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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SOLD! A Striking Craniometer, Maybe the Only Surviving Example of Its Type, Commands $12,300 at Skinner–More Than Double Its High Estimate

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Update: The late 19th century lacquered brass craniometer sold for $12,300–more than double its high estimate.

 

What you see: A lacquered brass craniometer, made in the late 19th century by the German company C.F.H. Heineman. Skinner estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

 

The expert: Jonathan Dowling, a specialist in the clocks, watches, and scientific instruments department at Skinner.

 

What’s a craniometer, and how was it used? As it looks, it was to measure skulls. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was once believed that the shape and size of the skull indicated knowledge. The belief was called craniology. It was a pseudoscience along the lines of phrenology. The craniometer tried to measure each little undulation in a skull. That’s why there’s so many of those spikes. They measure a quarter of an inch to three-quarters of an inch.

 

Craniology imputed moral character to the size of the skull? That’s a good way of putting it. A bigger skull was considered a better skull.

 

This tool was made in Germany. Was craniology most popular in Germany? I would not say that. Braunschweig, Germany was a well-known area for producing medical instruments. This might be the only surviving example. Many think there was a very limited run because of the quality.

 

Are the parts of the craniometer labeled in German? No.

 

So we don’t know what qualities the craniometer was supposed to measure? It is a mystery. It all depends on where you chose to put the skull.

 

Why does the craniometer look like this? Why are the pins the length that they are? I think the pins are of this length to accommodate different sizes of skull. And you have to have a skull. You could not put a person in this.

 

Does the skull rotate or spin within the brass rings? The skull itself does not rotate. But the brass column can be turned manually, 360 degrees.

 

How were craniometer measurements taken? Around both spheres, there are numerical engravings. Let’s say you’re using the pin through number 17. You measure, you mark, you pull out the pin, and that gives you a measurement for where the pin falls on the skull for number 17. Number 17 is some sort of moral aspect.

 

Are you auctioning it with or without a skull? The skull is for display. It’s a real skull, a human skull. It is part of the lot.

 

How many pins are there? I think there are 40 pins. Down below the turned column, on the brass plate mounted in the ebony base, there are holes to hold the pins.

 

What are the tips of the pins made from? Bone. Turned bone.

 

Why? That’s not an obvious choice. I think it’s where the quality of the piece surpasses the average piece. The quality of it takes it to a different level.

 

Have you seen other craniometers? How do they measure up to this one? I haven’t seen others in person, but I have seen them in my research. They’re very crude. They’re less intricate, less detail-oriented. With this one, the tolerances are so tight where the pins go through the uprights–that’s a mark of quality. The castings of the rings are very well done also.

 

Can we tell if it was made for someone in private practice, or as a teaching model? We cannot tell. In my research, I was not able to find the purpose for this. I don’t know if it’s for a doctor or a teaching tool.

 

How did the craniometer come to you? This, along with several of the lots in the sale–a few phrenology heads, a medical teaching model–came from a private collector in Massachusetts.

 

Why will this craniometer stick in your memory? The sculptural quality. That’s how I look at it. As a craftsman myself, the quality of the instrument says something to me. I don’t know if I’ll ever handle another piece like this.

 

How to bid: The craniometer is lot 560 in the Clocks, Watches & Scientific Instruments sale at Skinner on April 20, 2018.

 

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

 

Jonathan Dowling spoke to The Hot Bid in 2017 about a unique mid-century model airplane that ultimately sold for $11,070 at Skinner.

 

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Wow! Heritage Sold a 1964 Fender Stratocaster Destroyed On Stage by Pete Townshend for $30,000

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Update: The 1964 sonic blue Fender Stratocaster smashed on stage by Pete Townshend sold for $30,000.

 

What you see: A 1964 sonic blue Fender Stratocaster “smasher,”–a guitar played on stage and smashed by Pete Townshend of The Who–on December 1, 1967 at Long Island Arena in Commack, New York. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $15,000 to $20,000.

 

Who is Pete Townshend? He’s the lead guitarist and lead songwriter for the legendary British rock band, The Who, which played its first concert in 1964. Townshend also first smashed a guitar on stage in that year. The band’s hits include My Generation, Baba O’Riley, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Magic Bus, and Pinball Wizard, a song from the 1969 rock opera, Tommy. Townshend will turn 73 in May 2018.

