100 copies of the book, but in a letter Shackleton wrote to Pierpont Morgan he says they bound 80 copies. A good third of them are in institutions. The others are very likely in private collections. I checked the auction records and seven copies have been offered in the U.S. and Europe in the last 20 years. This is the third copy that we have handled.

 

To make the covers of the copies, the explorers scavenged wood from their own expedition supply crates. The covers of this book have the word ‘OATMEAL’ stenciled on one side and ‘ISH ANTARCT … EDITION 190’ on another. How does the presence of those words and partial words affect the book’s value? That is to be determined, but this copy in particular is great because it has the full word ‘OATMEAL’ on it and the truncated ‘ISH ANTARCT … EDITION 190’. It’s incredibly beautiful and makes it attractive to have. Others just say ‘BUTTER’ or ‘BAKED BEANS’. Having the ‘OATMEAL’ and the extra bits on the back is very attractive. As a collector I’d definitely be drawn to a copy because of its stenciling and wording.

 

I take it more than one group of collectors will be interested in this copy of Aurora Australis. How many different constituencies will be in the hunt? Anyone who collects travel and exploration is interested. Then there are people who collect books on the Arctic and Antarctic. And I would say this is considered a high-spot publication because it was the first book printed on Antarctica. It’s a very cool book. There are collectors who go for the best of the best, and this book appeals to those collectors. People collecting limited editions would go after this as well. It’s not just the first book printed in Antarctica–the explorers looked after the aesthetic beauty of the book. If you look at the colophon page, the typography is beautiful, and it’s printed in two colors, red and black. It indicates the book was published as a fine press book.

 

What condition is this copy in? It’s in good condition. There’s some slight rubbing to the leather spine, which is kind of inevitable. The boards are perfect.

 

Over the years I’ve heard a lot about Aurora Australis as a book first and as symbol of Shackleton and polar exploration, but I haven’t heard much about its actual contents. Is Aurora Australis a good book? [Laughs] Well, I haven’t read through it. It’s fun. Many people who were on the expedition were published authors. There is some talent there, but there aren’t earth-shattering, amazing stories.

 

What’s the world auction record for a copy of Aurora Australis? It’s £122,500, ($185,894), set at the Franklin Brooke-Hitching sale at Sotheby’s in 2015. That collection was incredibly beautiful. Brooke-Hitching was one of those collectors who collected the absolute best copies he could get. Everything in that sale achieved enormous prices. Our copy is estimated at $70,000 to $100,000 and I would expect it to go in that range.

 

Why will this book stick in your memory? It’s about the whole discussion we had about producing something blindfolded, essentially. It’s incredible to have it bound on these boards. You feel like you’re close to the event. To have an object that was produced there, with materials there, the shipping crates–that’s one of a kind. I’ll never forget that.

 

How to bid: The copy of Aurora Australis is lot 55 in Bonhams‘s Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana sale scheduled for September 25, 2018.

 

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Ian Ehling spoke to The Hot Bid previously about a 1935 Albert Einstein passport photo that ultimately sold for $17,500.

 

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

 

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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! Summers Place Auctions Sold a Near-complete Dodo Skeleton–Yes, a Dodo Skeleton–For $430,000 in 2016

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What you see: A near-complete (95 percent) Dodo skeleton, assembled by a collector over the course of four decades. Maybe a dozen similarly complete Dodo skeletons exist, and all of them are in museums. In November 2016, Summers Place Auctions sold it for £280,000, or about $430,000, a world auction record for a Dodo skeleton.

 

The expert: Rupert van der Werff, director of Summers Place Auctions.

 

How abundant are Dodo bones, generally? Are some harder to get than others, making it difficult to piece together a fuller skeleton? The way bones are found are by people walking through the swamp [on Mauritius]. Given that they come from one small swamp on one small island from one small species, they’ve never been particularly abundant.

 

When did Mauritius ban the export of Dodo bones? It became illegal in 2016, but it was generally considered unacceptable post-World War II.

