P.J. sends me a little etching of a river with windmills, signed in one corner Leon Gaucherel (1816-86) and in the other Claude Mannet, a little known painter (not the great painter Claude Monet). Why does this etching bear two artist’s names? And why is it so boring?
Many good artists made interpretive etchings “after” (which means, roughly, copying) other artists. Leon Gaucherel was such an artist, as was Meissonier. In fact, Gaucherel copied (legally) Meissonier, etching a favorite subject of Meissonier’s “The Sentinel” on vellum in 1867, published by Leggatt of London. These were the days before the camera could copy exact images, the days of the rise of the middle class. This class wanted a parlor filled with art, but couldn’t afford oils; artists like Gaucherel translated oils into etchings on paper. P.J.’s little river scene is such a translation, executed in 4” x 6”, small enough for any parlor.
Gaucherel was a product of not only the technology of his age but the French “banquet years,” as termed by Roger Shattuck in his groundbreaking book The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France 1885 to WWI. Artists like Gaucherel represented the cultural elite, conservative, imperialistic, nationalistic and morally virtuous, of a generation situated firmly in the glories of the socially strictured Second Empire. When such stalwarts as this archconservative artist Gaucherel reigned, making art that everyone understood, the avant-garde will rise in reaction in the next generation.
Beloved, Gaucherel was an academic medal winner at the Salon de Paris (1847-9), holding the Legion d’honneur, awarded in 1869, his works entered the Victoria & Albert Museum. He copied other conservative artists who pictured nostalgic scenes of Old France.
Since we today think of artist as anything but conservative, it’s difficult to understand that the roots of Bohemianism took hold during the hide-bound Second Empire. As Arnold Hauser writes about Gaucherel’s era in The Social History of Art IV, “the dissolution of the ancient regime enters (now) its final stage, and with the disappearance of the last representatives of the good old society; French culture goes through a severe crisis…bad taste had never set the fashion so much as now… (during this) period of eclecticism…without a single original idea.” What do you do when the social structure is so stolid that it will take one rumble to set it crumbling? You bastion up ideology and give out awards for supporting the status quo. Hence, a mediocre copyist received the Legion d’honneur in 1864.
Established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Legion’s awards were structured, from the top down, Chevalier, Officer, Commander, Grand Officer, to the least, the Grand Cross. A great building, the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur (next to the Musee d’Orsay), originally the Hotel de Salm (built for Frederick III of Germany) was ‘nationalized’ by France in 1804, burned in the Paris Commune of 1871, rebuilt until 1925. This magnificent palace is rooted in the moral, fraternal, nationalistic ideals of the Chivalric order founded in the Crusades (1099-1291), an order of courtly knighthood that today is reflected in other national medals of honor.
Originally, the Chivalric Code was based on the Holy Roman Empire’s idealization of military bravery, service, morality and fraternity. The ideas never died. By the late 19th C., the French writer Leon Gautier’s book La Chivalerie (1883) gives a summary of (good old) ancient code of chivalry that we saw reflected in such diverse places as the Scotland of Sir Walter Scott and the Confederacy of the US Civil War.
Here’s Gautier’s 10 commandments of chivalry, which he maintained should form the basis of French late 19th C. society:
Courtesy, fidelity, Church-defended morality was celebrated in artists of third quarter 19th century France in such as Gaucherel; the polemical purpose of holding this medal was to defend status quo. After this, the deluge. French artists like Guillaume Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, Erik Satie, and Henry Rousseau followed in the next generation, real slices of French avant-garde.
Like most art that echoes yearnings for the good old days, P.J.’s etching is lacking in vitality. The art market thinks so too; Gaucherel’s etchings fetch around $50.
J.E. has a South African semi-abstract sculpture, 20 inches by 12 inches by 5 inches, of a female with flowing tresses. The stone it's made of is steatite, or, as artists from Zimbabwe say, rapoko stone. Found on every continent except Antarctica, soapstone, as we call it in the U.S., is one of the most widely crafted minerals of the world. J.E.'s stone may be as old as 10 million years. Being so durable, yet carvable, allowed ancient peoples worldwide to make vessels and works of art. Pieces are found in Inuit igloos, Egyptian tombs, palaces of China, and temples of India. Perhaps the most consistent art of steatite is carved by the Shona artists of Zimbabwe, the origin of J.E.'s piece.