 

How rare are genuine stage-played 1960s-era smashed Pete Townshend guitars? “Very rare,” says Garry Shrum, director of entertainment and music memorabilia for Heritage Auctions. “Usually Pete smashed a guitar until it was in shreds. I know a couple of collectors who own multiple stage-played guitars. I know one guy who bought several smashers to make one whole guitar–he Frankensteined it together. But it’s very rare to find one from the 1960s. People didn’t keep them. If it was in the crowd, it was a dive-fest. People wanted a piece of that guitar.”

 

How many Townshend smashers have you handled? “Two, and I’ve been at Heritage for 14 years,” he says. “Before that, I had a shop for 30 years. People brought in smashers to share with me, but they wouldn’t let me buy them off them.”

 

Has anyone tried to document how many times Townshend smashed a guitar on stage? “There’s got to be something, somewhere. Someone might have tried to document it, but I have not seen it,” he says. “I wish I had the answer, but I don’t. But he smashed guitars hundreds of times.” [After we spoke, I found a heroic stab at a list on thewho.net. Scroll down for the link.]

 

I was going to ask if this smasher was worth less because it isn’t complete, but hearing you speak, I get the impression that it’s unusually complete. “Exactly. You have to get the neck and some pickups to make it complete, but you generally don’t get that chance at all,” he says. “It’s a great piece of music history. Over the years, other people have broken guitars on stage, but it was all spawned by Pete in the ’60s.”

 

Townshend smashed hundreds of guitars on stage? Didn’t that get expensive after a while? “In the early years, he used cheaper guitars, but it got expensive,” he says, noting that Fenders “were imported to the U.K., and the pound versus dollar exchange made it more expensive for him. Probably £400 to £700 for a guitar every time he picked one up.”

 

This smasher doesn’t have a neck, but it does have its neck plate, which contains the guitar’s serial number. Does that help prove that Townshend played it and smashed it on stage? “In most cases, you don’t see the neck plate. You see half of a guitar. Once he started breaking it, the plate went because of the neck,” he says. “Pete would throw the whole thing into the crowd, and people would rip it to pieces. Somebody got the plate, somebody got the pickups, somebody got the headstock, somebody got the strings. The neck plate helps date it. It’s a stronger provenance of the time period. But there’s no way to trace it back [to Townshend]. After two or three years, music stores threw out their paper receipts. There was no reason for them to keep them. Guitar-collecting didn’t get serious until the mid-1970s.”

 

Is it rare for a smasher to have accompanying documents, as this one does? [It comes with a ticket stub from the December 1, 1967 show and a two-page handwritten account of how the original owner caught it.] “That’s rare, and that’s so cool, because we can date it,” he says. “A lot of times it’s a hearsay story. When you have other pieces of paper, a paper trail, it’s more exciting to talk about. You can close your eyes and picture the whole thing happening.”

 

Are Townshend smashers worth more than stage-played guitars that he didn’t smash? “No. An original 1964 Fender Stratocaster is worth money on its own, without a Pete Townshend provenance,” he says. “They sell for $16,000 to $20,000, depending on condition. If Pete played it during that period, it’s easily over $100,000. This is broken. We hope it’s worth $15,000 to $20,000, maybe more. All it takes is two people to push it up.”

 

What’s the auction record for a Townshend smasher? Is it higher than the record for an intact Townshend-played guitar? The auction record for a smasher as well as an intact guitar appears to belong to a lot sold at Bonhams London, Knightsbridge in December 2015. It contained a pair of Rickenbachers–one whole and one destroyed on stage during The Who’s 25th anniversary tour in 1989, along with a signed November 2014 statement from Townshend about them both. The lot sold for £52,500, or $73,934.

 

You set the opening bid for this guitar at $10,000. Why? “The consigner hopes to get at least $10,000,” he says. “We wanted it in the auction because it was such a cool, rare piece. You can’t go on eBay and find it. That’s not gonna happen.”

