RECORD: Artist’s Artist Florine Stettheimer Steps From the Shadows at Skinner

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What you see: An undated floral still life by Florine Stettheimer. Skinner sold it in January 2016 for $375,000 against an estimate of $75,000 to $100,000, a record for the artist at auction.

Who was Florine Stettheimer? She was a wealthy American woman who was, and is, regarded as an artist’s artist. Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O’Keeffe attended her salon. She might be the first woman artist in history to paint a nude self-portrait. She wasn’t keen on self-promotion; she had one small solo show at the Knoedler gallery in 1916, which flopped, and she never did another. While Stettheimer’s sisters ignored her wish to have her art destroyed after she died, they gave most of it to museums, leaving little for collectors to acquire. Two years after her death, the Museum of Modern art staged a Stettheimer retrospective. The Jewish Museum in New York is showing Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, until September 24, 2017. She died in 1944 at the age of 72.

How did the Stettheimer painting come to Skinner? “It came out of a house where it had been for decades,” says Robin S. R. Starr, director of American and European Works of Art at Skinner. “It was an estate situation. The family didn’t know much about it.”

How does this still life show off Stettheimer’s skills as an artist? “What could be a smarmy, cutesy sort of subject has a wonderful, modernist, fresh vibe all its own,” Starr says. “She has a great, unique personal style. She doesn’t look like anybody else. She’s her own style. The fact that she wanted her work destroyed after she died says she didn’t think much of it, though now we’re rediscovering her and finding out how fantastic it really is.”

How does this floral still life compare to other Stettheimer paintings? “This is a wonderful work, but in comparison, it is relatively minor,” she says. “This is a record-breaker because none of those works [of hers] in museums have come up at auction.”

How did you decide on the estimate of $75,000 to $100,000? “It takes a lot of chutzpah to put an estimate on something that you know is going to sell for a world record,” she says, noting that the previous record for a Stettheimer was set in 1997 by a painting that commanded $145,000 against an identical estimate. “Artnet has six records [for Stettheimer], and only one [of the six artworks] has real figures in it,” she says, adding, “It was really more of a gut instinct. You’ve got to decide what’s a fair estimate based on what little track record there is and how wonderful you think the picture is. Ultimately, an estimate is a guess. It’s a well-educated guess, but a guess.”

Were you surprised that the painting did so well? “Yes and no, which isn’t a fair answer,” Starr says, laughing. “Yes, I was thrilled. I didn’t think it would do that well. I thought there was a very good chance it would go over its estimate. I didn’t think it would go two or three times over.”

How much of a role did Stettheimer’s personal story play in driving the record auction price? Did it help? “That was absolutely a part of it,” she says. “The story is important–just watch Antiques Roadshow. But ultimately, it has to come down to an object that’s beautiful enough or inventive enough to sell the story. If she was a mediocre painter, it’s not going to matter. The story isn’t enough.”

What else makes this Stettheimer floral still life special? “That palette is just–apparently, I’m going to keep using food terms–it’s so delicious. Instead of saccharine, we get that acidity, and that combination is just a gut punch. It’s one of those objects you see and you’re just stopped in your tracks. There’s nothing like it. It’s just its own thing.”

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You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow Robin S. R. Starr on Twitter and Instagram as well.

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

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RECORD: Wharton Esherick’s 1933 Sculpture essie/rebecca Commands $123,750 at Freeman’s

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What you see: Wharton Esherick’s 1933 sculpture “essie”/”rebecca”, fashioned from cocobolo wood. Estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, it sold for $123,750 in November 2014 at Freeman’s. The sculpture now belongs to the Modernism Museum Mount Dora in Mount Dora, Fla.

Who is Wharton Esherick? He’s an American artist who is best known for his sculptural furnishings, which foreshadowed the American studio furniture movement. Esherick started out as a painter but shifted his focus when people reacted to his hand-carved frames more than his canvases. He died in 1970 at the age of 82.

How rare are Esherick’s sculptures? “They’re incredibly rare,” says Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s. “All of Esherick’s things are rare in comparison to the generation of craftsmen who came after him. Esherick produced maybe a few thousand pieces and maybe a hundred sculptures, if that.”

Is “essie”/”rebecca” based on a human model? It was his daughter, Mary, who played a character named Essie in a production at a local theater that the Eshericks supported. “He often used family members and friends as models, and turned the sketches and maquettes into fully realized sculptures,” Andreadis says. “This was later named Rebecca after the Biblical figure of Rebecca at the well. In the 1960s, it finally found a buyer, and it had been with that family ever since.”

What makes “essie”/”rebecca” stand out among Esherick’s works? “This would have been a little more unusual. He would have carved it in one solid piece. It makes it much more challenging,” he says. “It was a celebrated piece, one of those works that were really personal to the artist. And it’s beautiful from any angle. It’s definitely made to be viewed in the round.”