The story of Shona sculpture is fraught with political overtones and struggle, and has emerged as a challenging medium on which to place a value. In a 15th century temple near Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, such carvings made of steatite have been found, attesting to the age and nobility of African sculpture. However, J.E.'s piece's style dates to the 1960s. The story of this style owes its origin in part to colonization.
In the 1960s, the National Gallery of Art in Rhodesia gave "themes" to indigenous artists who had for hundreds of years worked in stone found in Zimbabwe's Great Dyke area. The aim was to establish a working colony of artists and to house them around particular quarries, providing work, and through certain assessable styles, the gain of a market abroad. Apprentices were given tools and direction around such places as the Nyanga Mountain, the highest peak in Zimbabwe, which, for generations, was honored as sacred, perhaps, in part, because of its rare stone quarry of serpentine. Many of their teachers were artists from outside this long cultural tradition at first, but by the 1980s, teachers were decidedly Shona elders, with a definite voice. The style of J.E.'s piece is called Shona, which evolved through the 1960s, '70s and '80s, emerging as a political voice.
Although the major collectors of Shona sculpture are European, much of this sculpture graces public gardens in a famous garden called Chapungu Sculpture Park in Harare, Zimbabwe, as well as the South Africa Nelson Mandela Foundation, and the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town. Other locations include the Millesgarden Museum of Sweden, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the U.K., the Belgian Gardens, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and The Hague. In the U.S., sites include the privately owned Handelsman Gallery in Woodstock, Ill. Some Shona pieces are very large, and, in fact, the Morris B. Squire Foundation here in Santa Barbara has a large-scale work by Zimbabwe artist Dominic Benhura (1968- ).
The aim of Shona sculpture is both humanitarian and political, belying its limiting colonial origins. One such sculpture from the 1990s in the Chapungu Sculpture Park in Harare is called "Our HIV Friend," controversial and emotional in its time.
The message of Shona sculpture is to free the spirit of the stone to enlighten the viewer with a particularly direct message. In the photo of J.E.'s sculpture, you see the swirling hair of the spirit of the female, as if a whirlwind caught the feminine anima.
One of the foremost dealers of Shona sculpture is Peggy Knowlton of Princeton N.J., who sells work from her sculpture garden in shows such as "Carved Wisdom, Social Issues, and Poverty: The Homeless," illustrating the Shona artists' commitment to world issues.
Shona art has a limited market at auction, perhaps because the genre is too new, controversial and topical to be a moneymaker on the secondary market. But the retail market for the work is flourishing, even at the cost of importing such heavy pieces. The Larsen Gallery in Scottsdale is an example.
J.E.'s sculpture is both rough-cut and textured; the shiny surface has been burnished to show off the richness of the stone. Shona sculpture is found in steatite, serpentine, verdite, sandstone and granite. Recently, a traveling show from Zimbabwe's Chapungu Sculpture Park toured the U.S.: "Chapungu: Custom and Legend: A Culture in Stone." Older artifacts in stone carved in Africa from the 15th to the 19th centuries were moved in the early 20th century from archaeological sites in villages to museums in Cape Town.
Often, this sculpture is unsigned, emphasizing the political statement over the artist. The Shona style is a unique blend of ancient traditions and an African political voice emerging from colonial influences. The value of J.E.'s sculpture is $600.
Guest Post by Lucille Rosetti
After the loss of a loved one who shares your home with you, you may look around your house and realize it’s just not home anymore. There may be too much room, too much stuff, or too many memories for you to want to continue living there. Or perhaps you see this as an opportunity to live somewhere you have always wanted to. Whatever your motivations, there are a couple things you should consider.
First, moving has to be your decision. It can’t be someone else's. Even if you are just going across town, moving is a huge life change with various implications. If you're not 100 percent sure you want to relocate, it may not be the best option. Make sure you give yourself some time to ensure you make the move for yourself instead of a knee-jerk reaction.
Second, support is imperative when grieving the loss of a loved one. If moving will separate you from your support system, is it a healthy thing to do? It’s important to recognize whether you want to move for healthy reasons or if you are just trying to run away from your problems. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a fresh start, but if you want to avoid difficult emotions and problems, they will catch up with you no matter where you are.
