SOLD! A Masterpiece of Native African Art Sold For $975,000 at Sotheby’s

9620 Lot 24

Update: The Kota-Ndassa reliquary figure sold for $975,000.

What you see: A Kota-Ndassa reliquary figure from what is now the Republic of the Congo. It probably dates to the late 19th century, and the artist is unknown. Sotheby’s estimates it at $1 million to $1.5 million.

What is a reliquary figure, and how did the native African people use it? According to Alexander Grogan, head of the African and Oceanic department at Sotheby’s New York, the figure was once attached to a basket that would have held ancestral relics–“bones, mixed with magical material in a kind of bundle.” The whole might have been kept in a sacred grove along with other reliquaries. The figure was separated from its basket at some point in its past, either by a European dealer or a collector who was only interested in the figure, or the basket could have fallen apart without being replaced. “They would have shined the figures with sand and water to keep them bright,” Grogan says. “It [the polishing] was not just to make them look good, it was part of the process of venerating the ancestors.”

The figure stands almost 28 inches tall. Is that typical for a Kota-Ndassa reliquary figure? No. “This is a very large one. It’s really one of the grandest and most fancy examples, and one of the most famous,” he says.

Does the sculpture depict a well-known character from the Kota-Ndassa culture? “It’s a representation of an idealized ancestor, an ancestor who’s going to help you,” Grogan says. “It’s a progenitor of your clan who has gone before you. In Kota culture, you venerate it. Ancestor worship is a big part of cultural religious practice in this part of Africa. It [the reliquary] connects to the physical remnants of a real ancestor and forms a conduit between the world of the living and the world of the dead.”

Is the figure male or female? “Both males and females are represented, but we don’t know much about individuals. At some point [they] would have known who it was,” he says. “Even compared to the rest of the Kota corpus, this reliquary figure is a very fancy object. It represents a very wealthy and powerful individual.”

Is the fan-like object on the top of the figure’s head and the flip-do-like pieces that flank the face all part of a hairstyle? Yes. “In a very, very abstract way, it represents braids coming down the side of the head and a coiffure on the top,” he says.

The reliquary figure is described as “weeping” because of the lines that stream down its face. Are the lines purely decorative, or are they actually meant to make the face look like it’s weeping? “A work of art with such specific little motifs and things has the potential for rich symbolism and meaning, but we don’t know what it depicts,” he says. “The two-colored cheeks and the iron bands on the cheek allow the artist to show off different colors. It’s a tour de force. ‘Weeping’ is a speculative way to describe what the bands mean.”

Do we know why its mouth is depicted as being open? “The teeth shown there are pointed. The Kota would file their teeth to points,” he says, adding that men and women both engaged in the practice. “The figure reflected] the way the Kota people had their teeth. It was a symbol of beauty.”

What are the bean-like white things inside the mouth and on the forehead? They’re cowrie shells. “Each of them is a fancy embellishment–yet another texture, yet another color,” he says. “They give the impression of richness.”

Is the figure entirely made of metal? No. It’s a wooden structure covered with metal plates. “The sculptor creates a sort of wooden carcass, and on top of that are metal plates held in place with little pins,” Grogan says. “The back is naked wood.”

When did Westerners learn about Kota-Ndassa art? Europeans first reached the area in the 1870s or so. Some reliquary figures and other pieces were eventually taken to Paris, where they made an impression on the city’s artists. “Kota sculptures were among the first African sculptures people like Picasso saw in the early 20th century,” he says. “You can imagine Picasso looking at it and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s what I was after.’ There are some Picasso works where you can see Kota motifs.”

How did this figure leave Africa? We don’t know its history prior to the 1960s, when it’s recorded as belonging to collector René Rasmussen. Two more dealers held it before Edwin and Cherie Silver purchased it in 1979. “It was the first major piece the Silvers acquired, and it was at the center of their collection of Kota reliquary figures,” he says. “You could say it was the crown jewel of the Silver collection because they displayed it in the center of the group. It was the most attention-grabbing piece. You’d see it as you walked in. You came through the door into a sunken living room, and there was a grand piano with nine Kota figures on it and a Calder mobile above, looking onto the valley where the Getty Center is now in Los Angeles.”

