E.V. from Montecito owns an old and fragile Japanese screen with a fabulous provenance. The artist signature in the chop reads Tosa Hironobu; Tosa is also a specific style of late 18th to early 19th century screens. She would like to have the delicate paper, which I suspect is mulberry-plant based, restored.
50 years ago, E.V. and her husband built a Japanese style home in Beverly Hills. Her architect took a buying trip to Japan in 1966 and returned with this 6-panel screen from Tokyo, from the 1830’s, by the imperial artist. I know this because the screen bears the royal mark of the Chrysanthemum. The screen portrays a dance under maple trees in the Royal Garden with emperor and empress attended by court musicians. E.V. sends the export certificate. Thus, E.V. and I have two subjects to discuss: the export certificate and my quest for a paper restorer for her screen.
First, the Japanese art market has been independent and flourishing for thousands of years and the opening of the market to the West is 100+ years recent. Japan has never experienced long-term foreign rule, so Japan’s cultural patrimony has been relatively secure. The Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs oversees dealers, museums and collectors. Preservation laws limit artworks exported out to government discretion. The Ministry of Education designates important cultural property. Over 10,000 objects are protected and can’t be exported under threat of imprisonment.
If a Japanese citizen wants to sell internationally, and the object is in a protected class, a collection of experts decides on a fair price and buys it for the state, or arranges a sale to a Japanese museum. Of course, some fantastic art was unfortuitously exported during the American Occupation. Another unfortunate time for Japanese exports was the late 19th century, when Japan opened to Western culture. In 1870-80, the American philosophy professor Ernest Fenollosa, at Tokyo University, saw treasures shipped away, and organized Japan’s first National Census of Artwork, assembling his own large collection that is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Art.
Notably, for E.V., during the 1960’s, when this screen was exported, an American connoisseur couple, Jackson and Mary Burke, were building a large collection of Japanese art, working closely with the Japanese government to permit certain (presently unexportable) artworks to be exported. E.V.’s architect may have benefited from this temporary lack of rigidity when he purchased this screen for E.V. in 1966. In conversation with E.V. she owns another screen brought back with the same architect, which also pictures a theme from a Japanese legend.
The second question of who restores such a treasure locally is more difficult. I turned to Winterthur Museum where I studied briefly, remembering the crack team of paper conservators. Michelle Sullivan was lately on that team: she is now at the J. Paul Getty Conservation Institute. The Getty does not provide conservation services for private clients, but I learned that Michelle Sullivan is a director of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) which has a researchable directory of private conservators. Locally, my old colleague Scott Haskins of FACL is a member; he is listed as an expert on painted surfaces; however, I have known him to undertake any challenge with expertise. Patricia West of SB is also a local conservator listed for her expertise in ceramics, gilding, paintings and woodworks. Chail Norton, in SB, is listed as an expert of art on paper, specifically non-Western art on paper. Her bio states that she worked in paper conservation at LACMA for 15-years and is now in private practice.
E.V., just to put the icing on the cake, I researched the value of your screen. A similar Tosa School 6-panel screen in ink, colors and gold leaf with gofun highlights on paper depicting a scene from Japanese legend “The Tale of Genji" by poetess Murasaki Shikibu, (which is the subject of E.V.’s other screen) portrays a delightful moment; the princess’s cat upsets the blinds that shield her beauty from suitors. This sold for $2500 at Neal Auctions New Orleans. Another Tosa School late 18th century screen, also 6-panels, depicting legendary poets from the “Thirty Six Immortals of Poetry,” ink on silver leaf, sold at Skinner’s Boston for $2500. A certificate (which adds to the value) accompanied this screen. E.V.’s screen is more valuable than the two comparable screens above, because neither of these two has artist’s signatures, and would put its replacement cost closer to $10,000.
A.S. has a suggestive table lamp that was tested in the early 20th century by Underwriter Labs Inc., as we see on the label affixed to the top of the lamp. Those certification labels by U.L. have been around for a hundred years, so they are not helpful in dating the lamp. What is helpful is understanding the history of indoor lighting — and this lamp itself tells that story.
You'd think the end of that history naturally should be the triumph of the electric table lamp. But electricity brought to your desk at night was not the immediately acceptable course we assume today. For a period of about 20 years, the civilized world went back and forth between oil, gas, candles and electricity. If you are my age, your parents were the first generation to take indoor lighting for granted. Next time you turn on your table lamp, understand the true gift it is of the lit world.
