RECORD! Wright Sold A High-end 1935 Walter Dorwin Teague Radio (Yes, That’s a Radio) in 2015 for $149,000

Teague Radio

What you see: A Nocturne radio, model 1186, designed by Walter Dorwin Teague for the Sparton Corporation in 1935. Wright sold it in November 2015 for $149,000 against an estimate of $70,000 to $90,000–a record for any work by Teague.


The expert: Richard Wright, president of Wright auction house.


Sparton unveiled the Nocturne in 1935, during the Great Depression. It was priced at $350 to $375, which means it almost cost as much as a car. Who would have been the market for this high-end radio? It was always a Cadillac premium item, not intended for the masses. They didn’t sell a lot of them, but it was marketed to high-end posh interiors–hotels and similar venues. They did it as futuristic branding of the company as opposed to selling a lot of these.


I look at the Nocturne and to me, sitting here in the 21st century, it still seems futuristic. Do we know how the public reacted to the radio at the time? People looked at it and felt optimistic about the future. The fact that it came out at the depths of the Great Depression spoke to the idea that there was real hope and promise in technology. Things are different today, but the promise is out there that technology can make the world better. We still do that. Computers and technology products tend to be futuristic in design.


This represents an auction record for a work by Walter Dorwin Teague, but is it also an auction record for any radio? It seems to be, but I can’t verify that. There are auction databases, but you can’t just search on radios. Enigma machines have a radio component, but that’s a different category. For a straightforward radio, I do think it’s a record.


Could you explain what the yellow dial at the top does? I think it’s the frequency tuner. This radio works but we were very reluctant to plug it in. I didn’t play around with all the things it could do.


And the black box at the bottom is the speaker? Yes.


And the ladder structure and the blue glass–is it decorative or functional? Does the glass help amplify the sound? It’s purely aesthetic. There’s no functional aspect to that.


About two dozen Nocturnes survive, and they pop up at auction every now and again. How does this one compare to the other examples? This was a particularly good one. It had been incredibly restored, and there had been a carefully documented restoration of it. There’s a relatively small number of buyers for these today. The best buyers for us for these have been museums.


What is this radio like in person? It’s impressive. I think the reason it’s collected today is it’s a visually iconic symbol of industrial design and American Art Deco. To your point, it still looks very modern today and very pared down and pure in its expression. And it’s big, physically big. It was meant to be a real show-stopper. There was a tabletop version. I think it was called a Bluebird. There are many more of those, but it doesn’t at all have the presence of the Nocturne. This is bigger, and you can see yourself in it. It’s a pretty interesting experience to stand in front of it.


What does it sound like? I did hear it on. I didn’t play with it, didn’t tune it to different bands. It’s hard to gauge the sound quality. We’re pretty spoiled now [as far as expectations of sound quality]. It has a pretty big sound, but a mono speaker.


What drove the price of this Nocturne so high? There were five active bidders, which is significant at that level. I think it was a fantastic example, historically documented, we did a good job telling its story, and it had the nice element that part of the proceeds went to charity. If you were waiting to buy one, this was the one to buy, and people recognized that.


How did you arrive at the estimate of $70,000 to $90,000? It was based on comparables that existed. We’d handled Nocturnes before, and we knew this was a great one. The estimate was fairly aggressive. We did sell one in 2003 to the Dallas Museum of Art for over $100,000 on an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000. The consigner was the widow of the radio enthusiast, but she had a good sense of the market. She also played a part [in the estimate]. She wanted to honor her husband’s legacy and wanted a significant price, for sure.


What was your role in the auction? I was the auctioneer. I don’t remember much. Auctioneering is very much a flow activity. You’re very concentrated. You try to respond with energy and try not to make a mistake and then you go to the next lot.


When did you know you had a record? Records are nice, but it wasn’t first and foremost in my mind. I didn’t go into it hoping to break a record, but I know the benchmarks. I handled the consignment myself.  It was her husband’s legacy, his favorite radio. I felt proud that I had told the story of the radio, put it online, linked to her husband’s blog, and got a great result. That’s the best of my work. I helped myself, I helped somebody, and I preserved history. I feel super-proud of that. And I want it [the lot listing] to be out there as a resource for people who find it.