What else makes this figure special? “You have a Kota artist stepping way, way above their traditions to become a great world artist,” he says. “The figure is rooted in Kota culture, but the artist achieves something much greater. That’s how I would define a masterpiece.”

How to bid: The Kota-Ndassa reliquary figure is lot 24 in The Collection of Edwin & Cherie Silver, an auction of tribal and aboriginal art that takes place on November 13 at Sotheby’s New York.

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

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Is This Diamond Green With Envy? No, Natural Radiation. And It Could Fetch $3.3 Million At Phillips

Rare and Important Fancy Intense Green Diamond Small

What you see: A fancy intense green diamond that weighs 5.62 carats. Phillips estimates it at HK $22 million to $26 million, which is about $2.8 million to $3.3 million.

So, just how rare are green diamonds? “We know colored diamonds are quite rare compared to colorless diamonds, and green diamonds are particularly rare,” says Terry Chu, head of jewelry, Asia, senior director, at Phillips. “Blue diamonds are caused by the presence of boron in the diamond crystal structure. Green diamonds are not caused by any impurity. They’re caused by natural radiation–subtle energy that can change the diamond crystal to a green color if it penetrates it over a long span of time–millions of years. Very often, the radiation can only penetrate to the outer layer. Usually only the skin of the diamond crystal is green, and when the diamond cutter polishes it, the green will be gone.”

How rare is it to find a rough green diamond that reduces to a stone of more than five carats? “The finished product is 5.62 carats, so the original rock was maybe seven or eight carats,” she says, adding that in 15 years of experience in gem and jewelry auctions, this is the first green diamond of its kind that she has handled. “But I would not use five carats [as a benchmark]. I would say most green diamonds are below three carats. One other green diamond that was not even five and a half carats–it was 5.03 carats–made over $3 million per carat 18 months ago.” (It sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in May 2016.)

This stone is described as a “fancy intense” green diamond. What does that mean? “Fancy intense is a color grade given by the Gemological Institute of America, the most reputable laboratory in diamond grading,” she says. “When grading a colored diamond, it’s based on saturation, from faint to fancy vivid. Fancy intense is below fancy vivid, which is the most saturated. It’s one grade below fancy vivid.”

Why did the jeweler choose a cushion modified-cut for the green diamond? “It has a more balanced outline,” she says. “No matter which side or which angle you look at it [from], it’s a nice shape. It’s still a brilliant cut style, and brilliant cut styles make it more appealing. With diamonds in general, the round brilliant cut is most popular, and the most everlasting shape and cutting style.”

Why did you put the green diamond in a white gold ring? “When I saw this stone, I wanted to show the pure, real color,” she says. “White gold [allows] the best, most true presentation of the green color of the diamond.”

Is it comfortable to wear on your hand? “A diamond never looks too big on any woman,” she quips. “Don’t worry. One carat of diamond weighs about 0.2 grams. That means five carats equals one gram. It will never be too heavy or too big.”

This looks more like a mint green, or an ice green. Are there green diamonds that have more of an emerald color, or a spring green color? “It’s a pure green color. There’s no secondary color in the hue,” she says. “A yellow-green color is not pure green, and technically, an emerald green is a blue-green. It would not be a pure green. This diamond may look like a mint or an ice green, but those are not standardized technical terms.”

What is the green diamond like in person? “Throughout my career, every time I handle a rare stone, I always have a feeling of how amazing nature is,” Chu says. “When you explain what causes a green diamond, when you think about the whole process, you feel so small. A human being lives maybe 100 years. In a geological span, that is nothing. And the color–no mater how clever or technically advanced human beings are, we cannot duplicate the green color created in nature.”

How to bid: The rare and fancy intense green diamond and diamond ring is lot 607 in the Jewels and Jadeite sale at Phillips Hong Kong on November 27.

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

Special shout-out to Aja Raden, author and green diamond fan extraordinaire.