 

Why will this Townshend smasher stick in your memory? “I have certain bands I admire. I had a shop, and I had the advantage of going backstage to meet people,” he says. “In 1970, I hung out with The Who on the fifth floor of the Hilton San Diego. My wife was 17, and I was 18. It was one of those time periods when I thought, ‘Is this really happening? I’ve spent three hours talking about music with John Entwhistle.’ Keith Moon was doing crazy stuff. Pete and Roger didn’t stick around. They had girls. Anything from The Who that comes in makes me think about the time I spent then. It’s part of my history with music, and with the band itself.”

 

How to bid: The Pete Townshend Fender Stratocaster smasher is lot #89636 in Heritage Auctions‘s Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction on April 15, 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 Heritage Auctions.

 

By clicking through to the lot, you can also see a photograph of Townsend playing the guitar in classic windmill style on stage, as well as images of the handwritten account of the December 1967 concert.

 

The folks behind thewho.net have assembled a list of guitars that Pete Townshend smashed over the years. The guitar being auctioned at Heritage is included.

 

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

The Henry Graves Supercomplication - Siderial Time dial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SOLD! The Kem Weber-Designed Walt Disney Animation Desk Fetched $13,145 at Heritage

Kem Weber Designed Disney Animation Desk and Eric Larson Pencil Tray (Wa...

Update: The Kem Weber-designed vintage Walt Disney animation desk sold for $13,145.

What you see: An animation desk designed by Kem Weber for the Walt Disney Company circa 1939 or 1940. It’s shown here decorated with the accoutrements of a working animator, but the lot consists solely of the desk, the bulletin board, and a pencil tray that once belonged to Eric Larson. Heritage Auctions estimates the desk at $20,000 to $25,000.

Who was Kem Weber? Karl Emanuel Martin Weber was a German designer who moved to the United States during World War I and became a citizen in 1924. He coined a new first name from his initials. Disney chose him as the main architect of his corporate headquarters in Burbank, California. Weber is best known for his airline armchair, a streamlined design that appears in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He died in 1963 at the age of 73 or 74.

How did Walt Disney come to hire Kem Weber as the architect and interior designer for his new facility? “Disney traveled in some high-end circles. He wanted the best of the best, a state-of-the-art facility,” says Jim Lentz, director of animation art for Heritage Auctions. “Kem Weber designed nearly every aspect of the studio, even the font types on the building.”

How did Weber design the desk to meet the needs of Disney’s animators? “It’s made for these guys to animate,” he says. “It has all kinds of shelving and places to put paper and pencils.” One thing Weber didn’t include was an ashtray. Animators balanced their cigarettes on one of the metal bars on either side of the drawing surface. The circle you see in the center of the surface is an animation disc, which is lit from underneath and allows the artist to attach a piece of paper and rotate it horizontally or vertically.

Do we know how many animation desks Weber made, and how many survive? And do we know who at the Disney studio used it when it was new? “We don’t know. Only a handful of desks have ever come up for sale. They’re rare,” he says, adding that this is the first Kem Weber Walt Disney animation desk he has handled. As for who used it–Lentz believes that animator Hal Ambro is the likeliest choice, but he takes pains to stress that only the pencil tray belonged to Eric Larson, one of the supervising animators who formed the Disney group dubbed the Nine Old Men.

How did Disney animator David Pruiksma come to own this desk? “He got it for his home studio. Eric Larson was his mentor at Disney, and he gave him the pencil tray,” Lentz says, noting that Pruiksma animated the Disney characters Flounder from The Little Mermaid, Mrs. Potts and Chip from Beauty and the Beast, the Sultan from Aladdin, the gargoyles Victor and Hugo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and more.

The animation desk is described as being in “good” condition. What does that mean? “That means it’s not falling apart,” he says, laughing. “Pruiksma used it in his home studio before deciding to sell it. He’s retired now. He did a lot of work at his home studio. It’s a working desk.”

What else makes the desk stand out? “It’s a beautiful piece of furniture that has quite a history,” he says. “This desk would have been used to make Peter Pan, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, and Lady and the Tramp. It’s amazing. It’s a piece of Walt Disney’s studio, it was a significant piece in creating all the films we talk about, and it was designed by one of the most famous furniture designers of the time.”

How to bid: The Kem Weber Walt Disney animation desk is lot #95012 in the Animation Art auction on December 9 – 10 at Heritage Auctions in Beverly Hills.

