A Unique Civil War Battle Flag, Carried by African-American Union Troops and Painted by David Bustill Bowser, Might Find Glory at Morphy Auctions

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What you see: The battle flag of the 127th Regiment of the USCT (United States Colored Troops), from Pennsylvania, which fought in the Civil War in 1864 and 1865. It was painted by African-American artist David Bustill Bowser.

 

The expert: Craig D. Womeldorf, chief executive officer, Morphy Auctions.

 

How rare are battle-used Civil War regiment flags of any kind? It’s such a wide range. There are battle flags from many regiments, Union and Confederate. They had to have flags in battle to identify the regiment. As you can imagine, they were used heavily. Some got lost and destroyed. They’re very rare.

 

How rare are United States Colored Troops (USCT) flags, and how rare are USCT flags made by an African-American artist? There were eleven African-American regiments raised in Pennsylvania, and there was one flag per regiment. Of the eleven, this is the only one left. Seven [of the other ten] are known from photographic images. USCT flags were not issued by state or federal governments. They were created by supporters. After the war, [military officials] didn’t need to send them back to government entities. They went back to the USCT. Several went to the archives at West Point in 1906, and they were removed and destroyed in 1942. This one happened to go back to the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans] and survived.

 

And it went back to the artist, David Bustill Bowser, after the war? It’s believed, but not confirmed, that Commander Louis Wagner of Camp William Penn transferred the flag to Bowser after the war. [Camp William Penn, in what is now LaMott, Pennsylvania, was the state’s training camp for African-American Civil War soldiers.] Bowser transferred it to GAR Post 2, which is where we got it.

 

And that GAR post collection, which morphed into the GAR Civil War Museum and Library, is deaccessing the flag? What is your definition of deaccessing?

 

A museum releasing objects from its inventory by selling them or giving them to another institution. Yes. They went through the first stage of restoring the flag. We took it to the next step. We took it to someone who specialized in antique flag restoration, preserving it for posterity forever.

 

How prolific was David Bustill Bowser? We think he was prolific in certain commercial categories, but his paintings and Civil War banners are rare and unique.

 

Do we know how Bowser was chosen for the Pennsylvania USCT flag commission? He was a prominent Philadelphia artist. We didn’t research how he was chosen, but we know there was opposition, and how it was pushed back. [From the lot notes: When opposition to the choice of Bowser as the artist to paint the flags developed within the Supervisory Committee of the camp, Bowser persuaded John Forney, a powerful Republican Philadelphia politician and newspaper owner, to argue that “he is a poor man, and certainly professes very remarkable talent. He has been active in the cause and is himself a colored man, and it seems to me there would be peculiar hardship in taking away this little job from him and giving it to a wealthy house.”]

 

Did Bowser fight in the Civil War? He did not.

 

Could you talk a bit about Bowser’s importance to African-American art history? He studied with the best artists of the era, and he inspired Henry Ossawa Tanner, one of the best African-American artists of the 19th century.

 

Could you discuss what the 127th Regiment did during the war? The lot notes say that it was “in battle once” at Deep Bottom, Virginia, a week before General Robert E. Lee surrendered, but the notes also say the regiment “saw action” at several points in 1864 and 1865. What does “saw action” mean here, and how is it distinct from formally being in battle? “Action” can mean additional activity in battle and campaign support. Most battles are a logistical supply chain issue. Bringing up food, water, rifles, and material is as critical to the battle as the actual battle.

 

How does this flag match the iconography of other Civil War battle flags, and how does it depart from it? UCST regimental flags generally had a similar motif, usually involving a soldier and Columbia [a female personification of America], but with different text. Each had its own motto. This one says “We Will Prove Ourselves Men.” It’s different from other [Union] regimental flags, which are variations on the American flag. You find variations, different orientations of the stars, the eagle, the stripes, the regimental number, but you don’t see pictorial representations.

 

Would the makers of USCT flags have had more freedom with their designs because they weren’t government-issued? I don’t know about regimental flag distribution, but they [the UCST regiments] were not considered regular troops. Maybe they had more latitude, maybe they didn’t, I don’t know.

 

And is the phrase “We Will Prove Ourselves Men” unique to this flag? It’s unique in the Pennsylvania group.

 

The flag depicts a black male soldier with a white woman, Columbia, who symbolizes America. Would this have been a controversial image in mid-1860s America? Clearly the flag depicts race consciousness, and we can imagine it would have had an element of controversy at the time, although we have no specific indications or stories associated with any controversy. Battle flags needed to be an identifiable for their purpose. If you’ve seen a Civil War reenactment or a movie, it’s smoky, it’s mayhem. A lot of regimental battle flags are similar and can be confused [in the heat of battle], but this would stand out. And it shows the pride of the unit–We Will Prove Ourselves Men. You don’t see that on other flags. We can imagine the uniquely-painted, colorful banner met it intentions well.

