SOLD! LAMA Sold Kenneth Nolan’s 1985 Canvas “Songs: Yesterdays” For (Scroll Down to See) Also! Happy Birthday to The Hot Bid

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Update: Kenneth Noland’s Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas, sold for $550,000 at LAMA–just over five times its low estimate.

 

And a special note: Today is the second anniversary of the debut of The Hot Bid. The first post featured LAMA’s Peter Loughrey talking about an Alma Thomas oil on canvas that went on to set an auction record for the artist.

 

What you see: Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas from the late Kenneth Noland. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

 

The expert: Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA.

 

How prolific was Noland? He was very prolific. He quickly became a prominent figure in the Color Field school. Of all the artists who emerged from that movement, he became one of the most celebrated, with the target series in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1963, he was fairly well-established.

 

How often do his works come up at auction? Fairly often. There’s a lot of material out there. It trades hands with good regularity.

 

Is Songs: Yesterdays a one-off, or part of a series? It’s part of a series from the 1980s, when he returned to the chevron shape. He started it in the 1960s and he revisited it. The [1980s] works were named after songs. I don’t think this one was named after the Beatles song. I think he named it after an older song called Yesterdays. He not only revisited the shape of the icon, but he goes back to his own history, the music of his youth.

 

Chevrons are a recurring theme in Noland’s work. Is there a ranked order to the popularity of specific themes in his work? Do collectors prefer his circles/targets to his chevrons, for example? If you asked the artist that, he would say “Absolutely not,” but the market has spoken. Circles/targets sell for the most. The chevrons are a very iconic part of his work. If you ranked [the themes] by their price in the market, the place of chevrons seems to be second.

 

I understand that Noland stained his canvases rather than brushing the color on with paints. Has he done that here? His earliest works, yes, were part of the stained canvases. Many artists were disengaging with the brush after [Jackson] Pollock. In this case, in the 1980s, Noland returned to the brush and palette knife.

 

How did he produce the texture on the chevrons? Did he use a palette knife? Definitely with a scraping device. A palette knife is typically how an artist would get this type of texture. If not a palette knife, a variation on the palette knife. A trowel, for example.

 

The pink area doesn’t show any evidence of brush strokes. Do we know what Noland did there? I looked for the technique in anticipation of your call. I didn’t find something that proved how he got it. The pink area is very flat. He’s playing with texture with paint. He contrasts an area where there’s no sign of the artist’s hand to an area with overt sign of the artist’s hand.

 

Songs: Yesterdays measures 88.5 inches by 69.1 inches. Is that a typical size for Noland? It’s a typical size from the 1980s. His 80s works tend to be fairly robust in scale.

 

Did Noland name the painting? He would have.

 

He painted this in 1985 and died in 2010. Is this considered a late work for him? It’s a late period work. I spoke to him in 2008 or 2009 on a very early abstract piece I was selling, and he was very quick to point out that he was busier now than ever. Past his mid-career, he still had a fairly long, strong output. He returned to the circles after the chevrons. It’s interesting that when he returned to the old icons, he returned to the chevrons first.

 

Has the market for Noland works changed over time? Are there things collectors want now that they didn’t want as much ten years ago? It comes down to supply and demand. Paintings from 1963 are just rarer. There are not many opportunities [to bid], so they tend to sell for much higher. Works from the 1980s are much more available. In the last two or three years large 1980s chevrons have come up on the market. On December 3 in France, one estimated at $70,000 to $90,000 sold for $272,000. It was a chevron that was an almost identical-looking picture, and it was the same size [as this one]. There’s definitely a trend where the prices tend to be going upward. I imagine this last one selling for $272,000 is going to trigger a lot of people to sell, if they’ve been paying attention to the market.

 

How often have you handled works by Noland? Not very often. This is probably the first major painting I’ve had. I’ve certainly sold a lot of his prints and graphics. I think most of his material has likely surfaced in New York and Washington, D.C. L.A. is not one of the obvious places where people collect his work.

 

What is it like in person? It’s vibrant. It’s really quite impressive. It’s in flawless condition, which is always nice. It almost vibrates right in front of your eyes. It’s not subtle like some of his chevrons. This is really bold, and pops out.

 

Are there any details that elude the camera? Not really. The subtlety of the pink area, which we discussed as being devoid of the sign of the artist’s hand, is definitely much more obvious in person. There’s a stark contrast between the purity of the color field and the texture of the stripes of the chevrons.

 

Why will this painting stick in your memory? I tend to like colorful, bright, optimistic works. It’s sort of who I am. If you look at the chevron work up for sale, it’s one of the brightest and most optimistic. In others, I think the colors tend to be more muted and a little darker.

