SOLD! A Brass Sleeve Holdout Device for Cheating at Cards Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

This brass sleeve holdout device by Will & Finck, dating to the 1880s, allowed the wearer to cheat at cards. When the player received a valuable card they wanted to save for a later hand, they'd touch the button that extends the device, surreptitiously tuck the choice card into the gripper, and then hit another button that pulled the card back up their sleeve. The card cheat would wear the device strapped to the underside of an arm, hidden beneath clothing. The photograph shows the device upside down.

Update: The Will & Finck circa 1880s brass sleeve holdout sold for $9,000.

What you see: A brass sleeve holdout device by Will & Finck, dating to the 1880s. Potter & Potter estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

Are Will and Finck real people, or are they made-up names, seeing as the company made gear for gamblers who want to cheat? And did the company make straightforward products, too? I assume they are [real people]. It was a pretty well-known business in San Francisco. They were best known as knife-makers.

How does a sleeve holdout work? Let’s say you play a hand and you see a card that will be useful down the line. The clip [shown above, holding the King of Spades card], which is called a thief, you pop it out of your sleeve with pressure on the lever [in the photo above, it is attached to the cuff and has a cross-hatch pattern on one end] and take it for later. You put it in the thief and it goes back in your sleeve. Let’s say you need the card. You put pressure on the lever. It will activate the device, and the tongs will come out of your sleeve. The knobs are where you attach the elastic [which eases the movement of the device]. One is directly behind the lever, and one is on the tongs themselves.

It looks uncomfortable to wear. Was it? It certainly required some getting used to. I imagine it might be like wearing an artificial leg–you strap a metal device to yourself with a tether under your clothes. In a way, it’s like a third hand. In some instances later in the 20th century, the sleeve holdout is called a third hand. I think we have an example in the auction. [Yes indeed, Potter & Potter have a circa 1960 holdout in the sale lineup.]

And the user would wear the device under his forearm? It depended on what you were wearing. It’s tough if you wear a shirt that has buttons on it [on the cuff]. You have to have clear passage out of your shirt. It’d have to be a bare arm under a jacket, or, and I don’t know anyone who did this, a shirt under a jacket. [Later Fajuri clarified: There were plenty of people who wore them over a shirt and under a jacket, but they had strategies to get the device to clear the cuff of the shirt or the opening of their sleeve.] It’s got to move swiftly and silently without hanging up or you’re a dead man, literally. [To point out something that might not be inherently clear–the photograph shows the device upside down.]

Did people use holdouts during card games? Yes. In many ways, it takes more guts and skill to use a holdout than to deal from the bottom of the deck. If you’re caught with a holdout, you have no defense. You literally have no defense.

Did anyone actually get caught using a holdout, for real? Plenty of people have used them. The technology has improved somewhat from what you see here. There are plenty of books filled with gambling lore, and stories of people being caught in the act of using a holdout are numerous. I saw a guy who did it professionally, and it took my breath away. If you’re skilled at using one of these things, it’s a miracle. Personally, I think you’ve got to have nerves of steel.

Did anyone running a card game pat players down before dealing? Seldom does the man exist who has the guts to use one of these things. If someone was particularly suspicious, yeah, you could do that. But anyone who takes the time and effort to use one of these things would take the time and effort to sneak it into a game. The amount of energy people expend to beat the system, cheating at cards, dice, et cetera–it boggles the mind. The ingenuity is considerable. Isn’t there an easier way to make a buck?

Are people using holdouts to cheat at cards today, right now? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Absolutely. I guy I knew once said, “I have to commit three felonies a week to keep my family fed.” He was an expert when it came to using a holdout.

Have you tried it on? No.

How long has the concept of the sleeve holdout been around? Does it predate the 1880s? I believe it does, but I’m not a subject matter expert. I’d have to defer to someone else. I don’t have an exact date in mind when something like this existed. Lot 151 in the auction, a rare book by F. R. Ritter, is the first to show a Jacob’s ladder-style sleeve holdout [like the one pictured above]. The book has sold for as much as $19,000. And it doesn’t hurt that all of these cheating strategies have been mythologized by movies set in the old West. Hollywood has done its part in creating the stories around dodges and subterfuges.

How rarely do antique sleeve holdouts appear at auction? We do them on the regular, but that doesn’t mean they’re common. Once you cross the 1900 mark, they’re slightly more available, which is not to say that any of it is easy to find. In our auctions, they appear about once a year, generally speaking.

How unusual is it to find one of this vintage that’s original and intact, as this one is? Is it rare? We sold a Will & Finck holdout last year for $10,000. [It was lot 249 in the May 19, 2018 auction.] In all our years of gambling auctions, it was the first Will & Finck we’ve sold. Their name is like sterling on silver–the highest quality. I’ve seen one or two others in personal collections.

The lot notes say this sleeve holdout was pictured in the section on cheaters in Time-Life’s 1978 Old West series of books, on page 124. How does that affect its value? A hardcore collector has that book and has ogled it for how long now? We’ve been fortunate to sell [items] from the book. It’s a lot of fun seeing things you’ve been dreaming of for decades and being the one to bring it back to market after all that time. [This is as close as I was able to get to finding a reproduction of page 124 online.]

How to bid: The Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout is lot 448 in Gambling Memorabilia: Featuring the Collection of Tom Blue, taking place March 30, 2019 at Potter & Potter.

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Gabe Fajuri is a favorite on The Hot Bid. He’s talked about a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.

Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

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An Antonio Jacobsen Schooner Portrait from 1911 Could Command $10,000

Antonio Jacobsen's 1911 portrait of the schooner dubbed Goldfield depicts the white-bodied vessel in profile, prow to the left. Its four masts are topped by, respectively, an American jack, a line flag, a flag with the ship's name, and the American flag.

What you see: A portrait of the Goldfield, a four-masted schooner, painted in 1911 by Antonio Nicole Gasparo Jacobsen. Eldred’s estimates it at $8,000 to $10,000.

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

How prolific was Jacobsen? Extremely prolific. It’s estimated that he painted over 6,000 works. He had a long career, and he was also good and reasonable, so he was popular.

Did he only paint portraits of ships? Pretty much. 99 percent of what we see are ship portraits.

Do we know how many of his ship portraits depict schooners? I’m not sure, but what’s interesting about Antonio Jacobsen’s career is it follows the development of American naval history. Earlier paintings are more likely to be traditional sailing ships.

This is a schooner, and he painted it in 1911. Is that unusual for him? It’s pretty classic for him. It’s a little late for him. After 1905, you start to see yachts and racing scenes and more interesting things. He had achieved success in his career [by then]. He was financially sound. The captain or the lead engineer might have commissioned it. If there were multiple owners, he might do multiple portraits of the same ship.

What do we know about the Goldfield? We don’t know too much about it.

Do collectors have a preference for an era or phase of his career? Every collector is different. Certain Antonio Jacobsen collectors only want certain lines of steamships. Some like to collect family ships–their great-grandfather might have invested in a certain ship, and they want that. Generic collectors prefer them to 1890 to 1895. When you start to get to the early 1900s, unless it’s a great example, they don’t pay quite as much.

What details mark this as an Antonio Jacobsen? The treatment of the ship is very typical, and the water is very typical. For post-1905 paintings, Jacobsen employed his kids sometimes to do the water and the sky. With this one, and it’s more of a feeling, he did the water rather than his kids. In my opinion, and there’s no way to tell for sure, his kids might have played a part in the sky in this one, but I think the water and the ship are all him.

What points to the waves being typical of him? It’s more the way he painted the waves. They have a wonderful modulation of colors, and [it’s in] the way the boat touches the water.

Could you explain the meanings behind the pennants that top some of the masts? Obviously one is the American flag and one has the ship’s name. What are the second and the first ones? The line was part of WW. They co-owned the ship. The pennant on the foremast [the one with a blue background and white speckles] is the American jack. It represents it as an American ship. A lot of times it was on when the ship was moored. Above the American flag, there’s a wind indicator.

How did he do this? Would he have worked from a template, or did he view the ship in person? Most likely, he observed it in person and created a sketch. Generally what would happen is the ship would come into port and the captain or the owner would ask [would commission a painting from Jacobsen]. He’d sketch it and would deliver it the next time they were in town.

What condition is it in? This one is in pretty good shape. There’s a little inpainted sky. At one point in its life it suffered some sort of paint loss or damage, and the restorer carefully fixed it.

How did you arrive at the estimate? We’ve been in business since 1948, and we’ve sold hundreds of Jacobsens over the years. When you have 6,000, 7,000 paintings, there’s a lot of art out there. A lot of the paintings are owned by New England people.

What is it like in person? It’s a pretty fair representation. It’s a vibrant picture in person. The sails have a little air in them. It’s in movement. One of the things I like about it is the activity on the deck. It’s a nice detail to have.

How to bid: Jacobsen’s portrait of the Goldfield is lot 423 in the Spring Sale at Eldred’s on April 5 and 6, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Eldred’s.

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Yousuf Karsh Plucked Winston Churchill’s Cigar From His Mouth and Made This Immortal Photo. Heritage Could Sell It for $5,000

Yousuf Karsh's famous black and white 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill shows the British prime minister scowling directly at the camera, with one hand on his waist and the other resting on the head of a cane. It is the scowl to end all scowls, designed to reduce offenders to a gibbering mess.

What you see: A vintage gelatin silver print of a portrait of Winston Churchill, taken by Yousuf Karsh in 1941 and printed in the 1940s or 1950s. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.

The expert: Nigel Russell, photographs director at Heritage.

I wanted to start by talking about how this photo came about. Could you tell the story of how Karsh got this image? He set up a studio in Ottawa in the early 1930s. He was friendly with the Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King. He had a reputation in Canada, but he wasn’t that well-known. Churchill was doing a tour during World War II. He came to Washington and then Ottawa to get support for the war. He gave an electrifying speech in Ottawa. The Canadian Prime Minister asked Karsh to take a picture of Churchill, but apparently, no one told Churchill he was going to have his picture taken. He was annoyed to begin with. He lit a cigar, puffed away, and said, “OK, you can quickly take the picture,” very angrily. Karsh held out an ashtray [so Churchill could] take the cigar out of his mouth. He didn’t. He ignored him. Karsh made his final settings [on his camera] and just before taking the picture, he said, “Excuse me, Sir,” and took the cigar out of his mouth. That’s why you get a scowling look in the picture.

This image made Karsh’s reputation. How soon did he know the strength of what he had? When he took the photo, he knew it was good and important, but he didn’t know how important it would be. He went from a Canadian photographer to an international photographer. It launched his career of photographing heads of state and important people around the world.

I was thinking about that act–plucking the cigar from Winston Churchill’s mouth–and I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to do it… Karsh was a rather small man, and Churchill was an imposing figure who wasn’t paying any attention to him. He felt the need to get his attention and probably felt he didn’t have much to lose. He was not a very important photographer at the time, so he just did it. There is another photo that’s not very well-known because it’s just not the same, where Churchill is smiling. I think Churchill was actually impressed with what Karsh did, and let him take another picture.

When I think of Winston Churchill, I think of this photo. That’s the image that winks into my head. What makes it so effective? It’s exactly the way you picture him giving powerful speeches in World War II–a powerful, no-nonsense person. It’s one of those few instances where the portrait is what you imagine the personality of the person [to be] and conveys something more than a plain portrait. It makes you feel you have an idea that you can understand the person better.

How is the image a testament to Karsh’s talent? A couple of things make Karsh the most important portrait photographer of the mid-20th century. From a technical point of view, he was excellent–impeccable technique, fantastic lighting, print quality, all of that. The Churchill portrait marked a turning point. From then on, he’d try to get the subject to make a unique expression that shows their inner power, or shoot them in such a way that you wouldn’t normally see.

We know he took the photo in 1941, but I don’t see anything about the date when he printed this one. Can we pin that down? We don’t know exactly when he printed this particular one, but we are listing it as a vintage print. It’s an early print. Karsh did early prints at different sizes, 8 1/2 by 11 inches or 11 by 14 inches. We know it was early because he signed it in white ink, which he seemed to stop doing sometime in the 1950s. It has silver mirroring, which a photograph doesn’t get unless it’s quite old. It’s an oxidation of the silver in the print. If you hold it at an angle, there’s a silvery sheen to the darker areas of the print. Usually it takes 50 years or so to show up. Another indication of age is the print is warm in tone. It’s printed on cream paper, where later prints were on white paper.

The secondary market for photographs didn’t evolve until the 1970s. For whom would Karsh have made this gelatin silver print of his Churchill portrait? I think you have to look at it a little differently. Though the fine art photography market wasn’t created until the 1970s, there was a market for portraits of statesmen and celebrities. People would buy a portrait of someone they admired and hang it in their study. Karsh didn’t make a huge amount of money [from these prints] but you see early prints of Einstein, Charles De Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower… even though the market for fine art photography didn’t exist, there was a market for this kind of portraiture earlier.

And it was not part of a limited edition? Right. Not until you get to the 1970s, to the fine art market, does he start making larger sizes and start doing editions.

How often does this pre-1970s print show up in auction records? I did a search in general of all different Karsh Churchill prints. There have been 187 up for auction since 1987, so about five or six a year, of which maybe one is vintage, or maybe less than that. [Standard reminder: 187 auction results doesn’t mean 187 individual prints went to auction. Some might have been the same print, consigned twice or more.]

And to be clear–because there was demand for portraits of statesmen before the 1970s, there would be more vintage prints of Karsh’s Churchill portrait floating around than you’d get for other types of vintage prints. Yes. I would say from a vintage point of view it’s fairly popular.

How involved would Karsh have been in physically making the print? From what I’ve read, he printed in the darkroom with assistants. He might have been supervising. It’s not clear if he handmade each print himself or if he told his assistants what to do. He was certainly not like some photographers who let their assistants do [the work] and never entered the darkroom. He was very much hands-on.

Is the world auction record for a Karsh photograph a Churchill photograph? And if so, what is it? It’s interesting. I did a search and it turns out the auction record for any Karsh is this image, and it was set at a Beijing auction house by a vintage 8 by 10 in 2015. That was kind of the peak of the Chinese art market auctions. It sold for $39,713. The next-highest result is for a vintage 16 by 20. It’s unusual because he didn’t [normally] make vintage prints that big. It would have been a special order in that size. It sold at Sotheby’s in 2008 for $20,000. Later on, once the photography art market got going, he made 16 by 20s and 20 by 24s.

Of all the collectible photographs of Churchill, is this the one that collectors want most? Oh yeah, by far. If someone’s looking for a Churchill portrait by any photographer, they gravitate toward this one. It’s one of the few where we do have crossover appeal to people who collect Churchilliana, people who collect World War II in general, and people who want a nice Churchill portrait.

Do collectors care if the portrait is vintage or not? A lot of the people who want this picture like it in the later, larger size. We sold a 20 by 24 for $11,300.

What condition is the print in? Silver mirroring is noticeable at an angle, and there are a few small spots of retouching. It’s in overall good condition.

How many Karsh Churchill portraits have you had at Heritage? In all, we’ve sold 11 since we’ve been having photograph auctions [the house began holding them in 2004]. Of those, three were vintage.

As we speak I’m looking at a digital version of the print. What is it like in person? Again, it gets into the realm of connoisseurship. Later black and white prints reproduce fine digitally. They’re what you kind of expect. With vintage prints, there’s a color to them, a warmth to them. The paper often has a bit of texture to it that you can’t see [in a digital reproduction]. It’s really nice to see them in person. They have a certain presence that you don’t get in later prints.

How to bid: The vintage print of Yousuf Karsh’s 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill is lot #73197 in the Photographs Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions in New York on April 6, 2019.

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SOLD! A Zhou Dingfang Baggage-Form Teapot Bagged (Scroll Down to See)

A small baggage-form teapot with cover by contemporary Yixing [pronounced Yee-shing] potter Zhou Dingfang [pronounced Jo Ding-fong]. It looks for all the world like a little suitcase made from milk chocolate-colored leather with  dark chocolate-leather patches and accents. The only hint that it's a teapot are the looped handle, which resembles leather, and the spout on the left side of the "bag".

Update: The small baggage-form teapot with cover by Zhou Dingfang sold for $1,625.

What you see: A small baggage-form teapot with cover by contemporary Yixing [pronounced Yee-shing] potter Zhou Dingfang [pronounced Jo Ding-fong]. Christie’s estimates it at $1,500 to $2,500.

The expert: Rufus Chen, specialist, Chinese ceramics and works of art at Christie’s New York.

The lot notes say Zhou earned “Master Status” in 1995, at the age of 30. What does that mean? Is it similar to the Japanese designation of “National Treasure” status? It’s a relatively different concept. It’s more like a ranking or a job title. If you do beautiful work, you’ll be recognized by the arts and crafts organization with the title.

So the big deal here is that she earned “Master Status” so young? It’s not a unique status. Multiple people have the same title. That’s a young age for a Chinese artist [to earn the title]. She’s a very accomplished and talented artist.

What do we know about her working process? How did she make this? Unlike a lot of blue and white pottery, one artist does it from beginning to end. The artist comes up with the design they want to produce, and they find the right clay in the right color. She used some kind of tool to achieve the soft, leather-like look in the work. It could have been many different tools. It was not done by machine.

Is this piece unique, or is it part of a limited edition? I wouldn’t say the piece is unique. I’ve seen other versions of the small suitcase. I don’t know how many exist, but there are at least five others. It’s normal for a Yixing potter to make several.

Is there a date on this piece? It was the early 1990s when this piece was designed and made.

Is this the first example of her creating a piece that looks like leather? Probably not.  She’s known for her obsession with texture. Another in the sale, lot 54, is more like a leather pouch. That’s also from the early 1990s. She’s known for making leather-like, textured work.

What is your favorite detail on this piece? All the details are so lifelike and well done. The clay used to make the pot, purple clay, is known for its flexibility for molding and sculpting. It allows artists to achieve a very detailed kind of work.

Purple clay? Does it have a purple color? When we say “purple clay,” it’s a collective name for all clay [from the region in China where it is found]. One has a purplish tone, one has a greenish-buff color, and one has a cinnabar orange-red color. By mixing the three clays, you can achieve a wide range of tones and colors.

Is the clay giving the pot its convincing leather coloration, or is she achieving that with glazes? It’s not glaze. It’s the clay body itself. She may have polished the surface to achieve a sheen. It’s really nice when you hold it in person.

Since you mention it, what is it like to hold this piece? It’s very delicate, very lifelike. For this particular piece, the surface does resemble real leather. It reminds me of a real little leather suitcase. It’s very intricate, very well-designed, well made.

And it’s tiny–less than five inches across. Does that mean it’s light? In terms of weight, it’s not heavy.

I realize it’d be insane to brew tea with this, but can it be used as a teapot? If you want to, it can. But it should be perceived as a piece of art, and it’s also small. I don’t know, if you brewed tea, how much tea [it would yield]. There’s probably a little amount of water it could hold. Normal [Yixing pottery teapots] for brewing tea are not ornately decorated. They’re in plain geometric shapes.

Was this piece commissioned by the Irvings, or did the artist make it without a client in mind? I think she just made it. I don’t think the Irvings commissioned it from her. When the Irvings collected it in the 1990s, and even to this day, it’s not the typical [piece] collectors would collect.

What is more typical for collectors to collect? Porcelain with more typical works of art that you see in the auction market. They have those too, but this is a very interesting aspect to their collection.

I understand Zhou Dingfang has connections to the makers of other works in the auction.  What are these connections? A lot of Yixing artists are born and raised in Yixing, and work in Yixing. It’s an interesting aspect to this catalog. Zhou Dingfang learned under Xu Xiutang, the maker of lot 50. And Zhou Dingfang was classmates with Lu Wenxia, another female artist in the sale. There are several from her, including lots 34, 35, and 36. Both Zhou Dingfang and Lu Wenxia were students of Xu Xiutang.

Is this the first time works by Zhou Dingfang have been auctioned in the west? I found examples being sold a few years ago, but in general, you don’t see work by contemporary Yixing artists in western auctions. This is a unique opportunity to collect contemporary Yixing wares.

Are they commonly auctioned in the east? Yes.

Do you have the world auction record for Zhou Dingfang at auction? It would have been set in the east, yes? China has more records than the western world in general. I don’t have the exact price [of her auction record].

Is this the first time several of her works have gone to auction in the same western sale? This is a unique case. All [the lots] come from the same collection, the Irving collection. It’s interesting to see how it will perform.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s beautiful, and its texture is amazing. It’s so intricately and delicately made. It’s a beautiful piece of art.

How to bid: The Zhou Dingfang small baggage-form teapot with cover is lot 52 in The Collection of Florence and Herbert Irving, taking place online from March 19 to 26 at Christie’s.

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Horst P. Horst’s Iconic Fashion Photograph Mainbocher Corset Could Sell for $9,000

Horst P. Horst's "Mainbocher Corset" is a lush black and white image of a young woman with her back to us. She seems to be sitting on some sort of bench. The ribbons of her white corset are unstrung and draped behind her and over the bench. She hides her face behind her shoulder like a dove tucks its beak into its wing.

What you see: Mainbocher Corset, Paris, 1939, shot by Horst P. Horst for Vogue magazine.  Christie’s estimates the gelatin silver print at $7,000 to $9,000.

The expert: Anne Bracegirdle, specialist in Christie’s photographs department, and the head of the Face of a Century auction.

First, to clarify–when did he change his name to Horst P. Horst, and why? He was born in East Germany, and his name was Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann. By the early 1940s, he had emigrated to the States, and he was concerned that his name would be confused with that of a famous Nazi, Martin Bormann, so he legally changed it.

Horst shot Mainbocher Corset in 1939, and it showcases a piece of underclothing most women no longer wear routinely. Yet it remains the most iconic image Horst ever shot, and it’s one of the most iconic fashion photographs ever taken. What makes it so powerful? Keep in mind the timing of the image. Horst is one of the first fashion photographers to be celebrated. He influenced generations of photographers at Vogue. Only a handful of fashion photographers have been championed as great artists. [The strength of the image comes from] an ability to recognize the effects of strong lighting and strong angles. Horst was known to use many, many spotlights at one time. If Mainbocher Corset is considered as a series of lines and slopes, you can see a sense of balance in the composition, an effect which creates a “pleasing” photo, a sense of geometric balance. And it was revolutionary to do at the time.

What made this a revolutionary photo in the 1930s? The corset is half untied and partly off her body. The ribbons are hanging off the sides of the shelf. It’s clearly being removed. Erotic implications are unusual in 1930s publications. The corset was meant to be pulling further away from her body, on the left, but that was considered too risqué.

Do we know how much time Horst spent setting up this shot? We don’t, but he was known to take very great care. It was very well-planned, with multiple spotlights in the studio. Every image we know of his was staged very well in advance. It was taken the night before he left Paris, for fear of the Nazi threat. [Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and this image appeared in the September 1939 issue of Vogue.] He left his studio after this shot, at 4 am. He took the early train to Normandy and emigrated to the U.S. This is a very emotional image for him. It represents his career in Paris, and what he left behind.

How much of Mainbocher Corset‘s power as a fashion image comes from the fact that we can’t see the model’s face? Does that add to its power? I think so. And it was taken to sell the corset. This is a commercial image. It’s more about the composition, and less about her identity.

The lot notes say it was “printed later,” which I take to mean after it appeared in Vogue in 1939, and before Horst died in 1999. Is it possible to narrow the date of the limited edition down from that six-decade span? If we don’t know with certainty which decade it was printed in, we err on the side of “printed later.” This was the late 1970s, the early 1980s, or in the 1990s, before he died. The market didn’t fully develop until the 1970s. That’s when the commercial secondary market [for photography] was created, and when fashion photographers were looking back at their images and realizing that a market was being created. It was not fully known then that edition printing was needed to create a value structure. Many did not edition.

Do we know how many Mainbocher Corset prints Horst made? There are so many prints of this image, there’s no way to determine how many exist.

Do we know how many limited editions of Mainbocher Corset there are? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The reality is that some images are so iconic, there are many different editions in different sizes.

Is this particular print regarded as a good size for Mainbocher Corset? Yes. This is the more standard size, which is more available frequently. [The sheet measures 13 7/8 inches by 10 7/8 inches; the image itself is 9 7/8 inches by 7 7/8 inches.]

Is this print more desirable for being part of a numbered limited edition of 50? The estimate you see is the same estimate we’d use for the same size print from a later, not-limited edition. The premium is really given to larger-format prints, and platinum prints, which are much more rare, and vintage prints [which were made around 1939].

This print is number four of 50. Does that matter? Do collectors prefer earlier or later numbers in a Horst limited edition? At auctions, at least in my department, there’s no value on earlier or later [numbers] in an edition. It’s not a factor for us, and it really shouldn’t be to the buyer either.

I guess Mainbocher Corset prints are similar to Abraham Lincoln memorabilia–there’s a lot floating around, but it holds its value or rises because the demand is there. Exactly. Ansel Adams is really prolific. There’s no way to know the number of iconic images that exist, but we can estimate them strongly because the demand exists. Any time an image rises to the level of an icon, it stands the test of time. Mainbocher Corset represents the height of fashion photography. It’s an icon of the medium. It’s important socially and politically, and in how modern it is. It really is a timeless icon. I would advise clients who are risk-averse and interested in focusing on images that we know will retain their value–this is one I’d recommend.

What’s the world auction record for a Horst photograph, and for a print of Mainbocher Corset? The highest prices for Horst and for fashion photography were in the early 2000s and the late 2000s. That was the boom time for this imagery. The three highest Horst results were achieved then, and all three were this image. The market became flooded with this image. What ended up happening is you’d see it up for auction every season, and there was less incentive to bid if it was going to come up next season. In the past two years, we started offering iconic Horst images less frequently, to let the market recover.

So the record for any Horst at auction and for Mainbocher Corset are one and the same… It was in 2007, in a specific Horst sale at Christie’s, a single-owner collection from Gert Elfering, who owned the Horst estate. It was a 23 1/4 by 17 inch platinum palladium print from a limited edition of five, and it sold for $288,000. The second-highest was a vintage version of this image, estimated at $120,000 to $180,000 and sold for $216,000.

How involved would Horst have been in the printing of this limited edition? Would he have done it himself, or would he have supervised someone else, or would he have handed off the work entirely? He always printed himself until he became elderly. Ricky Horst, his partner, who he eventually adopted as his son, oversaw Ricky [after Horst was too old to do the work from start to finish in the dark room].

Do collectors prefer prints made by Horst to those made by Ricky Horst under his supervision? No, there’s no market difference. What’s more important is the condition of the print.

What’s the condition of this particular print? There are no condition issues. With these later prints, which do come to market frequently, we have high standards for them.  When there are many prints available on the market, collectors demand [they be] in very good condition. If they’re not, there are more available.

What is the print like in person? One reason photographs are so special is their qualities as objects. One quality of a gelatin silver print [which this print is] is it’s printed on glossier paper, which creates a sheen that emphasizes the contrasts. It creates a depth to the darks and emphasizes the highlights. It’s a result of the paper and the print process. Platinum prints have a very matte surface and a texture almost like a charcoal drawing. For collectors, it’s almost a personal preference. Each print process brings out different qualities of the image. Gelatin silver prints have more vibrant grays, and are inherently cooler. Platinum prints are inherently warm. This can be overlooked when you’re consuming photographs digitally. They have a tactile quality.

How to bid: Mainbocher Corset is lot 163 in The Face of a Century: Photographs from a Private Collection, taking place on April 2, 2019 at Christie’s New York.

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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

If you think you’ve seen Mainbocher Corset before, you almost certainly have–it’s been a fashion inspiration since the day it was printed. Maybe the most famous reference to the image is Madonna’s “quote” at the end of her 1990 music video for Vogue.

Horst P. Horst has a website, and hey, guess what’s shown right there on the landing page? Yep.

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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A Porphyry Popeye Fantail Birdstone Could Soar to $350,000

A porphyry popeye fantail birdstone, created by the people of the Glacial Kame Culture sometime between 3,000 and 500 BCE in what is now DeKalb County, Indiana. It looks like a small dog, except it has two loops where the front and back feet should be. It is slate gray with pale cream-colored blobs of varying sizes across its body. It has two wide nailhead-like protuberances where its ears should be, but the protuberances are called "eyes".

What you see: A porphyry popeye fantail birdstone, created by the people of the Glacial Kame Culture sometime between 3,000 and 500 BCE in what is now DeKalb County, Indiana. Cowan’s Auctions estimates it at $250,000 to $350,000.

The expert: Erin Rust, specialist in the department of American Indian Art at Cowan’s.

What is a birdstone, and what do we know about how the Glacial Kame Culture people might have used it? It’s an effigy, usually carved from a softer stone, and it’s kind of unclear what, exactly, the artifacts were used for. They’re usually field finds. This was found in a potato field in northern Indiana. It was possibly an atlatl [pronounced at-el-at-el] weight–a throwing device used to achieve a higher power when throwing.

Kind of like a counterweight on a trebuchet? It’s an extension of the arm throwing a spear. Harder and faster and for high-powered hunting. We don’t really find them in archeological contexts. It’s up for conjecture what they were actually used for.

How were birdstones made? They were expertly carved, chipped away from a larger block of stone. They roughed out the form in the shape they wanted, then polished it into the final form.

Sounds like a lot of work. Especially if it’s a hard, granite-type stone.

How hard is it to carve porphyry? It’s pretty difficult. It’s a hard hard stone. They’d typically use banded slate, which is a lot easier to carve. There are not as many porphyry birdstones. They’re much more labor-intensive, and much more rare. About 10 percent of the known birdstones are carved out of porphyry.

Would the cream-colored splotches have drawn the carver to the stone, and influenced how they carved it, in the way that jade carvers in China work with rust-colored inclusions in the stone? Exactly. They would look at the material and decide to carve it based on the cream-colored splotches, which are called phenocrysts.

And why is it called a birdstone? This one, to me, looks more like a dog than a bird. It could be a dog, it could be a bird, but it’s commonly called a birdstone. Some look like bears, some look like birds, some look like dogs. It’s the interpretation of the viewer. “Birdstone” is the general term for it.

And the things protruding from the head are called eyes? I thought they were ears. They’re called eyes, but whether they’re actually ears or eyes is open to interpretation as well.

Is it made to be held in the hand? It is small, but because of the perforations on the ridges at the bottom, it [was probably] meant to be attached to something like an atlatl rather than held.

To be clear–if birdstones were found in an archeological context, they’d be more likely to be considered jewelry. Because they’re found in fields, it’s more likely they were attached to an atlatl with a sinew and maybe the sinew broke. It could be jewelry, but they’re found in fields. We don’t really find them in an archeological context.

Cameron Parks, who owned this piece, deemed it the finest birdstone in the world. Is it? What makes it so? This piece is regarded as one of the top five examples of Popeye porphyry birdstones. What makes it unique is the blue hue to the stone. Porphyry can be quite dark. The blue hue with the cream phenocrysts make it pop and makes it unique. Also, the popeyes are large on the top of his head, and the form tapers into his head. And the bodies are usually long and slender, but with this, the body expands into a circular form, and a tail that widens to a fantail, and tips up.

This birdstone was found in 1950. Was the mid-20th century a time when many birdstones were being discovered? Among the top five greatest birdstones, this piece was discovered the latest. The Smithsonian birdstone was discovered in 1882. The majority of them had been discovered by 1950.

What condition is it in, and what does “condition” mean when we’re talking about something that’s thousands of years old? As old as this piece is, it’s in exceptional condition. With these, the head breaks off, the tail breaks off, the eyes or ears break off. On this, nothing has broken off. It has two small nicks, one on the bottom near a perforated ridge, and one on the top edge of the left eye. The fact that it’s never broken and it’s as old as it is is pretty amazing.

The lot notes say it retains its original polish. What does that mean here? This piece did not spend time buried in acidic soil. It has not deteriorated. The polish is the same as it was when it went in the ground. The surface is very smooth. There’s no pitting to it. It’s incredible.

So, it being made of porphyry made it more resilient? Birdstones made from banded slate lose their polish faster and the ground erodes them quicker. Porphyry ones are less likely to erode.

Has this piece been auctioned before? It’s been in the same family for 70 years. They have offered it before at auction, probably eight years ago.

What does the Cameron Parks provenance add to the piece? Cameron Parks had one of the largest and better collections [of artifacts] in the country. That makes artifacts from his collection are more sought-after.

What’s the record for a birdstone at auction? Very few, if any birdstones of this caliber have been offered at public auction. They have been offered privately, but not at auction. We had a very nice collection of 30 to 35 birdstones, but not of this caliber. We sold them starting in 2017 and finishing in September 2018. That was a very large collection of birdstones, but normally when they come up there are one or two, not 30 to 35.

What is it like in person? He’s small, but he’s pretty mighty. [Laughs] I call him “he”. It has a very strong presence to it. The craftsmanship of it is absolutely incredible. Very few [other birdstones] compare to this piece because of its craftsmanship, the material, everything about it.

What is it like to hold it in your hand? It fits perfectly in your hand, but it doesn’t feel like something [designed] to hold on to. The perforations at the bottom makes it sit oddly in the hand. That’s why it might have been used with an atlatl.

Is there anything that the camera doesn’t pick up? The camera really emphasizes its presence. When you first see it, you think, “Whoa, he’s kinda small.” Then you handle it, and its aura is magnificent. I think the photographer really captured the presence in this piece.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a rare opportunity to have close access to such a high-level artifact. I probably won’t have the opportunity to see this caliber of birdstone come through the door again. It’s pretty remarkable.

How to bid: The porphyry popeye fantail birdstone is lot 22 in the American Indian and Western Art: Premier Auction taking place at Cowan’s Auctions on April 5, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Cowan’s.

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SOLD! Original Art from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman Sold For… (Click to See)

Original artwork for page 33 of the Volume 2, Number 14 issue of The Sandman, which was released in March 1990. It was penciled by Mike Dringenberg and inked by Malcolm Jones III. At the top we see a splash page featuring Rose Walker and Dream. Fun Land appears in some of the lower panels. The page depicts Dream planting dreams in the characters' heads, and we see the dream he planted in Fun Land's head. The page is rendered in black and white.

Update: The page sold for $14,278–a new record for artwork from the original series of The Sandman.

What you see: Original artwork for page 33 of the Volume 2, Number 14 issue of The Sandman, which was released in March 1990. Penciled by Mike Dringenberg and inked by Malcolm Jones III, Hake’s Americana & Collectibles estimates it at $5,000 to $10,000.