 

What condition is the flag in? Does it show signs of having been in battle? It shows signs of wear, for sure, because it was in pieces and had to be restored. It was probably worn from use in battle, and at the end of the war, [veterans from the regiment] took pieces as souvenirs.

 

I think I see a hole near the word “Men” in the motto, and I think I see paler blue spots at the lower left, which might be thin spots. Is that, in fact, what I see? If you blow up the image so that the word “Men” is in the middle of the screen, you’ll see fine mesh netting and lots and lots of tiny stitches that match the color of blue. [Click on the main shot of the lot and then click the area once or twice.] They were extremely meticulous about that. Those are original sections and restored sections attached to a support net, and that is attached to an acid-free cotton batting. And that is inside a UV-protected enclosure.

 

How did you arrive at an estimate for this, especially with it being the only survivor of the eleven Bowser Pennsylvania regimental flags, which has never gone to auction before? We got a team of experts together. We looked at other flags…

 

Did you look at other works by Bowser? There’s nothing like this that survives, so there’s nothing else to compare it to. In the last Edged Weapon, Armor, and Militaria sale, we had a North Carolina [Confederate] battle flag, a pretty basic flag, captured on the retreat from Gettysburg. It sold for $96,000. It was not as pictorial, with a different legacy, a different significance, a whole different genre of flag. We believe this, in many ways, is more significant and rare.

 

How many different audiences of collectors will fight for this flag? Military historians, art historians, African-American, Civil War, Grand Army of the Republic enthusiasts–a pretty wide group. We hope it will generate a lot of interest.

 

What is the flag like in person? I’m kind of a Civil War buff. I look at it, and to me, it’s suspended in time because it’s preserved so well. If you’ve been to Gettysburg or the museums in Virginia, you get a weighty feeling. Emotionally, it’s intense, but somber at the same time, because you know what these people dealt with.

 

What’s the auction record for a UCST flag, and for any Civil War battle flag? I don’t know about UCST. I looked, but couldn’t find any. The most expensive flag I could find was Confederate general JEB Stuart’s personal battle flag. It sold for $956,000 in December 2006. But I think this has the opportunity to be more important than that. It’s got a different combination of factors. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I think it’s worth at least the estimate.

 

Why will this flag stick in your memory? It connects to so many elements of the Civil War and American history. It’s astounding and unique. I haven’t seen or heard of anything like it. People say something is unique–this is the definition of unique.

 

How to bid: The 127th Regiment USCT flag is lot 2161 in the Edged Weapon, Armor, and Militaria sale taking place June 12 and 13 at Morphy Auctions. It will come to the block on the second day of the sale.

 

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

 

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This Exquisite 19th Century American Quilt Has a Heartbreaking Backstory. Skinner Could Sell It for $60,000

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What you see: A pieced and appliquéd cotton memorial quilt, created circa 1863 by Mary (aka Polly) Bell Shawvan. Skinner estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

 

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

 

How do we know that Mary Shawvan made this quilt around 1863? The answer to both is family tradition. [The family] consigned it in 2003, and it was well-enough documented when it was made to know it was 1863, more or less. He [John, Mary’s husband] died later in 1863. The supposition is she finished it in 1863, then he died. We found no reason to argue. The family always thought that she finished it before he died.

 

And the family showed it in quilt competitions after John’s death? They showed it because Mary was proud of her work, and it was a symbol of lamentation in the family. It was meant to be a homecoming gift for John [who was fighting for the Union in the Civil War when he was killed in the Battle of Chickamauga]. It was put away after his death. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s a pure distillation of folk quiltwork. Mary Shawvan shows herself at her most artistic. She didn’t follow a pattern. This is a fully freehand design.

 

How often do you see 19th century quilts designed like this–as if the entire thing is a single canvas? Not often. Certainly not to this degree. Quilts with one overarching design throughout are not unprecedented, but they’re rare.

 

What challenges did she face in making this quilt? To distill an image across 84 by 81 1/2 inches is difficult. It would require a lot of planning and effort. It’s easier to lay out 36 blocks. That’s why you don’t see many done like this.

 

Would she have worked alone on this quilt, or might her children have helped? Traditionally, this kind of thing was done by one person. There’s no reason to believe she had help. Certainly, she would have worked it over the course of several months. She was essentially a single mother when he was at war, and they had six children. She probably put hundreds of hours into it unless she was really good and really fast.

 

I was going to ask if she was inspired to make the quilt after learning that he died at the Battle of Chickamauga, but it sounds like he died after or around the time she finished it. We term it a memorial quilt, but it’s a memorial quilt by circumstance. It was not intentional. It imbues the whole thing with a sense of melancholy, but it doesn’t diminish its beauty.