 

How to bid: Songs: Yesterdays is lot 197 in the Modern Art & Design Auction at LAMA on February 17, 2019.

 

How to subscribe to The Hot Bid: Click 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.

 

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Peter Loughrey has appeared on The Hot Bid since the beginning–literally. The blog’s first post was on an Alma Thomas painting that LAMA ultimately sold for a world auction record. He has also discussed works by Jonathan Borofsky and Wendell Castlean exceptional 1969 dune buggy, an Ed Ruscha print that set a world auction record at LAMA, and a hyperrealistic sculpture by Carole Feuerman that ultimately set an auction record for the artist.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

 

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SOLD! The Ira Hudson Flying Black Duck Sold at Copley Fine Art Auctions For … (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: The Ira Hudson flying black duck sold for $18,000.

 

What you see: A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.

 

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

The lot notes call Ira Hudson “the South’s greatest waterfowl folk artist of the era.” What makes him so? He appears to be self-taught, and he quickly imparted his own style into his work. He seemed to put a much higher emphasis on his style and sensibility over realism. That direction goes toward what I call whimsical. It’s more toward folk art than realism.

 

What do you mean when you say “whimsical”? He had a very pure and raw confidence that comes forth in his carvings. He was very efficient in every aspect of his methods. You get a high quality standard throughout his body of work, because he did it so much.

 

I understand that he did not rely on patterns when carving his decoys. How did that affect his work? A lot of decoy makers use patterns for the side profile and the top profile  [of a duck decoy]. It would make sense that he doesn’t use patterns. He would take a block with a rectangular cross section, turn it 45 degrees, and he’d carve from that. Patterns don’t apply to that approach to carving. In addition, we know he used wood he salvaged from the shore. When you use found material, patterns are a hindrance. And when you’re looking at someone with the confidence he had, you wouldn’t need a pattern. He could chop wood with a hatchet and make it look like a duck. You see the form influenced by the wood he had available.

 

Does Hudson’s avoidance of patterns make his work more interesting to collectors? Absolutely. His freestyle approach to carving created some incredibly lively, animated forms. You’ll notice with this form that the bird arches to one side. The structure of the bird is turned from tip to tail. It’s a crescent. It’s not realistic, but it’s pleasing and exciting to see, and it’s unique to his work. I don’t think anyone else has decoys with a crescent shape to them.

 

How often do black ducks appear in his work? He lived on Chincoteague, an island off the eastern shore of Virginia. It’s a prime black duck habitat, and black ducks are great birds to hunt. They’re respected for table fare and sport hunting. Hudson made a good number of black ducks to hunt over. That said, his full size carvings of flying black ducks are exceptionally rare. I’ve never seen another full size flying black duck.

 

Did Hudson introduce the concept of the flyer–a decoy depicted in the act of flying? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he originated the flyer. However, it doesn’t appear to take the idea from anyone else, and it was made around the time the first flyers were made in various regions. There’s no one around him we’d expect to be exposed to anything like this. He doesn’t get full credit, but he was a pioneer, especially for his region.

 

When did he start carving flyers? He started carving during the early 20th century, around 1910 or so. The first flyers started showing up in the 1930s and continued into the 1940s. It’s a natural progression considering that waterfowl laws were changing. A decorative flyer was something a sport hunter could afford and be interested in, whereas a market hunter [someone who hunts ducks to sell as food] would only be interested in the decoy.

 

How many flyers did Hudson make? For full size flyers in total, I’ve probably seen a few dozen.

 

The lot notes call this a “rare” flying black duck. What makes it rare? We look at his flyers and say, “Ok, there’s a few dozen flyers out there. Among those, you’re down to a couple of flying black ducks.” Others represented are mergansers and mallards. It’s one of the only black duck flyers.

 

This bird cannot be used as a duck decoy. You can’t hunt with it. It’s purely decorative. Was Hudson among the earliest creators to carve ducks that are purely decorative, or did the changing waterfowl laws nudge him in that direction? This bird is made purely as decorative rather than a decoy. His son [Delbert] painted it exactly how he would paint a decoy. Its purpose was to attract an affluent buyer to decorate a cabin with it. I would say Hudson is in sync with the top makers around the country in the era in starting to do more with decoratives. He was following market trends.

 

Did he carve this bird in a single piece, or is it assembled from multiple pieces? With this bird, the body is made from one piece of wood. The wings are attached, as are the head and neck. The feet are separate pieces which attach. There are six pieces in a typical flyer as opposed to two pieces in a standard decoy.