Let's start at the beginning: 4500 B.C., when oil lamps were invented. Oil remained the staple of indoor lighting for the next 6,370 years. A Scot, in 1835, showed a gathering of citizens in Dundee his light bulb electric lighting system. In 1875, Henry Woodward patented the electric light bulb, and in 1880, Thomas Edison patented the carbon thread incandescent lamp. This could burn for only 40 hours. So indoor electric lighting is a recent invention. In 1926, the fluorescent lamp was invented; halogen in 1935; and LED filaments in 2008.
Prior to 1901, most indoor light sources could only spotlight a small circumference; a chandelier or sconce on the wall could only light a room so much. After sunset, you'd need a candle in a bracket or an oil lamp. In 1890, postcards of fashionable hotels show candleholders, oil lamps — no electric lighting. Surprisingly, these exposed flame devises had decorative silk or paper shades. The candle was made from tallow, smelly animal fat poured into forms, in lower-income homes. Nicer was the beeswax candle, but it didn't hold up in hot weather, as did the candles made from whale oil.
At about the same time as folks were lighting candles at night in the late 1890s, electric lighting was pioneered, and the modern paraffin wax candle was invented.
Thomas Edison is responsible for bringing the first electric lamp to a home, Craigside, in Newcastle, England. But worldwide, the candle and the gas line were responsible for interior lighting until after World War I.
The Illuminating Engineering Society's website states: "the competition between gas and electric lighting was fierce (at the turn of the 20th century) for 20 years it was not clear at the time what would become the dominant form of 'artificial light,' and the question of the most efficacious and economical source was far from settled." A battle, indeed, waged between the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the American Gas Light Association. The two groups could not agree on a standard of luminous intensity.
If you were interested in electric lighting in 1905, you'd have to go to the "Central Station," the building with the steam-powered dynamos; the stations also owned the wiring, and sold the lighting appliance to their customers. No retail lighting existed.
In 1906, 25 men in the dueling lighting world dined together at New York's Hotel Astor for $1 per plate to hash out the future of lighting; undecided, they formed a society to publish technical details and discussions on all areas of lighting, which is still in existence today.
Electric lighting was never a "given." And since candles had been used for 5,000-plus years, even with electric lighting, users associated lighting with candles.
Hence, A.S.'s lamp is electric, but has six brackets for candles. The lamp also has a finial that supports a shade. The last thing A.S. should do is affix a shade and light to those six candles. The design of this lamp, made in the 1920s, shows a definite nostalgia for "antique" forms of lighting, not only in the reference to candles, but also in the shape of the baluster. The rounded middle is a reference to the bulging shape of oil lamps. The bronze material is another reference to old oil lamps of the past.
Many of these "referential" lamps exist today and are confusing to those of us who simply expect a base and a bulb with a cord. A.S. wonders "why candleholders?" Because most people dislike change, electricity was not inevitable. The value of this lamp is $100.
C from San Francisco has two wonderful hippie—era cases that he purchased from furniture maker Evert Sodergren in Seattle in 2010. These pieces have excellent provenance, as C has the signed receipt from the craftsman himself. Since the Western world is experiencing a craze for midcentury modern, I thought I'd share my thoughts about what's going to be hot next. And this American craft furniture, dating from the 1970s to the 1980s, is it.
The other term for this style is West Coast regionalism, and specifically, because this is so redolent of Seattle style, Northwest regionalism, circa 1960—70. If you've visited Seattle, you have witnessed the landscape from which these pieces sprang. Northwest regionalism is known for its interpretation of forests, views, water and rain, and plenty of free—form atmosphere. As early as the 1930s, Pacific Coast regionalists looked to Japanese—style architecture, which traditionally embraced natural woods, rocks and pieces for the landscape. The 1930s saw its own regionalism, California regionalism, including the state's ranch and Monterrey furniture and architecture.
All regionalism movements owed a debt to the previous generation of Arts and Crafts architects and designers, who thought simple and natural was best. But the Northern California and Pacific Northwest designers were influenced greatly by the craft tradition of handmade Scandinavian furniture, which used natural woods. A blend of simple wood, handmade elegance and Japanese aesthetic can be seen in C's double chests.
Thus, the landscape movement in architecture married Scandinavian handmade design with Japanese elegance, and a regional "look" emerged. Sodergren (1920—2013) was a leading artist, designer, craftsman and teacher (30 years at the University of Washington) whose studio furniture is worth thousands today, and rightfully so. It was exquisitely made.