What else is out there by Walter Dorwin Teague that could challenge this record? Teague designed a wide range of things. Nothing else would touch it in his oeuvre. It’d be another Nocturne. That’s the only thing that would get back up there.


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Wright is on Twitter and Instagram.


The Nocturne’s previous owner, the late Roger E. Dillon, created a website about the exquisite radio and how he restored it.


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



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SOLD! An Exceptionally Early Sydney Laurence Painting of Alaska’s Mount McKinley Fetched $75,000 at Bonhams


Update: The Laurence painting sold for $75,000.


What you see: Mount McKinley, 63 Degrees North Latitude, Alaska, Altitude 20.390 Feet, painted by Sydney Laurence in 1911 or 1912. Bonhams estimates it at $80,000 to $120,000.


Who was Sydney Laurence? He was an American painter who built a career on depicting the landscapes of Alaska. He moved there around 1904, several years before Alaska became a U.S. territory (it gained statehood in 1959). He made a specialty of painting images of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America. (It has since regained its original name of Denali, but it’s called Mount McKinley throughout this story because it’s the name Laurence used when giving titles to his works.) He died in 1940 at the age of 74.


The expert: Scot Levitt, specialist in California and Western paintings for Bonhams.


How prolific was Laurence? Fairly prolific. We do see quite a bit of his paintings.


And how often do you see a painting of his that dates to 1911 or 1912? That’s really the main story here. It appears to be quite rare in that regard. Len Braarud, a Sydney Laurence afficionado who died a few years ago–his research led him to believe this seems to be one of, if not the earliest, Laurence scene of Mount McKinley. Braarud’s theory is it’s not an accurate depiction of Mount McKinley. To get to that vantage point, Laurence would have had to trek to that spot. There were no roads, the weather could be nasty, and the mosquitos were really severe in the summer. You’re not going to plunk down a canvas and paint there. He probably took a drawing pad, which you can put in a backpack, and did field sketches of the scene, then went back to the studio and did the painting.


I admit I’m not a Mount McKinley aficionado. Is it obvious on sight to those who know the mountain well that Laurence’s vision in this painting is a bit off? People who know Mount McKinley will be quick to tell you that. It has similarities, but it’s not exactly the same. Certain lines of the face of it aren’t exactly how it looks today.


Could its lack of accuracy make it less interesting to collectors? It could, but some might find the historical oddity is part of its appeal. It’s hard to say.


Why did Laurence go to Alaska? I think the jury is still out on why he went. He left his wife and kids in England. We’re not entirely sure of the reasons behind it.


What were the perceptions of Alaska when Laurence moved there in 1904? How did he shape those perceptions? It was a very, very wild place. with grizzly bears and wild animals. It was very primitive, for lack of a better word. At the same time, it was exciting. It was undiscovered territory for those who want to be adventuresome. It was an untapped world.


The painting measures 36 5/8 by 54 5/8 inches. Is that a typical size for him? It’s much bigger. It’s one of his biggest canvases that we’ve handled. Once he got into the swing of his career, he never deviated off of standard size canvases from art supply stores. It’s definitely an unusual size.


There’s another Laurence painting of Mount McKinley in the auction that’s estimated at $6,000 to $8,000. Is that because it’s smaller and undated, but made later? Exactly, exactly. It’s a more typical work from the middle of his career. He did Mount McKinley paintings over and over because he found there was a market for them. He churned out more of the same.


What’s the auction record for a Laurence? Does it belong to a larger-size Mount McKinley painting? The auction record is $235,200, for a large Mount McKinley painting. The top three [most expensive Laurences] are all large Mount McKinley paintings.


Does that mean this one, which is also a large Mount McKinley painting, could break the artist’s record at auction? I can’t say it will take off. But it’s a little different, and a little early. I just don’t know.


But it shows Sydney Laurence becoming Sydney Laurence… Some may not care. Some may find it a great storyline. It’s hard to say. Considering he did a million Mount McKinley scenes, that [its early date and the oddities in its depiction] makes it stand out from the others. Whether anyone will see it that way outside of a museum, it’s hard to say. I’d love to follow up with you after the auction to see if we were right.


Why will this work stick in your memory? Its size and its quality. It’s a really strong, crisp, bright painting that has a really strong presence on the wall.


How to bid: The early Sydney Laurence Mount McKinley painting is lot 109 in the California and Western Paintings and Sculpture sale at Bonhams Los Angeles on August 7, 2018.


