Become Technology’s Greatest Visionary! Prop Store Has the Picturephone from “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”, Which Could Sell for $15,000

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What you see: The Picturephone Booth from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Prop Store estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.


The expert: James Comisar, president of the Comisar collection. He’s also the consigner.


Let’s start by talking about the place in the culture that Pee-Wee’s Playhouse holds. What makes it a good television show, and why does it endure? It continues to resonate because it was loved by schoolkids, college kids, and adults. It was the perfect mix of everything, and it appealed to everybody. Just as Mr. Rogers is getting his due, I think Paul Reubens [creator of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the actor who played the main character, Pee-Wee Herman], in 20 years, will get his due. He created an amazing, organic, joyful world where kids could be kids. He spoke down to nobody, and it was incredibly inclusive. It’s one of the most perfect pieces of television in the last 70 years. I think the secret sauce was its authenticity, and the main character was positive. That never goes out of style.


Why did you want to acquire the Picture Phonebooth? What made it important enough for you to pursue? I should back up. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is situated in Puppetland. Pee-Wee is sequestered in his own fantasy world. His conduit to the world is this Picturephone Booth. In that way, it’s very special. And in the 80s [the show ran on CBS from 1986 through 1990] the idea of a video phone booth was interesting. Reubens gave it his own spin. He had his own sensibility for everything.


Is the Picturephone Booth well-built? It’s built to look great on camera. As a general rule, pieces look better on camera than they do in person. When a show is in production and a prop is being used, it has an economic value to the production. It’s cared for well. After the show ends production, there’s a mad dash to get it off the stage so a new show can come in and the studio can continue to earn revenue. It’s an indelicate process. When we first received these pieces, they were in studio storage and they had a bit of wear. There was damage to the paint. There were cracks.


Did you have to restore or conserve it? First, we had to stabilize it. It’s a pretty strong and durable piece, but it had been banged around a bit after production [after the show ended]. Once we dealt with the structural issues… No professional archivist wants to take a historic piece and make it look fresh and pretty again. The goal is to get rid of any damaging influences. When pieces live in studio storage, it’s not a climate-controlled facility. It’s on the outskirts of town, 65 cents a foot. It’s 35 degrees in winter and 110 degrees in summer. Bad things happen in studio storage rather quickly. They shove it into a warehouse, and shove stuff around it, and on top of it. [With the Picturephone,] there was nothing catastrophic to be sure, but it still took over a year to accomplish the intake. It required a textile conservator to come in. Then you have wood, and leather, and foam, which is worse than any material, certain to deteriorate. We went slowly and cautiously. Our job was to do the minimum, not the maximum.


I see that only one name is in the provenance, and it’s Paul Reubens. How did you acquire this from him? I believe the initial contact was around 1992, a year after the show had gone off the air. I had numerous conversations with his business manager before I met Paul. The way I found this stuff was I was [in a studio storage warehouse] working for another client, and I found a recognizable puppet for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. I thought, “No, could it be?” Once Paul’s team was made aware of what was going on, he wanted the pieces to have a more appropriate configuration than studio dead storage.


Did Reubens take some of the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse props back? Absolutely, absolutely. But even if you have a 15,000-square-foot home, you have space limitations. The reality eventually sets in that you cannot keep everything. Paul Rubens kept a lot from the show, and it’s evident that the pieces meant a lot to him. It wasn’t just stuff. It sprung from his brain. It’s still influencing people decades later. It was painful to decide what to save and what to give to another archive.


Well, the Picturephone is furniture, isn’t it? It’s furniture, but it’s an amazing, sculptural piece of artwork. It was created with an almost avant-garde sensibility. It’s almost like folk art in the way it’s put together.


How original is it? It’s two percent restored to 98 percent original. A couple of the dowels that form the eyelashes were broken or missing and had to be replaced. There was paint [the paint required touching up], and surface cleaning. The curtain, which extends across the front for privacy, is original. The textile conservator carefully cleaned it. Even the rings that attach the curtain to the front are original, scrubbed by hand.


Sounds like a lot of work went into it. If this piece sells for $10,000 to $15,000, oh, my dear god in heaven, we spent so much more than that restoring it and caring for it for 25 years. Whoever gets that, if they get it for $10,000, that represents a loss to us. But you can’t keep everything. A piece like that takes up a lot of room on the floor, and you can’t stack anything in it or on it. If you can tell the story of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with three smaller objects [rather] than one that will take up real estate, you’re going to do it.


