SOLD! Sarah Bernhardt Loved This Mucha Poster So Much, She Used It for Her American Tour. It Commanded $8,750 at Swann

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

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SOLD! Sotheby’s Dishes Up an Ultra-Rare Piece of Ming Dynasty Porcelain for $2.1 Million


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.

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SOLD! No, It’s Not a Steampunk Insect. It’s the Ancestor of the Zippo Lighter, and It Fetched Almost $1,400 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.

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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.

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SOLD! Heritage Sells Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove Typewriters for $37,500


Update: Heritage Auctions sold the pair of typewriters that Larry McMurtry used to write Lonesome Dove for $37,500 on March 8, 2017.

What you see: A pair of pale green Hermes 3000 typewriters, made between 1963-1970, which belonged to Larry McMurtry.

Who is Larry McMurtry? He operates Booked Up, a used bookstore in Archer City, Texas, but he’s probably better known as the author of Lonesome DoveThe Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment. All three books became movies or miniseries; Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer Prize, and films based on McMurtry’s books have won 10 Academy Awards. He and a co-writer won three more Oscars for their adaption of the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.

Why are these typewriters special? McMurtry used them to write Lonesome Dove, his masterpiece about Texas rangers on a cattle drive, which was published in 1985. The author is particular about his tools; even now, at age 80, he has no interest in switching to a computer.

Why are there two of them? McMurtry kept one typewriter in Archer City, Texas, and the other in Washington, D.C., the site of the original Booked Up store (it has since closed). Each weighs 16 pounds. It made more sense for McMurtry to keep a typewriter in Texas and another in D.C. rather than lug one machine between both places.

How do we know that McMurtry definitely wrote Lonesome Dove on them? “Larry McMurtry gave them to me and said, ‘I wrote Lonesome Dove on them,” says James Gannon, director of Rare Books for Heritage Auctions of Dallas, who collected the typewriters from the author on November 1 of last year. Gannon is obtaining a letter of provenance from McMurtry.

Why do the typewriters carry an estimate of $10,000? Typewriters that can be linked to prominent authors are rare; typewriters that were unquestionably and exclusively used to write legendary books are even rarer. The Lettera 32 Olivetti typewriter that author Cormac McCarthy relied on to write The Road, Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and All the Pretty Horses sold at Christie’s in 2009 for $254,500–well above its $20,000 estimate. “It’s like owning one of Dickens’s pens or one of Shakespeare’s quills,” says Gannon. “A typewriter is the focus of a writer’s day-in, day-out existence. That seems to resonate with collectors.”

How to bid: The McMurtry Lonesome Dove typewriters are lot #45314 in Heritage Auction’s Rare Books Signature Auction on March 8, 2017 in New York.

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

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