Cowan’s Has an Exceptional Porphyry Popeye Fantail Birdstone That Could Soar to $350,000

3920888_1

What you see: A porphyry popeye fantail birdstone, created by the people of the Glacial Kame Culture sometime between 3,000 and 500 BCE in what is now DeKalb County, Indiana. Cowan’s Auctions estimates it at $250,000 to $350,000.

 

The expert: Erin Rust, specialist in the department of American Indian Art at Cowan’s.

 

What is a birdstone, and what do we know about how the Glacial Kame Culture people might have used it? It’s an effigy, usually carved from a softer stone, and it’s kind of unclear what, exactly, the artifacts were used for. They’re usually field finds. This was found in a potato field in northern Indiana. It was possibly an atlatl [pronounced at-el-at-el] weight–a throwing device used to achieve a higher power when throwing.

 

Kind of like a counterweight on a trebuchet? It’s an extension of the arm throwing a spear. Harder and faster and for high-powered hunting. We don’t really find them in archeological contexts. It’s up for conjecture what they were actually used for.

 

How were birdstones made? They were expertly carved, chipped away from a larger block of stone. They roughed out the form in the shape they wanted, then polished it into the final form.

 

Sounds like a lot of work. Especially if it’s a hard, granite-type stone.

 

How hard is it to carve porphyry? It’s pretty difficult. It’s a hard hard stone. They’d typically use banded slate, which is a lot easier to carve. There are not as many porphyry birdstones. They’re much more labor-intensive, and much more rare. About 10 percent of the known birdstones are carved out of porphyry.

 

Would the cream-colored splotches have drawn the carver to the stone, and influenced how they carved it, in the way that jade carvers in China work with rust-colored inclusions in the stone? Exactly. They would look at the material and decide to carve it based on the cream-colored splotches, which are called phenocrysts.

 

And why is it called a birdstone? This one, to me, looks more like a dog than a bird. It could be a dog, it could be a bird, but it’s commonly called a birdstone. Some look like bears, some look like birds, some look like dogs. It’s the interpretation of the viewer. “Birdstone” is the general term for it.

 

And the things protruding from the head are called eyes? I thought they were ears. They’re called eyes, but whether they’re actually ears or eyes is open to interpretation as well.

 

Is it made to be held in the hand? It is small, but because of the perforations on the ridges at the bottom, it [was probably] meant to be attached to something like an atlatl rather than held.

 

To be clear–if birdstones were found in an archeological context, they’d be more likely to be considered jewelry. Because they’re found in fields, it’s more likely they were attached to an atlatl with a sinew and maybe the sinew broke. It could be jewelry, but they’re found in fields. We don’t really find them in an archeological context.

 

Cameron Parks, who owned this piece, deemed it the finest birdstone in the world. Is it? What makes it so? This piece is regarded as one of the top five examples of Popeye porphyry birdstones. What makes it unique is the blue hue to the stone. Porphyry can be quite dark. The blue hue with the cream phenocrysts make it pop and makes it unique. Also, the popeyes are large on the top of his head, and the form tapers into his head. And the bodies are usually long and slender, but with this, the body expands into a circular form, and a tail that widens to a fantail, and tips up.

 

This birdstone was found in 1950. Was the mid-20th century a time when many birdstones were being discovered? Among the top five greatest birdstones, this piece was discovered the latest. The Smithsonian birdstone was discovered in 1882. The majority of them had been discovered by 1950.

 

What condition is it in, and what does “condition” mean when we’re talking about something that’s thousands of years old? As old as this piece is, it’s in exceptional condition. With these, the head breaks off, the tail breaks off, the eyes or ears break off. On this, nothing has broken off. It has two small nicks, one on the bottom near a perforated ridge, and one on the top edge of the left eye. The fact that it’s never broken and it’s as old as it is is pretty amazing.

 

The lot notes say it retains its original polish. What does that mean here? This piece did not spend time buried in acidic soil. It has not deteriorated. The polish is the same as it was when it went in the ground. The surface is very smooth. There’s no pitting to it. It’s incredible.

 

So, it being made of porphyry made it more resilient? Birdstones made from banded slate lose their polish faster and the ground erodes them quicker. Porphyry ones are less likely to erode.

 

Has this piece been auctioned before? It’s been in the same family for 70 years. They have offered it before at auction, probably eight years ago.

 

What does the Cameron Parks provenance add to the piece? Cameron Parks had one of the largest and better collections [of artifacts] in the country. That makes artifacts from his collection are more sought-after.

 

What’s the record for a birdstone at auction? Very few, if any birdstones of this caliber have been offered at public auction. They have been offered privately, but not at auction. We had a very nice collection of 30 to 35 birdstones, but not of this caliber. We sold them starting in 2017 and finishing in September 2018. That was a very large collection of birdstones, but normally when they come up there are one or two, not 30 to 35.

 

What is it like in person? He’s small, but he’s pretty mighty. [Laughs] I call him “he”. It has a very strong presence to it. The craftsmanship of it is absolutely incredible. Very few [other birdstones] compare to this piece because of its craftsmanship, the material, everything about it.

 

What is it like to hold it in your hand? It fits perfectly in your hand, but it doesn’t feel like something [designed] to hold on to. The perforations at the bottom makes it sit oddly in the hand. That’s why it might have been used with an atlatl.

 

Is there anything that the camera doesn’t pick up? The camera really emphasizes its presence. When you first see it, you think, “Whoa, he’s kinda small.” Then you handle it, and its aura is magnificent. I think the photographer really captured the presence in this piece.

 

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a rare opportunity to have close access to such a high-level artifact. I probably won’t have the opportunity to see this caliber of birdstone come through the door again. It’s pretty remarkable.

 

How to bid: The porphyry popeye fantail birdstone is lot 22 in the American Indian and Western Art: Premier Auction taking place at Cowan’s Auctions on April 5, 2019.

 

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.

 

Cowan’s is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Cowan’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.

SOLD! Christie’s Sold the Seymchan Meteorite with Pallasites For… (Scroll Down to See)

seymchan_slab_2018_0412_050_final

Update: The slab Seymchan meteorite with pallasites sold for $27,500.

 

What you see: A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.

 

The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.

 

Was the Seymchan meteorite fall witnessed? Or were the meteorites simply discovered at some point after they hit the Earth’s surface? I believe they were found by metal detector in the 1960s, and people went back to the area to find more.

 

How often do Seymchan meteorites come to auction? They’re probably disproportionately [represented] because they’re so beautiful. You get a skewed view of meteorites from sales. We really present the best of the best. Pick a meteorite at random, and it’s an ugly rock. For every one I offer, I reject nine. There are some Seymchans in most of my sales.

