SOLD! A Happy Christmas Scene of London by Britain’s Answer to Rube Goldberg Fetched More Than $10,000 at Bonhams

WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON (BRITISH, 1872-1944) The Spirit of Christmas in Regent Street signed 'W. HEATHROBINSON' (lower right) pen and ink and watercolour 43 x 30cm (16 1516 x 11 1316in).

Update: William Heath Robinson’s The Spirit of Christmas in Regent Street sold for £7,500, or $10,668.

 

What you see: The Spirit of Christmas in Regent Street, an undated work on paper by William Heath Robinson. Bonhams estimates it at £3,000 to £5,000, or $4,200 to $6,900.

 

Who was William Heath Robinson? He was the British counterpart to the American illustrator Rube Goldberg, gaining fame for drawing ridiculous, absurdly overcomplicated machines that might involve pulleys, steam engines, candles, and maybe all three and more. In the UK, the phrase “Heath Robinson contraption” served the pop-culture shorthand role that the phrase “Rube Goldberg device” still serves here. His wacky, klunky machines inspired the code-breakers at Bletchley Park to name one of their automatic analysis machines in his honor. He also illustrated editions of classic books such as The Arabian Knights, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, and several Shakespeare plays. Robinson died in 1944 at the age of 72.

 

How did this illustration come to be? Did Robinson create it for a book? “I think it was published in Nash’s Magazine, a London magazine that merged with The Pall Mall Magazine in 1914,” says Jenny Hardie, a specialist in the modern British and Irish art department at Bonhams. “I don’t think it was a cover. I think it was within the magazine. It’s been hard to track down an original copy and find a date. Circa 1910 to 1920 has been my thought.”

 

Please don’t take this the wrong way–I love the U.K. so much that I honeymooned in London in the month of January–but this illustration has more happy British people in it that I’ve ever seen in one place. Is that typical of Robinson’s work? “He had a good-natured approach to his subjects,” she says. “It was typical of his work to see a jolly outlook from all his characters. That’s why it’s such an endearing piece. The British are not seen as outwardly jolly, or dancing in the streets. His work is very, very humorous and good-natured.”

 

Do you think the scene and the setting–London at Christmas on Regent Street, which still pretty much looks like this a century later–will expand the bidding audience for the artwork? “Images of London have a large popular appeal. Adding double-decker buses and a Bobby on the beat in a central London location… I would anticipate it would appeal to collectors of his work inside and outside the U.K.,” she says. “It’s an iconic location, and a quite specific location. It might appeal to people who are not as interested in his contraptions. And it’s such a fun image.”

 

You point out that The Spirit of Christmas on Regent Street does not have a Heath Robinson contraption in it. Will that make it less interesting to collectors? “In a way, I don’t think it really matters,” she says. “The ones with contraptions in them do well, but this subject is so specific, people will be interested in it for what it is. It’s specific to its time and place. Though it has no contraptions, it’s a really lively piece.”

 

How often do original William Heath Robinson works come to auction? “They come fairly regularly, but it’s unusual for a collection to come to auction all at once,” she says, explaining that the Bonhams sale contains seven other pieces by Robinson (they appear as lots 22 through 29).

 

How unusual is it to have an original William Heath Robinson that’s fresh to market? “Quite a few have been offered at auction before, but what’s unusual about this one is it was acquired from the estate of the artist in 1978,” she says, noting that six in the  group of eight in the sale went from the estate to the consignor and ultimately to Bonhams.

 

Was London at Christmas an unusual subject for Robinson? “In July 1989 at Christie’s South Kensington, The Spirit of Christmas on the Riviera sold for £20,000, the second-highest result for him at auction,” she says. “It could have been part of a series on Christmas in different places around the world, but I was not able to find anything more comparable to that work.”

 

What’s the record for a Robinson at auction? “£23,000, set at Bonhams in 1989 by a piece called Aerial Life,” she says.

 

What the heck happened in 1989 that made Robinson so desirable to bidders? Hardie laughs. “I’m not sure why the prices he achieved then were so high,” she says, noting that the third-place entry on the most-expensive list sold in 1990. “He had a moment with those three works.”

