UPDATE: Erté Vibrant Harper’s Bazaar Cover by Could Fetch More Than $12,000 at Swann Galleries

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Update: The Erté gouache on board sold for $8,125 on March 21, 2017.

What you see: An original gouache on board, Sports d’Hiver, created by Erté for the February 1933 cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

Who was Erté? He was a Russian-born designer and artist who tried his hand at fashion, stage costumes, jewelry, set design, and commercial art, and succeeded at all. His luxurious images helped define the Art Deco style. Born Roman Petrovich Tyrtov in Russia, he went by the name “Erté” to spare the feelings of his family, who disapproved of his career.”Erté” is how his initials, RT, sound when pronounced in French. He had a long professional relationship with Harper’s Bazaar, delivering more than 200 pieces of cover art between 1915 and 1937.

How rare is original Erté magazine cover art? “They don’t come up with great frequency,” says Swann Galleries specialist Christine von der Linn. “We were lucky to get the cover, because we sold one in September,” she says, referring to a July 1922 Harper’s Bazaar cover by Erté, La Cage Improvisée, which Swann Galleries sold last September for $45,000 against an estimate of $6,000 to $9,000.

Why is it estimated at $8,000 to $12,000? “What I love about it is it reflects the quintessential Erté characteristics,” von der Linn says. “There’s a beautiful woman in a vibrant outfit. There’s a sense of movement. The distant mountains in the background give you a sense of where she is. And there’s this perfect detail of hundreds of painstakingly detailed dots, representing snow, kicking up behind her. That makes the piece. That was something he was known for.”

Wait, do you mean that Erté personally painted all those little white dots by hand? Yes. “When he worked, he was in a different world,” says von der Linn, recalling a passage in which Erté discussed his routine of putting classical music on in the background and disappearing into a work-trance. “His dedication to the piece blossomed in creating that detail,” she says.

How to bid: The original Erté art for the February 1933 Harper’s Bazaar cover is lot 85  in Swann Galleries’s March 21 Illustration Art sale.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. The Erté image is courtesy of Swann Galleries.

UPDATE: Skinner Double Folk Portrait of Young Sisters Sells for Almost $10,000


Update: This winsome folk double portrait sold at Skinner for $9,840 on March 4, 2017, well above its $4,000 to $6,000 estimate.

What you see: A double portrait of sisters Mary Elizabeth and Caroline Brackett of Newton, Mass., painted between the 1830s and the 1840s.

Who painted it? We don’t know. It’s unsigned. Nor do we know which girl is Mary Elizabeth and which girl is Caroline, or what happened to the girls later in life, or whether the flowers pictured in the sketch book they hold have any special symbolism. We do know that the artist lived with the Brackett family for a year at their Waverly Avenue home in Newton and paid the rent with his brush. Before moving on, he depicted all nine Brackett children and rendered a full-length portrait of their parents, Charles and Lucy.

What sets this folk portrait apart from other folk portraits? “I’ve seen a lot of folk portraits over the last 13 years. The good ones pop right out, for whatever reason–a modern look, an interesting composition, or interesting elements incorporated in the overall painting,” says Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner. “I liked it since the first time I saw a picture of it. It sticks out because it’s an interestingly composed double portrait, and the girls wear bright colors under a bright sky.” The portrait is also notable for showing the two outdoors and holding a sketch book rather than a pet or a toy. Girls were encouraged to draw, but drawing was seen as an indoor activity.

Why is the folk portrait estimated at $4,000 to $6,000? It is fresh to market, having remained in the sitters’ family until they consigned it to Skinner. Its subject matter–a pair of pretty little girls, dressed in identical pink gowns–increases its value. “There were many more old men who could afford to have their portraits painted than families who could afford to have all their children painted,” says Barber. “It could be just a rarity issue.”

How to bid: The double portrait of the Brackett sisters is lot 332 in Skinner’s March 4, 2017 auction of American furniture and decorative arts.

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Now at Swann Galleries: Sarah Bernhardt Loved This Mucha Poster So Much, She Used It for Her American Tour

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Update: The Alphonse Mucha-designed poster of Sarah Bernhardt sold for $8,750.