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Fact: Billie Holiday Is The Greatest Female Jazz Singer. Also Fact: This Scarce 1949 Concert Poster Sold For $13,750 At Heritage Auctions

Billie Holiday Sacramento Auditorium Concert Poster (Joe Glaser Presents...

Update: The vintage 1949 Billie Holiday poster sold for $13,750.

What you see: A vintage 1949 concert poster for jazz singer Billie Holiday. Heritage Auctions doesn’t explicitly give estimates on vintage concert posters, but officials confirmed it at $10,000, or double its opening bid.

Who was Billie Holiday? Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday is arguably the best female jazz singer who ever stepped before a microphone. Born to a teenage single mother in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Holiday had a hair-raising childhood. By the time she was discovered in a Harlem nightclub at age 18, she had done a stint in reform school, dropped out of school entirely, fought off a rapist, took work as a prostitute, and served time in a workhouse. She sang with the bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw. She gravitated toward men who beat her and exploited her, and in her later years, she struggled with drug addiction. She died in 1959 at the age of 44, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver.

How rare was it to show a black woman performer’s photo on a concert poster in 1949? “It was fairly common to see photos on concert posters by 1949, but it was less common for a female artist, and virtually unknown for Billie Holiday,” says Giles Moon, consignment director of entertainment and music memorabilia at Heritage Auctions, adding that the poster shown above is one of two copies that are known.

Where was Billie Holiday in her career by 1949? “She was a big enough star at that point to be a huge draw,” he says. “She didn’t have to have a huge band. She was a star in her own right. She was continuing to have legal problems and continuing to have drug problems, which didn’t help, but she was very successful by this point and would continue [to be] through the 1950s.”

By 1949, she had lost her cabaret license–Harry Anslinger, then the head of the predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Agency, made Holiday a prime target. Might that be why she played the Sacramento Auditorium? She would not have needed a cabaret license for that venue? Moon agrees and points out that the name of the city is spelled incorrectly on the poster. “It’s a common trait with a lot of posters from this period,” he says. “Maybe they didn’t have time to reprint it.”

Last year, Heritage sold the first known example of this poster, which happens to advertise the same show at the same place, for $35,000. Did the owner of this poster come forward as a direct result of that spectacular sale? “Yes, it did come because [of the 2016 auction], and that is often the case,” he says, explaining that it was consigned by the descendants of someone who distributed the poster to record stores and other public places ahead of the 1949 show. “It got a lot of attention when it sold for $35,000. We believe this is only the second.”

What tends to happen at auction when a second copy of a multiple that has only appeared once before goes to the block? “It could go one of two ways. It might not sell for as much because the person who was in the first auction won’t bid for a second copy, because he’s already got one. But it could go the other way,” Moon says. “Those who weren’t in on the bidding at the time, or who were shy [could jump in] and it could reach that level again. Though original concert posters have been around for a while, only in the past two or three years have people started to understand their rarity. Paying $35,000 for a poster–ten or 15 years ago, that would have been unheard of. Many of the lots in this sale are the only known copies, or are extremely rare. People are beginning to realize that if you miss out, the chances are it won’t appear again.”

Are Billie Holiday posters rare, whether they show her face or not? Yes. More than once, posters for concerts that featured her didn’t even mention her name, odd as that might seem. Elsewhere in the same lineup, Heritage is offering an original concert poster for the first Newport Jazz Festival, which took place in 1954. It’s the only known copy of the poster. Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald both appeared at the Rhode Island show, but neither woman is named, and nor are any other artists who performed. “It’s very, very hard to find anything related to Billie Holiday,” Moon says, noting that the situation extends to memorabilia, too. “If it has her signature on it, it can get $2,000 to $4,000. Few if any jazz artists can rival that. Maybe Charlie Parker.”

What else makes this Billie Holiday poster special? “I’ve seen many original concert posters. I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years now. This one and the one last year are the first [examples] that I have seen. It’s a really rare and really striking poster,” he says. “It’s interesting. She’s one of the most enduring jazz artists of the period. The market for jazz is still strong for the top artists. But it’s not generally the strongest market. It doesn’t compare to rock ‘n roll or R & B. But because she has such star power, such star quality, this is the most desirable poster in the sale.”