 

Is Seymchan a marquee name for meteorite collectors? Are they must-haves? Collectors want Seymchans. This is a great example, and it appeals to collectors who have never seen meteorites before. People who buy in the jewelry sales, the contemporary art sales, the antiquities sales, and the Old Masters sales buy in these sales.

 

The lot notes say less than 0.2 percent of all meteorites contain pallasites, the extraterrestrial peridots visible on the right side of the meteorite. How are pallasites created? What has to happen? Four and a half billion years ago, there were early bodies like Earth that had iron cores and stony mantles. When these proto-planets broke up, their outsides became stony meteorites, their insides became iron meteorites, and at the boundary between the two [the iron core and the stony mantle], there were pallasites.

 

Why do pallasites show up in meteorites? Why not emeralds, or diamonds, or other gemstones? It has to do with the geology of the proto-planetary body, but you do find nano-diamonds in meteorites. We had one in the last sale. By nano, I mean on the nano scale. They’re nothing you could put in an engagement ring.

 

I get that pallasites are gem-quality stones, and olivine isn’t, but can you point out which is which on the photo of the meteorite with the lot? The ones that sparkle, shine, and catch the light–those are pallasites. Olivine is the mineral. Those that look brown are more olivine than pallasite.

 

Do you typically have both in a meteorite, or can you have all-pallasite meteorites? You do get slices of pallasite meteorite that might miss any olivine. You get some slices that are nicely homogenous, with peridot in an iron matrix. You can get meteorites that are just iron, which are slightly further away from the boundary [between the proto-planetary stony mantle and iron core]. Then you’ve got some that are more transitional, with seas of olivine and pallasite and seas of metal.

 

Who cuts meteorites, and how does that person decide where and how much to cut? Seymchan is a good meteorite for cutting in that the meteorites on their own do not have much going for them, aesthetically. You don’t destroy much by cutting them open. The shape determines how to cut–slices, cubes, even spheres. An American football-sized meteorite is easy to cut into a sphere. One that has an arm shape is easier to cut into slices.

 

Who cuts the meteorite? A gem-cutter? No, there are specialized people who do that. It’s not easy. When you cut, you always want the smallest amount of wastage possible. You want to do it as carefully as possible, in lab-like conditions. The iron in pallasites are relatively soft, but for some, you need a diamond blade to cut through them.

 

This example was cut from a larger meteorite. Do we know how large it was? We don’t, but I would bet it’s under 50 kilos [110 pounds].

 

How rare is it to come across what we see here–a clear boundary between the iron and the pallasites? That will have informed how to cut it, to bring out the transition between the two. There may have been the temptation to cut the gems off and fashion it into a sphere. I’m glad they didn’t. I like the contrast between the two sides.

 

I’ve been lying in wait to write about a meteorite like lot 1–one entirely shot through with pallasites–but this jumped out at me because I’ve never seen one like it. Is it as unusual as it seems? This is the first I’ve had with this presentation. That’s why I’m so fond of it. I’ve had a slice where the pallasites looked like a river of metal was running through it. This is a more substantial piece. You don’t see much like this at all, even if you look at the best Seymchans out there.

 

This meteorite weighs 8.4 pounds–not small, and not huge. Does that matter? As with artworks and sculpture, there does come a point where the size becomes difficult for collectors. We have one in the sale that’s 88 kilos [187 pounds]–probably too big for a desk. 8.4 pounds is a nice size. Conversely, if you get something really heavy, it’s more valuable again. If you can sit it outside a museum and no one can run off with it, its weight becomes a virtue again.

 

Why does lot 1 have a lower estimate than this meteorite, given that it’s shot through with gemstones, and this is not? It’s smaller. That’s what it comes down to. In gems, they use the four Cs [color, cut, clarity, and carat]. I use the four Ss: size, shape, story, and science. Science–What’s interesting about meteorites is they provide data on the early solar system. Lunar or Martian meteorites have more scientific interest. Story–did it explode over Siberia in the 1950s? Did it take out the dinosaurs? Did it destroy a car? Size–bigger is better. Shape–that encompasses aesthetics. Some meteorites are intrinsically more beautiful than others, and more desirable, and fetch more money.

 

And how would you judge this meteorite by your four Ss? Size… if you had everything else equal but you cut it in half, it’s $10,000 to $15,000. If it was a bit larger, $40,000 to $60,000. I really like the aesthetics of this–the outer crust, the metal, the pallasite, and the  roughly triangular, pleasing shape. In terms of science, it’s rare, and it’s a pallasite. The story originates with a proto-planetary body. We don’t know when it fell to earth, but it was relatively recent. Seymchan was only discovered in the 1960s.

 

Have you held it? Yes, but not for a while.

 

What was that like? I still have this [feeling] every time I hold a meteorite–they are four and half billion years old, which is a number so large as to almost be meaningless. The philosophical quandary when you hold it in your hand is it’s an object that comes from space. That’s mind-blowing. And four and a half billion years makes it one-third as old as the universe.

 

Is it heavy? Actually, with this one, I fell in love with it before I held it. To see the contrast in the stone is stunning.

 

Why will this meteorite stick in your memory? Having those three different colors to it–the weathered surface, the polished pattern of the metal, and the pallasite crystals–it really stands out from the others. I’ll definitely remember it for a while. This is not really a word, but this is a very covetous object. When I see it, I want it. Some people get that when they see a native gold nugget. It transmits a desire to acquire it.

 

How to bid: The Seymchan meteorite is lot 22 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and other Rare Meteorites, a sale Christie’s will hold online between February 6 through February 14, 2019.

 

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.

 

Hyslop previously appeared on The Hot Bid, talking about a Canyon Diablo meteorite that ultimately sold for $237,500.

 

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.

 

Nice Slice: Christie’s Could Sell a Bewitching Seymchan Meteorite with Pallasites for $30,000

seymchan_slab_2018_0412_050_final

What you see: A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.

 

The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.

 

Was the Seymchan meteorite fall witnessed? Or were the meteorites simply discovered at some point after they hit the Earth’s surface? I believe they were found by metal detector in the 1960s, and people went back to the area to find more.

 

How often do Seymchan meteorites come to auction? They’re probably disproportionately [represented] because they’re so beautiful. You get a skewed view of meteorites from sales. We really present the best of the best. Pick a meteorite at random, and it’s an ugly rock. For every one I offer, I reject nine. There are some Seymchans in most of my sales.