 

In 2016, a museum dedicated to William Heath Robinson opened in England. Does that affect the value of his originals at all? “It’s great that there’s a museum devoted just to him. Perhaps more people will want to collect his work. But we don’t see more consignments coming in as a result,” she says.

 

Why will this Robinson work on paper stick in your memory? “It’s so detailed. The more you look at it, the more you find other things in it that are really fun, whether it’s the neighbors toasting each other from their windows, or the Christmas crackers falling from the sky,” she says. “The man shimmying up the lamppost to get the apple is fun as well. In its style and subject matter, it’s a really fun work which will hopefully do very well.”

 

How to bid: The Spirit of Christmas in Regent Street is lot 29 in the Modern British and Irish Art sale at Bonhams London, Knightsbridge on March 27, 2018.

 

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

 

 

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A Powerful Set of Prints by Harlem Renaissance Artist Aaron Douglas Could Command $30,000 at Swann

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What you see: Defiance, one of four prints from the Emperor Jones series by Aaron Douglas. It’s from a small group of reprints done with the same wood blocks in 1972, almost 50 years after the originals. Swann Auction Galleries estimates the set at $20,000 to $30,000.

 

Who was Aaron Douglas? He was a Kansas-born African-American painter, graphic artist, and muralist who was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American cultural talent that bloomed in the Harlem section of New York City in the 1920s. His illustrations for Alain Locke’s 1925 book, The New Negro: An Interpretation led to a series of commissions from figures who led the Harlem Renaissance. In 1944, Douglas founded the art department at Fisk University, a university in Nashville, Tennessee, and led it for 22 years. He died in 1979 at the age of 79.

 

Was Douglas known as a printmaker, or was this series based on the Eugene O’Neill play Emperor Jones a one-off? “He was not known as a printmaker, and they’re the only wood block prints I’m aware of off the top of my head,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department. “It’s from his classic Harlem Renaissance period. It’s unclear when [the prints] were commissioned, but he was published in other magazines at the time. It’s not surprising that he was tapped to do an interpretation of Emperor Jones.”

 

Best as we can tell, a small but indeterminate number of Emperor Jones prints were made in 1926, and then three more sets of reprints–15, 15, and finally 20–were made in 1972, with Douglas assisted by printmaker Stephanie Pogue. Do we know why the printing was done that way? “The blocks were first carved in 1926. Pogue assisted Douglas at the end of his career. The blocks themselves did not change,” he says. “It’s not unusual for an artist who made prints in the 1920s not to do large numbered editions of prints. It’s not like a contemporary print that’s editioned and sold through a gallery. Later in Douglas’s life, people asked for his works, and he decided to reprint the wood blocks. Why there are three separate reprintings, I don’t know. Maybe they sold out and he did more.”

 

Are the 1926 prints and the 1972 prints consistent in quality? “If you have your choice, you always want earlier printings. But there are very few examples of Emperor Jones prints done in the 1920s,” he says, noting that the only early set of four that Freeman has seen appeared in a museum exhibition. “There’s not a significant difference in the way they look. They’re printed from the same blocks. There’s not really a significant quality difference. She helped him print a strong impression. They’re more or less the same.”

 

There might be as many as 100 sets of Emperor Jones prints out there, but the Swann lot notes describe them as scarce. What makes them scarce? Are most of them in museum collections? Were some sets lost? Are collectors just reluctant to let them go? “You just don’t see them coming to auction that often,” he says. “We’ve only had a set once before in my department , and we see a lot of work. They’re things you don’t see very often.”

 

What’s the auction record for a set of Emperor Jones prints, and what’s the auction record for anything by Aaron Douglas? The Emperor Jones record was set at Swann in October 2008 when a group sold for $22,800. Swann also handled an original 1926 gouache of an Emperor Jones image that sold for $90,000 against an estimate of $35,000 to $50,000 in February 2008. A smallish 1944 painting by Aaron Douglas, Building More Stately Mansions, holds the record for any Douglas work at auction. Swann sold it for $600,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 in February 2008.

