Quack! An Elmer Crowell Preening Black Duck Decoy Could Fly Away with $300,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

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What you see: A Phillips rig preening black duck decoy, carved circa 1912 by A. Elmer Crowell for his patron, Dr. John C. Phillips. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

 

Who was A. Elmer Crowell? Born in 1862 in East Harwich, Massachusetts, he’s the king of American duck decoy carvers. Initially, he carved in the course of his work at duck-hunting camps, but over time, his magnificent wooden birds won fans who loved them as decorative objects. His decoys have sold at auction for six-figure sums, and two sold privately for more than $1 million each. Crowell died in 1952, at the age of 89.

 

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but is this preening black duck a hen or a drake? Black ducks get a pass on being hens or drakes. 99 percent of the time, they’re just black ducks. This is just a black duck, with no clear designation on being one or the other.

 

It’s also described as being a “rig mate” to other duck decoys that belonged to the late Dr. Phillips. What does it mean for a decoy to be a rig mate? A rig is a group of birds [decoys] owned by and hunted over by one person. It doesn’t always mean the decoys are exactly alike, or made side by side. There can be a lot of variation, depending on how they were made and used. In the context of the Phillips rig, a decoy can be anything out of that group of rig mates. There are Phillips rig mates that look nothing like Crowell’s work.

 

Crowell carved and painted hundreds of decoys that depicted black ducks. Where does this one rank among his lifetime output? It’s among his very finest. As you mention, he did hundreds of them. This bird is as good as they come, in my personal opinion.

 

Did he carve the decoy from a single piece of wood? The bird is made of two pieces, one for the body and one for the head. One thing that makes the bird so strong is the masterful sculpture of the duck in a preening position. It’s not easy to capture well, and Crowell did it nearly perfectly. The finer details of the carving show Crowell’s tremendous effort to do his best work for his best patron. We see him coming into a sweet spot in his career–he was as good a carver as he would be, and this was on the early side of showing his command of his wet-on-wet painting technique, which gives a natural, soft look to the feathers.

 

This looks gorgeous enough to have been destined for a mantle, but the lot notes say it shows evidence of being used on a hunt… It’s a working decoy, and at the same time, it represents one of the best carved decoys in a decorative sense. The bird was hardly used. It was probably retired early because of an appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. I suspect the patron deemed it too precious to hunt over. What’s interesting about the Phillips rig is Crowell didn’t just make this decoy for Phillips, he was his stand manager. He created the decoys, and decided where they would be hunted, and how they would be hunted over. Crowell knew he was going to be involved with handling the decoy after it left his workshop. He wasn’t handing it over to a hunter who might break it. It’s unknowable, but it’s possible because of the relationship Crowell and Phillips had.

 

Do we know when Crowell made this decoy? He used a hot brand [on his decoys]. We can date his birds to some extent on the quality of the brand. Every time a brand is heated, it corrodes a little. Over the years, a brand can be seen burning out, leaving a softer and softer impression. It’s a great dating tool that Crowell inadvertently left behind. This has a perfectly crisp oval brand, which suggests it was 1912.

 

Carving the duck’s head to make it hover in a natural-looking way over the body seems difficult. Is it harder to carve a preening duck? You can think of a preener as the decoy maker’s deluxe model. It’s harder to carve and harder to paint. But it adds variety to the rig, making it look more lifelike as a group. An additional benefit is they’re less breakable because the body can protect the head. We have a 200-year-old decoy in the sale with an intact bill because it’s protected by the body in the preening pose.

 

What is your favorite detail on this decoy? When I look at this bird, the first thing it does is hold together as a phenomenal piece of sculpture. You can go from tip to tail picking out fine details that were expertly executed, but the bird is better than any one single detail.

 

What is it like to hold the decoy? [Laughs] Being in the presence of the decoy before handling it is a real pleasure. It’s excellent from every angle. And it feels just right in the hand. It’s full, robust, and you can feel the finer subtleties in the carving details. I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

To explain what a big deal it is to auction Donal C. O’Brien, Jr.’s collection of decoys and sporting art, can you draw an analogy to other notable auctions of lots consigned by great collectors? It would be somewhat like the Rockefeller collection or the Yves St. Laurent collection in its breadth and quality, and that’s been reflected in the market response to the birds so far.

 

Why will this Crowell preening black duck decoy stick in your memory? Crowell is a quintessential representative of great American bird carving. He was self-taught. He started making decoys because he needed to, and his working decoys led to the birth of American decorative bird carving. This bird is at the nexus of his carving career, where his working decoys became so good, they’re indistinguishable from decorative carving. He’s one of the best makers, making his best effort, carving one of his favorite species for his most important client. It fires on all cylinders from a historic standpoint and an aesthetic standpoint.