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Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.


Scot Levitt previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Gilbert Munger painting of a famous landmark in Yosemite National Park.


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


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RECORD! Henry Aldridge & Son Sold a Deck Chair from the Titanic for Almost $150,000


What you see: A deck chair recovered from the ocean debris field of the Titanic after it sank in 1912. Henry Aldridge & Son sold it in April 2015 for just over £100,000, or about $150,000, setting a world auction record for a Titanic deck chair, and presumably any deck chair.


The expert: Andrew Aldridge, auctioneer.


I’m surprised that any deck chairs survived the wreck of the Titanic. How did it happen? It’s very straightforward. When any ship sinks, especially one that’s 46,000 tons and 883 feet long, there’s a lot of debris. The two main recovery ships were cable-layers that were redirected to pick up bodies. They also picked up a lot of flotsam and jetsam, not for souvenirs, but for recycling. The ship carpenter on the Mackay-Bennett would fashion something out of it [salvaged wood]. The Titanic would have had thousands of deck chairs, and they washed off the deck. They [the rescue ships] probably picked up 20 to 30 deck chairs. That small number narrows down to a handful today.


The Titanic did not have its own specific, distinctive deck chair. How do we know that this particular one was used on the Titanic and not another White Star Line vessel? They are generic deck chairs. What makes it is the provenance. [Period records show that the chair originally belonged to a French cable ship captain who was on board the Mackay-Bennett when it was diverted.] That’s one reason this chair is so desirable. To give you an example, the provenance package for this deck chair included a folder that stood an inch and a half high. You’re talking no more than a few deck chairs that could pass muster, in our opinion.


How many Titanic deck chairs have you handled? One. That shows you how rare they are.


Does it show evidence of having been in the water? There was some discoloration of the wood and oxidation of the fittings. Things like the fittings going green–you want to keep that. You don’t want to polish them to new. The conservator walked a tight line between keeping the patination and the age of it, but preserving it as well.


You’ve sold this deck chair twice, in 2001 and again in 2015. How do the two sales show how things have changed over time? In 2001 it sold for £33,500, which was then a record for a Titanic deck chair. It illustrates the difference in the market between 2001 and 2015. The one percent, the best of the best, the blue chip pieces have gone up.


When did the phrase ‘Shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic‘ enter pop culture? Certainly not right after the sinking? Possibly in the 1950s. She sank in 1912 and by 1913, 1914, she was old news. People were not interested in her for decades and decades. Only in the 1950s, with A Night to Remember, did people get interested in her again. I guess it entered pop culture after that.


Did you sit on it? No. I’m 16 stone [224 pounds]. It’s not sensible. But if you’re lighter than me, yes, you could. If I was 8 stone [112 pounds] I’d happily sit on it.


What do you remember of the auction? It was 25,000 lots ago, but there was a hell of a lot of interest in it. It got to £50,000 to £60,000 quick. We opened bidding with a new record for a Titanic deck chair.


Why does it stick in your memory? We were talking before about moving the deck chairs on the Titanic–that’s your answer, really. You don’t see an object like that every day.


There were so many spectacular ocean liners, but material from the Titanic is far and away the most collectible. Why are we still fascinated with that ship? Most people don’t care how long the Titanic was or how many tons she weighed. People care about people. There were 2,200 people on that ship and every man, woman, and child had a story to tell. That’s why we still talk about it.


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Henry Aldridge & Son is on Instagram.


Henry Aldridge & Son‘s October 22, 2018 auction will include a Titanic travel poster that touts a return voyage that never had a chance to happen.


Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Henry Aldridge & Son.


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RECORD! Eldred’s Sold a Charming Cape Cod Scene by Harold Dunbar for a Jaw-dropping $78,000

© Robert C. Eldred Co., Inc.

What you see: A Young Woman and a Captain on an Evening Stroll, Likely Chatham, Massachusetts, an undated but probably circa 1920s oil on board by Harold Dunbar. Eldred’s sold it in August 2017 for $78,000 against an estimate of $3,000 to $5,000–stomping the artist’s previous auction record several times over.


The expert: Joshua Eldred, president of Eldred’s and head of its fine arts department.


