A Jim Dine Screen Could Sell for $9,000

A limited edition screen, created in 1969 by Jim Dine. Shown in full, each of the five panels depicts a different aspect of the outdoors: a blue sky, a yellow field, green grass, a black starry night, and a rainbow.

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, president of Wright auction house.

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.

A detail shot of the Jim Dine screen, showing his signature on the yellow panel.

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.

Another detail shot of the Jim Dine screen, showing the starry night and rainbow panels.

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.

The Jim Dine screen shown in full, folded, with the rainbow panel prominent.

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.

What’s the world auction record for this Jim Dine screen? It was $15,000, set at Swann in May 2015.

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.

How to bid: The Jim Dine landscape screen is lot 128 in the Art + Design Part 1 sale taking place at Wright on April 9, 2020.

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Images are courtesy of Wright.

Richard Wright has appeared on The Hot Bid previously, discussing a pair of Pedro Friedeberg Hand chairs that were offered in the same Rago auction, a record-setting Walter Dorwin Teague-designed Nocturne radio, a record-setting Isamu Noguchi table, and an Isamu Noguchi sculpture.

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A Beatles-signed Baseball from Their Final Concert Could Command $100,000

A baseball signed by all four Beatles at what would turn out to be their final live concert. Shown here is the George Harrison signature, which he rendered in green ink.

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.

Have you seen any of the other three? Yes. We sold one a couple of years ago for $100,000.

This isn’t the first baseball I’ve seen that’s signed by celebrities who don’t play 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.

This Beatles-signed baseball is one of four known to sport a complete set of signatures. Shown here is the side with John Lennon's signature.

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.

A baseball signed by all four Beatles at what would turn out to be their final live concert, performed at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Shown here is the Paul McCartney signature, which he rendered in red ink.

You mentioned above that Candlestick Park was only half-full for the August 1966 Beatles concert. I realize no one knew at the time that it would end up being the last Beatles performance during a concert tour, but I have to admit I’m surprised that the show didn’t sell out, and didn’t come near selling out. Do we know why? The Asian tour [the Phillipines section of the Beatles’ 1966 tour] was sort of controversial. They snubbed the leaders of the Phillipines, but it wasn’t intentional. The government removed all police protection for them and all proceeds from the concert as well, and they got beaten up by people. George Harrison said, “We’re going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans.” Also, John Lennon had made the comment about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus” [in March 1966] and it caused a huge outcry, particularly below the Mason-Dixon line. There was negativity about the Beatles at the time.

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.

Only four Beatles-signed baseballs exist. This one carries Beatles history as well, having been signed during what turned out to be their final concert. Shown here is the Ringo Starr signature.

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 Beatles-signed baseballs, and it [the final Beatles concert] is a pretty historic event. Maybe it’s not their greatest moment, but it’s certainly a milestone. The baseball tells the story of what went down that night.

How does this Beatles-signed baseball compare to the other three? This one is historic because it’s so well-documented, and the provenance is so solid.

This same Beatles-signed baseball was in your May 2019 Beatles auction in Liverpool, and it’s coming up for sale again less than a year later. I understand that stuff happens–death, divorce, et cetera–but why is it coming back now, and how does its returning to auction relatively soon change your strategy for selling it? Yes, the buyer who bought Lot 111 in this upcoming sale bought it last year as an investment. It was reconsigned as we believe it will do better now even though it’s only a year later. The April 2020 auction is celebrating 50 years since the Beatles formally disbanded, and we anticipate, with the current climate and uncertainty in the stock market, our clients and investors are looking to diversify their portfolios. This baseball, signed by all four of the Beatles, is a tangible asset, a great conversation piece, and an important part of our pop culture history. We expect it will sell for a much higher amount on April 10.

Do you think it might set a new world auction record for a Beatles-signed baseball? Yes.

And this is only the second of the four Beatles-signed baseballs to go to auction, correct? You sold the other one that was auctioned? Yes. The two others are in private hands and haven’t come to auction.

And you think it will set a new record because of its connection to the final Beatles concert? Yes, and it’s in a Beatles-dedicated auction. It’s been 50 years since they disbanded on April 10, 1970. You can’t take away the music, you can’t take away the memories, you can’t take away from this item’s importance. It was signed by all four, and two are gone. You can’t get another baseball signed by the Beatles. It’s part of the storyline of what was happening with the Beatles at that time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with everything, auction schedules included. How will Julien’s conduct this sale? We won’t be gathering in the room, but it will be a live auction, with phone bids and online bids. There will be an auctioneer, and you can follow along online.

What is the Beatles-signed baseball like in person? Are there aspects or details that don’t come across on camera? No, but when I hold it–gently, to make sure I’m not touching the signatures–I think of the history it represents, and how incredible it is that it’s survived until now. It’s in pretty good nick, I must say.

How to bid: The Beatles-signed baseball is lot 111 in Julien’s Auctions sale, The Beatles at the Hard Rock, taking place April 10, 2020 in New York.

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Image is courtesy of Julien’s Auctions.

Martin Nolan previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Lucille guitar played on stage by B.B. King,  the “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to serenade JFKthe first TCB necklace given away by Elvis Presley, a purple Prince-worn tunic that the star donned for a 1998 BET interview, which yielded a famous GIF; a Joseff of Hollywood simulated diamond necklace worn by Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and several other Hollywood actresses, as well as a once-lost 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar belonging to John Lennon that sold for $2.4 million–a record for any guitar at auction.

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A Winter Dance Party Poster Touting Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens Days Before They Died in a 1959 Plane Crash Could Set a New World Auction Record (Update April 2020: So Close!)

An original 1959 Winter Dance Party concert poster, touting Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, all of whom would later die in a February 3 plane crash mythologized as "The Day the Music Died". The poster could sell for $100,000 or more at Heritage Auctions.

Update: The Winter Dance Party concert poster sold for $125,000–$7,000 shy of the world auction record for any concert poster. Wow!

What you see: A Winter Dance Party concert poster, touting Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, all of whom would die in a plane crash on February 3, 1959–aka The Day the Music Died. Heritage Auctions issued no formal estimate for the poster, but its likely range is between $50,000 and $100,000.

The expert: Pete Howard, consignment director at Heritage Auctions for entertainment and music.

How rare are pre-1960 concert posters in general? I get the impression that the further back you go, the less likely they are to survive. Exactly. There’s a saying: People didn’t save much from the 1960s because they were having too much fun. But people didn’t save anything from the 1950s. I often say many if not most of the concert posters from the 1950s and back were saved by accident, and found by accident.

Found in walls, as insulation… Exactly. “This is cool, I’m gonna save this,”–that kind of thinking didn’t happen until the 70s.

I understand that five examples of the Winter Dance Party poster survive–three printed with dates before the plane crash that became known as The Day the Music Died, and two after. How does this poster compare to the other four? This is the only four-color Winter Dance Party poster. On all the others, the information at the top is printed in black. This is a nice teal color. It’s the only four-color to survive. This is a good one. There are no mint ones.

In a video that appears on the Heritage Auctions lot page for the Winter Dance Party poster, you say the poster is “Arguably the best and rarest rock concert poster in history.” That’s quite a statement. Could you elaborate? What makes it the one that rules them all? It has tremendous, off-the-charts cachet to it. It’s rock’s first tragedy, and the music is still so alive today. The poster is visually charismatic–everyone loves the graphics on it. And the wording: “Parents invited, no charge.” All those elements come together to make it arguably the most collectible or best concert poster. Some prefer the psychedelic concert posters of Jimi Hendrix or the Grateful Dead, but for Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, I think there are over 100 first printings that exist. This thing is stupid-rare by comparison.

Concert posters of the era were often printed with a blank space on them where the specific date and venue for the show would be added later. Has anyone found a stash of Winter Dance Party posters with blank tops, which would have gone unused after the plane crash that we now call The Day the Music Died? One would think it [such a stash] could possibly survive. Anyone with a sense of nostalgia and foresight would have saved it. But it was just trash can, trash can, trash can.

Immediately after the plane crash, when the accident hadn’t yet grown into The Day the Music Died, the blank posters would have been seen as so much useless paper, and trashed? That’s right. There could be blanks out there, but they’ve never come forward.

You mentioned the graphics before. Could you say more about them? I’ve seen other concert posters of this type that look terrible–trying to cram too many acts into the space, or using eye-stabbing colors, or both. But the Winter Dance Party poster is beautiful. It certainly is, and it’s symmetrical. It plays nicely on the eyes. It was intentional. And the black and yellow–they got away cheaply enough to use one other color than black in the design. It’s an iconic image. A lot of people who know nothing about rock ‘n roll recognize this image.

The Winter Dance Party poster lists Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens and names their biggest hits, not their newest singles. Would you talk about why that’s important, and how it makes the poster more interesting? Generally, when an artist is on tour, they’re promoting their newest singles. Often the poster designer and the [concert tour] management would put the newest single on the poster. [But] do you want to sell tickets, or sell records? My thought is, if you put the biggest hit on the poster, people think, “Wow, let’s go.” It’s just happenstance that “Let’s sell tickets” won the vote. The Big Bopper’s newest single was Big Bopper’s Wedding. Imagine how silly that would look–Big Bopper’s Wedding. It’s pure happenstance that they used big hits to sell tickets and didn’t focus on promoting the new singles.

How did this particular example of the Winter Dance Party poster manage to survive? This one was not saved by accident. It was taken down off the wall of the Kato Ballroom by a teenage girl who was walking out. She had no idea of investment value, or it being worth something someday. She had a fun time and took it home as a memento. Why more people didn’t do that, I don’t know. Some do, and throw it away in later years.

They get older and move out and don’t take it with them… There’s a hundred scenarios for why posters don’t survive. The basement floods and there’s water damage. There’s a vengeful brother or sister. Having taken it down in the first place is unusual. Not screwing up the poster in the decades since is really unusual.

Do we know how, exactly, this particular one managed to survive so well? We don’t know. It was a bit worse for wear, but it was touched up by a paper conservation expert.

The lot notes mention that the Winter Dance Party poster “has been reproduced and bootlegged ad infinitum over the ensuing decades.” Can you talk about how we know this example is a genuine 1959 original? This might be a bit of a complicated answer. After doing something for so long–I’ve been doing this 30 years–an expert like me has a built-in radar detection system that kicks in. It’s almost this unconscious feeling coming over you, merging all the red flags and green flags in your life. Either you feel uncomfortable with the piece, or you feel comfortable and move ahead with due diligence. The fact that it came from the original girl, now woman, who attended the show and saved it and gave a great letter of provenance, and I examined the piece in person… it’s hard to put into words what you look for. It’s a feeling you get when you examine something. If something is all green flags, no red flags, you get excited. This was green flags every step of the way.

This Winter Dance Party poster is described as a “window card”. What does that mean? The term “window card” is 100 percent synonymous with a cardboard concert poster, not a paper one. It was put in store windows and thumbtacked on telephone poles, where it might last for days or weeks. That’s why they’re tall and thin. [It measures 14 inches by 22 inches.] You can put them up on a telephone pole and not lose anything.

What is the Winter Dance Party poster like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? No, but there’s a feeling of history that comes over you as you hold it. It’s wonderful–the show really happened, and this person [who took the poster off the wall] stood near the stage and watched the musicians. You get an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and genuineness when you hold it.

What’s your favorite detail of the poster? “Parents invited, no charge.” I think that’s just stunning.

Ok, when I was a teenager, I was pretty much a square, but even I would have considered a concert with a poster that said, “Parents invited, no charge” as kryptonite, straight-up. But in the late 1950s, how many parents were hip enough to want to go to it anyway? What’s ironic is that 50 years later, you may as well have said, “Parents invited. Witness rock ‘n roll history, make everyone else green with envy that you were there, and have a story you can regale your grandchildren with for the rest of your life, no charge.”

Was “Parents invited, no charge” a common phrase seen on concert posters in the late 1950s? I’ve seen tens of thousands of concert posters, and I would guess that I’ve seen the phrase less than five times on a poster.

And the phrase shows up on posters from the late 1950s and early 1960s? Yes. They didn’t put it on Beatles posters, that’s for sure.

Didn’t the concert promoters run the risk of scaring off their target audience by proclaiming that parents were invited to the show? That’s a good point, but maybe… it’s not New York City, where there are four cool concerts a month. This is the dead of winter. Nothing exciting happens in Mankato, Minnesota–no offense–and the biggest hitmakers are coming to town. I don’t think the kids would be dissuaded by a few parents being there.

As of March 27, 2020, the Winter Dance Party poster had been bid up to $19,500, with eight days to go before the auction. Is that meaningful at all, to have such a large bid well before the sale date? Posters like this are driven by emotion. I’ve seen posters sit there, dead in the water in the leadup time, and explode on auction day as everybody jumps in at once. I’ve seen posters jump out weeks before the auction and just not grow much from there. Trying to predict when excited bidders will place bids is folly, but it’s part of what makes the auction game fun–not so much for bidders, but for sellers.

Heritage Auctions did not require a formal estimate for the poster, but if you assigned an estimate, what would it be? It’s hard to mess with a window between $50,000 and $100,000.

This is the first Winter Dance Party poster to go to auction. What comparables–other items that have sold at public auction–would you look to when writing the estimate? I’d look at private sales. That’s often a gauge. Winter Dance Party posters have changed hands privately for $175,000.

What’s the significance of such an important original concert poster making its auction debut? What’s fun about auctioning a Winter Dance Party poster for the first time is, is this going to pull out previously unknown Winter Dance Party posters? When John and Mary Smith in the upper midwest see the result, they might think, “Maybe it’s time to sell ours.” I once calculated that there’s a quarter-billion garages, attics, and basements in the United States. Quarter-billion, with a “b”. Are there five more Winter Dance Party posters in closets or attics? Are there no more? This auction has the potential to smoke out others.

What’s the world auction record for an original concert poster? It’s $132,000, for a Beatles Shea Stadium poster sold in 2004. I have felt all along that we have a chance of surpassing that.

Why will this Winter Dance Party concert poster stick in your memory? It’s the first time in history one has been to auction. As I’ve said, it’s arguably the coolest and greatest rock concert poster out there. There’s no Elvis Presley I’d want more, no Beatles I’d want more, no Jimi Hendrix I’d want more, no Bob Dylan I’d want more. I’m not taking this for granted. This might be the peak of my poster auction career. It might be peaking right now.

How to bid: The Winter Dance Party poster is lot 89140 in the Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Auction at Heritage Auctions on April 4 and 5, 2020.

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A Nicolò Barovier Mosaico Vase Could Command $500,000

A large Mosaico vase, made in the mid 1920s by Nicolò Barovier. It could command half a million dollars at Wright in early April.

What you see: A rare and important Mosaico vase by Nicolò Barovier, dating to the mid-1920s. Wright estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.

The expert: Sara Blumberg, a consultant for Wright.

Who was Nicolò Barovier, and what was Artisti Barovier? Barovier is the name of the company and the family. It’s one of the oldest glass furnaces in the world, and one of the oldest companies in the world. [The Barovier family business dates back to 1295.] Nicolò Barovier was related to Ercole Barovier, and both were the sons of Benvenuto Barovier. As it [the company] went forward, its name changed over time, and it became Barovier & Toso, which still exists.

Do we know how many Mosaico vases Nicolò Barovier made? We have ways of tracking them, but we don’t know how many were made. We can say quite easily that not many remain, and we can’t have definitive numbers. I can only tell you they’re very, very rare.

What does “very rare” mean in this context? In terms of the Mosaico vase, there’s somewhere around 100. There may be slightly more or less.

Is it difficult to tease out which Mosaico vases were made by Nicolò Barovier, and which were made by his brother? It’s very difficult to do. Nicolò didn’t sign all his pieces, and Ercole didn’t sign all his pieces. Sometimes we know [the authorship] through archival materials. Nicolò favored more plant-like patterning, where Ercole seemed to experiment with more specific kinds of patterns, almost geometric patterns. But they were made with the same spirit, in the same way, based on the same method.

I notice that elsewhere in the sale, there’s an Ercole Barovier Mosaico vase dating to the same time and having the same dominant blue color, but Ercole’s vase has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 while Nicolò’s is estimated at $300,000 to $500,000. Why do the estimates vary so much, given that they were made at the same time, in the same way, in the same general style? The Nicolò Barovier might be seen as having a slightly rarer form and patterning. There’s only one other known Nicolò Barovier like this. I personally see them as equal in importance and rarity, but the Nicolò Barovier is stunning to see, with exceptionally complicated patterning. In the Ercole Barovier, there’s a grid-like pattern. The Nicolò Barovier has stems and flowers–it’s a very complicated piece of glass.

How did the Baroviers make Mosaico vases? I get the impression that the glass-making technique wasn’t new in the 1920s, but they revived it and added to it? It’s rooted in an ancient technique involving murrine, or sliced canes of glass. The slices of glass are arranged on a plate that makes a pattern, whatever that might be. That was the first step in the ancient world. The difference [between then and the 1920s is the ancient pieces] weren’t blown, but slumped. They laid a configuration of glass over it and heated it.

And the heat would knit the glass slices and the glass matrix into a whole? Yes. What was new was the Baroviers figured out how to do it with blown glass–a miraculous feat.

The Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase, shown from the other side.

How did they make the ancient technique work with blown glass? Picture a blob of clear glass on the end of a blowpipe. The molten glass is constantly spinning. The glass slices are laid out in a pattern on a plate. The glassblower puts the blob into the plate in a rolling fashion. The blowpipe keeps spinning. It never stops, ever. The glass slices are blown out, expanding them and the clear glass simultaneously. If it sounds difficult, it absolutely is. The finesse required is absolutely unbelievable.

…Uh, how strong do you have to be to execute a Mosaico vase? Very, very strong. It’s not for the faint of heart. A lot of the best [glassblowers] were strong, burly people who made very delicate things.

Did Nicolò Barovier participate in the actual glass-blowing, or did he create the Mosaico vase design and hand it off to others to execute? In almost every case, the designer of the glass never executes the glass. They hand it off to others.

And glass-blowing is a team effort, yes? What are the other people doing as the glassblower rolls the blob of clear glass in the plate of colored glass slices? They’re doing basically every task imaginable. They’re opening up the furnace so the glassblower can put it in and take it out, and they make sure the placement of the murrine is such so it [the required maneuvers] can happen quickly and easily. It’s quick because it has to be.

Sounds like a ballet. It is quite like that. Everyone has to work with absolute fluidity.

…and if one of the little glass slices slides out of place…? One mistake, and that can be enough to lose the piece.

And that’s why there aren’t that many Mosaico vases? They’re a pain in the butt to produce? Right, because there was so much loss and they were incredibly expensive to make. It was like studio glass. It was a way for the company to get attention, to show what they’re capable of. They’re very effective as a marketing tool.

Did the Barovier company sell these Mosaico vases? People did buy these things. They could go to the company and request that something be made. But we have no real records for this. We don’t know how many were sold and how many were made by request. But they were so expensive and difficult, they wouldn’t do it without a buyer.

So, you couldn’t buy a Mosaico vase at, say, Tiffany & Co., but if you saw one at a Biennale and were so moved that you approached the company and asked to buy one, you could get one. Exactly right. It’s like commissioning a painting.

A closeup of the Nicolò Barovier Mosaico Vase, showing the flower design worked into the overall pattern.

The Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase measures nine inches in diameter and 13 inches high. That’s big. Did its size make it more difficult to create? The larger it is, the more difficult it is to make. So many things can occur. It [the molten glass] becomes harder and harder to control.

How do we know this Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase dates to between 1924 and 1925? There’s enough archival information to substantiate the date. We know when Nicolò Barovier was working, and we know precisely what was going on at the company.

The glass art takes the form of a vase, but would anyone have used it as a vase? I get asked that all the time. It’s certainly possible, but with the Mosaico, it’s unlikely. There’s no way to know how many people used them in this way.

This Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase features his incised signature. Did he typically sign his vases, or is the signature inconsistent? It’s very inconsistent. As far as I can tell, less than half the Mosaico vases were signed. It’s an amazing thing to me to [think he could] make something so sublime and then not sign it. It’s a bit of a mystery why it’s inconsistent. It might have been that he didn’t sign them generally, but did if people asked him to do so.

What is the Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? It’s absolutely brilliant in person. Jim [Jim Oliveira, her business partner] describes it as three-dimensional stained glass, and that is what it feels like when you hold it in your hand. The only thing you can’t see in the photo is the beautiful rounded form, which doesn’t translate well.

Another detail shot of the Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase that features the stems of the flowers.

What is your favorite detail of the Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase? The stems that run down from the clusters of flowers. It’s a beautiful aspect of the pattern, very much like a natural element from the ground.

Could you also talk about the choice of color here–the dominant blue matched with orange and green? If you look at the body of work for Mosaico vases, generally speaking, the colors are quite vivid. There are Mosaico pieces in paler tones, but Nicolò Barovier looked at color as an important part of the design, to make it as alive as possible. And you do have this level of transparency–that dynamism is encouraged and enhanced by the use of strong colors.

Dynamism in the glass? Could you elaborate? When you look at the design, you can see the other side of the vase simultaneously. The color just heightens the experience.

What’s the world auction record for a Nicolò Barovier piece, and what’s the world auction record for any Barovier piece? The Nicolò Barovier record is ours, set in January 2019 by a Mosaico vase that sold for $317,000. The Barovier record belongs to a Bosco di Betulle vase sold at Christie’s London in October 2019 for £707,250 (about $837,000).

Why will this Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase stick in your memory? I’ve had the great fortune of handling many of these over the years. I could easily describe every one in detail. Every single Mosaico vase I’ve seen and handled has had an impact on me. I’m very taken with them. Great art never leaves you.

How to bid: The Nicolò Barovier Mosaico vase is lot 160 in the Important Italian Glass auction at Wright on April 2, 2020.

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

Wright is on Twitter and Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Wright.

Sara Blumberg has appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about a Thomas Stearns glass masterpiece and a stunning Italian macchie vase.

Sara Blumberg and Jim Oliveira have a website, Glass Past.

Barovier & Toso has a website.

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

RIP Peter Loughrey, Founder of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (Updated March 25, 2020)

A photograph of Peter Loughrey, founder of Los Angeles Modern Auctions. He died on March 16, 2020 at the too-damn-young age of 52.

Peter Loughrey, founder of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), died of cancer on March 16, 2020, at the age of 52.

Loughrey holds a special place in the history of The Hot Bid. He was the interviewee in the first story ever posted to the website, on February 20, 2017–which happened to be his 49th birthday.

Loughrey was among a select group of people who I’ve schemed to feature on The Hot Bid as often as possible, simply because they’re so damn smart, interesting, knowledgable, and enthusiastic about their wares. (No, I will not tell you who the other people are.)

Below you will find links to stories from The Hot Bid in which Peter Loughrey appeared, followed by links to appreciations of Loughrey from other publications.

His loss is being felt deeply and keenly in Los Angeles and across the country and the world. A March 19, 2020 LAMA press release on his life and his passing described an earlier battle Loughrey had with a different cancer, and included this quote: “I was given the gift of living another 25 years after my first diagnosis and have no regrets. The best thing that ever happened to me was having cancer at a young age–as it defined my life. I lived my days to their fullest and on my own terms with the underlying thread that each day was a gift.”

My condolences to his wife, Shannon, president of LAMA, and to all at the auction house.

Please consider making a donation in Loughrey’s memory to the Decorative Arts and Design department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

An Alma Thomas painting sells for almost $400,000.

SOLD! A Jonathan Borofsky work fetches $9,375 at LAMA.

A Bounty Hunter dune buggy sold for $36,250 at LAMA.

A Wendell Castle rocking chair could fetch $120,000 at LAMA.

RECORD! An Ed Ruscha Print Sold for More Than $200,000 in 2014.

RECORD! Carole Feuerman’s Bibi on the Ball sold for $118,750–a new record for the artist.

SOLD! Kenneth Noland’s Songs: Yesterdays fetched (click to see). Also! Happy birthday to The Hot Bid.

Peter Loughrey, esteemed auctioneer and curator, dies after battle with cancer. Architectural Digest, Mallery Roberts Morgan.

Peter Loughrey, founder of Los Angeles Modern Auctions, leaves us at 52. KCRW, Frances Anderton.