What you see: A poster that advertises Sarah Bernhardt’s 1896 American Tour. Alphonse Mucha designed it.

Who is Sarah Bernhardt? The French actress was the world’s first superstar. Dubbed “The Divine Sarah” by her fans, she dominated the stage and later acted on film, posthumously earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Who is Alphonse Mucha? He was a Czech-born artist whose distinctive, alluring style shaped the visuals of the Art Nouveau movement.

What makes this poster special? “This was the image that was used for the very first Bernhardt poster. It catapulted Mucha to international recognition and stardom,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries’ vintage poster department. The poster’s origin story sounds like a fairy tale. In December 1894, Bernhardt contacted the Paris print shop where he worked to commission an image to advertise her new play, Gismonda. The city was shutting down for Christmas, so the task fell to Mucha. “He was the only employee there, the poor lonely expat. He was the only one who could possibly help, and he does so.” He produced a long, slim design that was bracingly fresh and new. Bernhardt, overjoyed, demanded to see Mucha, reportedly telling him, “You have made me immortal.”

Why is it estimated at $7,000 to $10,000? The poster boasts the image that made Mucha famous, and it debuts motifs that would define Mucha’s style–the halo around Bernhardt’s head, and the mosaic-inspired details. It’s definitely valuable, but it lags behind the $12,000 to $18,000 sum typically asked for an original 1894 Gismonda poster. It was printed in 1896, in America; it’s seven inches shorter, probably due to removing the word ‘Gismonda’ from the top of the design; and the text at the bottom is different. “The Gismonda is more collectible, mostly because it’s his first big poster,” says Lowry.

How to bid: The Bernhardt 1896 tour poster is lot 286 in Swann Galleries’ Vintage Posters sale on March 16, 2017.

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Swann Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter, and Lowry is on Instagram and Twitter as well.

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








UPDATE: Sotheby’s Dishes Up an Ultra-Rare Piece of Ming Dynasty Porcelain


Update: The Ming dynasty reserve decorated peony dish sold for $2.1 million.

What you see: An exceptionally rare and large fine blue-and-white reserve decorated peony dish, estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million.

When was the Xuande Period? It lasted from 1426 to 1435. Though it was brief, it was a productive and important period for Ming dynasty porcelain. “Everything came together,” says Angela McAteer, vice president and head of Sotheby’s Chinese works of art department. “There was widespread use of the imperial reign mark, the dragon became symbolic of the court, and the court really took control of the kiln production,” she says, explaining that it focused the Chinese porcelain works on its own needs rather than creating its greatest prizes as diplomatic gifts.

How was this Peony dish made? With skill and difficulty. “In this period, even firing something of this elegance, form, and size is challenging,” says McAteer, who notes how “well-potted” it is. “Getting a uniformity to the blue color is a challenge. Getting a realistic, crisp outline on the floral decorations is a challenge. There were various points where they could have been tripped up in making something like this.”

What makes the dish exceptionally rare? Only three others like it are known. As visually striking as its reserve decoration is–rendering in blue what would normally be in white, and vice-versa–it was technically difficult and far more expensive to make. “Cost is primarily the thing. It involved more layers of production, and more steps,” McAteer says, stating that the cobalt needed for the blue color probably was imported. “It’s a large dish, and the cobalt covers the inside and the outside. It would have required a huge amount of raw material.”

Was the dish ever used? “Absolutely, it would have been used to furnish the court, presumably for banqueting,” says McAteer, while adding that we cannot be sure of exactly how the Chinese court used it. Its most recent European owner refrained from putting it to work. “It has a wonderful, brilliant glaze that is remarkably unscuffed,” she says. “It would have had a wall mount. That’s why it’s so wonderfully well-preserved. It wasn’t used to hold keys.”

How to bid: The peony dish is lot 6 in the Ming: The Intervention of Imperial Taste auction at Sotheby’s New York on March 14, 2017.

