RECORD: Robby the Robot, Star of Forbidden Planet, Fetches $5.3 Million at Bonhams

Robby the Robot

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

What you see: The original Robby the Robot suit, created for the 1956 MGM sci-fi film Forbidden Planet. It was offered along with a jeep used in the film. It sold in November 2017 for $5.3 million–a world auction record for a screen-used prop.

I understand that the MGM designers built only one Robby the Robot suit. Is that unusual? “It’s unusual, but it cost so much money they couldn’t afford a backup,” says Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of books and manuscripts and entertainment memorabilia for Bonhams. “He’s well-built, and he wasn’t just in Forbidden Planet. MGM made one more movie with him, and he had other appearances, too.”

How much of a special effects advance was Robby the Robot? “He’s sort of amazing. He’s a technological wonder. He works whether someone’s inside him or not,” she says. “Artistically, he really encapsulates what we thought the future would look like, and what we thought robots would do for us. In the movie, anything that needs to be done on the planet can be done by Robby.”

It seems like Robby the Robot survived as a remarkably complete prop. Is that unusual? “That’s pretty miraculous, too,” she says. “It was built by MGM, and it was on the lot until the big liquidation prop and costume sale in the 1970s. It was not sold in that sale, but it sold privately in 1970. That guy [the first private owner] bought everything that belonged to Robby. Bill [William Malone, the consignor] wanted all of that, too. Bill was pretty young, in his early 20s, when he bought it.”

What restorations did William Malone perform on Robby the Robot? “The owner between the studio and Bill had not been as careful a steward,” she says. “Robby’s hands were foam rubber, and they had disintegrated. Bill had to recast the hands. The dome has been replaced, but the original plexiglass does still exist. It yellowed over time. Bill had the paint touched up, and bulbs needed to be replaced. The restoration took a long time. Bill was a young man, and he didn’t have a lot of resources. He sought guys at MGM who worked on Robby before he did one lick of restoration to be sure it was consistent with the original.”

What was the estimate on Robby the Robot? How did you place a value on the lot? “It had a low to mid-seven figure estimate, and we blew past it,” she says. “In the last five years, we’ve sold a bunch of high-profile pieces of movie memorabilia for seven figures–The Maltese Falcon, the Cowardly Lion costume, the piano from Casablanca, and a Dorothy dress worn by Judy Garland. Top, top, top hero props from top, top, top movies can command that kind of price. Robby is up there with those things.”

What puts Robby the Robot up there with those film artifacts? “First of all, the original movie itself has to be universally admired and celebrated. It has to be a film that is still current in the marketplace of ideas. Wizard of Oz is in there, Casablanca is in there, Forbidden Planet is in there,” she says. ‘Two, the thing needs to be not just a hero prop, but a central plot device. In Wizard of Oz, it’s the ruby slippers. The Casablanca piano is not just recognizable, it’s where Rick hides the transit papers. Robby is a central character and a plot device. He’s on the poster–not the spaceship or any of the actors–it’s Robby.”

Is Robby the Robot a costume or a prop? “He is so much more than a costume. He is so much more than a prop,” she says.

I notice that you haven’t called Robby the Robot an ‘it.’ You’ve only said ‘he’. “To me, he’s a he,” she says. “They do ask him in the movie if he’s a he or a she, and he says, ‘Neither of those terms apply.'”

A screen-used jeep comes with Robby the Robot. Is it functional? “It could be made drivable,” she says. “It originally had a golf cart motor that was obviously cannibalized for some other project. Robby rides in front. The seats and the plexiglass dome are for the humans. I’m not even sure how they steered it.”

What is Robby the Robot like in person? “He’s amazing,” she says. “He’s seven feet tall, and he lights up–he’s got all these little gears and keys that spin and convey motion and intelligence, which is what they wanted in the movie.”

Did you try on Robby the Robot? “I didn’t try it on, but Bill has a friend who is the right height. You’ve got to be slim, short, and strong enough. Robby the Robot weighs north of 200 pounds,” she says, adding, “When the guy gets out, he’s dripping with sweat even if he’s only been in it for ten minutes.”