The artist worked out of his house on Lake Washington, designed by himself and Ralph Anderson in 1972. It recently sold for $1.7 million. For the sake of the new owners, I hope the house was sold furnished: An early and rare Evert Sodergren "sculptured" chair, 1955, is listed for sale at $25,000.
Since we are experiencing high prices for midcentury modern at auction, I predict that the market may soon dry up; there's only so many pieces from the 1950s—1960s out there. I predict our next style craze with accompanying high values will be the American studio craft movement objects of the 1970s. Think flowing natural wood organic lines, heavy hand—thrown ceramics and studio glass, tones of browns and ochres, and rough textures — all those pieces you sold at your yard sale in 1990.
True, C's cabinets are at the top of the heap in regard to execution and design, but the whole market for American studio will be hot in a few months, so be on the lookout for anything 1970s.
Two other designers to look for in this style: George Nakashima and Arthur Espenet Carpenter. Their furniture is worth six figures today, but lesser known studio furniture designers will soon be hot and joining the auction room. American art furniture of the 1970s has entered the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery, The Museum of Arts and Design in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. So watch out.
C's pieces are reminiscent of Japanese tansu chests, and it's a skill he taught his apprentices up till the year he died. He instructed designers on the furniture of his heritage (his family immigrated from Sweden). Sodergren followed in the footsteps of Scandinavian modern designers of furniture such as Hans Wegner, Bruno Mathsson and Finn Juhl.
Sodergren's wife, Edith Fairhall, was also a free—form Seattle artist, and her canvases painted between 1970—1980 hung in his studio and are now in the process of being sold. I predict good paintings by regional American artists of the 1970s and 1980s will rise sharply in value because the artists of the 1950s and 1960s are becoming either too expensive or too geometrical and cold. Simply put, soon we will see the midcentury modern market being overbought and overwrought.
So, C, you have two treasure boxes, about to be valuable and continuing to increase in value to the tune of $40,000 for the pair. C is interested in selling these pieces and I have recommended contacting David Rago Auctions in Lambertville, N.J., a premier auction house in the sale of mid— and late 20th century designer material, as well as Arts and Crafts objects.
D.P. has two bound copies from two illustrious American newspapers, The New York Sun from January of 1947, and The Boston Globe from July of 1929. Newspapers were, in those days, not digitalized, and what D.P. has is an example of how newspapers were archived in libraries. Thus, I am assuming that the two bound copies exist in D.P.’s family because something important and related happened which affected her family, OR that something important happened in the world that lead to someone in D.P.’s family keeping these two specific dates.
Let’s look at what happened in January of 1947 and July of 1929 that would be news of a similar nature, and then let’s assume that because these papers relate to specific cities, that this news would have had an impact on Boston and/or New York. This method of research is intuitive: jumping off into a hypothesis that something related happened in both times that caused someone to hand on to these for 69 and 87 years resprectively.
Looking at the news in these months in these years, we find one TYPE of news common to both dates having to do with current events taking place around ports of transportation. In 1947-8 the New York Sun featured a momentous series of articles in “Crime on the Waterfront” by Malcolm Johnson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this story. What he discovered happening on the waterfront of Hoboken was the basis for what is arguably called the best American film ever produced, nominated for 12 Oscars, winning 8, voted the 8th greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute, On the Waterfront.
The facts of life on the Hoboken docks in the 1940’s, uncovered by Johnson’s exposé, involved the murder of a New York dock hiring boss, the New York court’s Waterfront Commission, and the whistleblower, longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo (played as Terry Malloy by Marlin Brando in the film). “A mans gotta do what a mans gotta do,” immortalized in Elia Kazan’s movie, galvanized the story of organized crime and corruption. Critics attribute Johnson’s 1947 articles with the transformation of the New York Harbor as well as Kazan’s controversial testimony before the 1950’s (equally power-driven) House on Un-American Activities Committee, after he made this movie.
The Boston Globe in July of 1929 also dealt with a scandal involving a port, the Boston Airport, called Logan later in its history. In 1928, the Boston Airport was owned by the U.S. Army who passed it to the Massachusetts Legislature. In 1929, the city took control of the airport with a 20-year lease under Boston’s Parks Department. The Parks Department reclaimed 200 acres from Boston Harbor, and at great cost of men and money, added buildings, runways, access roads, and landscaping, all for an industry that was thought “never to get off the ground.” This took place scenting the storm clouds of the devastation to be wrought by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Nevertheless, aviation won: air travel proved to be a moneymaker for Boston: international flights and flying celebrities from Charles Lindbergh to Amelia Earhart flew in and out of Boston Airport.