 

Why will these Emperor Jones prints stick in your memory? “It’s his classic Harlem Renaissance graphic style. This is the style everyone equates with Aaron Douglas. This is what people think of, what they associate with him the most,” he says. “This is a scarce opportunity to acquire an original work of art in that style. The reason Douglas had such success is he was a very talented graphic artist and designer who was able to synthesize the design ideas and the Art Deco style of the period and infuse it with a strong African-American voice. The black silhouette became about the black figure. He created a depiction of African-Americans that was modern and a celebration of African-American culture, which fit right into the idea of the Harlem Renaissance.”

 

How to bid: The group of Emperor Jones prints by Aaron Douglas is lot 7 in the African-American Fine Art sale at Swann Auction Galleries on April 5, 2018.

 

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

 

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SOLD! A 1930 Howard Cook Print of the Chrysler Building Commanded $10,625 at Swann Galleries

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Update: The Howard Cook print featuring the Chrysler Building sold for $10,625.

 

What you see: Chrysler Building, a print by Howard Cook. Swann estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

 

Who was Howard Cook? Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Cook created watercolors and WPA murals but is best known for his prints. He earned Guggenheim Fellowships twice, in 1932 and 1934, and his works are in the collections of the British Museum, the Smithsonian Art Museum, Harvard University, the Whitney, and the Met, among others. Though he was enamored of the American southwest and ultimately settled there, he spent the late 1920s and early 1930s in New York City. He died in 1980 at the age of 78.

 

How popular is Cook among collectors, and how prolific was he? “He’s very popular. When it comes to those who collect 20th century prints and American views, he’s one of the top artists. That’s been true since American prints began to flourish at auction 25 years ago,” says Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann and director of prints and drawings. “He made over 225 different prints in all media–woodcuts, lithographs, etching. He was prolific compared to Grant Wood, who made 20 lithographs, and Edward Hopper, who made maybe 50 different etchings.”

 

How sought-after are Cook’s New York images? “Very. They’re the top of his market,” he says. “His views are either panoramic views or singular buildings.”

 

How does Cook’s choice of subject matter–the Chrysler Building–affect the value of this print? “It’s great. It’s an iconic building. The print dates from the year of the completion of the building [1930]. It’s just what collectors want,” he says. “It’s from the Art Deco period, so it’s less static than the Empire State Building.”

 

Is Chrysler Building a stand-alone print, or is it part of a series? “Of the 225 images he printed in his career, he did 30 views of New York,” he says. “All were stand-alone. Cook was not a serial printmaker.”

 

What would he have based this print upon? Did Cook take a photograph of the Chrysler Building from this angle? Did he stand on the street and make sketches? “We don’t know of him as a photographer,” he says. “My thinking is he sketched it in person, and he knew it from photographs. But he was not known for working from photographs.”

 

Is this Cook’s only depiction of the Chrysler Building? Yes. “He did other skyscrapers in New York more generally,” he says. “We have another one in the sale, the lot before this one, of Wall Street, and there are skyscrapers in it, but it’s not the sort of grand, isolated building view [like the Chrysler Building].”

 

How involved was he in the creation of his prints? Did he pull them himself, or did he oversee the work of professional printmakers? “Cook was very much involved in making his prints, from start to finish,” he says, noting that the only time he relied on others was when he created lithographs. “He would come up with the idea for the print, he etched it, and he pulled it on his own press.”

 

The lot notes for the print say this was an ‘edition of 50 (from an intended edition of 75),’ and also that it is ‘numbered ’75’ in pencil.’ I’m not sure I understand what’s going on here. Could you explain? “When he worked on editions himself through his gallery, the Weyhe Gallery in New York, he would propose an edition number, and would print them in batches of maybe ten or 20 at a time and deliver them to be sold on his behalf,” he says. “Over a period of a couple of years, he was able to sell only so many. He never reached his printing goal of 75. We know this through the artist’s notes and gallery sales records.”

 

So what does the number ’75’ actually mean here? “That was what he hoped the edition would be,” he says. “These prints were not numbered in the traditional sense. He would intend for an overall edition at the start of the process and would deliver batches at a time to the gallery. It’s not like they were sequentially numbered. Chrysler Building was going to be an edition of 75 until he couldn’t sell more than 50 or so. We know it wasn’t 75.”