 

Did the collector who consigned the skeleton set out to piece one together, or did he realize after several years that he was most of the way to a complete Dodo? He was a passionate collector of all things Dodo-related. He’d been acquiring bones as they popped up. He came to the realization that he may well have a skeleton, started piecing it together, and realized he did indeed have a skeleton.

 

How did the Dodo skeleton come to you? We’ve sold a diplodocus, a mammoth, and an allosaurus–we’ve had some pretty fabulous star lots. The publicity and the prices we managed to achieve certainly alerted the person to us. In a way, it was natural for him to come to us.

 

But how did you learn of its existence and come to receive it? I got a call. He said what he had. It was so unlikely, but there was a chance it could actually be true. He was a few hours away. I popped in my car and went as soon as it was practicable. It was in his shed. He had mounted it. Even I, who wouldn’t pretend to be an expert, could see it was the real deal. I took pictures, talked to the owner, picked it up, and drove very carefully back to work to start the publicity rolling.

 

What do you do in a moment like that? I mean, he may as well have shown you a unicorn skeleton. Did you try to maintain a poker face? It is something of a Holy Grail in terms of natural history. If I’d tried to remain straight-faced, it wouldn’t have worked. It was quite extraordinary, not something I ever dreamed would happen.

 

How did you put an estimate on it? There aren’t really Dodo comparables other than the skeleton that sold in 1914. I tried to negotiate with the owner for the lowest estimate he would consider acceptable and use the auction for what auctions can do–establish what something is worth on any one day.

 

What was your role in the auction? I was on the phone with a a pretty serious collector we’ve done a lot of business with in the past.

 

Were you surprised by the result? I was pleased it sold, of course. But when you find something as rare as this, as iconic as this, as exciting as this, you can’t help but getting a little carried away in your imagination and think it can go on and on.

 

In the material that Summers Place assembled to promote the Dodo, you noted that the last time a Dodo skeleton sold was in 1914. The Cardiff Museum paid £350 for it, but you estimate that because Britain was on the gold standard back then, the sum is equivalent to £5 million, or $6.5 million. Does this mean that the 2016 bidder got a bargain? I think so. As far as anyone knows, there’s only one in private hands. Any future discoveries belong to Mauritius. It’s unique. That word is used a lot in the art world, but it’s rarely true. In this case, it actually is. Frankly, it could have made anything [sold for anything].

 

And the only way this record will be beaten is if this particular Dodo skeleton returns to auction? Yes. There are no others unless a museum deaccessions, which isn’t going to happen. If it’s back to market, that’s the only chance there is.

 

Why are we still so fascinated by the Dodo, a bird that went extinct centuries ago? It’s clearly quite an unusual animal, and it does look a bit unfortunate. To think it existed on one little island in the Indian Ocean 300 years ago and man wiped it out, it’s incredibly sad. If it were a better-looking animal, it wouldn’t figure in the public consciousness. But it’s got a great name and an unfortunate look. Like a T-Rex, everyone has heard of one. And there are more relatively complete T-Rex skeletons than Dodo skeletons, which puts it into perspective, and shows you how special it is.

 

Why does this Dodo skeleton stick in your memory? Because I never considered… when I got the opportunity to include a diplodocus, I couldn’t believe it. Never in 100 years would I dream of handling a diplodocus skeleton. It’s right up there, one of the icons of natural history. If I handle a T-Rex, that’d also be incredible, and there’s probably more of a chance of getting a T-Rex than a Dodo. If anything, things like this almost transcend monetary value. It’s surprising that a private individual was able to secure it.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Summers Place Auctions.

 

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RECORD! RR Auction Sells Astronaut Dave Scott’s Apollo 17 Space-flown Robbins Medal for $68,750

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What you see: A space-flown Apollo 17 Robbins medal owned by Dave Scott, commander of Apollo 15 and the seventh man to walk on the moon. RR Auction sold it in September 2016 for $68,750–a record for a Robbins medal.

 

The expert: Bobby Livingston, executive vice president at RR Auction.

 

How did Scott get this Robbins medal? All astronauts had the opportunity to buy them. Dave Scott bought one for every Apollo mission, starting with Apollo 7. They’re a neat crossover between coin collecting and space flight memorabilia. These were meant for the astronauts–the general public couldn’t buy them. They had the mission logo on the front and their names [the names of the three crew members] struck on the back. They were great commemoratives.