 

Is it unusual to see a 19th century quilt with a yellow background? That is a lot of yellow. It is. You probably can’t see it, but there’s a pattern to it. It’s printed. It’s a very subtle pattern in the color itself. It’s not sewn on. It gives the background color of the quilt a bit more life.

 

Are there other details that don’t quite show up on camera? Every single bird is done by what’s called stuffed work. It’s cotton batting that gives them a three-dimensionality. It’s very unusual in quilt-making. The kind of stuffed work you see on this quilt is especially difficult work, requiring an incredibly talented hand to do it.

 

Are the birds and the flowers there just because they look nice, or is there an iconography to the quilt? Do the birds represent John, Mary, and the kids, for example? As far as I can tell, the only real symbol is the eagle, which denotes patriotism. It [any iconographic significance] was possibly known to Mary, but it was not passed down in the family. What you’re looking at are choices of design and color. There’s no memorial imagery here.

 

The quilt measures 84 by 81 1/2 inches. Is that a typical size for a 19th century American quilt? It’s about the typical size. The smallest dimensions you see are six feet, or 72 inches, and maybe they go up to 100 inches. It’s no bigger or smaller than typical quilts of the period.

 

Do we know how the Shawvans used the quilt? All we know is what we were told from family lore. John was such a beloved husband and father that [the quilt] represented melancholy, and it was put away and not used. Because it was not used, it remained as vibrant as the day it was made when it was consigned to us 130 years later. That’s unusual for a quilt of any kind, never mind a folk art masterpiece like this one. Usually, the reds and pinks have a tendency to go light brown quicker than others, or lose their vitality. The fact that they’re as vibrant as they are speaks to it not seeing the light of day for a century and a half. In addition, I think the birds’ wings use silk, which has a tendency to shatter in place, and shred. “Shatter” is a word used to describe what happens to silk when it loses its integrity. It shatters like glass, but it doesn’t come out of where it is. The black silk [on the birds’ wings] is totally intact.

 

Skinner first sold the quilt in 2003. How did it perform then? We offered it at $50,000 to $75,000 at the time, and it sold for $149,000. It was purchased by a private collector in the Boston area who knew the story, and knew it was put away in melancholy circumstances. He put it away in the same plastic bag that the family consigned it in. This is undoubtedly the best quilt we’ve ever sold.

 

Really? What makes it the best quilt Skinner has ever sold? All the different ways a piece of folk art can be valuable, this is [valuable]. It has a great story, it has great artistry, it has a charming and whimsical approach to composition, and the condition is as good as any quilt can be.

 

How many different types of collectors will compete for this quilt? Certainly quilt and textile people. Also, folk art people, which can include quilt people. The person who bought it in 2003 was not a quilt collector, but a folk art collector. And lovers of history, and American history, specifically. John Shawvan was a color sergeant and a father of six. He enlisted when he didn’t have to, for a cause he believed in. There’s a huge group of collectors of American historical items who appreciate it when you can identify specific persons and families [connected to the item].

 

How do we know he believed in the Union cause? He enlisted in October of 1861 though he had substantial family obligations. That implies to me that he believed so strongly in the cause he was almost compelled to leave his family. What other reason could there be?

 

Were you at Skinner when the quilt sold the first time? No. I was here in 2003, but it predates my tenure by about seven months.

 

Why will this quilt stick in your memory? I will never forget it because it’s so rare to have this confluence of characteristics. It’s a fully realized folk masterpiece of a quilt, with a full family history, a compelling story, and impeccable condition.

 

How to bid: The Shawvan memorial quilt is lot 65 in the American Furniture & Decorative Arts sale scheduled at Skinner on March 2, 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.

 

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 last year about a Jess Blackstone robin and in February 2017 about an unusually charming double folk portrait that ultimately sold for $9,840.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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.

 

Julien’s Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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

 

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

 

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SOLD! A Maurice Sendak-designed Crocodile Costume from the Opera “Goose of Cairo” Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: The Sendak-designed complete crocodile costume for Goose of Cairo sold for $3,750.

 

What you see: A crocodile costume designed by Maurice Sendak in the 1980s for a production of L’Oca del Cairo (Goose of Cairo), an unfinished opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rago Auctions estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.

 

The expert: Justin G. Schiller, a specialist in rare and collectible children’s books. He co-created the corporation that consigned the costume to Rago Auctions.

 

So, how many operas did Sendak design for? Altogether I believe he did 15 operas and ballets. He began in 1980, with The Magic Flute, and his career went through to 2004 or 2005, with Brundibar. He was very interested in the experience of developing not only the sets and costumes, but trying to make the characters interactive.