What was your role in the auction? “I was on the podium. I had the gavel,” she says. “Going into it we had four people registered and interested in it. They were all eager and they bid quickly. It was exciting. Most lots sell in under a minute. This was more like five to ten minutes. We got all the way up to $4.5 million, and the underbidder asked for a minute [to consider] going for another bid. There was a bit of tension. Then they did not [bid], and it hammered at $4.5 million.”

When did you know you had a world auction record? “I don’t think I knew until I got off the podium,” she says. ” I know I sold the Maltese Falcon [hero prop] for $3 million, so it passed the company [house] record. I didn’t know it beat everything else until I looked it up.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “It depends on what shakes out,” she says. “I think there’s one more pair of ruby slippers in private hands. That might challenge it. There probably are other things out there that are still attracting attention.”

Why will Robby the Robot stick in your memory? “Of all the things we’ve sold, he’s pretty special,” she says. “The way people respond to him–it’s amazing. Robby the Robot is just as magical in person as he is on screen.”

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

I also featured another piece from the same November 2017 Bonhams auction on The Hot Bidthe original poster artwork for the Italian release of Sylvia Scarlett, a 1935 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

SOLD! A 19th Century Sedan Chair Commanded More Than $2,300 at Bonhams

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Update: The French 19th century sedan chair sold for £1,750, or about $2,347.

What you see: A French late 19th century polychrome decorated and parcel gilt sedan chair. Bonhams estimates it at £1,500 to £2,000, or $2,000 to $2,700.

What’s a sedan chair, and how was it used? Sedan chairs were popular in the 18th and 19th century. They seated a single rider who was borne along by two “chairmen,” who would carry it with the help of the poles (which are visible in this shot). “People were very fond of using them in the 1700s,” says Tom Moore, head of the furniture and works of art department for Bonhams. “The streets could be very dirty and there were unsafe areas as well. With a horse [riding a horse], you were more open to the elements and you were not necessarily very safe in traffic. These were much more mobile through the streets.”

Who used sedan chairs? “A very, very small percentage of the wealthiest people owned them,” he says. “If they didn’t have their own, they’d hire them, like taxis. A lot of the ones owned by wealthy people have lovely painted scenes on them, and incredible gilding that matched the interior of the home where it would sit. People who didn’t have as much hired plainer sedans, with no decorations at all.”

Were they only used in Europe? Nope. “They were used quite widely in Colonial America as well, most famously by Benjamin Franklin,” he says. “He was a big advocate until his demise in 1790.”

What can we figure out by looking at this sedan chair? “The very wealthy would often have a silk-lined interior [in their sedan chairs]. It’s got a velvet-lined interior that’s a little bit worn, but no more than you’d expect for the period,” he says. “Looking at the decoration, it’s been refreshed or repainted over at a later date, because the condition is so good. It’s colorful as well.”

So this was a mid-range model, owned by someone who was wealthy enough to have a private sedan chair, but not wealthy enough to have a fully blinged-out one? “It’s fair to say,” he says. “There are very small bits of gilded elements. The border decorations have gilt, but it’s very minimal. On some of the best examples in the 18th century, the [painted] flowers and the foliage can be quite ornate. It’s not plain. It’s somewhere in the middle.”

How did the rider get in and out of the sedan chair? “The door is on the front, between where the poles are,” he says.

Was this sedan chair actually used? “I think it was,” he says. “If not, why would it have metal brackets for the poles?”

What was it like to ride in a sedan chair? “From what I’ve read of accounts of people traveling in them, it could be quite bumpy,” Moore says. “People carried them, and even if the rider is quite light, it’s quite a chore. But sedan chairs didn’t have to stop for traffic. It’s an efficient means of travel. That’s why they were popular with people who could afford them.”

How many vintage sedan chairs survive? “In terms of 18th century examples, there aren’t a great deal left. They tend to be in private collections or museums,” he says. “The one in our sale is a 19th century revival. They’re very decorative pieces and can be quite sought-after and very attractive.”

How often do sedan chairs come up at auction? “I’ve been with Bonhams now for over six years in this capacity and in that time, I’ve only seen one other apart from this one,” he says.

Who buys sedan chairs now? “If you buy them, you’re not going to be using them,” he says. “It’s either someone who’s a collector, or they’re probably for a decorative purpose.”

