What you see: A TV Space Patrol toy car with box, made in Japan, probably in the mid-1950s. Morphy Auctions estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.
The expert: Tommy Sage Jr., head of toys and trains at Morphy Auctions.
Do we know when this TV Space Patrol toy car was made? I don’t see a date in the lot notes. There’s not an exact date, and there’s not an exact company. It just says “Made in Japan”. There is no maker [indicated] on the box or the car. I would say mid-1950s. It’s definitely 1950s, that’s for sure. It [looks like] a concept car or a Batmobile.
How often does the TV Space Patrol toy car come up with its original box? It’s rare with or without the box, but it’s especially rare with the box.
The lot notes describe its condition as “near mint”. What does that mean here? It’s got some scratches on top of the plastic dome. But usually, the dome is broken or missing. Most times, [the toy] doesn’t have it. This has it.
How manyTV Space Patrol toy cars have you handled? I’ve handled four, and there were two boxed ones.
Do we have any notion at all of how manyTV Space Patrol toy cars might have been made, and how many might have been imported to the United States? We don’t know how many were made, but there probably weren’t many. I’ve had four in 40 years.
This is described as a “Friction-powered” toy. What does that mean? You push it forward, and it rolls forward. Also, the spaceman inside has a TV camera, and he rotates, like he’s taking pictures on a planet or something, I guess. [Laughs] It was [made] 15 years before we actually landed on the moon. The pulp magazines got some things correct, and some things not nearly correct.
This TV Space Patrol toy car is definitely cooler-looking than the moon buggy that the Apollo astronauts drove on the lunar surface, I grant you that. It was a lot cooler. And it wasn’t large, maybe nine and a half inches long. Maybe it didn’t sell well because of that. If they had made this car bigger–15 inches instead of nine–it could be worth $20,000. That’s my opinion.
The box calls this a “TV Space Patrol” toy car. Was there a TV show connected with it? No. There was a TV show called Space Patrol, but it had nothing to do with this.
What’s your favorite detail of the TV Space Patrol toy car? The cones in the front are very cool. You can kind of twist them. They come off, and when they come off, they’re gone. Kids could pull them right off. They usually don’t survive. And having an astronaut with a smiling face [in the driver’s seat] that rotates and takes pictures is pretty neat.
If I was going to dream up a mid-20th century toy car, I would dream of this–something with fins and a dome and cones on the front. It’s impressive. It’s a really nice car, but seeing it in a book [before] seeing it in person, you think it’s going to be bigger. It’s not to scale.
Why did this particular TV Space Patrol toy car survive so well? I don’t know. Somebody probably owned it–there’s a ‘J’ written in pen on top of the box. Sometimes, kids write on the box. You see that a lot. Like a kid writing his name in a baseball glove–same thing.
You mentioned earlier that the dome tends to be broken or missing, and the cones on the front tend to get lost. What other problems have you seen with TV Space Patrol toy cars? The hubcaps go missing. It has four white hubcaps, and they pry right off. A lot can go wrong with the car. If it’s in good condition, it will bring a lot of money.
We’re speaking on September 9, 2019, and there’s already a bid of $1,500 on the TV Space Patrol toy car. Is that meaningful? No. There are going to be a couple of serious bidders–usually calling in bids on the phone, or bidding during the auction.
What’s the world auction record for a TV Space Patrol toy car? Was it set at Morphy Auctions?In September 2013, we had one that brought $16,800. It might have been a shade nicer than this one. There was no scratching on the top of the dome. I would think that would be the record. I can’t remember one bringing more.
Why will this particular toy car stick in your memory? Because it’s boxed. I’m kind of a box freak. The box is probably worth as much as the toy. And there’s real character and a sense of history about the toy car because of when it was made–15 years before we landed on the moon.
What you see: A 1903 print commemorating Theodore Roosevelt dining with Booker T. Washington at the White House two years earlier. Heritage Auctions estimates it could sell for $2,000 or more.
The expert: Curtis Lindner, associate director of Americana at Heritage Auctions.
How did the dinner come about? Why did it make sense for President Theodore Roosevelt to invite Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House in 1901? Roosevelt was not the first president to invite African-Americans to the White House, but Booker T. Washington was the first to be invited to dine at the White House. Washington was an advisor to Roosevelt.
What did Booker T. Washington advise President Theodore Roosevelt on? He advised him on horrible things happening to African-Americans, and wanted to get them more rights. That was a reason to invite him to dinner–to discuss voting rights in the South. Roosevelt probably had it in his mind that he wanted to run for president in 1905. Having Washington talk about voting for Roosevelt was very important. He was also a good friend of Roosevelt as well.
When did the two men become friends? Probably when Roosevelt was vice president. And when Roosevelt was governor of New York, he had invited African-Americans to the governor’s mansion, and had invited them to stay overnight. That didn’t become national news because he was a governor. When he did it as president, there was an uproar in the South. There are graphic quotes. The n-word was used extensively. Horrible things were said [along the lines of]–‘How dare he defame the White House by inviting him to dinner,’ and ‘How dare he dine with Roosevelt’s wife and white children.’ [Roosevelt had three sons and a daughter at the time.]
Was the uproar in all of the South? A majority. U.S. Senators and Congressmen made these comments. It seemed to be acceptable at the time.
How did the Northern states react? A lot of Northerners did support it. It was primarily the South, and a lot of Southern politicians, that didn’t like it at all.
Did the White House announce the dinner before it happened, or after? The White House announced it, from what I understand, after the dinner. Washington was up there for some sort of conference, and Roosevelt sent him a telegram inviting him to the White House. I don’t know if Roosevelt expected an uproar.
It sounds like it was spontaneous. Yes, it was more of a spontaneous thing. It was not fancy. It was just Booker T. Washington and Roosevelt’s family. And there were other people there–servants coming through as well. This is a “pro” print. It’s in support of the Roosevelt-Washington dinner. There are “con” buttons that depict Washington in caricature, and with bottles of liquor on the table, as if they were getting drunk. Those can sell for several hundred dollars, as well as the “pro”. There are also two versions of the “pro” print–one where the tablecloth says “Equality”, and one where it doesn’t. Both have the image of Lincoln between Roosevelt and Washington.
Yes, now that I look more closely at the print, there’s no hint of alcohol. No glasses are on the table, and maybe that’s a water carafe in the foreground? Absolutely. The “con” image is different from the “pro” buttons and the “pro” print. Washington has larger, curlier hair, and there’s no Lincoln between them. The juxtaposition is so interesting between the “con” image and the “pro” print.
The lot notes describe the dinner as a “public relations mistake Roosevelt never repeated.” What made the dinner a public relations mistake? After the uproar, the White House backpedaled a little, claiming it was a lunch. It was at 8 pm at night. It was not a lunch. The White House [might have said to Roosevelt] ‘We have a perception problem, Mister President.’ It was bad publicity for the president and the government in the eyes of many, especially in the South. I’m sure it took some time for this to go away. And Roosevelt never invited another African-American to dine at the White House. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have them over to visit, but there were no dinners or lunches. He probably didn’t want to deal with more controversy.
The dinner took place in 1901, but the print is dated 1903. What accounts for the two-year lag between the event and the publication of the print? I don’t have a definitive answer. What comes to mind is in late 1903 and early 1904, Roosevelt started running for president. Could he be trying to look good to the African-American population? On the other hand, would he want to remind the white American South about how mad they were when an African-American was in the White House? I don’t have a definitive answer. I could see how [a printer] would put it out a month after the dinner, but why two years after? Why wait those two years?
Well, in the middle of the 20th century, a lot of Irish Catholic homes displayed a photograph of President John F. Kennedy alongside the Pope. Could this print of President Theodore Roosevelt dining with Booker T. Washington have served the same sort of cultural role in African-American homes? That’s a good point. That could very well be why.
So, who would have been the audience for this print? Middle-class African-Americans? I would think it would be more for the African-American community. It’s a very flattering print of two brilliant men sitting down to eat. It was probably a coveted print that hung in a home next to a print of Abraham Lincoln.
Did you find any evidence that this could have been printed by a press that also offered an African-American newspaper? I could not find any information about that.
Is it possible that the Republican Party, or a local Republican group, might have commissioned the print to support Roosevelt’s 1905 campaign? I don’t think so at all.
And I take it this is a fanciful rendering of the dinner? There probably wasn’t a print of Abraham Lincoln hanging in the room where they ate? We do not know if there was an image of Lincoln in the room, but it was smart for the artist to add it. I’m sure he put it there with a lot of thought behind it. But there’s no actual photo or drawing of them having dinner. There was no White House photographer then. The images of Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington’s faces were used in other memorabilia. What you see is an artist’s rendition of what the dinner might have been like.
Yeah, the faces of the men look like they were lifted from two different photographs. Exactly. They [the artist or the printer] found other images and used the faces for this purpose.
It’s odd that Roosevelt and Washington aren’t looking at each other. It is strange. The artist could have had them looking at each other. Why he didn’t, I don’t know.
What condition is the print in? There’s some damage to it, some edge roughness, but this is overall a good example. The majority of examples have some condition issues–the print is 116 years old, and it’s ephemeral by nature.
Do we have any notion of how many of these prints were made, and how many survive? We’ve sold four examples, the highest for $5,250 in June 2018. I’ve probably seen 15 to 20 examples. I’m sure it was made in some quantity.
Why will this print stick in your memory? To me, I think, it shows we can look past our differences. Roosevelt was a great man who saw he could take advice from African-Americans and treat them equally. This print makes me think we have a chance in thus country to all get along.
What you see: A Lino Tagliapietra Dinosaur, a glass sculpture created at Murano, Italy in 2008. Rago estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: Suzanne Perrault, partner and co-director of Rago’s 20th and 21st century design department.
First, how is Lino Tagliapietra’s name pronounced? Tag-lee-uh-pee-et-tra? Perfect!
How prolific is Lino Tagliapietra? Is he still working? He was born in 1934 and just turned 85. He is still working and regularly coming up with new techniques and series. He gives hope to all of us!
When did his “Dinosaur” series start? It started in 1997.
Why are these pieces called Dinosaurs? It has something to do with creatures of the Murano lagoon surrounding him, and the struggle between the heaviness and difficulty of handling glass in a large piece, while it is, at the same time, such a delicate material. Lino can be very creative with how he brands his piece – look up “Batman!”
How well-regarded is the Dinosaur series among his works? Is it among the most sought-after? Lino has done a great many series and continues to invent new ones regularly. Some works also don’t have specific names. I’m sure some collectors like the swooping grace of dinosaurs best of everything. Personally, I’m a coldwork lover. [Coldwork describes techniques performed on glass at room temperature.] My favorite piece we’ve ever offered was this one because of all the different patterns offered on it.
What defines this piece as “small”? How big do his Dinosaurs tend to get? Well over 40 inches. At 21 inches tall, this is the tiniest I’ve seen.
What qualities make this an “exceptional small Dinosaur,” per the lot notes? It has a lovely, manageable scale. Its surface is also cold-worked in battuto and inciso, which they aren’t always. These are both carving patterns on glass, battuto being shorter and squatter, like a hammer mark on metal. Inciso refers to narrower marks, more reminiscent of wood grain. They add a dimension to the piece which collectors really appreciate. The way the colored elements are assembled is referred to as incalmo. It’s a difficult technique, and one that Lino and his crew have mastered like few others. All that together makes this Dinosaur an exceptional piece.
What details or characteristics mark it as a Lino Tagliapietra Dinosaur? The bulbous base, the elongated, twisted neck, and the impossibly small foot. While he has other bulbous shapes–something he might well have picked up from Archimede Seguso, his mentor–the Dinosaur’s shape is full of motion.
How many people does Lino Tagliapietra work with to produce a Dinosaur? What is the production process like? I’ve seen him make a Dinosaur in a demonstration, and he probably had at least three or four people around him. It was a pretty big space, so there might have been more spread around. You can see him blow something like that on YouTube videos. That’s just for the blowing part. The coldwork is done later by a company in Murano, I believe. For the most complicated shapes, he can be surrounded by as many as a dozen assistants. He’s also terribly popular, so I’m thinking there’s a line around the block for the opportunity to assist the maestro.
The lot notes say the Lino Tagliapietra Dinosaur has an etched signature and date. Is that typical? Yes. Lino signs pretty much everything he makes.
The Dinosaur form looks kind of… precarious. What stops Lino Tagliapietra Dinosaurs from tipping over and breaking? They’re well-balanced. They’re not as tippy as they appear, and they’re fairly heavy.
How often do Lino Tagliapietra Dinosaurs come to auction? No more than a few a year at auction, like two or three lately, world-wide.
What is it like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? At the risk of sounding obvious, it’s really small. It feels like a little dancer en pointe, which is heightened by the tiny, clear foot. It also looks like a flame. The experience of seeing this particular work is completely different from being confronted with a bold, large piece of glass.
What you see: A complete 32-piece Bauhaus chess set, in blond and ebonized beech wood, designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923-1924. It comes with its original box. Christie’s London estimates it at £15,000 to £20,000, or about $18,270 to $24,360.
The expert: Murray Macaulay, head of the prints and multiples department, Christie’s London.
How do we know this is a prototype of the Bauhaus chess set? We haven’t pinned our flag to the mast on this one. Walter Gropius’s recollections describe it as a prototype, and that was conveyed by the Isaacs family [to whom Gropius gave it]. The story is Josef Hartwig gave it to Gropius in the 1920s. Gropius himself attributes it as a prototype. It’s his recollection of the set that we’re referring to.
Do we know how many prototypes of the Bauhaus chess set Josef Hartwig made? It’s been suggested that one copy was given to all the masters at the Bauhaus at the time. If that was the case, about ten were made. Whether Hartwig gave them to each of the masters is not clear.
How rare is it for a complete Bauhaus chess set to come to auction with its original box? Probably five in the last ten years. But what really sets this particular set apart is its provenance. It’s the Walter Gropius connection that makes it so interesting.
How do we know that the Bauhaus chess set first belonged to Walter Gropius? Reginald Isaacs was a very noteworthy architect, a student of Gropius, a family friend of Gropius, and he wrote his biography. The Isaacs were frequent visitors to the Gropius home. The recollection of Isaacs is it was a direct gift from Gropius. Reginald Issacs later gave it to his son, Henry Isaacs. Also, the box has an inventory label on the bottom that is Gropius’s inventory label, which [was applied] prior to him going to the United States. It validates Gropius’s story that he was given the set by Josef Hartwig.
Is the Bauhaus chess set the thing that Josef Hartwig is best known for? Yes.
Did Josef Hartwig design it without a chess board, or did the one with this set go missing? There was a board design that went with it, made out of paper and card. It folded into four pieces. We believe it [the board that went with this set] perished.
And the set went into production? Yes,.
Do we know how many Bauhaus chess sets were made? We don’t. It wasn’t mass-produced. It was manufactured by Bauhaus themselves. There would have been limitations in terms of scale [the scale of production]. There can’t be many, or we’d see them more often.
The lot notes describe the Bauhaus chess set as “model XVI”. What does that mean? It means it’s design number 16. There are other models and other variations in the design as Josef Hartwig refined it. This model went into production.
What’s the Bauhaus chess set like in person? Are there aspects that the camera does not pick up? What’s wonderful about this particular set is the sense that it’s been played with. Henry Isaacs remembers playing chess with Gropius. It’s not just a historically significant object, it was everyday. It was used for its function. The box shows quite a bit of use, like the game boxes you’d find in any family home.
What makes this Bauhaus chess set design stand out? The conceptual idea behind it is so brilliant. It’s a major rethink of the design of the chess pieces. Josef Hartwig tried to think of a way to remove the hierarchical sense of the chess set while making it much more utilitarian. The pieces are designed around their function, and the way they move. The bishop takes the form of a cross. The rook is a cube because it moves forwards, sideways, and backwards. The knight is the shape of two ‘L’s sitting on top of each other, because it moves in an L-shape on the board. It’s very logical. When you see it, it makes absolute sense. It’s function-first. The conception of it is very unified and modern. It was thought out in a very contemporary way, the whole package. Now we don’t look at it as revolutionary as it really was.
What condition is the Bauhaus chess set in? The pieces do definitely [look as if] they’ve been handled. Very much so.
Do they have a patina? Yes. They’re not pure black and not pure white. The wood looks like it’s been used and played with.
What’s the world auction record for a Bauhaus chess set? It was set earlier this year at Quittenbaum Kunstauktionen in Germany. It was €20,000, hammer. It had a board, but no provenance. This set doesn’t have a board, but it has a wonderful backstory.
I imagine you’ll see serious cross-competition between chess set collectors and Bauhaus collectors? It appeals to both. This particular set has been featured in important exhibitions–The Art of Chess show in London in 2003, and The Imagery of Chess Revisited at the Noguchi Museum in 2005 to 2006. It’s a great prize of 20th century chess-related artwork.
Does the fact that this particular set appeared in those two significant shows add yet more value? It adds to its weight. You’re buying something that you could see in the Museum of Modern Art. That’s what you’re getting.
Even more so than the chess set Man Ray designed? Yes. It’s a classic of modern design, so ahead of its time. It’s incredibly important.
Have you handled the pieces in the Bauhaus chess set? Yes.
What was that like? The pieces being light to hold is an interesting thing. It stood out to me that it’s been thought out on so many levels. It’s easy to play with. The pieces have a lovely quality when you hold them.
What you see: A prototype black Gibson ES-345 Lucille guitar, stage-played by B.B. King in his later years. Julien’s estimates it at $80,000 to $100,000.
The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.
So, let’s start by explaining the deal with Lucille. How many Lucilles did B.B. King have over the course of his career? Is there an official count? There’s no official count, but we know there were many. Lucille dates back to 1949, when he was in his 20s and playing a venue in Arkansas. It was heated by a bucket of kerosene. A fight broke out between two men, and the kerosene was kicked over and started a fire. B.B. King realized he’d left his guitar behind, a very inexpensive Gibson arch top, and ran into the burning building and got it out. He found out that the fight was over a woman called Lucille.
And B.B. King named that guitar and all his subsequent main guitars Lucille as a reminder not to do something silly like run into a burning building to save a guitar? And to never fight over a woman.
So B.B. King had many Lucilles over the years, and not all looked the same, but what are the characteristics of a Lucille? What do most of us think of when we think of his guitar, Lucille? When you talk about what’s recognized as a Lucille, it’s black with gold hardware, and it’s a Gibson ES-345 guitar. It probably dates back to 1967, when he shifted his affection to the Gibson 345. That’s a luxurious model, a high-end guitar, very fitting for the king of the blues, B. B. King.
There are several Lucilles in the September 21 auction, but this particular one has the highest estimate of all. What makes this B.B. King Lucille guitar that much more valuable than the others? It’s a prototype, made for his 80th birthday. It was prototype one. He played it for the rest of his life. His last performance, in 2014, was with this particular guitar. It was one he cherished, and it was so beautifully done, customized for him to celebrate his 80th birthday. [King died in 2015, at the age of 89.]
And it became his main guitar from the time he received it from Gibson? Yes. This was his main guitar. He cherished it. There always seems to be a story to Lucille–this one was stolen from him in 2009, and he was devastated. It showed up in a pawn shop [later in 2009] in Las Vegas. A guitar dealer found it, sweaty, with broken strings, and with “prototype one guitar” on the back. He contacted Gibson, which put him in contact with B.B. King. He was very happy to be reunited with the Lucille guitar. He traded [a different guitar] to the dealer, saying, “I hope you enjoy playing this as much as I enjoy playing this prototype guitar.”
Does the fact that the B.B. King Lucille guitar was stolen and recovered make it more interesting to collectors? Its intrinsic value is $8,000 to $10,000, let’s say. I think the John Lennon Gibson we sold for $2.4 million had an intrinsic value of $2,000. That was stolen at a Christmas show in 1963. People loved the story, and it definitely played into it selling for $2.4 million.
Do we know how many concerts B.B. King played with this Lucille? It would have been in the hundreds. He worked tirelessly. In his heyday, he played over 300 concerts a year. He came from very humble beginnings and he strived to become famous. When he got to a plateau in his career he never wanted to let go of that. He enjoyed playing music.
Does the September 21 sale represent the first time any B.B. King-owned and -stage played Lucille guitars have gone to auction? It’s the first time B.B. King has gone to auction with any of his guitars. It’s coming directly from his home to the auction block. That’s where the value is–the provenance, the chain of ownership, collectors love that. Being the next owner after the celebrity adds huge value.
What condition is the B.B. King Lucille guitar in? There’s no one area I’d say is worn down. It’s a heavy-duty guitar, a beauty of a guitar, but you can look at it and see it’s not pristine. There are little scratches that indicate it’s not a brand new guitar.
Have you played it? I have not, but I’ve held it many times. It’s amazing.
Is it well-balanced? It’s very well-balanced. It’s a very, very heavy guitar. For me to carry it for a period of time, it’s a challenge. I have handled many, many guitars, and this one stands out as being particularly heavy.
Is it solid? Semi-solid.
Would its weight have affected its sound? Yes, it definitely affects the sound. That’s why he liked it. He collaborated with Gibson on the guitar and definitely, the weight impacted the sound. That was important to B.B. King as a bluesman.
What is your favorite detail on this B.B. King Lucille guitar? The gold inlay, the crown representing the king, his signature in gold on it–it’s just a beautiful instrument.
What you see: An exceptional large vase with ear handles and a serrated rim by George Ohr, the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” dating to 1897 to 1900. Rago estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.
How prolific was George Ohr? He made about 10,000 pots during his career, from about 1885 to about 1909. Because the work was virtually unsaleable, most of it survived. Because the work was often paper-thin, much of it has minor damage. The entire body of work was stored away in Biloxi, some in the private homes of relatives, and the rest held by his surviving son. That, in and of itself, is a great story.
What makes this an “exceptional large vase” by Ohr, per the lot notes? What’s a more typical size for him? And specifically, what makes it “exceptional”? Ohr tended to work in “hand-sized” pots, as I like to call them. Four inches by four inches is typical. It seemed he could manipulate a pot uniformly, in integrated gestures, to complete something original and in the moment. He was very much an artist who worked with the flow the material–spinning clay, of a very elastic variety–and his own creative impulse. There is an immediacy to his best work, which is why it has captured the attention of collectors, artists, gallerists, and museums since 1970, when it was first put out on the open market. The vase in question is much larger than most and has two complicated handles. These tall, handled pots are a subset of his work that have remained among the more highly regarded this last half-century.
How often did Ohr create vases? Was that a favorite form of his? Is it a form that Ohr collectors prefer? One man, one pot. He dug the clay from a local river, wheelbarrowed to his Pot-Ohr-E, which he build with his own hands from the ground up, including the kiln. He threw on a wheel, endeavored to make “no two pots alike”, like human souls, and devoted his life to making truly unique work that no one wanted to buy.
Is ‘Pot-Ohr-E’ his term, or a whimsical term of your invention? His. “Mary had a little lamb. George had a Pot-Ohr-E.”
The George Ohr vase is described as having ‘ear handles’. What are ear handles, and how often do they appear in his work? A small percentage of Ohr’s work had paired handles–unlike pitchers, say, which had one handle for pouring. Of the 10,000 pieces he produced, less than one percent received this treatment. I say this based on what I’ve actually seen [which is] about half his body of work, since 1973 when I handled my first piece, and period photos of him and his wares.
The George Ohr vase is described as having a ‘serrated rim’. How often does that feature appear in his work? Far less than one percent of the time. It’s not a decorative technique I think particularly interesting. The handles are the main point here. The pot itself is fairly straightforward, and the brown/green glaze is typical of much of his work.
How do all these elements–vase form, ear handles, serrated rim, ochre and gunmetal-speckled in color, large size–affect its appeal to collectors? Is it rare to have all these things in one Ohr piece? Any pot by Ohr this size with large double handles is quite rare and elevates it in the minds of collectors, both in stature and price, to the top ten percent of his production.
Is this vase unique? With rare exceptions, all of his work is unique. That was his fundamental approach, that art should occur in the moment, through an artist’s connection with his or her spirit, manifest in the craft. I don’t know that he actually worded it this way, but he spoke of souls and God, and it’s clear he was trying to capture something larger than to just make a pottery vase.
Did Ohr intend his vases to be functional, or purely sculptural? Are they meant to be used? He gave them functions, but I think that was just a starting point. For example, he made a double coffee/teapot where you poured coffee from the right and tea from the left. The lids were fused to it in the firing, so it didn’t actually function. I can’t speak for the man, but I’m sure he did not intend for these to actually be used to hold flowers or potables.
Would Ohr have created this vase entirely on his own, or would he have relied on assistants for certain parts of the production? Very few pieces of Ohr were done in any capacity by anyone but Ohr. He did have an assistant for a brief time, a Mr. Portman, whose initials have appeared on some pieces. He also worked with the famed potter Susan Frackelton, whose name [or] initials also appear on such pots. But 99 percent of the time, you buy a piece of Ohr, you’re buying Ohr’s hand.
How do we know this is an Ohr? Are fakes a problem with Ohr ceramics? There are a lot of fakes. His work has been augmented and copied by various people since the mid-1970s. The way to know a fake is to know Ohr’s work. If you’re buying this stuff online, on eBay, or from someone who is not a known expert in Ohr, it can be a rough ride.