 

He carved the decoy from balsa wood. Is that why he needed to create six pieces? Using multiple pieces of wood for a complex form works for a couple of reasons. One, it minimizes waste. Two, you have to consider the strength of the wood, which comes from the direction of its grain. It’s projecting in different directions, so you have to have the grain aligned in the wood or you’ll have weak points that are going to break. The reason he used balsa is it’s a nice, soft, very easy material to carve. Balsa is not as good for decoys because they wear quickly. On decoratives, it’s far less important, because they’re not taking wear. Wall hangers are lighter weight to reduce the chance of it falling off the wall.

 

Is it possible to know why Hudson made this? Does the fact that this is one of two known flying black ducks imply this one might have been commissioned? Or might he have made it for his own pleasure? Almost certainly, he would have made it for sale, and to generate income to support his family. We can’t get too deep into the pure reasoning, but he would make anything that would sell. He made clothespins during the war, when there were rations on things. This was made during a time of demand for decorative waterfowl, and he was more than capable of the job.

 

His son, Delbert, painted this decoy. Do we know when his children started taking on significant roles in the production of decoys? Reportedly, all of his children were involved with production at one time or another. [Hudson had nine.] Delbert and Norman went on to be very competent carvers in their own right. You have to look at Hudson’s work as his workshop. Hudson decoys would have been a joint effort. We judge each bird on its merits.

 

This flyer dates to 1947, two years before Hudson died. Do collectors prefer any specific time of his career? I’d say this carving is a testament to the high level of quality he maintained over the course of decades. Because of that quality standard, there’s no preference for an era of carving. The date of a carving is less important than its individual qualities.

 

What’s its condition? Its paint is in ideal original condition. It has one small repair to a wingtip.

 

It’s made from balsa wood. Would that make it more vulnerable to condition issues? It is, but because it’s a decoy for decorative purposes, it would have had an easy life hanging on a wall.

 

Would it have been made as a one-off, or would it have been one of a flock of flying black ducks that would hang on a wall together? It would have been made as a single object.

 

Why will it stick in your memory? First of all, the rarity. A flying black duck stands out. And it has the quality I like to see in any Hudson carving, including a plump body, a fine head carving, a dynamic pose, and exceptional scratch feather paint.

 

How to bid: The Ira Hudson flying black duck is lot 171 in the 2019 Winter Sale at Copley Fine Art Auctions on February 16, 2019 in Charleston, South Carolina.

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.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

Colin McNair appeared on The Hot Bid last year, talking about an Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy that ultimately sold for $600,000.

 

Quack!

 

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SOLD! Christie’s Sold the Seymchan Meteorite with Pallasites For… (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: The slab Seymchan meteorite with pallasites sold for $27,500.

 

What you see: A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.

 

The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.

 

Was the Seymchan meteorite fall witnessed? Or were the meteorites simply discovered at some point after they hit the Earth’s surface? I believe they were found by metal detector in the 1960s, and people went back to the area to find more.

 

How often do Seymchan meteorites come to auction? They’re probably disproportionately [represented] because they’re so beautiful. You get a skewed view of meteorites from sales. We really present the best of the best. Pick a meteorite at random, and it’s an ugly rock. For every one I offer, I reject nine. There are some Seymchans in most of my sales.

 

Is Seymchan a marquee name for meteorite collectors? Are they must-haves? Collectors want Seymchans. This is a great example, and it appeals to collectors who have never seen meteorites before. People who buy in the jewelry sales, the contemporary art sales, the antiquities sales, and the Old Masters sales buy in these sales.

 

The lot notes say less than 0.2 percent of all meteorites contain pallasites, the extraterrestrial peridots visible on the right side of the meteorite. How are pallasites created? What has to happen? Four and a half billion years ago, there were early bodies like Earth that had iron cores and stony mantles. When these proto-planets broke up, their outsides became stony meteorites, their insides became iron meteorites, and at the boundary between the two [the iron core and the stony mantle], there were pallasites.

 

Why do pallasites show up in meteorites? Why not emeralds, or diamonds, or other gemstones? It has to do with the geology of the proto-planetary body, but you do find nano-diamonds in meteorites. We had one in the last sale. By nano, I mean on the nano scale. They’re nothing you could put in an engagement ring.

 

I get that pallasites are gem-quality stones, and olivine isn’t, but can you point out which is which on the photo of the meteorite with the lot? The ones that sparkle, shine, and catch the light–those are pallasites. Olivine is the mineral. Those that look brown are more olivine than pallasite.

 

Do you typically have both in a meteorite, or can you have all-pallasite meteorites? You do get slices of pallasite meteorite that might miss any olivine. You get some slices that are nicely homogenous, with peridot in an iron matrix. You can get meteorites that are just iron, which are slightly further away from the boundary [between the proto-planetary stony mantle and iron core]. Then you’ve got some that are more transitional, with seas of olivine and pallasite and seas of metal.