It’s amazing it survived so well. I believe the universe put me where I needed to be to advocate for these pieces. The puppet head was poking out, I know, so I could see it and advocate for it. This is much more than a job to me. It’s what I do. I don’t question it. I’m grateful I was there at a time when I could rescue it. [I asked him if he remembered which Pee-Wee’s Playhouse puppet caught his eye that day in the early 1990s; he could not say for sure.]


How did you get what you managed to get from the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse props? When I met Paul at the warehouse, he was very passionate, but a very practical man. There was a Paul pile, a Goodwill pile, with appliances from the set and toys that someone else could use, and a Dump pile. A studio truck was hired to take the discarded pieces to the landfill. That was the end of the road for those things. There was no James pile. My job was to convince him to give me what pieces I could get from the Paul pile and the Dump pile. It was difficult for him to part with any of them, which I respected.


What’s the Picturephone like in person? Monumental. This is a big, hulking piece, but it’s got a joyful character. It’s got eyes, and pouty lips that open up like saloon doors. It’s colorful, joyful, and recognizable. It’s a home run in every way.


How many people can fit inside? One, comfortably. I think it’s meant for one person. We don’t normally sit in the pieces. I think it was made just for him.


So you haven’t sat inside it? Absolutely not. It would be sacrilege, treacherous. It’s a piece of history and art. It’s not for me to degrade it by sitting in it.


Ok, I’ve gotta ask. Where is Chairry? Did Paul Reubens claim Chairry? That falls into the area of client privilege. I’m not able to say what he did and didn’t do. Rest assured the iconic pieces from the show are in his collection or an archival collection. Don’t worry. Chairry is cherished.


How to bid: The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Picturephone Booth is lot 156 in Prop Store‘s TV Treasures auction on December 1, 2018.


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Prop Store is on Twitter and Instagram.


Comisar is also the president of the Museum of Television.


The Picturephone appears at three or four points in the background in the opening credits of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. And that’s an uncredited Cyndi Lauper singing the theme song.


Yes, there is a Pee-Wee Wiki. Here’s the entry for the Picturephone.


Also! Google “Technology’s Greatest Visionary,” on Google Images, and take in the top row of images that the search engine spits back at you.


Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Prop Store.


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SOLD! The First Taking Care of Business in a Flash Necklace That Elvis Presley Gave Away Sold For… (Scroll Down to See)


Update: The Taking Care of Business necklace that Elvis Presley gave to Sonny West sold for $38,400.


What you see: A 14k gold necklace with a Taking Care of Business (TCB) logo, given by Elvis Presley to Sonny West circa 1970. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.


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


What was the Memphis Mafia, and how did it serve Elvis Presley? “Memphis Mafia” was the name given to the group of friends and close confidants of Elvis Presley. The media gave them the name “Memphis Mafia” around 1960. Elvis liked the name and it stuck.


Where did the phrase “Taking Care of Business” come from? Elvis’s band was called Taking Care of Business. He always gave away gifts, especially jewelry, and he came up with the idea for an identifying piece of jewelry that he only gave to the Memphis Mafia. There were probably 12 to 20 people [in the group]. Elvis loved Taking Care of Business. It was the logo on his plane. Priscilla was involved with the design of the logo. They were on the plane when a lightning bolt went through it. She got out her sketch pad and came up with Taking Care of Business in a flash.


When did that happen? We don’t know for sure, but we presume it was the late 1950s or early 1960s, probably after he came out of the military.


How was the material and the carat weight chosen? Elvis loved bling, he loved gold. There were some variants on the necklace. The one he gave Doctor Nick [George Nichopoulos, Presley’s personal physician] had diamonds on it. We sold that one for $120,000. The overall look of the 14k gold necklace is probably based on a collaboration with the jeweler in Beverly Hills and what they could do within their budget.


This is believed to be the first TCB necklace that Elvis Presley gave out. Does that make it more interesting to collectors? Yes. Collectors love something when it’s original, or the first. TCB went on to be a significant Elvis signature, in a way. Its being the first definitely adds value on auction day.


Why is Sonny West a logical recipient of the first TCB necklace? He was Elvis’s bodyguard, responsible for security at his concerts. He was one of the original members of the Memphis Mafia, which was a very close, tight circle. My guess is because he was Elvis’s bodyguard, he was right there when Elvis went to the jewelry shop in Beverly Hills. Because he was right there, and a member of the Memphis Mafia group, he got the first necklace.


Do the TCB necklaces always look like this one does, or did the design change over time? They’re not all exactly the same. The TCB logo with the flash remains the same, but the chains change.


