Young Abraham Lincoln Made This Wooden Mallet. Christie’s Could Sell It For Half a Million Dollars.

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What you see: A wooden bench mallet bearing the initials ‘A.L.’ and the date ‘1829’, and made by Abraham Lincoln as a young man. It’s one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Lincoln artifacts in private hands. Christie’s estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.

Who was Abraham Lincoln? He was the 16th president of the United States, and second only to George Washington in the pantheon of great presidents. He steered the country through the crisis of the Civil War, ultimately holding the union together and defeating the system of slavery. He was fatally shot on April 14, 1865 by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., and died the following day. He was 56.

So, this mallet is made entirely of wood? Yes. “The top part is the burl of a cherry tree, which is where two branches come together–it’s a nice, dense piece of wood–and the handle is hickory,” says Peter Klarnet, senior specialist in Americana, books, and manuscripts at Christie’s.

Would Lincoln and his neighbors on the Indiana frontier have used it like a hammer? “Not exactly,” he says. “Most housing at that time (the 1820s), when they were constructing the frame of a house, they wouldn’t use nails. They’d use wooden pegs, because they’d breathe with the frame of the house. An iron hammer on a wooden peg is just too much force [so they used a wooden mallet instead].”

Why would Lincoln have put his initials on the wooden mallet? To make sure no one else would take it? “That, and it was also a mark of pride–‘I made this,'” he says. “His father was a cabinet-maker, and he would have learned the [mallet-making] skills from his father.”

Why would Lincoln have put the date on the mallet? Did he initial and date it at the same time? “He probably marked it ‘1829’ because it was 1829. He was 20 years old, and he was becoming a man,” he says. “We can’t determine if he initialed and dated it at the same time, but all the materials would have been available to him at the time.”

And a wooden mallet would have been a must-have on the frontier back then? “Absolutely. This was a necessary tool for any frontier farm to have,” Klarnet says, adding that it explains why Lincoln might have given it to his neighbor, Barnabas Carter, Jr., as a wedding gift–it was the sort of thing that a newlywed young man needed. Carter married in January 1830, around the time when Lincoln moved to Illinois, and was giving away possessions ahead of the move. “It’s conjecture, but it makes a lot of sense for [Lincoln to give the mallet to] someone establishing a household,” he says.

How did the Lincolns and the Carters know each other? “We know from the historical record that they were neighbors,” he says. “Family tradition shows that Barnabas Carter, Jr., was the original owner of the mallet, and Lincoln gave it to him around 1829. In examining census records and church records, we see that they went to the same church and voted in the same place.”

When did the mallet stop being a tool and start being a relic? “Not until 1858, with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, when he rose to national prominence,” he says. “After Abraham Lincoln was famous, the family actually hid the mallet away, in a basement, and kept it out of sight.” In the late 20th century, Carter’s descendants displayed the mallet on the family hearth (scroll down to see the picture), and one of them brought it to show-and-tell when she was a child of five.

Does the mallet show signs of wear? Yes. “You can see where it’s been pulverized by repeated strokes,” he says. “It was used for maybe 20 years [after Carter received it from Lincoln], then it stopped.”

The mallet head was scavenged from the remains of a broken rail-splitting maul. Do any other artifacts that reflect Lincoln’s image as a rail-splitter survive? The National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. has an iron wedge for splitting wood that features Abraham Lincoln’s initials on one side. According to legend, Lincoln applied the letters to the wedge himself when the blacksmith shied away from the task.

What else convinces you that Abraham Lincoln personally made this mallet? “Those people decided to keep quiet, which makes me more confident in its authenticity,” he says. “It had a more special meaning to them. They didn’t want publicity.”

Why is the family selling it now? “I don’t know the specific motivation. In every generation, it went to one person. This time, it went to two. That might be behind it,” he says, adding, “And they wanted to share it with the world. They think it belongs in a major museum collection, as do I. It’s very evocative of an early period of Lincoln’s life.”

