RECORD! In 2012, Swann Galleries Sold an A.M. Cassandre Poster for $162,500–A Record for Any Travel Poster


What you see: L.M.S./Best Way, a 1928 poster by Adolphe Mouron (A.M.) Cassandre. Swann Galleries sold it in November 2012 for $162,500, an auction record for any travel poster.


The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.


Cassandre did so many great travel poster designs. Why is this one so sought-after? The easiest way to sum it up is it’s the only poster of his that had a limited edition run. The fewer there are, the more collectors want it.


Cassandre did designs along these lines for two different train company clients, both of whom rejected them. Why did they say no? The story is a little bit murky. In 1927, he did a painting for a French railway that was similar. It was not accepted, and there’s no record as to why. The British railway line [L.M.S] didn’t want it either, so Cassandre printed it in a small run.


That’s quite a move for a poster artist, to print the thing himself. Why did he do it? Because the poster is great. I think he was very, very proud of it.


Why might the train companies have hesitated to go ahead with this design? We’re looking at it with 20/20 historical hindsight, but what we love about it now is it’s a unique view of a train. The train companies might have asked, ‘Dude, where is the train going?’ It could have been too abstract for them.


Why does the poster take this unusual square-ish shape? This is the standard size British poster format for the hoardings [billboards] at a British train station. Had the British railway accepted the poster design, they had to be able to use it in their system. The French version, which I’ve only seen as a photo in a book, is quite close to this. You look at them and you could base a game on picking out how they’re different from each other. It’s not at all obvious.


Cassandre printed 50 of these posters. Do we know how many survive? No one has done a census of them, but I’d have to imagine there’s probably ten to 25. Some are in institutions, which will never sell them. There can’t be more than 25 in private hands.


How many have you seen or handled? We’ve only handled one. I have seen three others. A different organization has offered it for sale four times. Twice, it was the same piece.


How did you arrive at the estimate of $70,000 to $100,000? It came from the fact that in 1990, it sold at auction for $60,500, and in 1997, one sold for $57,500. In the decade and a half since the 1997 sale, there had been more poster auctions. His name was more known, his stock was rising, and his talent was known more.


Cassandre numbered these posters like you would a limited edition print. Was that an unusual practice for 1928? Posters are never numbered. It’s more than unusual, it’s singular. For his Normandie ship, no one knows how many were done, but it was probably in the thousands. This one, because it was privately printed, signed, and numbered, it was more like a Picasso lithograph.


You were the auctioneer that night. What do you remember about selling the poster? Without looking anything up, I remember it was not bought by someone who I thought would buy it. We know who the big collectors are, and the big dealers who feed the big collectors. We know whose toes to tickle, and it went to someone else. It was such a rarity that people outside the expected circle were participating. It was bought over the Internet and remains our largest purchase online to date.


Do you remember when you knew you had a record? It’s too long ago to say, but it was clearly a groundbreaking moment both for the artist and for the poster market as a whole. $162,500 is real money. I don’t think I thought this at the time, but it really showed that posters had come of age. It showed how deep the market was.


What factors drove the poster to its record price? Rarity, but you can have something that’s rare and ugly. This is rare, and it’s extraordinary, and it’s by Cassandre. It’s a trifecta. Cassandre is still the gold standard for machine age Art Deco design, and this poster is incredibly attractive. It’s great.


How long do you think the record will stand? I don’t think anything else is out there that could challenge it. What you haven’t asked me is what its estimate would be if it came up today. Since 2012, everything has changed. That sale was after the crash in 2008. Now the economy is booming. If the poster came up again, I think the estimate would be $100,000 to $150,000, and I have to think it would sell for substantially more. I’m almost certain that it would set the record again, depending on its condition. The one we sold was not in great condition. It had a grade of B+/ B– not a proud condition grade. If it were in better shape, the estimate might be $120,000 to $180,000.


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


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


Nicholas Lowry has appeared several times on The Hot Bid. Read past entries in which he  talks about a 1938 London Transport poster by Man Ray that ultimately sold for $149,000a trio of Mont Blanc posters from 1928, a mid-1930s German travel poster featuring the Hindenburg, a 1968 MoMA poster by Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo, an I Want You 1917 World War I recruiting poster that introduced the modern concept of Uncle Sam, and an Alphonse Mucha poster featuring Sarah Bernhardt.



