RECORD! Christie’s Sells Ammi Phillips’s “Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog” for Almost $1.7 Million

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Update: Christie’s sold Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog for $1.69 million–a new world auction record for the 19th century American folk artist.

 

What you see: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, a portrait that American folk artist Ammi (pronounced Ah-mi) Phillips painted circa 1830-1835. Christie’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.

 

The expert: John Hays, deputy chairman, Christie’s Americas.

 

I’d like to start with some discussion of how Ammi Phillips was recognized and discovered. It seems like he could have disappeared, or far less would be known, if scholars had not done incredible work with identifying paintings by him. There’s a long version and a short version. The short version is like many painters who were not in the annals of art history, he was not known until people started piecing together his work in the 1960s. It was a grassroots effort. It was Mary Black who galvanized the research being done. Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter, 1788-1865 was a pioneering exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in 1968, and it traveled around. [Scholars] figured it out [what was his] because he depicted sitters holding newspapers and he signed some of his work. The family histories of the sitters also helped piece together the show. He was prolific. As the count began, they realized he did a few thousand portraits.

 

The lot notes call Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog a “quintessentially American work of art” and “strikingly modern”. What makes it so? Every country has its folk art, painted by people who didn’t go to the national academy. What makes it quintessentially American is he was painting Americans–successful sitters who were documenting their lives. The other aspect that makes it quintessentially American is [the notion that] time is money. The quicker he was able to render a portrait, the quicker he was on his way.

 

And what makes the portrait “strikingly modern”? Stacy Hollander [of the American Folk Art Museum] did a show in 2008, The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red that showed the urge to modernity, the idea of reduction to the pure form. Isn’t it interesting that it started in 1830? If you look at the dress [the sitter in Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is wearing], it’s geometric forms with little lines, a broad expanse of red. It’s a knockout, a home run. There’s no question what the statement is–a girl in a red dress. It looks forward, but it distills the form to the essence of the form. That’s an idea that the Color Field artists Clyfford Still and Rothko [embraced]. Phillips did it from a more economic point of view, but he succeeded.

 

Why do his portraits of children perform so well at auction? Phillips is at his best with children because there were no rules [for painting them]. A lot of Phillips works are dour. Some of his sitters are ministers and older people with bibles in their laps. With children, he captures the spirit of young America. That’s where he hits the home run, and that’s why there’s a huge price difference with the artist. Depicting a child evokes much more.

 

The lot notes also refers to ‘record-breaking sales in the 1980s.’ Could you elaborate? Phillips did a group of four children in red dresses, three girls and a boy, with their hands almost in the same positions. One was discovered in an appraisal day at the Corcoran Gallery in 1984. I was here [at Christie’s then]. We looked at it. The family didn’t know what it was. It was over their fireplace. By that time, the [groundbreaking 1968] Ammi Phillips show had happened, and we knew what it was. We put it in [a 1985 Christie’s auction] with an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000 and it sold for $682,000. It went to Dan Terra of the Terra Foundation. It made the front page of the New York Times. The other known portrait [of a girl sitter from the foursome, aside from this one], Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, was bought by Ralph Esmerian for the American Folk Art Museum. [After the 1985 sale], the owner [of this portrait] called us and said, ‘We think we have one.’ That’s how we discovered it 33 years ago. We’ve been quietly hoping it would come out one day.

 

That must have been delightful and startling, to have a folk art portrait sell for so much in 1985. You could acquire a major Impressionist picture [for $682,000] at that time. I put the Phillips in a jewelry vault that night. We were not prepared to have it sell for that price.

 

What makes this portrait so strong? It captures the essence of what folk art collectors want and what they look for. It’s hard to define it in words, but it has a universality to it. It’s just riveting, and kind of mesmerizing. You say, ‘God, he gets it.’