How did you put an estimate on the mallet? Klarnet laughs heartily, then says, “To a certain extent, it’s an educated guess. In terms of manuscripts, we had his 1864 victory speech and his last speech as president, and both brought in excess of $3 million. It was based on those high points and other material that sold in excess of $1 million. We hedged our bets. We thought $300,000 to $500,000 was a relatively conservative estimate that underscores its importance to the Lincoln story.”

How does it feel to hold the mallet in your hand? “I’m not going to swing it!” he says, laughing. “I held it very, very gingerly. But it felt pretty cool. To think that it’s a tool that was actually used by Lincoln… I’ve handled letters by George Washington, by Lincoln, by FDR, by Teddy Roosevelt. It still gives you goosebumps when you’re given the opportunity to handle something like this.”

What else makes the Lincoln mallet special? “I have never had anything quite like this before,” he says. “It offers a view of a not-well-documented portion of Lincoln’s life. To have something that was his from this period, which is so difficult to source–that’s why it will always stick with me.”

How to bid: Abraham Lincoln’s wooden bench mallet is lot 67 in the December 5 auction of Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts Including Americana at Christie’s New York.

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

RECORD: A Gus Wilson Red-Breasted Merganser Sails Away With $330,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

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The Hot Bid is on Thanksgiving vacation today. I haven’t got anything turkey-related, so I’m celebrating by reposting a story on a record-breaking duck decoy. 

What you see: A red-breasted merganser drake duck decoy, carved circa 1900 by Augustus “Gus” Wilson. It had been described as the finest Wilson decoy ever offered at auction. Copley Fine Art Auctions sold it in July 2014 for $330,000, achieving an auction record for the artist.

Who was Gus Wilson? He was a Maine native, boat builder, lighthouse keeper, and carver. He took up carving in his teens, probably learning the art from family members, and he remained active for most of his life. He died in 1950 at the age of 85 or 86.

How often do you see a Wilson duck decoy carved with an open bill, as this one is? “It’s very infrequent,” says Stephen B. O’Brien Jr., owner of Copley Fine Art Auctions in Boston, Mass. “There’s less than a handful, and many of those [beaks] are broken off and replaced. The fact that this one is intact makes it a real survivor.”

What makes this duck decoy exceptional? “It’s a big, bold carving. Wilson regularly produced larger, almost oversize carvings,” he says, alluding to the decoy’s generous measurements: seven inches wide, seven inches high, and more than 16 inches long. “It’s got a wonderful sense of sculpture. Combine that with the open bill, which is almost never seen, and it makes it a pinnacle work.

This is described as a “hunted” or “hunt-used” decoy, which means that a hunter actually put it out on the water to lure ducks. Are most Wilson decoys hunt-used? And do collectors prefer hunt-used decoys? “The vast majority of Gus Wilsons found were actually hunted,” O’Brien says. As for hunt-used versus pristine, he says, “It’s a very personal choice. It almost comes down to, in the art world, how some people are attracted to the real world and some people are attached to abstraction. I’m a hunter. I come at it from that perspective. I love a utility decoy that’s been hunted over, that has some wear that shows it was put to its intended use. But you don’t want it to have too much. With replaced heads, tail chips, and shot scars, it starts to take on some negatives. But you can miss out if all you want is pristine birds. They’re pretty hard to find.”

The decoy was carved around 1900. Where was Wilson in his career then? “It places him at about age 35. What’s nice about this merganser is the artist is at the height of his craft. There are subtleties that take more time to create,” he says, explaining that decoy carvers sometimes go through a period when they feel free to indulge in artistic flourishes that transcend the standard shape of the duck decoy–open beaks, fan tails, slightly extended wings–and abruptly stop when they see how their hand-carved treasures suffer nicks and breaks in the field.

How long do you think this auction record will stand? “It’s hard to say. As with any market, if the right piece came up and two people wanted it, the record could easily fall,” O’Brien says. “The decoy market has held up strong over the last 10 years relative to other [categories] in the antiques market. It wouldn’t shock me if it fell. Looking at it from the standpoint of being a great Gus Wilson, it’s probably a bargain price for what it went for.”