How to bid: The Billie Holiday poster is lot #89114 in the Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions on November 11.

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

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Florine Stettheimer’s Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and His Alter Ego Rrose Sélavy Could Sell For a Million or More at Christie’s

Stettheimer, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Selavy

What you see: Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy, a 1923 painting by Florine Stettheimer. Christie’s estimates it at $1 million to $1.5 million.

Who was Florine Stettheimer? She was a wealthy American woman who was, and is, regarded as an artist’s artist. Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O’Keeffe attended her salon. She might be the first woman artist in history to paint a nude self-portrait. She wasn’t keen on self-promotion; she had one small solo show at the Knoedler gallery in 1916, which flopped, and she never did another. While Stettheimer’s sisters ignored her wish to have her art destroyed after she died, they gave most of it to museums, leaving little for collectors to acquire. Two years after her death, the Museum of Modern Art staged a Stettheimer retrospective. And if you were lucky, you caught the Florine Stettheimer show at the Jewish Museum in New York earlier in the year (this Duchamp portrait was in it). She died in 1944 at the age of 72.

Do we know how her portrait of Marcel Duchamp came to be? “We don’t know what spurred her to focus on Duchamp, but she did a series of full-length figures standing by objects that had meaning to the individual,” says Paige Kestenman, a specialist in American art at Christie’s. “Duchamp was one of her closest friends, so it makes sense that she’d include him in the group.” It’s unclear how large the portrait series was, but other subjects included fine art photographer Alfred Stieglitz and composer Virgil Thomson, who once owned the Stettheimer painting that we’re talking about.

Let’s talk about what Stettheimer has surrounded him with in the painting. Do I see a little horse head above Duchamp? “That looks like a chess piece, which Duchamp was very interested in. He was almost obsessed with the game of chess. It also represents the symbol he designed for the Société Anonyme,” she says, referring to an arts organization that Duchamp co-founded in 1920 with Katherine Dreier and Man Ray. “The grid [the horse head is housed in] resembles a chessboard.”

It looks like this is a double portrait. Who is Rrose Sélavy? “Rrose Sélavy seems to have emerged as an alter ego or component of Marcel Duchamp’s personality around 1920,” she says, noting that the artist went as far as signing some of his ready-mades with her name, and posing for Man Ray dressed as Sélavy. “In her portraits, Florine Stettheimer was constantly exploring not just the physical likeness of the art icons of her day, but a deeper sense of their identities,” she says. “This portrait is a bit tongue-in-cheek and satirical as well.”

What is Duchamp doing in this portrait? “He’s dressed in a suit, sitting in a chair, and turning a metal rod that operates a mechanical coil that lifts his persona higher and higher,” she says. “He’s literally projecting her.” Sélavy is shown sitting on a platform that bears her name.

What’s the story behind the unusual frame? “It’s the original frame, and it enhances the overall work,” Kestenman says. “It says ‘MD’ along the entire length. It mimics the ‘MD’ repeated on Duchamp’s chair in the composition, and it mimics the sense of Duchamp’s constantly promoting himself, and exploring themes of identity.”

Did Stettheimer design or build the frame? “In doing research on the frames, I saw different information on if she designed the frame and had it built to spec or if she built some of them,” she says. “She certainly designed the frame, and it’s very well-preserved.”

Did Stettheimer do other portraits of Marcel Duchamp? He appears as one of several figures in some earlier paintings by her (look for the red-headed guy). “This is the first portrait of him,” she says.

Last time I checked, Stettheimer’s work rarely appeared at auction. Is that still true? “Her work is very rare on the market. There have been only six or seven works at auction in the last several years, including this one, which sold in 1990 for $110,000,” she says. “This is the only figural work that’s been to auction. The modernist market has changed a lot since then, and it’s changed for female modernists as well.”