 

Do we know why the girls in the Phillips red dress portraits are wearing coral necklaces? Did coral have some sort of symbolic meaning in America in the 1830s? Coral necklaces were very popular in the 1820s and 1830s. In this portrait, she holds a bead of coral as if she’s a little nervous. She seems to say, ‘Hurry up and finish this picture, why am I here?’ As for iconography, there’s nothing we’re aware of. Coral was fashionable at the time for teething rings. The three girls [in the group of red dress portraits] each have a coral necklace. The one at Terra has two strands, this one has three strands, and the one at the American Folk Art Museum has four.

 

What is she holding in her left hand? It could be parsley. The girl in the Terra portrait is holding a strawberry. They [the items the child sitters hold] all have coded iconography that you could linger over. But it could be something Phillips gave her to hold while he painted her.

 

And what’s with the dog at the left? Is that her dog? The beagle is in all four of these portraits. Maybe it’s Ammi Phillips’s dog. Maybe it’s for the comfort of the child.

 

Yeah, about that. One of the skills Phillips had to develop as an itinerant portrait painter was to convince small children to sit still long enough for him to do his work in an age before screens. Might the dog have played the role that a screen would now–helped entertain the kid and keep her sitting in one place? It’s an idea, and it’s the same stylized beagle [in the four portraits], with the spoon-shaped lozenge on the forehead. I have a beagle. I know beagles very well. He captured the essence of a beagle, and its wry smile. If you have a beagle, you’d recognize it too.

 

I take it we don’t know who the young sitter is, even though scholars have tried to identify her? Yes. She’s adorable, that’s all I would say.

 

Is it possible that the three girls in the group of four red dress portraits are sisters or cousins? Initially we thought, ‘Are they sisters?’ But there are little differences, actually very subtle differences. The idea that they’re related is not ruled out at all. There are many unanswered questions.

 

The portraits in the group of four show kids in a virtually identical red dress. Is there a chance that Phillips traveled with the dress, as part of a small wardrobe, and offered it to the parents to use for the sitting? That’s an interesting idea, but the thing that emerges from Phillips is a spontaneity. It’s the quickly-rendered moment that folk art collectors love so much. A portrait was for a wealthy client that he poured his heart into would be worth a fraction of those that he did more quickly and got down to the essence.

 

What’s the world auction record for a Phillips? Portrait of a Young Girl and her Cat, which we sold in 2007 for $1.2 million. It’s a great picture, but it’s not in the narrow group of four. It’s one of 11 he did of children in red dresses. The girl [in the portrait sold in 2007] has a different stance.

 

What are the odds that Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog will meet or beat that sum? To be really candid, that’s the one question I can’t answer. I’m as intrigued as anybody to see what will happen in January.

 

What is it like in person? It has what my colleagues in fine art call “wall power.” It just jumps off the wall. It makes everything around it pale.

 

Why will it stick in your memory? For me, personally, I was here when we sold the first one, and it changed a lot of things in my life. It makes me reflect on the last 33 years in the art world, and how exciting it’s been. Not every day does an Ammi Phillips girl in a red dress cross my computer screen. And it expresses a sort of humanity that the experiment of America allowed. I dare you to tell me where such a portrait has emerged in any other country. That’s why I do what I do. It’s unique to portraiture in this country.

 

How to bid: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is lot 1205 in the Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver and Prints auction taking place at Christie’s New York on January 17 and 18, 2019.

 

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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

 

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

 

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The Hot Bid Year in Review: The Ten Most Popular Posts of 2018

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The ten most popular posts on The Hot Bid that went live in 2018 are… [supply your own drum roll, please]

 

10. Become Technology’s Greatest Visionary! Prop Store has the Picturephone from “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” which could sell for $15,000.

 

9. A powerful set of prints by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas could command $30,000 at Swann.

 

8. Sold! Man Ray’s 1938 London Transport poster fetched the Way Out price of $149,000 at Swann. [Editorial note: At some point in fall 2018, I started doing a separate update post for featured lots that sold. This is one of several posts where I updated the original with the final price.]