Moving Tips for the Grieving
If you know you want to move, and it’s for the right reasons, you're not alone. Many people decide that leaving their house, downsizing, and relocating are productive ways to move on. Below are some helpful tips and resources to make the process go smoother.
After the loss of a loved one, you may find yourself wishing you could move and leave the pain behind. It’s important to take your time when making decisions and not to rush into anything drastic. However, if you’ve waited over a year and you still want to move, do it smartly. Go through your loved one’s things slowly and clean out some of your own stuff while you are at it. Find professionals who can help; don’t take on everything on your own. Finally, make smart decisions when listing your house for a fast and successful sale.
S.F. in Camarillo has a ship in a bottle; rather, a ship in a lightbulb. He first witnessed this little miracle in his grandparent's home in the 1930s. He thinks it came with them from Germany in 1900. The dimensions are 3 by 2 inches; imagine the art of constructing and fitting out a ship within a bottle — or better yet, a lightbulb — with such a constricted opening!
Who originally began to engineer such feats is unknown. The late 18th to mid-19th century in Europe and America was the artistic high point for ships in hand-blown bottles. Historians conjecture that not until the third quarter of the 19th century did the mass-produced of bottles by machine begin, then the craze really caught on. Sailors were thought to be the main builders, but lighthouse keepers had more time and access to bottles drifting ashore.
We know of two ways of putting that ship in that lightbulb. The builder might have put all the little pieces in the bulb, to build it inside. This technique involves timber, cables and gum. The timber used inside is whittled inside the bulb. The bulb is measured to allow for the correct rigging to be in place, and tweezed in mast by mast. The other method allows for collapsible rigging attached with cables that are hoisted after the ship is built.
Waves and such features are premade in plumber's putty, in the bottle for the reception of the ship's hull, and like any design feature going into that bottle, precise measurements are the key. One must measure the neck and proportions of the bottle. If she's a three master, leave three cables outside of the bottle, and keep them straight.
Ship in bottle makers have favorite hook tools, made from coat hangers, etc., with which they raise the mast. This is the tricky part, because you can see S.F.'s ship has intricate rigging. These lines have to be raised and tightened inside the bottle. Furthermore, S.F.'s ship has a little bit of sea but is set off with a hillside dotted with dice-houses. These houses are sunk into the green putty. Each element is inserted piece by piece. S.F.'s bulb bottle is also semi-landscaped; notice the tiny trees.
Some ships in bottles include whole dioramas inside, such as one sold by Cowan's Auctions in Ohio for $250 that includes a wood train, church, hills and trees along with a tiny ship. A ship in bottle sold by Skinner's in Boston includes a three-masted ship and a steamer, with a lighthouse, village and trees. One of the finest ever sold, at $1,200, depicts an American whaling hunt from the late 19th century, where we see a whaling ship and two whale boats. The crew, each about the size of a pencil lead, is in the act of harpooning a whale or two: we see one breaching whale and one sounding whale in a choppy green putty sea. And the whole is set in an 8-inch diameter bottle.
In 1719, the world first heard mention of a ship inside a bottle built by Matthias Buchinger, notable because this career hand-worker was born without arms or legs. Bob de Jongste's book History of Ships in Bottles gives the oldest surviving ship in a bottle at 1784, a Turkish or Portuguese three-masted warship in an egg-shaped bottle, exhibited in the Museum Hansestadt Lubeck, Germany.
The second oldest example is shown at the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam, dated 1795: a poon ship, a one-masted freighter.
If you would like to see modern versions of these works of miracles, check out the Ships in Bottles Association of America. Some of their top member's creations will make you shake your head in wonder.
A few years back, our own Santa Barbara Museum of Art featured the work of British-raised, African-born Yinka Shonibare, who, in London, made a ship in a bottle for a display on the fourth plinth of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square. Shonibare's ship model was Nelson's own HMS Victory, the flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. The 37 sails are made of African Dutch wax print fabric, commonly worn in Nigeria. The public loved it — and an appeal for a permanent home was granted at the Sammy Ofer Wing of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
The value of S.F.'s little German ship in a lightbulb is $300, and these are getting rarer and rarer because of their fragility.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart explains the difference between a brilliant cut diamond and a mine cut diamond. She also answers the question "What is an assay mark?"