 

Unlike stamps or flags, which are flat and light, silver medals have heft and weight. How did the Robbins company convince NASA to make room for several dozen medals on its Apollo spacecraft? I’m not familiar with the history of the decision. I do know it was a tradition of NASA to allow certain artifacts to be flown in space. NASA flew Robbins medals into the 1990s. It was a long tradition with the government and the astronauts.

 

What makes a Robbins medal valuable? Aside from being flown in space, having a letter of authenticity from an astronaut makes them extremely valuable. When Buzz Aldrin writes a letter saying, “I took this Robbins medal to the moon,” that adds value. The chain of custody matters.

 

If a space-flown Robbins medal lacks a letter of authenticity from an astronaut, is it still valuable? Yes. Each coin has a number stamped on its edge. We know which numbers flew [in space] and which did not. If it flew, it has value. With Dave, when he was on Apollo 15, he requested his to be number 15. Not only did he take a coin, he took a specific number because it related to the mission. I can’t imagine one more valuable.

 

How did Dave Scott snag the number 15 Robbins medal from the Apollo 17 series? Because he asked for it. Dave is a collector, so he understood what was neat and what made sense. These guys are engineers, they’re numbers guys.

 

That’s what I mean. There were two other guys on Apollo 15. How did Dave Scott claim the number 15 Apollo 17 Robbins medal for himself? Did he arm-wrestle them for it? Wrong. He was the mission commander. He outranked them. (Laughs)

 

How often do Robbins medals come up at auction? They appear at auction consistently, but the supply is limited and the price is going up. They’re becoming more commodified.

 

I understand the Robbins company struck 14-karat gold Robbins medals. How do they fit in here? They’re rarer and more desirable. They struck three to seven for each mission. All have serial numbers on them, and they were only available to the flight crew. They were made specifically to give to their wives.

 

Have any of the gold ones come to auction? One from Apollo 13 sold recently. We had one with a diamond in it from Apollo 11. They’re not giant coins–they’re smaller than a silver dollar, maybe a bit smaller. They’re beautiful.

 

Why are flown Apollo 17 medallions considered the most sought-after and difficult to obtain? Is it because of their limited numbers, or is it more than that? Only 80 Apollo 17 Robbins medals were flown. You can’t have a complete set of flown medals without Apollo 17. It was the last mission, and it’s rare. They come up once every couple of years, and we’re actively seeking them out. People are not willing to sell them.

 

This example has a third-party grade of MS67. Did the high grade drive the medal’s record price? It was in great condition, but I don’t know if the grade made a difference to the person who bought it. He needed it for his collection.

 

Dave Scott is still alive. Could you talk about what prompted him to consign back in September 2016? Why did he sell then? Most of the astronauts donated lots of material to universities, and a lot gave things to their children and grandchildren. There’s stuff left over that their families don’t want, and they want to get it into the hands of people who would want them. Dave Scott cares a lot. He’s got things that went to the moon, he’s in his eighties, and he’s a collector. He will write a whole dissertation about what it [a given piece he owned during his NASA career] meant. These things will be lost unless they’re documented and put in the hands of people. On a side note, Alan Shepard lived in Derry, New Hampshire. His family had a garage sale. Someone bought a bureau for $50, and in it was a letter he wrote to his parents, talking about being considered for the Mercury 7 selection program. We sold it for $106,000. These astronauts–if things are not documented and curated, they’ll be put on the curb, like [those countless mothers who infamously threw out their kids’] baseball cards. It happens! (Laughs)

 

What was the previous record for a flown Robbins medal? Was it an Apollo 11? We sold an Apollo 11 for $56,000. It was an interesting one, owned by a nephew of Neil Armstrong, but it wasn’t the previous record. In May 2013, we sold Gene Cernan’s Apollo 17 Robbins medal for $61,000. The Apollo 17, because it’s rarest, sold for more.

 

The September 2016 auction took place entirely online. When did you know you had a record? We realized it that night, and we put a press release out right away. We’re very proud every time we set a record.