 

7. WHOA! Sotheby’s sold Canova’s rediscovered “Bust of Peace” for more than $7 million.

 

6. A grand souvenir of the Grand Tour: Christie’s could sell a circa 1835, 61-inch-tall bronze model of the Vendôme Column for $60,000.

 

5. RECORD! A unique tile panel by ceramics wizard Frederick Hurten Rhead commands $637,500 at Rago.

 

4. TIE! Heritage Auctions sold an original Sunday Christmas-themed Peanuts strip from 1958 for $113,525, tying the world auction record.

 

3. RECORD! Heritage Auctions sold an original 1983 panel from Gary Larson’s The Far Side for $31,070–an auction record for the comic strip! Also, quack!

 

2. No one can do what British potter George Owen did. No one. A covered vase he made in 1913 could sell for $21,000 at Bonhams.

 

And the most popular post that went live on The Hot Bid in 2018 is… pictured above, and linked below.

 

RECORD! Hake’s Americana & Collectibles sold a 1978 Star Wars Obi-Wan Kenobi for $76,000–an auction record for any single production action figure.

 

Special thanks to Alex Winter and all at Hake’s Americana & Collectibles for allowing the re-use of the Obi-Wan Kenobi figure image.

 

And of course, special thanks to every reader of The Hot Bid! I’m grateful for every one of you, and I hope that 2019 treats you all well.

The Hot Bid Year in Review: The Ten Featured Lots that Sold for the Most in 2018

Canova, The Bust of Peace (side)

 

Usually, when I feature a lot on The Hot Bid, it sells. Here are the ten featured lots from 2018 that sold for the highest sums. All prices given include the relevant premiums.

 

10. Whoa! That Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy flew away with $600,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions–double its high estimate!

 

9. A clear winner indeed! Ceruti’s 18th century portrait on glass sold for $615,000–more than double its high estimate–at Sotheby’s.

 

8. RECORD! A piece of Thomas Stearns’s glass masterpiece sold for $737,000 at Wright–a new auction record for the artist. [Note: This is the first of three items featured on The Hot Bid in 2018 that went on to set world auction records.]

 

7. SOLD! Sotheby’s sold Richard Feynman’s 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics for… $975,000.

 

6. SOLD! Christie’s auctions a Ming Dynasty six-poster Huanghuali bed for an eye-popping $1.9 million.

 

5. SOLD! Christie’s sold the 1903 Maxfield Parrish for… just over $2 million.

 

4. RECORD! Stack’s Bowers Galleries sold Louis Eliasberg’s 1913 Liberty Head Nickel for $4.5 million.

 

3. SOLD! Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family No. 9 commands $4.8 million at Phillips.

 

2. RECORD! A Dutch silver masterpiece by Adam van Vianen sells for $5.3 million at Christie’s.

 

And the item that went on to become the most-expensive lot featured in 2018 is… pictured at the top and linked below.

 

Whoa! Sotheby’s sold Canova’s rediscovered Bust of Peace for more than $7 million!

 

 

Special thanks to the kind folks at Sotheby’s for permitting me to re-use the image of the Canova bust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SOLD! The Unique Ceiling Light that Graced the Lebanon Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: The Sami El-Khazen/Arredoluce Torciere della Cultura ceiling light sold for $32,500.

 

What you see: A unique Torciere della Cultura ceiling light, designed by Sami El-Khazen and executed by Arredoluce between 1964 and 1965. Bonhams estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.

 

The expert: Dan Tolson, specialist in modern decorative art and design at Bonhams.

 

What can you tell me about Sami El-Khazen, and about how he was chosen to design the Lebanon Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair? I can’t seem to find much. It’s incredibly hard to get info about him. I put hours upon hours into searching. He was in Lebanon in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when it was a cultural hotbed, the right time to be there. In 1988, he passed away. He was a vital designer, an architect, an unsung hero of modernism. [As for the story of how he was chosen to design a pavilion for the World’s Fair,] I’ve done a lot of research into it and it was not something I was able to discover. There’s relatively little in the Arredoluce catalogue raisonné, too. This piece is discussed in the opening, and they talk about him, but there’s no biography.