Are there any other Gus Wilson duck decoys that rival this one? “For me, I haven’t really seen it,” he says. “That’s why we put a heavy estimate on it. [The presale estimate was $350,000 to $450,000]. “He’s a pretty colorful, proud, bright bird. He had all the bells and whistles that collectors look for–the open bill, the cocked-back head, nice original paint, the paddle tail, and the original rigging [the weight on the bottom that lets the decoy float upright]. I can’t think of a better Gus Wilson decoy. If you asked me to own one Gus Wilson decoy, this would be it.”

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Copley Fine Art Auctions will hold its 2017 Sporting Sale on July 27 and 28 in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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

Quack!

 

SOLD! The Cover Model For Rago’s Curiouser and Curiouser Auction–A 19th Century Life-Size French Artist’s Mannequin–Fetched $45,000

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Update: The antique French life-size articulated wooden artist’s mannequin sold for $45,000.

What you see: A life-size articulated wooden artist’s mannequin, made in France, dating to around 1860, and measuring about 60 inches tall. Rago Auctions estimates it at $20,000 to $25,000.

If you were an artist in the 19th century and could afford a life-size articulated wooden mannequin, couldn’t you afford to hire a live model instead? “Possibly, but live models were not always available. And a mannequin can hold a pose forever. It’s almost more posable than a real person,” says Marion Harris, a specialist in antique mannequins and curator of the Curiouser and Curiouser sale for Rago. “Life-size artist’s mannequins were expensive, and they were valued in their own right. They became something of worth in an artist’s inventory. Mannequins were often listed in the estates of artists when they died.”

How many life-size artist’s mannequins have you dealt with? How many are known? Harris says she has handled 15 to 20 over the last quarter-century. She suspects that maybe as many as 100 were made between the 16th and 19th centuries, and as many as half might survive. “They’re just about always androgynous,” she says. “I’ve looked at the same one and seen it as male, then seen it as female.”

Would one artisan have carved the face, and other artisans have carved the rest of the body? “I don’t know how they did it, but it’s likely. Four or five ateliers were known for carving them. Even the bad mannequins are very good. It’s so hard to do,” she says. “This mannequin has a particular sensitivity to the carving. It’s so lifelike.”

Ribs were carved into the mannequin’s torso. Why? “That’s another sign of quality, when the ribs are evident,” she says. “You do want to see the ribs, if you can. It lets the piece look more realistic. Without the ribs, it looks more puppet-like. Anything that gives the mannequin a more realistic human quality to its features makes it more efficient and effective for the artist.”

Does the mannequin have a patina? “It has a brilliant patina–not just from being handled, but from age. It glows with pride as well as age, I like to say,” she says.

How much does it weigh? About 100 pounds. “I could almost carry it. But it would have been on a stand. Once it’s on a stand, it’s completely posable,” she says. “It’s almost like a real person.”

People might know the mannequin from the Manhattan shop window of Ann-Morris. How did you convince the shop’s owners to consign it? “Everybody wanted to buy it. They would rent it to films, but they would never sell it. Now that the son has taken over the business, I finally got him to part with it,” she says. “It’s a fitting way to part with it. They wanted to give it a rather grand farewell. They’ve had others, but this one was always the queen.” (Harris later confirmed that though the mannequin had appeared in the window since the 1970s, the family never gave it a name, surprising as that might seem.)

What else makes the mannequin special? “I’ve seen other mannequins. This one almost calls out to you to say, ‘Touch me, love me, hold me, pose me, care for me. I’m here for you and you’re here for me,'” she says. “Even people who’ve never seen it before stop in their tracks. And a number of people would have seen it and looked at it adoringly [when it was in the Ann-Morris window].”

How to bid: The life-size articulated artist mannequin is lot 39 in the Curiouser and Curiouser auction on October 22 at Rago Auctions.

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

SOLD: The George Nakashima Sanso Table with Conoid Chairs Fetches $187,500

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Update: The Nakashima Sanso table with Conoid chairs sold for $187,500.

What you see: A Sanso “Reception House” table and six Conoid chairs, designed and made by George Nakashima in 1981. The table is 28 inches high, 60 inches wide, and 84 1/2 inches in diameter. All seven pieces are signed with the surname of the client. Freeman’s estimates the group at $100,000 to $150,000.