 

How to bid: The Crowell preening black duck is lot 14 in the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Collection of Important American Sporting Art and Decoys, Session III, taking place July 19, 2018 at Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

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

 

Copley Fine Art Auctions appeared on The Hot Bid last summer in a post about a record-setting Gus Wilson duck decoy.

 

Quack!

 

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WHOA! Sotheby’s Sold Canova’s Rediscovered Bust of Peace for More Than $7 Million

Canova, The Bust of Peace (side)

Update: Whoa! Canova’s Bust of Peace sold for £5.3 million, or slightly more than $7 million.

 

What you see: A Bust of Peace, sculpted in 1814 by Antonio Canova. Sotheby’s anticipates bidding in excess of £1 million, or $1.3 million.

 

Who was Antonio Canova? Born in 1757 in Possagno, Italy, Canova is the greatest of the Neoclassical sculptors and one of the greatest sculptors ever. You might not recall his name, but you’ve almost certainly seen his work–Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, The Three Graces, and Venus Victrix, to name three. (If you’ve been to the Louvre and managed to miss Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, go back, you did it wrong.) He died in 1822, at the age of 64.

 

The expert: Christopher Mason, director of the European sculpture and works of art department at Sotheby’s.

 

How rarely does anything by Canova come to auction, let alone one of his Ideal Heads? Very rarely. In the last 30 years at auction, I can think of only a handful of examples. Last year there was a bust of Murat in Paris. It sold for €4.3 million ($5 million). We had an Ideal Head in the early to mid-1990s. It sold for £750,000 and is now in the Ashmolean. Before that, there was one in the 1980s that went to the Getty. They’re very rare, as you can see from those examples.

 

The Bust of Peace belongs to a series Canova did that was dubbed the Ideal Heads. Why is that important? He produced very few Ideal Heads. He made them as gifts for patrons and friends, and that gave him a degree of freedom in the execution of his ideas. They’re different versions of what Canova considered to be beauty. Really what distinguishes the Ideal Heads is not facial characteristics, but the hair. This one is unique, and has uniquely beautiful hair. And it’s the only bust [of his] we’re aware of that has a tiara like that.

 

What did Baron Cawdor, the sculpture’s first owner, do for Canova that earned him the Bust of Peace? He was Canova’s first British patron and a substantial landowner over here. What comes across in his letters is he’s a nice man. He and Canova got on together, and they were personal friends. Baron Cawdor was an important patron who commissioned iconic works, including the Cupid and Psyche in the Louvre. It was sort of appropriated by Murat [Joachim Murat, a French military leader and brother-in-law of Napoleon]. At the time, Britain was at war with France, and Murat could say, ‘I’ll have that.’ We know by 1814, the first fall of Napoleon, many treasures of Rome were taken by French forces and were in the Louvre. Canova was very much a patriotic Italian, and he wanted to get them back. Baron Cawdor was among the British dignitaries who supported the effort to get them back. The bust may have been given to him for that reason. But through thick and thin, Baron Cawdor was a patron who stuck by Canova.

 

Where does the Bust of Peace rank among the Ideal Heads? How well-regarded is it? There aren’t many Ideal Heads. It is a rediscovery. This is literally the first time since 1817 that it’s been published as a Canova. It’s very much fresh off the block. In terms of beauty, in my opinion, it’s one of the more beautiful. It has this glorious tiara which none of the others have. Not only is it an early Ideal Head, it has a backstory that symbolizes the end of the Napoleonic era and symbolizes peace. It combines remarkable history and a remarkably beautiful work by the greatest Neoclassical sculptor.

 

The lot notes say that Canova’s Ideal Heads “caused a stir when they arrived in Britain.” Can you explain in more detail how they were received? I don’t think you can get better than the fact that Lord Byron wrote a poem about one of the heads. Lord Byron, the great poet of the age, wrote a poem about the great sculptor of the age. At the time, the Ideal Heads were totally different from anything that came before. They would have stood like icebergs among the galleries of paintings. This gleaming white marble of an objectively regal-looking woman must have been wholly refreshing in that environment.

 

Canova also did a Statue of Peace, which he started before making this bust and delivered after finishing the bust. How do the statue and the bust relate to each other beyond their shared theme? The statue is in Kiev and is difficult to access for that reason, but the images we have of the statue compare very well. It appears to be nearly identical. There is a small natural flaw in the bust, on the upper lip. Canova wrote to Baron Cawdor apologizing for it. It’s hugely important to us because [the flaw] is a characteristic we know it had when it left Canova’s studio. It’s very slight, but it’s there. We haven’t color-corrected it out [of the catalog images]. We’re very proud of it. It is historical, isn’t it?

 

Other Ideal Heads that Canova made for British patrons and friends have dedicatory inscriptions, but this one does not. Why? Baron Cawdor went to Rome and received it into ownership at that time. The lack of a price in the archives and the fact that the others were all gifts strongly suggest that the Bust of Peace was a gift. The other four Ideal Heads arrived later, in 1817. He sent them from Rome to patrons in the U.K. [without handing them over in person]. In my opinion, Canova saw the need to inscribe them, and it was probably more natural to him to carve in stone than write in ink.