The expert: Alex Winter, President of Hake’s Americana & Collectibles.

How often do original pieces of art from the Sandman series of comic books come to auction? The Sandman is its own universe at this point. The basis of The Sandman is the 75 [issues] plus one special that ran between 1989 and 1996. [There are also two later series.] Upwards of 2,000 original pieces of art could come from that series. We don’t know how many have come on the market, but we’ve had two. It’s safe to say it’s a fraction of what was created for the comic book.

I see three images with the lot. Is that what the winning bidder gets, or are some of the images there solely for context? You just get the first piece [the piece on the left of the three shown with the lot]. The next image is a detail of the panel, and the next is the cover of the comic book it was published in.

The lot notes says there are seven panels in the original art, but I only see five. Where are the two that I missed? The middle panel of the bottom three panels, the Fun Land panels, has three different narrative scenes in it. [It looks like one panel, but it counts as three.]

The lot notes say the artwork contains a “splash panel.” What is a splash panel, and why might the artist have used one here? In the beginning stages, it meant a full page of art. As it evolved [it came to mean] a bigger than normal panel. A true splash is one full page, one scene, almost like a cover.

The illustration at the top, of Dream holding Rose Walker, is the splash panel? Yes.

Why might Dringenberg have used a splash panel here? That’s a question for the artist, but what’s interesting about The Sandman is the different artists he [Neil Gaiman] used, and their styles are all incorporated with the comic book. He worked closely with the artists and co-created with the artists. The Sandman series let them do different things no one had seen in comic books before. It was a groundbreaking series. Gaiman picked artists with very different styles for different story lines. There were no rules. Every artist was very distinct, and not every artist did a complete story line. The Doll’s House story line [depicted in this panel] ran from issues nine to 16.

The art comprises two boards that together measure 11 inches by 17 inches. Is that typical for art created for comic books? No, it’s never been a typical practice. Usually there’s one sheet and that’s that. It’s not like it’s never been done by anybody before, but it’s not the norm, no.

Why might Dringenberg have done that here? I guess it’s his artistic process. Maybe it was easier for him to do this and put it on the page. I would think the effect [of the splash page] is the reason why it was done the way it was done.

And Dringenberg did the watercolor effect we see behind Dream and Rose Walker? It’s all him. It’s not penciled in by anybody else. This is a guy who did many different things, unlike a comic book artist. Usually, comic book artists who paint just paint, and those who draw just draw. He mixed media together, which is why his art is well liked. It’s different and quite striking. What makes the page so nice is that top panel.

Could you explain why most comic books have a pencil artist and an ink artist? Many times an artist does pencil and another does ink. Sometimes one does it all. You look for a team that works together and makes a page look cohesive. Here, Dringenberger did the penciling and Malcolm Jones III came in over the top of the penciling [with ink] and made it more detailed.

What is happening on this particular page? What is happening in the story? The Sandman is a very tough series to describe. It’s very deep, very literate. It won awards that no comic book had won before. It’s on another level in many different ways. There might have been stand-alone issues, but most were multi-story arc issues, with three to four [storylines] in an issue. Some comic books can be summed up as “Batman beats Superman.” With The Sandman, you can’t say that.

The page shows three characters from The Sandman–Dream, Rose Walker, and Fun Land. Which one do collectors most want to see? Dream is the lead character of the series. His official name is Morpheus, but he’s also called Dream and The Sandman. Every time you have the Sandman, it’s desirable. The top splash panel makes it unique. As a collector, it’s what you look for.

Dream is depicted planting dreams in the other characters’ heads. Does that make the original artwork more interesting to collectors than panels or pages that show Dream doing other things? It’s something he was known to do, yes. It’s more interesting. As a Sandman fan, it’s an element that I like.

Did Neil Gaiman have veto power over the artwork that was created for The Sandman comic book? I don’t know his work process, but I think he would have been right there with the artist every step of the way. I think he picked artists who he knew would work well. It was a collaborative process.

Is there any indication that Gaiman asked for changes or edits to the artwork that we see in this panel? No, there’s no indication of it here.

Do collectors of original comic book art for The Sandman have a preference for a specific era within the series, or do they go after everything and anything because so little has come to auction? It’s a combination of it being so rare, and I don’t think you’ll find Sandman fans who don’t like the entire run. It had a definite story line. It didn’t go on and on. It was very much Neil Gaiman’s creation. People who love Neil Gaiman love everything he did. Some fans of Sandman go for one page from every artist associated with the series. Then it comes down to the fact that relatively few pages have come to market.

Where are the rest of the hundreds of pieces of art used to create the original 75-plus-one-special series of The Sandman? Are they with the artists who made them, or with DC Comics, which published the series, or with Neil Gaiman…? That’s a question probably everybody is asking, because there are so few pages that have come up. One of the other artists on the series, Jill Thompson, she had some Sandman art herself and sold it. It’s a combination of Neil Gaiman probably kept some art and the artists certainly kept some art. DC, I don’t know. It’s one of the great questions–where is it, who has it.

The owners have generally been closed-mouthed? Typically, if the artist has the art, it’s not a big secret. I don’t know if it’s a well-kept secret or if the question has never really been asked of the right people. There could be plenty in the hands of private collectors that we don’t know about, either.

How did this panel come to you? This and another killer piece, the Rob Liefeld Deadpool, came from the same person. He passed away, and the family liquidated. The story from the family is he bought it at a comic book convention in the early 90s. I don’t know if he bought it from a dealer or the artist. It’s been off the market since it was created. That makes it more desirable. It is, as they say, fresh to market.

The lot notes describe the panel as “clean.” What does “clean” mean here, when we’re talking about a functional piece of art that wasn’t created to be collected? It’s a term that lets you know it was well cared for. The art has no notable defects or blemishes.

What’s the current auction record for an original piece of comic book art for The Sandman? It’s a hard thing to track down because some auction houses don’t track results. Heritage Auctions sold the paperback cover art to Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes for $26,290 in 2017, but it’s technically not from the original run. The next result Heritage had happens to be from page 30 of Number 14, the same issue we have. It sold for $13,145 in 2014. That was five years ago, and the market has changed dramatically. I’d love to say we’ll exceed what they got. The fact that it’s already at $6,000 bodes well, but it’s hard to predict where it will end up. [The Heritage example] didn’t have a splash, but it had Dream in every panel, and it’s very distinct.

Yes, let’s talk about how the lot is doing. We’re conducting this interview on February 26, 2019. The online bids are just above $6,000, with 15 days to go until the auction closes. Is that meaningful? To have a piece jump off to where it is already does bode well. I personally like to see an item take off early. Usually, it translates to more action in the later days, but not always. A lot of art guys are used to bidding feverishly in the final hours.

What is this piece like in person? You definitely get the impact of it. The splash takes it to a different dimension.

How does this panel from The Sandman compare to the other two sold at Hake’s? The other two we had were very nice. The Jill Thompson brought $7,000 in 2014, and the Sam Kieth featured a character, John Constantine, who existed [In the DC Comics world] previous to The Sandman. There was no Sandman character, but it still brought $3,500 in 2015.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? The splash art at the top makes it different from the run of the series. This one you look at and boom, you focus on the top panel. Even if you’re a fringe comic book person, if you see it hanging somewhere, you think, “Oh, that’s Sandman.” There was stunning art through the whole run. As much as The Sandman was about the writing, the artwork is spectacular. With comic books, sometimes the art is great but the story is just ok, or the art is just ok but the story is great. With this, all 75 issues plus the special are great. It never jumped the shark. I’m a lifelong comic book geek. If someone came in and asked me, “What should I read?” I’d hand them The Sandman.

How to bid: The original comic book art from The Sandman is item 1112 in Hake’s Americana & Collectibles Auction #226, which ends on March 14, 2019.

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.

Hake’s Americana & Collectibles is on Twitter and Instagram. Neil Gaiman is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Image is courtesy of Hake’s.

Alex Winter spoke to The Hot Bid previously about a record-setting 1978 Obi-Wan Kenobi action figure and a 1939 copy of Batman’s comic book debut, which ultimately sold for almost $570,000.

Learn more about The Sandman comic book on the DC Vertigo site.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

Emma Amos’s Let Me Off Uptown Could Sell for $60,000

Emma Amos's mixed-media work Let Me Off Uptown is a large, square piece that showcases a dancing couple who hold hands. The black, besuited gentleman dancer tips his hat to the light-skinned woman, who has black stiletto heels and a spaghetti-strap red dress that falls to the knee. A green circle behind the couple draws the eye to them. Tiny figures appear across the background. All are jubilant. Most are dancing. All races and ages are represented, and there's at least one dancing dog.

What you see: Let Me Off Uptown, which measures 80 inches by 78 7/8 inches and was created by African-American artist Emma Amos between 1999 and 2000. It incorporates several media, including oil and photo transfer on linen canvas, metallic paint, glitter, collage, and African fabric borders. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.

The lot notes say Let Me Off Uptown is “a significant work from Emma Amos’s important series of paintings on fabric from the late 1990s that celebrate African-American women”. How big is the series? Is it still ongoing? She did a large group of work in the 90s where images of women were painted on canvas not on stretcher bars [a traditional treatment for paintings] but on hanging cloth. It extended to the mid-2000s. She’s not working on it now.

What do we know about how Amos made the mixed media work? Artists like Emma Amos and Faith Ringgold, when they came up in the 1960s and 1970s, the gallery system was very difficult for women to get any representation. Male abstract painters predominated. There were few spaces in the art world for empowering images of African-American women. She was very much a part of the African-American movement and the women’s movement. She took all those elements in the 1980s and 1990s and found a way to paint the imagery and make it her own–large figurative subjects about women, the bodies of women, and the roles women had in society. This is more celebratory. It’s about African-American culture and about jazz. It shows how jazz brings different people together.

Is the woman in red a self-portrait? Is she Amos? I don’t believe so.

Why did she name the work Let Me Off Uptown? It’s a reference to Harlem. That was where you got off the train to listen to jazz music.

Did she use models for the main figures or any of the smaller figures? I don’t know precisely her practice, but I would think it’s a variety of sources. [The man] could be someone she knows, I really can’t say, but it’s not portraiture. It’s not important who these people are–it’s what they represent. For centuries, images of African-Americans in art were either put on the sidelines, completely secondary, or they were caricatures. Since the Harlem Renaissance, [African-American artists have] taken over the representation of their figures and made a viable language. Like other contemporary artists, Amos has focused on the figure, and has embraced making figurative art that shows African-Americans doing things. In her case, they have larger symbolic meanings. They speak to a larger discourse about how we view African-Americans and African-American figures in our art. She wants to change the way we look at art.

The lot notes say Amos “has long sought to deconstruct traditional representations of beauty”. How does she do that here? With these images of celebratory figures and dancers [she asks] what is a beautiful figure? Can an African-American woman stand in for other figures that traditionally represent women and ideals of beauty? That is where she’s coming from. The classical models from art history are Eurocentric. Black bodies, shapes and colors and the way they look, are not necessarily considered ideal in art. She makes ordinary people heroic. These [the two main figures] are painted six feet high, at a scale and size that are almost lifelike, if not lifelike. She says they are people we should celebrate.

Do any of the smaller figures carry meanings that might not be immediately obvious? When you first look at it, it looks like lots of fun, dancing figures, but a lot of them are subversive. Some are unclothed. Different races and genders together. Music and freedom. At the beginning of the 20th century, jazz was revolutionary. It represented freedom and improvisation. She’s definitely tapping into that here. It’s a great party of twirling figures, having a great time.

What details stand out to you? The fun thing about her work is the different levels it works on. It’s a really strong image of a dancing couple, but as you look at it, little details show her sense of humor and intelligence. Look at her [the main female figure’s] dress. The bodice is covered with smiling lips. [laughs] It’s a cheeky, fun thing. You don’t notice it at first, and it’s all very seamless. She really integrates everything well. It comes from her great sense of material–from her fabric and printmaking and painting, which she brings together in works from the 1990s and 2000s.

Amos included this work in her 2000 application for a Pollock-Krasner Foundation fellowship, which she won. Does that affect collectors’ interest in the work, or its value, at all? I think it’s a nice plus. It certainly shows the reputation of her work strongly.

I’d been calling her a fabric artist but it seems like “mixed media artist” is better… She’s really a painter, a collage artist, and a printmaker. It’s a bit simplistic to call her a fabric artist. That’s one element of her work. Sometimes she paints on textile, but she’s a multimedia artist, absolutely.

What is Let Me Off Uptown like in person? It has a human scale to it. It’s about six feet high. What you can’t necessarily see in the catalog is there’s a wonderful variety of texture. The surface has a wonderful shimmer. There’s a richness to it. It doesn’t just have a flat, uniform surface.

Are her works usually this colorful and lively? Let Me Off Uptown is not an anomaly. Her works are often dynamic and brightly colored, with large figures taking up the whole picture plane.

How rarely do pieces by Amos appear at auction? We’ve been selling her work in our auctions since the start of our African-American Fine Art auctions in 2007. Primarily they were prints and works on paper. Then last year [in October 2018], we sold Arched Swimmer, the first large, unique painting we had of hers. It was estimated at $10,000 to $15,000 and, with the buyer’s premium, sold for $40,000 and set an auction record for her. That painting set the stage for this one. It’s quite possible this work will set a new record. Her work is in people’s minds. That’s why it felt like a good time to bring this to auction now.

Why might Let Me Off Uptown beat the sum achieved by Arched Swimmer? First of all, it’s a larger, more complex piece. Arched Swimmer was 30 inches by 32 inches, and it was a stretch canvas. It was not one of the larger hanging pieces, and it’s a quarter of the size of the work we’re selling now. I think we’ll have a lot of interest in it.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? I think it’s a fantastic image of dance and jazz. It’s a joyous image, and it’s what her work is all about.

How to bid: Let Me Off Uptown is lot 163 in the African-American Fine Art sale taking place at Swann Auction Galleries on April 4, 2019.

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.

Nigel Freeman has appeared on The Hot Bid many times before, talking about a set of Emperor Jones prints by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, a story quilt that Oprah Winfrey commissioned Faith Ringgold to make about Dr. Maya Angelou, an Elizabeth Catlett painting, and a Sargent Johnson copper mask. The Ringgold and the Johnson set records for the respective artists.

Emma Amos has a website. She’s represented by the Ryan Lee Gallery.

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

SOLD! The Berlin Wall Segment Sold For (Scroll Down to See)

An original four-piece segment of the Berlin Wall, standing almost 12  almost eight feet deep, and spanning more than 15 feet (including the base slabs). It once belonged to the Parliament of Trees memorial in Berlin. The German phrase stencil-graffitied on the section, spoken by then-German president Richard von Weizsäcker, translates as: "To Unite Means to Learn to Share". It is gray, with black lettering, and was photographed outdoors against a blue sky.

Update: The segment of the Berlin Wall offered by Summers Place in lot 22 sold for £15,000, or about $19,700. The smaller segment offered in lot 23 fetched £6,250, or about $8,200.

What you see: An original four-piece segment of the Berlin Wall, standing almost 12 feet high, almost eight feet deep, and spanning more than 15 feet (including the base slabs). It once belonged to the Parliament of Trees memorial in Berlin. The German phrase stencil-graffitied on the section, spoken by then-German president Richard von Weizsäcker, translates as: “To Unite Means to Learn to Share”. Summers Place Auctions estimates it at £12,000 to £18,000 ($15,600 to $23,400).

The expert: James Rylands, director of Summers Place.

For those who don’t remember the Berlin Wall, let’s talk about it–why did it go up? Why was it notorious? Why was its dismemberment celebrated? The Berlin Wall was one of the most defining things of the 20th century, from a physical and a psychological point of view. It went up in 1961, and a huge amount of East Germans fled to the west by the time it went up. Something like 20 percent of the population fled to the west. It was put up by the German Democratic Republic, which is an oxymoron–it was an Eastern Bloc Soviet state that restricted movement, and personal movement. Barbed wire went up overnight, and over 10 to 15 years, they refined the wall. It became more elaborate and secure. Literally overnight, families were divided.

How many people tried to breach the Berlin Wall? About 5,000 did. We don’t know [exactly] how many died [in their attempt to escape], but it was about 150.

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall came down? I remember it very well. I’m 60, and I remember it so clearly. Through the Cold War years, we thought we would all die in our beds [from a nuclear bomb dropped by the USSR]. Total obliteration. When the wall came down, it was just huge. Scenes of euphoria. The Berlin Wall was a very obvious physical manifestation of the regime. It went from people attacking it as a symbol of oppression to being attacked by souvenir hunters. It became an instrument of capitalism, people chipping off sections and selling souvenirs. In the news section of our site, we have a story about 16 places around the world where sections of the Berlin Wall ended up–South Korea, the Vatican, Schengan in Luxembourg–it’s worth reading. The Berlin Wall ran for 96 miles, and most of it was turned to rubble and used to build highways.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of those ‘where were you when’ moments, but it’s unusual for being a happy moment. Most of those moments–Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, 9/11–are tragic. This isn’t. You’re right. It rarely gets concrete.

Literally! Exactly.

It must have been a heck of a party when the Berlin Wall came down. Can you imagine the hangovers after that?

I see in the lot notes that the Berlin Wall section in lot 22 stands almost 12 feet tall, but what does it weigh? It’s in four sections, and each bit weighs just under four tons. All together [with the base slabs] it’s about 15 tons, total.

The dimensions note that the section is more than 15 feet wide “overall.” What does that mean here? [In the photo ] you can see a bit that hasn’t been painted–

Like a stand? Yes. The same thing goes out on the other side. Front to back.

So the wall section sits on slabs? Yes. It’s not an easy thing to hop over, especially considering it [the vertical surface] would have been smooth, and it had things [deterrents] on the top as well. To get over that was quite a feat.

And this was once part of the Parliament of Trees monument in Berlin, but it was deaccessed? When? Artist Ben Wagin painted on it in 1990, when it became part of the Parliament of Trees. They [the stewards of the monument] built out at that stage and sold it or disposed of it [to reshape the monument]. The consigner acquired it literally after they sold it [later in 1990].

So the section was part of the Parliament of Trees very briefly, and then it was released? I think it was. With the Parliament of Trees, parts were moved because they were putting up other buildings on it [the site].

How did Wagin choose the von Weizsäcker quote–“To Unite Means to Learn to Share”–to stencil on this segment of the wall? Von Weizsäcker was then president of Germany, commenting on gathering and sharing. West Germany was one of the few countries that could afford to make that happen, to underwrite the whole of East Germany. It was only 45 years since World War II, and then it underwrote a whole new country.

Do you know how many other pieces of the Berlin Wall have gone to auction? I’ve been doing sales for 30 years. I started four years before the wall came down. This is the first time I’ve seen or been aware of a large section going up for sale.

How did you set the estimate? That was the most difficult thing of all. Most things in an auction have an intrinsic value. With something like this, I’m selling chunks of concrete. What price do you put on the provenance and the history? I think it’s a modest estimate. If it [and its consecutive sister lot] fetch £100,000, I’d be pleased and not surprised.

Were the two lots of Berlin Wall segments consigned by the same person? Yes.

What is the segment with the Von Weizsäcker quote on it like in person? It’s powerful. It’s got a real wow factor. We’ve got seven acres on the Summers Place grounds. We only managed to stand one section up. [They had crane issues.] A point I should make is it’s equally at home outside as inside. In a modern building, a corporate building, a museum with a glass atrium, it will look stunning. It really will. Brutalism and urban street art–it combines the two.

How will you sell the Berlin Wall segment on the day? I take it you won’t do the auction outdoors in England in March… Bear in mind that a lot of what we sell is very big. In the sale room, each lot will go up on a TV screen.

Who do you think is going to buy this? Who is the audience? In a way, that’s what makes it a rich man’s lot. It’s going to be an institution or someone with a sufficient indoor-outdoor space. And I don’t preclude selling this to the Russians. We sell quite a lot to Russians. I just pray, and this is me taking off my auctioneer hat here, I hope it ends up in a public institution.

What about an ex-East German? People who were young when it came down… Berlin is a rich city now. What a wonderful thing, to buy it back.

How to bid: The segment of the Berlin Wall is lot 22 in the Garden and Natural History sale on March 12, 2019 at Summers Place Auctions.

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A Brass Sleeve Holdout–A Device for Cheating at Cards–Could Sell for $6,000

This brass sleeve holdout device by Will & Finck, dating to the 1880s, allowed the wearer to cheat at cards. When the player received a valuable card they wanted to save for a later hand, they'd touch the button that extends the device, surreptitiously tuck the choice card into the gripper, and then hit another button that pulled the card back up their sleeve. The card cheat would wear the device strapped to the underside of an arm, hidden beneath clothing. The photograph shows the device upside down.

What you see: A brass sleeve holdout device by Will & Finck, dating to the 1880s. Potter & Potter estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

The expert: Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter.

Are Will and Finck real people, or are they made-up names, seeing as the company made gear for gamblers who want to cheat? And did the company make straightforward products, too? I assume they are [real people]. It was a pretty well-known business in San Francisco. They were best known as knife-makers.

How does a sleeve holdout work? Let’s say you play a hand and you see a card that will be useful down the line. The clip [shown above, holding the King of Spades card], which is called a thief, you pop it out of your sleeve with pressure on the lever [in the photo above, it is attached to the cuff and has a cross-hatch pattern on one end] and take it for later. You put it in the thief and it goes back in your sleeve. Let’s say you need the card. You put pressure on the lever. It will activate the device, and the tongs will come out of your sleeve. The knobs are where you attach the elastic [which eases the movement of the device]. One is directly behind the lever, and one is on the tongs themselves.

It looks uncomfortable to wear. Was it? It certainly required some getting used to. I imagine it might be like wearing an artificial leg–you strap a metal device to yourself with a tether under your clothes. In a way, it’s like a third hand. In some instances later in the 20th century, the sleeve holdout is called a third hand. I think we have an example in the auction. [Yes indeed, Potter & Potter have a circa 1960 holdout in the sale lineup.]

And the user would wear the device under his forearm? It depended on what you were wearing. It’s tough if you wear a shirt that has buttons on it [on the cuff]. You have to have clear passage out of your shirt. It’d have to be a bare arm under a jacket, or, and I don’t know anyone who did this, a shirt under a jacket. [Later Fajuri clarified: There were plenty of people who wore them over a shirt and under a jacket, but they had strategies to get the device to clear the cuff of the shirt or the opening of their sleeve.] It’s got to move swiftly and silently without hanging up or you’re a dead man, literally. [To point out something that might not be inherently clear–the photograph shows the device upside down.]

Did people use holdouts during card games? Yes. In many ways, it takes more guts and skill to use a holdout than to deal from the bottom of the deck. If you’re caught with a holdout, you have no defense. You literally have no defense.

Did anyone actually get caught using a holdout, for real? Plenty of people have used them. The technology has improved somewhat from what you see here. There are plenty of books filled with gambling lore, and stories of people being caught in the act of using a holdout are numerous. I saw a guy who did it professionally, and it took my breath away. If you’re skilled at using one of these things, it’s a miracle. Personally, I think you’ve got to have nerves of steel.

Did anyone running a card game pat players down before dealing? Seldom does the man exist who has the guts to use one of these things. If someone was particularly suspicious, yeah, you could do that. But anyone who takes the time and effort to use one of these things would take the time and effort to sneak it into a game. The amount of energy people expend to beat the system, cheating at cards, dice, et cetera–it boggles the mind. The ingenuity is considerable. Isn’t there an easier way to make a buck?

Are people using holdouts to cheat at cards today, right now? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Absolutely. I guy I knew once said, “I have to commit three felonies a week to keep my family fed.” He was an expert when it came to using a holdout.

Have you tried it on? No.

How long has the concept of the sleeve holdout been around? Does it predate the 1880s? I believe it does, but I’m not a subject matter expert. I’d have to defer to someone else. I don’t have an exact date in mind when something like this existed. Lot 151 in the auction, a rare book by F. R. Ritter, is the first to show a Jacob’s ladder-style sleeve holdout [like the one pictured above]. The book has sold for as much as $19,000. And it doesn’t hurt that all of these cheating strategies have been mythologized by movies set in the old West. Hollywood has done its part in creating the stories around dodges and subterfuges.

How rarely do antique sleeve holdouts appear at auction? We do them on the regular, but that doesn’t mean they’re common. Once you cross the 1900 mark, they’re slightly more available, which is not to say that any of it is easy to find. In our auctions, they appear about once a year, generally speaking.

How unusual is it to find one of this vintage that’s original and intact, as this one is? Is it rare? We sold a Will & Finck holdout last year for $10,000. [It was lot 249 in the May 19, 2018 auction.] In all our years of gambling auctions, it was the first Will & Finck we’ve sold. Their name is like sterling on silver–the highest quality. I’ve seen one or two others in personal collections.

The lot notes say this sleeve holdout was pictured in the section on cheaters in Time-Life’s 1978 Old West series of books, on page 124. How does that affect its value? A hardcore collector has that book and has ogled it for how long now? We’ve been fortunate to sell [items] from the book. It’s a lot of fun seeing things you’ve been dreaming of for decades and being the one to bring it back to market after all that time. [This is as close as I was able to get to finding a reproduction of page 124 online.]

How to bid: The Will & Finck brass sleeve holdout is lot 448 in Gambling Memorabilia: Featuring the Collection of Tom Blue, taking place March 30, 2019 at Potter & Potter.

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.

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Gabe Fajuri is a favorite on The Hot Bid. He’s talked about a Snap Wyatt sideshow banner advertising a headless girl, a record-setting stage-worn magician’s tuxedo; a genuine 19th century gambler’s case that later sold for $6,765; a scarce 19th century poster of a tattooed man that fetched $8,610; a 1908 poster for the magician Chung Ling Soo that sold for $9,225; a Golden Girls letterman jacket that belonged to actress Rue McClanahan; and a 1912 Houdini poster that set the world record for any magic poster at auction.

Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

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A Luis Alberto Quispe Aparicio Ruby Eagle Carving Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

Peruvian artist Luis Alberto Quispe Aparicio carved this eagle in flight out of an opaque ruby. Its wingspan measures 44 inches by 19 inches, and its beak and talons are highlighted in gold. The ruby itself has a reddish-purple hue that tilts toward magenta. The eagle is in profile, facing to the right.

Update: The Luis Alberto Quispe Aparicio ruby carving of a spread-winged eagle sold for $62,575.

What you see: A circa 2007 sculpture of an eagle in flight, carved from an opaque ruby by Peruvian artist Luis Alberto Quispe [pronounced Kees-pay] Aparicio. It has gold highlights and is displayed on a granite stand. Bonhams estimates it at $25,000 to $35,000.

The expert: Claudia Florian, co-consulting director of Bonhams’s natural history department in Los Angeles.

When did Quispe Aparicio start his career? How old is he now? He’s 39 years old. It started as a family business. His father perceived there could be demand for ruby carvings. I think the business started in the 70s or so when the first deposits [of the sort of ruby he carves] from Tanzania came west. His father purchased rough ruby from Tanzania and brought it back to his workshop, and trained workmen to carve the ruby. Quispe Aparicio started seriously in the family when he was 21. He traveled with his parents to buy gems from various locations.

How difficult is it to carve a ruby? It’s second in hardness only to diamond. You wear out your carving implements when you carve with ruby. It involves a lot of grinding.

Does Quispe Aparicio work alone when he carves his pieces, or does he rely on assistants? He sits at the bench and does the carving, but he has workmen help with some basic aspects of it.

Where did he get the ruby he carved to create this sculpture? Tanzania? Tanzania is still the primary source for ornamental rough [stones]. It was a massive ruby.

What does “ornamental rough” mean? It means it’s an opaque ruby. It’s usually accompanied by a green crystal called zoisite.

Where else does Quispe Aparicio find ornamental rough ruby stones fit for carving? He’s basically using old stock. [His family] bought a containerful in the 70s and is working through that.

How prolific is he? I imagine with ornamental rough ruby being so tough to carve, that has to limit his output. The workshop was already producing before Quispe Aparicio joined. This ruby eagle was one of the ones he had designed and carved, and he had workmen in the workshop work on it as well. [The workshop output] is not enormous production. Maybe 40 pieces a year.

How did he approach the creation of this sculpture? With this particular bird, he said he had the rough and a large amount of it, so he was able to make a very large and monumental piece. With a bigger piece [of rough stone, such as this], he’s able to cut it up and have a homogeneous color through the composition.

Was this a commission, or did he just decide to create it? It was created on spec [speculation, meaning he embarked on it without a specific client in mind]. Gerard Cafesjian found out about it and bought it from him.

Quispe Aparicio carved this sculpture from a ruby, albeit an ornamental rough ruby. Does it have inherent value? It’s kind of difficult to say. The valuation of a rough is different from finished pieces. Some say [ornamental rough] is one or two dollars per carat. It’s very difficult to look at. You’d never break it up and carve little gemstones out of it.

The ornamental rough ruby has a reddish-purple color. Is that typical of what came from Tanzania? Yes. It’s very nice quality for Tanzania.

Do we know how big the raw ruby was before he carved it? No. The wings are not a solid piece. The feathers are glued together to create a larger wingspan.

He assembled pieces of ornamental rough ruby to create the wings? The body of the bird is one piece of ruby. The wings are inset. The wings are not one solid, long piece. Along the length are rows of feathers glued together.

How often does Quispe Aparicio portray eagles in his work? I have two [other Quispe Aparicio] eagles in the auction. They’re much smaller in scale. The big one, he put on a granite base. The smaller [ruby] eagle perches on top of a quartz geode.

Why did he portray an eagle? Is he fond of eagles? Within the history of gem carving, animals are popular and birds are popular. Eagles and falcons are popular subject matter.

Because they can show off with the feathers? I think so, and eagles are imposing birds.

The photos of the lot on the Bonhams site show only one side of the carving. Is the other side carved in as much detail as the side we see? Absolutely, and it’s beautiful. It’s very imposing looking. We need somebody with a corporate office or a lobby to buy it. It’s tremendously impressive.

What is it like in person? I see that the wingspan of the eagle is 44 inches by 19 inches–the larger measurement is almost four feet. I wonder if the pictures give a sense of how big it is. I put the measurements in there, but it’s very difficult to judge the size with the photos. We can’t put a child or a potted plant [next to it] to show how big it is. You’re not allowed to do that at a high-end auction house.

Are there other aspects of the sculpture that the camera does not pick up? The richness of the color. I had seen this in his studio years ago [before] he sold it to Gerard Cafesjian. It came to me, and when I opened up the box, I was struck again by how rich the color is on it.

What’s your favorite detail of the sculpture? I would say it’s very majestic. I think it realistically captures the sense of the bird soaring in mid-flight.

Why will it stick in your memory? In terms of some of the other pieces in the sale, this is big and imposing. When you walk in the room, it’s the first thing you walk up to. There’s an enormous amount of ruby incorporated in it.

How to bid: The ruby eagle sculpture is lot 96 in 100 Lapidary Treasures from the Estate if Gerard L. Cafesjian, taking place at Bonhams Los Angeles on March 12, 2019.

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Claudia Florian spoke to The Hot Bid in May 2018 about a spectacular “fireworks” opal that ultimately sold for $162,500.

Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

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A Zhou Dingfang Baggage-form Teapot Could Sell for $2,500

A small baggage-form teapot with cover by contemporary Yixing [pronounced Yee-shing] potter Zhou Dingfang [pronounced Jo Ding-fong]. It looks for all the world like a little suitcase made from milk chocolate-colored leather with dark chocolate-leather patches and accents. The only hint that it's a teapot are the looped handle, which resembles leather, and the spout on the left side of the "bag".

What you see: A small baggage-form teapot with cover by contemporary Yixing [pronounced Yee-shing] potter Zhou Dingfang [pronounced Jo Ding-fong]. Christie’s estimates it at $1,500 to $2,500.

The expert: Rufus Chen, specialist, Chinese ceramics and works of art at Christie’s New York.

The lot notes say Zhou earned “Master Status” in 1995, at the age of 30. What does that mean? Is it similar to the Japanese designation of “National Treasure” status? It’s a relatively different concept. It’s more like a ranking or a job title. If you do beautiful work, you’ll be recognized by the arts and crafts organization with the title.

So the big deal here is that she earned “Master Status” so young? It’s not a unique status. Multiple people have the same title. That’s a young age for a Chinese artist [to earn the title]. She’s a very accomplished and talented artist.

What do we know about her working process? How did she make this? Unlike a lot of blue and white pottery, one artist does it from beginning to end. The artist comes up with the design they want to produce, and they find the right clay in the right color. She used some kind of tool to achieve the soft, leather-like look in the work. It could have been many different tools. It was not done by machine.

Is this piece unique, or is it part of a limited edition? I wouldn’t say the piece is unique. I’ve seen other versions of the small suitcase. I don’t know how many exist, but there are at least five others. It’s normal for a Yixing potter to make several.

Is there a date on this piece? It was the early 1990s when this piece was designed and made.

Is this the first example of her creating a piece that looks like leather? Probably not.  She’s known for her obsession with texture. Another in the sale, lot 54, is more like a leather pouch. That’s also from the early 1990s. She’s known for making leather-like, textured work.

What is your favorite detail on this piece? All the details are so lifelike and well done. The clay used to make the pot, purple clay, is known for its flexibility for molding and sculpting. It allows artists to achieve a very detailed kind of work.

Purple clay? Does it have a purple color? When we say “purple clay,” it’s a collective name for all clay [from the region in China where it is found]. One has a purplish tone, one has a greenish-buff color, and one has a cinnabar orange-red color. By mixing the three clays, you can achieve a wide range of tones and colors.

Is the clay giving the pot its convincing leather coloration, or is she achieving that with glazes? It’s not glaze. It’s the clay body itself. She may have polished the surface to achieve a sheen. It’s really nice when you hold it in person.

Since you mention it, what is it like to hold this piece? It’s very delicate, very lifelike. For this particular piece, the surface does resemble real leather. It reminds me of a real little leather suitcase. It’s very intricate, very well-designed, well made.

And it’s tiny–less than five inches across. Does that mean it’s light? In terms of weight, it’s not heavy.

I realize it’d be insane to brew tea with this, but can it be used as a teapot? If you want to, it can. But it should be perceived as a piece of art, and it’s also small. I don’t know, if you brewed tea, how much tea [it would yield]. There’s probably a little amount of water it could hold. Normal [Yixing pottery teapots] for brewing tea are not ornately decorated. They’re in plain geometric shapes.