Perhaps I am stretching to find a common theme of port activity to the ownership and retention of these two particular newspapers. Although the Hoboken Harbor story is compelling for my choice of these in 1947, the year 1929 in July also held huge events that may have had nothing to do with interests in portside news. D.P.’s relative might have been a sports buff in 1929, reading about the 42nd Wimbledon tournament, or St. Louis’ 2,10-run innings, beating the Phillies 28-6, or, the Pirates and the Phillies 9 home run hits, one in each inning, and most incredibly, the New York to San Francisco footrace ending after 2 ½ exhausting months with the winner being a Mr. Monteverde at 60-years of age! Perhaps he was reading that at the Davis Cup in 1929 of that month, France beat the U.S. in Paris, and a Belgian rider took the Tour de France.
If D.P. were to sell these two volumes, she might receive as little as $20 each. Unless, of course, the provenance help that D.P. was the relative of the great journalist who uncovered the “on the waterfront” story in 1947, or that D.P. was related to the 60-year old who won a 2 ½ month race across the country. In those two cases, we would be talking irreplaceable value to D.P.’s family.
As far as “important” watches and clock go, J.J.’s is not so important: a Time Clock by Simplex Time Recorder Co., Gardner, MA. But this clock is connected with one of the largest of all corporations of business: IBM. Here, I contrast J.J.’s Simplex Time Clock with a magnificent antique clock of which there are only 12 examples, recently sold. Both clocks tell a story of their time, and in fact, J.J.’s clock, from the standpoint of material culture, tells the more “valuable” story.
J.J.’s clock is heavy – in side that oak case is machinery for punching time cards: a fully mechanized metal recording stamp engaged with the time card in the slot activated by the lever. Simplex was known for its heavy mechanized clocks: another model from the 1930’s featured an RCA radio built into the middle of a grandfather clock.
The interior has a cylindrical recorder that prints out the time on a roll of paper for the boss. J.J.’s has an original key, once pinned on the waistcoat of the boss so that an employee could not get into the machinery of the clock.
This clock is indicative of the way time was held by your employer; time was HIS indeed, and would be from this invention forward. So although it is not an “important” clock in the parlance of the auction house, it is historically valuable.
On the other hand, the Duc d’Orleans’ clock was a thing of opulence, the Breguet Sympathetique, a creation of a French master clockmaker, Abraham-Louis Breguet, a great architect (1835). Only 20 were made for the grand palaces of the European royalty in the last grasp of royalty in general.
The grand clock was an engineering marvel. At the top crest, a pocket watch set in a gilded “docking port,” auto-wound by the main clock. When we think today of auto-sync, that feature wouldn’t impress us. But royalty used to sit up until three in the morning when the master clock synchronized the pocket watch.
Such a clock was commissioned in the 1830’s by the young Duc d’Orleans for this Paris Pavillion de Marsan, and it lived there for a very short time, because, although the clock entered the Duc’s life on his 22nd birthday, he died at 32 in a carriage accident.
In the mid 20th C., the clock made its way to Rockford, IL, not such a glamorous place. Seth G. Atwood (1917-2010) founded the Time Museum of Rockford, and hired a celebrated horologist to find him that Breguet Sympathetique. Dr. George Daniels found it in a Paris antique store in 1974, but the unique dual winding system was damaged. It took Daniels years to figure out how the original clockmaker did it: the clock lived in Rockford until 1999 when Atwood sold the museum. Today only 12 Sympathetiques exist.
The grand clock sold for $5 million: that is not the same figure J.J. should expect. Many exist and the workings are so simple that even J.J.’s boyfriend can repair the time puncher. But the very invention of a machine to ‘clock-in’ a human worker is monumental: the system for doing so was invented by Willard LeGrand Bundy of Auburn, NY where each worker punched his card by turning his unique key.
Bundy and his brother Harlow formed the Bundy Manufacturing Company in 1889: by 1900 the Bundy’s merged with other companies to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR), which later changed its name to IBM.
Yes, I mean THAT IBM, in the business of making time clocks under their equipment division from 1900-58, when the IBM Time Equipment division was sold to the established time clock makers, Simplex.