Why did the sculpture do so well? “The stars were perfectly aligned,” Andreadis says. “It was a sculpture of grand scale. Esherick used cocobolo, a rare, exotic wood. Its patina has never been touched. There aren’t many Esherick pieces in private hands. And it’s really personal subject matter, using his daughter as a model for the work. It’s beautifully signed by Esherick. And you can never ask for anything better than to see period photos of the artist standing with the work. Buyers just responded to that. They recognized a rare opportunity that’s not going to come up again for some time.”

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

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SOLD! The Apollo 13 Flight Plan Gets $275,000 at Sotheby’s–More Than Six Times Its High Estimate

9759 Apollo 13 Flight Plan, 4 (lot 140)

Update: The Apollo 13 flown flight plan sold for $275,000–more than six times its high estimate.

What you see: A page from the flight plan used during the Apollo 13 lunar mission. Sotheby’s estimates it at $30,000 to $40,000.

What was Apollo 13?  It was a 1970 moon voyage that never made it to the moon. An oxygen tank exploded 56 hours after liftoff, transforming the lunar mission into a rescue mission. The wounded vessel returned to Earth after four tense and terrifying days. The crew of three drank little, ate less, and slept even less than that. They arrived home on April 17, 1970, alive but collectively 31 and a half pounds lighter. The tale of Apollo 13 might be best known through the 1995 Academy Award-winning film that stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton.

Astronaut Fred Haise inscribed the flight plan to “Bob.” Who is Bob? He is Robert “Bob” Lindsey, the lead flight planner for Apollo 13. “This plan contained all the steps they had to follow to get into space. Lindsey figured out everything that needed to be done. Of course, the spacecraft did not comply,” says Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s. “Though they didn’t make it to the moon, Lindsey was instrumental in getting them out there, and instrumental in getting them back.” His descendants consigned the flight plan to Sotheby’s.

Wait, so there was only one flight plan aboard Apollo 13? Was it a NASA tradition for Apollo crews to give the flown flight plan to the lead flight planner when they got back to Earth? “Yes, this is it,” Hatton says of the document, and adds that giving the flight plan to the lead planner was not routine: “It was just something the Apollo 13 crew decided to do as an extra thank-you to the people who saved their lives.”

Does the flight plan contain handwritten notes from the astronauts after the oxygen tank exploded? Yes. The flight plan covers the voyage from liftoff to the point when astronauts Jack Swigert, Jim Lovell, and Haise abandoned the command module for the lunar lander, which they used as a lifeboat. The document also contains notes in red ink from Ken Mattingly, the original Apollo 13 command module pilot. He was removed from the crew days before the launch after fellow astronaut Charlie Duke unwittingly exposed him to German measles. Swigert replaced Mattingly.

What notes show the reaction to the explosion? Page 3-38 corresponds to the time of the accident. Lovell, the mission commander, crossed out the typewritten plans and wrote new ones, which include leaving the main vessel for the lunar module (LM). Lovell observed the need to “insure proper 02 concentration in LM.” Maintaining oxygen levels in the LM did pose a challenge. NASA engineers later had to teach the astronauts to jerry-rig a carbon dioxide filter that would work in the LM with parts that the astronauts had on hand.

How do we know which astronaut wrote which notes? Hatton referenced the air-to-ground transcript that NASA took for Apollo 13. By matching the transcript against the flight plan, she was able to identify each author. “If you take the time to go through it and read it, page by page, and compare it to the transcript, it solidifies our perception of them as being heroes,” she says. “‘Ok, we have no heat, no water, no food, and we can’t get any sleep, but we’re not going to panic and we’re going to get home.’ My heart was pounding. It’s an incredible thing.”

Why are there cartoons in the flight plan? NASA asked Johnson Space Centre artist Barbara Matelski to sketch caricatures of the crew in the flight plan before the launch as a jokey surprise for them to discover as they leafed through its pages. Shown here is the caricature of Swigert, who takes a ribbing over his political ambitions. He won the House of Representatives race for Colorado’s 6th district in November 1982, but died of bone cancer before he could be sworn in. He was 51 when he passed away. Lovell is now 89, Haise is 83, and Mattingly is 81.

The flight plan’s presale estimate is $30,000 to $40,000. Isn’t that kind of low? “The estimate is very, very conservative. It is. I’m confident it will far exceed its estimate,” she says, adding that its closest analog is a document that was embroiled in controversy. In 2011, Lovell consigned the flown LM Apollo 13 checklist–which takes over where this flight plan leaves off–to auction. It sold for $388,375, but the transaction was voided when NASA objected. President Barack Obama subsequently signed a law that gives clear title to memorabilia received by astronauts during the course of their work with the Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo programs. “It’s interesting to see what the impact of the new law will be,” she says. “It’s very clear about who the title lays with, so bidders can have confidence in this.”

How to bid: The flown Apollo 13 flight plan is lot 140 in Sotheby’s Space Exploration auction in New York, scheduled for–of course–July 20, 2017.

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

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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

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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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