 

Do we know how long he’d been working with Arredoluce when he got the nod to create that World’s Fair Pavillion? No, we don’t know that either, or how it [the World’s Fair commission] came about. He designed it and Arredoluce provided all the manufacturing expertise. Arredoluce has been around since 1930. They were at the height of their success as a company [in the mid-1960s,] at the top of their game. It’s a piece of architecture in the way it’s been designed and put together.

 

Was the 1964 Lebanon Pavillion at the World’s Fair El-Khazen’s crowning achievement? From what I read about him, he was not a product designer, he was an architect. This may be the only thing he produced outside of architecture.

 

Do period photographs of the Lebanon Pavillion survive? Yes. The way you see the lamp, it extends down almost to the floor, like a stalactite. It was spectacular. It must have been ten feet in height. It must have been the centerpiece of the pavillion.

 

Why did El-Khazen and Arredoluce call it the Torciere della Cultura [lamp of culture]? I think it ties into what I was saying about Lebanon. In that period, they embraced modernity. It was a way of looking forward to the future. I think that’s what it was for them. It was made to symbolize Lebanon’s contribution to civilization and was designed to look like a tower of flame – representing the spread of Lebanese culture across the globe. It was exhibited in the pavilion’s Culture Room.

 

And the Shah of Iran saw the ceiling light and asked to buy it in 1965, or someone representing him did? That’s my supposition. There’s no discussion of that anywhere in the book [the Arredoluce catalogue raisonné], but I imagine he attended.

 

The lot notes say that the ceiling light “was sent to the Arredoluce factory in Monza [Italy] where it was dismantled and re-engineered into the present smaller proportioned work.” Do we know what, exactly, the artisans at Arredoluce did to modify the piece for installation in the dining room of the Shah’s palace? No, that’s not mentioned specifically. But it tapered to the floor, so it was cut down to a more user-size scale.

 

And let’s just stop here and discuss why it was okay to alter the light, and what made it okay. It was still a creation of Arredoluce. It [the changes] happened in El-Khazen’s lifetime, shortly after the show, and done with his approval. The ceiling light was completely impractical as it was. It was a huge thing, made into a more usable object.

 

Are there any period shots that show the ceiling light installed in the Shah’s palace dining room? No, there’s no interior shots, nothing that shows it in situ. It’s surprising how little information is out there about El-Khazen. Maybe it was destroyed in the war [the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990].

 

So, when we’re talking about works by El-Khazen at auction… this ceiling light is pretty much it? Yes, this is it, which is why it resonates with us. As an auctioneer, it’s incredible to have something unique by a critically acclaimed company, Arredoluce, and which is shown in its catalogue raisonné. It ticks a lot of boxes. The fact that there’s not a lot known about El-Khazen makes it more beguiling. The other thing that appeals to us is it was in the 1964 World’s Fair. It was legendary at the time.

 

And this sold once before at auction, in 1985, but we don’t know which house sold it? No. The seller’s grandparents bought it. He does not recall where they bought it. He thinks it sold for around $70,000, which in 1985 is quite significant.

 

And 1985 predates most of the available online auction archives. Yes, exactly. It gets patchy even past 15 years on Artnet.

 

What condition is the ceiling light in? It’s in excellent condition. It was rewired for the U.S. [electrical system] in 1985, but it hasn’t been updated since then. The bulbs have not been modernized. It’s in working order, and it’s been very well-cared-for.

 

How many pieces comprise the ceiling light? It has about 170 individual pieces.

 

Are they fixed in place, or is there any play or give? No. It’s amazingly well-engineered. It tessellates together, firmly into place.

 

I see that it is strictly described as a “ceiling light,” never a “chandelier,” which people would expect to wiggle and sway a little. Yes, exactly. It’s quite densely packed. It’s a complex piece.