The “buddy punch,” which was found to be a problem, necessitated the development in the 1970’s of a card swipe or a scan technology. Today a time clock is a “smart clock” which takes the employee’s photo. No longer is a weighty clock like J.J.’s of usable service. Today’s time clocks do more, as in more oversight, such as the biometric reader to identify a unique feature of the employee. For this, the employee is required to give away the configuration of the iris of an eye.
J.J., if you want to spend more than the $300 your clock is worth, you can buy a ticket to New York to visit the inventor’s home in Binghamton, a house museum dedicated to the Bundy brothers, who set the wheels in motion for the biggest company in the world responsible for ‘time computing,’ IBM.
C.R. sent me a photo of a piece of furniture for sale at the Unity Shoppe that she has been eyeing for weeks. She is wondering what it's worth. She says the flamboyant piece will fit nicely in to her dÄcor, which she calls "early brothel." This painted little bombÄ commode, with one cabinet door, abundant in floral decoration, should be a perfect addition.
C.R., the style is not traditionally called "early brothel" but rather Venetian rococo, the choice of many a female socialite over the years. Other terms for the style include Venetian Baroque or Piedmontese. The style has a definite connection with early Santa Barbara: One of the biggest fans of it in the early 20th century was James Deering, chair of the Deering Harvester Co., who was a colleague of the McCormick family, whose business, the McCormick Reaper Co., merged with Mr. Deering's to become International Harvester. Riven Rock here in Santa Barbara, home to the McCormicks for a time, was rivaled by Deering's fabulous Miami-based Villa Vizcaya (built 1914-1922), which is now a museum. Mr. Deering was a great collector of Venetian furniture.
The late 19th century craze to collect such Italian furniture parallels the importance of Venice as a style destination, when wealthy connoisseurs visited and bought up the Apennine Peninsula on 19th and early 20th century Grand Tours. Whole Venetian palaces were ransacked and brought to mansions in the U.S., and although the style is not in favor today, it has a certain following.
Antique Venetian furniture is difficult to price, C.R., because there's not much intrinsic value in the craftsmanship. The point of the style is to extrinsically delight the eye, not to subtly suggest refinement. So a piece of Italian furniture can command six figures at auction, or three figures. It just depends who wants it badly enough. Many 20th century craftsmen did not brand their pieces with their workshop labels, so no famous cabinetmakers are known. In addition, this style is built of insubstantial light wood frames: beech, poplar, pine. They are known for falling apart. And let's face it — it is all about the look anyway. These pieces are not built to contain anything.
The secret of these scintillating pieces is not in the execution; they are simply constructed. But the paint surface finish is all about polychroming. The painting is exuberant, over the top. The background colors are mustard and a certain green I call Italian Green, a cross between pea and leaf, cut with light rose. You'll see pinks and reds and gold and occasionally blue. The floral cartouches (molded, raised frames into which a design is painted in reserves) are often candy box colored.
The forms are curvilinear, bursting at the seams, and heavily carved. The carvings on the legs and moldings are not delicate and refined; rather, they are fun, and usually topped with gold paint. In these days of the primacy of mid-century modern, not every home decorator wants to use such a piece. Functionality just is not the plan here; drawers and cabinet doors don't completely fit, adding to the dishabille charm, which also suggests a grander age, a "broken down duchess" look.
Italian furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries is based on French furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries, especially the massive neoclassicism of Louis XIV furniture (Baroque), and the more delicate organic forms of Louis XV (rococo). The Italians put their own touches on French forms, expanding the curves, for example, emphasizing the explosion of the bombÄ form into a little mushroom cloud, as we see in the piece C.R. hankers after.
This furniture is perfect in a faded velvet-draped tall-windowed, slightly shabby "piano nobile" (the upper room for the noble people), where it is always slightly dusty, with motes of sunlight reflecting off the canal below, and half-dead roses in the dry vase in the corner. That's the native interior setting.
You must have a high tolerance for decadence to love this style. Many collectors of these romantic ruins have been found in the past, although not so much today. A piece last winter sold at Sotheby's for $180,000 from the estate of philanthropist Dodie Rosekrans of San Francisco, as well as the collection of an artist of 1960s fame, Cy Twombly.
C.R., I would say that a price under $500 is fair for such a bombÄ. Viva "early brothel"! I would go out and buy this; your dÄcor is finer than most others in Santa Barbara for such a lonely old Venetian.