Appreciation: My “Antiques Roadshow” moment with Peter Loughrey, champion of California modernism, Los Angeles Times, David A. Keeps.

Also? Cancer can go drop-kick itself directly into the sun. Directly. Into. The. Goddamn. Sun. Just sayin’.

A Wharton Esherick Table Made for Hedgerow Theatre Could Fetch $250,000

The Thunder Table, made by Wharton Esherick for Hedgerow Theater in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Long a mainstay of the theater, it could sell for $250,000 or more at Freeman's.

What you see: The Thunder Table, created by Wharton Esherick in 1929 for the Hedgerow Theatre Company in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Freeman’s estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.

The expert: Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s.

Who was Wharton Esherick? He was an artist, a sculptor in wood, and a furniture maker who was active in Paoli, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s up to his death in 1970. He thought he would make it as a painter. He carved up wood for frames, and people who saw his artwork responded to the frames more than they did the pictures. [After that] he started to experiment more with furniture and sculpture. He experienced the Arts and Crafts community of Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, or the legacy of it–it was on its last legs at that point. Seeing Rose Valley furniture inspired him to get increasingly creative in his designs. If you see a piece by Esherick, you know it’s by him. He is from that first generation of artists who looked at a utilitarian object made of wood and thought, “Can I make this into a work of art on its own? Can I make it into a sculptural piece?”

So, though Esherick took formal art training, he taught himself to make furniture? He did. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do, and he didn’t have people around him telling him, “You can’t do that, you can’t make a chair like that.” Fortuitously, he had a neighbor, John Schmidt, who had trained in Germany in the guild system and knew how to construct chairs and cabinets. Esherick leaned on John [for technical help].

How prolific was Wharton Esherick? When you look at his whole body of work–if you include all the pieces of artwork, counting every little doodle, it’s probably somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 pieces. Of that, 300 to 400 could count as furniture.

He didn’t think of his furniture as art? He very famously considered himself an artist. He didn’t consider himself a woodworker or a craftsman. Wood or metal or paintings, they were all the same thing to him.

How did his furniture work find favor? The 1920s, 30s, and 40s were a Colonial moment [in American furniture]. People who could afford a piece by Esherick, which was not inexpensive, were buying Chippendale chairs. Fortunately for Esherick, influential people encountered his works. Hedgerow Theatre operated as a sort of gallery for him.

Where was Wharton Esherick in his career in 1929, when he made the Thunder Table? He was really at a transitional moment. He dipped his toes in the pond of furniture, so to speak, and he made some of his earliest designs. He was very involved with Hedgerow Theatre, making set designs for them, costume designs, sitting in the balcony and sketching performers. From these, he gained inspiration to create furniture. He made some of his really great pieces in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a very fruitful period for him, but certainly not his most productive period. He was making what are effectively one-offs, wholly original works that are not replicated designs with serialized production.

How did his relationship with the Hedgerow Theatre start, and how long did it last? It lasted his entire life. Esherick’s wife, Letty, was friends with Dr. Ruth Deeter, who was the sister of Jasper Deeter, a theatrical type from New York City who was coming to Rose Valley to start a repertory theater. Wharton, being Wharton, wanted to check it out. He met Jasper, and found each other very kindred spirits. Esherick helped repair the theater in some cases. If the theater needed a table, he’d carve a table. If it needed chairs, he’d make some chairs. He created [the furniture] with love and artistic integrity. You can’t separate Hedgerow Theatre from Esherick in this early period. It infiltrated everything he was doing.

Was Esherick was involved with Hedgerow Theatre until he died? He created his last piece for the theater in the 1930s, but he was involved with it for many more years. He was still kind of on hand if something needed to be fixed. There wasn’t much need for additional pieces. What he made in the 1920s and 1930s stood up to the test of time.

An image that Wharton Esherick carved into the surface of the Thunder Table. It references a pose taken by lead actors in Thunder on the Left, a play staged at Hedgerow Theatre around the time Esherick made the table.

How did this piece get the name “The Thunder Table”? In 1929, the theater staged a production of Thunder on the Left. I don’t know a lot about the production, but the carving that exists on the table was taken directly from a pose that the two lead actors had in the production. Esherick saw the actors in the dramatic pose, and that inspired the carving he put on the tabletop.

How did the people at the Hedgerow Theatre use the Thunder Table? It was meant to serve at least two functions. It was in use [at the residence] where the actors lived and worked. They sat around the table for meals and for meetings. At some point, the table moved to the theater’s green room, a reception area. That’s where it spent the majority of the past several decades.

The Thunder Table is big–almost ten feet long. How often did Esherick work on that scale? It’s not atypical to see a table this large, but there aren’t many. It’s among his masterworks. There’s nothing quite like this table for Hedgerow Theatre.

What do we know about how Esherick made the Thunder Table? He probably had help with this table, from Schmidt. The table is primarily made from oak with the exception of a handful of walnut butterflies. What’s interesting is the table was deliberately warped to have ends that kind of drop off. Looking at it, you’d think it happened over time, but looking at old photos, it’s clear that’s how Esherick created it. It’s stabilized by a central stretcher [visible under the table, and spanning its length]. The whole stretcher can be removed so the table can be moved.

Esherick signed the central stretcher of the Thunder Table with an inscription that includes his initials and the name of the theater. He carved the year-date (1929) in Roman numerals on the other side.

So “stretcher” is the name for that long piece under the table? Yes. What’s cool about the central stretcher is it’s signed and dated. On one side, it says, “WE, Hedgerow,” and the other side has 1929 in Roman numerals. It’s typical for Esherick to sign and date his work.

But I imagine the signature and date on the Thunder Table stretcher is fancier than most? It’s certainly indicative of what he did earlier [in his career]. Because of his connection to Hedgerow Theatre, you expect him to speak to that partnership in the signature, and he did.

Why are the Thunder Table’s legs diagonal? The legs being slanted gives the table a bit more support than if the legs came straight down.

I take it the Thunder Table is heavy? It has a pretty decent weight, mostly due to the fact that it’s made from oak, a very heavy wood.

How many people do you need to move it? Two strong guys can move it. Otherwise, it’s a four-man job.

What is the Thunder Table like in person? It’s imposing. It’s a big table. You kind of stand in reverence of it. There’s a certain air of importance about this table that you sense immediately because of its imposing proportions and the attention paid to every detail. People who are not familiar with Wharton Esherick or Hedgerow Theatre look at it and say, “Wow.”

Have you sat at the Thunder Table? I have. It’s interesting, when you sit at the table, you’re not very far from the person at the other side. You can reach out and touch them. It lends a sense of intimacy to the table and [shows] how Esherick envisioned people living and acting together in close quarters.

A detail shot showing one end of the Thunder Table. Its legs are tilted to allow for better support of the heavy oak tabletop.

What’s your favorite detail of the Thunder Table? It’s hard to pick one, but the way the legs are constructed is very visually interesting. It’s a very Esherick type of shape, the trapezoidal element of the legs. And the signature, combining him and Hedgerow Theatre in the table itself, is a very special element not seen on other furniture. It’s clear there was an artistic kinship here.

Do we know why he carved the image of the two figures into the surface of the Thunder Table? Carvings only exist in early Wharton Esherick pieces from the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a true crossover from sculpting and drawing to his furniture. He thought of them as a way to add dramatic qualities to his furniture. Pieces by Esherick that have carvings on them are very, very scarce. The carving brands this work as a piece made for Hedgerow Theatre, and it speaks to Esherick’s journey as an artist influenced by Deeter and the actors at Hedgerow.

Is the Thunder Table unique among Wharton Esherick’s artistic furnishings? Very unique. It’s certainly among what I would consider his masterpieces. The table itself is a spectacular piece of artistry on its own. Considering it in relation to the theater and the countless number of individuals who lived and worked with it… there are pictures of actors folding clothes on it, and wiping it down after drinking their morning coffee. It was very much a part of Hedgerow Theatre. It’s one of the special Wharton Esherick pieces that [embodies] not just the story of Wharton Esherick, but the story of a community and its significance to his life and work.

How did Hedgerow Theatre influence Wharton Esherick? It gave him license. He had the support of a nearby community steeped in artistic traditions, and a group of people who understood what he was after. The influence Hedgerow Theatre had on Wharton Esherick can’t be overstated. It’s not clear what Esherick’s work and his life would look like without being exposed to Hedgerow Theatre for so many years.

Did Wharton Esherick make matching chairs for the Thunder Table? There were chairs made for use with the table, but not made en suite with either of the big tables. He makes the Thunder Table in 1929, the Sawbuck Table in 1934, and the chairs in 1938. He made the set of 36 chairs out of hammer and axe handles, which functioned as legs and stretchers. They were so well-regarded that people would ask Esherick for a hammer handle chair, and he had run out of handles, so he sculpted handles to resemble them out of oak and ash. The later iterations of the design are called his ash chairs.

Do any of the hammer handle chairs that Esherick made for Hedgerow Theatre survive? Over the decades, as actors would leave the theater or retire, it was not uncommon for a chair to be taken or given to them because they were so emblematic of the community. Some are in museum collections, and some are in private collections. Eight stayed with Hedgerow Theatre through the years.

How many Wharton Esherick pieces from Hedgerow Theatre will be in the upcoming Design sale? The chairs, a staircase, three tables… 12, total.

A detail of Wharton Esherick's Thunder Table, showing the tabletop and the signed central stretcher.

The Thunder Table carries an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000. How did you arrive at that number? What comparables did you consider? There aren’t a lot of comparables. Esherick was not as prolific as George Nakashima or some of the others. He doesn’t come to market as frequently. But when I learned of Wharton Esherick, it never occurred to me that pieces from the Hedgerow Theatre might be available on the market [someday]. They seemed so seminal to Esherick’s body of work–that’s why the collection is so important. There are no other collections like it, no collections made in the 1920s and 1930s, on this scale, that exist in situ being brought to market in this way.

Do the dozen pieces by Wharton Esherick in the upcoming sale represent everything that remains that he made for Hedgerow Theatre? This represents everything he made in the way of furniture and woodworking.

What’s the world auction record for a piece by Wharton Esherick? It’s a sculpted-top buffet that sold at Rago in 2009 for $335,500.

Do you think the Thunder Table will meet or beat that number? There are several reasons it could set a new record for Wharton Esherick: because it’s from his early period, because of its connections to Hedgerow Theatre, and because it stands alone as a singular piece of studio furniture from the period. With this table, you are able to tell the story of Wharton Esherick’s connection to Hedgerow Theatre, arguably his single biggest influence as an artist. You’re not only able to show a masterwork by the dean of American woodworking, you’re able to tell the story of what made Wharton Esherick who he was.

Why is Hedgerow Theatre selling these Wharton Esherick pieces now? When Esherick created furniture for Hedgerow Theatre, it was utilitarian and used almost daily. Today, the value of the Thunder Table makes it very difficult to operate [the theater’s green room as a reception area] because it becomes a room that houses a table–not very functional for a theater. They’re selling so they can continue to produce theater and let another institution take over the stewardship of these pieces.

Why will Wharton Esherick’s Thunder Table stick in your memory? It’s the kind of piece you never forget. It’s a piece you know about, read about, and see at Hedgerow Theatre, knowing the relationship between Esherick and the theatre. It will forever carry that history with it. It captures a moment in time and all the years of service. It represents the artistic spirit of the theater and Esherick’s own ideals–can you live true to yourself in the arts? It tells the story of Hedgerow Theatre and Wharton Esherick, and [it lets an] audience experience both in a way they can’t experience it otherwise.

How to bid: The Wharton Esherick Thunder Table, made for Hedgerow Theatre, will be in an upcoming Design auction at Freeman’s. Originally scheduled for March 31, 2020, the sale has been postponed to June.

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

Freeman’s is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Tim Andreadis previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Phillip Lloyd Powell double bed, a George Nakashima Sanso table with Conoid chairs, which sold for $187,500; an Albert Paley coffee table that commanded $8,125; and a Wharton Esherick sculpture that set a world auction record for the artist.

Images are courtesy of Freeman’s.

Wharton Esherick’s studio is now a museum. You can follow it on Instagram. It also maintains a page on Wharton Esherick and the Hedgerow Theatre.

The Hedgerow Theatre Company has a website.

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

Two Princess Doraldina Fortune Teller Machines–One Original and One Restored–Go to Auction at Morphy

An unrestored 1928 Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine, shown in full. Morphy Auctions could sell it for $30,000 or more.

What you see: A Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine. Morphy Auctions is offering the vintage coin-op and a second Princess Doraldina machine in the same auction. Both were made by the same Rochester, New York company in 1928. The estimate on the machine shown above is $20,000 to $30,000. Its “sister,” shown below and featuring a mannequin clad in white, carries an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000.

The expert: Tom Tolworthy, chief executive officer at Morphy Auctions.

Another 1928 Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine, which has been restored. It will appear in the same Morphy sale and could command $25,000.

I have to admit, I’m more familiar with the Zoltar style of fortune-telling machine–the ones that feature a man wearing a turban. How popular was the Princess Doraldina style of machine in 1928? You’d see her before you’d see Zoltar. Most Zoltars are not that old. There were several manufacturers of gypsy fortune-telling machines. The Princess Doraldina machines were made between 1928 and 1930.

I’ve never met anyone named Doraldina. Do we know where the name comes from? Is it the name of the wife or daughter of a higher-up at the company that made the machine? Nobody really knows, but the company in Rochester, New York that made it was named the Doraldina Fortune Telling Machine Company.

What do we know about the company? It was only in business for a couple of years, from what anybody knows. I wasn’t able to find much research on it. In the world of fortune-telling machines, it was late to the party.

What can we tell, just by looking, how hard these Princess Doraldina fortune teller machines were to make? They were very advanced for the time, and the operation was really simple. Some fortune tellers early on, such as Madame Zita, had clockwork mechanisms. The Princess Doraldina was electric. The body was covered with a nice outfit, the head was made out of wax, and it had an articulating hand. You’d put the coin in, and the hand would move over the cards in front of her. The mechanism would dispense a card with a fortune on it.

Detail shot of the restored Princess Doraldina machine, with its glass glue chip sign visible below the mannequin.
Detail shot of the restored Princess Doraldina machine, with its glass glue chip sign visible below the mannequin.

Both of these Princess Doraldina fortune telling machines were made by the same company in the same year. The cabinets look different, and the Princess Doraldina mannequins are dressed differently. Are there other significant differences between the two? One is considered a restored machine, and one is considered original. The front of the restored one has a glass glue chip sign underneath the mannequin. The other one doesn’t have that, and never did. [It has a sign on top of its cabinet.] The glue chip sign could have been an add-on for an operator–when they bought it, the sign could have been an option. What you find with arcade machines is sometimes, variations are based on what materials the manufacturer had at the time. They might have run out of [the first run of] signs, or decided to make one without it.

Do both Princess Doraldina mannequins perform the same movements? Yes.

Do the differences in the cabinets and the outfits on the mannequins indicate that the Doraldina company was customizing the machines? With the restored one… many times, the clothing is moth-ridden and not usable, so it’s changed out with period clothing. My guess is whoever restored it added the clothing. The clothing on the unrestored one is original.

Detail shot of the unrestored Princess Doraldina mannequin. The mechanism that moved her hand connected to a bellows that made it look like she was breathing.

Does the clothing on either or both the Princess Doraldina mannequins reflect styles that appeared in the company catalog? I believe the unrestored one was ordered that way. It could have been a distributor or a leasing agent who ordered the machines that way [mannequins with a specific outfit], so they could tell it was theirs. There were definitely other Doraldina machines. They might have wanted them to be identified differently.

We know that the unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine was placed in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Do we know where the restored one might have been? We don’t. We’re sure it would have been in a penny arcade at the time, but there are no marks on it, and the person who consigned it doesn’t know the provenance.

And the company wouldn’t have been selling its coin-op machines privately in 1928? Yes, they did not sell to individuals. The machines only became collectible in the 1960s and 1970s.

Do both of the Princess Doraldina fortune teller machines work? Both do work. The one that has the tin sign on top of it is in all-original condition. Collectors refer to it as a “survivor”. It has its original clothes, original lamp, top sign, and paint, which is unbelievable. Original-condition is more valuable because it’s impossible to find them like that.

If either or both of the Princess Doraldina machines didn’t work, would they be less interesting to collectors? No. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t bring as much. We’d certainly list it as not working, and we’d tell as much about it as possible so the person buying it knows they’re getting into. But not working doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

The unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine, with its assorted cabinets open to display its inner workings.

What had to happen to allow the unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine to survive so well? A lot of the time, the machines were placed on the boardwalk and brought in at night. This one sat inside a carousel in Seaside, New Jersey that had an inner enclosure. It [also] had to sit in a warehouse for a long time, and while it might not have been in climate-controlled conditions, it wasn’t in damp conditions. If it had sat in a damp place for a long period of time, the mechanism would have rusted. It still works the way it did almost 90 years ago. That’s what makes it a good survivor.

What are these Princess Doraldina coin-op machines like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? They stand about nine feet tall and they’re relatively large. They take up a three-foot-by-three-foot footprint. The mannequin is the size of a five-foot or a five-foot-two woman. She’s pretty life-like, and she’s wearing costume jewelry. In a world of arcade machines and Pac-man, it’s a very impressive-looking fortune teller.

Is there anything about how Princess Doraldina moves that doesn’t come across in a still photo? She has a bellows in her chest that makes it look like she’s breathing. It’s interesting to see the articulation of the movement in the chest as it simulates breathing.

And the breathing mechanism also moves Princess Doraldina’s hand? Yes. The coin triggers an electric motor, which triggers the cycle [of actions the mannequin performs]. She breathes, moves her hand, selects a card, and the card shoots out the front. The cards would be loaded randomly in a stack, and the electric movement would push the next card out.

Is Princess Doraldina the only fortune-telling machine of the time with a mannequin that seemed to breathe? It wasn’t the only one. There was another company in Cleveland that made a grandma fortune teller that had a breathing motion, but Princess Doraldina was rather unique among fortune tellers. A lot of the time, fortune-telling machines didn’t have figures, or they didn’t have the movement mechanisms of Princess Doraldina to make the experience complete.

Do the Princess Doraldina coin-op machines make noise? I understand that it wouldn’t have been heard over the noise of an arcade or a boardwalk, but still. There’s a very light mechanical noise as it dispenses the fortune card. It’s not much more noise than a fridge.

What sorts of fortunes does Princess Doraldina give out? What do the cards tend to say? They mostly had to do with happiness in life, live long and prosper. All positive, no negative fortunes. We have cards for both machines. We have some originals, and some reproductions.

Do the two Princess Doraldina coin-op machines come from the same consinger? They are from two different consigners.

The restored Princess Doraldina fortune teller machine, with its cabinet door opened to show its interior.

How unusual is it to have two Princess Doraldina coin-op machines in the same sale? It’s very unusual to have two in the same sale, and very unusual to have them in subsequent auctions, one after another. But that’s the nature of supply in the business of antiques. I’m not aware of an auction that ever sold two.

If the Princess Doraldina coin-op machines had been identical, would you have put them in the same sale? I wouldn’t. If it was our choice, I would have delayed the second [the restored example] to November. The consigner wants to sell and is not concerned about it bringing less because there’s two in the auction.

Why will these Princess Doraldina coin-op machines stick in your memory? Having two at a time will stick in my memory. Having one in original condition will stick in my memory. This is the nicest original-condition one I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many of them. Most that you find in original condition need to be restored or conserved. I think this one could move into somebody’s house after a little clean-up and a little oil in the mechanism.

How to bid: The unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune teller with the red and black box is lot 1297 in the Coin-Op & Advertising sale at Morphy Auctions on April 25 and 26, 2020. The restored Princess Doraldina coin-op machine with a figure clad in white is lot 1196.

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The Broncho Buster by Frederic Remington Could Fetch $500,000 (Updated March 18, 2020)

The Broncho Buster, Frederic Remington's most famous sculpture, features a cowboy gamely clinging to the reins of a bucking horse. This example might sell at Bonhams Los Angeles for $500,000.

Update: The lifetime cast of Frederic Remington’s The Broncho Buster sold for $437,575.

What you see: The Broncho Buster, modeled in 1895 by Frederic Remington and cast in bronze. Bonhams estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.

The expert: Scot Levitt, specialist in California and Western paintings for Bonhams.

Who was Frederic Remington? He was an illustrator, a painter, and a sculptor who did most of his work in the later part of the 19th century. He became synonymous with the West along with another artist, Charles M. Russell. Unlike Russell, Remington lived in New York [and, at various points, New York state] and did his work from afar. His images were reproduced extensively in magazines and books.

Was Frederic Remington prolific? He was quite prolific, generally speaking. He did 22 sculptures, the first of which is The Broncho Buster. For some of these 22, few, if any, were cast.

What do we know about how The Broncho Buster came about? Remington had become a very well-known artist in America by 1895. He got a little restless and thought to try his hand at another medium. His friends encouraged him to try his hand at sculpture.

Showing mastery in two dimensions doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll show mastery in three dimensions. What did his friends see in his work that convinced them that Remington would show talent as a sculptor? I think there are things you can translate in terms of looking at anatomy, looking at the weight of an object, the turn of the muscle, the shape of the figure, that made them think he was capable of translating it into three dimensions. For whatever reason, they encouraged him to try it, and he succeeded in doing so. Whether there was a learning curve in there, no one seems to have written about it.

Did Frederic Remington train as a sculptor prior to attempting The Broncho Buster? Not to our knowledge.

That’s quite a debut. [Laughs] I agree!

The friends we’re talking about are Frederick Ruckstull, who was a sculptor, and Augustus Thomas, who was a playwright. Did either of them provide Frederic Remington help beyond encouraging him to try sculpture? Ruckstull was a neighbor of his. He gave him a sculptor’s table, sculptor’s wax, and tools. Presumably, The Broncho Buster was the first sculpture to come to fruition. There are photos of Remington working in his studio. [A still appears at the 33-second mark in this video.]

Did Ruckstull provide Remington any technical assistance? Again, there’s not a lot of detail on that, but I must assume there was some direction there. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.

What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult The Broncho Buster would have been to sculpt, and in particular, how difficult it would have been for someone who was new to sculpting? The entire work is balanced on the hind legs of the horse. Remington could have put a post in to help balance it, but he didn’t want an external support. Remington figured it out by balancing the cowboy’s arms, setting them at just the right angle so he could get the right balance in the sculpture. His notion was, “If a horse can do it in real life, I can do it in a sculpture.”

It certainly looks like it was tough to do. Very much so, very much so. Remington was one of the earlier people to say, “This work I do is very dynamic in two dimensions. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be created in three dimensions.” In a way, I don’t think it’s that crazy of a leap. He was that good of an artist. He just needed someone to encourage him.

It seems like The Broncho Buster has a fair amount of fiddly little dangly bits, such as the whip and the reins… Yes. That’s down to the talent of the foundry. A lot of detail was put on later, by hand. A lot of chasing [incising lines and decorative elements in the soft metal] was involved once it came out of the mold. It was up to the people at the foundry to file it down [at the seams] and put wrinkles in the neck of the horse and lines indicating where the saddle blanket is. It didn’t come out of the casting like that. It had to be shaped and formed.

Did a lot of the dangly bits tend to break off during casting? If you line up [copies of] The Broncho Buster, you’ll see differences in most of them. It’s probably on purpose on the part of the artist, who might say, “Let’s make the chaps look more wooly,” or “Let’s turn his foot out so it looks more like he’s just hanging on” to make it more interesting. And the whips and reins vary.

Frederic Remington was editing The Broncho Buster as copies emerged from the mold? Yes, as much as he was able to. There are also differences in the chasing. It’s not possible to make every single one identical. That’s part of the beauty of them. When something is handmade, it’s not going to be identical. It was a hugely labor-intensive thing. It’s crazy difficult when you look at all the work that went into it.

And do I understand this right–the positions of the whips and reins vary on every copy of The Broncho Buster? Yes. As time went on, they became very pliable, and could bend. If you look through Michael Greenbaum’s book Icons of the West: Frederic Remington’s Sculpture, pretty much every one is in a different place.

Why do you think that is? I think it’s handling. The housekeeper comes along and dusts it, and it’s in a different place.