Why will this sedan chair stick in your memory? “The nature of its decoration. It’s a colorful, bright piece of furniture. It’s really interesting, historically, and it’s rare for these to come up,” he says. “Sedan chairs are fascinating things that tell us quite a lot about certain periods in our history.”

How to bid: The vintage sedan chair is lot 612 in the Home and Interiors sale at Bonhams London, Knightsbridge, on December 20, 2017.

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

 

RECORD: The Story Quilt that Oprah Winfrey Commissioned from Faith Ringgold for Dr. Maya Angelou’s Birthday Sold for $461,000 at Swann

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

What you see: Maya’s Quilt of Life, a 1989 narrative quilt by artist Faith Ringgold, who Oprah Winfrey commissioned to make it as a birthday gift for Dr. Maya Angelou. At Swann Auction Galleries in 2015, it sold for $461,000–a record for a narrative quilt by the artist.

Who is Faith Ringgold? Born Faith Willi Jones, she is an African-American artist who has worked in several media but is best known for her paintings and textile works of art. She grew up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance and is an activist who fights sexism and racism. She began creating narrative quilts in 1980, in part because she had trouble interesting publishers in her autobiography. To date, she has created almost 100 narrative quilts. Ringgold is 87.

What makes Maya’s Quilt of Life a strong example of Ringgold’s work? “It has all the elements she incorporates in her story quilts. They’re called story quilts because they tell a story–they have a narrative,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department. “This scene has text taken from Maya Angelou’s writings. It’s an unusual work, but it’s instantly recognizable as Faith Ringgold’s work. It’s a special piece for a special occasion.”

It looks like Ringgold used the Angelou texts like columns that frame the painting. Is that typical of her work? “That’s not the only way she does it. They could be at the top, or the sides. Sometimes they wrap around,” he says. “The important thing is it’s Angelou’s writing. It’s not just the visual creativity of the artist, it’s the voice of the artist and the women involved.”

It strikes me that with Maya’s Quilt of Life, we have an extraordinary black woman, Oprah Winfrey, commissioning a second extraordinary black woman, Faith Ringgold, to commemorate a third extraordinary black woman, Dr. Maya Angelou. Are you aware of anything other artwork that’s quite like this? “I thought that was pretty cool,” he says. “It’s a great testament to the fiercely independent spirit of Maya Angelou, and a testament to what she inspires in people, and in artists like Faith Ringgold and cultural figures like Oprah Winfrey. It was an affinity between all three women, a great coming-together. It was a birthday present [for Angelou], and it was the prize piece in her art collection.”

This was the first narrative quilt by Ringgold to come to auction. Why was it consigned? “Because Dr. Angelou died [in 2014], it was consigned as part of a single-owner sale. It came from Dr. Angelou’s estate,” he says. “This is the way the family wanted to distribute a large part of her estate.”

How did you arrive at the estimate of $150,000 to $250,000? “Ringgold narrative quilts are very precious, and owners don’t give them up easily. They’re certainly prized objects,” he says. “Many artists we handle don’t have auction records. We looked at gallery prices and what would be a fair market value. Of course we had to know how to factor in the specialness of the piece, but enough was out there to be able to make a reasonable estimate. Like a lot of contemporary artists, Ringgold’s market is just developing. We had to start somewhere. We were just fortunate to start with a really fantastic one that sets the bar high.”

Were you in the sale room for the auction? “It was a packed room. It was almost the perfect auction. Only one piece didn’t sell,” he says. “It was a moment to savor. I was in the back of the room. People applauded when things went high. And Faith Ringgold was there! She and I posed in front of the quilt. It was quite an event. Everyone left happy.”

Were you surprised that the narrative quilt sold for $461,000? “Yes, because it was uncharted territory,” Freeman says. “We knew we had something really wonderful. She’s an important American artist. Her work is in a lot of museums already. But you never know on a given day how the market will respond. We knew it would do well. We didn’t know how well.”

Do we know who bought Maya’s Quilt of Life? “It ended up going to the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Arkansas,” he says. “They made it public shortly after the sale. Faith Ringgold gave a talk there subsequently. That’s always a terrific outcome. It was a win-win-win.”

How long do you think the auction record will stand? “It’ll stand for a good while. It was a really great piece, and Faith Ringgold is a great artist,” he says. “If one of her early large canvases–a significant part of her work [came to auction]–that could give this record a run for the money. But you don’t see many at auction. I’m going to enjoy it while it’s a record. It’s a wonderful piece, and the story behind it is great.”

