SOLD! The Canyon Diablo Meteorite Commanded $237,500 at Christie’s


Update: The Canyon Diablo meteorite sold for $237,500.

What you see: A meteorite from the Canyon Diablo fall, which occurred about 50,000 years ago in what is now the American state of Arizona. Christie’s estimates the meteorite at $150,000 to $250,000.

What is a meteorite? “A meteorite has managed to make its way all the way down to the earth,” says James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history. “A meteor is what you see flashing across the sky. It has to be a certain size to avoid the destructive forces of entering the earth’s atmosphere.”

It’s described as a “matchless” meteorite. Why? “It’s unlike and better than any Canyon Diablo meteorite I’ve seen,” he says. “And the holes on it are astonishing. They really add to the sculptural aesthetic collectors look for. For every 200 Canyon Diablo meteorites I see, maybe five are pretty or aesthetic, and probably one has a hole. To have as many holes as this–I can’t think of a meteorite at that size with that many holes. It looks like a Barbara Hepworth or a Henry Moore sculpture. It’s a class above other meteorites from that event.”

Why does the meteorite look this way? “As the meteor falls to earth, the fricative forces in the atmosphere heat it up and will blow it up eventually. The fragments plow into the earth,” he says. “Then they undergo terrestrialization–they weather. If within a parent body there’s a natural weakness in the rock, it will slowly carve away and form a hole. For this particular fragment, tumbling toward the earth created the conditions that allowed it to form holes. ”

The meteorite is also described as having an “uncommon smooth metallic surface.” What does that mean? “Most Canyon Diablo meteorites you come across have a jagged surface,” he says. “This looks like the stereotyped ideal of how we want meteorites to look.”

What is the meteorite made of? “Iron and nickel, with several other trace metals,” he says.

The meteorite measures thirteen and a half inches by eight inches by seven and a quarter inches. Is that unusually large? “For something as pretty as that, yes,” he says. “You do get bigger than that. The most famous is the Willamette in New York.”

What does it feel like to hold it in your hands? “It weighs 70 pounds. It’s heavy. If you dropped it on your toes, you could cause real mischief,” he says. “But when you have one of these iron meteorites in your hand, you do have a moment when you step back and think about it. These objects are four and a half billion years old. In our day to day experience, we struggle to understand millions and billions. These objects are one-third as old as time itself. I find it an amazing philosophical puzzle to unravel. The meteorite has a presence that really drives the question home.”

How often do Canyon Diablo meteorites come up at auction? “We have about one every six months at Christie’s, but in ten years, I’ve never seen one that looked like this,” he says. “It’s one of the most extraordinarily beautiful meteorites we’ve had. It has a sculpture-like quality to it. Great art and great objects hold their own next to masterpieces. I’d love to have this with a Franz Kline on the wall and a Barbara Hepworth on the table. It would have a wonderful presence.”

Why else will the meteorite stick in your memory? “I’d go back to its sculpture-like quality. It just screams ‘Barbara Hepworth’ to me,” Hyslop says. “A lot of found objects have that aesthetic. And it looks like the stereotype of a meteorite. It’s perfect.”

How to bid: The Canyon Diablo meteorite is lot 41 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar, and Other Rare Meteorites, a Christie’s online sale taking place from February 7 to February 14, 2018.

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

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SOLD! An 18k Gold Freedom Box Awarded to Commodore Stephen Decatur in 1812 Fetches $70,000 at James Julia


Update: The 18-karat gold Commodore Stephen Decatur freedom box sold for $70,000.

What you see: A 18-karat gold freedom box awarded to Commodore Stephen Decatur by the City of New York in 1812. The James D. Julia auction house estimates it at $125,000 to $175,000.

Who was Stephen Decatur? Born to a seagoing American family, Decatur became the young country’s first great naval hero by fighting the Barbary states–Mediterranean countries whose pirates had a nasty habit of capturing American vessels and ransoming their crews. (Do you remember the line from the U.S. Marines hymn, ‘From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli’? Tripoli is a reference to the Barbary Wars.) Decatur also distinguished himself in the War of 1812. He died in 1820 from a gunshot wound suffered in a duel with Commodore James Barron. Decatur was 41.