 

Who cuts meteorites, and how does that person decide where and how much to cut? Seymchan is a good meteorite for cutting in that the meteorites on their own do not have much going for them, aesthetically. You don’t destroy much by cutting them open. The shape determines how to cut–slices, cubes, even spheres. An American football-sized meteorite is easy to cut into a sphere. One that has an arm shape is easier to cut into slices.

 

Who cuts the meteorite? A gem-cutter? No, there are specialized people who do that. It’s not easy. When you cut, you always want the smallest amount of wastage possible. You want to do it as carefully as possible, in lab-like conditions. The iron in pallasites are relatively soft, but for some, you need a diamond blade to cut through them.

 

This example was cut from a larger meteorite. Do we know how large it was? We don’t, but I would bet it’s under 50 kilos [110 pounds].

 

How rare is it to come across what we see here–a clear boundary between the iron and the pallasites? That will have informed how to cut it, to bring out the transition between the two. There may have been the temptation to cut the gems off and fashion it into a sphere. I’m glad they didn’t. I like the contrast between the two sides.

 

I’ve been lying in wait to write about a meteorite like lot 1–one entirely shot through with pallasites–but this jumped out at me because I’ve never seen one like it. Is it as unusual as it seems? This is the first I’ve had with this presentation. That’s why I’m so fond of it. I’ve had a slice where the pallasites looked like a river of metal was running through it. This is a more substantial piece. You don’t see much like this at all, even if you look at the best Seymchans out there.

 

This meteorite weighs 8.4 pounds–not small, and not huge. Does that matter? As with artworks and sculpture, there does come a point where the size becomes difficult for collectors. We have one in the sale that’s 88 kilos [187 pounds]–probably too big for a desk. 8.4 pounds is a nice size. Conversely, if you get something really heavy, it’s more valuable again. If you can sit it outside a museum and no one can run off with it, its weight becomes a virtue again.

 

Why does lot 1 have a lower estimate than this meteorite, given that it’s shot through with gemstones, and this is not? It’s smaller. That’s what it comes down to. In gems, they use the four Cs [color, cut, clarity, and carat]. I use the four Ss: size, shape, story, and science. Science–What’s interesting about meteorites is they provide data on the early solar system. Lunar or Martian meteorites have more scientific interest. Story–did it explode over Siberia in the 1950s? Did it take out the dinosaurs? Did it destroy a car? Size–bigger is better. Shape–that encompasses aesthetics. Some meteorites are intrinsically more beautiful than others, and more desirable, and fetch more money.

 

And how would you judge this meteorite by your four Ss? Size… if you had everything else equal but you cut it in half, it’s $10,000 to $15,000. If it was a bit larger, $40,000 to $60,000. I really like the aesthetics of this–the outer crust, the metal, the pallasite, and the  roughly triangular, pleasing shape. In terms of science, it’s rare, and it’s a pallasite. The story originates with a proto-planetary body. We don’t know when it fell to earth, but it was relatively recent. Seymchan was only discovered in the 1960s.

 

Have you held it? Yes, but not for a while.

 

What was that like? I still have this [feeling] every time I hold a meteorite–they are four and half billion years old, which is a number so large as to almost be meaningless. The philosophical quandary when you hold it in your hand is it’s an object that comes from space. That’s mind-blowing. And four and a half billion years makes it one-third as old as the universe.

 

Is it heavy? Actually, with this one, I fell in love with it before I held it. To see the contrast in the stone is stunning.

 

Why will this meteorite stick in your memory? Having those three different colors to it–the weathered surface, the polished pattern of the metal, and the pallasite crystals–it really stands out from the others. I’ll definitely remember it for a while. This is not really a word, but this is a very covetous object. When I see it, I want it. Some people get that when they see a native gold nugget. It transmits a desire to acquire it.

 

How to bid: The Seymchan meteorite is lot 22 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and other Rare Meteorites, a sale Christie’s will hold online between February 6 through February 14, 2019.

 

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.

 

Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. James Hyslop is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

 

Hyslop previously appeared on The Hot Bid, talking about a Canyon Diablo meteorite that ultimately sold for $237,500.

 

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

 

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SOLD! Bonhams Auctioned the Frank Tenney Johnson Nocturne For (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell sold for $348,500.

 

What you see: A portrait of Alphonzo Bell painted in 1928 by Frank Tenney Johnson. Bonhams estimates it at $250,000 to $350,000.

