RECORD: Heritage Sells Patrick Nagel’s 1980s Painting, Bold, for $200,000

Patrick Nagel (American, 1945-1984). Bold World Record $200,000 Heritage...

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

What you see: Bold, a circa 1980s painting by Patrick Nagel. Heritage Auctions sold it on October 13, 2017, for $200,000–an auction record for the artist.

Who was Patrick Nagel? He was an American commercial illustrator who gained fame for his portrayals of beautiful dark-haired women. His best-known works are like Bold–images that focus on the woman’s face. Nagel (pronounced to rhyme with ‘bagel’) did commissions for Playboy and is probably best known for creating the artwork for the cover of Duran Duran’s 1982 album, Rio. He died in 1984 of a heart attack that might have been caused by a congenital heart defect that was first noticed during his autopsy. Nagel was 38.

Did Nagel have a specific woman who he relied on as a model? “He did use models, specific models, but he would alter them so they’re not portraits, they’re idealized,” says Ed Jaster, senior vice president at Heritage Auctions, adding, “In May, we sold a Nagel titled Joan Collins, #411, for $100,000. [If you know its title,] you say, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see it,’ but if you just saw it [without knowing the title], you wouldn’t think it was Joan Collins.”

Why, or for whom, did Nagel make this painting? “In the 1980s, he hooked up with Mirage Studios, and they had him do paintings on spec,” he says. “Bold is from that body of work. He only did them during the last two or three years of his life.”

Why is it called Bold? “In general, Nagel didn’t title his paintings,” Jaster says. “To the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t a title for this painting. It was [named] by me or the cataloger. If we’re going to coin a title, it’s nice if it’s based on information we have. If we know who the sitter is, it’s obvious.”

How rarely do original works by Nagel come to auction? “Paintings rendered on canvas are a little more rare,” he says. “The untimely nature of his death–he died a young man–means they are very limited, maybe along the lines of 40 to 50 paintings for Mirage Studios. If we’ve sold 20 of them, which is about right, we’ve probably sold half of his body of work from that period.”

When did the secondary market for Patrick Nagel gain momentum? “The earliest Nagel [auction sales] I can find in our records are in 2008,” he says. “From 2008 to 2012, we sold a fair amount of Nagel, but they were all illustrations, not paintings on canvas. We had one in 2012 that brought $56,000 and one in 2013 that brought $158,500. The first on canvas, to the best of my knowledge, was October 2012. From that point on, every one on canvas got [at least] $50,000, but probably the average is more like $125,000.”

Why did Bold do so well? Why did it set a new record for Nagel? “She’s got a very alluring, very hypnotic gaze. Very typical Nagel,” he says, adding, “It was a timing thing. If two people want something, it gets a high price. Sometimes it’s predictable, sometimes it’s not.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “I hope not too long,” says Jaster, laughing. “I’m being a little cheeky, but it’s a strong piece, and it deserves to be the record-holder. It’s quintessential Nagel.”

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

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SOLD! The Kem Weber-Designed Walt Disney Animation Desk Fetched $13,145 at Heritage

Kem Weber Designed Disney Animation Desk and Eric Larson Pencil Tray (Wa...

Update: The Kem Weber-designed vintage Walt Disney animation desk sold for $13,145.

What you see: An animation desk designed by Kem Weber for the Walt Disney Company circa 1939 or 1940. It’s shown here decorated with the accoutrements of a working animator, but the lot consists solely of the desk, the bulletin board, and a pencil tray that once belonged to Eric Larson. Heritage Auctions estimates the desk at $20,000 to $25,000.

Who was Kem Weber? Karl Emanuel Martin Weber was a German designer who moved to the United States during World War I and became a citizen in 1924. He coined a new first name from his initials. Disney chose him as the main architect of his corporate headquarters in Burbank, California. Weber is best known for his airline armchair, a streamlined design that appears in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He died in 1963 at the age of 73 or 74.