 

This is a unique lighting design, and it seems to be the only thing El-Khazen designed that isn’t a building. How did you arrive at the estimate of $30,000 to $50,000? We looked at comparables [somewhat similar things that sold at auction in the past] for Italian lighting–prices for rare or unique lamps by Stillnovo and Arredoluce. But you can’t be precise with something unique. It comes down to what people are willing to pay for. It’s not only unique, it’s by a top manufacturer in Italy at the time, and it has historic connections with the 1964 World’s Fair. There’s a lot of good factors that make it highly collectible, and the Middle Eastern feature makes it collectible as well. [With this,] you can’t hold out for a second. That gets people’s attention. It should really go above the top estimate.

 

What’s it like in person? It’s absolutely incredible. It’s got great presence. It’s obviously quite masculine, quite powerful.

 

Is it heavy? Very heavy. It’s bronze, nickel-plated bronze. It’s a very serious weight.

 

The Shah of Iran put this ceiling light in his palace dining room. Where could someone put it today? If the entryway in your home has a double-height ceiling, it would work. It’s the focal point of a room. Though it’s reduced in scale, it’s a great conversation piece to have in a modern home.

 

Why will this ceiling light stick in your memory? I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so unique. It speaks volumes of El-Khazen’s vision for design. It’s spectacular. There’s definitely an unwritten story somewhere.

 

How to bid: The unique mid-century ceiling light is lot 93 in Bonhams‘s Modern Decorative Art + Design sale on December 14, 2018 in New York.

 

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

 

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Arredoluce has a website (but it’s Italian-language only).

 

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

 

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SOLD! Wanda Gág’s Spellbinding 1938 Study for “The Poisoned Apple” Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: Wanda Gág’s study for The Poisoned Apple sold for $5,000.

 

What you see: The Poisoned Apple, a study by Wanda Gág [pronounced ‘Gahg’] for an illustration in a 1938 edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.

 

The expert: Christine von der Linn, specialist in art books and original illustration at Swann Auction Galleries.

 

How did this Snow White book project come about? Was it a reaction to the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? It is, it absolutely is. 1937 was the Disney film. While it was popular and became an iconic film, the depiction of the witch frightened children. Because of that, one year later, Anne Carroll Moore, a writer, reviewer, and critic of children’s books and an advocate for children’s libraries, wanted to go back to the original Brothers Grimm and soften some of the elements that Disney portrayed.

 

How did the 1938 version achieve what Moore wanted? It keeps more of the folkloric charm of the original. You asked if the fact that Gág translated it herself, if it shaped the story–it did. Gág’s father was from Bohemia, and they moved to Minnesota. She grew up with those fairy tales and stories. She understood folklore and fairy tales, and she knew the language. She was able to translate it and come up with a more accurate version of the Brothers Grimm tale.

 

The study for The Poisoned Apple is far more elaborate than the same scene in the Disney movie. Can you talk about how Gág approached this scene, and how she chose certain details? In the original Grimm, the queen made four attempts to kill Snow White…

 

It sounds kind of like the Michael Palin character in A Fish Called Wanda trying to kill the old lady and accidentally killing her dogs instead. Exactly! Exactly. The queen tries her damnedest. She comes to the door as a corset peddler. The dwarfs told Snow White was told she was not supposed to answer the door to anyone. The queen puts her in a corset and ties her in so tightly that she passes out. The dwarfs find her and revive her. Next, she went as a comb vendor. The different attempts to disguise herself are discarded on the floor [the pile of masks and clothes at the left of the illustration]–the peddler didn’t work, the comb didn’t work. She gets her with the poisoned apple. Snow White was hesitant to take it. She had the good sense to be wary. The queen makes the apple half poison and half safe, and takes her bite out of the apple pulp side, the safe side. I love that Gág is showing the recipe, how she created the poisoned apple to give to her stepdaughter. It looks kind of delightful until you look at the elements and realize how dark they really are.

