What you see: The Aristocrats, a cold-painted and carved ivory figural group in ivory and bronze on a green onyx base, created circa 1925 by Professor Otto Poertzel. Bonhams estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.
The expert: Gemma Sanders, head of the department of 20th century decorative arts and design at Bonhams.
Who was Professor Otto Poertzel? He was a successful German commercial artist. He’s best known for his Art Deco statuettes executed in bronze and ivory.
How did he get the title of “Professor”? The title was given to him in 1913 by Duke Carl Eduard, the last member of the ruling family of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He gave it possibly because Poertzel was a founding member of the Coburg Art Association. Perhaps the professor title was a nod to his academic associations.
Did Poertzel only create Art Deco statuettes, or did he work in other media as well? We know he honed his craft as a porcelain designer. He learned his craft in porcelain, as an apprentice. Once he was a commercial artist, he made large-scale public artworks in stone as well as statuettes for commercial production.
How prolific was Poertzel? It’s difficult to know exactly how many pieces he produced. He was as much a designer as an artist. As an auctioneer, I see his works less often than his contemporaries.
The Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure is described as “cold-painted”. What is cold-painting? It’s a way to apply color to a bronze after the casting process. Once it’s cold, the color can be applied.
It seems like there was a vogue for decorative figures and statuettes during the Art Deco period. Do we have any idea why they caught on then? It’s tricky. I don’t know why they took off or who was the first to produce the figures, but I know they were produced before the Art Deco period. Art Nouveau figures featured beautiful young women in flowing outfits, but with more gilt. The Art Deco period was about high-end materials and exotic, rare finishes. At the time, ivory was seen as the best material for intricate carving. I think the figures captured the glamorous, positive, upbeat feeling of the time.
Is this Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure unique, or was it part of an edition? We know it isn’t a one-off because others have come to market. I should stress that there have not been many–six in 20 years. Figures of this quality were expensive, even at that time. They were expensive because of the ivory components.
Do the other figures look identical to this one, or do they vary? I know examples where the hair is part of the bronze casting and examples where the hair is part of the ivory. And sometimes, there are contrasting details to the dress–the cold-painting might be different.
Where would something like this have been sold when it was new? They were most commonly offered in high-end department stores–Harrods, or that city’s equivalent. If one sold, another would have been requested from Priess Kassler [a foundry that produced the figures] or directly from the artist.
The Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure has a circa date of 1925. How do we know it was made around then? Does it have a date on its base? No. Other figures like it are very difficult to date. We use “circa 1925” for auction purposes. It could date to the mid-1920s, the late 1920s, the early 1930s, there’s no way of knowing.
I take it there’s no surviving production records? No, not for things like this.
This Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure is called “The Aristocrats”. Do we know how it got its name? Possibly it was given its name in the 1970s or 1980s, when these figures became popular again.
Do we know anything about how or why Professor Otto Poertzel created this particular Art Deco figure? We know he likes the medieval look. He adopted it fora few of his figures. The Borzoi dogs were fashionable at the time for their lean look. And in a book by Alberto Shayo, there’s an archival photo of Mrs. Edmund Guy at the Casino de Paris music hall that looks like her [the human figure in the group].
So Professor Otto Poertzel might have had that woman performer model for him for this figure? We don’t have images to back that up, but it’s what his contemporaries would have done. Demetre Chiparus had the Dolly Sisters model for him. Certainly, Poetzel would have had a model at the first part of the process. He would have sculpted his figure, and that figure would have been cast.
How involved might Poertzel have been with the creation of this Art Deco figure? Did he create the design and hand it off to others to fabricate, or did he participate in its physical creation? The design is certainly his. It’s not known if he carved every piece or was involved in the process, but it’s likely he had help with some of the processes. He was probably more involved because he was not as prolific as his contemporaries, and his ivory-carving is superior.
The quality of the carving on the ivory face convinces you that Poertzel personally did it? The face is exquisite–beautifully carved, and she’s actually a beautiful-looking woman. I see a lot [of these Art Deco figures], and others are not so good, not so real-looking. He is one of the best carvers. The quality is so good, I see it with only one other maker, Ferdinand Priess.
And that would be your favorite detail of the piece–the woman’s face? The face is exquisite, and not easy to achieve in ivory. I also love the stride she’s taking under her long skirt. It’s quite fabulous in reality. It comes down to his modeling ability, to create a feeling of movement. That’s where a figure can look stiff and stifled. He designed it so perfectly… it’s probably from his years of training in porcelain modeling.
What is the Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? I talked about how beautiful the face is. She has a quiet confidence to her expression, in the way she’s looking down. A lot of figures just stare at you. She’s strikingly elegant, striding out and looking down. To give a figure like that emotion is very difficult to do.
What do we know about the provenance of this Poertzel figure? It’s been privately owned for a half-century or more.
What condition is it in? And what condition issues do you see with Art Deco figures like this one? Ivory is a natural material. If it heats and cools and heats and cools, it can crack. Cracks in the ivory are often engrained with dirt, and can be detrimental to the look of the piece. Sometimes, there’s a hairline crack in the face of a figure that creates a gray line. This is in very good condition–no hairline cracks to the ivory. Her ivory is very clean. She’s had careful ownership.
I’m doing this interview from the United States. May I bid on this Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure? No, unless you have a home in another part of the world where you can enjoy it. It cannot be imported into the United States. The laws governing ivory in the U.K. and Europe are different.
What’s the world auction record for this particular Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure? It was £43,700 [about $54,000], set at Sotheby’s in 2007.
What you see: A page of design drawings of light bulbs and related objects, rendered by American inventor Thomas Edison in March 1886. The pencil sketches are paired with a period Edison light bulb. Christie’s London estimates the lot at £600,000 to £900,000, or $75,600 to $113,400.
The expert: Sophie Hopkins, specialist in manuscripts and archives at Christie’s London.
Who was Thomas Edison, and why is he still important? He was arguably the greatest inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His fabulous inventions shape our lives today, from radiography to microphones. His way of working was also distinctive. Before Edison, scientists did personal research with a few assistants. Edison took a more collaborative approach to things. His laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey was the first of its kind–the first proper, organized scientific lab. The best way to characterize him is to use an electrical engineering comparison: he was a dynamo. An unstoppable torrent of extraordinary ideas poured from him.
The seven pages of Thomas Edison drawings in the lot have a March 1886 date. Where was Edison in his career at that point, and how widely used was his light bulb by then? He had already gained a good amount of recognition. He had the phonograph and the microphone under his belt. And by 1884, over 10,000 “Edison lights” were in use in New York. He was very successful.
ThomasEdison was not the first to invent a light bulb, but he did make the first commercially viable one. He began working on designs in 1878 and filed for a patent in 1880. Why was he continuing to work on the light bulb in 1886? Was he trying to improve the design? It is relevant to point out that through the 1880s, Edison constantly tinkered with light bulb design, mainly to improve its durability. But not all of the drawings are about improvements to the light bulb, necessarily. Edison had conceptions for how light bulb technology could apply elsewhere. The first page of drawings shows him introducing electrodes into the circuit. The drawings cover a mixture of the two [motivations]–how the light bulb itself continues to occupy him, and how electric lamp technology could have applications beyond itself, such as for vacuum tubes.
What specific pages, or drawings on specific pages, show Thomas Edison grappling with applying electric lamp technology in other contexts? I think it’s better to see the pages in a holistic sense. You see a mind fizzing with ideas and working on them all simultaneously.
One page of the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings carries a March 1886 date. We know he was on honeymoon with his second wife at the time. What does it say about the nature of the light bulb that it kept calling him and tempting him to work on it, even when he was supposed to be vacationing? To me, at least, that’s what differentiates men and women like Edison from the majority of the population. For brilliant inventors, geniuses, people who make and change history, inventions aren’t something they can make and put down. It’s very simple–Edison was a man possessed. There were just too many ideas in his brain, and they came bubbling and pouring out. He couldn’t stop, even on his honeymoon. There’s a reason he filed just shy of 1,100 patents in his name in his lifetime.
Did Thomas Edison continue to work on the light bulb until he died? The light bulb continued to preoccupy him into the 20th century, decades after he filed the patent. From the late 1870s to the 1890s, he improved the durability of the filament in the light bulb. After that, we see him tweak it less. The light bulb was always something that his followers and fans liked to talk about, because it was so significant. It’s the thing that defined him. What’s great about these drawings is they’re from the middle of the period where the light bulb was clearly a work-in-progress. Everything was essentially moving toward a more durable light bulb, which happened in the early 1890s.
A Thomas Edison light bulb comes with the handwritten design drawings. Does the bulb date to 1886? If not, when was it made, and how do we know when it was made? The bulb is certainly a little earlier than 1886. It’s possible to say the light bulb that comes with the lot was made between the end of 1880 and early 1881.
Have the Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings always been offered as a pair, or did someone bring them together at some point in the past? The first time we see the light bulb and the documents together is in 2009, when they were with a rare book dealer in America. They reappeared on the market ten years later, in a sale in Paris.
Do we know how the Thomas Edison light bulb drawings left his possession? We do know that his design notebooks became scattered for the same fact I pointed out earlier–the style of working in a laboratory. Because you’re working alongside others, there’s a culture of exchange of ideas, and a vast number of design drawings. You often find material such as this coming to the open market via one of Edison’s assistants or a colleague of his who was in Edison’s laboratory at some point.
When you’re inventing things, you’re not worrying about how and where to archive the raw design sketches. It’s important to think of them as in-the-moment design drawings, not formal. It’s the best instance we have of transmitting genius to paper. To me, [raw design sketches are] more interesting and more exciting, because they offer insight into the creative process. We see Edison working through his ideas. The drawings are part of a much broader chronological arc. This one moment is a flash of brilliance, but he was constantly working toward something.
How often do Thomas Edison design drawings come to market? And how often do you see them appear with an example of the object illustrated in the drawings? The first time that original Thomas Edison design drawings came up was in June 2000.
Whoa. Exactly. It’s fair to say it’s rare to see such material on the market. To have it paired with a finished object is rarer still.
I’d wondered how much, if any, Thomas Edison design drawings have been consigned to auction. I had a vague notion that after he died, most of his material went directly to an archive. The Thomas Edison National Historic Park is the main repository of his archived material. There are five million pages in there. It’s rare to see Thomas Edison design drawings on the market. We’re quite excited to have these pages and the light bulb.
Heck, the light bulb is an emoji. Thomas Edison’s breakthrough has become the visual representation of a breakthrough. Yes! The light bulb is the symbol for the dawn of the proper modern industrial age, a symbol for brilliance, a symbol for a great idea. Who wouldn’t want to have drawings from the world’s most brilliant inventor of his invention that sums up the idea of a good idea?
What are the Thomas Edison light bulb and drawings like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? One thing I find pleasing is how big and bold and sculptural the light bulb is. It’s bigger than the light bulbs we use nowadays. I find something incredibly appealing about holding a light bulb in its earliest state, because it looks so different from the light bulbs of today. I think of how precious and alien it must have been to a 19th century observer.
And the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings? I like the fact that you get the sense of the pencil Edison uses for the drawings. I love drawings and letters in pencil. The texture of the pencil lead is more evocative than pen.
And by choosing a pencil, the user is kind of saying, “I might screw this up”. Exactly. These things are not finished works. The pencil is an admission of that. People who appreciate that person years later appreciate them more [for using a pencil to think through problems]. You want to see an unguarded moment of creation. You want to see the scientist struggling and working it out. You want to see the toil that went into it.
What’s your favorite detail in the Thomas Edison light bulb design drawings, and why? I like the drawings that look most obviously like a light bulb. There’s something incredibly powerful and pleasing and emblematic about Thomas Edison drawing a light bulb.
The Thomas Edison light bulb that comes with this lot–does it work? [Laughs] It’s not working currently, but it’s in near original condition and it’s tantalizingly close to being functional. It would require technological intervention of the sort that very few are capable of doing without altering or changing the bulb.
What’s the most expensive Thomas Edison item sold at auction? It was an 82-page autograph manuscript, notes for his autobiography. It sold in New York in 1998 for $75,000. A more recent comparable lot sold at an American auction house in July 2014. It was a laboratory notebook from Edison in which he’s essentially doing experiments on rubber to find a suitable alternative for tires. That sold for $50,000. It was a full notebook, and it dated from the late 1920s, the end of his career. But to be quite honest, when collectors think of when they think of Thomas Edison is the light bulb. What’s more desirable–the light bulb, or experimenting with different forms of rubber?
So you think the Thomas Edison light bulb and design drawings have a shot at breaking the world auction record for an Edison item? If you reach the low estimate, you’ve pretty much done it. We’re hoping it contends for the title of most expensive item at auction for Thomas Edison. I think a lot of collectors see the value in design drawings of something so emblematic of modernity and progress and brilliance.
Why will this lot stick in your memory? The Eureka! sale focuses on inventions of the modern age. The electric light ushered in a society where sunset and sunrise don’t define productivity. It opens the door to everything that came afterward. To have it open the sale, as lot 1, makes perfect sense to me.
Update: The reduced-size Augustus Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue sold for $1.5 million.
What you see: Abraham Lincoln: The Man, aka Standing Lincoln, a reduced-size version of a sculpture commissioned from Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the late 19th century. Sotheby’s estimates it at $600,000 to $900,000.
The expert: Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s.
Does the Standing Lincoln sculpture represent his first attempt at sculpting Abraham Lincoln? Yes, it does.
How did Augustus Saint-Gaudens approach the Lincoln commission? He prepared diligently before modeling the full-scale Lincoln. He studied his speeches and contemporary photography to get a sense of his physical likeness. Saint-Gaudens had encountered Lincoln twice: in 1861, before his presidency, and during his funeral procession in 1865. Those two moments stuck in his mind.
Saint-Gaudens managed to really capture Lincoln despite not being able to have him pose in his studio… It really does speak to his mastery of the field. He began work on the sculpture in the summer of 1885, in Cornish, New Hampshire. While he was there, he recruited a local farmer who stood around six-foot-four to serve as a likeness for Lincoln. Being able to reference a person like that was very helpful.
I understand Saint-Gaudens also had access to a cast of Lincoln’s face and both of his hands? I know he referenced them and did spend significant time with them. They enriched the authenticity of the finished work.
Do we know why the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue includes a chair? Why not just show him standing? The chair is meant to be a chair of state. I’m not sure if you can see it in the photo online, but there’s an eagle on the back of the chair, which represents Lincoln’s role as president of the United States. The chair is based on the throne of a priest from the third century in Athens. I do think it was helpful to include the chair of state to contextualize the moment Saint-Gaudens captured.
What moment does the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue capture? It shows a contemplative Lincoln, his head down, one foot stepping forward, and preparing to give a speech. You can tell he’s deep in thought, and preparing for what’s to come.
What is the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue like in person? It’s incredibly beautiful in person, with a rich brown patina that stands out and draws the eye in. You can see the details in Lincoln’s face and the emotion that Augustus Saint-Gaudens really captured. There are also details on the chair and the hands as well–the hands really read true-to-life.
What is your favorite detail of the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? It’s Saint-Gaudens’s ability to infuse the work with emotion, and his ability to capture Lincoln’s character. You see the figure looking down, deep in thought. I think the details capture where he was in this moment and reflects everything that happened in his presidency, and what he was preparing for.
It’s tough to give a hunk of bronze an inner life… It is. He does it very successfully here. It’s very true to life, down to the creases in his jacket.
How heavy is the reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? Do you need more than one person to move it? It’s solid bronze, and weighs about 230 pounds, so you do need more than one person to move it.
I understand that 17 casts of the reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statuewere made. Do we know how many survive, and how many are in private hands? There are approximately 17, based on records that his wife kept. In 1982, a publication on the artist identified the locations of 12 of the bronze casts. Most were in public collections and institutions, indicating that this is one of the last ones in private hands.
What was Augusta Saint-Gaudens’s role in the production of the reduced-size version of Standing Lincoln? She oversaw the whole production process of the statues. She was very, very careful and kept good records. She only used his preferred foundries. Her advocacy on the behalf of her late husband contributed to the resulting quality of the bronzes, and contributed to Saint-Gaudens’s legacy.
Of the 17 bronzes cast, 11 were done by Gorham, and six by Tiffany. Does that matter at all to collectors? Or are there so few examples available that it’s not an issue? With the Standing Lincoln, there’s no preference. This one was cast by Gorham in 1917, but it was probably sent to Tiffany [the boutique] to be sold based on the provenance for this example.
Was the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue cast in one piece, or was it cast in multiple pieces and soldered into a whole? It’s probable it was cast in several pieces, but cast from a single bronze pattern [a tray-like mold that would have contained all the components]. We’re certain different aspects were cast and joined. But the finishing is highly exquisite. We can’t see where the joins are.
Are the bronzes in the series numbered? No, not to my knowledge. I don’t think it was standard practice to number them.
What’s the patina like on the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? And do the patinas on the other examples vary, or do they all share the same general coloration? This example presents with a beautiful warm brown patina with gold undertones. To my knowledge, it’s consistent with the others, but because I haven’t seen the other 16, I can’t confirm.
How often does this reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue come to auction? This is actually the first time at auction, at least in the past 30 years. If you go online and check the art auction sales databases, you won’t find another one.
What condition is the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue in? I can tell you it’s in excellent condition. The work was recently waxed and cleaned as well, which is a good way to maintain the sculpture.
The entire run of the reduced-size Standing Lincoln statues were cast posthumously. Does that matter to collectors at all? Do they prefer Saint-Gaudens bronzes that were cast during his lifetime? The debate is moot here. It was only ever cast posthumously. It’s not a concern for people.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a true pleasure to handle works that are as rare as this. It could be the first and last time I handle one of these. Its meticulous details and exceptional quality resonates with me, and sticks with me. It’s one of my favorite works in the sale.
How to bid: The Saint-Gaudens Lincoln sculpture is lot 40 in the American Art sale scheduled to take place at Sotheby’s New York on June 26, 2020.
What you see: A 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet, the earliest known example of the type. Nation’s Attic estimates it at $20,000 to $40,000.
The expert: Don Creekmore, co-owner and founder of Nation’s Attic in Wichita, Kansas.
What is the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet, and why did the Navy commission it? The Mark V was the first standardized diving helmet that the Navy used. Before that, there was no standard diving helmet design. As they were developing it, entering World War I was a distinct possibility. With any war, there’s a certain amount of salvage work to be done.
Salvage work? Such as? Recovering sunken ships, or material salvaged from ships to keep the war going.
The U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet was in use for a long time, from 1916 to the mid-1980s. What made it such a useful and durable design? The job of the Navy diver who used this kind of helmet was essentially the same–doing salvage work. They’re not fighters. They’re very brave people, but their job is not combat. The Mark V really was an improvement over what was available prior to this. It has a lot of redundancy and safety [built in]. That’s why it was used by the Navy for such a long time. It was a proven safe design, the pinnacle of what’s called “hard hat diving”.
Do we have any idea how many U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmets were made, and how many survive? During the entire production run, tens of thousands were made, but I don’t know if it was closer to 20,000 or 50,000. The majority, probably 85 percent, were made during World War II, between 1942 and 1945. Another majority were made around 1918, for World War I, and a very small number were made between those two wars. It was simply due to demand from the government.
And the manufacturers didn’t build many more because the earlier-made ones didn’t need to be replaced? Exactly. The large number that was made around 1918 were relied on in the 1920s, the 1930s, and the very early 1940s. Around the 1940s, the Navy realized it drastically needed to increase its inventory.
Are there any big differences between the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmets made for the two world wars, and those made later? The only difference on the ones made later in the 20th century is the windows that the diver looks through changed from glass to plastic. That’s it. That’s how good and reliable this helmet was.
How do we know this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet was made in 1916? This one has a clear identifying plate from the manufacturer showing the day, month, and year it was made. And the serial number is in six different places on the helmet. That’s the nice thing about anything military. Commercial diving helmets from the same company had serial numbers, but not the dates. For commercial divers, who cares? But the military wants redundancy.
How do we know this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet is a prototype? There’s a number of minor differences in this helmet from the standard production helmet. On the back of the helmet, the places where the air line and the communication line would attach are opposite from where they normally would be on a standard production helmet. It also has parts from an English diving helmet. The manufacturer was trying to figure out what the U.S. Navy wanted and what would work best.
How do we know that the helmet is in “original unaltered condition”, as it says in the lot notes? When a diving helmet comes from the factory, it has tinning, a finish that covered the copper body of the helmet and prevented corrosion. It was standard on all helmets the U.S. Navy ordered. The top half of this helmet has well over 90 percent of its original tinning remaining, and the lower half has about 60 percent remaining. That’s quite unusual. The copper is exposed on the lower front half because weight belts were strapped across it, and the tinning wore off prematurely.