P.S., a client of mine who likes to find orphaned paintings at thrift stores, purchased three oils on board locally, and puzzled over the signature, "Bruce Birkland." No gallery sale or auction result was found for this name, so I Googled and found a Bruce Birkland's address in Goleta. I sent a card in the mail asking if he had ever painted. He called recently, full of questions; we discussed his journey into art.
Not only is Bruce's story an interesting insight into the path of an artist in the Santa Barbara area, but my client was happy to know who painted these little plein air oils. Plein air is a style of painting that originated in the Impressionist period. French artists in the mid-19th century were overturning norms of painting, such as the actual work of painting, always previously done in a supervised studio, a style called Academic. Revolutionary French painters took studio gear with them and painted outdoors, "en plein air." Bruce was not aware his work followed this revered style of painting; the three paintings owned by P.S. were created more than 30 years ago, and Bruce said he actually did paint them in a studio at his mom's house in downtown Santa Barbara, where he still creates work.
The artist told me that he rarely paints straight realistic landscapes these days, noting his style has changed to be a blend of fantasy and surrealism. Today, I can see his love of color and naturalistic detail in P.S.'s canvases as well as his fantasy canvases. In the spirit of exotic mind travel, his favorite canvas is a fantasy piece entitled "Journey to Namaqualand," a place located between Namibia and South Africa along the West Coast, five hours north of Cape Town. The area is abundant with wildflower reserve parks, which bloom from a seemingly arid desert. In this work of art, Bruce pictures an elephant among the flowers, his huge ears represented as blue butterfly wings. From these three little older paintings, I see Bruce was a master at landscape. Today, he is inspired by his imaginings of landscapes. He told me, "I try to visually integrate the natural world with my emotional and mental reaction to it." Thus his journey into fantasy landscapes, leaving plein air behind.
I asked him how he discovered this unique talent of his, blending the real and the surreal. ALL artists stand upon former artist's shoulders. Bruce was influenced by a canvas of Belgian artist Rene Magritte called "Castle of the Pyrenees," which is an image of a small castle perched on a massive rock floating in the sky over a sea. Like so many good artists, Bruce has a visual memory that will not quit. So when he saw Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he latched onto the image of a gigantic spacecraft in the deserted Wyoming landscape. Another such arresting and enduring image for Bruce was the dreamlike palette of Maxfield Parrish. Bruce said, "I may be inspired by a certain pattern, a colorful life form, plants and flowers, an unusual combination of elements, which creates an internal vision upon which I become fixated." That's truly what inspiration and dedication mean.?
Not only has Bruce's artist heritage been important, but also his family heritage has influenced his work. His paternal grandfather, Tom Birkland, was a painter of Alaskan and western wildlife on canvas and in mural form. His cousins are designers in Camarillo. His maternal great-grandfather, Aurelio Castro, was a landscape painter — and Aurelio's children were painters as well. His maternal grandmother, Hotencia Cuellar, was a pianist and a prima ballerina, and her brother, Oscar, was a flamenco guitarist. Art is part of his DNA.
The idea of a blooming desert has influenced Bruce's other work of art, his garden here in Goleta, and, of course, our area is known for its hospitability for tropical plants such as tree ferns, palms and philodendrons, which he curates. A spirit of exoticism lives in his real-life landscape as well.
So, P.S., your works of art were created in the 1980s by a local and experienced artist, who continually ran out of crayons and paper as a child (his artistic parents understood) and who continued his training among the best teachers. Today, Bruce prefers not to be represented by a gallery but sells privately. The paintings owned now by P.S. are entitled "Mountain Aspens," "Desert Yellow Blossoms" and "Arizona Dry Gulch." The artist tells me they are worth about $3,000 for the group.
J.W. invited me to her beautiful Riviera Craftsman bungalow with an ocean view to show me a block of flat carved wood, a printing block for a relief fine art print. A relief print is created when an artist cuts away from the wood’s surface so that the carved OUT areas do not touch paint when pressing the block to paper. This is a woodcut. A wood engraving is much the same, but is carved on the denser end of a plank, capturing the harder to carve end grain for finer detail in a print.
The OTHER type of printmaking technique is intaglio; the artist etches lines with a burin tool into a surface such as a copper plate; the plate is inked and the surface area is wiped clean, so that the ink remains ONLY in the etched lines. The paper is then rolled with some force on top of this plate, absorbing only the ink that is left in the lines. This is an etching or an engraving.