The estimate for this portrait is $1 million to $1.5 million. Even if it sells for well below its low estimate, it will probably set a new record for Stettheimer at auction. How did you arrive at these numbers? “Of course it’s more difficult to set an estimate when there are no direct comparables in the market recently,” she says, adding that she and her colleagues looked at the freshest auction results and considered the drawing power of Marcel Duchamp and the changes in the market over the last 27 years. “Florine Stettheimer is so rare to market, especially her portraits,” she says. “Following the retrospective at the Jewish Museum, it’s an important time to offer work by her.”

How to bid: Florine Stettheimer’s Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy is lot 8 in the American Art sale on November 21 at Christie’s New York.

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Also see a past entry on The Hot Bid about the current auction record for Florine Stettheimer, which belongs to an undated floral still life sold at Skinner.

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

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The Original Poster Artwork For A 1935 Movie Starring Katharine Hepburn Could Command $6,000 at Bonhams

An original artwork of Sylvia Scarlett by Anselmo Ballester

What you see: Original gouache and pencil artwork by Anselmo Ballester for a mid-1930s Italian movie poster for Sylvia Scarlett, a 1935 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Bonhams estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

Who was Anselmo Ballester? He was an Italian artist, based in Rome, who spent almost five decades creating movie poster art for Italian and American studios. “He was one of a handful of artists U.S. studios turned to to create the Italian versions of their movie posters. You had to redesign the entire poster for overseas audiences, and they were designed in the country of exhibition,” says Dr. Catherine Williamson, director of books and manuscripts and entertainment memorabilia for Bonhams. His posters featuring actress Rita Hayworth are absolute standouts. Ballester died in 1974 at the age of 77.

How rare is it for the original artwork for a vintage movie poster–any vintage movie poster–to survive and come to auction? “It is rare-ish,” she says, explaining that Bonhams has held an annual movie poster sale for three or four years, and there have been two to five pieces of original movie poster art in each. “Often, they’re drafts–not final versions of the work,” she says. “I haven’t seen a lot of his artwork come onto the market.”

Sylvia Scarlett was considered a flop in the United States, and some suspected that it had to do with Hepburn’s character, who spends most of the film cross-dressing to pass herself off as a boy. Was Ballester aware of the film’s box office troubles when he got the commission for the Italian movie poster? “The artists didn’t have a lot of information about the movies. Often, it’s clear they didn’t watch the movie or read the script before making the poster,” she says. “The studio probably knew Sylvia Scarlett was not successful, and that might have to do with the decision to foreground Katharine Hepburn in men’s garb [and let a more feminine image, rendered in red, dominate the composition.] Hepburn with long, curly hair is not an accurate depiction of what she looked like in that film.”

Sylvia Scarlett featured the first on-screen pairing of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but Ballester’s poster design focuses on Hepburn alone. Why? “He understood that moviegoers wanted to see stars,” she says. “His posters are very star-forward. He placed the most beautiful Hollywood stars front and center, and they look even more beautiful [on his posters] than they are on screen. That was his signature.”

But… he left out Cary Grant. Cary Grant! “Honestly, his posters are all about beautiful women,” Williamson says. “Sometimes, male stars make it onto his posters, but they don’t get the same treatment. If he can put women on the poster, he certainly does.”

Ballester rendered the gouache and pencil in two colors. Is that unusual, or did he normally limit his palette? “It depends. Maybe it tells us it’s a preliminary piece,” she says. “The fully executed ones are not monochromatic or bichromatic. They show the full range of colors.”

Did the studio go ahead with Ballester’s poster design for Sylvia Scarlett for the Italian market? “I think what we have is not what was used,” she says, noting that the final version gives the title as Le Grand Aventura de Sylvia and the art doesn’t seem to look like his work.

I understand it’s common for the original artwork for a movie poster, which is unique, to sell for less than the actual movie poster, which had a press run in the hundreds or the thousands. Why? “Poster collectors collect posters. People who collect art are perhaps less interested in poster art,” Williamson says, adding, “There’s not a lot of original movie poster art, and there’s not really people who just collect original movie poster art. There’s not enough to support it as a collecting discipline. It’s too hard. There’d be no fun in it.”

