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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SOLD! A 1967 Hockey Card Featuring Number 4, Bobby Orr, Scored $6,600 at Heritage

1967 Topps Bobby Orr #92 PSA Mint 9

Update: The 1967 Topps Bobby Orr hockey card sold for $6,600.

What you see: A 1967 Topps Bobby Orr hockey card with a PSA Mint 9 grade. Only three other 1967 Topps Orr cards have a higher PSA grade. Heritage Auctions has (coincidentally) estimated it at $4,000 and up.

Who is Bobby Orr? Also known as “Number 4,” he is considered one of the best hockey players ever. Born in Canada, Orr spent his professional career as a defenseman for the Boston Bruins. An iconic shot of him leaping, full-bodied, into the air after scoring the sudden death overtime goal that won his team the 1970 Stanley Cup is immortalized in bronze at the TD Garden, where the Bruins play. Orr turned 69 in March.

Let’s back up a step. When did hockey cards become a thing? “They go back to the early 20th century, the 1909-1911 era, when baseball cards exploded,” says Heritage sports card expert Peter Calderon, explaining that Topps entered the hockey card market in 1954.

How popular are hockey cards? “They’re pretty popular. They’ve been popular in Canada for a long time and their popularity is growing in the states,” he says. “What really drives it is rookie cards of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.” He adds that the top four names in the hockey card realm are Gretzky, Lemieux, Orr, and Gordie Howe.

Are 1960s hockey cards more rare than 1960s baseball cards? Yes. “No other sport matches baseball [for collectibility], but it’s very hard to find high-grade hockey cards,” he says. “The availability is not there, not to the same extent as baseball cards.”

This card is from 1967–Orr’s second year in the pros. Does that make it desirable? In addition to its high grade–PSA gave it a 9 on a scale that goes to 10–it represents a sweet bargain of sorts. “Rookie cards are like rookie Mickey Mantle cards–outside the budget of most collectors,” Calderon says. “This is really early in his career, but it’s a little more affordable to most people.” He notes that Heritage sold another 1967 Topps Orr card that had a PSA Gem Mint 10 grade for $9,560 in May 2014.

It’s a nice-looking card, too. “The production values are just as high and just as well-done as baseball cards,” he says.

But it’s only partially photographic–the background is illustrated and colored pink, presumably because it contrasts nicely with the black and gold of Orr’s uniform. Why would Topps design it that way? “To make it a more interesting card, I imagine,” he says. “The atmosphere you see hockey players in…the walls are white, the ice is white. There’s nothing exciting about that.”

How to bid: The 1967 Bobby Orr Topps card is lot #80694 in Heritage Auctions’ Premium Sportscard Catalog Auction on June 29, 2017 in Dallas.

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

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SOLD! A Beatles Photo Signed on the Set of A Hard Day’s Night Fetches Almost $9,000 at Bonhams

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Update: The signed Beatles photo sold for £6,875, or $8,774.

 

What you see: An 8-by-10-inch black-and-white publicity photograph of the Beatles, shot on March 24, 1964 by Dezo Hoffman and signed in blue pen by all four band members. Bonhams estimates it at £4,000 to £6,000 ($5,200 to $6,500).

 

How rare is it to see a print of this photo, signed by all the Beatles? “It’s not particularly rare, but to see it signed by all four on the front is unusual,” says Katherine Schofield, head of entertainment memorabilia at Bonhams. “Sometimes they signed it on the back, but it’s more desirable to have the signatures on the front.”

 

How rare is it to have anything that was signed by all of the Beatles? “Not that rare. They signed a hell of a lot–autograph books, fan club cards, albums, pieces of paper–Beatles signatures are not scarce,” she says. “A good set is still pretty common, and the market is discerning about what it wants. If it’s in good condition and more unusual, it bears stronger prices. Collectors tend to aim for signed albums, signed photos, and autograph pages. It’s tiered like that, but there’s a lot of things in between.”

 

What do you mean by “more unusual”? Schofield cited a piece of Buckingham Palace stationery, signed by the four in October 1965. It’s lot 165 in the same auction, estimated at £8,000 to £10,000 ($10,000 to $13,000). “I have seen another, but only one other,” Schofield says. She also mentioned a lot from the December 2016 Entertainment Memorabilia sale that was a plain British standard sheet of paper from 1963 on which each Beatle had drawn a caricature with their signatures. It commanded £21,250 ($27,425).

 

Are Beatles signatures from early in the band’s career worth more than signatures written later in the band’s career? “Very, very early signatures and later signature are sought after,” she says. “At the start of their career, not many signatures were asked for, and not many were kept. As the Beatles became less accessible in 1965 and definitely in 1966 and 1967, signatures are very sought after.”

 

This particular copy of the photo has tape marks, clipped corners, and other blemishes. Does that affect its value? “It’s a shame. It would be nicer if it was a cleaner image,” Schofield says. “But the damage does not affect the body of the photo. It’s visible, and the signatures are clear.”

 

This signed photo is fresh to market, going straight from the woman who received it as a preteen to Bonhams. How does that affect the value? “Provenance is important,” she says, explaining that the consigner’s father had been a vendor at the Scala Theatre when the Beatles filmed scenes for A Hard Day’s Night there. “She got onto the set and was given mementos, and this was one of the items she was given. She treasured it, and thought long and hard about selling it. We expect it to do well. The fact that it’s not dedicated [it’s not inscribed to a specific, named person] makes it more desirable. Normally the Beatles would put, ‘To (Someone),’ and most people wanted them to do that. It’s nice that the photo has not been dedicated.”