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Swann Auction Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter.

Nigel Freeman is on Twitter. Faith Ringgold has her own website.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, an exhibit that originated at the Tate Modern in London, features the work of 60 black artists, including Ringgold. It will appear at Crystal Bridges from February 3 to April 23, 2018.

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

SOLD! That Scarce 1908 Chung Ling Soo Magic Poster Commanded $9,225 at Potter & Potter

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Update: The 1908 Chung Ling Soo poster sold for $9,225.

What you see: A 1908 poster touting the talent of magician Chung Ling Soo. Potter & Potter estimates it at $5,000 to $6,000.

Who was Chung Ling Soo? Born William Ellsworth Robinson in Westchester County, New York in 1861, he was a behind-the-scenes designer of magic tricks for headliners Harry Keller and Alexander Herrmann before he struck out on his own. Around 1900, while in Europe, he adopted the Chung Ling Soo persona. He went to great lengths to preserve the illusion, limiting his speech on stage to the occasional bit of broken English and relying on an interpreter to talk to journalists. He died in 1918 at the age of 56.

Are vintage posters featuring Chung Ling Soo rare in general? “Yes, I would say they’re uncommon or scarce,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter. “The one we’re talking about is a bit harder to find than the others.”

This is one of eight different Chung Ling Soo posters in the auction. Did they all come from the same consigner? One comes from one consignor, and the rest come from a second.

Other famous magic posters of the era show the magician receiving supernatural help. Here, Chung Ling Soo shows what he purports to be the source of his magical talent–his own hands. No supernatural help required. Is this an unusual theme for a vintage magic poster? “There are plenty of portraits [on magic posters],” he says. “We have sold other posters of magicians showing their hands and doing maneuvers, but they’re not as artful as saying ‘My Ten Assistants.’ It got reworked by Ricky Jay into ‘My 52 Assistants.’ It’s not the only example of a magician showing sleight of hand on a poster or referring to sleight of hand, or how they accomplish their tricks.”

Is Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the first person to move from a backstage magic designer role to an on-stage magician role? “He was the great secret weapon for these guys. He was designing and inventing illusions,” he says. “In any professional situation, someone will say, ‘Oh yeah, my boss doesn’t know what he’s doing. I can do a better job.’ He proved he could do as good a job. It took work, and a different persona, but his success is pretty significant.”

Would you talk about how Robinson/Soo died? “He was performing a bullet catch trick in London, England. It was one of the big theatrical showpieces of his performance,” Fajuri says. “I wrote a long time ago that instead of catching the bullet on a plate, he caught the bullet in his chest. They brought the curtain down, and he died not long after.”

Was he the first magician to die doing the bullet catch trick? No. “It wasn’t a new trick. It had been around for decades [by 1918, when Robinson/Soo died], and it had killed people,” he says. “Keller advised Houdini against it in a very famous letter. Robinson did have experience backstage with the trick, and he was familiar with other ways of performing the feat. There’s controversy surrounding what happened. Not thoroughly checking his props led to his demise. It’s a tragic story. He was at the top of his game.”

How rare is the ‘Chung Ling Soo and His Ten Assistants’ poster? “I haven’t had one before in ten years of auctioning magic memorabilia,” he says, adding that he’s aware of at least six copies. “This one was owned by a magician in England. He died years ago, and his family consigned it. It’s in A- condition. Very little was done to it. You’re not going to get much better than this.”

What else makes this Chung Ling Soo poster special? “This is more scarce. The image is realistic. The turn of phrase is nice, and the colors are not garish,” he says. “It has a lot going for it by way of aesthetics, the story, and the man it depicts. It has a little bit of everything.”

How to bid: The ‘Chung Ling Soo and His Ten Assistants’ poster is lot 10 in Potter & Potter‘s Winter Magic Auction on December 16.

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If you’re intrigued by the story of Chung Ling Soo, you need to read The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, The ‘Marvelous Chinese Conjuror,‘ by Jim Steinmeyer. Really, you ought to read everything Jim Steinmeyer has ever written, but start there, and please buy your copy from an independent bookstore.

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

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.

 

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.

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.