How did the custom of giving heroic people a gold freedom box get started? “The way it originated was the gold or silver box held the key to the city,” says John Sexton, senior consultant and sales representative in James D. Julia’s firearms division. “The ‘freedom box’ terminology comes from giving them ‘the freedom of the city.’ By this time [1812], they were just giving them the boxes.”

Why did the City of New York give Decatur this gold freedom box? During an October 1812 battle, he captured the HMS Macedonian, a 38-gun British frigate, saved it from sinking, and towed it to New York to be refitted and made part of America’s naval fleet. “It was the most important naval battle ever fought to that point,” he says. “Decatur was a household name in 1812. He was such a hero.”

How often do gold freedom boxes come up at auction? “The last one I could find was one awarded to John Jay and sold at Sotheby’s in 1991,” he says. “They’re beautiful boxes, exceptionally ornate. There’s another one in the sale from the Civil War that’s just as elaborate. They quit using the term ‘freedom box’ in the mid-19th century.”

Were the boxes meant to be used to hold anything, such as snuff? Or were they just meant to be beautiful boxes? “It was just the box, but they were snuff box-size,” he says.

The Decatur gold freedom box also has its red leather presentation case. Is that unusual? “It’s probably unique,” he says.

And the box is entirely made of gold? “It’s all gold, including the hinge,” he says. “There’s not a part that’s not.”

How does it feel to hold the box in your hand? “It’s quite heavy! It weighs 100 grams. It’s a nice, heavy little box,” he says. “Whoever did the engraving had a lot of skill. The engraving style is fantastic, beautiful–a lost art.”

How did you put an estimate on the Decatur box? “We made a conservative estimate,” he says. “We expect it to bring several hundred thousand dollars. Compared to John Jay, Stephen Decatur is probably more of a household name. But I don’t know what it will bring at auction.”

Decatur’s descendants have passed the box from generation to generation. Why are they consigning it now? “There are about 80 lots from the same family,” Sexton says, noting that the lots include the carnelian and gold signet ring that the Bey of Tunis surrendered to Decatur in 1805. It appears the current owner within the family thought it wiser to consign the material rather than try to split it among seven or eight heirs. “Decatur was a very important person in his day. The treasures he had were phenomenal,” he says. “It’s amazing that the family retained them.”

Why will this gold freedom box stick in your memory? “There are so few objects associated with someone as important as Stephen Decatur. There are 25 states that have cities named after him,” he says. “This is a piece of history. You just know it’s a gem. It’s something so unique and wonderful.”

How to bid: The Stephen Decatur gold freedom box is lot 2068 in James D. Julia’s Fine Art, Asian, & Antiques Winter 2018 sale, taking place February 8 and 9, 2018.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Photograph courtesy of James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine, USA,

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SOLD! A Pair of Mittens Belonging to Antarctic Explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard Fetches a Cool $10,435 at Bonhams–Well Above The High Estimate


Update: The lambskin mittens belonging to Apsley Cherry-Garrard sold for £7,500, or about $10,435–well above their high estimate.

What you see: A pair of lambskin inner mittens with cotton drawstrings, which belonged to British explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Bonhams estimates them at £1,500 to £2,000 ($2,000 to $2,700).

Who was Apsley Cherry-Garrard? He was the second-youngest member of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913) to Antarctica. He and two fellow explorers embarked on a five-week journey to collect Emperor penguin eggs in the dark depths of winter. (It had to be winter, because that’s when the penguins lay their eggs.) Cherry-Garrard chattered his teeth to bits in the punishingly cold weather. He was lucky; unlike Scott or his companions on the penguin egg quest, he lived to tell the tale in the aptly-named 1922 adventure travel classic, The Worst Journey in the World. Cherry-Garrard died in 1959 at the age of 63.

So, Cherry-Garrard wore at least two sets of mittens in Antarctica, yes? “I’m not a mitten specialist, but as far as I can tell, these are inner mittens,” says Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams. “If you see the pictures, they [the explorers] are usually wearing rabbit or fox fur [on their hands]. I think these are the liners.”