 

How to bid: The signed Beatles photo is lot 162 in Bonhams’s Entertainment Memorabilia sale on June 28, 2017 in London.

 

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

 

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SOLD! The Closest Thing Bonnie & Clyde Had to a Wedding Ring Commands $25,000 at RR Auction

Ring-BC503

Update: The Bonnie and Clyde promise ring sold for $25,000.

What you see: A silver-toned three-headed snake ring with red and green gemstones, made by Clyde Barrow during a prison stay at Eastham Prison Farm in Texas and later given to Bonnie Parker. RR Auction estimates it at more than $40,000.

Who were Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker? Better known as Bonnie and Clyde, the couple were notorious Depression-era bank robbers who were romanticized in the press. They died in a police ambush in Louisiana in May 1934 in which officers fired 130 rounds at their car. Barrow was 25. Parker was 23.

How do we know that Parker wore this ring, and how do we know that Barrow made it for her? Barrow left a maker’s mark on the ring: A B-note with an arrow. “When I sat next to the jeweler and he deciphered the logo, it was like, ‘Eureka!’,” says Bobby Livingston, executive vice president at RR Auction. “Things like that happen only a few times in a career. It was one of the most incredible finds I’ve ever had.” We don’t know when Barrow gave the ring to Parker, but we do know he made a belt with a snake motif during the same prison stay and mailed it to his sister.

How did Parker lose the ring? She left it behind when she and Barrow fled their stolen 1933 Ford Model B on November 22, 1933, near Sowers, Texas. Sheriff Smoot Schmid, who led the raid, recovered the ring from the bullet-strafed car, noting it in his inventory as “Bonnie Parker Ring (3 Silver Snakes with Tiny Jewels).” Schmid’s heirs consigned it to RR Auctions.

Why did Schmid keep the ring? “It was very common for Bonnie and Clyde to abandon property,” Livingston says. “The police didn’t get paid a lot. Bonnie and Clyde were infamous. They took these things as souvenirs, and were known to.”

What size is the ring? “I think it’s a size four. Bonnie was very small,” Livingston says. “I looked at it under a high-powered microscope. It’s worn, for sure, but you would not want to wear it. We expect it to sell for a lot of money, and expect it to be curated as an artifact and never worn again.”

Is the ring well-made? “It’s pretty nice. It’s not by an amateur,” Livingston says. “He was talented. It’s not crude at all.”

What else makes this ring special? “This is the closest thing Bonnie and Clyde had to a wedding ring,” he says, adding that Parker was wearing a wedding ring when she died (she married a fellow high school student at 16, but was estranged from her husband and had never sought a divorce). “It’s one of the few pieces made by Clyde and given to Bonnie, and she wore it. To me, the ring represents the deep love they had for each other.”

How to bid: Bonnie Parker’s promise ring is lot 2039 in the Gangsters, Outlaws, and Lawmen sale at RR Auction. Online pre-bidding takes place from June 16 through June 23; the live auction takes place June 24, 2017 in Boston.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of RR Auction.

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SOLD! Ernest Biéler’s Swiss Misses Fetch $700,000 at Sotheby’s

Lot 41- Trois jeunes Filles de Granois- Bieler- Sotheby's Zurich June 2017

Update: Ernest Biéler’s Trois Jeunes Filles de Granois (Three Young Girls of Granois) sold for $699,000 (672,500 CHF).

What you see: Trois Jeunes Filles de Granois (Three Young Girls of Granois), a 1920 work on paper by Swiss artist Ernest Biéler. Sotheby’s estimates it at 500,000 to 700,000 in Swiss francs, which is pretty much the same amount in US dollars.

Who is Ernest Biéler? He was a Swiss artist who succeeded in virtually every media he tried, from painting to drawing to mosaics to stained glass windows. He cofounded the Ecole of Savièse, an artistic movement that celebrated rural Swiss peasant life. He died in 1948 at age 84.

What makes Trois Jeunes Filles de Granois an iconic Biéler work? “It’s really an important work, and it’s a good summary of what he attempted to do,” says Stéphanie Schleining Deschanel, director and co-head of Swiss art for Sotheby’s, explaining that the Ecole of Savièse artists “wanted to discover the purity and the traditions of the Swiss 19th century world.”

How often did Biéler portray small groups, as he does here? “He usually depicted individual figures. It’s very rare to have three people in the same composition,” she says. “In this case, the village of Savièse is very important. It’s the subject of the painting. The three girls have different dresses, but their faces are slightly the same. For him, it was more important to depict Swiss traditions rather than the people themselves.”

Why did he and his compatriots find inspiration in Savièse? “It was a space in the middle of nowhere. It was totally unknown by the world and by Switzerland,” she says. “Those costumes are really what they wore. They are well-depicted, and the hats are also very typical of Swiss tradition. It’s a good testimony to the fashion of the time.”

Did Biéler use live models? “They’re real people, from his direct environment, but he had no models. He found inspiration in observing people,” she says.

This work is currently the third most-expensive Biéler sold at auction. How do you think it will do this time around? “It’s very difficult to predict. It’s an iconic work, and it has potential,” she says, noting that she witnessed its previous sale in November 2007, when it commanded 601,000 Swiss francs ($543,616) against an estimate of 300,000 to 400,000 Swiss francs ($271,356 to $361,808). “It’s very powerful. Fantastic quality. It’s really a museum piece. I think the painting has the potential to achieve a higher price than it achieved 10 years ago.”

How to bid: Trois Jeunes Filles de Granois is lot 41 in the Swiss Art / Swiss Made auction at Sotheby’s Zurich on June 27.

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

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