 

Do we know who Canova’s model would have been for this bust and the statue? We don’t know whether he used a live model. The conventional thinking on this is the heads are formed solely in his imagination. That might explain why they [the bust and the statue] share the same facial characteristics.

 

What features does this Bust of Peace have that 19th century viewers would have recognized on sight, but which might be obscure to 21st century viewers? First, she’s crowned, and the only other Canovas that are crowned are the Statue of Peace and a portrait he did of Napoleon’s wife, Marie Louise. Clearly for the artist, the coronet represented harmony and peace. It was seen as the distinguishing characteristic of peace at the time. And it’s different from the others in that she assumes a serene and godlike expression, which shows the power of peace.

 

What condition is the bust in? It’s in very good condition. There is some minor wear, but the bust broadly retains its original surface and is particularly beautiful on the cheeks and neck–particularly smooth and perfect.

 

You said earlier that the bust is something of a rediscovery? It was considered to have been lost. When the Canova catalog raisonné was published in the 1970s, it was considered unknown. It was on view in 1817 at the Royal Academy in London. After that, it went into the Cawdor private collection until 1962, when they sold the contents of a house. It [the Bust of Peace] sold as an anonymous bust. It was at auction in 2012, again as an anonymous bust. Then it was acquired by the present owner, who, gradually, through a lot of work, figured out it was one of the Ideal Heads.

 

That is a heck of a discovery. I think the owner began to have an inkling of what it was and wrote to the great Canova expert, Hugh Honour, who is now deceased. He wrote back, ‘Congratulations on rediscovering one of the Ideal Heads, the Bust of Peace.’ The attribution was confirmed by the director of the Canova Museum in Possagno, Italy.

 

What is the Bust of Peace like in person? Personally, I find it very affecting. The bust is perfect in its conception. Peace is objectively serene, with a wonderful Neoclassical crown. The bust is designed so it can be viewed from any angle–as you move around it, the figure is changing. The tresses falling from the back of the head are arranged in a way that is not symmetrical. Canova’s great skill is producing harmonious compositions that are seemingly symmetrical, but not. It explains how he was able to breathe life into the composition. As you walk around it, it really does seem like Peace could spring into life. It’s one of the most beautiful marbles we’ve ever sold.

 

How to bid: The Bust of Peace is lot 25 in the Treasures auction at Sotheby’s London on July 4, 2018.

 

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

 

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Sitting Pretty: A George Segal Bronze Could Sell For $150,000 at Freeman’s

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What you see: Woman in White Wicker Rocker, a 1985 limited edition bronze by George Segal. Freeman’s estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

 

Who was George Segal? He was an American painter and sculptor known for rendering human figures in white, giving them something of a ghostly appearance. He worked in bronze and plaster, and he is credited with being the first to use plaster bandages as a sculptural medium. He created everyday scenes of people riding a bus, waiting for subway trains, and crossing streets, and he made works that memorialized the Holocaust and commemorated LGBT rights. Segal died in 2000 at the age of 75.

 

The expert: Anne Henry, senior specialist of modern and contemporary art at Freeman’s.

 

How often do George Segal works come up at auction? Regularly. He did a lot of editioned works in multiples. There have been between 20 and 30 works at auction per year in the last few years.

 

Segal made Woman in White Wicker Rocker in 1985, relatively late in his life. Does that matter? This [sculptures dating to the mid- to late 1980s] is right in where you want to be for works that bring consistently strong prices. It’s in the sweet spot of his career.

 

Woman in White Wicker Rocker features a seated figure. How does the bronze compare to his other works depicting people sitting? He did a lot of seated figures. A lot of his iconic sculptures feature benches and chairs. He seems to return to positions of waiting or pausing, maybe capturing [the figures] in thought and inviting us to do the same. Here, the woman’s position is very relaxed. The wicker chair implies summertime and the outdoors. It conveys serenity and relaxation.

 

This is a bronze and not a plaster. Does that matter? I think it does matter in a practical sense, and it physically matters. Bronze is heavy and weighty. It feels more permanent than plaster. In terms of whether it would be more desirable to collectors, that’s tough to say. A plaster Woman on Wicker Chair was offered in March and it failed to sell. It was similar [to the bronze] and it was unique. Our estimate is lower than the estimate for the unique one. It will be interesting to see how the bronze does. The highest prices out of the top five [at auction for George Segal] are all bronze but two, but it’s important to note that the medium is not the only factor. Four out of the five had multiple figures. The fifth was a lone figure in the subway.

 

Do we know who his model or models were for Woman in White Wicker Rocker? He almost always used friends and family. His wife, Helen, frequently modeled for him, and it’s quite possibly her likeness.

