SOLD! Woodworker Sam Maloof Made Maybe a Dozen Double Rocking Chairs. Bonhams Just Sold One for $35,000

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Update: The Sam Maloof double rocker sold for $35,000.

 

What you see: A double rocking chair, created in 2006 by the late American studio furniture artist Sam Maloof. Bonhams estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.

 

Who was Sam Maloof? The California-born woodworker was the first professional craftsman to earn a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellowship. He learned the fundamentals of his trade in high school and opened a workshop in 1948, after marrying and returning from World War II. Best known for his chairs, Maloof’s furniture resides in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He worked until he died in 2009 at the age of 93.

 

How many double rocking chairs did Maloof make? “There are around a dozen known,” says Jason Stein, Director of Modern Decorative Art & Design at Bonhams Los Angeles, noting that about four of those are in institutions. “There are very few in private hands. This is the first we know of to ever come up in the auction format.”

 

How hard was it for Maloof and his team to make a double rocking chair? “These pieces took a solid month to produce,” he says. “It’s more complicated, with way more spindles in the seatback. There are 13 spindles on this one, and Maloof double rockers normally have 13 to 15. A single rocker only has seven. Everything on a double rocker takes longer.”

 

When did Maloof start making double rocking chairs? “They came into play in the early 1990s. The single rockers started years before,” he says. “When he was fully developed in his craft, he was confident to make a piece like this.”

 

What details distinguish this particular double rocking chair, and what distinguishes Maloof’s furniture overall? “It has pronounced horns at the top, and the sleighs at the bottom come up beautifully at the back. It’s the most expressed version of this chair,” he says. “It’s incredibly sculptural, yet ergonomic. It’s a beautiful piece of art that you can also sit in. That was a thing with Maloof. He was a craftsman’s craftsman.”

 

This double rocker is made from walnut. Does that make it more desirable to collectors? “Walnut was his wood of choice,” he says, adding, “Throughout the American studio furniture movement, the majority of the works are made from walnut. They take advantage of the beautiful grain. You can create amazing compositions by working the grain.”

 

Have you sat in the double rocker? “Yes. It’s beautiful,” he says. “It’s something that’s incredible to look at and sit in and to feel, to touch. It’s highly tactile. It’s an interactive experience to sit in a piece of Maloof. You want to sit in it. You want to stay in it. It’s not just a sculpture. It’s functional.”

 

Have you sat in the double rocker with another person? “I have not,” he says. “But in looking at this chair, each seat in it is fully pronounced. It’s made for two. Each seat will totally support a person. They won’t spill into each other.”

 

What’s the auction record for a piece of Sam Maloof furniture, and what’s the record for a Maloof rocking chair? The overall record belongs to a conference table and a set of ten chairs, which sold at Bonhams for $194,250 in March 2006 against an estimate of $70,000 to $90,000. The Maloof rocking chair record was also set at Bonhams in April 2012 by a chair made in 1986 that fetched $80,500. Its estimate was $30,000 to $50,000. Both record-setting furnishings were made from walnut.

 

How have you seen the Maloof market change over time? “When I started in the early 1990s at Butterfield & Butterfield, single rockers were $12,000 to $15,000. There’s been an ascent over the years,” he says. “It’s always popular, and we’re always excited to get pieces by him. This time we have four lots by Maloof, including a single rocking chair.”

 

Why will this Maloof double rocking chair stick in your memory? “This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to work with this form–to be with it personally, to be near it, and to work with the consigner to bring it up for auction. It’s an exciting moment for an auction house specialist,” he says. “And it’s exciting to see where the market is going to take it, where it’s going to go, and who’s going to acquire it. I’m curious if it’s going to go to an institution or a private collector.”

 

How to bid: The Sam Maloof double rocking chair is lot 236 in Bonhams‘s Modern Decorative Art + Design auction on April 17, 2018 in Los Angeles.

 

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

 

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Wow! Heritage Sold a 1964 Fender Stratocaster Destroyed On Stage by Pete Townshend for $30,000

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Update: The 1964 sonic blue Fender Stratocaster smashed on stage by Pete Townshend sold for $30,000.

 

What you see: A 1964 sonic blue Fender Stratocaster “smasher,”–a guitar played on stage and smashed by Pete Townshend of The Who–on December 1, 1967 at Long Island Arena in Commack, New York. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $15,000 to $20,000.

 

Who is Pete Townshend? He’s the lead guitarist and lead songwriter for the legendary British rock band, The Who, which played its first concert in 1964. Townshend also first smashed a guitar on stage in that year. The band’s hits include My Generation, Baba O’Riley, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Magic Bus, and Pinball Wizard, a song from the 1969 rock opera, Tommy. Townshend will turn 73 in May 2018.

 

How rare are genuine stage-played 1960s-era smashed Pete Townshend guitars? “Very rare,” says Garry Shrum, director of entertainment and music memorabilia for Heritage Auctions. “Usually Pete smashed a guitar until it was in shreds. I know a couple of collectors who own multiple stage-played guitars. I know one guy who bought several smashers to make one whole guitar–he Frankensteined it together. But it’s very rare to find one from the 1960s. People didn’t keep them. If it was in the crowd, it was a dive-fest. People wanted a piece of that guitar.”