But no one has tried to touch it up. Correct. And nothing on here has been repaired, altered, or moved. Other than age, everything appears the way it did on the last day the U.S. Navy used it.
I’d like some help identifying what some of the fittings on the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet are. In the photo that shows the helmet from the back, there’s a long fitting that juts out at an angle. What is that for? That’s for the air line.
And the shorter, stubbier fitting at the right? Was that for the communications line? Yes. At the time, it was a relatively new feature. The U.S. Navy wanted the most advanced technology incorporated in the helmet. The line itself was a big, thick telephone cable. It hooked up to the helmet, and there was a speaker inside the helmet. You could hear through it and also talk into it, but the helmet was loud.
What made the diving helmet so loud inside? Air was blasting in there at high volume. It was very hard to hear. But it was better than what was used before. Prior to this, they had a signaling system that involved pulling on the air line. Very crude communications. The telephone line was a big advancement.
What is that solid, round, flat fitting that lines up with the wearer’s temple? That was where the telephone, or the speaker, was housed. It was positioned so it didn’t hit the diver’s head. It’s more flush with the inside of the body of the helmet rather than sticking inside it.
What’s the fitting sticking out of the jaw, which has a lever handle? That’s the spitcock valve. It was a crude thing that allowed water into the helmet, if needed, so you could spit it onto the insides of the windows if they were fogging up. It was a redundancy thing. Commercial helmets generally didn’t have a spitcock valve.
So the spitcock valve was kind of like a defogger? A secondary defogger. Air blowing inside the helmet was the primary defogger. Of course you couldn’t use your hands to wipe the insides of the windows.
What’s the gear-shaped fitting on the other side of the jaw? That’s the exhaust valve. It allows you to regulate how much air is coming into the helmet and the suit itself, to make you more buoyant or make you sink more. It’s a part that’s particularly important to this helmet, because it’s an eight-pointed star wheel. After 1918, the U.S. Navy required the wheel be changed to have four points on it. It’s very unusual and rare to see an early one still on a helmet.
What does the pattern of wear seen on the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet tell us about how it was used? It indicates it was used and tested, but I would not say it was used as primary equipment. Normally, on the very top of the helmet, you see working dents. They’re dents from using the helmet underwater, and from when the top half of the helmet is removed and set on the ground. This has working dents, but they’re fewer, and they’re minor. It indicates limited use, and careful use as well.
How would the U.S. Navy have tested this helmet? Would it have been tested empty, or with a diver wearing it, or both? It would have been primarily tested in water, at a U.S. Navy shipyard. Maybe in Washington, D.C., but it could have been tested elsewhere. The U.S. Navy may have had a tank to test the pressure and see how much the helmet could take. It would always have had a person in it.
How does this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet compare to other early Mark V helmets you’ve handled? I’ve never had one this old. Essentially, it’s the oldest. I’ve had some from 1918 in similar condition. But this Mark V being incredibly old–you don’t expect to see one in complete original condition like this. It’s almost as good as you could hope for.
What’s the story behind the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet? How was it discovered? How did it manage to survive so well? The earliest we could document it is to the 1950s, when it was purchased by two brothers in Wisconsin as a curiosity. They put it in their house with other amazing antiques that were not nautical- or diving-related. It was discovered when the brothers sold the helmet and other non-related items. That buyer contacted us in January of this year. We let them know the significance of it, and they ultimately chose to consign with us.
Do we know how the diving helmet ended up in Wisconsin? It’s hard to say how it made its way there, but the U.S. Navy did make ships up there in the Great Lakes.
What is the U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? The feeling of picking it up. It’s over 60 pounds. It retains all the elements that Navy divers would know in 1916. You look through the same old glass looked through by the guy who tested this potentially dangerous equipment. It hasn’t been polished, it hasn’t been messed with. The experience of it–that’s what the camera can’t capture.
If someone wanted to use this antique helmet on an actual dive, could they? It would need new gaskets and glass, and it would need to be tested for leaks. Then it would be in dive-ready condition.
How did you arrive at the estimate for this diving helmet? There has never been a 1916 U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet to sell at auction. I sold a 1917 Schrader helmet in 2010, for $15,100. I’ve sold other helmets from 1917 and 1918 in the $14,000 range directly, not at auction. This one, though, is the cream of the crop. This is the best and earliest Mark V you could hope to have. I feel the low end being $20,000 is very conservative, and doubling it is not too crazy. It could possibly exceed that.
Why do you think this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet is likely to meet or beat the world auction record? In my experience, the Mark V, regardless of what year it’s made, is the most popular diving helmet worldwide. We have the most demand for it. It is the style people think of when they think of diving helmets. This is the earliest one, in good condition. It has the potential to sell for the highest amount at public auction.
As of June 11, 2020, the day we’re speaking, the diving helmet has attracted two bids, the higher of which is $14,500. The auction doesn’t take place until July 18, 2020. Is it meaningful for the diving helmet to have drawn two five-figure bids this early? It’s a big plus, I think. It indicates that even this far out, it has the potential to reach its high estimate and exceed it.
Why will this U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet stick in your memory? The Mark V is our bread and butter. I’ve always wanted to find the earliest one. This is the earliest one, and it’s in incredible condition. As a dealer, it’s what you dream of. To me, it’s my one chance at handling the best, earliest example. I’m never going to forget this one.
Update: The lock of George Washington’s hair sold for $25,000.
What you see: A lock of George Washington’s hair, taken late in 1798 in Philadelphia. William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.
The expert: William Bunch, owner of William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals.
Who was the Hopkinson family? They’re a family from Philadelphia, one of the founding families, if you would. A very significant family politically, economically, and socially in colonial Philadelphia. They were friends with Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, any number of people.
How did the Hopkinson family become friends with George Washington? They were involved in the Revolution and fought the war together. They were upper echelon, not in the trenches with rifles. They drove the political process. The new American government capital was in Philadelphia then, and George Washington spent a lot of time there. In those days, the city had a much smaller footprint. What was called Society Hill was the nucleus of colonial Philadelphia.
What is the story behind the lock of George Washington’s hair? What led to him agreeing to have it clipped? It was collected in 1798 by Mrs. Oliver Wolcott, who was a friend of Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson. [Wolcott served as the country’s second secretary of the treasury from 1795 to 1800; Alexander Hamilton held the post first.] George Washington was retiring from government service after having been president. He was highly revered. He just wanted to be a farmer, but society and the politics of the day would not let him do that. President John Adams wanted to get him back in service, and Washington agreed, but only if the French invaded the United States. A November 10, 1798 letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his wife, Eliza, states he was staying at the Wolcott residence in Philadelphia and that Washington “will be here about twelve to-day”. [The auction house produced a detailed story about the background of the locket. Scroll down a bit to see the text of the Hamilton letter that contains the quote.]
So we can pin down almost precisely when the lock of George Washington’s hair was taken? We have documents outside of the Hopkinson family that provide evidence? Right, right down to who was there and why they were there. The final assumption is the lock was cut to be given to Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson as a sign of friendship and camaraderie [between Mrs. Wolcott and Mrs. Hopkinson]. Washington died a year after this was taken. I’m not going to say it’s the last lock taken from him–it was common to take locks of hair at death–but it might be the last one taken in a high-profile, ceremonial setting.
Do we know when the lock of George Washington’s hair was placed in the locket? We don’t know for sure, but I had the locket out of its frame because I wanted to test the metal to see if it was gold, and it’s not. It’s gold leaf. But it [the locket] certainly seems to be 19th century. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t mount something like that at an early time.
How do we know this is a genuine lock of George Washington’s hair? Because of where it came from. A couple dozen steamer trunks descended in the Hopkinson family. The archive was undisturbed for decades. There was no chance to play with it or mess with it. It all, pardon the expression, smells right. Given the family it comes from and the documents, books, manuscripts, and family ephemera that came out of the trunks, there’s no reason to doubt anything in there.
But the hair hasn’t been subjected to DNA testing, correct? If the future owner wants to confirm it with DNA testing, they can do that. Because it came from that family archive, and it’s backed with research that shows who did what and when, it makes all the sense in the world [for it to be genuine]. I would be astounded if it proved through DNA testing not to be George Washington’s hair.
The headline on the lot listing describes this as a “substantial” lock of George Washington’s hair. What does “substantial” mean here? As opposed to half a dozen wisps. It’s a pretty good chunk of hair. If you took the strands of hair out and stretched them out, they’d be six to eight inches in length. For the most part, I’d say it’s a sandy-silvery color that some of us get as we age–not a totally silver-haired person, like I am.
What is the locket containing the lock of George Washington’s hair like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? I don’t think so. But these objects are–inanimate objects can speak volumes about where they’ve been and what they’ve done. I’m always in awe when certain things cross my desk. All these objects have their own stories, and they all stand as silent witnesses.
How does this lock of George Washington’s hair fit that idea–how does it speak? The fact that it bore witness to a gathering of such important people, but they were no more than neighbors getting together for a farewell dinner. This is a piece of everyday life from one of the families that helped create our country. To have American history sitting on my desk is so overwhelmingly powerful… I sit in awe of the ability to touch it, handle it, learn from it, and hand it on to someone who will take care of it.
I see a blue ribbon strung through the top of the locket frame. Does that imply that the locket might have been worn as a piece of jewelry? Or is it more likely it was always displayed inside a frame? I think it was a keepsake. It was never a piece of jewelry, I think. It’s too big. It might have been hung on a wall with the ribbon as decoration.
And the lock of Washington’s hair and the rest of the Hopkinson family archive–it’s all fresh to market? Never been to auction before? This is the first time any of it has been on the marketplace.
How often do you see locks of hair from this period at auction? In my experience, it’s rare. I’ve certainly never handled anything this important. Most of the time, when hair is saved as a memento, it’s from [between] the Civil War and the end of the 19th century–things such as hair jewelry.
And to clarify–what does this lot consist of? What does the winning bidder receive? The locket, which contains the hair, and the provenance notes that were fastened to the back of the frame.
What’s the world auction record for a lock of George Washington’s hair?It was at Leland’s last year  and sold for $35,764. For material such as this, the market is not going to go down. I have no doubt [the lock of George Washington’s hair that he is handling] will hit the top end of the estimate, and it may well exceed it.
What condition is the locket in? I can’t find anything negative in terms of condition. It doesn’t look as if the hair has been out of the frame since it was placed in it.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? Because of the emotional and adrenaline boost it gives me in pursuing my auction business. Over the last 45 years, I’ve sold a lot of things. Things like this–you remember them. You just do. It’s not about the money. The money comes and goes. You cannot replace the thrill of handling things like this.
Update: The Julius Shulman photograph sold for $4,063.
What you see: Case Study House#22, a Julius Shulman photograph of the Stahl house, taken in 1960. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.
The expert: Clo Pazera, specialist at LAMA.
Who was Julius Shulman? He was an architectural photographer, born in 1910 and moved to Los Angeles fairly early, at age 10. He took up photography mainly as a hobby, taking mostly nature shots. A friend of his was an assistant to architect Richard Neutra. When he was executing the Kun residence in 1936, he went with his friend and shot pictures of the building. They were shown to Neutra, who liked them. That’s how Shulman grew into an architectural photographer. He had a natural eye and a sense of composition that suited the modern architecture movement of the moment, which was to bring the outside in. His photos complimented the aesthetic.
What was the Case Study House project? The Case Study House project was a vision by John Entenza, the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. It sponsored a competition for architects [to create] low-cost modern architecture for the post-war period. Entenza sought out particular architects, who submitted projects they were already working on or things they hoped would happen. The project ran from 1945 to 1964.
How did Julius Shulman become involved with the Case Study House project? He didn’t necessarily have a formal role in the project, but he was the go-to guy for photos at that point. A lot of architects invited to the project were people who Shulman had a working relationship with. He might have been invited by one of the architects to shoot a house. He also worked with a lot of magazines. His high-contrast photographs were very suited to the black-and-white magazines of the time.
Because the Stahl house wasn’t fully dressed. Exactly. He probably shot a few angles to see what worked, and realized it worked pretty well.
What can we tell, just by looking, how hard it was for Julius Shulman to get this shot? It seems like it was pretty difficult, but by 1960, Shulman had been a professional photographer for 20 years or more. There’s a nice oral history of the house by Curbed L.A., which includes this photo. Evidently, it did require a double exposure–a long exposure to get the city lights, and a flash bulb exposure for the interior. It’s essentially two photos, which he overlaid.
Julius Shulman shot many photographs for the Case Study House project, but this Case Study House #22 shot has unusual staying power. Time magazine included it among the 100 most influential photographs ever taken, and Los Angeles magazine called it “perhaps the most famous picture ever taken of Los Angeles”. Why do you think it resonates so strongly? It’s a really dynamic image. There’s a lot of artistry to it, in the way the lines of the house jut out and match the grid of the city, and the way that Shulman saw that and solidified the architectural vision. It’s a really amazing contrast. There’s a lot to draw the eye. And it has an aspirational quality. When you look at it today, you think, “Oh, I wish I could be living that life!”
The Case Study Houses are meant to showcase Modernist architecture, but the Julius Shulman photo of Case Study House #22 that became legendary includes human beings–the two women talking indoors. Why is this image, which is supposed to be about the architecture, better with people in it? The image of the man with his back to the camera is interesting, but has a lonely quality to it. There’s a warmth to the image of the two women, like it’s a small party on a Saturday night. They add energy that suits the image.
Did Julius Shulman know what he had the instant he shot it, or did he realize it later? I’m not really sure, but he put a lot of effort into the shot. Based on the effort he put into it, he probably thought it was going to be one that made an impact.
What was the general attitude toward Moderism in 1960, when he took this photo? I think it was sort of similar to how it is nowadays. Some are enthusiastic about it, but most prefer traditional homes. It was a fashionable thing to have a Modernist home then, but for most of the country, it was aspirational. And most Modernist homes were built in Los Angeles. Modernism may have changed the vision of what L.A. glamour was, and what the aspiration was.
How did this 1960 Julius Shulman photograph change the general perception of L.A.? This was a new idea of Hollywood glamour. The upcoming Hollywood set was more excited to live there [in a house like the Stahl house] than in a big mansion in the Hollywood hills.
What is this Julius Shulman photograph like in person? Are there aspects that the camera can’t capture? The paper itself is very glossy, and the tones of black are very deep. The contrast he’s known for comes through in the image. There’s definitely a dimensionality to it that doesn’t come through on screen.
Do we know when this 1960 Julius Shulman photo of Case Study House #22 was printed? Not really. This was definitely printed later [than 1960]. How much later is hard to say. It’s signed on the back, but there’s no Shulman studio stamp, which he sometimes used to date things. My guess is it was printed in the 1970s, based on the aging of the piece, but it’s just a guess.
Shulman shot this photograph in 1960, well before there was a secondary market for fine art photography. Do we know why he would have had it printed? He kept some for his archives. He would have printed some for publication, and sometimes, he gave them as gifts. We have another Shulman photo in the auction that he gave to the owner of the house. This was a famous image, so he may have made some to sell, or give to friends. But we’re not entirely sure [of the story] with this one.
Would Julius Shulman have been physically involved in the printing of this photo, or would he have handed that task off to others? At this point in his career, I’m guessing he had assistants to do the physical printing. It’s a pretty arduous process. I’d be surprised if he did the printing himself.
Are all the prints of Case Study House#22 gelatin silver prints, and are they all the size this one is–20 inches by not-quite-16 inches? No. They do come in a range of sizes. We had this one in 2019 in a slightly smaller size. Also, there are color versions, called chromagenic prints, or C-prints. They’re the counterpart to gelatin silver prints. It’s a similar process, but for color.
And this Julius Shulman photo is signed, but not editioned, correct? Yes. It’s signed on the back, but he really didn’t do editions.
Many of the homes that Julius Shulman photographed for the Case Study House project have since been demolished or significantly altered. Does the Stahl house still exist? If so, does it look like it did when Shulman shot it? Yes, it does still exist. In the late 1970s, the original owners largely converted it to a filming location. No one lives there, but it’s well-preserved. You can set up architectural tours, too–not at this moment, with COVID-19, but when things settle down. They happened once a week.
How often do you see this Julius Shulman photo at auction? Fairly often. I’d say a few a year. It’s one of his most popular images.
What condition is this Julius Shulman photo in? This one does have some condition issues–some creasing to the sheet, and signs of handling around the margins. We might have been more aggressive with the estimate if it didn’t have those issues.
Why will this Julius Shulman photo stick in your memory? It has the key aspect you really want from a Julius Shulman photo–a combination of a striking exterior shot of a city contrasted with an interior shot. You can really see yourself being there today.
Update: Squawk! The ancient Roman ring carved with an Indian Ringneck parrot sold for $87,000–almost six times its high estimate.
What you see: An ancient Roman ring featuring a parrot engraved on a green chalcedony stone. Christie’s estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: G. Max Bernheimer, senior vice president and international specialist head of antiquities at Christie’s.
When did engraved gems and jewelry featuring engraved gems start appearing in the historical record? In the Near East, they go back to the fourth millennium. In the Greek world, you don’t get them until the Bronze Age. At the end of the Bronze Age in 1200 B.C., there’s a gap until the late Geometric period in Greece. Seemingly with contact with the Near East, hard stones [appear] in the sixth century B.C. From there, there’s continuous usage to medieval Europe, and the context is never lost.
Is the parrot on the green chalcedony an intaglio or a cameo style of engraving? It’s an intaglio, which means it’s carved in the negative with the idea that it will be impressed into malleable material such as clay or wax, and an image will be left behind in relief. Cameos didn’t come into existence until the Hellenistic period of Alexander the Great. Cameos don’t have any function except for decoration or propaganda.
Is the stone in the ancient Roman ring in its original mount? It is. I would say for every hundred stones I might see, I find one or two in their original settings. In antiquity, they used three possible settings for finger rings: gold, silver, or bronze. Gold survives very well. Some engraved gems pop out of rings also. During excavations of Roman baths, [archeologists] have found dozens and dozens in the drains, because that’s where they ended up.
Now I’m thinking of all the stories I’ve heard about engagement rings being lost down the kitchen sink or the bathtub… There’s nothing new under the sun.
Are ancient Roman rings with gold settings more likely to survive intact? There’s a much higher possibility for them to survive because of their gold.
How often do you see birds portrayed on ancient Roman rings? Animals are always a popular subject. As for parrots, there are quite a few out there. Parrots are pretty popular. They were portrayed decoratively on mosaic floors, in reliefs, and on sculptures–they weren’t a rare sight. Having said that, this is only the second one I’ve seen on the market.
I understand that the engraving on this green chalcedony is so precise, we can identify the species of parrot as an Indian Ringneck. How often do you come across an ancient Roman ring with an engraved gemstone that has that level of accuracy in its portrayal? I’d say it’s a unique thing to be able to identify the species of bird that precisely.
What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult it would have been to engrave the image of the parrot into the green chalcedony? The carver probably used a kick wheel, which is similar to a potter’s wheel, or a bow and drill. It’s like a bow and arrow bow. There’s a string that coils around the bow, and the bow moves back and forth, causing the drill to spin. As for how they would have carved a hard stone with iron tools when iron is softer than quartz–they used [applied] powdered emery, which has a rating of eight, harder than quartz.
Do we see evidence of how the carver made use of their tools? If you blow up the image, you can see little blobs in the feet, and in where the legs join the feathered portion of the legs. That’s the shape of the drill that was used. [If you have trouble seeing the details in the image below, follow this link and use the magnification tool.]
Ah yes! I see the blobs on the parrot’s feet. It’s kind of how they articulated the feet. Those are the tips of the drill. A larger one was used for the eye.
And I think you said you can see evidence that a wheel was used? You have two kinds of cutting devices: a pointed drill, which makes the little blobs, and you have wheels of different sizes. They’re like buzz saws, but smaller and without serrated edges. The straight lines you see in the feathers? Those are wheel cuts. The ground line on which the bird is standing is also a wheel cut.
How much work does the carving on the stone in the ancient Roman ring represent? I don’t know, but I think a day or two is quite right for a stone of this size and quality.
The stone in the ancient Roman ring is green chalcedony, and greenfeatures prominently in the plumage of the Indian Ringneck parrot. Is it reasonable to assume that the carver deliberately chose a green stone to match the parrot’s green feathers? I have to think yes, but there’s no way to prove it. It’s logical.