Who was George Nakashima? He was an American woodworker who became one of the most influential furniture-makers of the 20th century. Born to Japanese immigrants, Nakashima had traveled extensively in Japan by the time he was forced into an internment camp in Idaho during World War II. There he met an inmate who taught him Japanese carpentry techniques. Architect Antonin Raymond helped free Nakashima in 1943 and invited him to stay in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Nakashima never left. He developed a style that respected and celebrated the rugged, natural aspects of wood, and which turned its flaws into strengths. He died in 1990 at the age of 85.

Why are Sanso tables so rare? Was it difficult for Nakashima to find suitable pieces of lumber? “It was tough to get really good slabs of wood at this size,” says Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s, adding that fewer than a dozen Sanso tables exist. “Finding a board that was conducive to this purpose was more difficult and more costly. This one is a really nice English walnut, which is what the client wanted.”

The table comes with six Conoid chairs. Is this the full original set of chairs? Yes. “What’s really nice about them is they’re single slab seats,” he says. “Single slab seats were three times more expensive to purchase. They’re usually better-quality wood, and they’re all very even in color. There’s a nice contrast between the American black walnut chairs and the English walnut Sanso table.”

We know the client was Stanley Frosh and his family. What do we know about the Froshes? “They [the furniture] were made as a set and originally used in Stanley’s judge’s chambers before moving them to his home as a reception-slash-dining table for the family to use,” Andreadis says. “The Frosh family was extremely close to the Nakashimas. When George passed, the whole [Nakashima] family sat around this table to discuss the future of the George Nakashima studio. It did become a table around which big decisions were made.”

This Sanso table has several butterfly joints in it–bow-tie like fittings that help hold the tabletop together. Did Nakashima invent the butterfly joint, or did he make it his own? “Butterfly joints were used for centuries, but he made them his own,” Andreadis says. “They were used on the undersides of furnishings. You didn’t see butterfly joints. George respected the honesty of the construction process, and he wanted to make it visible. He thought it was something to be celebrated rather than hidden.”

Does the large number of butterfly joints increase the value of the Frosh Sanso table? “That’s definitely true,” he says. “It shows that George wanted to preserve the piece of lumber. In order to do that, he needed to use more butterfly joints to shore up the piece of wood. He didn’t put them on willy-nilly as a decoration. The joints prevented splits in areas that would have split over time. George worked through all the problems. He didn’t put a Band-Aid on them. He embellished them and drew your eye to them.”

And has the table held together well? What condition is it in? “It’s in fantastic condition,” he says. “The family always recognized it as a masterpiece, and revered it as such, and treated it as such. George made it later in his career, in the sweet spot between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when he was catching his stride and reflecting what his design ethos was about. It’s a beautiful thing to behold in person.”

A Paris auction house sold a Sanso table in American black walnut, without chairs, for roughly $207,000 in May. Do you think this suite of Nakashima furniture will do better? “I think it certainly has that potential. It’s one of the most dramatic Sanso tables to come to market. Even if it was just the table, I’d gush about it. It’s absolutely a blue-chip masterwork by George Nakashima,” he says. “To have Mira [George’s daughter, who now leads the studio] and the family’s memory at a pivotal point in the studio’s history speaks even further to the history with the Frosh family, and to why George chose a special table for Stanley Frosh. We have the climax point where George dies, and they talk about the studio’s future [around this table.] It could not only set a record for a Sanso table, it could set a record for any George Nakashima.”

What else makes this Nakashima furniture special? “If you’ve been waiting for a special piece by Nakashima, this is that type of piece. It will transcend market shifts over the years,” he says. “And you can look at it time after time and not get bored. I’ve been looking at it for four months and every time, I find something new. You get chills standing near it. A Nakashima like this belongs in a museum or a private collection. One lucky bidder will get to own this table, and I envy them.”

How to bid: The George Nakashima Frosh family Sanso table and its six Conoid chairs are lot 81 in the Design sale at Freeman’s on October 8, 2017.

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Freeman’s is on Twitter and Instagram as well. Also, you can read a short article on the Frosh family table and chairs set on the Freeman’s site.