And did these lambskin inner mittens represent the apex of cold weather gear circa 1910? “They were about as technically advanced as it got,” he says.

The Terra Nova explorers had to choose between mittens or gloves, and they went with mittens. How did that affect the expedition? “They knew mittens were warmer, but it must have been difficult to manipulate the sledges and do scientific experiments,” he says. “It added to the misery of a nightmarish environment. Cherry-Garrard made a very long sledge trek in Antarctic winter, which is our summer. The temperatures fell below – 77 Fahrenheit, or – 60 Celsius.”

How well did these mittens work for him? Cherry-Garrard didn’t comment on the performance of his lambskin mittens, but the Bonhams lot notes quote a passage from page 238 of The Worst Journey in the World: “My clothing had frozen hard as I stood… For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we all took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in. By now we had realized that we must reverse the usual sledging routine and do everything slowly, wearing when possible the fur mitts which fitted over our woollen mitts, and always stopping whatever we were doing, directly we felt that any part of us was getting frozen, until the circulation was restored.”

Cherry-Garrard and his two companions bore five Emperor penguin eggs back to the base camp wrapped in their mittens. Do we know if he used these mittens to carry any eggs? “I don’t know whether we can say it was exactly this pair,” he says. “But he did have this pair with him, and he gathered Emperor penguin eggs, and he wrapped them in his mittens to stop them from freezing. He managed to get three back to London.”

How do we know these are Cherry-Garrard’s mittens from the Terra Nova expedition? “They were originally consigned by members of his family at a previous auction,” he says. “They were acquired by the current owner from there.”

Are these the only Cherry-Garrard expedition-used artifacts that might have come in direct contact with the penguins? “It’s difficult to say for definite, but [the penguin backstory] gives a bit more color to it,” he says, adding that Bonhams sold a pair of woolen mittens worn by Terra Nova expedition member George Levick in 2014 for £625 ($846).

How desirable are Cherry-Garrard artifacts among polar collectors? Who, other than Scott, would be more sought-after than him? “Probably any of the people who died in the tent,” says Haley, referring to Captain Lawrence Oates, Petty Officer Edgar Evans, Doctor Edward Wilson, and Lieutenant Henry Bowers. “It’s kind of grisly, but if you died on the expedition, you became more mythological than those who didn’t. In 2012, we sold a 1912 letter that was found on Scott’s body for £163,250 ($221,228). You don’t get much better than that.”

One of the mittens has a few “rust marks.” What are rust marks? He says they’re literally marks caused by rust. The mitten must have rested against a rusty bit of metal at some point.

Have you tried the mittens on? How big are they? “I haven’t, actually, because they’re framed,” he says. “They’re quite large, almost 12 inches long. They had to cover the wrists as well.”

What else makes these mittens special? “There’s something a little light and amusing about mittens,” he says. “You think of a toddler with them dangling from ribbons on their sleeves. It’s the combination of the sweet idea of the mittens in your head with the grim reality of what Cherry-Garrard had to deal with.”

How to bid: The Cherry-Garrard mittens are lot 136 in the Travel & Exploration sale at Bonhams London on February 7, 2018.

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

Purchase a copy of The Worst Journey in the World through the Strand Bookstore in New York City.

In 2012, the Natural History Museum, London, placed one of the Emperor penguin eggs retrieved by Cherry-Garrard on display and created a web page about its treasure.

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SOLD! A Print from Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities Series Fetched More Than $21,000 at Phillips


Update: Untitled V, from Men in the Cities sold for £15,000, or about $21,000.

What you see: Untitled V, from Men in the Cities, a 1990 lithograph by Robert Longo. It’s number 35 of a run of 48. Phillips estimates it at £6,000 to £8,000 ($8,100 to $10,800).

Who is Robert Longo? He’s an American artist, born in Brooklyn. He came to prominence in the 1980s with his Men in the Cities series, which depict men and women in business attire in dynamic poses. To create the source photographs, Longo invited several friends to come to the roof of his apartment building and sometimes threw objects at them to get the results he sought. Longo initially released Men in the Cities as charcoal and graphite drawings and later released them as photographs, prints, and sculptures. He is 65.

