SOLD! A Late, Unknown American Abstract Expressionist Who Was Inspired By the Cave Paintings at Altamira Gets His Due at Rago

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Update: The Louis Tavelli tryptic sold for $5,625–a new auction record for the artist.

 

What you see: Untitled (hunters and bulls), a 1991 tryptic by Louis Tavelli. Rago Auctions estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

 

Who was Louis Tavelli? He was an American musician and abstract expressionist whose art career spanned six decades. Born in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which is home to Williams College and the Clark museum of art, he mostly lived there and in Woodstock, New York throughout his life. Tavelli’s earlier works were influenced by music, but a 1983 trip to Spain with his chamber music group changed him forever. He took a side trip to Altamira, a cave decorated with paintings that are at least 15,000 years old, and after that, his artworks reflected the effect that the ancient, unnamed cave paintings had on him. Tavelli sometimes staged one-man gallery shows and participated in museum shows, but it’s unclear if he ever had steady gallery representation. He died in 2010, at the age of 96.

 

This tryptic is monumental–each of the three panels measures 59 1/2 by 36 inches. Did Tavelli normally work at that scale? “He did like to work big like this,” says Arlen Sam Brown, design specialist at Rago. “He created art his whole life, and it morphed into a graffiti-like style. His earlier works paid homage to music. But there was definitely a switch, a change, and he went a little more Basquiat-like.”

 

This belongs to Tavelli’s Indigenous Peoples Series of works, which he started after viewing prehistoric cave paintings in Altamira, Spain. Are all of the pieces from the series as large? And how many pieces are in the series? “He did do other pieces that were large, but they’re not all on that scale. He did works on paper as well,” she says, noting that there are at least 60 to 70 works in the series.

 

It seems like Tavelli didn’t concern himself with promoting or selling his work. The earliest auction result for him is in 2011, a year after his death. Was he only discovered as an artist after he died? “He had local showings, and he did exhibit his work, but he remained regional. It was not shared publicly until he passed away,” she said, noting that his output is still being cataloged. “What’s exciting about this work is it came to market in a strong capacity. We’ve had the good fortune to roll his work out on a stronger scale, and we’ve had good results.”

 

Rago set the world auction record for Tavelli in June 2017 with an untitled, undated mixed media collage on paper that sold for $4,063 against an estimate of $800 to $1,200. Was that work also part of his Indigenous Peoples Series? And what are the odds that Untitled (hunters and bulls) will set a new auction record for the artist? She says the mixed-media collage is from the same thematic series, and says there’s a “strong likelihood” that the tryptic will break the record.

 

Untitled (hunters and bulls) is estimated at $4,000 to $6,000. Did its large size have any influence on its estimate? “Its size informs the estimate, but it’s not what made the decision,” she says. “We had a discussion with [the consigner,] whose perception was, ‘It’s three times the size, so it should be three times the estimate.’ That’s not the case… We truly believe in being very grounded in our estimations. We believe in basing them on auction results. While Tavelli is being well-received, we maintain our integrity. He’s a relatively unknown artist. I’m not sure if you’d call him an emerging artist. You don’t need to be young to be emerging.”

 

Where do you think the market for Louis Tavelli works is going? “I think the notion that it’s still being shaped is very accurate,” she says. “It’s limitless because it’s fresh. I’ve been pleased and surprised by the reactions to each sale. Tavelli is getting more attention with each one, which is cool.”

 

Why will this work stick in your memory? “It stops you in your tracks, no question,” she says. “It’s a pretty intense piece. The people are almost stick figure-like. It’s almost like a cave drawing.”

 

How to bid: Untitled (hunters and bulls) is lot 2214 in Remix: Contemporary + Classic, a sale taking place at Rago Auctions on April 7, 2018.

 

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

 

Louis Tavelli has a website.

 

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SOLD! An Antique Narwhal Tusk, Inspiration for Tales of the Unicorn, Sold for More Than $25,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong

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Update: The 19th century narwhal tusk sold for 200,000 HKD, or $25,580.