 

Is Seymchan a marquee name for meteorite collectors? Are they must-haves? Collectors want Seymchans. This is a great example, and it appeals to collectors who have never seen meteorites before. People who buy in the jewelry sales, the contemporary art sales, the antiquities sales, and the Old Masters sales buy in these sales.

 

The lot notes say less than 0.2 percent of all meteorites contain pallasites, the extraterrestrial peridots visible on the right side of the meteorite. How are pallasites created? What has to happen? Four and a half billion years ago, there were early bodies like Earth that had iron cores and stony mantles. When these proto-planets broke up, their outsides became stony meteorites, their insides became iron meteorites, and at the boundary between the two [the iron core and the stony mantle], there were pallasites.

 

Why do pallasites show up in meteorites? Why not emeralds, or diamonds, or other gemstones? It has to do with the geology of the proto-planetary body, but you do find nano-diamonds in meteorites. We had one in the last sale. By nano, I mean on the nano scale. They’re nothing you could put in an engagement ring.

 

I get that pallasites are gem-quality stones, and olivine isn’t, but can you point out which is which on the photo of the meteorite with the lot? The ones that sparkle, shine, and catch the light–those are pallasites. Olivine is the mineral. Those that look brown are more olivine than pallasite.

 

Do you typically have both in a meteorite, or can you have all-pallasite meteorites? You do get slices of pallasite meteorite that might miss any olivine. You get some slices that are nicely homogenous, with peridot in an iron matrix. You can get meteorites that are just iron, which are slightly further away from the boundary [between the proto-planetary stony mantle and iron core]. Then you’ve got some that are more transitional, with seas of olivine and pallasite and seas of metal.

 

Who cuts meteorites, and how does that person decide where and how much to cut? Seymchan is a good meteorite for cutting in that the meteorites on their own do not have much going for them, aesthetically. You don’t destroy much by cutting them open. The shape determines how to cut–slices, cubes, even spheres. An American football-sized meteorite is easy to cut into a sphere. One that has an arm shape is easier to cut into slices.

 

Who cuts the meteorite? A gem-cutter? No, there are specialized people who do that. It’s not easy. When you cut, you always want the smallest amount of wastage possible. You want to do it as carefully as possible, in lab-like conditions. The iron in pallasites are relatively soft, but for some, you need a diamond blade to cut through them.

 

This example was cut from a larger meteorite. Do we know how large it was? We don’t, but I would bet it’s under 50 kilos [110 pounds].

 

How rare is it to come across what we see here–a clear boundary between the iron and the pallasites? That will have informed how to cut it, to bring out the transition between the two. There may have been the temptation to cut the gems off and fashion it into a sphere. I’m glad they didn’t. I like the contrast between the two sides.

 

I’ve been lying in wait to write about a meteorite like lot 1–one entirely shot through with pallasites–but this jumped out at me because I’ve never seen one like it. Is it as unusual as it seems? This is the first I’ve had with this presentation. That’s why I’m so fond of it. I’ve had a slice where the pallasites looked like a river of metal was running through it. This is a more substantial piece. You don’t see much like this at all, even if you look at the best Seymchans out there.

 

This meteorite weighs 8.4 pounds–not small, and not huge. Does that matter? As with artworks and sculpture, there does come a point where the size becomes difficult for collectors. We have one in the sale that’s 88 kilos [187 pounds]–probably too big for a desk. 8.4 pounds is a nice size. Conversely, if you get something really heavy, it’s more valuable again. If you can sit it outside a museum and no one can run off with it, its weight becomes a virtue again.

 

Why does lot 1 have a lower estimate than this meteorite, given that it’s shot through with gemstones, and this is not? It’s smaller. That’s what it comes down to. In gems, they use the four Cs [color, cut, clarity, and carat]. I use the four Ss: size, shape, story, and science. Science–What’s interesting about meteorites is they provide data on the early solar system. Lunar or Martian meteorites have more scientific interest. Story–did it explode over Siberia in the 1950s? Did it take out the dinosaurs? Did it destroy a car? Size–bigger is better. Shape–that encompasses aesthetics. Some meteorites are intrinsically more beautiful than others, and more desirable, and fetch more money.

 

And how would you judge this meteorite by your four Ss? Size… if you had everything else equal but you cut it in half, it’s $10,000 to $15,000. If it was a bit larger, $40,000 to $60,000. I really like the aesthetics of this–the outer crust, the metal, the pallasite, and the  roughly triangular, pleasing shape. In terms of science, it’s rare, and it’s a pallasite. The story originates with a proto-planetary body. We don’t know when it fell to earth, but it was relatively recent. Seymchan was only discovered in the 1960s.

 

Have you held it? Yes, but not for a while.

 

What was that like? I still have this [feeling] every time I hold a meteorite–they are four and half billion years old, which is a number so large as to almost be meaningless. The philosophical quandary when you hold it in your hand is it’s an object that comes from space. That’s mind-blowing. And four and a half billion years makes it one-third as old as the universe.

 

Is it heavy? Actually, with this one, I fell in love with it before I held it. To see the contrast in the stone is stunning.

 

Why will this meteorite stick in your memory? Having those three different colors to it–the weathered surface, the polished pattern of the metal, and the pallasite crystals–it really stands out from the others. I’ll definitely remember it for a while. This is not really a word, but this is a very covetous object. When I see it, I want it. Some people get that when they see a native gold nugget. It transmits a desire to acquire it.

 

How to bid: The Seymchan meteorite is lot 22 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and other Rare Meteorites, a sale Christie’s will hold online between February 6 through February 14, 2019.

 

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.

 

Hyslop previously appeared on The Hot Bid, talking about a Canyon Diablo meteorite that ultimately sold for $237,500.

 

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.

 

 

SOLD! Sotheby’s Sold Richard Feynman’s 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics for (Scroll Down to See)

9886 Feynman Nobel Prize

Update: Feynman’s 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics sold for $975,000.

 

What you see: The Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to Richard Feynman in 1965 for his contributions to creating a new quantum electrodynamics. Sotheby’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.

 

The expert: Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s.

 

In the press release for the sale and in the raw lot notes for the Nobel Prize, Feynman is described as a “rock star of physics” and “one of the most beloved scientists of all time.” What makes him so? I think what earns him the title of the “rock star of physics” is his personality–who he was as a human, and his intellectual capacity. If you look at other physicists of his caliber, you don’t see relatable humans with the same intellect. You could compare Feynman to Einstein, but Feynman loved teaching, and it was more important to him than theoretical work. Rock stars transcend their genres. They’re not just musicians. Feynman transcended his work. He would always say there’s nothing magical here, that he was just very curious, worked hard on the questions, and figured it out. But he inspired people, and he imparted excitement to people.