First, let’s talk about the artist who made this work, Harold Dunbar. What can you tell me about him? There are two distinct parts of his career. When he was younger he lived in Canton, Massachusetts. He was a gifted Impressionist painter, and if he stayed that course, he might be better regarded than he is today. In the 1910s, he moved to Chatham, Massachusetts, and he started to work for the tourist trade. He could paint local scenes of Chatham fairly quickly, and he sold them to tourists and locals for a tidy sum. Lore says he had quite the alcohol issue. We see a real variety of quality in his later era–some paintings where he didn’t give his all, and others that are much better.


Did this work have a name when it came to you? No, it did not have a name. We applied the name.


This has been described as Dunbar’s best work. What makes it so? Obviously it’s a very subjective thing to say. In my opinion it’s in the top five. It’s certainly the best we’ve ever handled. The thing that really grabs people is the woman. She’s looking right at you and she’s almost talking to you, like she’s trying to draw you into the painting. Her pose, the way her head is cocked, the way she’s looking toward the viewer, it’s really dramatic.


How do we know the landscape shows the Cape Cod town of Chatham? There’s a bit of debate about that now. Some feel it might be Truro instead. We can’t say it’s an exact point in Chatham. There’s a bit of a debate about exactly where it is on the Cape, but we’re fairly sure it’s Truro now.


Do we know if he used models for this, and if so, do we know who the models were? I don’t know. I suspect he did. He didn’t do an awful lot of figurative work.


What makes this painting stand out among Dunbar’s works? The prominent figures, the work is a fairly large size for him, and the quality is outstanding. He obviously puts a lot of time and effort into it. On the quality scale of his Cape Cod works, it’s a 10.


How many Dunbars have you handled? How have you seen his market change over time? We’ve handled probably 500 Dunbars. The market for him has been pretty steady. There’s always been pretty solid demand, particularly on the cape. They’re bright, cheerful, and fairly easy and popular sells.


How did the painting find its way to you? It came in to an art dealer in a shop in Denver, Colorado last summer. The dealer called us to refer the consigner, and shipped the painting out. It was not where you expect to find a Dunbar. My suspicion is someone who was probably here originally left the area. We didn’t see a public record of it being sold. None of the local dealers and collectors recalled seeing it on the market before.


Did that prompt a concern that it might be fake? Are fakes a problem with Dunbar’s work? That didn’t concern us at all. There actually have been a few fakes out there, but they’re pretty easy to spot. A lot of the “fakes” that we see are not intentionally faked, but people thinking, “If I put a signature on it, I can make a couple hundred bucks.”


What was it like to see it show up? It was exciting. We looked at it and said, “Wow, this is the best Dunbar we’ve ever seen.” It was a nice moment to unpack it. I put it on the cover of the catalog not thinking it would bring that kind of money, but because I thought it was a powerful image.


How did you arrive at the estimate of $3,000 to $5,000? Estimates are always a tricky thing. As an auctioneer, you want the estimate to be fair but conservative. In this case, the Dunbar auction record up to that point was $5,000. It was a very nice harbor painting that we sold about 10 years before. Only about five percent of his works had broken the $3,000 barrier. Conservative estimates are better, but a lot of people get caught up in the moment and bid what they want to bid. I thought if they got caught up, on a great day, the Dunbar might sell for $10,000 to $15,000.


When did you get a notion that the Dunbar might do better than $5,000? We had a preview two weeks before the sale, and it was very, very well-received. Dunbar collectors loved it. Even those who didn’t care about Dunbar loved it.


What was your role in the auction? I am one of the principal auctioneers, but I did not auction the Dunbar. I was a bystander.


What do you remember of the sale? I think it started around $5,000. There were two very active people in the room, and it quickly got around $15,000. After $15,000, there was one bidder on the phone and one in the room who bid it up to the final price. The person who bought it was in the room, and the underbidder was on the phone.


What was your reaction when you saw it glide past $15,000? I would have been pleased with $15,000. Once it got to $20,000, I was shocked. It was a surprise to everybody. Two people desperately had to have it, and it became a battle.