Does the flexibility of the whips and reins affect the value of any given example of The Broncho Buster? No. It’s an interesting thing. In the trade, we know there are whips that go missing. The whip came out of the cowboy’s hand, and could be removed. It doesn’t affect the value.

How many copies of The Broncho Buster were cast? There are 64 from the original foundry, Henry-Bonnard, and 276 from the second foundry. There were only 90 castings done during Remington’s lifetime.

And collectors prefer castings of The Broncho Buster that were done during his lifetime? The prices reflect that, yes. When he died in 1909, his widow needed money, so she authorized the Roman Bronze Works [the second foundry] to continue making them. In her will, she said to destroy all the plaster casts used to make them, but the foundry continued to make them because they were so popular. Remington did 22 sculptures, but this, by far, is his most famous.

I think President George W. Bush had a bronze of The Broncho Buster in the Oval Office. Does that sort of thing matter to its popularity? Yeah, but a lot of its fame was set at the turn of the last century, and it’s been there ever since. I just think certain images are associated with a time in history, and this happens to be one of them.

How were the bronzes of The Broncho Buster produced? Did they offer them through a catalog and make them as orders came in, or did they do batches of six or 12 or whatever, and make a new batch after the first one sold? They were doing them as ordered, and sold them through Tiffany.

Tiffany? As in the jeweler? Yes. Others sold them too, such as the Knoedler Gallery. But 90 percent of them sold through Tiffany, for $250 [apiece].

What method of bronze casting was used to make The Broncho Buster? The lost wax method. It appears Remington had an appreciation for it as an ancient traditional method of bronze-casting. Among the people who famously received the sculpture back in the day were Theodore Roosevelt and Enrico Caruso. All that adds to its fame.

Kind of like giving products to social media influencers today… Exactly!

Is The Broncho Buster solid or hollow? Hollow, cast in pieces and fused together.

The Broncho Buster you’re offering measures 23 and 3/4 inches high. Is that the only size the bronze came in? During Remington’s life, yes. Later on, after his death, larger versions were cast.

Did the color of The Broncho Buster‘s patina vary at all? Most are thought of as having a rich, light brown patina, but others have lots of turquiose green in there.

How involved was Frederic Remington in the physical casting of The Broncho Buster? Was it limited to him saying, “Do this, not that”? Exactly. He didn’t pour anything. He handed them the wax model, and the foundry took it from there. He looked at the finished version and said “I like it” or “I don’t like it.”

How often does a lifetime casting of The Broncho Buster come to auction? Generally, once a year.

What is The Broncho Buster like in person? The patina has a wonderful richness to it–a feeling of richness, age, and quality. And it has wonderful details on it: the lines of the saddle blanket, the latch on the saddle bag, the holster on the belt, the spurs. The more you can see the details, the more valuable they usually are, because they’re more likely to be an early casting.

The number “4” appears on the underside of the base of this copy of The Broncho Buster. What does that mean? It’s amazing to get one that early. They didn’t edition them, exactly. It’s not number X out of X, it’s just a number.

What condition is this example in? Best as I can tell, it’s in excellent condition.

How many bronzes of The Broncho Buster have you personally handled? I’ve been here since 1984, and I’ve had about 20 of them.

What’s the world auction record for a copy of The Broncho Buster? The highest price was at Christie’s in 2007, when one sold for $2.6 million.

Is the world auction record for a Frederic Remington sculpture still Coming Through the Rye? Yes, and the reason is rarity. There are 276 of The Broncho Buster. Coming Through the Rye, which was considered a huge deal at the time because it was filled with figures, there are only 15. It’s a supply and demand issue.

As you noted before, Frederic Remington did almost two dozen sculptures. Why does The Broncho Buster dominate the public consciousness? To my mind, it’s the same way I think of something like Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid. It has Western Americana, the taming of the West, the early American spirit, it has all those things wrapped up in it. The Cheyenne and The Rattlesnake [also offered in the auction] have similar ideas, but they’re not quite the same. Starting in 1895, the public was aware of The Broncho Buster, and it’s stuck in the public consciousness ever since.

How to bid: The Broncho Buster is lot 143 in the California and Western Art auction scheduled for March 17, 2020 at Bonhams Los Angeles.

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

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Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

Scot Levitt has appeared before on The Hot Bid, talking about a Gilbert Munger painting of El Capitan as well as an early Sydney Laurence painting of the mountain now known as Denali.

Frederic Remington has an art museum. Care to guess what its logo is? No points for getting it right.

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A Piece of Crystallized Gold Could Sell for $300,000 (Updated March 15, 2020)

An unusually large (379-gram) specimen of crystallized gold, found relatively recently in Brazil. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

Update: The large specimen of crystallized gold sold for $156,250.

What you see: A large (379-gram) specimen of crystallized gold, found relatively recently in Brazil. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

The expert: Craig Kissick, director of nature and science for Heritage Auctions.

What is crystallized gold, and how is it different from standard gold? Some 98 percent of all gold ever mined on earth is refined. Gold in its natural form is rare already. Even a one-ounce nugget is rarer than a five-carat diamond. Crystallized gold is, basically, where the gold occurs naturally, but in a leafy form where you can see the crystallization.

So, all gold has crystals, but in crystallized gold, the crystals are visible? In layman’s terms, that’s essentially true. And crystallized gold has very high purity, at least with the ones from South America. It’s darn near 99.9 percent pure, which is pretty much unheard of.

How does crystallized gold form? That’s above my pay grade, but a lot of that hard science is known. Most crystallized gold tends to occur with quartz–the quartz will be a matrix, or a host rock it attaches to. But you do have examples of crystallized gold with no other visible constituents.

The lot notes describe this specimen as being “extremely rare and desirable for gold”. Why is that the case? Very little gold exists in its natural mined form. A lot doesn’t necessarily have the intrinsic aesthetic value of crystallized pieces. It’s a subset of a rare pot.

This specimen of crystallized gold weighs 379 grams, which is relatively hefty. How much of its value comes from its weight? Crystallized gold is looked at for its aesthetic beauty rather than its inherent value. With a crystallized specimen, it’s “How pretty is it?” With a gold nugget, it’s “How big is it?”

So inherent value doesn’t really play a role here, because no one in their right minds would melt a piece of crystallized gold? One hundred percent correct. It’s valued for its form over its melt price. Crystallized gold commands a premium well beyond the commodity value of industrial gold.

And crystallized gold gains its shape and appearance directly from the process of crystallization? Yes, it’s a natural function. Samples are cleaned to make sure they have the most lustrous appearance, but they’re nature’s art, not man-made art.

How often do samples of crystallized gold of this size come to auction? This might not be fair, because I’m a big guy, but samples that are palm-sized or bigger are pretty rarified air. We see maybe half a dozen per year.

What is it like to handle this specimen of crystallized gold? Is it heavy? When you pick up a 40-ounce gold nugget, the size of a softball, you say, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m holding so much gold! I don’t want to drop it on the floor.” With crystallized gold, you don’t have any heaviness. It’s delicate. It’s foil-like, very leafy. Gold is the most malleable metal on earth. You can bend gold, but you can’t break it.

It sounds like you want to be extra-careful when handling crystallized gold, for fear of bending or distorting the little branches. I would say that’s not a bad idea. You don’t want anything to come off. It’s naturally thin and delicate.

So how did the photographer get the specimen to safely stand on one end to take the picture? We’ve got ways to finagle things. You can lean it against a sheet of plexiglass and magic it away in Photoshop. Or you might stick something very small [on the end you’re standing it on], something that wouldn’t impact or damage the specimen, to keep it vertical long enough to take the shot.

And I’m guessing it’d be a very silly idea to try to make jewelry out of crystallized gold, then? It’s just not done? You really don’t. Gold nugget jewelry was a rage for a while there, but crystallized gold would probably be too soft for that. Some samples of crystallized gold are more durable than others, but [making it into] something you’d wear every day and touch all the time–you don’t want to do that.

The lot notes say this specimen was “found by sheer luck in a farm field in Brazil”. Can you tell me more? [Laughs] A lot of times, luck trumps science. It was probably a farmer in a field who realized it was gold, started a mine, and found more examples. This piece was also displayed recently at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show.

Is it possible to say when it was found in that field in Brazil? This is a relatively new thing, a phenomenon of the last five years. It’s probably someone who wasn’t a gold prospector who came across it, brought it to town, and then word got out. It ultimately made its way to our auction. That’s more story than we get for most, but it came from a very reputable source. There’s no doubts there, no reason to question the provenance of this piece.

You said earlier that weight doesn’t really matter much with a piece of crystallized gold. Yet its 379-gram weight is clearly stated in the lot notes. How much does its weight matter, really? You can see individual crystal faces on it, but it’s also like a nugget, because it’s a really solid piece. It has some dimensionality to it. 379 grams… keep in mind that there’s 31.103 grams in a troy ounce. This is over 12 ounces. That is a lot of gold.

Is the specimen more interesting because it’s nugget-like? I’d say this variety of gold, which has been coming from South America, is very complex but robust, and the purity of the material is unusually high. This specimen is 12 ounces of darn near pure gold. It’s something special.

What is the specimen of crystallized gold like in person? It’s intricate and complex and rather robust–it’s not a flat piece. You can look at it from any angle. You can see how the crystals go from top to bottom, all around. If

I only have one photo of the crystallized gold specimen, from one angle. What does the other side look like? My recollection from seeing it is it’s pretty similar on the other side. Some specimens have a pretty side and a side that’s no use to anybody. This has a three-dimensional presentation.

The headline for the lot includes several place names: “Serra do Caldeirão claims. Pontes e Lacerda, Mato Grosso. Brazil”. What do they mean here? “Claims” is akin to a mine. The others are simply geographic, like we’re doing city, county, state, and country. Pontes e Lacerda is like the city, Mato Grosso is the region, and Brazil is the country. That’s important information to collectors.

What condition is the specimen in? It’s in pristine condition. I don’t see any flaws in it. If there was a big break in it, it’d definitely be problematic.

How does this specimen of crystallized gold compare to others you’ve handled? Another one in the sale is a little bit larger and is not as aesthetically idyllic as this is. I’ve seen spectacular examples from South America, but I’ve rarely seen pieces this large. These are two of the largest I’ve handled, for sure.

Why will this piece of crystallized gold stick in your memory? It’s one of the newer finds from Mato Grosso. I’m used to seeing small pieces of high value. This is massive compared to others from that place. And it’s striking. Anytime I see a superlative singular specimen of gold, of course I’m going to remember it. And I hope it’s going to sell for a high amount, and that will be what I’m going to remember.

How to bid: The 379-gram specimen of crystallized gold is lot #72032 in the Nature & Science Signature Auction taking place at Heritage Auctions, Dallas on March 14, 2020.

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Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Craig Kissick has appeared on The Hot Bid once before, discussing a matched set of bull mammoth tusks.

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Franz Jozef Ponstingl, An Underappreciated Pennsylvania Artist, Gets His Due in the March 2020 Issue of Art & Antiques (THB Bonus)

Isotopes of Furniture, a 1971 painting by Franz Jozef Ponstingl that appears in the 2020 show at the Michener Art Museum.

In the March 2020 issue of Art & Antiques, I wrote about Franz Jozef Ponstingl, a 20th century artist from Pennsylvania whose works look like the covers of science fiction novels to-be-written.

Ponstingl’s story is a classic tale of an undiscovered artist. Once, in frustration, he hauled his entire output to the local Salvation Army. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t stay there).

The Art & Antiques story references Ponstingl: Dreams of Past Futures, an exhibit at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, until June 20, 2020.

Here’s a direct link to the story.

Art & Antiques is available at Barnes & Noble. I’d be delighted if you’d subscribe to the magazine.


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A Schrader Five-Bolt Diving Helmet Could Command $7,000 (Updated March 15, 2020)

A Schrader five-bolt diving helmet, made by Schrader in the early 21st century after its own 19th-century design. It has never touched the water.

Update: the Schrader five-bolt diving helmet sold for $4,250.

What you see: A Schrader five-bolt diving helmet. It’s based on a late 19th century design by the company, but it was produced by Schrader in the 2000s. Nation’s Attic estimates the helmet at $4,500 to $7,000.

The expert: Don Creekmore, co-owner and founder of Nation’s Attic in Wichita, Kansas.

A detail shot of the name plate affixed to the front of the Schrader diving helmet.

What was the A. Schrader Diving Equipment Company? The company started in 1844. Around 1849, it started producing diving helmets on a limited basis. [Founder] August Schrader observed divers using crude helmets in New York and thought he could do a better job.

This Schrader five-bolt diving helmet is described as dating to the late 19th century. Can we pin it down more precisely? There’s one thing I want to mention. It’s a 19th century design and style, but it was probably made in the last 20 years, custom made as a a 19th century five-bolt.

The Schrader company made the diving helmet in the last 20 years, as a faithful rendition of one of its 19th century designs? Probably in the early 2000s. There’s not a specific record for this particular helmet. The company was sold in 1999.

But because it was made by the same company that produced this five-bolt design in the late 19th century, it has continuity and value? Yeah. Schrader would produce something like this if you ordered it in the 1950s or the 1850s.

The lot notes describe this Schrader diving helmet as “one of the most impressive and rarely seen diving helmet designs of the 19th century”. What makes it so? The five-bolt style was an option in the 19th and 20th centuries. You could request that it be made. It was more expensive, and not all divers wanted that configuration.

A detail shot showing two of the five bolts that secure the top, or bonnet of the Schrader diving helmet to the bottom, or neck ring.
A closeup shot that shows two of the five bolts that give this Schrader diving helmet its name.

What made the five-bolt style of diving helmet different? It has five large bolts around the neck ring. The top [the part that encloses the head, known as the bonnet] and the bottom [known as the neck ring] separate. The bolts are tightened with thumbscrews to create a seal. Though the five-bolt might sound easy or nice, it was a bit less popular than threading the top and bottom together.

The more popular diving helmet design of the time threaded the two component pieces in place? The vast majority of helmets that survive have the interrupted thread pattern. They’d thread the top onto the bottom and use a rubber gasket or seal [to make it watertight]. The five-bolt was not a problematic design, but it was more expensive, and people shied away from it.

How did Schrader sell its diving helmets? Did it produce a catalog and only start work once it received an order, or did they tend to have a few finished helmets on hand, ready to pack and ship? They didn’t have them in inventory, waiting to be purchased. They had a catalog with two designs–the five-bolt or the threaded, and options could be added.

How would a Schrader diving helmet have been used in the late 19th century? It was used by the military and by commercial divers. The military wasn’t putting specific markings on the helmets in that time period. A lot of the time, they were worn for salvage work–ships would sink, and salvage companies would employ divers to retrieve valuables.

And there wouldn’t have been any recreational divers in the late 19th century, right? Not at all. There was no recreational use of these. Diving was way too dangerous and expensive. And there was no formal training. Whoever had the guts to get into it, that was the requirement, more or less. As long as you were willing to do it and you had someone up top to pump the air [down to you], you were qualified.

You couldn’t be claustrophobic and work as a diver in the 19th century. Once the helmet is closed, you know immediately if you can do it or not.

This Schrader diving helmet is also described as a “four light” model. What does that mean? “Light” is a term for the windows in the diving helmet. Typically, there are three or four windows. The fourth is on the top of the helmet. At the turn of the century, it was a $10 option to have a window on top.

A full three-quarter view of the Schrader diving helmet. It's called a "four light" model because it has four lights, or windows. The one installed at the top was an option that cost $10 extra.

When did it make sense to spring for the fourth light? If your work involved working under a ship hull and looking up, an extra window would help with that. If you were looking down mostly, why bother with the $10?

And $10 in the late 19th century is not the same thing as $10 today… Do we know how much the complete two-piece Schrader diving helmet would have cost back then? Was the five-bolt version $100? Probably a little bit more. Between $120 to $160 at the turn of the previous century. Another thing to keep in mind is there’s a lot more equipment needed to support a diver. The bill could get up there–$1,000 to $1,500.

A full three-quarter rear view of the Schrader diving helmet.
The dozen brails appear on the outer edge of the neck ring, or lower part of the diving helmet. If you look at the left side of the image, you can see a gap between the collar and the breastplate that hints at how the collar could be detached and removed.

How did someone get in and out of a diving suit in the 19th century? How many other people did they need to help them put it on and take it off? Usually you’d need a few guys to get in the big canvas suit. The diving helmet has a series of 12 bolts, or brails, along the collar. It lifts off the breastplate and comes off. Threaded studs stick up or go through the collar of the canvas suit…

It sounds like trying to do up buttons without being able to see where the buttons are. And it’s heavy rubber, and brass, and copper, and it’s wet. Usually, it was a struggle. You’d secure the brails, then the bolts, and you were in the suit. When the brails press down on the rubber, it creates a seal.

So, with one assistant, you’ll get dressed, but it’ll be slow. With two, it goes much faster. That’s why there was usually two guys, and one or two guys to manually turn the pump that pumps air to the diver. [The assistants, called “tenders”, helped the divers with their gear and pumped the air during the dive.] If one is tired or his back seizes up, hopefully, the other can relieve them.

Whoa. Because you have to keep the air coming. You’ve got to trust your guy. [Laughs].

A rear view of the Schrader diving helmet with the all-important non-return valve visible at the center back.

And I take it the brass fitting poking out of the back of the head piece, or bonnet, is where the air hose would have attached? Yes. Another feature on the back is the non-return valve. [The valve is part of the fitting that accepts the air hose. It’s at the center of the back of the bonnet in the picture above.] It was a safety feature conceived of in the 19th century. Before, if the diver was 100 feet deep and the air line got cut suddenly, the air would quickly escape. It meant death for the diver immediately. This valve stopped the air from escaping if the hose got cut.

Yikes, the pressure… …is not your friend at those depths.

How much does the Schrader diving helmet weigh? Do we know what each piece weighs, and what it weighs as a whole? The total weight is around 70 pounds. I haven’t weighed the parts separately, but they’re similar, so, about 35 pounds. The Schrader five-bolt is about five pounds heavier than the other style.

Who could wear such a thing, even if they only spent a short time out of the water? With the helmet, you’ve got your suit, and very heavy boots made out of brass and lead, plus a belt weighted with brass ingots. Without the weight, you wouldn’t sink. It was hundreds of pounds to have on. It’s comfortable once you’re in the water. But you’ve got to be a tough guy.

Not everyone could do it. Not even if they were young and strong, it seems. You needed two people under your shoulders lifting you up to walk you to the ladder. You needed assistance to get in the water and get out.

Oh gosh, and if you’re coming back out, you’re hundreds of pounds heavier than normal AND you’re wet. And you’ve been working, and you’re tired. Lots of times, these were tough guys who didn’t want people to assist them. But they required assistance to get in and out of the water.

Don Creekmore's collection includes this circa 1940s newspaper photo, which he kindly shared. While the diving helmet is not a precise match for the Schrader five-bolt, it illustrates how pre-modern diving equipment was worn and used.
Don Creekmore’s collection includes this circa 1940s newspaper photo, which he kindly shared. While the diving helmet is not a precise match for the Schrader five-bolt, it illustrates how pre-modern diving equipment was worn and used.

How much did a full diving suit weigh, with helmet and belt and boots? It was substantial. Between 225 and 300 pounds is a good, broad range, depending on the work being done.

Why is the Schrader diving helmet made from copper and brass? Why were those the best metals to use? They don’t rust. That’s the major concern there.

To our 21st century eyes, the Schrader diving helmet looks beautiful. But was it made with beauty in mind? Or was it as “beautiful” to 19th century divers as a dock full of container ships is to us now? It was strictly functional. There were no aesthetic considerations at all. They were not meant to be collectible, but people kept them because they were visually interesting. That’s why we collect them today–they’re cool-looking.

This diving helmet was never used, and there are several others in the March 14 auction that clearly were. Do collectors show a preference for either type? There are two reasons why people buy them. One, to have an impressive display piece in their collection. Two, historical dive groups around the country wear vintage diving helmets. You could use this right now if it was checked out [by a certified dive expert]. For a commercial dive, it probably wouldn’t be allowed, but for historic recreation purposes, if it holds air, it’s good to go.

So who buys Schrader diving helmets now? Do most collectors view them as functional sculpture? Probably 90 percent of people who collect them never take the helmet and use it. It’s historic and for display. For 50 percent of people, this was their occupation. For the other 50 percent, they saw a helmet in an old movie or a magazine article and thought, “Oh my God, that’s really cool-looking.” Half the customer base is people who simply find them interesting. They look visually interesting, and they know the risks and the dangers undertaken by the divers originally. It gets people interested in having such a thing.

I can only imagine what a 19th century diver would think of all of this. They probably could not fathom it. “You want to dive? No one is paying you to do it?” But groups around the country do it.

The lot notes describe the Schrader diving helmet as “100 percent authentic”. What does that mean here? Some diving helmets have components that might have been replaced for whatever reason. This is as it left the factory in the 2000s. This was made by the Schrader company in a configuration it offered in the 19th century.

Ok, so if you wanted to use this Schrader diving helmet on an actual, honest-to-goodness dive, you could. But how? I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to hook it up to period-correct air hoses, even if there were any that survived in good enough condition to use… In a diving group, when you’re using an antique helmet, usually the helmet is the only thing that’s antique. [Laughs] Everything else is new, for safety purposes. A lot of times, when a group gets together, they bring all their equipment.

It seems that historic diving is social and anti-social at the same time. It is. You’re down there by yourself, doing your thing, but you rely on other people. As a group, it’s a tight-knit community, especially among people who are professional or military divers.

Have you worn this Schrader five-bolt diving helmet, or one similar to it? Yes.

What was that like? Uncomfortable. The first time you’re put into the helmet and the front is closed, it’s real loud, because you’ve got air being pumped into it–a very loud hissing noise. Once you’re committed, in the water, you’re in it. [Laughs]. You have to stay calm and trust the safety of the helmet and the people monitoring what you’re doing. It’s claustrophobic, at least the first time, but it’s something you get used to.

Did you dive while wearing a Schrader five-bolt diving helmet? Multiple people help you suit up and get in the water. Communications with the five-bolt are done by pulling on the rope: one pull for “more rope”, and two for “get me out of here.”

Were any supports for the helmet built into canvas diving suits in the 19th century, or did divers have to take the full weight of the helmet directly on their shoulders? When you’re out of the water, the helmet rests directly on your shoulder blades. It’s uncomfortable. There is a pad you could use [between the helmet and your shoulders] but tough guys don’t want to appear to need special assistance.

Is the pad kind of like the neck pillows they sell at airport gift shops? Yes, but without the polka dots and the colors.

What condition is the Schrader diving helmet in? Essentially, it’s new old stock. It’s never been used or put in the water.

Why will this Schrader diving helmet stick in your memory? It’s a five-bolt pattern. The military used to use five-bolt helmets, but around 1916 it introduced the U.S. Navy Mark V, and it became the standard helmet. Those that were in stock were modified to make them similar to the Mark V, which was a threaded style. There aren’t many surviving examples of the five-bolt style. It’s visually different, it’s mechanically different, and the military took a lot of them and made them into something different. To collectors, it’s the visual component that’s key.

How to bid: The Schrader five-bolt diving helmet, made in the early 21st century by Schrader after its own 19th century design, is lot 0061 in the Spring 2020 Historic Diving Auction, offered on March 14, 2020 by Nation’s Attic.

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A Georgia O’Keeffe Sculpture Could Command $300,000 (Updated March 5, 2020)

Abstraction, a sculpture modeled by Georgia O'Keeffe in 1946 and cast in bronze in 1979 or 1980. The first to go to auction from the ten-inch tall edition could sell for $300,000 or more.

Update: The bronze of Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1946 sculpture, Abstraction, sold for $668,000–more than double its high estimate.

What you see: Abstraction, a sculpture modeled in 1946 by Georgia O’Keeffe and cast in bronze between 1979 and 1980. It’s the third from an edition of ten. Sotheby’s estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

The expert: Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s.

Who was Georgia O’Keeffe? She was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, and a pioneer of modernism. She’s best known for her large canvases depicting enlarged flowers.

Do we know how this 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture came about? O’Keeffe first modeled Abstraction in clay in 1946 at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, New Mexico. It demonstrates her interest in organic forms and the natural world, and exemplifies a deeply personal synthesis of realism and abstraction that pervades her entire body of work.