 

Feynman died 30 years ago, but he’s just as popular now as he was when he was alive. How has he managed to persist? Why hasn’t his memory faded? Partly it’s because of his personality, who he was. A lot of scientists are best known for their work. With others, the subject that won the prize is far more famous than the person who did the work. Because Feynman was such a popular figure, he was able to stay popular.

 

Have his books and his former students played a role in keeping his memory alive? He taught so many people who went on to teach other people who are super-successful and doing things they love to do. Not all are physicists, but they apply what they learned from Feynman to their lives. One of his biggest lessons was to enjoy life and enjoy what you’re doing. I’ve met many of his students, and they’re generally happy, fun-loving people. And I think the books definitely help.

 

It’s interesting that Feynman’s fame persists without the help of an Academy Award-winning film, such as A Beautiful Mind. At the end of the day, an Oscar-winning film is just an Oscar-winning film. Feynman doesn’t need a film. He became his own legend. He’s one of the rare people who was human, fun-loving, and also a fun-loving genius. He defied the stereotype of the scientist in a lab, not interacting people, with no social skills. He was the opposite of that.

 

Feynman won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for work on quantum electrodynamics. Using non-technical language, can you explain why his contribution to science was such a big deal? Feynman was asked the same question, and he said, “Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.” To be frank, I don’t understand it completely.

 

Feynman was one of three who earned the 1965 prize for work on this problem. Did he work directly with his fellow winners, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga? They were all working on similar problems independently, but they knew about each other and were aware of each other’s work. Schwinger and Tomonaga took a mathematical approach to how to reconcile quantum mechanics, a 19th century science, with quantum electrodynamics, a 20th century science. Feynman’s approach was completely original and took a completely different direction. One of the ways he explained it it was by coming up with Feynman diagrams [click those words to see what a Feynman diagram looks like]. Those diagrams really revolutionized how we do quantum electrodynamics. They’re standard now.

 

How did Feynman learn that he’d won the Nobel Prize? He got a phone call at 4 am from a reporter. My understanding is he was unhappy about it [both the crazy-early phone call and the news of the win]. He asked his wife, Gweneth, how he could get out of it. He had a good life, and he knew the win would change things. I think the way it goes is she said, ‘Dear, the publicity would be worse if you don’t accept the prize.’ So he went to Stockholm and ended up having a great time. Feynman had been raised with a suspicion of institutions and authority. [Receiving the prize] played into his reluctance, because it was another symbol of the establishment. But he realized the machine had started running, and it’s harder to stop the machine than go along with it.

 

What did Feynman do with his share of the Nobel Prize money? He spent part of it on a vacation house in Mexico, and he bought a van. There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which they take the Richard Feynman van and drive down to Mexico and stay in Richard Feynman’s vacation home.

 

Have the other two Nobel Prizes in Physics for 1965 come to auction? No. I keep a spreadsheet of all the Nobel Prizes ever sold. I’ve been obsessed with the market for Nobels for a long time–I started tracking them in 2012. They have not come up.

 

How have you seen the market for Nobel Prizes change over time? A few had come up, three or four, since 1988. Then Francis Crick’s Nobel sold at Heritage Auctions for $2.2 million in 2013, and it kind of sparked a flurry. It was the highest price ever paid for a Nobel, and it really got a lot of attention. It was followed by James Watson’s Nobel Prize selling at Christie’s in 2014 for $4.7 million. What’s really interesting is most of what we sell has no inherent value, but the story is what is valuable. Whereas a Nobel Prize actually has a value. Prizes minted before 1985 are made from 23-karat solid gold. Depending on the value of gold, they’re worth about $10,000. Prizes minted after 1985 are plated with 24-karat gold.

 

The price range for Nobel Prizes at auction is all over the place. Which ones sell for the most money? I’ve been trying to figure out which categories are worth more. The fewer the words you need to explain why a person won the Nobel, the more it sells for. With Watson, it’s “DNA.” No need to explain. “DNA” is enough. With Feynman, you can just say “Feynman.” No one is going to ask me to explain quantum electrodynamics, thank God.

 

How often does Feynman material come up at auction? It’s super-rare. There have been two manuscripts by Feynman to come to market. One was at Sotheby’s in 2006–lecture notes from one of his students, who was helping transcribe them. The other was a sheet of calculations he signed to Egon Lehmkuhl, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2008. Do you know who bought that?

 

No. I bought it. I was a dealer at the time. I sold it and I started looking for Feynman material obsessively. Those two manuscripts that came up were total flukes. All his material is in the archives at Caltech. Since then, four copies of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! that he signed and gave to friends have come up. One of them sold at Sotheby’s last year for $43,750.

 

What else comes with the Nobel Prize as part of the lot? There’s the Nobel, the box it comes in, the diploma, and two programs. One says things like ‘the limo comes at this time, this is a white-tie party, you’ll eat this meal.’ The other is a program with translations of the Nobel speeches. On the back, Feynman has doodled Feynman diagrams. To get Feynman diagrams on the back of a Nobel Prize ceremony program is pretty cool.

 

Has a Feynman diagram drawn by Feynman ever gone to auction before? Prior to this, no. There are other manuscript lots in the sale that have Feynman diagrams.

 

I’m surprised that more Feynman material hasn’t managed to escape to the market, here and there. Yeah. Again, because he gave just about everything to Caltech, what stayed at his house were things he probably thought weren’t important. But when you look at them, you realize they’re extremely important. Final manuscripts don’t tell you much. How he gets there is much more interesting. What you see in the manuscripts [offered in other lots in the November 30 sale] is how he gets there. You see how he gets from A to Z.

 

What other Feynman pieces are in the sale? There are about 40 lots. They include a tambourine, very conveniently signed by him, thank you Richard Feynman, which he bought in Copacabana, Brazil. He talks about it in Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and it’s torn from being played too much. There’s his undergraduate copy of Paul Dirac’s The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, with his handwritten annotations. Some [pages] have very heavy annotation. One says ‘prove this one day’ or ‘figure it out one day’–it’s the book that made Feynman Feynman. [Later she clarified: The notation is “analyze this some day”, and it’s in a section about the polarization of photons.] There are transcripts from the Oppenheimer hearing. There are some arithmetic books from his undergraduate years. The books are really, really interesting. He lived in a frat house at MIT. One book has his MIT address and his address in Far Rockaway. Then another book just has the MIT address–a shift that says ‘This is my home now.’ There are clues that tell you about the young Feynman.