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



UPDATE: No, It’s Not a Steampunk Insect. It’s the Ancestor of the Zippo Lighter, and It’s at Bonhams


Update: The German “strike-a-light” sold for £1,125 ($1,390).

What you see: A brass and steel tinder pistol, also known as a table “strike-a-light”, probably made in Germany around 1650. Bonhams has estimated it at £1,000 to £1,500, or $1,200 to $1,800. “It’s like a small gun, really,” says Bonhams specialist David Houlston. “You pull the trigger, like you do on a gun, and it ignites for you.”

So it’s not a steampunk insect? No. It’s the great-great-great grandparent of the Zippo lighter. “It’s an ancestor of it,” Houlston says. “It works the same way.”

How does it work? First, load a small, sharp piece of flint in the tiny vice that sticks up from the device, and tighten the jaws to fix the flint firmly in place. Next, take the curved piece of metal that sticks up from the device and pull it forward, toward the end that looks like it has a beak and front legs. Load the pan with gunpowder. Now you’re ready to pull the trigger–the thing that looks like a back foot. The flint will strike the metal and the resulting sparks will fall into the pan, lighting the gunpowder. Voila! You have a light. Now you’re ready to use matches or sticks (stored in the body of the device; the door of the compartment is not visible in the photo) to transfer the flame to a candle or a pipe.

What made this a nifty piece of technology in mid-17th century Europe? Before the arrival of the strike-a-light, people were obliged to bang a flint against metal repeatedly to create sparks for a fire. The strike-a-light took the tedium out of that chore. “It was engineered to make sure [to release] the right amount of force to create a spark each time,” says Houlston.

Does it still work? It’s not clear. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t work,” says Houlston, explaining that he and his colleagues won’t risk testing it on the small but real chance that it might possibly break. “If it doesn’t work now, I think very little would need to be done to make it work. It shouldn’t take much.”

How to bid: The German “strike-a-light” is lot 14 in The Oak Interior, an auction that Bonhams London will hold at its New Bond Street venue on March 15, 2017.

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





LAST CALL: At Bonhams: In 1934, Ludwig Bemelmans Dreamed of Vienna, and Maybe Madeline


What you see: A detail from a series of nine mural panels that Ludwig Bemelmans drew on the downstairs walls of Hapsburg House, a private lunch club in Manhattan, in 1934.

Who is Ludwig Bemelmans? He was an Austrian-Hungarian immigrant who toiled in Manhattan’s hotel-restaurant world until he discovered a knack for writing and illustrating children’s books. He debuted Madeline, his greatest creation, in 1939.

Why did Bemelmans draw these mural panels? Hapsburg House’s owners tapped Bemelmans to design menu covers and decorate the walls with murals. The upstairs murals were lost, much to the artist’s dismay, when a new owner bought the property in the 1950s and painted over them. The downstairs murals, which featured whimsical black-and-white gouache scenes of the Vienna of Bemelmans’s boyhood, were salvaged when the venue closed in the 1970s. “I kind of see it as pieces of the man, pieces of the artist,” says Darren Sutherland, specialist for books, maps, manuscripts, and historical photographs at Bonhams.

Wait, is that Madeline? Maybe. “There’s echoes of Madeline everywhere,” says Sutherland, noting that scenes of schoolgirls shepherded by nuns appear on three of the nine panels. This mural might show Bemelmans playing with ideas that would animate the stories, five years before the first appeared. One vignette shows gape-mouthed girls clinging to a nun as a caged lion roars, but there’s no Madeline figure in the group to say ‘poo poo’ to it. “It’s the first public expression that I know of,” says Sutherland.

Why are the panels estimated at $40,000 to $60,000? Bemelmans went on to create other murals. Panels rescued from the children’s room on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, Christina, fetched more than $550,000 at Sotheby’s in 1999, but they may have been in better shape. Some of the color variations in the 1934 group could be patination, but others are due to overpainting, which suggests that Bemelmans may have tweaked the work over time.

How to bid: The Bemelmans panels are lot 119 in Bonhams’s Fine Books and Manuscripts auction, scheduled for March 9, 2017 in New York. You can see all nine by clicking the lot number.

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