What sorts of Ohr fakes have been identified? The earliest fakes were in fact Ohr pieces, but ones he only bisque-fired and never glazed. Early sellers, thinking this work incomplete, and knowing it was hard to sell back in the 1970s, augmented them with glazing of their own. The next run of fakes were made from the ground up, with pieces usually of red clay and jet black glazing, rolled out and turned into hollowware vessels. These bore entirely the block stamp mark, which the fakers recreated using printer’s type, as Ohr did originally. Then came the absurd fakes, about mid- to late 1980s, which were dreadful pieces having nothing to do with Ohr’s work. Imagine, if you would, a piece of pottery that looks like a tree branch. Whatever mark was on the bottom of it was covered with plaster and “Ohr” crudely etched into it. As though that wasn’t stupid enough, that particular faker then spray-painted part of the work in day-glo colors.
George Ohr made this vase between 1897 and 1900. Was that a strong period for him? This is arguably his best period. He was still glazing pots at this time. He later switched to bisque fire only–“God put no color in souls, and I’ll put no color on my pots”–but was also at his creative peak in manipulation and overall concept of what he pieces could be. That is definitely his power alley period.
How have you seen the Ohr market change over time, in general? Mostly up, though with peaks and valleys. We are not at a high point, but close to that level, in today’s market.
The 2011 description says the vase has “ribbon handles” and a “ripped rim”. Why might the language that describes these details changed between then and now? Just a different cataloguer at this point in time. They are both correct in their way.
How does this Ohr vase compare to other Ohr vases you’ve had? I don’t want to damn it with faint praise. If this were a truly exceptional two-handled piece, the glaze would be red with orange and blue spots, the vase would have an in-body twist at its center, and it would be worth maybe seven to ten times the price.
What is it like to hold this vase in your hands? What is it like in person?Most are much lighter than you would expect, the fragility being an extension of the ephemeral nature of being human, I would surmise. If you were to handle a later bisque piece, it would be as though you were handling a large potato chip. The thinness of the work results from the local clay he developed and his unparalleled prowess at the potter’s wheel.
Rago sold this vase in June 2011 for $6,820 against an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000. What does it say about the Ohr market that it’s up again eight years later with an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000? Ohr is one of the few potters from the art pottery period whose work has retained value and even, in some cases, gone up. That is because of an international market for the material, and the crossover to fine art buyers who recognize his importance as an artist.
Update: The magician automaton from Sleuth sold for $24,000.
What you see: A circa 1925-1930 magician automaton built in Paris that appeared in the 1972 film Sleuth, which starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It stands 56 1/2 inches tall and performs seven movements. Potter & Potter estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
I wanted to start by asking why so manyautomatahave amagic theme. How much overlap is there between magic trick designers and designers of automata? Why do automata fit well within the realm of performative magic? I guess I’d say because by nature, they’re magical objects, so they lend themselves to performing magic tricks. How they work, why they work–it’s all a wonder-making proposition. Magic and automata have kind of gone hand in hand for centuries.
What, if anything, do we know about why this automaton was made? Also, who might have purchased or commissioned this piece—what sort of person was likeliest to buy something like this when it was new? I don’t have the name in front of me, but he [the person who ordered it] had a number of commissions from JAF [the Parisian company believed to have built this automaton]. He wanted something special. It’s larger than many others out there. I think he was interested in automata. I don’t think he was a magician at all.
Is it reasonable to assume that this automaton was a custom commission, given its size and the number of movements it performs? Or are automata generally created as one-offs? There are catalogs of automata going back over a century. In the sale, we have a peacock that walks around, spreads its feathers, and keeps walking. In the Roullet & Decamps catalog, it was offered in three different sizes. That doesn’t mean there was a storage room that had 500 of each [size] sitting on the shelves. [The catalog said], ‘Here’s what we can do for you.’ They’d build them as they got orders, or they’d build six and when they ran out, they’d build six more.
But would this magician automaton have been custom made, judging by its size and the number of movements it performs? I don’t think the movements point to that, but the size and the finish point to it being a custom commission. There are automata that are similarly complex or a lot more complex. It’s large and finely finished. I’m sure it was built to the specifications of the customer.
Why might someone have commissioned a large automaton such as this one? I believe this was for a private collector, but many were meant to be in shop windows, something to attract attention. It was a business expense, but it was an employee who required no salary. Hopefully people in the pre-television era would stop and be fascinated by what they saw.
How do we know this was built in Paris between 1925 and 1930? I was given the information by the consigner. Between his research and the [expertise of the] person who was working on his automata, I believe that’s how they pieced it together.
Does its large size–it stands almost five feet tall–hint at how it might have been used? And would its size have been harder to make than most automata? It’s perfect for use in a film, of course, because it’s a background player. I don’t think its size made it harder to build. I think it made it easier to build. There’s just more room [to hide the works].
The lot notes for the automaton from Sleuth say it has eight movements. Is that a lot for an automaton? And what are the movements? It’s on the higher end. I don’t mean to put it down–it’s certainly a complex mechanism. What I mean to say is it’s not playing checkers with anyone. It’s not elaborate. [Fajuri later corrects the total to seven movements, which include: moving its head up and down; moving its head back and forth; moving its lips; moving its eyes; an arm moving a wand; an arm moving a cone; and items changing under the table. If you wanted to count this last as a separate movement for every object the magician automaton produces, it would add several to the total. You can see the automaton performing in this video.]
But the more movements there are, the more chances that something will break or go wrong… Absolutely, the more complex it is, the more complex it is. But in Paris at the time, certainly [the first owner] had a choice of people in a three-mile radius to fix it. They were in spitting distance of each other.
Does the magician automaton from Sleuth still perform all its movements? Yes.
Does it perform the movements in a set order, or can you choose which ones it does? It’s a set order, as is the case with most automata.
What can we tell by looking about how difficult it was to make? By watching it from the outside, you can’t tell anything, which is the point.
How original is this magician automaton from Sleuth? And how unusual is it for a nearly hundred-year-old automaton to retain its fabric elements–its original costume and turban? Earlier examples in the [August 24 auction] catalog are more remarkable for retaining their clothes. It had things that needed tending to when [the consigner] bought it. It got a tune-up and a polishing as opposed to an entirely new “chassis”. But we’ve sold automata that have been missing 50 percent of their works.
Do any of the symbols on the front and the top of the table mean anything? Are they just gibberish? I believe they’re gibberish. They’re not recognizable to me.
What, if anything, do we know about how this automaton was chosen to appear in the film Sleuth? We don’t really have additional information.
Do we know if the filmmakers tweaked the automaton for the movie, or built a backup model? Not that we’re aware of.
What’s it like in person? It’s scary. He’s not smiling. He has a furrowed brow, and a stern, serious look. It’s the kind of thing where if you walk into the gallery before you turn on the lights and [you] feel someone standing there. It’s kind of scary.
Does it make noise? It’s not all that noticeable, but you do hear the mechanics working. It’s not distracting.
What’s your favorite detail of the magician automaton from Sleuth? You mentioned it already. It’s the carving in the table. It shows an extra level of care that the builder went to to make it special. It adds an extra level of quality and craft to what could be a plain, wooden table, or could have had a cloth thrown over it. It adds to the charm, and adds a mysterious element to it.
Is it heavy? Yeah. It’s not 500 pounds or anything, but it requires a few people to move it.
How did you arrive at the $40,000 to $60,000 estimate? It was difficult. It was at Skinner in 2008 and sold for $40,000, which was a help. Like a lot of things we sell, there’s not a huge track record to compare it to. We seem to be the place that writes the books on a lot of things we sell. The Skinner auction record was the only one we could find.
How do other magician automata you’ve handled compare to this magician automaton from Sleuth? It’s the largest, and on the auction day, it may be the most expensive we’ve ever sold. Sleuth was nominated for four Academy Awards. It was a pretty serious film with well-known actors. Laurence Olivier was no slouch. It’s fair to say more people saw it in the film than ever saw it in a store window.
So it’s in the upper ranks? I’d say so, yeah. The way it does its tricks is amazing in its own right. Other automata in the auction do similar tricks, but when you combine that with its history, its size, and its aesthetics, it’s certainly right up there. It’s got a lot going for it.
During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.
What you see: An 1898 Cygnet “Swan” Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, by the Stoddard Manufacturing Company of Dayton, Ohio. Copake Auction sold it in April 2013 for $24,150, a record for this type of bike.
The expert: Mike Fallon, owner of Copake Auction.
How were ladies’ bikes different from mens’ bikes at the turn of the previous century? You had to have room for skirts. The crossbar, which goes from the steering head to the seat, had to dip down to accommodate bloomers or skirts. It was always lower. Ladies’ bikes often had a skirt guard on the rear tire and guards on the chain, also, where you pedal.
Was this the first example of this bicycle to go to auction? I don’t know, but in my 30 years of experience, only one has sold at auction. Though I could be 100 percent wrong about that. In the antiques world, there are no absolutes.
How long was the Stoddard Manufacturing Company in business? From 1897 to 1898.
Do we know how many Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycles they made? No.
Was the Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicyclea popular bike? I don’t know, but here’s my guess. If they were only in business for one year, it was probably an expensive bike. There were probably thousands of brands [of bicycles available at the time]. It didn’t catch on. My guess is it was hard to make. It’s a labor-intensive design. Sometimes, really expensive utilitarian items don’t do very well.
Why was its looped frame considered to have an advantage over a diamond-shaped frame? Their idea was to add strength through a continuous stress member, as opposed to hard angles with stress points. I think it probably wasn’t a factor. Welding was a fairly new science at that point. Everyone struggled to be the newest, best, most innovative, except the plain Jane bikes. Probably, people were hesitant to buy things that were very expensive and different.
But the looped frame has a purpose, right? It wasn’t just there to look cool? It was one of its selling points. It was not just for looks. It was industrial design as art. I think it’s the best-looking bike of the period. At the point I sold it, I was told there were only ten [still in existence], but who knows?
Yeah, you never know when someone will stumble across an old warehouse that has ten of them in it. Yes. I’ve heard stories throughout my career [like that], and I’ve been doing this quite a while.
Did the Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle get its name from its frame? “Cygnet” is French for “swan.” If you look at it, it has a swan-y look.
Was it only sold in white? Nobody knows.
The lot notes describe the Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle as “one of the most stunning bicycles ever made.” Could you elaborate? What makes it stunning? I think the Cygnet is the most beautiful bike ever made, from my perspective. If that bike as sitting with 100 other bikes, it’d be the one 50 people are standing around, looking at.
The lot notes describe this example as being in “excellent restored condition”. What does that mean in this context? “Restored condition” means it was refurbished. When I say “excellent”, it means when he [the restorer] finishes, it looks like it came out of the factory, maybe better. I can’t tell you what was repaired on it. I never did find out.
Must an antique bike be rideable, or does that not matter to collectors? One of the interesting things about bicycles in general, and bicycle collectors specifically, is bicycle collectors tend to ride [their] bikes. I don’t ride them. I don’t think it’s appropriate to ride them. If I got on one and it gave way because of a bad weld… The big deal with bike-riders is riding first and rarity second. I’ve sold bikes that are really rare and been told, “It’s rare, but I can’t ride it.” To me, if you have a bike where there’s only ten in existence, I don’t care if it’s hard to ride, I want it in my collection.
But you choose not to ride the antique bikes you sell? I’ll get on a high-wheel if I’m feeling really stupid, but I don’t really ride the bikes. We look at them and know what to look at, and know how to describe them and photograph them. When things come in, they’re not my property. And riding a bike is riding a bike. They’re all about the same.
Are unrideable antique bikes always worthless? I’ll tell you a story. Someone called me and said they had a Lindbergh bike–pretty rare and very desirable. It had been outside. The frame was totally rotted, the handlebars were rusted, the wheels were gone. The main thing was the badge [which said “Lindbergh”]. I sold it for $1,400. The man who bought it came from California specifically to buy it. He took the name badge off and put the rest in a Dumpster.
Are ladies’ bikes rarer than mens’ bikes of the period? I think ladies’ bikes were more plentiful, and I’ll tell you why. The 1890s was ladies’ liberation, out on a ride with a boyfriend and without a chaperone. Millions and millions of bikes were made, and ladies tended to take care of their bikes.
What was your role in the auction? I was selling at the podium.
What do you recall of the sale? There was a lot of apprehension about how it would do. One of the kahunas of the bike world told me it’d go for over $10,000. Others said no way. They tend to be a conservative bunch.
How did you present the lot when it came up? We wheeled it onto the stage back then. Now, we wouldn’t.
The Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle sold for $24,150 against an estimate of $6,000 to $7,000. Did that surprise you? I would say yes, I was surprised. It was an unknown. I’d be surprised if it only went for that today.
What is the bike like in person? Stunning is the word I used. It IS stunning. Even if you don’t like bicycles, it’s pretty cool-looking. I’m a pretty critical type of person when it comes to… anything. I can look at something and tell if something’s wrong with it. This bike, there’s nothing wrong with it.
Why will it stick in your memory? Because of its style. It’s a great-looking machine. For industrial design as art, it’s as good as it gets. This thing is just a fabulous object.
During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.
What you see: A brown Air Force One bomber jacket, size 44, which President John F. Kennedy gave to Dave Powers circa 1962. Estimated at $20,000 to $40,000, it sold at John McInnis Auctioneers in February 2013 for $655,500, a record for a presidential Air Force One bomber jacket.
The expert: Dan Meader, gallery director for John McInnis Auctioneers.
Who was David Powers, and what was his connection to John F. Kennedy? It started in 1946, when Kennedy was running for Congress. He needed to be a real player in the Charlestown area near Boston, and he was told by people in the know he had to befriend Dave Powers. He was the one who could really affect the local community. Kennedy knocked on his door, and brought him to a Gold Star Mother event. It was a really emotional meeting. Powers was blown away by his words, his actions, and how the audience took to him. He worked in the West Wing as a special assistant, and he remained a friend and confidant until the end. When things were tense in the White House, if people saw the president with Powers, they knew things were going to be OK.
How did John McInnis Auctioneers win the opportunity to auction Powers’s personal collection? We got a call from a person in Massachusetts who had things related to President Kennedy, and would we like to take a look? It was Powers’s son, who was in contact with Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, all the big players. Someone recommended he contact us. We gave our presentation after we looked over the things. They chose us because of our desire, our ability, and our personal touch. They wanted to keep it [the sale] in Massachusetts, and the others only wanted to pick and choose. We had 750 lots, with literally thousands of objects [overall]. We were able to give [the collection] the honor it deserved.
How did President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomberjacket come to Powers? Did the president give it to him? The president had, I forget how many. It was an odd number of bomber jackets he had. Some he never wore, and gave to people. We believe he gave him this jacket in 1962. That’s how Dave got it. That’s how Dave got everything. He was the first creator of the JFK Library, and he gave thousands and thousands of objects to it. These [the collection McInnis sold] were the personal things he kept–things Dave had in drawers and files, a whole treasure trove. They [the family] didn’t understand what they had.
Did Powers wear it? I think he wore it on occasion. There’s a family story that when Powers passed away, his son hung it in the closet. He knew it was a special jacket, but he didn’t think of it in terms of dollars. It had been hanging there maybe a year or so, or two years. Then one of his [the son’s] kids was going away on an overseas trip, and was told, “You need a jacket to keep you warm at night.” The dad saw the jacket sticking out of the kid’s duffel bag and said, “Whoa, whoa, that’s JFK’s jacket.” If he hadn’t noticed that, it could have ended up lost and gone overseas. The kid just thought, “Oh, this will work, it’s leather.” He didn’t think about it, he didn’t understand. $655,000 later… [laughs] It was a good find for dad to see it sticking out of the bag.
How did you arrive at the estimate of $20,000 to $40,000? If you look at the estimates in the catalog, we tried to make things attainable. It was an unreserved sale across the board. It [the estimate] made people understand this is real, it’s going to be sold, and it’s going to sell for what it sells for. If we put the highest price on it, people would lose interest right away. If it felt attainable, they might get hooked, and maybe it would continue to go higher. That happened. I can tell you the person that won didn’t know what they would pay for it.
What condition was President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomberjacket in? It was in worn condition, but very good. There was a tiny hole in the stretchy material at the bottom of the jacket, but it wasn’t abused or anything like that. Dave didn’t wear it as an everyday jacket.
Do we know where the other JFK-era Air Force One bomber jackets are? JFK gave one to Peter Lawford, which sold for $14,000. I don’t know where that one is. There’s one at the JFK library. Bobby Kennedy had one, but Ethel Kennedy didn’t know where [it ended up].
Did you try it on? [Laughs] Yes. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that.
What is President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomberjacket like in person? I think the most amazing thing for me about the jacket–I don’t want to say I was jaded. I saw all the personal things [Powers kept from his relationship with JFK] and got a sense of what it was all about, but during the previews [for the auction], we had two television camera crews come from Russia. JFK was so well-known to them because of Castro and Cuba. They were dying for the jacket. It brought him to life.
This jacket is actually connected to two presidents. Ronald Reagan asked to borrow it from Powers, and he agreed. How might that have affected its value? That was kind of an unknown. Ronald Reagan wrote Dave Powers a nice letter. He wanted it for his museum. Powers was kind enough to let it out. He only loaned it to President Reagan. [Reagan’s thank-you note to Powers was part of the lot.] When you can see another president enamored of the jacket, it’s just incredible, just incredible.
What was your role in the auction? I’m the gallery director here. I do behind-the-scenes stuff. John McInnis is the auctioneer. We believe the Powers auction broke the record for a continuous live auction of antiques. We began at 11 am on Sunday, February 17, 2013, President’s Day weekend, and it went around the clock, ending with lot 732 at 5:31 in the morning [on Monday, February 18, 2013]. We stood right there without a break. It took forever to sell stuff. All the major television stations came. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people wanted to participate.
When did the jacket come up? After 8 pm.
And bidding lasted 17 minutes? It was 17 or 17 1/2 minutes. It’s a huge amount of time. It’s an eternity. There were people online, people in the audience, and at least eight phone lines, if not ten, for the jacket alone.
Physically, how were you all doing at that point, having auctioned for eight straight hours and gotten to lot 327 of 723? I worked until 3 am before the auction. I was back here by six. I got a half-hour of sleep, but I couldn’t sleep anyway. It was unbelievable. I was handling all facets of the press, all the questions from bidders, and I was trying to keep the place looking good. At the time, I was drinking Rock Stars and Monsters [energy drinks] to keep me going. I was a zombie afterward. The auction ended at 5:30 am and I didn’t get home until 8:30. I had to bring the jacket home with me [laughs], because I had insurance. Physically, I was… so much adrenalin was going through me. It was kind of a high, I guess. It was so exciting–no lulls. People would come and go, watch it online, and come back again. I knew when something big was coming up because the hall would fill up again.
Did you physically bring out the jacket, or did you show a photo behind John McInnis as bidding started? We had it in a glass case behind the podium. Just prior to the sale, three or four lots ahead, we took it out so people could take pictures of it. We laid it on Dave Powers’s desk from the West Wing.
What do you remember of the sale of President Kennedy’s Air Force One bomberjacket? The hall started to fill back up again. Don’t forget, there was a snowstorm, and it was getting late. I realized it was coming up. We didn’t know we were going to sell it for that kind of money. Personally, I thought it would sell for $75,000. I never thought it would go over half a million.
So you were surprised at the final figure? I was surprised, but I wasn’t. It had so much activity on it, [I realized] it could do $150,000 or $200,000. The beauty of the auction is the public determines the value of the object that day. On that particular day, that was what the public decided.
Did the snowstorm have any effect on the bidding? It had an effect on the crowd. [The sale room could hold about 450 attendees.] A lot of people couldn’t get here. I tried not to think about it. I had enough to worry about. But it didn’t have an effect on prices. It had an effect on the crowd being there in person, rather than online. That [the Internet option] made it much easier for them to bid without the stress of worrying about getting into an accident.
Did any members of the Powers family attend the sale? We don’t recommend [consigners] come to the auction. We had a private preview for the family, so they had their own time to shed their emotions. One of Powers’s grandchildren was having her Broadway debut in New York City that night. After 8:15 or 8:30, I got off the podium, went over, and left a message [with a family member]: “I wanted you to know what it just sold for.” Within two minutes, my phone was beeping. “I want to make sure I’ve got this right–WHAT did you say it sold for?” Prices were extremely strong across the board–10 times, 20 times, 30 times the estimates. It was incredible.
Did you have any notion that the auction would last as long as it did? No! No! Another auctioneer we’ve known forever texted me probably one hour in, “Do you realize, at the pace you’re going, it’s not going to end until 4 am?” [I texted back,] “I don’t care what it takes, so be it.” When you see the other end of it–the prices rise and rise and rise–it’s very exciting. It doesn’t happen often. It was a lot of fun. We run auctions of 700 or 800 lots in a day. We can usually do 60 to 75 lots an hour. We thought we’d be done by eight or nine at night. We could never have anticipated going for 30-something hours. [We thought,] “Eh, we can do it all in a day. We’ve done it a million times.” We never anticipated going through the night. We felt in full confidence we’d get through and be done by 9 pm.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It was the most valuable thing to sell at the auction, by far, and the only item in the sale that brought over $100,000. But honestly, a few other things in the sale had a bigger impact on me. There’s the book Jackie Kennedy signed to Powers [after the assassination, saying] “You and I will miss him most.” There’s the typewritten schedule for November 21 and 22, 1963. Dave had annotated the whole, entire schedule. When the murder happened, Powers was the guy who brought him to the hospital. He was in a Secret Service car behind the president. He was there through the whole thing. He was his most loyal person. It was a true bromance. He never had a better friend.
During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.
What you see: The Bulova chronograph that astronaut David Scott wore on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission. RR Auction sold it in October 2015 for $1.6 million against an estimate of $750,000. It set a then-record for an Apollo item, a record for an item owned and directly consigned by an astronaut, a record for a timepiece used on the lunar surface, a record for any Bulova watch, and a RR Auction house record for the most expensive lot that it has handled.
The expert: Bobby Livingston, executive vice president at RR Auction.
The Apollo astronauts relied on government-issued Omega Speedmaster chronographs. How did Scott convince NASA to let him use the Bulova instead? He didn’t. Scott and the others are engineers, responsible for the lives of their crews. They brought backups. Bulova gave him the watch and a stopwatch, which we also sold. The company was U.S.-owned at the time. They tried very hard to get the chronograph contract from NASA. Bulova’s then-boss, Omar Bradley, had said, “How can we put boys on the moon wearing foreign-made watches?” During the second EVA [A NASA acronym that stands for “extravehicular activity,” which describes anything an astronaut does outside a spacecraft that has left the Earth], he noticed that the crystal on his Omega Speedmaster was gone. We don’t know why [it went missing] but the heat emanating from the sun may have heated to a temperature that had it pop off. Scott took the Omega off the strap and replaced it with the Bulova. It was a prototype watch. He brought it as a backup, with no promises to the Bulova company that he would use it.
The Bulova was a prototype? It was the prototype they made to pitch to NASA on the contract that Omega got. They developed it to go to the moon, but it was never put into production. Only Dave, the [spacecraft] commander, had a Bulova backup. I don’t think the others [his two crewmates] were approached by the Bulova company.
Could you talk for a bit about why the astronauts needed these watches, and how they relied on them? They all needed wristwatches. Dave basically used it to keep track of the elapsed time on the consumables used. We included a quote from Scott in the catalog: “Time is of the essence during human lunar expeditions–and exploration time on the surface is limited by the oxygen and water (for cooling) we can carry in our backpacks… knowledge of precise time remaining was essential.”
How long did Scott wear the Bulova on the lunar surface? The third EVA was four hours, 49 minutes, and 50 seconds. [Livingston relayed these numbers from memory, with complete fluency.] What was really cool about the watch was he drove the lunar rover while wearing it. He was the first to drive on the moon, and the watch stood up to that, obviously. It was very much exposed to lunar material. You can see the scratches on the bezel.
Was Scott wearing the watch when he repeated Galileo’s experiment on the lunar surface, dropping the hammer and the feather and proving they’d hit the ground at the same time? Yes, but he didn’t actually use the watch. Each arm was holding out an item, and he didn’t need the timer to see them hit the surface. They hit at the same time. It was apparent. [Laughs] But he wore the watch when he did it. The significance of this particular watch on his arm when he did it was profound to us.
Did the watch and the strap have lunar dust on it? It certainly had remnants of lunar material when I saw it, and obvious damage to the crystal from the lunar surface.
The strap as well? Yes, it was apparent that lunar material was on it when I got it. There are shots of Dave wearing the watch during splashdown [the term for when a spacecraft makes its return landing in the ocean; the astronauts disembark into a dinghy], so it may have been in the ocean. [RR Auction created a dedicated catalog for Scott’s Bulova. You can see a period photo of a post-splashdown Scott, his watch clearly visible on his wrist, on pages 14-15.] There is a bit of rust on the watch. I saw lunar dust on it. It wasn’t covered. There wasn’t tons of it. But it certainly had it.
What did Scott do with the watch after the Apollo 15 mission? He put it into a baggie and kept it in storage for 40 years until he sent it to us.