 

The woman has a slight smile on her face, while other George Segal figures… don’t. Does that matter here? Is Woman in White Wicker Rocker more attractive to collectors because of her smile? Part of the appeal of all his works is their mysteriousness. You don’t really know what’s going on in the moment of waiting or relaxing [that he depicts], and you don’t know what’s going on in their heads. I think some collectors might find the slight smile more appealing, but some might seek out the tension that’s visible in other works. Segal does cover a wide range of subtle feelings. I don’t know that one is more desirable than another. The mystery is always there. That’s what he shoots for.

 

Will the Freeman’s offering be the first time that Woman in White Wicker Rocker has gone to auction? No, it’s not a debut. The last one was up in November 2012 and it brought $170,000. There were not too many others before that. An edition of five is nice and small. You wouldn’t expect to see other results.

 

The bronze is fresh to market. How does that affect its desirability? It’s been privately owned for 30 years, and it was bought from the gallery close to the date of execution. That’s something that collectors hope to see. And only one other has been offered at auction. That shows it’s relatively rare on the open market.

 

How much does the bronze weigh? We don’t know, but I can tell you that it took four very strong crew members to lift it. It’s not something one or two people can pick up. It’s quite heavy.

 

What is it like in person? There’s a feeling of relaxation, and because it’s a life size work, it feels very realistic and approachable. But because you can’t make eye contact with it, there’s ambiguity and mystery about it. It feels as if the figure is ultimately in her own psychological space. You feel her feeling of relaxation, but you’re not 100 percent invited to interact with her. The environment she’s in feels private. That’s what I like about George Segal’s work–it’s open to interpretation. The answers are not all there, which I think is interesting.

 

How to bid: George Segal’s Woman in White Wicker Rocker is lot 5 in 18 Works from the Bachman Collection, which takes place at Freeman’s on June 4, 2018.

 

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Freeman’s is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

 

The George and Helen Segal Foundation has a website.

 

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

 

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RECORD! A Piece of Thomas Stearns’s Glass Masterpiece Sold for $737,000 at Wright–A New Auction Record for the Artist

Stearns La Sentinella di Venezia

Update: The segment from La Sentinella di Venezia (The Sentinel of Venice) sold for $737,000.

 

What you see: One of the three elements of La Sentinella di Venezia (The Sentinel of Venice), a 1962 glass sculpture by Thomas Stearns. Wright estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.

 

Who was Thomas Stearns? Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Stearns came to the glassworks of Venini in Murano, Italy in 1960, and stayed for two years. He spoke virtually no Italian, had no previous experience with blown glass, and saw his design ideas scorned by the Venini factory’s grand master. Undaunted, he collaborated with a young house master, Francesco “Checco” Ongaro, and produced innovative sculptural pieces that heralded the arrival of the studio glass movement. Stearns died in 2006, at the age of 69 or 70.

 

The expert: Sara Blumberg, a consultant for Wright.

 

How did Thomas Stearns come to have a residency at Venini? This is a two-part answer. He was given a grant by the Italian government for glass and fiber art, and it came with a Fulbright Travel Grant. It was a combination of the two things.

 

About a month after his arrival Stearns showed a clay model and drawings to the grand master of Venini. And the grand master was… is ‘offended’ the right word? I think it’s the right word. It’s an island industry. Sticking to historical references is part of that history. A young man came in with a completely different notion of what to attempt. It flew in the face of traditional ideas of not just the Venini glassworks, but every glassworks on Murano. He was offended by it because he felt it indicated no respect for glassmaking and the way it was being done.

 

Why did Ongaro take the risk of working with Stearns? I think he was curious. It was a chance to prove himself and step up in the glassworks, which was not easy to do. He saw it as an opportunity. It was a very unusual circumstance to have a person like Stearns in their midst. It was probably a very exciting event.

 

What made it exciting for the Venini workers to have Stearns there? His being a foreigner is a major piece of the puzzle. And he was there on the floor, among the workers. In terms of the social hierarchy–Stearns speaks to this in his essay [you may have to scroll down to locate it]–he gave mixed signals. He was there to work, but he would take the director’s private launch back to [the mainland at the end of the day]. He could not be pegged.

 

How many pieces did Stearns and Ongaro make? There’s no way we can answer that. What we do know is there’s a very limited number of works in general. They weren’t made with an eye toward mass production. His pieces were sculptural glass. Certainly there was a great deal of loss in the making of the pieces. Records weren’t kept. We rely on understanding their rarity rather than any real count.

 

Stearns spoke pretty much no Italian, and Ongaro spoke pretty much no English. How did the two manage to work together successfully? The basic answer is that Stearns prepared design drawings [that were like] comic strips–a series of frames that showed one step, then the next step. And he made clay models to indicate the idea. They developed a language in common. There was a back-and-forth that has to do with the more technical aspects, but they were able to communicate and share as artists do.