 

Sometimes, when there’s a large press run of an art print, the early ones look better and crisper than the later ones. Does the batch printing approach that Cook took with Chrysler Building affect the quality of the prints? Is their quality consistently high? “Each was printed more or less identically,” he says. “It’s not like number one is more or lesser than number twenty. Because they’re smaller editions, there’s such attention to detail and quality. He didn’t let anything of lesser quality out to the gallery.”

 

How often does this print come to auction? “It’s a scarce one. We’ve seen less than ten at auction in the last 30 years,” he says, noting that the number might not represent ten individual prints–the same print could have gone to auction twice or more in that time. He adds that the auction record for Chrysler Building was set at Swann in November 2015 when one sold for $17,500, and four of Cook’s top ten most-expensive lots at auction have been Chrysler Building prints; first place belongs to a 1930 panoramic New York City scene called Harbor Skyline.

 

Was Chrysler Building a tricky print to make? “If you look at the imaging, look at the lines, they’re very detailed, almost hairline in the shadows,” he says. “That requires great attention to detail, and it [the ink] would have been hand-applied to the block. To have the blacks as rich as they are in the shadow areas, with no breaks or wear, is stunning. It looks like photographic perfection when you see it.”

 

What makes this print stick in your memory? “You can see the craft in it,” he says. “It has such a precision to it, on such a small scale–it’s only 10 1/8 inches by 6 3/4 inches–but he’s able to show the grandeur of the city. You really get the sense of a soaring city in such a small format.”

 

How to bid: Howard Cook’s Chrysler Building is lot 195 in Swann‘s 19th & 20th Century Prints & Drawings auction on March 13, 2018.

 

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

 

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SOLD! This Trio of 1928 Mont Blanc Posters Fetched $13,750 at Swann

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Update: The 1928 trio of Mont Blanc posters sold for $13,750.

What you see: Vers le Mont – Blanc, a group of three posters dating from 1928 and designed by Georges Dorival. Swann Auction Galleries is offering them as a single lot, estimated at $8,000 to $12,000.

Who was Georges Dorival? Justin Marie Georges Dorival was born in Paris in 1879 and died in Louveciennes in 1968 and… that’s about all we know about him. “He was a very prolific artist who wasn’t remembered by history,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries. “The poster world is littered with artists who don’t amount to much outside their world.”

Were the Vers le Mont – Blanc posters his crowning achievement? “This is his most famous image,” he says. “If you type Dorival’s name into the search engine on the Swann web site, you’ll see his others are beautiful, but not remarkable in any way. These three are remarkable. What’s special and unique about this is it’s done as a tryptic.”

Do we know why Dorival did Vers le Mont – Blanc as a tryptic? “I just think it was an inspired idea,” he says. “The three separate posters can work individually, or as a tryptic.”

Do I see the mountain depicted in daylight, dusk, and night? “Yes. It’s like a time-lapse, graphic photo,” he says. “One clearly has stars in the sky. Day, dusk, night. Everything below the black V of the mountain is identical. The top third changes.”

How often were these posters displayed together, as a tryptic? “There’s no record of that. I’ve never seen any actual photo documentation of these three up,” he says. “I assume if they could put all three up together, they would, just because it makes a powerful statement.”

Do they tend to come to auction as a tryptic as well? Generally, yes. Six sets have appeared at auction as a single lot since 2008; this will be the seventh. Sometimes, however, they appear in the same sale as three individual lots. Swann set the auction record for a set of three in November 2010 that sold as one lot for $18,000 against an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000.

What makes the poster image so strong? “There’s a conceptual reason and an actual reason,” he says. “The actual reason is the way he lays out the art. It’s almost as if someone is unzipping the scene. Your eye is quite literally drawn to the center of the poster. It’s simple and it’s genius. And the concept of the same poster at different times of day–it’s astonishingly simple and had never been done before. In a way, it’s like watching the sun set over the mountains. Each of these is like a color still.”

These posters come from the estate of Gail Chisholm, a Manhattan poster dealer who died in 2017. Was she a friend? “I’ve known her since 1996. She had a gallery seven blocks away from Swann,” he says. “She was an early adopter in the world of posters, and she had a very European attitude. I knew I had to visit her between noon and three, when she’d be having her three-hour lunch. She became a friend and colleague. It’s a small community. We all know each other. … She was very creative. She knew how to market posters. I think I picked that up from her, too. She lived her life according to her own rules. She unabashedly did what she wanted.”