D.G. has a leaded glass table lamp in the Arts and Crafts style from the first quarter of the 20th century. He inherited the lamp from his grandparents, who were successfully upper class in the Tucson area at the time.
The lamp bears a great-looking shade in a striking band of multicolored glass in creams and oranges in a Greek key design, topped with a purple-blue striated panel running horizontal with a cream rickrack line. The shade sits on a slender, tapered, bronze lead-weighted base, original to the lamp.
These Arts and Crafts lamps can be very valuable. The best of the best are lamps by Tiffany Studios. If he had such a maker, D.G. would find the shade signed "Tiffany Studios New York" with a model number following. The base would also be impressed "Tiffany Studios New York" with another model number. If he finds these markings, he's $20,000 richer.
Not finding those markings, other Arts and Crafts lamp makers are also valuable, and D.G. should look for Duffner and Kimberly, or Williamson, or Handel. Indeed, I think his is a Handel lamp because of the distinctive geometric shade. In this case, I would put the value at $3,000.
Leaded glass lamps made quite a statement in a Craftsman-style home in 1900. An Arts and Crafts home was a philosophy rather than one particular style. The common tenants of the Craftsman era were a dark, tranquil interior; an open floor plan; the use of many windows for cross ventilation; the use of natural building material of stone, brick and wood; simple tile and pottery; and very carefully chosen bright jewel-like accents.
When D.G.'s grandparents purchased this lamp in 1900, they proclaimed their good taste, but they also proclaimed their rebellion against the previous generation's style of interior design. Perhaps D.G.'s great-grandparents' house of the mid- to late 19th century was filled with objects, the more the better: colorful, intricate carpets; carved, heavy mahogany furniture; potted plants; and heavy gold mirrors. That's the style called Victorian. The young followers of the Arts and Crafts movement revolted against this "bad" taste.
Consider also that D.G.'s great-grandparents were children of the Industrial Revolution when even a middle-class American could afford mass-produced, machine-made objets d'art. But D.G.'s grandparents, by the purchase of this lamp, showed they approved of simpler, handmade objects. An over-decorated room would have killed the charm of this lamp, a lamp, which, by the way, in 1900, was not cheap.
D.G., check the lightbulb fixture inside the shade. To make these lamps really show off their handmade leaded glass shades, the most expensive lamps offered a three-light cluster arrangement for the interior insertion of bulbs (almost all Tiffany lamps have this feature). This extra light ability made sure of two objectives in a room: that the lamp should be the focal point, and that visitors to the home would realize that the house was fully electrified, a semi-rare thing in that day, and a status symbol.
A reaction against the previous generation, the lamp said "my owners hate all that stuff that came before me, those horrible hurricane parlor lamps; so much stuff, so little beauty." That's why this lamp represents more than just an era, but a philosophy.
A lamp like this would sit proudly on a very simple oak table that would have looked at home in a simple medieval peasant's cottage. In fact, that was the goal. Simple furniture made in the mortice and tenon joinery style, with very little varnish. That's what set off this little jewel lamp back in Tucson in D.G.'s grandparent's first house.
His grandmother might have placed a little simple handmade pottery vase filled with wildflowers on the table to accompany the lamp. Perhaps his grandparents positioned a Morris chair upholstered in simple calf leather next to the table and lamp. The chair was named after the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, the poet, publisher, art aficionado, and book designer William Morris of Kelmscott, England, the birthplace of Craftsman design. He would have wanted one for himself because of the simple geometric design.
The best place to sell such a lamp these days is David Rago Auctions in Lambertville, N.J. Mr. Rago has made a specialty of Arts and Crafts pottery, furniture and all things "modern," and this lamp would have been considered very avant-garde in its day, very modern indeed.
KK writes: “When my mom died after living with me for over 8 years, I thought I was prepared. I was NOT. The next 10 months were hard, emotional. It's one reason I put objects in storage. I knew I wasn't prepared to sift through. Now I am ready- what to do?”