How did Walt Disney come to hire Kem Weber as the architect and interior designer for his new facility? “Disney traveled in some high-end circles. He wanted the best of the best, a state-of-the-art facility,” says Jim Lentz, director of animation art for Heritage Auctions. “Kem Weber designed nearly every aspect of the studio, even the font types on the building.”

How did Weber design the desk to meet the needs of Disney’s animators? “It’s made for these guys to animate,” he says. “It has all kinds of shelving and places to put paper and pencils.” One thing Weber didn’t include was an ashtray. Animators balanced their cigarettes on one of the metal bars on either side of the drawing surface. The circle you see in the center of the surface is an animation disc, which is lit from underneath and allows the artist to attach a piece of paper and rotate it horizontally or vertically.

Do we know how many animation desks Weber made, and how many survive? And do we know who at the Disney studio used it when it was new? “We don’t know. Only a handful of desks have ever come up for sale. They’re rare,” he says, adding that this is the first Kem Weber Walt Disney animation desk he has handled. As for who used it–Lentz believes that animator Hal Ambro is the likeliest choice, but he takes pains to stress that only the pencil tray belonged to Eric Larson, one of the supervising animators who formed the Disney group dubbed the Nine Old Men.

How did Disney animator David Pruiksma come to own this desk? “He got it for his home studio. Eric Larson was his mentor at Disney, and he gave him the pencil tray,” Lentz says, noting that Pruiksma animated the Disney characters Flounder from The Little Mermaid, Mrs. Potts and Chip from Beauty and the Beast, the Sultan from Aladdin, the gargoyles Victor and Hugo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and more.

The animation desk is described as being in “good” condition. What does that mean? “That means it’s not falling apart,” he says, laughing. “Pruiksma used it in his home studio before deciding to sell it. He’s retired now. He did a lot of work at his home studio. It’s a working desk.”

What else makes the desk stand out? “It’s a beautiful piece of furniture that has quite a history,” he says. “This desk would have been used to make Peter Pan, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, and Lady and the Tramp. It’s amazing. It’s a piece of Walt Disney’s studio, it was a significant piece in creating all the films we talk about, and it was designed by one of the most famous furniture designers of the time.”

How to bid: The Kem Weber Walt Disney animation desk is lot #95012 in the Animation Art auction on December 9 – 10 at Heritage Auctions in Beverly Hills.

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The Animation Art sale includes related lots that might be of interest–a Kem Weber airline armchair; a modern Disney studios television animation desk, which was used when Duck Tales and Goof Troop were in production; and a modern Disney feature film animation desk which was used during the period that spans The Little Mermaid to Tarzan.

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

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SOLD! This Casually Perfect 1951 Henri Cartier-Bresson Shot From Italy Fetched $30,000–Double Its High Estimate–at Phillips

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Update: Cartier-Bresson’s Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy sold for $30,000–double its high estimate.

What you see: Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, a photograph that Henri Cartier-Bresson shot in 1951. This gelatin silver print was made later, however. Phillips estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

Who was Henri Cartier-Bresson? Born in France, he was the king of the candid photographers, and he’s regarded as a father of street photography. He co-founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative photojournalists’ agency, in 1947. His images of the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 cemented his reputation. He died in 2004 at the age of 95.

Do we know anything about the lead-up to this photo–how long Cartier-Bresson stood there, and how many other photos he might have taken at this spot? “Here, he’s standing at the top of the stairs. For Cartier-Bresson, he would sometimes stay for a few minutes. He wouldn’t have stayed for a long amount of time. He would shoot and keep walking,” says Rachel Peart, specialist and head of sale for Phillips. “Cartier-Bresson was famous for not wanting to crop his photos afterward. He was very deliberate about what he put in his lens.” Subsequent research of auction records revealed a few iterations of the image appearing for sale in the late aughts and early teens.