Does the watch have inherent value? Would it be worth something even if it hadn’t gone to the moon on Scott’s wrist? It sounds like it might, given that it was a prototype designed to win a NASA contract. Even if it never went to the moon, it has collectible value. Interestingly, when I approached Bulova and said I had Dave’s Bulova, which he wore on the moon, they didn’t believe me.
How did you convince Bulova of your claim? Dave had retained documents from Bulova. I had source material that didn’t exist in their archives of Omar Bradley talking about the watch and getting the contract. Then they believed me. [Laughs]
You set an estimate of $750,000. How did you come up with that number? We based it on other artifacts that we had sold for Dave Scott. We sold his rotational hand controller for a similar price, $610,000, and we sold his cuff checklist for $364,000. We felt it was the most important thing that he had in his collection. We recognized that it was the only watch that’s been on the lunar surface that you could own. The government still retains all of the Omega watches. Anything that’s been on the lunar surface has immense value because it’s critical to the mission. This certainly was.
I imagine there was cross-competition for this between watch collectors and space memorabilia collectors. That was exactly what happened. As it got higher, we had dueling collectors of Apollo [material] and watches. They understood the significance of the item. Not only was it on the surface, it was a watch. It crossed over, certainly.
Did you try it on? I did not. The lunar strap had to fit on the space suit, so it was quite long. I used gloves to handle it. I do own a Bulova chronograph replica because it is my favorite thing.
Do you wear the Bulova replica every day? Yeah! [laughs]
How did you convince Scott to consign the watch? We knew it existed. It was rumored in the collecting community that he wore it on the EVA. Once he became a client, it did take some effort for him to consign it, but he’s glad he did. It wasn’t the first thing out of storage. We built a relationship with him, and then he said, “I have this watch…”
Does the watch still work? From the time I got it to the time I sold it, it had a little life in it. Somehow, it showed us it still worked. [Between Scott taking the scouting photos of the watch and Livingston receiving the watch, the hands advanced, but it’s not clear when they briefly winked to life.] I wouldn’t wind it. Usually with a watch, you clean it. This watch, you don’t want to clean it. It’s just too important.
What was the auction like? We sold it live at our gallery in Boston. All of us worked really hard on the auction. It was a really intense moment, adrenalin pumping. When we exceeded our client’s expectations, it was unbelievable. If I recall correctly, there were five initial bidders. The lot took eight or nine minutes.
Was Scott there in the sale room? No, but he was listening through a computer. We got his reaction at the time. He was very generous and kind to everyone who worked on the auction. He made it about our staff and the auction. I think he understood the importance of getting the object in the hands of a collector who will take care of it. I think that’s what he cares about.
Were you surprised that it sold for $1.6 million? You know, our expectations were $750,000. It was thrilling for it to get to a $1 million bid and keep going [laughs loudly]. That was unbelievable. It was an achievement for us. We don’t sell fine art. We don’t have Banksy shredding his work on our walls. [laughs]
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It crosses so many lines. It’s history. It was important to the mission. It’s a great story. There’s incredible photographic provenance [evidence]. It comes right from him. It tells so many stories of the mission. It has an emotional resonance with me on so many levels. And it went to the moon! [laughs] And came back!
What you see: A Disney “model drawing” of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia. It dates to the 1940s. Heritage Auctions expects it to sell for $2,500 to $3,500.
The expert: Jim Lentz, director of animation art for Heritage Auctions.
So, what makes this the “Holy Grail of Mickey Mouse art”? Mickey Mouse was changed in 1939 by Fred Moore to have pupils. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was originally going to be a short, but they needed box office power for the art film, so they put it into Fantasia. When you rank Mickey Mouse’s greatest hits, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is considered his number one all-time appearance. It’s the Fred Moore design, the first time Mickey Mouse has pupils, Fantasia, and Mickey Mouse’s signature role of all time.
Did Fred Moore make other notable changes to the design of Mickey Mouse? The ears changed a little bit, and the face is fuller. But the introduction of pupils was a big thing.
This is a model drawing. What are model drawings, and how did Disney use them? A model drawing is used for reference, for publicity, for books, and for posters. It didn’t go under the [animation] camera. It’s always perfect, and it’s used for reference on how something is to be drawn. It’s a high-quality piece of artwork.
This one is identified as MD-28. Does that imply that Disney did at least 27 other model drawings for Fantasia? No, it’s just an inventory number for the studio.
Are there other Mickey Mouse Fantasia model drawings? There’s never just one, but it’s the only one of the quintessential [Mickey Mouse Fantasia] pose seen everywhere that’s come to market. I’ve been doing this [animation art] for 40 years and I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen it on the covers of books and press kits. It’s a famous pose.
Is it at all possible to know who at Disney would have done this model drawing? No, it’s not known. You have to remember that the animators weren’t paid to be artists. They were making films. The artist was always Walt Disney Studios. At that time, the head of art for Disney Publicity was Hank Porter, but we can’t say it’s Hank Porter. There’s no way to know it’s him.
Was there someone, or some type of animator at Disney to whom the task of model drawing typically fell? The principal animator for Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was Fred Moore. He came up with the design used for Mickey, but there’s no way to know who did the drawing, because it’s so tight.
If the drawing was looser, we might be able to tell who drew it? If it was looser, we could tell by the animator’s style. But it’s not an animation drawing, it’s a model drawing. It’s final, and cleaned up.
How often do Disney model drawings come to auction? They’re not common. We do see them from time to time, but one of this quality is extremely rare.
This is faintly colored, not fully colored. Was that typical for model drawings at Disney in the 1940s? Pencil was used for the drawing, so they stayed with graphite and colored pencils. If it was a cell, it would be different, and if it was a painting, it would be different.
What estimate would you put on this? I think it’s going to go to $2,500 to $3,500. That’s what I see good Sorcerer’s Apprentice drawings going for.
What’s the provenance of this piece? It’s from the family of a former Disney employee.
The lot notes describe the model drawing as being in “very good condition.” What does that mean in this context, when we’re talking about a piece of functional art? It’s not folded. It’s not smudged. There are no tears, or holes in the paper.
What’s it like in person? I think it’s pretty amazing. It’s Mickey Mouse in his greatest role, and in an amazing pose. It’s kind of a trophy piece of Mickey Mouse art, and it’s done by hand.
Ah, so this model drawing probably won’t get close to that. I think it will go for $2,500 to $3,500, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it hit $5,000.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? That image looks at me every day. I have a whole library of Disney books that I reference when I work on catalogs. I have one, The Art of Disney’s Fantasia, and that image is on the cover. It kind of threw me when I first saw the artwork–“Hey, wait a minute!” It pops up a lot. It’s a famous image. It’s pretty spectacular.
Update: The Edward Gorey Cat Fancy cover illustration for The New Yorker sold for $16,250.
What you see: Cat Fancy, a cover illustration created for The New Yorker magazine by the late Edward Gorey. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: Christine von der Linn, specialist in art books and original illustration at Swann Auction Galleries.
Do we know why Gorey only did two covers for The New Yorker, and why the commissions came so late in his life? He seems like a good fit for a cover illustrator for that magazine. Was he considered too well-known to commission? Gorey’s relationship with The New Yorker was a long and curious one. His first real review and introduction to the wider public, and certainly the New York cultural elite, appeared in the magazine’s pages in its December 26, 1959 issue. The great literary critic, Edmund Wilson, an admirer of Gorey’s work, wrote an appreciation titled The Albums of Edward Gorey. His relative obscurity, he felt, was due to his working mainly to amuse himself. In 1950, around the time of his first commissions, when he was drawing for the Harvard Advocate and smaller humor magazines, Gorey actually submitted his work to The New Yorker. Then-Cartoon Editor Frank Modell rejected it, suggesting that “less eccentric drawings might draw a more enthusiastic audience.” It would take 43 years before the sensibilities and ironic humor of the magazine, under Tina Brown’s editorship, finally embraces his irreverent, camp-goth style.
How did the magazine use the artwork commissioned from Gorey under Tina Brown’s editorship?Lot 188 is among the three pieces he submitted in 1993. Instead of being used as a cover, it was used as a memorial postscript in The New Yorker when he died in 2000.
Why was this Gorey illustration, Cat Fancy, not used by The New Yorker until 2018?Art editor Françoise Mouly explained in her Cover Story that The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, asked if they had any unpublished work by Gorey in their archives to accompany an appreciation of him by Joan Acocella for their December 10th issue. Mouly was delighted to find a file of this original artwork and used it on the cover. The original artworks were sent back to Gorey’s agent, John Locke, after they had been digitized.
Do we know why The New Yorker didn’t use it back when they commissioned it, in the early 1990s? There’s no indications about why they didn’t use it, but in general, The New Yorker doesn’t like to use the same illustrator in a calendar year. They did one in December 1992, the first time Edward Gorey was on the cover, of a fantastic image of a denuded, stick-like Christmas tree with a family enthusiastically wrapping it with holiday-themed wallpaper. Maybe other covers came in, and it sunk to the bottom of the pile.
How often do Edward Gorey originals come up at auction? Pieces do come up a few times a year. We’ve handled upwards of 60 originals.
So, they’re out there, but at any given time, what’s out there might not be the Goreys you’d want most. That’s true, and Gorey appeals to people in different ways. Some like his Goth style. They want Dracula, and they want anything related to his Mystery! drawings for PBS. Those two works tend to set the highest prices.
You’vegoteightGoreysin theJune 4 sale. Is that an unusually high number? We’ve had as many as 12 in a single sale. It varies. We’ve had sales with no Goreys, and sales with three to four. Three to four is more typical.
What’s the record for an original work by Gorey? In March 2017, we sold a piece I named Skeletons and Hiding Figures. We believed it’s an illustration for PBS’s Mystery! series, circa the 1980s. It’s not terribly large and it’s unsigned, but it’s clearly in Gorey’s hand and it contains all his types–obelisks, hiding figures, mustachioed men in a garden setting. It sold for $18,750.
Where are most of Gorey’s originals? Are they in a library or another institution? The majority of his pieces are owned by the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. When Gorey died, anything in his possession became property of the trust. It has them at an off-site property and loans them to the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts.
Cat Fancy looks elaborate. Do we have any notion of how long it might have taken him to finish? His attention to detail is so strong, I imagine it took him several days. He drafted parts of it in pencil, then he went over it with ink, and then he colored it in with watercolors.
Could we talk about how this piece will appeal to Gorey collectors? What details does it have that Gorey collectors prize? First and foremost, its subject is cats. Gorey adopted several in his lifetime and thought of them as family, and as kindred spirits. They served as artistic inspiration, and sometimes he referred to them as people. His signature “Gorey Cat” pranced on the scene in 1972 with the publication of Amphigorey, his first anthology. Other works featuring cats include The Sopping Thursday, Category, Fletcher and Zenobia, T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and his famous ballet cats. Their style changed throughout the years, but they remain among his most popular. Cat Fancy also reflects his love of Victorian and Edwardian interiors—the overstuffed fussiness and detailed fabrics. It shows his skill and love of line work, much of which was influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts, the Surrealists, and the ink work of English artists like Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Ardizzone. His favorite colors were lemon yellow, olive green, and lavender, and this piece contains them in varying hues. In short, it hits on all cylinders.
Are there aspects of the illustration that the camera doesn’t quite capture? When you get up close to the artwork, you can see the flowers contain little insects. Not all of them–here and there throughout the quilt. Gorey loved insects. He often worked insects into his artwork.
Are there other aspects the camera doesn’t pick up? It draws you in. The composition, while incredibly complicated and busy, but part of its enchantment is that you find yourself, like the cats, getting lost in that big, soft bed.
Why will this illustration stick in your memory? I had an inkling where the two New Yorker pieces were, and I am thrilled to be able to be able to shepherd them from one appreciative owner into the hands of new, excited collectors. And I’m a Gorey groupie. I’m a book person, I adore cats, and lounging places, and it has my favorite color, so you’re making me want to bid on it! [Laughs]. It’s a terrific piece.
What you see: An 1894 poster by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, advertising a show of his work at the Bodiniére gallery. It also includes two progressive prints of the lithographic poster (scroll down to see them). Rennert’s Gallery estimates the group at $14,000 to $17,000.
The expert: Jack Rennert of Rennert’s Gallery.
I realize to some extent that all posters are advertisements for an artist’s skills, but how unusual is it to see a poster as literal as this one, which advertises Steinlen’s first gallery show in Paris? He did this for an exhibition at Bodiniére. It’s not a reproduction of a poster or a painting [in the show]. It’s an actual design, integrated with text, and he designed the text. It’s completely his poster.
What does it say about him that when choosing the image for this poster–which is intended to lure people to the gallery to buy his artworks–he chose to depict cats? Cats are one of his most iconic and popular images. He loved cats, and had a house full of them. People say you could tell where he lived within five blocks of his house.
The lot notes describe the pair shown on the poster as “his cats.” Might we know which of his cats modeled for this? Did they have names? Or were these imaginary cats? He had dozens of stray cats that he brought into his home in Paris. He didn’t need to imagine them. He had his models right there in his home. Lot 450, the following lot, is maybe his most famous poster of all, and it has his daughter, Colette, and three cats. It was for sterilized milk. She’s testing it before she gives it to them. Of the three cats, the two at the front could be the same two in the Bodiniére exhibit poster. He did them two years apart.
Are the cats in the Bodiniére exhibition poster shown at around life size? The poster is 32 inches wide by 23 inches high, so yeah, pretty much life size. They take up half the entire image of the poster.
The poster is horizontal. Is that unusual for this era? Yes. Ninety percent of the posters of the 1890s were vertical posters, meant to go on vertical spaces, like hoardings. It could have been that this Bodiniére exhibit poster was never meant to be an outdoor advertisement. It could have been in store windows.
Do I sense Japanese influence here? It kind of reminds me of Japanese woodcuts. Japanese art was very popular and influential with many artists in the 1890s, especially in Paris. You can see some of that in the treatment here, especially in the coloring of the cats. But I wouldn’t put too much stock in that. This is Steinlen and his way of drawing.
Do we have any notion of how many of these posters were printed, and how many survive? We don’t know, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to find out. I would guess that since it was a one-time exhibit, for one month, in one place and one city, I don’t think he would have had more than 200 or 300 copies made. There was no need for more.
This example of the poster comes with two progressive prints of the design, which show lithographic color passes. How do the prints give insight into how the poster was made? It’s stone lithography, so first, they’d do just the gray area, then overprint it with black in a few areas, giving it a solid, deep black look. The third color plate is red, which gives a nice color to the cat and the lettering. It’s unusual to show the final product and how it was arrived at.
Do we have any idea how this example of the poster survived with two related progressive prints? I’d say it’s more likely that it came from the archive of Charles Verneau, his favorite printer. There’s no reason for someone outside of a printing plant to have them. Every now and then you do see progressive prints for a poster, and inevitably, they come from printers’ storage. They’re rare.
How many times have you handled the Steinlen Bodiniére Exposition poster? Over the last 50 years, I’ve handled it ten to 12 times.
And how rare is it to see any poster with progressive prints, never mind a poster as iconic as this Steinlen? It’s extremely rare. Only real passionate poster collectors care enough to even want it. There’s nothing pretty about them. They’re incomplete works. But they appreciate seeing what went into the final [lithographic] stone.
In your 50 years in the business, how often have you seen a poster with progressive prints come up? I’ve probably had a couple dozen instances of that. Once every two or three years, I get a series.
So the Steinlen plus progressive prints will be of more interest to a museum or an institution? Absolutely. I expect museums, galleries, and foundations to have a special interest in them.
How did the presence of the progressive prints affect the estimate? It obviously increases it, but not by a hell of a lot. The poster often sells for $10,000. I estimated this in the $14,000 to $17,000 range because of the prints.
What’s the world auction record for this Steinlen poster? Was it set with you? The highest at our auctions was $9,200 in 2006. [This seems to be the world record, not just a house record.]
What makes this a successful poster? Why does it still sell for thousands of dollars more than a century after it was printed? It’s very appealing. It catches your attention. Cat people have an additional reason to be enamored of it. It’s one of the favorite posters by one of the most famous poster artists of the period. It was an important exhibition for him. It established him in the artistic community.
So the 1894 show did well? It was a successful show for him. He sold all his works. I won’t say it was because of the poster, but maybe it takes some of the credit.
What you see: White Hen with Chickens, painted in 1913 by American artist Ben Austrian. Freeman’s estimates it at $7,000 to $10,000.
The expert: Raphaël Chatroux, associate specialist in the fine art department at Freeman’s.
Who was Ben Austrian? What do we know about him and his work? He’s a local boy, born and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania. He had a lonely childhood, and he was sick very often. The air in Reading was quite polluted, so he had to spend his summers outside the city at a relative’s farm. He called it his vacation home. He went there for many years, from his early childhood until his mid-teens.
And he was self-taught, yes? Yes. Not by choice, but by necessity. Austrian’s family was very poor, and they didn’t have the means to send him to art school. At the age of five, his parents gave him a box of watercolors. During the summer, he was by himself and experimented with it. At an early age, he knew he wanted to become an artist. His mom was supportive, but his dad was wary. It was hard for a local artist to break through. He wanted him to work in the family business, which started as a dry-goods shop and evolved into a steam laundry. Austrian always painted on the side.
How did his career evolve? The first phase is from his early years until his father dies when Austrian is 27. He did have a few successes. He was very persistent in trying to show his art, though he wasn’t able to devote himself to it full time. His dad dying was a wake-up call to sell the family business and devote himself to art.
Did he paint hens and chicks exclusively? No, but it’s what he started painting in the very beginning–he painted what he knew. The first things he painted were chickens and landscapes. He painted other animals, such as ducks and horses, and at one point, his cat paintings were as popular as his chicken paintings. As he aged, he turned solely to landscapes.
And when he was a kid on the farm in the summer, he would feed the chickens? Exactly. He grew up surrounded by them. In a letter, he said, “I paint chickens because I love them.”
Was Austrian prolific? Do we have a count of how many works he made? There’s no catalogue raisonné. It’s hard to estimate the number of paintings he did, but he was prolific. It’s in the thousands. It’s difficult, too [to get a more precise count], because he wasn’t so good at keeping track of all of them, especially the early ones. A lot of the paintings are very similar, with similar names, like Mother Hen and Chicks. It’s tough to establish a chronology and an exhaustive summary of what he did. In the 1900s, he started putting dates on paintings.
Was he well-known in his time, or did his reputation grow later? He was well-known while he was alive. He was considered a Reading celebrity and he was smart about it–he was able to create a business out of it. When he worked for his dad, he knew to paint an original before meeting one of his dad’s clients. He was very strong-headed, and he did everything possible to break through. His partnership with the Bon Ami Company helped a lot. It assured his legacy, and it’s part of why he’s famous today. They made reproductions [of his works] that people could have on their fridge or in their wallet.
In reading about Austrian, I came across a claim that he taught his chickens to pose for him. Is that true? It seems crazy, but it’s true. You can find a lot of pictures of Austrian in his studio, surrounded by hens and chicks. He loved them. He talked to them every day, and he gave them names–some were elaborate. He raised them all on his own, so they only knew him. There was a special bond between the animals and Austrian. He had an incubator as well. [He did] whatever he needed to study their behavior and be as accurate as possible.
How did he teach chickens to pose for him? He always started by painting the hen first, and alone, because the chicks will always harass the mom. He’d put her in something like a nest, so she’d be quiet. With the chicks, the key to catching their attention was speaking to them–he could imitate their mom’s cackle. Or he’d use an object, like a piece of raw meat hanging from a stick. They’d gather round, infatuated with it, and that would give him a minute to catch the overall composition. Cigars would hypnotize them. They would freeze when they saw the light of a cigar. That would keep them quiet for a few moments.
In looking at the catalog for the sale, it’s clear that 100 years ago or so, there was a market for paintings of chicks and hens. I seeseveralworksby Austrian, and paintings of chicks by Mary Russell Smith and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait. Who was the audience for these works when they were new? Who bought and collected them? I’ll start by saying Austrian was not the first one [to paint chicks and hens] and not the only one. He was late in the game. When Mary Russell Smith died, he was very much a kid. Because Austrian was self-taught, he didn’t copy from other artists, but it [scenes of chickens] was a popular genre of the time. There were lots of dealers who handled these paintings, and Austrian often chased private collectors himself. He sold a lot to department stores and jewelry stores, which saw art as a way to get people to feel comfortable and spend more money. Wanamaker’s [a Philadelphia department store] had a lot of Austrians, and John Wanamaker bought directly from him–he bought for himself and for his stores. It was a good source of income.
What detail of White Hen with Chickens do you like best, and how does it speak to Austrian’s mastery? It’s quite a good painting because you have a lot of chicks, which is what matters, and an imposing motherly figure that anchors it all. What I like is the composition itself. I like the contrast between the quiet mom and the undisciplined children. They’re running around, some are on her back, and some are about out of the picture frame, but mom doesn’t move. She’s self-composed. That’s what I like, the organized chaos in the painting.
Have Austrian’s paintings always been collected, or was there a fall-off after his death? I think he’s always been steadily collected. There was never really a fall-off.
How often do Austrians come to market? And is it unusual to have this many in a single sale? What’s unusual here is the collection provenance. They’re from the Bon Ami Company itself, which helped shape his legacy and his image. It’s never sold works by Austrian before. It’s an event for them to come up for sale. Bon Ami is a golden provenance for a Ben Austrian painting.
Why are they selling the paintings now? They’re reshaping their collection and taking a more curated approach. They’re not trying to get every painting linked to Ben Austrian. And it’s a good way to raise brand awareness of the company, through Ben Austrian.
So this is the first time the Bon Ami Corporation has sold any of its Austrians? They’re fresh to market.
And that’s why you’re comfortable selling several in the same auction–because of the Bon Ami provenance? Exactly. The Bon Ami name helps because it ties the collection together.
White Hen with Chickens measures 20 inches by 26 inches. Is that an unusual size for Austrian? I wouldn’t say it’s typical, but it’s on a larger scale. It’s the largest devoted to chickens. At 20 inches by 26 inches, the birds are pretty much life size, which was something Austrian was well aware of. When hens are in the paintings, the paintings tend to be larger. When it’s just chicks, they tend to be smaller. It has to do with the emotions you’re supposed to feel. A small work with two chicks fighting over a bug is cute, and you can hold it in your hand. A hen is more serious. It has to be bigger, and it has to hang on the wall. He was very well aware of those visual tricks.
What’s the world auction record for a Ben Austrian painting? It’s a painting of a dog and a cat–no chickens–that sold at Pook & Pook in 2011 for $80,000. I dug a bit deeper and found the fourth-highest auction record is very similar to the White Hen with Chickens painting. It sold in 2004 for $40,000.
What is White Hen with Chickens like in person? What’s very nice about the painting is on one hand, you have a subject that’s very whimsical and cute–the children are agitated and the mom is quiet. It’s not a hen with chicks, it’s a mother and her children. That’s why you like it–he’s able to put humanity into the painting without being versed in sentimentalism. He’s very naturalistic in style, but he’s able to give some warmth to it, so it’s not kitsch. And if you look up close, the technique is perfect. The colors are not at all muddy or dark. They’re very pure, very bright, even though [the scene] takes place in a barn. For the chicks, he wanted something light and fuzzy, so he drew an outline and created a soft, sfumato-like blur, which gave that effect. You think it’s whimsical, but you can see the skills there. His technique is spot-on, and he learned it by himself.
Update: Roberto Montenegro’s Untitled (Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses) sold for $81,250.
What you see: Untitled (Tehuanas in Traditional Huipil Grande Headdresses), painted in the 1920s by Roberto Montenegro. Christie’s estimates it at $70,000 to $90,000.
The expert: Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American art for Christie’s.
How prolific was Montenegro? He was very prolific. He worked for five decades. He continued to paint into his sixties. He died in 1968.
Why hasn’t he received the scholarly attention that some of his peers have gotten? He’s a very well-known artist, and he’s always included in surveys of Mexican art. The market likes him. What’s missing is a volume that captures the depth of his career and really studies his accomplishments.
When–on what occasions–do Tehuanas [women native to the Tehuantepec area of Mexico] don this distinctive ceremonial garb? Weddings and funerals? To me, in this particular painting, because they’re holding flowers and almost appear to be compressed in a tight space, almost stacked against each other, it appears to be a processsion. Their demeanor is serious. It’s more an expression of reverence. The faces are not laughing or smiling. Do you remember the Diego Rivera painting from the Rockefeller collection? That picture was Tehuanas too. That’s a feast, a very different atmosphere, celebrating. This seems to be a little more serious. A religious offering, maybe a funeral, but we can’t tell.
What is mexicanidad, and how is it reflected in this painting? It’s a term that refers to putting elements of Mexican culture in the forefront of a painting or an artistic expression. A lot of artists reflect mexicanidad in different ways. Frida Kahlo was a master of mexicanidad. Everything she did or said or wrote deeply embraced her Mexican identity. She took it to another level in dress and in how she expressed herself.
The lot notes say that Montenegro traveled in Europe almost continually from 1905 to 1920, looking at historic and contemporary European art. Do we know how soon he painted this after he returned to Mexico? I wish we could, but sadly, no. His sister [who owned the painting] has passed away. She would have known.