The 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture is one of only three that she made. Did she do all three around the same time? She did three sculptural motifs in a seven-decade career–that’s a very long time. She revisited sculpture throughout her career, doing the first in 1916 and the last in 1982. This one was partly inspired by sculptor Mary Callery. [Callery was friendly with O’Keeffe, and sculpted an image of her in 1946.] She might have inspired her to try her hand at sculpture once again after a three-decade hiatus.

Do we know why O’Keeffe approached sculpture this way–doing one very early, leaving it alone for decades at a time, and then returning to the medium? It’s incredibly interesting, and important to note that she didn’t cast anything in bronze until 1979.

All three of her sculptures, or just this one? She did cast all three in bronze.

Did she leave any letters or comments behind that give insight into why she had such an on-and-off relationship with sculpture? Nothing I’ve found, no.

What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult this sculpture would have been to model? I imagine getting that loop to hang in space with no external support would have been a trick. I think it’s a bit difficult to assess, but you can tell it’s a delicate form that certainly required skill and a lot of attention.

This particular Georgia O’Keeffe structure takes a spiral form. Why is that significant? The spiral form appears throughout Georgia O’Keeffe’s body of work. She returns to the shape time and time again, depicting it in many media. The curvilinear lines you see and the powerful simplified shape reflects her interpretation of the natural world.

Is the spiral shape in this Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture drawn from her imagination, or is it based on something specific, such as a Nautilus shell? It’s hard to pinpoint what aspect of nature she took it from. I can’t pinpoint if it’s a shell or a bone or anything like that.

How does this 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture compare to the other Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture in the sale, which has the same title and was modeled in 1916? It was her first attempt at sculpture, but both weren’t cast until 1979 and 1980. It’s interesting to see them side by side. The 1916 Abstraction is more vertical. She made it after her mother died, and it could serve as a memento mori. It reflects how, quite early in her career, while she was still a student, she was finding her own voice and vision.

The 1916 Abstraction kind of foreshadows her skyscraper works. Exactly, with the strong verticals. You see strong verticals in her depictions of Calla lillies as well.

Do we know whose idea it was to cast the three Georgia O’Keeffe sculptures in bronze? And how involved would she have been in the casting? She would have been elderly in 1979 and 1980. She would have overseen the casting of all her bronzes. Around the same time, she also produced pottery. There are several examples in the sale.

Is the 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture solid or hollow? It’s solid.

Does the maquette–the 1946 model for the later-cast bronze–survive? Not to our knowledge.

This is the third in an edition of ten. Do we know where the other nine are? According to our information, seven are in the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation in Abiquiú. Two are in private collections.

Hard to get, then. Yes, it’s incredibly rare. It was produced in three sizes: the ten-inch, the 36-inch, of which there are seven, and an 118-inch, the only one on that scale. [It’s outside the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center. As of February 2020, it’s the fourth image that floats past in sequence on the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum website.]

Is this the first time that a 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture has gone to auction? A 36-inch version sold for north of $1 million in November 2014 at Christie’s. It’s the only other example to come up at auction.

What is the Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture like in person? It’s incredibly delicate and detailed, but incredibly simple. It’s meant to be viewed in the round. It’s hard to capture in images. Something that doesn’t come across in the images is the smooth texture of the surface. It’s incredibly smooth and delicate.

Her choosing to give the bronze a bone white color is intriguing. Exactly. It certainly parallels her lifelong interest in bones, which she collected while living in New Mexico.

Who was Juan Hamilton, the person to whom she gave this bronze? He served as a very close friend and confidante of Georgia O’Keeffe. He first knew her in New Mexico, and they became lifelong friends.

How does the Juan Hamilton provenance add to the value of the Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture? It’s definitely rare to encounter a collection with a provenance like this, passing from Georgia O’Keeffe to the owner. It’s hard to put a value figure on that. I think clients will definitely value works from a private collection that has never been on the market. Hamilton inherited the sculpture directly from the artist. It’s a rare narrative that you don’t encounter often.

The 1916 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture has a lower estimate than this one. Why? The spiral form is pervasive through her work, and a very uniquely O’Keeffe subject. I don’t want to belittle the other by comparing them because they’re distinctly different and from different periods of her career.

The 36-inch Georgia O’Keeffe bronze that sold in 2014 set the de facto record, because it was the first of any edition of the 1946 Abstraction to go to auction. What are the odds that this 10-inch version, with its tantalizing provenance, might meet or beat that record? It’s always hard to predict how a sale will go. We’re hoping for strong competition and to see a strong result.

How to bid: The 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe Abstraction sculpture is lot 54 in Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Juan Hamilton: Passage, which takes place at Sotheby’s New York on March 5, 2020.

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A Nicolas Party Untitled Landscape Could Fetch $80,000 (Updated March 5, 2020)

Untitled (Landscape), a watercolor on paper by Nicolas Party, showcases a Seussian landscape of orange and pink bushes, teal Cypress spires, and bare golden branches. It could command $80,000 at Phillips New York.

Update: Whoa! Untitled (Landscape) by Nicolas Party sold for $237,500.

What you see: Untitled (Landscape), a 2013 watercolor on paper by Nicolas Party. Phillips estimates it at $60,000 to $80,000.

The expert: Samuel Mansour, an associate specialist at Phillips and head of its New Now auction.

Who is Nicolas Party? He’s Swiss-born and is probably best known for his bright color-saturated paintings, murals, sculptures, and drawings. His work bridges figurative art and abstraction to create environments and worlds that are grounded in color theory.

What do we know about Nicolas Party’s influences? Who or what has shaped his approach to art? It’s safe to say that Party has been influenced by some of the more traditional greats of the Western art canon, with evidence of everything from Old Masters and Rococo to Léger, Magritte, Hockney, and Matisse in his work. For the most part, Party’s work can be divided into three distinct subjects: portraiture, landscapes, and still lifes. With Party, along with his peers in the contemporary art world, we’re seeing a return to figuration [art that depicts figures, as opposed to abstraction]. Figurative images have really been commanding the market, and this is a wonderful example to come up for sale.  

How prolific has Nicolas Party been so far? He’s had an extremely impressive career. At only 40 years old, he’s had several solo exhibitions worldwide, in addition to a solo presentation coming up this year at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles.

Do collectors show a strong preference for a particular type of work by Nicolas Party? As I mentioned, his works can be divided into portraiture, landscapes, and still lifes. We’ve had the privilege of offering examples of all three over the course of the past few seasons, and there really is an even split among collectors with what personally resonates with them. The first major work offered at auction was called Sunset and it was donated by the artist and Xavier Hufkens Gallery for our Art for One Drop charity auction in 2018. We were blown away by the enthusiasm for his work, and it seems to have increased exponentially since, both in terms of the number of collectors, as well as in geography [how geographically spread-out the collectors are]. His highest price was just set in November [2019] in Hong Kong.   

Does Untitled (Landscape) depict an actual, identifiable place, or is it fanciful? Party grew up in Switzerland by a lake. He has spoken about how his work depicts familiar forms, such as the trees and natural elements in Untitled (Landscape), but he translates them to be more conceptual shapes.

Untitled (Landscape) is a watercolor on paper, whereas Nicolas Party’s preferred medium seems to be pastel. How, if at all, does that matter? Is his approach to this watercolor pretty similar to his approach to pastels? Color is a strong focus for Nicolas Party, and this work is a prime example. While he does work in pastel quite a bit, his paintings in oil and watercolor allow him to experiment with color in different ways. With Untitled (Landscape), in particular, he’s showing a great deal more dimensionality than you might see in some of his other works, whose forms he chooses to leave more simplified.

This work measures 30 inches by 22 inches. Is that a typical size for Nicolas Party? I would say that this is in line with many of his other works, His top prices are all for works that are quite a bit larger, though none are massive. For example, his record price was set for a work that is over seven feet tall, and in our May evening sale last year, we offered a landscape that was six and a half feet tall.

Could you talk a bit about Nicolas Party’s use of color, and how it adds to the appeal of his work? Bold saturated colors are central to his work. Party’s murals and pastel works reference surrealism and fauvism. He’s clearly interested in Matisse and Hockney, the two premier colorists of the 20th century, and he is definitely continuing in that tradition.

What is Untitled (Landscape) like in person? Are there details or aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? This work was really difficult to capture in a photograph, particularly with the dimensionality and the volume he’s chosen to create among the forms, as well as the intensity of color. It really is one of those pieces that comes to life in person.

Do we know what year that Nicolas Party’s work reached the secondary market? We first included Nicolas Party in an online-only auction in Summer 2018. It was an editioned screenprint, and it performed quite well– more than tripling its low estimate. The first pastel on canvas was sold a couple months later in our Art for One Drop charity auction, and that was really the first major piece to come to market at any of the houses. His market has come quite a long way in the past year and a half, and we’re excited to see how the trajectory progresses.  

Nicolas Party has generated a lot of buzz lately, what with the show at Hauser and Wirth and coverage in Artnet and other venues. How does that affect how you set an estimate? In generating estimates, we have a lot to consider, including past prices for comparable works, collector interest, and institutional and gallery interest. Of course it’s great when an artist is generating a lot of buzz. That helps raise awareness of their work.

Why will this Nicolas Party work stick in your memory? What I love about Untitled (Landscape) is that it is familiar and totally fantastical all at once. The work depicts trees and bushes, which are instantly recognizable but transformed into a fantastical landscape that’s almost Dr. Seussian in form and color. I think that duality is what makes the work so appealing.

How to bid: Untitled (Landscape) by Nicolas Party is lot 43 in the New Now auction taking place at Phillips New York on March 4, 2020.

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An Acoma Tularosa Revival Jar Could Command $10,000 (Updated March 2020)

A large Acoma Tularosa Revival jar, created circa 1920 and painted with swirling crosshatched spirals in brown pigment over a cream slip, could command $10,000.

Update: The large Acoma Tularosa Revival jar sold for $6,000.

What you see: A large Acoma Tularosa Revival jar, created circa 1920, possibly by Mary Histia. Santa Fe Art Auction estimates it at $5,000 to $10,000.

The expert: Gillian Blitch, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Art Auction.

How is “Acoma” pronounced? AH-ko-MAH.

Who are the Acoma, what region are they from, and do they still exist? Acoma is a pueblo in the northern part of New Mexico. The village is still there. It’s considered to be the oldest continually inhabited pueblo in the United States.

What do we know about how this large Acoma Tularosa Revival jar was made? It would have been made using the coil clay method. You make a snake out of the clay and coil it around and around to build the pot.

Where would the clay have come from? Traditional potters, to this day, gather their own clay. The pueblos have different local clay colors in a range from buff to red to white. Acoma is known for its white color. The clay has to be tempered using shards of prehistoric pots, so the clay will hold together and hold water. The clay is refined until it becomes workable material.

How did the potters paint the clay? They painted over it with slip, a very, very watered-down clay. This has a cream-colored slip. The designs painted on it are from mineral and vegetable dye pigments, done with a brush made from chewed-up yucca stalks.

And I understand that almost all Native American potters are women, correct? Yes. There have always been a few male potters, and in the 21st century, a husband might paint a pot [that his wife fashioned], but classically, men created rock art and women created pottery.

What does “Tularosa Revival” mean here? Tularosa is another region that was actively creating pottery between 1100 and 1300 A.D. Near Acoma, there’s a trench with shards of broken pottery from that period. Acoma potters ground them up to use to temper the clay for their pots. I speak of acquiring a piece of history when you acquire an Acoma pot because it often contains shards of ground-up pots.

This Acoma Tularosa Revival jar is described as “large”. What makes it large? Does its size give us a clue about how it was used? Yes. Smaller pots are usually for tourists, because you can’t do much with a small pot. You couldn’t get a large jar in your luggage to take it back east. This jar measures 12 inches high and 13 inches in diameter. Because it’s in almost perfect condition, I don’t think it was ever used.

How would it have been used? It has a wide opening, so it could have been used for water. The base of the jar is concave, so it sits comfortably on the head. But if it was used for water, the top would have been worn down from scraping its lip against the edge of the pool or the river. We have another piece in the sale where you can see the wear on the top. Maybe, by 1920, this jar might have gone into a collection unused.

Are the designs we see on the jar traditional Acoma designs? Do they carry any meanings? These are Tularosa designs. What makes it Tularosa Revival is the ancient designs, which were found on prehistoric shards of pottery around the Acoma pueblo. It’s a very large, much-discussed area what the patterns may or may not have signified. The answer is, we don’t know, but they are remarkable prehistoric patterns.

What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult this Acoma Tularosa jar would have been to make? It’s not done on a potter’s wheel. It’s all done by eye and hand. And the pattern repeats perfectly, completely around the jar. She didn’t have a pencil or a ruler. She did it completely by hand.

How do we know that the Acoma Tularosa jar dates to circa 1920? It would be the design, the level of decoration, the quality of the clay, and the fact that it was probably Mary Histia, who was doing that [style of pot] at the time.

So this jar is characteristic of what Mary Histia did? Absolutely. It’s hard to know when she was born, but her dates are 1881 to 1973.

She would have been an established potter by 1920. Definitely. By 1920, she was the queen of Acoma pottery. President Roosevelt knew of her, and had several pieces by her in the White House collection. She was a star of the pottery world.

Did she sign or mark the piece in any way? It was considered inappropriate to sign a jar around these times, but it’s very typical of the work Mary Histia was doing. We can’t say for sure it’s Mary Histia, but she was one of the great matriarchal potters from this period.

Matriarchal potters? Mary Histia was the first in a long line of distinguished potters from Acoma that includes Marie Z. Chino, Juana Leno, Jessie Garcia, and Lucy M. Lewis. Her work continues to be very collectible and very important. There’s no signatures [on it], but the Theodore Roosevelt connection made a difference. Mary Histia was the reviver of Tularosa designs. Potters after her went on to do the same thing.

What is this Acoma Tularosa Revival jar like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera does not pick up? It’s remarkable for its fineness. It’s thin, remarkably fine in its execution. It’s not a big, heavy, chunky pot. If you knock it, it makes a pinging sound, like knocking a wine glass. And it’s completely smooth to the touch, with a very fine cream slip and brown pigment painted on. It’s dazzling.

Why will this Acoma Tularosa Revival jar stick in your memory? The clarity of the design, the size, the condition–it’s just a thing of beauty. It’s mezmerizing.

How to bid: The large Acoma Tularosa Revival jar is lot 406 in Session 2 of the Joseph Pytka Collection of New Mexico Art & Artefacts, taking place February 29, 2020 at Santa Fe Art Auction.


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Gillian Blitch appeared on The Hot Bid in 2019, discussing an Oscar Howe painting that went on to set a world auction record.

The Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum in the Acoma Pueblo maintains a page on the history of Acoma pottery.

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The Richard Estes Print D-Train, from the Archive of Its Printmaker, Domberger, Could Fetch $50,000 (Updated March 6, 2020)

D-Train, a monumental print by Richard Estes, produced by the Domberger printing studio. The vision of New York from a subway car could command $50,000 at Christie's.

Update:The monumental print of D-Train by Richard Estes sold for $35,000.

What you see: D-Train by Richard Estes, 1988. It’s one of 15 artist’s proofs (AP) created in addition to the edition of 125 prints. Christie’s estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.

The expert: Lindsay Griffith, specialist and head of sale for prints and multiples for Christie’s.

Who, or what, is Domberger? It’s a printing studio in Stuttgart, Germany. It’s one of the preeminent printmaking studios of the 20th century. It was founded by Luitpold Domberger and is now run by his son, Michael. They’ve worked extensively with artists such as Keith Haring and Robert Indiana. Because of the precise and highly complex nature of what they produce, the most significant 20th century and post-war contemporary artists have worked with the Domberger studio.

And who is Richard Estes? He’s considered one of the most preeminent members of the photorealist school of painters. He’s known for creating highly detailed paintings and prints based on photographs. He takes more than 100 photos for his images and whittles them down to select the perspective he’s most interested in. That’s typical of his working process. He does all his drawings freehand, working from photographs, with no projectors or mechanical processes [to transfer the photographic image onto the canvas]. It speaks to what a draftsman he is. It’s what separates him from his peers.

How did this particular print, D-Train, come about? Is it based on a Richard Estes painting? D-Train began as a maquette [in this case, a maquette is a fully rendered two-dimensional artwork intended as the basis for another work of art], not a painting per se. The maquette was wash and acrylic on board, and it was at the same size as the print itself. Estes sent the maquette to the Domberger studio. It produced his first portfolio, Urban Landscapes, in the early 1980s. Domberger could achieve what Estes was looking for–pictorial realism. He produced a highly finished maquette image and the studio worked with him to achieve his vision.

So the idea for the D-Train print begins with Richard Estes? He decided what the image would look like. Domberger decided how to make it come alive in the printmaking medium.

How far back does the relationship between Richard Estes and Domberger go? He worked with Domberger the entire time he made prints.

Has Richard Estes stopped making prints? No, he made prints very recently. The most major prints he’s made were produced by Domberger.

What challenges did Richard Estes and Domberger face in transforming the D-Train maquette into a finished fine art print? It’s quite a large print for a screenprint. There are so many different colors and layers in it–there’s so much going on. It took a highly complex process to achieve. Domberger created a special three-layer museum board for it.

…Because the amount of ink needed would saturate and bleed through a standard museum board? Yes. Many, many layers of ink were required to produce this print. It needed substantial backing to hold it.

So D-Train was monumental in more than one way–monumental in size, and it needed a monumental amount of ink to print it. It is, by a hair, not the largest Estes print, but it’s close. It’s the apex of everything he was trying to achieve in his prints. I love the fact that you can see the reflections in the subway seats.

What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this print was to make? The printing is quite a process–many screens, many layers that line up perfectly, so there are no imperfections. The skill involved is very high. D-Train is considered by many to be one of the most technically complex screenprints ever produced. There’s so much going on.

The lot notes say that the creation of D-Train “pushed the screenprint process to its limits”. How did it do that? From receiving the maquette, it was clear it would not be a typical day in the office. They had to have a separate press imported from Sweden. The print required more than 100 different layers of ink.

My god, that sounds suicidal–from what I remember from my commercial art classes in high school, that means they had to line up everything perfectly for each pass for each layer of ink… Exactly. It was surely a long day at the office to achieve something that complex. And it’s very finished. There’s a very fine quality to all the works that came out of the Domberger studio. Andy Warhol had said that he didn’t want to work with them because they were too precise.

The Richard Estes D-Train print is described as “unusually large”. The museum board it’s printed on measures 42 inches by 76 and 7/8 inches, and the image itself measures 35 and 7/8 inches by 72 and 1/8 inches. What does unusually large mean in this context? His Urban Landscape portfolio measured 27 by 19 inches in size and the images were 20 by 13 inches. Most of his prints are around that size. Other prints produced by other artists are certainly larger, but this is the largest print produced for Estes.

What is the Richard Estes D-Train print like in person? When you get up close to it, the nature of how the ink sits on the board is almost painterly. There’s an uncanny quality that makes Estes’s work interesting–I take the subway every day. It’s something I know and feel. Here, the perspective is flattened out, and there’s no people. It’s a very solitary scene.

I imagine it draws a lot of power from cognitive dissonance–it looks so real, but you know it can’t be real, because there’s no way that subway train would be rolling under daylight with no one in it. If you were on an empty D-Train, you’d be really worried. It goes back to Edward Hopper, who Estes is so closely tied to. You feel you’re part of it, but not. Estes is a continuation of the [Hopper] tradition.

How does the print’s large size hit you in person? You almost feel like you’re sitting on the D-Train. It’s very lifelike. Nothing has been scaled down, or it doesn’t feel scaled down. Your brain is tricked into thinking you’re looking at a very precise world.

How often does the Richard Estes D-Train print come up at auction? This particular print, on average, about once a year. I do know there are quite a few in institutions because it’s considered a historically important print, but I would not categorize it as specifically rare.

What’s the world auction record for a Richard Estes D-Train print? D-Train holds the world auction record for an Estes print, as you can imagine. The record-holder sold at Christie’s in April 2014 for $62,000.

What’s the likelihood that this print of D-Train will meet or beat that sum? This is an example in very good condition and the provenance is the best that anyone could hope for. We can expect a strong price because of these factors. To me, it’s one of the strongest images in the sale.

Why will this Richard Estes D-Train print stick in your memory? To me, it’s emblematic of what makes a printing studio such a great partner for an artist like Estes–when the printmaker works to achieve the vision of the artist by using their own skills to achieve those goals. And as a New Yorker, I love it. It’s so immediately recognizable.

How to bid: D-Train by Richard Estes is lot 52 in Domberger: 65 Years of Screen Printing, an online sale that Christie’s will conduct between February 28 and March 6, 2020.


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Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

Lindsay Griffith appeared on The Hot Bid once before, discussing a set of 10 Campbell’s Soup II prints that Andy Warhol gave to Dr. Giuseppi Rossi, who saved the artist’s life after Valerie Solanas shot him.

Christie’s published an article on its website about the Domberger printmaking studio that prominently features Richard Estes’s D-Train.

Domberger has a website.

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A Margaret Bourke-White Vintage Photograph of the George Washington Bridge Could Fetch $75,000 (Updated February 2020)

The George Washington Bridge, shot by Margaret Bourke-White and printed circa 1933. The warm-toned silver print could fetch $75,000 at Swann.

Update: The vintage Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge sold for $81,250.

What you see: A photograph of the George Washington Bridge, shot by Margaret Bourke-White and printed circa 1933. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $50,000 to $75,000.

The expert: Deborah Rogal, associate director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.

Who was Margaret Bourke-White, and why does her work remain influential today? She became a pioneering photojournalist and was the first woman photojournalist at Life magazine. She covered World War II, the Great Depression, and a lot more. We appreciate her work for merging a high level of aesthetic sophistication with strong editorial comment.

How did this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge come to be? Was it for an assignment? It was intended for a story in Fortune magazine. The George Washington Bridge was constructed over a four-year period, from 1927 to 1931. At its completion, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

What, if anything, do we know about how Margaret Bourke-White got this shot? The point of view is east to west. The photo is shot from the New York side, not the New Jersey side. [The look of the image] suggests it was shot in the afternoon in pretty bright sunlight. It would have been important to her to highlight the material used and the physicality of the structure.

How did she get this angle on the bridge? Was she standing in the middle of it, with cars passing her? I agree that she was standing somewhere in the middle of the span. In a variant of this photo, you can see a bit more of the actual span and you can see at least one car, small and in the distance.

What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult it might have been for her to get this shot? To me, it seems she would have been crouching or she arranged the tripod at a very low position so she could angle the camera upward to highlight the size and scope of construction. It gives the print a sense of the sublime. In the image, you don’t see the road itself. Our eye focuses on repeated imagery, allowing us to wonder at a new architectural feature of the city.

How does the way Margaret Bourke-White chose to compose this shot show her mastery of photography? She really focuses on architectural strength. She offers a sense of poetry and awe without losing visual strength–a hallmark of Margaret Bourke-White.

Would it have been difficult for her to shoot the George Washington Bridge in a way that excludes any features of New Jersey on the far side? The bridge is quite high. It’s a huge bridge, and the sense of being suspended in the air is pretty palpable. On the New Jersey side is the Palisades, a beautiful landscape feature. I’m not sure she had to do a lot to get the landscape out of the shot. I think she had to tilt the camera to get the expanse she wanted.

How, if at all, does this image of the George Washington Bridge connect to her earlier architecturally-themed photographs? There’s a clear connection between all elements of her career. She had a remarkable ability to capture a sense of bigness, of scale and power, as well as finer details like texture and the materiality of industry, and she could translate that sensation to people who encountered her work in a magazine.

Where does this image of the George Washington Bridge rank among the top ten best photographs by Margaret Bourke-White? In the top five, for sure. Her humanist images of the Great Depression have sold well at auction, but those are different.

It’s worth mentioning here that Margaret Bourke-White stands out for her ability to take strong photos of human beings and equally strong photos that have no human beings in them whatsoever, such as this one… True. She’s able to create powerful human images that display an ability to connect with an audience, and photograph structures to bring a sense of beauty and appeal while retaining a sense of strength. She’s extraordinary.

How rare are prints of Margaret Bourke-White’s photo of the George Washington Bridge? We last sold one in October 2000 for $29,500. Since then, it’s appeared only a handful of times as a vintage fine print. [The online Swann Galleries archive goes back to 2001.]