 

What you see: A 19th century narwhal tusk, measuring 84 1/4 inches, or just over seven feet tall. Sotheby’s estimates it at 200,000 to 300,000 in Hong Kong Dollars (HKD), which is $25,580 to $38,370. It’s one of three lots of narwhal tusks in a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale coming up on April 2, 2018.

 

What’s a narwhal? It’s a medium-sized whale that lives in the Arctic waters off of Canada, Russia, and Greenland. The males of the species grow a tusk–an elongated left canine tooth–that they use to hunt by whacking and stunning fish that they wish to eat. The tusks can measure almost nine feet long. Weirdly, narwhals don’t have teeth inside their mouths, just the tusk, which grows through the upper lip.

 

How were narwhal tusks collected in the 19th century? Did whalers bring them home? “The Inuit used pretty much every part of the narwhal, from the meat to the horn, to make tools,” says Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and the International Head and Chairman of the Chinese Works of Art department. “Later, the horns were worth more in barter with European traders. The Inuit would trade them for iron tools, which worked better than tools made from bone. There are stories of narwhal tusks washing up on beaches, but if they did [the tusks in the sale], I don’t know how they look so nice.”

 

How did Europeans use narwhal tusks? “For the longest time, narwhal tusks were thought to be the horns of unicorns,” he says. “In the 17th century, they were popular in kunstkammers–cabinets of curiosities. They were among the most highly regarded objects that you could have. Queen Elizabeth I spent £10,000 to buy one at a time when £10,000 could buy a castle. It was presented to her mounted with jewels.”

 

Are narwhal tusks considered to be ivory? “No. They have the appearance of ivory, but it’s not the same substance,” he says. “It’s the tooth of the narwhal. It’s like elephant ivory, but it’s from a different animal, so it’s different material. The narwhal is a protected species, so you need a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) license to sell narwhal tusks, and you can’t trade in new narwhal tusks.”

 

Why do narwhal tusks appear so rarely at auction? “They need to be ancient, as is the case with the ones we have here,” he says.

 

Are narwhal tusks solid or hollow? “They’re solid, like ivory,” he says. “They’re very dense and quite heavy.”

 

How much does this one weigh? Is it heavier than a pool cue? “We don’t have the weight on it, but it’s very dense material. I’d say it’s heavier than a pool cue.”

 

The pictured lot is one of three lots in the auction that feature 19th century narwhal tusks. Is it rare to have this many tusks in a single sale? And do they all come from the same consigner? “It’s quite unusual to have so many in one auction. This will be the first time we’ve offered narwhal tusks in Asia,” he says, adding that all four tusks come from the same owner.

 

Why does lot 3044 have a higher estimate than the other lots featuring narwhal tusks? “There’s a certain level of subjectivity here, but we find it a particularly good example,” he says, citing “the depth of the grooves, the caramel-colored patina, and the very nice luster” of the tusk.

 

What’s the auction record for a narwhal tusk at auction? It seems to have been set at Sotheby’s Paris in November 2011 by a pair of tusks from the late 17th or early 18th centuries that commanded €108,750 ($144,418) on an estimate of €40,000 to €60,000 ($53,119 to $79,679). They were mounted on Italian gilt-bronze stands. “I’m not sure how much [of the record] was the stand and how much was the narwhal tusk,” he says. “But narwhal tusks are always very popular. Few objects are as rich with mythology and so visually astounding. They’re always a hit.”

 

You said earlier that the auction will mark the first time narwhal tusks have been offered at an auction in Asia. How will they appeal to Asian bidders? “They’re so beautiful, and because they’re so big, they can make a big space seem even bigger,” he says. “Narwhal tusks are very open-ended objects. Very few people are left unimpressed by these things. I think we’ll see a bit of a fight for some of these items. I’m quite confident.”