This looks really Cubist to me. Do we know if he looked at Cubist works during his travels? I think he had seen avant-garde art in Europe, like Diego Rivera had. Montenegro obviously knew the work of other artists like Rivera, who had a Cubist period.
Is this the first time he plays with the geometric potential of these Tehuana outfits? I think Diego did it too. What’s different about this treatment in this particular painting–it’s very graphic, very frontal. It seems to confront the viewer. That’s what’s attractive about the painting. And it’s very sculptural.
Sculptural? Is the paint piled up on the surface of the canvas? No, no, the painting is flat. When I say sculptural, the shapes almost appear to be 3-D in the way that Montenegro overlaps the headdresses with the faces in the back. There’s a sense of transparency, almost.
Are his other depictions of Tehuanas this geometric? No, they’re not. If you look at his murals, the Tejuanas are soft and others don’t have headdresses. I think this is one of the few that do.
Do we know anything about his working style? Did he pose models for this, or take reference photos, or did he imagine this scene? I think these women are archetypes.
From memory? Yeah, from memory.
Why is this painting so effective? I think it’s very striking. Part of that is you’re looking at this very frontally. It’s almost them looking at you rather than you looking at them.
Is this typical or atypical of his work? I think it’s an outlier. He used a lot of Mexican motifs, but it’s an outlier in the way the picture is constructed.
What is the painting like in person? What’s interesting about the painting is it’s very tight. It’s effective in that you feel this is a group of women in a small procession. They’re very strategically placed in the picture plane, but they have their own personalities.
How often do Montenegros appear at auction? Normally there’s one every season. They don’t circulate too much. He’s not an artist people are trading constantly. When collectors find a Montenegro, they tend to keep it for generations.
From the looks of the lot notes, this has never been to auction before–correct? No, never.
How rare is it to have a Montenegro that’s fresh to market? Every two years, there’s a surprise. This was a total surprise. We didn’t know about the picture until [the heirs] contacted us. It was owned by his sister. She lived in California. Montenegro gave it to her on one of his trips to visit, and it’s been in the family all these years. I don’t know if it’s been published. It’s really the first time it’s been seen. It’s really great. It’s one of my favorite things in the sale.
What condition is it in? Very good shape. We cleaned it superficially, but it’s in great shape.
What’s the auction record for a Montenegro? It was set at Christie’s. It was one of his self-portraits in a sphere, from 1955. It sold in 2017 for $187,500.
So this could set a new record for the artist, maybe. Let’s just say it’s conceivable.
Why will this painting stick in your memory? It is a memorable painting. It’s very graphic. And it’s lovely in the flesh, really, really lovely. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get a rediscovered artwork. This example has never been seen or published in color. Now the image is out there, and people can refer to it. We love to sell things, and we love to contribute to the understanding of an artist by presenting something that’s so good and special.
Update: Roy Lichtenstein’s COMPOSITION sold for $1.28 million.
What you see: COMPOSITION, a porcelain enamel panel commissioned from Roy Lichtenstein in 1969. Sotheby’s estimates it at $900,000 to $1.2 million. [Note: It’s shown here upside-down.]
The expert: Nicole Schloss, Head of Sotheby’s Day Auctions of Contemporary Art in New York.
How often did Lichtenstein make porcelain enamel panels? Is this it? There are a few nuances to unpack here. In 1964, Lichtenstein began creating enameled panels in limited editions of six or eight. He’d send schematic drawings to the fabricator, who would make the pieces. Unlike the other panels Lichtenstein did, this one is unique.
Did Gunter Sachs see one of those limited edition Lichtenstein panels and commission one from him for his St. Moritz residence? Essentially, yes. Lichtenstein met Sachs on the beach at Southampton in 1968. Sachs, by then, was well-known in the art world as a patron and a critic. I think he came to meet Lichtenstein through Andy Warhol. Once they met, they started a discussion about commissioned works. Sachs made this fabulous apartment in the penthouse [of Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz, Switzerland] dedicated to displaying pop art in every form. It was a pop art haven, almost. It spoke to the type of person Gunter Sachs was, loving and living with his art.
What are the dimensions of the panel? 24 by 77 1/2 inches, a shape that was meant to fit a specific area in Sachs’s apartment.
Where in the bathroom was this panel installed? Sachs had a bedroom and bathroom en suite. This panel ran the width of the area below his double sink in the bathroom.
So it needed to be enamel. Exactly. Sachs and Lichtenstein exchanged letters about the subject, and they developed it together. There were two panels–the other has a Leda and the Swan theme, and it ran the width of his bathtub. The two panels are considered a conceptual pair, but two very different works. The other one has been in a private collection for seven to eight years now.
Is any of the correspondence between Sachs and Lichtenstein included with the panel? It’s not part of the lot. We don’t have it. We have asked the Lichtenstein Foundation for a copy of it. It’s a dialogue–not just one-sided by either party. Sachs wanted objects that were beautiful in his home, and Lichtenstein wanted to produce something current with what he was working on. He was starting to conceptualize other vehicles for his Pop vernacular–sunrises, hot dogs. In the late 1960s, it merges into his Modern painting series, a comment on modernity and Modernism. He was looking at Léger and Sonia Delaunay, and he put his own very colorful, Pop-y spin on it.
What condition is it in? It’s in exceptional condition. The enamel has stayed bright and fresh and reflective throughout its existence. It looks like it was made yesterday. It [this condition] is what you look for, especially if it’s used.
Is this one panel or two? It’s one single panel, a single piece of metal with enamel on top of it. The sun over the lake looks like it’s a dividing element, but it’s one single panel.
What’s it like in person? It’s impressive. It holds its own in our gallery. It pulls you in. Your eye wants to follow the curve of the rainbow. It’s really an exciting work to see in the flesh. It’s much brighter than it looks in the illustration. It’s quite vibrant.
How did you come up with the estimate?We looked up what it sold for last time–$800,000 to $850,000 in 2012 [converted from British pounds]. The market for Lichtenstein has changed significantly since then. Lichtenstein’s record is $95.3 million. We’ve seen $40 million and $50 million prices for the artist for canvases from the 1960s. We also looked at editioned enamel works. They’ve sold for four million to $12 million when they feature the iconic women Lichtenstein was known for in the 1960s. It’s an abstract work, and it’s an enticing estimate. And there’s truly nothing like it available.
How does the Gunter Sachs provenance add value? It’s a great name to attach to any work. The fact that he commissioned it, had a hand in what it looked like, and lived with it for 50 years really adds to it. Having a huge name associated with a work of art adds quality and rarity. That’s what collectors look for.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a fantastic summation of everything Lichtenstein was doing in the 1960s. You have the BEN-Day dots and the primary colors. It really stands out as a unique and exceptional work. Your eye wants to linger over it.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the Lichtenstein panel? It was displayed upside-down in Gunter Sachs’s apartment. The correct orientation is as we have it in the catalog, with the moon on top and the reflection at the bottom. But you can display it in your home however you like.
Why did Sachs display it upside-down? Was it an error? I wouldn’t say it’s an error. Owner’s artistic license, we’ll call it. He liked it that way, for whatever reason. We’ll never know the true reason.
Update: John Lennon’s personal copy of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today with the infamous “Butcher” cover, which he inscribed, dated, and drew upon, and which was later autographed by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, sold for $234,400–a record for a Beatles “Butcher” album.
What you see: A U.S first state Butcher album prototype, stereo example, of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today, which was owned by John Lennon. He inscribed and dated it and drew a sketch on the back cover. Later, the recipient obtained signatures from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $160,000 to $180,000.
The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.
So, let’s start with how this album cover came about. It was offensive in 1966, and many would find it offensive now. How did this image get chosen for the album cover? How did it advance as far as getting a press run of 750,000 before it was stopped and recalled? It was a time toward the end of the Beatles as a group, working together. They were jaded and tired and exhausted [with] another photo shoot, another album. Bob Whitaker shot the photo. Some say it was a message against the war in Vietnam. Another theory was that Beatles albums in the USA were not exactly the same as the format in the UK, and the four guys felt their albums were being butchered.
But it was not shot as an album cover. How did it end up on the cover? I think they got together and decided it would be amazing and send a message, whatever the message they thought they were sending. They were young lads. They had produced a new album every year. They had this experience [the photo shoot with Whitaker], this fun event, and decided it would be the cover of the album.
All four Beatles were in favor of putting it on the cover? Yeah, I think they were. Their lives were changing. They wanted something that was almost rebellious in a way, and they went along with it.
Do we know how many copies of the first state version of the Butcher cover–the ones that escaped into the market, and were not covered with the shot of the Beatles posing in and around the trunk–exist? Capitol Records sent it to retailers and radio stations and leaders in getting the message out about the upcoming album. Advance copies. Once it was out, [people] started to question it. Capitol Records recalled it. I expect at the time the sentiment of the people who didn’t like it returned it to Capitol Records and wanted a replacement one.
Do we know how many first state Butcher prototype covers are out there? We do not. But what we should really focus on is it was John Lennon’s first state Butcher prototype cover. We sold Ringo Starr’s copy of the White Album for $790,000. Before that, the highest [the record for the most expensive record sold at auction] was an Elvis Presley record that sold for $300,000. This was Lennon’s, and he had a quote saying the cover was a comment on the Vietnam War–“If the public can accept something as cruel as the war, they can accept this cover.”
So Lennon was a proponent of the cover? Exactly. And the fact that this hung in Lennon’s apartment [in The Dakota in New York City], and it has John’s drawing on it–it’s an amazing part of this.
This is why I want to break it down, because there are a lot of moving parts here. Let’s subtract the Lennon provenance. A first state Butcher album cover prototype is pretty damn valuable on its own. It’s valuable. It’s really important. Collectors love to handle something like that and ideally it hasn’t been handled or opened or played. John Lennon did open and play it.
The John Lennon inscription is valuable on its own. Obviously, John Lennon is no longer with us. Anything signed by John Lennon has value in and of itself. Among the Beatles, he’s the most highly collectible.
And it’s signed by all the Beatles except George Harrison. [Laughs] Dave Morrell [who received the record from Lennon] was a young guy in 1971. Later, when he saw how the collectibility of the Beatles was going, he thought it would be good to have all four signatures. George Harrison passed in 2001, but he got Paul and Ringo to sign. It’s hard to do [get signatures from the surviving Beatles]. They rarely sign anything these days.
I imagine he tried to get George Harrison’s signature? Surely, he would have tried. Harrison was reclusive, and not as accessible as Paul or Ringo.
If the album had signatures from all four Beatles, would that raise the estimate? No, it wouldn’t. It would factor into the winning bid, not the estimate. Three out of four isn’t bad.
You sold Ringo Starr’s copy of the White Album for $790,000 against an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. Is the estimate on Lennon’s Butcher cover conservative? When we did the Ringo auction, he was a gentleman to work with. We had everything finished on the catalog, and he asked to meet with us in London. He told us, “I’m going to give you something very special.” It had been in a bank vault for about 35 years. Everyone speculated that John Lennon had the first copy of the White Album, but it was Ringo. He wanted a reserve of $60,000. We said absolutely. We were so amazed by the reactions. It was just phenomenal, a world record. But to answer the question–we placed a conservative estimate. We can’t determine where it will end up.
What are the odds that Lennon’s Butcher cover will break seven figures? [Laughs] I certainly hope so, but you never know. It’s an auction. The sky’s the limit. We’re doing the auction in Liverpool, which adds to the hype. John Lennon’s artwork, the signatures, it’s a prototype of an album that was recalled, it all plays into what goes down on May 9.
Lennon traded this to Morrell for a reel-to-reel bootleg. For those who don’t know, can you explain a bit about bootleg culture, and explain why Lennon would have traded this album for a bootleg? It’s still happening today, exchanging and swapping [recordings made at concerts and other venues]. With Beatles memorabilia, there’s a huge network of people plugged into that. John Lennon was no different. Morrell had a Yellow Matter Custard bootleg. Lennon wanted it.
But we value that Lennon Butcher cover a lot differently in 2019 than Lennon and Morrell did in 1971. Can you explain why the trade made sense to them? Even though the concept of collectibility wasn’t as strong then as now, it was recognized as a collectible album, because of its notoriety. In 1971, people were keeping the cover with the original, controversial art. It wasn’t that unusual back in 1971 not to place a value on an item. They wanted to say they owned it. It was not monetarily driven like it is today. Lennon surely thought that getting his hands on the recording was more important to him at the time. He could get another album cover on his wall if he still needed it. Morrell was not interested in monetary value. He in turn got something he wanted.
It was as simple as, “I have this, and you don’t have it. Give me something I don’t have in trade for it.” Like trading baseball cards. If you have something really good, you can get something really good. If you have a B-rated item, you get a B-rated item in exchange.
Are there any period pictures that show the album hanging on the walls of Lennon’s apartment in the Dakota? I don’t know, but I’m not aware.
Is this the first time it’s come to auction? As far as I’m aware, yes.
The auction is planned for Liverpool. Did you get the consignment first, and then choose Liverpool, or did you choose Liverpool and then secure the consignment? We’ve been working with Liverpool for many years. We’ve done discovery days for the last three years, and we’ve uncovered some really interesting items. We thought it would be cool to hold a Beatles auction there at the Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool. This album came as a result of the call. Once the press release [about the sale] went out, we got the call.
Have you held the album in your hands? I had it in my hands Monday morning [March 25]. This gives me chills. There was so much controversy when it came out. John Lennon signed it, and it was on his wall. 50 years later, we’re talking about it. I’ve never seen an album like this. There are so many variations of collectibility in one album. There’s so much history, so many stories to be told.
Update:Children on Cycles sold for $225,075–a new world auction record for Demas Nwoko, and more than double his previous record.
What you see: Children on Cycles, a circa 1961 painting by Nigerian artist Demas Nwoko. Bonhams estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.
The expert: Giles Peppiatt, head of African art at Bonhams.
How prolific is Nwoko? Not at all, really. His later career was as an architect. In the last 10 years, I’ve only seen four or five come to market. We’ve been lucky enough to sell three in the last four years.
When did he stop painting? I would say by the end of the 1960s he had pretty much stopped painting to concentrate on architecture.
He hasn’t gone back? No. He was born in 1935. He’s a very elderly gentleman. I think he’s hung up his paintbrush.
Do collectors prefer works from this point in his artistic career? The early 1960s is more unusual and very nice to have in some ways. He was at his most formative.
The painting is undated. How do we know he made it circa 1961? Because it was bought at the Mbari Exhibition in 1961 [in Nigeria], and it was painted for that. It was his first exhibition.
Is this image typical of his work? I would say it’s typical. When I was sent the image, I recognized it immediately. It’s definitely his kind of subject and his manner of painting. His output is not large, and he’s not a household name, but that doesn’t make him less important as an artist.
Could you tell the story of how the painting was rediscovered? I was just sent this image by the Bonhams representative in Boston. It came from the son of the collector. It had been under a bed. We knew the collector had been in Nigeria in the 1960s. They asked, “What about this, is it special?” I said it was very special indeed. It’s nice to liberate it from its dusty lair under the bed.
Speaking of it having been stashed under a bed for 50-odd years, what sort of condition is it in? Putting it under a bed keeps it pretty safe. It got a bit dusty, but the dust can be taken off. [Under a bed] is the safest place, normally. It’s important not to move it because it can get damaged.
The family didn’t display it? It’s so easy for us, knowing what it’s value is, to say, “What are they doing? Are they mad?” If you didn’t think it was anything, you wouldn’t know it was anything.
Still, I’m surprised they didn’t hang it up. It has wall presence, yes? I agree. Every piece of art is taken a different way. For whatever reason, they didn’t display it.
So Children on Cycles was known, but considered lost until now? In some ways, it was. The only previously known image of it was a black and white photo in the archives of the Harmon Foundation.
People hear stories like this all the time, of some amazing piece of art discovered in an attic or a basement after decades… this stuff actually happens. What’s nice about the story as well is the artist is like a J.D. Salinger figure. He was an incredibly talented artist who became a recluse. He became an architect and became known as an architect. I think it’s glorious, the fact that his art is coming to light and fetching strong prices.
Is he reclusive, or does he just not promote his artistic career? I would say the latter. He’s not in any way promoting his art. He’s not a hermit, but he doesn’t go to art events.
Did he paint Children on Cycles from his observations of his surroundings, or is this an invented image? I don’t know. It could be his imagination, but he’d certainly see children on cycles. The red road is redolent of the baked clay roads they have in Africa. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s what he observed.
What is it like in person? Are there aspects of the painting that the camera doesn’t pick up? In my view, it looks better in the flesh. When you get in front of the original work, it’s a lot more impressive. It’s the simplicity and the spareness of the work. The colors are strong and glowing.
How did you arrive at the estimate of $70,000 to $100,000?We’ve sold twoor threeNwokos in the past two or three years. It [the range] is about right. I won’t be surprised if it performs a bit better. It’s one of the nicest and best Nwokos I’ve seen.
What are the odds that Children on Cycles will set a new auction record for Nwoko? At the risk of giving it the kiss of death, I think there’s a chance it will break the record. Nothing is certain at auction, but at $107,000, it hasn’t got far to go.
Why will this painting stick in your memory? Probably because of the way it was discovered! [Laughs] Quite often, one goes to a collector and [the work to be consigned] is hanging on a wall to great fanfare. This came along rather gently.
Update: John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Spirit of Night sold for $362,500.
What you see: Spirit of Night, an 1879 oil on canvas by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Christie’s estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.
The expert: Laura Mathis, specialist, 19th century European Art at Christie’s, and head of this European Art sale.
Do we know why Grimshaw might have painted Spirit of Night? Was this a book illustration? It’s not clear why Grimshaw picked up this subject matter, but it doesn’t seem to be a book illustration. This is more from his love of poetry. It inspired him to turn to this subject, that’s my feeling.
About that. The lot notes say the painting had a tablet with a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, ToNight. Was the painting directly inspired by the Shelley poem? I think it’s all but certain he was. The words “Spirit of Night” appear as the second line of the Shelley poem. He was interested in Keats and Browning. Tennyson was a favorite. Five of his 16 kids got their names from Tennyson’s poetry.
How does the painting depict the poem?In Shelley’s poem, the poet describes the personification of night emerging from her cave, ushering the personification of day from the world, putting all the creatures to sleep. I think that’s what’s happening here.
Is the city below her identifiable as a specific place? I don’t think the city is meant to be identifiable. It’s probably meant to stand in for any town. It’s by the water, which is mentioned in the poem. He wanted to explore [the effects] of reflected light.
How many fairy pictures did Grimshaw make? It’s hard to give an exact number, but there were approximately seven or eight. They were quite popular in Victorian times but the subject was on the wane by the time Grimshaw turned to it.
Where does Spirit of Night rank among them? I would say definitely it has an interesting and important place in the corpus of fairy painting.
Grimshaw was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Where do we see that influence in Spirit of Night? Grimshaw starts painting in a lot of ways by looking at the Pre-Raphaelites. The use of color in the fairy wings speaks to the influence on his art and the level of detail as well, the lacy details of the fairy wings. If you get up close to the painting, the veining looks like dragonfly wings. The Pre-Raphaelites were almost fanatically interested in the most minute details of nature. That very close attention to nature is very Pre-Raphaelite.
How does the painting testify to his talent? To me, all of Grimshaw’s paintings testify to his talent. Not only was he self-taught, his family actively discouraged his painting. That he became an artist at all is a triumph. His mother would throw his paints on the fire and turn off the gas to his room, so he didn’t have heat. When he got married, he left home, and his wife, who was also his first cousin, was very instrumental in encouraging him to become a painter.
How does he achieve the luminescent effects? Because he didn’t have formal training, he taught himself. He would look at the beveled edges of mirrors to learn what the effect looks like, and his kids would bring home opalescent glass that he would keep by his easel as a reference.
Is the fairy outlined in white or silver? It’s a sort of silvery-white. It’s a very hard color to describe. The diaphanous cloth that covers her is a tour-de-force. The stars woven into the cloth is a direct reference to the poem. He doesn’t always have the easiest time painting the human form, but he really gets it spot on here.
Is that because he had a model for the Spirit of Night? Yes.
Let’s talk about that–his relationship with Agnes Leefe, and whether it was unusual or not. It sounds a bit sketchy to modern ears, but it seemed to be above board. Leefe was a ward who modeled for him and became a companion to his wife and children as well. It was like taking in a distant relative. The Grimshaws had a sad life. Of the 16 kids, six survived to adulthood. He would jokingly refer to Leefe as Little Orphan Annie.
How did they meet? I don’t know how they met, except it was in Leeds [where Leefe performed as an actress]. His daughter recalls her mom being not super thrilled when he brought her home, but she came around quick. There didn’t seem to be any impropriety. He and his wife were very happy, though Leefe’s death [from tuberculosis] was hard on them. It probably brought back memories of the losses of their other children.
How often do Grimshaw fairy paintings appear at auction? Fairly infrequently. There were two in the 1990s and two, including this one, in the 2000s. His landscapes appear more reliably.
When was the last time a Grimshaw fairy painting came up? The most recent one was in 2004, at Christie’s London. It went for just over $500,000. This one came up at Christie’s New York in 2002. It brought $537,500. The fairy pictures are tricky to price because they appear so infrequently. They’re atypical, compared to the landscapes. But 19th century European art is very image-driven. You have to take that into account when estimating.
What’s the record for a Grimshaw fairy painting? It’s this one, sold in 2002.
So there’s a chance it could reset the record? We’re keeping our fingers crossed.
What condition is the painting in? It’s in really nice condition. It does have an old lining on it but all the artist’s glazes are intact.
What is it like in person? The figure really does seem to be glowing. It pops and glows. The detail in the wings, too–you don’t pick up their lacy dragonfly quality until you get close to the painting.
Why will this painting stick in your memory? The fun of working in 19th century painting is covering so many schools and styles, and getting to see new things. I love to see an artist who’s so controlled and staid go completely outside the box. This definitely falls into that. The opalescent effect in the wings and the drapery–you don’t get that in Grimshaw’s moonlight scenes. Those are more about reflecting the light off of moss and brick. They’re beautiful, but this is in a class of its own.
Update: Potter & Potter sold the copy of The True History of Pepper’s Ghost for $1,020.
What you see: A copy of The True History of Pepper’s Ghost, an 1890 book by Professor John Henry Pepper. Potter & Potter estimates it at $600 to $900.
The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.
What is Pepper’s Ghost, and how was John Pepper involved in it? It’s a theatrical effect used to manifest figures on a stage. They could be ghosts, they could be people, they could be objects, even. It was devised in the mid-19th century by Henry Dircks and popularized by John Pepper.
How did he popularize it? Pepper came up with a way to streamline the installation of the device. Dircks wanted to modify every theater in a major way to install the invention. Pepper made it adaptable and practical.
Why was the special effect such a big deal when it debuted in 1862? Because it made ghosts walk on stage.
Were there previous attempts to do something like Pepper’s Ghost, which fell short? I’m not aware of any, and I’m not an authority, but people had played with using glass in a similar way going back centuries.
To what extent, if at all, was the impact of Pepper’s Ghost amplified by debuting in a play based on a book by Charles Dickens? My recollection is the play it was used in involved the appearance of a ghost. What I like about that was Charles Dickens was an amateur magician. They probably chose it [the debut of the effect] coincidentally, but there’s some serendipity there.
What I find interesting is Pepper tried, almost heroically, to give due credit to Dircks, but the public persisted in calling the effect “Pepper’s Ghost.” But look at songwriting. Maybe it’s a stretch, but how many of Whitney Houston’s songs did she actually write? It’s the performance that makes the memory in the public mind.
But it’s not typical for someone to try as hard as Pepper did to share credit. No, especially when the profit motive is involved. But, eventually, Henry Dircks signed the patent over to Pepper. It shows he had no animosity to Pepper. It helped cement it in the public mind, I suppose, but the public doesn’t go back and read patent papers.
Have you read the book? Do we know why Pepper felt he had to write a book titled The True History of Pepper’s Ghost? I have not read it, and I don’t know his motivation.
Does it go into detail about how to produce the Pepper’s Ghost effect? Oh, yeah. The folding frontispiece shows you how to set it up. It’s literally the first page.
How is the Pepper’s Ghost effect used today? I know it’s been adapted for many practical and entertaining purposes. One you probably don’t think of is the headsup display on a car’s windshield. A more frivolous use brought Tupac Shakur to life on stage. It’s been used for decades in carnivals to turn a girl into a gorilla.
It’s a surprisingly durable special effect, given that it’s more than 150 years old. Sometimes, you know, simplicity is an art. It’s hard to improve upon something so direct and effective.
Do we know how many copies of the book were printed? Also, how many copies have you handled? I don’t know the number printed, but I’ve handled two or three in 11 years.
What condition is the book in? Lovely. It’s not in fine condition, but considering its age and scarcity, it’s good, in bookseller’s terms.
Who would have been the audience for this book? I imagine it would be scientists, or theater owners, or people who wanted to incorporate effects into a production. It could have been magicians or curiosity seekers as well. The cover is beautiful–one of its main attractions these days. The skeleton on the cover says it all.
Update: The circa 1960s Minnie Evans work sold for $8,000.
What you see: Beautiful Portrait Surrounded by Vivid Flora, a circa 1960s work on paper by self-taught African-American artist Minnie Evans. Slotin Folk Art estimates it at $5,000 to $8,000.