 

Whoa, whoa. What was it like for you to look through all that stuff? Honestly, I teared up. I could not believe it. I could not believe it. I had said to a colleague the year before that the only Nobel Prize I wanted to sell is Richard Feynman’s. To get that call… I’m a specialist in science and technology. I don’t talk about fate, but it felt like cosmic alignment to get that call.

 

The estimate on the Feynman Nobel Prize is $800,000 to $1.2 million. The world auction record for a Nobel Prize is $4.7 million. Do you think Feynman’s has a chance to approach or beat the record? I’m optimistic it will exceed the estimate, but at the end of the day, it’s just an estimate. I don’t know how it will do until the day of the auction, but it’s not… it’s such a weird thing to say, but it’s not a regular Nobel Prize. Because Richard Feynman is a celebrity, he’s in a different category. There’s no comparable [no lot sold before at auction] that’s exactly like it. It’s an unusual situation. The work [that the Nobel Prize recognizes] is tremendously important and the personality is tremendously important. That Venn diagram is what buyers look for.

 

The Nobel Prize world auction record belongs to one that was awarded to a scientist. Why? Why hasn’t a Nobel Prize for Literature or Peace sold for more? Part of it is looking at the demographics of the buyers. If you look at the Forbes 500, a lot of the wealth today comes from or relates to science. And a lot of people are motivated by nostalgia, a time when they were happy and young. With Feynman, bidders remember studying his work in college or reading Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and being inspired by him. It’s not that Nobel Prizes for Peace or Literature are less important. There are just fewer buyers.

 

How many Nobel Prizes have you handled? How is this one different? I’ve handled six or less. The others were certainly important and exciting, but this one got my pulse going. You try not to be, how can I say it, emotionally involved in a sale, because sometimes, things don’t sell. This is something I’ve been obsessed with. Feynman is my favorite scientist of all time. I’ve got pictures of him in my office. I don’t know how I’m going to top this one, let’s put it like that.

 

How to bid: Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize is lot 67 in the History of Science & Technology sale at Sotheby’s New York on November 30, 2018.

 

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

 

Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow Cassandra Hatton on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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

 

Cassandra Hatton spoke to The Hot Bid in July 2018 about an Apollo 13 space-flown flight plan, which ultimately sold for $275,000–more than six times its high estimate.

 

If you haven’t yet read Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! yet, you have a treat ahead of you. Purchase it from an independent bookseller, such as The Strand Bookstore in New York City.

 

In case you missed it above, here’s the link to background on the Feynman van, as well as a website about Feynman himself.

 

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

There are Nobel Prizes, and Then There’s Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize for Physics. Sotheby’s Could Sell It for $1.2 Million.

9886 Feynman Nobel Prize

What you see: The Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to Richard Feynman in 1965 for his contributions to creating a new quantum electrodynamics. Sotheby’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.

 

The expert: Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s.

 

In the press release for the sale and in the raw lot notes for the Nobel Prize, Feynman is described as a “rock star of physics” and “one of the most beloved scientists of all time.” What makes him so? I think what earns him the title of the “rock star of physics” is his personality–who he was as a human, and his intellectual capacity. If you look at other physicists of his caliber, you don’t see relatable humans with the same intellect. You could compare Feynman to Einstein, but Feynman loved teaching, and it was more important to him than theoretical work. Rock stars transcend their genres. They’re not just musicians. Feynman transcended his work. He would always say there’s nothing magical here, that he was just very curious, worked hard on the questions, and figured it out. But he inspired people, and he imparted excitement to people.

 

Feynman died 30 years ago, but he’s just as popular now as he was when he was alive. How has he managed to persist? Why hasn’t his memory faded? Partly it’s because of his personality, who he was. A lot of scientists are best known for their work. With others, the subject that won the prize is far more famous than the person who did the work. Because Feynman was such a popular figure, he was able to stay popular.

 

Have his books and his former students played a role in keeping his memory alive? He taught so many people who went on to teach other people who are super-successful and doing things they love to do. Not all are physicists, but they apply what they learned from Feynman to their lives. One of his biggest lessons was to enjoy life and enjoy what you’re doing. I’ve met many of his students, and they’re generally happy, fun-loving people. And I think the books definitely help.

 

It’s interesting that Feynman’s fame persists without the help of an Academy Award-winning film, such as A Beautiful Mind. At the end of the day, an Oscar-winning film is just an Oscar-winning film. Feynman doesn’t need a film. He became his own legend. He’s one of the rare people who was human, fun-loving, and also a fun-loving genius. He defied the stereotype of the scientist in a lab, not interacting people, with no social skills. He was the opposite of that.

 

Feynman won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for work on quantum electrodynamics. Using non-technical language, can you explain why his contribution to science was such a big deal? Feynman was asked the same question, and he said, “Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.” To be frank, I don’t understand it completely.

 

Feynman was one of three who earned the 1965 prize for work on this problem. Did he work directly with his fellow winners, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga? They were all working on similar problems independently, but they knew about each other and were aware of each other’s work. Schwinger and Tomonaga took a mathematical approach to how to reconcile quantum mechanics, a 19th century science, with quantum electrodynamics, a 20th century science. Feynman’s approach was completely original and took a completely different direction. One of the ways he explained it it was by coming up with Feynman diagrams [click those words to see what a Feynman diagram looks like]. Those diagrams really revolutionized how we do quantum electrodynamics. They’re standard now.

 

How did Feynman learn that he’d won the Nobel Prize? He got a phone call at 4 am from a reporter. My understanding is he was unhappy about it [both the crazy-early phone call and the news of the win]. He asked his wife, Gweneth, how he could get out of it. He had a good life, and he knew the win would change things. I think the way it goes is she said, ‘Dear, the publicity would be worse if you don’t accept the prize.’ So he went to Stockholm and ended up having a great time. Feynman had been raised with a suspicion of institutions and authority. [Receiving the prize] played into his reluctance, because it was another symbol of the establishment. But he realized the machine had started running, and it’s harder to stop the machine than go along with it.

 

What did Feynman do with his share of the Nobel Prize money? He spent part of it on a vacation house in Mexico, and he bought a van. There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which they take the Richard Feynman van and drive down to Mexico and stay in Richard Feynman’s vacation home.

 

Have the other two Nobel Prizes in Physics for 1965 come to auction? No. I keep a spreadsheet of all the Nobel Prizes ever sold. I’ve been obsessed with the market for Nobels for a long time–I started tracking them in 2012. They have not come up.