How many owners did the necklace have after Sonny West relinquished it? He passed it on to the consigner, who brought it to us. Jeffrey, the consigner, created a video which is on our site of Sonny West taking the necklace off himself and putting it on Jeffrey. The provenance is 100 percent solid. That plays into the value.


How many TCB necklaces have you handled, and how many TCB necklaces did Elvis give out? Do we know? I think we’ve handled four to sixprobably four, with two coming back to auction again. I don’t know how many there are, but there were somewhere between 12 and 20 people in the Memphis Mafia. Not a huge amount. Maybe 30, max.


Do any period photos exist of Sonny West wearing the TCB necklace and standing alongside Elvis? I presume there would be period photos. He was with Elvis for 16 years, and he was with Elvis a lot. We didn’t license any, but I’m sure there are photos.


How did you arrive at the estimate of $30,000 to $50,000? Obviously we looked at the intrinsic value first. Then we looked at other TCB necklaces we’ve sold. The provenance is so solid because of Sonny West. Then there’s the collectibility of Elvis himself. He has a huge amount of fans out there.


As of October 19, the necklace has its first bid, amounting to $7,500. Does that mean anything? No, it doesn’t mean anything. But we have 55,000 views on this auction already. To have so many so early on, that’s amazing.


What condition is the necklace in? It’s in great condition, given its age and the life it’s had up to now.


Why will this particular TCB necklace stick in your memory? The fact that it was the first one–wow, it was the start of something. The very first one created, for Sonny West, the bodyguard and confidant of Elvis. Within the history of Elvis and the Memphis Mafia, it’s almost like branding, or a tattoo. Taking care of business in a flash was what the Memphis Mafia represented: getting business done. That was what was important to Elvis.


How to bid: The TCB necklace is lot 466 in the Icons and Idols: Rock “N” Roll auction Julien’s will hold in New York on November 9 and 10, 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 Julien’s Auctions.


Martin Nolan previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a purple Prince-worn tunic that the star donned for a 1998 BET interview, which yielded a famous GIF; a Joseff of Hollywood simulated diamond necklace worn by Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and several other Hollywood actresses, as well as a once-lost 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar belonging to John Lennon that sold for $2.4 million–a record for any guitar at auction.


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Sold! Swann Auction Galleries Sold That 1928 Roger Broders Poster for $7,500

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Update: The 1928 Roger Broders poster featuring Calvi Beach in Corsica sold for $7,500.


What you see: La Place de Calvi. Corse, a 1928 poster by Roger Broders, touting Calvi Beach on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $8,000 to $12,000.


The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.


Where was Roger Broders in his career in 1928? Let me give you a little background first. In 2011, we were very lucky at Swann to hold a sale called The Complete Poster Works of Roger Broders–every poster he ever designed. We have handled all his material at the same time. We’re in a good position to have an overview. We arranged the catalog in chronological order, first to last, and we had 100 lots in the auction. This poster was number 49, so, midway in his output, if not his actual career. He was at a stage when his figures take on a lithe, elongated look.


Was this his first poster for this client? Oh, no. PLM was his major client, his primary client. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of his posters were done for them.


A railway company commissioned this poster from Broders, but there’s no train in it. Why would a railroad want a travel poster that didn’t show a railroad? The railway teamed up with ferry services. You would have booked the ferry through the train company–it was a PLM ticket. PLM was like a travel agency, in that way. This [Corsica] was along their extended route.


What makes this Broders image a strong poster design? I see a bright patch of orange in the middle–a beautiful, brightly colored, artistically decorated wrap. If I was passing by this, I would stop because I saw a flash of orange. Then I’d see the pretty lady. The composition is fantastic. The curve of the shore is a Broders design motif. Her body cuts right through it. It’s very eye-catching. And at the time, people wouldn’t have thought this, but it’s an incredible Art Deco image. This is archetypal Art Deco. The coastline is sweeping, the cape is moving, the waves are lapping at the shore.


Was it unusual for Broders to place a woman front-and-center, as he does here? Lot 72 is the same woman seen from the back. There are a handful of other posters where he has figures taking the central place.


I went back and forth between those two posters, lot 71 and lot 72, and settled on this one because I recognized the woman’s feet and legs. They look like the feet and legs of Venus in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. It’s almost as if he traced them. I don’t see anything mentioned in the lot notes, though. Is Broders quoting that painting?  The tilt of her head is similar, and the elongated neck is similar. There’s no way it’s a coincidence. It’s too accurate. 100 percent, this is a nod to Birth of Venus.