And the ring that the carver placed at the parrot’s neck helped identify the bird as an Indian Ringneck? Yes. I’d like to claim that for my own, but previous catalogers identified it. I took a look and agreed.
What is your favorite detail of the engraving on the gem in this ancient Roman ring, and why? I love the quality of it. When I looked through my books to find other examples of parrots, of all the ones I saw, this was the best of the group. The others were good, but not as good as this. I think it’s the finest example of a parrot on a Roman gem.
I realize we can’t hop in a time machine and go back and watch the creation and sale of this ancient Roman ring, but why might someone have wanted a gold finger ring with a gemstone carved to look like a very specific exotic parrot? Why this bird? It could have been a pun on the owner’s name. He could have had an Indian Ringneck as a cherished pet. He could have been in the animal business. We just don’t know, and we’ll never know.
But the level of detail we see in the parrot–that points to it being a custom commission, surely? In the ruins of Pompeii, there’s a gem carver’s workshop, and there were a lot of gems finished and ready to go. We don’t know if they were commissioned, or on spec, and there’s no way to know.
What is the ancient Roman ring like in person? It’s a heavy, beautiful, high-carat gold. Almost all ancient gold tends to be that way, 97 percent gold. It’s a nice, solid hoop that tapers a little bit from the widest point of the bezel at the back.
Have you tried on the ancient Roman ring? I can’t tell you what size it is, but I know I had it on my finger. I can’t remember if it slid all the way down or not. I remember it feeling heavy. Some rings are made out of thin sheet gold hammered over softer material. This is made out of more gold than some. It has a very nice feel to it.
How big is the green chalcedony? The whole thing is 1 1/16th of an inch wide at its widest point. I’d guess the gem is 3/4 of an inch wide.
Could you use this ancient Roman ring if you wanted to? Could you stamp the stone into clay or wax and see the parrot impression? Absolutely. If we were not under a pandemic, I would have an exhibition. I would have knobs of clay under the jewelry cases, and I’d take impressions for people.
And I understand its provenance is notable? What makes it so special is it’s documented back to the 17th century. It was known in the collection of Francesco Boncompagni, who died in 1641, and it passed down in his family for generations until Giorgio Sangiorgi bought it. We know he bought it in 1933 because he published a journal article about it in that year.
How does condition come into play with something that’s as old as this ancient Roman ring? Again, it’s about the beauty of the object. The setting has some surface scratches, but overall, its condition is very, very good.
What’s the world auction record for an ancient engraved gem or a piece of ancient jewelry with an engraved gem? Was it set with you at Christie’s? Yes and yes. The record was set in part one of this collection, which sold in April of 2019. It was a black chalcedony intaglio portrait of Antinous, a young man we know was a favorite of Emperor Hadrian. He died tragically in an accident in the Nile. It was estimated, conservatively, at $300,000 to $500,000 and sold for $2.1 million. It’s a fragment, but what a fragment!
Why will this ancient Roman ring stick in your memory? It’s just so delightful. When you look at this thing, it makes you happy. And you see it exactly the way it was meant to be seen. It’s a connection to the ancient world–it’s personal, it’s immediate, and you experience it the way an ancient person would have experienced it.
What you see: A Joseph Whiting Stock portrait of an unknown sea captain, rendered circa 1847 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Eldred’s estimates it at $12,000 to $15,000.
The expert: Joshua Eldred, president of Eldred’s and head of its fine arts department.
Who was Joseph Whiting Stock? Do we know much about him? We know a fair bit. He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and like most itinerant artists, he went where the work took him. He had an accident as a kid [when he was eleven, an oxcart fell on him, paralyzing his lower body], and his doctor encouraged him to take up painting. Most of these people were self-taught. It was before photographs, so there was a demand for portraits.
How prolific was he? Has anyone done a census of his works? I think it’s more in the hundreds than the thousands. He died young, at 40, of tuberculosis. Looking at auction records, only 27 Joseph Whiting Stock paintings have sold over the last 25 years.
Did he make a specialty of painting sea captains? No. For the most part, he painted children, women, and family portraits from what I’ve seen.
Do we know who the sitter is in this Joseph Whiting stock portrait? We do not. I wish I did.
This Joseph Whiting Stock portrait follows what seems to bea templatefor sea captainand ship owner portraits–the sitter is pictured indoors, in a well-appointed room. He holds something connected to his work: a letter, a sextant, or a telescope, like we see here. And over one shoulder is a window that looks out on a harbor. What do we know about this painting convention? Was it invented in America? I would say it started in Europe and America adapted to it. You can tell [what it is] without knowing he’s a sea captain or a ship owner. I think he’s a sea captain because he’s holding a tool of the trade–a telescope. He’s an expert navigator. He’s sitting in an Empire chair, which would have been fashionable. He’s well-dressed, so he’s a man of importance. Stock put a ship there. Whether it’s his ship or not, he is of the seafaring trade.
But the ship Stock painted in the background offers no clues as to who the sitter is? There’s no name on the ship that we can read, and no figurehead that could help identify it. If we can figure out the name of the ship, we can figure out who the captain is. Unfortunately, we can’t ascertain that. With a lot of diligence, it [the identity of the sitter] could be figured out. We have the clue of New Bedford, Massachusetts, which narrows it down a bit.
How do we know that the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait was painted in New Bedford, Massachusetts? Purely the card on the back. [Stock’s artist’s card is attached to the back of the painting.] We can see remnants of it, and it gives a New Bedford studio address.
How do we know the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait was painted around 1847? We know from research that he was in New Bedford in 1842, and it’s very similar to a work he executed in 1847. We figure it was painted between 1842 and 1847, but it’s impossible to know for sure.
When did this style of sea captain portrait disappear? Late 19th century? It faded out toward the Victorian era. This was painted right in the height of it. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was most prevalent.
How would the sitter have used this Joseph Whiting Stock portrait? What did he want it to communicate? And would he have displayed it in the same room where he sat for the portrait? Quite possibly. There’d be artistic license, but it’s quite likely this was a room in the sitter’s house. He’s trying to show he’s a man of importance and wealth.
How is the artist’s card attached to the painting? There are four old brads patching it on. Someone put plastic over it, so it’s not going anywhere. It’s incredibly unusual to see that.
So, Joseph Whiting Stock portraits don’t usually have an artist’s card fastened to the back of the canvas? In my experience, I’ve not seen another with a card. I can’t say there’s not another example out there. We also don’t know who put the card on there. We’re not sure if it was the artist or the owner of the painting.
Are Joseph Whiting Stock portraits usually unsigned? Yes. He and most portrait painters [of the era] did not sign their works. Many were not considered trained artists. They fulfilled a need. We have to identify it by its stylistic similarity to other Stock works and this card on the back.
Maybe the clients generally didn’t want the artists to sign the works? I don’t know that it had anything to do with the clients. These were traveling artists. I don’t think they’d be considered important artists on either side. This was a trade. These artists weren’t showing at the National Academy.
What is the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait like in person? I think the photograph represents it pretty well. The only thing I’d say is when you walk around the room, the eyes tend to follow you a bit. Obviously, it’s an optical illusion, but he does have a presence to him.
I understand that Joseph Whiting Stock was disabled, and used a wheelchair. Do you see any collectors seeking his work for that reason? I haven’t heard of that interest in him, but maybe it’s an angle to play up.
Why will this Joseph Whiting Stock portrait stick in your memory? Other than not knowing who the sitter is, this checks a lot of boxes. It’s a known artist, from the right period for this sort of work, and it’s a classic example of what you look for in this type of portrait. And the sitter is a handsome man with distinctive muttonchops.
How to bid: The Joseph Whiting Stock portrait of a sea captain is lot 289 in session one of The Spring Saletaking place at Eldred’s on June 11 and June 12, 2020.
What you see: Only a Shower, an 1884 painting by Charles Burton Barber. Bonhams estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000, or $150,000 to $220,000.
The expert: Charles O’Brien, head of the 19th century paintings department at Bonhams.
Who was Charles Burton Barber? He was an English artist who studied at the Royal Academy. He was eventually a London-based artist who became a favorite of Queen Victoria from the 1870s onward.
How prolific was he? We don’t know how many pictures he painted. He doesn’t appear to have kept an account book. Given the meticulous detail of his exhibition pictures–he showed over 30 works at the Royal Academy–and the fact that he was only 49 when he died, I don’t think he was particularly prolific.
Where was he in his career whenhe painted this picture? He was probably at the top of his game. He was a well-known artist, and some of his best works were painted in the 1880s. A successful artist of this period would be a wealthy man.
Do we know how this Charles Burton Barber painting came to be? Did he paint it as a commission, or on spec [without a buyer in mind]? It was painted specifically for an exhibition, with an eye toward being sold. He was elected a member of the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in 1883, and in 1884, he would have wanted to make an impression as a newly elected member. He wanted to put his best foot forward.
What do we know about how Charles Burton Barber worked? Would he have used reference photographs, or posed models in his studio? We don’t know whether he used photographs. To me, Only a Shower is a bit too stylized to be based on a photo. He probably used live models. There’s a very similar girl who seems to appear in many of his pictures. Whether the model is a member of his family, we’re not entirely sure. There’s a lot we don’t know. A lot is supposition.
So the girl pictured here might be his daughter? We know he had children, but we don’t know that he had a daughter. I think it’s quite likely she is [his daughter]. You don’t have to pay a daughter to model.
Are the dogs his? We don’t know. The dog in the foreground looks a bit like a collie that’s reminiscent of a dog that belonged to Queen Victoria. But it’s all supposition. I’m sure they would have been actual dogs, but where he saw them, we don’t know.
Is it typical for Charles Burton Barber paintings to have a narrative, as Only a Shower does? Completely. He wasn’t formulaic, but single figures and animals–usually girls and dogs–were very much his thing at the time. I’ve tried to work out how old she is in the painting. She’s got a very young face, but she [looks to be] mid- to late teens. I think Only a Shower is about a liaison with an admirer. There’s a letter on the table to the right, which was very often used in Victorian paintings to suggest a person who’s involved who can’t be seen. This is not just wanting a ride on a horse. It’s an assignation delayed by the weather. She’s upset because she’s not in the arms of her beau. That’s my reading of it. The flowers on the table might be a gift from him.
I admit I completely missed the letter on the table, and the flowers. I genuinely thought she was sad only because the weather cancelled her ride. Because we don’t have commentary from Charles Burton Barber, a lot of it is left to the imagination. Clues are left in the picture, and you cam make up what the story is about.
The lot notes quote Harry Furniss, the artist’s biographer, saying that Barber “discovered the fact that the public bought pictures of children and dogs.” Is that still true? Yes, absolutely. Within the 19th century market, subject matter is really important. Paintings featuring children and/or dogs are very popular, and always have been.
What is your favorite detail of this Charles Burton Barber painting? I like the head of the terrier. It’s fantastically well painted. Your eye is drawn to her face, and then the top right-hand corner, to the dog. It’s beautifully modeled, really alert and alive. For me, it’s the best part of the picture.
He really nails her body language–the despondent face, and the full-body slump. He was trained at the Royal Academy. He knew body forms. For me, it’s brought together by the incredible light and shade. It’s a remarkable painting, it really is.
He seems to impart attitudes to the dogs as well, particularly the grey one lurking near the window. Its sadness seems to reflect hers. Completely, absolutely. He worked with dogs for a long time, and understood how they empathize with humans, and he was able to paint in an extraordinary manner. It comes through in the composition. Other Victorian artists could paint as well as Charles Burton Barber, but they weren’t able to paint a narrative.
What is the Charles Burton Barber painting like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t capture? It has better depth than the reproduction that appears in the catalog. The area around the top of the window, where the curtain is pulled back to one side, has a feeling of the outside that’s lacking in the reproduction.
How often do Charles Burton Barber paintings appear at auction? There have been about 70 sales in the last 35 years. Many have been watercolors or sketches. Pictures like this–exhibition pictures–don’t come up often. Only six or seven have been comparable to this in quality or importance.
Why will this Charles Burton Barber painting stick in your memory? It’s a really, really, really top-class Victorian painting. Works of this quality don’t come around all the time. To me, it works because the narrative is strong, sentimental without being mawkish. And it’s a poignant subject, given what we’re living through right now–we’re in a ghastly lockdown, and this is a lockdown by nature. It will live in my mind simply because of the times we’re living in.
Update: The George Hunzinger chair sold for $1,750.
What you see: A George Hunzinger chair made from beech wood and dating to 1869. Wright estimates it at $1,000 to $1,500.
The expert: Megan Whippen, senior specialist at Wright.
Who was George Hunzinger? He was born in Germany and came from a family of cabinetmakers. When he came to the U.S., he mostly lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He was a pretty unconventional designer with a unique aesthetic that he paired with technical innovations made possible in the 19th century.
Do we know how old he was when he came over from Germany? He was about 20 years old.
And I take it his family taught him how to make furniture? It’s assumed. There’s not a lot of information, to be honest, but it was a family craft.
Do most or all of Hunzinger’s furnishings look like this chair, or did his style evolve from something more traditional to what we see here? All his hallmark designs were made in the U.S.
And he would have worked in New York City? He was in Brooklyn in the 1860s and moved to Manhattan. It was a pivotal move. His business was taking off, and it definitely accelerated after the move. He had as many as 50 people working for him at the apex of his career.
How prolific was George Hunzinger? Has anyone attempted a count of his works? Unfortunately, that information is lost. What’s distinct about Hunzinger’s work is he applied for patents–he had 21 patents on his designs. It’s rare for a 19th century furniture maker to have 21 patents to his name, and to have an unusual and eclectic style that sets him apart.
Did Hunzinger have a patent on this chair that you’re offering? There’s an actual patent for the 1869 chair. He made very small changes, but it’s almost exactly [like] the patent in its details.
What does the patent application or patent paperwork tell us about this George Hunzinger chair? It doesn’t really tell us about the chair, it’s more that he went ahead and got the patent. That set him apart from his contemporaries. The chair has a mark on it that notes the patent. Marking the chair with that information shows it’s something [he’s] proud of.
Does George Hunzinger’s work change over the course of his career? Arethere clear phases? Not really. This [the style that we see in this chair] was an aesthetic that carried through his career. To my eye, what defines the differences in the pieces is his clear experimentation with technique and certain structural elements within the chair itself. It set his chairs very far apart from what was being done by his contemporaries.
Was George Hunzinger’s furniture appreciated in his time, or only later on? It’s hard to say. The documentation we can see shows that he had a successful business.
Was this George Hunzinger chair a one-off? There’s no question some chairs were made in multiples, and he made distinct chairs as well. There have been other forms of this chair at auction previously.
The lot information for the George Hunzinger chair describes it simply as a “chair”. Where would it have gone within a house? I’m guessing this wasn’t meant to be placed at a dining room table… There’s not a lot of information to that end. Though it’s radical in its stylistic sensibility, it was functional furniture. But I don’t think it was a chair for everyday [use].
What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this George Hunzinger chair was to make? When you look at the form itself, you see really intricate construction details in it. I would think it’s a very hard piece to produce. A lot of hallmarks of his innovative designs are included, such as the diagonal legs and the rounded crest rail at the top.
Much of the George Hunzinger chair’s frame looks like metal piping translated into wood. Yes, a lot of that is that steel element and joinery to make the concept a reality.
Steel element? He would introduce steel wiring in his furniture’s construction, and allow things that traditional joinery would not have. The overall construction and aesthetic was made possible by innovations he experimented with. He was doing things none of his contemporaries tried.
What is the George Hunzinger chair like in person? Unfortunately, because of [COVID-19-related] travel restrictions, I haven’t seen this chair firsthand. I can say the camera captures the delicacy of the form. Its most captivating feature is the intricacy of the design. There’s so much detail in the frame of the chair and all the elements of the chair. Not one part hasn’t been fully thought through.
I realize you haven’t had the chance to sit in this George Hunzinger chair, but have you sat in others made by him? I’ve never had the opportunity to sit in one. I’ve witnessed them and looked at them, but never had the opportunity to sit.
How often do George Hunzinger pieces show up at auction? Once a year? Or sometimes more than that. They appear pretty regularly on the auction market in varying degrees of originality and what’s been done to them.
Itake it that the upholstery on the George Hunzinger chair is not the original upholstery, yes? Not in any way. It’s later upholstery, but it’s pretty common not to have the original upholstery. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum have George Hunzinger furnishings with original upholstery. It’s as intricate and rich as the detailing of the frame.
The George Hunzinger chair is part of a sale drawn from the collection of Mark Isaacson and Greg Nacozy, who were noted for their mid-century material. How does this piece fit their aesthetic? What’s really interesting about this chair is how atypical it is in the collection, but that’s what makes the collection so special. Mark Isaacson liked to include works across disciplines. He had an extraordinary eye.
How have you seen the market for George Hunzinger furniture change over time? During my career, the market for American aesthetic furniture was highly collectible in the 80s and 90s. Now we’re seeing more at auction.
Why do you think that is? I think people are looking at the material differently than they did 10 years ago. A lot of scholarly work has been done recently, and they appreciate its modernity. It’s outside of our concept of Victorian furniture.
Do we know what the world auction record is for a piece of George Hunzinger furniture? I’ve seen individual chairs go for $10,000.
Why will this George Hunzinger chair stick in your memory? For me, this chair is about Mark Isaacson and his vision as a collector. As a young specialist in the field, I went back to the Fifty/50 collection [the gallery Isaacson founded in New York in 1981]. It defined what collecting 20th century arts was at the time. There are some true masterworks in the collection, and we get to celebrate its full story.
What you see: A Stevens model 44 .25-20 single shot rifle, given to Annie Oakley. Morphy Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $400,000.
The expert: Michael Salisbury, firearms expert at Morphy Auctions.
Who was Annie Oakley? In the 1880s, exhibition shooting was extremely popular, like football or baseball is today. A well-known traveling exhibition shooter, Frank Butler, came to a Cincinnati hotel owned by Jack Frost. Him coming to town was a great event. At the time, Annie Oakley was known as Phoebe Ann Moses. She was providing game meat to the restaurants at Frost’s hotel, and everybody knew she was an incredible shot. Frost arranged a shooting event. Moses beat Butler by one shot, and a romance began. She married Butler in 1882.
How did Phoebe Ann Moses become a star? In 1885, Butler was looking for his big break. When one of Buffalo Bill Cody’s exhibition shooters fell ill, Butler and Moses applied for the slot. The focus became Annie Oakley because she was a beautiful lady and an incredible shot.
When did she take the name Annie Oakley? Soon after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1885. The reason is unknown, other than it was popular for performers to have stage names. Perhaps Cody recommended she do so. There is much conjecture on the subject [of how she chose her stage name]. Her sisters, growing up, would call her “Annie”. The name “Oakley” is believed to have come from a town near where she grew up.
No one alive today saw Annie Oakley perform in person, yet we’re still talking about her, almost a century after her death. Why? Why is her legacy so strong? The most important thing is exhibition shooting was a man’s sport. It was a big event, her being a lady and outshooting men. She was kind of ahead of her time. She really promoted hunting and shooting to young ladies. She made incredible shots with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. She was one of the stars. Hers is an interesting story that stuck with people.
Why was Annie Oakley so exceptionally skilled with firearms? What made her a standout? Obviously, she had incredible hand-eye coordination. In her autobiography, she said she had an inherent love of firearms and hunting. It was unusual for a lady, but it developed out of necessity. She was seven when her father died. In the book, she says, “I remember how I struggled to master the family’s 40-inch cap and ball Kentucky rifle, which I finally did much to my pride, I was eight years old at the time.”
That rifle was 40 inches long? Sounds like it was almost as long as her own body when she learned how to use it. Here was this little girl, taking the rifle off the wall and into the woods to shoot game to feed her mother and sister. I think her coordination, her ability, and her willpower contributed to her being an incredible markswoman.
The lot notes don’t give a date for the Annie Oakley gun. Do we know when it was made? Stevens was developing the model 44 rifle in 1893, and Annie and Frank Butler moved into their first home together in Nutley, New Jersey in 1893. Those dates coincide. My theory is Stevens gave the gun to Annie Oakley as a Christmas gift or a housewarming present. That would explain the “Nutley, N.J.” inscription on the left side of the gun’s frame. The Stevens records are not complete for that period.
Where was Annie Oakley in her career in 1893? She was at the height of her career. She had toured Europe eight times with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and done hundreds of shows in America. She gave performances for royalty and the elite. There’s a story that Kaiser Wilhelm II [of Germany] challenged her to shoot the ashes off his cigarette. She took the challenge. There are all kinds of different accounts–some say he had the cigarette in his hand, some say it was in his mouth–but she shot the ashes off his cigarette. When World War I began, she’s noted as having written Kaiser Wilhelm II a letter saying she wanted another shot. [Laughs] She was a daring woman who had a sense of humor.