Speaking about etchings, the hook-up phrase “Wanna come up and see my etchings?” has a fascinating history. This is a phrase that insinuates more than it actually says, a figure of speech called “litotes” in French. The English phrase originated with the French “Veux-tu monter voir mes estampes japonaises?” Much of 19th century art history is made fun of in this line. Think about Monet and his fascination with Japanese wood block prints. Owning this exotic art was considered a sign of a man’s good taste and refinement. The subtext also included the suggestion that the bachelor wants to show the lady a sub-genre of Japanese prints called “Shunga.” If you are not at work, do a search for those to see what this “litote” phrase, “Wanna see my etchings?” really suggests. Confusing, however, is that Japanese woodblocks are relief prints and etchings are intaglio prints. I digress: back to J.W.’s woodcut block, which is in fact a GREAT example of 20th century American woodcut technique.
Woodblock printing was invented in China in the 9th century and came to Europe in 15th century where the great Albrecht Dürer took it to heights. Once the surface of the block is inked with a roller, the paper is either pressed down by hand on to the block, or rolled in a printing press. One of the greatest of all American woodcut artists was Gustave Baumann, who developed the printing-press oil-paint based woodcut process throughout the first two quarters of the 20th century.
J.W.’s block verso has an inscription in graphite: “Superstition Mountain, Gustave Baumann.” Woodcut artists like Baumann began with a drawing, which is then reversed on to a “key block,” copying only the basic lines of the image, the most concrete outline of the work. This image is then transferred to other blocks, which are carved further to add other features of the design, called color blocks, because in some cases each color desired will have its own block. J.W. might have the “key” block, on which was carved the essential design anchor for Gustave Baumann’s “Superstition Mountain” of 1949. The main elements of the bush in the foreground and the line of the mountains against the sky background top, as an executed print is identical to the woodblock in J.W.’s possession.
What J.W. does not have are what might have completed Baumann’s finished print, one block carved for the yellow mid-ground, one block carved for the green cacti, and a block carved for the mountain color. This key block, if authentic would produce an image of roughly 8” x 8”; the original paper would have measured 11” x 9 7/8”, dated 1949, pencil signed, titled and numbered with Baumann’s “chop” mark of a hand in a heart shape.
This block may be an important find as Baumann printed only 125 strikes of this image. One of these prints in the edition of 125 would sell at auction for up to $6,000.
So what would Baumann’s key block be worth? Few key blocks have entered the marketplace, because to make sure an edition is finished, the artist generally destroys the blocks. To find out, with J.W.’s permission, I have contacted David Rago Auctions, most active with Baumann’s print sales. I suspect the block might be worth $3000-4000.
J.S. has a Rembrandt etching of a windmill, 8 inches by 6 inches. The print is signed in the plate (the artist etched his name into the copper before it was printed) and dated 1641.
Rembrandt etchings "pulled" when the artist was alive can be extremely valuable. If this print dated to the late 17th century, we'd be talking $70,000 to $100,000. In some cases, the copper plate, which the artist engraved, was still being used to print from in the 18th century; 82 such plates are known to exist today in museums and private hands. Rembrandt was known to have etched more than 300 plates in his lifetime.
Rembrandt was deeply in debt in the mid-17th century and may have sold some of his copper plates. His friend, Clement De Jonghe, got a hold of 70-plus plates before his death. In 1767, 70-some plates were auctioned off to a man who sold them to a French printmaker, Claude-Henri Watelet (1718-86), whose estate sold them to another French printmaker, Pierre-Francois Basan (1723-97). Basan and his son published limited editions through 1810, when Basan's widow sold them again, falling eventually into the hands of the Bernard family of printmakers, who printed off these plates, until purchased by another printer, Beaumont, who printed off the plates. So, you see a Rembrandt etching could be almost any age and originate from one of Rembrandt's plates, although some may have been altered by Watelet in the late 18th century.
This trend continued: Beaumont sold the plates to an American, who loaned them to the North Carolina Museum of Art, where they were kept until their sale in 1993. A dealer at that sale, Howard Berge, purchased eight plates and printed an edition called "Millennium Impressions" in early 2000.
There's an interesting Santa Barbara connection to this sale, but that's another story. Many famous museums purchased plates.