And the Birth of Venus is, technically, a beach scene… It gets better and better. If you look at the bottom of the poster, there are two figures on the left of the woman and one on the right. That’s also like the painting. The figure on the right in the painting is about to shroud Venus with a cloak. In the poster, the woman has a wrap. There’s not a lot of info on Broders, but the Birth of Venus is in Florence, and he did a poster for Florence in 1921. And that’s his style–the elongated style appears in other posters.


Was it typical for him to quote paintings in his posters? Off the top of my head, I’ve never seen a pose in his posters that made me think he was copying an Old Master.


How many of these 1928 Corsica posters have you handled, and what is the auction record? It’s not rare, but it’s not common. At least 23 have been auctioned since 1988. We have had it three times. The first time was in 2011. The auction record is $16,800, set at Poster Auctions International in February 2018.


Where does this rank among Broders’s poster designs? Certainly in the top 10 and probably in the top five. Now I’m biased, knowing it was based on the Birth of Venus. I thought it was a great poster before you said that. Now it’s like, wow. It’s because of the composition, the color, the style, and the attitude it broadcasts–summer laziness, aristocratic decadence. It’s certainly how high society lives. There’s no question this is an elegant lady.


What else do you like about this poster? He has made the landscape realistic. It’s Calvi Beach in Corsica, and it wraps around Corsica. That sweep is not an exaggeration. He has accurately represented the surroundings. It’s a tribute to the level of detail he put into his work. Some posters are really supposed to represent an attitude. This is about a destination, too. Lot 72, the woman with her arms to the sun–that doesn’t tell you anything about where you’re going. There’s a beach, but it’s not the same level as this.


How to bid: The Roger Broders 1928 Calvi Beach poster is lot 71 in the Rare & Important Travel Posters sale at Swann Auction Galleries on October 25, 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 Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter, and Nicholas Lowry is on Instagram and Twitter as well.


Nicholas Lowry has appeared several times on The Hot Bid. Read past entries in which he  talks about Swann setting the world auction record for any travel postera 1938 London Transport poster by Man Ray that ultimately sold for $149,000a trio of Mont Blanc posters from 1928, a mid-1930s German travel poster featuring the Hindenburg, a 1968 MoMA poster by Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo, an I Want You 1917 World War I recruiting poster that introduced the modern concept of Uncle Sam, and an Alphonse Mucha poster featuring Sarah Bernhardt.


Are you a professional art historian? Here’s the full Swann Auction Galleries catalogue for The Complete Poster Works of Roger Broders. Can you find more instances of Broders quoting a work of art? If you do, tweet it to @SGSwritereditor, @SwannGalleries, and @NichoLowry, along with a WikiCommons image of the work the poster is emulating.


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


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SOLD! African-American Outsider Artist William Edmondson’s “The Crucifixion” Commanded $175,000 at Rago


Update: William Edmondson’s circa 1930s sculpture, The Crucifixion, sold for $175,000.


What you see: The Crucifixion, a 1930s sculpture by the outsider artist William Edmondson, who was the first African-American to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Rago Auctions estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.


The expert: Sebastian Clarke, director of estate services for Rago.


Did William Edmondson use a railroad spike as a chisel for most of his artistic career? He did, though to the best of my knowledge, he used smaller, finer chiseling tools as well. He was very much self-taught. I can send you a discovery–the original press release from the 1937 MoMA show, which includes an interview with him. The list of pieces to be shown includes a version of The Crucifixion. He did three or four different versions of The Crucifixion, and we don’t know if this is the one that was in the show, or another example. Of the three or four, one is in the Smithsonian, at least one other is in a private collection, but was exhibited in 2005, one is unknown [its whereabouts are unknown], and one is ours.


How does this version of The Crucifixion compare to the others? The others have more fully formed figures, with pierced areas between the arms and the cross [the arms are separate]. This is more of a relief, with a flat face. What I love about it is it really conveys Edmondson’s work. It’s impossible to identify it as male or female. Of the others, two ore three are male figures wearing loincloths or underpants. This one is completely plain.


Edmondson preferred limestone. How difficult is it to carve limestone? It’s very, very difficult to carve. What’s fabulous about this is its condition is so good. You can really see the strike marks where he worked the stone. This is almost smooth to the touch in so many areas.


The sculpture measures 15 and a quarter inches high by 10 and a half inches wide by five inches deep. Is that relatively small for an Edmondson? It’s a hair on the smaller side. His animals seem to be a little smaller. His figures got to be 23, 24 inches. Of his Crucifixions, one is 20 inches and another is 26 inches. So it’s definitely smaller for a Crucifixion, but squarely on the average side for pieces he worked.