Was this piece commissioned by the Irvings, or did the artist make it without a client in mind? I think she just made it. I don’t think the Irvings commissioned it from her. When the Irvings collected it in the 1990s, and even to this day, it’s not the typical [piece] collectors would collect.

What is more typical for collectors to collect? Porcelain with more typical works of art that you see in the auction market. They have those too, but this is a very interesting aspect to their collection.

I understand Zhou Dingfang has connections to the makers of other works in the auction.  What are these connections? A lot of Yixing artists are born and raised in Yixing, and work in Yixing. It’s an interesting aspect to this catalog. Zhou Dingfang learned under Xu Xiutang, the maker of lot 50. And Zhou Dingfang was classmates with Lu Wenxia, another female artist in the sale. There are several from her, including lots 34, 35, and 36. Both Zhou Dingfang and Lu Wenxia were students of Xu Xiutang.

Is this the first time works by Zhou Dingfang have been auctioned in the west? I found examples being sold a few years ago, but in general, you don’t see work by contemporary Yixing artists in western auctions. This is a unique opportunity to collect contemporary Yixing wares.

Are they commonly auctioned in the east? Yes.

Do you have the world auction record for Zhou Dingfang at auction? It would have been set in the east, yes? China has more records than the western world in general. I don’t have the exact price [of her auction record].

Is this the first time several of her works have gone to auction in the same western sale? This is a unique case. All [the lots] come from the same collection, the Irving collection. It’s interesting to see how it will perform.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s beautiful, and its texture is amazing. It’s so intricately and delicately made. It’s a beautiful piece of art.

How to bid: The Zhou Dingfang small baggage-form teapot with cover is lot 52 in The Collection of Florence and Herbert Irving, taking place online from March 19 to 26 at Christie’s.

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Luis Alberto Quispe Aparicio Carved This Eagle Sculpture from a Ruby. Yes, a Ruby. Bonhams Could Sell It for $35,000.

Peruvian artist Luis Alberto Quispe Aparicio carved this eagle in flight out of an opaque ruby. Its wingspan measures 44 inches by 19 inches, and its beak and talons are highlighted in gold. The ruby itself has a reddish-purple hue that tilts toward magenta. The eagle is in profile, facing to the right.

What you see: A circa 2007 sculpture of an eagle in flight, carved from an opaque ruby by Peruvian artist Luis Alberto Quispe [pronounced Kees-pay] Aparicio. It has gold highlights and is displayed on a granite stand. Bonhams estimates it at $25,000 to $35,000.

The expert: Claudia Florian, co-consulting director of Bonhams’s natural history department in Los Angeles.

When did Quispe Aparicio start his career? How old is he now? He’s 39 years old. It started as a family business. His father perceived there could be demand for ruby carvings. I think the business started in the 70s or so when the first deposits [of the sort of ruby he carves] from Tanzania came west. His father purchased rough ruby from Tanzania and brought it back to his workshop, and trained workmen to carve the ruby. Quispe Aparicio started seriously in the family when he was 21. He traveled with his parents to buy gems from various locations.

How difficult is it to carve a ruby? It’s second in hardness only to diamond. You wear out your carving implements when you carve with ruby. It involves a lot of grinding.

Does Quispe Aparicio work alone when he carves his pieces, or does he rely on assistants? He sits at the bench and does the carving, but he has workmen help with some basic aspects of it.

Where did he get the ruby he carved to create this sculpture? Tanzania? Tanzania is still the primary source for ornamental rough [stones]. It was a massive ruby.

What does “ornamental rough” mean? It means it’s an opaque ruby. It’s usually accompanied by a green crystal called zoisite.

Where else does Quispe Aparicio find ornamental rough ruby stones fit for carving? He’s basically using old stock. [His family] bought a containerful in the 70s and is working through that.

How prolific is he? I imagine with ornamental rough ruby being so tough to carve, that has to limit his output. The workshop was already producing before Quispe Aparicio joined. This ruby eagle was one of the ones he had designed and carved, and he had workmen in the workshop work on it as well. [The workshop output] is not enormous production. Maybe 40 pieces a year.

How did he approach the creation of this sculpture? With this particular bird, he said he had the rough and a large amount of it, so he was able to make a very large and monumental piece. With a bigger piece [of rough stone, such as this], he’s able to cut it up and have a homogeneous color through the composition.

Was this a commission, or did he just decide to create it? It was created on spec [speculation, meaning he embarked on it without a specific client in mind]. Gerard Cafesjian found out about it and bought it from him.

Quispe Aparicio carved this sculpture from a ruby, albeit an ornamental rough ruby. Does it have inherent value? It’s kind of difficult to say. The valuation of a rough is different from finished pieces. Some say [ornamental rough] is one or two dollars per carat. It’s very difficult to look at. You’d never break it up and carve little gemstones out of it.

The ornamental rough ruby has a reddish-purple color. Is that typical of what came from Tanzania? Yes. It’s very nice quality for Tanzania.

Do we know how big the raw ruby was before he carved it? No. The wings are not a solid piece. The feathers are glued together to create a larger wingspan.

He assembled pieces of ornamental rough ruby to create the wings? The body of the bird is one piece of ruby. The wings are inset. The wings are not one solid, long piece. Along the length are rows of feathers glued together.

How often does Quispe Aparicio portray eagles in his work? I have two [other Quispe Aparicio] eagles in the auction. They’re much smaller in scale. The big one, he put on a granite base. The smaller [ruby] eagle perches on top of a quartz geode.

Why did he portray an eagle? Is he fond of eagles? Within the history of gem carving, animals are popular and birds are popular. Eagles and falcons are popular subject matter.

Because they can show off with the feathers? I think so, and eagles are imposing birds.

The photos of the lot on the Bonhams site show only one side of the carving. Is the other side carved in as much detail as the side we see? Absolutely, and it’s beautiful. It’s very imposing looking. We need somebody with a corporate office or a lobby to buy it. It’s tremendously impressive.

What is it like in person? I see that the wingspan of the eagle is 44 inches by 19 inches–the larger measurement is almost four feet. I wonder if the pictures give a sense of how big it is. I put the measurements in there, but it’s very difficult to judge the size with the photos. We can’t put a child or a potted plant [next to it] to show how big it is. You’re not allowed to do that at a high-end auction house.

Are there other aspects of the sculpture that the camera does not pick up? The richness of the color. I had seen this in his studio years ago [before] he sold it to Gerard Cafesjian. It came to me, and when I opened up the box, I was struck again by how rich the color is on it.

What’s your favorite detail of the sculpture? I would say it’s very majestic. I think it realistically captures the sense of the bird soaring in mid-flight.

Why will it stick in your memory? In terms of some of the other pieces in the sale, this is big and imposing. When you walk in the room, it’s the first thing you walk up to. There’s an enormous amount of ruby incorporated in it.

How to bid: The ruby eagle sculpture is lot 96 in 100 Lapidary Treasures from the Estate if Gerard L. Cafesjian, taking place at Bonhams Los Angeles on March 12, 2019.

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Claudia Florian spoke to The Hot Bid in May 2018 about a spectacular “fireworks” opal that ultimately sold for $162,500.

Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

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SOLD! Giovanni Boldini’s Charming Portrait of John Singer Sargent Sold for (Scroll Down to See)

Giovanni Boldini's oil on panel portrait of John Singer Sargent shows the man in full, facing the viewer but not locking eyes with us. He has hitched his thumbs into the band of his waistcoat. He has threaded his cane behind his back, resting the ends on his elbows. While the image of Sargent is finished, the portrait and especially its background have a sketchy feel, with dozens of visible brush strokes.

Update: Giovanni Boldini’s oil on panel portrait of John Singer Sargent sold for £371,250, or about $494,000.

What you see: An oil on panel portrait of the artist John Singer Sargent, painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1890. Christie’s estimates it at £200,000 to £300,000 ($261,800 to $391,200).

The expert: Veronica Scarpati, specialist at Christie’s London.

How did Boldini and Sargent know one another? Sargent was 14 years’ Boldini’s junior, but they were in the same circles and painted the same subjects. As Sargent was leaving for London [in 1886], he gave his Paris studio to Boldini, and he made it his home for the rest of his life. They always knew of each other and each other’s work.

Do we know the circumstances of how the portrait came about? If you look at it, the scale of the work is very intimate [it measures 14 1/4 by 11 inches] and very quickly done. I would imagine it was very informally done. There’s nothing planned about it. It’s very spontaneous. What I love about it is you can see the board [the panel] coming through, especially on the edges. It doesn’t appear to be a commission, or a study. It’s an artist at play, looking up to and admiring [his friend]. That’s why it’s so special. It’s frank and intimate.

Do we have any idea how Boldini might have done this portrait? Would he have asked Sargent to pose, or would he have done this from memory? Without having been there, we could infer from the way it’s painted–very immediate and very loose–perhaps a bit of both. I don’t imagine Sargent in the studio holding this pose. Boldini might have had this image in his head and brought forth Sargent’s personality.

Yeah, Sargent standing there in the studio like that… that would be uncomfortable. (Laughs) With the stick behind his back…

Is this the first of the three known Boldini portraits of Sargent? Do the other two survive? If so, how do they compare to this one? The other two works do survive. One is more complete and lacking the sense of energy which exudes from ours, whilst the other is a sketchy watercolor head study. These are different kinds of works. Whereas ours is more immediate and full of energy, the other two are more posed. We expect they were all painted around 1889.

Where are the other two Boldini portraits of Sargent? Have either come to auction before? The less vibrant, composed sketch was owned by the artist Jean Gabriel Domergue, and it was offered in auction in 1965 and 1988. [One of the other two Boldini portraits of Sargent can be seen online; the watercolor head study has proven elusive.]

This portrait was first sold at auction at Christie’s in 2003 [the lot is too far in the past to find through the auction house’s website search engine]. How did it do then? How did that performance shape its current estimate? What other factors shaped its estimate? Back in 2003, the market was much smaller, and concentrated on connoisseurship, whereas in the last few years in particular, we have seen more openness within our collectors—who, despite being traditional buyers in one category or another, will both recognize and appreciate the skill and importance of artists they wouldn’t normally collect, and translate that enthusiasm into active bidding. Alongside this, we have had more and more cross-category sales in recent seasons, which has helped with the cross-pollination. The Adventurous Spirit Collection, from which this work is offered, is a perfect example of this.

Is there a contingent of collectors out there who deliberately seek artists’ portraits of other artists, who would be keen to go after this? Definitely. Working at an auction house such as Christie’s, you find that there are collectors for pretty much everything. There are some that love self-portraits of artists. There’s something to be said for artists’ portraits of artists. I’d be lying if I said I could think of three names off the top of my head [of collectors who’d want it] but it’s exactly what speaks to cross-category buyers. If you love Boldini or Sargent, it’s a jewel, and you’re drawn to it because of the narrative between them.

This strikes me as being more lively than Boldini’s formal portraits of sitters. Does the Singer portrait represent a departure for him? It’s really comfortable in its intimacy. Every time I view it with a colleague or a client, they say, “Wow, that’s so modern.” The way he attacks the board with the paint–the red in the tie is very strong, and just above the shoulder, there’s green. They’re contrasts on the color wheel, but it works. It’s immediate. It’s not structured. There’s no sense of having a patron watching over his shoulder. Just one artist who understands and admires another artist, just painting. That’s what makes it modern and unbridled.

Did Boldini choose that sense of sketchiness to impart movement to the portrait? Definitely. There’s a sense of movement, a sense of dynamism. Look at the lines in the background, the left quadrant. There’s one very strong, deep black line. Very strong diagonals and verticals in the background add energy. The trouser leg is a couple of lines–that’s it. You definitely get a sense of movement, even though the figure is standing still.

This is an oil on panel, but if you’d told me this was a chalk or a pastel, I’d have believed you. How is Boldini getting that effect? He’s using very rapid brushstrokes. There’s no hesitation whatsoever. It’s him attacking the board, building up the colors of his composition as he goes. See where he spends his time–on the hands, the head, the neck. He spends less time on the right foot. That’s almost a ghost of where the shoe should be. I think the eyes are very warm and soft. The hands still look sketchlike, but he’s definitely concentrating, paying attention, because what is an artist without his hands? For all the looseness, there’s a sense of a triangular composition. You’re drawn to the face, then the hands, and back up. It’s really brilliant. It’s almost as if he didn’t think about it, but there’s definitely rhythm and reason behind the composition.

What is the portrait like in person? It’s a jewel, an absolute jewel. Our photo studio is amazing, and worked hard to get the colors as true as they are. Though they came very close, it’s never the same as seeing a piece in the room. With this piece, the pictures don’t do it justice. It’s really luminous. The colors are richer and more saturated. It seems more alive than it looks. It vibrates with energy when you see it in the flesh. And the scale of it is small and helps create the sense of it being jewel-like.

From the looks of the provenance, Boldini never gave this portrait to Sargent. Why might he have kept it? There’s no hard and fast reason why. I imagine because it’s a really lovely piece, a nice memento, he kept it close to his heart because he really treasured it. We can only speculate, and imagine where this testament of friendship would have sat in his studio, possibly making an interesting talking point with his clients.

How to bid: The Giovanni Boldini portrait of John Singer Sargent is lot 29 in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s London on February 27, 2019.

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SOLD! A George Nelson Ball Wall Clock Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

George Nelson's ball wall clock is a mid-century design icon. It resembles a sun with rays streaming from it. Each of the twelve "rays" ends with a ball that represents an hour. This particular version featured balls that had different colors: black, green, yellow, white, and orange.

Update: The George Nelson ball wall clock sold for $704.

What you see: A George Nelson ball wall clock, designed for the Howard Miller company and dating to 1949. Rago Arts and Auctions estimates it at $250 to $450.

The expert: Michael Ingham, Rago’s COO and director of its Unreserved department.

The Howard Miller company produced the ball wall Clock from 1948 to 1969. Do we know how many it made? There are no records that I know of. They made them for 21 years. That shows you how much people liked them. They were very popular and remain so today.

So the clock was a hit from day one? From the day it arrived on the market. 1948 was right at the beginning of the atomic age. The Trinity test was July of 1945, and by August 1946, we dropped Little Boy at Hiroshima. Americans were feeling pretty powerful at that point.

Why was it such a hit right away? It was the end of the war and the beginning of a great boom in America. It was considered radically modern–it was the first clock not to have numbers on the face. That was a big departure. And it looked perfect on a kitchen wall.

Howard Miller offered the clock in six different versions. How popular is the multi-color example coming up for sale at Rago? I call it polychrome. They were, in my opinion, the most popular model, and the one we’ve seen the most of.  The runner up is the black ball version, which looks a bit sleeker. The polychrome version is the epitome of the design, and it’s what people look for. [Vitra creates reproductions of all six versions of the clock.]

George Nelson didn’t personally design everything that bears his name. Did he design this clock, or did someone else in his studio do it? Nelson was not the designer of this. Nelson felt it was important, as a branding thing, that he get the credit in the public arena. He would name the designers in technical journals. That’s how Nelson chose to run his firm. It was not a secret that others made the designs, it just wasn’t out for public consumption. Irving Harper designed this. He was a famous guy in his own right.

Officially, the name of this timepieces is “Clock 4755.” A quick glance makes clear why people call it “The Ball Clock,” but do we know when and how it got its popular name? The model number is the driest name possible. I don’t know how it got the name “The Ball Clock.” It was possibly a savvy marketer at Howard Miller. But in my 20 years here, no one has referred to it as anything but.

The original run of this clock was long, and while we don’t know exactly how many were made, we know there had to be a whole honking lot of them. What does it take for a mass-produced object to remain popular enough to command a three-figure auction estimate seventy years after it left the factory? Most of the 20th century design market was made for mass production, but good design is always good design. Fifty years ago, it was a good design, and now, it’s still a good design.

The ball clock is definitely of its era, and yet it manages not to look old. How does it pull off that neat little trick? It definitely references a specific period in history, and I think people like that. Speaking as an older guy, I can remember them hanging on the walls of parents’ houses as a kid. It’s a very clean, modern design. It is radically modern in its way. It’s so clean, you can project what you want onto it. And it’s small. It’s not a big commitment. It’s not like buying a giant sofa. It’s like buying a throw pillow, in the design world.

What condition is it in? And do collectors tend to be fussy about these clocks, given that there’s so many from the original run still out there? People can be very fussy. This one is not in the greatest of condition. The hands are a little bit loose. The enamel on the body of the clock got stained and chipped over time. The enameling on the balls is pretty good, and these are good colors. This particular one is electric, and is meant to plug into a wall.

What condition issues do you tend to see with the Ball wall clocks? The hands often are a bit bent because [the metal] is very thin and very soft. The balls can often be repainted. Most auction houses don’t sell them guaranteed to function. I’ve never plugged it in, so I don’t know if it functions.

How often do original-run George Nelson Ball wall clocks come up at auction? We’ve handled at least one for every year I’ve worked here. Probably closer to 25.

How did you arrive at the estimate? It’s a pretty standard item for us. This particular model, in this particular condition, should go in the $250 to $300 range. A really, really pristine one would get $600 to $800. The dirty little secret of auctions is that estimates should be a little bit enticing, they should be a tad lower. If I can get you to raise your hand once, I can get you to raise your hand again.

What’s the auction record for a George Nelson Ball wall clock? The early 2000s were the hottest moment for these things. The record was $1,527 at at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) in June 2004.

When I think of George Nelson, I think of his marshmallow sofa, and this clock. Why has it come to symbolize his work? It was right at the beginning of his career. It was considered radically modern at the time, and it summed up a period of time [in America]. A lot of what Nelson did was square, with clean lines. And Nelson designs are clever. Not that they’re funny, but they make you smile. This clock has that same sort of feeling to it.

How to bid: The George Nelson Ball Wall clock is lot 1530 in the Rago Unreserved auction at Rago on February 24, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.

Special thanks to Shannon Loughrey at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) for digging into auction records that aren’t online to confirm the record sale price for the ball clock.

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Fans of Neil Gaiman and Comic Books, Rejoice. Hake’s Has an Original Page From The Sandman That Could Fetch $10,000

Original artwork for page 33 of the Volume 2, Number 14 issue of The Sandman, which was released in March 1990. It was penciled by Mike Dringenberg and inked by Malcolm Jones III. At the top we see a splash page featuring Rose Walker and Dream. Fun Land appears in some of the lower panels. The page depicts Dream planting dreams in the characters' heads, and we see the dream he planted in Fun Land's head. The page is rendered in black and white.

What you see: Original artwork for page 33 of the Volume 2, Number 14 issue of The Sandman, which was released in March 1990. Penciled by Mike Dringenberg and inked by Malcolm Jones III, Hake’s Americana & Collectibles estimates it at $5,000 to $10,000.

The expert: Alex Winter, President of Hake’s Americana & Collectibles.

How often do original pieces of art from the Sandman series of comic books come to auction? The Sandman is its own universe at this point. The basis of The Sandman is the 75 [issues] plus one special that ran between 1989 and 1996. [There are also two later series.] Upwards of 2,000 original pieces of art could come from that series. We don’t know how many have come on the market, but we’ve had two. It’s safe to say it’s a fraction of what was created for the comic book.

I see three images with the lot. Is that what the winning bidder gets, or are some of the images there solely for context? You just get the first piece [the piece on the left of the three shown with the lot]. The next image is a detail of the panel, and the next is the cover of the comic book it was published in.

The lot notes says there are seven panels in the original art, but I only see five. Where are the two that I missed? The middle panel of the bottom three panels, the Fun Land panels, has three different narrative scenes in it. [It looks like one panel, but it counts as three.]

The lot notes say the artwork contains a “splash panel.” What is a splash panel, and why might the artist have used one here? In the beginning stages, it meant a full page of art. As it evolved [it came to mean] a bigger than normal panel. A true splash is one full page, one scene, almost like a cover.

The illustration at the top, of Dream holding Rose Walker, is the splash panel? Yes.

Why might Dringenberg have used a splash panel here? That’s a question for the artist, but what’s interesting about The Sandman is the different artists he [Neil Gaiman] used, and their styles are all incorporated with the comic book. He worked closely with the artists and co-created with the artists. The Sandman series let them do different things no one had seen in comic books before. It was a groundbreaking series. Gaiman picked artists with very different styles for different story lines. There were no rules. Every artist was very distinct, and not every artist did a complete story line. The Doll’s House story line [depicted in this panel] ran from issues nine to 16.

The art comprises two boards that together measure 11 inches by 17 inches. Is that typical for art created for comic books? No, it’s never been a typical practice. Usually there’s one sheet and that’s that. It’s not like it’s never been done by anybody before, but it’s not the norm, no.

Why might Dringenberg have done that here? I guess it’s his artistic process. Maybe it was easier for him to do this and put it on the page. I would think the effect [of the splash page] is the reason why it was done the way it was done.

And Dringenberg did the watercolor effect we see behind Dream and Rose Walker? It’s all him. It’s not penciled in by anybody else. This is a guy who did many different things, unlike a comic book artist. Usually, comic book artists who paint just paint, and those who draw just draw. He mixed media together, which is why his art is well liked. It’s different and quite striking. What makes the page so nice is that top panel.

Could you explain why most comic books have a pencil artist and an ink artist? Many times an artist does pencil and another does ink. Sometimes one does it all. You look for a team that works together and makes a page look cohesive. Here, Dringenberger did the penciling and Malcolm Jones III came in over the top of the penciling [with ink] and made it more detailed.

What is happening on this particular page? What is happening in the story? The Sandman is a very tough series to describe. It’s very deep, very literate. It won awards that no comic book had won before. It’s on another level in many different ways. There might have been stand-alone issues, but most were multi-story arc issues, with three to four [storylines] in an issue. Some comic books can be summed up as “Batman beats Superman.” With The Sandman, you can’t say that.

The page shows three characters from The Sandman–Dream, Rose Walker, and Fun Land. Which one do collectors most want to see? Dream is the lead character of the series. His official name is Morpheus, but he’s also called Dream and The Sandman. Every time you have the Sandman, it’s desirable. The top splash panel makes it unique. As a collector, it’s what you look for.

Dream is depicted planting dreams in the other characters’ heads. Does that make the original artwork more interesting to collectors than panels or pages that show Dream doing other things? It’s something he was known to do, yes. It’s more interesting. As a Sandman fan, it’s an element that I like.

Did Neil Gaiman have veto power over the artwork that was created for The Sandman comic book? I don’t know his work process, but I think he would have been right there with the artist every step of the way. I think he picked artists who he knew would work well. It was a collaborative process.

Is there any indication that Gaiman asked for changes or edits to the artwork that we see in this panel? No, there’s no indication of it here.

Do collectors of original comic book art for The Sandman have a preference for a specific era within the series, or do they go after everything and anything because so little has come to auction? It’s a combination of it being so rare, and I don’t think you’ll find Sandman fans who don’t like the entire run. It had a definite story line. It didn’t go on and on. It was very much Neil Gaiman’s creation. People who love Neil Gaiman love everything he did. Some fans of Sandman go for one page from every artist associated with the series. Then it comes down to the fact that relatively few pages have come to market.

Where are the rest of the hundreds of pieces of art used to create the original 75-plus-one-special series of The Sandman? Are they with the artists who made them, or with DC Comics, which published the series, or with Neil Gaiman…? That’s a question probably everybody is asking, because there are so few pages that have come up. One of the other artists on the series, Jill Thompson, she had some Sandman art herself and sold it. It’s a combination of Neil Gaiman probably kept some art and the artists certainly kept some art. DC, I don’t know. It’s one of the great questions–where is it, who has it.

The owners have generally been closed-mouthed? Typically, if the artist has the art, it’s not a big secret. I don’t know if it’s a well-kept secret or if the question has never really been asked of the right people. There could be plenty in the hands of private collectors that we don’t know about, either.

How did this panel come to you? This and another killer piece, the Rob Liefeld Deadpool, came from the same person. He passed away, and the family liquidated. The story from the family is he bought it at a comic book convention in the early 90s. I don’t know if he bought it from a dealer or the artist. It’s been off the market since it was created. That makes it more desirable. It is, as they say, fresh to market.

The lot notes describe the panel as “clean.” What does “clean” mean here, when we’re talking about a functional piece of art that wasn’t created to be collected? It’s a term that lets you know it was well cared for. The art has no notable defects or blemishes.

What’s the current auction record for an original piece of comic book art for The Sandman? It’s a hard thing to track down because some auction houses don’t track results. Heritage Auctions sold the paperback cover art to Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes for $26,290 in 2017, but it’s technically not from the original run. The next result Heritage had happens to be from page 30 of Number 14, the same issue we have. It sold for $13,145 in 2014. That was five years ago, and the market has changed dramatically. I’d love to say we’ll exceed what they got. The fact that it’s already at $6,000 bodes well, but it’s hard to predict where it will end up. [The Heritage example] didn’t have a splash, but it had Dream in every panel, and it’s very distinct.

Yes, let’s talk about how the lot is doing. We’re conducting this interview on February 26, 2019. The online bids are just above $6,000, with 15 days to go until the auction closes. Is that meaningful? To have a piece jump off to where it is already does bode well. I personally like to see an item take off early. Usually, it translates to more action in the later days, but not always. A lot of art guys are used to bidding feverishly in the final hours.

What is this piece like in person? You definitely get the impact of it. The splash takes it to a different dimension.

How does this panel from The Sandman compare to the other two sold at Hake’s? The other two we had were very nice. The Jill Thompson brought $7,000 in 2014, and the Sam Kieth featured a character, John Constantine, who existed [In the DC Comics world] previous to The Sandman. There was no Sandman character, but it still brought $3,500 in 2015.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? The splash art at the top makes it different from the run of the series. This one you look at and boom, you focus on the top panel. Even if you’re a fringe comic book person, if you see it hanging somewhere, you think, “Oh, that’s Sandman.” There was stunning art through the whole run. As much as The Sandman was about the writing, the artwork is spectacular. With comic books, sometimes the art is great but the story is just ok, or the art is just ok but the story is great. With this, all 75 issues plus the special are great. It never jumped the shark. I’m a lifelong comic book geek. If someone came in and asked me, “What should I read?” I’d hand them The Sandman.

How to bid: The original comic book art from The Sandman is item 1112 in Hake’s Americana & Collectibles Auction #226, which ends on March 14, 2019.

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.

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Image is courtesy of Hake’s.

Alex Winter spoke to The Hot Bid previously about a record-setting 1978 Obi-Wan Kenobi action figure and a 1939 copy of Batman’s comic book debut, which ultimately sold for almost $570,000.

Learn more about The Sandman comic book on the DC Vertigo site.

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WHOA! An Andrew Clemens Patriotic Sand Bottle Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

Andrew Clemens created this example of bottled sand art in 1887. It has a patriotic theme that showcases a flying eagle and a streaming American flag. Clemens developed his own techniques for arranging the layers and sections of colored sand to create elaborate, distinct imagery.

Update: The 1887 Andrew Clemens bottle sold for $102,000–more than double its high estimate.

What you see: A patriotic-themed sand bottle by Andrew Clemens, dated 1887. Cowan’s Auctions estimates it at $35,000 to $45,000.

The expert: Wes Cowan, founder, Cowan’s Auctions.

Did Clemens invent this form of sand art? We don’t know entirely, but near McGregor, Iowa, there’s what is now a state park, Pikes Peak State Park. There’s a sandstone formation where different colored sand is exposed in layers. At some point, some enterprising person in McGregor collected sand and put it into bottles. I don’t think Clemens was the guy who invented it, but he took it to a level others could only dream of. Once Clemens started to do it, others imitated him.

So the artistic sand bottles made before Clemens appeared were what, just stacked colors of sand? I think so. The McGregor Historical Society has examples of bottles made by other folks–stacked colors or very simple geometric designs. They don’t look anything like Andrew Clemens bottles.

How did Clemens make these artistic bottles of sand? I think a large part of Clemens’ genius was he spent a lot of time preparing the sand–sorting it, sifting it, and he may have ground it so it could be packed. The sand granules coming out of the deposit are not the same size. It’s an advantage to make it as uniform as you can to arrange it in the bottle.

What tools did he use to arrange the grains of sand? He’d use tiny scoops to add sand to the bottle where he wanted it to be. He’d manipulate the colors with what looked like little hooks. And he would pack the sand–imagine a wooden tamping tool inside the bottle to pack the sand.

Did he or anyone else document his methods in detail? There are contemporary accounts that describe the process, but they’re not detailed enough to provide information on it. The bottom line is he practiced and practiced and became expert at doing this. That’s the secret of his work.

What challenges did he face in creating these artistic bottles? It was not physically difficult to do at all. Obviously, it was mentally challenging. The fact that he was deaf [means he] had no outside distractions. [Clemens came down with encephalitis at the age of five, and lost the ability to speak as well.] That’s part of the genius of this guy. [His deafness] allowed for intense levels of focus or concentration. By the end of his career, he could make them with relative ease. An upside-down bottle took him two days to make. He came up with techniques to make bottles faster and more efficiently.

Did he sell the bottles? Apparently, he got so good, and was recognized as such, that he printed a price list. He said he could do any design inside a bottle. I’ve seen a piano, an angel, a horse’s head, and a house. This is a standard spread-wing eagle with an urn and flowers on the other side. There are trains and steamboats, but the eagle [motif] is most common.

The other side of the bottle is dated. Is that typical? I wouldn’t say it’s typical. I would say sometimes the side with the floral urn would have a presentation: “To Clara, 1873.” He’d do anything you wanted. Sometimes it’s block letters, sometimes it’s script. [The third photo in the series of images below the main lot shows the other side of the bottle.]

Did he work alone, or did he train others to help him? Newspaper accounts from the time suggest his brother helped by going to Pikes Peak to get sand. But he did it by himself. He didn’t train anyone else. There are no pictures of himself in his studio with his bottles, and there are no pictures of him working. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It means no one has come up with any so far.

So when he died, the knowledge went with him? I don’t know that you could teach anybody [how to do what he did]. He was a self-taught genius. He mastered the technique and no one ever came close.

And he didn’t use any glue when making these bottles? Zero. It’s all hand-packed sand.

Where did he get the bottles? An apothecary supplier? I’m sure he ordered apothecary bottles eventually. He had a thriving business. McGregor is a town on the Mississippi River. There was no problem shipping to McGregor.

Because they were alive at the same time, I should ask–was Andrew Clemens related to the author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain)? No, he was not related to Samuel Clemens.

How was Clemens’s work received in his day? He was incredibly well-regarded. He was recognized as a genius then and now. Anyone who holds a bottle in their hands is flabbergasted.

How did he choose his subject matter? His earliest bottles were strictly geometric, block shapes. I don’t know how he was inspired to create the spread-winged eagle, but it could have had to do with the centennial. But he wasn’t making these things up. He saw things in brochures and copied them. Eighty percent of them [the bottles] are eagles with flags and floral urns.

Do we have a notion of how many bottles he made? If he kept records, we don’t know where they are. He worked for 15, 16 years. Assuming he could make a bottle once every two days, or three to four a week, my guess is he made between 1,500 and 2,000 bottles. Maybe 150 are known to exist today, and they keep popping up. People curated these because they recognized the genius needed to make them, and how fragile they are. I’ve handled about 40, publicly and privately. I think I played a role in rediscovering the bottles when taping an episode of Antiques Roadshow in Hot Springs, Arkansas 17 years ago. It was the first seen outside of McGregor. People in Iowa knew who he was. No one had really done too much research on him.

What was that experience like, 17 years ago, when you saw that Clemens bottle? As an auctioneer, it’s rare to see something that you’ve absolutely never seen before. I think I was at the folk art table with representatives from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, thinking, “What? Where did this come from? How have we never heard of this?” It was pretty fun. I was able to Google his name and find a very primitive website where there were a few bottles and a bio. I thought, “Oh, he’s not unknown, he’s just unknown to us.” I think we [Cowan’s] were the first auction house to promote him nationally. The first bottle brought $11,000 or $12,000 and I think I estimated it at $3,500 to $4,500. It’s gone up and up since then.

How does this bottle compare to other bottles of his that you’ve handled? It’s an outstanding example of his late period work, but he didn’t make any crappy examples [laughs]. The only thing that happens is if they’re put out in the sun, the color might fade a bit. This one is very vibrant.

This bottle has an 1887 date. Clemens died in 1894. Do collectors prefer specific periods or eras of his work? No. The collectors I know are happy to get one.

What’s the world auction record for a Clemens sand bottle? And was it similar to this bottle? It was $132,000. It’s on the site. [The record was set at Cowan’s Auctions in October 2018]. It was a typical eagle. There just happened to be two people who really wanted it. That’s all that was.

What’s it like to hold the bottle in your hands? Is it substantial? It probably weighs about a pound, a pound and a half. The bigger they are, the more substantial they get. This is not by any means the biggest bottle he made. That’s in the State Historical Museum of Iowa. It took him two years to make, and he made it for his mom. It’s remarkable. [Scroll down a bit to see both sides of that bottle.]

And what’s it like to hold it in your hands and examine it? You hold one of these bottles and just marvel at the genius who made it. That’s the real reward. But the real story here is not necessarily the genius of the guy, It’s about a guy who had a disability in the 19th century [Clemens was a deaf-mute] who found a way to make a living.

How to bid: The Andrew Clemens 1887 sand bottle is lot 815 in the Fine and Decorative Art, Including Americana auction on February 23, 2019 at Cowan’s.

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Speaking of Antiques RoadshowSeason 22 began in January 2019 and continues through late May. I’m one of several who live-tweet new episodes of the show with the #antiquesroadshow hash tag at 8 pm EST. See you there on Twitter?

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A Berlin Wall Segment Could Command More Than $23,000 at Summers Place

An original four-piece segment of the Berlin Wall, standing almost 12  almost eight feet deep, and spanning more than 15 feet (including the base slabs). It once belonged to the Parliament of Trees memorial in Berlin. The German phrase stencil-graffitied on the section, spoken by then-German president Richard von Weizsäcker, translates as: "To Unite Means to Learn to Share". It is gray, with black lettering, and was photographed outdoors against a blue sky.

What you see: An original four-piece segment of the Berlin Wall, standing almost 12 feet high, almost eight feet deep, and spanning more than 15 feet (including the base slabs). It once belonged to the Parliament of Trees memorial in Berlin. The German phrase stencil-graffitied on the section, spoken by then-German president Richard von Weizsäcker, translates as: “To Unite Means to Learn to Share”. Summers Place Auctions estimates it at £12,000 to £18,000 ($15,600 to $23,400).