 

The expert: Kathy Wong, specialist in fine arts at Bonhams.

 

How prolific was Johnson? He was quite prolific. Over 500 works have been offered at auction alone, and there’s a large number of works in private collections and institutional collections. He was quite in demand from the 1920s onward. There was in particular in Los Angeles a commission for a drop curtain for a theater. The popularity of that worked to launch him in this area.

 

How often did he accept portrait commissions such as this one? As he grew in popularity, especially with Hollywood, he did accept portrait commissions through Stendahl Galleries [the Los Angeles gallery that represented him]. This portrait was negotiated through Stendahl. At least three other equestrian portraits have been identified. Sometimes they’re foremen as well. They’re not just wealthy ranchers.

 

Do we know anything about how Johnson would have made this painting? Would he have had Bell pose with his horse in this landscape and painted him plein air? There are no notes beyond what was written in the Stendahl Galleries ledger. What we know about Johnson’s working technique–there is some scaffolding involved. Certain compositions he favored might repeat in parts. The grouping of cattle is reminiscent of Frank Tenney Johnsons we’ve sold in the past. I strongly suspect because Johnson was an accomplished horseman himself, he had Bell mount his palomino horse and did a photo, but we don’t know for certain. There are no documents of how the commission was carried out.

 

How often did Johnson use photography in his work? We don’t know. But he was a very prolific photographer and it was part of his working process as well.

 

Is it reasonable to assume he used photos to create this commission? I think so, given that there were photos used for other works.

 

Do we know if Bell had any input into the appearance of the portrait? We simply don’t know. It was commissioned, per the ledger, on his [Bell’s] Bel Bar Ranch in Colorado. How much artistic license was taken is unknown. There’s nothing in the landscape that would identify it as Bel Bar Ranch. It’s most likely supposed to depict Colorado.

 

Is this scene typical of Johnson’s work? It’s fairly typical compositionally and in its coloration. A lone rider against a backdrop like this is pretty recognizable as his work. It’s intended to be a dusky landscape. We believe it to actually be one of his moonlight paintings.

 

Wait, this is a night scene? But there’s a blue sky with white clouds… As far as we are aware, it’s meant to be an evening scene. It’s more like twilight. There’s a very theatrical aspect to his nocturnes. The whites are highlighted. Much in the way that Maxfield Parrish scenes are not what you observe at nighttime, this is a romantic, dramatic depiction of evening.

 

This measures 32 inches by 40 inches. Is that a typical painting size for him? It’s toward the larger [end of the spectrum]. He did work in a full range of sizes. This is a common desirable size for him.

 

Could you talk a bit about the equestrian aspect of the painting? I understand that was a strength for Johnson. I think Bell would have been familiar enough with Frank Tenney Johnson’s nocturnes that a cream-colored horse would be a very visually striking feature in the landscape.

 

Bell chose his horse for visual effect? I think so. Per his biography, he was an aesthete. He was visually sensitive. It’s very possible he saw another [nocturne] example Frank Tenney Johnson did of a rider on a white horse and asked for something similar. There’s a lovely luminosity to white or cream-colored horses in his compositions. I’m sure Bell must have been aware of that.

 

Do we know how many nocturnes Johnson did? They’re not very rare. His nocturnes became his most commercially sought-after type of landscape. What makes this particular work desirable and interesting is it speaks to ranch culture. There was an interesting moment in Los Angeles in the 1920s when it transformed from an agricultural economy to a film-based economy. It comes at a time when the ranch way of life in LA gave way to oil and gas coming in, and film industry studios coming in. Bell, like Frank Tenney Johnson, had artistic sensitivity. He could straddle the agrarian and ranch world and the mythic depiction of that in Hollywood. This Western way of life was opening up to a larger audience.

 

What is this work like in person? It’s really stunning. There’s a lot of active brushwork, probably more than you can see online. The saturation of colors is what I wish everyone could see in person. There’s a luminosity that the catalog doesn’t do justice. It’s a work you can stand before and this quietude comes over you. Bell looks to be deep in thought. His absorption is quite captivating here.

 

It’s kind of meditative. It is. All the nocturnes have that quality. Many works in the Brinkman Collection [from which this painting comes] show action. This is one of the few that shows a quiet, introspective moment.

 

We know who the sitter is. Does that matter? Does that make the painting more interesting to collectors, even though he isn’t a celebrity or a famous historical figure? I do think so. Buyers want to know the story behind the work. His biography is quite fascinating. The way he found oil on his family ranch is quite dramatic. I think potentially some bidders may identify with the sitter or find his life story interesting.