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RECORD! RR Auction Sells Astronaut Dave Scott’s Apollo 17 Space-flown Robbins Medal for $68,750


What you see: A space-flown Apollo 17 Robbins medal owned by Dave Scott, commander of Apollo 15 and the seventh man to walk on the moon. RR Auction sold it in September 2016 for $68,750–a record for a Robbins medal.


The expert: Bobby Livingston, executive vice president at RR Auction.


How did Scott get this Robbins medal? All astronauts had the opportunity to buy them. Dave Scott bought one for every Apollo mission, starting with Apollo 7. They’re a neat crossover between coin collecting and space flight memorabilia. These were meant for the astronauts–the general public couldn’t buy them. They had the mission logo on the front and their names [the names of the three crew members] struck on the back. They were great commemoratives.


Unlike stamps or flags, which are flat and light, silver medals have heft and weight. How did the Robbins company convince NASA to make room for several dozen medals on its Apollo spacecraft? I’m not familiar with the history of the decision. I do know it was a tradition of NASA to allow certain artifacts to be flown in space. NASA flew Robbins medals into the 1990s. It was a long tradition with the government and the astronauts.


What makes a Robbins medal valuable? Aside from being flown in space, having a letter of authenticity from an astronaut makes them extremely valuable. When Buzz Aldrin writes a letter saying, “I took this Robbins medal to the moon,” that adds value. The chain of custody matters.


If a space-flown Robbins medal lacks a letter of authenticity from an astronaut, is it still valuable? Yes. Each coin has a number stamped on its edge. We know which numbers flew [in space] and which did not. If it flew, it has value. With Dave, when he was on Apollo 15, he requested his to be number 15. Not only did he take a coin, he took a specific number because it related to the mission. I can’t imagine one more valuable.


How did Dave Scott snag the number 15 Robbins medal from the Apollo 17 series? Because he asked for it. Dave is a collector, so he understood what was neat and what made sense. These guys are engineers, they’re numbers guys.


That’s what I mean. There were two other guys on Apollo 15. How did Dave Scott claim the number 15 Apollo 17 Robbins medal for himself? Did he arm-wrestle them for it? Wrong. He was the mission commander. He outranked them. (Laughs)


How often do Robbins medals come up at auction? They appear at auction consistently, but the supply is limited and the price is going up. They’re becoming more commodified.


I understand the Robbins company struck 14-karat gold Robbins medals. How do they fit in here? They’re rarer and more desirable. They struck three to seven for each mission. All have serial numbers on them, and they were only available to the flight crew. They were made specifically to give to their wives.


Have any of the gold ones come to auction? One from Apollo 13 sold recently. We had one with a diamond in it from Apollo 11. They’re not giant coins–they’re smaller than a silver dollar, maybe a bit smaller. They’re beautiful.


Why are flown Apollo 17 medallions considered the most sought-after and difficult to obtain? Is it because of their limited numbers, or is it more than that? Only 80 Apollo 17 Robbins medals were flown. You can’t have a complete set of flown medals without Apollo 17. It was the last mission, and it’s rare. They come up once every couple of years, and we’re actively seeking them out. People are not willing to sell them.


This example has a third-party grade of MS67. Did the high grade drive the medal’s record price? It was in great condition, but I don’t know if the grade made a difference to the person who bought it. He needed it for his collection.