How did this Annie Oakley gun come to be? Let me tell you a story. Every firearms manufacturer in the U.S. gave Annie Oakley firearms. It was no different than Nike sending Michael Jordan shoes he could wear. She was a rock star. Everybody wanted to go to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. It was a huge event. And I don’t know if it was her intellect or her desire to shoot different weapons, but Annie Oakley never settled on one type of gun. She used a wide variety of firearms. She’d hear about, for example, a new type of Winchester rifle, and would write to the manufacturer saying she’d like to have one, and of course they’d send her one.
It sounds like Annie Oakley was the 19th century version of an influencer. The Stevens company was developing this gun, the model 44, and gave it to Annie Oakley. It was one of their very first ones. Later on, the model 44 became Stevens’s most famous and best-selling firearm.
So this gun has inherent value, even without the Annie Oakley provenance? Yes. It’s a very desirable weapon. If you find an early Stevens model 44, embellished, in near mint condition, it’d be worth $15,000 to $20,000. The connection with Annie Oakley increases that tenfold or more.
This Annie Oakley gun is a single-shot rifle. Why is that important? Stevens’s claim to fame as a manufacturer was very accurate single-shot rifles and pistols. That’s what they did, and they would have wanted to promote that.
Did Annie Oakley use this gun during a performance? I do believe, in my heart, it was special to Annie because it commemorates her and Frank’s first home together. I think it was hung on the wall and never used, but all this is speculation on my part.
The Annie Oakley gun is described as being in “near mint overall” condition. What does that mean when we’re talking about vintage firearms? Typically, what it means is it has 97 to 98 percent of its original finish. In this case, it means the bluing on the barrel and the gold on the frame has no more than two to three percent loss on any part of the gun. This gun has that.
What has to happen for a vintage firearm to survive in such good condition? This gun was well-cared for. They knew how to handle a firearm, and they kept it dry and clean and never used it.
The Annie Oakley gun has never been fired?Not even by her? Not even by her.
Really? Never fired? I’m sure it was test-fired at the Stevens factory. It’s impossible for me to say Annie Oakley never shot this gun. I don’t have any doubt that she took it to her backyard and shot an apple off the head of her dog, Dave. But there’s no record of it. There’s no photos or illustrations of her shooting it.
So I take it you haven’t fired this Annie Oakley gun either. Certainly not!
Does the Annie Oakley gun function? Can it fire? Absolutely. You can take this gun out and fire it today.
How can you be sure that the Annie Oakley gun works if you or someone else at Morphy Auctions hasn’t fired it? You operate the action. You pull the trigger, and it fires the firing pin.
Why do collectors require vintagefirearms to work when no one in their right minds will ever load and shoot them? For the same reason you wouldn’t want to buy a half-million dollar Ferrari with an engine that doesn’t run. Same thing.
What is the Annie Oakley gun like in person? Are there details that the camera doesn’t capture? Yes. On most engraved guns, the engraving isn’t that deep. This is very deeply engraved and has an almost 3-D look to it. The finishes are so vivid, and the wood is incredibly well-figured–beautiful, beautiful wood. It’s very rare to find a gun of this age in near mint condition. It’s a work of art, and the canvas here is wood and steel.
How many guns with firm Annie Oakley provenances are out there? There are three or four guns I’m aware of, by L.C. Smith, Parker, and Marlin. Most of these guns are in museums. This is one of the few with an Annie Oakley provenance that’s in private hands.
As we’re speaking on May 22, 2020, the Annie Oakley gun has been bid up to$100,000. Is that at all meaningful at this stage? Yeah, it’s a good indicator that there’s interest there, and there’s going to be some robust bidding on the gun.
Do you think this Annie Oakley gun has a chance of meeting or beating the record? Yes, for a couple of reasons. One, our gun has higher condition. [The Rock Island Auction Company’s lot notes described the Marlin as “exceptionally fine” and retaining 70 percent of its original gold plating.] Two, our gun is factory-inscribed to Annie Oakley. And three, I think Nutley New Jersey, Annie and Frank’s first address, is important.
Why will this Annie Oakley gun stick in your memory? I’ve had a connection with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show my whole life, and I’ve had an interest in Annie Oakley and the performers in the show. Buffalo Bill’s partner in the show was Nate Salisbury, a relative of mine. Nate had a deluxe engraved Winchester rifle. I have that gun in my collection. He and Annie Oakley were friends. It’s been a privilege to research the gun and be connected with the gun.
Update: The Admiral Yamamoto rank flag sold for $40,000.
What you see: Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag, flown on the Japanese naval vessel, the Nagato. Heritage Auctions does not generally give ranged estimates, but is opening bidding for the flag at $10,000.
The expert: James Ferrigan, consulting vexillologist [flag expert] for Heritage Auctions.
Who was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, and what role did he play in World War II? Isoroku Yamamoto was a Japanese admiral of the Imperial Japanese navy and the Commander in Chief (CIC) of the Combined Fleet during World War II. He was responsible for much of the IJN’s pre-war modernization, especially in the area of naval aviation. He planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, even though he personally opposed war with the United States due to his years at Harvard University and his service as naval attaché in Washington. He remained the commander of the Combined Fleet until his death in 1943.
What is a rank flag, and how were rank flags used during WWII? A rank flag signifies the rank of a military officer, ashore or afloat. During WWII rank flags were used as they have been since the age of sail–to indicate the physical presence of the officer in command. Rank flags are still used today in the same way.
Do rank flags mark a vessel as a flagship? If so, did this rank flag serve that purpose when it flew on the Nagato? Yes, when a vessel wears a rank flag, that makes it, by definition, a flagship. And, yes, that was this flag’s purpose on the Nagato.
Did a vessel typically have a single rank flag, or would it have or need more than one? A capital ship [a significant vessel in a naval fleet] would have a complete suite of flags for all the flag officers who might hoist “his flag” on the flagship. There would likely be large and small flags for both routine and ceremonial use.
Do we know how many rank flags the Nagato had? I know of six: two for rear admirals, two for vice admirals, and two for full admirals. I would guess there were more. Admirals are like peacocks–they like to show off.
I understand this flag was flown on the Nagato. Why is the Nagato important? What role did the vessel play in WWII? The Japanese battleship Nagato was the lead ship of her class. She was sleek, with rakish lines, powerful engines, and eight 16-inch guns mounted in four turrets. The Nagato spent much of her service as a flagship for the Imperial Japanese navy and, for that reason, did not engage in ship-to-ship combat. She was the only Japanese battleship to survive the war.
How did the Nagato manage to escape and survive the war? It’s not so much a question of escape, but how she was being used. The Nagato was modestly damaged on a sortie, and the Japanese realized they didn’t have the fuel to keep her operating. They turned the Nagato into a coastal defense ship. When U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz made it his goal to take out the last Japanese capital ships, the Nagato was damaged, but she did not sink. She could have had sorties, and one was proposed for August 1945, before the Japanese emperor surrendered. Then nuclear weapons were dropped, ending the war. That’s how she survived.
This Admiral Yamamoto rank flag measures 99 inches by 152 inches, and the lot notes indicate that it’s bigger than similar Japanese rank flags. Do we know why this flag is bigger? Is it fair to assume it’s deliberately bigger than other Japanese rank flags? And how might the term “Big Six,” which appears on the flag in Japanese characters, relate to its larger-than-average size? It is likely that Yamamoto’s flag was the largest because a full admiral was the highest ranking officer in the Imperial Japanese navy, as in all navies. It’s fair to assume this is why it was larger. The term “Big Six” was likely a field expedient nickname created by the signalmen on the Nagato, as in, “The admiral’s coming aboard, hoist the Big Six.”
The lot notes say the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag “was likely shipboard made”. Does that mean that it was stitched by Japanese sailors aboard the Nagato? Flags made at a navy yard were often all machine-sewn. This flag had hand stitching that was very likely done by sailors aboard the Nagato, so it “was likely shipboard made.”
The Admiral Yamamoto rank flag has eight unequal rays projecting from the red sun at the center. Does the number or the position of the rays have any particular meaning? The number of rays differentiates the rank flag from the Japanese national ensign, which has 16 rays.
Wait, I thought an ensign was the same thing as a flag. How are they different? “Flag” is a generic term. An ensign is a flag of national character flown at sea.
The lot notes say the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag “likely represented Admiral Yamamoto in 1941-1942”. What evidence supports this idea? Deductive reasoning. This is a rank flag for a full admiral, and Yamamoto was the only full admiral to use the Nagato as his flagship.
Where, exactly, on the Nagato would the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag have been flown? It was a universal custom among both Allied and Axis navies during WWII to indicate the status of a commissioned warship with a pennant worn at the maintop [a platform on the ship’s mainmast] or other conspicuous hoist [position on the ship]. Whenever a warship was designated as a flagship, the flag-officer’s rank flag replaced that pennant.
Was this Admiral Yamamoto rank flag flying on the Nagato during the attack on Pearl Harbor? Did the vessel take part in the attack? Yes, it is thought that this was the flag used by Yamamoto while serving as CIC aboard the Nagato during the Pearl Harbor attack. It was on Nagato‘s flag bridge that he issued the now infamous command, “Niitaka yama nobore” (Climb Mount Niitaka), a coded signal to proceed with the Pearl Harbor attack.
How do we know this was Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag? It was not his in a personal property sense, but rather his by use. He was the only full admiral to use the Nagato as a flagship, therefore the flag became “his.”
How often do Japanese rank flags of any type come to market? Japanese naval rank flags occasionally come to market, generally without provenance. Since all but one of the Japanese battleships were sunk during WWII, documented rank flags from those ships are exceedingly rare. Rank flags are far less common than ensigns or national flags.
Does this auction mark the first time this Admiral Yamamoto rank flag has come up for sale? Yes, this flag is fresh to the market, having been in private hands since 1945.
How, exactly, did the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag leave the Nagato?This flag was acquired a trophy of war on August 30, 1945, taken by a member of a prize crew: Prince “Ted” Duncan, a 37-year-old chief boatswain’s mate and the Iowa’s master-at-arms. He left the Nagato with this huge Admiral’s rank flag of the Imperial Japanese navy, a piece of halyard, and 20 small Japanese silk stick flags and ensigns.
The lot notes say the rank flag was “hauled down” on August 30, 1945, but Admiral Yamamoto died in April of 1943. Why was the flag still able to function as a rank flag after the admiral’s death? It’s unclear why the Nagato may have been wearing a full admiral’s flag. A review of the Nagato’s WWII service record reveals that she served as a flagship for a full admiral only from December 7, 1941 until February 12, 1942–for Admiral Yamamoto. At all other times, she was the flagship of either a vice admiral or a rear admiral. Perhaps the Nagato wore this flag one last time in homage to Yamamoto, or the term “hauled down” was a sailor’s tale. Either way, this was the only Admiral’s flag taken as a trophy on August 30, 1945.
What is the provenance of this rank flag? How did it go from the Nagato to this auction? And how did it manage to survive in this condition for the better part of a century? It went from the Nagato to Prince “Ted” Duncan as a trophy of war on August 30, 1945. It stayed with him until the 1960s, when he gave it to Richard Brundo, a former mayor of Culver City, California. Brundo died in 2016. A descendant consigned the flag.
What is the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag like in person? Are there aspects or details that the camera doesn’t capture? For example, what is it like to touch the fabric? Is it substantial? The flag is a good quality wool bunting. It has a soft hand–it is not a roughly woven fabric. The stitching is well executed and substantial.
What condition is the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag in? And what role does condition play when we’re talking about WWII-era Japanese rank flags–are they so rare that collectors have to be more forgiving of stains and rips and other injuries? Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag from the Nagato is in good condition–used, worn, and soiled, but otherwise intact. That would be expected in that there is a certain prestige in being a flagship, let alone that of the Combined Fleet. The signalmen would have taken care of such a rank flag.
With game-worn sports uniforms, collectors want to see enough wear to show that the garments were used in a real game, but not so much that they look as if they were dragged under a bus. Is that the case with battle-flown flag collectors? They want to see some wear, but not too much? Condition is everything. Most damage to flags occurs from use, the weather, or the environment. We rarely see documentable damage from ship-to-ship combat. Rank flags are in good condition, probably for that reason–they were probably not exposed to direct enemy fire. We don’t expect to see that kind of damage. Looking at this flag, you can see it was used. You can tell by the nap of the wool if it was exposed to the elements. This one was. The spotting on the fly edges [the edge opposite the edge that attaches to the flagpole] is not egregious and gives the flag a little character. It doesn’t detract from its appearance.
Among the photos sent over by Heritage Auctions is a quartet of period black-and-white images showing a ship and its crew from various angles. Could you explain what I see here? Those appear to be images of the Nagato taken on August 30, 1945 by the United States Navy’s Prize Crew. They are views of different aspects of the Nagato at anchor in Tokyo Bay. One depicts the prize crew with the Nagato’s ensign, which was conveyed to the US Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis, MD.
What is the world auction record for a World War II-era rank flag? What are the odds that the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag will meet or exceed it? The highest price of which I am aware is $6,000. I have no crystal ball, but I would expect this flag to meet and exceed this. It’s got the Nagato cachet, but it’s even rarer. It was only displayed in the presence of a full admiral, and the only full admiral present was Yamamoto.
Why will this rank flag stick in your memory? It has the triple crown of historic importance. It’s from a distinguished individual, Admiral Yamamoto. It’s from a distinguished vessel, the Nagato. And it’s associated with a historic event, the attack on Pearl Harbor. For me, personally, as a flag scholar, I’d love to see it go to a museum.
Update: WHOA! The 1959 Martin D-18E guitar that Kurt Cobain played on the 1993 MTV Unplugged episode featuring Nirvana commanded just over $6 million–$6,010,000, to be exact. It did indeed set several world auction records, including most expensive guitar at auction; most expensive Martin guitar; and most expensive item of Nirvana memorabilia.
What you see: A 1959 Martin D-18E guitar, played by Kurt Cobain for Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged episode. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $1 million.
The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.
Who was Kurt Cobain, and why does his music still resonate today? Kurt Cobain was the lead singer, guitar player, and writer for the band Nirvana, which had a short lifespan. Cobain died tragically in April 1994, but the peak of his fame was 1991 through 1994. Grunge music and grunge clothing represents an era of music, an attitude, Gen X–so many things are wrapped up in it. Nirvana has music and lyrics that have meaning to us all right now.
I get the sense that there’s not a lot of Kurt Cobain material out there to be had. Is that right? That’s absolutely true. There’s a very limited amount of stuff out there. Kurt Cobain was a minimalist guy in a minimalist era. The majority of the stuff is still with the family. We sold a Fender guitar of his last year for $340,000. And the green cardigan [he wore during the MTV Unplugged episode] we sold for $334,000. I think Kurt Cobain would be laughing and crying at the same time [over the result]. He bought it for a few bucks in a thrift shop, and it has cigarette burns and stains. And he wrote great songs, but he was also an artist from a very young age. When his drawings come to market, they can get $7,000, $8,000, $9,000.
I guess Kurt Cobain is kind of like John Lennon, in a way. Exactly. There’s a lot of crossover between Kurt Cobain and John Lennon. The Beatles transformed music and our attitude to music in the 1960s. Nirvana did it again in the 1990s.
Do we know when and how Kurt Cobain acquired this 1959 Martin D-18E guitar? Kurt Cobain played many guitars and broke many guitars on stage. It was part of his show, and part of his schtick. He bought this in the early 1990s at Voltage Guitars, a store in Los Angeles. Martin made 302 of those D-18E guitars. They’re rare and highly collectible. This guitar is number seven in the production run.
What might have moved Kurt Cobain to purchase this vintage guitar? He bought it for a couple of reasons. Kurt Cobain was a left-handed guitar player, and it’s easy to adapt a Martin guitar for left-handers. He also added a Bertolini pickup. That made it an electric guitar–it was still acoustic, but it was modified for electricity. [Since this story went live on May 18, 2020, Lloyd Chiate, owner of Voltage Guitars, offered a correction: The Martin D-18E is, in fact, an electric guitar. While we can no longer ask Cobain why he added the Bertolini pickup, he may have done so to improve the guitar’s tone and its performance during recording sessions.]
MTV Unplugged was a well-regarded, even prestigious musical showcase before taping the Nirvana episode, but that 1993 show is great enough to demand its own category. Why? What makes it such a magnificent performance? Kurt Cobain ruled the roost with that production. He designed the stage, the candlelight, the chandelier–all his decision. There were 14 songs, including six covers from the Vaselines, David Bowie, Lead Belly, and the Meat Puppets. He had members of the Meat Puppets on stage during the performance. It was shot in one take, which is the first time that had happened for MTV Unplugged. Everything Kurt could give, every single ounce, he laid it out in that performance. Five months later, he was gone.
Do you think, maybe, Kurt Cobain approached the look and feel of the MTV Unplugged performance and made those choices knowing he might not be around much longer? For me, it’s hard to say, but with hindsight, the candles, the lilies–it was almost a funeral parlor type of setting. He certainly seized the moment to deliver an unforgettable performance for us all. He poured it out there, and the Martin guitar was the canvas that he used. Kurt is gone, but the guitar remains of this historic event.
Did Kurt Cobain use this Martin guitar exclusively for all 14 songs in the MTV Unplugged set list, or did he switch it out for another instrument for some songs? I believe this was the only guitar Kurt used during MTV Unplugged.
This one is a weird one for me because Nirvana is part of my life. I remember where I was when I got the news of Kurt Cobain’s death, and I connected with his outlook on things… He didn’t want to be famous. He didn’t love fame at all, or music executives, or studios. [In the MTV Unplugged episode] he looked to elevate less well-known bands. The 14 songs included Lead Belly. He had the Meat Puppets. He could have had more famous artists, but he said no, we want the Meat Puppets.
The Kurt Cobain guitar comes with the hard case that he stored it in. How unusual is it to have a guitar from a name musician that retains its carrying case? I wouldn’t say it’s very rare. It’s fairly common. If it’s a special guitar, I’d say a hard-shell case is attached to it. What’s really interesting is it’s not a custom guitar built for Kurt Cobain. It’s not a highly decorated guitar. It was made by the Martin Guitar Company in 1959. He got it in the early 1990s and he played it a lot and played it in important venues. It clearly was something special.
Yeah, I think it’s worth pointing out that the Kurt Cobain guitar is not covered in mother-of-pearl or silver or other flashy decorations. It’s a tool to do a job. He definitely had an affinity with the guitar and a sense of reverence for it. It’s a musical instrument built to deliver sound–that’s what it was used for. It doesn’t seem right to have it tricked up with all the bells and whistles. It’s a beautiful guitar with nothing ostentatious about it.
Can you talk about how Kurt Cobain decorated the guitar case, and talk about the things of his that come with the case? On the case, there’s a flyer from Poison Idea, stuck on with silver masking tape. It’s like a postcard of the 1990 album cover for Feel the Darkness. Poison Idea was a huge inspiration for Kurt and Nirvana. There’s an Alaska Airlines sticker, luggage tags on the handle, and also half a pack of guitar strings. And there’s a suede pouch, like a stash pouch, a recreational drug pouch, I’d describe it as. It has a miniature knife, fork, and spoon.
Yeah, what’s the deal with the little set of utensils? Do we know why it’s there, and how Kurt Cobain might have used it? I have no idea, but I think it was a souvenir. You can wear it [the utensils] on a lapel, but you can attach them to the pouch. The spoon is pinned to the outside of the pouch.
How do we know that this 1959 Martin D18-E guitar is the same one Kurt Cobain played in the MTV Unplugged episode? It’s so well-documented. It’s so identifiable, with the video performance. The markings on the guitar match perfectly. There’s no question this is the guitar.
You mean the scratches on the guitar match those on the guitar Kurt Cobain plays in the MTV Unplugged show? Exactly. It’s easy to match up.
Julien’s estimates the Kurt Cobain guitar at $1 million. That’s a serious number. Not many stage-played guitars get seven-figure estimates. What informed the number?Dave Gilmour’s 1969 Martin D-35 sold one year ago for $1 million, the highest price paid for a Martin guitar. Before that, Eric Clapton’s 1939 Martin OO0-42 sold for $791,500. We’ve estimated this 1959 Martin D-18E guitar at around $1 million, and I think we could set a new record for a Martin guitar, and possibly could set a world auction record for a guitar.