The expert: Steve Slotin of Slotin Folk Art in Buford, Georgia.
I’d like to start by talking about Evans herself, and how she became a self-taught artist, and how her story matches other people who became self-taught artists. She seemed compelled to make art. Is that true of many other self-taught artists? It’s very typical. We like to say our artists are untrained and unschooled in art, but something happens and they’re driven to create art. She was definitely driven to create art, and create garden-like drawings that came from her surroundings as a gatekeeper for a garden. [Evans worked as the gatekeeper for Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, North Carolina from 1948 until she retired in 1974.]
She started making art at the age of 43. Is that unusually late for a self-taught artist to embark on a career? It’s hard to say what’s typical. Most artists don’t have the opportunity [to make art] until later in life. Evans created art as the gatekeeper because she had the time to do it.
Was she prolific? She was very prolific. She did a lot of drawings. Like a lot of these artists, she was somewhat obsessed with making art.
Has anyone come up with a conservative number of works that she made over her lifetime? I don’t know if there’s an actual number. She did a lot as the gatekeeper of the garden, selling them for 50 cents. There’s probably an untold number out there.
Was Evans discovered and recognized in her lifetime? She was. There was a folk art show at the Corcoran in the 1980s of self-taught African American artists [Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980]. The show kicked off outsider art mania. It woke people up to what incredible artists we have in this country who are not influenced by academic or European masters.
Is this piece typical of Evans’s work? It’s very typical and very desirable. It’s got a central face with flora around it, and the colors are beautiful and strong, with one color bleeding into the next. It’s a really good indication of what her work looks like.
Is this a self-portrait? I don’t think it’s a self-portrait. It doesn’t look like her. She had a rounder face. I think there’s one distinct facial type that she does, and like the colors, the faces range the gamut from Caucasian to Native American to African-American depending on the individual piece.
How is she producing the effect of colors bleeding into the next–by mixing crayon and colored pencil? Back in the day I’m sure no one thought this would be as important as it is. [She worked with] everything she could get her hands on. That’s how most folk artists worked. Because no one considered them artists, they didn’t have the means to buy the best materials. I don’t know how she did it [the effect], but she did the best with what she had.
This is undated, but it has a circa date of the 1960s. Is that the period of her career that collectors prefer? Her strongest periods were the 1950s and 1960s. The look of it is really powerful and detailed. People like this period because the colors are strong and vivid and just beautiful. This is what they want to live with. In the 1970s, she was older, and not as strong, and may have spent less time on [each work].
The lot notes describe the piece as being in excellent condition. What does that mean here? I’m looking at the condition of the paper and the work. There’s no tears, no holes, and if it had paint on it, it means there’s no cracking or crazing or flaking off. Overall it’s in great condition.
Is that unusual for an Evans, given that she sold them directly to visitors to the garden where she worked as a gatekeeper? Remarkably, her paintings did well over time. We typically find them in really good condition. It would have been easy just to discard it if it was bought as a fluke. People saved them. Even if you didn’t know what it was, it’s very likable. You’d enjoy having it in your house and looking at it.
What’s the provenance for this work? This is from a longtime collector who had a fabulous collection [they’re] selling most of in this auction.
What is the work like in person? Are there aspects of it that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? The only thing you don’t see in the photo when you look at it in person is how the colors bleed into each other and how calming it is to be around the piece. It’s a wonderful piece.
How many Minnie Evans works have you handled at Slotin over the years? I’ve sold between 50 to 70 pieces, with her highest being over $30,000.
Would that be the auction record for Minnie Evans? That is the auction record. It was a larger piece, maybe two times the size of the one here. It was from the Rosenak collection, Chuck and Jan, who wrote the Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists. It had a lot of detail in it, faces and flowers and birds. I sold it 10 years ago. Maybe now it would go for $50,000 to $60,000. Prices have jumped so much on her work, if I had it back, it might have doubled by now.
Update: The original cover art for D for Delinquent sold for $6,875.
What you see: Original cover art for D for Delinquent, a 1958 juvenile delinquent-themed pulp paperback. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.
The expert: Meagen McMillan, junior specialist and cataloger for illustration art and American art at Heritage Auctions.
First, could you talk about how rare it is for any original pulp cover art to survive at all? Most often, when an artist created a cover for a pulp or a paperback magazine, they’d send in the artwork and never see it again. The publisher used it for publication and then threw it away, or gave it to friends, or sold it at charity events. The majority of art from this period was thrown in the trash. These come up extremely rarely.
How did this particular piece of art evade the trash bin? It was most likely due to Charles Martignette [pronounced Martin-etty]. While he was collecting he actively went to publishing houses to buy directly–stacks of art for bulk prices. I don’t know if this one was bought that way.
The lot notes call this “the finest single example of the juvenile delinquent genre from the estate of Charles Martignette”. What makes it so? It’s just got the classic [details]–the blonde bombshell with the overly tight sweater and the greaser character, in an abandoned house. It perfectly contains what you want to see from this genre.
Do we know who the artist is? We don’t know who the artist is. It’s similar to a lot of different artists’ works. It’s similar to James Avati. It’s similar to Raymond Pease. It’s similar to Norman Saunders. But we don’t know who did this. The publishing house didn’t have records. Back then, it was something done quickly, and they didn’t acknowledge who did these incredible covers. It makes it special. While we can’t assign it to a specific artist, it’s so well-done that it still has value. Normally, if you can’t assign it to an artist, it cuts its value. It’s valuable by the image alone.
I realize we don’t know who did this, but what would have been the typical way to create images like these? Would the artist have used models, or shot reference photos, or just imagined the scene? It depends on each individual artist. Gil Elvgren used models and photos. Norman Rockwell used [models and] photos. Others used their imaginations. It’s really hard to tell what the process would have been [here].
This image was used for an American paperback in 1958 and a British one two years later. Does that speak to its power as an image? It was actually very common. Paperbacks were released in the U.S., the U.K., and maybe Australia. Sometimes they had different covers, and sometimes they re-used the covers. The artist didn’t own the image. They gave it to the publisher and they could use it as many times as they wanted.
What condition is the artwork in, given that it was created as a piece of functional art? It’s actually in surprisingly wonderful condition. The margins might have been trimmed at one point.
Does it show any wear from having passed through several hands at the publishing house? I’d have to unframe it to be certain, but I can give you an example of unframed cover art. Lot #71317 has all sorts of writing and dings to the edges. [You might have to click on the alternate image, which is shown below the main shot.]
How did you arrive at the estimate? Have you sold this piece of art before? I believe we did sell it before, when it was in the Martignette collection. We handled the Martignette estate. We sold it previously in 2011 for $7,170, with an estimate of $4,000 to $6,000. The market showed the value is there, though there is no artist associated with it. We look at it and see what we’re all looking for–a beautiful girl, a dangerous guy, action, the setting, and it’s a published cover. If it was an interior [a piece of art used inside the book, rather than on the cover]. or we couldn’t prove it was published, it goes down [in value].
What is the piece like in person? Are there aspects that the camera does not pick up? I guess the only difference is really, when you see it in person, it evokes something in you–an emotional response and a sense of presence. This definitely has it.
And this image was painted at a larger size than it would have appeared as on a pulp cover, yes? A paperback cover is four inches by six inches. This is 24.75 inches by 16 inches. It’s definitely larger.
Might this piece set a record for original pulp cover art by an unknown artist? It could, but I don’t know that anyone keeps that data point.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? The rarity of it, for sure. I’ve handled probably thousands of pieces of illustration art per year. I’m a big fan of pulp art. When you have a piece come across your desk where you don’t know who the artist is, and it doesn’t matter–that’s rare. It’s still amazing. It’s going to do well, no matter what. It’s an image that speaks for itself.
Update: The 50-cent Calibre Auto Recording Booth sold for $44,000.
What you see: A 50-cent Calibre Auto Recording Booth. Morphy Auctions estimates it at $80,000 to $100,000.
The expert: Don Grimmer, vice president of Morphy Auctions Las Vegas.
So let’s imagine I’m wandering along a boardwalk, or in an amusement park or an arcade, and I see this and I want to use it. How do I do that? You open the door, go in, and close the door behind you to keep the outside noise from coming in. You inserted two quarters and began speaking or singing when the red light was on. It was recommended that you stand six to 12 inches from the microphone.
And the recording time lasted about four minutes? A few minutes per record, I don’t know how many. It stopped on its own. A machine behind the microphone created the record for you.
Do we know how many of these units were made? We don’t know, but they were popular in the UK also.
And this is the only version of the unit that the manufacturer produced? I think this is the only style. It’s very rare. It’s the only style I’ve seen.
Is this the first one you’ve handled? This is the first one we’ve had to auction. One sold privately recently, which is how we created the estimate.
Do we know when this particular unit was made? Mid- to late 60s. That’s what I’d say as a guy who’s been around coin-op [machines], judging by the look and feel of it.
Does it work? Everything is there. It appears to be complete. It hasn’t been tested, and you’d need to fill it with blank discs. The collector will be the one to get it wired and working. We don’t have the discs to put in it. It probably needs maintenance to get it in full working condition.
Have you heard any records that were made by a booth such as this one? How do they sound? It’s mostly a low-fi recording, despite the hi-fi ad on the exterior. It’s not a great quality record. It’s a cool novelty.
So you hear pop and hiss? Right. Sometimes you can find one somebody made. They pop up in old record stores and thrift stores.
The lot notes describe its condition as “very good.” What does that mean in this context? It’s structurally sound. The graphics are intact. The mechanism is intact, which is a major plus. It’s not a hunk of crap. Perfect equals mint. Because the mechanism is there, that makes it very good. It’s very easy to see the wear markers, the scratches, the condition.
Have you sat in it? What is that like? There’s no seat present in it. You stand inside and it makes you want to put a coin in the slot and give it a try. It’s a good experience. It gets you excited that this will be a great thing to try.
How many people can comfortably fit inside the booth, really, knowing that you have to close the door to get a legible recording? It measures only about two and a half feet by two feet. You could possibly get two or three skinny people in there, or five kids, but honestly, it’s made for one.
What do we know about the provenance of this unit? It comes from the Seaside Heights boardwalk in New Jersey, and was used in Seaside Heights and Wildwood, New Jersey.
Is there anything we can say about the graphics decorating the machine? The good thing is that they’re intact. They’re legible and clear. There are wear issues. This thing was used! You climb in it and your friends climb in with you, having fun and being rowdy, especially when you start singing. It’s lucky to be in the condition it’s in.
How did you arrive at the estimate for this, knowing that none of these units have been to auction before? What are its comparables, beyond private sales? Very few exist, and very few survive. I’ve talked to two guys who know of these. The market will do what the market will do, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? When you get in it, it makes you want to use the machine. And it records you. Not many things out there actually records yourself. It makes you want to something silly, like stand in a booth and sing to yourself. And this is a rare, fresh to market piece, which makes it even more desirable.
Update: The gelatin silver print of Mainbocher Corset sold for $7,000.
What you see: Mainbocher Corset, Paris, 1939, shot by Horst P. Horst for Vogue magazine. Christie’s estimates the gelatin silver print at $7,000 to $9,000.
The expert: Anne Bracegirdle, specialist in Christie’s photographs department, and the head of the Face of a Century auction.
First, to clarify–when did he change his name to Horst P. Horst, and why? He was born in East Germany, and his name was Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann. By the early 1940s, he had emigrated to the States, and he was concerned that his name would be confused with that of a famous Nazi, Martin Bormann, so he legally changed it.
Horst shot Mainbocher Corset in 1939, and it showcases a piece of underclothing most women no longer wear routinely. Yet it remains the most iconic image Horst ever shot, and it’s one of the most iconic fashion photographs ever taken. What makes it so powerful? Keep in mind the timing of the image. Horst is one of the first fashion photographers to be celebrated. He influenced generations of photographers at Vogue. Only a handful of fashion photographers have been championed as great artists. [The strength of the image comes from] an ability to recognize the effects of strong lighting and strong angles. Horst was known to use many, many spotlights at one time. If Mainbocher Corset is considered as a series of lines and slopes, you can see a sense of balance in the composition, an effect which creates a “pleasing” photo, a sense of geometric balance. And it was revolutionary to do at the time.
What made this a revolutionary photo in the 1930s? The corset is half untied and partly off her body. The ribbons are hanging off the sides of the shelf. It’s clearly being removed. Erotic implications are unusual in 1930s publications. The corset was meant to be pulling further away from her body, on the left, but that was considered too risqué.
Do we know how much time Horst spent setting up this shot? We don’t, but he was known to take very great care. It was very well-planned, with multiple spotlights in the studio. Every image we know of his was staged very well in advance. It was taken the night before he left Paris, for fear of the Nazi threat. [Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and this image appeared in the September 1939 issue of Vogue.] He left his studio after this shot, at 4 am. He took the early train to Normandy and emigrated to the U.S. This is a very emotional image for him. It represents his career in Paris, and what he left behind.
How much of Mainbocher Corset‘s power as a fashion image comes from the fact that we can’t see the model’s face? Does that add to its power? I think so. And it was taken to sell the corset. This is a commercial image. It’s more about the composition, and less about her identity.
The lot notes say it was “printed later,” which I take to mean after it appeared in Vogue in 1939, and before Horst died in 1999. Is it possible to narrow the date of the limited edition down from that six-decade span? If we don’t know with certainty which decade it was printed in, we err on the side of “printed later.” This was the late 1970s, the early 1980s, or in the 1990s, before he died. The market didn’t fully develop until the 1970s. That’s when the commercial secondary market [for photography] was created, and when fashion photographers were looking back at their images and realizing that a market was being created. It was not fully known then that edition printing was needed to create a value structure. Many did not edition.
Do we know how many Mainbocher Corset prints Horst made? There are so many prints of this image, there’s no way to determine how many exist.
Do we know how many limited editions of Mainbocher Corset there are? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The reality is that some images are so iconic, there are many different editions in different sizes.
Is this particular print regarded as a good size for Mainbocher Corset? Yes. This is the more standard size, which is more available frequently. [The sheet measures 13 7/8 inches by 10 7/8 inches; the image itself is 9 7/8 inches by 7 7/8 inches.]
Is this print more desirable for being part of a numbered limited edition of 50? The estimate you see is the same estimate we’d use for the same size print from a later, not-limited edition. The premium is really given to larger-format prints, and platinum prints, which are much more rare, and vintage prints [which were made around 1939].
This print is number four of 50. Does that matter? Do collectors prefer earlier or later numbers in a Horst limited edition? At auctions, at least in my department, there’s no value on earlier or later [numbers] in an edition. It’s not a factor for us, and it really shouldn’t be to the buyer either.
I guess Mainbocher Corset prints are similar to Abraham Lincoln memorabilia–there’s a lot floating around, but it holds its value or rises because the demand is there. Exactly. Ansel Adams is really prolific. There’s no way to know the number of iconic images that exist, but we can estimate them strongly because the demand exists. Any time an image rises to the level of an icon, it stands the test of time. Mainbocher Corset represents the height of fashion photography. It’s an icon of the medium. It’s important socially and politically, and in how modern it is. It really is a timeless icon. I would advise clients who are risk-averse and interested in focusing on images that we know will retain their value–this is one I’d recommend.
What’s the world auction record for a Horst photograph, and for a print of Mainbocher Corset? The highest prices for Horst and for fashion photography were in the early 2000s and the late 2000s. That was the boom time for this imagery. The three highest Horst results were achieved then, and all three were this image. The market became flooded with this image. What ended up happening is you’d see it up for auction every season, and there was less incentive to bid if it was going to come up next season. In the past two years, we started offering iconic Horst images less frequently, to let the market recover.
How involved would Horst have been in the printing of this limited edition? Would he have done it himself, or would he have supervised someone else, or would he have handed off the work entirely? He always printed himself until he became elderly. Ricky Horst, his partner, who he eventually adopted as his son, oversaw Ricky [after Horst was too old to do the work from start to finish in the dark room].
Do collectors prefer prints made by Horst to those made by Ricky Horst under his supervision? No, there’s no market difference. What’s more important is the condition of the print.
What’s the condition of this particular print? There are no condition issues. With these later prints, which do come to market frequently, we have high standards for them. When there are many prints available on the market, collectors demand [they be] in very good condition. If they’re not, there are more available.
What is the print like in person? One reason photographs are so special is their qualities as objects. One quality of a gelatin silver print [which this print is] is it’s printed on glossier paper, which creates a sheen that emphasizes the contrasts. It creates a depth to the darks and emphasizes the highlights. It’s a result of the paper and the print process. Platinum prints have a very matte surface and a texture almost like a charcoal drawing. For collectors, it’s almost a personal preference. Each print process brings out different qualities of the image. Gelatin silver prints have more vibrant grays, and are inherently cooler. Platinum prints are inherently warm. This can be overlooked when you’re consuming photographs digitally. They have a tactile quality.
If you think you’ve seen Mainbocher Corset before, you almost certainly have–it’s been a fashion inspiration since the day it was printed. Maybe the most famous reference to the image is Madonna’s “quote” at the end of her 1990 music video for Vogue.
Horst P. Horst has a website, and hey, guess what’s shown right there on the landing page? Yep.
Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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Update: Let Me Off Uptown sold for $125,000, more than tripling the previous world auction record for the artist at auction. Hooray!
What you see: Let Me Off Uptown, which measures 80 inches by 78 7/8 inches and was created by African-American artist Emma Amos between 1999 and 2000. It incorporates several media, including oil and photo transfer on linen canvas, metallic paint, glitter, collage, and African fabric borders. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.
The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.
The lot notes say Let Me Off Uptown is “a significant work from Emma Amos’s important series of paintings on fabric from the late 1990s that celebrate African-American women”. How big is the series? Is it still ongoing? She did a large group of work in the 90s where images of women were painted on canvas not on stretcher bars [a traditional treatment for paintings] but on hanging cloth. It extended to the mid-2000s. She’s not working on it now.
What do we know about how Amos made the mixed media work? Artists like Emma Amos and Faith Ringgold, when they came up in the 1960s and 1970s, the gallery system was very difficult for women to get any representation. Male abstract painters predominated. There were few spaces in the art world for empowering images of African-American women. She was very much a part of the African-American movement and the women’s movement. She took all those elements in the 1980s and 1990s and found a way to paint the imagery and make it her own–large figurative subjects about women, the bodies of women, and the roles women had in society. This is more celebratory. It’s about African-American culture and about jazz. It shows how jazz brings different people together.
Is the woman in red a self-portrait? Is she Amos? I don’t believe so.
Why did she name the work Let Me Off Uptown? It’s a reference to Harlem. That was where you got off the train to listen to jazz music.
Did she use models for the main figures or any of the smaller figures? I don’t know precisely her practice, but I would think it’s a variety of sources. [The man] could be someone she knows, I really can’t say, but it’s not portraiture. It’s not important who these people are–it’s what they represent. For centuries, images of African-Americans in art were either put on the sidelines, completely secondary, or they were caricatures. Since the Harlem Renaissance, [African-American artists have] taken over the representation of their figures and made a viable language. Like other contemporary artists, Amos has focused on the figure, and has embraced making figurative art that shows African-Americans doing things. In her case, they have larger symbolic meanings. They speak to a larger discourse about how we view African-Americans and African-American figures in our art. She wants to change the way we look at art.
The lot notes say Amos “has long sought to deconstruct traditional representations of beauty”. How does she do that here? With these images of celebratory figures and dancers [she asks] what is a beautiful figure? Can an African-American woman stand in for other figures that traditionally represent women and ideals of beauty? That is where she’s coming from. The classical models from art history are Eurocentric. Black bodies, shapes and colors and the way they look, are not necessarily considered ideal in art. She makes ordinary people heroic. These [the two main figures] are painted six feet high, at a scale and size that are almost lifelike, if not lifelike. She says they are people we should celebrate.
Do any of the smaller figures carry meanings that might not be immediately obvious? When you first look at it, it looks like lots of fun, dancing figures, but a lot of them are subversive. Some are unclothed. Different races and genders together. Music and freedom. At the beginning of the 20th century, jazz was revolutionary. It represented freedom and improvisation. She’s definitely tapping into that here. It’s a great party of twirling figures, having a great time.
What details stand out to you? The fun thing about her work is the different levels it works on. It’s a really strong image of a dancing couple, but as you look at it, little details show her sense of humor and intelligence. Look at her [the main female figure’s] dress. The bodice is covered with smiling lips. [laughs] It’s a cheeky, fun thing. You don’t notice it at first, and it’s all very seamless. She really integrates everything well. It comes from her great sense of material–from her fabric and printmaking and painting, which she brings together in works from the 1990s and 2000s.
Amos included this work in her 2000 application for a Pollock-Krasner Foundation fellowship, which she won. Does that affect collectors’ interest in the work, or its value, at all? I think it’s a nice plus. It certainly shows the reputation of her work strongly.
I’d been calling her a fabric artist but it seems like “mixed media artist” is better… She’s really a painter, a collage artist, and a printmaker. It’s a bit simplistic to call her a fabric artist. That’s one element of her work. Sometimes she paints on textile, but she’s a multimedia artist, absolutely.
What is Let Me Off Uptown like in person? It has a human scale to it. It’s about six feet high. What you can’t necessarily see in the catalog is there’s a wonderful variety of texture. The surface has a wonderful shimmer. There’s a richness to it. It doesn’t just have a flat, uniform surface.
Are her works usually this colorful and lively?Let Me Off Uptown is not an anomaly. Her works are often dynamic and brightly colored, with large figures taking up the whole picture plane.
How rarely do pieces by Amos appear at auction? We’ve been selling her work in our auctions since the start of our African-American Fine Art auctions in 2007. Primarily they were prints and works on paper. Then last year [in October 2018], we sold Arched Swimmer, the first large, unique painting we had of hers. It was estimated at $10,000 to $15,000 and, with the buyer’s premium, sold for $40,000 and set an auction record for her. That painting set the stage for this one. It’s quite possible this work will set a new record. Her work is in people’s minds. That’s why it felt like a good time to bring this to auction now.
Why might Let Me Off Uptown beat the sum achieved by Arched Swimmer? First of all, it’s a larger, more complex piece. Arched Swimmer was 30 inches by 32 inches, and it was a stretch canvas. It was not one of the larger hanging pieces, and it’s a quarter of the size of the work we’re selling now. I think we’ll have a lot of interest in it.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I think it’s a fantastic image of dance and jazz. It’s a joyous image, and it’s what her work is all about.
Update: The small baggage-form teapot with cover by Zhou Dingfang sold for $1,625.
What you see: A small baggage-form teapot with cover by contemporary Yixing [pronounced Yee-shing] potter Zhou Dingfang [pronounced Jo Ding-fong]. Christie’s estimates it at $1,500 to $2,500.
The expert: Rufus Chen, specialist, Chinese ceramics and works of art at Christie’s New York.
The lot notes say Zhou earned “Master Status” in 1995, at the age of 30. What does that mean? Is it similar to the Japanese designation of “National Treasure” status? It’s a relatively different concept. It’s more like a ranking or a job title. If you do beautiful work, you’ll be recognized by the arts and crafts organization with the title.
So the big deal here is that she earned “Master Status” so young? It’s not a unique status. Multiple people have the same title. That’s a young age for a Chinese artist [to earn the title]. She’s a very accomplished and talented artist.
What do we know about her working process? How did she make this? Unlike a lot of blue and white pottery, one artist does it from beginning to end. The artist comes up with the design they want to produce, and they find the right clay in the right color. She used some kind of tool to achieve the soft, leather-like look in the work. It could have been many different tools. It was not done by machine.
Is this piece unique, or is it part of a limited edition? I wouldn’t say the piece is unique. I’ve seen other versions of the small suitcase. I don’t know how many exist, but there are at least five others. It’s normal for a Yixing potter to make several.
Is there a date on this piece? It was the early 1990s when this piece was designed and made.
Is this the first example of her creating a piece that looks like leather? Probably not. She’s known for her obsession with texture. Another in the sale, lot 54, is more like a leather pouch. That’s also from the early 1990s. She’s known for making leather-like, textured work.
What is your favorite detail on this piece? All the details are so lifelike and well done. The clay used to make the pot, purple clay, is known for its flexibility for molding and sculpting. It allows artists to achieve a very detailed kind of work.
Purple clay? Does it have a purple color? When we say “purple clay,” it’s a collective name for all clay [from the region in China where it is found]. One has a purplish tone, one has a greenish-buff color, and one has a cinnabar orange-red color. By mixing the three clays, you can achieve a wide range of tones and colors.
Is the clay giving the pot its convincing leather coloration, or is she achieving that with glazes? It’s not glaze. It’s the clay body itself. She may have polished the surface to achieve a sheen. It’s really nice when you hold it in person.
Since you mention it, what is it like to hold this piece? It’s very delicate, very lifelike. For this particular piece, the surface does resemble real leather. It reminds me of a real little leather suitcase. It’s very intricate, very well-designed, well made.
And it’s tiny–less than five inches across. Does that mean it’s light? In terms of weight, it’s not heavy.