 

What’s the auction record for a Frank Tenney Johnson? It was over 10 years ago. It was a similar size, depicting two horses in the evening, called Silent Night. It sold in 2007 for $1.1 million with a $300,000 to $500,000 estimate. The market was quite robust at the time, but it has changed since. We think this work is priced accordingly for the current market.

 

What makes this painting memorable? Even if you don’t know anything about Frank Tenney Johnson, it’s visually compelling. We’re all familiar with the myth of the Marlboro Man, which was based on a real ranch hand. Whether you’re a fan of Western art or not, there’s something heroic about the figure, communicated by a composition that explains its enduring appeal.

 

How to bid: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell is lot 47 in the sale of the L.D. “Brink” Brinkman Collection of Western American art, taking place February 8, 2019 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.

 

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram. Kathy Wong is on Twitter.

 

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

 

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SOLD! Swann Sold That 1927 Josephine Baker Movie Poster For (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: The 1927 Josephine Baker poster commanded $9,750.

 

What you see: A 1927 Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s silent film The Siren of the Tropics. Swann Galleries estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.

 

The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.

 

This poster image is based on a color photograph from an interior page of a Folies Bergère program. How common was it to base poster graphics on photos in the late 1920s? Is this unusual? Good question. I don’t know the answer to that. Some posters were photographic. I’m not sure I know of others, but the fact that it’s unusual doesn’t make it important.

 

Can we tell by looking how the poster artist sized up the photograph? Did they just blow up the photo, or did they trace it or draw it? It has been enlarged, to be sure. I assume it would have been hand-drawn, but I’m not sure about that at all.

 

The original photo was in color. Did the poster artist change the colors, or are these the same colors in the Folies Bergère program photograph? The colors are basically the same. It’s not like they were changed from red to blue. The only change was to cover up her immodesty.

 

It’s interesting that the poster artist went with the same colors seen in the picture, rather than brighter colors that are more suited to the poster medium. I think the poster attracts attention very well without bright colors. Forget the fact that she’s scantily clad–it’s an incredible getup. And it’s a great portrait of her.

 

The movie the poster advertises, The Siren of the Tropics, had its world premiere in Stockholm. Do we know why the premiere was held there rather than, say, Paris? I haven’t found anything about that anywhere. But there was a Swedish fascination with Josephine Baker. They were transfixed by her. All of Europe was transfixed by her to some degree.

 

It’s an odd choice of venue for a Josephine Baker film debut. I couldn’t agree more. I do think the fact that the image is from the Folies Bergère program and not from the film–I think it must have been done quickly. Maybe that’s why they used an image that already existed. The show from the Folies Bergère has nothing to do with the movie. I don’t think she wears the pearls and feathers costume in the film.

 

The poster artist definitely altered the picture when translating it into a poster. What, exactly, was added? Her nipples [are covered], and four strands of pearls emanating from each of her pasties have been added. [You can see the original photo at this link.]

 

It looks like whoever added the pasties and pearls for the poster version did a good job. Is the touch-up work more obvious in person? It took a while to make the realization that [the original] is not covered up. Certainly, the work is good. Seamlessly done. It looks like how it was meant to be.

 

And this is the only copy of the poster that has come to auction? It has been seen before, but it has never come up for sale before. Given how popular Josephine Baker is, and that it was a world premiere of a film, you’d think more copies would surface, but none have come to market.

 

Baker isn’t shown topless, but the poster is still pretty risqué. Where would this have been displayed in Sweden in 1927? Presumably, it was hung up all over Sweden. That doesn’t explain why so few have surfaced. [They would have] posted them wherever they could to get the maximum effect from the advertising.

 

And some of them, certainly, would have been stolen by fans… Stolen, peeled off, maybe a remainder was not posted. It’s a sexy image, even if you don’t like it. I do think it’s eye-catching. She has a very becoming smile, and she’s staring right at you. A fetching pose, an improbable costume. People walking down the street would think, “WTF is that?” She was topless in the Folies Bergère program, but that’s a lot less public than a poster siding.

 

How did the poster come to you? Through the inventory of a dealer who passed away. I think it was purchased in the last five years.

 

You’ve given it a condition grade of B. Collectors would prefer a higher grade, but does that matter when a poster is unique? It’s not a situation where you can sit back and wait for another to come along. There’s no indication there’s another one out there. They have to be forgiving.

 

How did you arrive at the estimate? It’s based on sales of other Josephine Baker posters. Baker is one of the most sought-after music hall performers of her time. Like Chaplin and the Titanic, her name really transcends her genre. She was a black woman making her name performing half-naked in France. That could not happen in America. From a racial point of view, it’s astounding. And it was incredible for a black woman to appear in a movie. Not only appear in it, but star in it.