Dave Scott is still alive. Could you talk about what prompted him to consign back in September 2016? Why did he sell then? Most of the astronauts donated lots of material to universities, and a lot gave things to their children and grandchildren. There’s stuff left over that their families don’t want, and they want to get it into the hands of people who would want them. Dave Scott cares a lot. He’s got things that went to the moon, he’s in his eighties, and he’s a collector. He will write a whole dissertation about what it [a given piece he owned during his NASA career] meant. These things will be lost unless they’re documented and put in the hands of people. On a side note, Alan Shepard lived in Derry, New Hampshire. His family had a garage sale. Someone bought a bureau for $50, and in it was a letter he wrote to his parents, talking about being considered for the Mercury 7 selection program. We sold it for $106,000. These astronauts–if things are not documented and curated, they’ll be put on the curb, like [those countless mothers who infamously threw out their kids’] baseball cards. It happens! (Laughs)


What was the previous record for a flown Robbins medal? Was it an Apollo 11? We sold an Apollo 11 for $56,000. It was an interesting one, owned by a nephew of Neil Armstrong, but it wasn’t the previous record. In May 2013, we sold Gene Cernan’s Apollo 17 Robbins medal for $61,000. The Apollo 17, because it’s rarest, sold for more.


The September 2016 auction took place entirely online. When did you know you had a record? We realized it that night, and we put a press release out right away. We’re very proud every time we set a record.


How long do you think the record will stand? I don’t know, but records are made to be broken. With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 coming up, we may see a lot of excitement in the space collectibles market. The attention is going to be intense. I wouldn’t be surprised if we break the record in a year or two.


What else could challenge it? Maybe Neil Armstrong’s 14-karat gold Robbins medal?   I don’t know if that’s ever going to come to market. If it did, it would have a pretty high estimate. It would be incredibly valuable, and it would break the record.


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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of RR Auction.


Livingston spoke to The Hot Bid in 2017 about a ring that Clyde Barrow made in prison to give to his girlfriend, Bonnie Parker.


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Francois Girardon’s Bronze of French King Louis XIV on Horseback Could Command $13.2 Million at Christie’s


What you see: A bronze group of Louis XIV on horseback, created between 1690 and 1699 by François Girardon. Christie’s estimates it at £7 million to £10 million ($9.1 million to $13.1 million).


Who was François Girardon? He was a French sculptor who rose to fame by glorifying the image of King Louis XIV, who was also known as The Sun King. Girardon created a monumental equestrian statue of the king in 1699, which was installed in Paris and destroyed during the French Revolution. Girardon died in Paris in 1715, when he would have been 86 or 87.


The expert: Donald Johnston, international head of sculpture for Christie’s.


Ok, forgive me if this is a stupid question, but why is this bronze described as a “group”? What makes it a group? It’s a convention. I think the horse makes it count as a group. If it was Louis XIV standing, it would be a figure. Because it’s Louis XIV and a horse, it’s called a group.


And would the horse and the Louis XIV figure have been cast separately, or… They were cast together, but that’s really quite unusual. A bronze of this size and complexity is normally cast in different parts. This is technically very accomplished. The baton [in the king’s right hand], the two forearms, the horse’s reins, and the plinth [the slab the horse is attached to] were all cast separately. The figure of the king and all his drapery, and his armor, his legs, the horse, and the horse’s legs–those were all cast together.


Girardon would have supervised the casting of this sculpture, but do we know what genius technician would have actually done the work? Some sculptors did do their own casting, but that’s relatively rare. We know the name of the caster or founder for the monument [the oversized original, now lost, on which this reduced sculpture is based], and they’re known to have done one of the other reductions. We don’t know who did this one, but it’s probably the same person. The armatures [an internal structure that supports the sculpture, kind of like a skeleton] for the sculptures in the Louvre and in Windsor Castle have been X-rayed, and they look virtually identical to the armature of the one we have.


The lot notes say the Girardon re-emerged in 1993. Can you tell me more about how that happened? It was bought by the present owner in an auction in Toronto on the basis of a photo. We don’t know how it got to Toronto. The person who bought it believed it was 19th century, and it was cataloged as 19th century. Only when he saw it in the flesh did he realize it was period.


Have any of the other three reduced versions that Girardon made of the now-lost monumental original gone to auction? In modern times, not that we know of. Eighteenth century auction records describe bronzes that seem to be this model. The other three were already in the collections they’re still in by the early 19th century. They haven’t gone anywhere in 200 years.


And how rarely does anything by Girardon go to auction? It’s extremely rare for something actually thought to be by him [to come to market]. Casts [bronzes made after Girardon died] have appeared at auction. That’s what the owner thought he bought at auction in 1993–he thought he was getting a 19th century cast.