Why do you think they fought so hard for it? I think the painting just spoke to them. This is just my analysis of it–I haven’t spoken to either of them. This is a wonderful Cape Cod painting. Everyone was taken in by the female figure. It’s a pleasing painting, a relaxing painting. You can picture yourself walking on a Cape Cod evening and passing her. It was one of those moments. And there’s mystery around the painting, too. The man is much older. Is it her father? Her husband? People had fun figuring out what the story was. At one point, I thought it might be a commissioned work or an illustration for a story, but there’s no proof. That’s complete conjecture on my part.


How long do you think this record will stand? Could any other Dunbar painting challenge it? I know of nothing out there that would be available for sale at any point that could challenge it. I know of some Dunbars in private hands, but they wouldn’t achieve close to this level. In my opinion, it will stand for a long time, potentially our lifetimes. It was lightning in a bottle.


Well, this painting pretty much appeared out of nowhere. Maybe lightning will strike twice? It certainly can. I’m not a gambler, and I wouldn’t bet on it, but part of the fun of what we do is we never know. Last summer, we sold a scrimshaw tooth that shattered the record, and it was bought at a gun show. There’s always that next wonderful thing out there. That’s part of what keeps us going.


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Eldred’s is also on Twitter and Instagram.


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


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RECORD! Bonhams Sold a 1951 Vincent Black Lightning In January 2018 for $929,000–a Record for Any Motorcycle at Auction

Vincent Lightning Profile 1_3308

What you see: A 1951 Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle, one of 19 with full matching numbers [same numbers on both the frame and the engine]. Bonhams sold it in Las Vegas in January 2018 for $929,000–a record for any motorcycle at auction. (Also, scroll all the way down for news of another Vincent Black Lightning, estimated at $400,000 to $500,000, which Bonhams will offer in early October in Birmingham, Alabama.)


The expert: Ben Walker, international department director for collectors’ motorcycles at Bonhams.


Vincent Black Lightnings are rare–fewer than three dozen exist. How often do they come to auction? Before this, one came up in October 2008, a supercharged example, which was also at Bonhams. [It sold for £221,500, or about $294,149.]


Was that an auction record for a motorcycle? It was an auction record for a Vincent Black Lightning. Not overall.


The lot notes say that when this bike’s first owner offered it for sale for £500 in 1951, the sum would have bought “a couple of nice houses in Sydney at the time.” What did the buyer get for his money? He got the ultimate, the best that money could buy. If you look at the bike, this was based on the Vincent Black Shadow, which was the quickest thing you could buy. It must have been like something out of space. A sedan averaged 45 mph. The bike was capable of 150 mph. It’s phenomenal. The bike had ingenuity, it’s a beautiful object to look at, and it was extremely expensive. He got an incredible luxury product.


What did luxury mean in the context of buying the best motorcycle that 1951 had to offer? Power. Comfort. He got something that had suspension. The majority of bikes that got you to work were two-stroke things, very utilitarian. They were not designed with the ability to cover big distances at great speeds in comfort.


What makes the Vincent Black Lightning a holy grail for motorcycle collectors? Rarity, speed, and the fact that this was the fastest thing you could buy on two wheels. It was a competitive motorcycle, and people want to win. They don’t want to be at the back of the grid–they want to be at the front of the grid. This is a bike you could do that on.


The bike is described as being in “original condition.” Can you point to a specific detail on the bike that shows how original it is? The paint, the paint. I don’t want to see something that’s perfect. I want to see something that has a patina. That look is so exciting when you can find it, and so exciting when you see it. It’s as good as you can possibly get. There are Vincent Black Lightnings, and then there’s this bike. It’s high up purely on the basis of its condition. It’s not messed-with.


So it’s the best of the Vincent Black Lightnings? I have to place the Rollie Free [Vincent Black Shadow] above this. I have to. I know it’s not a Vincent Black Lightning, but it does get bracketed into the Black Lightning numbers. It’s the top of the tree, something extraordinarily special. [Free made his Black Shadow famous when he set an American land speed record on it at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1948. This photo of him attempting the record while dressed in a Speedo-like bathing suit is regarded as the most famous image in all of motorcycling.] That bike sold privately in 2012 to an American collector for $1.2 million. Whether or not the bike is still worth that price or a bit more, I don’t know, but the market has changed dramatically since 2012.


But if we’re talking strictly about unambiguously counted Vincent Black Lightnings, is this one number one? It’s got to be top three. I know of other bikes. I’m fortunate enough to go to a lot of collections and see a lot of motorbikes, a lot of Vincent Black Lightnings. I can’t talk about them without betraying confidences. But this one is definitely up there.