 

So, explain what happened at the 1962 Venice Biennale. Venini submitted six works by Stearns, and they win a gold medal, at least briefly… The Biennale was about showing what the glassworks were capable of. You put your best foot forward. There was a lot of excitement within the company and without [about Stearns’s work]. Venini got a call that it had won the Gold Medal for Glass, but when they got to the pavilion, they discovered a blob of glue [on the display case] and no medal. They got another call saying the medal was withdrawn when they [the judges] learned the works were not Italian-made. Had there been any indication up front [that Stearns being American was a problem] they would not have submitted.

 

What was the fallout from that? It’s not known to us. At the time, we didn’t have that answer. But if you consider the place and the culture… again, this is a very small place, a very tightly controlled place. There’s a sense of tradition. It would be a scandal here [for a medal to be taken away because the designer wasn’t a native] but it was not a scandal there. It had to do with the pride of Murano. It was an outpouring of devotion to tradition. It may not make sense to us, but it made sense to them.

 

How did Stearns come to create The Sentinel of Venice? This is the last work he created [at Venini]. It was intended to be a three-part conceptual piece that was meant to speak to his time in Venice. He felt strongly about Venice as a place and feared for its safety. It was a tribute to a place where he spent a short but meaningful time. All his feelings about Venice are what he intended to imbue in the piece.

 

Does this piece of The Sentinel of Venice resemble the other two? It’s not markedly different, but it’s different. We’re talking a very similar coloration and idea. If you want to see the other two, you can see them online. [Here’s one of the three, which sold at Christie’s in 2001 for $102,800 against an estimate of $80,000 to $100,000; the other was broken and only exists as a shard.]

 

I realize we can’t hop in a time machine and watch Stearns and Ongaro make this piece, but can you give me a notion of how difficult it would have been to realize this segment of The Sentinel of Venice? A variety of techniques were employed. There are multiple elements here, all working in concert. That’s really where you encounter the difficulty. Combining techniques is exceptionally difficult because they fuse and anneal at different rates. It’s hard to control when you get this complicated or this large. What makes this piece unique is these techniques had not been combined in the past in this way, and in such a sculptural way.

 

How did Stearns’s work at Venini influence the American studio glass movement, which got its start around the same time he was in Italy? In a couple of ways. One was the sheer artistry and the experimentation of it all, experimenting with forms in a new way. That was one aspect. Another was the studio work–one or two people working in concert, doing very small projects. It’s different from making piece after piece as the glassworks was. There is no feeling that [Stearns works] are prototypes for mass production. They were viewed as sculptures, as artistic endeavors. It’s more about sculpture than utilitarian objects.

 

How often do glass works by Stearns come to auction? They’re rare. There were great losses [when he and Ongaro were making them]. A limited number of works come up. We’ve [Blumberg and her partner, Jim Oliveira] curated auctions for seven years and we’ve handled glass for almost 30 years. We see them every two or three years or so.

 

What’s the auction record for a Stearns, and for a work from Venini? The answer for both is Facades of Venice, which sold for $612,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2016. There were two vessels in the lot, and they were sold as one lot.

 

What are the chances that The Sentinel of Venice will meet or exceed that sum? I hesitate to answer that, because I don’t know. It’s a possibility, absolutely. It’s an extraordinary event for it to come to auction and to have it in a collection that’s so focused on postwar glass. Facades, they got a good price for them. I think this is as exciting, if not more exciting. It’s very particular and thrilling.

 

Have you handled The Sentinel of Venice? Many times. It’s unlike anything I’ve held in glass. It has a beautiful weight. It’s a large piece for a piece of glass, very monumental. It’s a very exciting feeling to look at it and hold it. You can understand what his intention was, and you can feel the strength in it. Visually, it feels like a painting, from every angle. It’s really a painting in three dimensions.

 

How to bid: The piece from Stearns’s La Sentinella di Venezia is lot 160 in Important Italian Glass: A Private Chicago Collection, which takes place on May 23, 2018 at Wright.

 

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

 

See Wright’s short biography of Thomas Stearns and read Stearns’s 1989 essay, The Facades of Venice: Recollections of My Residency in Venice, 1960-1962. [You may have to scroll down a bit to find it.]

 

Sara Blumberg appeared on The Hot Bid in June 2017, talking about a 19th century Italian macchie vase that ultimately sold for $8,450.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No One Can Do What British Potter George Owen Did. No One. A Covered Vase He Made in 1913 Could Sell for $21,000 at Bonhams

Fine Royal Worcester Reticulated Vase and Cover Bonhams

What you see: A Royal Worcester reticulated vase and cover, made by George Owen in 1913 and standing just over five inches tall. Bonhams estimates it at £10,000 to £15,000, or $14,000 to $21,000.