 

Was this character the only crocodile character in Goose of Cairo, or was it one of several crocodiles? I think there was only one involved in the production. This is one of the few Sendak costumes that is complete. The head and feet are the main parts of those costumes. The bodysuits were painted to fit, but the crocodile costume was so specific, they kept everything.

 

Why is this costume described in the lot heading as being “After Maurice Sendak” rather than designed by Maurice Sendak? Maurice would have done the design on paper. The costume was created by the seamstresses, the people who make the costumes. In some cases, you see Maurice fix up the costume once it’s on the actor or the actress. He did the pictures, they did the physical production.

 

So he wouldn’t have been involved with making sure the costume was comfortable for the actor to wear? Yes, but if there was any problem with the fitting, he would have been consulted.

 

What do we know about Sendak’s approach to costume design? He took it very seriously. For example, when he was doing Hansel and Gretel, he went to German forests and studied the landscaping. It took him seven years to create.

 

Apparently it’s rare for a Sendak costume to survive intact, as this one does. How did it manage to do that? The production for Goose of Cairo was very short-lived. They [the few Goose of Cairo items that were found] were in a separate storage unit. It’s one of only two pieces of the production that survive. The other is a mechanical goose of Cairo that gets wheeled onstage, which Richard Michelson has. Goose of Cairo was never considered a main production, because it was an unfinished opera by Mozart. It’s usually presented as an interlude. It ran for about half an hour, and something else would have come with it. Maybe that’s why there weren’t many costumes.

 

Why are Sendak-designed costumes so scarce, compared to Sendak-designed sets? Probably because sets get rolled on stage or lowered on stage, and when they’re not on stage, they’re protected. Costumes get handled and used constantly. The condition of the crocodile is unusually good. It’s a simpler costume: bodysuit, head, gloves, foot coverings.

 

Is this crocodile costume a good representative of his opera costume design work? I would think it’s a very good example. The head is probably papier-mâché molded on top of a helmet so it fits on the head of an actor. From there, they’d build out the rest of the head, the body suit, the painted fabric. Several of the costumes we had would have the names of actors inside them and the names of the production companies.

 

Is that true here? No. I believe the crocodile had only one actor. When you have multiple figures wearing the same cluster of costumes, like in The Love for Three Oranges, different actors play the roles, and they all need to be fitted. Having names on them makes it much simpler.

 

And the provenance for this costume–it went from the New York City Opera to you to Rago Auctions? Yes, exactly. We specialize in Sendak.

 

How did you come to own the costume? The New York City Opera decided to sell all [the sets and costumes] they didn’t plan to put into sequence again [in 2013]. We decided to acquire as much as we could from productions they still had examples of.

 

How many costumes did you acquire? It didn’t seem like a lot. We purchased ten or twelve.

 

How many complete Sendak-designed costumes survive? I don’t really know. There were a few major ones. There was a fabulous one with a very grand lady who was a pig, and a bear dressed up like a lord, [both] for a different opera, and they went for $4,000 to $6,000 each, as the hammer price [the price before the premium and other fees are applied]. I talked to the collector afterward. She was a very serious collector of opera and theater costumes. It was a unique opportunity to acquire a costume by Sendak.

 

When Sendak created book illustrations, he worked in two dimensions. When he created opera costumes, he had to think, to some extent, in three dimensions. How did he handle this challenge? Sometimes it’s the costume people, but Maurice’s drawings often show a profile, how it looks from the side. But sets are one thing, costumes are another. The catalog only shows side views of the crocodile head. Head on, it’s fantastic.

 

What details on the crocodile costume mark it as a Sendak design? Maybe with certain specific styles, you can look at it and say that’s a David Hockney or that’s a Picasso. With Sendak, I would say basically the [sense of] fantasy, of playfulness. His ogress would be friendly, even if the character was not.

 

What jumped out and me and said “Sendak” was the crocodile’s eyes, and the snout. It certainly was the eyes that got us. They’re wonderful, almost yolk-colored eyes. The snout–most artists would draw it as menacing. Sendak’s snout is friendly instead of menacing, despite all the teeth.

 

The condition report states that the costume has “wear commensurate with theatrical use.” What does that mean in this context? It’s got scuffs or scrapes on the bottom of the tail and the foot coverings? That [the language] is mostly so people don’t think it’s brand new. The bodysuit may have a tear in the stitching, but overall, it’s quite good, and very dramatic.

 

Have you or your gallery partner or anyone at Rago Auctions tried on the costume? You need a slim body [to wear it]. We told Rago they’d need some kind of body form [to display it and photograph it]. They were able to find a person on staff who could do the pictures. We were surprised and pleased that they were able to do that.

 

How does the wearer see? There are eyeholes in the neck.

 

Do you know what size the costume is? I don’t. Dennis [Dennis David, Schiller’s gallery partner] is suggesting it’s probably more of a medium. Maybe that’s why the crocodile is not looking too hungry.