Suffice it to say, J.S.'s print could be almost any age, but not J.S.'s paper. Almost all prints made before 1800 are printed on laid paper, which is made by hand in a mold, where wires in a mesh support the paper pulp and give a distinctive watermark pattern to the paper. After the late 18th century, prints begin to be struck on wove paper, the paper we are most familiar with today, lacking those "laid" lines.
And the size of the image of the print matters too, because if J.S.'s print was pulled from a Rembrandt plate, the size will be exact to about one-quarter of an inch. This, in J.S.'s example, is true.
Finally, J.S., take out a magnifying glass. Check to see if the lines of the etching are crisp and detailed. Check to see if you see a dot matrix pattern, which would indicate a lithograph made "after" an etching, or a photomechanical (photographic) reproduction.
In my opinion, J.S.'s print is not "crisp" enough to be a "fresh" pull. J.S. can compare his work with the many photographs of images he will find in museum catalogs. And holding J.S.'s paper up to the light, we see no laid marks; if J.S.'s print is a 19th century restrike, it could still be worth big bucks, however, printed on wove paper. Here's the pay grade: authentic etchings from Rembrandts' plates 17th and 18th centuries, we're talking five to six figures; 19th to early 20th centuries, copies or reprints with photomechanical process on wove paper, two to three figures! Frankly, if J.S.'s image is actually just a print, that would mean that it is worth about as much as the paper it was printed on and can go as low as $25 at auction. From the photo J.S. sent, I would assume the image to be an etching, which would put it at low three figures. Remember, however, that almost everyone had a Rembrandt image in 1910-1940. Another value characteristic is the condition of the paper; in J.S.'s case, there is moderate acid burn from a poor mount (the poorest of all poor mounts is cardboard, which contains paper-destroying acid).
One encouraging feature of J.S.'s print is the "plate mark" or the indentation of the paper we would expect to see with an intaglio print. That indented rectangular impression around the outside of the print is good news. However, in the early 20th century, those impressed lines were "pushed" into paper to imitate a "real" intaglio print. My advice is to send a very good photo to Christie's London along with a photo of the paper held up to the light. Ask them for auction estimates.
P.C. from the 805 area asked me to appraiser her early 20th century ivory chess set for a few months now, and I put it off, P.C., because, well, the buying or selling of ivory is, in fact, no longer PC. The import, export and sale of ivory, even within state lines, has become regulated and monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; there’s a network of Federal statutory laws and Executive Branch orders, not to mention the scrutiny around ivory by those organizations that fight for conservation of elephants. All ivory is in some sense unsalable, yet some ivory is not from animals at all, as we shall see.
P.C., you should know that the kinds of ivory which for years has been called “true” ivory is defined as the teeth of animals, and most ivory is from the tusks of elephants, mammoths and mastodons. Those kinds of ivory are sourced from buried animals. Yet ancient ivory is so hard to distinguish that mastodon ivory is suspect too.
Bone is NOT ivory and you can tell bone because you can see the evidence of a blood vessel system, and ivory does not have this system. Ivory for millennia is prized because it carved in any direction, which makes it valued for its beauty on piano keys (a hot button issue, as concert halls are having a hard time getting performer’s prized pianos across state lines, as we'll learn). Ivory for millennia has been dyed as half of your set has been, and can be beautifully polished owing to its natural oils.
Other types of antique ivory are hippo, walrus, whale and hornbill birds, as well as non-animal ivory from the inner seed of the South American ivory palm. I can be fooled by synthetic ivory, which was invented as far back as 1865, termed celluloid or casein. The older the ivory-looking object is, the more care was taken to imitate “true” ivory’s graining.
P.C., if your chess set IS ivory there are ways to test for “true” ivory. You need to get your old cigarette lighter out and burn it, and if it does not mark up or emit a bad smell, it is likely ivory of some kind. Synthetic ivory will mark and smell. The same proof is derived with a hot needle, which will cause irreparable damage to non-ivory objects, so I would not try fire.
Nevertheless, P.C., your set is not worth anything on today’s market, because you cannot sell it if it looks anything like ivory. I have a dear client who has Asian Foo dogs of what appear to be ivory and although we have sent photos along to many auction houses, no one want to touch them with a 10-foot pole. Why?
Here are the rules for African ivory, promulgated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
Handlers of antique instruments have contested these laws, because many antique instruments are precious to distinguished performers.
Since value is derived from past sales of similar objects, your set has no market value. Auction houses do not reputably report ANY sales of ivory items since 2014.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter