RECORD: A Unique Paul Evans Piece Sparked Cabinet Fever at Rago in January 2017

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What you see: A unique vertical cabinet made by Paul Evans, featuring steel, 23 karat gold leaf, brass, and enameled finish. It stands just over seven feet tall, about four feet wide, and about 18 inches deep. It sold for $382,000 against a $140,000 to $160,000 estimate at Rago Auctions in January 2017, an auction record for Evans.

Who is Paul Evans? He was an American studio furniture maker based in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He was best known for furniture with distinctive, elaborate, sculpted metal fronts. He died in 1987, at 55.

This cabinet is a custom commission. How often did Evans accept commissions? “I haven’t heard of a lot of them,” says David Rago of Rago Auctions. “Custom commissions were often made to scale for certain interiors with only so much wall space or ceiling height. This is one of the few where [the commissioner] said, ‘I don’t like the other stuff you do, I want something like this.’ Paul Evans probably didn’t like to be told what to do. That’s probably why you don’t see many.”

The cabinet came directly from the person who commissioned it to your auction house. How rare is that? “Not as rare as you might think,” he says. “One of the reasons we get the prices we get [for Evans], is because we get them from the owners.”

Are the opportunities to receive Paul Evans consignments direct from original buyers drying up? “Not for us. Not yet,” Rago says. “He made furniture into the 1980s.”

Why did this Paul Evans cabinet do so well? “One, it was a one-of-a-kind bench-made piece. Two, it was consigned by the original owner, who worked with Paul Evans to get it made. Three, it’s a vertical cabinet, and most of these are horizontal,” he says. “Four, this is big, a big two-door vertical cabinet, so it has scale. Six, the New York Times highlighted this piece with a story titled Is This Cabinet Worth $500,000? That was a bit of a problem for me–I didn’t want people to think they had to spend $500,000 or they shouldn’t bother to bid. And the market was in a good place. People spend a lot of money on great things. There’s a lot of wealth in America.”

Were you surprised when it broke the auction record? “I thought it had potential, but I didn’t want to jinx it. I didn’t want to go there,” Rago says. “I was surprised it broke the record by that much. To break it by almost $100,000 is really unusual.”

Prior to the January 2017 Rago sale, the Paul Evans record seemed to change every six or eight months or 12 months, by $5,000 here and $10,000 there. Why do you think his auction record has been so volatile? “The more accepted Paul Evans becomes as an important, high-end designer, the more tastes change to accept other designs of his,” he says, adding that the cabinet is “A hybridized piece. It’s a little bit of a sculpture front, and a little bit of a wavy front. He put in a little of this and a little of that and he came up with a bench-made masterpiece.”

What does it feel like to have founded the auction house that set the record for Paul Evans furniture? “There’s probably one person on the planet who’s seen more Paul Evans than I have, and that’s Dorsey Reading, and he made the stuff. I grew up here. Some people say I’m geographically blessed as far as New Hope Modernism is concerned,” Rago says. “I have a lot of gratitude. It’s an honor for me to do this for a living. I started as a flea market three miles from here in 1977. To survive so long–this cabinet wasn’t made when I was at the flea market. It was made two miles from here. To do this, and handle stuff like this–I feel a bit of Jersey pride in that.”

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

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RECORD: The Pink Star Diamond Shines at Sotheby’s, Winning $71.2 Million

The Pink Star (mounted)(1)

What you see: The Pink Star, a 59.60-carat oval mixed-cut fancy vivid pink internally flawless diamond. It sold for HK $553 million, or $71.2 million, at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April 2017–a world auction record for any diamond or jewel. The winning bidder revealed himself as jeweler Chow Tai Fook. In keeping with traditions that allow owners of great diamonds to name the stone, the Pink Star is now known as the CTF Pink Star.

This diamond is described as being “fancy vivid pink.” What does that mean? “Colored diamonds are graded on what’s called a ‘fancy’ color scale,” says Quig Bruning, New York jewelry specialist for Sotheby’s. “Any colored diamond is rare. ‘Fancy’ is the first determinant. [It denotes] not having a lot of color to having a predominance of that color. Once it’s more saturated, it’s ‘fancy intense.’ The highest amount of saturation is ‘fancy vivid.’ That’s how the color scale scales up. ‘Fancy vivid’ means it’s as pink as it could possibly be on the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) scale. It’s the best pink diamond that exists.”

It’s also described as being “internally flawless.” What does that mean? “There are absolutely no inclusions in the diamond. There are no imperfections or fractures inside the stone whatsoever,” he says.

The Pink Star is cut into an oval shape. What does that say about the diamond? “That shape, for whatever reason, is very much desired on the international market,” Bruning says. “Other colored diamonds tend to be modified brilliant cuts, which are square or rectangular. Oval, you tend not to see very often. It doesn’t do the color many favors. When [the jewelers who cut it] were plotting out how the polished stone would look, they must have been thrilled to find they could develop an oval cut.”

Sotheby’s offered the Pink Star in Geneva in November 2013. What happened, and why did you wait four years to offer it again? “It did sell in 2013 [for $83.1 million], and the buyer defaulted on the diamond. At the time, it had a guarantee on it, so it became Sotheby’s inventory,” he says. “Whenever you have a piece like this, you want to wait a little bit before putting it back on the market.”

Have you held the Pink Star? “I handled it in 2013. It’s one of those experiences that make you smile about where you work,” he says. “It has a softness and a beauty to it. It’s odd to say that a $71 million object is charming, but it’s the kind of stone that you hold in your hands and you forget what it’s worth and you lose yourself looking at the diamond.”

How heavy is it? “It certainly has a weight to it, but not so much that it drags your hand down. It suits,” he says.

The photos make the stone look like it’s bubblegum pink. Does the camera capture it accurately? “It does depict the true color. ‘Bubblegum’ is the word I’d use to describe it,” he says, adding, “Not that many vivid pink diamonds come up for auction. A year ago at Geneva, we had a 15-carat vivid pink that just screamed pink. It had extraordinary saturation. Before that, we had the Graff Pink, which had more of a softness. Of those three [pinks], this is the Goldilocks one, right in the middle.”

For about a decade or so, the world auction record for a diamond has passed from one colored diamond to another. Why? “Colored diamonds are very, very rare. It may not seem that way because you see them at auction frequently, but they represent a fraction of the total graded by the GIA,” Bruning says. “When you find a really spectacular colored diamond, you find a lot of people chasing after them.”

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

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Surprise! A Chinese Cloisonné Vase Estimated at $400 to $600 Fetches More Than $812,000 at Quinn’s

 

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What you see: A 10-inch-tall Chinese cloisonné bottle vase, initially believed to date to the 18th or 19th century, and estimated at $400 to $600. In April 2017 it sold for $812,500 at Quinn’s Auctions, via the iGavel online platform.

How did you arrive at the $400 to $600 estimate? “The first thing we did was look at the condition. It was heavily restored,” says Matthew Quinn, executive vice president of Quinn’s Auction Galleries. “We try always to have super-conservative estimates. We didn’t know the full extent until we watched it play out. We thought the vase might be 18th century. We didn’t know it was 14th century.”

Why did you describe the vase as dating to the 18th or 19th century? “It looked like it had sufficient age to fit that category. We were still wrong. That’s the beauty of the marketplace,” he says, laughing.

What marks it as being from the 14th century? “The form more than anything. The bottle form, and the colors of the enamels. We were told it’s from the late 14th or early 15th century. The bottle form was only done then, and it wasn’t copied until late in the 20th century. And the yellow and red–those particular colors were only used in that time frame,” he says.

Were you the auctioneer during the sale? “We sold it through iGavel, an online-only site,” he says. “Bidding comes in on iGavel every five minutes toward the end. It mimics what goes on in a sale room. With the five minute extensions, it took a long time to sell the vase–an hour, an hour and a half at least. It was fascinating to watch it go.”

Where were you as you watched the sale? “I was on the road. I expected it to do OK. A minute to close, it was at $12,000, then $15,000. I thought, ‘Eh, it’s doing OK.’ It got close to close. Then it was $30,000, and it went pretty handily up to $50,000. I called Lark [Mason, founder of iGavel] at that point. It kept going and going and going. It was wild. Bidders were taking two to three minutes to place each bid. They were taking their time, not like the high pace of an auction room, where the bids come in two or three seconds. I’m not sure if it was part of their strategy or not.”

Did the vase set an auction record? “We haven’t been able to find much [corroborating information],” Quinn says. “Lark thought it might have been in record territory for a bottle vase, but there are so few of them [reflected in auction archives] we weren’t able to find much. Rarity is not always a good thing. Just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it’s valuable, but in this case, it was.”

What else makes this vase interesting? “Everybody wants to know how we find these treasures. You find them in the places you least expect. This vase was stuck up in a barn, in the back of the butler’s pantry,” he says, explaining he was called in to sort through the contents of a family farm to prepare it for sale.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries.

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SOLD! The Qianlong Chinese Vase Decorated in Europe Commanded More Than $224,000 at Christie’s

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Update: The vase sold for £173,000, or about $224,300.

What you see: A Regency ormolu-mounted Chinese flambe-glazed vase and cover. The porcelain vase has a Qianlong incised seal mark of the period (1736-1795). The ormolu mounts are attributed to Vulliamy & Son, circa 1806. Christie’s estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000, or $153,000 to about $229,000.