 

How have you seen the market for Nobel Prizes change over time? A few had come up, three or four, since 1988. Then Francis Crick’s Nobel sold at Heritage Auctions for $2.2 million in 2013, and it kind of sparked a flurry. It was the highest price ever paid for a Nobel, and it really got a lot of attention. It was followed by James Watson’s Nobel Prize selling at Christie’s in 2014 for $4.7 million. What’s really interesting is most of what we sell has no inherent value, but the story is what is valuable. Whereas a Nobel Prize actually has a value. Prizes minted before 1985 are made from 23-karat solid gold. Depending on the value of gold, they’re worth about $10,000. Prizes minted after 1985 are plated with 24-karat gold.

 

The price range for Nobel Prizes at auction is all over the place. Which ones sell for the most money? I’ve been trying to figure out which categories are worth more. The fewer the words you need to explain why a person won the Nobel, the more it sells for. With Watson, it’s “DNA.” No need to explain. “DNA” is enough. With Feynman, you can just say “Feynman.” No one is going to ask me to explain quantum electrodynamics, thank God.

 

How often does Feynman material come up at auction? It’s super-rare. There have been two manuscripts by Feynman to come to market. One was at Sotheby’s in 2006–lecture notes from one of his students, who was helping transcribe them. The other was a sheet of calculations he signed to Egon Lehmkuhl, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2008. Do you know who bought that?

 

No. I bought it. I was a dealer at the time. I sold it and I started looking for Feynman material obsessively. Those two manuscripts that came up were total flukes. All his material is in the archives at Caltech. Since then, four copies of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! that he signed and gave to friends have come up. One of them sold at Sotheby’s last year for $43,750.

 

What else comes with the Nobel Prize as part of the lot? There’s the Nobel, the box it comes in, the diploma, and two programs. One says things like ‘the limo comes at this time, this is a white-tie party, you’ll eat this meal.’ The other is a program with translations of the Nobel speeches. On the back, Feynman has doodled Feynman diagrams. To get Feynman diagrams on the back of a Nobel Prize ceremony program is pretty cool.

 

Has a Feynman diagram drawn by Feynman ever gone to auction before? Prior to this, no. There are other manuscript lots in the sale that have Feynman diagrams.

 

I’m surprised that more Feynman material hasn’t managed to escape to the market, here and there. Yeah. Again, because he gave just about everything to Caltech, what stayed at his house were things he probably thought weren’t important. But when you look at them, you realize they’re extremely important. Final manuscripts don’t tell you much. How he gets there is much more interesting. What you see in the manuscripts [offered in other lots in the November 30 sale] is how he gets there. You see how he gets from A to Z.

 

What other Feynman pieces are in the sale? There are about 40 lots. They include a tambourine, very conveniently signed by him, thank you Richard Feynman, which he bought in Copacabana, Brazil. He talks about it in Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and it’s torn from being played too much. There’s his undergraduate copy of Paul Dirac’s The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, with his handwritten annotations. Some [pages] have very heavy annotation. One says ‘prove this one day’ or ‘figure it out one day’–it’s the book that made Feynman Feynman. [Later she clarified: The notation is “analyze this some day”, and it’s in a section about the polarization of photons.] There are transcripts from the Oppenheimer hearing. There are some arithmetic books from his undergraduate years. The books are really, really interesting. He lived in a frat house at MIT. One book has his MIT address and his address in Far Rockaway. Then another book just has the MIT address–a shift that says ‘This is my home now.’ There are clues that tell you about the young Feynman.

 

Whoa, whoa. What was it like for you to look through all that stuff? Honestly, I teared up. I could not believe it. I could not believe it. I had said to a colleague the year before that the only Nobel Prize I wanted to sell is Richard Feynman’s. To get that call… I’m a specialist in science and technology. I don’t talk about fate, but it felt like cosmic alignment to get that call.

 

The estimate on the Feynman Nobel Prize is $800,000 to $1.2 million. The world auction record for a Nobel Prize is $4.7 million. Do you think Feynman’s has a chance to approach or beat the record? I’m optimistic it will exceed the estimate, but at the end of the day, it’s just an estimate. I don’t know how it will do until the day of the auction, but it’s not… it’s such a weird thing to say, but it’s not a regular Nobel Prize. Because Richard Feynman is a celebrity, he’s in a different category. There’s no comparable [no lot sold before at auction] that’s exactly like it. It’s an unusual situation. The work [that the Nobel Prize recognizes] is tremendously important and the personality is tremendously important. That Venn diagram is what buyers look for.

 

The Nobel Prize world auction record belongs to one that was awarded to a scientist. Why? Why hasn’t a Nobel Prize for Literature or Peace sold for more? Part of it is looking at the demographics of the buyers. If you look at the Forbes 500, a lot of the wealth today comes from or relates to science. And a lot of people are motivated by nostalgia, a time when they were happy and young. With Feynman, bidders remember studying his work in college or reading Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and being inspired by him. It’s not that Nobel Prizes for Peace or Literature are less important. There are just fewer buyers.

 

How many Nobel Prizes have you handled? How is this one different? I’ve handled six or less. The others were certainly important and exciting, but this one got my pulse going. You try not to be, how can I say it, emotionally involved in a sale, because sometimes, things don’t sell. This is something I’ve been obsessed with. Feynman is my favorite scientist of all time. I’ve got pictures of him in my office. I don’t know how I’m going to top this one, let’s put it like that.

 

How to bid: Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize is lot 67 in the History of Science & Technology sale at Sotheby’s New York on November 30, 2018.

 

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

 

Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow Cassandra Hatton on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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

 

Cassandra Hatton spoke to The Hot Bid in July 2018 about an Apollo 13 space-flown flight plan, which ultimately sold for $275,000–more than six times its high estimate.

 

If you haven’t yet read Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! yet, you have a treat ahead of you. Purchase it from an independent bookseller, such as The Strand Bookstore in New York City.

 

In case you missed it above, here’s the link to background on the Feynman van, as well as a website about Feynman himself.

 

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

 

Chirp! Skinner Sold That Jess Blackstone Robin for… (Scroll Down and See)

1576Miniature birds “Hand Carved and Painted by Blackstone”

Update: The Jess Blackstone robin sold for $584.

 

What you see: A miniature robin, carved and painted by Jess Blackstone circa 1968 or 1969. Skinner estimates it at $300 to $500.

 

The expert: Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner.

 

So, who was Jess Blackstone, and how did he come to carve and paint miniatures of birds? Born 1909, died 1988, a resident of Melrose, Massachusetts, and moved to New Hampshire in the late 1930s, when he became a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. His dad carved mini-songbirds, and he learned to paint and carve from him. That seemed to shape where Blackstone went. He and his dad would have good-natured competitions to paint the smallest bird, or the most elaborate bird. He definitely eclipsed his dad in quality and production, but it [carving and painting bird sculptures] was a family business at one point.