What markings do I see on the side of the tank? It’s the Australian land speed record, which Jack Ehret set on this bike. I don’t think he held it for very long, but he had to make the point about making the Australian land speed record. [Ehret reached 141.5 mph on the motorcycle in January 1953. The inscription on the tank is visible in one of the many shots Bonhams included with the lot. You may have to scroll down to find it.] It’s a really cool little touch. To paint that bike would be sacrilege. It would be taking value off it, because it would take off the notation.


Have you ridden this bike? Sadly not, but if you look online, on YouTube, for “Patrick Godett Vincent,” you can see a video of it being tested. It was ridden pretty extensively in the run-up to the auction.


This bike has had five owners over 66 years. Is that an exceptionally low number of owners, or is that about what you’d expect? Does it matter? Few owners, traceable history–it’s a big benefit. You can have a vehicle with nine or ten or maybe more owners, and that makes tracing things harder. For this one, we have every owner on record up to the point of sale. It’s unusual. Each owner held the bike in high esteem.


It has fewer than 9,000 miles on its odometer. Is that unusual for a 66-year-old elite motorcycle? It’s unusually low, but maybe not for a racing bike. Racing bikes have a shelf life. They’re not really built to last more than two or three seasons, after which they’re not that competitive anymore. They become obsolete. Jack Ehret [its third owner] campaigned it for a long time and got results with it. It is low mileage, but you’re going to have limited use in racing. It’s [the low number is] not that unusual.


What was your role in the January 2018 auction? I wasn’t watching. I was on the phone to the vendor [the consigner], who could not be there. I relayed what was going on. He relayed a lot of expletives to me, but not in a bad way. [Laughs.] I’m not going to imitate a French accent–he said “sacre bleu!” but not “sacre bleu”, it was something else. The auction was quite exciting. I kept my cool. Malcolm Barber [Bonhams’s co-chair and CEO of Bonhams Asia] sold the bike. In the YouTube video, I’m pacing around in the background. [Walker is behind the Bonhams desk to the left of the stage.]


When did you know you had a new world auction record for a motorcycle? Only afterwards. You’re so focused on what’s going on. I was telling the client what was happening with the motorcycle. I was not surprised, to be honest. It deserves to be the record-holder, and it deserves to be beaten. I think there are bikes out there with potential.


What motorcycles are out there that could challenge the record? The Rollie Free Vincent Black Shadow? If it came up at auction, yes, it would, but I don’t think it will come up at auction. Thinking rare bikes again, I think Mike Hailwood’s comeback bike for the 1978 Isle of Man TT. Maybe a Lawrence of Arabia-owned Brough Superior. Two, possibly three of those survive. Steve McQueen adds value–he had some exceptional bikes. An AJS Porcupine from the mid-1950s is a potential world record. Steve McQueen’s Triumph from The Great Escape, if it ever came up. What would be interesting about that is the Triumph was used by a fictional character, versus a bike ridden by Lawrence of Arabia, who was not a fictional character.


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On October 6, 2018, Bonhams will offer an early Vincent Black Lightning at an auction scheduled during the Barber Vintage Festival in Birmingham, Alabama.


Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.


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

WHOA! That Elmer Crowell Preening Black Duck Decoy Flew Away With $600,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions–Double Its High Estimate


Update: The circa 1912 A. Elmer Crowell Phillips rig preening black duck decoy sold for $600,000—double its high estimate.


What you see: A Phillips rig preening black duck decoy, carved circa 1912 by A. Elmer Crowell for his patron, Dr. John C. Phillips. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.


Who was A. Elmer Crowell? Born in 1862 in East Harwich, Massachusetts, he’s the king of American duck decoy carvers. Initially, he carved in the course of his work at duck-hunting camps, but over time, his magnificent wooden birds won fans who loved them as decorative objects. His decoys have sold at auction for six-figure sums, and two sold privately for more than $1 million each. Crowell died in 1952, at the age of 89.


The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.


Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but is this preening black duck a hen or a drake? Black ducks get a pass on being hens or drakes. 99 percent of the time, they’re just black ducks. This is just a black duck, with no clear designation on being one or the other.