Is flambe glaze a Qianlong-era Chinese invention? Was it difficult to make a flambe-glazed vase? Yes and yes. “It was a development of the late 18th century and it was desirable almost from the moment it was developed. It must have been very experimental at the time. This is probably one of the rarer types of glazes,” says Marcus Rädecke, director and head of the department of European furniture and works of art at Christie’s, explaining that the viscous glaze slowly ran down the curving body of the vase during the firing process, and the heat of the kiln caused a chemical change that created the multi-color effect.

The lot notes say the vase has a “Qianlong incised seal mark and of the period (1736-1795).” Could you explain that aspect in more detail? “The six-character reign mark identifies it as an Imperial piece,” he says. “In three rows, from right to left it gives the dynasty, the emperor, and the reign. It lets us date it precisely, and it gives the vase extra value.”

How many flambe-glazed vases managed to leave China in the 18th century? “Few made it over to Europe at that time,” Rädecke says. “They must already have been incredibly valued then. When they [the European artisans, known as bronziers, who added the ormolu] mounted it, they took great care not to damage the porcelain or pierce it. You cannot lift the vase by the handles. They’re purely decorative. They’re not attached to the vase.”

The mounts are attributed to Vulliamy & Son, an elite British clockmaker that would have had an ormolu workshop. Why would this have been a challenging commission for them? “It must have been quite complicated to construct this without drilling holes in the porcelain to hold the bottom ends of the handles,” he says. “If you carefully pull and turn the lid, it comes off with no marks on the porcelain. The stopper [not visible in the picture] comes out completely and you can look into the mount. The handles are attached to the neck and sit loosely on it. The mounts are so precisely made. The neck fits without any gaps anywhere. It reflects the quality and precision you’d only find with a clockmaker.”

This vase was made in China and has European decorations that were added later, perhaps decades later. Does it appeal equally to Asian and European bidders? Oh gosh yes. “We sold it five years ago when it came from Harewood [House] and there was great interest at that time,” Rädecke says. “The winner and the underbidder were Chinese clients, but we had bids from English and American clients. It appealed to an incredibly wide audience.”

What else makes this vase special? “To me, as a specialist, there are items I like because they’re beautiful and items I like because they’re incredibly well-made. Sometimes it all works together. I’d love to take this vase home,” he says. “The porcelain is fantastic and enriched in Europe, but not too much. Both cultures do their bit. The harmonies are perfect, I feel.”

How to bid: The vase is lot 8 in The Exceptional Sale, scheduled at Christie’s London for July 6, 2017.

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

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RECORD: The Most Expensive Magic Poster at Auction Stars–of Course–Houdini

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What you see: A 1912 poster touting Harry Houdini performing his famous water torture cell escape. It was printed in London one year after Houdini invented the trick, and it has a B+ condition rating. Potter & Potter sold it in February 2017 for $114,000–an auction record for any magic poster.

How rare is this Houdini poster? “There are three we know of,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter, noting he has examined two of them.

How rare are Houdini posters, generally? “Rare is relative. Houdini had a lot of posters,” he says. “Some exist in only one copy. Some in 20 to 30.”

Is this the first time that Houdini’s water torture cell escape was depicted on a poster? “It’s possible,” Fajuri says, explaining that there is another 1912 poster that shows a closeup of Houdini’s face, upside down and under water, and it’s not clear which poster appeared first.

What was the bidding like? “We started at $25,000. There was active bidding in the room and on the phone from at least five phone bidders, including a few who were new to us,” he says. “There was active participation to $80,000 [around the sum of the previous magic poster record]. It was going to beat the record without a doubt, but I didn’t think it would go as high as it did. A few guys really wanted it. It sold to a phone bidder.”

Why did the poster do so well? Is it because it’s just one of three that exist? “That’s part of it, but it’s also from the Norm Nielsen collection, a very well-established if not legendary collection of posters. Everybody knows him and everybody knows his collection,” he says, adding that Potter & Potter will soon publish The Golden Age of Magic Posters, a limited-edition book based on the auction catalogue. “It’s Houdini. It’s one of his most famous, if not his most famous trick. It’s got all the elements that lead to success.”

How long do you think this auction record will stand? “This is the most expensive magic item sold with the exception of the water torture cell itself,” Fajuri says. “I would think it would stand for a while, but anything could happen. Hopefully, we’ll be the ones to break it.”

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

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HUZZAH! The Portrait of Elisabet the Court Jester Sold for $2.8 MILLION at Sotheby’s

LOT 5 - Jan Sanders van Hemessen (£400,000 - 600,000)

Update: The portrait of Elisabet the court jester sold for £2.1 million, or $2.8 million–well above its six-digit presale estimate.

What you see: A 16th century oil on oak panel portrait of Elisabet, court fool of Anne of Hungary, painted by Jan Sanders van Hemessen. Sotheby’s estimates it at £400,000 to £600,000 ($511,947 to $767,921).

Who was Jan Sanders van Hemessen? He was a Netherlandish painter who was born in Belgium and who traveled to Italy to study before his career fully took off. “He painted important people throughout his life,” says Andrew Fletcher, senior director and head of auction sales of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s. “He was one of the more sought-after painters of his time.”

This painting has been attributed to different artists over the centuries. How unusual is that? Not at all. “Early Netherlandish paintings are notoriously difficult to attribute,” he says. “The fact that the attribution swung [over time] is very typical of works of this type and this date.”

How odd is it to find a formal portrait of a court fool from the 16th century? “An actual commissioned portrait of a court fool or jester, where the court fool or jester sits for a portrait as a lady or a gentleman might, is exceptionally rare,” Fletcher says. “There’s a tiny number of paintings of court fools in fool guise.”

What’s with the rings around her neck? Fletcher and his colleagues consulted multiple art historians on several aspects of the painting. A second portrait of Elisabet, located in Vienna, depicts her with rings on her neck. That portrait further cements her importance, but it does not explain why she wore the rings in that manner. The current best guess is the rings might have something to do with magic tricks. “One of the traits of a court fool is to be a conjuror,” he says. “That’s the only trait we could think of that the rings would be relevant to. Someone could come up with another idea tomorrow. We can’t be more specific than that.”

Elisabet is shown holding a letter. Apparently, that might mean she was literate. Why would a 16th century female court jester need to know how to read? “Given that a large part of a jester’s role [could be] making wordplay with puns, they must have been literate people. The letter suggests she has a level of education you might not normally expect. Chances are she probably did, and she may have had responsibility toward the children,” Fletcher says, explaining that she might have served in a governess-like role to the children of Anne of Hungary, who was the wife of Ferdinand I, an Austrian archduke who became Holy Roman Emperor.

Someone–probably Anne of Hungary–paid to have this portrait done, and Elisabet sat for portraits more than once. What does that say about her, and about what she meant to those who knew her? “It’s a portrait of exceptionally high quality, but it’s of a court jester. Those two facts, combined, suggest she must have been held in incredibly high regard,” he says. “You get the impression that she played an important role in the court, and the court had an emotional attachment to her. You don’t go to the expense of commissioning a portrait of a court fool unless she means more to you than a court fool might mean.”

How to bid: The portrait of Elisabet is lot 5 in the Old Masters evening sale at Sotheby’s London on July 5.

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

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SOLD! An Original Song of the South Animation Cel with Walt Disney’s Signature Gets Almost $9,000 at Heritage Auctions

Song of the South Br'er Rabbit Production Cel with Walt Disney Signature...

Update: The production cel from Song of the South, signed by Walt Disney, sold for $8,962.50.

What you see: An original production cel from Song of the South, a Disney film released in 1946. It pictures Br’er Rabbit, the lead character of the stories depicted in the film. Walt Disney signed it on its cream-colored mat. Jim Lentz, director of animation art for Heritage Auctions, says it could sell for as much as $5,000.

Are original production cels from Song of the South scarcer than original cels from other Disney movies? “There are fewer in that Song of the South wasn’t all animated. Some was live action,” Lentz says.

Are cels from Song of the South more sought-after than other Disney cels? “They’re considered highly desirable because they have an aura of the unknown,” he says. “Disney has not released the film in any format in the United States because of political incorrectness.” Set in the Reconstruction-era South, the film follows young Johnny’s visit to his grandfather’s plantation in Georgia, where he meets Uncle Remus, a plantation worker who tells the boy folk tales.

How rare is it to find an original Song of the South cel with a Walt Disney signature? “The thing about Walt Disney was he was a very, very busy man. A lot of Disney signatures were done by studio artists. Even secretaries did them. So when you get one done by Walt, that is rare,” Lentz says, noting that he has handled fewer than three Disney-signed original production cels from Song of the South.

How do we know that the Walt Disney signature is genuine? Lentz consulted another expert for verification. “I sent it to someone in the business who specializes,” he says.

According to the lot notes, this piece has an ‘original Courvoisier cel setup’ and is in its ‘original Courvoisier mat.’ What does that mean, and why is that good? In the 1930s and 1940s, Disney worked with Gustav Courvoisier to sell animation cels through the latter’s San Francisco gallery. “The studio thought it was a great way to promote the films,” Lentz says. Disney studio artists painted backgrounds for cels offered through Courvoisier. These cels usually have a cream-colored mat and notations in tiny script that identify which films they brought to life. Courvoisier died around the time Song of the South came out.

How does this cel stack up to other Song of the South cels you’ve handled? “It’s one of the few I’ve seen with a Walt Disney signature and a happy Br’er Rabbit, who is the star of the show,” he says. “It’s a great, great piece. This is as good as it gets.”

How to bid: The Disney-signed Song of the South cel is lot #95187 in the Animation Art sale Heritage Auctions will hold in Dallas on July 1-2.

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

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