About 130 posters are in the Chisholm sale, and the proceeds will benefit Planned Parenthood of New York. What’s the total presale estimate? Between $166,000 and $241,000, so as much as a quarter-million dollars could go to Chisholm’s favorite charity thanks to this auction.

What else makes this trio of Dorival posters stand out? “In the world of posters, which are, by definition, a visual medium, these stand out for their unique cinematic quality,” he says. “They’re strong individually and stronger as a tryptic. These are really outliers, so different from the rest of his work.”

How to bid: Dorival’s Vers le Mont – Blanc is lot 29 in the Vintage Posters sale that Swann Auction Galleries will hold on March 1.

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

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TIE! Heritage Auctions Sold an Original Sunday Christmas-Themed Peanuts Strip from 1958 for $113,525, Tying the World Auction Record

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Update: Well, this doesn’t happen often. Heritage sold the original Sunday Peanuts comic strip from 1958 for $113,525–tying the record it set in 2007 for original Sunday Peanuts comic art.

What you see: An original Sunday Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles Schulz and dated 12-21-58. Heritage Auctions believes it could sell for $100,000 or more.

Who was Charles Schulz? The Minnesota-born Schulz is one of the most influential cartoonists ever. His comic strip, Peanuts, ran from October 2, 1950 until February 13, 2000 and featured the enduring characters of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, his pet beagle. At its peak, Peanuts appeared in more than 2,500 newspapers and reached more than 350 million readers in 75 countries. The 1965 animated television special A Charlie Brown Christmas became a hit that remains must-see holiday viewing today. Schulz died in 2000, one day before his final Peanuts strip was published. He was 77.

How rare are original Sunday Peanuts comic strips? “There are only so many Sundays between 1950 and when the strip ended,” says Weldon Adams, a comic book cataloging specialist at Heritage Auctions. “Every time we get one, it’s cooler than the last one we saw.”

How does original Peanuts comic strip art manage to get to the market? Didn’t Schulz keep all his originals at his studio? “Charles Schulz was one of the most gracious and kind souls you could encounter. He was beloved by fans,” he says. “When a fan would write a really nice letter, he would autograph the art and send it to them. A lot were personalized to friends and fans, and he just gave them away.” This particular Sunday strip is not inscribed, however, and not every original strip left his studio as gifts. “Some of these were just sold,” Adams says.

Snoopy isn’t in this Peanuts strip. Does that affect its value? “Not necessarily,” he says. “There are so many recurring favorite themes in Peanuts–Lucy at the psychiatrists’s booth, baseball strips with Charlie Brown at the pitcher’s mound, Snoopy as a World War I flying ace, Charlie Brown with the kite-eating tree, Lucy with the football–running gags that are funny every time you see them. There are so many scenes, and fans go out to look for particular ones.”

This Sunday Peanuts strip has a Christmas theme, but it appeared in 1958, well before the famous Christmas special. How unusual is that? “It’s extremely rare to have a Christmas-themed strip to market before the special in 1965. There are only 15 years predating the special, so there are limited opportunities in the first place,” he says. “It pushes it above and beyond. It’s specifically about a Christmas recital at school, which is an element of the special. Ironically, it has a different outcome from what happens in the TV special. Here, Linus can’t remember his line. In the special, he gives a wonderful, beautiful speech. This is the flip side of that.”

The strip has eight panels, and it shows nine Peanuts characters in each panel. How rare is that? “Very rare. It’s going to be a major driving factor [in its final price],” he says. “This is a huge collection of all the regular cast members at that point. There are only a few who are not there. And it’s unique to have so many characters in every single panel. I haven’t seen another one like it.”

And Schulz would have drawn all eight panels by hand, with no assistance? “This is old school. He drew it all,” he says. He also notes that Sunday strips were printed in color in 1958, but someone in production at United Features Syndicate, which distributed the Peanuts strip, would have handled that task.

