SO CLOSE! Swann Galleries Sells the Iconic I Want You Poster for $14,300–$101 Shy of a Record

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Update: Swann sold the 1917 ‘I Want You’ World War I recruiting poster for $14,300–a strong result, and just $101 short of a new world auction record for the poster.

What you see: A 1917 American recruiting poster for World War I, illustrated by James Montgomery Flagg. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $7,000 to $10,000.

Who was James Montgomery Flagg? He was an American artist and illustrator. Unquestionably, his illustration for this poster is his most famous work. While he did not create the concept of Uncle Sam–credit for that goes to cartoonist Thomas Nast–Flagg codified the costume and appearance of America’s avatar with this image. He didn’t draw  a finger-pointing Uncle Sam expressly for the poster; he did it in 1916 as cover art for Leslie magazine and repurposed it. Flagg also unintentionally immortalized himself by using a self-portrait for Uncle Sam. Flagg died in 1960 at the age of 82.

Why was this poster such a huge hit during World War I? “It trips all the bells and whistles–psychology, guilt, alpha male power, patriotism. And it’s an attractive image,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.

It looks like there’s a direct relationship between Flagg’s illustration and a 1914 British WWI recruiting poster featuring Lord Kitchener “There’s arguably more than a direct relationship. He lifted the premise straight from it,” Lowry says. “But it’s so different from the Kitchener poster. And can you copyright a gesture? There are World War I posters from Italy, Canada, and Germany that have the same motif, calling you out, putting you on the spot. The Kitchener is rare as hell and not nearly as attractive as this one [Flagg’s take].”

How many ‘I Want You’ posters were printed in America in 1917? “It was THE most printed poster during the war,” says Lowry, adding that an estimated four million were produced. “It instantly resonated. Everybody who saw it was gripped by it.”

Flagg’s poster was so famous that it was re-issued during World War II. How many were printed for World War II? And how do you tell the two versions apart? Lowry says about 400,000 were printed for World War II, and the later version isn’t nearly as valuable as the 1917, though there are fewer of them. Swann has sold the WWII-era poster for as much as $3,600, but it sold the 1917 original for $14,400 in 2013–a world auction record. Fortunately, telling them apart is easy. “They’re very different,” Lowry says, noting that the 1917 original is bigger, and the slogan on the World War II version rephrased the slogan to add a “the,” making it less grammatically awkward.

How has the poster performed at auction over time? “The August 6, 2003 Swann poster auction was the year of the Iraq war,” says Lowry, explaining that the sale contained a 1917 Flagg poster with an estimate of $3,000 to $4,000. “We put it on the cover not because it was a rare poster, and not because it hasn’t been seen, but because America was at war. The poster resonates somehow. It sold for $12,650 in 2003. From that point on, the poster has brought dramatic prices, and the prices are even bigger when the poster shows up in really good condition.”

The particular poster in the August 2017 sale has a grade of A–the top grade of the condition scale–and house records show that Swann has never before handled a grade A example of this poster. What are the odds that it sets a new record at auction? “It’s in as good a position to break the world record as any,” he says. “It’s so famous, it belies conventional collecting norms.”

How to bid: The ‘I Want You for U.S. Army’ poster is lot 141 in Swann Auction Galleries’s Vintage Posters sale on August 2.

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

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RECORD: R. Crumb’s Original Cover Art for His Best-Selling Fritz the Cat Book Commands $717,000 at Heritage

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What you see: R. Crumb’s original cover art for the best-selling 1969 book Fritz the Cat. Heritage Auctions sold it in May 2017 for $717,000–a record for Crumb, and a record for any original piece of American comic art.

Who is R. Crumb? He is an American artist who led the underground comix movement. He co-founded Zap Comix and created one of the counterculture’s most enduring images with his Keep On Truckin’ single-page comic, which appeared in the first issue of Zap. Much of Crumb’s output is proudly NSFW, so Google at your own risk. In 2009, he published a graphic novel based on the Biblical Book of Genesis. He will turn 74 on August 30.

How rare are original pieces of Crumb comic art at auction? “We sell a lot of it. There’s been kind of a boom lately,” says Ed Jaster, senior vice president at Heritage Auctions. “Crumb has always been a staple of what we offer in our Comic and Comic Art sales, but we’ve never had the wealth and breadth up and down the line with what we’ve had in the last year and a half.”

This work by R. Crumb is the most valuable original comic art ever sold at auction, beating a 1990 cover from the Amazing Spider-Man #328 and a 1974 page from an Incredible Hulk comic that shows the debut of Wolverine. What’s the significance of that? “Put it this way. If you want to buy a Picasso pen-and-ink drawing, $717,000 will get you a really good pen-and-ink drawing,” he says. “You certainly could buy a more expensive Picasso drawing, but this is right there.”