This lithograph dates to 1990. Is it from the first series of prints from Men in the Cities? Nope. Robert Kennan, head of editions, Europe, for Phillips, found prints from the series that have eleven different dates, created between 1980 and 2002.

What does “Untitled V” mean? “It’s the fifth in the series,” Kennan says. “Sometimes there’s a name–Eric or Joanna or Meryl–but the ones printed in 1990 are all untitled.”

Longo has released many prints of Men in the Cities images. What do collectors tend to prefer? “It’s really the impact of the image and if it works well,” he says. “Collectors like a strong silhouette. They don’t necessarily prefer males or females. It’s more about the composition. The man in the suit may resonate [by evoking] a Bryan Ferry or David Bowie type of figure.”

Cindy Sherman and Larry Gagosian are among the friends who posed for Longo in the late 1970s for Men in the Cities. They went on to become art-world stars. Do we know who the Untitled V model is? “His name is Eric Barsness. He was a dancer,” he says. “Seeing the face is important, if the model is known. You can identify them. But so many Men in the Cities images are heads thrown back at unusual angles. It can be tough to distinguish them.”

The top three most-expensive Men in the Cities prints at auction sold at Phillips. Do you make a point of specializing in them? “We’re always keen to include them in the sales and we do well with them, whether it’s Men in the Cities or more recent prints. The more recent prints have tailed off slightly. The 1980s prints are holding their own more than the works from the 2000s.”

What makes Untitled V such a powerful image? “That male figure is very striking. It is immediate. Has he just been shot? Is he dancing? There’s something wonderfully ambiguous about them, the frozen pose. They’re eye-catching, intriguing images,” he says. “And I grew up in the 1980s. Men in the Cities is very redolent of the period. It captures something.”

How to bid: Untitled V, from Men in the Cities is lot 210 in the January 25 Evening & Day Editions sale at Phillips London.

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Robert Longo has his own website. He also riffed off his Men in the Cities imagery in the video he directed for New Order, Bizarre Love Triangle.

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

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A Clear Winner Indeed! Ceruti’s 18th Century Portrait on Glass Sold for $615,000–More Than Double Its High Estimate– at Sotheby’s

9810 lot 16

Update: Ceruti’s Portrait of a Young Countrywoman, Half Length fetched $615,000–more than double its high estimate.

What you see: Portrait of a Young Countrywoman, Half Length, an oil on glass painted in the late 1720s or early 1730s by Giacomo Ceruti, who also went by the name Pitocchetto. Sotheby’s estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

Who was Giacomo Ceruti, and why was he called Pitocchetto? He was a northern Italian artist who roamed across genres, painting portraits, still lifes, and everything in between. “Pitocchetto” (pronounced Pee-to-ket-to) translates as “the little beggar,” and refers to his talent for capturing images of the humble people of his day–beggars, chefs, farmers, and the like. He died in 1698 at the age of 68.

Ceruti painted this portrait on glass. Why? Wasn’t glass expensive in the early 18th century? “Glass was expensive, but for the artist, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility,” says David Pollack, a specialist in Sotheby’s Master Paintings department. “Glass is rare compared to canvas or wood panels. You see it much less frequently, but it’s not unknown. The Romans painted on glass. As far as Ceruti goes, there are a few examples of him painting on glass, showing the same model, in the same dress.” (Scroll down and look to the right to see another Ceruti oil on glass.)

Why might Ceruti have attempted a painting on glass? “In this particular case, it’s unclear. We don’t have a record of it being commissioned, but we do have a period inventory,” he says. “There was a taste for works on glass, and works on glass by Ceruti in particular. They were popular in his own day.”

How is painting on glass different from painting on canvas or a wooden panel? “It’s a challenge for the artist,” he says. “Painting on glass has to be done in reverse. You put in the details first, and you really can’t make changes. You had to be a perfectionist or you’d have to start all over. But the payoff is really high. With glass, the colors remain extremely well-preserved as long as it’s not broken or damaged.”

How sturdy is the glass? Is it the same as window glass? “It’s as sturdy as today’s glass, and this glass is really clear,” he says. “When you need a wooden panel for painting, you need one without imperfections. It’s the same for glass. It needs to be smooth and clear. The standard is higher than for glass for drinking out of.”