 

The pictured tusk stands just over seven feet tall. What is it like to see it in person? “It’s a very mysterious object,” Chow says. “Most people looking at it for the first time don’t think it’s a narwhal tusk. Most think, ‘What is this thing?’ It’s incredibly tall and obviously ancient, with a rich, smooth surface. They can’t figure out what they are. They figure out it’s not man-made, and it looks like a unicorn horn, but it can’t be. They can’t wrap their heads around them. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and a great conversation piece.”

 

How to bid: The pictured 19th century narwhal tusk is lot 3044 in the Curiosity IV auction taking place at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on April 2, 2018.

 

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

 

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Thank You For Being a Friend! Rue McClanahan’s Personalized Golden Girls Letterman Jacket Could Command $4,500 at Potter & Potter

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What you see: A circa 1980s wool, leather, and nylon Golden Girls letterman jacket, size L, personalized for Rue McClanahan. It’s one of four; the other three went to her co-stars on the beloved sitcom. It comes with a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) from McClanahan’s estate. Potter & Potter estimates it at $2,500 to $4,500.

 

Do we know why this Golden Girls letterman jacket was commissioned? “We don’t,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter. “But they were generally made as 100th episode gifts, or after a season ended, or to mark an anniversary. We don’t know when she would have gotten this.”

 

Are there any pictures of McClanahan wearing this jacket, or any pictures of all four Golden Girls leads wearing their jackets? “We weren’t able to find any,” he says. “There are other clothing lots in the auction where we have photos of McClanahan wearing the clothes, but not for this one.”

 

Have any of the other three Golden Girls letterman jackets appeared at auction? We don’t know, but the consignor bought several McClanahan pieces directly from the estate of the actress, who died in 2010 at the age of 76. The jacket is the marquee item among 27 McClanahan lots in the Potter & Potter auction.

 

McClanahan’s Golden Girls jacket is described as being in “fine” condition. What does that mean? “Almost unworn. It looks almost new,” he says.

 

How did you arrive at the estimate of $2,500 to $4,500? “It’s a combination of market expertise and researching similar celebrity costumes and clothes, and looking at demand for the person,” he says.”The consignor thinks it’s worth a lot more. We’ll see on auction day.”

 

Have you tried it on? He laughs heartily and says, “No!”

 

Why will this jacket stick in your memory? “We’ve had movie star clothes and costumes, but not a letterman jacket,” he says. “It’s a high-quality thing. They didn’t order it from a cheap catalog. They obviously went to the trouble to make it very attractive.”

 

How to bid: Rue McClanahan’s Golden Girls letterman jacket is lot 616 in Potter & Potter‘s Entertainment Memorabilia auction, scheduled for April 7, 2018.

 

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

 

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SOLD! Christie’s Auctions A Ming Dynasty Six-poster Huanghuali Bed for an Eye-Opening $1.9 Million

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Update: The Huanghuali six-poster canopy bed sold for $1.9 million.

 

What you see: A very rare Huanghuali six-poster canopy bed, dating from the 17th to the 18th century. Christie’s estimates it at $1 million to $1.5 million.

 

What is Huanghuali? “It’s one of the most desirable hardwoods for Chinese furniture, and one of the most luxurious of all woods,” says Christie’s specialist Michelle Cheng. “It’s very durable, impermeable to insects. It’s extremely hard wood. You’ve got to have extremely sharp tools [to carve it]. It naturally has a beautiful luster. It’s very attractive in terms of grain and presentation.”

 

How do we know this is a bed? “Because of the form. Chinese furniture comes in specific forms and does not deviate from them,” she says. “We know this is a bed because of its size, the canopy, the railings, and the platform.”

 

Did the Chinese use beds with posts in the same way as Europeans did–using curtains to turn them into small rooms? “Beds were part of a lady’s dowry. When she married, it was brought to her home as part of her domestic space. It was draped with fabric for privacy,” she says. “The lady would entertain female friends in her private chamber, sitting on the bed. She would sleep alone, unless she was visited by her husband, drawing the curtains to create a private space for herself.”