At one point, Girardon owned two of the reduced-size sculptures. Is it possible to know if those two were the same size? Contemporary records [from Girardon’s time] discuss four casts done in his lifetime. Four exist today, and all are the same size.


And this statue is definitely the one shown in the engraving? Yes, yes. You can see the baton quite clearly. The other three casts have the right hand in a completely different position, and there’s no baton.


The lot notes say this statue weighs 232 kilograms, or 511 pounds. Why is it so heavy? It is big. It is big for a “small” bronze. It has most of its core material still in it, and its iron armature is still inside. And it’s on a heavy marble base. When I took it to Hong Kong, it took nine men to move it carefully and properly. You’ve got to move it with a winch and slide it from the winch to a pedestal.


Ok, so you can’t put this thing on a mantle or a dining room table. Where can it go in a house? Do you need to put it on the floor? No. Most houses would be structurally strong enough to support it. You do have to make sure you have a reinforced pedestal. It would look great in a grand house with a huge entrance hall.


How did you arrive at the estimate? The world of sculpture is not like the world of paintings, where there are very obvious comparisons. I have to look at what the top-end bronzes and pieces of sculpture have made. There are very few things in this price range in my field, which goes to 1830. There have been bigger sales by Giacometti and Degas, but those belong to a different field. We sold an Adriaen de Vries bronze for $28 million in 2014. The next-highest prices are another de Vries sold in 1989 by Sotheby’s for $6.2 million, hammer [without premium and related fees]. In 2003, we sold a bronze roundel for just over £7 million plus premium. I looked at prices for top things and what they achieved. And there’s a certain amount of instinct. I’ve been at Christie’s for 27 years. You get a feel for what people are going to pay for things.


What’s the auction record for a Girardon? I couldn’t think of anything that was really close. There is a record bronze group that sold in 1987 in Paris for 13,600,000 French francs, or $2.4 million then. If that’s correct, it would have to be the record. If this sculpture sells, it will definitely beat the record. It’s going to have to sell for £7 million plus.


What is this statue like in person? There’s a real sense of grandeur about it. It’s impressive in its scale–one meter four high [almost four feet high]. You think it’s a big bronze, but until you stand in front of it. you don’t feel the presence of it. And it has incredible quality. The detail, the finish–it’s an incredible work.


How to bid: The Girardon bronze is lot 130 in The Exceptional Sale 2018, taking place at Christie’s London on July 5.


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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 


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


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RECORD! An Eileen Gray Transat Armchair Commanded $1.59 Million at Christie’s


Update: The Eileen Gray Transat armchair sold for $1.59 million, a new auction record for a Transat chair at auction.


What you see: A Transat armchair by Eileen Gray, dating to 1927 to 1930. Christie’s estimates it at $1 million to $1.5 million.


Who was Eileen Gray? She was an Irish-born designer who initially gained fame for her mastery of lacquer. She attended the Slade School in London and trained in Paris for with Japanese lacquer master Seizo Sugawara, who was in town to prep pieces destined for the country’s Exposition Universale display. She opened the Jean Désert boutique on the fashionable Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in 1922, which lasted for eight years. In the mid-1920s, she began work on a villa in southern France that she dubbed E-1027, a name that alluded to herself and her partner, Jean Badovici. (The ‘E’ stood for Eileen; the ’10’ represented Jean; the ‘2’ meant Badovici, and the ‘7’ translated to Gray.) The villa still exists and is undergoing restoration. Overlooked in her time, she began to gain real recognition in the late 1960s. Gray died in 1976 at the age of 98.


The expert: Beth Vilinsky, senior specialist in design at Christie’s.


How often do furnishings by Eileen Gray appear at auction? Her output of production was very limited to begin with. It’s quite rare to see any of her work come up for sale. I think in the last four or five years not even ten pieces have appeared on the market. It’s always a special event when they do.


How often do her Transat chairs appear at auction? The last time an example appeared on the market was in 2014 at Phillips New York, which was made for the Maharaja of Indore. Its frame also had a lacquer finish, and it had an upholstered seat. It sold for over $1.5 million.