As of February 3, bidding on this original Peanuts comic strip art had reached $26,000, and the auction is still weeks away. Are you surprised it’s risen so high, so fast?The record for an original Sunday Peanuts strip was $113,525. It had a baseball theme, it was from 1955, and it sold in 2007 at Heritage,” he says. “It was similar in that there were several characters in it, but not nearly as many as this one. Given that this has so many characters, and a Christmas theme before the Christmas special, I have a sneaking suspicion it might top the record. This is unique and it has a lot of good things going for it. It will be interesting to see the bidding at the end. I expect it will be fierce and fast.”

The comic strip art, which is in ink over graphite on Bristol board, is described as being in “excellent condition.” What does that mean? “It indicates that the Bristol board is intact, with no major stains or marks, and no pieces missing,” he says. “There’s a little bit of corner wear, but nothing that would affect the image area. It does allow for a certain amount of toning–discoloration in the paper due to aging. ‘Excellent’ is the highest grade we grant on an artwork. You don’t run into one in pristine condition.”

Why will this Peanuts strip stick in your memory?Peanuts is an American icon,” Adams says. “Charles Schulz tapped into something with that strip, a childlike wonder that crosses all boundaries. Having so many characters in the strip is phenomenal. It’s a unique collection of highly beloved characters.”

How to bid: The original 1958 Sunday Peanuts strip is lot #92220 in the Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction on February 22 – 24, 2018, at Heritage Auctions.

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

You can see more original Peanuts comic strip art at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. The Peanuts strip continues as reruns in newspapers and on the web, too.

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SOLD! A Print from Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities Series Fetched More Than $21,000 at Phillips

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Update: Untitled V, from Men in the Cities sold for £15,000, or about $21,000.

What you see: Untitled V, from Men in the Cities, a 1990 lithograph by Robert Longo. It’s number 35 of a run of 48. Phillips estimates it at £6,000 to £8,000 ($8,100 to $10,800).

Who is Robert Longo? He’s an American artist, born in Brooklyn. He came to prominence in the 1980s with his Men in the Cities series, which depict men and women in business attire in dynamic poses. To create the source photographs, Longo invited several friends to come to the roof of his apartment building and sometimes threw objects at them to get the results he sought. Longo initially released Men in the Cities as charcoal and graphite drawings and later released them as photographs, prints, and sculptures. He is 65.

This lithograph dates to 1990. Is it from the first series of prints from Men in the Cities? Nope. Robert Kennan, head of editions, Europe, for Phillips, found prints from the series that have eleven different dates, created between 1980 and 2002.

What does “Untitled V” mean? “It’s the fifth in the series,” Kennan says. “Sometimes there’s a name–Eric or Joanna or Meryl–but the ones printed in 1990 are all untitled.”

Longo has released many prints of Men in the Cities images. What do collectors tend to prefer? “It’s really the impact of the image and if it works well,” he says. “Collectors like a strong silhouette. They don’t necessarily prefer males or females. It’s more about the composition. The man in the suit may resonate [by evoking] a Bryan Ferry or David Bowie type of figure.”

Cindy Sherman and Larry Gagosian are among the friends who posed for Longo in the late 1970s for Men in the Cities. They went on to become art-world stars. Do we know who the Untitled V model is? “His name is Eric Barsness. He was a dancer,” he says. “Seeing the face is important, if the model is known. You can identify them. But so many Men in the Cities images are heads thrown back at unusual angles. It can be tough to distinguish them.”

The top three most-expensive Men in the Cities prints at auction sold at Phillips. Do you make a point of specializing in them? “We’re always keen to include them in the sales and we do well with them, whether it’s Men in the Cities or more recent prints. The more recent prints have tailed off slightly. The 1980s prints are holding their own more than the works from the 2000s.”

What makes Untitled V such a powerful image? “That male figure is very striking. It is immediate. Has he just been shot? Is he dancing? There’s something wonderfully ambiguous about them, the frozen pose. They’re eye-catching, intriguing images,” he says. “And I grew up in the 1980s. Men in the Cities is very redolent of the period. It captures something.”

How to bid: Untitled V, from Men in the Cities is lot 210 in the January 25 Evening & Day Editions sale at Phillips London.

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Robert Longo has his own website. He also riffed off his Men in the Cities imagery in the video he directed for New Order, Bizarre Love Triangle.

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

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RECORD: Los Angeles Modern Auctions Sells an Ed Ruscha Print for More Than $200,000 in 2014

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records. 