I realize it’d be insane to brew tea with this, but can it be used as a teapot? If you want to, it can. But it should be perceived as a piece of art, and it’s also small. I don’t know, if you brewed tea, how much tea [it would yield]. There’s probably a little amount of water it could hold. Normal [Yixing pottery teapots] for brewing tea are not ornately decorated. They’re in plain geometric shapes.
Was this piece commissioned by the Irvings, or did the artist make it without a client in mind? I think she just made it. I don’t think the Irvings commissioned it from her. When the Irvings collected it in the 1990s, and even to this day, it’s not the typical [piece] collectors would collect.
What is more typical for collectors to collect? Porcelain with more typical works of art that you see in the auction market. They have those too, but this is a very interesting aspect to their collection.
I understand Zhou Dingfang has connections to the makers of other works in the auction. What are these connections? A lot of Yixing artists are born and raised in Yixing, and work in Yixing. It’s an interesting aspect to this catalog. Zhou Dingfang learned under Xu Xiutang, the maker of lot 50. And Zhou Dingfang was classmates with Lu Wenxia, another female artist in the sale. There are several from her, including lots 34, 35, and 36. Both Zhou Dingfang and Lu Wenxia were students of Xu Xiutang.
Is this the first time works by Zhou Dingfang have been auctioned in the west? I found examples being sold a few years ago, but in general, you don’t see work by contemporary Yixing artists in western auctions. This is a unique opportunity to collect contemporary Yixing wares.
Are they commonly auctioned in the east? Yes.
Do you have the world auction record for Zhou Dingfang at auction? It would have been set in the east, yes? China has more records than the western world in general. I don’t have the exact price [of her auction record].
Is this the first time several of her works have gone to auction in the same western sale? This is a unique case. All [the lots] come from the same collection, the Irving collection. It’s interesting to see how it will perform.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s beautiful, and its texture is amazing. It’s so intricately and delicately made. It’s a beautiful piece of art.
Update: The segment of the Berlin Wall offered by Summers Place in lot 22 sold for £15,000, or about $19,700. The smaller segment offered in lot 23 fetched £6,250, or about $8,200.
What you see: An original four-piece segment of the Berlin Wall, standing almost 12 feet high, almost eight feet deep, and spanning more than 15 feet (including the base slabs). It once belonged to the Parliament of Trees memorial in Berlin. The German phrase stencil-graffitied on the section, spoken by then-German president Richard von Weizsäcker, translates as: “To Unite Means to Learn to Share”. Summers Place Auctions estimates it at £12,000 to £18,000 ($15,600 to $23,400).
The expert: James Rylands, director of Summers Place.
For those who don’t remember the Berlin Wall, let’s talk about it–why did it go up? Why was it notorious? Why was its dismemberment celebrated? The Berlin Wall was one of the most defining things of the 20th century, from a physical and a psychological point of view. It went up in 1961, and a huge amount of East Germans fled to the west by the time it went up. Something like 20 percent of the population fled to the west. It was put up by the German Democratic Republic, which is an oxymoron–it was an Eastern Bloc Soviet state that restricted movement, and personal movement. Barbed wire went up overnight, and over 10 to 15 years, they refined the wall. It became more elaborate and secure. Literally overnight, families were divided.
How many people tried to breach the Berlin Wall? About 5,000 did. We don’t know [exactly] how many died [in their attempt to escape], but it was about 150.
Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall came down? I remember it very well. I’m 60, and I remember it so clearly. Through the Cold War years, we thought we would all die in our beds [from a nuclear bomb dropped by the USSR]. Total obliteration. When the wall came down, it was just huge. Scenes of euphoria. The Berlin Wall was a very obvious physical manifestation of the regime. It went from people attacking it as a symbol of oppression to being attacked by souvenir hunters. It became an instrument of capitalism, people chipping off sections and selling souvenirs. In the news section of our site, we have a story about 16 places around the world where sections of the Berlin Wall ended up–South Korea, the Vatican, Schengan in Luxembourg–it’s worth reading. The Berlin Wall ran for 96 miles, and most of it was turned to rubble and used to build highways.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of those ‘where were you when’ moments, but it’s unusual for being a happy moment. Most of those moments–Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, 9/11–are tragic. This isn’t. You’re right. It rarely gets concrete.
It must have been a heck of a party when the Berlin Wall came down. Can you imagine the hangovers after that?
I see in the lot notes that the Berlin Wall section in lot 22 stands almost 12 feet tall, but what does it weigh? It’s in four sections, and each bit weighs just under four tons. All together [with the base slabs] it’s about 15 tons, total.
The dimensions note that the section is more than 15 feet wide “overall.” What does that mean here? [In the photo ] you can see a bit that hasn’t been painted–
Like a stand? Yes. The same thing goes out on the other side. Front to back.
So the wall section sits on slabs? Yes. It’s not an easy thing to hop over, especially considering it [the vertical surface] would have been smooth, and it had things [deterrents] on the top as well. To get over that was quite a feat.
And this was once part of the Parliament of Trees monument in Berlin, but it was deaccessed? When? Artist Ben Wagin painted on it in 1990, when it became part of the Parliament of Trees. They [the stewards of the monument] built out at that stage and sold it or disposed of it [to reshape the monument]. The consigner acquired it literally after they sold it [later in 1990].
So the section was part of the Parliament of Trees very briefly, and then it was released? I think it was. With the Parliament of Trees, parts were moved because they were putting up other buildings on it [the site].
How did Wagin choose the von Weizsäcker quote–“To Unite Means to Learn to Share”–to stencil on this segment of the wall? Von Weizsäcker was then president of Germany, commenting on gathering and sharing. West Germany was one of the few countries that could afford to make that happen, to underwrite the whole of East Germany. It was only 45 years since World War II, and then it underwrote a whole new country.
Do you know how many other pieces of the Berlin Wall have gone to auction? I’ve been doing sales for 30 years. I started four years before the wall came down. This is the first time I’ve seen or been aware of a large section going up for sale.
How did you set the estimate? That was the most difficult thing of all. Most things in an auction have an intrinsic value. With something like this, I’m selling chunks of concrete. What price do you put on the provenance and the history? I think it’s a modest estimate. If it [and its consecutive sister lot] fetch £100,000, I’d be pleased and not surprised.
Were the two lots of Berlin Wall segments consigned by the same person? Yes.
What is the segment with the Von Weizsäcker quote on it like in person? It’s powerful. It’s got a real wow factor. We’ve got seven acres on the Summers Place grounds. We only managed to stand one section up. [They had crane issues.] A point I should make is it’s equally at home outside as inside. In a modern building, a corporate building, a museum with a glass atrium, it will look stunning. It really will. Brutalism and urban street art–it combines the two.
How will you sell the Berlin Wall segment on the day? I take it you won’t do the auction outdoors in England in March… Bear in mind that a lot of what we sell is very big. In the sale room, each lot will go up on a TV screen.
Who do you think is going to buy this? Who is the audience? In a way, that’s what makes it a rich man’s lot. It’s going to be an institution or someone with a sufficient indoor-outdoor space. And I don’t preclude selling this to the Russians. We sell quite a lot to Russians. I just pray, and this is me taking off my auctioneer hat here, I hope it ends up in a public institution.
What about an ex-East German? People who were young when it came down… Berlin is a rich city now. What a wonderful thing, to buy it back.
Update: The Luis Alberto Quispe Aparicio ruby carving of a spread-winged eagle sold for $62,575.
What you see: A circa 2007 sculpture of an eagle in flight, carved from an opaque ruby by Peruvian artist Luis Alberto Quispe [pronounced Kees-pay] Aparicio. It has gold highlights and is displayed on a granite stand. Bonhams estimates it at $25,000 to $35,000.
The expert: Claudia Florian, co-consulting director of Bonhams’s natural history department in Los Angeles.
When did Quispe Aparicio start his career? How old is he now? He’s 39 years old. It started as a family business. His father perceived there could be demand for ruby carvings. I think the business started in the 70s or so when the first deposits [of the sort of ruby he carves] from Tanzania came west. His father purchased rough ruby from Tanzania and brought it back to his workshop, and trained workmen to carve the ruby. Quispe Aparicio started seriously in the family when he was 21. He traveled with his parents to buy gems from various locations.
How difficult is it to carve a ruby? It’s second in hardness only to diamond. You wear out your carving implements when you carve with ruby. It involves a lot of grinding.
Does Quispe Aparicio work alone when he carves his pieces, or does he rely on assistants? He sits at the bench and does the carving, but he has workmen help with some basic aspects of it.
Where did he get the ruby he carved to create this sculpture? Tanzania? Tanzania is still the primary source for ornamental rough [stones]. It was a massive ruby.
What does “ornamental rough” mean? It means it’s an opaque ruby. It’s usually accompanied by a green crystal called zoisite.
Where else does Quispe Aparicio find ornamental rough ruby stones fit for carving? He’s basically using old stock. [His family] bought a containerful in the 70s and is working through that.
How prolific is he? I imagine with ornamental rough ruby being so tough to carve, that has to limit his output. The workshop was already producing before Quispe Aparicio joined. This ruby eagle was one of the ones he had designed and carved, and he had workmen in the workshop work on it as well. [The workshop output] is not enormous production. Maybe 40 pieces a year.
How did he approach the creation of this sculpture? With this particular bird, he said he had the rough and a large amount of it, so he was able to make a very large and monumental piece. With a bigger piece [of rough stone, such as this], he’s able to cut it up and have a homogeneous color through the composition.
Was this a commission, or did he just decide to create it? It was created on spec [speculation, meaning he embarked on it without a specific client in mind]. Gerard Cafesjian found out about it and bought it from him.
Quispe Aparicio carved this sculpture from a ruby, albeit an ornamental rough ruby. Does it have inherent value? It’s kind of difficult to say. The valuation of a rough is different from finished pieces. Some say [ornamental rough] is one or two dollars per carat. It’s very difficult to look at. You’d never break it up and carve little gemstones out of it.
The ornamental rough ruby has a reddish-purple color. Is that typical of what came from Tanzania? Yes. It’s very nice quality for Tanzania.
Do we know how big the raw ruby was before he carved it? No. The wings are not a solid piece. The feathers are glued together to create a larger wingspan.
He assembled pieces of ornamental rough ruby to create the wings? The body of the bird is one piece of ruby. The wings are inset. The wings are not one solid, long piece. Along the length are rows of feathers glued together.
What is it like in person? I see that the wingspan of the eagle is 44 inches by 19 inches–the larger measurement is almost four feet. I wonder if the pictures give a sense of how big it is. I put the measurements in there, but it’s very difficult to judge the size with the photos. We can’t put a child or a potted plant [next to it] to show how big it is. You’re not allowed to do that at a high-end auction house.
Are there other aspects of the sculpture that the camera does not pick up? The richness of the color. I had seen this in his studio years ago [before] he sold it to Gerard Cafesjian. It came to me, and when I opened up the box, I was struck again by how rich the color is on it.
What’s your favorite detail of the sculpture? I would say it’s very majestic. I think it realistically captures the sense of the bird soaring in mid-flight.
Why will it stick in your memory? In terms of some of the other pieces in the sale, this is big and imposing. When you walk in the room, it’s the first thing you walk up to. There’s an enormous amount of ruby incorporated in it.
Update: Giovanni Boldini’s oil on panel portrait of John Singer Sargent sold for £371,250, or about $494,000.
What you see: An oil on panel portrait of the artist John Singer Sargent, painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1890. Christie’s estimates it at £200,000 to £300,000 ($261,800 to $391,200).
The expert: Veronica Scarpati, specialist at Christie’s London.
How did Boldini and Sargent know one another? Sargent was 14 years’ Boldini’s junior, but they were in the same circles and painted the same subjects. As Sargent was leaving for London [in 1886], he gave his Paris studio to Boldini, and he made it his home for the rest of his life. They always knew of each other and each other’s work.
Do we know the circumstances of how the portrait came about? If you look at it, the scale of the work is very intimate [it measures 14 1/4 by 11 inches] and very quickly done. I would imagine it was very informally done. There’s nothing planned about it. It’s very spontaneous. What I love about it is you can see the board [the panel] coming through, especially on the edges. It doesn’t appear to be a commission, or a study. It’s an artist at play, looking up to and admiring [his friend]. That’s why it’s so special. It’s frank and intimate.
Do we have any idea how Boldini might have done this portrait? Would he have asked Sargent to pose, or would he have done this from memory? Without having been there, we could infer from the way it’s painted–very immediate and very loose–perhaps a bit of both. I don’t imagine Sargent in the studio holding this pose. Boldini might have had this image in his head and brought forth Sargent’s personality.
Yeah, Sargent standing there in the studio like that… that would be uncomfortable. (Laughs) With the stick behind his back…
Is this the first of the three known Boldini portraits of Sargent? Do the other two survive? If so, how do they compare to this one? The other two works do survive. One is more complete and lacking the sense of energy which exudes from ours, whilst the other is a sketchy watercolor head study. These are different kinds of works. Whereas ours is more immediate and full of energy, the other two are more posed. We expect they were all painted around 1889.
This portrait was first sold at auction at Christie’s in 2003 [the lot is too far in the past to find through the auction house’s website search engine]. How did it do then? How did that performance shape its current estimate? What other factors shaped its estimate?Back in 2003, the market was much smaller, and concentrated on connoisseurship, whereas in the last few years in particular, we have seen more openness within our collectors—who, despite being traditional buyers in one category or another, will both recognize and appreciate the skill and importance of artists they wouldn’t normally collect, and translate that enthusiasm into active bidding. Alongside this, we have had more and more cross-category sales in recent seasons, which has helped with the cross-pollination. The Adventurous Spirit Collection, from which this work is offered, is a perfect example of this.
Is there a contingent of collectors out there who deliberately seek artists’ portraits of other artists, who would be keen to go after this? Definitely. Working at an auction house such as Christie’s, you find that there are collectors for pretty much everything. There are some that love self-portraits of artists. There’s something to be said for artists’ portraits of artists. I’d be lying if I said I could think of three names off the top of my head [of collectors who’d want it] but it’s exactly what speaks to cross-category buyers. If you love Boldini or Sargent, it’s a jewel, and you’re drawn to it because of the narrative between them.
This strikes me as being more lively than Boldini’sformal portraitsof sitters. Does the Singer portrait represent a departure for him? It’s really comfortable in its intimacy. Every time I view it with a colleague or a client, they say, “Wow, that’s so modern.” The way he attacks the board with the paint–the red in the tie is very strong, and just above the shoulder, there’s green. They’re contrasts on the color wheel, but it works. It’s immediate. It’s not structured. There’s no sense of having a patron watching over his shoulder. Just one artist who understands and admires another artist, just painting. That’s what makes it modern and unbridled.
Did Boldini choose that sense of sketchiness to impart movement to the portrait? Definitely. There’s a sense of movement, a sense of dynamism. Look at the lines in the background, the left quadrant. There’s one very strong, deep black line. Very strong diagonals and verticals in the background add energy. The trouser leg is a couple of lines–that’s it. You definitely get a sense of movement, even though the figure is standing still.
This is an oil on panel, but if you’d told me this was a chalk or a pastel, I’d have believed you. How is Boldini getting that effect? He’s using very rapid brushstrokes. There’s no hesitation whatsoever. It’s him attacking the board, building up the colors of his composition as he goes. See where he spends his time–on the hands, the head, the neck. He spends less time on the right foot. That’s almost a ghost of where the shoe should be. I think the eyes are very warm and soft. The hands still look sketchlike, but he’s definitely concentrating, paying attention, because what is an artist without his hands? For all the looseness, there’s a sense of a triangular composition. You’re drawn to the face, then the hands, and back up. It’s really brilliant. It’s almost as if he didn’t think about it, but there’s definitely rhythm and reason behind the composition.
What is the portrait like in person? It’s a jewel, an absolute jewel. Our photo studio is amazing, and worked hard to get the colors as true as they are. Though they came very close, it’s never the same as seeing a piece in the room. With this piece, the pictures don’t do it justice. It’s really luminous. The colors are richer and more saturated. It seems more alive than it looks. It vibrates with energy when you see it in the flesh. And the scale of it is small and helps create the sense of it being jewel-like.
From the looks of the provenance, Boldini never gave this portrait to Sargent. Why might he have kept it? There’s no hard and fast reason why. I imagine because it’s a really lovely piece, a nice memento, he kept it close to his heart because he really treasured it. We can only speculate, and imagine where this testament of friendship would have sat in his studio, possibly making an interesting talking point with his clients.
Update: The 1887 Andrew Clemens bottle sold for $102,000–more than double its high estimate.
What you see: A patriotic-themed sand bottle by Andrew Clemens, dated 1887. Cowan’s Auctions estimates it at $35,000 to $45,000.
The expert: Wes Cowan, founder, Cowan’s Auctions.
Did Clemens invent this form of sand art? We don’t know entirely, but near McGregor, Iowa, there’s what is now a state park, Pikes Peak State Park. There’s a sandstone formation where different colored sand is exposed in layers. At some point, some enterprising person in McGregor collected sand and put it into bottles. I don’t think Clemens was the guy who invented it, but he took it to a level others could only dream of. Once Clemens started to do it, others imitated him.
So the artistic sand bottles made before Clemens appeared were what, just stacked colors of sand? I think so. The McGregor Historical Society has examples of bottles made by other folks–stacked colors or very simple geometric designs. They don’t look anything like Andrew Clemens bottles.
How did Clemens make these artistic bottles of sand? I think a large part of Clemens’ genius was he spent a lot of time preparing the sand–sorting it, sifting it, and he may have ground it so it could be packed. The sand granules coming out of the deposit are not the same size. It’s an advantage to make it as uniform as you can to arrange it in the bottle.
What tools did he use to arrange the grains of sand? He’d use tiny scoops to add sand to the bottle where he wanted it to be. He’d manipulate the colors with what looked like little hooks. And he would pack the sand–imagine a wooden tamping tool inside the bottle to pack the sand.
Did he or anyone else document his methods in detail? There are contemporary accounts that describe the process, but they’re not detailed enough to provide information on it. The bottom line is he practiced and practiced and became expert at doing this. That’s the secret of his work.
What challenges did he face in creating these artistic bottles? It was not physically difficult to do at all. Obviously, it was mentally challenging. The fact that he was deaf [means he] had no outside distractions. [Clemens came down with encephalitis at the age of five, and lost the ability to speak as well.] That’s part of the genius of this guy. [His deafness] allowed for intense levels of focus or concentration. By the end of his career, he could make them with relative ease. An upside-down bottle took him two days to make. He came up with techniques to make bottles faster and more efficiently.
Did he sell the bottles? Apparently, he got so good, and was recognized as such, that he printed a price list. He said he could do any design inside a bottle. I’ve seen a piano, an angel, a horse’s head, and a house. This is a standard spread-wing eagle with an urn and flowers on the other side. There are trains and steamboats, but the eagle [motif] is most common.
Did he work alone, or did he train others to help him? Newspaper accounts from the time suggest his brother helped by going to Pikes Peak to get sand. But he did it by himself. He didn’t train anyone else. There are no pictures of himself in his studio with his bottles, and there are no pictures of him working. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It means no one has come up with any so far.
So when he died, the knowledge went with him? I don’t know that you could teach anybody [how to do what he did]. He was a self-taught genius. He mastered the technique and no one ever came close.
And he didn’t use any glue when making these bottles? Zero. It’s all hand-packed sand.
Where did he get the bottles? An apothecary supplier? I’m sure he ordered apothecary bottles eventually. He had a thriving business. McGregor is a town on the Mississippi River. There was no problem shipping to McGregor.
Because they were alive at the same time, I should ask–was Andrew Clemens related to the author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain)? No, he was not related to Samuel Clemens.
How was Clemens’s work received in his day? He was incredibly well-regarded. He was recognized as a genius then and now. Anyone who holds a bottle in their hands is flabbergasted.
How did he choose his subject matter? His earliest bottles were strictly geometric, block shapes. I don’t know how he was inspired to create the spread-winged eagle, but it could have had to do with the centennial. But he wasn’t making these things up. He saw things in brochures and copied them. Eighty percent of them [the bottles] are eagles with flags and floral urns.
Do we have a notion of how many bottles he made? If he kept records, we don’t know where they are. He worked for 15, 16 years. Assuming he could make a bottle once every two days, or three to four a week, my guess is he made between 1,500 and 2,000 bottles. Maybe 150 are known to exist today, and they keep popping up. People curated these because they recognized the genius needed to make them, and how fragile they are. I’ve handled about 40, publicly and privately. I think I played a role in rediscovering the bottles when taping an episode of Antiques Roadshow in Hot Springs, Arkansas 17 years ago. It was the first seen outside of McGregor. People in Iowa knew who he was. No one had really done too much research on him.
What was that experience like, 17 years ago, when you saw that Clemens bottle? As an auctioneer, it’s rare to see something that you’ve absolutely never seen before. I think I was at the folk art table with representatives from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, thinking, “What? Where did this come from? How have we never heard of this?” It was pretty fun. I was able to Google his name and find a very primitive website where there were a few bottles and a bio. I thought, “Oh, he’s not unknown, he’s just unknown to us.” I think we [Cowan’s] were the first auction house to promote him nationally. The first bottle brought $11,000 or $12,000 and I think I estimated it at $3,500 to $4,500. It’s gone up and up since then.
How does this bottle compare to other bottles of his that you’ve handled? It’s an outstanding example of his late period work, but he didn’t make any crappy examples [laughs]. The only thing that happens is if they’re put out in the sun, the color might fade a bit. This one is very vibrant.
This bottle has an 1887 date. Clemens died in 1894. Do collectors prefer specific periods or eras of his work? No. The collectors I know are happy to get one.
What’s it like to hold the bottle in your hands? Is it substantial? It probably weighs about a pound, a pound and a half. The bigger they are, the more substantial they get. This is not by any means the biggest bottle he made. That’s in the State Historical Museum of Iowa. It took him two years to make, and he made it for his mom. It’s remarkable. [Scroll down a bit to see both sides of that bottle.]
And what’s it like to hold it in your hands and examine it? You hold one of these bottles and just marvel at the genius who made it. That’s the real reward. But the real story here is not necessarily the genius of the guy, It’s about a guy who had a disability in the 19th century [Clemens was a deaf-mute] who found a way to make a living.
What you see: Indian Hunter, sculpted in 1914 by Paul Manship. Sotheby’s estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.
The expert: Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s.
How many versions of Indian Hunter did Paul Manship make? He cast the tabletop version in an edition of 15 in 1914. He cast a monumental version as a commission in 1917. It was the only one of those versions he cast. There are two authorized reproductions, including the one outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There are no others outside those.
Do we know how he made this sculpture? Did he rely on a live model, or pose a model for a reference photograph, or create it from memory? The image of the Native American is something Manship drew upon time and time again in his career. We don’t know exactly how the sculpture was done, but we can say a lot was drawn from memory or experience. After a time of study in Europe he gained an appreciation for archaic Greek art and translated it into this subject.
What makes this sculpture a Paul Manship bronze? What details or aspects mark this as his work? I think this really embodies a distinct aesthetic. It’s uniquely naturalistic and detail-oriented, and simultaneously, it’s contemporary and simplified. A few aspects I love about his work on Indian Hunter are the braids–they’re incredibly detailed. The ribs are muscular and realistic. With the left hand gripping the bow, you see the detail on the fingers and the fingernails.
Manship sculpted Pronghorn Antelope first, earlier in 1914. How do the sculptures relate to each other and complement each other? They were cast together and meant to be viewed as a pair. He drew upon his interpretation of the myth of the labors of Hercules. He recast Hercules as a Native American hunter and cast the Cerynian Hind as an antelope. He translated a Greek myth that would have been familiar with while abroad in Rome and put his own unique spin on it, in a language that would have been more familiar to him.
Did this tabletop version of Indian Hunter originally come with a similar-size version of Pronghorn Antelope? Though they were cast together, they weren’t always sold together. This was sold as a single piece. Seeing them together is certainly wonderful. There’s an activation of energy with the release of the imaginary arrow.
Was Pronghorn Antelope done in a limited edition of 15? To the best of our knowledge, it was.
He initially created the sculptures for himself, to decorate his New York apartment. Did he approach these differently than he did his commissioned pieces? Is that visible in the works? They’re completely indistinguishable from something he did on commission. Though maybe he made one for New York and the other 14 were created and intended for distribution. What he created for his home is not separate from other commissions.
Manship’s interest in Greek art shines through here and ennobles his subject. But was that controversial in 1914–to ennoble a Native American as a figure equal to the heroic male sculptures of ancient Greek art? I don’t know how to answer that. I can say that when they were produced, they were received very well by the public at the time. Herbert Pratt [a head of Standard Oil] saw them and commissioned large-scale versions with Manship.
How hands-on was Manship in the casting of the bronzes? He didn’t produce on a mass scale, making us think he was quite involved in the process.
How often does this Paul Manship bronze come up at auction? They don’t come up very often. At least 11 are in museums. Three or four have come up previously in pairs, and there was a sterling silver version, separate from the 15 that were cast. You could consider it a sixteenth version. It sold in May 2013 for $425,000.
And this sculpture was originally sold alone? It was passed down in the collector’s family for decades. They’ve only ever owned Indian Hunter. It seems they only acquired this work.