Earlier you told me, “This work is as close to Edmondson’s original intent as they get.” Could you elaborate? Edmondson’s pieces are extremely symbolic. The scenes are often drawn from his religious beliefs. This Crucifixion is part of that body of work. The surface is just so fantastic. It’s clearly a crucifixion, but it’s up to the viewer to interpret the rest of the thing.


This is Edmondson’s only crucifixion sculpture to come to auction. How did you put an estimate on it? We’re aware the world auction record for an Edmondson is nearly $1 million, for a wholly different work. The nature of this is cruder and more simplistic. And a crucifixion, in my experience in the art world, sometimes places limitations on value. We want to take that into account.


But it’s not a gory, gruesome crucifixion scene. It’s pretty stylized. And people who collect folk art and outsider art, they know they’re going to encounter pieces with intensely religious themes. True. But the value will be determined by the marketplace. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. I’ve been in the business for 20 years. I’ve never handled an Edmondson before. Whenever they come up for sale, they always far exceed the estimate. We’ll try to replicate that success.


Edmondsons rarely go to auction. Is that because most of them are in institutions, or is it because collectors are reluctant to give them up, or both? Several examples are in institutions, and the ones in collectors’ hands are often promised to institutions. Folk art and outsider art collectors take a lot of pride in their collections. Edmondsons come up so rarely, everybody pays attention.


What’s the world auction record for an Edmondson? The Boxer, a circa 1936 piece that sold at Christie’s in January 2016. It had an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000 and it hammered at $785,000. I’d love to see it [The Crucifixion] beat its estimate but I’d be surprised to see it go beyond-beyond. Artnet only has 24 records. It’s a very shallow pool, and none are a crucifixion. They don’t come from a similar period or style, where the features are not very well-defined. What will that do to it? Will it make it more desirable, or less? We’ll have to wait and see.


What is the sculpture like in person? It’s fabulous. It’s so bright and crisp. There’s something magnetic–you’re drawn to it, and the color and the surface are lovely. It looks like it’s never seen the light of day. The chisel marks are so well-defined on the back. There’s something really exceptional about it.


What does it feel like to hold it in your hands? It’s heavy, probably around 40 pounds. It is surprisingly smooth. You can really feel the weight of the piece, the way the figure is defined on the cross. You want to turn it over and look at the back, which is not easy to do, because it weighs so much.


Is that something that collectors look for in an Edmondson–chisel marks? Or are they so rare that they can’t afford to quibble if they’re missing? The whole idea behind outsider and folk art is really feeling a connection with the individual who made it, to feel them reflected in the piece. In the chisel marks, you can really see him working on it.


Why will this piece stick in your memory? Probably because I’ll never handle one again. [Laughs.] Edmondsons are something you only hear about, but don’t get to see. For me, personally, my training is in European furniture and decorative art. This is something I’ve grown to appreciate and love. I’ve always been a high-style person. I’ve come to appreciate pieces that are naive in so many ways, but are spectacular. It’s so magnificent.


How to bid: The Crucifixion will be offered in Autobiography of a Hoarder: The Collection of Martin Cohen, Part I, which takes place October 21, 2018 at Rago.


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


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RECORD! Freeman’s Sold That Walker Percy-signed First Edition of “A Confederacy of Dunces” for $5,000


Update: Freeman’s sold the first edition Walker Percy-signed copy of A Confederacy of Dunces for $5,000, setting a new record for the novel at auction.


What you see: A 1980 first edition copy of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, in its dust jacket. Freeman’s estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.


The expert: Darren Winston, head of the books, maps, and manuscripts department at Freeman’s.


How rare is it to find a first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces in its dust jacket, and how rare is it to find one that’s also signed by Walker Percy, who helped see the book into print and wrote its foreword? It was published in 1980. Since that time, 21 copies have come to auction. Of the 21, only two were signed by Walker Percy. They came up in 2002 and 2009. You could argue that only two copies have come up like ours in the last 38 years. Another interesting fact is the very first copy to come up at auction was in 1986.


Is that unusually quick, to see a book published in 1980 debut on the secondary market six years later? It is unusually quick. It has such an interesting history, and it’s so different from other books like it. It became an instant cult classic. Now it’s even more of a big deal. It sat around from 1969, when Toole killed himself and his mom [Thelma Toole] found the manuscript. She went around trying to get it published. Walker Percy, at the time, was at Loyola [Loyola University of New Orleans]. Toole’s mom got him to read the manuscript, and he made it his duty to get it published. LSU Press published it in 1980.


Yes, let’s hit the point squarely–why is it impossible to find a first-edition of A Confederacy of Dunces signed by the author? Because he died before it was published. He wrote it in 1963 and committed suicide in 1969. 1969 to 1980 was the period in which his mom set about finding a publisher for it.