 

Is the head attached to the tail, or are they separate pieces? The head is certainly separate. The tail is attached with button snaps to the back of the bodysuit. The gloves are part of the bodysuit. The head, in itself, is very decorative.

 

What’s the auction record for a Sendak-designed costume? The only auction I know of is from the New York City Opera sale, three costumes that were very elaborate in themselves. We were the underbidder. They were probably from The Love of Three Oranges. Those sold for between $4,000 and $6,000 each.

 

How to bid: The Sendak-designed crocodile costume is lot 1141 in the Curiouser and Curiouser sale at Rago Auctions on December 1, 2018.

 

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Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Justin G. Schiller has a website. Two, actually.

 

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

 

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A Maurice Sendak-designed Crocodile Costume from the Opera “Goose of Cairo” Could Fetch $5,000 at Rago

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What you see: A crocodile costume designed by Maurice Sendak in the 1980s for a production of L’Oca del Cairo (Goose of Cairo), an unfinished opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rago Auctions estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.

 

The expert: Justin G. Schiller, a specialist in rare and collectible children’s books. He co-created the corporation that consigned the costume to Rago Auctions.

 

So, how many operas did Sendak design for? Altogether I believe he did 15 operas and ballets. He began in 1980, with The Magic Flute, and his career went through to 2004 or 2005, with Brundibar. He was very interested in the experience of developing not only the sets and costumes, but trying to make the characters interactive.

 

Was this character the only crocodile character in Goose of Cairo, or was it one of several crocodiles? I think there was only one involved in the production. This is one of the few Sendak costumes that is complete. The head and feet are the main parts of those costumes. The bodysuits were painted to fit, but the crocodile costume was so specific, they kept everything.

 

Why is this costume described in the lot heading as being “After Maurice Sendak” rather than designed by Maurice Sendak? Maurice would have done the design on paper. The costume was created by the seamstresses, the people who make the costumes. In some cases, you see Maurice fix up the costume once it’s on the actor or the actress. He did the pictures, they did the physical production.

 

So he wouldn’t have been involved with making sure the costume was comfortable for the actor to wear? Yes, but if there was any problem with the fitting, he would have been consulted.

 

What do we know about Sendak’s approach to costume design? He took it very seriously. For example, when he was doing Hansel and Gretel, he went to German forests and studied the landscaping. It took him seven years to create.

 

Apparently it’s rare for a Sendak costume to survive intact, as this one does. How did it manage to do that? The production for Goose of Cairo was very short-lived. They [the few Goose of Cairo items that were found] were in a separate storage unit. It’s one of only two pieces of the production that survive. The other is a mechanical goose of Cairo that gets wheeled onstage, which Richard Michelson has. Goose of Cairo was never considered a main production, because it was an unfinished opera by Mozart. It’s usually presented as an interlude. It ran for about half an hour, and something else would have come with it. Maybe that’s why there weren’t many costumes.

 

Why are Sendak-designed costumes so scarce, compared to Sendak-designed sets? Probably because sets get rolled on stage or lowered on stage, and when they’re not on stage, they’re protected. Costumes get handled and used constantly. The condition of the crocodile is unusually good. It’s a simpler costume: bodysuit, head, gloves, foot coverings.

 

Is this crocodile costume a good representative of his opera costume design work? I would think it’s a very good example. The head is probably papier-mâché molded on top of a helmet so it fits on the head of an actor. From there, they’d build out the rest of the head, the body suit, the painted fabric. Several of the costumes we had would have the names of actors inside them and the names of the production companies.

 

Is that true here? No. I believe the crocodile had only one actor. When you have multiple figures wearing the same cluster of costumes, like in The Love for Three Oranges, different actors play the roles, and they all need to be fitted. Having names on them makes it much simpler.

 

And the provenance for this costume–it went from the New York City Opera to you to Rago Auctions? Yes, exactly. We specialize in Sendak.

 

How did you come to own the costume? The New York City Opera decided to sell all [the sets and costumes] they didn’t plan to put into sequence again [in 2013]. We decided to acquire as much as we could from productions they still had examples of.

 

How many costumes did you acquire? It didn’t seem like a lot. We purchased ten or twelve.

 

How many complete Sendak-designed costumes survive? I don’t really know. There were a few major ones. There was a fabulous one with a very grand lady who was a pig, and a bear dressed up like a lord, [both] for a different opera, and they went for $4,000 to $6,000 each, as the hammer price [the price before the premium and other fees are applied]. I talked to the collector afterward. She was a very serious collector of opera and theater costumes. It was a unique opportunity to acquire a costume by Sendak.