 

Why does the bed have six posts rather than four? “It’s related to architecture,” she says. “You have a ‘doorway’ with six posts.”

 

I realize we can’t go back in time to watch the bed being built, but can you give me a notion of how much work would have gone into the creation of this bed? “It’s a lot of work to make one of these beds,” she says. “Everything comes apart. There are over 24 pieces in the bed, and at least 15 in the canopy. That’s a significant number of pieces to have to carve and to visualize, engineering-wise, how to fit together. The pieces lock in place using a mortise and tenon technology. They have to be pretty exact or the canopy can’t hold itself up.”

 

The word “Jiazichuang” appears in the headline of the Christie’s lot description. What does Jiazichuang mean? And how can we tell that the bed dates to some time between the 17th and 18th centuries?Jiazichuang is a Chinese word for canopy bed,” she says. “The bed dates to the Ming Dynasty, and we can tell from the quality of the carving to the quality of the wood that was used. As Huanghuali dwindled, the quality of the wood became not-as-great. Its impressive size and proportions make for an impressive bed. The carvers were able to waste a lot of wood–they would have carved a lot of material away to create the openwork.”

 

Do the carved decorations on the bed–the chilong medallions, ruyi struts, and the lingzhi scrolls–have any particular meanings? “They have a lot to do with fertility, longevity, and good luck,” she says. “Chilong, or baby dragons, are interpreted as a wish for sons. The lingzhi and ruyi are symbols of longevity for yourself, your family, and your children. They all tie into this desire for procreation.”

 

Who was this bed for? “The woman who owned the bed was from a prosperous family,” she says. “They were important in the community and had wealth and power. It’s a very large bed in terms of its width and height.”

 

How large? Is it possible to compare it to a modern bed? “It’s probably like a king size bed, but it’s hard to draw a straight line. This is one of the larger pieces we’ve had,” she says. “There are people who own and sleep on beds like these. It’s something you can do. It’s just a matter of finding the correct size mattress.”

 

This bed is described as being “very rare.” What makes it so rare? “Its impressive size, and the elaborateness of the carving on its rails,” she says. “This bed, in itself, is quite impressive for its use of materials and for the decorations you see. It’s showing off different techniques as well.”

 

Why will this bed stick in your memory? “Everything is well put-together and thought out,” she says. “I love the bottom rail of the canopy, with the interlocking medals. None of the medals are fudged to make them fit the proportions. The quality of the craftsmanship is at the highest level.”

 

How to bid: The Huanghuali six-poster Chinese bed is lot 952 in Christie’s Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art auction planned for March 22 and 23, 2018 in New York City.

 

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

 

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You’ll Never Be As Cool As This Tattooed Man, Or P.T. Barnum. Want Proof? This 1876 Sideshow Poster Sold for $8,610 at Potter & Potter

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Update: The 1876 P.T. Barnum sideshow poster advertising  ‘Captain Costentenus, The Greek Albanian, Tattooed from Head to Foot,’ sold for $8,610.

What you see: An 1876 poster advertising the P. T. Barnum attraction, ‘Captain Costentenus, The Greek Albanian, Tattooed from Head to Foot.’ Potter & Potter estimates it at $4,000 to $5,000.

We live in a world where the barista who takes your coffee order has an amazing sleeve. Just how weird was a tattooed man in the late 19th century? “Well, he was exhibited in a sideshow with Siamese twins, the bearded lady, and midgets. This was not an everyday occurrence,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter. “I’m not an expert on tattoo history, but I’d say he’s one of the most famous [tattooed men].”

Would women have been allowed to see Captain Costentenus? Would he have appeared under a sideshow tent, or at Barnum’s dime museum, or both? And would he have just sat there and given his spiel, or did he do tricks as well? Yes, both, and his drawing power as a fully tattooed man was strong enough that he’d have only had to sit there, as exposed as decency would allow, and tell his story. “He would have had a little speech that he would give, a short lecture, real or imaginary, on his background, to stir up the imaginations of the people who were viewing him,” he says. “I think he retired wealthy.”