Why has Crumb bested the more traditional superhero comic book artists? “What’s special about Crumb is he’s transcendental. He’s transcended his given media,” Jaster says. “There’s no comic book artist I can think of who’s had as many museum shows and international shows as he has. Crumb has been relevant ever since the hippie days and he’s never gone out of style.”

How long do you think these records will stand? “The original comic book art one, maybe not too long. Comic book art is incredibly popular,” he says. “Those two $657,000 sales were as pleasant a surprise as the Crumb art was. There are scores of things more desirable than them out there. It’s just a matter of them coming to the market. There’s probably an amazing thing out there that will get five or ten million, if it exists. As far as breaking the record for Crumb, I know the cover art for the Cheap Thrills record album is out there. The first Keep on Truckin’ or the cover of Zap Comics #1, a very small distribution comic, are the things that could sell for more.”

What else makes this piece of original Crumb comic book art special? “There’s some irony here in that Crumb is known for pushing the envelope with his subject matter and political views, but Fritz and his girlfriend are quite demure. It’s PG-13 for Crumb, who is known for adult material. It’s kind of a sweet thing,” he says. “And the book, Fritz the Cat, moved Crumb up in importance to be maybe the most famous cartoonist of his generation. It catapulted him from the guy who does sleazy, objectionable stuff to a guy who was really important, and this was the piece that did that.”

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

Graham Nash’s collection of original Crumb comic artworks is up for bid in Heritage Auction’s Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction in Dallas from August 10 to 12, 2018.

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RECORD: A Stunning Bronze by Nigeria’s Ben Enwonwu Fetches $461,000 at Bonhams

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What you see: Anyanwu, a 1956 sculpture by Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, better known as Ben Enwonwu. It set an auction record for a bronze by the late Nigerian artist, selling for £353,000, or $461,066, at Bonhams London in February 2017.

Who is Ben Enwonwu? He was a Nigerian artist, and arguably, THE Nigerian artist of the 20th century. He embraced traditional Western art media, most notably painting and sculpture. He sculpted a portrait bronze of Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 and was made a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) two years later. A crater on the planet Mercury is named for him. He died in 1994 at the age of 72.

Why is Anyanwu regarded as his masterpiece? “One of the reasons is it garnered the greatest publicity,” says Giles Peppiatt, head of African art at Bonhams. “In the 1960s, a version of it was gifted from the Nigerian state to the United Nations for its new headquarters. For Nigeria to choose this image by this artist confirms him as one of the most important artists to come out of 20th century Nigeria.”

How many Anyanwu sculptures exist? “He produced quite a few variants, but he wasn’t a good record-keeper,” Peppiatt says. “If someone said they wanted one, then he had one cast.” He estimates there might be between half a dozen and a dozen castings at most of the largest version of Anyanwu, which is shown here and stands about seven and a half feet tall. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear there are another three or four out there,” he says. “They were expensive at the time. I can’t believe there are 30 of them.”

How does Anyanwu show Enwonwu’s strengths? “In conception, it is a very intelligent and clever piece. It refers back to Nigerian mythology, and the figure wears a traditional Nigerian headpiece. It obviously struck a chord when it was produced,” he says. “The execution is brilliant. The photo doesn’t capture the crispness of the bronze. The detailing of its features are superb.”

Anyanwu sold for £353,000, or $458,612. Is that a record for an Enwonwu bronze at auction, or a record for an Enwonwu sculpture at auction? “For a single piece, it’s a record. I think the record for a sculpture was set four years ago,” Peppiatt says, referencing a group of wooden Enwonwu sculptures sold for £361,250 ($469,300) at Bonhams in 2013. The final prices on the two lots are close enough to be affected by currency fluctuations.

You were the auctioneer for the sale that included Anyanwu. When did you know you had a record? “As soon as I hammered it down, I knew,” he says. “As the price went up, I was willing it to get to a record. I don’t think we expected it to perform as well as it did. The auction world is full of pleasant surprises.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “I think it will stand for a bit, and I’ll tell you why. You only get one debut, and this was it,” Peppiatt says. “If another [large] cast went to auction, it would probably fetch less. A bronze is almost like a print. It’s unusual for someone to want two of the same. That person won’t bid the next time it comes up. But the market changes, and new buyers come in, and you can never be sure.”

What else makes the bronze special? “When you stand in front of it, you look it in the eye. It’s an amazing piece of sculpture. I was delighted it did well. It deserved every penny,” he says.

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

Enwonwu paintings and sculptures will appear in Bonhams’s October 5, 2017 sale Africa Now in London.

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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

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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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