 

When Sendak created book illustrations, he worked in two dimensions. When he created opera costumes, he had to think, to some extent, in three dimensions. How did he handle this challenge? Sometimes it’s the costume people, but Maurice’s drawings often show a profile, how it looks from the side. But sets are one thing, costumes are another. The catalog only shows side views of the crocodile head. Head on, it’s fantastic.

 

What details on the crocodile costume mark it as a Sendak design? Maybe with certain specific styles, you can look at it and say that’s a David Hockney or that’s a Picasso. With Sendak, I would say basically the [sense of] fantasy, of playfulness. His ogress would be friendly, even if the character was not.

 

What jumped out and me and said “Sendak” was the crocodile’s eyes, and the snout. It certainly was the eyes that got us. They’re wonderful, almost yolk-colored eyes. The snout–most artists would draw it as menacing. Sendak’s snout is friendly instead of menacing, despite all the teeth.

 

The condition report states that the costume has “wear commensurate with theatrical use.” What does that mean in this context? It’s got scuffs or scrapes on the bottom of the tail and the foot coverings? That [the language] is mostly so people don’t think it’s brand new. The bodysuit may have a tear in the stitching, but overall, it’s quite good, and very dramatic.

 

Have you or your gallery partner or anyone at Rago Auctions tried on the costume? You need a slim body [to wear it]. We told Rago they’d need some kind of body form [to display it and photograph it]. They were able to find a person on staff who could do the pictures. We were surprised and pleased that they were able to do that.

 

How does the wearer see? There are eyeholes in the neck.

 

Do you know what size the costume is? I don’t. Dennis [Dennis David, Schiller’s gallery partner] is suggesting it’s probably more of a medium. Maybe that’s why the crocodile is not looking too hungry.

 

Is the head attached to the tail, or are they separate pieces? The head is certainly separate. The tail is attached with button snaps to the back of the bodysuit. The gloves are part of the bodysuit. The head, in itself, is very decorative.

 

What’s the auction record for a Sendak-designed costume? The only auction I know of is from the New York City Opera sale, three costumes that were very elaborate in themselves. We were the underbidder. They were probably from The Love of Three Oranges. Those sold for between $4,000 and $6,000 each.

 

How to bid: The Sendak-designed crocodile costume is lot 1141 in the Curiouser and Curiouser sale at Rago Auctions on December 1, 2018.

 

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Justin G. Schiller has a website. Two, actually.

 

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

 

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SOLD! Hunt Auctions Sold the Circa 1968 Mickey Mantle Game-worn Yankees Cap for $58,750

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Update: The circa 1968 Mickey Mantle game-worn Yankees cap sold for $58,750.

 

What you see: A game-worn Mickey Mantle Yankees baseball cap, circa 1968, size 7 3/4, inscribed by Mantle to his teammate, Tom Tresh. It also comes with a letter of provenance from Tresh, who died in 2008. Hunt Auctions estimates the cap at $50,000 to $100,000.

 

The expert: Dave Hunt of Hunt Auctions.

 

How rare is it to see any authentic game-worn garments from Mickey Mantle at auction, hats or otherwise? Game-used, game-worn, there’s different terminology used in our industry. Jerseys and uniforms come first, and that’s understandable, because [prior to the 1970s or so] there were a few sets issued per year [players got a home uniform and a road uniform each season], and few are in private hands. Then there’s hats and bats and the like. Hats are rare specifically because [provenance] is so hard. If you take a magic marker and write ‘7’ inside the hat, it could be attributed to Mantle. Here, the provenance is buttoned up. It’s so special. I’ve had two or three Mantle hats of any type over the last 26 years, and this is clearly the best one I’ve offered.

 

What makes this Mantle cap the best one you’ve offered? In today’s [Major League Baseball] world, everything is formally witnessed. It’s just different from the 1960s. You’ve got to get as close to the primary source as you can. To the degree that you can, this cap has every attribute that can be corroborated. You have “Mick 7” written underneath the bill with the inscription, “To Tom My Best Wishes, Your Friend Mickey Mantle.” You have a letter of provenance from Tom Tresh, his teammate.

 

Is it rare to have an inscribed game-worn hat from any well-known baseball player? I would say it’s unusual. You do see them.

 

How hard is it to document a period game-worn baseball cap? Fewer hats are documentable to the degree that meets [accepted third-party graders’] guidelines. We’ve had plenty of hats that could well be significant, but don’t have the documentation to prove it. We have one in the auction, a game-worn Brooklyn Dodgers hat with insertion plates [which were needed] because teams were beaning Jackie Robinson. A Brooklyn Dodgers employee gave it to his neighbor–we locked that up [that aspect of the provenance]. But there’s no 42 in it, and the size is off from Jackie Robinson’s hat size. [The lot notes state that the cap is 6 3/4, while Robinson’s documented hat size is 7.] It’s a beautiful hat, a rare hat with insertion plates. It may sell for $3,000 to $4,000, but if it had a 42 in it, it could be a quarter million plus. We clearly point out the inconsistencies that say that its not [not necessarily worn by Robinson]. That’s how to represent it.