How do we know that this image was produced in 1933? Because of the provenance. In this time frame, it was given to Robert Kiehl, the original owner.

Do we know why Margaret Bourke-White would have made this print then? Would it have been a gift for Kiehl? Many of the photographs printed before the secondary market for photographs [arose around 1970 or so] were made as gifts for family members and friends. It’s certainly possible it was a gift for him.

How rare are early Margaret Bourke-White prints, such as this one? There’s no real census of her photos. There are likely few of any given image existing in the print format. For this one, there are probably five to ten. Some might fall lower in that range. There are certainly fewer in the range of vintage.

Thank you for mentioning that, I should ask–when you describe a photograph as “vintage,” what do you mean? It was printed before 1970? “Vintage” is a word that’s defined slightly differently [depending on who’s using it]. For us, it’s a print made close to when the negative was made.

What is this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite capture? It’s a stunning object, with a rich dimensionality associated with fine art prints. It has a very rich texture and a fine range of tones. Seeing a work like this in person always adds to the experience.

The silver print photo is described as being “warm-toned.” What makes it warm-toned? It’s a sepia toning that adds warmth and stability to the print. Her vintage prints frequently have a warm tonality, a creamy [cream-colored] mount, and are signed below the image. This is her classic presentation.

How does the provenance add value to the photograph? We can trace it to Margaret Bourke-White herself. She gave it to Robert Kiehl, who worked as her assistant between 1932 and 1935, when she had a studio in the Chrysler Building. The direct provenance is special, and adds to the value of the work.

Do we know if Kiehl might have helped produce this photographic print? It’s possible he had a hand in the creation of the print, given his capacity as her assistant, but there’s no proof.

Has this print been to auction before? No, it’s fresh to market.

What’s the world auction record for this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge, and what’s the overall world auction record for a photograph by her? The record for the George Washington Bridge photograph was set in April 2013 at Phillips. It sold for $104,500, and it was also signed and mounted. The world auction record in general was set in April 2019 at another Phillips auction, by a Great Depression image, Flood Refugees, Louisville, Kentucky. It sold for $400,000.

Why will this Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the George Washington Bridge stick in your memory? It’s a stunning representation of a trailblazing photographer at the height of her powers. It’s an homage to what’s new and modern and a chance to see her experiment with abstraction, contrast, and beauty. It has everything we associate with Margaret Bourke-White in one image. I think it has it all.

How to bid: Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph of the George Washington Bridge is lot 130 in the Classic & Contemporary Photographs sale at Swann Galleries on February 25, 2020.

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Deborah Rogel has appeared on The Hot Bid previously discussing a tintype of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker and a record-setting photographic portrait shot by Peter Hujar.


Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

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A Harry Houdini Postcard from Houdini’s Personal Collection Could Fetch $2,500 (Updated March 2020)

A circa 1900s postcard of Harry Houdini, elaborately bound in chains and wearing nothing but a loincloth. It bears a stamp from the Harry Houdini Collection, and it could sell for $2,500 or more at Potter & Potter.

Update: The vintage Harry Houdini postcard from the Harry Houdini Collection sold for $2,375.

What you see: A circa 1900s Harry Houdini postcard depicting the legendary magician in chains. The address side bears a stamp from the Harry Houdini Collection. Potter & Potter estimates the vintage postcard at $1,500 to $2,500.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

Houdini was photographed many, many, many times during the course of his career. Why is this image such a standout? I mean, when I think of Houdini, I think of this picture. It’s a combination of beefcake, magic, metaphor, hardware, and really, kind of… all the things Houdini stands for, rolled into one photo.

Other photographs exist of Houdini in chains, but fully clothed. Why is this one more powerful than those? It’s emblematic of his entire career. He’s not just a handsome guy in a photo studio. It’s a genre-setting image, an iconic pose and scene.

Do we know whose idea it was for Houdini to have these pictures taken? Was it him, or did someone else make the suggestion? My guess is it’s Houdini. He was a guy with a very carefully crafted image. Early in his career, he got help from [vaudeville theater owner and booking agent] Martin Beck. Was Beck standing there at the photo shoot? I doubt it. But when Houdini realized something was working, he didn’t walk, he ran in that direction. It was a theme he must have understood, because he came back to it throughout his career. In one of his films, Terror Island, he’s basically just wearing a loincloth.

Why might Houdini have wanted to pose for these photos? What do they do for him that a fully clothed shot does not? He posed for both, of course. He understood every aspect of what that meant in the sense that it might have been a little bit scandalous. He was definitely pushing a boundary there, and stirring up interest–he’s not just shackled, he’s basically undressed. It’s titillating, but it had the added effect of proving that he was not hiding anything and he was able to escape the chains through his ability alone.

It looks like Houdini posed for the photo in Holland in September 1903. Did he run any risks in having them taken? They seem racy now. I imagine they might have been scandalous then. Were they? I’m not really clear on that. It’s not clear to me what the reaction would have been. It was not considered pornography. I don’t know if we’re casting a certain amount of modern inference over something that’s not as scandalous as we think. There’s a Houdini poster showing him performing an escape from prison in Amsterdam, and he’s underclothed. If the poster was acceptable enough to print and stick up on a building… maybe he was able to cross some border of decency and get away with it.

Are the chains Houdini poses with for this photo actual, no-kidding chains of the sort from which he escaped, or were the chains chosen solely for how they would look on camera? They were definitely functional. Remember, by this point, Houdini is performing challenge escapes on a regular basis. [Theater-goers] were allowed to bring their own handcuffs and restraints. Houdini was making a challenge–‘Lock me up in your cuffs, and I’ll escape.’ Were these the things he was escaping from? 100 percent. My guess is he provided them to the photographer. No doubt similar things were tossed at him, quite literally, in public appearances.

Do we have any notion of how Houdini used this image, outside of the postcard and the Amsterdam poster? And would he have printed the postcard with the intent of selling it as a souvenir? I’m not sure that he did. It seems unlikely. If there was a handbill or a flyer that used this image, it wouldn’t surprise me.

The reverse side of the Harry Houdini postcard, with the Harry Houdini Collection stamp visible.

This postcard bears a stamp that reads “Harry Houdini Collection”. What was the Harry Houdini Collection? Would that have been his personal collection? Yes, it was probably owned by him. I understand it [the stamp] was put there by his wife, to prove that it was his.

So it was Houdini’s own archival copy? Or one of many in his collection.

Do we know how the postcard left the Harry Houdini Collection? We don’t, but it could have been given away, or it could have been sold. Things started leaving Houdini’s family’s possession quite quickly after he died. There was tremendous interest in Houdini, and a lot of souvenir hunters out there, looking for things.

I take it that Houdini had quite the personal library? He absolutely never saw a piece of paper that he didn’t like. Thank goodness for that.

How rare is this Houdini postcard? I’ve probably seen it half a dozen times.

Can you quantify what the presence of the Harry Houdini Collection stamp adds to the value of the postcard? I don’t think there’s ever been any doubt about it being a beautiful, authentic postcard, but let’s say ten percent.

Is this image of Houdini in chains more sought-after than other images that show him bound or escaping his bonds? These things speak to different people for different reasons. The iconic nature of the image helps this one.

But people prefer images of Houdini actively escaping over other images of him? Yeah, but images that people haven’t seen can do well. Last December, we had a postcard of Harry and Bess that did well because it was unusual, and people hadn’t seen it. It sold for $2,600.

What condition is the Houdini postcard in? Lovely. I could do without the little tape marks on the back, but it’s nice.

How does this image of Houdini speak to the larger themes his work expressed and evoked, and which set him apart from other magicians? How does it capture the promise of, and the yearning for, escape from bondage? To play an amateur Dr. Freud here–Houdini was a diminutive guy, an immigrant to these shores, and he found a way to beat whatever was thrown at him. That’s a pretty powerful metaphor. It’s a concept that resonates even in modern times.

How to bid: The vintage Harry Houdini postcard from the Harry Houdini Collection is lot 360 in the Magic Collection of Jim Rawlins III auction at Potter & Potter on February 29, 2020.

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

Follow Potter & Potter on Instagram and Twitter.

Images are courtesy of Potter & Potter. 

Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about an oversize Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, a Daisy and Violet Hilton poster from the conjoined twins’ vaudeville years, an impressive talking skull automaton that went on to sell for $13,200,  a magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, a rare book from the creator of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion,  a Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout–a device for cheating at cards–which sold for $9,000a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.

A couple of the links included above come from Wild About Houdini, an excellent blog by John Cox which is more than worthy of your time.

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A Nintendo PlayStation Prototype–Probably the Only Surviving Example of a Failed Sony-Nintendo Project-Goes to Auction At Heritage in March (Updated March 6, 2020)

The console and controller for what appears to be the sole surviving prototype for the Nintendo PlayStation, a failed Sony-Nintendo project from the early 1990s.

Update: WOW! The Nintendo PlayStation prototype sold for $360,000!

What you see: A Nintendo PlayStation prototype dating to circa 1990-1992, and evidently the only surviving prototype from the abandoned collaborative project between Sony and Nintendo. Heritage Auctions has declined to give an estimate.

The expert: Valarie McLeckie, director of video games at Heritage Auctions.

Let’s start by talking about how this Sony-Nintendo PlayStation project came about. I take it they weren’t direct competitors in the early 1990s? Yeah, essentially. Sony had no intention of becoming a video game company, but today, it’s one of the largest.

How well-known was the Sony-Nintendo PlayStation project at the time it was live? That’s a bit hard to say. Usually, companies are pretty secretive about projects. It did get to a point where the public found out about it, but it was late in the process, when it began to fizzle.

How did Sony and Nintendo divide the labor on the PlayStation project? It was not so cut-and-dried. Nintendo had created the Super Nintendo [SNES] by this point. It was released in 1991 in North America. This [project] was actually designed to be an add-on to the [SNES] console to play CD-Rom-based media.

CD-Rom based media? They said originally it wasn’t going to play games. It was going to play different types of media–karaoke was an idea, or encyclopedias. That’s why Nintendo let its guard down. They didn’t see it as a way to play games. And they thought people wouldn’t want to wait 15 seconds to load a game on a disc.

Why did the Sony-Nintendo PlayStation project fail? Nintendo realized the benefits of the contract it had with Sony were weighted so heavily on Sony’s side that it could be disastrous if they moved forward. Essentially, Nintendo would not receive royalties with software sales using discs. They announced at the 1991 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that they’d work with Philips instead.

The complete set of materials that comprise the Nintendo PlayStation prototype, which will be offered at Heritage Auctions in March.

It’s believed that 200 Nintendo PlayStation prototypes were made, but what evidence do we have to support that number? I’m not really sure. It’s a ballpark number based on the number of prototypes made for game development purposes.

Ok, but why was it necessary for them to make 200 prototypes? Why couldn’t they get by with five, or a dozen? Did they need to make that many for the people who were in charge of quality control? Or was it more like with action figures, where the prototype goes through distinct stages? I’m sure those all were factors. A lot goes into the development of something like this. Different teams need to get their hands on it. One or five prototypes isn’t enough.

So, the 200 number–is that back-calculated from what was probably made, based on what we know about how other gaming consoles have been developed, or are there surviving documents that mention there being 200? I’m sure there probably is an internal document showing the exact number or alluding to it, but internal paperwork is hard to get your hands on. It’s never released outside the company, and when they’re done with it, they destroy it. Based on what people said at the time, 200 is a reasonable estimate.

The controller for the Nintendo PlayStation prototype, shown upside down, with wiring attached. It's a little hard to see because it's beige on beige, but the information plate identifies the controller as made by Nintendo.

How do we know that only one of these Nintendo PlayStation prototypes survive? If there were others out there, it’s pretty unlikely they would have left the company. When a game company is done with them [the prototypes] they typically trash them or take them home as a memento. It’s unlikely there’s another one out there, especially with something like this.

Olaf Olaffson, a higher-up at Sony, owned this Nintendo Playstation prototype. Do we know why he kept it? No. I looked to see if Olaffson made any comments in the past [about keeping the device]. From what I can see, he never acknowledged it, not publicly.

How did the prototype leave Olaffson’s possession and end up with its second owner? That is an interesting story, and kind of long. Olaffson left Sony to work for Advanta Corporation [a finance company; he was there from 1997 to 1999]. He left Advanta before it went bankrupt, and the prototype was swept up in the company assets. It was in a mystery box in the [bankruptcy] auction and it was bought by a very lucky person. That person has said they thought they were getting kitchen utensils–they didn’t think there was tech in there.

When did the second owner learn what they actually had? It wasn’t until years later when it was posted to Reddit. There was a myth about this console. Someone made a post about the Superdisc, and he [the owner] responded with pictures. Reddit was in awe over the thing. The pictures got it out there. People didn’t think it was real. Turns out it was. [The Reddit poster also filmed a short video that displays the prototype.]

Does the Nintendo PlayStation prototype work? Originally, it didn’t function and the sound didn’t work. Ben Heck [Benjamin Heckendorn, a computer engineer known for modifying consoles] rewired it and got it to where it was working fully and completely.

What’s your favorite detail of the Nintendo PlayStation prototype? The controller itself is pretty finalized. The only difference between it and a Super Nintendo controller, aesthetically speaking, is you see Sony PlayStation on the front, and “Nintendo” is in raised plastic on the back. It’s so wacky to see, but it looks exactly like a Nintendo controller.

What games can be played with the prototype? It does play Super Nintendo games. It was meant to be an enhancement [to the Super Nintendo] though they also said there would be a stand-alone version. It’s typical for companies not to come up wiht game ideas until the console is in a finalized state. Any games [made specifically] for it may have been destroyed or may never have been created. There is a user-made game [for the prototype], a homebrew game. I haven’t played it, but I hear it’s very cute.

What is the prototype like in person? The thing that stands out when you see it–it’s Nintendo and Sony. If you look at the two companies and the relationship between them now, it’s purely competitive. It’s sort of shocking to see this, almost like it shouldn’t exist. [Laughs.] The controller really is my favorite part. It stands out the most. It’s like your playing a Super Nintendo, but then you look down and you see the controller–it’s like an alternative universe where [the project] worked out. It works exactly the same [as an SNES controller] but it’s a weird feeling to see the controller in your hand.

The front of the console of the Nintendo PlayStation prototype.

How did you set the estimate for the Nintendo PlayStation prototype? What comparables did you look to? I don’t have an estimate. We fully trust the market with this. It’s hard to say what it’s worth until it’s sold.

Are you sure you can’t give me some sort of number to work with? We’re doing our best not to set unrealistic estimates on the piece, because there are a lot of rumors.

Have other game console prototypes gone to auction? Might their prices hint at what the Nintendo PlayStation prototype might do? Nothing compares to this. It’s an unreleased prototype. It was not purchased with the knowledge of what it was, and was never sold for what it’s possibly worth.

So, until now, game console prototypes have changed hands in private sales, not at auction? Ebay sales aside, that’s correct. We’re the first to dive into this as a formal market.

The Nintendo PlayStation prototype was restored to functionality, but how important is that? If it didn’t work, would it be worthless? For me, I don’t care if it works or not. You want it for the historical value. It’s a Nintendo-Sony PlayStation. There’s not going to be another one like this.

Why will this Nintendo prototype stick in your memory? Because it’s the closest thing to a unicorn I’ve ever seen in person. It might be the only chance in my lifetime that I get to see it. I’m really savoring my time working with it.

How to bid: The Nintendo PlayStation prototype is lot #93060 in the Comics Signature Auction taking place at Heritage Auctions from March 5 through March 7, 2020.

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Albrecht Dürer’s The Rhinoceros Could Fetch $18,000 at Freeman’s (Updated February 19, 2020)

The Rhinoceros, an iconic 1515 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, could sell for $18,000 or more at Freeman's.

Update: The sixth state of the 1515 Albrecht Dürer print, The Rhinoceros, sold for $81,250. Yay!

What you see: The Rhinoceros, a 1515 woodcut by German artist Albrecht Dürer. Freeman’s estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.

The expert: David Weiss, senior vice president at Freeman’s.

So, for those who might never have encountered Albrecht Dürer before, could you talk about who he was, and why he remains influential today? He’s considered the preeminent German Renaissance artist and he’s credited with bringing Renaissance art to northern Germany. He was only 56 when he died, but he was established by his twenties as a painter and printmaker, and his genius lives on.

How did the woodcut print of The Rhinoceros come about? What we know is… first of all, rhinoceroses were not at all common in western Europe at the time. Dürer didn’t see a rhino, but he saw a sketch that was sent from Moravia. Dürer’s image was based upon an actual Indian rhino that arrived in Lisbon in 1515. It was the first living example of a rhinoceros in Europe since Roman times. The woodcut was very popular in Europe and remained so until the 18th century. It was presumably Dürer’s idea to make it.

Wait wait wait. Dürer did the woodcut without actually seeing a live rhino? He relied on someone else’s sketch? He did it based upon the sketch [which was later lost] and on news of the rhino’s arrival in Lisbon, which was published in Nuremberg. He was really thought of in Renaissance circles as one of the true artists of the period, a genius. That a rhinoceros would be intriguing to him is not surprising.

Where is Dürer in his career in 1515, when he makes The Rhinoceros? He’s well-established, and nearing the end of his life. He passes in 1528.

Is there any proof that Dürer created The Rhinoceros because he thought it would sell well–that it would be a hit with the public? It’s an interesting question whether or not his approach to this was if it was commercially viable. Arguably the subject did go through his mind. The arrival of the rhino sparked a great deal of interest. He thought it would be a good subject for a woodcut, and it was very popular.

Do we have any notion of why Dürer issued The Rhinoceros as a woodcut rather than, say, an engraving? Woodcuts are something that can be produced in greater quantity than engravings, which are more labor-intensive.

Dürer’s The Rhinoceros… doesn’t look exactly like a rhinoceros. We recognize this now. But is it possible to know if Dürer knowingly and deliberately departed from what he saw in the sketch and what he read in the contemporary accounts to give the beast what looks to be armor plates? There is some artistic license in the way he created his own version of the rhinoceros, with armor and rivets and what looks like breast plates. It would be wonderful to compare the [since lost] sketch to the original image. It would be fascinating to see, but we can’t do that. As for the translations [into German of the stories of the arrival of the rhinoceros], written descriptions of the original German documents don’t survive.

Detail of The Rhinoceros, showing its head and shoulders in profile along with Dürer's famous signature.

Dürer made this woodcut with only a sketch and a few written accounts to go on. I would be scared stiff to depict a rarely seen animal based on such meager source material, and yet, Dürer got reasonably close to reality. Why do you think Dürer’s The Rhinoceros remained an influential image after it was clear that it wasn’t strictly accurate? At the time, the rhinoceros was, essentially, a mythical beast. In some circles, the beast was conflated with a unicorn. I think he probably reveled in making a mythical, mystical image.

How was Dürer’s The Rhinoceros received in its day? It was highly popular and very well-received. What I don’t know is precisely how many were produced, and how it was received in commercial terms. It was viewed for a long time as a realistic or accepted depiction of a rhinoceros.

In its time, Dürer’s The Rhinoceros was considered an accurate depiction of a rare, exotic beast. We now know that he got some things wrong, but his rhino still commands attention anyway. Why do you think we 21st-century people enjoy the rhino despite its not being strictly accurate? The print resonated with the European art world and the European public at the time and it stayed popular for decades. I’m not sure I can answer your question about why it sustained its popularity. Part of it, certainly, is it’s a good-looking image, and part of it is how much of a departure from reality it is. It’s visually compelling.

Might The Rhinoceros‘s continued success be tangled up in the fact that it’s not strictly accurate, but it still looks very much like a rhino–that cognitive dissonance that comes from seeing something that looks real, but can’t be real? I think that’s a fair statement. It appears as a rhino, but not realistically so. It’s certainly not surreal. It’s not created from the subconscious. It’s a recognizable image.

The image of the beast goes right up to the edges of the paper. Do we know why Dürer did that? It’s worth noting that most prints extant of this image either have no margins or very thin, slight margins, measured in milimeters. It’s simply how the print was issued.

Might Dürer have done that to give the impression that the rhinoceros was so large that the paper could barely contain it? I don’t know if he was trying to make the animal seem bigger in the viewer’s mind. You could make the case that hardly a milimeter is wasted in that rhino. It seems to take over the space on which he depicts it. 21st century eyes can look at it as an imposing beast about to burst out of the four walls in which it is contained.

We don’t know how many copies of The Rhinoceros were printed in 1515. But do we know how many of them survive? I don’t know the number that’s around if we take into account private and public collections. I do know the number that have been offered [at auction] in the modern era, and what they’ve sold for. Since 1990, 26 woodcuts of The Rhinoceros have been at auction. [This doesn’t mean 26 copies from one of the first through eighth states of the 1515 woodcut have been offered; some of the 26 might be the same example coming back up for sale.]

The example of The Rhinoceros at Freeman’s is from the sixth state of eight produced in 1515. Does that matter? Do collectors prefer the earliest possible state, or are woodcuts of The Rhinoceros so rare that anything from 1515 is fine by them? Earlier states, particularly the first, are going to be rarer and more sought-after and command higher prices at auction. With each descending state, there’s less rarity and slightly less interest.

What is The Rhinoceros like in person? Are there any aspects of the Dürer woodcut that the camera doesn’t pick up? It’s a wonderful thing, it really is. What really comes across is the strength of the printed line of the woodcut itself and the fragility of the 16th century paper. You can hold it up to the light and see through it. On one hand, it’s a strong, imposing image of a beast, but on the other hand, it’s created on very thin paper that’s survived for centuries. It’s a striking image in person.

What’s your favorite detail of Dürer’s rhinoceros? I like the all-over plating itself, and the designs within it–the intricacies.

What’s the world auction record for Dürer’s The Rhinoceros? It sold at Christie’s New York in 2013 for $866,500. It’s worth noting that the estimate for the print was $100,000 to $150,000. It was a first state in perfect condition, and it had the text on top. Our print doesn’t have the upper panel above the rhino with text. I can’t tell you precisely why it was cut, but it’s not uncommon. The one that sold for so much had the text above the image. It’s also the third-highest price realized at auction for any work by Dürer.

What’s the condition of this print of Dürer’s The Rhinoceros? It’s in generally good condition, but not in mint condition. Generally good, with some minor restoration.

Why will this woodcut of Dürer’s The Rhinoceros stick in your memory? It’s the first time in my career that I’ve appraised and handled this print by Albrecht Dürer. It’s an iconic image that I’ve never handled as a specialist in charge of an auction.

How to bid: Albrecht Dürer’s The Rhinoceros is lot 1 in the European Art & Old Masters sale at Freeman’s on February 18, 2020.


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See My Story in Art & Object on Strong Americana Week Results at Sotheby’s

A circa 1870 three-dimensional weathervane depicting a pair of horses hauling a steam-powered fire engine. The handsome rarity fetched $437,500 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.

My latest story for Art & Object showcases three strong Americana Week results at Sotheby’s:

A late 19th century fire engine weathervane that fetched $437,500 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 (pictured above);

A portrait by American folk artist William Matthew Prior featuring an unknown African-American sitter, which commanded $112,500 against an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000;

And what might be the most expensive cover letter sold at auction–a two-page letter, signed by John Hancock and dated July 6, 1776, announcing the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

See the story here.

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Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.


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See My Robb Report Story on Artcurial’s 2020 Retromobile Auction (THB Bonus)

Please see my piece for Robb Report’s website that previews top automotive lots in Artcurial’s 2020 Retromobile auction in Paris.

The lineup includes a 1929 Mercedes-Benz 710 SS 27/140/200hp Sport Tourer (shown above), estimated at $6.6 million to $8.8 million, as well as a 1938 Alfa Romeo 6C 2300 B Lungo Cabriolet by Worblaufen, estimated at $1.3 million to $1.9 million, and a 1993 Jaguar XJ220 C Le Mans that competed in the 1993 and 1995 editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The auction takes place on February 7, 2020.

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Also see the landing page for Artcurial’s 2020 Retromobile sale and the main website for the auction house.

Artcurial is on Twitter and Instagram.

Image of the 1929 Mercedes-Benz is courtesy of Artcurial and copyright Alex Penfold.