So, Walker Percy’s signature is the closest thing to an author’s signature that we can get? Exactly right. He was sort of the midwife. In the world of book-collecting, the next-best thing is the mom’s signature. Two copies she signed were at auction in 2011 and 2012. Either [signature] is as charming as the other. If she hadn’t picked up the baton, the manuscript wouldn’t have gotten to Walker Percy, and he wouldn’t have done what he did.


Are there any first-edition copies signed by both Thelma Toole and Walker Percy? There are no recorded copies at auction. They might be in the world, but not at auction.


Who is shown on the dust jacket? It’s the protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly.


If A Confederacy of Dunces came up today as the debut novel of an unknown, dead author, I just can’t picture a modern publishing house green-lighting dust jacket art featuring a fat guy in a deerstalker holding a hot dog in one hand and a sword in the other, even if he is the lead character and he dresses that way. Was this a risky choice, even for a university press in 1980? You could argue that the title, which is from a Jonathan Swift poem, is a mouthful. It’s completely wacky. But maybe part of it was the publisher being a university press. Maybe it had more leeway.


How was the book received in 1980? The initial press run was 2,500. That’s part of its rarity–only 2,500 copies in the first edition, versus 50,000 for The Old Man and the Sea, which was printed 30 years before. Within three years, the unknown, dead author won the 1981 Pulitzer prize for fiction and sold 650,000 copies.


Why does A Confederacy of Dunces hold up almost 40 years after its publication? Certain books–The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird–come along and upend everything that came before. The Catcher in the Rye was 1951. To Kill a Mockingbird was about 10 years later, and A Confederacy of Dunces was 20 years after that. It was a book that became a touchstone. As a teen, you carried it with you. When you look at it as a collector, young people turn into adults, and when they have money, they want a talisman [of their youth]. When many people want the same talisman, it goes up and up.


This copy is described as “fine.” What does that mean? “Fine” is a tricky word because any wear marks it as less than fine. This copy looks like it’s unread, which leads to questions about the box. It was made early in the book’s life, and the book has lived in this box. There’s a relief image of Ignatius on the [box’s] cover. Someone went to some trouble to have it made. Thought went into it.


How many different groups of collectors will compete for this copy of A Confederacy of Dunces? There are many, but people who go after high spots–the biggest and best book by any author–will be interested. People who collect an author’s first book will be interested, as will people who just love the book. If you’re going to splash out, this is the copy you want. Another reason people will go after this book is to trade up to a better copy. Maybe someone has a gorgeous copy with no Walker Percy signature, or a gorgeous copy with no dust jacket–they trade up.


What’s the world auction record for a first-edition of A Confederacy of Dunces in its dust jacket? What are the odds of this copy meeting or exceeding that record? The most it’s brought at auction was $4,000, in 2002. I believe that copy was also signed by Walker Percy. That’s a good sign in our case.


Why will this book stick in your memory? Because of the story. There’s a poignancy, a sadness, and a lot of irony to the fact that Toole never saw it published. It was his life’s work, literally and figuratively. Father Time came through for it. It’s on its third generation of readers. Toole published one book, and he’s in the pantheon. That’s cool.


How to bid: The Walker Percy-signed first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces is lot 176 in Freeman’s September 27 Books & Manuscripts auction.


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


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Pay Attention, Class: Bonhams Could Sell South African Artist Gerard Sekoto’s “Three School Girls” for $230,000

Sekoto school girls

What you see: Three School Girls, an oil on board painted by South African artist Gerard Sekoto sometime between 1940 and 1947. Bonhams estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000 ($160,000 to $230,000).


Who was Gerard Sekoto? Born in 1913 in what was then the South African province of Eastern Transvaal, he began showing artistic talent as a teenager. Art schools aimed at black students didn’t exist in South Africa in the early 20th century, so he trained as a teacher instead and studied art as best he could. He lived in several different areas in South Africa before leaving for Paris in 1947 for what’s been described as a “self-imposed exile”. Sekoto spent a year in Senegal in 1966, but he never made his home on the African continent again. In his final years, he started to gain recognition for his work. He died in Paris in 1993, at the age of 79.


The expert: Eliza Sawyer, a specialist in modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams.


How prolific was Sekoto? It largely depends on which period you’re talking about. The period of Three School Girls was not so prolific. It was before he left South Africa for Paris. Those works are rarer, and hard to come by. He didn’t have easy access to materials, and he was still finding his voice. He was much more prolific after he left for Paris in 1947.