 

How generous was Mantle with his game-worn hats? Did he give them away often? I don’t know. You do see, with a player of Mantle’s caliber, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays–they were the most popular people in the world. People sought them out and had access to the players and the field that we don’t have today. You could wait by their cars. Hats weren’t worth a lot then. It was a different world.

 

And Mantle gave this hat to Tresh because they were teammates? As far as we can tell. They clearly were teammates, they played during the same era, and they had a lot of chances to interact. What’s nice is there’s a personal letter from Tom [explaining how and when Mantle gave him the hat].

 

How do you know the hat dates to circa 1968? Yankee hats still are so stylistically similar to what they wear [now] that you go by tagging [period tags sewn inside the hat]. We had the advantage here of Tresh himself noting in the letter of provenance when he recalled getting it. The 1968 date is consistent with the tagging, model, and style. With the Tresh attribution, we feel comfortable in saying it’s circa 1968.

 

Game-worn clothes present a weird situation to collectors: you want them to show some wear, but not too much. What condition is the Mantle cap in? It’s very fine. It’s excellent. It’s not abused in any way, shape, or form. It does have cracking to the bill, which is normal. It has perspiration wear, but not abusively so. The top of the hat is navy blue in color, but muted. Why? Because of the sun. It’s a nice mix of honest use and the wear you want to see, but not with the condition issues that might hold the value down.

 

How did you arrive at the estimate of $50,000 to $100,000? It was actually a bit difficult. Mantle game-worn jerseys bring from a quarter of a million to $750,000. There are so few hats at this level that this hat–it’s tough. You could argue it’s $20,000 to $30,000. You could argue it’s $100,000 to $150,000. If it was a jersey, it would be one of the better jerseys.

 

Have you tried on the hat? No. Nope. (Laughs.) People have asked me that before with jerseys and hats, and I can honestly say in 26 years I don’t think I ever wore one. Not once.

 

How have you avoided the temptation? I don’t know. There’s nothing wrong with wearing them, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s baseball superstition. Maybe it’s reverence. Maybe it’s coincidence. But I don’t know.

 

As of July 6, 2018, bids on the Mantle cap have passed $15,000, with the close of the auction more than a week away. Does that mean anything? It really doesn’t. You can go through the auction and see things that are three times higher than the estimate already. It could sell for past that, or not any further. I wouldn’t say it’s completely irrelevant. It can be. But it’s by no means indicative of how it will end up.

 

Why will this Mantle cap stick in your memory? I’m a fan of the pieces of professional model equipment that have incredible provenance. When you have something so well-sourced, it not only does better at auction, you can go to the client and stand behind it and say this is the one to go for. On this piece, it’s the combination–it’s not just the “Mick 7,” or the inscription, or the size and the style being consistent with other Mantle hats, or the letter–it’s all of those things. It has all those boxes checked to make it one of the better pieces.

 

How to bid: The inscribed Mickey Mantle game-worn Yankees cap is lot 895 in Hunt Auctions‘s 2018 Live Auction at the MLB All-Star FanFest on July 16 and 17, 2018.

 

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

 

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RECORD! Potter & Potter Sold Cardini’s Stage-worn Tux for $72,000, a Record for Any Magician’s Costume

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What you see: A tuxedo outfit worn on stage by Cardini, including spats, bow tie, vest, white dress shirt, pocket handkerchief, fake flower, and top hat. It sold at Potter & Potter in April 2013 for $72,000 [with premium], a world auction record for a magician’s costume at auction.

 

Who was Cardini? Born Richard Valentine Pitchford in 1895 in Swansea, England, he was a magician who patterned his stage name after Harry Houdini. He practiced card tricks in the trenches while serving in World War I, and the harsh conditions forced him to master the sleights with his gloves on. After the war he traveled the world performing his magic act and ultimately rose to the top of his profession. His wife, Swan Walker, joined him onstage as his assistant. Pitchford died in 1973 at the age of 77.

 

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

 

How often do you receive stage-worn costumes from any prominent magician, period? We have not had many. Cardini wore many tuxedos over his life. We’ve never had anything Houdini wore before, except for a straitjacket. We sold a Harry Blackstone Sr. tuxedo last year for a lot of money [$45,600 with buyer’s premium]. They’re not like magic books or tricks, which we get on a daily basis.

 

How many tuxedos would Cardini have traveled with? He had to have had more than one, yes? He had at least two. He’d need to have fresh clothes because he’d do multiple shows a day. He came up in vaudeville, doing five to seven shows a day at its peak. Then he transitioned to nightclubs and hotels. He was working.