When do collectors prefer foreign market movie posters over the American versions? “In general, the poster from [the film’s] country of origin are more valuable,” she says. “The exception is when the artwork is so superior, collectors decide they would rather have a gorgeous version of the Italian poster with Rita Hayworth than the American version of the same film.”

How to bid: The Sylvia Scarlett original poster art is lot 91 in TCM Presents… Vintage Movie Posters Featuring the Ira Resnick Collection, taking place November 20, 2017 at Bonhams New York.

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

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SOLD! An 18th Century Watercolor of Parrots with Beautiful Plumage* by British Natural History Illustrator Sarah Stone Sold For More Than $18,000 at Dreweatts

Picture 1199

Update: Sarah Stone’s Four Parrots on a Branch sold for £14,000, or about $18,400.

What you see: Four Parrots on a Branch, a watercolor painted by Sarah Stone in 1789 or 1790. Dreweatt’s estimates it at £1,000 to £1,500 ($1,300 to $2,000).

Who was Sarah Stone? She was an English natural history painter and illustrator who was active in the 18th century. Taught by her father, who made his living painting fans, she came to the attention of Sir Ashton Lever, a wealthy Englishman who liked collecting natural history specimens and who displayed his collection to the public. Lever hired Stone before she was out of her teens. She ultimately created around 1,000 artworks based on his collection, and about 900 survive. Many of Stone’s illustrations represent the first depictions of various species, making them significant to science and history. The Royal Academy of Arts invited her to exhibit on three different occasions. After marrying John Langdale Smith in 1789, her output slowed, and she seems to have stopped after 1806, when Lever’s collection was sold. She died in 1844 at the age of 82.

How rare were female natural history artists in the 18th century? Was Stone pretty much it? “There were good, talented amateur artists, but it was very rare to be a professional artist,” says James Harvey, a salesperson at Mallett Antiques, which consigned the watercolor. “She was rare but not unique.”

What types of parrots are pictured in the watercolor? At the top is an Australian King parrot; below it is a Black-headed Caique, an Indonesian red-cheeked parrot, and an African grey parrot. Lever’s collection of taxidermied specimens included all four birds. Presumably, Stone looked at them when she created this watercolor.

And this charming little gathering of these four parrots could never happen in the wild, yes? “It was a concept in the sense that the artist enjoyed painting subjects from nature, and she used artistic license to make the painting appealing,” he says. “It’s more about observation, about looking at the forms and the colors and making things look aesthetically pleasing.”

Just how talented did Stone have to be to look at a group of dead, stuffed birds and turn them into this watercolor? “The birds are very, very vivid, very lively. That’s the difference between a good animal painter and a poor one. These birds are very realistic, but they’ve got character,” he says, adding, “It’s a standout. It’s decorative, but has tremendous presence to it. That’s what makes it so appealing.”

Normally Stone limited her focus to one subject per artwork. Do we know why she bent her rules here? “Sadly not. It’d be interesting to know why,” he says. While we have no background on the work and why Stone might have made it, Harvey and his colleagues speculate that it might have been meant for presentation: “It has that feel. It’s very well-observed. It might have been an exhibition piece, a presentation piece, perhaps even a piece for teaching purposes.”

Stone’s works have sold for six-figure sums at auction. How did you arrive at the estimate for Four Parrots on a Branch? “It’s a difficult one in that the market for watercolors is not as strong as it used to be,” he says. “If we get one or two collectors in Australia interested, it could do more.”

What else makes this watercolor special? “It has all the elements you want–good artist, good condition, nice picture,” he says. “The subject matter is very charming, and from an academic angle, she’s a lady artist who worked in relative obscurity. If there’s any justice in the world, it should do well and create a good price.”

How to bid: Four Parrots on a Branch is lot 167 in Mallett: Taking Stock, an auction scheduled for November 8 at Dreweatts in Berkshire, England.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Mallett Antiques.

*If I can work in a slightly obscure Monty Python reference, why yes, I AM going to do it.

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SOLD! Marlene Dietrich’s World War II Autograph Collection Sells For $5,250 at Swann

M35731-3_4 004

Update: Marlene Dietrich’s short snorter sold for $5,250.