The expert: James Rylands, director of Summers Place.

For those who don’t remember the Berlin Wall, let’s talk about it–why did it go up? Why was it notorious? Why was its dismemberment celebrated? The Berlin Wall was one of the most defining things of the 20th century, from a physical and a psychological point of view. It went up in 1961, and a huge amount of East Germans fled to the west by the time it went up. Something like 20 percent of the population fled to the west. It was put up by the German Democratic Republic, which is an oxymoron–it was an Eastern Bloc Soviet state that restricted movement, and personal movement. Barbed wire went up overnight, and over 10 to 15 years, they refined the wall. It became more elaborate and secure. Literally overnight, families were divided.

How many people tried to breach the Berlin Wall? About 5,000 did. We don’t know [exactly] how many died [in their attempt to escape], but it was about 150.

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall came down? I remember it very well. I’m 60, and I remember it so clearly. Through the Cold War years, we thought we would all die in our beds [from a nuclear bomb dropped by the USSR]. Total obliteration. When the wall came down, it was just huge. Scenes of euphoria. The Berlin Wall was a very obvious physical manifestation of the regime. It went from people attacking it as a symbol of oppression to being attacked by souvenir hunters. It became an instrument of capitalism, people chipping off sections and selling souvenirs. In the news section of our site, we have a story about 16 places around the world where sections of the Berlin Wall ended up–South Korea, the Vatican, Schengan in Luxembourg–it’s worth reading. The Berlin Wall ran for 96 miles, and most of it was turned to rubble and used to build highways.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of those ‘where were you when’ moments, but it’s unusual for being a happy moment. Most of those moments–Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, 9/11–are tragic. This isn’t. You’re right. It rarely gets concrete.

Literally! Exactly.

It must have been a heck of a party when the Berlin Wall came down. Can you imagine the hangovers after that?

I see in the lot notes that the Berlin Wall section in lot 22 stands almost 12 feet tall, but what does it weigh? It’s in four sections, and each bit weighs just under four tons. All together [with the base slabs] it’s about 15 tons, total.

The dimensions note that the section is more than 15 feet wide “overall.” What does that mean here? [In the photo ] you can see a bit that hasn’t been painted–

Like a stand? Yes. The same thing goes out on the other side. Front to back.

So the wall section sits on slabs? Yes. It’s not an easy thing to hop over, especially considering it [the vertical surface] would have been smooth, and it had things [deterrents] on the top as well. To get over that was quite a feat.

And this was once part of the Parliament of Trees monument in Berlin, but it was deaccessed? When? Artist Ben Wagin painted on it in 1990, when it became part of the Parliament of Trees. They [the stewards of the monument] built out at that stage and sold it or disposed of it [to reshape the monument]. The consigner acquired it literally after they sold it [later in 1990].

So the section was part of the Parliament of Trees very briefly, and then it was released? I think it was. With the Parliament of Trees, parts were moved because they were putting up other buildings on it [the site].

How did Wagin choose the von Weizsäcker quote–“To Unite Means to Learn to Share”–to stencil on this segment of the wall? Von Weizsäcker was then president of Germany, commenting on gathering and sharing. West Germany was one of the few countries that could afford to make that happen, to underwrite the whole of East Germany. It was only 45 years since World War II, and then it underwrote a whole new country.

Do you know how many other pieces of the Berlin Wall have gone to auction? I’ve been doing sales for 30 years. I started four years before the wall came down. This is the first time I’ve seen or been aware of a large section going up for sale.

How did you set the estimate? That was the most difficult thing of all. Most things in an auction have an intrinsic value. With something like this, I’m selling chunks of concrete. What price do you put on the provenance and the history? I think it’s a modest estimate. If it [and its consecutive sister lot] fetch £100,000, I’d be pleased and not surprised.

Were the two lots of Berlin Wall segments consigned by the same person? Yes.

What is the segment with the Von Weizsäcker quote on it like in person? It’s powerful. It’s got a real wow factor. We’ve got seven acres on the Summers Place grounds. We only managed to stand one section up. [They had crane issues.] A point I should make is it’s equally at home outside as inside. In a modern building, a corporate building, a museum with a glass atrium, it will look stunning. It really will. Brutalism and urban street art–it combines the two.

How will you sell the Berlin Wall segment on the day? I take it you won’t do the auction outdoors in England in March… Bear in mind that a lot of what we sell is very big. In the sale room, each lot will go up on a TV screen.

Who do you think is going to buy this? Who is the audience? In a way, that’s what makes it a rich man’s lot. It’s going to be an institution or someone with a sufficient indoor-outdoor space. And I don’t preclude selling this to the Russians. We sell quite a lot to Russians. I just pray, and this is me taking off my auctioneer hat here, I hope it ends up in a public institution.

What about an ex-East German? People who were young when it came down… Berlin is a rich city now. What a wonderful thing, to buy it back.

How to bid: The segment of the Berlin Wall is lot 22 in the Garden and Natural History sale on March 12, 2019 at Summers Place Auctions.

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THB Bonus! See My Robb Report Muse Story on Sotheby’s “By Women, For Tomorrow’s Women” Benefit Auction, Co-Chaired by Agnes Gund and Oprah Winfrey

Collector Agnes Gund, seated and wearing a red dress and pearls. Behind her are several selections from the 2019 By Women, For Tomorrow's Women auction at Sotheby's, including Carmen Herrera's Blanco y Verde.

Thought you all might enjoy my story for Robb Report Muse on By Women, For Tomorrow’s Women, a benefit auction with honorary co-chairs Oprah Winfrey and Agnes Gund.

Hosted by Sotheby’s, the auction lineup consists entirely of works by women artists. Proceeds will benefit the financial aid program at Miss Porter’s School.

Read the story here.

Giovanni Boldini’s Portrait of John Singer Sargent Could Fetch Almost $400,000 at Christie’s

Giovanni Boldini's oil on panel portrait of John Singer Sargent shows the man in full, facing the viewer but not locking eyes with us. He has hitched his thumbs into the band of his waistcoat. He has threaded his cane behind his back, resting the ends on his elbows. While the image of Sargent is finished, the portrait and especially its background have a sketchy feel, with dozens of visible brush strokes.

What you see: An oil on panel portrait of the artist John Singer Sargent, painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1890. Christie’s estimates it at £200,000 to £300,000 ($261,800 to $391,200).

The expert: Veronica Scarpati, specialist at Christie’s London.

How did Boldini and Sargent know one another? Sargent was 14 years’ Boldini’s junior, but they were in the same circles and painted the same subjects. As Sargent was leaving for London [in 1886], he gave his Paris studio to Boldini, and he made it his home for the rest of his life. They always knew of each other and each other’s work.

Do we know the circumstances of how the portrait came about? If you look at it, the scale of the work is very intimate [it measures 14 1/4 by 11 inches] and very quickly done. I would imagine it was very informally done. There’s nothing planned about it. It’s very spontaneous. What I love about it is you can see the board [the panel] coming through, especially on the edges. It doesn’t appear to be a commission, or a study. It’s an artist at play, looking up to and admiring [his friend]. That’s why it’s so special. It’s frank and intimate.

Do we have any idea how Boldini might have done this portrait? Would he have asked Sargent to pose, or would he have done this from memory? Without having been there, we could infer from the way it’s painted–very immediate and very loose–perhaps a bit of both. I don’t imagine Sargent in the studio holding this pose. Boldini might have had this image in his head and brought forth Sargent’s personality.

Yeah, Sargent standing there in the studio like that… that would be uncomfortable. (Laughs) With the stick behind his back…

Is this the first of the three known Boldini portraits of Sargent? Do the other two survive? If so, how do they compare to this one? The other two works do survive. One is more complete and lacking the sense of energy which exudes from ours, whilst the other is a sketchy watercolor head study. These are different kinds of works. Whereas ours is more immediate and full of energy, the other two are more posed. We expect they were all painted around 1889.

Where are the other two Boldini portraits of Sargent? Have either come to auction before? The less vibrant, composed sketch was owned by the artist Jean Gabriel Domergue, and it was offered in auction in 1965 and 1988. [One of the other two Boldini portraits of Sargent can be seen online; the watercolor head study has proven elusive.]

This portrait was first sold at auction at Christie’s in 2003 [the lot is too far in the past to find through the auction house’s website search engine]. How did it do then? How did that performance shape its current estimate? What other factors shaped its estimate? Back in 2003, the market was much smaller, and concentrated on connoisseurship, whereas in the last few years in particular, we have seen more openness within our collectors—who, despite being traditional buyers in one category or another, will both recognize and appreciate the skill and importance of artists they wouldn’t normally collect, and translate that enthusiasm into active bidding. Alongside this, we have had more and more cross-category sales in recent seasons, which has helped with the cross-pollination. The Adventurous Spirit Collection, from which this work is offered, is a perfect example of this.

Is there a contingent of collectors out there who deliberately seek artists’ portraits of other artists, who would be keen to go after this? Definitely. Working at an auction house such as Christie’s, you find that there are collectors for pretty much everything. There are some that love self-portraits of artists. There’s something to be said for artists’ portraits of artists. I’d be lying if I said I could think of three names off the top of my head [of collectors who’d want it] but it’s exactly what speaks to cross-category buyers. If you love Boldini or Sargent, it’s a jewel, and you’re drawn to it because of the narrative between them.

This strikes me as being more lively than Boldini’s formal portraits of sitters. Does the Singer portrait represent a departure for him? It’s really comfortable in its intimacy. Every time I view it with a colleague or a client, they say, “Wow, that’s so modern.” The way he attacks the board with the paint–the red in the tie is very strong, and just above the shoulder, there’s green. They’re contrasts on the color wheel, but it works. It’s immediate. It’s not structured. There’s no sense of having a patron watching over his shoulder. Just one artist who understands and admires another artist, just painting. That’s what makes it modern and unbridled.

Did Boldini choose that sense of sketchiness to impart movement to the portrait? Definitely. There’s a sense of movement, a sense of dynamism. Look at the lines in the background, the left quadrant. There’s one very strong, deep black line. Very strong diagonals and verticals in the background add energy. The trouser leg is a couple of lines–that’s it. You definitely get a sense of movement, even though the figure is standing still.

This is an oil on panel, but if you’d told me this was a chalk or a pastel, I’d have believed you. How is Boldini getting that effect? He’s using very rapid brushstrokes. There’s no hesitation whatsoever. It’s him attacking the board, building up the colors of his composition as he goes. See where he spends his time–on the hands, the head, the neck. He spends less time on the right foot. That’s almost a ghost of where the shoe should be. I think the eyes are very warm and soft. The hands still look sketchlike, but he’s definitely concentrating, paying attention, because what is an artist without his hands? For all the looseness, there’s a sense of a triangular composition. You’re drawn to the face, then the hands, and back up. It’s really brilliant. It’s almost as if he didn’t think about it, but there’s definitely rhythm and reason behind the composition.

What is the portrait like in person? It’s a jewel, an absolute jewel. Our photo studio is amazing, and worked hard to get the colors as true as they are. Though they came very close, it’s never the same as seeing a piece in the room. With this piece, the pictures don’t do it justice. It’s really luminous. The colors are richer and more saturated. It seems more alive than it looks. It vibrates with energy when you see it in the flesh. And the scale of it is small and helps create the sense of it being jewel-like.

From the looks of the provenance, Boldini never gave this portrait to Sargent. Why might he have kept it? There’s no hard and fast reason why. I imagine because it’s a really lovely piece, a nice memento, he kept it close to his heart because he really treasured it. We can only speculate, and imagine where this testament of friendship would have sat in his studio, possibly making an interesting talking point with his clients.

How to bid: The Giovanni Boldini portrait of John Singer Sargent is lot 29 in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s London on February 27, 2019.

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A Paul Manship Bronze Could Command $250,000

Indian Hunter, a 1914 bronze by Paul Manship, depicts a Native American down on one knee, pulling back the string of his bow. His face is serious and focused.

What you see: Indian Hunter, sculpted in 1914 by Paul Manship. Sotheby’s estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.

The expert: Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s.

How many versions of Indian Hunter did Paul Manship make? He cast the tabletop version in an edition of 15 in 1914. He cast a monumental version as a commission in 1917. It was the only one of those versions he cast. There are two authorized reproductions, including the one outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There are no others outside those.

Do we know how he made this sculpture? Did he rely on a live model, or pose a model for a reference photograph, or create it from memory? The image of the Native American is something Manship drew upon time and time again in his career. We don’t know exactly how the sculpture was done, but we can say a lot was drawn from memory or experience. After a time of study in Europe he gained an appreciation for archaic Greek art and translated it into this subject.

What makes this sculpture a Paul Manship bronze? What details or aspects mark this as his work? I think this really embodies a distinct aesthetic. It’s uniquely naturalistic and detail-oriented, and simultaneously, it’s contemporary and simplified. A few aspects I love about his work on Indian Hunter are the braids–they’re incredibly detailed. The ribs are muscular and realistic. With the left hand gripping the bow, you see the detail on the fingers and the fingernails.

Manship sculpted Pronghorn Antelope first, earlier in 1914. How do the sculptures relate to each other and complement each other? They were cast together and meant to be viewed as a pair. He drew upon his interpretation of the myth of the labors of Hercules. He recast Hercules as a Native American hunter and cast the Cerynian Hind as an antelope. He translated a Greek myth that would have been familiar with while abroad in Rome and put his own unique spin on it, in a language that would have been more familiar to him.

Did this tabletop version of Indian Hunter originally come with a similar-size version of Pronghorn Antelope? Though they were cast together, they weren’t always sold together. This was sold as a single piece. Seeing them together is certainly wonderful. There’s an activation of energy with the release of the imaginary arrow.

Was Pronghorn Antelope done in a limited edition of 15? To the best of our knowledge, it was.

He initially created the sculptures for himself, to decorate his New York apartment. Did he approach these differently than he did his commissioned pieces? Is that visible in the works? They’re completely indistinguishable from something he did on commission. Though maybe he made one for New York and the other 14 were created and intended for distribution. What he created for his home is not separate from other commissions.

Manship’s interest in Greek art shines through here and ennobles his subject. But was that controversial in 1914–to ennoble a Native American as a figure equal to the heroic male sculptures of ancient Greek art? I don’t know how to answer that. I can say that when they were produced, they were received very well by the public at the time. Herbert Pratt [a head of Standard Oil] saw them and commissioned large-scale versions with Manship.

How hands-on was Manship in the casting of the bronzes? He didn’t produce on a mass scale, making us think he was quite involved in the process.

How often does this Paul Manship bronze come up at auction? They don’t come up very often. At least 11 are in museums. Three or four have come up previously in pairs, and there was a sterling silver version, separate from the 15 that were cast. You could consider it a sixteenth version. It sold in May 2013 for $425,000.

What’s the record for an Indian Hunter at auction? A pair sold for $782,500 at Christie’s in 2012.

And this sculpture was originally sold alone? It was passed down in the collector’s family for decades. They’ve only ever owned Indian Hunter. It seems they only acquired this work.

This is the first time this particular one has come to auction. How rare is it to have a Paul Manship bronze that’s fresh to market? It depends on the version we’re discussing, but it’s not that many. He didn’t produce anything en masse. One of my favorite things about the work is it’s fresh to market. We’ve never seen this exact work before. I think that’s something generally exciting for the client as well.

Did Manship number the bronze? No. That’s not generally something he did with his casts.

What is it like in person? It has a beautiful, rich surface. The patina is very rich and soft as well. One of my favorite aspects is the braids. The detail is quite crisp and precise.

How to bid: Indian Hunter is lot 81 in the American Art sale at Sotheby’s New York on March 6, 2019.

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SOLD! The Dr. Mary Edwards Walker Tintype Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

In this circa 1865 tintype, American physician Mary Edwards Walker wears her Medal of Honor. It appears on the upper left of her chest. She wears matching trousers under her black dress. She's depicted in three-quarter view, looking to the right, with her hands clasped.

Update: The circa 1865 tintype of American physician Mary Edwards Walker wearing her Medal of Honor sold for $9,375.

What you see: A circa 1865 tintype of American physician Mary Edwards Walker, taken in the year she received the Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $6,000 to $9,000.

The expert: Deborah Rogal, associate director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.

How often was Walker photographed around this time, and during her life? Do we know how many photos of her exist, tintype or otherwise? There are several known photos of her from all periods of her life, but fewer than ten, I’d say.

Do we have a more precise date on the tintype than 1865? I’m wondering if this is the first portrait of her wearing her Medal of Honor. No. I wish we did. There’s no way for us to pinpoint a more specific date. It’s dated primarily on the presence of the medal, which she won in 1865, and the overall appearance.

Could we talk a bit about Walker’s life story? I did not know about her until I spotted this lot in the Swann catalog. I also didn’t know about her until we received the object. She was an extraordinary person. It’s amazing she’s not more widely appreciated for who she was.

Her parents were progressive. They encouraged her education and encouraged her to dress how she wanted. She went to Syracuse Medical College and graduated as a doctor. She married [a fellow medical student] and privately practiced together. As far as I understand, trusting female doctors was not something patients found easy to do [so the practice struggled]. From her youth, she wore uncommon dress. In some ways, that was the most radical thing she did. She carried on, progressively getting more masculine [in her choice of clothing], but she wouldn’t refer to it that way. She didn’t wear corsets and was really outspoken about it. It caused a lot of backlash.

Let’s talk about her work during the Civil War, which led to her becoming the first, and so far, only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. When war broke out, she volunteered her services as a doctor. She crossed enemy lines [to tend to patients]. I think she believed powerfully in the ability to serve, and she was proud of her service. She wore her Medal of Honor in almost every photo taken of her after the war, and she refused to relinquish it. She was very proud of it, and deservedly so. After the war, she became a vocal proponent of women’s rights.

M38897-6_8 002

How did she win the Medal of Honor? As far as I understand, she attempted to retroactively receive a commission from the Army, partly to receive benefits. People didn’t know what to do with her. I think the medal was a way for them to give her recognition without giving her formal status as a veteran, which she was asking for. It was the first time a woman was awarded the medal. She believed she earned it for her bravery. She was very brave. She traveled in the south, and she was taken as a prisoner of war. [She was captured in April 1864 and released in a prisoner exchange four months later.]

The government rescinded the medal in 1917, two years before she died. But her medal was NOT taken away because she was an outspoken activist for women’s rights, correct? I do think her being a woman was an element, but it was not because of that. [The government of the time] questioned how the Medal of Honor was awarded in the past. Many others had theirs retroactively rescinded. [More than 900 recipients suffered the same fate as Walker. Some were removed because they were not technically members of the military when they earned the honor.] She got it back after her death. [President Jimmy Carter restored the honor to Walker in 1977.]

M38897-6_8 002

The tintype shows her wearing pants. Was it a brave act for a woman to pose for a photo in 1865 while wearing pants? Absolutely. There are women willing to record themselves wearing pants–women in bloomers, and women who served in the army and dressed as men to do that. But I don’t think they dressed that way as a matter of course through their lives. What sets Walker apart is her commitment. She dressed this way throughout her life. [She felt] women should not be forced to wear clothing that impacted their health and denied them the range of possibilities that men had. There was another level on which she was very brave. There are anecdotal stories of her wearing pants and being chased or having objects thrown at her, and she was arrested at least once for dressing this way. But she was very sure of herself. An appealing aspect to her personality was that she was so confident and articulate about her choices.

Would she have worn an outfit like this on the battlefield, or are these more formal clothes? The outfit in the tintype, I’d say, is certainly more formal than what she wore during the war. She would have dressed in a more casual manner. I understand that she styled herself a uniform like the Army uniform.

Is there any information recorded on the tintype itself? There is not, which is typical for tintypes of the period. Tintypes were an incredibly popular medium for doing portraits. There were studios, and there were itinerant tintypists. They were accessible and quick to produce. You see a lot of soldiers commemorating their own service or giving them to family members while they are away.

Can we tell by looking why Walker might have had this tintype made–whether she did it for herself, or for someone else, or to promote herself? It’s impossible to know for sure, given that tintypes are unique objects by definition. It’s possible to imagine she made it for herself or someone close to her.

What’s that light-colored thing that’s behind her in the picture? It looks like a studio prop. It could be a partially obscured portrait stand, which was used to position your body so you don’t make a move during the exposure and make a blurry image.

How did this tintype come to you? Was Walker identified as the sitter when it was consigned, or did you identify her? It came from a consigner we have a relationship with, who has a lot of expertise in the period and its images. He came to us with the attribution, and we did additional research. We were not able to find a previous publication of the piece, and we believe it’s unique and undocumented.

How did the tintype manage to go unpublished until now? Anything I could say would be guessing. It probably descended through family members. It was not part of her estate when she died. We do see this all the time–things appear out of nowhere, and we’re able to rediscover them.

I imagine Walker would have been easy to identify regardless, given that she’s wearing pants and a Medal of Honor. The object is small, but an aspect of tintypes is the detail. The medal is really quite clear when you look at it with magnification. It’s incredible to see that.

Have any other images of Walker gone to auction? What did they fetch? Records for Walker are very scarce. Christie’s sold a signed 1877 photograph of her in April 1996 for $4,370.

I imagine you’ll get cross-competition for this from several groups–tintype collectors, fans of early photographs, medical historians, military history fans, people interested in women’s rights… We expect that, certainly. It touches a lot of aspects of history in America, and it appeals to a wide audience. The conversations happening in the country now are relevant to the conversations that happened in Walker’s lifetime–what she could wear, could women vote, how we respond to women who have strong opinions. I see the line of conversation through history. Has it changed or not changed? She’s clearly still relevant. Her passion and her strength resonates strongly, and I hope collectors will feel that.

What condition is the tintype in? The image itself has not faded. I do see handling issues that are common with this piece, but the details retained in the image are incredible. I was looking at it yesterday. Her hands are clasped, and under the loupe, you can see the veins in her hands. The tintype format allows us to retain a sense of immediacy. I felt her presence strongly in the image. Paper images of the period don’t retain detail at the same level.

M38897-6_8 002

When I saw this lot, I felt angry, because I had never heard about Walker before, and this is how I learned about her–not in school, but by leafing through an online auction catalog. Do you understand what I mean? Exactly. I felt some of the things you’re describing. I feel lucky to be able to offer the image and expose her more. She was a bit of a difficult person, so opinionated, so strong, and so unable to cede to the [women’s rights] movement around her. It had an impact on how she’s remembered today. It’s unfortunate. She should be remembered for her foresight and her contributions. History is not written by women. That’s not new, but we can change that. She’s the only female Medal of Honor winner. She’s one of the first female doctors in the country. She’s incredible, and I hope we’ll be able to reenter her in our history.

How to bid: The circa 1865 tintype of Mary Edwards Walker wearing her Medal of Honor is lot 15 in the Photographs: Art & Visual Culture auction at Swann, taking place February 21, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

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This Civil War-era Quilt Has a Heartbreaking Backstory. Skinner Could Sell It for $60,000

A stunning pieced and appliquéd cotton memorial quilt, created circa 1863 by Mary (aka Polly) Bell Shawvan. Its background is a warm yellow, almost a school bus yellow. At its center is a spread-winged eagle with an American shield on its chest. It is surrounded by blooming branches and vines in a winding but symmetrical pattern. Several small birds with black wings perch on the branches. Unlike most quilt-makers, Shawvan treated the quilt as a large canvas to spread her imagery upon, rather than stitching blocks together.

What you see: A pieced and appliquéd cotton memorial quilt, created circa 1863 by Mary (aka Polly) Bell Shawvan. Skinner estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

The expert: Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner.

How do we know that Mary Shawvan made this quilt around 1863? The answer to both is family tradition. [The family] consigned it in 2003, and it was well-enough documented when it was made to know it was 1863, more or less. He [John, Mary’s husband] died later in 1863. The supposition is she finished it in 1863, then he died. We found no reason to argue. The family always thought that she finished it before he died.

And the family showed it in quilt competitions after John’s death? They showed it because Mary was proud of her work, and it was a symbol of lamentation in the family. It was meant to be a homecoming gift for John [who was fighting for the Union in the Civil War when he was killed in the Battle of Chickamauga]. It was put away after his death. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s a pure distillation of folk quiltwork. Mary Shawvan shows herself at her most artistic. She didn’t follow a pattern. This is a fully freehand design.

How often do you see 19th century quilts designed like this–as if the entire thing is a single canvas? Not often. Certainly not to this degree. Quilts with one overarching design throughout are not unprecedented, but they’re rare.

What challenges did she face in making this quilt? To distill an image across 84 by 81 1/2 inches is difficult. It would require a lot of planning and effort. It’s easier to lay out 36 blocks. That’s why you don’t see many done like this.

Would she have worked alone on this quilt, or might her children have helped? Traditionally, this kind of thing was done by one person. There’s no reason to believe she had help. Certainly, she would have worked it over the course of several months. She was essentially a single mother when he was at war, and they had six children. She probably put hundreds of hours into it unless she was really good and really fast.

I was going to ask if she was inspired to make the quilt after learning that he died at the Battle of Chickamauga, but it sounds like he died after or around the time she finished it. We term it a memorial quilt, but it’s a memorial quilt by circumstance. It was not intentional. It imbues the whole thing with a sense of melancholy, but it doesn’t diminish its beauty.

Is it unusual to see a 19th century quilt with a yellow background? That is a lot of yellow. It is. You probably can’t see it, but there’s a pattern to it. It’s printed. It’s a very subtle pattern in the color itself. It’s not sewn on. It gives the background color of the quilt a bit more life.

Are there other details that don’t quite show up on camera? Every single bird is done by what’s called stuffed work. It’s cotton batting that gives them a three-dimensionality. It’s very unusual in quilt-making. The kind of stuffed work you see on this quilt is especially difficult work, requiring an incredibly talented hand to do it.

Are the birds and the flowers there just because they look nice, or is there an iconography to the quilt? Do the birds represent John, Mary, and the kids, for example? As far as I can tell, the only real symbol is the eagle, which denotes patriotism. It [any iconographic significance] was possibly known to Mary, but it was not passed down in the family. What you’re looking at are choices of design and color. There’s no memorial imagery here.

The quilt measures 84 by 81 1/2 inches. Is that a typical size for a 19th century American quilt? It’s about the typical size. The smallest dimensions you see are six feet, or 72 inches, and maybe they go up to 100 inches. It’s no bigger or smaller than typical quilts of the period.

Do we know how the Shawvans used the quilt? All we know is what we were told from family lore. John was such a beloved husband and father that [the quilt] represented melancholy, and it was put away and not used. Because it was not used, it remained as vibrant as the day it was made when it was consigned to us 130 years later. That’s unusual for a quilt of any kind, never mind a folk art masterpiece like this one. Usually, the reds and pinks have a tendency to go light brown quicker than others, or lose their vitality. The fact that they’re as vibrant as they are speaks to it not seeing the light of day for a century and a half. In addition, I think the birds’ wings use silk, which has a tendency to shatter in place, and shred. “Shatter” is a word used to describe what happens to silk when it loses its integrity. It shatters like glass, but it doesn’t come out of where it is. The black silk [on the birds’ wings] is totally intact.

Skinner first sold the quilt in 2003. How did it perform then? We offered it at $50,000 to $75,000 at the time, and it sold for $149,000. It was purchased by a private collector in the Boston area who knew the story, and knew it was put away in melancholy circumstances. He put it away in the same plastic bag that the family consigned it in. This is undoubtedly the best quilt we’ve ever sold.

Really? What makes it the best quilt Skinner has ever sold? All the different ways a piece of folk art can be valuable, this is [valuable]. It has a great story, it has great artistry, it has a charming and whimsical approach to composition, and the condition is as good as any quilt can be.

How many different types of collectors will compete for this quilt? Certainly quilt and textile people. Also, folk art people, which can include quilt people. The person who bought it in 2003 was not a quilt collector, but a folk art collector. And lovers of history, and American history, specifically. John Shawvan was a color sergeant and a father of six. He enlisted when he didn’t have to, for a cause he believed in. There’s a huge group of collectors of American historical items who appreciate it when you can identify specific persons and families [connected to the item].

How do we know he believed in the Union cause? He enlisted in October of 1861 though he had substantial family obligations. That implies to me that he believed so strongly in the cause he was almost compelled to leave his family. What other reason could there be?

Were you at Skinner when the quilt sold the first time? No. I was here in 2003, but it predates my tenure by about seven months.

Why will this quilt stick in your memory? I will never forget it because it’s so rare to have this confluence of characteristics. It’s a fully realized folk masterpiece of a quilt, with a full family history, a compelling story, and impeccable condition.

How to bid: The Shawvan memorial quilt is lot 65 in the American Furniture & Decorative Arts sale scheduled at Skinner on March 2, 2019.

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.

You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Skinner.

Chris Barber spoke to The Hot Bid last year about a Jess Blackstone robin and in February 2017 about an unusually charming double folk portrait that ultimately sold for $9,840.

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SOLD! Kenneth Nolan’s Songs: Yesterdays Fetched (Scroll Down to See) Also! Happy Birthday to The Hot Bid

Kenneth Noland's Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas, features a large chevron at the top of the canvas, pointing down. It's colored in bands of silver, black, red, and yellow. All four are textured. The pink backdrop is smooth.

Update: Kenneth Noland’s Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas, sold for $550,000 at LAMA–just over five times its low estimate.

And a special note: Today is the second anniversary of the debut of The Hot Bid. The first post featured LAMA’s Peter Loughrey talking about an Alma Thomas oil on canvas that went on to set an auction record for the artist.

What you see: Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas from the late Kenneth Noland. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

The expert: Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA.

How prolific was Noland? He was very prolific. He quickly became a prominent figure in the Color Field school. Of all the artists who emerged from that movement, he became one of the most celebrated, with the target series in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1963, he was fairly well-established.

How often do his works come up at auction? Fairly often. There’s a lot of material out there. It trades hands with good regularity.

Is Songs: Yesterdays a one-off, or part of a series? It’s part of a series from the 1980s, when he returned to the chevron shape. He started it in the 1960s and he revisited it. The [1980s] works were named after songs. I don’t think this one was named after the Beatles song. I think he named it after an older song called Yesterdays. He not only revisited the shape of the icon, but he goes back to his own history, the music of his youth.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Chevrons are a recurring theme in Noland’s work. Is there a ranked order to the popularity of specific themes in his work? Do collectors prefer his circles/targets to his chevrons, for example? If you asked the artist that, he would say “Absolutely not,” but the market has spoken. Circles/targets sell for the most. The chevrons are a very iconic part of his work. If you ranked [the themes] by their price in the market, the place of chevrons seems to be second.

I understand that Noland stained his canvases rather than brushing the color on with paints. Has he done that here? His earliest works, yes, were part of the stained canvases. Many artists were disengaging with the brush after [Jackson] Pollock. In this case, in the 1980s, Noland returned to the brush and palette knife.

How did he produce the texture on the chevrons? Did he use a palette knife? Definitely with a scraping device. A palette knife is typically how an artist would get this type of texture. If not a palette knife, a variation on the palette knife. A trowel, for example.

The pink area doesn’t show any evidence of brush strokes. Do we know what Noland did there? I looked for the technique in anticipation of your call. I didn’t find something that proved how he got it. The pink area is very flat. He’s playing with texture with paint. He contrasts an area where there’s no sign of the artist’s hand to an area with overt sign of the artist’s hand.

Songs: Yesterdays measures 88.5 inches by 69.1 inches. Is that a typical size for Noland? It’s a typical size from the 1980s. His 80s works tend to be fairly robust in scale.

Did Noland name the painting? He would have.

He painted this in 1985 and died in 2010. Is this considered a late work for him? It’s a late period work. I spoke to him in 2008 or 2009 on a very early abstract piece I was selling, and he was very quick to point out that he was busier now than ever. Past his mid-career, he still had a fairly long, strong output. He returned to the circles after the chevrons. It’s interesting that when he returned to the old icons, he returned to the chevrons first.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Has the market for Noland works changed over time? Are there things collectors want now that they didn’t want as much ten years ago? It comes down to supply and demand. Paintings from 1963 are just rarer. There are not many opportunities [to bid], so they tend to sell for much higher. Works from the 1980s are much more available. In the last two or three years large 1980s chevrons have come up on the market. On December 3 in France, one estimated at $70,000 to $90,000 sold for $272,000. It was a chevron that was an almost identical-looking picture, and it was the same size [as this one]. There’s definitely a trend where the prices tend to be going upward. I imagine this last one selling for $272,000 is going to trigger a lot of people to sell, if they’ve been paying attention to the market.

How often have you handled works by Noland? Not very often. This is probably the first major painting I’ve had. I’ve certainly sold a lot of his prints and graphics. I think most of his material has likely surfaced in New York and Washington, D.C. L.A. is not one of the obvious places where people collect his work.

What is it like in person? It’s vibrant. It’s really quite impressive. It’s in flawless condition, which is always nice. It almost vibrates right in front of your eyes. It’s not subtle like some of his chevrons. This is really bold, and pops out.

Are there any details that elude the camera? Not really. The subtlety of the pink area, which we discussed as being devoid of the sign of the artist’s hand, is definitely much more obvious in person. There’s a stark contrast between the purity of the color field and the texture of the stripes of the chevrons.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Why will this painting stick in your memory? I tend to like colorful, bright, optimistic works. It’s sort of who I am. If you look at the chevron work up for sale, it’s one of the brightest and most optimistic. In others, I think the colors tend to be more muted and a little darker.

How to bid: Songs: Yesterdays is lot 197 in the Modern Art & Design Auction at LAMA on February 17, 2019.

How to subscribe to The Hot Bid: Click 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.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) is on Twitter and Instagram.

Peter Loughrey has appeared on The Hot Bid since the beginning–literally. The blog’s first post was on an Alma Thomas painting that LAMA ultimately sold for a world auction record. He has also discussed works by Jonathan Borofsky and Wendell Castlean exceptional 1969 dune buggy, an Ed Ruscha print that set a world auction record at LAMA, and a hyperrealistic sculpture by Carole Feuerman that ultimately set an auction record for the artist.

Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

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SOLD! An Ira Hudson Flying Black Duck Sold at Copley Fine Art Auctions For … (Scroll Down to See)

A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947. It faces left, its head in profile. The body is brown and its wings are spread. Its back is to us. A foot peeks out from under the tail.

Update: The Ira Hudson flying black duck sold for $18,000.

What you see: A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.