Coincidentally, LR also asked me for advice for those of us with an elderly parent: what to do with a lifetime accumulation of a parent who is either too frail, or whose emotions are too powerful, to be of help? Like KK’s mom, who was not able to downsize as her health declined, my mother, too, has been worried about leaving a burden.
LR writes that she was faced with downsizing after the death of a family member. I myself am travelling to Chicago this month, where I grew up, to pack my 89 yr. old mom’s house. Even though she has whittled down her collections of art and antiques, I find mom is more attached now that her health is failing.
LR suggests that she wants to downsize because she needs a change of scenery to help with the grieving process. KK says much the same: as grief subsided, she feels she can tackle her mom’s objects in storage. This short article gives KK and LR some tips for dealing with these intimate issues. Overarching is this theme is the fact that change in an emotional time, symbolized by loved objects, is difficult.
My mother was recently airlifted to a hospital close to my brother on the East Coast. I was elected to form the family plan: what was going into storage, who was going to inherit what, and what mom’s future living quarters might contain. All this with no assurance of anything. At the time of her airlift, she was much too weak to think about her home of 30 years, and I packed only a small suitcase for her.
A few days ago, she was well enough to tackle the first step in this process: she read my photographic appraisal of ALL her possessions. That was bittersweet. I do this for a living, and yet, as mom said, I never did it for HER. Here’s what I learned:
Tip number one: when you do an inventory for your elder, list objects in the locations they occupied in the household. If mom can’t remember something, I reference a certain drawer in the china cabinet.
Tip number two: if the family agrees, make a shorter inventory of all the objects in a room-by-room fashion with fair market values (that is, what things would sell for as second-hand material) and make a copy for all the grown children and grandchildren of the family. Be transparent.
Tip number three: agree on period in which to digest the inventory, both for your elderly parent and for the heirs. Decide if age trumps interest: in our case, my mom’s kid’s selections trumped the grandkids. Select the most computer literate amongst you to make an interactive spreadsheet on Google Docs. I suggest family members use a ranking system; the number one is listed with an object of absolute desire, two, of medium interest, and three, sent only if the object is to be donated. Be ready for pushback once your elder sees what the kids want: mom started this process ready to give much away. Now she wants to control objects’ dispersals to family.
Tip number four: bring the elder parent into a one-on-one discussion with care. Ask for a recorded, written, or dictated document of your elder’s wishes before you do so. Be prepared to offer both sides of a long distance move. In the case of a treasured table, I gave the cost of crating, versus the cost to leave with a family member.
Tip number five: be cautious of subtext. What you are preparing for is what KK prepared for--- a loved one’s decline. Speaking to mom about giving things up, she heard that subtext; she said, “It would be easier if I died.” I gasped, but offered “the fact we are planning your new room interiors means that you have a future house!”
LR suggests that divesting means, for her, a change of scenery. I tried that phrase on my mother; she replied that she has no energy to create a new environment, so to make it easy, she needs to keep everything. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of objects even the smallest home can contain, all or nothing is an easier concept than many small and painful decisions.
Tip number six: ask professionals; I spoke to a few professional packers. An elder parent is used to finding objects in certain places, and this knowledge led to this suggestion: use technology. Take photos of objects WHERE THEY LIVE. When packing boxes for storage that photo is then affixed to the box; all boxes are labelled with their origin locations: (for example, “second shelf china cabinet.”)
Tip number seven: When mom and I first talked about the move, she wanted her kids to have everything; now she can’t let go. Many of us have therefore reviewed her inventory. How do you speak to mom about letting go? My nephew, our diplomat, said he would like to talk with mom about a desired object’s family history. Therefore, if one of us wants something, THAT photo will also be on the box. Mom will be getting a file of those photos and those names.
Tip number eight: consider renting two storage lockers, one for the most necessary of objects, such as clothing or computers, and another storage locker filled with the furnishings for a small apartment. We rented two 10x10 units so that we could find labelled boxes easily.
Tip number nine: assign family members who are good at tasks to help. My brother Dave is an IT professional; I have been in contact with him about the computer and paper files. My brother Paul is an engineer, perfect to oversee the logistics of the storage lockers. My sister Nan is good with space and color; she prepared a few suggestions for “mixed use” furniture adaptable for various size rooms. Because Mom had lived with a bookshelf for 30 years, she couldn’t see it might be used in the future for kitchenette storage.