The world auction record for any guitar belongs to another David Gilmour guitar sold last year at Christie’s, a 1969 black Fender Stratocaster that commanded $3.975 million. You think the Kurt Cobain guitar has a shot at taking the title? This definitely has the potential, given the interest in it, and the sophisticated buyers interested in it.
Do we know what happened to the Kurt Cobain guitar after he died in 1994? How did it go from the estate to the current consigner? I have to be careful here because I’m under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). The guitar stayed in the family for many years. It comes to the market from a consigner who remains anonymous. It comes free and clear, no issues, absolutely none.
What is the Kurt Cobain guitar like in person? It’s a good, sturdy guitar. A big guitar, but not tremendously heavy. Given its age and history, it’s in very good condition. It’s been played, but it’s been cared for as well.
Have you played the Kurt Cobain guitar? No. I loosened the strings to take it on the plane [to personally escort it to London, where it’s on display until May 31, 2020 at the Hard Rock Cafe in Piccadilly Circus]. The cabin pressure on the plane could tighten them up, and they could snap. We think the strings on it are from when Kurt last played it. Nothing has been done to the guitar since then. We want the new owner to get the guitar from Kurt, as the last person who played it.
Does this June 2020 sale represent the first time the Kurt Cobain guitar has come to auction? It’s the first time it’s been to auction. We felt that $1 million was the appropriate estimate for this particular guitar because of its importance. Based on the pre-auction interest, it still feels like a conservative estimate.
Did the sale price of the Kurt Cobain green cardigan factor in to the $1 million estimate for the guitar? It certainly did. Not to take away from the sweater, but if you have the chance, would you want a grungy sweater with cigarette burns, or would you want a guitar from the same performance that you can use and play? Also, when the sweater sold for $300,000, you have to think [the guitar] should sell for at least three times that, if not ten times that.
You’ve handleda lot of amazing guitarsin your timeat Julien’s. I mean, a lota lot. Why will this one stick in your memory? It’s amazing just because I have a great personal appreciation of Kurt Cobain, and a sadness for how he’s no longer with us, and how he passed away. He was a creative genius, and became a star against his own wishes. To be entrusted with this guitar, and to be part of its story in a small way, is a massive privilege.
How to bid: The MTV Unplugged Kurt Cobain guitar is lot 742 in the Music Icons sale taking place at Julien’s on June 19 and June 20, 2020.
What you see: A silver-plated golf-themed cocktail set, consisting of a shaker and six cups and dating to 1926. Sotheby’s estimates it at $5,500 to $7,500.
The expert: Alan Bedwell, founder of Foundwell, a vintage accessories gallery.
I’d like to start by talking about the relationship between Prohibition and cocktails–specifically, how the former shaped the latter. People drank cocktails before Prohibition. You can see shaker designs that date to Victorian times. I think what revolutionized it was people began to travel to more exotic, far-off places, like Brazil and Singapore, and when they came back, they wanted to drink caipirinhas and Singapore slings here. There was a wonderful scene in the 1920s and 1930s, coming out of the gloom of World War I. People were into having fun. Cocktails became more iconic in that period for those reasons. Prohibition was a time where people were maybe having too much fun. [Laughs]
As you just said, cocktail shakers go back to Victorian times. Prohibition became law in 1920. Why did it take until 1925 for the first figurative cocktail shaker design to come along? And why did it take golf as its theme? I’d say it was more the influence of golf on design, really, than thinking “Oh, I’m going to design this”. Golf was an elitist sport at that point and few people played it. What it [this golf-themed cocktail set] did was light the touch paper, in a way. It changed the landscape of cocktail shaker design.
So whoever created this was more interested in combining golf with barware than revolutionizing barware design? Yes. Barware didn’t take a novelty appearance until this came around. You see some departures, but the shapes are not fun things like penguins. This piece is still not a huge departure. There are two classic styles [for cocktail shakers]: the cylinder and the jug, which is almost like a watering can. The watering can is similar to a golf bag. They took the handle and made it the shoulder strap of the golf bag, and put fake leather stitching on it and a golf ball on top.
Does the golf-themed cocktail set pictured here–consisting of a cocktail shaker and six cups–represent the complete set? You could buy it as a set, and the set came as eight pieces, but you could buy them as individual pieces. A complete set had a tray to go with it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t have the tray. It’s very rare. I’ve only ever seen one.
Do we have any notion of how many of these golf-themed cocktail sets were made, and how many survive? No, I’ve never been able to find records for manufacturing numbers. I’d say they’re quite rare.
Do we know how much this golf-themed cocktail set would have sold for when it was new? The eight-piece set sold for $66.50 in 1926. In 1927, a Model T Ford sold for $850, and the average monthly income was $250. It was a luxury item when it was made, and they didn’t make a lot of them, that’s for sure. As pieces go, the shaker is most common. You very rarely see the cups.
Why are the cups so rare, compared to the other pieces in the golf-themed cocktail set? They’re quite small by modern standards. The cups are three inches tall–very easy [for them] to go missing. They got lost, or thrown out.
So the cups that go with the golf-themed cocktail set no longer reflect how people drink? Essentially, today, these are shot cups. In the period, they were cocktail cups. Elsewhere in the sale we have two sets of martini glasses, one from the mid-1920s and one from the 1930s. They’re tiny compared to modern glasses–the portion sizes were smaller. What you get, liquid-wise, is less than you get today.
When you have a complete or near-complete golf-themed cocktail set, what sorts of things have to happen to allow it to remain intact for a century? It’s very rare to find everything together. Somebody cherished this over the years. Usually they come out of houses that have had them for a very long time, or collectors who have had them all their lives.
I understand you’ve had two of these golf-themed cocktail sets in your career: This one, and a second that required some assembly? The prior set I had, I bought the shaker on its own, and bought five cups from a different dealer. Very fortunately, eight to ten months later, I found a sixth cup [at a different venue] in a cardboard box of odds and ends. I had it in three different installments. It’s not unusual to find [a vintage barware set] in that kind of way.
The press release for the auction talks about the golf-themed cocktail set and says it was “perhaps intended to fool authorities by making it appear to be decorative or ornamental rather than practical”. What evidence supports that idea? And where would its original owner have stored or displayed the set when it was not in use? Alcohol consumption was heavily frowned upon. People didn’t openly display barware, or alcohol, for that matter. With the Prohibition movement, everything was put behind closed doors.
So the golf bag design for the shaker is not about fooling the cops. It’s about deflecting the attention of your cranky old aunt who will give you an earful if she sees anything in your house that hints that you might be a drinker. Exactly. A Puritan eye might look at it and think, “Oh, that’s a golf trophy”. Lot 23 is another one that can sit inconspicuously on a shelf. You think, “Oh, that’s just a bell”. You don’t think, “He’s having wild parties on the weekend and getting up to god-knows-what”.
In the photographs Sotheby’s sent over, the cups are arranged to show a decorative detail on one side, and I’m not sure what the decoration is–is it a bag strap? It’s an exact play on the body of the shaker–it has the pouch for tees, and a shoulder strap. It also [imitates] a structured, shaped golf bag and the things that went around the bag. Look at the finish of the shaker and the cups–they’re textured, because most golf bags are canvas and leather.
What do the components of the golf-themed cocktail set feel like? Do they have a good weight to them? Pretty good, yeah. With these things, you don’t want them to be heavy, but you don’t want them to be fragile. If you have a few drinks and drop it, you don’t want to break it. The only downside is that the cups are small. But it’s a really good set.
How practical is the golf-themed cocktail set? Is it easy to make and serve cocktails with it? It’s very practical. If you make a drink with ice or fruit in it, a strainer [in the spout] makes everything easier. It’s not bulky, and it’s very easy to clean when you’re done. The lighthouse shaker, a rare and important piece of cocktail design–that is big. I don’t want to put people off, but when you fill it with ice and booze, it’s heavy. This golf-themed cocktail shaker, because it’s early, it’s very useful. It’s a very loosely figural piece, a classic watering can style made to look like a golf bag. It’s a good size, and easy to mix and clean.
What condition is the golf-themed cocktail set in? And what sort of condition issues do you see with this set? I see pieces missing–the lid missing, the spout stopper missing. Sometimes the handle snaps off if people are brutish with it. And general dents and dings happen with cocktail shakers when they’re banged against each other or banged on the bar. This is in pretty damn good condition for something that’s 100 years old, and has been used. It’s got all its original silver plate, and the patina is great.
Why will this golf-themed cocktail set stick in your memory? It’s an important piece. It’s kind of the Michael Jordan of the barware world. It came into the game and changed everything. In all my years of doing it [handling vintage barware], it’s only the second one I’ve had. In this auction, we’ve got a good showcase of important designs in the catalog–we’ve got the penguin, the lighthouse, the bell. This is the superstar, because it’s the first figurative one.
Update: Sacre bleu! The tall gogotte from Fontainebleu, France sold for £27,500, or about $33,600–more than eight times its high estimate.
What you see: A gogotte formation from Fontainebleu, France. Christie’s London estimates it at £2,000 to £3,000, or $2,520 to $3,780.
The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.
What is a gogotte? At its most basic, it’s an incredibly beautiful white, sculpture-like, naturally occurring rock formation. On the scientific level, it’s silica sand and calcium carbonate that fused 30 million years ago.
How did these naturally occurring sculptures get the name “gogotte”? What does “gogotte” mean? I don’t know the etymology, and I don’t want to speculate. But we’ve known of these formations since the 18th century. There’s a grotto-like fountain at Versailles built entirely out of these.
What do we know about how gogottes form, and what conditions were present 30 million years ago that allowed them to form? They formed in the geologic unit of time called the Oligocene. The African and European [techtonic] plates were colliding, and the ocean spread up to Paris. Volcanic activity forced mineral-rich water containing calcium carbonate through sand at exactly the right temperature and consistency to get locked into position. The process was unknown for a long time–they figured it out in the last 30 years.
That’s a long time to wait, considering that gogottes have been known and collected since the 18th century. For scientists, gogottes are not necessarily an exciting formation. Only when you take them out of the context of geology do they become exciting. It’s interesting that the artistic side drove the understanding of the science [of gogotte formation], and not the other way around.
Are all gogottes white? No. The white color is from the sand–quartz, essentially. You see natural yellow coloration in many gogottes, but the more pure the color white, the more commercial it is. It’s the white color that makes them look so perfectly cloudlike and desirable.
When were the first gogottes discovered? I’m pretty certain it was in the 18th century, when [the French] were building the gardens at Versailles.
Are gogottes still being quarried in France today, or are they quarried out? I don’t know of anywhere in France that’s actively quarrying at the moment, but they found several of them in the early 2000s. “Quarrying” is a slightly more aggressive term. Many are probably lifted off the ground.
Are gogottes found only in France? You do see similar sandstone concretions elsewhere, but you don’t get the color and the sense of movement that the French ones have.
The gogotte pictured in lot 4 of the sale measures a bit more than 17 inches high and is described as “a tall gogotte formation”. Why?Are few gogottes taller than 17 inches? You can certainly have them larger than that. The descriptives I use tend to describe the impression they make on me. There are 14 gogottes in the sale. Writing “A Gogotte Formation” over and over gets a bit repetitive. Descriptives give them a bit more dynamism. It’s as simple as that.
Is this gogotte solid? What does it weigh? It is solid. If I dropped it on my toes, it’d break a few bones, but I could certainly carry it upstairs and not be upset. I’d guess it’s 20 to 25 kilos [44 to 55 pounds].
What is this gogotte like in person? Are there details that the camera can’t capture? The camera doesn’t get how three-dimensional they are. You want to stand it on a plinth and walk around it. It’s spectacular from every angle.
Have you held this gogotte? I’ve been at Christie’s for 15 years, and I’ve seen many things. For me, there are two categories that no matter how many I catalog, they’re exciting: pocket globes, and gogottes. There’s something magical about them. They’re quite a contemplative object to touch, [not unlike] the Chinese aesthetic of scholar stones.
Do the Chinese like to collect gogottes? The Chinese market is adamant about completely pure white gogottes. They don’t tolerate the yellowing that Westerners might be more forgiving of. Everybody is drawn to these natural sculptures. I’ve had collectors come [over] from Old Masters, antiquities, rare books, and contemporary art. I’ve seen gogottes stood next to contemporary art and they hold their own. It’s really amazing.
Were the 14 gogottes in the sale consigned by the same person? No.
Is it unusual to have this many gogottes in the same sale? I would say it is rare. When I put together a sale, I try to curate a good selection of different sizes and different price points. It’s fun to decide what makes the cut and the order to run them in. But I’m picky when it comes to shapes and colors in the auction. If I get offered ten, I might take only one or two.
So it’s OK to put more than a dozen gogottes in one sale, because the demand is there. With 14, there’s plenty of interest in each. It’s a bit like the art market in that there are different tastes–you want one that’s pure white, or a bit larger, or has a bit more movement to it. I expect five or six [bidders] to chase after each one.
What’s the provenance of this tall gogotte? It’s been in a French collection for at least ten years. Most of the ones on the market now are from finds in the 80s, 90s, and the early 2000s.
Can a gogotte lose its white color over time from being touched by human hands? They can. The other thing to consider–and this is ludicrous–but 30 million years is still relatively young [for a natural history specimen]. It’s not fully cooked. The surface is a bit crumbly. You could take a car key and scratch it.
I realize there are 13 other gogottes in the sale. Do you have a favorite? Lot 61 stands out for me because it has a barn owl face in it. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. I love barn owls, so that pleases me. And I’m covetous of lot 7, which has a large, rounded shape that’s quite minimalist in appearance. I’ve not seen one that minimalist and that large before.
Why will the tall gogotte stick in your memory? There’s something about it that seems optimistic, like a rocketship shooting up to the moon. You can see the different directions of water flowing. They’re such fun objects to contemplate.
Update: The Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print sold for $15,000.
What you see: Galaxia, a 1977 print by Rufino Tamayo. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000
The expert: Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann and director of prints and drawings.
Who was Rufino Tamayo? He was a famous Mexican artist who started as a painter and a printmaker in the late 1920s. He was also well-traveled and worked in various artistic centers around the world. He wasn’t the “revolutionary” artist that [fellow Mexican artists] Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros were. His work has a much different tenor.
What role did printmaking play in Rufino Tamayo’s career? It was instrumental to his career and it propelled him to worldwide renown, but he was known for his paintings and murals.
How often do night scenes appear in Rufino Tamayo’s work? Is is a theme he returned to often, or is Galaxia a rarity?He producednight scenesthroughout his career, in his paintings as well as his prints. Galaxia is by far the most ambitious and best-known. It stands apart for its size, its ambition, and its graphic quality.
Do we know what moved Rufino Tamayo to create Galaxia? He was drawing from his Zapotec heritage. The Mesoamericans based their calendar on constellations. The knowledge was passed down through the generations. Tamayo was tapping in to that. He might have chosen night images to bring the ancient Mesoamerican traditions to life.
Does the Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print depict a real place, or is it imagined? It’s almost certainly of his own invention.
Do the constellations in Galaxia correspond to known constellations? They don’t appear to be. Tamayo was drawing on the graphic quality–the dots and lines–to create a rhythmic repetition in the piece. They’re more decorative than realistic.
The Galaxia print’s medium is called “color Mixografía”. I haven’t encountered that medium before. What is Mixografía? It’s a separate printing technique developed by Tamayo in conjunction with the Taller de Gráfica Mexicana printmaking workshop in Mexico City. [The studio later changed its name to Mixografía and relocated to Los Angeles.]
Could you talk about how Rufino Tamayo uses color in Galaxia? He sure gets a lot of expression out of that purple. The color is magnificent. [Laughs] Above all, Tamayo is a great colorist. In particular, the Mixografía prints were made on very absorbent handmade paper with a cotton-like texture. It allowed the colors to bleed and blend in a manner not unlike watercolors. The tones of the vast moonlit sky give the image a wonderful ethereal quality.
How thick is the paper? In some cases, the handmade Mixografía papers are a quarter-inch or more thick. It’s a very hefty, ultra-handmade paper. It feels more like pressed cotton pulp than a fine, finished paper.
In Tamayo’s obituary in the New York Times, poet Octavio Paz said: “If I could express with a single word what it is that distinguishes Tamayo from other painters of our age, I would say, without a moment’s hesitation: sun. For the sun is in all his pictures, whether we see it or not; night itself is for Tamayo simply the sun carbonized.” Do we see Paz’s observation reflected in Galaxia? I would say so. Tamayo portrayed powerful natural phenomena as mystical forces. He didn’t just incorporate elements in his work as background–he made them the subject of his work. The sun is a sheer, all-encompassing power that makes humans seem insignificant in the face of nature.
How does the moon in Galaxia match the power of the sun in Tamayo’s work? It imparts the vastness of Tamayo’s imagery in its size and scale, and its focus on the night sky, the constellations, the moon, and the shadow of the mountain. There’s no human presence, just a vast night desert sky.
When did Rufino Tamayo start working with the Taller de Gráfica Mexicanaprint workshop? They started working together in 1973, when Tamayo wanted to incorporate texture and dimensionality in his prints in the same way as in his fresco work. Taller de Gráfica Mexicana was a second-generation print workshop operated by Luis Remba and his wife, Lea.
How thick is the layer of ink on the Mixografía paper? Is it similar to impasto? It’s not impasto in the sense of [that seen on] a painting, but it has impasto-like qualities.
The Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print is large and long–20 inches by 47 1/4 inches. First of all–is it printed on one sheet, or more than one sheet that’s been joinedto make a whole? Amazingly, it’s one sheet.
This is a big, weird size for a print. Did Galaxia pose any extra challenges to make? Tamayo had to specifically produce handmade paper for his prints, and he had to customize it for each of his editions, including Galaxia.
Making paper by hand… that’s not trivial. Not at all, but it’s something the printmakers would have been accustomed to, despite the challenges.
Did the Rembas have to build a special press to realize Galaxia? They had to build a special press, but they built it in 1973, in advance of this [the creation of the Mixografía print medium].
Is Galaxia the largest print that Rufino Tamayo made? No, he did larger. [Laughs]. In May 2019, we actually had one that was almost 60 inches by 95 inches. Its maquette utilized the largest lithographic stone ever produced. It still survives at the Mixografía workshop. Imagine working with that in the studio.
The lot notes describe the Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print as a “large, scarce print”, but I see this is number 66 of 100. I don’t necessarily think of a limited edition print run of 100 as translating to scarcity. What makes this print scarce? Given the size of Galaxia, its delicateness, and the care that goes into preserving it, it’s scarce. There have been only four at auction, including this one, in the last 30 years.
Now that you mention it, how do collectors store a Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print without damaging the ink? Most that I see are kept in shadow box frames. The paper has a textured quality, and the ink is not completely flat. It needs room, and also protection. You can’t pile it with other things in a flat file.
What’s the world auction record for a Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print? Interestingly, the last impression to go to auction was at Swann in 2018. It achieved $11,875.
How does the 2018 Galaxia compare to the one you have in the upcoming sale? Do you think it will beat the record set two years ago? I think the odds of beating it are fairly strong. The market for Tamayo has gotten stronger. The 2018 impression and this one are fairly equivalent. If anything, there’s one fewer on the market. It’s a little more scarce. It might be a little more sought-after.
What is the Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print like in person?I’m guessing it, more than most, is tough to translate to pixels on a screen. It’s difficult. The paper is wonderfully textured, and the colors are so vivid and deep. When you’re in front of it, it transports you. It’s not a characterless inked sheet of paper. There’s a mood about it, something about the colors and the view.
It’s easy to imagine crickets chirping or frogs croaking as you look at it. Galaxia is large. As you stare at it, nothing else is in your field of vision. Your isolation under the night sky is imaginable.
Why will this Rufino Tamayo Galaxia print stick in your memory? I think it’s so evocative of his work. You can see in it the artist’s hand and his creativity. And it is transporting. There’s something universal about the beauty of a night sky like this. Everyone gets to see one at some point.
Update: The Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet sold for $106,250.
What you see: A Paul Evans sculpture front wall-mounted cabinet, created in 1975. Rago Auctions estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.
The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.
Who was Paul Evans? He’s from Newtown, Pennsylvania. He was formally trained in jewelry-making, studying at Cranbrook [now known as the Cranbrook Educational Community], and then became a furniture maker. He had at least four studios that I know of, [including] a gallery he and Phillip Lloyd Powell owned together in the 1960s and 1970s. He died of a heart attack in 1987.