It’s also described as being a “rig mate” to other duck decoys that belonged to the late Dr. Phillips. What does it mean for a decoy to be a rig mate? A rig is a group of birds [decoys] owned by and hunted over by one person. It doesn’t always mean the decoys are exactly alike, or made side by side. There can be a lot of variation, depending on how they were made and used. In the context of the Phillips rig, a decoy can be anything out of that group of rig mates. There are Phillips rig mates that look nothing like Crowell’s work.


Crowell carved and painted hundreds of decoys that depicted black ducks. Where does this one rank among his lifetime output? It’s among his very finest. As you mention, he did hundreds of them. This bird is as good as they come, in my personal opinion.


Did he carve the decoy from a single piece of wood? The bird is made of two pieces, one for the body and one for the head. One thing that makes the bird so strong is the masterful sculpture of the duck in a preening position. It’s not easy to capture well, and Crowell did it nearly perfectly. The finer details of the carving show Crowell’s tremendous effort to do his best work for his best patron. We see him coming into a sweet spot in his career–he was as good a carver as he would be, and this was on the early side of showing his command of his wet-on-wet painting technique, which gives a natural, soft look to the feathers.


This looks gorgeous enough to have been destined for a mantle, but the lot notes say it shows evidence of being used on a hunt… It’s a working decoy, and at the same time, it represents one of the best carved decoys in a decorative sense. The bird was hardly used. It was probably retired early because of an appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. I suspect the patron deemed it too precious to hunt over. What’s interesting about the Phillips rig is Crowell didn’t just make this decoy for Phillips, he was his stand manager. He created the decoys, and decided where they would be hunted, and how they would be hunted over. Crowell knew he was going to be involved with handling the decoy after it left his workshop. He wasn’t handing it over to a hunter who might break it. It’s unknowable, but it’s possible because of the relationship Crowell and Phillips had.


Do we know when Crowell made this decoy? He used a hot brand [on his decoys]. We can date his birds to some extent on the quality of the brand. Every time a brand is heated, it corrodes a little. Over the years, a brand can be seen burning out, leaving a softer and softer impression. It’s a great dating tool that Crowell inadvertently left behind. This has a perfectly crisp oval brand, which suggests it was 1912.


Carving the duck’s head to make it hover in a natural-looking way over the body seems difficult. Is it harder to carve a preening duck? You can think of a preener as the decoy maker’s deluxe model. It’s harder to carve and harder to paint. But it adds variety to the rig, making it look more lifelike as a group. An additional benefit is they’re less breakable because the body can protect the head. We have a 200-year-old decoy in the sale with an intact bill because it’s protected by the body in the preening pose.


What is your favorite detail on this decoy? When I look at this bird, the first thing it does is hold together as a phenomenal piece of sculpture. You can go from tip to tail picking out fine details that were expertly executed, but the bird is better than any one single detail.


What is it like to hold the decoy? [Laughs] Being in the presence of the decoy before handling it is a real pleasure. It’s excellent from every angle. And it feels just right in the hand. It’s full, robust, and you can feel the finer subtleties in the carving details. I wouldn’t change a thing.


To explain what a big deal it is to auction Donal C. O’Brien, Jr.’s collection of decoys and sporting art, can you draw an analogy to other notable auctions of lots consigned by great collectors? It would be somewhat like the Rockefeller collection or the Yves St. Laurent collection in its breadth and quality, and that’s been reflected in the market response to the birds so far.


Why will this Crowell preening black duck decoy stick in your memory? Crowell is a quintessential representative of great American bird carving. He was self-taught. He started making decoys because he needed to, and his working decoys led to the birth of American decorative bird carving. This bird is at the nexus of his carving career, where his working decoys became so good, they’re indistinguishable from decorative carving. He’s one of the best makers, making his best effort, carving one of his favorite species for his most important client. It fires on all cylinders from a historic standpoint and an aesthetic standpoint.


How to bid: The Crowell preening black duck is lot 14 in the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Collection of Important American Sporting Art and Decoys, Session III, taking place July 19, 2018 at Copley Fine Art Auctions.


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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.


Copley Fine Art Auctions appeared on The Hot Bid last summer in a post about a record-setting Gus Wilson duck decoy.