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An Ed Moses Untitled Canvas Could Command $25,000 (Updated February 17)

Untitled, a 1985 oil and acrylic on canvas by the late Los Angeles-based artist Ed Moses. It could sell for $25,000 or more at Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

Update: The 1985 Untitled Ed Moses painting sold for $28,125.

What you see: Untitled, a 1985 oil and acrylic on canvas by Ed Moses. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $18,000 to $25,000.

The expert: Clo Pazera, specialist at LAMA.

First, could you briefly introduce Ed Moses, and talk about why his work continues to speak to us? Moses was an L.A.-based artist, born and raised in Los Angeles — he went to UCLA, and first started exhibiting with Ferus Gallery in 1957. Ferus was a foundational L.A. gallery and a lot of the fellows — mainly fellows — who exhibited there had attended Chouinard, like John Altoon, Larry Bell, and Ed Ruscha, but Moses went to UCLA. Moses did spend some time briefly in New York, where he met Willem de Kooning and other abstract artists of that cohort — that may be one of the reasons that his works are more abstracted than, say, Ruscha or Bell… though in 1969, Moses had a show at Riko Mizuno Gallery and cut out big chunks of the ceiling so the artwork was essentially the light dancing across the floor. So even though he was mainly a painter and collagist throughout his career, he did experiment with other mediums and movements.

How prolific was Ed Moses? Has someone done a catalogue raisonné for him? He was pretty prolific. He produced a significant body of work throughout the years — not quite so many prints, he definitely focused more on drawings, collages, and paintings. Nobody has done a catalogue raisonné of his works yet. I know that the Ed Moses estate is currently still active, but I’m not sure whether they have plans to start a raisonné or not.

Can you give a rough number for how many works Ed Moses might have produced over his lifetime? Certainly I would say in the hundreds, but I don’t have a real ballpark figure.

Is there a period during his career that collectors prefer more than other periods? If so, does this work belong to that period? Throughout the decades, Moses’s style transitioned pretty significantly. In the early 1960s, he really focused on works-on-paper, and then in the 70s, he transitioned back to his roots in painting. By 1985, he was mainly working as a painter, and this work is a great example of the style that he solidified in that era.

Where was Ed Moses in his career in 1985, when he made this untitled work? At this point, he was mid-career. This was around when he was picked up by L.A. Louver Gallery, which went on to represent him for another 15 or so years.

How is it typical of his work—what marks it as an Ed Moses painting? Also, are there any ways in which this 1985 painting is atypical of his work? This is a pretty typical example of Moses’ work. He utilizes the diagonal grid pattern pretty frequently, it was one of his favorite motifs from the mid-seventies to his death.

Thank you for mentioning the diagonal grid pattern–I meant to ask about it. How often do diagonals come up in the work of Ed Moses? Why did it hold his interest? Yes, the diagonal grid comes up often in his work. In the early 1970s he became very interested in Navajo textiles, so many of his paintings have a textile-like quality to the compositions, which I see reflected in this work.

How often did Ed Moses tend to choose these colors—red, green, and black? Moses definitely used red quite a bit in his work, and red and black tended to be one of his favorite color palettes. The addition of green comes up less often.

This work is untitled. Did Ed Moses usually decline to name his paintings? He did title paintings, but also often enough would leave them untitled. He would frequently have obscure titles that seemed to refer to something, but it was unclear what that was, such as Down-Broz #1 or Mug-Po.

How often do Moses paintings come to auction? Since he was an L.A.-based artist, we see his works pretty often. Outside of L.A., they don’t come up quite so much. Moses is definitely a LAMA mainstay — we are the auction house to go to for his works.

Ed Moses died relatively recently, in 2018. What effect, if any, has his passing had on his market? Have you seen an uptick in consignments, or have things been steady? Oftentimes when an artist dies, counter to common belief, their prices will go down. But we actually set the world record for Ed Moses shortly after his passing, when we sold an Untitled work from his Hegemann series — estimated to sell for $30,000 – $50,000 — for $100,000.

What is this untitled Ed Moses painting like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? Moses’s works always have a lot of texture to them, which doesn’t always come through in images. A lot of abstract artists really lay on the paint, but Moses really liked to utilize the texture of the substrate, which is something that you can’t always detect in a photograph.

The substrate? What is the substrate? The bottom layer, like canvas, linen, or paper.

How did you arrive at the estimate of $18,000 to $25,000? In my role as an auction specialist, I look at what similarly sized works from a similar period have been offered for in the past. This is a really beautiful example of Moses’s work of that era, so we have confidence that the hammer price will exceed our low estimate.

Why will this untitled Ed Moses piece stick in your memory? It’s surprisingly playful — within his chosen structure of the grid, it’s easy to become absorbed in his breadth of mark-making, from watery paint blossoms to the artist’s own footprint. 

How to bid: Untitled by Ed Moses is lot 21 in the Modern Art & Design sale taking place February 16, 2020 at LAMA.

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A Tamara de Lempicka Portrait Could Set Yet Another New World Auction Record for the Artist (Update February 6: It Did!)

Portrait of Marjorie Ferry, a 1932 painting by Tamara de Lempicka, features a blond woman in loose white drapery looking over the shoulder at her viewer.

Update: Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (Portrait of Marjorie Ferry) by Tamara de Lempicka sold for £16,280,000, or $21.1 million–easily a new record for the artist at auction, and the third painting of hers to break her auction record in a span of 15 months.

What you see: Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (Portrait of Marjorie Ferry), a 1932 oil on canvas by Tamara de Lempicka. Christie’s London estimates it at £8 million to £12 million, or $10.4 million to $15.6 million.

The expert: Keith Gill, head of the Impressionist and Modern art evening sale held at Christie’s London.

Who was Tamara de Lempicka, and why does her work still speak to us today? She was a famous female artist of the 1920s and early 1930s, and very much in the celebrity mold of her time. She was probably almost ahead of her time in terms of her approach to things. I don’t think her art has dated as such. Her aesthetic appeals to people today as in the 20s and 30s. Her art has become timeless.

Aside from a six-month trip to Italy that she took as a 13-year-old with her grandmother, what art training did she have? She undertook some art studies in Saint Petersburg, and when she came to Paris in 1918, she went to classes as often as she could. She studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumeière, and enrolled with Maurice Denis at the Académie Ranson, and she traveled to Italy quite frequently. And she sat in cafes in Montparnasse and discussed art and fashion with the avant-garde. 

So, no traditional art studies that ended with a degree, but more than sufficient… I can’t say she was self-taught, but she didn’t take a formal qualification. She took every single opportunity to be taught.

How prolific was Tamara de Lempicka? Is there a catalogue raisonné? Yes. There are 218 recorded works on paper, and in terms of oils, there are 520 in the book. It’s worth pointing out that it includes works from the 1940s into the 1970s, where really, the key period is the late 1920s and early 1930s.

What happened in the 1940s? She did far fewer commissions, and more still lifes. She didn’t paint identified individuals. There’s a mix of imagery.

So she didn’t just do portraits, but she’s most famous for her portraits? She’s most famous for her portraits, and they’re the most highly valued works she did.

At what point in her career do her paintings start looking like the Portrait of Marjorie Ferry–the imagery we think of when we think of Tamara de Lempicka? I’d say she finds her way very early in the 1920s. I would argue her style evolved to what we recognize in 1925, and by 1927, she has her mature style, the style that propelled her to fame and fortune.

How did Tamara de Lempicka’s social life shape her business life? How did it help her attract clients and commissions? It’s incredibly difficult to say which way around it worked. Really, the two very much related to each other. The paintings built her social life. Her portraiture was almost instantaneously successful. She became a celebrity, and she got more commissions and became someone people wanted to have at parties. She wouldn’t have been invited to parties or have become famous if people didn’t like her work.

Where was Tamara de Lempicka in her career in 1932? She was very much the toast of Paris. She was absolutely at her peak. Her top 10 [works at] auction all date from 1925 through 1932, the year of this work.

I’ve seen Tamara de Lempicka’s work described as Art Deco in its style. What makes it Art Deco? The stage-like lighting and the very stylized backdrops it has. In a picture like this, it’s the greys, whites, and blacks in the background, and it’s [Ferry’s] very Art Deco hairstyle as well. The haircut is very much of that time.

How did the commission for Portrait of Marjorie Ferry come about? Did she know Ferry or her husband or both? The balance of probability is she knew them both. Around 1933, she did a portrait of Suzy Solidor, one of her lovers who was a cabaret singer. It’s likely she met Marjorie Ferry through her relationship with Solidor, and probably, Ferry’s other half, a wealthy banker who commissioned the portrait, was part of her circle at the time.

I understand one reason that Ferry’s husband commissioned the portrait was to immortalize a cabochon ring that he’d given her. Can you talk a bit about how Tamara de Lempicka structures the composition to showcase both the sitter and her jewelry? She does it through a very interesting device. You’re drawn to her face and hair, and the red of her lips. Then you have the very vertical line of her arm, drawing your eye down to her other hand, and the red in her nails. If you drew a straight line from the center of her lips, you’d land on the light in her ring. It’s very clever.

Does this work represent the only time that Marjorie Ferry appears in a painting by Tamara de Lempicka? Yes. It was a one-off commission. The only people she paints a number of times are her family or her lovers.

What do we know about how Tamara de Lempicka worked? Would she have had Marjorie Ferry pose in her studio, or would she have shot photographs of her and worked from those? The balance of probability is Ferry sat for the portrait in an old-fashioned sense. The background is very much in line with the design of the artist’s studio in Paris. It wasn’t exactly like this, but it was a very stripped-down steel interior with lots of reflections.

De Lempicka described her style of painting as “clean”, and credited her style with her success. Could you talk about what she meant when she said “clean”? In this work, the “clean” aspect is around the simplicity of it, a fundamental focus on the sitter and the simplistic background. It’s a stripped-back, minimalist aesthetic, both in the backgrounds and in the way she paints her figures. This work has a very flat surface, but the variation is all in the color and the paint, not in the surface. You can see the link between this and photography.

I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say you see the link between this and photography. It’s not going out of its way to look like a painting. It’s not painting for painting’s sake. It’s more about the subject and the use of light and dark rather than the physical surface of the painting.

A story about Tamara de Lempicka on the Christie’s website describes her work as “conspicuously luxurious pictures for conspicuously luxurious times”. Do you agree? What, in your opinion, makes them “conspicuously luxurious”? The look of the fabric, the dresses you see on the sitters–it’s a very luxurious, satin type of fabric. It creates a very luxurious feeling. And the ring Ferry has, the perfect nails, the perfect hair, it very much illustrates the wealth of the time.

And it’s very Old Masters-y to revel in the details of luxurious fabrics… Exactly. It goes back to the Medicis, and commissioning portraits as status symbols.

What’s the painting like in person? Are there any aspects that the camera fails to pick up? Not really. I think it’s incredibly striking in person. It feels almost lifelike, life-size. When it’s on the wall, you appreciate the incredible shades of light and dark.

What’s your favorite detail of this painting? It’s her hand with the ring and the nails, because it’s very much an intrinsic part of the story of the picture, the sitter, and the fiance. And one of the hardest things for artists to do is to paint hands, and Tamara de Lempicka paints hands incredibly well. She’s drawing attention to her prowess.

No fear. It’s very much in your face, “Look how good I am”. She wants to be compared to the Old Masters in terms of technical ability.

In 2018, Christie’s sold the artist’s La Musicienne for a record price. Last November, Sotheby’s sold La Tunique Rose for a new record. Is it a coincidence that the record for a work by Tamara de Lempicka has broken twice in the span of 18 months, or do the sales represent an acceleration in her market? We often find strong prices when we bring other works by the artist to market. There is that result we had in 2018, which was a record then. When you achieve a record for the artist, the market talks about the artist. Maybe it started people thinking more about Tamara de Lempicka. What’s nice is a lot of her works are in private collections. Clients see the price and think about parting with a certain painting.

How does Portrait de Marjorie Ferry compare to the two recent record-holders? I know it once held the world auction record for a Tamara de Lempicka work… It held the record for one day, and it was broken the following night by Portrait of Madame M. But I think it’s very comparable to both of them in terms of quality, technique, and composition, and arguably more comparable to the 1929 work [La Musicienne], which has the second highest price. Her style evolves. In 1927, she wasn’t quite at her peak, but in 1929, she was absolutely at her peak in terms of style.

How long has Tamara de Lempicka been a feature of Impressionist and Modern evening sales? Is that recent? It goes back a long way. We had a strong piece in an evening sale in 2004 and others in 2006. What’s different here is we featured Portrait de Marjorie Ferry on the cover, and that’s the first time a female artist has been on the cover of the catalog for an Impressionist and Modern evening sale [at Christie’s London]. Everyone is saying how incredible it is as a catalog cover.

Is Portrait de Marjorie Ferry the first work by Tamara de Lempicka with an estimate that edges into the double-digit millions? Yes. The one that made a big price in New York [La Tunique Rose] had an estimate of $6 million to $8 million, and before that [La Musicienne] was $6 million to $8 million. This one is £8 million to £12 million, very much the highest starting price for the artist.

What are the odds that Portrait de Marjorie Ferry will break the record on February 5? All I would say is it has a very good chance.

Why will this painting stick in your memory? I like it because it has a very strong… almost insight into the strength of her [Ferry’s] personality. She looks directly at you, and she has grey eyes, which tie into the greys in her clothes and in the background. And I’m proud to be somebody who put a female artist on our cover.

How to bid: Tamara de Lempicka’s Portrait de Marjorie Ferry is lot 8 in the Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale taking place at Christie’s London on February 5, 2020.

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Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

Gill also speaks in an article about Tamara de Lempicka on the Christie’s site.

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A Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Pot with Cover Could Command $50,000 (Updated February 17)

A Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey Pot with cover, shown in full, with the four ghost figures at the center.

Update: The Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover sold for $18,750.

What you see: A Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover, standing 13 inches tall and produced sometime in the 1920s. Skinner estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.

The expert: Stuart Slavid, director of fine ceramics and senior vice president at Skinner.

Let’s start by talking about what Fairyland Lustre is, and how it came to be. I have to say–if I didn’t know it was Wedgwood, I’d never guess it was by them… Wedgwood, for a long time, was traditionalist. They made things that were classical designs, and they never stopped. Fairyland Lustre was beyond anything designed by Wedgwood, and it came from Daisy Makeig-Jones.

Who was Daisy Makeig-Jones? She was enthralled with nursery rhymes and fairy tales from a young age. She read them to her siblings, and they stuck with her. When she went to Wedgwood, she was pretty old for an apprentice. She started at 28, when most started at 14 or 15. She worked her way up through the ranks to become a designer, a position not held by a woman.

How did Daisy Makeig-Jones convince Wedgwood, which built its reputation on classical-looking ceramics, to produce the Fairyland Lustre line? She didn’t have to sell them on it. She only had to sell it to the art director, John Goodwin, who gave her her own studio. Fairyland Lustre was a new line that brought Wedgwood into the 20th century. It was a good cash cow as long as it lasted.

Are there technical advances that happened around 1915 that allowed Wedgwood to make the Fairyland Lustre line, or was Wedgwood able to realize it with the tools and techniques they already had? Fairyland Lustre was totally Daisy Makeig-Jones’s vision, and she realized it. Wedgwood hadn’t done anything like it before. It was quite revolutionary at the time. I toured the Wedgwood factory in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and I asked the head potter, “Why can’t you make Fairyland Lustre today with the technology you used to make it in the 1920s?” Wedgwood had tried [to revive the line] in the 1970s and it came out flat. He said, “Because we can’t use lead.” The lead in the glaze gave it its iridescence.

What was the reaction to the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre line when it debuted in 1915? Was it a hit right away? It was, but it was the ordinary lustrewares that were a hit, not the Fairyland Lustre. It wasn’t because of the beauty of it, but the price point. It would cost the average English person a month’s wages for a piece of Fairyland Lustre. Fast-forward to today, and the Fairyland Lustre price point is much higher than the ordinary lustrewares.

I take it, then, that fewer pieces of Fairyland Lustre sold when it was new? I might love a Ferrari, but I’m happy with a Toyota.

How many different types of Fairyland Lustre did Wedgwood make? There are three types. The first is the ordinary lustreware, with butterflies, birds, and dragons on it. The second is the Fairyland Lustre, which has fairies on it. The third is unknown, or other–designs within the line that have animals or something else on it, but are not ordinary.

I came across a description of a type of Fairyland Lustre as being “true” Fairyland Lustre. Which of the three types is the “true” Fairyland Lustre? It’s the second. There were a number of books Daisy used as influences. Some that she read to her siblings gave her inspiration.

…books illustrated by Arthur Rackham? Absolutely. And there was a whole series of fairy books by Andrew Lang that were published between 1890 and 1910, when Daisy was old enough to be the eldest sister [and read to her younger siblings].

And through the 15-odd years of the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre line’s existence, it was entirely the vision of Daisy Makeig-Jones? All are her designs. Some are signed and some are not. She could not possibly have done them all, but she is credited with them all.

Do we have any numbers on how many pieces of Fairyland Lustre Wedgwood made? I imagine they made more of the ordinary lustrewares… You’re probably correct, but there are no numbers on that. It’s hard to date Fairyland Lustre because so many of the designs were re-used for as many as 15 years. When Fairyland Lustre [the true Fairyland Lustre] arrived in 1916, there were as many as 62 variations.

Wedgwood discontinued the Fairyland Lustre line around 1929 or so. Why? The art director changed, and tastes changed. And it was right after the stock market crash. When [the new art director] called Daisy Makeig-Jones into his office to fire her, she continued to work. A short time later, Wedgwood discontinued most of the Fairyland Lustre patterns. She went back to her studio and smashed all the molds and instructed the staff to destroy the remaining stock. She left the factory and was never heard from again.

She didn’t try to launch her own studio after Wedgwood fired her? Daisy Makeig-Jones was an odd lady, and a heavy smoker. My favorite story about her is she had a kiln in her office, not for ceramics, but for making grilled cheese sandwiches. She died in 1945. She was only 63.

The piece I’m focusing on is a Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover. What scene do we see depicted on the piece? Is there a narrative? It depicts a land of illusion adapted from the legend of croquemitaine–a bogeyman. But if you read the story, you don’t know how [the scene on the Wedgwood piece] got from point A to point B. The translation of the story to the design makes no sense. [Makeig-Jones] may have gotten inspiration from the croquemitaine story, but there’s a rabbit at the bottom of the piece [look at the lower right] that’s running to Alice in Wonderland.

The piece is described as being a Malfrey pot with cover. What is that, exactly? A Malfrey pot, in our terms, is like a covered ginger jar. Sometimes it’s round, sometimes it’s oval, sometimes it’s vertical, but there’s always a domed cover on it.

And the four robed figures are the ghosts? Yes.

I only have one photograph of the piece. Does the design repeat on the other side? All Fairyland Lustre decorations cover all sides. I’m pretty sure the same scene is on the other side.

What’s your favorite detail of the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods piece? Probably the figures. They don’t show up on any other Wedgwood designs. They’re not scary ghosts–they’re just kind of fun.

What are the four ghosts carrying? Torches? Maybe, but our guess as to what they’re carrying–we interpret it the way we want to interpret it. At the top [above the ghosts] there’s a thing that looks like a big bat, but it’s actually a Roc bird.

I think I see a face in the tree on the right… You see all sorts of funny things like that [in Fairyland Lustre scenes]. At the bottom, there’s a huge toad in gold, right at the front.

What do we know about how the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods piece might have been made? It was printed [a print transfer was applied to the blank shape], then it was hand-painted over the print. Fairyland Lustre pieces [could go to] the kiln as many as five times. It was quite a process. It certainly wasn’t done in a day. The gilding was the last step.

Did Fairyland Lustre go through a period when it was unfashionable with collectors, or has it always been sought-after? When it was first produced, it was quite successful. You don’t produce it for 15 years unless it does well at the time. In terms of collecting, Fairyland Lustre didn’t become popular until the 1960s and 1970s. Wedgwood collectors had to be students of the 18th century. Not until the next generation came along and opened their eyes to the wider world of Wedgwood did they collect Fairyland Lustre as well.

Which group is bigger nowadays–the group of collectors who are only interested in Fairyland Lustre, or the group of collectors who are broadly interested in Wedgwood? The ones who are interested in Wedgwood A to Z, because there’s 260 years of production. People who only collect Fairyland Lustre have only 15 years of production. But at some point, someone is going to tell their story.

I count 14 pieces of Fairyland Lustre in the upcoming Skinner sale. Is it unusual to have so many? Are they all from the same consigner? No, they are two collections. We might have two, three, four, five pieces in a sale. This is a nice showing of Fairyland Lustre and should be a nice barometer of the market today. These pieces, and the magnitude of these pieces, will bring some [additional examples of Fairyland Lustre] out of the woodwork.

How often does a Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Malfrey pot with cover and a Ghostly Woods theme come to auction? This is at least the second one, and it might be the same one [the two recorded auction appearances might belong to this example]. It doesn’t show up very often.

What’s the world auction record for a piece of Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre? I don’t know what the record is, but no one sells more or has sold more Wedgwood than I have. In the time I’ve been at Skinner, the most expensive piece of Fairyland Lustre we’ve sold was a Temple on a Rock vase and cover that got $61,500 on an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000 last July. [A second Temple on the Rock vase and cover appears in the upcoming sale, estimated at $30,000 to $50,000.]

Does that healthy July 2019 result indicate an acceleration in the market for Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre, or is it a coincidence? There’s an acceleration at the high end with the true Fairyland Lustre. It was the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that got the Temple on a Rock vase and cover, but someone had to underbid it. [As of January 2020, the MFA Boston hasn’t included the acquisition in their online database.]

What is the piece like in person? It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like it, it’s amazing. If you look at Fairyland Lustre, you think it can’t possibly be Wedgwood. It’s wonderful. It’s the thing dreams are made of.

Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? The photographer did a really good job showing the colors and the iridescence of the thing. It’s a photographer’s nightmare to shoot this stuff. Because it’s so shiny and lustrous, it reflects off everything in the room. It really is a very difficult thing to shoot.

What condition is it in? It’s in tremendous condition. It has its original cover, and that makes a huge difference. The covers tend to slide off. It [the design of the ceramic piece] doesn’t have an inside rim. There’s nothing to secure it. If you’re carrying it across a room, you’d better be careful. The first thing to look for is if the cover has been repaired. This one has not.

Why will this piece of Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre stick in your memory? It’s one of my favorite subjects. There are so many Fairyland Lustre subjects, but they’re kind of redundant–fairies in the woods. Ghostly Woods, you don’t see it. The patterns you don’t see are much more interesting than the patterns you see often.

How to bid: The Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre Ghostly Woods Malfrey pot with cover is lot 365 in the European Furniture & Decorative Arts auction at Skinner on February 14, 2020. 

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An Irene Clark Painting Shown in Ebony Magazine Could Sell For $7,000 (Updated January 31: RECORD!)

Mansion on Prairie Avenue, a mid-20th century painting by African-American artist Irene Clark. A similar work by the same artist is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Update: Mansion on Prairie Avenue sold for $30,000–more than four times its high estimate, and a new world auction record for the artist.

What you see: Mansion on Prairie Avenue, a mid-century oil on masonite board by Irene V. Clark. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.

The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.

Let’s start by talking about Irene Clark–who she was, and why she’s still collected today. She’s an interesting artist. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was a modern painter at the time when there were few African-American women painters. She was interested in embracing different kinds of imagery and subject matter and embracing the African-American experience.

Was Irene Clark prolific? And do we know how many works she did with a mansion theme? This is a subject she did a number of versions of, but I don’t think it’s a series, in that those I’ve seen are the same subject. It was an interesting subject for her. If you like painting your dog and you keep painting your dog, that doesn’t mean you do dog portraits. Her other work is a little different, usually an isolated figure or a mask on a background. We know this painting is important to her because the other versions are well-known.

But as far as numbers go, do we have an idea of how many artworks Irene Clark produced? I don’t know. I don’t see her work that often. She had a long career, but her market is quite small. She’s had less than 20 works at auction. Most are paintings on wood or paper, in a similar size and format.

And the number of Irene Clark mansion works? I’ve seen two others and this one. The one in the Art Institute of Chicago is almost identical [to the one on offer at Swann]. They are very similar, but not identical. She’s revisiting the subject, not just copying it.