 

The late 1930s were a time when the notion of “better living through chemistry” wasn’t laughable. Nylon had been invented a few years earlier. Do you think that the positive view of chemical breakthroughs shaped how Gág approached this illustration? The Disney scene has the witch standing over the traditional cauldron, but this scene is half lab, half kitchen. It’s an interesting connection to make, but I’m not sure if I’d 100 percent go there. Domestic science came in the teens. By 1937 and 1938, it was established. You definitely have those elements to it.

 

How different is the study from the illustration that appears in the book? Not terribly. It takes you a while to realize the differences. The composition is almost identical. In the book version, she defines the elements more. The vapors coming off the apple look more like a corona. It’s interesting to see the subtleties of how she directs the eye.

 

I don’t have the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White in front of me, and I can’t recall it, but wouldn’t it have been harsher than the Disney version? It was. In the movie, the dwarfs dance around her and love Snow White. It’s symbiotic. In the book, they’re almost like little opportunists:”You can stay here and we will help keep you protected if you become our housekeeper.” They’re in the more classic tradition of dwarfs as mischievous and devious. They’re going to use her services. In the movie, when she falls under the spell, they put her in a glass coffin. In the book, the prince decides to take Snow White to a better resting place and attempts to move her to his castle, and one of his carriers trips. An act of clumsiness dislodges the apple from her throat and wakes her. She and the prince then decide to get married. In dark, grim fashion, the prince reveals to Snow White that the queen tried to murder her. They make the queen wear molten hot dance shoes and in a messed up Circus Maximus scene, they make her dance until she dies and they carry on with the rest of the wedding. Gág kept it. It’s still a violent image, but she kept it.

 

Is this the first piece of art from the Snow White book to come to auction? I didn’t find any others when I searched the Swann online archives. It is our first Snow White. Her other work does come up. She was a printmaker and a very skilled lithographer. The record-keeping for her work is really erratic. We seem to have the top price for a fine art work by her [an undated print, titled Outside Looking In, which sold in September 2008 for $6,480]. Skinner sold an ink on paper of a cat in a laundry basket in May 2016. That could be the top price for a Wanda Gág illustration.

 

Where are the rest of Gág’s illustrations for the Snow White book? The rest reside in the Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota. Minnesota is where she grew up. A couple of studies have entered the market. The provenance for this piece is it was acquired by a German rare book and manuscripts dealer, Walter Schatzki. He had them and then he sold them in the early 1970s to another dealer, Justin G. Schiller. It went from Schiller to the current owner. That’s one of the reasons why the price is higher. It’s her best-known work outside of Millions of Cats. It’s a crucial scene from the book, and you can’t acquire [the final illustration] because it’s in the Kerlan collection.

 

What are the odds that The Poisoned Apple will set a new record for Gág at auction? The estimate straddles the price of Outside Looking In. It might, it might. I’d like to see it set a record. We’re still celebrating the 80th anniversary of the movie and the publication of the book. It’s one of her most important and defining creations. And this is its first time at auction. With enough luck and enough bidders, we’ll see it set a new record.

 

Why will this piece stick in your memory? [Laughs] A couple of reasons. I like it because, in general, I love food and fairy tale images. For me, it’s a two-in-one. I’m the vice president of a local farmer’s market. I often deal with farmers and apples. I love any illustration that’s food- and fairy tale-based. I also like that it’s cartoon-like. The dark, thick lines lend that element to it.

 

How to bid: The study for The Poisoned Apple is lot 22 in Swann Auction Galleries‘s Illustration Art sale on December 6, 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.

 

Swann Auction Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

 

Christine von der Linn has appeared before on The Hot Bid, speaking about an Arthur Rackham illustration of Danaë and the Infant Perseusa Rockwell Kent-illustrated edition of Moby Dick and original Erté artwork for a 1933 Harper’s Bazaar cover.

 

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

SOLD! Frank Sinatra’s Copy of the 1961 Inauguration Program for John F. Kennedy Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

Kennedy Inaugural Program

Update: Frank Sinatra’s copy of the deluxe limited edition of the 1961 official program of the inaugural ceremonies for President John F. Kennedy sold for $1,250.