 

Does the silent film the poster advertises survive? Clips are online. The film was panned, but it’s certainly around.

 

How does this Josephine Baker poster measure up to other posters that feature her? It’s a great depiction of her. We’ve sold several Josephine Baker posters over the years. Some sell for $25,000 to $45,000. This one combines scarcity, an appealing image, and a performer who is remembered and sought after in the collectors’ market. For example, two years ago, we had the French version of Siren of the Tropics poster. It didn’t actually sell. If you looked at it, you couldn’t tell it was Josephine Baker. In 2010, we sold a Danish poster for her film Princess Tam Tam for $9,000.

 

Are there other Josephine Baker posters from her lifetime that are based on photos? There’s one from the end of her career that’s very horrible and very common, which sells for $600 on a good day. It’s not a good comparison. None of the others are photographic.

 

Why will this poster stick in your memory? Several reasons. It’s a sexy image. It really is a rare Josephine Baker piece. It’s a very good poster, because it’s a good likeness of her. And as a poster geek, I appreciate that no others have come up for sale publicly.

 

How to bid: The Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s 1927 silent film, The Siren of the Tropics, is lot 429 in the Vintage Posters sale at Swann Galleries on February 7, 2019.

 

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

 

Swann Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter, and Nicholas Lowry is on Instagram and Twitter as well.

 

Nicholas Lowry has appeared several times on The Hot Bid. Read past entries in which he  talks about a 1928 Roger Broders poster that later sold for $7,500Swann setting the world auction record for any travel postera 1938 London Transport poster by Man Ray that ultimately sold for $149,000a trio of Mont Blanc posters from 1928, a mid-1930s German travel poster featuring the Hindenburg, a 1968 MoMA poster by Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo, an I Want You1917 World War I recruiting poster that introduced the modern concept of Uncle Sam, and an Alphonse Mucha poster featuring Sarah Bernhardt.

 

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

 

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SOLD! This Snarky-looking Tall Wally Bird Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

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Update: The tall Wally Bird tobacco jar sold for $50,000.

 

What you see: A tall bird tobacco jar, aka a “Wally Bird,” by the Martin Brothers, created in London circa 1900. The head is signed by R.W. (Robert Wallace) Martin, and the base is signed as the Martin Brothers. Rago Auctions estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

 

The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.

 

Why do people love Wally Birds? What makes them great is they [the Martin Brothers] were world-class modelers, at the top of their game, with an idea no one else had. They’re really expressive creatures, and a lot of fun. It’s like they [the birds] are having a conversation with each other. Expression is so much of what these things are about. They’re pretty snarky. I don’t know of any that are benign.

 

Are those made between 1880 and 1900 the most desirable? I think so. I’m not a scholar or an academic. I’m hands on. I touch this stuff. What I know is not out of a book. The power alley [for Wally Birds] is from 1883 to 1893. I would peg this bird a little earlier than 1900. I’d say 1895. [After 1900 or so] you can see them start to lose their edge. Maybe after 25 years they [the Martin Brothers] wanted to move on to something else.

 

What details of this Wally Bird make you think it’s from 1895 and not 1900? I just think he’s a better bird. Better modeling, better detailing, better expression, better gradation of color. He’s tall, and he’s got a lot of character. I think he was made during the prime of their production.

 

Who was the best modeler among the brothers? I think Robert Wallace was a cut above.

 

Do Wally Birds with his signature sell for more? I always find it’s better to have “Robert Wallace” on a piece than not. But I’d rather have a great unsigned Wally Bird than a mediocre one with R.W.’s initials on it.

 

Does height matter with Wally Birds? Do collectors prefer the taller ones? It’s a factor in the price. Birds tend to be seven or eight inches tall. Over one foot, 15 inches, you’ve got a big bird. The vast majority are 10 inches or less.

 

Do the expressions on the faces of the birds matter? Yes, and being colorful helps. The important things are the expression, the size, and the condition, but it’s not hard to sell a Wally Bird with minor damage.

 

Were Wally Birds actively collected when they were new, or did that come later? I don’t know that people collected things in 1885. We were still dealing with the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

 

So it was more like people thought, ‘This is too nice to throw away’? [More like] “I saw a jar that looks like someone I know, I’ll buy it and keep it.”

 

The Wally Birds were designed to hold pipe tobacco. Were they used that way? I’ve literally handled 200 of these and I haven’t found tobacco in any of them. I think they were called tobacco jars to give them a functional purpose, maybe to appeal to men. Everybody smoked back then. You can’t use a bird, but you can use a tobacco jar. Who knows what the rationale was?