 

How many Townshend smashers have you handled? “Two, and I’ve been at Heritage for 14 years,” he says. “Before that, I had a shop for 30 years. People brought in smashers to share with me, but they wouldn’t let me buy them off them.”

 

Has anyone tried to document how many times Townshend smashed a guitar on stage? “There’s got to be something, somewhere. Someone might have tried to document it, but I have not seen it,” he says. “I wish I had the answer, but I don’t. But he smashed guitars hundreds of times.” [After we spoke, I found a heroic stab at a list on thewho.net. Scroll down for the link.]

 

I was going to ask if this smasher was worth less because it isn’t complete, but hearing you speak, I get the impression that it’s unusually complete. “Exactly. You have to get the neck and some pickups to make it complete, but you generally don’t get that chance at all,” he says. “It’s a great piece of music history. Over the years, other people have broken guitars on stage, but it was all spawned by Pete in the ’60s.”

 

Townshend smashed hundreds of guitars on stage? Didn’t that get expensive after a while? “In the early years, he used cheaper guitars, but it got expensive,” he says, noting that Fenders “were imported to the U.K., and the pound versus dollar exchange made it more expensive for him. Probably £400 to £700 for a guitar every time he picked one up.”

 

This smasher doesn’t have a neck, but it does have its neck plate, which contains the guitar’s serial number. Does that help prove that Townshend played it and smashed it on stage? “In most cases, you don’t see the neck plate. You see half of a guitar. Once he started breaking it, the plate went because of the neck,” he says. “Pete would throw the whole thing into the crowd, and people would rip it to pieces. Somebody got the plate, somebody got the pickups, somebody got the headstock, somebody got the strings. The neck plate helps date it. It’s a stronger provenance of the time period. But there’s no way to trace it back [to Townshend]. After two or three years, music stores threw out their paper receipts. There was no reason for them to keep them. Guitar-collecting didn’t get serious until the mid-1970s.”

 

Is it rare for a smasher to have accompanying documents, as this one does? [It comes with a ticket stub from the December 1, 1967 show and a two-page handwritten account of how the original owner caught it.] “That’s rare, and that’s so cool, because we can date it,” he says. “A lot of times it’s a hearsay story. When you have other pieces of paper, a paper trail, it’s more exciting to talk about. You can close your eyes and picture the whole thing happening.”

 

Are Townshend smashers worth more than stage-played guitars that he didn’t smash? “No. An original 1964 Fender Stratocaster is worth money on its own, without a Pete Townshend provenance,” he says. “They sell for $16,000 to $20,000, depending on condition. If Pete played it during that period, it’s easily over $100,000. This is broken. We hope it’s worth $15,000 to $20,000, maybe more. All it takes is two people to push it up.”

 

What’s the auction record for a Townshend smasher? Is it higher than the record for an intact Townshend-played guitar? The auction record for a smasher as well as an intact guitar appears to belong to a lot sold at Bonhams London, Knightsbridge in December 2015. It contained a pair of Rickenbachers–one whole and one destroyed on stage during The Who’s 25th anniversary tour in 1989, along with a signed November 2014 statement from Townshend about them both. The lot sold for £52,500, or $73,934.

 

You set the opening bid for this guitar at $10,000. Why? “The consigner hopes to get at least $10,000,” he says. “We wanted it in the auction because it was such a cool, rare piece. You can’t go on eBay and find it. That’s not gonna happen.”

 

Why will this Townshend smasher stick in your memory? “I have certain bands I admire. I had a shop, and I had the advantage of going backstage to meet people,” he says. “In 1970, I hung out with The Who on the fifth floor of the Hilton San Diego. My wife was 17, and I was 18. It was one of those time periods when I thought, ‘Is this really happening? I’ve spent three hours talking about music with John Entwhistle.’ Keith Moon was doing crazy stuff. Pete and Roger didn’t stick around. They had girls. Anything from The Who that comes in makes me think about the time I spent then. It’s part of my history with music, and with the band itself.”

 

How to bid: The Pete Townshend Fender Stratocaster smasher is lot #89636 in Heritage Auctions‘s Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction on April 15, 2018.

 

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

 

By clicking through to the lot, you can also see a photograph of Townsend playing the guitar in classic windmill style on stage, as well as images of the handwritten account of the December 1967 concert.

 

The folks behind thewho.net have assembled a list of guitars that Pete Townshend smashed over the years. The guitar being auctioned at Heritage is included.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Louis Tavelli has a website.

 

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SOLD! A Unique 1954 Japanese Movie Poster for Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai Fetched $22,705 at Heritage Auctions

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Update: The 1954 Japanese movie poster for Seven Samurai sold for $22,705.

 

What you see: A 1954 Japanese movie poster for Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai). It is the only known example of its type. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $20,000 to $50,000. The kanji on the poster translate to: “The dream awaited by 70 million finally has come true! A massive spectacular samurai drama which is created, for the first time, by the fighting spirit of the Maestro!”