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

The lot notes call Ira Hudson “the South’s greatest waterfowl folk artist of the era.” What makes him so? He appears to be self-taught, and he quickly imparted his own style into his work. He seemed to put a much higher emphasis on his style and sensibility over realism. That direction goes toward what I call whimsical. It’s more toward folk art than realism.

What do you mean when you say “whimsical”? He had a very pure and raw confidence that comes forth in his carvings. He was very efficient in every aspect of his methods. You get a high quality standard throughout his body of work, because he did it so much.

I understand that he did not rely on patterns when carving his decoys. How did that affect his work? A lot of decoy makers use patterns for the side profile and the top profile  [of a duck decoy]. It would make sense that he doesn’t use patterns. He would take a block with a rectangular cross section, turn it 45 degrees, and he’d carve from that. Patterns don’t apply to that approach to carving. In addition, we know he used wood he salvaged from the shore. When you use found material, patterns are a hindrance. And when you’re looking at someone with the confidence he had, you wouldn’t need a pattern. He could chop wood with a hatchet and make it look like a duck. You see the form influenced by the wood he had available.

Does Hudson’s avoidance of patterns make his work more interesting to collectors? Absolutely. His freestyle approach to carving created some incredibly lively, animated forms. You’ll notice with this form that the bird arches to one side. The structure of the bird is turned from tip to tail. It’s a crescent. It’s not realistic, but it’s pleasing and exciting to see, and it’s unique to his work. I don’t think anyone else has decoys with a crescent shape to them.

How often do black ducks appear in his work? He lived on Chincoteague, an island off the eastern shore of Virginia. It’s a prime black duck habitat, and black ducks are great birds to hunt. They’re respected for table fare and sport hunting. Hudson made a good number of black ducks to hunt over. That said, his full size carvings of flying black ducks are exceptionally rare. I’ve never seen another full size flying black duck.

Did Hudson introduce the concept of the flyer–a decoy depicted in the act of flying? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he originated the flyer. However, it doesn’t appear to take the idea from anyone else, and it was made around the time the first flyers were made in various regions. There’s no one around him we’d expect to be exposed to anything like this. He doesn’t get full credit, but he was a pioneer, especially for his region.

When did he start carving flyers? He started carving during the early 20th century, around 1910 or so. The first flyers started showing up in the 1930s and continued into the 1940s. It’s a natural progression considering that waterfowl laws were changing. A decorative flyer was something a sport hunter could afford and be interested in, whereas a market hunter [someone who hunts ducks to sell as food] would only be interested in the decoy.

How many flyers did Hudson make? For full size flyers in total, I’ve probably seen a few dozen.

The lot notes call this a “rare” flying black duck. What makes it rare? We look at his flyers and say, “Ok, there’s a few dozen flyers out there. Among those, you’re down to a couple of flying black ducks.” Others represented are mergansers and mallards. It’s one of the only black duck flyers.

This bird cannot be used as a duck decoy. You can’t hunt with it. It’s purely decorative. Was Hudson among the earliest creators to carve ducks that are purely decorative, or did the changing waterfowl laws nudge him in that direction? This bird is made purely as decorative rather than a decoy. His son [Delbert] painted it exactly how he would paint a decoy. Its purpose was to attract an affluent buyer to decorate a cabin with it. I would say Hudson is in sync with the top makers around the country in the era in starting to do more with decoratives. He was following market trends.

Did he carve this bird in a single piece, or is it assembled from multiple pieces? With this bird, the body is made from one piece of wood. The wings are attached, as are the head and neck. The feet are separate pieces which attach. There are six pieces in a typical flyer as opposed to two pieces in a standard decoy.

He carved the decoy from balsa wood. Is that why he needed to create six pieces? Using multiple pieces of wood for a complex form works for a couple of reasons. One, it minimizes waste. Two, you have to consider the strength of the wood, which comes from the direction of its grain. It’s projecting in different directions, so you have to have the grain aligned in the wood or you’ll have weak points that are going to break. The reason he used balsa is it’s a nice, soft, very easy material to carve. Balsa is not as good for decoys because they wear quickly. On decoratives, it’s far less important, because they’re not taking wear. Wall hangers are lighter weight to reduce the chance of it falling off the wall.

Is it possible to know why Hudson made this? Does the fact that this is one of two known flying black ducks imply this one might have been commissioned? Or might he have made it for his own pleasure? Almost certainly, he would have made it for sale, and to generate income to support his family. We can’t get too deep into the pure reasoning, but he would make anything that would sell. He made clothespins during the war, when there were rations on things. This was made during a time of demand for decorative waterfowl, and he was more than capable of the job.

His son, Delbert, painted this decoy. Do we know when his children started taking on significant roles in the production of decoys? Reportedly, all of his children were involved with production at one time or another. [Hudson had nine.] Delbert and Norman went on to be very competent carvers in their own right. You have to look at Hudson’s work as his workshop. Hudson decoys would have been a joint effort. We judge each bird on its merits.

This flyer dates to 1947, two years before Hudson died. Do collectors prefer any specific time of his career? I’d say this carving is a testament to the high level of quality he maintained over the course of decades. Because of that quality standard, there’s no preference for an era of carving. The date of a carving is less important than its individual qualities.

What’s its condition? Its paint is in ideal original condition. It has one small repair to a wingtip.

It’s made from balsa wood. Would that make it more vulnerable to condition issues? It is, but because it’s a decoy for decorative purposes, it would have had an easy life hanging on a wall.

Would it have been made as a one-off, or would it have been one of a flock of flying black ducks that would hang on a wall together? It would have been made as a single object.

Why will it stick in your memory? First of all, the rarity. A flying black duck stands out. And it has the quality I like to see in any Hudson carving, including a plump body, a fine head carving, a dynamic pose, and exceptional scratch feather paint.

How to bid: The Ira Hudson flying black duck is lot 171 in the 2019 Winter Sale at Copley Fine Art Auctions on February 16, 2019 in Charleston, South Carolina.

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.

Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Colin McNair appeared on The Hot Bid last year, talking about an Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy that ultimately sold for $600,000.

Quack!

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A Patriotic Sand Art Bottle by Andrew Clemens Could Command $45,000


Andrew Clemens created this example of bottled sand art in 1887. It has a patriotic theme that showcases a flying eagle and a streaming American flag. Clemens developed his own techniques for arranging the layers and sections of colored sand to create elaborate, distinct imagery.

What you see: A patriotic-themed sand bottle by Andrew Clemens, dated 1887. Cowan’s Auctions estimates it at $35,000 to $45,000.

The expert: Wes Cowan, founder, Cowan’s Auctions.

Did Clemens invent this form of sand art? We don’t know entirely, but near McGregor, Iowa, there’s what is now a state park, Pikes Peak State Park. There’s a sandstone formation where different colored sand is exposed in layers. At some point, some enterprising person in McGregor collected sand and put it into bottles. I don’t think Clemens was the guy who invented it, but he took it to a level others could only dream of. Once Clemens started to do it, others imitated him.

So the artistic sand bottles made before Clemens appeared were what, just stacked colors of sand? I think so. The McGregor Historical Society has examples of bottles made by other folks–stacked colors or very simple geometric designs. They don’t look anything like Andrew Clemens bottles.

How did Clemens make these artistic bottles of sand? I think a large part of Clemens’ genius was he spent a lot of time preparing the sand–sorting it, sifting it, and he may have ground it so it could be packed. The sand granules coming out of the deposit are not the same size. It’s an advantage to make it as uniform as you can to arrange it in the bottle.

What tools did he use to arrange the grains of sand? He’d use tiny scoops to add sand to the bottle where he wanted it to be. He’d manipulate the colors with what looked like little hooks. And he would pack the sand–imagine a wooden tamping tool inside the bottle to pack the sand.

Did he or anyone else document his methods in detail? There are contemporary accounts that describe the process, but they’re not detailed enough to provide information on it. The bottom line is he practiced and practiced and became expert at doing this. That’s the secret of his work.

What challenges did he face in creating these artistic bottles? It was not physically difficult to do at all. Obviously, it was mentally challenging. The fact that he was deaf [means he] had no outside distractions. [Clemens came down with encephalitis at the age of five, and lost the ability to speak as well.] That’s part of the genius of this guy. [His deafness] allowed for intense levels of focus or concentration. By the end of his career, he could make them with relative ease. An upside-down bottle took him two days to make. He came up with techniques to make bottles faster and more efficiently.

Did he sell the bottles? Apparently, he got so good, and was recognized as such, that he printed a price list. He said he could do any design inside a bottle. I’ve seen a piano, an angel, a horse’s head, and a house. This is a standard spread-wing eagle with an urn and flowers on the other side. There are trains and steamboats, but the eagle [motif] is most common.

The other side of the bottle is dated. Is that typical? I wouldn’t say it’s typical. I would say sometimes the side with the floral urn would have a presentation: “To Clara, 1873.” He’d do anything you wanted. Sometimes it’s block letters, sometimes it’s script. [The third photo in the series of images below the main lot shows the other side of the bottle.]

Did he work alone, or did he train others to help him? Newspaper accounts from the time suggest his brother helped by going to Pikes Peak to get sand. But he did it by himself. He didn’t train anyone else. There are no pictures of himself in his studio with his bottles, and there are no pictures of him working. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It means no one has come up with any so far.

So when he died, the knowledge went with him? I don’t know that you could teach anybody [how to do what he did]. He was a self-taught genius. He mastered the technique and no one ever came close.

And he didn’t use any glue when making these bottles? Zero. It’s all hand-packed sand.

Where did he get the bottles? An apothecary supplier? I’m sure he ordered apothecary bottles eventually. He had a thriving business. McGregor is a town on the Mississippi River. There was no problem shipping to McGregor.

Because they were alive at the same time, I should ask–was Andrew Clemens related to the author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain)? No, he was not related to Samuel Clemens.

How was Clemens’s work received in his day? He was incredibly well-regarded. He was recognized as a genius then and now. Anyone who holds a bottle in their hands is flabbergasted.

How did he choose his subject matter? His earliest bottles were strictly geometric, block shapes. I don’t know how he was inspired to create the spread-winged eagle, but it could have had to do with the centennial. But he wasn’t making these things up. He saw things in brochures and copied them. Eighty percent of them [the bottles] are eagles with flags and floral urns.

Do we have a notion of how many bottles he made? If he kept records, we don’t know where they are. He worked for 15, 16 years. Assuming he could make a bottle once every two days, or three to four a week, my guess is he made between 1,500 and 2,000 bottles. Maybe 150 are known to exist today, and they keep popping up. People curated these because they recognized the genius needed to make them, and how fragile they are. I’ve handled about 40, publicly and privately. I think I played a role in rediscovering the bottles when taping an episode of Antiques Roadshow in Hot Springs, Arkansas 17 years ago. It was the first seen outside of McGregor. People in Iowa knew who he was. No one had really done too much research on him.

What was that experience like, 17 years ago, when you saw that Clemens bottle? As an auctioneer, it’s rare to see something that you’ve absolutely never seen before. I think I was at the folk art table with representatives from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, thinking, “What? Where did this come from? How have we never heard of this?” It was pretty fun. I was able to Google his name and find a very primitive website where there were a few bottles and a bio. I thought, “Oh, he’s not unknown, he’s just unknown to us.” I think we [Cowan’s] were the first auction house to promote him nationally. The first bottle brought $11,000 or $12,000 and I think I estimated it at $3,500 to $4,500. It’s gone up and up since then.

How does this bottle compare to other bottles of his that you’ve handled? It’s an outstanding example of his late period work, but he didn’t make any crappy examples [laughs]. The only thing that happens is if they’re put out in the sun, the color might fade a bit. This one is very vibrant.

This bottle has an 1887 date. Clemens died in 1894. Do collectors prefer specific periods or eras of his work? No. The collectors I know are happy to get one.

What’s the world auction record for a Clemens sand bottle? And was it similar to this bottle? It was $132,000. It’s on the site. [The record was set at Cowan’s Auctions in October 2018]. It was a typical eagle. There just happened to be two people who really wanted it. That’s all that was.

What’s it like to hold the bottle in your hands? Is it substantial? It probably weighs about a pound, a pound and a half. The bigger they are, the more substantial they get. This is not by any means the biggest bottle he made. That’s in the State Historical Museum of Iowa. It took him two years to make, and he made it for his mom. It’s remarkable. [Scroll down a bit to see both sides of that bottle.]

And what’s it like to hold it in your hands and examine it? You hold one of these bottles and just marvel at the genius who made it. That’s the real reward. But the real story here is not necessarily the genius of the guy, It’s about a guy who had a disability in the 19th century [Clemens was a deaf-mute] who found a way to make a living.

How to bid: The Andrew Clemens 1887 sand bottle is lot 815 in the Fine and Decorative Art, Including Americana auction on February 23, 2019 at Cowan’s.

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Speaking of Antiques RoadshowSeason 22 began in January 2019 and continues through late May. I’m one of several who live-tweet new episodes of the show with the #antiquesroadshow hash tag at 8 pm EST. See you there on Twitter?

Image is courtesy of Cowan’s.

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SOLD! A Seymchan Meteorite with Pallasites Commanded… (Scroll Down to See)

A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. It's roughly triangular-shaped, and cut to show the clear, firm bands of solid iron and pallasites.

Update: The slab Seymchan meteorite with pallasites sold for $27,500.

What you see: A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.

The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.

Was the Seymchan meteorite fall witnessed? Or were the meteorites simply discovered at some point after they hit the Earth’s surface? I believe they were found by metal detector in the 1960s, and people went back to the area to find more.

How often do Seymchan meteorites come to auction? They’re probably disproportionately [represented] because they’re so beautiful. You get a skewed view of meteorites from sales. We really present the best of the best. Pick a meteorite at random, and it’s an ugly rock. For every one I offer, I reject nine. There are some Seymchans in most of my sales.

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

Is Seymchan a marquee name for meteorite collectors? Are they must-haves? Collectors want Seymchans. This is a great example, and it appeals to collectors who have never seen meteorites before. People who buy in the jewelry sales, the contemporary art sales, the antiquities sales, and the Old Masters sales buy in these sales.

The lot notes say less than 0.2 percent of all meteorites contain pallasites, the extraterrestrial peridots visible on the right side of the meteorite. How are pallasites created? What has to happen? Four and a half billion years ago, there were early bodies like Earth that had iron cores and stony mantles. When these proto-planets broke up, their outsides became stony meteorites, their insides became iron meteorites, and at the boundary between the two [the iron core and the stony mantle], there were pallasites.

Why do pallasites show up in meteorites? Why not emeralds, or diamonds, or other gemstones? It has to do with the geology of the proto-planetary body, but you do find nano-diamonds in meteorites. We had one in the last sale. By nano, I mean on the nano scale. They’re nothing you could put in an engagement ring.

I get that pallasites are gem-quality stones, and olivine isn’t, but can you point out which is which on the photo of the meteorite with the lot? The ones that sparkle, shine, and catch the light–those are pallasites. Olivine is the mineral. Those that look brown are more olivine than pallasite.

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

Do you typically have both in a meteorite, or can you have all-pallasite meteorites? You do get slices of pallasite meteorite that might miss any olivine. You get some slices that are nicely homogenous, with peridot in an iron matrix. You can get meteorites that are just iron, which are slightly further away from the boundary [between the proto-planetary stony mantle and iron core]. Then you’ve got some that are more transitional, with seas of olivine and pallasite and seas of metal.

Who cuts meteorites, and how does that person decide where and how much to cut? Seymchan is a good meteorite for cutting in that the meteorites on their own do not have much going for them, aesthetically. You don’t destroy much by cutting them open. The shape determines how to cut–slices, cubes, even spheres. An American football-sized meteorite is easy to cut into a sphere. One that has an arm shape is easier to cut into slices.

Who cuts the meteorite? A gem-cutter? No, there are specialized people who do that. It’s not easy. When you cut, you always want the smallest amount of wastage possible. You want to do it as carefully as possible, in lab-like conditions. The iron in pallasites are relatively soft, but for some, you need a diamond blade to cut through them.

This example was cut from a larger meteorite. Do we know how large it was? We don’t, but I would bet it’s under 50 kilos [110 pounds].

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

How rare is it to come across what we see here–a clear boundary between the iron and the pallasites? That will have informed how to cut it, to bring out the transition between the two. There may have been the temptation to cut the gems off and fashion it into a sphere. I’m glad they didn’t. I like the contrast between the two sides.

I’ve been lying in wait to write about a meteorite like lot 1–one entirely shot through with pallasites–but this jumped out at me because I’ve never seen one like it. Is it as unusual as it seems? This is the first I’ve had with this presentation. That’s why I’m so fond of it. I’ve had a slice where the pallasites looked like a river of metal was running through it. This is a more substantial piece. You don’t see much like this at all, even if you look at the best Seymchans out there.

This meteorite weighs 8.4 pounds–not small, and not huge. Does that matter? As with artworks and sculpture, there does come a point where the size becomes difficult for collectors. We have one in the sale that’s 88 kilos [187 pounds]–probably too big for a desk. 8.4 pounds is a nice size. Conversely, if you get something really heavy, it’s more valuable again. If you can sit it outside a museum and no one can run off with it, its weight becomes a virtue again.

Why does lot 1 have a lower estimate than this meteorite, given that it’s shot through with gemstones, and this is not? It’s smaller. That’s what it comes down to. In gems, they use the four Cs [color, cut, clarity, and carat]. I use the four Ss: size, shape, story, and science. Science–What’s interesting about meteorites is they provide data on the early solar system. Lunar or Martian meteorites have more scientific interest. Story–did it explode over Siberia in the 1950s? Did it take out the dinosaurs? Did it destroy a car? Size–bigger is better. Shape–that encompasses aesthetics. Some meteorites are intrinsically more beautiful than others, and more desirable, and fetch more money.

And how would you judge this meteorite by your four Ss? Size… if you had everything else equal but you cut it in half, it’s $10,000 to $15,000. If it was a bit larger, $40,000 to $60,000. I really like the aesthetics of this–the outer crust, the metal, the pallasite, and the  roughly triangular, pleasing shape. In terms of science, it’s rare, and it’s a pallasite. The story originates with a proto-planetary body. We don’t know when it fell to earth, but it was relatively recent. Seymchan was only discovered in the 1960s.

Have you held it? Yes, but not for a while.

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

What was that like? I still have this [feeling] every time I hold a meteorite–they are four and half billion years old, which is a number so large as to almost be meaningless. The philosophical quandary when you hold it in your hand is it’s an object that comes from space. That’s mind-blowing. And four and a half billion years makes it one-third as old as the universe.

Is it heavy? Actually, with this one, I fell in love with it before I held it. To see the contrast in the stone is stunning.

Why will this meteorite stick in your memory? Having those three different colors to it–the weathered surface, the polished pattern of the metal, and the pallasite crystals–it really stands out from the others. I’ll definitely remember it for a while. This is not really a word, but this is a very covetous object. When I see it, I want it. Some people get that when they see a native gold nugget. It transmits a desire to acquire it.

How to bid: The Seymchan meteorite is lot 22 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and other Rare Meteorites, a sale Christie’s will hold online between February 6 through February 14, 2019.

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.

Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. James Hyslop is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Hyslop previously appeared on The Hot Bid, talking about a Canyon Diablo meteorite that ultimately sold for $237,500.

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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A 1949 George Nelson Ball Wall Clock, an Atomic Age Design Legend, Could Sell for $450 at Rago

George Nelson's ball wall clock is a mid-century design icon. It resembles a sun with rays streaming from it. Each of the twelve "rays" ends with a ball that represents an hour. This particular version featured balls that had different colors: black, green, yellow, white, and orange.

What you see: A George Nelson ball wall clock, designed for the Howard Miller company and dating to 1949. Rago Arts and Auctions estimates it at $250 to $450.

The expert: Michael Ingham, Rago’s COO and director of its Unreserved department.

The Howard Miller company produced the ball wall Clock from 1948 to 1969. Do we know how many it made? There are no records that I know of. They made them for 21 years. That shows you how much people liked them. They were very popular and remain so today.

So the clock was a hit from day one? From the day it arrived on the market. 1948 was right at the beginning of the atomic age. The Trinity test was July of 1945, and by August 1946, we dropped Little Boy at Hiroshima. Americans were feeling pretty powerful at that point.

Why was it such a hit right away? It was the end of the war and the beginning of a great boom in America. It was considered radically modern–it was the first clock not to have numbers on the face. That was a big departure. And it looked perfect on a kitchen wall.

Howard Miller offered the clock in six different versions. How popular is the multi-color example coming up for sale at Rago? I call it polychrome. They were, in my opinion, the most popular model, and the one we’ve seen the most of.  The runner up is the black ball version, which looks a bit sleeker. The polychrome version is the epitome of the design, and it’s what people look for. [Vitra creates reproductions of all six versions of the clock.]

George Nelson didn’t personally design everything that bears his name. Did he design this clock, or did someone else in his studio do it? Nelson was not the designer of this. Nelson felt it was important, as a branding thing, that he get the credit in the public arena. He would name the designers in technical journals. That’s how Nelson chose to run his firm. It was not a secret that others made the designs, it just wasn’t out for public consumption. Irving Harper designed this. He was a famous guy in his own right.

Officially, the name of this timepieces is “Clock 4755.” A quick glance makes clear why people call it “The Ball Clock,” but do we know when and how it got its popular name? The model number is the driest name possible. I don’t know how it got the name “The Ball Clock.” It was possibly a savvy marketer at Howard Miller. But in my 20 years here, no one has referred to it as anything but.

The original run of this clock was long, and while we don’t know exactly how many were made, we know there had to be a whole honking lot of them. What does it take for a mass-produced object to remain popular enough to command a three-figure auction estimate seventy years after it left the factory? Most of the 20th century design market was made for mass production, but good design is always good design. Fifty years ago, it was a good design, and now, it’s still a good design.

The ball clock is definitely of its era, and yet it manages not to look old. How does it pull off that neat little trick? It definitely references a specific period in history, and I think people like that. Speaking as an older guy, I can remember them hanging on the walls of parents’ houses as a kid. It’s a very clean, modern design. It is radically modern in its way. It’s so clean, you can project what you want onto it. And it’s small. It’s not a big commitment. It’s not like buying a giant sofa. It’s like buying a throw pillow, in the design world.

What condition is it in? And do collectors tend to be fussy about these clocks, given that there’s so many from the original run still out there? People can be very fussy. This one is not in the greatest of condition. The hands are a little bit loose. The enamel on the body of the clock got stained and chipped over time. The enameling on the balls is pretty good, and these are good colors. This particular one is electric, and is meant to plug into a wall.

What condition issues do you tend to see with the Ball wall clocks? The hands often are a bit bent because [the metal] is very thin and very soft. The balls can often be repainted. Most auction houses don’t sell them guaranteed to function. I’ve never plugged it in, so I don’t know if it functions.

How often do original-run George Nelson Ball wall clocks come up at auction? We’ve handled at least one for every year I’ve worked here. Probably closer to 25.

How did you arrive at the estimate? It’s a pretty standard item for us. This particular model, in this particular condition, should go in the $250 to $300 range. A really, really pristine one would get $600 to $800. The dirty little secret of auctions is that estimates should be a little bit enticing, they should be a tad lower. If I can get you to raise your hand once, I can get you to raise your hand again.

What’s the auction record for a George Nelson Ball wall clock? The early 2000s were the hottest moment for these things. The record was $1,527 at at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) in June 2004.

When I think of George Nelson, I think of his marshmallow sofa, and this clock. Why has it come to symbolize his work? It was right at the beginning of his career. It was considered radically modern at the time, and it summed up a period of time [in America]. A lot of what Nelson did was square, with clean lines. And Nelson designs are clever. Not that they’re funny, but they make you smile. This clock has that same sort of feeling to it.

How to bid: The George Nelson Ball Wall clock is lot 1530 in the Rago Unreserved auction at Rago on February 24, 2019.

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Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.

Special thanks to Shannon Loughrey at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) for digging into auction records that aren’t online to confirm the record sale price for the ball clock.

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My Latest “Sold!” Column for Art & Object Showcases Gorgeous Tableware

Meissen Monteiths Sold! column.png

My February 2019 “Sold!” column for Art & Object magazine features gorgeous tableware: Meissen Swan service porcelain, an 1870 American silver ice bowl with a polar theme, a ridiculously complete mid-century Georg Jensen flatware set in a custom case; and a Gustav Stickley copper charger.

https://www.artandobject.com/articles/sold-highlights-auction-block-0

SOLD! A Frank Tenney Johnson Nocturne Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

A portrait of Alphonzo Bell painted in 1928 by Frank Tenney Johnson. It features the man in Western-style clothing (hat, chaps, boots) atop a cream-colored horse. Cattle are in the background, some drinking from a stream. The landscape is majestic, with rolling hills and suggestions of plants.

Update: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell sold for $348,500.

What you see: A portrait of Alphonzo Bell painted in 1928 by Frank Tenney Johnson. Bonhams estimates it at $250,000 to $350,000.

The expert: Kathy Wong, specialist in fine arts at Bonhams.

How prolific was Frank Tenney Johnson? He was quite prolific. Over 500 works have been offered at auction alone, and there’s a large number of works in private collections and institutional collections. He was quite in demand from the 1920s onward. There was in particular in Los Angeles a commission for a drop curtain for a theater. The popularity of that worked to launch him in this area.

How often did he accept portrait commissions such as this one? As he grew in popularity, especially with Hollywood, he did accept portrait commissions through Stendahl Galleries [the Los Angeles gallery that represented him]. This portrait was negotiated through Stendahl. At least three other equestrian portraits have been identified. Sometimes they’re foremen as well. They’re not just wealthy ranchers.

Do we know anything about how Johnson would have made this painting? Would he have had Bell pose with his horse in this landscape and painted him plein air? There are no notes beyond what was written in the Stendahl Galleries ledger. What we know about Johnson’s working technique–there is some scaffolding involved. Certain compositions he favored might repeat in parts. The grouping of cattle is reminiscent of Frank Tenney Johnsons we’ve sold in the past. I strongly suspect because Johnson was an accomplished horseman himself, he had Bell mount his palomino horse and did a photo, but we don’t know for certain. There are no documents of how the commission was carried out.

How often did Frank Tenney Johnson use photography in his work? We don’t know. But he was a very prolific photographer and it was part of his working process as well.

Is it reasonable to assume he used photos to create this commission? I think so, given that there were photos used for other works.

Do we know if Alphonzo Bell had any input into the appearance of the portrait? We simply don’t know. It was commissioned, per the ledger, on his [Bell’s] Bel Bar Ranch in Colorado. How much artistic license was taken is unknown. There’s nothing in the landscape that would identify it as Bel Bar Ranch. It’s most likely supposed to depict Colorado.

Is this scene typical of Johnson’s work? It’s fairly typical compositionally and in its coloration. A lone rider against a backdrop like this is pretty recognizable as his work. It’s intended to be a dusky landscape. We believe it to actually be one of his moonlight paintings.

Wait, this is a night scene? But there’s a blue sky with white clouds… As far as we are aware, it’s meant to be an evening scene. It’s more like twilight. There’s a very theatrical aspect to his nocturnes. The whites are highlighted. Much in the way that Maxfield Parrish scenes are not what you observe at nighttime, this is a romantic, dramatic depiction of evening.

This measures 32 inches by 40 inches. Is that a typical painting size for him? It’s toward the larger [end of the spectrum]. He did work in a full range of sizes. This is a common desirable size for him.

Could you talk a bit about the equestrian aspect of the painting? I understand that was a strength for Johnson. I think Bell would have been familiar enough with Frank Tenney Johnson’s nocturnes that a cream-colored horse would be a very visually striking feature in the landscape.

Bell chose his horse for visual effect? I think so. Per his biography, he was an aesthete. He was visually sensitive. It’s very possible he saw another [nocturne] example Frank Tenney Johnson did of a rider on a white horse and asked for something similar. There’s a lovely luminosity to white or cream-colored horses in his compositions. I’m sure Bell must have been aware of that.

Do we know how many nocturnes Johnson did? They’re not very rare. His nocturnes became his most commercially sought-after type of landscape. What makes this particular work desirable and interesting is it speaks to ranch culture. There was an interesting moment in Los Angeles in the 1920s when it transformed from an agricultural economy to a film-based economy. It comes at a time when the ranch way of life in LA gave way to oil and gas coming in, and film industry studios coming in. Bell, like Frank Tenney Johnson, had artistic sensitivity. He could straddle the agrarian and ranch world and the mythic depiction of that in Hollywood. This Western way of life was opening up to a larger audience.

What is this work like in person? It’s really stunning. There’s a lot of active brushwork, probably more than you can see online. The saturation of colors is what I wish everyone could see in person. There’s a luminosity that the catalog doesn’t do justice. It’s a work you can stand before and this quietude comes over you. Bell looks to be deep in thought. His absorption is quite captivating here.

It’s kind of meditative. It is. All the nocturnes have that quality. Many works in the Brinkman Collection [from which this painting comes] show action. This is one of the few that shows a quiet, introspective moment.

We know who the sitter is. Does that matter? Does that make the painting more interesting to collectors, even though he isn’t a celebrity or a famous historical figure? I do think so. Buyers want to know the story behind the work. His biography is quite fascinating. The way he found oil on his family ranch is quite dramatic. I think potentially some bidders may identify with the sitter or find his life story interesting.

What’s the auction record for a Frank Tenney Johnson? It was over 10 years ago. It was a similar size, depicting two horses in the evening, called Silent Night. It sold in 2007 for $1.1 million with a $300,000 to $500,000 estimate. The market was quite robust at the time, but it has changed since. We think this work is priced accordingly for the current market.

What makes this painting memorable? Even if you don’t know anything about Frank Tenney Johnson, it’s visually compelling. We’re all familiar with the myth of the Marlboro Man, which was based on a real ranch hand. Whether you’re a fan of Western art or not, there’s something heroic about the figure, communicated by a composition that explains its enduring appeal.

How to bid: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell is lot 47 in the sale of the L.D. “Brink” Brinkman Collection of Western American art, taking place February 8, 2019 at Bonhams Los Angeles.

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Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram. Kathy Wong is on Twitter.

Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

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A Tintype of Mary Edwards Walker–the First and, So Far, Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient– for $9,000

In this circa 1865 tintype, American physician Mary Edwards Walker wears her Medal of Honor. It appears on the upper left of her chest. She wears matching trousers under her black dress. She's depicted in three-quarter view, looking to the right, with her hands clasped.

What you see: A circa 1865 tintype of American physician Mary Edwards Walker, taken in the year she received the Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $6,000 to $9,000.

The expert: Deborah Rogal, associate director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.

How often was Walker photographed around this time, and during her life? Do we know how many photos of her exist, tintype or otherwise? There are several known photos of her from all periods of her life, but fewer than ten, I’d say.

Do we have a more precise date on the tintype than 1865? I’m wondering if this is the first portrait of her wearing her Medal of Honor. No. I wish we did. There’s no way for us to pinpoint a more specific date. It’s dated primarily on the presence of the medal, which she won in 1865, and the overall appearance.

Could we talk a bit about Walker’s life story? I did not know about her until I spotted this lot in the Swann catalog. I also didn’t know about her until we received the object. She was an extraordinary person. It’s amazing she’s not more widely appreciated for who she was.

Her parents were progressive. They encouraged her education and encouraged her to dress how she wanted. She went to Syracuse Medical College and graduated as a doctor. She married [a fellow medical student] and privately practiced together. As far as I understand, trusting female doctors was not something patients found easy to do [so the practice struggled]. From her youth, she wore uncommon dress. In some ways, that was the most radical thing she did. She carried on, progressively getting more masculine [in her choice of clothing], but she wouldn’t refer to it that way. She didn’t wear corsets and was really outspoken about it. It caused a lot of backlash.

Let’s talk about her work during the Civil War, which led to her becoming the first, and so far, only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. When war broke out, she volunteered her services as a doctor. She crossed enemy lines [to tend to patients]. I think she believed powerfully in the ability to serve, and she was proud of her service. She wore her Medal of Honor in almost every photo taken of her after the war, and she refused to relinquish it. She was very proud of it, and deservedly so. After the war, she became a vocal proponent of women’s rights.

M38897-6_8 002

How did she win the Medal of Honor? As far as I understand, she attempted to retroactively receive a commission from the Army, partly to receive benefits. People didn’t know what to do with her. I think the medal was a way for them to give her recognition without giving her formal status as a veteran, which she was asking for. It was the first time a woman was awarded the medal. She believed she earned it for her bravery. She was very brave. She traveled in the south, and she was taken as a prisoner of war. [She was captured in April 1864 and released in a prisoner exchange four months later.]

The government rescinded the medal in 1917, two years before she died. But her medal was NOT taken away because she was an outspoken activist for women’s rights, correct? I do think her being a woman was an element, but it was not because of that. [The government of the time] questioned how the Medal of Honor was awarded in the past. Many others had theirs retroactively rescinded. [More than 900 recipients suffered the same fate as Walker. Some were removed because they were not technically members of the military when they earned the honor.] She got it back after her death. [President Jimmy Carter restored the honor to Walker in 1977.]

M38897-6_8 002

The tintype shows her wearing pants. Was it a brave act for a woman to pose for a photo in 1865 while wearing pants? Absolutely. There are women willing to record themselves wearing pants–women in bloomers, and women who served in the army and dressed as men to do that. But I don’t think they dressed that way as a matter of course through their lives. What sets Walker apart is her commitment. She dressed this way throughout her life. [She felt] women should not be forced to wear clothing that impacted their health and denied them the range of possibilities that men had. There was another level on which she was very brave. There are anecdotal stories of her wearing pants and being chased or having objects thrown at her, and she was arrested at least once for dressing this way. But she was very sure of herself. An appealing aspect to her personality was that she was so confident and articulate about her choices.

Would she have worn an outfit like this on the battlefield, or are these more formal clothes? The outfit in the tintype, I’d say, is certainly more formal than what she wore during the war. She would have dressed in a more casual manner. I understand that she styled herself a uniform like the Army uniform.

Is there any information recorded on the tintype itself? There is not, which is typical for tintypes of the period. Tintypes were an incredibly popular medium for doing portraits. There were studios, and there were itinerant tintypists. They were accessible and quick to produce. You see a lot of soldiers commemorating their own service or giving them to family members while they are away.

Can we tell by looking why Walker might have had this tintype made–whether she did it for herself, or for someone else, or to promote herself? It’s impossible to know for sure, given that tintypes are unique objects by definition. It’s possible to imagine she made it for herself or someone close to her.