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The Animation Art sale includes related lots that might be of interest–a Kem Weber airline armchair; a modern Disney studios television animation desk, which was used when Duck Tales and Goof Troop were in production; and a modern Disney feature film animation desk which was used during the period that spans The Little Mermaid to Tarzan.

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

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Young Abraham Lincoln Made This Wooden Mallet. Christie’s Could Sell It For Half a Million Dollars.

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What you see: A wooden bench mallet bearing the initials ‘A.L.’ and the date ‘1829’, and made by Abraham Lincoln as a young man. It’s one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Lincoln artifacts in private hands. Christie’s estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.

Who was Abraham Lincoln? He was the 16th president of the United States, and second only to George Washington in the pantheon of great presidents. He steered the country through the crisis of the Civil War, ultimately holding the union together and defeating the system of slavery. He was fatally shot on April 14, 1865 by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., and died the following day. He was 56.

So, this mallet is made entirely of wood? Yes. “The top part is the burl of a cherry tree, which is where two branches come together–it’s a nice, dense piece of wood–and the handle is hickory,” says Peter Klarnet, senior specialist in Americana, books, and manuscripts at Christie’s.

Would Lincoln and his neighbors on the Indiana frontier have used it like a hammer? “Not exactly,” he says. “Most housing at that time (the 1820s), when they were constructing the frame of a house, they wouldn’t use nails. They’d use wooden pegs, because they’d breathe with the frame of the house. An iron hammer on a wooden peg is just too much force [so they used a wooden mallet instead].”

Why would Lincoln have put his initials on the wooden mallet? To make sure no one else would take it? “That, and it was also a mark of pride–‘I made this,'” he says. “His father was a cabinet-maker, and he would have learned the [mallet-making] skills from his father.”

Why would Lincoln have put the date on the mallet? Did he initial and date it at the same time? “He probably marked it ‘1829’ because it was 1829. He was 20 years old, and he was becoming a man,” he says. “We can’t determine if he initialed and dated it at the same time, but all the materials would have been available to him at the time.”

And a wooden mallet would have been a must-have on the frontier back then? “Absolutely. This was a necessary tool for any frontier farm to have,” Klarnet says, adding that it explains why Lincoln might have given it to his neighbor, Barnabas Carter, Jr., as a wedding gift–it was the sort of thing that a newlywed young man needed. Carter married in January 1830, around the time when Lincoln moved to Illinois, and was giving away possessions ahead of the move. “It’s conjecture, but it makes a lot of sense for [Lincoln to give the mallet to] someone establishing a household,” he says.

How did the Lincolns and the Carters know each other? “We know from the historical record that they were neighbors,” he says. “Family tradition shows that Barnabas Carter, Jr., was the original owner of the mallet, and Lincoln gave it to him around 1829. In examining census records and church records, we see that they went to the same church and voted in the same place.”

When did the mallet stop being a tool and start being a relic? “Not until 1858, with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, when he rose to national prominence,” he says. “After Abraham Lincoln was famous, the family actually hid the mallet away, in a basement, and kept it out of sight.” In the late 20th century, Carter’s descendants displayed the mallet on the family hearth (scroll down to see the picture), and one of them brought it to show-and-tell when she was a child of five.

Does the mallet show signs of wear? Yes. “You can see where it’s been pulverized by repeated strokes,” he says. “It was used for maybe 20 years [after Carter received it from Lincoln], then it stopped.”

The mallet head was scavenged from the remains of a broken rail-splitting maul. Do any other artifacts that reflect Lincoln’s image as a rail-splitter survive? The National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. has an iron wedge for splitting wood that features Abraham Lincoln’s initials on one side. According to legend, Lincoln applied the letters to the wedge himself when the blacksmith shied away from the task.

What else convinces you that Abraham Lincoln personally made this mallet? “Those people decided to keep quiet, which makes me more confident in its authenticity,” he says. “It had a more special meaning to them. They didn’t want publicity.”

Why is the family selling it now? “I don’t know the specific motivation. In every generation, it went to one person. This time, it went to two. That might be behind it,” he says, adding, “And they wanted to share it with the world. They think it belongs in a major museum collection, as do I. It’s very evocative of an early period of Lincoln’s life.”