The poster says his appearance was changed “…in Chinese tartary as punishment for engaging in rebellion against the king.” That’s crap, right? Not true? “We’ll say he took liberties with the truth,” Fajuri says, adding, “I could see tattoos being used as punishment, certainly if they’re on the face. There might be a grain of truth in there, in the same way that the first person Barnum exhibited was old, but not 175 years old.”

Did Captain Costentenus set the template for what tattooed people in sideshows should look like? “No. They generally did not have their faces done,” he says. “Even today, that’s pretty extreme.”

But if his face is tattooed, why does Captain Costentenus also have a full, bushy beard? “I don’t know!” he says, laughing. “Maybe it’s a cultural thing. He’s Albanian.”

Did P.T. Barnum invent or popularize tattooed people as sideshow attractions? “Barnum had a lot of people working for him, and a lot of people copied him,” Fajuri says. “He set the standard for all these kinds of showmen.”

Just how rare is this Captain Costentenus poster? “Two months ago, Swann sold one. I don’t think it had an imprint [that says ‘P.T. Barnum’] at the top. It got $6,750 on an estimate of $800 to $1,200, Until I saw the one at Swann, I thought this might be the only one. It may be the only one with the Barnum imprint,” he says, adding, “It was custom made for this performer. Stock posters were a thing, but this a portrait of this person, custom made for them.”

Does the P.T. Barnum name add to the poster’s value? “Sure. It’s like the name ‘sterling’ on silver. He’s the guy who’s the godfather of all of this. Let’s hope it adds a premium,” he says. “No one has ever sold one [a Captain Costentenus poster] with the Barnum name on it. I don’t think it’s going to hurt it.”

And it was already bound to do well regardless, because there’s an eager contingent that collects vintage images of tattooed people… “Yes. You assess correctly. Those people are very actively interested in the subject,” he says. “Let’s hope that makes it a cross-collectible.”

What else makes this poster memorable? “We’ve sold a lot of weird things over the years, and we’ve never had anything like it,” Fajuri says. “In a business where we sell odd and unusual things, this is in the top twenty, top twenty-five things we’ve offered.”

How to bid: The Captain Costentenus poster is lot 346 in the Circus-Sideshow-Wild West auction at Potter & Potter on November 18.

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SOLD! An 18th Century Watercolor of Parrots with Beautiful Plumage* by British Natural History Illustrator Sarah Stone Sold For More Than $18,000 at Dreweatts

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Update: Sarah Stone’s Four Parrots on a Branch sold for £14,000, or about $18,400.

What you see: Four Parrots on a Branch, a watercolor painted by Sarah Stone in 1789 or 1790. Dreweatt’s estimates it at £1,000 to £1,500 ($1,300 to $2,000).

Who was Sarah Stone? She was an English natural history painter and illustrator who was active in the 18th century. Taught by her father, who made his living painting fans, she came to the attention of Sir Ashton Lever, a wealthy Englishman who liked collecting natural history specimens and who displayed his collection to the public. Lever hired Stone before she was out of her teens. She ultimately created around 1,000 artworks based on his collection, and about 900 survive. Many of Stone’s illustrations represent the first depictions of various species, making them significant to science and history. The Royal Academy of Arts invited her to exhibit on three different occasions. After marrying John Langdale Smith in 1789, her output slowed, and she seems to have stopped after 1806, when Lever’s collection was sold. She died in 1844 at the age of 82.

How rare were female natural history artists in the 18th century? Was Stone pretty much it? “There were good, talented amateur artists, but it was very rare to be a professional artist,” says James Harvey, a salesperson at Mallett Antiques, which consigned the watercolor. “She was rare but not unique.”

What types of parrots are pictured in the watercolor? At the top is an Australian King parrot; below it is a Black-headed Caique, an Indonesian red-cheeked parrot, and an African grey parrot. Lever’s collection of taxidermied specimens included all four birds. Presumably, Stone looked at them when she created this watercolor.