What’s that light-colored thing that’s behind her in the picture? It looks like a studio prop. It could be a partially obscured portrait stand, which was used to position your body so you don’t make a move during the exposure and make a blurry image.

How did this tintype come to you? Was Walker identified as the sitter when it was consigned, or did you identify her? It came from a consigner we have a relationship with, who has a lot of expertise in the period and its images. He came to us with the attribution, and we did additional research. We were not able to find a previous publication of the piece, and we believe it’s unique and undocumented.

How did the tintype manage to go unpublished until now? Anything I could say would be guessing. It probably descended through family members. It was not part of her estate when she died. We do see this all the time–things appear out of nowhere, and we’re able to rediscover them.

I imagine Walker would have been easy to identify regardless, given that she’s wearing pants and a Medal of Honor. The object is small, but an aspect of tintypes is the detail. The medal is really quite clear when you look at it with magnification. It’s incredible to see that.

Have any other images of Walker gone to auction? What did they fetch? Records for Walker are very scarce. Christie’s sold a signed 1877 photograph of her in April 1996 for $4,370.

I imagine you’ll get cross-competition for this from several groups–tintype collectors, fans of early photographs, medical historians, military history fans, people interested in women’s rights… We expect that, certainly. It touches a lot of aspects of history in America, and it appeals to a wide audience. The conversations happening in the country now are relevant to the conversations that happened in Walker’s lifetime–what she could wear, could women vote, how we respond to women who have strong opinions. I see the line of conversation through history. Has it changed or not changed? She’s clearly still relevant. Her passion and her strength resonates strongly, and I hope collectors will feel that.

What condition is the tintype in? The image itself has not faded. I do see handling issues that are common with this piece, but the details retained in the image are incredible. I was looking at it yesterday. Her hands are clasped, and under the loupe, you can see the veins in her hands. The tintype format allows us to retain a sense of immediacy. I felt her presence strongly in the image. Paper images of the period don’t retain detail at the same level.

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When I saw this lot, I felt angry, because I had never heard about Walker before, and this is how I learned about her–not in school, but by leafing through an online auction catalog. Do you understand what I mean? Exactly. I felt some of the things you’re describing. I feel lucky to be able to offer the image and expose her more. She was a bit of a difficult person, so opinionated, so strong, and so unable to cede to the [women’s rights] movement around her. It had an impact on how she’s remembered today. It’s unfortunate. She should be remembered for her foresight and her contributions. History is not written by women. That’s not new, but we can change that. She’s the only female Medal of Honor winner. She’s one of the first female doctors in the country. She’s incredible, and I hope we’ll be able to reenter her in our history.

How to bid: The circa 1865 tintype of Mary Edwards Walker wearing her Medal of Honor is lot 15 in the Photographs: Art & Visual Culture auction at Swann, taking place February 21, 2019.

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SOLD! Swann Sold That 1927 Josephine Baker Movie Poster For (Scroll Down to See)

A 1927 Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker's silent film The Siren of the Tropics. It depicts her smiling directly at the viewer, wearing a scanty costume of strategically placed strings of pearls. She also wears pearl arm cuffs, elaborate pearl earrings. A large fan of red feathers, evidently attached to her back, spreads behind her.

Update: The 1927 Josephine Baker poster commanded $9,750.

What you see: A 1927 Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s silent film The Siren of the Tropics. Swann Galleries estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.

The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.

This poster image is based on a color photograph from an interior page of a Folies Bergère program. How common was it to base poster graphics on photos in the late 1920s? Is this unusual? Good question. I don’t know the answer to that. Some posters were photographic. I’m not sure I know of others, but the fact that it’s unusual doesn’t make it important.

Can we tell by looking how the poster artist sized up the photograph? Did they just blow up the photo, or did they trace it or draw it? It has been enlarged, to be sure. I assume it would have been hand-drawn, but I’m not sure about that at all.

The original photo was in color. Did the poster artist change the colors, or are these the same colors in the Folies Bergère program photograph? The colors are basically the same. It’s not like they were changed from red to blue. The only change was to cover up her immodesty.

It’s interesting that the poster artist went with the same colors seen in the picture, rather than brighter colors that are more suited to the poster medium. I think the poster attracts attention very well without bright colors. Forget the fact that she’s scantily clad–it’s an incredible getup. And it’s a great portrait of her.

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The movie the poster advertises, The Siren of the Tropics, had its world premiere in Stockholm. Do we know why the premiere was held there rather than, say, Paris? I haven’t found anything about that anywhere. But there was a Swedish fascination with Josephine Baker. They were transfixed by her. All of Europe was transfixed by her to some degree.

It’s an odd choice of venue for a Josephine Baker film debut. I couldn’t agree more. I do think the fact that the image is from the Folies Bergère program and not from the film–I think it must have been done quickly. Maybe that’s why they used an image that already existed. The show from the Folies Bergère has nothing to do with the movie. I don’t think she wears the pearls and feathers costume in the film.

The poster artist definitely altered the picture when translating it into a poster. What, exactly, was added? Her nipples [are covered], and four strands of pearls emanating from each of her pasties have been added. [You can see the original photo at this link.]

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It looks like whoever added the pasties and pearls for the poster version did a good job. Is the touch-up work more obvious in person? It took a while to make the realization that [the original] is not covered up. Certainly, the work is good. Seamlessly done. It looks like how it was meant to be.

And this is the only copy of the poster that has come to auction? It has been seen before, but it has never come up for sale before. Given how popular Josephine Baker is, and that it was a world premiere of a film, you’d think more copies would surface, but none have come to market.

Baker isn’t shown topless, but the poster is still pretty risqué. Where would this have been displayed in Sweden in 1927? Presumably, it was hung up all over Sweden. That doesn’t explain why so few have surfaced. [They would have] posted them wherever they could to get the maximum effect from the advertising.

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And some of them, certainly, would have been stolen by fans… Stolen, peeled off, maybe a remainder was not posted. It’s a sexy image, even if you don’t like it. I do think it’s eye-catching. She has a very becoming smile, and she’s staring right at you. A fetching pose, an improbable costume. People walking down the street would think, “WTF is that?” She was topless in the Folies Bergère program, but that’s a lot less public than a poster siding.

How did the poster come to you? Through the inventory of a dealer who passed away. I think it was purchased in the last five years.

You’ve given it a condition grade of B. Collectors would prefer a higher grade, but does that matter when a poster is unique? It’s not a situation where you can sit back and wait for another to come along. There’s no indication there’s another one out there. They have to be forgiving.

How did you arrive at the estimate? It’s based on sales of other Josephine Baker posters. Baker is one of the most sought-after music hall performers of her time. Like Chaplin and the Titanic, her name really transcends her genre. She was a black woman making her name performing half-naked in France. That could not happen in America. From a racial point of view, it’s astounding. And it was incredible for a black woman to appear in a movie. Not only appear in it, but star in it.

Does the silent film the poster advertises survive? Clips are online. The film was panned, but it’s certainly around.

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How does this Josephine Baker poster measure up to other posters that feature her? It’s a great depiction of her. We’ve sold several Josephine Baker posters over the years. Some sell for $25,000 to $45,000. This one combines scarcity, an appealing image, and a performer who is remembered and sought after in the collectors’ market. For example, two years ago, we had the French version of Siren of the Tropics poster. It didn’t actually sell. If you looked at it, you couldn’t tell it was Josephine Baker. In 2010, we sold a Danish poster for her film Princess Tam Tam for $9,000.

Are there other Josephine Baker posters from her lifetime that are based on photos? There’s one from the end of her career that’s very horrible and very common, which sells for $600 on a good day. It’s not a good comparison. None of the others are photographic.

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Why will this poster stick in your memory? Several reasons. It’s a sexy image. It really is a rare Josephine Baker piece. It’s a very good poster, because it’s a good likeness of her. And as a poster geek, I appreciate that no others have come up for sale publicly.

How to bid: The Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s 1927 silent film, The Siren of the Tropics, is lot 429 in the Vintage Posters sale at Swann Galleries on February 7, 2019.

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.

Nicholas Lowry has appeared several times on The Hot Bid. Read past entries in which he  talks about a 1928 Roger Broders poster that later sold for $7,500Swann setting the world auction record for any travel postera 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 You1917 World War I recruiting poster that introduced the modern concept of Uncle Sam, and an Alphonse Mucha poster featuring Sarah Bernhardt.

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

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Will a 1985 Chevron Painting by Kenneth Noland Point to a $150,000 Result at LAMA?

Kenneth Noland's Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas, features a large chevron at the top of the canvas, pointing down. It's colored in bands of silver, black, red, and yellow. All four are textured. The pink backdrop is smooth.

What you see: Songs: Yesterdays, a large 1985 acrylic on canvas from the late Kenneth Noland. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

The expert: Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA.

How prolific was Noland? He was very prolific. He quickly became a prominent figure in the Color Field school. Of all the artists who emerged from that movement, he became one of the most celebrated, with the target series in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1963, he was fairly well-established.

How often do his works come up at auction? Fairly often. There’s a lot of material out there. It trades hands with good regularity.

Is Songs: Yesterdays a one-off, or part of a series? It’s part of a series from the 1980s, when he returned to the chevron shape. He started it in the 1960s and he revisited it. The [1980s] works were named after songs. I don’t think this one was named after the Beatles song. I think he named it after an older song called Yesterdays. He not only revisited the shape of the icon, but he goes back to his own history, the music of his youth.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Chevrons are a recurring theme in Noland’s work. Is there a ranked order to the popularity of specific themes in his work? Do collectors prefer his circles/targets to his chevrons, for example? If you asked the artist that, he would say “Absolutely not,” but the market has spoken. Circles/targets sell for the most. The chevrons are a very iconic part of his work. If you ranked [the themes] by their price in the market, the place of chevrons seems to be second.

I understand that Noland stained his canvases rather than brushing the color on with paints. Has he done that here? His earliest works, yes, were part of the stained canvases. Many artists were disengaging with the brush after [Jackson] Pollock. In this case, in the 1980s, Noland returned to the brush and palette knife.

How did he produce the texture on the chevrons? Did he use a palette knife? Definitely with a scraping device. A palette knife is typically how an artist would get this type of texture. If not a palette knife, a variation on the palette knife. A trowel, for example.

The pink area doesn’t show any evidence of brush strokes. Do we know what Noland did there? I looked for the technique in anticipation of your call. I didn’t find something that proved how he got it. The pink area is very flat. He’s playing with texture with paint. He contrasts an area where there’s no sign of the artist’s hand to an area with overt sign of the artist’s hand.

Songs: Yesterdays measures 88.5 inches by 69.1 inches. Is that a typical size for Noland? It’s a typical size from the 1980s. His 80s works tend to be fairly robust in scale.

Did Noland name the painting? He would have.

He painted this in 1985 and died in 2010. Is this considered a late work for him? It’s a late period work. I spoke to him in 2008 or 2009 on a very early abstract piece I was selling, and he was very quick to point out that he was busier now than ever. Past his mid-career, he still had a fairly long, strong output. He returned to the circles after the chevrons. It’s interesting that when he returned to the old icons, he returned to the chevrons first.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Has the market for Noland works changed over time? Are there things collectors want now that they didn’t want as much ten years ago? It comes down to supply and demand. Paintings from 1963 are just rarer. There are not many opportunities [to bid], so they tend to sell for much higher. Works from the 1980s are much more available. In the last two or three years large 1980s chevrons have come up on the market. On December 3 in France, one estimated at $70,000 to $90,000 sold for $272,000. It was a chevron that was an almost identical-looking picture, and it was the same size [as this one]. There’s definitely a trend where the prices tend to be going upward. I imagine this last one selling for $272,000 is going to trigger a lot of people to sell, if they’ve been paying attention to the market.

How often have you handled works by Noland? Not very often. This is probably the first major painting I’ve had. I’ve certainly sold a lot of his prints and graphics. I think most of his material has likely surfaced in New York and Washington, D.C. L.A. is not one of the obvious places where people collect his work.

What is it like in person? It’s vibrant. It’s really quite impressive. It’s in flawless condition, which is always nice. It almost vibrates right in front of your eyes. It’s not subtle like some of his chevrons. This is really bold, and pops out.

Are there any details that elude the camera? Not really. The subtlety of the pink area, which we discussed as being devoid of the sign of the artist’s hand, is definitely much more obvious in person. There’s a stark contrast between the purity of the color field and the texture of the stripes of the chevrons.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), February 17, 2019 Modern Art and Design Auction

Why will this painting stick in your memory? I tend to like colorful, bright, optimistic works. It’s sort of who I am. If you look at the chevron work up for sale, it’s one of the brightest and most optimistic. In others, I think the colors tend to be more muted and a little darker.

How to bid: Songs: Yesterdays is lot 197 in the Modern Art & Design Auction at LAMA on February 17, 2019.

How to subscribe to The Hot Bid: Click 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.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) is on Twitter and Instagram.

Peter Loughrey has appeared on The Hot Bid since the beginning–literally. The blog’s first post was on an Alma Thomas painting that LAMA ultimately sold for a world auction record. He has also discussed works by Jonathan Borofsky and Wendell Castlean exceptional 1969 dune buggy, an Ed Ruscha print that set a world auction record at LAMA, and a hyperrealistic sculpture by Carole Feuerman that ultimately set an auction record for the artist.

Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

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This Ira Hudson Flying Black Duck Could Soar to $24,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947.

What you see: A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.

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

The lot notes call Ira Hudson “the South’s greatest waterfowl folk artist of the era.” What makes him so? He appears to be self-taught, and he quickly imparted his own style into his work. He seemed to put a much higher emphasis on his style and sensibility over realism. That direction goes toward what I call whimsical. It’s more toward folk art than realism.

What do you mean when you say “whimsical”? He had a very pure and raw confidence that comes forth in his carvings. He was very efficient in every aspect of his methods. You get a high quality standard throughout his body of work, because he did it so much.

I understand that he did not rely on patterns when carving his decoys. How did that affect his work? A lot of decoy makers use patterns for the side profile and the top profile  [of a duck decoy]. It would make sense that he doesn’t use patterns. He would take a block with a rectangular cross section, turn it 45 degrees, and he’d carve from that. Patterns don’t apply to that approach to carving. In addition, we know he used wood he salvaged from the shore. When you use found material, patterns are a hindrance. And when you’re looking at someone with the confidence he had, you wouldn’t need a pattern. He could chop wood with a hatchet and make it look like a duck. You see the form influenced by the wood he had available.

Does Hudson’s avoidance of patterns make his work more interesting to collectors? Absolutely. His freestyle approach to carving created some incredibly lively, animated forms. You’ll notice with this form that the bird arches to one side. The structure of the bird is turned from tip to tail. It’s a crescent. It’s not realistic, but it’s pleasing and exciting to see, and it’s unique to his work. I don’t think anyone else has decoys with a crescent shape to them.

How often do black ducks appear in his work? He lived on Chincoteague, an island off the eastern shore of Virginia. It’s a prime black duck habitat, and black ducks are great birds to hunt. They’re respected for table fare and sport hunting. Hudson made a good number of black ducks to hunt over. That said, his full size carvings of flying black ducks are exceptionally rare. I’ve never seen another full size flying black duck.

Did Hudson introduce the concept of the flyer–a decoy depicted in the act of flying? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he originated the flyer. However, it doesn’t appear to take the idea from anyone else, and it was made around the time the first flyers were made in various regions. There’s no one around him we’d expect to be exposed to anything like this. He doesn’t get full credit, but he was a pioneer, especially for his region.

When did he start carving flyers? He started carving during the early 20th century, around 1910 or so. The first flyers started showing up in the 1930s and continued into the 1940s. It’s a natural progression considering that waterfowl laws were changing. A decorative flyer was something a sport hunter could afford and be interested in, whereas a market hunter [someone who hunts ducks to sell as food] would only be interested in the decoy.

How many flyers did Hudson make? For full size flyers in total, I’ve probably seen a few dozen.

The lot notes call this a “rare” flying black duck. What makes it rare? We look at his flyers and say, “Ok, there’s a few dozen flyers out there. Among those, you’re down to a couple of flying black ducks.” Others represented are mergansers and mallards. It’s one of the only black duck flyers.

This bird cannot be used as a duck decoy. You can’t hunt with it. It’s purely decorative. Was Hudson among the earliest creators to carve ducks that are purely decorative, or did the changing waterfowl laws nudge him in that direction? This bird is made purely as decorative rather than a decoy. His son [Delbert] painted it exactly how he would paint a decoy. Its purpose was to attract an affluent buyer to decorate a cabin with it. I would say Hudson is in sync with the top makers around the country in the era in starting to do more with decoratives. He was following market trends.

Did he carve this bird in a single piece, or is it assembled from multiple pieces? With this bird, the body is made from one piece of wood. The wings are attached, as are the head and neck. The feet are separate pieces which attach. There are six pieces in a typical flyer as opposed to two pieces in a standard decoy.

He carved the decoy from balsa wood. Is that why he needed to create six pieces? Using multiple pieces of wood for a complex form works for a couple of reasons. One, it minimizes waste. Two, you have to consider the strength of the wood, which comes from the direction of its grain. It’s projecting in different directions, so you have to have the grain aligned in the wood or you’ll have weak points that are going to break. The reason he used balsa is it’s a nice, soft, very easy material to carve. Balsa is not as good for decoys because they wear quickly. On decoratives, it’s far less important, because they’re not taking wear. Wall hangers are lighter weight to reduce the chance of it falling off the wall.

Is it possible to know why Hudson made this? Does the fact that this is one of two known flying black ducks imply this one might have been commissioned? Or might he have made it for his own pleasure? Almost certainly, he would have made it for sale, and to generate income to support his family. We can’t get too deep into the pure reasoning, but he would make anything that would sell. He made clothespins during the war, when there were rations on things. This was made during a time of demand for decorative waterfowl, and he was more than capable of the job.

His son, Delbert, painted this decoy. Do we know when his children started taking on significant roles in the production of decoys? Reportedly, all of his children were involved with production at one time or another. [Hudson had nine.] Delbert and Norman went on to be very competent carvers in their own right. You have to look at Hudson’s work as his workshop. Hudson decoys would have been a joint effort. We judge each bird on its merits.

This flyer dates to 1947, two years before Hudson died. Do collectors prefer any specific time of his career? I’d say this carving is a testament to the high level of quality he maintained over the course of decades. Because of that quality standard, there’s no preference for an era of carving. The date of a carving is less important than its individual qualities.

What’s its condition? Its paint is in ideal original condition. It has one small repair to a wingtip.

It’s made from balsa wood. Would that make it more vulnerable to condition issues? It is, but because it’s a decoy for decorative purposes, it would have had an easy life hanging on a wall.

Would it have been made as a one-off, or would it have been one of a flock of flying black ducks that would hang on a wall together? It would have been made as a single object.

Why will it stick in your memory? First of all, the rarity. A flying black duck stands out. And it has the quality I like to see in any Hudson carving, including a plump body, a fine head carving, a dynamic pose, and exceptional scratch feather paint.

How to bid: The Ira Hudson flying black duck is lot 171 in the 2019 Winter Sale at Copley Fine Art Auctions on February 16, 2019 in Charleston, South Carolina.

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.

Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Colin McNair appeared on The Hot Bid last year, talking about an Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy that ultimately sold for $600,000.

Quack!

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RECORD! Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Stunning 1788 Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan Commands Almost $7.2 Million at Sotheby’s

Vigee le brun's 1788 portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan depicts him at full length, outdoors, against a clouded blue sky. He's clad mostly in white, and he looks to the right. Long robes reach to his ankles, and a shorter robe, decorated with flowers, covers his upper arms and extends to his knees. He has a length of cloth braided around his waist, acting as a belt. The gold-decorated ends of the cloth drape over his front. He wears a gold and white turban. He rests his right hand on the hilt of a curved sword.

Update: Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s 1788 Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape sold for almost $7.2 million–a record for the artist, and a record for any female artist of the pre-modern era (it sold in an Old Masters auction).

What you see: Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape, a life-size oil on canvas painted in 1788 by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. Sotheby’s estimates it at $4 million to $6 million.

The expert: Calvine Harvey, specialist and vice president in the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s.

Let’s start by talking about how extraordinary Vigée Le Brun was, and how extraordinary she had to be to work as a portrait painter in 18th-century Europe. Technical competence is just the price of admission for a woman then, I take it. What other skills and talents did she have besides the obvious? She was really an absolutely remarkable woman and probably the most successful woman painter in the 17th and 18th centuries in terms of renown in her lifetime. She was unbelievable. She trained with her father originally, but he died when she was eleven years old. She certainly used the connections he set her up with to keep herself in that world. Her skill was absolutely amazing, and she was prolific. [A key skill was] her use of her connections and the way she was able to ingratiate herself in the royal court. She painted Queen Marie-Antoinette for ten years. Then the French Revolution happened. She fled France and traveled through Europe. She brought her daughter with her, not her husband–he stayed.

We should point out that a woman traveling Europe in the 18th century without her husband is a very different thing from a woman traveling Europe without her husband in the 21st century… Yes. She had a gentleman carriage driver and a governess for her daughter. For all her success in France, she left without anything. When she arrived in Rome, she painted an amazing self-portrait, showing herself painting Marie-Antoinette. She needed to make it for her business to survive. It’s in the Uffizi now. [The self-portrait] helped her meet people and make connections. In her memoirs, only two chapters are in France. Then she travels the world, painting people.

About those memoirs. Are they the source of most of what we know about the story of the Khan portrait? Are there contemporary accounts by third-party observers? There are some contemporary accounts. One is from the translator for King Louis’s court. I don’t think we have an amazingly detailed account [from the translator] and there’s no account from the other side. I wish we had one from Khan’s side. On their side, [Khan was one of three ambassadors from India, sent to France by Tipu Sultan to solicit help in pushing back against the British] we don’t have an accounting from them. They were beheaded [by Tipu Sultan after they returned to India, for falling short of the goals he set for their mission.] It’s too bad.

Vigée Le Brun is the master of “Make me look exactly like myself, only 20 percent more attractive.” Is she generally regarded as a reliable narrator? She was a pretty reliable narrator. Her memoir is pretty detailed, but it’s a fun read. She liked to tell stories of interesting characters [who sat for her]. She described who the people are–a lot of it is that. Her recounting is what’s used over and over in many books about the subject. From all sides, different people use her as a source, for sure.

Khan and his two colleagues, who Tipu Sultan sent to France, were faithful muslims. Islam maintains a taboo against depicting the image of Muhammad, the main human figure within the religion. Would the three men have had a baseline objection to having their images recorded? Certainly. Being captured pictorially was very foreign to them. Which is why Le Brun knew why she had to make the request of the king wanting something [wanting their portraits] for them to go for it. There was hesitation.

Yeah, about that. In her memoirs, Vigée Le Brun writes, “I saw these Indians at the opera and they appeared to me so remarkably picturesque that I thought I should like to paint them. But as they communicated to their interpreter that they would never allow themselves to be painted unless the request came from the King, I managed to secure that favour from His Majesty.” She makes it sound like getting the French king to do what she wanted was easy. I realize she was tight with the queen and the French court, but come on, it had to be tougher then she lets on, yes? It was definitely not as easy as that, but it reflects back on her resourcefulness. She knew she had to be strategic about it. I think she would say the queen [helped her] if it was the queen. She probably arranged it through her contacts at court. She knew them, and they knew her. She was part of the circle.

When I think of paintings by Vigée Le Brun, I think of portraits like lot 51, the 1804 pastel of Mrs. Spencer Perceval. The Khan portrait is unusual in the artist’s output, and I’d like to discuss what marks it out. I see that Khan is not looking at the viewer. How atypical is that for a Vigée Le Brun portrait? It’s not unique. It’s not common, but there are definitely other examples [of sitters not making eye contact]. In some of her Marie-Antoinette portraits, the queen is not looking directly at the viewer, especially the ones painted at full length. She said in her memoirs that Khan stood in this pose and she did not direct him. He stood, grabbed his sword, and looked off in that direction with fierce power. That was that. She was blown away, and she went with it.

I realize that full-length portraits often reflect the purse of the sitter–the wealthier you were, the larger your portrait could be–but obviously, she wouldn’t have charged Khan for this. Most of her full-length portraits are of Marie-Antoinette. To me, it shows how important this painting is in her entire oeuvre.

The lot notes comment on how Khan looks “imposing and formidable.” That’s not a typical trait we see in those who sit for Vigée Le Brun, Lot 51 is kind of like an image of a kitten with a bow, and the Khan image is like an image of a tiger. How does the artist communicate Khan’s ferocity? It’s the look on his face, but a lot of it is the pose. It’s amazing to me, the masculine power–“Let me hold a large sharp sword”–but the sword has beautiful detailed carving. It’s a work of art in itself. There’s a balance to the sense of power that comes from the sword, the pose, and the look.

Does she depict anyone else who looks as fierce as Khan? Not that I can think of. To me, there’s nothing like this one.

To get back to skills that she had to have beyond the ability to paint–she would have had to have kept Khan standing and engaged long enough to finish her work in an age before television, radio, video games, podcasts, the Internet, smart phones, and the like. Did she talk about how she managed him while she painted him? In her memoirs, she talks about how she loved the theater, and loved to sing. Marie-Antoinette and she would sing during sittings. Other than that, she didn’t talk about strategies to keep sitters engaged. But she must have some, because she did a lot of painting.

And would she have, say, finished Khan’s face on the spot and simply laid in details of his costume and sword and finished them later, back at her studio? I imagine a lot of what she did, she did there and then. The details of the costume were probably done then. Certainly she would have finished the background separately.

The notes say she painted Khan’s two colleagues as well, and the portrait of Osman Khan has since been lost. Do we know where the third painting is? She painted the other two ambassadors together, with the elder ambassador seated and the other standing behind him. That portrait is now lost. There’s a drawing of the 1789 Salon [a prestigious annual art exhibit then held in France] that shows it mapped out. That portrait is in it, and it’s the only record we had of it. [If you scroll down on this link, you can see the drawing of the 1789 Salon on the lower right. It’s figure four.] It was the final Salon under the king’s reign. Vigée Le Brun left France in October.

The drama continued after she finished the portrait. Khan hid it behind his bed and refused to give it to her. She persuaded his servant to steal it back, and that caused a worse problem. Evidently Khan was angry enough to kill the servant over the theft, and an interpreter had to intervene. He convinced him that punishing the underling with death was a breach of French custom, and that the man handed it over at the request of the king. Do we have a notion of why Khan would have refused to give the painting back to the artist? I imagine it had something to do with religion. In her memoirs, she says he hid it behind the bed and told her ‘the painting needed a soul.’ He might have been frightened by the image of himself. It was probably a very foreign concept to him. He might have been frightened by it and not wanted to give it back to her. The servant was probably a French servant, arranged for by the king. The painting was at the hotel where Khan stayed. The servant ended up going in to get the painting. We don’t have the exact details [of how he retrieved it]. The translator said he had to say no, no, you can’t just behead a servant for something like this. Everyone was OK in the end, and she got the painting, for which we are all grateful.

If I walk into a room full of Old Masters that includes a work by Vigée Le Brun, it calls me right over to it. Why was Vigée Le Brun so damn good at what she did? She was a brilliant painter and a brilliant portraitist, able to capture the subject with a sense of knowing them. I think her early training as a pastelist shows a sense of softness and light that comes from the pastel medium. Her social skills were advanced, and she used them to her advantage to get the sittings she got and to draw out her sitters. She studied them and knew who they were, and she focused on them.

In scanning the lot notes, it looks like the Khan portrait was last at auction in 1893. Is that right? I believe so.

How did you arrive at the estimate for this? It was not an easy one to price. It’s so atypical for her. We had to see how it was different than a portrait by Vigée Le Brun. The comparables we looked to were Joshua Reynolds’s circa 1776 Portrait of Omai, It’s a full-length portrait of a person in Polynesian dress. We sold it in November 2015 for $13 million to $14 million. [Scroll down on this link to see the portrait. It’s figure three on the lower right.] For us, the Khan portrait is more like pictures like that–a capable and impressive artist of the Western tradition, painting someone in exotic dress who has a sense of power and intrigue.

What is the painting like in person? It’s enormous. It’s so impressive and grand. It’s just huge. It’s unbelievably powerful. You step back when you see it. He is big, and he is grand and magnificent.

How to bid: Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape is lot 48 in the Master Paintings Evening Sale scheduled for January 30, 2019 at Sotheby’s New York.

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.

Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

You can buy Vigée Le Brun’s memoirs from Powell’s or another independent bookseller.

Sotheby’s also published two pieces on its website about Vigée Le Brun and about a larger group of women artists whose works appear in the January 30 auction: The volatile Saga Behind Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of India’s Ambassador to France, and The Women Who Dared to Paint.

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A Seymchan Meteorite with Pallasites Could Sell for $30,000

A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. It's roughly triangular-shaped, and cut to show the clear, firm bands of solid iron and pallasites.

What you see: A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.

The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.

Was the Seymchan meteorite fall witnessed? Or were the meteorites simply discovered at some point after they hit the Earth’s surface? I believe they were found by metal detector in the 1960s, and people went back to the area to find more.

How often do Seymchan meteorites come to auction? They’re probably disproportionately [represented] because they’re so beautiful. You get a skewed view of meteorites from sales. We really present the best of the best. Pick a meteorite at random, and it’s an ugly rock. For every one I offer, I reject nine. There are some Seymchans in most of my sales.

Is Seymchan a marquee name for meteorite collectors? Are they must-haves? Collectors want Seymchans. This is a great example, and it appeals to collectors who have never seen meteorites before. People who buy in the jewelry sales, the contemporary art sales, the antiquities sales, and the Old Masters sales buy in these sales.

The lot notes say less than 0.2 percent of all meteorites contain pallasites, the extraterrestrial peridots visible on the right side of the meteorite. How are pallasites created? What has to happen? Four and a half billion years ago, there were early bodies like Earth that had iron cores and stony mantles. When these proto-planets broke up, their outsides became stony meteorites, their insides became iron meteorites, and at the boundary between the two [the iron core and the stony mantle], there were pallasites.

Why do pallasites show up in meteorites? Why not emeralds, or diamonds, or other gemstones? It has to do with the geology of the proto-planetary body, but you do find nano-diamonds in meteorites. We had one in the last sale. By nano, I mean on the nano scale. They’re nothing you could put in an engagement ring.

I get that pallasites are gem-quality stones, and olivine isn’t, but can you point out which is which on the photo of the meteorite with the lot? The ones that sparkle, shine, and catch the light–those are pallasites. Olivine is the mineral. Those that look brown are more olivine than pallasite.

Do you typically have both in a meteorite, or can you have all-pallasite meteorites? You do get slices of pallasite meteorite that might miss any olivine. You get some slices that are nicely homogenous, with peridot in an iron matrix. You can get meteorites that are just iron, which are slightly further away from the boundary [between the proto-planetary stony mantle and iron core]. Then you’ve got some that are more transitional, with seas of olivine and pallasite and seas of metal.

Who cuts meteorites, and how does that person decide where and how much to cut? Seymchan is a good meteorite for cutting in that the meteorites on their own do not have much going for them, aesthetically. You don’t destroy much by cutting them open. The shape determines how to cut–slices, cubes, even spheres. An American football-sized meteorite is easy to cut into a sphere. One that has an arm shape is easier to cut into slices.

Who cuts the meteorite? A gem-cutter? No, there are specialized people who do that. It’s not easy. When you cut, you always want the smallest amount of wastage possible. You want to do it as carefully as possible, in lab-like conditions. The iron in pallasites are relatively soft, but for some, you need a diamond blade to cut through them.

This example was cut from a larger meteorite. Do we know how large it was? We don’t, but I would bet it’s under 50 kilos [110 pounds].

How rare is it to come across what we see here–a clear boundary between the iron and the pallasites? That will have informed how to cut it, to bring out the transition between the two. There may have been the temptation to cut the gems off and fashion it into a sphere. I’m glad they didn’t. I like the contrast between the two sides.

I’ve been lying in wait to write about a meteorite like lot 1–one entirely shot through with pallasites–but this jumped out at me because I’ve never seen one like it. Is it as unusual as it seems? This is the first I’ve had with this presentation. That’s why I’m so fond of it. I’ve had a slice where the pallasites looked like a river of metal was running through it. This is a more substantial piece. You don’t see much like this at all, even if you look at the best Seymchans out there.

This meteorite weighs 8.4 pounds–not small, and not huge. Does that matter? As with artworks and sculpture, there does come a point where the size becomes difficult for collectors. We have one in the sale that’s 88 kilos [187 pounds]–probably too big for a desk. 8.4 pounds is a nice size. Conversely, if you get something really heavy, it’s more valuable again. If you can sit it outside a museum and no one can run off with it, its weight becomes a virtue again.

Why does lot 1 have a lower estimate than this meteorite, given that it’s shot through with gemstones, and this is not? It’s smaller. That’s what it comes down to. In gems, they use the four Cs [color, cut, clarity, and carat]. I use the four Ss: size, shape, story, and science. Science–What’s interesting about meteorites is they provide data on the early solar system. Lunar or Martian meteorites have more scientific interest. Story–did it explode over Siberia in the 1950s? Did it take out the dinosaurs? Did it destroy a car? Size–bigger is better. Shape–that encompasses aesthetics. Some meteorites are intrinsically more beautiful than others, and more desirable, and fetch more money.

And how would you judge this meteorite by your four Ss? Size… if you had everything else equal but you cut it in half, it’s $10,000 to $15,000. If it was a bit larger, $40,000 to $60,000. I really like the aesthetics of this–the outer crust, the metal, the pallasite, and the  roughly triangular, pleasing shape. In terms of science, it’s rare, and it’s a pallasite. The story originates with a proto-planetary body. We don’t know when it fell to earth, but it was relatively recent. Seymchan was only discovered in the 1960s.

Have you held it? Yes, but not for a while.

What was that like? I still have this [feeling] every time I hold a meteorite–they are four and half billion years old, which is a number so large as to almost be meaningless. The philosophical quandary when you hold it in your hand is it’s an object that comes from space. That’s mind-blowing. And four and a half billion years makes it one-third as old as the universe.

Is it heavy? Actually, with this one, I fell in love with it before I held it. To see the contrast in the stone is stunning.