What you see: A short snorter–a collection of paper money covered with autographs–compiled by Marlene Dietrich during World War II. It comes directly from Dietrich’s descendants to Swann Auction Galleries, which estimates it at $3,000 to $5,000.

Who was Marlene Dietrich? She was a Berlin-born actress and singer who became an international star from her role in the 1930 German film, The Blue Angel. She actively resisted the Nazis, who assumed power in her home country, by funding efforts to help refugees flee Hitler’s regime. She renounced her German citizenship in 1939 and threw herself into the U.S. war effort, touting war bonds and embarking on two long tours in 1944 and 1945 with the United Service Organization (USO). Her war work earned her the Légion d’honneur from the French government and the Medal of Freedom from America. She regarded the latter award as her proudest accomplishment. After the war’s end, she continued to act in films and perform as a cabaret singer. She died in 1992 at the age of 90.

What is the purpose of a short snorter? The tradition seems to have started among aviators in the 1920s. If two flyers met, each would sign a piece of paper money belonging to the other. If they met again, one could challenge the other to produce the signed bill, or else buy the challenger a drink–but a small one, as full-on drunkenness and flying don’t mix. The small drink, known as a short snort, gave its name to the signed roll of bills. At some point the tradition spread beyond aviators to military personnel.

Do we know when Dietrich started her short snorter? “We have the story of how it likely happened, but not how it actually happened,” says Marco Tomaschett, autographs specialist at Swann, explaining that Dietrich’s collection dates to the 1940s, and she might have started it on one of her USO tours. “Someone who was collecting signatures for his short snorter asked her to sign his, and she thought it was a cool idea and decided to start one herself.”

Dietrich’s short snorter measures 38 feet long. That’s kind of unwieldy. Did she really carry the bill roll on her person during her war travels? “The tradition at the time was you were supposed to have all of them [the signed bills], so if a compatriot asked to see a signature, she could present the signature so she wouldn’t have to buy a drink for them,” he says. “Most short snorters were easier to carry, because most could fit the signatures on a single bill. If you ran out of room, you got a second bill. But not everyone was called to the front repeatedly, and not everyone did as much travel as she was doing.”

Do we know if she was ever challenged to produce a signed bill? “I don’t know. Probably not,” he says, laughing. “But she did use it to demonstrate solidarity with the soldiers.” He adds that seeing Dietrich’s short snorter inspired Army Air Force Captain John L. Gillen to start his own, and his bill roll ultimately grew to contain paper money from 36 countries and measure 100 feet long.

How often do you, as an autograph specialist, handle short snorters? “They don’t come up, mainly because they generally don’t have the value that brings them to auction,” he says. “This is unusual in that it has collectible autographs and it was owned by a celebrated figure.”

Has the short snorter tradition disappeared? “The historical factors that made it exciting at the time have dropped away,” he says. “The drinking game has completely vanished. The last time you get a serious collection of signatures on a bill is in the 1960s, connected with the space race. The analogy of space exploration to aviation made it a natural continuation.”

Who are some of the notable people who signed Dietrich’s short snorter? Author Ernest Hemingway, whose friendship with the actress predated World War II, wrote, “She’s long gone She never stands to fight knowing etc. Oct 4 1944.” Tomaschett is unsure of what the message might mean, but suspects it’s an inside reference of some sort. Military signers include George S. Patton, Omar Bradley, and Nathan Farragut Twining; entertainers include Danny Thomas and Burgess Meredith.

What is your favorite signature on the Dietrich short snorter? Tomaschett cited the inscription of Lieutenant Buck Dawson, who wrote, “Even a paratrooper must admire your courage. You volunteer for many things we have to do. Thanks. The 82nd Div.” “The courage he’s referring to is that she performed in these conditions,” he says, referring to the rugged environment of the war’s front lines. “We’re certainly not used to being shot at or bombed, but she did it [staged her USO act] repeatedly, for years.”

How to bid: The Marlene Dietrich short snorter is lot 46 in the November 7 Autographs sale at Swann Auction Galleries.

If you click the link to lot 46, you can see a period black-and-white photo of Dietrich draped in her short snorter.

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