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RECORD! In 2012, Swann Galleries Sold an A.M. Cassandre Poster for $162,500–A Record for Any Travel Poster


What you see: L.M.S./Best Way, a 1928 poster by Adolphe Mouron (A.M.) Cassandre. Swann Galleries sold it in November 2012 for $162,500, an auction record for any travel poster.


The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.


Cassandre did so many great travel poster designs. Why is this one so sought-after? The easiest way to sum it up is it’s the only poster of his that had a limited edition run. The fewer there are, the more collectors want it.


Cassandre did designs along these lines for two different train company clients, both of whom rejected them. Why did they say no? The story is a little bit murky. In 1927, he did a painting for a French railway that was similar. It was not accepted, and there’s no record as to why. The British railway line [L.M.S] didn’t want it either, so Cassandre printed it in a small run.


That’s quite a move for a poster artist, to print the thing himself. Why did he do it? Because the poster is great. I think he was very, very proud of it.


Why might the train companies have hesitated to go ahead with this design? We’re looking at it with 20/20 historical hindsight, but what we love about it now is it’s a unique view of a train. The train companies might have asked, ‘Dude, where is the train going?’ It could have been too abstract for them.


Why does the poster take this unusual square-ish shape? This is the standard size British poster format for the hoardings [billboards] at a British train station. Had the British railway accepted the poster design, they had to be able to use it in their system. The French version, which I’ve only seen as a photo in a book, is quite close to this. You look at them and you could base a game on picking out how they’re different from each other. It’s not at all obvious.


Cassandre printed 50 of these posters. Do we know how many survive? No one has done a census of them, but I’d have to imagine there’s probably ten to 25. Some are in institutions, which will never sell them. There can’t be more than 25 in private hands.


How many have you seen or handled? We’ve only handled one. I have seen three others. A different organization has offered it for sale four times. Twice, it was the same piece.


How did you arrive at the estimate of $70,000 to $100,000? It came from the fact that in 1990, it sold at auction for $60,500, and in 1997, one sold for $57,500. In the decade and a half since the 1997 sale, there had been more poster auctions. His name was more known, his stock was rising, and his talent was known more.


Cassandre numbered these posters like you would a limited edition print. Was that an unusual practice for 1928? Posters are never numbered. It’s more than unusual, it’s singular. For his Normandie ship, no one knows how many were done, but it was probably in the thousands. This one, because it was privately printed, signed, and numbered, it was more like a Picasso lithograph.


You were the auctioneer that night. What do you remember about selling the poster? Without looking anything up, I remember it was not bought by someone who I thought would buy it. We know who the big collectors are, and the big dealers who feed the big collectors. We know whose toes to tickle, and it went to someone else. It was such a rarity that people outside the expected circle were participating. It was bought over the Internet and remains our largest purchase online to date.


Do you remember when you knew you had a record? It’s too long ago to say, but it was clearly a groundbreaking moment both for the artist and for the poster market as a whole. $162,500 is real money. I don’t think I thought this at the time, but it really showed that posters had come of age. It showed how deep the market was.


What factors drove the poster to its record price? Rarity, but you can have something that’s rare and ugly. This is rare, and it’s extraordinary, and it’s by Cassandre. It’s a trifecta. Cassandre is still the gold standard for machine age Art Deco design, and this poster is incredibly attractive. It’s great.


How long do you think the record will stand? I don’t think anything else is out there that could challenge it. What you haven’t asked me is what its estimate would be if it came up today. Since 2012, everything has changed. That sale was after the crash in 2008. Now the economy is booming. If the poster came up again, I think the estimate would be $100,000 to $150,000, and I have to think it would sell for substantially more. I’m almost certain that it would set the record again, depending on its condition. The one we sold was not in great condition. It had a grade of B+/ B– not a proud condition grade. If it were in better shape, the estimate might be $120,000 to $180,000.


How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.


Swann Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter, and Nicholas Lowry is on Instagram and Twitter as well.


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


Nicholas Lowry has appeared several times on The Hot Bid. Read past entries in which he  talks about a 1938 London Transport poster by Man Ray that ultimately sold for $149,000a trio of Mont Blanc posters from 1928, a mid-1930s German travel poster featuring the Hindenburg, a 1968 MoMA poster by Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo, an I Want You 1917 World War I recruiting poster that introduced the modern concept of Uncle Sam, and an Alphonse Mucha poster featuring Sarah Bernhardt.



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