I look at this photo and it reminds me of a game of Jenga–pushing the boundaries of how much can you add before the whole thing topples and falls apart… “I think that’s what makes Cartier-Bresson such a great photographer,” she says. “When it comes to composing an image, it’s technically perfect. The railings lead your eye through the picture plane and also divide it. He continued to draw throughout his lifetime, and the fundamentals of composition are evident in all of his work.”

How does this 1951 image illustrate Cartier-Bresson’s concept of “the decisive moment” in photography? “It’s not something he staged or posed. He waited for the moment when everything lined up,” she says. “Here we have the women going about their day. He was able to freeze the moment and hold them in time.”

Why was he in the Italian town of L’Aquila in 1951, and where was he in his career by then? “He was on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar,” Peart says. “He had founded Magnum by this point, he was on assignment for many publications, and he was very much a household name.”

This image was printed after 1951, but probably before the rise of the formal secondary market for photography. Why would he have had it done? “What we predominantly see in the Cartier-Bresson market are later prints, and after 2004, none are made–there are no posthumous prints,” she says, noting that Cartier-Bresson never did the actual printing himself, but he did supervise and approve the output. “A lot of them would have been printed for collectors or for exhibitions. Unless people requested the image, he didn’t make prints of them. There are other pictures of his that you see at auction more frequently [because people asked for them].”

How many prints of Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy were made? It’s hard to tell. Perhaps 30 exist in the 17 5/8 inch by 11 3/4 inch size, and one of them fetched $10,625 at Christie’s in 2011. A similar image taken from the same vantage point and printed at a smaller size has appeared at auction at least twice (the name of the photo is not standardized, which makes it difficult to confirm how often it and its variants have gone to auction). One sold in June 2015 at Westlicht, a Viennese auction house specializing in photographs and vintage cameras for €4,800 ($5,400), and the other sold at Swann Galleries in November 2016 for $6,500.

The lot notes say the photo was acquired directly from the artist. But acquired by who? The consignor is Peter Fetterman, who runs an eponymous photography gallery in Santa Monica, California. “He was working directly with Cartier-Bresson as a dealer and it turned into a friendship,” she says. “He would buy from Cartier-Bresson and for himself as well. There’s one Sam Tassa portrait of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but otherwise, they’re all from Peter Fetterman, who got them directly from Henri.”

Why is Fetterman selling these photographs now? “Cartier-Bresson is obviously an artist he loved and very much respected, and he loved building the collection. But he felt it was the right time to put it out into the world,” Peart says.

What else makes this Cartier-Bresson image special? “It’s Henri Cartier-Bresson doing what he does best, taking this moment from a town in Italy and making it so compositionally dense and rich,” she says. “You can revisit his images over and over, and this one really epitomizes that.”

How to bid: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Scanno, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy is lot 37 in Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Eye of the Century, taking place at Phillips New York on December 12.

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

A note: In 2009, L’Aquila was near the epicenter of an earthquake that measured as high as 5.9 on the Richter scale. It killed more than 300 people and damaged thousands of buildings. It’s unclear if the vista that Cartier-Bresson captured in 1951 survives, but it was pretty much intact in 2008. More than seven years after the quake, the Italian city is still recovering from its effects.

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Bloomsday Comes Early! Sotheby’s Could Sell the Scarcest First Edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses for $250,000

Lot 188, James Joyce Ulysses (i)

 

What you see: A first edition copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses from the 1/100 series of the run of 1,000, which is signed by the author. Sotheby’s estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.

Who was James Joyce? He was an Irish author and poet who ranks as one of the most important and influential authors of the 20th century. Ulysses, published in 1922, catapulted him to literary stardom, even as it was challenged by censors who deemed parts of it obscene. Bloomsday, a June 16 holiday that celebrates Ulysses by visiting places in Dublin, Ireland where Joyce set the story, has taken place since 1954. He died in 1941 at the age of 58.