Why will this meteorite stick in your memory? Having those three different colors to it–the weathered surface, the polished pattern of the metal, and the pallasite crystals–it really stands out from the others. I’ll definitely remember it for a while. This is not really a word, but this is a very covetous object. When I see it, I want it. Some people get that when they see a native gold nugget. It transmits a desire to acquire it.

How to bid: The Seymchan meteorite is lot 22 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and other Rare Meteorites, a sale Christie’s will hold online between February 6 through February 14, 2019.

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.

Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. James Hyslop is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Hyslop previously appeared on The Hot Bid, talking about a Canyon Diablo meteorite that ultimately sold for $237,500.

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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A Frank Tenney Johnson Nocturne Could Sell for $350,000

24806177-214-5

What you see: A portrait of Alphonzo Bell painted in 1928 by Frank Tenney Johnson. Bonhams estimates it at $250,000 to $350,000.

The expert: Kathy Wong, specialist in fine arts at Bonhams.

How prolific was Johnson? He was quite prolific. Over 500 works have been offered at auction alone, and there’s a large number of works in private collections and institutional collections. He was quite in demand from the 1920s onward. There was in particular in Los Angeles a commission for a drop curtain for a theater. The popularity of that worked to launch him in this area.

How often did he accept portrait commissions such as this one? As he grew in popularity, especially with Hollywood, he did accept portrait commissions through Stendahl Galleries [the Los Angeles gallery that represented him]. This portrait was negotiated through Stendahl. At least three other equestrian portraits have been identified. Sometimes they’re foremen as well. They’re not just wealthy ranchers.

Do we know anything about how Johnson would have made this painting? Would he have had Bell pose with his horse in this landscape and painted him plein air? There are no notes beyond what was written in the Stendahl Galleries ledger. What we know about Johnson’s working technique–there is some scaffolding involved. Certain compositions he favored might repeat in parts. The grouping of cattle is reminiscent of Frank Tenney Johnsons we’ve sold in the past. I strongly suspect because Johnson was an accomplished horseman himself, he had Bell mount his palomino horse and did a photo, but we don’t know for certain. There are no documents of how the commission was carried out.

How often did Johnson use photography in his work? We don’t know. But he was a very prolific photographer and it was part of his working process as well.

Is it reasonable to assume he used photos to create this commission? I think so, given that there were photos used for other works.

Do we know if Bell had any input into the appearance of the portrait? We simply don’t know. It was commissioned, per the ledger, on his [Bell’s] Bel Bar Ranch in Colorado. How much artistic license was taken is unknown. There’s nothing in the landscape that would identify it as Bel Bar Ranch. It’s most likely supposed to depict Colorado.

Is this scene typical of Johnson’s work? It’s fairly typical compositionally and in its coloration. A lone rider against a backdrop like this is pretty recognizable as his work. It’s intended to be a dusky landscape. We believe it to actually be one of his moonlight paintings.

Wait, this is a night scene? But there’s a blue sky with white clouds… As far as we are aware, it’s meant to be an evening scene. It’s more like twilight. There’s a very theatrical aspect to his nocturnes. The whites are highlighted. Much in the way that Maxfield Parrish scenes are not what you observe at nighttime, this is a romantic, dramatic depiction of evening.

This measures 32 inches by 40 inches. Is that a typical painting size for him? It’s toward the larger [end of the spectrum]. He did work in a full range of sizes. This is a common desirable size for him.

Could you talk a bit about the equestrian aspect of the painting? I understand that was a strength for Johnson. I think Bell would have been familiar enough with Frank Tenney Johnson’s nocturnes that a cream-colored horse would be a very visually striking feature in the landscape.

Bell chose his horse for visual effect? I think so. Per his biography, he was an aesthete. He was visually sensitive. It’s very possible he saw another [nocturne] example Frank Tenney Johnson did of a rider on a white horse and asked for something similar. There’s a lovely luminosity to white or cream-colored horses in his compositions. I’m sure Bell must have been aware of that.

Do we know how many nocturnes Johnson did? They’re not very rare. His nocturnes became his most commercially sought-after type of landscape. What makes this particular work desirable and interesting is it speaks to ranch culture. There was an interesting moment in Los Angeles in the 1920s when it transformed from an agricultural economy to a film-based economy. It comes at a time when the ranch way of life in LA gave way to oil and gas coming in, and film industry studios coming in. Bell, like Frank Tenney Johnson, had artistic sensitivity. He could straddle the agrarian and ranch world and the mythic depiction of that in Hollywood. This Western way of life was opening up to a larger audience.

What is this work like in person? It’s really stunning. There’s a lot of active brushwork, probably more than you can see online. The saturation of colors is what I wish everyone could see in person. There’s a luminosity that the catalog doesn’t do justice. It’s a work you can stand before and this quietude comes over you. Bell looks to be deep in thought. His absorption is quite captivating here.

It’s kind of meditative. It is. All the nocturnes have that quality. Many works in the Brinkman Collection [from which this painting comes] show action. This is one of the few that shows a quiet, introspective moment.

We know who the sitter is. Does that matter? Does that make the painting more interesting to collectors, even though he isn’t a celebrity or a famous historical figure? I do think so. Buyers want to know the story behind the work. His biography is quite fascinating. The way he found oil on his family ranch is quite dramatic. I think potentially some bidders may identify with the sitter or find his life story interesting.

What’s the auction record for a Frank Tenney Johnson? It was over 10 years ago. It was a similar size, depicting two horses in the evening, called Silent Night. It sold in 2007 for $1.1 million with a $300,000 to $500,000 estimate. The market was quite robust at the time, but it has changed since. We think this work is priced accordingly for the current market.

What makes this painting memorable? Even if you don’t know anything about Frank Tenney Johnson, it’s visually compelling. We’re all familiar with the myth of the Marlboro Man, which was based on a real ranch hand. Whether you’re a fan of Western art or not, there’s something heroic about the figure, communicated by a composition that explains its enduring appeal.

How to bid: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell is lot 47 in the sale of the L.D. “Brink” Brinkman Collection of Western American art, taking place February 8, 2019 at Bonhams Los Angeles.

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Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram. Kathy Wong is on Twitter.

Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

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SOLD! A Tall Wally Bird Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

A tall bird tobacco jar, aka a "Wally Bird," by the Martin Brothers, created in London circa 1900. It is slim and compact, with a dark orange beak and a beige, cream, and grey body. It has an expression on its face that seems to say it knows you just committed a huge, embarrassing social error, and you're so ignorant that you have no idea what you just did, and why it marks you as a rube.

Update: The tall Wally Bird tobacco jar sold for $50,000.

What you see: A tall bird tobacco jar, aka a “Wally Bird,” by the Martin Brothers, created in London circa 1900. The head is signed by R.W. (Robert Wallace) Martin, and the base is signed as the Martin Brothers. Rago Auctions estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.

Why do people love Wally Birds? What makes them great is they [the Martin Brothers] were world-class modelers, at the top of their game, with an idea no one else had. They’re really expressive creatures, and a lot of fun. It’s like they [the birds] are having a conversation with each other. Expression is so much of what these things are about. They’re pretty snarky. I don’t know of any that are benign.

Are those made between 1880 and 1900 the most desirable? I think so. I’m not a scholar or an academic. I’m hands on. I touch this stuff. What I know is not out of a book. The power alley [for Wally Birds] is from 1883 to 1893. I would peg this bird a little earlier than 1900. I’d say 1895. [After 1900 or so] you can see them start to lose their edge. Maybe after 25 years they [the Martin Brothers] wanted to move on to something else.

What details of this Wally Bird make you think it’s from 1895 and not 1900? I just think he’s a better bird. Better modeling, better detailing, better expression, better gradation of color. He’s tall, and he’s got a lot of character. I think he was made during the prime of their production.

Who was the best modeler among the brothers? I think Robert Wallace was a cut above.

Do Wally Birds with his signature sell for more? I always find it’s better to have “Robert Wallace” on a piece than not. But I’d rather have a great unsigned Wally Bird than a mediocre one with R.W.’s initials on it.

Does height matter with Wally Birds? Do collectors prefer the taller ones? It’s a factor in the price. Birds tend to be seven or eight inches tall. Over one foot, 15 inches, you’ve got a big bird. The vast majority are 10 inches or less.

Do the expressions on the faces of the birds matter? Yes, and being colorful helps. The important things are the expression, the size, and the condition, but it’s not hard to sell a Wally Bird with minor damage.

Were Wally Birds actively collected when they were new, or did that come later? I don’t know that people collected things in 1885. We were still dealing with the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

So it was more like people thought, ‘This is too nice to throw away’? [More like] “I saw a jar that looks like someone I know, I’ll buy it and keep it.”

The Wally Birds were designed to hold pipe tobacco. Were they used that way? I’ve literally handled 200 of these and I haven’t found tobacco in any of them. I think they were called tobacco jars to give them a functional purpose, maybe to appeal to men. Everybody smoked back then. You can’t use a bird, but you can use a tobacco jar. Who knows what the rationale was?

And the Martin Brothers made Wally Birds from 1880 up until 1914? I’ve had pieces dated that late. There’s a thought that some were finished later than that by a son of one of the brothers in the 1930s. The dating might not be clear on the later ones. They tend to be blue and white, and the expressions tend to be shallower.

Do we know how the birds were made? They were sculpted. You can look inside [a Wally Bird] and see the way the clay has been cut back. They gouged the clay out to make the interior. You can see the tooling of the construction.

Are Wally Birds based on real birds? To some extent, yes. But I think the birds they looked at was a departure point for their imaginations.

Do British collectors dominate the field of Wally Birds? Americans have been bringing Wally Birds here for 50 years. I even know Brits who buy them from Americans and sell them back to Americans. I would guess that 75 percent of known Martinware [a term that describes the Wally Birds and other ceramics by the Martin Brothers] is in the U.S.

How often do Wally Birds come up at auction? There’s been a generational change. People who bought in the 1980s are selling off now. I sold Lillian Hoffman’s collection four years ago. Wait ten years, and the people who bought in the Harriman Judd collection sale [at Sotheby’s in January 2001] will sell off.

So they come up every five or ten years or so? Yeah. Even if they [collectors] have to pare down, they don’t put up one Wally Bird. They put up two or three. They sell them in flocks.

What’s it like to hold this Wally Bird in your hand? For a ceramic, it’s hefty. There’s nothing eggshell about Wally Birds, nothing delicate.

What condition is it in? There’s a repair on one of the feathers, and at the very bottom of the clay base, there’s an unevenness to the edge. But it’s an 125-year-old piece of ceramic sculpture.

In your experience, how do collectors display Wally Birds in their homes? They’re displayed how you’d expect a $50,000 piece of clay to be displayed–usually on a shelf, with half a dozen birds side by side. They’re not left on desktops, where they’re too easily knocked over.

You’ve got several pieces of Martinware in this auction, including another Wally Bird in Lot 5 that’s estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. What’s the difference between this bird and that bird? Why is Lot 1 one worth more? Size is a significant factor. Lot 1 is a big bird. Lot 5 is interesting because it’s a friar bird. [Look closely at its head and you’ll see it has a tonsure–a monk’s hairstyle. You can also click on the 360-degree view button at the lower right and spin it to better see the back of its head.] But it’s the nature of the beast–it’s clumsier, it’s not as free-flowing a bird. Both are good birds, but one is one and a half times the size of the other one.

Wally Birds are 80 to 120 years old. Almost no one smokes a pipe anymore. What’s been keeping up the profile of Wally Birds? Was there a big, influential museum show? Is there a collectors’ society that’s active and media-savvy? Several things. Number one is the right number of them were made. With Martinware, there’s enough material out there but not too much–just enough to create and sustain a market. Number two, both sides of the pond are buying this stuff. If it’s supported by collectors in Europe and America, it’s healthy. Number three, they’re really good. World-class ceramics. They’re sculpted, best in the world at the time it was made, and I haven’t seen much to rival it. The quality has held up.

The world auction record for a Wally Bird belongs to an 1889 example that stands just over 14 inches tall and resembles the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. It sold in December 2015 in New York for $233,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. I realize Rago did not handle that bird, but can you tell me why it did so well? It was a fabulous bird. It was huge, and it was a historic figure from the land where they were made. It was the pinnacle. I don’t know if you get better than [the Wally Birds that resemble] Disraeli and [British prime minister William] Gladstone. Those are the best.

And Americans are just as interested in the Disraeli and Gladstone Wally Birds, even though they depict British political figures? Absolutely. I’m sure they’re in America. If you’re going to buy British pottery, you’re going to buy the best out there.

Why will this Wally Bird stick in your memory? The expression is really good. The quality is top-notch. The condition is excellent. That’s true of most birds I handle. And it’s just big. The production of the larger birds is quite limited. I’d say five percent are this size or bigger. If 250 [a possible rough count for surviving Wally Birds] is accurate, there are 10 to 15 in this range. In a September 2018 auction, I had one that big, and it sold for $112,500. It’s really, really rare to have another that size. I would dare say I have this bird because I sold the other one.

How to bid: The Martin Brothers tall bird tobacco jar is lot 1 in the Early 20th Century Design sale at Rago Auctions on January 19, 2019.

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Rago Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

Alison Davey of AD Antiques in Gloucestershire, England, has devised a way to track Wally Birds without banding their ankles. In 2018, she began creating “passports” for the coveted works. The document, which resembles a British passport, contains a photo of the Wally Bird, its height, its condition, and its known provenance.

Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.

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A Josephine Baker Movie Poster from 1927 for $18,000

A 1927 Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker's silent film The Siren of the Tropics. It depicts her smiling directly at the viewer, wearing a scanty costume of strategically placed strings of pearls. She also wears pearl arm cuffs, elaborate pearl earrings. A large fan of red feathers, evidently attached to her back, spreads behind her.

What you see: A 1927 Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s silent film The Siren of the Tropics. Swann Galleries estimates it at $12,000 to $18,000.

The expert: Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.

This poster image is based on a color photograph from an interior page of a Folies Bergère program. How common was it to base poster graphics on photos in the late 1920s? Is this unusual? Good question. I don’t know the answer to that. Some posters were photographic. I’m not sure I know of others, but the fact that it’s unusual doesn’t make it important.

Can we tell by looking how the poster artist sized up the photograph? Did they just blow up the photo, or did they trace it or draw it? It has been enlarged, to be sure. I assume it would have been hand-drawn, but I’m not sure about that at all.

The original photo was in color. Did the poster artist change the colors, or are these the same colors in the Folies Bergère program photograph? The colors are basically the same. It’s not like they were changed from red to blue. The only change was to cover up her immodesty.

It’s interesting that the poster artist went with the same colors seen in the picture, rather than brighter colors that are more suited to the poster medium. I think the poster attracts attention very well without bright colors. Forget the fact that she’s scantily clad–it’s an incredible getup. And it’s a great portrait of her.

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The movie the poster advertises, The Siren of the Tropics, had its world premiere in Stockholm. Do we know why the premiere was held there rather than, say, Paris? I haven’t found anything about that anywhere. But there was a Swedish fascination with Josephine Baker. They were transfixed by her. All of Europe was transfixed by her to some degree.

It’s an odd choice of venue for a Josephine Baker film debut. I couldn’t agree more. I do think the fact that the image is from the Folies Bergère program and not from the film–I think it must have been done quickly. Maybe that’s why they used an image that already existed. The show from the Folies Bergère has nothing to do with the movie. I don’t think she wears the pearls and feathers costume in the film.

The poster artist definitely altered the picture when translating it into a poster. What, exactly, was added? Her nipples [are covered], and four strands of pearls emanating from each of her pasties have been added. [You can see the original photo at this link.]

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It looks like whoever added the pasties and pearls for the poster version did a good job. Is the touch-up work more obvious in person? It took a while to make the realization that [the original] is not covered up. Certainly, the work is good. Seamlessly done. It looks like how it was meant to be.

And this is the only copy of the poster that has come to auction? It has been seen before, but it has never come up for sale before. Given how popular Josephine Baker is, and that it was a world premiere of a film, you’d think more copies would surface, but none have come to market.

Baker isn’t shown topless, but the poster is still pretty risqué. Where would this have been displayed in Sweden in 1927? Presumably, it was hung up all over Sweden. That doesn’t explain why so few have surfaced. [They would have] posted them wherever they could to get the maximum effect from the advertising.

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And some of them, certainly, would have been stolen by fans… Stolen, peeled off, maybe a remainder was not posted. It’s a sexy image, even if you don’t like it. I do think it’s eye-catching. She has a very becoming smile, and she’s staring right at you. A fetching pose, an improbable costume. People walking down the street would think, “WTF is that?” She was topless in the Folies Bergère program, but that’s a lot less public than a poster siding.

How did the poster come to you? Through the inventory of a dealer who passed away. I think it was purchased in the last five years.

You’ve given it a condition grade of B. Collectors would prefer a higher grade, but does that matter when a poster is unique? It’s not a situation where you can sit back and wait for another to come along. There’s no indication there’s another one out there. They have to be forgiving.

How did you arrive at the estimate? It’s based on sales of other Josephine Baker posters. Baker is one of the most sought-after music hall performers of her time. Like Chaplin and the Titanic, her name really transcends her genre. She was a black woman making her name performing half-naked in France. That could not happen in America. From a racial point of view, it’s astounding. And it was incredible for a black woman to appear in a movie. Not only appear in it, but star in it.

Does the silent film the poster advertises survive? Clips are online. The film was panned, but it’s certainly around.

How does this Josephine Baker poster measure up to other posters that feature her? It’s a great depiction of her. We’ve sold several Josephine Baker posters over the years. Some sell for $25,000 to $45,000. This one combines scarcity, an appealing image, and a performer who is remembered and sought after in the collectors’ market. For example, two years ago, we had the French version of Siren of the Tropics poster. It didn’t actually sell. If you looked at it, you couldn’t tell it was Josephine Baker. In 2010, we sold a Danish poster for her film Princess Tam Tam for $9,000.

Are there other Josephine Baker posters from her lifetime that are based on photos? There’s one from the end of her career that’s very horrible and very common, which sells for $600 on a good day. It’s not a good comparison. None of the others are photographic.

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Why will this poster stick in your memory? Several reasons. It’s a sexy image. It really is a rare Josephine Baker piece. It’s a very good poster, because it’s a good likeness of her. And as a poster geek, I appreciate that no others have come up for sale publicly.

How to bid: The Swedish movie poster for Josephine Baker’s 1927 silent film, The Siren of the Tropics, is lot 429 in the Vintage Posters sale at Swann Galleries on February 7, 2019.

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.

Nicholas Lowry has appeared several times on The Hot Bid. Read past entries in which he  talks about a 1928 Roger Broders poster that later sold for $7,500Swann setting the world auction record for any travel postera 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 You1917 World War I recruiting poster that introduced the modern concept of Uncle Sam, and an Alphonse Mucha poster featuring Sarah Bernhardt.

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

SOLD! The Fuddling Cup Commanded (Scroll Down to See)

A white delftware fuddling cup made in London and dating to the mid-17th century. It looks like three jugs in one. A trio of identical vessels with bulging bodies are bound together, back to back to back, by entwined handles. The three are undecorated.

Update: The white delftware 17th-century fuddling cup sold for $2,375.

What you see: A white delftware fuddling cup made in London and dating to the mid-17th century. Sotheby’s estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

The expert: Richard Hird, specialist in the ceramics department at Sotheby’s.

This piece is known as a “fuddling cup.” What does “fuddling” mean here? It means to confuse or intoxicate the person who was handling the object.

Does the finished form tell us anything about how the cup was made? I don’t think anyone knows for certain, but the vessel was probably made in a two-part mold, and the entwined clay handles were probably twisted by hand and applied to the vessel. It’s quite a simple thing to make.

Where was it used? It could have been in a private home, but it was very much a tavern object. It was a drinking game. It was certainly meant to be in a tavern setting.

How did the drinking game work? There’s some speculation here, but each container would be filled with a different kind of alcoholic drink, and it would be shaken until they were blended. The object was to try to identify each spirit in each vessel.

How do the spirits mix? When you look at it, you can’t quite see it, but within the three chambers there’s a hole that connects all three together. It looks like three separate cups, but they are connected by the hole into one big cup. You have to really look in there to see the piercing. The bulbous shapes in the lower part is where they touch, where the hole has been made.

The cup is pretty small, measuring three and a half inches tall. But do we know how much liquid it could hold? I don’t know, and I don’t know if there were specific measurements like that. Fuddling cups all tend to be small-size. They don’t get any bigger than that.

How do we know that the fuddling cup is probably from the mid-17th century? So far, there are nine recorded with inscribed dates. The earliest is 1633, and the latest is 1649. They probably contain [were probably made in] the second half of the 17th century, but we don’t have dates.

Were fuddling cups popular then? It’s hard to judge. It’s a rare object, but they do appear at auction almost annually. Quite a few survive, but a lot were probably lost as well. It was quite a popular drinking game.

The cup is white, with no decoration. Is that typical? I guess it is typical, in a way. You do find them decorated in blue, in chinoiserie style. Having it painted would be more expensive, and it was for a tavern. White was the cheapest option, in that sense.

What condition is it in? I see some chips in the glaze here and there. The chips are actually a good sign. If there were no chips, you start to question the age of the object. It’s over 200 years old. It has to have signs of age. If it’s perfect, it would raise questions. And it does have some restoration around the rim of one of the vessels.

This was a novelty object. Does its having been restored matter less to a collector? I wouldn’t say so. Early 17th century objects are rare and becoming rarer on the market. People are starting to turn a blind eye to issues because they don’t come around that often.

Does it show any signs of wear on its interior? No, but it’s quite unusual to see that. On something this small, the vessel spout is probably two centimeters in diameter. You can’t put much in there.

Is the fuddling cup connected at all to puzzle jugs? I think so. I don’t know if you’d find a puzzle jug that early in the 17th century, but it’s the similar idea of a tavern game and confusing the user.

Do collectors see fuddling cups as art objects, or do they try to use them at least once? I think they do see them as art objects, but I’d be tempted to try to use it to see how it would work.

What is it like to hold this cup in your hands? It’s a very light object. It almost fits in the palm of one hand.

How to bid: The fuddling cup is lot 696 in The Collection of Anne H. & Frederick Vogel III sale, taking place January 19, 2019 at Sotheby’s New York.

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.

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Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

This is the closest I’ll get to showcasing a jigsaw puzzle on this blog, so here’s a shout-out to my faithful suppliers Chris at Serious Puzzles and Andy at Eureka! Puzzles & Games in Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Massachusetts. Thanks!

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RECORD! Ammi Phillips’s Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog Sells for Almost $1.7 Million

American folk artist Ammi Phillips painted Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog circa 1830-1835. The girl has short brown hair that is parted down the middle. She looks directly at the viewer. Her right hand grips one of the three strings of a coral bead necklace. Her dress is a bright, emphatic red and has short, puffed sleeves. She is shown seated on a low green ottoman. A beagle is at her feet.

Update: Christie’s sold Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog for $1.69 million–a new world auction record for the 19th century American folk artist.

What you see: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, a portrait that American folk artist Ammi (pronounced Ah-mi) Phillips painted circa 1830-1835. Christie’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.

The expert: John Hays, deputy chairman, Christie’s Americas.

I’d like to start with some discussion of how Ammi Phillips was recognized and discovered. It seems like he could have disappeared, or far less would be known, if scholars had not done incredible work with identifying paintings by him. There’s a long version and a short version. The short version is like many painters who were not in the annals of art history, he was not known until people started piecing together his work in the 1960s. It was a grassroots effort. It was Mary Black who galvanized the research being done. Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter, 1788-1865 was a pioneering exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in 1968, and it traveled around. [Scholars] figured it out [what was his] because he depicted sitters holding newspapers and he signed some of his work. The family histories of the sitters also helped piece together the show. He was prolific. As the count began, they realized he did a few thousand portraits.

The lot notes call Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog a “quintessentially American work of art” and “strikingly modern”. What makes it so? Every country has its folk art, painted by people who didn’t go to the national academy. What makes it quintessentially American is he was painting Americans–successful sitters who were documenting their lives. The other aspect that makes it quintessentially American is [the notion that] time is money. The quicker he was able to render a portrait, the quicker he was on his way.

And what makes the portrait “strikingly modern”? Stacy Hollander [of the American Folk Art Museum] did a show in 2008, The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red that showed the urge to modernity, the idea of reduction to the pure form. Isn’t it interesting that it started in 1830? If you look at the dress [the sitter in Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is wearing], it’s geometric forms with little lines, a broad expanse of red. It’s a knockout, a home run. There’s no question what the statement is–a girl in a red dress. It looks forward, but it distills the form to the essence of the form. That’s an idea that the Color Field artists Clyfford Still and Rothko [embraced]. Phillips did it from a more economic point of view, but he succeeded.

Why do his portraits of children perform so well at auction? Phillips is at his best with children because there were no rules [for painting them]. A lot of Phillips works are dour. Some of his sitters are ministers and older people with bibles in their laps. With children, he captures the spirit of young America. That’s where he hits the home run, and that’s why there’s a huge price difference with the artist. Depicting a child evokes much more.

The lot notes also refers to ‘record-breaking sales in the 1980s.’ Could you elaborate? Phillips did a group of four children in red dresses, three girls and a boy, with their hands almost in the same positions. One was discovered in an appraisal day at the Corcoran Gallery in 1984. I was here [at Christie’s then]. We looked at it. The family didn’t know what it was. It was over their fireplace. By that time, the [groundbreaking 1968] Ammi Phillips show had happened, and we knew what it was. We put it in [a 1985 Christie’s auction] with an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000 and it sold for $682,000. It went to Dan Terra of the Terra Foundation. It made the front page of the New York Times. The other known portrait [of a girl sitter from the foursome, aside from this one], Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, was bought by Ralph Esmerian for the American Folk Art Museum. [After the 1985 sale], the owner [of this portrait] called us and said, ‘We think we have one.’ That’s how we discovered it 33 years ago. We’ve been quietly hoping it would come out one day.

That must have been delightful and startling, to have a folk art portrait sell for so much in 1985. You could acquire a major Impressionist picture [for $682,000] at that time. I put the Phillips in a jewelry vault that night. We were not prepared to have it sell for that price.

What makes this portrait so strong? It captures the essence of what folk art collectors want and what they look for. It’s hard to define it in words, but it has a universality to it. It’s just riveting, and kind of mesmerizing. You say, ‘God, he gets it.’

Do we know why the girls in the Ammi Phillips red dress portraits are wearing coral necklaces? Did coral have some sort of symbolic meaning in America in the 1830s? Coral necklaces were very popular in the 1820s and 1830s. In this portrait, she holds a bead of coral as if she’s a little nervous. She seems to say, ‘Hurry up and finish this picture, why am I here?’ As for iconography, there’s nothing we’re aware of. Coral was fashionable at the time for teething rings. The three girls [in the group of red dress portraits] each have a coral necklace. The one at Terra has two strands, this one has three strands, and the one at the American Folk Art Museum has four.

What is she holding in her left hand? It could be parsley. The girl in the Terra portrait is holding a strawberry. They [the items the child sitters hold] all have coded iconography that you could linger over. But it could be something Phillips gave her to hold while he painted her.

And what’s with the dog at the left? Is that her dog? The beagle is in all four of these portraits. Maybe it’s Ammi Phillips’s dog. Maybe it’s for the comfort of the child.

Yeah, about that. One of the skills Ammi Phillips had to develop as an itinerant portrait painter was to convince small children to sit still long enough for him to do his work in an age before screens. Might the dog have played the role that a screen would now–helped entertain the kid and keep her sitting in one place? It’s an idea, and it’s the same stylized beagle [in the four portraits], with the spoon-shaped lozenge on the forehead. I have a beagle. I know beagles very well. He captured the essence of a beagle, and its wry smile. If you have a beagle, you’d recognize it too.

I take it we don’t know who the young sitter is, even though scholars have tried to identify her? Yes. She’s adorable, that’s all I would say.

Is it possible that the three girls in the group of four red dress portraits are sisters or cousins? Initially we thought, ‘Are they sisters?’ But there are little differences, actually very subtle differences. The idea that they’re related is not ruled out at all. There are many unanswered questions.

The portraits in the group of four show kids in a virtually identical red dress. Is there a chance that Ammi Phillips traveled with the dress, as part of a small wardrobe, and offered it to the parents to use for the sitting? That’s an interesting idea, but the thing that emerges from Phillips is a spontaneity. It’s the quickly-rendered moment that folk art collectors love so much. A portrait was for a wealthy client that he poured his heart into would be worth a fraction of those that he did more quickly and got down to the essence.

What’s the world auction record for an Ammi Phillips? Portrait of a Young Girl and her Cat, which we sold in 2007 for $1.2 million. It’s a great picture, but it’s not in the narrow group of four. It’s one of 11 he did of children in red dresses. The girl [in the portrait sold in 2007] has a different stance.

What are the odds that Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog will meet or beat that sum? To be really candid, that’s the one question I can’t answer. I’m as intrigued as anybody to see what will happen in January.

What is it like in person? It has what my colleagues in fine art call “wall power.” It just jumps off the wall. It makes everything around it pale.

Why will it stick in your memory? For me, personally, I was here when we sold the first one, and it changed a lot of things in my life. It makes me reflect on the last 33 years in the art world, and how exciting it’s been. Not every day does an Ammi Phillips girl in a red dress cross my computer screen. And it expresses a sort of humanity that the experiment of America allowed. I dare you to tell me where such a portrait has emerged in any other country. That’s why I do what I do. It’s unique to portraiture in this country.

How to bid: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is lot 1205 in the Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver and Prints auction taking place at Christie’s New York on January 17 and 18, 2019.

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Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan Could Command $6 Million

Vigee le Brun's 1788 portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan depicts him at full length, outdoors, against a clouded blue sky. He's clad mostly in white, and he looks to the right. Long robes reach to his ankles, and a shorter robe, decorated with flowers, covers his upper arms and extends to his knees. He has a length of cloth braided around his waist, acting as a belt. The gold-decorated ends of the cloth drape over his front. He wears a gold and white turban. He rests his right hand on the hilt of a curved sword.

What you see: Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape, a life-size oil on canvas painted in 1788 by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. Sotheby’s estimates it at $4 million to $6 million.

The expert: Calvine Harvey, specialist and vice president in the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s.

Let’s start by talking about how extraordinary Vigée Le Brun was, and how extraordinary she had to be to work as a portrait painter in 18th-century Europe. Technical competence is just the price of admission for a woman then, I take it. What other skills and talents did she have besides the obvious? She was really an absolutely remarkable woman and probably the most successful woman painter in the 17th and 18th centuries in terms of renown in her lifetime. She was unbelievable. She trained with her father originally, but he died when she was eleven years old. She certainly used the connections he set her up with to keep herself in that world. Her skill was absolutely amazing, and she was prolific. [A key skill was] her use of her connections and the way she was able to ingratiate herself in the royal court. She painted Queen Marie-Antoinette for ten years. Then the French Revolution happened. She fled France and traveled through Europe. She brought her daughter with her, not her husband–he stayed.

We should point out that a woman traveling Europe in the 18th century without her husband is a very different thing from a woman traveling Europe without her husband in the 21st century… Yes. She had a gentleman carriage driver and a governess for her daughter. For all her success in France, she left without anything. When she arrived in Rome, she painted an amazing self-portrait, showing herself painting Marie-Antoinette. She needed to make it for her business to survive. It’s in the Uffizi now. [The self-portrait] helped her meet people and make connections. In her memoirs, only two chapters are in France. Then she travels the world, painting people.

About those memoirs. Are they the source of most of what we know about the story of the Khan portrait? Are there contemporary accounts by third-party observers? There are some contemporary accounts. One is from the translator for King Louis’s court. I don’t think we have an amazingly detailed account [from the translator] and there’s no account from the other side. I wish we had one from Khan’s side. On their side, [Khan was one of three ambassadors from India, sent to France by Tipu Sultan to solicit help in pushing back against the British] we don’t have an accounting from them. They were beheaded [by Tipu Sultan after they returned to India, for falling short of the goals he set for their mission.] It’s too bad.

Vigée Le Brun is the master of “Make me look exactly like myself, only 20 percent more attractive.” Is she generally regarded as a reliable narrator? She was a pretty reliable narrator. Her memoir is pretty detailed, but it’s a fun read. She liked to tell stories of interesting characters [who sat for her]. She described who the people are–a lot of it is that. Her recounting is what’s used over and over in many books about the subject. From all sides, different people use her as a source, for sure.

Khan and his two colleagues, who Tipu Sultan sent to France, were faithful muslims. Islam maintains a taboo against depicting the image of Muhammad, the main human figure within the religion. Would the three men have had a baseline objection to having their images recorded? Certainly. Being captured pictorially was very foreign to them. Which is why Le Brun knew why she had to make the request of the king wanting something [wanting their portraits] for them to go for it. There was hesitation.

Yeah, about that. In her memoirs, Vigée Le Brun writes, “I saw these Indians at the opera and they appeared to me so remarkably picturesque that I thought I should like to paint them. But as they communicated to their interpreter that they would never allow themselves to be painted unless the request came from the King, I managed to secure that favour from His Majesty.” She makes it sound like getting the French king to do what she wanted was easy. I realize she was tight with the queen and the French court, but come on, it had to be tougher then she lets on, yes? It was definitely not as easy as that, but it reflects back on her resourcefulness. She knew she had to be strategic about it. I think she would say the queen [helped her] if it was the queen. She probably arranged it through her contacts at court. She knew them, and they knew her. She was part of the circle.

When I think of paintings by Vigée Le Brun, I think of portraits like lot 51, the 1804 pastel of Mrs. Spencer Perceval. The Khan portrait is unusual in the artist’s output, and I’d like to discuss what marks it out. I see that Khan is not looking at the viewer. How atypical is that for a Vigée Le Brun portrait? It’s not unique. It’s not common, but there are definitely other examples [of sitters not making eye contact]. In some of her Marie-Antoinette portraits, the queen is not looking directly at the viewer, especially the ones painted at full length. She said in her memoirs that Khan stood in this pose and she did not direct him. He stood, grabbed his sword, and looked off in that direction with fierce power. That was that. She was blown away, and she went with it.

I realize that full-length portraits often reflect the purse of the sitter–the wealthier you were, the larger your portrait could be–but obviously, she wouldn’t have charged Khan for this. Most of her full-length portraits are of Marie-Antoinette. To me, it shows how important this painting is in her entire oeuvre.