 

And the Martin Brothers made Wally Birds from 1880 up until 1914? I’ve had pieces dated that late. There’s a thought that some were finished later than that by a son of one of the brothers in the 1930s. The dating might not be clear on the later ones. They tend to be blue and white, and the expressions tend to be shallower.

 

Do we know how the birds were made? They were sculpted. You can look inside [a Wally Bird] and see the way the clay has been cut back. They gouged the clay out to make the interior. You can see the tooling of the construction.

 

Are Wally Birds based on real birds? To some extent, yes. But I think the birds they looked at was a departure point for their imaginations.

 

Do British collectors dominate the field of Wally Birds? Americans have been bringing Wally Birds here for 50 years. I even know Brits who buy them from Americans and sell them back to Americans. I would guess that 75 percent of known Martinware [a term that describes the Wally Birds and other ceramics by the Martin Brothers] is in the U.S.

 

How often do Wally Birds come up at auction? There’s been a generational change. People who bought in the 1980s are selling off now. I sold Lillian Hoffman’s collection four years ago. Wait ten years, and the people who bought in the Harriman Judd collection sale [at Sotheby’s in January 2001] will sell off.

 

So they come up every five or ten years or so? Yeah. Even if they [collectors] have to pare down, they don’t put up one Wally Bird. They put up two or three. They sell them in flocks.

 

What’s it like to hold this Wally Bird in your hand? For a ceramic, it’s hefty. There’s nothing eggshell about Wally Birds, nothing delicate.

 

What condition is it in? There’s a repair on one of the feathers, and at the very bottom of the clay base, there’s an unevenness to the edge. But it’s an 125-year-old piece of ceramic sculpture.

 

In your experience, how do collectors display Wally Birds in their homes? They’re displayed how you’d expect a $50,000 piece of clay to be displayed–usually on a shelf, with half a dozen birds side by side. They’re not left on desktops, where they’re too easily knocked over.

 

You’ve got several pieces of Martinware in this auction, including another Wally Bird in Lot 5 that’s estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. What’s the difference between this bird and that bird? Why is Lot 1 one worth more? Size is a significant factor. Lot 1 is a big bird. Lot 5 is interesting because it’s a friar bird. [Look closely at its head and you’ll see it has a tonsure–a monk’s hairstyle. You can also click on the 360-degree view button at the lower right and spin it to better see the back of its head.] But it’s the nature of the beast–it’s clumsier, it’s not as free-flowing a bird. Both are good birds, but one is one and a half times the size of the other one.

 

Wally Birds are 80 to 120 years old. Almost no one smokes a pipe anymore. What’s been keeping up the profile of Wally Birds? Was there a big, influential museum show? Is there a collectors’ society that’s active and media-savvy? Several things. Number one is the right number of them were made. With Martinware, there’s enough material out there but not too much–just enough to create and sustain a market. Number two, both sides of the pond are buying this stuff. If it’s supported by collectors in Europe and America, it’s healthy. Number three, they’re really good. World-class ceramics. They’re sculpted, best in the world at the time it was made, and I haven’t seen much to rival it. The quality has held up.

 

The world auction record for a Wally Bird belongs to an 1889 example that stands just over 14 inches tall and resembles the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. It sold in December 2015 in New York for $233,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. I realize Rago did not handle that bird, but can you tell me why it did so well? It was a fabulous bird. It was huge, and it was a historic figure from the land where they were made. It was the pinnacle. I don’t know if you get better than [the Wally Birds that resemble] Disraeli and [British prime minister William] Gladstone. Those are the best.

 

And Americans are just as interested in the Disraeli and Gladstone Wally Birds, even though they depict British political figures? Absolutely. I’m sure they’re in America. If you’re going to buy British pottery, you’re going to buy the best out there.

 

Why will this Wally Bird stick in your memory? The expression is really good. The quality is top-notch. The condition is excellent. That’s true of most birds I handle. And it’s just big. The production of the larger birds is quite limited. I’d say five percent are this size or bigger. If 250 [a possible rough count for surviving Wally Birds] is accurate, there are 10 to 15 in this range. In a September 2018 auction, I had one that big, and it sold for $112,500. It’s really, really rare to have another that size. I would dare say I have this bird because I sold the other one.

 

How to bid: The Martin Brothers tall bird tobacco jar is lot 1 in the Early 20th Century Design sale at Rago Auctions on January 19, 2019.

 

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 Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Alison Davey of AD Antiques in Gloucestershire, England, has devised a way to track Wally Birds without banding their ankles. In 2018, she began creating “passports” for the coveted works. The document, which resembles a British passport, contains a photo of the Wally Bird, its height, its condition, and its known provenance.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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