What you see: Double Standard, a 1969 screenprint by Ed Ruscha. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) set a record for a print by the artist in October 2014 when it sold for $206,250 against an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000.

Who is Ed Ruscha? Edward Joseph Ruscha IV is an Oklahoma-born artist who embraced California and became part of the Pop Art movement. He works in several media–printmaking is just one of them. He might be most famous for his paintings that showcase single words or phrases. He is 79.

Where does Double Standard fit in the pantheon of Ed Ruscha images? “The Standard series is one of his most iconic. Double Standard is a little tongue-in-cheek, as is a lot of his work,” says Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA. “He infuses humor and irony into a lot of his work, along with pop art sensibilities.”

Is this a depiction of a real Standard gas station, or is it an invention of Ruscha? “I don’t think this is an actual representation. I think it’s a combination of things,” he says. “In 1961, Dennis Hopper took a picture of a station with two Standard signs, like this [print has]. Ruscha would certainly have been aware of that. It’s very similar to Ruscha’s imagery. I can only assume Ed used that as part of his process as well as the stations he saw on his Kerouac-like travels from Oklahoma to get to Los Angeles.”

The print is signed by Ed Ruscha and also Mason Williams. Who is Williams, and what was his contribution to Double Standard? Williams is a musician, writer, and comedian who worked on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Saturday Night Live. He’s a friend of Ruscha’s, who goes back to his Oklahoma days. “A lot of the humor and wry snarky sensibility had to do with Mason,” he says. “Mason’s ability to satirize a subject is fairly important to this. It was more conceptual. It was more about bringing to Ed’s attention that Standard was too serious, and Double Standard took some air out of it.”

What sort of condition is this Double Standard print in? “It’s in pristine condition, which is why it sold for so much,” he says. “I met an original owner who said they paid $180 for it. When you pay $180 for a print, you don’t go to dramatic lengths to frame it and preserve it and prevent archival issues in the future. The fact that these were not that expensive when new led a lot to be ultimately mishandled in ways that we can identify. It’s clear that this example was treated as a work of art from the beginning. The rarity of a survivor in this condition drove a lot of the interest.”

Double Standard was printed in an edition of 40. How often does it come up at auction? “Mine was the last one, in 2014. About 18 months before that, another sold for $182,500. Before that, one sold in 2008,” he says.

Why did this Double Standard do so well? Was it purely its exceptional condition? “The condition drove a lot of the aggression, but there are a lot of external factors that you can never really quantify,” Loughrey says. “Dennis Hopper came to one of my auctions and bought a piece on his birthday. He paid four or five times what was expected. I said, ‘I can’t believe you paid so much for it.’ Hopper said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s my birthday, and I want it.”

What was your role in the sale? “I was the auctioneer. It was very exciting,” he says. “The room was aware and burst into applause. They knew the record for his [print] work could be broken. The gasps and sighs of relief are expected and fun in the moment. The [winning] bidder was in the room. You could see determination from the bidder–‘This opportunity is not going to get away from me.’

How long did the auction of the lot last? “When you start at $50,000 and end at $206,000, it does take a while,” he says. “I don’t remember how long it took. I remember the person on the phone [the eventual underbidder] took time. I saw the anxiety on the face of the person in the room–‘Sell it already!’ It did take a while, but it was probably less than five minutes. That is an extremely long time on an auction block. I usually sell a lot every 45 seconds. Five minutes is an eternity when you’re up there.”

How long do you think this record will last? “If someone came along with another [Double Standard print] that’s as good, or a Standard print that’s as good–a Standard print with a bright red sky–it’s ready to fall. I have people who are interested [in both]. I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes over $250,000,” he says, adding, “Consider the perspective of the seller. He agreed to let me sell it for as little as $50,000. If the universe didn’t align, it could have sold as low as $50,000. He was a bit nervous, but he took a leap of faith. He knew the venue [LAMA] attracted Ed Ruscha people more than any other venue. This is an artist we focus on and specialize in.”

Do you think another print will come to market soon? “Believe me, I’m on it,” he says. “I’m conversing with original owners who’ve had it [a Double Standard print] since 1970. I’ve tried to cajole them, but they’re not interested in selling.”

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

Ed Ruscha maintains an online catalogue raisonné.

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