How was the first edition of Ulysses produced? The Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, run by American Sylvia Beach, printed Ulysses in three issues of 750, 150, and 100, which added up to 1,000 copies. All three were numbered, but only the 1/100 issue was signed by Joyce. All copies were issued in blue paper wrappers, a color meant to call to mind the blue of the Greek flag and link Joyce’s work to the ancient tale of the Odyssey.

What makes this particular copy stand out? “It’s a really, really fine copy of what many critics say might be the most important modernist novel,” says Peter Selley, specialist in books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s, explaining that the blue paper wrappers “are quite fragile, and the majority of copies that survive have had to be cloth bound. With this copy, the special wrappers are preserved.” He adds that the copy includes the original prospectus, “which can be collectible in its own right.” It’s a single sheet of paper that announces the forthcoming publication of the book.

When Sylvia Beach published the book in 1922, did she and Joyce know what they had? “There was a lot of excitement before it was printed,” he says. “Sylvia championed it, and it was awaited in critical and collecting circles. There was a lot of excitement before it came out. Joyce was famous by then. They knew something special was happening,” he says, adding, “Sylvia Beach would probably not be surprised if the first edition of this book, 100 years later, was selling for $200,000 to $250,000. She really believed in it.”

When did Ulysses truly take off as a collectible book? “In the early to mid-1980s, there was a big uplift in prices,” he says. “It appealed to collectors who want the high spots. People want the key works in the best condition.”

Is the 1/100 version of the Ulysses first edition considered superior to the other two versions? “It depends on what you mean by superior,” he says. “It’s the most limited issue, and collectors gravitate to the most limited issue. The 1/100 is always going to be the most desirable, and most deluxe, in collectible terms.”

How often does a 1/100 copy of Ulysses come to auction? “About one or two every year,” he says. “Normally they fetch very high prices. It can fetch up to $300,000 to $400,000 for inscribed copies.”

Where did James Joyce sign the book? On the colophon page, a page at the front of the book that describes the details of each edition and gives the number of the copy: 82. “Look at the signature. He always signs at that angle,” he says, referring to the southwest-northeast rise of Joyce’s script. “Even in his manuscripts, he always writes at that angle. It’s very distinctive.” (To see Joyce’s signature, click on the second thumbnail you see below the main image on the lot page.)

Why will this copy stick in your memory? “I’ve been in the business since the mid-1980s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a first edition copy of Ulysses that’s as nice as this,” he says. “I’ve never seen as completely mint copy of a 1/100. It’s probably close to as-issued as any I’ve seen.”

How to bid: The first edition 1/100 copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses is lot 188 in the English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations auction at Sotheby’s London on December 11.

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

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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.

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SOLD! Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, Jeanette MacDonald, Fay Wray, and Lana Turner All Wore This Fake Diamond Necklace On Screen. It Fetched $2,025 at Julien’s

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Update: The simulated diamond necklace made by Joseff of Hollywood and worn by more than half a dozen celebrities on screen sold for $2,025.

What you see: A simulated diamond necklace by Joseff of Hollywood, dating to the mid-1930s. Julien’s Auctions estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.

Who was Joseff of Hollywood? Eugene Joseff was once a commercial artist for an advertising firm who enjoyed making jewelry as a hobby. He went to Los Angeles on vacation in 1928, just as the Great Depression started to take hold and advertisting work started to drop off. He never found his way back to Chicago. Joseff befriended costume designer Walter Plunkett and railed to him about the historical inaccuracy of the jewelry he paired with his screen clothes. Plunkett challenged him to do better. That challenge gave rise to Joseff of Hollywood, which supplied period-correct, camera-friendly costume jewelry to Golden Age Hollywood. Joseff conjured Shirley Temple’s tiara and scepter for The Little Princess, matched the spark of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara with appropriate jewels for Gone With the Wind, and turned Elizabeth Taylor into an Egyptian queen in the notorious big-budget flop Cleopatra. Joseff died in a plane crash in 1949, when he was in his early forties. His widow, Joan Castle Joseff, took over Joseff of Hollywood until she died in 2010 at the age of 97.