Did Irene Clark start painting mansion works while she was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, or did they come later? I believe they were done in the 1950s and 1960s, after her Works Progress Administration period. The one in the Art Institute of Chicago collection is circa 1955. I don’t know exactly when these were painted. They’re not dated. [The one offered at Swann has a circa date range of 1955 and 1962, and the one in the museum is circa 1955.]

Is Irene Clark best known for her mansion paintings? I think the best way to put it is because one’s in the Art Institute of Chicago and the other is in Cedric Dover’s book American Negro Art, yes, it’s probably her best known subject.

What makes Irene Clark’s mansions a compelling subject for an artwork? They show how the neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago were changing. With the Great Migration, the neighborhoods of 19th century mansions changed and became predominantly African-American.

Are the people Irene Clark shows in the windows and in front of the mansion specific characters that appear in every mansion painting? No, they’re a general kind of idea. The South Side of Chicago, with its big stone buildings, was kind of a historic district. They were built for rich white families in the 19th century. Now, African-Americans live there. She’s reflecting on that in the picture. She’s relating it to the African-American experience on the South Side of Chicago.

Is the mansion recognizable as a specific South Side Chicago mansion, or is it a fanciful invention of hers? It’s probably just a fanciful version. It’s just the idea of a mansion in the neighborhood and the people who live there. I guess it could have been done from a sketch, but it’s probably the artist’s interpretation. It seems very much her own. It’s playful and fanciful, with everybody in the windows. It’s her artistic license.

What is the Irene Clark painting like in person? It has a fair amount of texture. It’s painted on wood, and has an underlying solidity. It has texture and weight to it. I think the image gives a good sense of what it looks like in person.

Would the Johnson Publishing Company have commissioned this mansion painting from Irene Clark? I’m not aware of any direct commission, but I don’t have a lot of information. I can’t really say. My feeling is they would have been able to acquire work from the artist if they wanted to, but I don’t know where it was acquired.

I ask because I see in the lot notes that the painting was pictured in a December 1973 issue of Ebony, which was the company’s flagship magazine. Yes, it was illustrated in a later magazine. They were publicizing the [art] collection in the 1970s after the building had opened [at 820 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 1971; in 2017, the city of Chicago declared it as a local landmark.] I’m quite positive it was acquired directly from the artist. A lot of artists were contacted directly for works for the collection, but I don’t have documentation.

How often do Irene Clark works come up at auction? Maybe one every couple of years. There haven’t been many. It depends on the year. It’s infrequent.

What’s the world auction record for an Irene Clark? It was set two years ago at Ripley Auctions in Indianapolis. It was called South Chicago Scene and it sold for $4,750.

So if Mansion on Prairie Avenue sells for its low estimate, that will be a new auction record for Irene Clark. Right.

What are the odds of that happening? I think it will do well for a couple of reasons. It’s a well-known subject of hers. It’s known within the collection because it was featured in Ebony. It’s a good representation of the African-American experience in Chicago. It ticks the boxes.

Is everything in the Johnson Publishing Company sale fresh to market–nothing has appeared at auction before? They did acquire works from galleries and dealers. I don’t believe any works were acquired at auction. Many of these artists, especially works from the 1970s, were acquired directly, and many are new to auction or have few auction records. I think 25 artists [represented] in this collection don’t have auction records.

Wow. I imagine you haven’t had that many debut artists in one sale since you founded the African-American art department at Swann in 2006. That’s right. I wrote a lot of biographical information for this sale. It’s a great collection, because it brings together well-known, important African-American artists across the country.

But I imagine there will be a lot of competition for this Irene Clark work because of its strong Chicago connection? It definitely appeals to collectors of Chicago art and Chicago artists, and it appeals to people who collect early African-American art, and people who known the Johnson Publishing Company collection and know the importance of the company. It will resonate with different types of collectors.

Why will this Irene Clark work stick in your memory? It’s definitely a significant work by her. It speaks to her work, and it’s something that meant a lot to her. It’s very similar to the work in the Art Institute of Chicago. If it’s good enough for an institution, I think it will be sought-after by many collectors. It’s a fascinating subject, and I think it will resonate with people.

How to bid: Mansion on Prairie Avenue by Irene Clark is lot 12 in the January 30, 2020 sale of African-American Art from the Johnson Publishing Company at Swann Auction Galleries.

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Nigel Freeman spoke to The Hot Bid previously about an Elizabeth Catlett sculpture that went on to set a new world auction record for the artist; an Emma Amos mixed-media work that ultimately sold for an auction record for the artist;  a set of Emperor Jones prints by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglasa story quilt that Oprah Winfrey commissioned Faith Ringgold to make about Dr. Maya Angelouan Elizabeth Catlett painting, and a Sargent Johnson copper mask

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

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Special Note: RIP Terry Jones

In March 1987, I was fourteen years old and obsessed with Monty Python.

I learned about the existence of fanzines and decided I wanted to do one about the British comedy troupe.

I have no idea why I thought it would work, but I dialed the London phone directory, or operator, or whatever body helped you locate London phone numbers back then, and asked for the number for Terry Jones.

He was listed.

I sat there holding a piece of paper with the numbers on it for a bit. I dialed.

He answered.

I did not die of a heart attack.

I told him, in what I am certain must have been a high-pitched, terrified voice while rushing my words, that I wanted to start a Monty Python fanzine, and asked for his help.

He did not flinch. He did not slam the phone into its cradle. He did not tell me off. Instead, he volunteered the phone number for what was then the main Python office and gave me a specific name to ask for.

A few months later, I started my zine. I ran it for five years.

When I came to London at age seventeen, he was one of the three Pythons who were in the city at the time and invited me to visit them in their homes. (The others were Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam.)

He was never anything less than 100 percent supportive and kindly toward me. Never.

If I hadn’t started that Python fanzine as a teenager, I would not be where I am today–no question.

And I could not have started the fanzine without Terry Jones’s spontaneous and unhesitant act of kindness, bestowed on a weird American girl he had never met, who cold-called him at home and breathlessly asked for his help.

RIP, Terry, and thank you, for everything.

Here’s the BBC story about Jones’s death. If his family announces plans for a public celebration of his life, I’ll update this post with the news.

An Alexander: The Man Who Knows Poster Could Command $1,500 (Updated Jan 28)

Alexander: The Man Who Knows, an eight-sheet vintage poster printed circa 1915 to tout the act of Alexander, an American performer who claimed to read minds.

Update: The circa 1915 Alexander, The Man Who Knows poster sold for $1,560.

What you see: A circa 1915 poster touting Alexander, The Man Who Knows. It measures 108 inches by 80 1/2 inches. Potter & Potter estimates the oversize vintage poster at $1,000 to $1,500.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

Let’s start by talking about Alexander–who he was, where he performed, and where he was in his career around 1915, when this poster was printed. He was at the peak of his powers. He was an American, no real city of birth, but a west coaster. I don’t believe he ever performed outside the U.S., but he certainly traveled across the U.S. over his career.

I understand that Alexander was a mentalist. Could you explain the difference between a magician and a mentalist? He did also do magic tricks. The thing that set him apart from other people was his ability to apparently read minds in such a believable way. He would answer questions people would write down and seal in an envelope–some deeply personal, some frivolous. It set him apart from other people who did the same kinds of tricks.

And the turban Alexander wears in the poster was part of his costume? It was also integral to his act. It was built for him for his mentalism routine. There were mechanical devices in the turban that he used to communicate with his assistants offstage. It was a way for backstage assistants to whisper in his ear. This was in the teens, the 20s, probably back a little further than that. It was pre-radio, a combination of induction coils and telephone technology. David Copperfield has the turban now on display in his place in Las Vegas. [While it doesn’t show the Alexander turban, this video gives a decent overview of Copperfield’s private museum.]

So Alexander was best known for answering questions from his audience? Hence “Alexander: The Man Who Knows”? The Q & A was one of his trademark routines. A dozen or a hundred people would write a question they were seeking an answer to. Without opening and reading the envelope, Alexander would answer the question and reveal personal details of the people in the audience. He’d give their names, the number of children they had, their address, and he’d answer the question in the envelope. [Only after we spoke did it occur to me that Johnny Carson must have been riffing off of Alexander with his “Carnac the Magnificent” routine on The Tonight Show.]

And I take it Alexander relied on his assistants to relay that information through the devices in the turban? It was more complicated than that. He used everything in his arsenal to acquire and deliver information. The material he was best known for made people believe he could actually read your mind.

Did Alexander use cold reading and hot reading? Yes, I would say that’s fair. I imagine there was a combination of the two. Probably a lot of hot reading.

I read the Wikipedia entry on Alexander and it seems pretty outlandish–killing four men? Marrying between seven to fourteen times? Escapes from jail? What information do we have about him that can be trusted? There’s a wonderful biography written by a man named David Charvet that draws on sources including diaries. David’s book is the final word on Alexander’s story. Killing four men… I’m not sure that’s ever been proven. Tax evasion, there are public records as far as that kind of thing. Polyamorous lifestyle, there’s not much doubt about that. Certainly his theatrical successes are provable. His is a tantalizing story and a lot is verifiable. Can I prove he murdered people? No. Can I prove he was an opportunist? Yeah.

Why is Alexander: The Man Who Knows such a powerful poster? I think it’s the striking simplicity of the design. His eyes follow you. It leaves open a lot of room for interpretation. It’s tantalizing as a stand-alone object. It grabs your attention. It’s still doing its job more than 100 years later.

And I take it Alexander is best known today for these Alexander: The Man Who Knows posters, and not the substance of his act? 100 percent. No one knows who this guy was in the real world. His biography is great, but it was never on the best-seller list.

How involved would he have been in the design of this Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster? He was probably intimately involved. If he was so involved as to modify the name of the printer to something more theatrical, he was probably involved in the design.

The “Av Yaga Bombay” tag is in the lower right corner of the poster.

Alexander modified the name of the printer to something more theatrical? All his posters bear the mark of Av Yaga, a phony printing company in Bombay. No one has been able to determine who printed the poster. He did it [invented Av Yaga] to deliberately create a mystic aura of the east around him.

To extend the illusion? Yeah. He’s a gringo, but he’s wearing a turban and pretending to be privy to the secrets of the ages. This guy’s life should be a movie.

This Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster is big–108 inches by 80 1/2 inches. Where would it have been displayed? On the side of a building. Probably more than one poster if the bill poster had space. I’ve often wanted to buy one of these to put it up on the side of a building.

I don’t see a blank band on the top or the bottom of the Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster to tell people the venue and the dates of his performance. How did local promoters tell people when and where Alexander would appear? Occasionally they would overprint the theater and the date on posters like this one. Or the theater and the date would be posted adjacent to it.

Usually, with desirable vintage posters, only a few examples survive in varying states of condition. I understand that’s not the case with Alexander posters. Could you explain what happened? When Alexander retired, he was still a relatively young man. He sold his entire show to a man, Robert Nelson. A truck showed up at Nelson’s house and he thought it was a done deal. Then a second truck showed up with unused posters. Reportedly, there were several tons of paper. For years, he was selling posters, and eventually, they found their way into the hands of poster dealers.

Was there only this red background style of Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster, or were there others? There were many different varieties. There were probably more of the red one-sheet size than most others.

The one we’re discussing is the red eight-sheet version. How rare is that? It’s less common. I’ve only had two or three in 12 years.

What condition is it in? A. About as good as it gets for a poster this size.

Is it in better condition than the other examples you’ve handled? Actually, yes.

What’s the world auction record for an Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster? For a one-sheet, I don’t remember. We sold a unique signed window card in December 2017 for $15,600. I think, because of its size, most collectors will stay away from it [this example], but I hope I’m proven wrong.

What is the Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster like in person? Almost overwhelming. Definitely hard to avoid. It’d be great in a bowling alley or a restaurant that has vibrant ambience. It’s kind of a traffic stopper.

Why will this poster stick in your memory? His life should be a movie. He was a bootlegger, a tax-evader, a bigamist, a mentalist, the list goes on and on. And it’s a great poster with a great aesthetic. Alexander understood how to sell the sizzle and the steak.

How to bid: The oversize Alexander: The Man Who Knows poster is lot 538 in the Vintage Posters sale taking place at Potter & Potter on January 25, 2020.

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Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter. 

Gabe Fajuri has appeared on The Hot Bid many times. He’s talked about a Daisy and Violet Hilton poster from the conjoined twins’ vaudeville years, an impressive talking skull automaton that went on to sell for $13,200,  a magician automaton that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, a rare book from the creator of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion,  a Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout–a device for cheating at cards–which sold for $9,000a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.

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Afghan Girl, an Iconic Photograph by Steve McCurry, Could Sell for $9,000

Afghan Girl (Sharbat Gula), a portrait of a young refugee shot in 1985 by Steve McCurry for National Geographic. A large print of the iconic image could sell at Skinner for $9,000.

What you see: Afghan Girl, an image shot by American photographer Steve McCurry in 1984 of a 12- or 13-year-old girl later identified as Sharbat Gula. It appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic magazine. Skinner estimates a photographic print of the image at $7,000 to $9,000.

The expert: Robin S. R. Starr, director of American and European Works of Art at Skinner.

So let’s begin by talking about how this photo came to be–who shot it, how the photographer got the opportunity to shoot it, etc. Steve McCurry started out as a documentary photographer and a photojournalist. In the late 1970s, he was certainly known, but not with an uppercase K, for becoming the go-to guy photographing in the region on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And this particular photo arose from one of those assignments? In 1984, National Geographic wanted to put together a feature article on the growing number of refugees in the camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and they approached him to do it. In the process of touring one camp, Nasir Bagh, he was looking for a subject and overheard voices in a tent that was set up as a girls’ school. Sitting in the tent was a stunning girl with amazing green eyes. She was the oldest [student], off by herself, and shy. She was 12 years old.

How did Steve McCurry get the shot? He came into the tent, spoke to the teacher, and asked for permission to photograph the students. He wanted the girl because of her green eyes, which were so amazing, but he started with other students in hopes she would loosen up. The kids had never seen a camera before. It was all new to them.

Did McCurry know right away what he had, or did he only realize it later? He knew that intense look was something he was looking for, but it wasn’t until he went through the images back home that he realized how striking and amazing the photograph was.

And I understand that National Geographic nearly went with a different McCurry shot of the same sitter? National Geographic went back and forth on which shot to use–you can see the other, which is her holding her veil in front of her face. They realized this was so much more striking, they went with it instead on the cover.

Might part of the reason that Afghan Girl is so compelling is the sitter did not grow up with a camera, and had never seen a camera before? Sure, that was part of it. I certainly suspect she hadn’t seen a lot of white guys, and she was of an age when she [as a Muslim] was supposed to be covering up in front of strangers. She might have been uncomfortable uncovering for a foreigner with a strange contraption.

Steve McCurry has shot countless photographs. Is it fair to say that Afghan Girl is his best-known image? Absolutely. Absolutely. You may not know Steve McCurry, but you know this image.

Afghan Girl has been described as the “most recognized image” ever published by National Geographic. Can you talk about why that’s such a big deal? I mean, it’s the last survivor among the photo-driven magazines of the 20th century, such as Look and LifeThat’s huge. I’m a big fan of National Geographic. I love the articles, and love learning about new places, new cultures, new things, but it’s the images. They’ve had some really phenomenal photographs over the years. They’re timeless.

Did McCurry make note of the sitter’s name at the time? No, he did not know her name. I don’t think he was in the tent for more than an hour.

How did he and National Geographic figure out who the Afghan girl was? After the September 11 attacks, National Geographic wanted to send a TV crew to find her.

Wait, how are the September 11 attacks relevant to National Geographic wanting to find her? Wouldn’t they have gotten enough questions from people asking who she was and them having to say “no idea” that they were moved to try to track her down? I think it was some of both. They wanted to know who she was, and Afghanistan was in the news again–do we attack? Do we not attack?

So National Geographic wanted to cover Afghanistan, and they saw the search for the Afghan girl as a way to approach the story. Exactly. In finding her, they could see what the Afghan people had been through.

How did they find her? McCurry knew which camp she had been in, and some of the camps were still there. Nasir Bagh still existed in 2002, but it was due to be demolished. The film crew went around with her picture, asking, “Do you know her?” A lot of people claimed to know her, and some claimed to be her. Finally somebody who had been associated with the camp said, “I know her brother.” They put the film crew in touch with the brother, who united them.

What happened when the National Geographic crew met the sitter, who we now know is Sharbat Gula? She remembered being photographed, but had never seen the picture. She had no idea it was world famous. They had another photo shoot, very quick, and she agreed to uncover. She was wearing a purple burka and held a copy of the original magazine in her hands.

How did the Afghan Girl photo change the life of Steve McCurry? It put him on the map. I can’t imagine how it changed his life in terms of jobs, grants, and funding. Anybody can take a picture of the downtrodden, but to take it well, with humanity and dignity–that’s hard. Steve McCurry can do it. Not many people can.

How did the Afghan Girl photo change the life of Sharbat Gula? It didn’t affect her life much at all until she was told, 20 years later, that the image was world-famous. Then, all of a sudden, it changed her life. In the aftermath of the second meeting, Steve McCurry wanted to help her family. She lived in a really dangerous area on the Afghan-Pakistani border. He and National Geographic got medication for her, her husband, and her children, and paid for her and her husband to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. National Geographic also created a fund, the Afghan Girls Fund, that provided education to girls and women. Later it was changed to the Afghan Children’s Fund. I think it still exists.

When was the Afghan Girl image released as a fine photographic print? It’s an open edition [this means Afghan Girl prints are available now, and there’s no explicit limit on the total number that may be produced during McCurry’s lifetime]. I know some were printed in the late 1980s or early 1990s. There have been lots of printings.

So it appears fairly often at auction? If it doesn’t come up today, wait until tomorrow. I think Artnet has 115 results. It’s not rare, and it’s not getting more rare.

What’s the world auction record for an Afghan Girl print? It was a unique dye-bleach print made in 2012, measuring 33 by 22 inches–quite large. It was sold in 2012 at a Christie’s auction called The National Geographic Collection: The Art of Exploration. It brought $178,900.

Steve McCurry signed the Afghan Girl print you’re offering for sale. Does that matter? I would be concerned if it didn’t have a signature. It doesn’t make it more valuable, it makes it valid.

What’s the image like in person? Are there aspects of the photograph that don’t come across on a screen? And I imagine it has to be different from seeing it on a magazine cover. One thing is the scale, obviously. Looking at it at 20 inches tall is different than looking at it on a phone or a computer screen. It’s life size. When someone life size is staring directly at you, it’s compelling. You pick up on the flecks of white in her scarf, and get a sense of the depth of her hair. Also, some people who claimed to be her didn’t have the scar–she has a dark mark down the middle of her nose. [If you’re not looking at a large print of the image,] You don’t pick up on that otherwise.

In January 2019, Skinner sold an Afghan Girl print of the same size for $19,680 against an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. How does this example compare to that one? It’s very similar. They’re the same size, and both were signed on the back. More specifically, the provenance to it [the 2019 example] was from the Howard Greenberg Gallery. Outside of that, there’s not a lot of difference.

What makes Afghan Girl such a strong image? It’s such a perfect picture of a refugee. Her clothes are ragged, and there’s no obvious Hollywood smudge of dirt on her face, but she doesn’t look airbrushed. There’s a lot within those young eyes–her gaze is direct and unflinching, and a little frightened and curious. It’s such a riveting face. How could it not attract the attention of those who want to know what’s going on with the Afghan people? …No one image can sum up a moment. Some get pretty damn close. This is one of them. It’s beautiful and so striking. That’s why it speaks to so many people.

In particular, what makes Afghan Girl such a strong photographic portrait? There are so many emotions in her face. I think that’s it, in a nutshell. We don’t look at that face and say, “She’s angry, end of story”, or “she’s happy” or “she’s innocent”. That complexity of emotions is what makes people human and real. That striking, perceptive gaze makes her so present, and so real.

How to bid: The Afghan Girl photograph is lot 135 in the American & European Works of Art sale at Skinner on January 23, 2020.

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

Robin S. R. Starr first appeared on The Hot Bid discussing a record-setting painting by Florine Stettheimer.

You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram.

Steve McCurry has a website. He’s also on Instagram.

Images are courtesy of Skinner.

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

A Bill Traylor Work at Christie’s Could Set a Record for the Artist–THB Bonus from Art & Object

A double-sided work by the late Outsider artist, Bill Traylor. Above is Man on White, Woman on Red, and below is Man with Black Dog. The unusual piece could set a new world auction record for the artist in January 2020.

See my piece in Art & Object on an unusually large double-sided work by Bill Traylor that might set a new world auction record for the late Outsider artist. Christie’s will offer it on January 17 in New York with an estimate of $200,000 to $400,000.

Director Steven Spielberg gave it to Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, after he completed a film based on the book.

Art & Object is on Twitter and Instagram.


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

The Future of Auctions, a THB Bonus from the January 2020 Issue of Robb Report

The January 2020 issue of Robb Report includes a story by me on the future of auctions.

Today’s collectors are more likely to experience the rush of their first auction win in front of a screen or holding a phone instead of raising a paddle in a sale room.

What does that mean for the auction world?

Is the sale room doomed?

And could a digital-only auction house someday dethrone Christie’s or Sotheby’s?

See what I have to say.

Robb Report is the premier luxury lifestyle magazine. I encourage you to subscribe.

Robb Report is, of course, on Twitter and Instagram.

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

Two Pedro Friedeberg Hand Chairs Could Each Sell for $9,000 (Updated January 24, 2020)

Update: Both of the Pedro Friedeberg Hand chairs sold for at least double their high estimates. The unadorned mahogany example commanded $18,750, and the silver leaf version sold for $23,750.

What you see: A Hand chair, covered in silver leaf and designed by Mexican artist Pedro Friedeberg. Shown further along in this story is a second Hand chair in unadorned mahogany. Both chairs date to circa 1965, both will be offered at Rago in the same auction, and each carries an estimate of $7,000 to $9,000.

The expert: Richard Wright, president of Wright auction house. [Rago and Wright merged in 2019.]

Who is Pedro Friedeberg, and why is his work still collected today? He’s a self-styled eccentric and a surrealist. I should say–I’ve never met him, and I’m not an expert on Pedro Friedeberg, but I’ve handled a good bit of his work and referenced his website and his statements. He comes off as a 21st century Dalí. He’s proudly eccentric. That seems to be his brand.

Would the Hand chair be Friedeberg’s best-known work? I think that’s fair to say. It’s his most widely produced.

Do we know how he came up with the idea of the Hand chair? I don’t know that, but to me, his art is all about… if you look at Surrealism, Salvador Dalí does the Lips sofa in the 1930s and reintroduces it in the 1960s. A bit of a Pop sensibility comes to Surrealism in the 1960s. There’s a body consciousness. The Hand is evocative. It draws on motifs that appear earlier in his work. You can make an art-historical case that there’s threads of it in Mexican fine art, in Frida Kahlo, and Catholic iconography.

Yeah, the Hand chair strikes me as having a sort of retablo feel to it. Exactly. I’m sure Friedeberg would tell a fantastical story of how the Hand chair came to be. He could be an unreliable narrator.

You said the Hand chair draws on motifs that appear earlier in Friedeberg’s work. Could you elaborate? He has a fine art practice [as well as his design work]. The same surrealistic elements are in his painting–hands that point. I’m sure he was working with the motif in two-dimensional art before it manifested as a chair.

A Pedro Friedeberg Hand chair in unadorned mahogany, dating to circa 1965. It, too, could sell for $9,000 or more at Rago.

How is the Hand chair produced? Is it mass-produced, or is it created in a more artisanal manner, like studio furniture? It’s all studio-produced in Mexico. It’s not widely distributed, but he’s worked within the art gallery system. It’s not true production furniture. [Hand chairs produced] while he is alive are considered original Pedro Friedeberg furniture.

On the Wikipedia page for Pedro Friedeberg, there’s a reference to maybe 5,000 Hand chairs having been produced since the design debuted in 1962. Is that accurate? I can’t imagine there are 5,000 of them. In reading things that he writes, you have to take everything with a large grain of salt.

Even throwing in the Hand-Foot variants, we don’t get to 5,000? Even so, I think, based on what comes up in a year, 5,000 is a lot to be circulating.