 

Did he live out his life in New Hampshire, or did he travel? He stayed there the rest of his life, in a simple house with a lot of land. He was able to support a wife and an adopted daughter with his carvings. When he was in the military in 1944 and 1945, he listed 58 birds that he encountered or identified in Germany, some of which he actually carved once he got home.

 

I take it he chose that place so he could look out his window and see birds? He had a lot of land, and he was a feeder type of guy. The birds were much more plentiful to see [in the mid-20th century], particularly warblers and tanagers and certain sparrows, which only come during the spring and fall migrations. He carved 92 different species of songbirds, based on an analysis of records at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

 

How prolific was Blackstone? He’s estimated to have carved 8,500 birds. More than 2,500 were chickadees. Since 2005, as far back as our digital records go, we’ve sold 132 Jess Blackstone carvings.

 

Did he carve duck decoys? Decoys, no, but there’s a distinction to be made between these decorative carvings and decoys. Blackstone birds were never meant to attract a member of its own species. He carved ducks, yes, but there aren’t many among his output. They’re all decorative, and the overwhelming majority are songbirds.

 

What do we know about how he worked? We think he observed birds a great deal. We think he bird-watched the way we bird-watch. He’d put out a feeder, or hike, and see them. There’s a story that if a bird hit his window, he would study it. He was so good at capturing the personality of a bird that he had to have watched them. Once he had a template for the shape and colors of a bird, it was almost paint-by-number. He would follow his template after producing one bird.

 

And what do we know about his approach to carving? We know he used white pine. In 2012 we sold a trade sign, a tabletop display mounted on a wood base, with a robin perched on it, that said ‘All birds are made of white pine.’ White pine is easy to carve, light, and plentiful. As far as I can tell, he never deviated from carving white pine.

 

What characteristics mark a Jess Blackstone bird carving? He was an inveterate record-keeper. He always signed his birds the same way, with an intertwined ‘JB’. There’s also a nice detail–he called it ‘feathering the bird’–a very subtle textured effect [of] parallel lines that run the length of the body. It prevents the bird from being completely flat. And the birds always stand on a grey stone-like base.

 

His birds are not photo-realistic, but they’re not folk art, either. Yes. They have a liveliness, a personality. They have a great presence. They straddle the line between realism and charm. Because they make you feel so good, they appeal to people who are not folk art collectors and not bird collectors, necessarily. The man who runs this department has a Jess Blackstone bluebird at his house. It speaks to how universal their appeal is. Though Blackstone created 8,500 of them, and 2,500 chickadees, he was never bored by them. It takes love to carve that many.

 

Why did he make so many chickadees? We don’t know, exactly. Maybe it dovetails with how he marketed and sold his work. He’d do shows at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and developed a following. I think the majority of his business was from craft shows. He knew his carvings were good, and he sought sophisticated audiences for them. People would ask him to carve a certain bird. He painted five times as many chickadees as any other bird. They’re great-looking, and they’re the state bird of Massachusetts. Maybe he carved so many because it was like playing the hits–certain bands out there have to play the one. He carved 267 robins, and this is number 240. Bluebirds and goldfinches, he did more than 500 each. He did 454 mallards, the biggest non-songbird. It looks like the robin is his tenth most popular songbird.

 

He signed his birds, but did he date them? He didn’t typically date them, no. There are numbers on the bottom, but there’s disagreement about what the numbers mean. He started numbering each bird by species. There may not be a number one chickadee, but there is a number 1,150 chickadee. He carved about 30 to 40 birds in a typical month, and up to 60 in a really productive month. The higher the number, the closer to his death [it was made]. He stopped around 1980 because he wasn’t well enough to carve in the last eight years of his life. Some of the ones from the late 1970s are not as high-quality as this robin.

 

Does his having made about 2,500 chickadees mean that chickadees were his favorite bird? Or does that just reflect what the market wanted? I wish I knew the answer to that question. I couldn’t find if he made observations about the birds themselves, other than his output. There’s no indication of if he weighted one bird more than another in his mind.

 

Where do collectors put his birds? Any flat surface. Mantelpieces, bookshelves, custom-made cabinets. They’re easy to amass. People who have one tend to have more than one.

 

What was Jess Blackstone’s golden age? It depends on how you define it. His output seems to have been regular. Toward the end of his career, he was better-known. In 1947, he asked $2 for a bluebird. By the early 1980s [after he had stopped working, but presumably had a stock of finished works], he charged up to $100 per bird. He had good days and he had bad days, but I don’t think his quality dipped very far, if at all. Because he was prolific, well-known, and consistent, [collectors judge based on] the condition of the bird, and the earlier the number, the better it does.

 

What’s the auction record for a Jess Blackstone carving? We’ve had one sell for $2,600–a a pair of purple finches mounted on driftwood. It’s rare for him to have two birds in one piece. [For individual birds,] in 2012, we sold a European bird for more than $2,100. It was a crowd-pleasing bird that was odd for him. If you turned it one way, it looked like a yellow wagtail, and if you turned it another way, it looked like a pied wagtail. It appears to be unique, and it was carved from a drawing he gathered overseas, when he was in the service. Rarer birds are the ones that tend to bring the most.

 

What is this Blackstone robin like in person? Is it actual size? It’s been on my desk all day. It’s tentative, it has an inquisitive stance, but it’s confident in its own way. It’s looking for its next worm. It’s probably an eighth of the size of a real robin, maybe a tenth of the size. The bigger it is, the harder it is to collect and display. One of the appeals of Jess Blackstone birds is they’re so easy to collect. Four look fine, and 30 doesn’t look overwhelming. They display nicely together. With 30 birds at full size, you have to commit. You don’t have to commit as readily to 30 miniature birds.

 

How to bid: The Jess Blackstone robin is lot 1576 in Skinner‘s Americana Online auction, which opened on October 25, 2018 and closes on November 4, 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.

 

You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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

 

Chris Barber spoke to The Hot Bid in February 2017 for a piece on an unusually charming double folk portrait that ultimately sold for $9,840.

 

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

Chirp! Skinner Has a Flock of Jess Blackstone Bird Carvings, Including a Robin That Could Fly Away With $500

1576Miniature birds “Hand Carved and Painted by Blackstone”

What you see: A miniature robin, carved and painted by Jess Blackstone circa 1968 or 1969. Skinner estimates it at $300 to $500.