How much of its archives has Joseff of Hollywood consigned for sale? “A good deal of it, but Joseff of Hollywood is still in business, still renting to studios, and still at work,” says Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions. “We were allowed to come in and go through the archive. It was like a treasure hunt, opening drawer after drawer. We’ve been working on the auction since January.”

Eugene Joseff died more than 50 years ago, and his wife, Joan, who ran the business after his death, passed away seven years ago. Why is this trove of vintage costume jewelry being sold now? “In the auction world, there’s something we call ‘the window’–the optimum time to let something go, when there are collectors and fans who know who these people are,” he says. “It’s a good time to let go. These pieces are going to go to homes that appreciate them and museums that will exhibit them, and continue the legacy of the stars who wore them.”

I picked lot 484 because–and I’m going to appropriate a verb here–it’s traveled. Seven different actresses wore the fake diamond necklace in seven different movies between 1934 and 1952, and it appeared on the cover of Life twice to promote two different productions in the mid-1940s. And that’s just counting the rentals that actually carried through–shoots get cancelled, scenes get cut, costume directors decide at the last minute that they need something different. Is this the most ‘traveled’ piece in the auction? “I’d say up to 20 percent of the collection selling now was worn by more than one star in more than one movie,” he says. “With this particular one, we can document that it was worn seven times by various stars. It’s one of the most popular pieces. It was used many times.”

The necklace first appears around the neck of Fay Wray in the 1934 film The Affairs of Cellini. Joseff was a stickler for historical accuracy in jewelry, so presumably, his workshop made it to look like it belonged in the Italian Renaissance. After that, Jeanette MacDonald wore it in The Firefly (1937); Anita Louise wore it in Marie Antoinette (1938); Hedy Lamarr wore it in Her Highness and The Bellboy (1945); June Haver wore it in I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1947); Ava Gardner wore it in her hair in The Great Sinner (1949); and Lana Turner wore it in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). In addition, Ann Sheridan and Lucille Bremer wore it in publicity photos for two other movies, and one of Bremer’s images appeared on the cover of Life. What makes this jewelry design so ludicrously adaptable? “The most important thing is, it’s sort of bland, almost. It’s not jumping out at you,” he says. “You don’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, Fay Wray wore that in The Affairs of Cellini.’ It blended in.”

What did Eugene Joseff and his workshop do to the necklace to make it so adaptable? “I don’t know [what he did to this specific necklace], but all his pieces are able to have parts removed, or be shortened or lengthened,” Nolan says. “He was a man at work in his studio with a team of jewelers who were able to make adjustments easily.”

What else did Joseff do to adapt his pieces to the needs of Hollywood film production? In addition to inventing a formula for a matte gold that was easier for film crews to light, Nolan says Joseff created “a special resin to go in back of a stone to absorb its light, so the camera could get its true color.”

Have you handled the necklace? Yes. “It’s exquisite, it’s beautiful. It looks like a priceless piece of jewelry,” he says. “It’s a costume piece, but it’s important given that it was worn by so many stars.”

Is it fragile? “The pieces are very robust,” he says. “It speaks to the genius of the jeweler who made the piece. They look exquisite, but they’re quite sturdy.”

When I spoke to people at Sotheby’s about giving an estimate to Vivien Leigh’s personal charm bracelet, they told me they went by the intrinsic value of its gold and gems alone. How did you arrive at an estimate for this necklace, which does not contain real gold or gems? “What people are buying here is a tangible item that tells a story. It’s a great conversation piece,” he says. “All the stars who wore it–that’s where the value is.”

How to bid: The simulated diamond necklace is lot 484 in Joseff of Hollywood: Treasures from the Vault, which takes place November 18 at Julien’s Auctions.

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

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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.

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