What number do you think is more likely, based on your gut feeling? I would say–and there are a lot of variations–half that number.

How many variations of the Hand chair are there? And is the Hand-Foot chair considered a Hand chair? It’s considered a form of the Hand chair. There’s the Hand chair in natural wood, and with silver or gold leaf. There are at least two Hand-Foot variations: a single foot, and a cluster of feet.

Do collectors clearly prefer any one variation over the others? I don’t think it’s that rigorous a collecting mentality. They buy them because they’re cool, and they make a statement in a room, rather than buying them as a significant investment in a serious work of art. I don’t know if there’s a clear hierarchy. Gold and silver leaf is an upgrade from the standard wood–that feels true to me. Visually, I think the silver and the gold are nicest. The silver is rarer than the gold. It’s up to you which one you find more interesting.

Both these chairs are undated, but both have a circa date of 1965. What clues point to a relatively early date for the two Hand chairs? There’s not a ton of info out there. You can’t just send them [Pedro Friedeberg and his studio] infomation. There’s not an archivist to help you. These dates are based on facts that come from the consigners.

From the look of his website, having an archivist would be antithetical to Pedro Friedeberg’s brand… That seems to be apparent to me. [Laughs] He’s a fine artist who doesn’t want to work within the system. Friedeberg’s work floats outside of that.

And these two Hand chairs are from two different consigners? Yes.

Why does it make sense to have two versions of the same chair, made around the same time? Is it because they’re just different enough from each other? That was the thinking. There’s enough depth and interest in the market to have two, a wood and a silver. And they are opposing–a left-handed example and a right-handed example. You can take the two and put them next to each other to form a settee.

The silver leaf Hand chair is signed by Friedeberg and the plain mahogany one is not. Does that matter at all? Again, it comes down to… people are not approaching it as a fine art purchase, but as a decorative art purchase. The wood one is unsigned, but we have the provenance, which guarantees it’s original. The silver is signed. Obviously, it’s nice to have it signed.

Why do the two different Hand chairs have the same estimate? The silver variation is the better chair. In giving them a $7,000 to $9,000 estimate, we didn’t bother making the distinction to say that the silver chair is slightly rarer, and signed. It’s a more pragmatic decision, to think of it as a Hand chair.

What condition are the Hand chairs in? And what issues do you tend to see with vintage Hand chairs? Both are in good condition, and in general, they actually tend to be in good condition. The worst that happens, with the leaf examples, is scratching to the leaf. Hand chairs are lightly used, and if they’re cared for at all, they’re in good shape.

Have you sat in a Hand chair? What is that like? The seat is deeply carved. It does have a contour to make it practical to sit in. It’s great for the Instagram era. It’s theatrical. It’s not uncomfortable to sit in, but I wouldn’t put a suite of Hand chairs around a conference table to conduct meetings. [Laughs]

So, comfortable, but only just? They’re functional chairs, but you don’t sit in them often, or for very long. You may perch on one to put on your shoes, but you won’t watch a movie in a Hand chair.

What’s the world auction record for a Hand chair? It’s a gold, single Hand chair sold at Rago in September 2018 for $28,750 on a $6,000 to $8,000 estimate.

Is there any chance that the silver leaf Hand chair might take off like that record-setting gold leaf one did a little while ago? People buy these because they’re looking for a cool chair to make a statement. When Hand chairs do well, they’re bought by decorators or clients who use it as a punctuation mark in a room. [Whether a chair takes off at auction is] really driven by are there two people who really want that chair?

Has the Hand chair always been sought-after, or was there a time when it was considered unfashionable? It’s always been a chair that would garner your attention. It’s never been a chair that there’s no interest in. It’s pretty cool, but I think his market has risen and it looks better than it was in the 1990s. Friedeberg is well overdue for a proper retrospective. I’d love to see that happen while he’s alive, but I think it will be in the future. He fits in in an interesting way with the Surrealist Pop sensibility, and with motifs from Mexico. I think there’s a real story there.

So, right now, the Hand chairs are regarded as decorative art, not fine art. Is it possible in the years to come that general opinion might morph, and they might be seen as fine art? And if so, have you seen that sort of shift–first seen as decorative art, now seen as fine art–happen with other furnishings or fittings? I do believe Friedeberg’s work will be reassessed at some future date. As he is a fine artist, the chairs may be seen in that context, but as they also serve a function, they will always be in a middle ground. The sculptor Franz West made decorative art works that sit in that middle ground, and they are viewed in both ways. Scott Burton is another example. Future curators and scholars will decide.

Why does Pedro Friedeberg’s Hand chair design endure? How has it avoided being dated or dismissed as kitsch to remain collectible in the 21st century? I just think it’s visually cool. In its classic configuration with the pedestal base, it’s chic. You can mix it with several different types of decoration, and it fits in. It seems to accomplish walking the line between weird and chic.

How to bid: The silver leaf version of the Hand chair, which is left-handed, is lot 663 in Rago‘s Modern Design sale, scheduled for January 19, 2020. The right-handed mahogany version is lot 641.

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

Richard Wright has appeared on The Hot Bid previously, discussing a record-setting Walter Dorwin Teague-designed Nocturne radio, a record-setting Isamu Noguchi table, and an Isamu Noguchi sculpture.

Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram, and Wright is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Pedro Friedeberg has a website.

Images are courtesy of Rago.

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

Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems In Flea-Market America (THB: Shelf Life)

killer stuff and tons of money cover

What you seeKiller Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems In Flea-Market America by Maureen Stanton. $17.00 (paperback), Penguin Books.

Does it fit in my purse? Yes.

Cut to the chase. Should I buy this book? Yes.

I like Curt Avery, though I haven’t met him. Or maybe I have, and I didn’t know it; Curt Avery is not his name. (He asked the author for anonymity, and she granted it.)

Avery is the center, the linchpin, the load-bearing wall of Killer Stuff. If Stanton chose wrong, the book would fall apart.

Stanton did not choose wrong. Killer Stuff kills.

It does this despite its obviously neutered title (it’s drawn from a quote by Avery that appears on page 257, and he didn’t say “stuff”) and despite tackling a topic the uninitiated regard as bloodless–the world of antiques.

By putting an exceptional human being at the center of her book, Stanton gets at the endless, grinding challenge of the hunt for killer stuff in a visceral way.

Having Avery as the focus allows her to weave in the obligatory bits of historical information and industry-specific terms into his story, seamlessly and painlessly.

We see Avery tested and challenged out in the wild, in auction sale rooms and antiques fairs, sometimes winning and sometimes not.

She shows how winning in the world of antiques is not just spotting a prize that others have overlooked, or getting to the right booth at the right time. It means passing on the golden-looking thing that you sense, in your gut, is not on the up-and-up.

She also manages to include Antiques Roadshow, the San Diego Comic-con, and the Brimfield Flea Market.

The great test comes at the end, when we say goodbye to Curt Avery, newly 50, in the year 2010. Do you want to know what happened next? I know I did. I still wonder about Curt Avery, and I still hope he’ll find the score of a lifetime.

Worth buying new, at full price.

How to buy Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Please purchase it from an independent bookstore near you.

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

Image is courtesy of Penguin Books.

Maureen Stanton has a website. She’s also on Twitter and Instagram.

Killer Stuff and Tons of Money was originally published in 2011.

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


RECORD! A Phillip Lloyd Powell Fireplace Sold for $96,000 at Rago

A black walnut fireplace, measuring seven and a half feet tall, created by Phillip Lloyd Powell in the mid-1950s. It set a world auction record for the artist at Rago in 2008.

What you see: A carved and sculpted black walnut fireplace, created circa 1956 and 1958 by Phillip Lloyd Powell. It set a record for any piece by Powell when it sold for $96,000 against an estimate of $25,000 to $45,000 at Rago in April 2008.


The expert
: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.

Let’s start by discussing Phillip Lloyd Powell and why his work still speaks to us. It’s a complicated answer. The first is he’s part of the New Hope school, and the New Hope school is considered a very relevant school of design, which includes George Nakashima and Paul Evans. Two, Powell is really good. His idea of furniture design is singular. Three, he was very hands-on. Paul Evans made 35,000 pieces. George Nakashima, 35,000 to 40,000. Phillip Lloyd Powell, maybe 1,000. Of the three of them, it works to his detriment. It’s hard to create a market if there’s not much there. But when you buy a piece by Phillip Lloyd Powell, you buy something he had his hands on. With Powell, it was personal.

In what ways is this Powell fireplace typical of his output, and in what ways is it unusual? Powell’s gift with wood was to draw out drama in grain flow, knots, and the overall organic form and feel. He did this by carefully choosing where in the grain carving and shaping would occur. He started with an overall vision and worked a piece down to creating contrasts between honed and chipped carved surfaces, often on the very same board. That’s what’s typical here. What’s unusual here is the grandness of the gesture.

The grandness of the gesture? What I’d say is the scale of it. It’s big and imposing. It almost imitates the flames of the fire in the way he treats the wood.

Is this the only fireplace Powell made? He did stuff for fireplaces, such as mantels. A sculpted wall like this–it’s the only one I’ve seen.

What’s the story behind the Powell fireplace? Did he create it on commission, or did he make it on spec as a showpiece for his New Hope showroom? My understanding is it was an on-spec piece for the showroom, probably to show his chops as an artist.

The Powell fireplace looks very powerful to me. Almost masculine. It is, but the treatment of the wood is more delicate. It’s like a fire licking a fireplace. It’s more organic. It certainly defines the New Hope school of woodworking. George Nakashima let the wood speak. Phil had more of a hand in letting it talk.

What, if anything, do we know about how the Powell fireplace was made–how it was carved and sculpted? If Powell left no notes, what can we tell, just by looking, how challenging this would have been to make? From living artists that worked with Phil, such as Dorsey Reading and Charles Tiffany, we know that his most important tools were custom-made pneumatic chisels. An automotive-use air chisel was modified and specially shaped to make deep gauges in small areas. To finish off roughly chiseled surfaces, semi-flexible shapes of rubber and foam were cut out of larger sheets and used as backing for sanding wood smooth.

Is this Powell fireplace made from a single piece of wood, or is it made from several pieces that have been joined? It’s made from a number of slabs of American black walnut. There was a few sources for the lumber. Traveling salesmen would sell lumber to artists like George Nakashima. Powell would get the pieces most others didn’t buy or want because they were too irregular for conventional use. Powell also used to source similar boards from a mill in Plumsteadville, Pennsylvania.

How did Powell fireproof the fireplace? I’m guessing that the fire itself is set far enough back. It was in fabulous condition–no indication even of it being dried out by fire.

How does the Powell fireplace show his mastery? He used wood, and he used great wood. The scale of the piece shows his capacity to sculpt. This is on a grand scale and gives him a lot of room to roam with his particular talents and his particular eye. You can see it as mirroring the fire in the fireplace, the sensuous, organic movement to it.

I see that the Powell fireplace lacks a mantel, or a shelf to put things on. I suspect this was a deliberate choice by the artist… Exactly. We can only guess, but why interrupt that? Leave it alone. Just leave it be.

I realize you last handled the Powell fireplace in 2008, but could you tell me what it was like in person? Are there aspects of the piece that the image doesn’t quite get across? I can remember what it looks like in person because it’s out on display at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It has a presence to it. I’ve seen hundreds of pieces of his work. Powell was on that day. Though it is large, it’s more captivating than imposing, like the scale is ameliorated by the treatment of the wood and the overall design, curvaceous sculpting that unifies all the elements of it.

The provenance of the Powell fireplace includes Dorsey Reading, a noted craftsman who worked with Paul Evans. How did that enhance its interest to collectors? It’s nice to know it was a bench-made piece, made to spec to show off his chops, but the authorship was never in doubt. Pieces like this are so self-explanatory. If you understand organic mid-century woodworking–if you’re into that–this thing’ll talk to you.

What do you recall of the auction? We knew the piece was going to do well. We knew there was institutional interest [interest from museums]. There was a buzz before the sale.

The sale took place in April 2008. Powell passed away in March 2008. Might the timing of his death have helped push the fireplace to a record auction result? It’s certainly possible, though I think the fireplace stood on its own merits well enough. The Michener Art Museum needed a stellar example of his work, and I’m confident they’d have chased it in any case. 

Were you surprised that the Powell fireplace set a world auction record for the artist? I think I was a bit surprised, but that says more about my lack of knowledge of the material at the time. And fireplaces are not easy to sell. It’s a site-specific object. They usually don’t go well.

Are you surprised the Powell fireplace still holds the record, eleven years later? No. No. Of the thousand or so things he made, I’ve personally seen 400 or 500. I’ve had others that are special. This is the best of them. My guess is if it sold now, it would bring more.

Even though it’s a fireplace, and comes with the issues fireplaces pose? Yes.

Do pieces that Powell made to wow people in his showroom tend to sell better at auction than those he did on commission? I don’t know. I don’t know how many he made on spec for the showroom. I would say it’s a small percentage. I didn’t know the fireplace was on spec until I got it from Dorsey Reading, who was there at the time. But those guys didn’t keep records. The showroom was open on Saturdays from 9 pm to midnight, after the Bucks County Playhouse got out. They were artists during the 1960s. They were having fun, doing their thing. It was very slapdash.

Why does this Powell fireplace stick in your memory? I’m something of an expert on Phillip Lloyd Powell. I’ve been selling Powell’s work since the 1990s, and I’ve handled many pieces. I really do think I’ve seen more of Powell’s work than anybody. This is the best I’ve come across. It’s not one of the best, it’s the one.

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

Rago is on Twitter and Instagram.

David Rago has appeared on The Hot Bid several times before, speaking about a George Ohr vase,  a super-tall Wally Birda record-setting unique ceramic tile by Frederick Hurten Rheada Paul Evans cabinet, and a René Lalique vase.

Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.

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

RECORD! An Hermès Birkin Sets the Record for Any Handbag at Christie’s Hong Kong

A 2011 Himalaya Niloticus crocodile Hermès Birkin 30 handbag with 18k white gold and diamond hardware. As of November 2019, it holds the world auction record for any handbag.

What you see: A 2011 Himalaya Niloticus crocodile Hermès Birkin 30 handbag with 18k white gold and diamond hardware. Christie’s Hong Kong sold it in November 2017 for HKD $2.9 million, or roughly $382,000, a world auction record for any handbag.

The expert: Caitlin Donovan, vice president, head of sale auction and private sales for handbags and accessories at Christie’s New York.

Why does Hermès dominate the secondary market for handbags? Hermès dominates the market because they created supply and demand, based on how difficult it is to get pieces on the primary market. People have to come to the secondary market to buy bags because they can’t walk into a store and buy them.

And why, among Hermès handbags, does the Birkin dominate so completely? The Hermès Birkin and the Hermès Kelly, both those two are in the lead. Again, it has to do with exclusivity. They’re released in limited numbers. The Kelly sells for a little bit less on the retail market, but both are exclusive and sell for comparable premiums on the secondary market.

How many Hermès Birkins does Hermès make in a given year? There are no definitive numbers.

How often does Hermès make the particular type of Birkin that holds the world auction record? Again, there are no definitive numbers. I, as a handbag specialist, might see a couple a year.

The record-breaking Hermès Birkin is described as being matte white in color. The two previous record-holders were also matte white. Is that a coincidence? If not, why are collectors so keen on matte white Hermès Birkins? They’re matte white, but they’re Himalaya. It’s [the subtle matte white coloration of the bag requires] a technical dyeing process that only very skilled craftspeople can produce. It’s dyed in degrees that most resemble the [colors of the] top of the Himalaya mountains. It’s the rarest, most exclusive bag, and Hermès is said to be not producing it anymore. If you want it, you have to go to the secondary market.

So, Hermès might have stopped making the matte white Himalaya Birkins? It could also be that Hermès is very controlled in its release of inventory. They pride themselves on [creating] wearable works of art. They make sure not to flood the market with pieces.

What does “Niloticus” mean in this context? Does it describe the type of crocodile leather used for the record-breaking Hermès Birkin? Yes, it’s the crocodile skin used to make it. Up to now, Hermès uses Niloticus or Porosos crocodile skin, but the finest is Niloticus.

Why is Niloticus considered the finer of the two? It probably has something to do with the dyeing process. Porosos has holes in the scales, little breathing holes that are noticeable. Niloticus scales are more even in size and symmetric.

The record-breaking Hermès Birkin has a “30” in its description. What does the number mean in this context? It indicates the size. Common sizes are 25, 30, 35, and 40. Smaller pieces are on trend. Collectors in Asia and the Far East favor smaller pieces.

How did the presence of 18k white gold and diamond hardware affect the auction performance of the record-breaking Hermès Birkin? Majorly, as you can imagine. They make the piece more elusive and valuable.

The lot notes for the record-breaking Hermès Birkin say it earned Condition Grade 1. What does that mean here? Our bags are graded on a scale of one to five. At auction, most fall within the range of one to three. One is exactly the same condition as if it was purchased from the store. Collectors want this condition. They don’t want signs of use.

So an Hermès Birkin that earns Condition Grade 1 is still in its original box, with all its accoutrements, and the packaging still in place? Correct.

And if an otherwise great Hermès Birkin was missing any of its accoutrements…? It would be affected, but it depends on the preferences of the person who buys it.

Since 2015, the world auction record for a handbag has broken several times, and each time, it broke at Christie’s. Why is that the case? Major collectors of handbags are comfortable with Christie’s, and we have the top offerings globally. That plays a role in breaking records.

Have you seen the record-breaking Hermès Birkin in person? Yes. I was there in Hong Kong for both [the May 2017 record and the November 2017 record]. It’s beautiful. You understand the craftsmanship in the bag when you see it in person.

And the only difference between the Hermès Birkin Himalaya that broke the record in May 2017 and the Hermès Birkin Himalaya that broke the record in November 2017 is the years in which each was made? Yes, that’s the only difference.

What was it like to see the auction handbag record break twice in the space of a year? In Hong Kong, the energy in the room is fabulous. Handbags are a new collecting category, and setting records is integral to building the category. It’s exciting and emotional to see records broken.

Does the Hong Kong saleroom have its own unique energy? Yes. New York, Geneva, and London have different energy. That said, a full sale room is a full sale room. There are different types of collectors in each area.

Why do you think the world auction record for a handbag broke twice in 2017? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we started the department in 2014 and it took a few years for it to get established at Christie’s. By 2017, we were three years into auctions, and we’d built a client base.

What was your role in the November 2017 record-breaking Hermès Birkin auction? Were you on the phone with a client? Yes.

Was the winning bidder in the room? I can’t say who the buyer was, but there was definitely competitive bidding in the room.

Since November 2017, the auction record for a handbag has remained stable after a few years during which it turned over fairly constantly. Why do you think things are seemingly less intense now? A bag hasn’t come up to this degree [a bag that rivals the record-holder], but I wouldn’t be surprised if something comes up this season. The record is ready to be broken at any time.

When do you think we’ll see a Hermès Kelly become the most expensive handbag at auction? I’d love to see our record get challenged. A Kelly or another could break the record. I would love that, to be honest.

Would a potential record-breaking Hermès Kelly have to be similar in style to the record-breaking Hermès Birkin, do you think? A Hermès Kelly in 18k gold and diamond hardware in Himalaya white could break the record. I don’t know if it exists, but if it does, it could break the record.

Why does this record-breaking Hermès Birkin stick in your memory? These pieces are wearable works of art. Even when you see bags all day long, when you’re around a piece as beautiful as this, you appreciate it.


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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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

The Ten Most Popular Stories on The Hot Bid in 2019 (THB: Year in Review)

The Malling-Hansen "writing ball" was the eighth most popular story on The Hot Bid in 2019.
The Malling-Hansen “Writing Ball” was the eighth most popular story on The Hot Bid in 2019.

Which stories did readers of The Hot Bid enjoy and share the most in 2019? Counting down, from ten to one, they are…

A story on cover art created by Edward Gorey for The New Yorker was the tenth most popular post on The Hot Bid in 2019.

10. Cat Fancy, an original piece of Edward Gorey cover art for The New Yorker. Offered at Swann Auction Galleries with an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000, it sold for $16,250. Christine von der Linn, Swann’s specialist in art books and original illustration, said, “It draws you in… Part of its enchantment is that you find yourself, like the cats, getting lost in that big, soft bed.”

The ninth most popular story on The Hot Bid in 2019 featured a patriotic sand bottle created by Andrew Clemens.

9. An Andrew Clemens sand bottle with a patriotic theme. Created in 1887, the bottle rocketed past its estimate of $35,000 to $45,000 to sell for $102,000 at Cowan’s Auctions. Auction house founder Wes Cowan called it “an outstanding example of [Clemens’s] late period work, but he didn’t make any crappy examples… He was recognized as a genius then and now. Anyone who holds a bottle in their hands is flabbergasted.”

8. A Malling-Hansen writing ball, an example of the first commercial typewriter. Auction Team Breker assigned this circa 1870s device, created by Danish pastor Rasmus Malling-Hansen, an estimate of €70,000 to €90,000 ($78,000 to $100,000) and sold it for €100,000 (about $111,600). Nick Hawkins, speaking on behalf of auction house founder Uwe Breker, said, “One of the things that’s remarkable about the design is it’s very organic, the curvature of the top and the keys… [Malling-Hansen’s] machine was really revolutionary when you look back on it now. It was almost too modern for its time.”

Ranking seventh on the list of the ten most popular stories on The Hot Bid for 2019 is a post about a circa 1880 Narragansett punch ladle.

7. A parcel gilt sterling silver punch ladle in the Narragansett pattern by Gorham, made circa 1880. Rago Auctions estimated it at $10,000 to $15,000 and sold it for $16,250. Specialist Jenny Pitman described the experience of holding the ladle: “It feels good. You’d think it would feel awkward and barnacle-ly, but it feels good. The pointy shells encrusting it are on a part of the ladle that you don’t necessarily hold onto. It’s really exquisitely designed.”

Coming in as the sixth most popular post of 2019 on The Hot Bid is a piece on an exquisite talking skull automaton offered at Potter & Potter.

6. A Willmann talking skull automaton, made circa 1930 in Germany by designer John Willmann. Potter & Potter estimated it at $6,000 to $9,000, and sold it for $13,200. Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter, summed up its appeal: “It combines the aesthetics and mechanics into a shining example of what [Willmann] was capable of. It’s a combination of art and science. And you know it’s a real human skull.”

An Ammi Phillips portrait that went on to set a record for the artist claims fifth place on the list of most popular posts on The Hot Bid in 2019.

5. Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, a portrait painted by American folk artist Ammi Phillips circa 1830-1835. Estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million, it sold at Christie’s New York for $1.69 million and a new world auction record for Phillips. John Hays, deputy chairman of Christie’s Americas, said of the painting, “It captures the essence of what folk art collectors want and what they look for. It’s hard to define it in words, but it has a universality to it. It’s just riveting, and kind of mesmerizing. You say, ‘God, he gets it.’”

This story on a piece of original art from Neil Gaiman's comic book masterpiece The Sandman comes in as the fourth most popular post on The Hot Bid in 2019.

4. Original artwork for page 33 of the Volume 2, Number 14 issue of The Sandman, which was released in March 1990. Hake’s estimated it at $5,000 to $10,000. It ultimately sold for $14,278 and a new world auction record for artwork from the original series of The Sandman. “As much as The Sandman was about the writing, the artwork is spectacular,” said Hake’s President Alex Winter. “With comic books, sometimes the art is great but the story is just ok, or the art is just ok but the story is great. With this, all 75 issues plus the special are great. It never jumped the shark. I’m a lifelong comic book geek. If someone came in and asked me, ‘What should I read?’ I’d hand them The Sandman.”

Readers loved this story about Edgar Allan Poe's pocket watch, pushing it to third on the list of the most popular stories on The Hot Bid in 2019.

3. An 18-karat gold French quarter-repeating pocket watch that once belonged to Edgar Allan Poe. Christie’s gave it an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 and sold it for the stunning price of $250,000. Heather Weintraub, associate specialist in books, manuscripts, and archives at Christie’s New York, talked about what it was like to hold the watch: “I have held it. It has a nice weight to it. It’s wonderful to be able to hold something from the 1840s that Poe may have held. It’s one of the reasons to love this job.”