This is the first time this particular one has come to auction. How rare is it to have a Paul Manship bronze that’s fresh to market? It depends on the version we’re discussing, but it’s not that many. He didn’t produce anything en masse. One of my favorite things about the work is it’s fresh to market. We’ve never seen this exact work before. I think that’s something generally exciting for the client as well.
Did Manship number the bronze? No. That’s not generally something he did with his casts.
What is it like in person? It has a beautiful, rich surface. The patina is very rich and soft as well. One of my favorite aspects is the braids. The detail is quite crisp and precise.
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.
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.
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.
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 Frank Tenney 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 Frank Tenney 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 AlphonzoBell 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.
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.
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 theFolies 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.
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.
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 collectionfour 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.
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.
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.
Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.
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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 Ammi 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 isinallfour 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 Ammi 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 Ammi 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 an Ammi 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.
Update: The Sami El-Khazen/Arredoluce Torciere della Cultura ceiling light sold for $32,500.
What you see: A unique Torciere della Cultura ceiling light, designed by Sami El-Khazen and executed by Arredoluce between 1964 and 1965. Bonhams estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Dan Tolson, specialist in modern decorative art and design at Bonhams.
What can you tell me about Sami El-Khazen, and about how he was chosen to design the Lebanon Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair? I can’t seem to find much. It’s incredibly hard to get info about him. I put hours upon hours into searching. He was in Lebanon in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when it was a cultural hotbed, the right time to be there. In 1988, he passed away. He was a vital designer, an architect, an unsung hero of modernism. [As for the story of how he was chosen to design a pavilion for the World’s Fair,] I’ve done a lot of research into it and it was not something I was able to discover. There’s relatively little in the Arredoluce catalogue raisonné, too. This piece is discussed in the opening, and they talk about him, but there’s no biography.
Do we know how long he’d been working with Arredoluce when he got the nod to create that 1964 World’s Fair Pavillion? No, we don’t know that either, or how it [the World’s Fair commission] came about. He designed it and Arredoluce provided all the manufacturing expertise. Arredoluce has been around since 1930. They were at the height of their success as a company [in the mid-1960s,] at the top of their game. It’s a piece of architecture in the way it’s been designed and put together.
Was the Lebanon Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair SamiEl-Khazen’s crowning achievement? From what I read about him, he was not a product designer, he was an architect. This may be the only thing he produced outside of architecture.
Do period photographs of the Lebanon Pavillion survive?Yes. The way you see the lamp, it extends down almost to the floor, like a stalactite. It was spectacular. It must have been ten feet in height. It must have been the centerpiece of the pavillion.
Why did SamiEl-Khazen and Arredoluce call it the Torciere della Cultura [lamp of culture]? I think it ties into what I was saying about Lebanon. In that period, they embraced modernity. It was a way of looking forward to the future. I think that’s what it was for them. It was made to symbolize Lebanon’s contribution to civilization and was designed to look like a tower of flame – representing the spread of Lebanese culture across the globe. It was exhibited in the pavilion’s Culture Room.
And the Shah of Iran saw the ceiling light and asked to buy it in 1965, or someone representing him did? That’s my supposition. There’s no discussion of that anywhere in the book [the Arredoluce catalogue raisonné], but I imagine he attended.
The lot notes say that the unique ceiling light “was sent to the Arredoluce factory in Monza [Italy] where it was dismantled and re-engineered into the present smaller proportioned work.” Do we know what, exactly, the artisans at Arredoluce did to modify the piece for installation in the dining room of the Shah’s palace? No, that’s not mentioned specifically. But it tapered to the floor, so it was cut down to a more user-size scale.
And let’s just stop here and discuss why it was okay to alter the light, and what made it okay. It was still a creation of Arredoluce. It [the changes] happened in El-Khazen’s lifetime, shortly after the show, and done with his approval. The ceiling light was completely impractical as it was. It was a huge thing, made into a more usable object.
Are there any period shots that show the ceiling light installed in the Shah’s palace dining room? No, there’s no interior shots, nothing that shows it in situ. It’s surprising how little information is out there about El-Khazen. Maybe it was destroyed in the war [the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990].
So, when we’re talking about works by El-Khazen at auction…this ceiling light is pretty much it? Yes, this is it, which is why it resonates with us. As an auctioneer, it’s incredible to have something unique by a critically acclaimed company, Arredoluce, and which is shown in its catalogue raisonné. It ticks a lot of boxes. The fact that there’s not a lot known about El-Khazen makes it more beguiling. The other thing that appeals to us is it was in the 1964 World’s Fair. It was legendary at the time.
And this sold once before at auction, in 1985, but we don’t know which house sold it? No. The seller’s grandparents bought it. He does not recall where they bought it. He thinks it sold for around $70,000, which in 1985 is quite significant.
And 1985 predates most of the available online auction archives. Yes, exactly. It gets patchy even past 15 years on Artnet.
What condition is the unique ceiling light in? It’s in excellent condition. It was rewired for the U.S. [electrical system] in 1985, but it hasn’t been updated since then. The bulbs have not been modernized. It’s in working order, and it’s been very well-cared-for.
How many pieces comprise the unique ceiling light? It has about 170 individual pieces.
Are they fixed in place, or is there any play or give? No. It’s amazingly well-engineered. It tessellates together, firmly into place.
I see that it is strictly described as a “ceiling light,” never a “chandelier,” which people would expect to wiggle and sway a little. Yes, exactly. It’s quite densely packed. It’s a complex piece.
This is a unique ceiling light design, and it seems to be the only thing El-Khazen designed that isn’t a building. How did you arrive at the estimate of $30,000 to $50,000? We looked at comparables [somewhat similar things that sold at auction in the past] for Italian lighting–prices for rare or unique lamps by Stillnovo and Arredoluce. But you can’t be precise with something unique. It comes down to what people are willing to pay for. It’s not only unique, it’s by a top manufacturer in Italy at the time, and it has historic connections with the 1964 World’s Fair. There’s a lot of good factors that make it highly collectible, and the Middle Eastern feature makes it collectible as well. [With this,] you can’t hold out for a second. That gets people’s attention. It should really go above the top estimate.
What’s it like in person? It’s absolutely incredible. It’s got great presence. It’s obviously quite masculine, quite powerful.
Is it heavy? Very heavy. It’s bronze, nickel-plated bronze. It’s a very serious weight.
The Shah of Iran put this unique ceiling light in his palace dining room. Where could someone put it today? If the entryway in your home has a double-height ceiling, it would work. It’s the focal point of a room. Though it’s reduced in scale, it’s a great conversation piece to have in a modern home.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so unique. It speaks volumes of El-Khazen’s vision for design. It’s spectacular. There’s definitely an unwritten story somewhere.
Update: Wanda Gág’s study for The Poisoned Apple sold for $5,000.
What you see: The Poisoned Apple, a study by Wanda Gág [pronounced ‘Gahg’] for an illustration in a 1938 edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.
The expert: Christine von der Linn, specialist in art books and original illustration at Swann Auction Galleries.
How did this Snow White book project come about? Was it a reaction to the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? It is, it absolutely is. 1937 was the Disney film. While it was popular and became an iconic film, the depiction of the witch frightened children. Because of that, one year later, Anne Carroll Moore, a writer, reviewer, and critic of children’s books and an advocate for children’s libraries, wanted to go back to the original Brothers Grimm and soften some of the elements that Disney portrayed.
How did the 1938 version achieve what Moore wanted? It keeps more of the folkloric charm of the original. You asked if the fact that Gág translated it herself, if it shaped the story–it did. Gág’s father was from Bohemia, and they moved to Minnesota. She grew up with those fairy tales and stories. She understood folklore and fairy tales, and she knew the language. She was able to translate it and come up with a more accurate version of the Brothers Grimm tale.
The study for The Poisoned Apple is far more elaborate than the same scene in the Disney movie. Can you talk about how WandaGág approached this scene, and how she chose certain details? In the original Grimm, the queen made four attempts to kill Snow White…
It sounds kind of like the Michael Palin character in A Fish Called Wanda trying to kill the old lady and accidentally killing her dogs instead. Exactly! Exactly. The queen tries her damnedest. She comes to the door as a corset peddler. The dwarfs told Snow White was told she was not supposed to answer the door to anyone. The queen puts her in a corset and ties her in so tightly that she passes out. The dwarfs find her and revive her. Next, she went as a comb vendor. The different attempts to disguise herself are discarded on the floor [the pile of masks and clothes at the left of the illustration]–the peddler didn’t work, the comb didn’t work. She gets her with the poisoned apple. Snow White was hesitant to take it. She had the good sense to be wary. The queen makes the apple half poison and half safe, and takes her bite out of the apple pulp side, the safe side. I love that Gág is showing the recipe, how she created the poisoned apple to give to her stepdaughter. It looks kind of delightful until you look at the elements and realize how dark they really are.
The late 1930s were a time when the notion of “better living through chemistry” wasn’t laughable. Nylon had been invented a few years earlier. Do you think that the positive view of chemical breakthroughs shaped how Gág approached this illustration? The Disney scene has the witch standing over the traditional cauldron, but this scene is half lab, half kitchen. It’s an interesting connection to make, but I’m not sure if I’d 100 percent go there. Domestic science came in the teens. By 1937 and 1938, it was established. You definitely have those elements to it.
How different is the study from the illustration that appears in the book? Not terribly. It takes you a while to realize the differences. The composition is almost identical. In the book version, she defines the elements more. The vapors coming off the apple look more like a corona. It’s interesting to see the subtleties of how she directs the eye.
I don’t have the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White in front of me, and I can’t recall it, but wouldn’t it have been harsher than the Disney version? It was. In the movie, the dwarfs dance around her and love Snow White. It’s symbiotic. In the book, they’re almost like little opportunists:”You can stay here and we will help keep you protected if you become our housekeeper.” They’re in the more classic tradition of dwarfs as mischievous and devious. They’re going to use her services. In the movie, when she falls under the spell, they put her in a glass coffin. In the book, the prince decides to take Snow White to a better resting place and attempts to move her to his castle, and one of his carriers trips. An act of clumsiness dislodges the apple from her throat and wakes her. She and the prince then decide to get married. In dark, grim fashion, the prince reveals to Snow White that the queen tried to murder her. They make the queen wear molten hot dance shoes and in a messed up Circus Maximus scene, they make her dance until she dies and they carry on with the rest of the wedding. Gág kept it. It’s still a violent image, but she kept it.
Where are the rest of WandaGág’s illustrations for the Snow White book? The rest reside in the Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota. Minnesota is where she grew up. A couple of studies have entered the market. The provenance for this piece is it was acquired by a German rare book and manuscripts dealer, Walter Schatzki. He had them and then he sold them in the early 1970s to another dealer, Justin G. Schiller. It went from Schiller to the current owner. That’s one of the reasons why the price is higher. It’s her best-known work outside of Millions of Cats. It’s a crucial scene from the book, and you can’t acquire [the final illustration] because it’s in the Kerlan collection.
What are the odds that The Poisoned Apple will set a new record for WandaGág at auction? The estimate straddles the price of Outside Looking In. It might, it might. I’d like to see it set a record. We’re still celebrating the 80th anniversary of the movie and the publication of the book. It’s one of her most important and defining creations. And this is its first time at auction. With enough luck and enough bidders, we’ll see it set a new record.
Why will this WandaGág piece stick in your memory? [Laughs] A couple of reasons. I like it because, in general, I love food and fairy tale images. For me, it’s a two-in-one. I’m the vice president of a local farmer’s market. I often deal with farmers and apples. I love any illustration that’s food- and fairy tale-based. I also like that it’s cartoon-like. The dark, thick lines lend that element to it.
Update: Frank Sinatra’s copy of the deluxe limited edition of the 1961 official program of the inaugural ceremonies for President John F. Kennedy sold for $1,250.
What you see: Frank Sinatra’s copy of the deluxe limited edition of the 1961 official program of the inaugural ceremonies for President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Sotheby’s estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.
The expert: Selby Kiffer, senior vice president and international senior books specialist for Sotheby’s New York.
What is this deluxe limited edition 1961 inaugural program worth without the Sinatra provenance? It’s probably something like $700 to $1,000, but maybe that’s a bit aggressive–$600 to $800 for a deluxe limited edition that went to no one of consequence except being a big donor.
How big was the press run? When they don’t state a limitation, my assumption is it’s fairly high. Checking results at auction, the highest-number copy was in the 700s. If I had to speculate, I’d say 1,000 [were printed].
How often does the deluxe limited edition 1961 inaugural program come to auction? Every couple of seasons, but it could come up at sales of political memorabilia, which is a separate area [from books and manuscripts]. There’s probably one available every 18 months.
What makes this version deluxe? The standard version would have been what you or I could obtain if we attended the Kennedy inaugural in 1961. This was made for presentation for donors to the inaugural event, which Sinatra certainly was, or to donors to the Kennedy-Johnson campaign. This was for VIPs, essentially.
How did Kennedy and Sinatra become friends? I don’t know that it’s known when they met, but it’s generally acknowledged that they met through Peter Lawford, being the senator’s brother-in-law and an associate member of the Rat Pack. Both were stars: Sinatra in entertainment, and Kennedy a rising star in politics. Both were charismatic, and both were the sort of people other people want to be around. There was mutual admiration. Sinatra was a New Deal FDR Democrat. He was probably excited to see a younger version of that.
Seems that Sinatra went all-in on Kennedy. He retooled High Hopes as a campaign song… I think Sammy Cahn wrote new lyrics for High Hopes as a campaign song. I think Sinatra saw a winner in Kennedy. He wanted to associate with that, and he believed in him. I think he felt he was a better choice for the country and he tried to convey that through campaigning. Sinatra had several peaks in his career. He could have made a lot of money singing anywhere, and he spent some of those nights on campaign appearances.
Does the 1961 inauguration of Kennedy represent the peak of the friendship of Kennedy and Sinatra? I think it has to, because the inaugural balls, the entertainment, Sinatra was put in charge of that. He chose not to treat that as an honorary position. He worked the telephone, strong-armed people, and turned out an amazing cavalcade of stars to perform. The president thanked him for his work. It had to be the pinnacle for Sinatra [who probably thought]: “I helped put him in the White House, and he acknowledged me.”
Can you talk about how the relationship between Kennedy and Sinatra ended? Sinatra, for all his charisma and bravado and his tough-guy exterior, did not like to be disappointed. He anticipated hosting President Kennedy, as he had hosted Senator Kennedy, at his Palm Springs estate in 1962. At the last minute, after making lots of preparations for Kennedy and the Secret Service to be there, he was informed that Kennedy would not stay at his property, but would stay with Bing Crosby instead. It was particularly irksome because Crosby was a Republican.
Why would Kennedy have chosen to stay with a Republican rather than another prominent Democrat in Palm Springs? Crosby may have been seen as safer than Sinatra, who was seen as a bad boy, and who was in the tabloids in a way that Crosby was not. The association [with Sinatra] could prove embarrassing in a way that associating with Crosby would not be.
The end of the friendship of Kennedy and Sinatra is tragic, but I don’t see how it could have been avoided. Kennedy had chosen his brother, Bobby, for attorney general, and was rightly getting heat for that, even though Bobby proved capable. One of Bobby’s main tasks was targeting the mob, and if Sinatra didn’t have mob ties, many believed he had them… This is pure speculation, but maybe Kennedy tried to get a message to Sinatra to the effect of “Look, if it was solely my choice, I’d be with you, but I’ve been advised I can’t do that.” It’s speculation that the president tried to explain it that way. I think it stung Sinatra very deeply. I do think he came to realize that President Kennedy didn’t really have an open choice to stay with him.
Sinatra was clearly hurt by the snub, but he hung onto this program and he mourned Kennedy’s death, even though he went on to campaign for Republicans… People do change their politics. Sinatra did campaign for Ronald Reagan, who was also a former New Deal FDR Democrat. I think that progression–as people get older, the move from one party to another is not unusual. It could be his political choices were based on the man rather than the platform. Just as he found Jack Kennedy more convivial than Richard Nixon, he may have found Ronald Reagan more convivial than Jimmy Carter. I do think the continuing involvement–he found in it something similar to the adrenalin rush he could get from performing. If you’re Frank Sinatra, you’re a pretty important guy, but you’re not the president.
But Sinatra kept the program until he died, despite how things ended between him and Kennedy. I think he recognized it was a great moment for him and a great friendship. Some friendships don’t last, but the memory does last. The assassination of Kennedy the following year may have contributed to him keeping this. There are otherKennedy itemsin the sale. I think he regretted that the friendship blew up or ended, but I don’t know that he regretted the friendship.
The condition of Frank Sinatra’s copy of the program is described as “extremities just rubbed, a bit shaken”. Could you elaborate? Any book, if you put it on a shelf, the corners especially tend to get rubbed or worn in something 60 years old. “Just rubbed” means a bit of wear and tear, maybe at the top of the spine where you put a finger to pull it off the shelf. It’s fairly straightforward. “Shaken” is related to the pages, the substance of the book itself, to the binding. It was printed to be a paperback and inserted into the binding to delineate it as a limited edition. The binding is not always the best quality. Literally, if you hold it in your hand and shake it, you’d see the pages were moving. Nothing is sewn into the binding, but nothing is loose.
What does the wear say about Frank Sinatra’s copy ofthe program, and what does it say about how often Sinatra or his wife might have taken it down from the shelf to look at it or show it to friends? I think it [the wear] is partly that, and partly–I don’t want to be harsh about it–though it was coveted at the time, it was not of the highest quality of manufacture. [The condition reflects] the quality of heavy use and mid-quality manufacture. Let’s put it that way.
The estimate on Sinatra’s deluxe limited edition copy of the 1961 inaugural program is $3,000 to $5,000. That strikes me as a little low. How did you choose that sum? It’s higher than any copy we’re aware of that has sold. Whenever you have a celebrity–and we learned this with the Jackie O estate auction–when there’s special interest with the provenance, it’s best not to build it into the estimate. It’s best to let the marketplace determine where it goes. We say the fact that it was Sinatra’s should increase the value three- or four-fold. In the event of a sale, it may see an increase of more than that.
Are there any notations or inscriptions in Frank Sinatra’s copy of the book? There are no notations, but I also think it’s a matter of… during the inauguration, you want to be seen as listening, not taking notes. And it’s pretty chock-a-block. It’s dense. There’s not a lot of space left for notes.
What’s the world auction record for one of these deluxe 1961 inaugural programs? Our estimate is already higher than the highest price. We’re saying that of the copies that have been for sale, this is worth more than any of them. The current record, and this is not quite a one-to-one comparison because it included other material from the 1961 inauguration, such as invitations, it was copy 776, signed by Mr. Foley as chairman of the commission and given to Edward J. Sullivan. It sold at another house for $2,745. Obviously, what we want when people look at the catalog [is to think] “That’s low, I can get it.” We want to pitch the estimate so it’s appealing and will create competition among bidders.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I’m a huge Sinatra fan. I’ve listened to Sinatra for four decades. And I love association copies–something that underlines a friendship in a tangible way, This is tangible evidence of friendship between two of the greatest figures of 20th century America. It’s really evidence of the culmination of the friendship and probably a highlight for both of them. Kennedy got into the White House, and Sinatra was acknowledged as very important in achieving that goal.
Update: The Sendak-designed complete crocodile costume for Goose of Cairo sold for $3,750.
What you see: A crocodile costume designed by Maurice Sendak in the 1980s for a production of L’Oca del Cairo (Goose of Cairo), an unfinished opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rago Auctions estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.
The expert: Justin G. Schiller, a specialist in rare and collectible children’s books. He co-created the corporation that consigned the costume to Rago Auctions.
So, how many operas did Sendak design for? Altogether I believe he did 15 operas and ballets. He began in 1980, with The Magic Flute, and his career went through to 2004 or 2005, with Brundibar. He was very interested in the experience of developing not only the sets and costumes, but trying to make the characters interactive.
Was this character the only crocodile character in Goose of Cairo, or was it one of several crocodiles? I think there was only one involved in the production. This is one of the few Sendak costumes that is complete. The head and feet are the main parts of those costumes. The bodysuits were painted to fit, but the crocodile costume was so specific, they kept everything.
Why is this costume described in the lot heading as being “After Maurice Sendak” rather than designed by Maurice Sendak? Maurice would have done the design on paper. The costume was created by the seamstresses, the people who make the costumes. In some cases, you see Maurice fix up the costume once it’s on the actor or the actress. He did the pictures, they did the physical production.
So he wouldn’t have been involved with making sure the costume was comfortable for the actor to wear? Yes, but if there was any problem with the fitting, he would have been consulted.
What do we know about Sendak’s approach to costume design? He took it very seriously. For example, when he was doing Hansel and Gretel, he went to German forests and studied the landscaping. It took him seven years to create.
Apparently it’s rare for a Sendak costume to survive intact, as this one does. How did it manage to do that? The production for Goose of Cairo was very short-lived. They [the few Goose of Cairo items that were found] were in a separate storage unit. It’s one of only two pieces of the production that survive. The other is a mechanical goose of Cairo that gets wheeled onstage, which Richard Michelson has. Goose of Cairo was never considered a main production, because it was an unfinished opera by Mozart. It’s usually presented as an interlude. It ran for about half an hour, and something else would have come with it. Maybe that’s why there weren’t many costumes.
Why are Sendak-designed costumes so scarce, compared to Sendak-designed sets? Probably because sets get rolled on stage or lowered on stage, and when they’re not on stage, they’re protected. Costumes get handled and used constantly. The condition of the crocodile is unusually good. It’s a simpler costume: bodysuit, head, gloves, foot coverings.
Is this crocodile costume a good representative of his opera costume design work? I would think it’s a very good example. The head is probably papier-mâché molded on top of a helmet so it fits on the head of an actor. From there, they’d build out the rest of the head, the body suit, the painted fabric. Several of the costumes we had would have the names of actors inside them and the names of the production companies.
Is that true here? No. I believe the crocodile had only one actor. When you have multiple figures wearing the same cluster of costumes, like in The Love for Three Oranges, different actors play the roles, and they all need to be fitted. Having names on them makes it much simpler.
And the provenance for this Sendak costume–it went from the New York City Opera to you to Rago Auctions? Yes, exactly. We specialize in Sendak.
How did you come to own the Sendak costume? The New York City Opera decided to sell all [the sets and costumes] they didn’t plan to put into sequence again [in 2013]. We decided to acquire as much as we could from productions they still had examples of.
How many costumes did you acquire? It didn’t seem like a lot. We purchased ten or twelve.
How many complete Sendak-designed costumes survive? I don’t really know. There were a few major ones. There was a fabulous one with a very grand lady who was a pig, and a bear dressed up like a lord, [both] for a different opera, and they went for $4,000 to $6,000 each, as the hammer price [the price before the premium and other fees are applied]. I talked to the collector afterward. She was a very serious collector of opera and theater costumes. It was a unique opportunity to acquire a costume by Sendak.
When Sendak created book illustrations, he worked in two dimensions. When he created opera costumes, he had to think, to some extent, in three dimensions. How did he handle this challenge? Sometimes it’s the costume people, but Maurice’s drawings often show a profile, how it looks from the side. But sets are one thing, costumes are another. The catalog only shows side views of the crocodile head. Head on, it’s fantastic.
What details on the crocodile costume mark it as a Sendak design? Maybe with certain specific styles, you can look at it and say that’s a David Hockney or that’s a Picasso. With Sendak, I would say basically the [sense of] fantasy, of playfulness. His ogress would be friendly, even if the character was not.
What jumped out and me and said “Sendak” was the crocodile’s eyes, and the snout. It certainly was the eyes that got us. They’re wonderful, almost yolk-colored eyes. The snout–most artists would draw it as menacing. Sendak’s snout is friendly instead of menacing, despite all the teeth.
The condition report states that the Sendak costume has “wear commensurate with theatrical use.” What does that mean in this context? It’s got scuffs or scrapes on the bottom of the tail and the foot coverings? That [the language] is mostly so people don’t think it’s brand new. The bodysuit may have a tear in the stitching, but overall, it’s quite good, and very dramatic.
Have you or your gallery partner or anyone at Rago Auctions tried on the Sendak-designed costume? You need a slim body [to wear it]. We told Rago they’d need some kind of body form [to display it and photograph it]. They were able to find a person on staff who could do the pictures. We were surprised and pleased that they were able to do that.
How does the wearer see? There are eyeholes in the neck.
Do you know what size the Sendak-designed costume is? I don’t. Dennis [Dennis David, Schiller’s gallery partner] is suggesting it’s probably more of a medium. Maybe that’s why the crocodile is not looking too hungry.
Is the head attached to the tail, or are they separate pieces? The head is certainly separate. The tail is attached with button snaps to the back of the bodysuit. The gloves are part of the bodysuit. The head, in itself, is very decorative.
What’s the auction record for a Sendak-designed costume? The only auction I know of is from the New York City Opera sale, three costumes that were very elaborate in themselves. We were the underbidder. They were probably from The Love of Three Oranges. Those sold for between $4,000 and $6,000 each.
Update: Feynman’s 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics sold for $975,000.
What you see: The Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to Richard Feynman in 1965 for his contributions to creating a new quantum electrodynamics. Sotheby’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.
The expert: Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s.