The portrait doesn’t have a background. Did Ceruti choose not to paint it, or is it unfinished by accident? He appears to have left the background blank on purpose. “Other versions [other Ceruti paintings on glass] are that way as well,” Pollack says. “I’m surmising here, but the focus of the painting is the woman. He’s all about figures. He’s a figurative painter, and he put the focus on the technique, the painting on glass.”

This isn’t like a flat painting on canvas. Is Sotheby’s handling it differently? “On the cover of the physical catalog, we show the painting as we will exhibit it–on a plinth, so you can see it in the round,” he says. “Otto Naumann displayed it with a piece of salmon pink cardboard behind the painting, but not on it. We’ve chosen to display it completely bare. You can walk around it. It’s incredibly modern and totally chic. I think people are really going to react to it.”

Ceruti did at least two portraits on glass, apparently of the same model. Why might he have done that? “It was a popular and commercially successful composition for him, and he returned to it,” he says. “Throughout art history, we see [other paintings that are] not the exact version, but sitting the same model. A patron might have written to Ceruti and said, ‘I want the same model and a similar type of work, but without the basket.’

The model seems to be wearing the same outfit in both paintings. Why would he have wanted her to don those clothes twice? “It’s a combination of it being the type of garb of the day for a woman in her position, and he probably thought the blue, red, and white was pleasing,” he says. “The white folds in such a way that allowed him to play with shadow and light. Same for the blue. If it was one color, he couldn’t show off as much, frankly. With a different-color combo, he’s able to.”

How did you put an estimate on this Ceruti? “We didn’t just compare it to works on glass. We compared it to works by Ceruti in general, and works by Milanese 17th century artists in general, and the market in general–works that are unfinished, quirky, off-beat, nontraditional,” he says. “The market reacts to a simple portrait that’s appealing to the modern eye, be it unfinished or quirky.”

Oh, like the unfinished Anton Raphael Mengs portrait that Otto Naumann showed at TEFAF New York in 2016, which Anderson Cooper bought? “That’s Otto,” he says. “The thing that Otto cares about is not that it’s unfinished or that it’s different. It has to have a story to it. These types of unfinished works give insight into an artist’s working method.”

The lot notes describe the colors of the Ceruti oil-on-glass as being “exceptionally fresh and vivid and, as is the case with this beautiful example, the subject is startlingly life-like.” Are there aspects of the painting that the camera doesn’t fully capture? “It is more vibrant in real life. The best way to look at it is to look at the front cover of the catalog,” he says. “The flesh tones, when you see them in person, are incredibly warm by virtue of being painted on glass. It’s similar to painting on copper. Because they are hard surfaces, the paint sits on top and it stays stable. It’s almost as if it was painted yesterday.”

Why will this painting stand out in your mind? “In a world of Old Masters, the public and even professionals don’t get to see this often, or ever,” he says. “To see a portrait surrounded by transparent glass is such a modern presentation. Being able to view it in the round shifts it from a painting to an object. As you walk around it, it changes with the  light, and with different times of day. It’s really alive.”

How to bid: Portrait of a Young Countrywoman, Half Length is lot 16 in the Otto Naumann sale, which takes place January 31 at Sotheby’s New York.

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

Old Masters dealer Otto Naumann has a website. He is retiring and has consigned much of his inventory to Sotheby’s.

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N.C. Wyeth’s Dramatic Illustration of Scottish Knight Sir William Wallace Could Command $150,000 at Skinner

375_169706-1_1 (2)

What you see: Wallace Draws the King’s Sword, an illustration that N.C. Wyeth painted for the 1921 book The Scottish Chiefs. Skinner estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.

Who was N.C. Wyeth? Newell Convers Wyeth was an American illustrator who brought rousing manly-man adventure tales to life like no other. If you were enamored with pirates as a small child, you have Wyeth’s illustrations for Treasure Island to thank for that. While Wyeth’s commercial illustrations made him immortal, he preferred creating fine art. He was the father of artist Andrew Wyeth and the grandfather of artist Jamie Wyeth. He died in 1945, along with his young namesake grandson, after his car stalled on railroad tracks and was hit by a train. He was 62.