How often do pre-1947 Sekoto works come to market? There have been a handful in the last few years. When they come up, they tend to fetch high sums. His most valuable period is between when he left Sophiatown [a township near Johannesburg] and when he left for Paris. It was a very short period of his life–seven years. Maybe one Sekoto work a year comes up from that time. What’s rare for this sale we have in September is a particular collector bought two works from a Sekoto show in 1947 [and consigned them both]. To have two works from that period in the same sale is quite extraordinary, but they’re from the same collection.


How do we know this Sekoto painting dates to between 1940 and 1947? The most obvious point would be the subject matter–three little girls on an almost-mud street in a township. Parisian pictures tend to be of jazz bars and the Seine. The other thing that’s distinctive is the color palette. Up to 1947, Sekoto gravitated toward a very earthy palette of reds, browns, and yellows that reflected the colors of the ground in South African townships, and reflected the kinds of clothes people wore and the dyes that were available. Also, in 1940, he met Judith Gluckman, an artist who introduced him to oil painting. The fact that this is painted in oils and not household poster paint suggests it was executed after 1940.


The surface of the paint looks rugged and thick. Is that typical for Sekoto? What I’d say is unusual about the surface of the work is how unspoiled it is. Gerard Sekoto did use impasto [he painted in thick layers] and he mixed sand and grit in to create texture. Gritty, thick texture is more characteristic of his early style. But most of his works from this period don’t survive well. They have craquelure [the paint is covered with a network of cracks], and the surface attracted dirt. To see a work in this good a condition, with no paint loss and minor dirt, is incredibly unusual. Later, he worked in watercolors and gouache, and his brush strokes were more fluid and loose.


How did Sekoto work doing that seven-year period in the 1940s, when he painted Three School Girls? He would carry notepaper in his pockets. The people he saw were not accustomed to people making their portraits, so he would pull out a piece of scrap paper, sketch quickly, and come to his studio with his pockets full of ideas.


This painting is relatively small, measuring 15 15/16 inches by 19 7/8 inches. Is that because he was working from small sketches done on scrap paper? Earlier pieces tend to be smaller than works created in Paris. It’s partly related to the Post-It note size of his sketches and partly from an awareness of using up all his material. In this period, we see him work the same piece of canvas over and over, particularly as he tried to learn  his craft.


Three School Girls is fresh to market, having gone from the late 1940s selling exhibition to the consigner to Bonhams. Is that unusual for a Sekoto? Yes, it is quite unusual. I’d say Sekoto works have hugely appreciated in value over the last 10 years, partly due to his status as a pioneer of South African modernism.


Did Bonhams play a role in raising Sekoto’s profile? In 2008, we were the first international auction house to hold a stand-alone sale of South African art, and Gerard Sekoto was one of the artists we featured. We put up a work from his District 6 period, which is a few years before the period when he made Three School Girls, for an estimate of £200,000 to £300,000, and it made in excess of £600,000. It was an eye-opening moment for us and for the art market as well–it showed that Sekoto is an artist to take very seriously.


What’s the world auction record for a Sekoto? It’s held by Bonhams for a work sold for £602,400 ($784,694) in 2011, depicting a yellow house he saw in District 6. He didn’t live in this particular house, but he’d walk past it on a day-to-day basis between 1942 and 1945. It’s very similar in style and period to Three School Girls, which probably dates to 1945 to 1947. It was also painted in gritty impasto, and is around the same size as Three School Girls.


Does Three School Girls have the potential to set a new auction record for the artist? When I saw the work, my first thought was it really is something special, potentially a record painting. We haven’t seen one of comparable quality and style since 2011 [the year that Bonhams sold Yellow Houses, District Six]. The market has changed and demand has changed, but if any painting has a shot at breaking the record for a Sekoto, it could be this one.


What about Portrait of a Man (Lentswana)the other Sekoto painting that the consigner sent to this auction? It’s from the same period and is around the same size. The reason we put a slightly higher estimate on Three School Girls is it’s a more universal image. The other is a wonderfully intimate human portrait, but some collectors are not comfortable having particular likenesses hanging in their home. It’s like having a picture of another person’s grandfather. That’s the thought behind this particular estimate.


What is Three School Girls like in person? The first thing that strikes you is the size. In this day and age, particularly if you collect contemporary art, you’re used to monumental canvases. This painting is different. It’s intimate in scale, and it draws you in. The colors are warm and earthy. They’re not colors that are considered colorful or sexy for an urban apartment. But it transports you to a totally different time, a totally different country. You can feel the heat rising up from the dusty road the girls are walking on.