And this charming little gathering of these four parrots could never happen in the wild, yes? “It was a concept in the sense that the artist enjoyed painting subjects from nature, and she used artistic license to make the painting appealing,” he says. “It’s more about observation, about looking at the forms and the colors and making things look aesthetically pleasing.”

Just how talented did Stone have to be to look at a group of dead, stuffed birds and turn them into this watercolor? “The birds are very, very vivid, very lively. That’s the difference between a good animal painter and a poor one. These birds are very realistic, but they’ve got character,” he says, adding, “It’s a standout. It’s decorative, but has tremendous presence to it. That’s what makes it so appealing.”

Normally Stone limited her focus to one subject per artwork. Do we know why she bent her rules here? “Sadly not. It’d be interesting to know why,” he says. While we have no background on the work and why Stone might have made it, Harvey and his colleagues speculate that it might have been meant for presentation: “It has that feel. It’s very well-observed. It might have been an exhibition piece, a presentation piece, perhaps even a piece for teaching purposes.”

Stone’s works have sold for six-figure sums at auction. How did you arrive at the estimate for Four Parrots on a Branch? “It’s a difficult one in that the market for watercolors is not as strong as it used to be,” he says. “If we get one or two collectors in Australia interested, it could do more.”

What else makes this watercolor special? “It has all the elements you want–good artist, good condition, nice picture,” he says. “The subject matter is very charming, and from an academic angle, she’s a lady artist who worked in relative obscurity. If there’s any justice in the world, it should do well and create a good price.”

How to bid: Four Parrots on a Branch is lot 167 in Mallett: Taking Stock, an auction scheduled for November 8 at Dreweatts in Berkshire, England.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Mallett Antiques.

*If I can work in a slightly obscure Monty Python reference, why yes, I AM going to do it.

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SOLD! A Mid-1930s Travel Poster Featuring The Hindenburg DID Float Away With $6,000 at Swann

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Update: The Jupp Wiertz circa 1935 travel poster featuring the Hindenburg sold for $6,000.

What you see: A Pleasant Trip to Germany, a travel poster created circa 1935 by Jupp Wiertz. Swann estimates its at $4,000 to $6,000.

Who was Jupp Wiertz? He was a German graphic designer, and unfortunately, we don’t know much more about him. He was based in Berlin, and he created several travel and fashion-themed posters. He died in 1939, when he would have been 57 or 58.

So we have three different forms of transportation (a zeppelin, an airplane, and an ocean liner) and three different destinations (Germany, New York City, and Rio) loaded into one poster. Why? “This is propaganda–Germany controlling the skies and the seas, flaunting its technology and bragging about its place in the modern world,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries. “It’s a very effective ad, in that sense.”

How do we know that the zeppelin pictured on the poster is the Hindenburg? “You can tell by the position of the cockpit,” he says. “On the Graf Zeppelin, it’s all the way forward. On the Hindenburg, its three-quarters of the way down [the body of the airship].”

Do vintage travel posters that feature zeppelins bring a premium? “Zeppelins bring a premium. Swastikas bring whatever is the opposite of a premium,” Lowry says, adding that the most popular zeppelin travel poster was also done by Wiertz. It shows the Hindenburg readying to hitch itself to the docking mast atop the Empire State Building, which is ablaze with golden sunlight. Swann has sold the poster for as much as $15,600.

What else makes this circa 1935 travel poster special? “It’s the peak of Art Deco. Though the ship is unrecognizable, the Art Deco style is very recognizable,” he says. “Plus the ghostly outline  of the cityscapes–it’s really a masterful job. It’s fun to have something from the golden age of travel and fun to have something from the very short timespan when zeppelins were operating. They were as captivating to the world’s imagination as the Titanic was in its time.”

How to bid: A Pleasant Trip to Germany is lot 151 in the Rare & Important Travel Posters sale at Swann Auction Galleries on October 26, 2017.

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

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