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

 

RECORD: Wharton Esherick’s 1933 Sculpture essie/rebecca Commands $123,750 at Freeman’s

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What you see: Wharton Esherick’s 1933 sculpture “essie”/”rebecca”, fashioned from cocobolo wood. Estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, it sold for $123,750 in November 2014 at Freeman’s. The sculpture now belongs to the Modernism Museum Mount Dora in Mount Dora, Fla.

Who is Wharton Esherick? He’s an American artist who is best known for his sculptural furnishings, which foreshadowed the American studio furniture movement. Esherick started out as a painter but shifted his focus when people reacted to his hand-carved frames more than his canvases. He died in 1970 at the age of 82.

How rare are Esherick’s sculptures? “They’re incredibly rare,” says Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s. “All of Esherick’s things are rare in comparison to the generation of craftsmen who came after him. Esherick produced maybe a few thousand pieces and maybe a hundred sculptures, if that.”

Is “essie”/”rebecca” based on a human model? It was his daughter, Mary, who played a character named Essie in a production at a local theater that the Eshericks supported. “He often used family members and friends as models, and turned the sketches and maquettes into fully realized sculptures,” Andreadis says. “This was later named Rebecca after the Biblical figure of Rebecca at the well. In the 1960s, it finally found a buyer, and it had been with that family ever since.”

What makes “essie”/”rebecca” stand out among Esherick’s works? “This would have been a little more unusual. He would have carved it in one solid piece. It makes it much more challenging,” he says. “It was a celebrated piece, one of those works that were really personal to the artist. And it’s beautiful from any angle. It’s definitely made to be viewed in the round.”

Why did the sculpture do so well? “The stars were perfectly aligned,” Andreadis says. “It was a sculpture of grand scale. Esherick used cocobolo, a rare, exotic wood. Its patina has never been touched. There aren’t many Esherick pieces in private hands. And it’s really personal subject matter, using his daughter as a model for the work. It’s beautifully signed by Esherick. And you can never ask for anything better than to see period photos of the artist standing with the work. Buyers just responded to that. They recognized a rare opportunity that’s not going to come up again for some time.”

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

 

UPDATE: Christie’s Sells a Chinese Zitan Bed with Bodacious Legs for $3.6 Million

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Update: Christie’s sold the 18th century Chinese Luohan bed for $3.6 million.

What you see: An 18th century Chinese Luohan bed, made from Zitan wood, estimated at $2 million to $3 million. (A Luohan is someone who is enlightened, but has yet to become a Buddha.) Though it’s at least three centuries old, the three-rail bed is as sleek and as modern-looking as anything you’d find in a Holly Hunt showroom.

What is Zitan wood? It’s a dense, slow-growing Chinese hardwood that was prized by the wealthy, and by scholars. It has a tight wood grain and a wine-purple color.

It’s called a “bed”, but did its 18th century Chinese owners use it like a bed? It might have had pillows on it, and owners and guests might have napped on it, but the bed served as an indoor-outdoor couch, according to Christie’s specialist Michelle Cheng: “It’s so expensive, it would have been used for various activities throughout the day–sitting on it to look at antiques, discuss poetry, and contemplate scenery.” Servants would have moved the heavy bed around at the bidding of its owner.

What else made this bed a status symbol with the Chinese elite? “Zitan wood is a prestigious, luxurious material, and the carver had to waste a lot of it to get to this form,” Cheng says.

What sets the bed apart from other Chinese furnishings of the time? “It’s unusual for the dramatic curve of the legs, and their sheer chunkiness,” Cheng says. “It seems like they can’t support the bed, they’re so curved. They are bodacious legs.”

Why is the bed estimated at $2 million to $3 million? “This is a great example of the type, and the quality of the material is extremely high,” Cheng says. “And it’s a very elegant object. It’s really stunning. When you stand in front of it, you’re overcome by its subtle quietness.”

How to bid: The bed is lot 643 in The Marie Theresa L. Virata Collection of Asian Art: A Family Legacy, which takes place at Christie’s New York on March 16, 2017.

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