 

What you see: Frank Sinatra’s copy of the deluxe limited edition of the 1961 official program of the inaugural ceremonies for President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Sotheby’s estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.

 

The expert: Selby Kiffer, senior vice president and international senior books specialist for Sotheby’s New York.

 

What is this deluxe limited edition 1961 inaugural program worth without the Sinatra provenance? It’s probably something like $700 to $1,000, but maybe that’s a bit aggressive–$600 to $800 for a deluxe limited edition that went to no one of consequence except being a big donor.

 

How big was the press run? When they don’t state a limitation, my assumption is it’s fairly high. Checking results at auction, the highest-number copy was in the 700s. If I had to speculate, I’d say 1,000 [were printed].

 

How often does the deluxe limited edition 1961 inaugural program come to auction? Every couple of seasons, but it could come up at sales of political memorabilia, which is a separate area [from books and manuscripts]. There’s probably one available every 18 months.

 

What makes this version deluxe? The standard version would have been what you or I could obtain if we attended the Kennedy inaugural in 1961. This was made for presentation for donors to the inaugural event, which Sinatra certainly was, or to donors to the Kennedy-Johnson campaign. This was for VIPs, essentially.

 

How did Kennedy and Sinatra become friends? I don’t know that it’s known when they met, but it’s generally acknowledged that they met through Peter Lawford, being the senator’s brother-in-law and an associate member of the Rat Pack. Both were stars: Sinatra in entertainment, and Kennedy a rising star in politics. Both were charismatic, and both were the sort of people other people want to be around. There was mutual admiration. Sinatra was a New Deal FDR Democrat. He was probably excited to see a younger version of that.

 

Seems that Sinatra went all-in on Kennedy. He retooled High Hopes as a campaign song… I think Sammy Cahn wrote new lyrics for High Hopes as a campaign song. I think Sinatra saw a winner in Kennedy. He wanted to associate with that, and he believed in him. I think he felt he was a better choice for the country and he tried to convey that through campaigning. Sinatra had several peaks in his career. He could have made a lot of money singing anywhere, and he spent some of those nights on campaign appearances.

 

Does the 1961 inauguration of Kennedy represent the peak of the Kennedy-Sinatra friendship? I think it has to, because the inaugural balls, the entertainment, Sinatra was put in charge of that. He chose not to treat that as an honorary position. He worked the telephone, strong-armed people, and turned out an amazing cavalcade of stars to perform. The president thanked him for his work. It had to be the pinnacle for Sinatra [who probably thought]: “I helped put him in the White House, and he acknowledged me.”

 

Can you talk about how their relationship ended? Sinatra, for all his charisma and bravado and his tough-guy exterior, did not like to be disappointed. He anticipated hosting President Kennedy, as he had hosted Senator Kennedy, at his Palm Springs estate in 1962. At the last minute, after making lots of preparations for Kennedy and the Secret Service to be there, he was informed that Kennedy would not stay at his property, but would stay with Bing Crosby instead. It was particularly irksome because Crosby was a Republican.

 

Why would Kennedy have chosen to stay with a Republican rather than another prominent Democrat in Palm Springs? Crosby may have been seen as safer than Sinatra, who was seen as a bad boy, and who was in the tabloids in a way that Crosby was not. The association [with Sinatra] could prove embarrassing in a way that associating with Crosby would not be.

 

The end of the friendship is tragic, but I don’t see how it could have been avoided. Kennedy had chosen his brother, Bobby, for attorney general, and was rightly getting heat for that, even though Bobby proved capable. One of Bobby’s main tasks was targeting the mob, and if Sinatra didn’t have mob ties, many believed he had them… This is pure speculation, but maybe Kennedy tried to get a message to Sinatra to the effect of “Look, if it was solely my choice, I’d be with you, but I’ve been advised I can’t do that.” It’s speculation that the president tried to explain it that way. I think it stung Sinatra very deeply. I do think he came to realize that President Kennedy didn’t really have an open choice to stay with him.