 

Who was George Owen? He was a British artisan who spent his entire career with Royal Worcester, which was founded in 1751 and still produces porcelain and earthenware. Born in 1845, Owen began his career in 1859, while he was barely into his teens. He enjoyed watching his colleagues who handled piercing work–making porcelain decorated with artful holes–and thought he could do a better job. He was right. He invented his own tools and techniques and he jealously guarded his methods. Owen died in 1917.

 

The expert: John Sandon, international director of European ceramics and glass at Bonhams.

 

How rarely do George Owen pieces come up at auction? Individually, they are scarce. We [Bonhams] sell more than anyone else, about half a dozen a year. Over the last ten years, we’ve had 50 pieces. Maybe a dozen a year are on the market worldwide.

 

Has anyone done a count or survey of the number of pieces Owen made? Because he was always secretive, he didn’t keep records. But I imagine maybe there’s a thousand. Over 40 years he produced pieces, each taking several months stretched over a long period of time.

 

Is the shape he used for this reticulated vase unique, or did he return to this shape over and over again? The shapes are never unique. They’re the factory’s vases. The same vase could be painted with flowers or other decorations. Owen adapted them by cutting holes in them. He added the pearls around the top–they’re his own invention. I don’t know of another piece that’s precisely like this. He did a small number of each shape, but no two are ever the same.

 

And he came up with his own tools and techniques to create these pieces? He worked in the Royal Worcester factory’s ornamental casting department. The [pierced pieces] were molded and they cut holes out. He thought he could do better without the molded pattern. He was the only one who tried to cut out holes without any guide in the mold. He developed his own tools to cut the tiny holes. A great many in the pottery industry like to make their own tools–there’s a long tradition of that. He supposedly got the steel for his tools from the staves of corsets.

 

How did Owen remove the tiny piece of wet clay waste from the body of the vase after he finished cutting a hole? He would dip the tool into something sticky [most likely oil or honey – Ed.] so with the last cut, it would stick to the tool. If it [the waste clay] did fall inside the piece, there was no way to get it out.

 

Punching thousands of tiny holes in a wet clay vessel makes it vulnerable to falling in on itself. How did Owen stop his works from collapsing before they reached the kiln? That’s a skill. If it was too wet, it would collapse. Potters learn over the years to get the right consistency. Owen’s difficulty was stopping the clay from getting too dry. To keep the shape, he had to handle it very carefully so it wouldn’t become distorted. Usually he managed to pick it up by the base or the top so it wouldn’t lose its shape. He must have been very careful with it. He had to cut each hole without putting pressure on it [the surface of the vessel].

 

Owen used what he called ‘wet boxes’ to rehumidify a piece so he could continue to work on it. How many wet boxes might he have going at once? He must have had a room full of these being worked on. Owen could work a piece for half an hour or an hour before it became too dry to carry on. His work took many hours. A bigger, more elaborate piece might go back into the wet box ten, twenty, forty times. We just don’t know.

 

Moving a piece in and out of a wet box raises the risk that it won’t make it to the kiln. The losses must… Once it was out of the biscuit kiln, there must have been a great sigh of relief.

 

And Owen didn’t let anyone at the factory watch him work? Not even his son, George Potter Owen? That’s always been claimed, but I don’t know how true that is. Craftsmen tend to be secretive to protect their livelihoods. If others learn to do it, they lose their work. They certainly don’t let apprentices learn too much. George Potter Owen may have had a go [at learning his father’s techniques] but he might not have been any good. That’s probably the case. It’s said that no one else, including his son, could do it. Different people at different times have tried to emulate George Owen. I tried too, and made a mess of it. It’s easy to cut big holes. Trying to cut smaller and smaller holes, keeping the holes even, and keeping them in even rows that are the same size–that was his great skill. No one has come close to what George Owen did, and they’ve certainly tried.

 

And while this might be an obvious point, let me hit it anyway–Owen did this on his own, without the help of a computer, which wouldn’t have been available to him anyway. He worked out the geometry for himself. He measured the circumference of a piece and planned it by putting tiny dots [on the surface]. We’d use 3-D printers to do this nowadays. Other than the little dots that you see on the clay sometimes, that’s all he did. Each piece is unique in that sense. There’s no other guide than what he achieved himself.

 

Was this vase a commission, or did he make it on spec? It wasn’t on spec, though he occasionally made special orders. He made the vases and the Royal Worcester factory bought them off him and sold them at a profit to a china shop or a department store. It would have cost two pounds when it was made in 1912, and it would have sold for three or four pounds. At the time, that would have been quite a lot for a single piece of china. Another in the factory would have done the gilding.

 

Bonhams has seven George Owen pieces in the May 2 sale. Is it unusual to have so many? It is. Most often there’s one or two. Sometimes there’s none. Sometimes there’s four. It’s a coincidence on this occasion that we attracted seven pieces. Lot 449 is one of two from the same consigner.