Why will this painting stick in your memory? Having been a schoolgirl myself, it’s quite a nostalgic image. I’m a white British woman living in London, and looking at it brings back memories. I remember being dressed in my schoolgirl uniform, walking to school with my friends. The artist somehow manages to forge a connection I find quite touching.


How to bid: Three School Girls is lot 25 in The South African Sale, which takes place at Bonhams London on September 12, 2018.


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Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.


A namesake foundation celebrates Gerard Sekoto’s lifetime of work.


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


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RECORD! Rago Sold a Dale Chihuly Chandelier in 2015 for $200,000


What you see: A white, clear, and amber chandelier, measuring ten feet tall, five feet wide, and four feet, eight inches deep, made by Dale Chihuly in 2004. Rago Auctions sold it in June 2015 for $200,000 against an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000.


The expert: Suzanne Perrault, partner and co-director of Rago’s 20th and 21st century design department.


How did this chandelier come to be? Was it a commission? Is it unique? It is a commission, and it is unique. The chandeliers usually are. These weigh hundreds of pounds, and they’re not technically chandeliers–they’re glass sculptures. Each is unique, but Chihuly has made quite a few of them.


Where was it displayed originally? It was for a residence in New York City. I came to have it because a gentleman who bought the house with the piece in it had a three-year-old son who was terrified of it. He contacted us about selling it.


How did you sell this huge, fragile chandelier? Did you bring it to the sale room? We didn’t put it up in the auction house. It’s pretty much the only thing we’ve sold by a photo only. It was available to be seen in situ in New York. We had a banner of it made to scale to hang in the gallery.


Was it tricky to sell it largely on the basis of a photo? Yes and no. There are so many items people buy without seeing in person. A lot of people seem to be comfortable with that. I always encourage people to see things in person, but of the four who saw the chandelier in person, none bought.


Just how fragile is this chandelier? The glass in these is considerably thicker than other Chihuly glass. It’s definitely sturdier.


The colors of this chandelier are white, clear, and amber. How did that affect its value? It’s actually white, clear, and gold. It has done considerably better than multicolor ones that have sold subsequently. It’s pretty fancy. It may look a little plainer in the photo than in reality.


Have other Chihuly chandeliers gone to auction? How did they do? Chandeliers are the pieces by Dale Chihuly that bring the most. The closest price was $158,500 at Heritage in Texas in May 2013. Another at Wright didn’t sell.


What condition was this one in? It’s hard to tell, and it’s kind of irrelevant. When the chandelier is designed, it’s always an organic process. There’s no finite number of elements going in. The person putting it up for the original purchaser asks them if they have enough elements, or if they want it fuller.  If the client insists, elements can be replaced by the Chihuly studio.


How many elements does it have? About 700 pieces, and it took about a week to install [in the home of the winning bidder].


What was your role in the auction? I was calling the auction. There was tremendous interest in the lot.


What stands out about the experience of selling it? When the underbidder asked me to go for a half-bid, and I said no.


What’s a half-bid? Bids go up by increments that are codified in the catalog. They go up by a certain amount until we hit a cap. Maybe we’d gotten to $150,000, and maybe he said give me a half-bid when it should have been $10,000. It could have been that. The people who bought the chandelier were very grateful, and it cemented our friendship after that. I hate half-bids. These are lovely items. No one really needs them. They’re luxuries. I don’t think half-bids are fair to other bidders who are willing to go to the full increment. There were many underbidders.


How many bidders were in the hunt? We started with ten, which is a lot for piece at that level. And you should know about the chandelier–it is quite large. There are not a lot of places that can afford [to set aside] that kind of space, and it’s expensive to put up. There’s one company Chihuly recommends and will stand behind [to install his works], and it’s done a ton of them. The company needs to be there many days. It’s a big job, and it’s costly. This is not like buying a sculpture that’s ready to put on a center table. It’s a lot more complicated.


How long do you think the record will stand? I have no idea. There’s quite a few of these Chihuly chandeliers. There’s a spectacular red chandelier in a home in Philadelphia that overlooks the city. It’s right there in the middle of the room, and it goes from the ceiling almost all the way to the floor. It looks like an upside-down Christmas tree. It’s magical. How much would that do? I don’t know. That’s the magic of auctions.


What is this chandelier like in person? It’s lovely. It’s so wonderful because of how they [the winning bidders] set it up. It’s in a four-story house which is industrial and modern, all glass and steel. You walk up the stairs, which curl around this piece. It’s a real show-stopper. It couldn’t look any better. It was meant to be there.


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


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