 

Sinatra was clearly hurt by the snub, but he hung onto this program and he mourned Kennedy’s death, even though he went on to campaign for Republicans… People do change their politics. Sinatra did campaign for Ronald Reagan, who was also a former New Deal FDR Democrat. I think that progression–as people get older, the move from one party to another is not unusual. It could be his political choices were based on the man rather than the platform. Just as he found Jack Kennedy more convivial than Richard Nixon, he may have found Ronald Reagan more convivial than Jimmy Carter. I do think the continuing involvement–he found in it something similar to the adrenalin rush he could get from performing. If you’re Frank Sinatra, you’re a pretty important guy, but you’re not the president.

 

But Sinatra kept the program until he died, despite how things ended between him and Kennedy. I think he recognized it was a great moment for him and a great friendship. Some friendships don’t last, but the memory does last. The assassination of Kennedy the following year may have contributed to him keeping this. There are other Kennedy items in the sale. I think he regretted that the friendship blew up or ended, but I don’t know that he regretted the friendship.

 

The condition is described as “extremities just rubbed, a bit shaken”. Could you elaborate? Any book, if you put it on a shelf, the corners especially tend to get rubbed or worn in something 60 years old. “Just rubbed” means a bit of wear and tear, maybe at the top of the spine where you put a finger to pull it off the shelf. It’s fairly straightforward. “Shaken” is related to the pages, the substance of the book itself, to the binding. It was printed to be a paperback and inserted into the binding to delineate it as a limited edition. The binding is not always the best quality. Literally, if you hold it in your hand and shake it, you’d see the pages were moving. Nothing is sewn into the binding, but nothing is loose.

 

What does the wear say about the book, and what does it say about how often Sinatra or his wife might have taken it down from the shelf to look at it or show it to friends? I think it [the wear] is partly that, and partly–I don’t want to be harsh about it–though it was coveted at the time, it was not of the highest quality of manufacture. [The condition reflects] the quality of heavy use and mid-quality manufacture. Let’s put it that way.

 

The estimate on Sinatra’s deluxe limited edition copy of the 1961 inaugural program is $3,000 to $5,000. That strikes me as a little low. How did you choose that sum? It’s higher than any copy we’re aware of that has sold. Whenever you have a celebrity–and we learned this with the Jackie O estate auction–when there’s special interest with the provenance, it’s best not to build it into the estimate. It’s best to let the marketplace determine where it goes. We say the fact that it was Sinatra’s should increase the value three- or four-fold. In the event of a sale, it may see an increase of more than that.

 

Are there any notations or inscriptions in the book? There are no notations, but I also think it’s a matter of… during the inauguration, you want to be seen as listening, not taking notes. And it’s pretty chock-a-block. It’s dense. There’s not a lot of space left for notes.

 

What’s the world auction record for one of these deluxe 1961 inaugural programs? Our estimate is already higher than the highest price. We’re saying that of the copies that have been for sale, this is worth more than any of them. The current record, and this is not quite a one-to-one comparison because it included other material from the 1961 inauguration, such as invitations, it was copy 776, signed by Mr. Foley as chairman of the commission and given to Edward J. Sullivan. It sold at another house for $2,745. Obviously, what we want when people look at the catalog [is to think] “That’s low, I can get it.” We want to pitch the estimate so it’s appealing and will create competition among bidders.

 

Why will this piece stick in your memory? I’m a huge Sinatra fan. I’ve listened to Sinatra for four decades. And I love association copies–something that underlines a friendship in a tangible way, This is tangible evidence of friendship between two of the greatest figures of 20th century America. It’s really evidence of the culmination of the friendship and probably a highlight for both of them. Kennedy got into the White House, and Sinatra was acknowledged as very important in achieving that goal.

 

How to bid: Frank Sinatra’s copy of the deluxe limited edition 1961 inaugural program is lot 109 in Lady Blue Eyes: Property of Barbara and Frank Sinatra, a sale that takes place at Sotheby’s New York on December 6, 2018.

 

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

 

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

 

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