 

How have you seen the George Owen market change over time? George Owen works have always been expensive and costly. They were not appreciated in the 1960s, but in the late ’70s and early ’80s collectors realized they were something special and paid real money for them. I joined [the profession] in 1975, when a nice George Owen would sell for £700 to £1,000. At that time, that was a lot of money. It seems cheap now that they’re getting £15,000 to £20,000.

 

What condition is this piece in? And how much does condition matter with a George Owen? It’s as it left the kiln. It’s perfect. No problems. But George Owen vases don’t bounce if they hit the floor. They can smash into dust if broken. Even tiny damage can make a difference. If a tiny little hole is nicked in a piercing, that can halve the value. I have to check carefully, row by row. If there’s a tiny nick, it’s no longer perfect, and a restorer can’t bring it back to life again. The fact that this vase is perfect is to its favor.

 

What is it like to hold? Every time you pick it up, it’s a pleasure. It’s light. It feels so fragile that the fact that it’s here at all gives you a bit of a buzz. It’s always exciting to have a piece like this. It calls you over to admire it–it’s one of those pieces.

 

How to bid: The George Owen reticulated vase with cover is lot 449 in the Fine Glass and British Ceramics auction at Bonhams on May 2, 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.

 

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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

 

Also see a 2014 Bonhams video in which John Sandon and his father, Henry, enthuse over the artistry of a different Royal Worcester George Owen vase. Estimated at £60,000 to £80,000, Bonhams sold it for £65,200, or $92,623.

 

And also see the Museum of Royal Worcester’s web pages on its peerless artisan, George Owen, which shows him “working” on a reticulated vase that’s actually finished.

 

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RECORD! A Dutch Silver Masterpiece by Adam van Vianen Sells for $5.3 Million at Christie’s

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Update: The Adam van Vianen silver ewer sold for $5.3 million–a world auction record for the artist, and for any piece of Dutch silver.

 

What you see: A silver ewer created by Dutch silversmith Adam van Vianen in 1619. Christie’s gives the estimate as on request, but it could sell for seven figures.

 

The expert: Harry Williams-Bulkeley, Christie’s European head of silver.

 

What is a ewer? Why might Adam van Vianen have chosen this form? A ewer is a jug. This ewer is not standard. Work by Adam van Vianen was only in the richest homes. One should think of this as a work of sculpture, though it’s of ewer form. It’s made from a single sheet of silver. It’s an extraordinary demonstration of how he was able to manipulate silver to create fluid forms.

 

Adam van Vianen signed and dated the ewer in addition to placing his maker’s mark on it. Why might he have done that? He wanted to be seen as a sculptor in precious metal rather than a producer of workaday objects. This is not meant to be used. It’s meant to be marveled at.

 

Was this ewer commissioned? Do we know? It’s possible it was commissioned for presentation. The choice of the Marcus Curtius narrative [A Roman tale of a soldier who sacrificed himself to save the city] suggests a display of bravery, sacrifice, and loyalty. It may have been presented to a military figure. It could have been Prince Maurice of Orange, who liberated Utrecht, which was van Vianen’s hometown. It’s conjecture, but it’s a possibility.

 

How rare is it for an Adam van Vianen piece to come to auction? Incredibly rare. Two years ago, Christie’s had a plaque by him with a scene on it. Prior to that, we had a small sweetmeat dish in 2001.

 

Do we know how many pieces Adam van Vianen made? A survey done by a Dutch academic notes 22 items either signed by him or bearing his maker’s mark. Of those, only two [in addition to the ewer] are in private collections. One is a beaker, and the other is a sweetmeat dish. Van Vianen’s brother and son worked in a similar style. If a piece is unmarked, it can be attributed to the family.

 

Did Adam van Vianen work alone, or did he have a team? There’s always that 19th century romantic image of silversmiths working alone. Van Vianen would have worked with shop assistants on manufacturing, but the ewer shows his individual skill at manipulating metal. And he signed and dated it, which is unusual.

 

He would have produced the decorative elements on the ewer through a technique called ‘chasing.’ What, exactly, would he have done? Here, he’s working with very pure silver, softer than sterling standard. If you hammer the silver, you give it tensile strength. If you heat it to pink-hot and quench it, it’s soft again, and you can work with it [you can fashion the decorative elements on the ewer]. It’s an incredibly long process to work it again and again–it’s so intricately chased.

 

I realize we can’t hop in a time machine and watch him work, but is it possible to tell how long he would have worked on the ewer? Would it have been, say, two months or more? Yes. Something as important as this would have been a real focus for him.

 

What is it like to hold the ewer? It’s incredibly tactile. Once you pick it up, you want to keep on turning it. The eye just dances across it.

 

Is it heavy? No. Because it’s so beautifully made, it feels like it’s the right weight. Heaviness would imply that it was cast, which makes it a different object, created with a different skill.