 

How long do you think the record will stand? I don’t know, but records are made to be broken. With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 coming up, we may see a lot of excitement in the space collectibles market. The attention is going to be intense. I wouldn’t be surprised if we break the record in a year or two.

 

What else could challenge it? Maybe Neil Armstrong’s 14-karat gold Robbins medal?   I don’t know if that’s ever going to come to market. If it did, it would have a pretty high estimate. It would be incredibly valuable, and it would break the record.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of RR Auction.

 

Livingston spoke to The Hot Bid in 2017 about a ring that Clyde Barrow made in prison to give to his girlfriend, Bonnie Parker.

 

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SOLD! Albert Einstein’s 1935 Passport Photo Commands $17,500 at Bonhams

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Update: The 1935 Albert Einstein passport photo sold for $17,500.

 

What you see: A passport photograph of Albert Einstein, signed and dated May 30, 1935, along with a piece of paper signed and dated by Einstein and featuring a brief goodbye note in German from Einstein’s son-in-law, Dmitri Marianoff. Bonhams estimates it at $8,000 to $12,000.

 

Who was Albert Einstein? He was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. He came up with the theory of relativity, which upended the fields of theoretical physics and astronomy. He also composed the formula E = mc2 [energy equals mass times the speed of light, squared], which has come to symbolize science and, to some extent, genius itself. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work in theoretical physics. After Hitler and the Nazis took over Germany, Einstein, who was Jewish, settled in the United States, gaining citizenship in 1940. A 1939 letter he sent to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sparked the creation of the Manhattan Project, the scientific endeavor that led to nuclear weapons. He based himself in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died in 1955 at the age of 76.

 

The expert: Ian Ehling, director of books and manuscripts at Bonhams.

 

Has anything else Einstein-related come to auction that’s similar to this passport photo? Have you seen any other 1930s passports or immigration paperwork connected to Einstein? Not that I know of. I’ve only come across a Swiss passport of his dating back to 1923. This particular photo was always in the possession of the consigner. The way it was was in the 1930s, Einstein was already in the United States. He was working in Princeton, New Jersey, and he decided not to return to Germany. In order to apply for citizenship, you had to be outside the country. So he took his family on a trip to Bermuda and got the ball rolling there. He used a different image on his passport. After Bermuda, I think they came through Ellis Island in New York and turned in their paperwork.

 

How does the fact that the passport photo dates to the 1930s–when the Nazi regime was imposing anti-Semitic policies on its citizens, convincing Einstein to leave–add to its value? It’s a huge factor in its value. [The choice that the passport photo represents] is just an awesome moment to witness. It was a turning point–a man of the world applying for U.S. citizenship. It represents the very first step [toward that]. This is a very close witness to things that were on his mind at the time.

 

And he would have sat for the photo in Bermuda? Yes. You can’t tell, but he’s wearing a leather jacket in the photo. In the formal portrait on the paperwork, he’s wearing something else.

 

Wait, was Einstein wearing THE leather jacket in this photo? The one that Levi Strauss & Co won at Christie’s London in 2016 for $147,000? It’s a leather jacket, but we can’t see enough to say it’s THE leather jacket.

 

And this is fresh to market? Yes. It comes directly from the person who received it. She was a little girl [at the time], the granddaughter of the innkeeper [at the guest house where Einstein stayed in Bermuda]. She was 13 years old, and she was curious. She engaged Einstein in conversation. He signed and dated the photo and gave it to her, and she kept it all her life. She’s in her nineties now, and she’s decided to sell. I don’t think it was ever published or anything like that.

 

How did you arrive at an estimate for this? It’s a gut feeling. I feel the photo is incredibly important. It reflects on him becoming a U.S. citizen. The estimate reflects its historic significance.

 

How have you seen the market for Einstein material change over time? In the 1930s, he was already famous. The photo definitely had value back then. But the Einstein market has changed significantly. I can’t say Einstein items are rare. He would get lots of letters, and he spent a good deal of time every day answering them. The most significant ones are the manuscripts where he talks about scientific things, and certain items that he owned. For example, he was very interested in music and performing with friends; we sold his violin in March 2018 for $516,500. The passport photo is a more iconic thing. Einstein was at a turning point in his life, deciding to become a U.S. citizen. It’s signed and dated, and it shows him the way you expect him to look like. He didn’t get a haircut before the picture was taken.