How did you put an estimate on the mallet? Klarnet laughs heartily, then says, “To a certain extent, it’s an educated guess. In terms of manuscripts, we had his 1864 victory speech and his last speech as president, and both brought in excess of $3 million. It was based on those high points and other material that sold in excess of $1 million. We hedged our bets. We thought $300,000 to $500,000 was a relatively conservative estimate that underscores its importance to the Lincoln story.”

How does it feel to hold the mallet in your hand? “I’m not going to swing it!” he says, laughing. “I held it very, very gingerly. But it felt pretty cool. To think that it’s a tool that was actually used by Lincoln… I’ve handled letters by George Washington, by Lincoln, by FDR, by Teddy Roosevelt. It still gives you goosebumps when you’re given the opportunity to handle something like this.”

What else makes the Lincoln mallet special? “I have never had anything quite like this before,” he says. “It offers a view of a not-well-documented portion of Lincoln’s life. To have something that was his from this period, which is so difficult to source–that’s why it will always stick with me.”

How to bid: Abraham Lincoln’s wooden bench mallet is lot 67 in the December 5 auction of Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts Including Americana at Christie’s New York.

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

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SOLD! The Cover Model For Rago’s Curiouser and Curiouser Auction–A 19th Century Life-Size French Artist’s Mannequin–Fetched $45,000

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Update: The antique French life-size articulated wooden artist’s mannequin sold for $45,000.

What you see: A life-size articulated wooden artist’s mannequin, made in France, dating to around 1860, and measuring about 60 inches tall. Rago Auctions estimates it at $20,000 to $25,000.

If you were an artist in the 19th century and could afford a life-size articulated wooden mannequin, couldn’t you afford to hire a live model instead? “Possibly, but live models were not always available. And a mannequin can hold a pose forever. It’s almost more posable than a real person,” says Marion Harris, a specialist in antique mannequins and curator of the Curiouser and Curiouser sale for Rago. “Life-size artist’s mannequins were expensive, and they were valued in their own right. They became something of worth in an artist’s inventory. Mannequins were often listed in the estates of artists when they died.”

How many life-size artist’s mannequins have you dealt with? How many are known? Harris says she has handled 15 to 20 over the last quarter-century. She suspects that maybe as many as 100 were made between the 16th and 19th centuries, and as many as half might survive. “They’re just about always androgynous,” she says. “I’ve looked at the same one and seen it as male, then seen it as female.”

Would one artisan have carved the face, and other artisans have carved the rest of the body? “I don’t know how they did it, but it’s likely. Four or five ateliers were known for carving them. Even the bad mannequins are very good. It’s so hard to do,” she says. “This mannequin has a particular sensitivity to the carving. It’s so lifelike.”

Ribs were carved into the mannequin’s torso. Why? “That’s another sign of quality, when the ribs are evident,” she says. “You do want to see the ribs, if you can. It lets the piece look more realistic. Without the ribs, it looks more puppet-like. Anything that gives the mannequin a more realistic human quality to its features makes it more efficient and effective for the artist.”

Does the mannequin have a patina? “It has a brilliant patina–not just from being handled, but from age. It glows with pride as well as age, I like to say,” she says.

How much does it weigh? About 100 pounds. “I could almost carry it. But it would have been on a stand. Once it’s on a stand, it’s completely posable,” she says. “It’s almost like a real person.”

People might know the mannequin from the Manhattan shop window of Ann-Morris. How did you convince the shop’s owners to consign it? “Everybody wanted to buy it. They would rent it to films, but they would never sell it. Now that the son has taken over the business, I finally got him to part with it,” she says. “It’s a fitting way to part with it. They wanted to give it a rather grand farewell. They’ve had others, but this one was always the queen.” (Harris later confirmed that though the mannequin had appeared in the window since the 1970s, the family never gave it a name, surprising as that might seem.)

What else makes the mannequin special? “I’ve seen other mannequins. This one almost calls out to you to say, ‘Touch me, love me, hold me, pose me, care for me. I’m here for you and you’re here for me,'” she says. “Even people who’ve never seen it before stop in their tracks. And a number of people would have seen it and looked at it adoringly [when it was in the Ann-Morris window].”

How to bid: The life-size articulated artist mannequin is lot 39 in the Curiouser and Curiouser auction on October 22 at Rago Auctions.

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 Rago Auctions.

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