Finally: tip number ten: write this where you can see it: “Grant me, please, that I can face whatever awaits, as constructively as possible, for my mom, and for the rest of us. Without movement, there can be no change.”
PJ from Carpinteria says, during the tragedies of the last few months, she “lost control” of her household. “I’m now feeling like I need a check list on how to research what I should keep; I need to be in control of a more streamlined house. Please write me a valuations checklist!! I need a guide for furniture, silver, glass, porcelain and books.”
So I wrote PJ a checklist, covering what most of us keep in a home, to help determine value of objects. Here’s what to look for to determine VALUE:
Furniture: “Brown” furniture is the industry term for antique dressers, tables and chairs of British and American provenance; even if these are circa 1840, and handmade, the market is not strong. Even less strong is the furniture that was not hand-made; mass production of furniture was in full swing by the 1850’s. Still, handmade is a good starting point for valuation research, especially if the piece is American and not English (American pieces generally sell for more pre 1820’s). Check for evidence of “hand-made” by feeling the bottoms of furniture pieces for hand-planning marks. If you see circular saw marks, the piece was probably mass produced in the mid-19th C, and not valuable.
If the piece is 20th C., check for maker’s labels on top inside drawers; hope to see Kreiss, Baker, Marge Carson or Knoll, to name a few. These have salability. Check www.p4a.com for values. Don’t use 1st Dibs, or any other site that advertises prices they HOPE to achieve. Use only consummated sales to determine value.
Art: Art is valued by the artist’s name; use a site like www.ArtPrice.com, which gives signature possibilities even if you have only part of a name. Or send photos to an auction house for an estimate at auction. There’s neither charge nor obligation for this. I would suggest Clars Auction in Oakland, CA.
Porcelain: Everyone with grown kids knows that formal china for the table is hard to get rid of; there are really no buyers out there for full sets (for individual pieces, there’s Replacements Ltd.). Your mother’s and grandmother’s services will have maker’s names; of value are the really good names like Royal Crown Derby or Meissen. Check the pattern: if it is geometric or mid-century modern, you’ll find a market. For older china, look for markings that are not names, but shapes, like a beehive. I use porcelain identification sites like www.Kovels.com/porcelainmarks.
Figurines like Lladro or Hummels are of no value today, but to check, use www.p4a.com where you’ll find photos of figurines under maker’s names keyed to where they have sold. You’ll be shocked at these prices paid.
Glass: One of the few ‘hot’ makers of glass is the Italian mid-century Murano, and any kind of Scandinavian glass, like Kosta Boda or Orrefors. These pieces will look distinctly modern. I use David Rago Auctions for sale of this mid-century glass, or, if it’s really a fine piece, (think Daum, Lalique or Baccarat), Los Angeles Modern Auctions.
Steuben glass for the table is also high value, especially those modern shapes like the inverted triangle cocktail services. Lalique, especially the Art Nouveau wines with nudes or seahorses as stems, are also hot. Look for both the glassmaker (you can see the name shimmer in the light under the base) and the design to determine value.
Silver: Silver is worth something by virtue of the precious metal, but silver flatware services are hard to sell, because most families have at least one in the closet. For American silver, you’ll see a maker’s name, and most American makers, except Tiffany and a few others, are poor sellers. European silver of the mid 20th C., is, however, hot, especially Scandinavian silver like Georg Jensen, Italian silver like Buccellati, and French silverplate like Christofle or Puiforcat. To identify patterns and makers, I use www.925-1000.com.
You know you have British silver of any form if you see a lion, and this site above will help with the three other marks you’ll see on British silver.
Silver marks are deceiving. “Rogers 1847” is NOT old silver, it is a name, and it is usually silverplate. The best test of sterling is its malleability. If you can bend a piece of flatware ever so slightly, research it for sterling.
Books: Books marked “First Edition” may not be THE first edition, but a reprint. When a book is first published, publishers generally do not know it will go into second, third or fourth printings. Books are difficult to research, but I use www.alibris.com or www.biblio.com.
J.S. writes that she found an original oil on hardboard at a vintage shop: she asks if I might help identify its near-illegible signature. What follows is how I narrow down a probability of who the artist may be: a real sleuthing trip!