How prolific was N.C. Wyeth?  “He did almost 2,000 illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post alone,” says Elizabeth Haff, specialist in American and European Works of Art for Skinner. “I don’t know how much he did for Scribner’s.”

This painting has a Scribner’s provenance–there’s a Scribner’s Magazine label on the back, and it comes to Skinner directly from the Scribner family. Does that add to its value? “I think it does add value. He did some of his most exciting work for those [Scribner’s Illustrated Classics] novels,” she says, adding, “In 1919, he struck a deal with Scribner’s where he owned his paintings, but they kept the copyright. With this, he either gave it to Scribner’s, or they bought it from him.”

How did author Jane Porter recruit Wyeth to illustrate her book? “Scribner used him quite a bit,” Haff says, noting his legendary work for the Scribner’s Illustrated Classics series. “The subject matter was his thing, his niche–heroes.” The book must have been a hit; it went through more than one printing.

So what’s going on in this scene? I take it that the unruly Scots are encroaching on their leader, William Wallace, intending to take him prisoner, and he’s drawing his sword and saying, ‘Back off.’ Yes, pretty much. The painting depicts a scene where Wallace shouts, “He that first makes a stroke at me shall find his death on this Southron steel! This sword I made the arm of the usurper yield to me; and this sword shall defend the regent of Scotland.” As Haff explains, “It’s a distinguished sword. It had belonged to the King of England. In 1297, Wallace turned back the English army and captured the sword.”

Have any original N.C. Wyeth illustrations from The Scottish Chiefs gone to auction before? In October 2016, Dallas Auction Gallery sold Sterling Castle, a 1921 oil on canvas mounted on Masonite that was evidently made as a frontispiece to the book. It fetched $500,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.

Why will this painting stick in your memory? “It’s a great painting, and a very exciting painting. The colors are quite rich, very radiant. The tartans and kilts are so painterly and beautiful in person,” Haff says. “And the attackers’ faces are so expressive. The grimaces are so gruesome. He’s caught William Wallace at a moment where he draws his sword–it’s so dramatic, so arresting. It’s jewel-like, and it’s 100 percent N.C. Wyeth.”

How to bid: Wallace Draws the King’s Sword is lot 375 in Skinner‘s American & European Works of Art sale on January 26, 2018.

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

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RECORD: A Unique Tile Panel by Ceramics Wizard Frederick Hurten Rhead Commands $637,500 at Rago


Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records. Also, after choosing this Frederick Hurten Rhead piece and interviewing David Rago, the world auction record for any American work of ceramics was claimed by Peter Voulkos’s 1958 piece Rondena, which sold for $915,000 at Phillips on December 12, 2017. I expect to devote a post to Rondena in the future.

What you see: A unique, large four-tile panel depicting a peacock, made by Frederick Hurten Rhead in 1910 for a friend, Levi Burgess. Rago Auctions estimated the panel at $35,000 to $45,000 and sold it in October 2012 for $637,500–a then-record for any American work of ceramics at auction.

Who was Frederick Hurten Rhead? Born in England to an artistically talented family, Rhead came to America in 1902 to work in a series of factories that produced art pottery. High points included his tenure at University City, Missouri, where a wealthy patron assembled and bankrolled a dream team of ceramicists (sadly, the patron suffered money troubles in 1911 that killed the project). Rhead moved to California, where he directed a pottery program at a tuberculosis sanatorium and later ran his own pottery studio for a few years. His last major job was as an art director for the Homer Laughlin China Company in West Virginia, where he created the famous Fiesta line of dinnerware. He died in 1942 of cancer at the age of 61 or 62.

Why was Frederick Hurten Rhead an important artist? “I call him the Forrest Gump of American ceramicists,” says David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions. “It was not so much about where he was and what he did, but how he influenced and mirrored the field. He was an influence on and reflective of American ceramics.”