 

Why is Einstein the most sought-after scientist at auction? He had the most brilliant mind in physics since Newton, and on top of that, he was not a nerdy scientist. He was incredibly approachable. He didn’t just follow scientific interests. He played the violin, he went sailing, he was someone who enjoyed life.

 

Why will this Einstein passport photograph stick in your memory? The personal connection. It shows him being open and approachable and talking to a 13-year-old girl in Bermuda. And it’s consigned directly by that person. It’s special. It’s two degrees of separation–the consigner, and then Einstein. That’s what makes it so beautiful and significant.

 

How to bid: The Einstein passport photograph is lot 76 in Bonhams‘s June 12, 2018 Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in New York.

 

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

 

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BOOM! That Amazing Australian “Fireworks” Opal Commanded $162,500 at Bonhams

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Update: The Australian black-bodied “fireworks” opal sold for $162,500.

 

What you see: An exceptional black opal with a “fireworks” pattern, found at Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, Australia. Bonhams estimates it at $120,000 to $140,000.

 

 

The expert: Claudia Florian, co-consulting director of Bonhams’s natural history department in Los Angeles.

 

 

Where are opals found? They can come from different locations. They can be found at the sites of former volcanic activity, or where silica deposits itself in a sedimentary fashion. Australia is an example of the sedimentary form. The colors that the opals will have depend on the trace elements in the spot where they are found. The opals at Coober Pedy, Australia have a white body color. A thousand kilometers away from there, at Lightning Ridge, the opals have a rich, deep, black body color in which you find this play of fire. It’s a much more dramatic contrast.

 

 

Is Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, Australia known for opals? Yes. The first major discovery was made in 1905. This particular opal was found 20 to 30 years ago. It’s never been up at auction before.

 

 

How did this opal become so wildly colorful? It’s a very random occurrence, actually, that determines whether opals have a pattern or not. What makes the color so vivid is really the beauty of nature and the way the spherules [tiny spheres] of silica manage to create a pattern.

 

 

Did the opal come out of the ground looking like this, or did a stone-cutter bring out its beauty? Its beauty would have to be revealed by the stone-cutter. Miners can agonize over keeping an opal in its rough state or cutting it away.  It’s an unknown thing until you actually open it up, and you need an expert polisher who will work with you to take away the layers until they reveal the best-looking stone. The cutter kept it as large as possible with a gem-quality pattern. Those are decisions you have to make when going through the gem-cutting process.

 

 

Do winning bidders tend to keep an opal as-is, or do they have it set in a custom piece of jewelry? It’s a little bit of both. I have male and female customers. Men like to invest in opals and see them as an asset class, as a segment of their portfolio. Women tend to buy smaller stones that they can mount into a ring or a pendant. They tend not to go for specimen-size opals. Guys will buy the superlatives, such as the world’s biggest black opal.

 

 

Why is the word phenomenon in quotes in the title of the auction? I’ve been doing auctions for 35 years. I set myself a challenge–how could I package it in a way that looks different and fresh, and try to educate people? By focusing on the vocabulary of gemology, and what’s behind it. When we go to gemological school, we focus on what are known as “phenomenal” gemstones. It’s a reference to optical phenomena. Opalescence is an optical phenomenon. Iridescence is an optical phenomenon. You can have a sapphire that’s transparent, and you can have a sapphire with inclusions that line up along a six-ray radial axis, so when you cut and polish it into a cabochon shape, you see a six-ray star. That’s an optical phenomenon called asterism. Rubies can have it, and even peridots and garnets can have it. I decided [for this auction] in addition to focusing on the world localities of opals, I’d make a theme of gems with optical phenomena.

 

 

Are there any aspects of the opal that the camera did not catch? I think we got a pretty darn good photo of it, but the beauty of opals–the color shifts with the shift in light conditions. They’re best seen in person. But the photographers at Bonhams are the best in the business.