In the press release for the sale and in the raw lot notes for the Nobel Prize, Feynman is described as a “rock star of physics” and “one of the most beloved scientists of all time.” What makes him so? I think what earns him the title of the “rock star of physics” is his personality–who he was as a human, and his intellectual capacity. If you look at other physicists of his caliber, you don’t see relatable humans with the same intellect. You could compare Feynman to Einstein, but Feynman loved teaching, and it was more important to him than theoretical work. Rock stars transcend their genres. They’re not just musicians. Feynman transcended his work. He would always say there’s nothing magical here, that he was just very curious, worked hard on the questions, and figured it out. But he inspired people, and he imparted excitement to people.
Feynman died 30 years ago, but he’s just as popular now as he was when he was alive. How has he managed to persist? Why hasn’t his memory faded? Partly it’s because of his personality, who he was. A lot of scientists are best known for their work. With others, the subject that won the prize is far more famous than the person who did the work. Because Feynman was such a popular figure, he was able to stay popular.
Have his books and his former students played a role in keeping his memory alive? He taught so many people who went on to teach other people who are super-successful and doing things they love to do. Not all are physicists, but they apply what they learned from Feynman to their lives. One of his biggest lessons was to enjoy life and enjoy what you’re doing. I’ve met many of his students, and they’re generally happy, fun-loving people. And I think the books definitely help.
It’s interesting that Feynman’s fame persists without the help of an Academy Award-winning film, such as A Beautiful Mind. At the end of the day, an Oscar-winning film is just an Oscar-winning film. Feynman doesn’t need a film. He became his own legend. He’s one of the rare people who was human, fun-loving, and also a fun-loving genius. He defied the stereotype of the scientist in a lab, not interacting people, with no social skills. He was the opposite of that.
Feynman won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for work on quantum electrodynamics. Using non-technical language, can you explain why his contribution to science was such a big deal? Feynman was asked the same question, and he said, “Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.” To be frank, I don’t understand it completely.
Feynman was one of three who earned the 1965 prize for work on this problem. Did he work directly with his fellow winners, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga? They were all working on similar problems independently, but they knew about each other and were aware of each other’s work. Schwinger and Tomonaga took a mathematical approach to how to reconcile quantum mechanics, a 19th century science, with quantum electrodynamics, a 20th century science. Feynman’s approach was completely original and took a completely different direction. One of the ways he explained it it was by coming up with Feynman diagrams [click those words to see what a Feynman diagram looks like]. Those diagrams really revolutionized how we do quantum electrodynamics. They’re standard now.
How did Feynman learn that he’d won the Nobel Prize? He got a phone call at 4 am from a reporter. My understanding is he was unhappy about it [both the crazy-early phone call and the news of the win]. He asked his wife, Gweneth, how he could get out of it. He had a good life, and he knew the win would change things. I think the way it goes is she said, ‘Dear, the publicity would be worse if you don’t accept the prize.’ So he went to Stockholm and ended up having a great time. Feynman had been raised with a suspicion of institutions and authority. [Receiving the prize] played into his reluctance, because it was another symbol of the establishment. But he realized the machine had started running, and it’s harder to stop the machine than go along with it.
What did Feynman do with his share of the Nobel Prize money? He spent part of it on a vacation house in Mexico, and he bought a van. There’s an episode of TheBig Bang Theory in which they take the Richard Feynman van and drive down to Mexico and stay in Richard Feynman’s vacation home.
Have the other two Nobel Prizes in Physics for 1965 come to auction? No. I keep a spreadsheet of all the Nobel Prizes ever sold. I’ve been obsessed with the market for Nobels for a long time–I started tracking them in 2012. They have not come up.
How have you seen the market for Nobel Prizes change over time? A few had come up, three or four, since 1988. Then Francis Crick’s Nobel sold at Heritage Auctions for $2.2 million in 2013, and it kind of sparked a flurry. It was the highest price ever paid for a Nobel, and it really got a lot of attention. It was followed by James Watson’s Nobel Prize selling at Christie’s in 2014 for $4.7 million. What’s really interesting is most of what we sell has no inherent value, but the story is what is valuable. Whereas a Nobel Prize actually has a value. Prizes minted before 1985 are made from 23-karat solid gold. Depending on the value of gold, they’re worth about $10,000. Prizes minted after 1985 are plated with 24-karat gold.
The price range for Nobel Prizes at auction is all over the place. Which ones sell for the most money? I’ve been trying to figure out which categories are worth more. The fewer the words you need to explain why a person won the Nobel, the more it sells for. With Watson, it’s “DNA.” No need to explain. “DNA” is enough. With Feynman, you can just say “Feynman.” No one is going to ask me to explain quantum electrodynamics, thank God.
How often does Feynman material come up at auction? It’s super-rare. There have been two manuscripts by Feynman to come to market. One was at Sotheby’s in 2006–lecture notes from one of his students, who was helping transcribe them. The other was a sheet of calculations he signed to Egon Lehmkuhl, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2008. Do you know who bought that?
No. I bought it. I was a dealer at the time. I sold it and I started looking for Feynman material obsessively. Those two manuscripts that came up were total flukes. All his material is in the archives at Caltech. Since then, four copies of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! that he signed and gave to friends have come up. One of them sold at Sotheby’s last year for $43,750.
What else comes with Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize as part of the lot? There’s the Nobel, the box it comes in, the diploma, and two programs. One says things like ‘the limo comes at this time, this is a white-tie party, you’ll eat this meal.’ The other is a program with translations of the Nobel speeches. On the back, Feynman has doodled Feynman diagrams. To get Feynman diagrams on the back of a Nobel Prize ceremony program is pretty cool.
Has a Feynman diagram drawn by Feynman ever gone to auction before? Prior to this, no. There are other manuscript lots in the sale that have Feynman diagrams.
I’m surprised that more Feynman material hasn’t managed to escape to the market, here and there. Yeah. Again, because he gave just about everything to Caltech, what stayed at his house were things he probably thought weren’t important. But when you look at them, you realize they’re extremely important. Final manuscripts don’t tell you much. How he gets there is much more interesting. What you see in the manuscripts [offered in other lots in the November 30 sale] is how he gets there. You see how he gets from A to Z.
What other Feynman pieces are in the sale besides Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize? There are about 40 lots. They include a tambourine, very conveniently signed by him, thank you Richard Feynman, which he bought in Copacabana, Brazil. He talks about it in Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and it’s torn from being played too much. There’s his undergraduate copy of Paul Dirac’s The Principles ofQuantum Mechanics, with his handwritten annotations. Some [pages] have very heavy annotation. One says ‘prove this one day’ or ‘figure it out one day’–it’s the book that made Feynman Feynman. [Later she clarified: The notation is “analyze this some day”, and it’s in a section about the polarization of photons.] There are transcripts from the Oppenheimer hearing. There are some arithmetic books from his undergraduate years. The books are really, really interesting. He lived in a frat house at MIT. One book has his MIT address and his address in Far Rockaway. Then another book just has the MIT address–a shift that says ‘This is my home now.’ There are clues that tell you about the young Feynman.
Whoa, whoa. What was it like for you to look through all that stuff? Honestly, I teared up. I could not believe it. I could not believe it. I had said to a colleague the year before that the only Nobel Prize I wanted to sell is Richard Feynman’s. To get that call… I’m a specialist in science and technology. I don’t talk about fate, but it felt like cosmic alignment to get that call.
The estimate on Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize is $800,000 to $1.2 million. The world auction record for a Nobel Prize is $4.7 million. Do you think Feynman’s has a chance to approach or beat the record? I’m optimistic it will exceed the estimate, but at the end of the day, it’s just an estimate. I don’t know how it will do until the day of the auction, but it’s not… it’s such a weird thing to say, but it’s not a regular Nobel Prize. Because Richard Feynman is a celebrity, he’s in a different category. There’s no comparable [no lot sold before at auction] that’s exactly like it. It’s an unusual situation. The work [that the Nobel Prize recognizes] is tremendously important and the personality is tremendously important. That Venn diagram is what buyers look for.
The Nobel Prize world auction record belongs to one that was awarded to a scientist. Why? Why hasn’t a Nobel Prize for Literature or Peace sold for more? Part of it is looking at the demographics of the buyers. If you look at the Forbes 500, a lot of the wealth today comes from or relates to science. And a lot of people are motivated by nostalgia, a time when they were happy and young. With Feynman, bidders remember studying his work in college or reading Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and being inspired by him. It’s not that Nobel Prizes for Peace or Literature are less important. There are just fewer buyers.
How many Nobel Prizes have you handled? How is this one different? I’ve handled six or less. The others were certainly important and exciting, but this one got my pulse going. You try not to be, how can I say it, emotionally involved in a sale, because sometimes, things don’t sell. This is something I’ve been obsessed with. Feynman is my favorite scientist of all time. I’ve got pictures of him in my office. I don’t know how I’m going to top this one, let’s put it like that.
Update: The Taking Care of Business necklace that Elvis Presley gave to Sonny West sold for $38,400.
What you see: A 14k gold necklace with a Taking Care of Business (TCB) logo, given by Elvis Presley to Sonny West circa 1970. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.
What was the Memphis Mafia, and how did it serve Elvis Presley? “Memphis Mafia” was the name given to the group of friends and close confidants of Elvis Presley. The media gave them the name “Memphis Mafia” around 1960. Elvis liked the name and it stuck.
Where did the phrase “Taking Care of Business” come from? Elvis’s band was called Taking Care of Business. He always gave away gifts, especially jewelry, and he came up with the idea for an identifying piece of jewelry that he only gave to the Memphis Mafia. There were probably 12 to 20 people [in the group]. Elvis loved Taking Care of Business. It was the logo on his plane. Priscilla was involved with the design of the logo. They were on the plane when a lightning bolt went through it. She got out her sketch pad and came up with Taking Care of Business in a flash.
When did that happen? We don’t know for sure, but we presume it was the late 1950s or early 1960s, probably after he came out of the military.
How was the material and the carat weight chosen? Elvis loved bling, he loved gold. There were some variants on the necklace. The one he gave Doctor Nick [George Nichopoulos, Presley’s personal physician] had diamonds on it. We sold that one for $120,000. The overall look of the 14k gold necklace is probably based on a collaboration with the jeweler in Beverly Hills and what they could do within their budget.
This is believed to be the first Taking Care of Business necklace that Elvis Presley gave out. Does that make it more interesting to collectors? Yes. Collectors love something when it’s original, or the first. TCB went on to be a significant Elvis signature, in a way. Its being the first definitely adds value on auction day.
Why is Sonny West a logical recipient of the first Taking Care of Business necklace? He was Elvis’s bodyguard, responsible for security at his concerts. He was one of the original members of the Memphis Mafia, which was a very close, tight circle. My guess is because he was Elvis’s bodyguard, he was right there when Elvis went to the jewelry shop in Beverly Hills. Because he was right there, and a member of the Memphis Mafia group, he got the first necklace.
Do the Taking Care of Business necklaces always look like this one does, or did the design change over time? They’re not all exactly the same. The TCB logo with the flash remains the same, but the chains change.
How many Taking Care of Business necklaces have you handled, and how many Taking Care of Business necklaces did Elvis give out? Do we know?I think we’ve handledfourtosix—probably four, with twocoming backto auction again. I don’t know how many there are, but there were somewhere between 12 and 20 people in the Memphis Mafia. Not a huge amount. Maybe 30, max.
Do any period photos exist of Sonny West wearing the TCB necklace and standing alongside Elvis? I presume there would be period photos. He was with Elvis for 16 years, and he was with Elvis a lot. We didn’t license any, but I’m sure there are photos.
How did you arrive at the estimate of $30,000 to $50,000 for the TCB necklace? Obviously we looked at the intrinsic value first. Then we looked at other TCB necklaces we’ve sold. The provenance is so solid because of Sonny West. Then there’s the collectibility of Elvis himself. He has a huge amount of fans out there.
As of October 19, the TCB necklace has its first bid, amounting to $7,500. Does that mean anything? No, it doesn’t mean anything. But we have 55,000 views on this auction already. To have so many so early on, that’s amazing.
What condition is the TCB necklace in? It’s in great condition, given its age and the life it’s had up to now.
Why will this particular TCB necklace stick in your memory? The fact that it was the first one–wow, it was the start of something. The very first one created, for Sonny West, the bodyguard and confidant of Elvis. Within the history of Elvis and the Memphis Mafia, it’s almost like branding, or a tattoo. Taking care of business in a flash was what the Memphis Mafia represented: getting business done. That was what was important to Elvis.
Update: The 1928 Roger Broders poster featuring Calvi Beach in Corsica sold for $7,500.
What you see: La Place de Calvi. Corse, a 1928 poster by Roger Broders, touting Calvi Beach on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $8,000 to $12,000.
The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.
Where was Roger Broders in his career in 1928? Let me give you a little background first. In 2011, we were very lucky at Swann to hold a sale called The Complete Poster Works of Roger Broders–every poster he ever designed. We have handled all his material at the same time. We’re in a good position to have an overview. We arranged the catalog in chronological order, first to last, and we had 100 lots in the auction. This poster was number 49, so, midway in his output, if not his actual career. He was at a stage when his figures take on a lithe, elongated look.
Was this his first poster for this client? Oh, no. PLM was his major client, his primary client. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of his posters were done for them.
A railway company commissioned this Corsica poster from Roger Broders, but there’s no train in it. Why would a railroad want a travel poster that didn’t show a railroad? The railway teamed up with ferry services. You would have booked the ferry through the train company–it was a PLM ticket. PLM was like a travel agency, in that way. This [Corsica] was along their extended route.
What makes this Roger Broders image a strong poster design? I see a bright patch of orange in the middle–a beautiful, brightly colored, artistically decorated wrap. If I was passing by this, I would stop because I saw a flash of orange. Then I’d see the pretty lady. The composition is fantastic. The curve of the shore is a Broders design motif. Her body cuts right through it. It’s very eye-catching. And at the time, people wouldn’t have thought this, but it’s an incredible Art Deco image. This is archetypal Art Deco. The coastline is sweeping, the cape is moving, the waves are lapping at the shore.
I went back and forth between those two posters, lot 71 and lot 72, and settled on this one because I recognized the woman’s feet and legs. They look like the feet and legs of Venus in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. It’s almost as if he traced them. I don’t see anything mentioned in the lot notes, though. Is Broders quoting that painting? The tilt of her head is similar, and the elongated neck is similar. There’s no way it’s a coincidence. It’s too accurate. 100 percent, this is a nod to Birth of Venus.
And the Birth of Venus is, technically, a beach scene… It gets better and better. If you look at the bottom of the poster, there are two figures on the left of the woman and one on the right. That’s also like the painting. The figure on the right in the painting is about to shroud Venus with a cloak. In the poster, the woman has a wrap. There’s not a lot of info on Broders, but the Birth of Venus is in Florence, and he did a poster for Florence in 1921. And that’s his style–the elongated style appears in other posters.
Was it typical for him to quote paintings in his posters? Off the top of my head, I’ve never seen a pose in his posters that made me think he was copying an Old Master.
How many of these 1928 Roger BrodersCorsica posters have you handled, and what is the auction record? It’s not rare, but it’s not common. At least 23 have been auctioned since 1988. We have had it three times. The first time was in 2011. The auction record is $16,800, set at Poster Auctions International in February 2018.
Where does this rank among Broders’s poster designs? Certainly in the top 10 and probably in the top five. Now I’m biased, knowing it was based on the Birth of Venus. I thought it was a great poster before you said that. Now it’s like, wow. It’s because of the composition, the color, the style, and the attitude it broadcasts–summer laziness, aristocratic decadence. It’s certainly how high society lives. There’s no question this is an elegant lady.
What else do you like about this Roger Broders Corsica poster? He has made the landscape realistic. It’s Calvi Beach in Corsica, and it wraps around Corsica. That sweep is not an exaggeration. He has accurately represented the surroundings. It’s a tribute to the level of detail he put into his work. Some posters are really supposed to represent an attitude. This is about a destination, too. Lot 72, the woman with her arms to the sun–that doesn’t tell you anything about where you’re going. There’s a beach, but it’s not the same level as this.
Update: African-American outsider artist William Edmondson’s circa 1930s sculpture, The Crucifixion, sold for $175,000.
What you see: TheCrucifixion, a 1930s sculpture by the outsider artist William Edmondson, who was the first African-American to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Rago Auctions estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Sebastian Clarke, director of estate services for Rago.
Did African-American outsider artist William Edmondson use a railroad spike as a chisel for most of his artistic career? He did, though to the best of my knowledge, he used smaller, finer chiseling tools as well. He was very much self-taught. I can send you a discovery–the original press release from the 1937 MoMA show, which includes an interview with him. The list of pieces to be shown includes a version of TheCrucifixion. He did three or four different versions of TheCrucifixion, and we don’t know if this is the one that was in the show, or another example. Of the three or four, one is in the Smithsonian, at least one other is in a private collection, but was exhibited in 2005, one is unknown [its whereabouts are unknown], and one is ours.
How does this version of TheCrucifixion compare to the others? The others have more fully formed figures, with pierced areas between the arms and the cross [the arms are separate]. This is more of a relief, with a flat face. What I love about it is it really conveys Edmondson’s work. It’s impossible to identify it as male or female. Of the others, two ore three are male figures wearing loincloths or underpants. This one is completely plain.
William Edmondson preferred limestone. How difficult is it to carve limestone? It’s very, very difficult to carve. What’s fabulous about this is its condition is so good. You can really see the strike marks where he worked the stone. This is almost smooth to the touch in so many areas.
The sculpture measures 15 and a quarter inches high by 10 and a half inches wide by five inches deep. Is that relatively small for an Edmondson? It’s a hair on the smaller side. His animals seem to be a little smaller. His figures got to be 23, 24 inches. Of his Crucifixions, one is 20 inches and another is 26 inches. So it’s definitely smaller for a Crucifixion, but squarely on the average side for pieces he worked.
Earlier you told me, “This work is as close to Edmondson’s original intent as they get.” Could you elaborate? Edmondson’s pieces are extremely symbolic. The scenes are often drawn from his religious beliefs. This Crucifixion is part of that body of work. The surface is just so fantastic. It’s clearly a crucifixion, but it’s up to the viewer to interpret the rest of the thing.
This is William Edmondson’s only crucifixion sculpture to come to auction. How did you put an estimate on it? We’re aware the world auction record for an Edmondson is nearly $1 million, for a wholly different work. The nature of this is cruder and more simplistic. And a crucifixion, in my experience in the art world, sometimes places limitations on value. We want to take that into account.
But it’s not a gory, gruesome crucifixion scene. It’s pretty stylized. And people who collect folk art and outsider art, they know they’re going to encounter pieces with intensely religious themes. True. But the value will be determined by the marketplace. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. I’ve been in the business for 20 years. I’ve never handled an Edmondson before. Whenever they come up for sale, they always far exceed the estimate. We’ll try to replicate that success.
Edmondsons rarely go to auction. Is that because most of them are in institutions, or is it because collectors are reluctant to give them up, or both? Several examples are in institutions, and the ones in collectors’ hands are often promised to institutions. Folk art and outsider art collectors take a lot of pride in their collections. Edmondsons come up so rarely, everybody pays attention.
What’s the world auction record for a work by African-American outsider artist William Edmondson?The Boxer, a circa 1936 piece that sold at Christie’s in January 2016. It had an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000 and it hammered at $785,000. I’d love to see it [TheCrucifixion] beat its estimate but I’d be surprised to see it go beyond-beyond. Artnet only has 24 records. It’s a very shallow pool, and none are a crucifixion. They don’t come from a similar period or style, where the features are not very well-defined. What will that do to it? Will it make it more desirable, or less? We’ll have to wait and see.
What is the William Edmondsonsculpture like in person? It’s fabulous. It’s so bright and crisp. There’s something magnetic–you’re drawn to it, and the color and the surface are lovely. It looks like it’s never seen the light of day. The chisel marks are so well-defined on the back. There’s something really exceptional about it.
What does it feel like to hold it in your hands? It’s heavy, probably around 40 pounds. It is surprisingly smooth. You can really feel the weight of the piece, the way the figure is defined on the cross. You want to turn it over and look at the back, which is not easy to do, because it weighs so much.
Is that something that collectors look for in a work by African-American outsider artist William Edmondson–chisel marks?Or are they so rare that they can’t afford to quibble if they’re missing? The whole idea behind outsider and folk art is really feeling a connection with the individual who made it, to feel them reflected in the piece. In the chisel marks, you can really see him working on it.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? Probably because I’ll never handle one again. [Laughs.] Edmondsons are something you only hear about, but don’t get to see. For me, personally, my training is in European furniture and decorative art. This is something I’ve grown to appreciate and love. I’ve always been a high-style person. I’ve come to appreciate pieces that are naive in so many ways, but are spectacular. It’s so magnificent.
Update: Freeman’s sold the first edition Walker Percy-signed copy of A Confederacy of Dunces for $5,000, setting a new record for the novel at auction.
What you see: A 1980 first edition copy of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, in its dust jacket. signed by Walker Percy. Freeman’s estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.
The expert: Darren Winston, head of the books, maps, and manuscripts department at Freeman’s.
How rare is it to find a first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces in its dust jacket, and how rare is it to find one that’s also signed by Walker Percy, who helped see the book into print and wrote its foreword? It was published in 1980. Since that time, 21 copies have come to auction. Of the 21, only two were signed by Walker Percy. They came up in 2002 and 2009. You could argue that only two copies have come up like ours in the last 38 years. Another interesting fact is the very first copy to come up at auction was in 1986.
Is that unusually quick, to see a book published in 1980 debut on the secondary market six years later? It is unusually quick. It has such an interesting history, and it’s so different from other books like it. It became an instant cult classic. Now it’s even more of a big deal. It sat around from 1969, when Toole killed himself and his mom [Thelma Toole] found the manuscript. She went around trying to get it published. Walker Percy, at the time, was at Loyola [Loyola University of New Orleans]. Toole’s mom got him to read the manuscript, and he made it his duty to get it published. LSU Press published it in 1980.
Yes, let’s hit the point squarely–why is it impossible to find a first-edition of A Confederacy of Dunces signed by the author? Because he died before it was published. He wrote it in 1963 and committed suicide in 1969. 1969 to 1980 was the period in which his mom set about finding a publisher for it.
So, Walker Percy’s signature is the closest thing to an author’s signature that we can get on a first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces? Exactly right. He was sort of the midwife. In the world of book-collecting, the next-best thing is the mom’s signature. Two copies she signed were at auction in 2011 and 2012. Either [signature] is as charming as the other. If she hadn’t picked up the baton, the manuscript wouldn’t have gotten to Walker Percy, and he wouldn’t have done what he did.
Are there any first-edition copies signed by both Thelma Toole and Walker Percy? There are no recorded copies at auction. They might be in the world, but not at auction.
Who is shown on the dust jacket? It’s the protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly.
If A Confederacy of Dunces came up today as the debut novel of an unknown, dead author, I just can’t picture a modern publishing house green-lighting dust jacket art featuring a fat guy in a deerstalker holding a hot dog in one hand and a sword in the other, even if he is the lead character and he dresses that way. Was this a risky choice, even for a university press in 1980? You could argue that the title, which is from a Jonathan Swift poem, is a mouthful. It’s completely wacky. But maybe part of it was the publisher being a university press. Maybe it had more leeway.
How was the book received in 1980? The initial press run was 2,500. That’s part of its rarity–only 2,500 copies in the first edition, versus 50,000 for The Old Man and the Sea, which was printed 30 years before. Within three years, the unknown, dead author won the 1981 Pulitzer prize for fiction and sold 650,000 copies.
Why does A Confederacy of Dunces hold up almost 40 years after its publication? Certain books–The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird–come along and upend everything that came before. The Catcher in the Rye was 1951. To Kill a Mockingbird was about 10 years later, and A Confederacy of Dunces was 20 years after that. It was a book that became a touchstone. As a teen, you carried it with you. When you look at it as a collector, young people turn into adults, and when they have money, they want a talisman [of their youth]. When many people want the same talisman, it goes up and up.
This first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces is described as “fine.” What does that mean? “Fine” is a tricky word because any wear marks it as less than fine. This copy looks like it’s unread, which leads to questions about the box. It was made early in the book’s life, and the book has lived in this box. There’s a relief image of Ignatius on the [box’s] cover. Someone went to some trouble to have it made. Thought went into it.
How many different groups of collectors will compete for this first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces? There are many, but people who go after high spots–the biggest and best book by any author–will be interested. People who collect an author’s first book will be interested, as will people who just love the book. If you’re going to splash out, this is the copy you want. Another reason people will go after this book is to trade up to a better copy. Maybe someone has a gorgeous copy with no Walker Percy signature, or a gorgeous copy with no dust jacket–they trade up.
What’s the world auction record for a first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces in its dust jacket? What are the odds of this copy meeting or exceeding that record? The most it’s brought at auction was $4,000, in 2002. I believe that copy was also signed by Walker Percy. That’s a good sign in our case.
Why will this book stick in your memory? Because of the story. There’s a poignancy, a sadness, and a lot of irony to the fact that Toole never saw it published. It was his life’s work, literally and figuratively. Father Time came through for it. It’s on its third generation of readers. Toole published one book, and he’s in the pantheon. That’s cool.