 

Do we know how this Japanese movie poster for Seven Samurai was discovered? Grey Smith, director of vintage movie poster auctions at Heritage Auctions, says it came to him via a friend who knew the owner. The poster had been in Japan from 1954 until three or four months ago. “I’d never seen it before,” he says. “I’m not aware of another copy.”

 

The poster is 21 inches by 58 inches–long and skinny. I’m wondering if this is a standard size for a Japanese movie poster, or if the poster was made at this size to imitate a Japanese scroll or painting. “You would think it might, but it was a commonly used size in Japan,” he says, adding that it’s comprised of two panels that are stacked on top of each other. Look for the samurai dressed in a green top and brown pants at the center of the poster, and you’ll see the join. (The samurai’s left hand doesn’t quite line up with his wrist.)

 

Is the design of the Seven Samurai poster typical for Japan in 1954? “I’ve always admired Japanese movie posters from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s,” he says. “They were ahead of their time in photo montage work, they really were. America just wasn’t as interested in movie posters then, and you can see it. All the interest was in television by then. Compare it [the Seven Samurai poster] to Cat Ballouthat poster is totally lackluster.”

 

I’m pleasantly surprised that women appear on the Seven Samurai poster. I was under the impression it was a manly-man type of movie. “It had romantic elements, but it was a male-dominated film about war,” he says, adding that featuring women on posters was not unusual in Japan in 1954: “On Japanese posters from the ’50s and ’60s, 85 percent of the time, there’s a female lead on it.”

 

What condition is it in? Heritage Auctions calls it Very Fine – (Minus), which Smith deems “A pretty good grade. It was folded. Most Japanese posters were. It has little nicks and dings in it. But it doesn’t need to be archivally restored. You could frame it like it is.” He also explains that in Japan, theatre owners sometimes stuck a snipe–a piece of paper that listed specific screening dates–to the bottom of a poster. Posters can suffer damage if someone tries to remove the snipe, but it doesn’t look like a snipe was applied to this Seven Samurai example.

 

We’re talking on March 20, 2018, and this poster already has a bid of $10,000 on it. The auction is almost three weeks away. How do you think the poster will do? “I hope it will be north of $25,000 or $30,000, but we just don’t know,” he says. “I think the estimate was $20,000 to $50,000. I’ll be disappointed if it sold for under $20,000.”

 

Do you know what the auction record is for a Japanese movie poster for a Japanese film? “I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say specifically, but in 2005 at Heritage Auctions, I sold a 1954 Godzilla poster for $21,850,” he says.

 

What will make this Seven Samurai poster stick in your memory? “I’m excited about it because it’s never been seen before,” he says. “Personally, I always love to get new items into auction.”

 

How to bid: The 1954 Japanese movie poster for The Seven Samurai is lot #86137 in the Movie Posters Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions on April 7 and 8, 2018.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Thank You For Being a Friend! Rue McClanahan’s Personalized Golden Girls Letterman Jacket Could Command $4,500 at Potter & Potter

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What you see: A circa 1980s wool, leather, and nylon Golden Girls letterman jacket, size L, personalized for Rue McClanahan. It’s one of four; the other three went to her co-stars on the beloved sitcom. It comes with a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) from McClanahan’s estate. Potter & Potter estimates it at $2,500 to $4,500.

 

Do we know why this Golden Girls letterman jacket was commissioned? “We don’t,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter. “But they were generally made as 100th episode gifts, or after a season ended, or to mark an anniversary. We don’t know when she would have gotten this.”

 

Are there any pictures of McClanahan wearing this jacket, or any pictures of all four Golden Girls leads wearing their jackets? “We weren’t able to find any,” he says. “There are other clothing lots in the auction where we have photos of McClanahan wearing the clothes, but not for this one.”

 

Have any of the other three Golden Girls letterman jackets appeared at auction? We don’t know, but the consigner bought several McClanahan pieces directly from the estate of the actress, who died in 2010 at the age of 76. The jacket is the marquee item among 27 McClanahan lots in the Potter & Potter auction.

 

McClanahan’s Golden Girls jacket is described as being in “fine” condition. What does that mean? “Almost unworn. It looks almost new,” he says.

 

How did you arrive at the estimate of $2,500 to $4,500? “It’s a combination of market expertise and researching similar celebrity costumes and clothes, and looking at demand for the person,” he says.”The consigner thinks it’s worth a lot more. We’ll see on auction day.”

 

Have you tried it on? He laughs heartily and says, “No!”

 

Why will this jacket stick in your memory? “We’ve had movie star clothes and costumes, but not a letterman jacket,” he says. “It’s a high-quality thing. They didn’t order it from a cheap catalog. They obviously went to the trouble to make it very attractive.”

 

How to bid: Rue McClanahan’s Golden Girls letterman jacket is lot 616 in Potter & Potter‘s Entertainment Memorabilia auction, scheduled for April 7, 2018.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

 

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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 consigner 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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