Gray originally designed the Transat chair for E-1027, her personal villa in France. She designed the villa completely, from the architecture to the furnishings and fittings. Does E-1027 represent the first time that a woman designed an entire house, Frank Lloyd Wright-style? It’s an interesting question. I think you’re right. She specifically did do the architectural design and designed the interiors as well. No other female designer-architect comes to mind at that early time in the 20th century [who did something along those lines]. She worked within her own framework, her own vision.


To what extent did Gray’s partner, Jean Badovici, assist with the design and creation of E-1027? They were partners professionally and personally, and a dynamic team. He encouraged her to pursue this venture. I think he just kept encouraging her and pushing her to realize her ideas as best as possible.


The consensus is that this particular Transat chair was made for sale in the late 1920s through Gray’s Paris boutique, Jean Désert, and not for E-1027. Do we have any notion of what happened to this chair between the late 1920s and the 1980s? We really don’t. We know it was rediscovered by dealer Barry Friedman in New York. We spoke with him, and he doesn’t remember when or how he discovered the chair, but he remembers owning it twice. He sold it privately, got it back again a few years later, and sold it to the Time Warner Collection in 1988. [The current consigner acquired it in 1993, after its deaccession from the collection.]


Does the fact that this Transat chair wasn’t made for use at E-1027 affect its value at all? It’d be quite extraordinary and so exciting if it was out of the villa owned by Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici. But it’s equally exciting because the chair is as rare as a hen’s tooth. We believe a dozen were made. That’s a tiny number. The Transat is such a celebrated and iconic design, it will stand on its own merits. To the best of our knowledge, only two were created with the calfskin slung seat, and this is one of the two. People are going to be incredibly enthusiastic and wowed by this piece–by its beauty, its integrity, and the fact that it’s in wonderful condition. It has everything you want in a work by Eileen Gray. This is an opportunity that comes around very, very infrequently.


What condition is it in? Really quite good. The lacquer is original, the calfskin is original. It’s just in very remarkable pristine condition.


Does the calfskin upholstery provide more evidence that this Transat chair was made for sale in the Paris boutique, and not for E-1027? Yes. The chairs for that villa could be moved from indoors to outdoors. I don’t believe there’s a calfskin example in the home. What’s really great about the calfskin, what makes it so special, is the use of contrasting materials. It’s got wonderful lines, and the lustrous black lacquer frame contrasts with the seat. Materials were very important to Eileen Gray. It’s really interesting to have this combination of lacquer with calfskin.


Did Gray design her works and hand them off to others to realize, or did she physically create any aspects of this chair? She had two small workshops in Paris, one for handwoven wall hangings and carpets, and one for furniture design, lamps, and mirrors. Her carpets were her most successful product. The furniture was more expensive. She had a very small staff working for her. She was known as a master lacquerist. She mastered the technique of Japanese lacquer, and studied under a Japanese master. She was unmatched among Westerners.


So she would have done the lacquer work on this Transat chair? Quite possibly, yes.


Have you sat in the chair? I haven’t, and I wouldn’t recommend it, because it’s a very delicate piece. The materials are quite delicate and fragile. At this point, it’s more of a sculptural piece than a chair used for seating. But it was made with the intention for use.


Why will this Transat chair stick in your memory? It is an incredible, powerful form. It’s very refined, very elegant. It’s beautiful, but when you think about how modernist it was for the time–it’s a departure from what others, including Eileen Gray, were doing then. It’s got beautiful materials, construction, and technique, the shimmer of lacquer contrasted with a beautiful calfskin seat–it’s magnificent. It’s an incredible, iconic work. To have it in front of you is absolutely breathtaking. It’s the perfect expression of the vision of Eileen Gray in terms of concept and execution.


How to bid: The Transat chair is lot 6 in the Design sale taking place at Christie’s New York on June 20, 2018.


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


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SOLD! Albert Einstein’s 1935 Passport Photo Commands $17,500 at Bonhams


Update: The 1935 Albert Einstein passport photo sold for $17,500.