 

 

The lot notes call this “one of the most memorable pattern opals to be offered at auction in the last decade.” What makes it so memorable? Over ten years of doing opal auctions, I’ve had a few pattern opals. Red is the rarest color. It’s the money color. The more red there is in an opal, the more money you’re going to get. With red, it starts at $1,200 to $1,500 a karat, and it can go up to $20,000 a karat. When you see really broad patches with red predominant, that’s a lot rarer. For me, this is one of the best I’ve seen.

 

 

How to bid: The exceptional black opal with a fireworks pattern is lot 3147 in The World of Gold, Opals, and Other “Phenomenal” Gems sale taking place May 15, 2018 at Bonhams Los Angeles.

 

 

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

 

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SOLD! The Canyon Diablo Meteorite Commanded $237,500 at Christie’s

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Update: The Canyon Diablo meteorite sold for $237,500.

What you see: A meteorite from the Canyon Diablo fall, which occurred about 50,000 years ago in what is now the American state of Arizona. Christie’s estimates the meteorite at $150,000 to $250,000.

What is a meteorite? “A meteorite has managed to make its way all the way down to the earth,” says James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history. “A meteor is what you see flashing across the sky. It has to be a certain size to avoid the destructive forces of entering the earth’s atmosphere.”

It’s described as a “matchless” meteorite. Why? “It’s unlike and better than any Canyon Diablo meteorite I’ve seen,” he says. “And the holes on it are astonishing. They really add to the sculptural aesthetic collectors look for. For every 200 Canyon Diablo meteorites I see, maybe five are pretty or aesthetic, and probably one has a hole. To have as many holes as this–I can’t think of a meteorite at that size with that many holes. It looks like a Barbara Hepworth or a Henry Moore sculpture. It’s a class above other meteorites from that event.”

Why does the meteorite look this way? “As the meteor falls to earth, the fricative forces in the atmosphere heat it up and will blow it up eventually. The fragments plow into the earth,” he says. “Then they undergo terrestrialization–they weather. If within a parent body there’s a natural weakness in the rock, it will slowly carve away and form a hole. For this particular fragment, tumbling toward the earth created the conditions that allowed it to form holes. ”

The meteorite is also described as having an “uncommon smooth metallic surface.” What does that mean? “Most Canyon Diablo meteorites you come across have a jagged surface,” he says. “This looks like the stereotyped ideal of how we want meteorites to look.”

What is the meteorite made of? “Iron and nickel, with several other trace metals,” he says.

The meteorite measures thirteen and a half inches by eight inches by seven and a quarter inches. Is that unusually large? “For something as pretty as that, yes,” he says. “You do get bigger than that. The most famous is the Willamette in New York.”

What does it feel like to hold it in your hands? “It weighs 70 pounds. It’s heavy. If you dropped it on your toes, you could cause real mischief,” he says. “But when you have one of these iron meteorites in your hand, you do have a moment when you step back and think about it. These objects are four and a half billion years old. In our day to day experience, we struggle to understand millions and billions. These objects are one-third as old as time itself. I find it an amazing philosophical puzzle to unravel. The meteorite has a presence that really drives the question home.”

How often do Canyon Diablo meteorites come up at auction? “We have about one every six months at Christie’s, but in ten years, I’ve never seen one that looked like this,” he says. “It’s one of the most extraordinarily beautiful meteorites we’ve had. It has a sculpture-like quality to it. Great art and great objects hold their own next to masterpieces. I’d love to have this with a Franz Kline on the wall and a Barbara Hepworth on the table. It would have a wonderful presence.”

Why else will the meteorite stick in your memory? “I’d go back to its sculpture-like quality. It just screams ‘Barbara Hepworth’ to me,” Hyslop says. “A lot of found objects have that aesthetic. And it looks like the stereotype of a meteorite. It’s perfect.”

How to bid: The Canyon Diablo meteorite is lot 41 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar, and Other Rare Meteorites, a Christie’s online sale taking place from February 7 to February 14, 2018.

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.

Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. James Hyslop is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

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

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