 

The expert: Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner.

 

So, who was Jess Blackstone, and how did he come to carve and paint miniatures of birds? Born 1909, died 1988, a resident of Melrose, Massachusetts, and moved to New Hampshire in the late 1930s, when he became a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. His dad carved mini-songbirds, and he learned to paint and carve from him. That seemed to shape where Blackstone went. He and his dad would have good-natured competitions to paint the smallest bird, or the most elaborate bird. He definitely eclipsed his dad in quality and production, but it [carving and painting bird sculptures] was a family business at one point.

 

Did he live out his life in New Hampshire, or did he travel? He stayed there the rest of his life, in a simple house with a lot of land. He was able to support a wife and an adopted daughter with his carvings. When he was in the military in 1944 and 1945, he listed 58 birds that he encountered or identified in Germany, some of which he actually carved once he got home.

 

I take it he chose that place so he could look out his window and see birds? He had a lot of land, and he was a feeder type of guy. The birds were much more plentiful to see [in the mid-20th century], particularly warblers and tanagers and certain sparrows, which only come during the spring and fall migrations. He carved 92 different species of songbirds, based on an analysis of records at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

 

How prolific was Blackstone? He’s estimated to have carved 8,500 birds. More than 2,500 were chickadees. Since 2005, as far back as our digital records go, we’ve sold 132 Jess Blackstone carvings.

 

Did he carve duck decoys? Decoys, no, but there’s a distinction to be made between these decorative carvings and decoys. Blackstone birds were never meant to attract a member of its own species. He carved ducks, yes, but there aren’t many among his output. They’re all decorative, and the overwhelming majority are songbirds.

 

What do we know about how he worked? We think he observed birds a great deal. We think he bird-watched the way we bird-watch. He’d put out a feeder, or hike, and see them. There’s a story that if a bird hit his window, he would study it. He was so good at capturing the personality of a bird that he had to have watched them. Once he had a template for the shape and colors of a bird, it was almost paint-by-number. He would follow his template after producing one bird.

 

And what do we know about his approach to carving? We know he used white pine. In 2012 we sold a trade sign, a tabletop display mounted on a wood base, with a robin perched on it, that said ‘All birds are made of white pine.’ White pine is easy to carve, light, and plentiful. As far as I can tell, he never deviated from carving white pine.

 

What characteristics mark a Jess Blackstone bird carving? He was an inveterate record-keeper. He always signed his birds the same way, with an intertwined ‘JB’. There’s also a nice detail–he called it ‘feathering the bird’–a very subtle textured effect [of] parallel lines that run the length of the body. It prevents the bird from being completely flat. And the birds always stand on a grey stone-like base.

 

His birds are not photo-realistic, but they’re not folk art, either. Yes. They have a liveliness, a personality. They have a great presence. They straddle the line between realism and charm. Because they make you feel so good, they appeal to people who are not folk art collectors and not bird collectors, necessarily. The man who runs this department has a Jess Blackstone bluebird at his house. It speaks to how universal their appeal is. Though Blackstone created 8,500 of them, and 2,500 chickadees, he was never bored by them. It takes love to carve that many.

 

Why did he make so many chickadees? We don’t know, exactly. Maybe it dovetails with how he marketed and sold his work. He’d do shows at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and developed a following. I think the majority of his business was from craft shows. He knew his carvings were good, and he sought sophisticated audiences for them. People would ask him to carve a certain bird. He painted five times as many chickadees as any other bird. They’re great-looking, and they’re the state bird of Massachusetts. Maybe he carved so many because it was like playing the hits–certain bands out there have to play the one. He carved 267 robins, and this is number 240. Bluebirds and goldfinches, he did more than 500 each. He did 454 mallards, the biggest non-songbird. It looks like the robin is his tenth most popular songbird.

 

He signed his birds, but did he date them? He didn’t typically date them, no. There are numbers on the bottom, but there’s disagreement about what the numbers mean. He started numbering each bird by species. There may not be a number one chickadee, but there is a number 1,150 chickadee. He carved about 30 to 40 birds in a typical month, and up to 60 in a really productive month. The higher the number, the closer to his death [it was made]. He stopped around 1980 because he wasn’t well enough to carve in the last eight years of his life. Some of the ones from the late 1970s are not as high-quality as this robin.

 

Does his having made about 2,500 chickadees mean that chickadees were his favorite bird? Or does that just reflect what the market wanted? I wish I knew the answer to that question. I couldn’t find if he made observations about the birds themselves, other than his output. There’s no indication of if he weighted one bird more than another in his mind.

 

Where do collectors put his birds? Any flat surface. Mantelpieces, bookshelves, custom-made cabinets. They’re easy to amass. People who have one tend to have more than one.

 

What was Jess Blackstone’s golden age? It depends on how you define it. His output seems to have been regular. Toward the end of his career, he was better-known. In 1947, he asked $2 for a bluebird. By the early 1980s [after he had stopped working, but presumably had a stock of finished works], he charged up to $100 per bird. He had good days and he had bad days, but I don’t think his quality dipped very far, if at all. Because he was prolific, well-known, and consistent, [collectors judge based on] the condition of the bird, and the earlier the number, the better it does.

 

What’s the auction record for a Jess Blackstone carving? We’ve had one sell for $2,600–a a pair of purple finches mounted on driftwood. It’s rare for him to have two birds in one piece. [For individual birds,] in 2012, we sold a European bird for more than $2,100. It was a crowd-pleasing bird that was odd for him. If you turned it one way, it looked like a yellow wagtail, and if you turned it another way, it looked like a pied wagtail. It appears to be unique, and it was carved from a drawing he gathered overseas, when he was in the service. Rarer birds are the ones that tend to bring the most.

 

What is this Blackstone robin like in person? Is it actual size? It’s been on my desk all day. It’s tentative, it has an inquisitive stance, but it’s confident in its own way. It’s looking for its next worm. It’s probably an eighth of the size of a real robin, maybe a tenth of the size. The bigger it is, the harder it is to collect and display. One of the appeals of Jess Blackstone birds is they’re so easy to collect. Four look fine, and 30 doesn’t look overwhelming. They display nicely together. With 30 birds at full size, you have to commit. You don’t have to commit as readily to 30 miniature birds.

 

How to bid: The Jess Blackstone robin is lot 1576 in Skinner‘s Americana Online auction, which opened on October 25, 2018 and closes on November 4, 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.

 

You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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

 

Chris Barber spoke to The Hot Bid in February 2017 for a piece on an unusually charming double folk portrait that ultimately sold for $9,840.

 

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