What you see: A passport photograph of Albert Einstein, signed and dated May 30, 1935, along with a piece of paper signed and dated by Einstein and featuring a brief goodbye note in German from Einstein’s son-in-law, Dmitri Marianoff. Bonhams estimates it at $8,000 to $12,000.


Who was Albert Einstein? He was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. He came up with the theory of relativity, which upended the fields of theoretical physics and astronomy. He also composed the formula E = mc2 [energy equals mass times the speed of light, squared], which has come to symbolize science and, to some extent, genius itself. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work in theoretical physics. After Hitler and the Nazis took over Germany, Einstein, who was Jewish, settled in the United States, gaining citizenship in 1940. A 1939 letter he sent to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sparked the creation of the Manhattan Project, the scientific endeavor that led to nuclear weapons. He based himself in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died in 1955 at the age of 76.


The expert: Ian Ehling, director of books and manuscripts at Bonhams.


Has anything else Einstein-related come to auction that’s similar to this passport photo? Have you seen any other 1930s passports or immigration paperwork connected to Einstein? Not that I know of. I’ve only come across a Swiss passport of his dating back to 1923. This particular photo was always in the possession of the consigner. The way it was was in the 1930s, Einstein was already in the United States. He was working in Princeton, New Jersey, and he decided not to return to Germany. In order to apply for citizenship, you had to be outside the country. So he took his family on a trip to Bermuda and got the ball rolling there. He used a different image on his passport. After Bermuda, I think they came through Ellis Island in New York and turned in their paperwork.


How does the fact that the passport photo dates to the 1930s–when the Nazi regime was imposing anti-Semitic policies on its citizens, convincing Einstein to leave–add to its value? It’s a huge factor in its value. [The choice that the passport photo represents] is just an awesome moment to witness. It was a turning point–a man of the world applying for U.S. citizenship. It represents the very first step [toward that]. This is a very close witness to things that were on his mind at the time.


And he would have sat for the photo in Bermuda? Yes. You can’t tell, but he’s wearing a leather jacket in the photo. In the formal portrait on the paperwork, he’s wearing something else.


Wait, was Einstein wearing THE leather jacket in this photo? The one that Levi Strauss & Co won at Christie’s London in 2016 for $147,000? It’s a leather jacket, but we can’t see enough to say it’s THE leather jacket.


And this is fresh to market? Yes. It comes directly from the person who received it. She was a little girl [at the time], the granddaughter of the innkeeper [at the guest house where Einstein stayed in Bermuda]. She was 13 years old, and she was curious. She engaged Einstein in conversation. He signed and dated the photo and gave it to her, and she kept it all her life. She’s in her nineties now, and she’s decided to sell. I don’t think it was ever published or anything like that.


How did you arrive at an estimate for this? It’s a gut feeling. I feel the photo is incredibly important. It reflects on him becoming a U.S. citizen. The estimate reflects its historic significance.


How have you seen the market for Einstein material change over time? In the 1930s, he was already famous. The photo definitely had value back then. But the Einstein market has changed significantly. I can’t say Einstein items are rare. He would get lots of letters, and he spent a good deal of time every day answering them. The most significant ones are the manuscripts where he talks about scientific things, and certain items that he owned. For example, he was very interested in music and performing with friends; we sold his violin in March 2018 for $516,500. The passport photo is a more iconic thing. Einstein was at a turning point in his life, deciding to become a U.S. citizen. It’s signed and dated, and it shows him the way you expect him to look like. He didn’t get a haircut before the picture was taken.


Why is Einstein the most sought-after scientist at auction? He had the most brilliant mind in physics since Newton, and on top of that, he was not a nerdy scientist. He was incredibly approachable. He didn’t just follow scientific interests. He played the violin, he went sailing, he was someone who enjoyed life.


Why will this Einstein passport photograph stick in your memory? The personal connection. It shows him being open and approachable and talking to a 13-year-old girl in Bermuda. And it’s consigned directly by that person. It’s special. It’s two degrees of separation–the consigner, and then Einstein. That’s what makes it so beautiful and significant.


How to bid: The Einstein passport photograph is lot 76 in Bonhams‘s June 12, 2018 Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in New York.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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