 

Do you have a favorite detail? That face peeking out from under the foot [of the ewer], because it’s so unexpected. It’s the last place you’d expect to see a human face. It’s looking out at you, and it has an ambiguous expression. [The face is shown in the fourth image on the lot page.]

 

Why will this silver ewer stick in your memory? As an object, it’s incredibly rare. This is the last chance for the market to acquire something of this importance by Adam van Vianen. It captures everything he’s known for–technical skill and extraordinary imagination. Work by the van Vianen family of silversmiths has never ceased to be celebrated. It’s like an incredible piece of jewelry, something to be marveled at.

 

How to bid: The Adam van Vianen silver ewer is lot 21 in the Exceptional Sale at Christie’s on April 20, 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.

 

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

 

See a Christie’s video of Harry Williams-Bulkeley showing and talking about Adam van Vianen’s spectacular silver ewer.

 

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SOLD! Woodworker Sam Maloof Made Maybe a Dozen Double Rocking Chairs. Bonhams Just Sold One for $35,000

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Update: The Sam Maloof double rocker sold for $35,000.

 

What you see: A double rocking chair, created in 2006 by the late American studio furniture artist Sam Maloof. Bonhams estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.

 

Who was Sam Maloof? The California-born woodworker was the first professional craftsman to earn a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellowship. He learned the fundamentals of his trade in high school and opened a workshop in 1948, after marrying and returning from World War II. Best known for his chairs, Maloof’s furniture resides in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He worked until he died in 2009 at the age of 93.

 

How many double rocking chairs did Maloof make? “There are around a dozen known,” says Jason Stein, Director of Modern Decorative Art & Design at Bonhams Los Angeles, noting that about four of those are in institutions. “There are very few in private hands. This is the first we know of to ever come up in the auction format.”

 

How hard was it for Maloof and his team to make a double rocking chair? “These pieces took a solid month to produce,” he says. “It’s more complicated, with way more spindles in the seatback. There are 13 spindles on this one, and Maloof double rockers normally have 13 to 15. A single rocker only has seven. Everything on a double rocker takes longer.”

 

When did Maloof start making double rocking chairs? “They came into play in the early 1990s. The single rockers started years before,” he says. “When he was fully developed in his craft, he was confident to make a piece like this.”

 

What details distinguish this particular double rocking chair, and what distinguishes Maloof’s furniture overall? “It has pronounced horns at the top, and the sleighs at the bottom come up beautifully at the back. It’s the most expressed version of this chair,” he says. “It’s incredibly sculptural, yet ergonomic. It’s a beautiful piece of art that you can also sit in. That was a thing with Maloof. He was a craftsman’s craftsman.”

 

This double rocker is made from walnut. Does that make it more desirable to collectors? “Walnut was his wood of choice,” he says, adding, “Throughout the American studio furniture movement, the majority of the works are made from walnut. They take advantage of the beautiful grain. You can create amazing compositions by working the grain.”

 

Have you sat in the double rocker? “Yes. It’s beautiful,” he says. “It’s something that’s incredible to look at and sit in and to feel, to touch. It’s highly tactile. It’s an interactive experience to sit in a piece of Maloof. You want to sit in it. You want to stay in it. It’s not just a sculpture. It’s functional.”

 

Have you sat in the double rocker with another person? “I have not,” he says. “But in looking at this chair, each seat in it is fully pronounced. It’s made for two. Each seat will totally support a person. They won’t spill into each other.”

 

What’s the auction record for a piece of Sam Maloof furniture, and what’s the record for a Maloof rocking chair? The overall record belongs to a conference table and a set of ten chairs, which sold at Bonhams for $194,250 in March 2006 against an estimate of $70,000 to $90,000. The Maloof rocking chair record was also set at Bonhams in April 2012 by a chair made in 1986 that fetched $80,500. Its estimate was $30,000 to $50,000. Both record-setting furnishings were made from walnut.

 

How have you seen the Maloof market change over time? “When I started in the early 1990s at Butterfield & Butterfield, single rockers were $12,000 to $15,000. There’s been an ascent over the years,” he says. “It’s always popular, and we’re always excited to get pieces by him. This time we have four lots by Maloof, including a single rocking chair.”

 

Why will this Maloof double rocking chair stick in your memory? “This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to work with this form–to be with it personally, to be near it, and to work with the consigner to bring it up for auction. It’s an exciting moment for an auction house specialist,” he says. “And it’s exciting to see where the market is going to take it, where it’s going to go, and who’s going to acquire it. I’m curious if it’s going to go to an institution or a private collector.”

 

How to bid: The Sam Maloof double rocking chair is lot 236 in Bonhams‘s Modern Decorative Art + Design auction on April 17, 2018 in Los Angeles.

 

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

 

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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

 

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