Where was Paul Evans in his career in 1975, when he made this sculpturefront cabinet? Was he mostly a regional phenomenon? Yes and no. We get offered Evans pieces. It’s what we’re known for. One reason we get offered them is they were made here and never left. Paul Evans or Dorsey Reading [Evans’s studio manager] personally set them up in their homes. Evans was catering to educated, wealthy world travelers. Imagine how radical this cabinet was in the 1960s and 1970s.
Radical? Normal people were not buying this stuff. They were not buying benchmade pieces by radical guys working in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
This sculpture front wall-mounted cabinet is what I think of when I think of Paul Evans. But do we know how he hit upon this look? I can only guess, but people had credenzas. People needed pieces to hold silverware and tableware in the dining room, and needed pieces to hold stereos in the living room. It’s a very functional form. It’s a large piece of furniture with a lot of flat surfaces. Evans transformed them into works of art within a modern household.
But do we know how Paul Evans came to give his sculpture front cabinets this particular style and appearance? He was a jewelry designer first. Each box is designed like a little piece of jewelry, with small elements. Evans knew what it was basically going to look like. He’d do them [design the look of the sculpture front] all together and give them to Dorsey Reading to fabricate.
Do any of the motifs on Paul Evans sculpture front cabinets repeat, or is every cabinet entirely different-looking? He repeated these ideas, but no two are alike. If you look on the left-hand panel of the three on this cabinet–do you see the three crosshatches in orange?
Do the crosshatches kind of look like a tic-tac-toe grid? Yes. That’s unusual. The circle to the right of the tic-tac-toe–that’s always there. On the right-hand panel of the three, on the lower left, you’ll see another circle that looks like a sun. That’s an unusual variation, with color radiating from it. The clusters of gold nail heads–Evans liked that. There are always nail heads. If you look at the cluster of nail heads above the sun, and look to the right, there are stalactites. He always has those. There are four of them total on all three doors. The motifs tend to repeat, but he always plays with them.
How many sculpture front pieces did Paul Evans make? He made about 75 sculpture front pieces, and probably made them over eight or nine years. They’re labor-intensive, but all one-of-a-kind. And they were not a lot of money.
Not a lot of money? No. I’ve had half the sculpture front pieces made, and easily one-third of them had their original invoices. The most expensive was several thousand dollars. I recall invoices that say $1,000, $1,500.
So the original prices don’t reflect the labor that went into them. Not in my opinion.
The lot notes say this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet comes with digital copies of the original invoice and drawing. Does that indicate that the cabinet was commissioned? Yes and no. I think he might have had a small selection of these in his shop on Main Street in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and took orders from them. But no two are alike. I’ve had cabinets with two doors, three doors, four doors. There are similarities in their shape, and the types of designs [on the front], and the mined slate tops–those are from a local quarry.
Because the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet is not heavy enough on its own–it needs a slate top. Exactly. It takes two men to carry the top. And you can’t get any more of the slate. It’s quarried out. It’s gone. There’s a lot of character to this slate.
Why do you think Paul Evans chose the slate to top the sculpture front pieces? I don’t know why, but it’s a local element, and it’s beautiful. It’s not even a polished piece of stone. It has whorls and ridges in it. It’s not a flat surface. But it’s a beautiful accompaniment to the sculpture front.
Would Paul Evans have designed the sculpture front cabinet and handed the design off to Dorsey Reading to fabricate? It was more collaborative than that, from what I understand. As Dorsey was fabricating, Paul Evans might sketch something out and Dorsey would incorporate it. I’d say Paul Evans was the primary artist here, but Dorsey knew what he was doing.
So the sculpture front design was kind of liquid? Evans might add a motif while Reading was still making it? Yes, or a couple of motifs. It wasn’t like he sketched the whole thing out.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet was to make? That I can’t speak to. For Evans to come up with the design–easy. Dorsey, his skills are really good. But it’s all magic to me.
How much work does this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet represent? I think this took about a week. It didn’t take a day, or a month. This is thick, welded steel. The ones [cabinets] on a wall are two-and-a-half feet deep.
How heavy is this Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet, and how did its installers make sure that it didn’t tear away from the wall? I would say it’s 1,000 pounds for a full-size [cabinet]. This is a little less, because it’s a three-door. They didn’t just go into the sheetrock or plaster. They were set right into the studs, because the studs are supporting the wall.
Oh! So it became part of the architecture. Yeah. When we move them, we don’t move them in one piece. We take the doors off. That’s three-quarters of the weight.
Paul Evans sculpture front cabinets were used when they were new, but do contemporary collectors use them, or do they tend to treat them like pure sculpture? I don’t see anyone using them as record cabinets. They store mostly dishes and silverware. But I think people who buy them understand they’re high art.
What condition is the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet in, and what condition issues do you tend to see with these pieces? I joke about it, but I’m serious–they’re indestructible. This is as solid as it looks. There can be some rust issues, and the colors can fade or oxidize, but this has good color. Look at the checkerboard on the left door. It has blue, yellow, red. Good color. And the kelp-like blue stuff below it, the red background is like dried blood. I think the color was more expressive half a century ago, but it has beautiful color.
What is the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet like in person? I think it’s photographed beautifully. It’s a powerful piece of Brutalist design. It’s massive, creative, and has a very strong presence to it.
This particular Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet was pictured in the book Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism. Does that matter at all to collectors? As I like to say, I can’t guarantee it helps, but I can guarantee it never hurts. This cabinet has great provenance, from its original owners, and even an original sketch. That’s plenty. On top of that, it was selected for the monograph of the artist. And the colors pop on this one.
Do collectors prefer the Paul Evans sculpture front cabinets that are more colorful? Yes, definitely. The one I sold for the most had a lot of red and sky blue in it. It was very colorful.
Is this piece unusually colorful for a Paul Evans sculpture front cabinet? Usually you don’t get as many of them. Usually, it’s just reds and blues. The checkerboard [on the left door] and the sun on the right door give you the full rainbow. They’re on opposing sides of the piece, but they’re not placed at the same level. It’s a really lyrical piece. You’ve got a thousand-pound piece of steel here, yet there’s an elegance and a lightness. That’s genius–the genius of design.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I like the way the elements on the front are composed. It has a really good balance to them, a symmetry to them. The condition is excellent, and the colors are softer and add balance to the mass and scale of this piece. I would like it better if it was a four-door over a three-door, yes. But for this size, it’s perfect.
Update: The first edition signed copy of The Pothunters by P.G. Wodehouse sold for $1,950.
What you see: A first edition signed copy of The Pothunters, P.G. Wodehouse’s debut novel. Freeman’s estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.
The expert: Darren Winston, head of the books, maps, and manuscripts department at Freeman’s.
Who was P.G. Wodehouse, and why does his work still resonate today? First, I should say, because I know it’s a pet peeve with collectors, it’s pronounced “Woodhouse”. When you’re talking with serious collectors and you say “Wodehouse,” they’ll shut you down immediately. Wodehouse is an English author, and he really is from another era. He was 20 when Queen Victoria died. When he realized he was a good writer, he became diligent about how he worked. He agonized over a sentence until he got it right. From a technical standpoint, he’s not dated–100 years later, the jokes are still funny.
That’s a good point. Why are P.G. Wodehouse’s jokes still funny? Good material is good material. Whether you like it or not, it’s just good writing.
The upper class, luxurious English-centric world that P.G. Wodehouse describes in his novels… he’s evoking a world that never really existed, strictly speaking. Certain things are real–the schools, the mansions, the cars–but it didn’t literally exist the way he imagines it. You’re right, it’s an imaginary place, except for the fact–and this is my interpretation–what I’ve learned is all his books and characters are his life experience, and it’s his life experience between the ages of 10 and 25. You could argue that every character is pastiche and parodies. Downton Abbey covers the same timeline as those books. If it took a comedic turn instead of a dramatic turn, you’d have it [Wodehouse].
How does The Pothunters fit in to P.G. Wodehouse’s world?The Pothunters is his experience. He went to a school like St. Austin’s. He knew those boys and those masters. It’s a tiny portion of English society, and there’s a lot of pain in that way of life–not in a depressing way, but it was what it was. To poke fun at it was a way of getting through it. I think the world of P.G. Wodehouse is [not dissimilar] to the way people talk about Tolkien and The Hobbit–he created a world and populated it. In his last books, it’s still basically 1919.
Why do you think Americans embraced P.G. Wodehouse’s books so firmly? He didn’t write down to anyone, ever. He did it respectfully, so the upper class laughed at themselves, and the lower class laughed, but not in a mean way. Never mean.
In thinking about why P.G. Wodehouse still hits the mark, I realized that most people know someone like Gussie Fink-Nottle, who’s utterly obsessed with an obscure topic, or Tuppy Glossup, a nice-enough guy who has character flaws. So even if they’re running around in white tie and tails, they seem familiar anyway. I married a Brit, and I think I have a different experience of England than some of my friends do. I want to point out–it’s absurd but true–those people are out there. The people in the books–I’ve met them. I knew a friend who went to an English boarding school and university, and he speaks that way, like it’s 1905. He’s very modern in some ways, but he’s on an archaic trajectory. It’s like having a dodo bird in front of you. It’s fascinating to see it exist.
The Pothunters is P.G. Wodehouse’s first novel. How did its publication come about? Did he have a hard time selling the manuscript? It was published when he was 20, but he’d been writing since he was a teen. I don’t know if he had trouble getting it published. It was serialized in three installments and published in what would have been called a boys’ magazine. He wrote very much in the tradition of what he read as a boy–what the Brits call a “boys’ own book”.
What is The Pothunters about? It’s about a bunch of boys at an English boarding school not unlike the one he went to. A “pot” is what they call a trophy. The pothunters are trying to find pots that have been stolen from the school. He was writing in the style that he was reared in, and the subject matter was his own life.
What themes and tropes appear in P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters that recur in later Wodehouse books?The Pothunters is really the school story. You could say it launched his entire career.
Without The Pothunters, we don’t get Psmith, and we don’t get the background that many of the upper class characters share in the Jeeves and Wooster books. Exactly. You can argue that Wodehouse has characters in his canon in all age strata. Some of them grew up with him.
Seriously? Whoa. I’m a big fan of the show and a bigger fan of Fry and Laurie. It speaks to one thing I love about what I do–I can put on a Stephen Fry vest, and maybe you saw it last night. And I can hold this copy of The Pothunters, which P.G. Wodehouse had in his hands 100 years ago. There’s one degree between me and him. It never gets old.
Did you try on the Stephen Fry Jeeves vest? I put it on and jokingly said if it didn’t sell, I’d buy it.
Did it fit? It did! Dangerously, it did. My wife gave me a knowing look [as if to say] if it comes home, it’s OK.
To get back to P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters, how good a debut novel is it? I’m not a critic, but it can be argued it’s a very, very good debut. It’s his style. It didn’t change. That book came fully equipped.
This P.G. Wodehouse first edition of The Pothunters appeared in 1902. Does the copy predate the use of dust jackets? Or did it have a dust jacket and lose it at some point? Dust jackets were beginning to be a thing. As far as anyone knows, The Pothunters was issued without a dust jacket, but my feeling is it might have been. You can see others in the salethat are very much in the style of the period. The first edition we’re talking about is so clean, and the design is so simple, [I think] it had to have had a jacket.
Do we know how big the first edition of The Pothunters was? There’s no known quantities for the book. Wodehouse was paid a percentage on copies sold. I’d have to think closer to 500 than 5,000 were printed.
How often does a first edition copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters appear at auction? It shows up occasionally. If there are 50 copies of a Jeeves and Wooster online, there [might be] two Pothunters, and one will be a reprint and one will be a first edition.
This copy is signed by P.G. Wodehouse. How rare is his signature, and how rare is it to see one on a first-edition copy of The Pothunters? Wodehouse signed for friends and fans. He didn’t sign a ton. What’s really cool about this signature on The Pothunters is it’s in fountain pen, and if you look at the ink, it’s old and brown. It makes me think it’s early. And it just says “P.G. Wodehouse”. He often signed with his nickname, Plum, or signed “Plum–P.G. Wodehouse”. Because this just says “P.G. Wodehouse”, it says to me he was young and not confident enough that the world would know him as Plum. It’s a big difference from the 90-year-old Wodehouse signing in ballpoint pen.
P.G. Wodehouse signed this copy of The Pothunters closer to when the book came out. Exactly. It’s uncommon to find a P.G. Wodehouse book signed. To find a copy of The Pothunters signed contemporaneously–that makes it much more interesting. Looking at auction records, I couldn’t find another.
What’s the world auction record for a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters, and what’s the world auction record for any P.G. Wodehouse book? The highest in general was 2013, at Bloomsbury in London, for The Globe By the Way Book, a 1908 collection of pieces he and a friend, Herbert Westbrook, published in The Globe. It’s one of the rarest pieces of Wodeiana. It sold for £26,840 ($42,192) against an estimate of £2,500 to £3,500 ($3,900 to $5,500), way more than ten times its high estimate. The record for The Pothunters was also set at Bloomsbury in 2014. It sold for £3,968 ($6,200) against an estimate of £1,200 to £1,800 ($1,900 to $2,800).
Was the record-setting copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Pothunters signed? It wasn’t. If we can beat $6,200, that would be fantastic.
What’s the condition of this first edition copy of The Pothunters? It was read. We’re lucky that it wasn’t abused. Its architectural parts are sound. If I had to distill it into two words: very good. The only thing that happened to this copy of The Pothunters over the last 120 years was that Wodehouse applied his name, which is a plus.
The first edition of The Pothunters is part of a larger single-owner P.G. Wodehouse collection that Freeman’s is offering on May 7. How well-regarded is the collection and its collector, William Toplis? He built the collection over 25 years and he had very high standards. There are no crappy copies. Everything is a home run. It’s a beautifully curated collection. The only thing that’s worth zero dollars is a copy of Big Money that he must have read at the beach.
How hard is it to build a P.G. Wodehouse collection such as this one? It’s difficult. Wodehouse is a popular subject to collect. He does have a following. This is a really good collection. Toplis was super-diligent. He knew what he wanted, he found it, and he paid for it.
Why will this P.G. Wodehouse first edition and this collection stick in your memory? I think it will stick in my memory because it was a collection. I never met Bill Toplis, but I feel I got much closer to him because I got the gift of handling his books. I saw where his heart was. These 190-odd items might go to 190 places, and Bill’s mojo is in them.
But isn’t it difficult to conduct and oversee the single-owner sale? I mean, you’re dismantling decades of work. In theory, yes. In practice, and this is going to sound corny, the collection is like a tree, and 190 acorns have come from it. Now they’re going back into the wild to seed 190 collections. It’s what I think should happen with beautiful things. They should move around, and lots of people should get to enjoy them.
Update: The Art Deco silver tureen by Jean Puiforcat sold for $16,250.
What you see: An Art Deco silver tureen with cover by Jean Puiforcat. Christie’s estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: Jill Waddell, vice president and senior specialist in Christie’s silver department.
Who was Jean Puiforcat? He really is the one who brought Art Deco silver to the forefront, but the Puiforcat name–he’s fourth generation. He was born into a well-established family silver firm.
How is “Puiforcat” pronounced? Pwee-fo-cah.
What style of silver tureen would have been more standard in1925, when Jean Puiforcat designed the one we see here? The late 19th century Beaux Arts style was more typical–shaped circular, oval, or rectangular pieces. You see a lot of grape vines and acanthus leaves.
So a more typical silver tureen design of the period would be fussier-looking, and more loaded with decorations? Yes, it would.
Would silver be a more conservative form of decorative art? Is it less likely to reflect the trends of the day? I wouldn’t really say that. It can be the first to show new artistic movements, because [old silver pieces in outdated styles] can be melted down. You see movements represented in silver five years before [they appear in] furniture, because silver can be melted down and reshaped.
In poking around, I noticed a quote on the Wikipedia page for Jean Puiforcat that calls him “the most important French Art Deco silversmith”. Do you agree with that statement? Maybe it takes it a little too far. He was the most well-known and most renowned Art Deco silversmith. The statement is a little bold, but mostly accurate.
Can we quantify how prolific Jean Puiforcat was, as opposed to earlier and later generations of Puiforcats? It’s really tricky. Jean Puiforcat uses the same hallmark–[that of] Emile Puiforcat–which has been used since the 19th century. Jean Puiforcat is responsible for introducing Art Deco, but he didn’t design everything himself, and he certainly didn’t hammer out the silver. There was a team behind him. It’s hard to determine what to ascribe to Jean Puiforcat unless it’s documented in literature. He probably wasn’t responsible for a single design from A to Z. It was more like [the studio of ] Louis Comfort Tiffany. He sketched it out, and another took it and finished the product, but he was the one credited with the design.
If a Puiforcat design in silver has an Art Deco look, is it reasonable to attribute it to Jean Puiforcat? A fair amount, but how many [designs] were put into large-scale production, we don’t know. But Puiforcat didn’t put all its eggs into one basket. Art Deco was a new style that took time to catch on. A good portion of their customers were looking to buy traditional flatware and dishes similar to what their mothers and grandmothers had. With Art Deco pieces, Puiforcat was saying, “You know we’re good and we have quality products, but look what we can do with forward-thinking design.” And it was. Puiforcat used jade with this piece. [With others] they also used rose quartz, rock crystal, and stone materials. Puiforcat took it up to another level of luxury.
Where was Jean Puiforcat in his career in 1925, when he designs this Art Deco silver tureen with cover? He was 28 years old, and grew up in the firm. He’s young, he’s got lots of ideas, he’s got forward-thinking friends, he’s got a good eye, and he understands the material, but he’s not so tied to a staid, established design.
Was Jean Puiforcat leading the family firm at that point? That I’m not sure.
But he would have been in the family business, with an eye toward taking over someday? And an eye toward modernizing it.
Is this Art Deco silver tureen with cover typical or atypical of Jean Puiforcat’s work? I’d say it’s pretty typical of the work that we see from him at that time. It’s geometric, streamlined, and simple, with an elegant silhouette, and it incorporates elegant materials.
I understand that Jean Puiforcat created the silver tureen with cover for the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, aka the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, which was held in Paris and later credited with launching Art Deco design. How did Jean Puiforcat come to be involved in the show? Was he invited? Did he win a competition? The fair was established for decorative art. [Word went out to all that] You’ve got to have modern ideas to promote and you have to adhere to that. If you’re willing to push forward, you can participate. Jean Puiforcat was responsible for taking on that tangent and putting Puiforcat on the map for Art Deco.
Do those lines on the Art Deco silver tureen and its cover have a specific name? They’re called radiating lobes. It’s pretty typical of his work from the time.
And I understand that while this Art Deco silver tureen design appeared in the Puiforcat display at the 1925 exhibition, we can’t confirm that this individual example was on view? We know the design was exhibited at the exhibition, but we don’t think this particular piece went there. The display was rotated. Things that didn’t sell well were probably moved out.
So the Puiforcat firm was also selling silver pieces directly to visitors to the 1925 Paris exhibition? Yes, people were purchasing.
And Jean Puiforcat would have put the Art Deco silver tureen with cover into production? Yes, it was put into production with different variants on it. The following lot has a glass body. It’s a different variant on the same design.
Do we have any idea how many of these Art Deco silver tureens that Puiforcat made? No idea, but they don’t pop up all that often. I see a lot of trays and platters, but I don’t see a lot of tureens.
Would the Art Deco silver tureen have been a top-of-the-line model? Might that explain its scarcity? It certainly would have been a top-of-the-line piece. It wouldn’t have a jade handle if it wasn’t a top-of-the-line piece.
Do we know how people reacted to this Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver tureen at the time? Was it shocking? I’m sure some people were there [at the 1925 Paris exhibition] to gawk, but it probably also attracted a lot of like-minded people. The tureen probably would have been pretty shocking, and probably would have been super-modern, and probably did what they expected it to do. It showed people who were familiar with Puiforcat quality and design just how far they could take it.
In the context of a dinner service, a tureen is a splashy item–not literally a centerpiece, but meant to be spectacular to look at. How does Jean Puiforcat carry forward that tradition in this piece? It was intended to live on a sideboard or in a glass cabinet, where it could be seen. It was not going to live in the butler’s pantry. Why keep it locked away?
So, it’s very much a showpiece. My catalogs ten years ago are nothing like my catalogs now. The population of buyers has shifted. They don’t want things that will live in the butler’s pantry. They want things that can live in a room as sculpture, and not necessarily in the dining room. They want things that are fun, that have character, that will draw the eye over to them. This tureen is exactly what people are looking for right now.