 

Do you know when he would have worn and used this tuxedo? What span of time? We don’t know, but I’d guess later. It came directly from his daughter, and she got it from her mother [Swan Walker, Cardini’s wife and stage assistant].

 

The lot notes say the tuxedo is “custom-tailored”. Did Cardini have anything done to the suit to help him with his act? There might have been one or two things. Most of the things he added to the tux are literally added to the tux, not sewn in. There’s folklore that Cardini’s extra-long tails inspired Fred Astaire to add long tails [to his tuxedo coat] for his dance moves, but there’s no proof. But they [Cardini and Astaire] certainly came up through the ranks at the same time.

 

The lot notes say this outfit is “perhaps the most iconic costume of the most imitated magic act of the twentieth century”. Could you elaborate? Cardini and his wife did a 12-minute act for four decades. He became the archetype of nightclub and vaudeville magic. He didn’t invent the card trick, but he was what everyone aspired to because his technique was perfect and he did it wearing gloves. He had a character, a slightly tipsy gentleman, who people could recognize. He had a monocle, a top hat, a cigarette holder–he had a brand, essentially. You look at Cardini and think, ‘Isn’t that how magicians dress?’ Yes, and it’s because of this guy.

 

He didn’t wear the outfit to look like a magician–he wore it to look like a gentleman arriving at his club. Or leaving his club. Watch the video. His character is not exactly surefooted. He’s using the monocle as a way to register surprise. He had a little story to tell within the span of the act. It was all part of the story.

 

Just how badass is it that Cardini did his card tricks while wearing gloves? It’s really hard. I’ve tried it. It’s hard enough to do what he’s doing without wearing gloves. That’s the thing–his technique is flawless.

 

Have any other magicians tried to perform card tricks with gloves on? People have done it since. How well is a matter of debate.

 

The Cardini tuxedo did exceptionally well, selling for $72,000 against an estimate of $2,500 to $3,500, but almost everything in the 2013 Cardini auction did exceptionally well. You sold the last pair of gloves he wore on stage for $26,400 against an estimate of $800 to $900. You sold his monocle for $12,000 against an estimate of $1,200 to $1,500. You sold his bow tie for $10,800 after estimating it at $300 to $500. Why was the Cardini auction such a big hit? It was a big breakout sale for us. We had Cardini’s whole life. Trunks, costumes, books from his library, we had everything, and he was one of the most important magicians of the 20th century. We had people calling who we hadn’t heard from before. To present somebody’s life so completely is unusual.

 

Was Cardini a magician’s magician? He was, but at the same time, he had incredible real-world success. He was the top of the heap. He combined great artistic presentation with impeccable technical skill and melded it into an incredible act.

 

What was the experience of selling the Cardini tuxedo like? Anticipation was high in advance of the sale. There were ten or fifteen lots in there that we knew would be off the charts. His daughter [who consigned the material] said she didn’t want to watch the stuff sell. She stayed at the back for the first three, four, five lots. They started to go, and she never left. I’ll never forget going out with her family after the auction. She told me that despite all the work [her parents did] they didn’t have money. They spent every dollar they had. They never really saved anything, so she never got an inheritance. After the auction, she said her parents did finally give her a gift.

 

Did the sale of the Cardini tuxedo stand out? I think at that point it was the most expensive thing we’d ever sold. I think the monocle came up before that. I don’t think anybody thought it would get there. I remember the day before the auction thinking we wouldn’t sell the tux. (Laughs.) There was not a lot of advance interest in that item. I don’t think we had any absentee bids on it until the day before the auction.

 

Why does the tuxedo stick in your memory? It was well-used. I remember the lapels showing they’d been worn down a bit. It’s not like he was going out to dinner parties–he was out working. He wore a tux to work. What I would say in reflecting on it is it sold for more than many Hollywood costumes from the same era. It sold for more than a pair of Laurel and Hardy costumes auctioned at Profiles in History. People probably know Laurel and Hardy more than Cardini. That struck me.

 

What’s out there that could challenge the record set by the Cardini stage-worn tuxedo? There are at least two Cardini tuxes out there, but I don’t think it [one of those tuxes] can do it again, no. A Houdini tuxedo, if it ever shows up. We had a Houdini thing come close. A brooch worn by Bess Houdini sold for $72,000 last year. Outside of Houdini, I doubt it. We sold Harry Blackstone Senior’s tux for a lot of money, more than I expected. It was a huge price, and Harry Blackstone was a great magician. And still, Cardini beat him.

 

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If you didn’t click on the link to the 1957 Cardini performance–the only one known–do yourself a favor and watch it now.

 

Gabe Fajuri is a favorite on The Hot Bid. He’s talked about a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

 

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