The lot notes comment on how Khan looks “imposing and formidable.” That’s not a typical trait we see in those who sit for Vigée Le Brun, Lot 51 is kind of like an image of a kitten with a bow, and the Khan image is like an image of a tiger. How does the artist communicate Khan’s ferocity? It’s the look on his face, but a lot of it is the pose. It’s amazing to me, the masculine power–“Let me hold a large sharp sword”–but the sword has beautiful detailed carving. It’s a work of art in itself. There’s a balance to the sense of power that comes from the sword, the pose, and the look.

Does she depict anyone else who looks as fierce as Khan? Not that I can think of. To me, there’s nothing like this one.

To get back to skills that she had to have beyond the ability to paint–she would have had to have kept Khan standing and engaged long enough to finish her work in an age before television, radio, video games, podcasts, the Internet, smart phones, and the like. Did she talk about how she managed him while she painted him? In her memoirs, she talks about how she loved the theater, and loved to sing. Marie-Antoinette and she would sing during sittings. Other than that, she didn’t talk about strategies to keep sitters engaged. But she must have some, because she did a lot of painting.

And would she have, say, finished Khan’s face on the spot and simply laid in details of his costume and sword and finished them later, back at her studio? I imagine a lot of what she did, she did there and then. The details of the costume were probably done then. Certainly she would have finished the background separately.

The notes say she painted Khan’s two colleagues as well, and the portrait of Osman Khan has since been lost. Do we know where the third painting is? She painted the other two ambassadors together, with the elder ambassador seated and the other standing behind him. That portrait is now lost. There’s a drawing of the 1789 Salon [a prestigious annual art exhibit then held in France] that shows it mapped out. That portrait is in it, and it’s the only record we had of it. [If you scroll down on this link, you can see the drawing of the 1789 Salon on the lower right. It’s figure four.] It was the final Salon under the king’s reign. Vigée Le Brun left France in October.

The drama continued after she finished the portrait. Khan hid it behind his bed and refused to give it to her. She persuaded his servant to steal it back, and that caused a worse problem. Evidently Khan was angry enough to kill the servant over the theft, and an interpreter had to intervene. He convinced him that punishing the underling with death was a breach of French custom, and that the man handed it over at the request of the king. Do we have a notion of why Khan would have refused to give the painting back to the artist? I imagine it had something to do with religion. In her memoirs, she says he hid it behind the bed and told her ‘the painting needed a soul.’ He might have been frightened by the image of himself. It was probably a very foreign concept to him. He might have been frightened by it and not wanted to give it back to her. The servant was probably a French servant, arranged for by the king. The painting was at the hotel where Khan stayed. The servant ended up going in to get the painting. We don’t have the exact details [of how he retrieved it]. The translator said he had to say no, no, you can’t just behead a servant for something like this. Everyone was OK in the end, and she got the painting, for which we are all grateful.

If I walk into a room full of Old Masters that includes a work by Vigée Le Brun, it calls me right over to it. Why was Vigée Le Brun so damn good at what she did? She was a brilliant painter and a brilliant portraitist, able to capture the subject with a sense of knowing them. I think her early training as a pastelist shows a sense of softness and light that comes from the pastel medium. Her social skills were advanced, and she used them to her advantage to get the sittings she got and to draw out her sitters. She studied them and knew who they were, and she focused on them.

In scanning the lot notes, it looks like the Khan portrait was last at auction in 1893. Is that right? I believe so.

How did you arrive at the estimate for this? It was not an easy one to price. It’s so atypical for her. We had to see how it was different than a portrait by Vigée Le Brun. The comparables we looked to were Joshua Reynolds’s circa 1776 Portrait of Omai, It’s a full-length portrait of a person in Polynesian dress. We sold it in November 2015 for $13 million to $14 million. [Scroll down on this link to see the portrait. It’s figure three on the lower right.] For us, the Khan portrait is more like pictures like that–a capable and impressive artist of the Western tradition, painting someone in exotic dress who has a sense of power and intrigue.

What is the painting like in person? It’s enormous. It’s so impressive and grand. It’s just huge. It’s unbelievably powerful. You step back when you see it. He is big, and he is grand and magnificent.

How to bid: Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape is lot 48 in the Master Paintings Evening Sale scheduled for January 30, 2019 at Sotheby’s New York.

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.

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Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

You can buy Vigée Le Brun’s memoirs from Powell’s or another independent bookseller.

Sotheby’s also published two pieces on its website about Vigée Le Brun and about a larger group of women artists whose works appear in the January 30 auction: The volatile Saga Behind Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of India’s Ambassador to France, and The Women Who Dared to Paint.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

A Super-Tall Wally Bird Could Command $60,000 at Rago

A tall bird tobacco jar, aka a "Wally Bird," by the Martin Brothers, created in London circa 1900. It is slim and compact, with a dark orange beak and a beige, cream, and grey body. It has an expression on its face that seems to say it knows you just committed a huge, embarrassing social error, and you're so ignorant that you have no idea what you just did, and why it marks you as a rube.

What you see: A tall bird tobacco jar, aka a “Wally Bird,” by the Martin Brothers, created in London circa 1900. The head is signed by R.W. (Robert Wallace) Martin, and the base is signed as the Martin Brothers. Rago Auctions estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.

The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.

Why do people love Wally Birds? What makes them great is they [the Martin Brothers] were world-class modelers, at the top of their game, with an idea no one else had. They’re really expressive creatures, and a lot of fun. It’s like they [the birds] are having a conversation with each other. Expression is so much of what these things are about. They’re pretty snarky. I don’t know of any that are benign.

Are those made between 1880 and 1900 the most desirable? I think so. I’m not a scholar or an academic. I’m hands on. I touch this stuff. What I know is not out of a book. The power alley [for Wally Birds] is from 1883 to 1893. I would peg this bird a little earlier than 1900. I’d say 1895. [After 1900 or so] you can see them start to lose their edge. Maybe after 25 years they [the Martin Brothers] wanted to move on to something else.

What details of this Wally Bird make you think it’s from 1895 and not 1900? I just think he’s a better bird. Better modeling, better detailing, better expression, better gradation of color. He’s tall, and he’s got a lot of character. I think he was made during the prime of their production.

Who was the best modeler among the brothers? I think Robert Wallace was a cut above.

Do Wally Birds with his signature sell for more? I always find it’s better to have “Robert Wallace” on a piece than not. But I’d rather have a great unsigned Wally Bird than a mediocre one with R.W.’s initials on it.

Does height matter with Wally Birds? Do collectors prefer the taller ones? It’s a factor in the price. Birds tend to be seven or eight inches tall. Over one foot, 15 inches, you’ve got a big bird. The vast majority are 10 inches or less.

Do the expressions on the faces of the birds matter? Yes, and being colorful helps. The important things are the expression, the size, and the condition, but it’s not hard to sell a Wally Bird with minor damage.

Were Wally Birds actively collected when they were new, or did that come later? I don’t know that people collected things in 1885. We were still dealing with the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

So it was more like people thought, ‘This is too nice to throw away’? [More like] “I saw a jar that looks like someone I know, I’ll buy it and keep it.”

The Wally Birds were designed to hold pipe tobacco. Were they used that way? I’ve literally handled 200 of these and I haven’t found tobacco in any of them. I think they were called tobacco jars to give them a functional purpose, maybe to appeal to men. Everybody smoked back then. You can’t use a bird, but you can use a tobacco jar. Who knows what the rationale was?

And the Martin Brothers made Wally Birds from 1880 up until 1914? I’ve had pieces dated that late. There’s a thought that some were finished later than that by a son of one of the brothers in the 1930s. The dating might not be clear on the later ones. They tend to be blue and white, and the expressions tend to be shallower.

Do we know how the birds were made? They were sculpted. You can look inside [a Wally Bird] and see the way the clay has been cut back. They gouged the clay out to make the interior. You can see the tooling of the construction.

Are Wally Birds based on real birds? To some extent, yes. But I think the birds they looked at was a departure point for their imaginations.

Do British collectors dominate the field of Wally Birds? Americans have been bringing Wally Birds here for 50 years. I even know Brits who buy them from Americans and sell them back to Americans. I would guess that 75 percent of known Martinware [a term that describes the Wally Birds and other ceramics by the Martin Brothers] is in the U.S.

How often do Wally Birds come up at auction? There’s been a generational change. People who bought in the 1980s are selling off now. I sold Lillian Hoffman’s collection four years ago. Wait ten years, and the people who bought in the Harriman Judd collection sale [at Sotheby’s in January 2001] will sell off.

So they come up every five or ten years or so? Yeah. Even if they [collectors] have to pare down, they don’t put up one Wally Bird. They put up two or three. They sell them in flocks.

What’s it like to hold this Wally Bird in your hand? For a ceramic, it’s hefty. There’s nothing eggshell about Wally Birds, nothing delicate.

What condition is it in? There’s a repair on one of the feathers, and at the very bottom of the clay base, there’s an unevenness to the edge. But it’s an 125-year-old piece of ceramic sculpture.

In your experience, how do collectors display Wally Birds in their homes? They’re displayed how you’d expect a $50,000 piece of clay to be displayed–usually on a shelf, with half a dozen birds side by side. They’re not left on desktops, where they’re too easily knocked over.

You’ve got several pieces of Martinware in this auction, including another Wally Bird in Lot 5 that’s estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. What’s the difference between this bird and that bird? Why is Lot 1 one worth more? Size is a significant factor. Lot 1 is a big bird. Lot 5 is interesting because it’s a friar bird. [Look closely at its head and you’ll see it has a tonsure–a monk’s hairstyle. You can also click on the 360-degree view button at the lower right and spin it to better see the back of its head.] But it’s the nature of the beast–it’s clumsier, it’s not as free-flowing a bird. Both are good birds, but one is one and a half times the size of the other one.

Wally Birds are 80 to 120 years old. Almost no one smokes a pipe anymore. What’s been keeping up the profile of Wally Birds? Was there a big, influential museum show? Is there a collectors’ society that’s active and media-savvy? Several things. Number one is the right number of them were made. With Martinware, there’s enough material out there but not too much–just enough to create and sustain a market. Number two, both sides of the pond are buying this stuff. If it’s supported by collectors in Europe and America, it’s healthy. Number three, they’re really good. World-class ceramics. They’re sculpted, best in the world at the time it was made, and I haven’t seen much to rival it. The quality has held up.

The world auction record for a Wally Bird belongs to an 1889 example that stands just over 14 inches tall and resembles the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. It sold in December 2015 in New York for $233,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. I realize Rago did not handle that bird, but can you tell me why it did so well? It was a fabulous bird. It was huge, and it was a historic figure from the land where they were made. It was the pinnacle. I don’t know if you get better than [the Wally Birds that resemble] Disraeli and [British prime minister William] Gladstone. Those are the best.

And Americans are just as interested in the Disraeli and Gladstone Wally Birds, even though they depict British political figures? Absolutely. I’m sure they’re in America. If you’re going to buy British pottery, you’re going to buy the best out there.

Why will this Wally Bird stick in your memory? The expression is really good. The quality is top-notch. The condition is excellent. That’s true of most birds I handle. And it’s just big. The production of the larger birds is quite limited. I’d say five percent are this size or bigger. If 250 [a possible rough count for surviving Wally Birds] is accurate, there are 10 to 15 in this range. In a September 2018 auction, I had one that big, and it sold for $112,500. It’s really, really rare to have another that size. I would dare say I have this bird because I sold the other one.

How to bid: The Martin Brothers tall bird tobacco jar is lot 1 in the Early 20th Century Design sale at Rago Auctions on January 19, 2019.

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Alison Davey of AD Antiques in Gloucestershire, England, has devised a way to track Wally Birds without banding their ankles. In 2018, she began creating “passports” for the coveted works. The document, which resembles a British passport, contains a photo of the Wally Bird, its height, its condition, and its known provenance.

Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.

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This Fuddling Cup Confused 17th-century British Drinkers. Sotheby’s Could Sell it for $6,000.

A white delftware fuddling cup made in London and dating to the mid-17th century. It looks like three jugs in one. A trio of identical vessels with bulging bodies are bound together, back to back to back, by entwined handles. The three are undecorated.

What you see: A white delftware fuddling cup made in London and dating to the mid-17th century. Sotheby’s estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

The expert: Richard Hird, specialist in the ceramics department at Sotheby’s.

This piece is known as a “fuddling cup.” What does “fuddling” mean here? It means to confuse or intoxicate the person who was handling the object.

Does the finished form tell us anything about how the cup was made? I don’t think anyone knows for certain, but the vessel was probably made in a two-part mold, and the entwined clay handles were probably twisted by hand and applied to the vessel. It’s quite a simple thing to make.

Where was it used? It could have been in a private home, but it was very much a tavern object. It was a drinking game. It was certainly meant to be in a tavern setting.

How did the drinking game work? There’s some speculation here, but each container would be filled with a different kind of alcoholic drink, and it would be shaken until they were blended. The object was to try to identify each spirit in each vessel.

How do the spirits mix? When you look at it, you can’t quite see it, but within the three chambers there’s a hole that connects all three together. It looks like three separate cups, but they are connected by the hole into one big cup. You have to really look in there to see the piercing. The bulbous shapes in the lower part is where they touch, where the hole has been made.

The cup is pretty small, measuring three and a half inches tall. But do we know how much liquid it could hold? I don’t know, and I don’t know if there were specific measurements like that. Fuddling cups all tend to be small-size. They don’t get any bigger than that.

How do we know that the fuddling cup is probably from the mid-17th century? So far, there are nine recorded with inscribed dates. The earliest is 1633, and the latest is 1649. They probably contain [were probably made in] the second half of the 17th century, but we don’t have dates.

Were fuddling cups popular then? It’s hard to judge. It’s a rare object, but they do appear at auction almost annually. Quite a few survive, but a lot were probably lost as well. It was quite a popular drinking game.

The cup is white, with no decoration. Is that typical? I guess it is typical, in a way. You do find them decorated in blue, in chinoiserie style. Having it painted would be more expensive, and it was for a tavern. White was the cheapest option, in that sense.

What condition is it in? I see some chips in the glaze here and there. The chips are actually a good sign. If there were no chips, you start to question the age of the object. It’s over 200 years old. It has to have signs of age. If it’s perfect, it would raise questions. And it does have some restoration around the rim of one of the vessels.

This was a novelty object. Does its having been restored matter less to a collector? I wouldn’t say so. Early 17th century objects are rare and becoming rarer on the market. People are starting to turn a blind eye to issues because they don’t come around that often.

Does it show any signs of wear on its interior? No, but it’s quite unusual to see that. On something this small, the vessel spout is probably two centimeters in diameter. You can’t put much in there.

Is the fuddling cup connected at all to puzzle jugs? I think so. I don’t know if you’d find a puzzle jug that early in the 17th century, but it’s the similar idea of a tavern game and confusing the user.

Do collectors see fuddling cups as art objects, or do they try to use them at least once? I think they do see them as art objects, but I’d be tempted to try to use it to see how it would work.

What is it like to hold this cup in your hands? It’s a very light object. It almost fits in the palm of one hand.

How to bid: The fuddling cup is lot 696 in The Collection of Anne H. & Frederick Vogel III sale, taking place January 19, 2019 at Sotheby’s New York.

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This is the closest I’ll get to showcasing a jigsaw puzzle on this blog, so here’s a shout-out to my faithful suppliers Chris at Serious Puzzles and Andy at Eureka! Puzzles & Games in Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Massachusetts. Thanks!

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Ammi Phillips’s Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog Could Command $1.2 Million or More

American folk artist Ammi Phillips painted Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog circa 1830-1835. The girl has short brown hair that is parted down the middle. She looks directly at the viewer. Her right hand grips one of the three strings of a coral bead necklace. Her dress is a bright, emphatic red and has short, puffed sleeves. She is shown seated on a low green ottoman. A beagle is at her feet.

What you see: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, a portrait that American folk artist Ammi (pronounced Ah-mi) Phillips painted circa 1830-1835. Christie’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.

The expert: John Hays, deputy chairman, Christie’s Americas.

I’d like to start with some discussion of how Ammi Phillips was recognized and discovered. It seems like he could have disappeared, or far less would be known, if scholars had not done incredible work with identifying paintings by him. There’s a long version and a short version. The short version is like many painters who were not in the annals of art history, he was not known until people started piecing together his work in the 1960s. It was a grassroots effort. It was Mary Black who galvanized the research being done. Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter, 1788-1865 was a pioneering exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in 1968, and it traveled around. [Scholars] figured it out [what was his] because he depicted sitters holding newspapers and he signed some of his work. The family histories of the sitters also helped piece together the show. He was prolific. As the count began, they realized he did a few thousand portraits.

The lot notes call Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog a “quintessentially American work of art” and “strikingly modern”. What makes it so? Every country has its folk art, painted by people who didn’t go to the national academy. What makes it quintessentially American is he was painting Americans–successful sitters who were documenting their lives. The other aspect that makes it quintessentially American is [the notion that] time is money. The quicker he was able to render a portrait, the quicker he was on his way.

And what makes the portrait “strikingly modern”? Stacy Hollander [of the American Folk Art Museum] did a show in 2008, The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red that showed the urge to modernity, the idea of reduction to the pure form. Isn’t it interesting that it started in 1830? If you look at the dress [the sitter in Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is wearing], it’s geometric forms with little lines, a broad expanse of red. It’s a knockout, a home run. There’s no question what the statement is–a girl in a red dress. It looks forward, but it distills the form to the essence of the form. That’s an idea that the Color Field artists Clyfford Still and Rothko [embraced]. Phillips did it from a more economic point of view, but he succeeded.

Why do his portraits of children perform so well at auction? Phillips is at his best with children because there were no rules [for painting them]. A lot of Phillips works are dour. Some of his sitters are ministers and older people with bibles in their laps. With children, he captures the spirit of young America. That’s where he hits the home run, and that’s why there’s a huge price difference with the artist. Depicting a child evokes much more.

The lot notes also refers to ‘record-breaking sales in the 1980s.’ Could you elaborate? Phillips did a group of four children in red dresses, three girls and a boy, with their hands almost in the same positions. One was discovered in an appraisal day at the Corcoran Gallery in 1984. I was here [at Christie’s then]. We looked at it. The family didn’t know what it was. It was over their fireplace. By that time, the [groundbreaking 1968] Ammi Phillips show had happened, and we knew what it was. We put it in [a 1985 Christie’s auction] with an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000 and it sold for $682,000. It went to Dan Terra of the Terra Foundation. It made the front page of the New York Times. The other known portrait [of a girl sitter from the foursome, aside from this one], Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, was bought by Ralph Esmerian for the American Folk Art Museum. [After the 1985 sale], the owner [of this portrait] called us and said, ‘We think we have one.’ That’s how we discovered it 33 years ago. We’ve been quietly hoping it would come out one day.

That must have been delightful and startling, to have a folk art portrait sell for so much in 1985. You could acquire a major Impressionist picture [for $682,000] at that time. I put the Phillips in a jewelry vault that night. We were not prepared to have it sell for that price.

What makes this portrait so strong? It captures the essence of what folk art collectors want and what they look for. It’s hard to define it in words, but it has a universality to it. It’s just riveting, and kind of mesmerizing. You say, ‘God, he gets it.’

Do we know why the girls in the Ammi Phillips red dress portraits are wearing coral necklaces? Did coral have some sort of symbolic meaning in America in the 1830s? Coral necklaces were very popular in the 1820s and 1830s. In this portrait, she holds a bead of coral as if she’s a little nervous. She seems to say, ‘Hurry up and finish this picture, why am I here?’ As for iconography, there’s nothing we’re aware of. Coral was fashionable at the time for teething rings. The three girls [in the group of red dress portraits] each have a coral necklace. The one at Terra has two strands, this one has three strands, and the one at the American Folk Art Museum has four.

What is she holding in her left hand? It could be parsley. The girl in the Terra portrait is holding a strawberry. They [the items the child sitters hold] all have coded iconography that you could linger over. But it could be something Phillips gave her to hold while he painted her.

And what’s with the dog at the left? Is that her dog? The beagle is in all four of these portraits. Maybe it’s Ammi Phillips’s dog. Maybe it’s for the comfort of the child.

Yeah, about that. One of the skills Ammi Phillips had to develop as an itinerant portrait painter was to convince small children to sit still long enough for him to do his work in an age before screens. Might the dog have played the role that a screen would now–helped entertain the kid and keep her sitting in one place? It’s an idea, and it’s the same stylized beagle [in the four portraits], with the spoon-shaped lozenge on the forehead. I have a beagle. I know beagles very well. He captured the essence of a beagle, and its wry smile. If you have a beagle, you’d recognize it too.

I take it we don’t know who the young sitter is, even though scholars have tried to identify her? Yes. She’s adorable, that’s all I would say.

Is it possible that the three girls in the group of four red dress portraits are sisters or cousins? Initially we thought, ‘Are they sisters?’ But there are little differences, actually very subtle differences. The idea that they’re related is not ruled out at all. There are many unanswered questions.

The portraits in the group of four show kids in a virtually identical red dress. Is there a chance that Ammi Phillips traveled with the dress, as part of a small wardrobe, and offered it to the parents to use for the sitting? That’s an interesting idea, but the thing that emerges from Phillips is a spontaneity. It’s the quickly-rendered moment that folk art collectors love so much. A portrait was for a wealthy client that he poured his heart into would be worth a fraction of those that he did more quickly and got down to the essence.

What’s the world auction record for an Ammi Phillips? Portrait of a Young Girl and her Cat, which we sold in 2007 for $1.2 million. It’s a great picture, but it’s not in the narrow group of four. It’s one of 11 he did of children in red dresses. The girl [in the portrait sold in 2007] has a different stance.

What are the odds that Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog will meet or beat that sum? To be really candid, that’s the one question I can’t answer. I’m as intrigued as anybody to see what will happen in January.

What is it like in person? It has what my colleagues in fine art call “wall power.” It just jumps off the wall. It makes everything around it pale.

Why will it stick in your memory? For me, personally, I was here when we sold the first one, and it changed a lot of things in my life. It makes me reflect on the last 33 years in the art world, and how exciting it’s been. Not every day does an Ammi Phillips girl in a red dress cross my computer screen. And it expresses a sort of humanity that the experiment of America allowed. I dare you to tell me where such a portrait has emerged in any other country. That’s why I do what I do. It’s unique to portraiture in this country.

How to bid: Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is lot 1205 in the Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver and Prints auction taking place at Christie’s New York on January 17 and 18, 2019.

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RECORD! The Rockefeller Emerald Sold for $5.5 Million, a Price-per-carat Record

Rockefeller emerald in ring shot from the side sold Christie's June 2017

What you see: The Rockefeller emerald, an 18.04-carat gem set in a platinum and diamond ring designed in 1948 by Raymond Carter Yard. Estimated at $4 million to $6 million, it sold at Christie’s New York in June 2017 for $5.5 million. It set a world auction record for a price-per-carat for an emerald.

The expert: Angelina Chen, senior vice president and senior specialist in Christie’s jewelry department.

I’d like to start by talking about Yard and the Rockefeller family. How did they help Yard? How does this emerald ring show how they trusted him and his artistry? We always run into people who have a personal jeweler, someone you like and trust and who shares your vision. Marcus & Co. was the firm that the Rockefellers started with. As Raymond Carter Yard moved up the ranks at Marcus, they realized he was very talented and had shared views. The emerald was in a Van Cleef & Arpels brooch originally. They [the Rockefeller family] took it apart and gave the largest [stone] to David [Rockefeller]. They could have given it back to Van Cleef & Arpels to remount, but they gave it to Yard to do it.

You said you were surprised that the Rockefellers didn’t ask Van Cleef & Arpels to remount the components of the brooch. What did you find surprising about that? Typically when you buy something from the original house and take it apart, you go back to the house and ask, “Can you refashion it for me?”

Were the Rockefellers taking a risk in bringing the stone to Yard rather than going back to Van Cleef & Arpels? In a way, but the Rockefellers wanted their own vision and their own design. Van Cleef & Arpels is a French company. Yard was much more American.

And Yard created this ring in 1948? Probably the early 1950s. It says 1948, but ultimately, it might be one or two years later.

Where was Yard in his career by that point? He had set up his store in 1922, so he was pretty established by then.

What marks this ring as a Yard design? Also, was it considered cutting-edge in its time? I wouldn’t call it cutting-edge. It’s very minimalist for its period in some ways. He toned down everything else and put the focus on the stone. The lines are very clean and very modest. The emerald is at the center of attention. It’s beautifully made. I love the fact that the side diamonds are trapezoidal in shape–so unromantic, but they flank the emerald beautifully. They slope down just right so the emerald pops up.

I see he used platinum for the setting metal. Was that a cutting-edge choice in 1948? No, not at all. Platinum was well-established. It’s the metal Yard always worked in. Anything white would be platinum.

How rarely does an emerald of this size–18.04 carats–come to auction? The size is not so rare. What makes it rare is the lack of treatment. You rarely see emeralds over 10 carats with no enhancement.

What does “treatment” mean when we’re talking about emeralds? Usually that means it’s oiled with cedar oil. It makes the emerald’s crystal structure shine a little bit better. That’s a tradition from eons ago. It’s quite a porous stone. Opticon is a man-made material [that accomplishes much of what cedar oil does].

Do these treatments make an emerald more stable and less likely to chip? It all adds to it, yes. Emeralds are more fragile than other gemstones, but still wearable.

How can you be sure the Rockefeller emerald wasn’t treated? We sent it to two labs because it’s such an important stone. The provenance chain is good, but we always send it to two labs to certify it. [This time it was] Gübelin and AGL [American Gemological Laboratories].

Do we know when the emerald came out of the ground? No, there’s no notation for that at all. AGL said it was a “classic Colombia”. When “classic” precedes a Colombian stone, it alludes to the fact that it’s from an old mine source. It’s probably early 20th century or so. I’d be uncomfortable calling it before 1900.

What condition is the Rockefeller emerald in? It was in great condition. It wasn’t worn every day. It wasn’t chipped or anything like that when we received it. There’s always some wear and tear, but that’s from normal wear.

What is the inherent value of the emerald? What would it be worth without the Rockefeller provenance? The stone itself is an important stone. It’s 18-plus carats and it’s very clean, a beautiful color, a classic Colombian–that’s important in and of itself. It would have gotten a page in in the catalog [without the provenance]. Rockefeller adds a premium to this. I don’t know what the multiplier is, but I saw the Rockefeller sale, and it sold extremely well.

On the inside of the ring I see something that looks like a brace. What is it? It’s a ring guard. A lot of times when you have a ring, it tends to roll around. This is a grip so it won’t roll around so much.

Did you try the Rockefeller emerald on? I did. [Laughs,] It’s wonderful to have a rare gem on your finger. It’s special. It’s stunning. Anything that’s rich in color like this, it’s very different. Color tends to elicit a different emotion for sure, and you can’t help but think of where this ring has been.

The size of the stone isn’t awkward on your hand? The rule of thumb is it’s never too big. Eighteen carats is not too big. It’s very wearable, not ostentatious.

What was the bidding like? It was definitely longer than a minute. Only a handful of collectors would be bidding at this level. The ones who were not prepared to go to that level left quite quickly. One of the bidders was in the room and another was on the phone. It was tense. The winning bidder was in the room.

The Harry Winston company revealed itself as the winner of the Rockefeller emerald. Do we know what its plans are for the ring? Harry Winston is famous for buying famous gems. If they got an offer they couldn’t refuse, I wouldn’t be surprised if they offered it in a Winston setting.

How long do you think the price-per-carat record for an emerald will stand? What could challenge it? That’s the best part of my job. I discover things all the time. I never know what’s going to come up.

So you’re not aware of anything out there that could come forward and sell for more? Not that I know of, but you’ll be the first to know.

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RECORD! The Monty Python Foot Stomps to $22,000 at Vectis Auctions

The Foot, aka the Monty Python foot, a paper cutout from an Old Master painting that Terry Gilliam blew up and used in the opening credits of Monty Python's Flying Circus. He signed this example on its ankle.

What you see: The Foot, a key paper cutout element used in the opening credits of a 1971 one-off Monty Python’s Flying Circus television special that was filmed in German. The piece may have been used in the opening credits of the main series. Vectis Auctions sold it for £16,800 (about $22,000) against an estimate of £400 to £600 (about $525 to $800) in July 2014. It’s a world auction record for a prop used to create the Monty Python’s Flying Circus television show.

The expert: Kathy Taylor, a specialist in the Vectis TV and Film Department.

Are you aware of any other Monty Python’s Flying Circus props coming to auction before Vectis sold The Foot? It’s unknown. I did try to research it when I received The Foot, but I couldn’t find anything. There have been animation storyboards on occasion, but nothing like this.

How did the Monty Python foot come to you? David Brookman [the consigner] telephoned us. He saw an article in the Sunday supplement about Vectis Auctions and he approached us with the idea that he could sell it. It was a piece of photographic paper, rolled up in a tube that he kept under his bed since he worked on the animation in 1971.

How did Brookman come to receive the Monty Python foot? He worked for a company that was asked to do the shots for the animation [of the one-off 1971 German-language special]. I think it was quite a brief time he worked with Terry Gilliam, a couple of days. When they finished, Gilliam asked would he like it, and he signed it. It was quite tatty.

We know the Monty Python foot was used for the opening credits of the German-language special, but was it used to film the credits for Monty Python’s Flying Circus? We don’t know for certain. I suspect a lot of these cutouts don’t survive. They were used and thrown away. Gilliam would rush in with a briefcase or a box of cutouts, tip everything out on the desk, and instruct the cameraman [who, in this case, was David Brookman] to photograph them in a certain way to make the animation. That’s why it’s so tatty. It’s seen quite a lot of life.

Do we have any idea how many photographic cutouts Gilliam made of this element of his animation? No idea. Maybe he has more than one. I don’t know if he kept others.

And Brookman kept the Monty Python foot in a tube under his bed until he brought it to you? It was probably in that state when he was given it. I don’t think he thought much about it. He unrolled it and it was quite large. I think it was two feet by 18 inches. It was quite fragile. He came up with the idea to frame it, to make it look a little better and to preserve it.

How did you come up with the estimate of £400 to £600? I’m guessing there were no similar things that sold at auction that you could look to… We had no idea what sort of money it could fetch. I thought £400 to £600 was a lot of money for a tatty bit of rolled-up paper, but it’s an iconic image we all remember. The sum was his expectation. We asked, “What’s the least amount of money you’re prepared to part with it for?” If it had achieved £400 to £600, he would have been happy.

What was your role in the auction? I was on the phone with a bidder. There was quite a lot of interest in The Foot. A lot of people thought they could afford it. People turned up in the room to bid, but they all dropped out. It did go to a telephone bidder.

What was your reaction to the sale of the Monty Python foot–watching it climb from three figures to five? It was pretty crazy [laughs]. Absolutely crazy. I wondered who these people were who would want it. Some were connected with Python. The vendor [Brookman] was sitting there going a very peculiar shade of pink.

I imagine you thought it would beat its estimate, maybe double or triple it, but you didn’t think it would go for £16,800… No, never in a million years. But it was lovely for the vendor, who looked after this thing all those years and never imagined it was worth that sort of money.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? Because it came from out of the blue, as things do here. I was twelve when Monty Python was popular on TV. We would reenact it at school. It was pretty amazing handling something that was so iconic and part of my youth and which we think of with such affection. The actual value of this piece is its strong provenance. To actually have someone consign who worked with Gilliam–there’s nothing better.

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A local English paper covered the July 2014 sale of The Foot and included an image of David Brookman holding the framed piece. It is surprisingly large.

Terry Gilliam lifted The Foot from a circa 1545 painting by Agnolo Bronzino most commonly known as Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time. It’s in the lower left corner.

Image is courtesy of Vectis Auctions.

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See My New Column at “Art & Object” Magazine: “Sold!”

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What you see: A bottle of Macallan 1926 60 Year-Old, handprinted by Irish artist Michael Dillon. It commanded £1.2 million ($1,530,484) at Christie’s London in late November, and it’s the lead story of my new column for Art & Object magazine.

 

Read my first Sold! column:

https://www.artandobject.com/articles/sold-items-majestic-mancave-auction

 

Follow Art & Object on Twitter and Instagram.

 

You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

 

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The Ten Most Popular Posts of 2018 on The Hot Bid (THB: Year in Review)

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The ten most popular posts on The Hot Bid that went live in 2018 are… [supply your own drum roll, please]

10. Become Technology’s Greatest Visionary! Prop Store has the Picturephone from “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” which could sell for $15,000.

9. A powerful set of prints by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas could command $30,000 at Swann.

8. Sold! Man Ray’s 1938 London Transport poster fetched the Way Out price of $149,000 at Swann. [Editorial note: At some point in fall 2018, I started doing a separate update post for featured lots that sold. This is one of several posts where I updated the original with the final price.]

7. WHOA! Sotheby’s sold Canova’s rediscovered “Bust of Peace” for more than $7 million.

6. A grand souvenir of the Grand Tour: Christie’s could sell a circa 1835, 61-inch-tall bronze model of the Vendôme Column for $60,000.

5. RECORD! A unique tile panel by ceramics wizard Frederick Hurten Rhead commands $637,500 at Rago.

4. TIE! Heritage Auctions sold an original Sunday Christmas-themed Peanuts strip from 1958 for $113,525, tying the world auction record.

3. RECORD! Heritage Auctions sold an original 1983 panel from Gary Larson’s The Far Side for $31,070–an auction record for the comic strip! Also, quack!

2. No one can do what British potter George Owen did. No one. A covered vase he made in 1913 could sell for $21,000 at Bonhams.

And the most popular post that went live on The Hot Bid in 2018 is… pictured above, and linked below.

RECORD! Hake’s Americana & Collectibles sold a 1978 Star Wars Obi-Wan Kenobi for $76,000–an auction record for any single production action figure.

Special thanks to Alex Winter and all at Hake’s Americana & Collectibles for allowing the re-use of the Obi-Wan Kenobi figure image.

And of course, special thanks to every reader of The Hot Bid! I’m grateful for every one of you, and I hope that 2019 treats you all well.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

The Ten Auction Lots that Sold for the Most in 2018 on The Hot Bid (THB: Year in Review)

Canova, The Bust of Peace (side)

Usually, when I feature a lot on The Hot Bid, it sells. Here are the ten featured lots from 2018 that sold for the highest sums. All prices given include the relevant premiums.

10. Whoa! That Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy flew away with $600,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions–double its high estimate!

9. A clear winner indeed! Ceruti’s 18th century portrait on glass sold for $615,000–more than double its high estimate–at Sotheby’s.