It looks like it could have been made last week. It’s a shockingly modern design for 1925. It looks modern today, and it proved to be timeless.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this Art Deco silver tureen might have been to make? I don’t think it was terribly difficult to make. Simplifying the design and getting the proportions right was probably more difficult. It’s a pretty plain form. What do you do to make it elegant and forward-thinking without it being boring and plain? You have to get rid of the motifs you’ve been using over and over, throw all that out, and start fresh, but keep it modern and elegant, and keep the same level of craftsmanship.
And its simplicity gives the silversmith fewer places to hide. You can’t bury a mistake under a decorative vine or sprig of leaves.The design proves how good you are. You’re probably right. There’s no room to hide a flaw.
What is the Art Deco silver tureen like in person? It’s really elegant, and it’s a nice size. I don’t think it had a matching ladle, because there’s no insert in [the lip for a ladle rest], but you could use it for soup. It’s lovely, and it’s a manageable size.
The size–does that reflect Art Deco as well? The move away from grand houses with dozens of servants and toward entertaining in smaller spaces? This is more intimate. It would be perfect in a Paris or a New York apartment.
What is it like to handle the Art Deco silver tureen? It feels nice, and has a nice weight to it. The jade handle feels really nice in the hand. You can feel the quality in it. It feels luxurious.
What condition is the Art Deco silver tureen in? What sorts of issues do you tend to see with tureens of this type? This is in very nice condition. The issues we tend to see are scratches to the interior, and bruises and bumps to the side.
Would this Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver tureen and the variant in lot 14 have been consigned by the same person? Yes. I don’t believe they were meant as a set.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I really like the jade. The inclusion of jade is an interesting way of incorporating color. I don’t see a lot of color in my silver world. It’s a nice way of elevating the tureen.
Update: The single 1957 inaugural license plate issued to President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower, sold for $7,995. The pair of 1953 inaugural license plates issued to Vice President-elect Richard M. Nixon sold for $2,767.50.
What you see: An inaugural license plate issued to President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, for his second inaugural celebration. It’s one of two lots of inaugural license plates from the Eisenhower-Nixon years in a mid-May sale at Morphy’s; the second lot is a pair issued to Vice President-elect Richard M. Nixon in 1953. Both lots carry estimates of $3,000 to $6,000.
The expert: Jim Fox, consultant for Morphy Auctions.
What were the first inaugural license plates ever issued, and would those plates be most sought-after by collectors? The answer is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1933. Those were the first inaugural plates.
I’m surprised it was that late. Keep in mind that automobiles weren’t popular until the teens. But yes, the FDR 1933 plates are the rarest, the least common, and fewer survived. We don’t know how many FDR 1933 plates were issued, and we don’t know how many survived.
Do we know how or why the 1950s inaugural license plates came to feature actual black-and-white portrait photographs of Eisenhower and Nixon? I don’t know why they did it, other than it’s an attractive design. I don’t know that there’s more to it than that.
I realize I’m asking you to speculate, but do we haveany idea why no other inaugural license plate designs include pictures of the president and the vice president? If it was going to happen [again], I thought it would have happened with the last inaugural. To be honest, I doubt the presidents and vice presidents themselves spent a lot of time on inaugural license plates. The inaugural committees make decisions like that. [Putting portraits on inaugural plates is] a great idea, and looking back, it looks like a better and better idea. But I can’t tell you what the logic was.
I find it odd that no one since Eisenhower and Nixon have included their pictures in an inaugural license plate design. It seems like a natural. We’re Americans. We love our cars, and we love telling the world what we think about politics by sticking things onto our cars. Lots of people would buy an inaugural license plate that shows the faces of the president and the vice president. In today’s culture, it does seem natural, and it [putting imagery on license plates] is a proven technology. I wish I had a better answer for you, but I’m sorry to say I don’t. Somebody thought it was a good idea, and went with it.
It seems extra-weird that only Eisenhower and Nixon appear on inaugural license plates because the president who came after them, John F. Kennedy, was one of the most telegenic presidents we’ve ever had.You’d think he or his inaugural committee would want to put his picture on the plates. Kennedy switched, and for whatever reason, they didn’t see it as necessary. Maybe they thought it was too expensive. I don’t think the minds of people worked the same then as they do now. Now, everything’s telegenic. Hollywood, let’s call it Hollywood. But license plates are legal documents. That’s all they are–legal documents. They validate a vehicle for a short period of time.
Would the inaugural license plates have come with registrations? Yes. They were legitimate. They were just legitimate for a short time. [Neither of the two lots of inaugural license plates have retained their registration paperwork.]
I take it the registrations would have been placed in the glove boxes of the cars that rolled along D.C. streets in those 1950s inaugural parades? You can bet that no one [would have pulled over Eisenhower or Nixon and] said, “Excuse me, can I see your registration?” On a practical level, it’s worthless. On a historical level, it’s priceless.
Were inaugural license plates only used in inaugural parades? They were used just for inaugural parades, but by the 1960s, the plates were good for the month of the inaugural. Later, it was extended to 90 days. You could put the plates on your car and do what you wanted with them. I put a Nixon second inaugural plate on my car in the 1970s, and the police stopped me within the hour, asking, “Is that a real plate?” The policeman looked at me for the longest time and finally said, “I don’t know what to do with this.” I said, “You don’t have to. It’s legitimate.”
Where were you pulled over? This was in Ohio. Anything [any inaugural license plate appearing on a car] outside of D.C. and the police think, “What the heck?” The policeman finally said goodbye. He never figured it out.
Do we know what technique or tool was used in the 1950s to print black-and-white photographic portraits onto steel to create these inaugural license plates? Whatever they used must have been effective, because the images still look good after sixty-odd years. That’s right, they look great. But that question is out of my league, that’s all I can say.
My best guess–and it’s definitely a guess–is someone on the firstEisenhower-Nixon inaugural committee either created the printing process or knew the company that did, and told the committee members about it, and they went for it. That’s as likely to be the case as anything. Or it could have been curiosity–“I wonder if we can get their photographs onto a plate?” As far as I know, it was never used outside those two inaugurals.
Did both lots of inaugural plates come from the same consigner? Yes.
Do we know how long the consigner had them? As far as I’m aware, he had them in the 70s.
The condition of the 1957 Eisenhower inaugural license plate is rated at 9.0.What does that mean? Morphy’s has a way of grading plates that is not widely used [among license plate collectors]. A 10 would be perfect. In the world of license plates, we give letters: F for fair, G for good, EX for excellent.
How does the 9.0 translate into a grade on the letter scale? Probably very good (VG) to very good plus (VG+). All the plates in those two lots are nice. One [one of the two Nixon plates from 1953] has a slight distortion of a bolt hole that brings it down a bit [to an 8.5 rating]. But a VG+ plate is still a beautiful plate, or it should be.
Inaugural license plates issued to presidents and vice presidents weren’t left on the cars for long. But do collectors like to see some wear on them? Something that proves they were actually on a car that a president or vice president rode in during an inaugural parade? My answer is absolutely. You want a little bit of road dust to prove it was on the road.
As I was preparing my questions, my nine-year-old pointed out to me that the two men are smiling on the 1953 inaugural license plate and aren’t smiling on the 1957 plate. Does that matter at all to collectors? Or is the 1953 a bit more valuable because it’s from the first Eisenhower-Nixon inaugural? [Laughs] I got a kick out of that. I think it’s perfect that a nine-year-old made that observation. Though it probably has no significance whatsoever, it’s a fascinating observation.
It is kind of startling to see Nixon smiling. That doesn’t strike me as being his natural state. And you can see these guys age a ton in those four years.
The Eisenhower lot consists of a single inaugural license plate from 1957. The Nixon lot has both plates from 1953, the first inaugural. Both lots have the same estimate: $3,000 to $6,000. Why? Can you explain why things shake out this way? Number one is more desirable than number two. As a result, a single inaugural plate from a president compares to a pair from the vice president.
What are the inaugural license plates like in person? They’re more substantial than modern plates, which are made of aluminum. These plates are steel, and the plates were made from steel up to the 1980s.
Update: Magician Johnny Thompson’s customized set of cups and balls sold for $14,400.
What you see: Magician Johnny Thompson’s cups and balls set. Potter & Potter estimates it at $2,000 to $4,000.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
Who was Johnny Thompson, and what made him stand out from his magician peers? Whatever the job required, he was not only capable, but supremely capable. He was a general practitioner of magic, in a sense. He could do it all–trade shows, amusement parks, Las Vegas stages, cabaret, the Playboy club circuit–and he really could do it well.
I understand he was good at both close-up magic and stage magic, and that’s relatively rare? Thompson was an extremely talented close-up performer, but his stage act is what everybody knew him for, and which he did the most: The Great Tomsoni and Company.
Being good at both close-up and stage magic… is that the magician’s version of being ambidextrous? Do many magicians do both? More than you’d think, but usually, you find your strength and stick with it. Not many are at the level that Johnny Thompson was.
How important was the cups and balls routine to Johnny Thompson’s act? It was one of his signature pieces. He managed to relate the stories of the people who influenced his magic and paid tribute to them during the performance.
And how important is the cups and balls routine within the history of magic? It’s vital. It’s the… what would a good analogy be? It is the standard. People often say a magician can be judged by his facility with this routine. This is the raw stuff, vital stuff as far as magic is concerned. If you can master the routine, you truly have arrived. If you can develop your own cups and balls routine at a masterful level, it sets you in another class.
Do we know when the Johnny Thompson cups were made? I don’t. They were obviously made after the Charlie Miller cups were first put on the market, because they’re a modification of a commercially available product. I guess the 60s or the 70s. I don’t have an exact date.
He didn’t leave behind any notes about when and who modified the cups for him? Not that we’ve been able to find. Even in the book about Johnny Thompson’s life, I don’t believe it mentions who the engraver or the silver-plater was.
And I take it that the balls and the imitation lemons are probably from Magic Inc.? It’s hard to know. The lemons are some sort of latex or rubber. They’re solid. He kept performing until the year he passed away. He could have added [new sets of balls and lemons] at any time.
The cups were originally all-copper. Why might Johnny Thompson have had them silver-plated? Does the contrast of the silver outside and copper inside make the routine easier to perform, or more interesting to watch? I don’t think it has any effect on the actual trick as performed or viewed by an audience. He was paying homage to Dai Vernon, who had his own spectacular engraved set of cups–it was a tip of the hat to him.
The lot notes say that Johnny Thompson “paid tribute to his forebears: Max Malini, Pop Krieger, Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, and Jacob Daley” in his routine. How did he do that? Those were people, some he knew and some he didn’t, who shaped the way that the trick was done in the 19th and 20th centuries. He swept them together into a narrative about these men. He actually performed as them. He would assume their stance, their posture, their voices, and perform the routine as if he were them. His imitation of Dai Vernon was very, very funny. [A circa 1979 video shows Thompson performing the cups and balls, celebrating each man in turn. The cups and balls performance starts at 2:13, but a close-up shot at 3:33 makes it clear that Thompson is not using the set in the auction.]
It looks like the Johnny Thompson cups are engraved with Egyptian hieroglyphs. Do the hieroglyphs carry a message? Can they be translated?Or are they just decorative? I have not attempted to translate them, but for years it was assumed an Egyptian tomb showed men performing the cups and balls. [That theory] has been discredited in the last 20 years or so. They’re probably doing something else. But the cups and balls is an ancient feat, and one of the most fundamental magic tricks there is. Some postulate that it’s the first trick. There’s no way to state that with ultimate certainty, but it’s a pretty basic trick, and certainly, people performed it in ancient times, if not in Egyptian times.
When this set of cups and balls was customized, theEgyptian tomb was believed to show people performing the earliest known magic trick. Are the hieroglyphs on the Johnny Thompson cups the same as those on the wall of that tomb? They do not appear to be. They appear to be entirely different. They probably are Egyptian hieroglyphs. They look entirely authentic. But they’re not the ones that people thought for years were men performing the cups and balls.
Was this Johnny Thompson’s favorite set of cups and balls? Did he usually perform with it? He would have used it all the time, but I don’t know if it was his favorite. Certainly, it was one of his favorite effects, and it was one of his signature pieces.
I understand there was or is a second set of Johnny Thompson cups and balls. Do we know where it is? There was a second set, but it’s a different shape. I don’t know where it is.
The Johnny Thompson cups and balls set appears in his 2018 two-volume book, The Magic of Johnny Thompson. Does that make the set more interesting to collectors? I think it does, a fair amount. Here’s his signature piece, recorded for all posterity in the book. He’s literally teaching you how to do the routine [with this set]. I think it adds quite a lot.
What is the Johnny Thompson cups and balls set like in person? Are there details that the camera doesn’t capture? There’s a functionality to them, but also an aesthetic interest. They’re not just plain cups, and they are substantial.
Do you perform the cups and balls routine? Have you tried performing withthe Johnny Thompson cups and balls set? I haven’t tried doing it with this set. When I considered myself an entertainer, I did do the cups and balls, but those kinds of things are best left to the professionals.
Have you spoken with others who have had a chance to work with the Johnny Thompson cups and balls set? Before the COVID-19 crisis closed the office, we had a few magicians here who had a chance to look at the cups. Their response was visceral. It certainly got a rise out of them. They were definitely affected by them. They’re little talismans.
Why will this set of Johnny Thompson cups and balls stick in your memory? I’m in a curious position, personally. I know people whose material I sell. Johnny Thompson gave a lecture for magicians in Chicago in April 2018, after his book came out. Afterward, he came up to me, gave me a hug and a kiss, and said, “If anything happens to me, you sell this stuff and make sure my wife gets the money.” Now here it is, happening. It’s very different from getting a letter from an estate or an institution. I am by no means one of Johnny Thompson’s great friends. but we were friends. That’s why it will stick in my memory. He entertained me with the cups and balls like he entertained tens of thousands of people. It’s poignant and bizarre at the same time.
Update: The Liberty cap flag finial sold for $18,750.
What you see: A painted tinware and zinc Liberty cap flag finial that was part of one of the earliest deadly incidents of the Civil War–the Pratt Street Riot of April 1861. Freeman’s estimates it at $15,000 to $25,000.
The Expert: Lynda Cain, vice president and department head for American furniture, folk and decorative arts at Freeman’s.
How often do you see an antique flag finial that’s worth anything on its own? Are other flag finials of the period as visually interesting as this one? It clearly looks like a parade finial, meant for parades and political things. Figural pieces like this are very rare. This is the only example I’ve seen like this. I don’t know that anyone has seen one like this.
How would this Liberty cap flag finial have been used? It’s meant to be raised on the top of a flagpole. With this one, it has a history of being raised and used. The only others I’ve seen like this have been political lanterns [used in torchlight parades].
Would this have been a common, easily obtainable decorative piece in the mid-19th century? Or was it closer to handmade? I don’t know. In the mid-19th century, there were all sorts of companies making political and military material. It was popular, especially lanterns, and especially at mid-century. At the same time, many [metal] weathervanes were made. The finial is tin and zinc. It’s rather sophisticated.
So, a company that made weathervanes might also have made something like this Liberty cap flag finial? It could have. A very talented tinsmith made it.
Is the Liberty cap flag finial solid? It’s hollow.
What do I see dangling from the end of the Liberty cap flag finial? It looks like a tassel, but it’s gilded heavy wire.
What might the tassel material have looked like when the Liberty cap flag finial was new? I think it probably looked a bit more like a tassel, and the paint would have been brighter and fresher.
The tassel-like stuff at the back wouldn’t have been longer? Maybe it was a bit longer, but the gilt is pretty much there.
This Liberty cap flag finial was carried by someone at what became known as the Pratt Street Riot, in 1861. What was the Pratt Street Riot? It was in the very early days of the Civil War, five days after Fort Sumter was surrendered. A Massachusetts regiment was headed to Washington, D.C. to defend the capital. They had to change trains in Baltimore, and they had to move from one train to another. A crowd gathered that was unhappy.
And the crowd would have been supporters of the South? They were definitely on the side of the South, this group of people. They followed the soldiers to the trains, and there was kind of a stand-off. Supposedly in this group, the finial was on the flagpole, flying a Southern flag, but it wasn’t really an official Southern flag at that moment. Shots were fired, and people were killed, along with innocent bystanders. They were the first casualties of the Civil War. Someone has inscribed the finial on the front: “From the staff of which the Rebel Flag was carried on April 19th 1861 in Baltimore Md. in the attack on the Mass 6th.” [A total of 11 civilians and five soldiers died in the incident.]
I see a lot of nicks and dings on the painted surface of the Liberty cap flag finial. Is that the wear you would expect from a metal piece of this vintage, or do these nicks and dings represent damage it may have received during the Pratt Street Riot? We don’t know any of those things. We don’t know anything about when it was carried at the Pratt Street Riot. The consigner, who is a Pennsylvanian on the Main Line, purchased it from a couple, and it did descend in their family. He probably purchased it about 15 years ago.
So there’s no way to be sure that the paint loss we see on the Liberty cap flag finial was caused by being knocked around at the Pratt Street Riot? We don’t know. We can’t really call it ephemera, but I don’t think it was put on a pedestal. It could have been beat up. It could have been in other parades. We don’t know.
People didn’t have much of a collecting mentality in 1861. Why might someone have kept this Liberty cap flag finial and recorded its role in the Pratt Street Riot directly on it? You’ve got to remember, there were early collectors, who had the idea that the [American] centennial was not too far away. There were people who hung on to things, and they did save things from the Civil War. Things were retained and treasured.
Depending on when the inscription was written, couldn’t it have been evidence of the Liberty cap flag finial having been present at the scene of a violent crime? We don’t know when the inscription was put on. It could have been the late 19th century. It’s not uncommon to have it done later or at the time. So many times, we see notes on things, pinned to an object because they wanted to keep the history with the piece.
So we don’t have any idea who inked the inscription on the Liberty cap flag finial, or when they might have done it? I can’t tell, but it looks like 19th-century handwriting to me.
Do we have any notion of why the person who inscribed it wrote directly on the white part of the Liberty cap flag finial? I suppose they put it there because it’s the largest flat surface. At the back, it’s sort of ridged. And I think it shows on the white part. They could have put the inscription on the underside, but I don’t think they thought about where they were making it. They really wanted to make the point that it was an important piece, [that it was] at the Pratt Street Riot. That meant more to the person who marked it than anything else. They wanted to make it permanent.
What is the Liberty cap flag finial like in person? It’s very cool, just a fabulous object. It looks sculptural, really amazing. I’ve just never seen anything like this.
What’s it like to handle this piece? It’s kind of chubby on the bottom, and it tapers. It’s got a nice feel to it, a nice weight.
Is that pole-like whitish thing sticking out from the bottom of the Liberty cap flag finial part of the piece, or is it just something you placed it on to photograph it? It’s all attached. The extension is part of it. There’s a conical section that’s been hollowed out [at the bottom of the extension]. The pole goes into that.
What comparables did you look to when writing the estimate for the Liberty cap flag finial? I didn’t find any. It may be unique. It’s got a great presence. It’s a very rare object. Is it a folk art object? Almost. It’s political history, it’s military history. It’s an extreme rarity. And it’s a Liberty cap, a symbol of liberty since ancient times–an inescapable association. It’s significant as a piece of Americana. $15,000 to $25,000 is not crazy.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I’ve never seen one like it. [Laughs.] I find it highly satisfying. As a hat form, I think it’s a fabulous object. It really does look like a Liberty cap. Whoever created this did a magnificent job of creating the appearance of a soft cap out of tin. You can see the lines where it folds over, as if it’s a soft material. I think it’s remarkable. I’m hoping another will come out of the woodwork. It’s always good to find another one, I think.
What you see: An uncut sheet of 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards, representing the complete set of 20 cards. Robert Edward Auctions (REA) estimates it at $20,000.
The expert: Brian Dwyer, president of REA.
What was the Wilson Franks company? Does this 1954 series of baseball cards represent its only foray into offering baseball cards as promotional items? Yes. Wilson Franks was in the hot dog business and produced a 20-card set, packaged with its hot dogs.
How rare is it to come across any uncut sheet of baseball cards? The older the set, the more difficult it is, generally, to find sheets. The 70s and 80s are much more plentiful in uncut form. The 50s are largely devoid of uncut sheets.
The lot notes say the 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards are “highly prized by collectors as one of the most attractive and desirable of all 1950s regional issues.” Could you elaborate? It’s a very colorful set. For 20 cards, 17 of them have non-white, colored backgrounds–bright blue, yellow, purple. It’s very visually appealing, featuring prominent images of the players and images of a floating package of franks near the player. The color, the rarity, and the design makes them prized.
Do you know how the Wilson Franks baseball cards were received when they were new? It’s hard to say what people thought of them in 1954, but I know in our hobby, Wilson Franks cards are universally regarded as tough to find. I don’t imagine they were heavily produced or distributed over a wide area.
And I take it that because Wilson Franks never did a second set, the baseball cards didn’t work out for them? Yeah. A lot of the time, they’re done as promotional vehicles. If they don’t drive sales or engage customers, they’d move on to something different.
I understand that baseball cards issued in a set of 20 are unusual–it’s more typical to have 100 or more. Does its relatively small size make the 1954 Wilson Franks baseball card set more interesting to collectors? I would say that the smaller size makes it a set that collectors… I struggle to say “easily”, because they are tough to collect even still, but 20 makes it a manageable set, if you’re up to the challenge. If it was 200, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to manage.
The best-known way to collect baseball cards is by purchasing a pack with a stick of gum inside. Wilson Franks sold hot dogs. It makes logical sense that a hot dog company might try giving away baseball cards–people go to a game and eat hot dogs. How many other hot dog companies did what Wilson Franks did? There are a number of companies outside of the bubblegum world that tried the promotional vehicle of baseball cards. Hunter Wieners did players’ pictures on the side of their boxes. Briggs Meats and Rodeo Meats offered baseball cards as well. All date to the early 1950s. Kahn’s, a meat company, had the longest and most successful run with baseball cards, from 1955 through the 1970s. But bubblegum is the main product associated with baseball cards.
How rarely do complete cut sets of the 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards come to auction? Ironically, we have one in the current auction. It’s a unique pairing to have a complete set as issued alongside its uncut form. Complete sets show up relatively frequently. You might see one or two sets a year if you’re lucky.
How many uncut sheets of 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards have you seen or handled?We’ve handledtwo and seen two others. There are probably no more than … ten would be the high estimate.
While this is a visually compelling set of baseball cards, I see some flaws. The designer could have done a better job of working the package of hot dogs into each card–too often, it hovers awkwardly near the player. And Ted Williams appears to have lost his bat. Do collectors care about these things, or do they find them charming? They are what they are. To some collectors, there’s a charm to the lack of sophistication [in the design], the quirky charm of floating meat. They look past any issues with the images.
Am I seeing the Ted Williams card correctly? I can’t blow up the thumbnail as big as I’d like. Is his bat in fact missing? The knob is visible in his hands. An argument can be made that the bat should intersect with the area between his head and the hot dogs.
Is it possible that the designer took the bat out to make room for the hot dogs and never put it back in? We don’t have the true [source] image, so it’s hard to say where the bat should be positioned. It’s possible it was removed entirely for design purposes.
What’s your favorite baseball card in this group, or your favorite detail? I’ve always liked the Ted Williams card for its simplicity. It’s one of only three in the set with a white background. I like the Ted Williams because it’s a clean card, but the Roy Campanella is my favorite. It’s him in a catching position, with a bright-color background. It sums up baseball to me.
What is this uncut sheet of 1954 Wilson Franks baseball cards like in person? Are there any aspects that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? Aside from its size–it’s 19 inches tall by 10 1/2 inches wide–every other detail carries over accurately online. In person, you’re struck by the size, but on a computer, the colors and the images translate perfectly.
Do we know how this particular sheet of uncut Wilson Franks baseball cards survived? And in general, what sorts of things have to happen to allow a full sheet of circa 1950s uncut baseball cards to survive intact? We see a number of different paths for uncut sheets. Some are strictly excess. We’ve heard stories about them being rescued from Dumpsters at the end of projects. We’ve heard stories about executives taking them home. We’ve heard about pressmen taking a sheet home. There are a number of different circumstances. Normally, they fall in one of two categories. One is discarded, then saved, and two is purposefully saved by an executive, an art department, or someone associated with the production of the cards, and later put into circulation as a collectible.
But we don’t know the story behind the survival of the sheet you’re offering currently? Correct.
The uncut sheet of Wilson Franks baseball cards is described as being in “Overall Very Good Condition”. What does that mean here? It takes into consideration all aspects of the sheet and cards. The evaluation is much different than a single card that we might sell. “Very Good” means it presents well, but it’s not without flaws. There are spots of paper loss on the back, and evidence of an adhesive strip along the top edge. And due to its size, it has creasing, and abrasions around the edges.
As we speak on April 9, ten days before the auction closes, the sheet of Wilson Franks baseball cards has been bid up to $6,250. Does that mean anything at this stage? It’s only meaningful in the sense that there’s good early interest in it. Ten days out is still very early in the process. We expect more bids, but it’s a good early start for something that should sell in the $15,000 to $20,000 range.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s the first one I’ve personally handled, and it’s very neat anytime something this rare crosses your desk. It sticks out. It’s a tough-to-find set and it’s got an iconic Ted Williams card. Seeing it in one piece, uncut, is pretty special.
How to bid: The 1954 Wilson Franks uncut sheet of baseball cards is lot 1110 in the Spring 2020 auction at REA, closing on April 19, 2020.
Update: The untitled David Hammons work sold for $137,000.
What you see: An untitled David Hammons paper collage and tempera on board from 1965. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $120,000 to $180,000.
The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.
Who is David Hammons? He’s a very interesting artist, a contemporary artist, still living and working. He’s an interesting artist because he uses many different media and makes them his own. And there is socio-political commentary in his work, about the African-American experience or something larger than the object itself. He’s an artist who’s seen a meteoric rise in his value in the last ten years. Some of his most famous works are performance pieces. He once set up a blanket on the streets of New York and sold snowballs. He’s had a long career, and he’s part of a group of contemporary artists who are highly prized by collectors.
Where was David Hammons in his career in 1965? He was a young artist then, in Los Angeles, working with other artists in starting to explore non-traditional art mediums.
But this untitledDavid Hammons work is a more traditional work–paper collage and tempera on masonite board… That speaks to its early beginnings as a student living in Los Angeles, starting his odyssey. He didn’t settle into the work we know today until the late 1960s. It’s exciting because it’s an early work, but with a quality that’s very much his own.
What was the state of the black power movement in Los Angeles in 1965, in the wake of the Watts riots? Do we know if and how aware Hammons was of such things? I’m no social historian, but it was a politically active time. I think it would have been impossible for someone of his position not to be affected by the political and social climate of the time. 1965 was definitely an important time in the civil rights movement. Black power was more of a recognized movement in the later 1960s. To relate it to another piece, Elizabeth Catlett did a piece with raised fists after the 1968 Olympic [athlete protest] in Mexico City. This raised fist is about struggle and a symbol of freedom. I don’t know if it was a political symbol then as it would be later.
Could you discuss the significance of this raised fist image? It’s not one raised fist. It’s two raised fists, bound by shackles. It’s hard to see–the shackles are disappearing. You can just make it out in the paper collage. The moment [portrayed] is just as the fists are freed. It’s obviously a powerful symbol as we look at it now.
Do we know anything about why David Hammons might have made this particular image in 1965? It’s hard to know the artist’s intent without speaking to him, but 1965 was a turbulent time. In that period, everything had a political meaning, especially for African-American students. It’s something you can’t separate from the political and social meaning. This is about breaking free, and freedom and liberty. It’s very much a product of its time.
David Hammons was a student when he made this untitled work. Might he have done it for a class assignment? That I don’t know. I think he was very much an independent-thinking person. He gave this as a wedding present to a friend who was his roommate at the time.
It was a wedding present? An image of shackled fists being freed is kind of a weird choice when you’re celebrating people binding themselves to one another. [Laughs] I didn’t think about that aspect. Maybe there’s a joke there. Maybe it’s not meant to relate to the wedding. Who knows? This person lived with the artist, and they shared a lot. I don’t think Hammons was making a comment on his friend’s ceremony. The owner and the artist kept in touch. There’s only been one owner [of this work]. It was a personal gift at an early point in Hammons’s career. It speaks to their relationship, and their time together.
Is this untitled 1965 David Hammons work the first instance of him portraying a raised fist? I haven’t seen anything like this from this period, so it could be.
How does the raised fist show up in his work in later years? It does show up, but what’s interesting about this artwork is not just the subject, but the medium. David Hammons developed a body of work based on the body. He made body prints where the face, the hands, part of the body would be covered with what almost looked like margarine, pressed against pigment and pressed on paper. Yves Klein and Robert Rauschenberg have done similar works. It’s printmaking, with your body as the block. The prints hold up well. In the early to mid-1970s, Hammons added collage. This piece is a window into what would become his first major body of work.
Are the hands and arms in this untitled David Hammons work life-size, as they are in his body prints? They’re pretty close, yeah. They might be a bit bigger.
So you can draw a direct line between this untitled David Hammons work and his series of body prints? That’s what’s exciting about this piece. Collage is part of it, and the painting is a very direct, simple representation of the body and disappearing shackles.
Could you discuss how David Hammons chose to portray and compose the hands and shackles in this untitled work? The hands are direct and outlined in black. They’re the only part that got a heavy outline. There’s no outline for the shackles. They kind of disappear. The heavy black outline is what makes a statement. It has a bold quality to it.
Could you also talk about the colors David Hammons chose? The brown of the arms seems to blend in with the frame… [Laughs] We included the frame because it set off the work really nicely. It’s hard to talk about the colors without having another work to compare it to. In the body prints, there are very few colors. He’s trying to be very direct. Not until the 70s does he use more colors and become more painterly. It’s all about the image, I think.
What is this untitled David Hammons piece like in person? Are there aspects of it that don’t show up on camera? I do think in person the collage is more apparent. It’s made of see-through pieces of paper, almost tissue paper, and the paper is glued down. The tactile quality of the paper and how it’s made is more apparent in person.
Is the effect of the disappearing shackles more obvious in person? It still is kind of subtle in person. It takes a moment to make out where the links of the chain are. You can make out the shapes because the shapes are there in the paper. If it was on flat white paper, the shapes may have been raised. Here, he’s able to suggest shapes, though there’s no outline.
What condition is the untitled David Hammons piece in? It’s in very good condition. There appears to be no significant defects or damage. It’s had one owner and it’s held up very well. It looks good.
David Hammons is notoriously private. How has that affected the secondary market for his work? He has not followed the traditional path of being associated with one gallery or dealer. He has worked with galleries to mount exhibits, but he has no direct representation. He’s charted his own course. He has a mystique about being an outlier, an independent person, a mystery. He’s had a fascinating career, doing it his way, and now his work is among the most sought-after contemporary works today.
How might this early David Hammons untitled piece do? His works sell for millions of dollars on the primary market today. If something like that [his world auction record] came back to the market today, it would be [sell for] considerably higher. We’ve had body prints of his. Typically, they sell for six figures or up to a million for complex or large ones. This is such an early work and a different work, not a body print. It’s something else. That’s where my estimate is.
So the world auction record David Hammons piece is untitled, and the record for a David Hammons body print is untitled, and this piece is untitled, too. Does David Hammons usually decline to title his works? Rarely is there a title. Most body prints are untitled, and I think with early works, there are few if any titles.
Why will this untitled David Hammons piece stick in your memory? Because it’s a really strong image by David Hammons. It’s unusual, it’s strong, and it’s an early work that gives us a window into the development of a young artist who would go on to do incredible work. It’s very interesting, very exciting.
What you see: A Jim Dine landscape screen, created in a limited edition of 30 in 1969. Wright estimates it at $7,000 to $9,000.
The expert: Richard Wright, CEO of Rago/Wright.
Who is Jim Dine, and what makes his work compelling? Jim Dine is a pretty famous artist. He starts working in the late 1950s and very early 1960s, and participates in the very first Happenings in New York City. His work is not really Pop Art, but there’s Pop Art sensibilities in early work of his. He’s famous for his heart paintings and his bathrobe prints. Dine’s art is very human. It’s about being alive. To me, there’s a sense of joy and wonder about the world in the screen. The panels refer to the sky, the grass, a rainbow, and–it’s open to interpretation–a starry night.
How prolific is Jim Dine? Has anyone done a catalogue raisonné on him? There might be a catalogue raisonné of his prints and multiples. This screen is a multiple [an artwork deliberately produced in a series of identical pieces]. He’s a master printmaker from the early 1960s to today, and it’s a really important part of his output.
Is it fair to say he’s done several thousand artworks over his seven-decade career? Oh yes, sure.
Where was Jim Dine in his career in 1969, when he made this limited edition screen? By 1969, I think he’d left New York and was coming into his very personal style. The colors and the mood of this piece is pretty 1960s. It’s of its place and time.
Do we know how he came to make this limited edition screen? I don’t. He’s definitely always worked in prints, and done other multiples. I don’t know of other screens he’s done.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how challenging this Jim Dine screen might have been to make? It’s a screenprint, published by Petersburg Press, London. It’s all individual panels hinged together. I don’t think it was that complicated. It’s a screenprint on linen canvas, so it gives the feel of a painting. It’s always interesting when an artist conceives of a painting in three dimensions. He could have had it [the screen] totally flat, have it read as 2-D. The fact that it can stand freely in space… painters want [their works to be] strong enough to get off the wall. That’s what this does. It has the presence of a painting in space.
Do you think that’s what Jim Dine was trying to achieve here–a painting in space? I do. There’s no reason to pursue a folding screen other than wanting to be out in space, a divider standing apart from the wall.
Is the Jim Dine screen double-sided? It is double-sided.
Did he design it and hand it off to others to fabricate, or was he physically involved in the creation of the limited edition? I think he designed the prototype and handed it off for production. He would have overseen the final production and okayed it by signing it.
What motifs and details present in the Jim Dine screen appear in his later work? Definitely the rainbow. There’s a great little rainbow painting in the Whitney’s permanent collection–The Black Rainbow, from 1959 to 1960. I don’t know how long he used the motif, but he definitely used it throughout the 1960s.
In what ways is this Jim Dine screen typical of his work, and in what ways is it atypical? I don’t think he did a lot of screens. The screen, in and of itself, is atypical. It feels to me, looking at it, as pretty identifiable as Jim Dine. The color palette and the juxtaposition of imagery feels like his work.
Is the color palette part of his visual signature? I think, from the 1960s, yes. Again, there’s a kind of Pop-iness to the color palette and the way it’s put together–blue to yellow to green to black to rainbow–the colors are almost banging up against each other, a cacophony of color. He uses color in an almost riotous way, almost a discordant way.
In prepping for this story, I found a 2017 Chicago Reader article in which Dine was quoted as saying, “I’ve always viewed my work as self-portraits, no matter what it’s been.” Do you think that holds true here? If so, in what ways might the screen serve as a Jim Dine self-portrait? Yes, I think it’s kind of what I said about his work being very human. I think his work is less about him and more about being alive, the essence of the vitality of life. The landscape screen [reflects] all hours of day and night. The rainbow is up against what I think is a night sky. Summer grass is up against yellow and a blue sky. Obviously it’s not literally a self-portrait. I read it as the feeling of being alive and outside, of being in the world and seeing it all.
What is the Jim Dine screen like in person? Are there any aspects or details that the camera doesn’t pick up? In person, you get the nice texture of the canvas, which gives more warmth than you would get with paper. And you get the height–it’s six feet high. It has a bodily presence as well.
The photos make the Jim Dine screen seem cheerful-looking. Is it a mood-lifter in person? Particularly now, with everyone stuck in place because of COVID-19? [Laughs] Yeah. Again, what I value about his work is his sense of humanity. In a time of social isolation, you feel the joy of feeling alive. It can be one of the hardest things to tune in to and be aware of. The screen reminds you to look at the sky, the grass, take a deep breath, smell the earth. It’s all pretty real stuff.
How heavy is the Jim Dine screen? It’s easy to move around. One person can move it, but I haven’t actually moved it.
This Jim Dine screen is number three in an edition of 30. How often do they tend to come to market? On the world-wide auction market, it appears roughly once in 18 months.
This particular screen was owned by Gene Summers, who was a friend of Jim Dine. Does that provenance make it more interesting to collectors? Gene was a dear friend of Jim and wanted to buy one example of everything he produced in prints and multiples. Summers was an architect, and he worked with Dine on hotels and restaurants. It’s always wonderful when something is acquired directly from an artist by someone who had a long relationship with him, and has never been on the market. I don’t want to overstate it. It’s a multiple. I don’t know if [the provenance] adds that much. But if you’re a connoisseur, it’s a really great one, and it has a story that’s quite nice.
What condition is the Jim Dine screen in? It’s definitely in very good condition. With careful use, it’s pretty easy to maintain the condition of this piece.
In your experience, do clients use the Jim Dine screen as a screen, or do they treat it more like a work of art? Kind of both. I think a lot use it against a wall, or up against a window that shows another building, or in an ugly corner, creative uses like that.
Why will this Jim Dine screen stick in your memory? We’re dealing with Gene Summers’ family. I never got to know Gene personally, but I’ve worked with the widow and the extended family. I’ll remember the piece because it was part of Gene’s life. That’s how it stays with me.
What you see: A baseball signed by all four of the Beatles at what proved to be their final official concert, performed on August 29, 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $80,000 to $100,000.
The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.
First off, how rare is it to find anything signed by all four of the Beatles? It’s fairly rare, but what’s rare about this is it’s a baseball.
How many baseballs are out there that were signed by all four Beatles? There are four known to exist.
This isn’t the first baseball I’ve seenthat’s signed by celebritieswho don’tplay baseball. Heck, I’m not even sure if any of the Beatles were into cricket, a distant British cousin of the sport. Why is this a thing–famous people who aren’t baseball players signing baseballs? This was the Beatles’ last U.S. concert tour, and the last performance on the tour, in Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The baseball is appropriate because the concert was in a baseball stadium. The nice thing about it for us is it’s not just Beatles collectors vying to own it, but sports collectors. Music collectors and sports collectors are the two biggest genres of collectors out there.
How did this Beatles-signed baseball come to be? Mike Murphy was a new employee in the clubhouse there in 1966. His sister, Anna, was a huge fan of the Beatles and asked him if he’d try to get tickets for her. He was new, so he didn’t want to rock the boat. He didn’t get her tickets. She stayed at home. He was working the concert and saw it was only half-sold, and he felt bad. He could have easily gotten tickets for his sister. He got the Spaulding baseball, and got each member of the Beatles to sign it and gifted it to Anna. But she had no interest in it. She had wanted to see the Beatles perform live. A baseball had no meaning to her. She threw it into a closet and it sat there for 35 years.
How did the Beatles-signed baseball leave Anna’s possession? Did she give it away? She sold it to collector Terry Flores, who knew her nephew. He acquired it from her in 2001.
It looks like the four Beatles didn’t use the same pen when they signed this ball–George Harrison’s signature is green, Paul McCartney’s is red, and the other two are in a more standard color of pen ink. Do we know why it shook out that way? It’s likely that whatever pen they had in hand at the time was used. One was red, and another was green. They always got requests to sign things backstage. They signed with whatever they had in hand.
And why did the August 29, 1966 show end up being the final official Beatles concert? I think they themselves felt they couldn’t do this anymore. They were jaded by it all. 100-watt amplifiers were designed to work great in the Cavern Club, but not for a stadium of 50,000 to 60,000 people. John Lennon would change the words [of songs as he sang live] because the audience couldn’t hear the words–that’s how bad the sound system was. Ringo would watch the backs of his three colleagues, their body movements, to get the rhythm. They weren’t able to work their craft, and [concert-goers weren’t able] to appreciate what they were performing. And there was a sense of… they were young guys, and if they weren’t touring, they were in the studio, recording. They wanted to live life.
What condition is the Beatles-signed baseball in? You have to keep in mind that the baseball is 54 years old, but it’s in good condition. Anna, who got it first, put it in a closet. It was not exposed to light, she wasn’t touching it, it stayed intact. The signatures are covered by a protective coating, so if you hold it in your hand, you won’t erase the signatures.
You’ve seen many sets of genuine Beatles signatures. Where would you rank this set? The quality is good. You can see it yourself online. You know exactly who’s signing. The George Harrison signature is especially legible.
I understand that the Ringo Starr signature had some conservation work. What was done? I’m not exactly sure. The signature has not been altered in any way. They’ve done something to it to make it more evident. It may have been fading. The signature, as an original, is intact.
The Beatles signatures are distributed over the surface of the ball, making it hard to show all four at once. How would you recommend displaying it? All four signatures is key. You don’t want to show just one. What we would advise is having a glass case, a cube case–it should be UV light protective–to go over the ball, and the ball could sit on a carousel and spin.
How did you set the estimate for this Beatles-signed baseball? We thought $80,000 to $100,000 was a fair estimate. Again, there are only four