Are the ceramics he made in America more valuable, generally, than those he made in England? “Yes, but if you look at his University City works, there are some English elements of design in those pieces,” he says. “Rhead would have grown as an artist if he had stayed in England. He just grew differently because he was here. I think the California desert blew his socks off, and Santa Barbara did the same. He was there before the highways, before the sprawl of civilization, in an artist’s colony, with like-minded souls. It had to be deeply influential.”

Why is Rhead’s material so rare at auction? “There just isn’t much of it,” Rago says. “Not until he got to University City and had already been here the better part of a decade did he have a chance to make great, one-of-a-kind pieces. One sold at Moran’s in California in April 2014–it was a masterpiece. But it’s pottery. It breaks. I don’t know how many broke over the years. And University City lasted a year, a year and a half. There were not many pieces to begin with. In Santa Barbara, Rhead was a crappy businessman. He could not have been making money. And he wasn’t whipping these out in a day. The best pieces took weeks to do, maybe more.”

When Rago sold a Frederick Hurten Rhead vase in May 2007 for $516,000, was that the first time the artist broke six figures at auction? “Yes, it was the first time something of his sold for six figures, privately or at auction,” he says.

The peacock tile panel was a gift from Rhead to a friend, Levi Burgess. Are any of the other Rhead pieces sold at auction as personal as the pieces that he made for Burgess? “I don’t know of any others,” he says, noting that Burgess installed the peacock panel and other Rhead ceramics in his Ohio home. A subsequent owner removed the tiles from the home before selling it 15 to 20 years ago. “A woman walked into the Rago auction gallery in New Jersey with the first set [this peacock panel]. She got one, and her husband got the other. We put them in the [2014] auction for $40,000 to $60,000, and all hell broke loose. The [works Rhead gave to Burgess] were known and talked about. They’re the pinnacle of American prewar [ceramic] design. On a scale of one to ten, this is a ten. He gave Burgess a couple of masterpieces to put in his house–$1 million worth of pottery. He must have liked him.”

How did the tile panel’s connection to University City enhance its value? “The main reason it figures in is University City had the best kilns, the best material, and the best support staff,” he says. “It was state-of-the-art. Rhead didn’t have to worry about money. He didn’t have that at Santa Barbara, and he certainly didn’t have that at Arequipa [the tuberculosis sanatorium].”

Rudy Ciccarello, the collector behind the Two Red Roses Foundation in Palm Harbor, Florida, bought the Rhead vase from Rago in 2007. Did Ciccarello buy the peacock tile, too? And does it pose problems when one collector is so dominant in a particular auction market? Yes, Ciccarello did buy the peacock tile. “He bought a lot of the Rhead pieces that sold for big money at public auction,” he says. As for Ciccarello’s dominance being a problem, he says that auction categories being driven by one or two big bidders “…is true of all these markets. This is American pottery we’re talking about. There aren’t 50 people who will buy once the price is over $100,000. The high-end market is limited. Masterpieces are always in demand.”

What was your role in the sale? “I was the auctioneer,” Rago says. “It was very exciting. Once the bidding hit $100,000, I thought, ‘Wow.’ When it hit $150,000, I thought, ‘Wow.’ But I couldn’t say it. I’ve got to be chill up there. Once it hit $510,00 hammer [the price before standard fees are added], that was it.”

Were you surprised that it sold for $637,500? “Yes, I was really quite surprised,” he says. “I knew it was going to bring good money. I’m known for ceramics, and it was the best of the best. We [he and the keenest bidders] knew what it was, and knew what condition it was in, and we knew where it ranked within the artist’s work, and it was the first time [one of the Burgess tiles] was offered for sale.”

Why will the Rhead peacock tile stick in your memory? “I’m a pottery guy. I love great pottery. Those [Burgess tiles] are legendary things–‘Will I get to see them turn up?’ I wouldn’t mind selling them,” he says. “This is my 46th year [in the auction world]. I’ve been chasing these things for a long time. To handle a masterpiece–a legendary masterpiece–it’s what you live for. To have it set the record for American pottery–that’s a singular moment.”

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

On January 20, 2018, on the second day of a three-day sale, Rago will offer a 1912 vase that Frederick Hurten Rhead made at Arequipa. It is estimated at $75,000 to $100,000.

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