Look at the signature; what is legible is the first letter “H”. Notice that there could be two last names; although in some cases the second name could be a place name. if an artist is making an oil sketch or a study, you might see a place name.
What can we infer with just the initial H? Most likely, we are going to search for an American or British artist because most European painters do not sign with initials as frequently as Anglos. So let’s assume the artist had a double-barreled British name.
Notice the second letter “R”. I suggest using the invaluable artprice.com that allows me to plug in “HR” to find a double-barreled last name with those initials. Nothing comes up with two names after “HR” so I try “HB” – still nothing with a pair of names.
So, assume the second name might be a place (more later). Focus on the signature after the “H” with a last name beginning “R” or “B”, having at least a pair of L’s in the middle and ending in what looks like a “P”.
After I plug Hillop and Billop into ArtPrice, options for show Hislop and Bishop. Really looking, I think we are dealing with an artist named H. Bishop.
A general Google search shows that an artist H. Bishop (1868-1939) is in the collection of the Tate in London: there we see a biography of Bishop and three examples of his work.
Now focus on the scene or subject matter of the painting. Where does it look like this was painted? Even though we know H. Bishop was English, it doesn’t look like an English countryside, perhaps because of the birch trees and the architecture of the two cottages. And we faintly see an outline of a mountain in the background. Bishop’s bio says he studied in Brittany and began his career in Cornwall, leaving for more exotic scenes of Italy and Morocco.
Yes, this could be a scene in Brittany or Cornwall…
Bishop was born in 1868; we assume this painting dates before his 30th birthday in 1898. Focusing on the painting’s support, it is not canvas but Masonite, which is flat on one side and corrugated on the other. Masonite was patented in 1924 by a friend of Thomas Edison, William H. Mason, who derived his invention from hardboard, developed in England in 1898. Remember that for our hypothesis to work, the support Bishop used had to exist in 1898!
Google “artist’s signatures” and find out how H. Bishop signed his paintings. They are signed small and loose, in the bottom left corners (artists will generally lay claim to one corner and sign there only). Notice J.S.’s paintings is not signed in black oil, but purple. Looking at ArtPrice, we see that Bishop seems to sign in dark tones. ArtPrice also quotes the support used, and we find one painting out of about 30 on hardboard.
Finally, use ArtPrice and AskArt to study the STYLE of other works by H. Bishop. Both sites list only paintings that have been sold, so that you can get a clear picture of market value, and you see good auction catalogue photography.
Now go through my checklist of determinants of an artist’s style:
Regarding composition, look at three main elements in J.S.’s paintings: foreground, middle ground and background. Where does the artist place most of his information? If we have a match, equal space (proportion) is given to each of these three elements consistently. This applies to landscape artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, whose vision remains their consistent area of study.
Google place names in Cornwall beginning with the recognizable letter B, ending in S. Only one village is found: Bangors, which could be that second name – which seems to have a “g” in the middle. Now look to see if the trees and architecture resemble your painting: they do! If I am right, your painting is worth $2,000, nice return on a $15 investment.
R.E. has a glamorous kangaroo fur coat once owned by famous comedian Phyllis Diller. R.E. has wonderful provenance on this coat: Her sister was once a personal assistant to Miss Diller, circa the 1970s, and R.E. fondly remembers Miss Diller's 22-room Beverly Hills mansion, with its incredible closets. Both R.E. and her sister, and indeed their whole family, were guests of Miss Diller throughout the years. What follows is not so much an estimate of value — kangaroo is banned from commerce in California — but an exposition of provenance. Provenance can sometimes tell a story even if an object cannot be sold.
An article written by R.E.'s sister from the 1970s about the star notes all the rooms in her mansion had amusing names, as you might expect from Miss Diller. The front bathroom was the Edith Head room. The telephone room was John Wilkes Booth. She treasured her home, and R.E.'s sister writes she toured guests around before dinner.
R.E.'s sister mentions Miss Diller's love of fur coats; her collection was "mind-boggling." Many people today would not wear fur at all, especially in Hollywood. She collected all styles, types and colors and had a special wardrobe room for them.
As of 2016, California considers the sale of even antique kangaroo furs a misdemeanor, with specific exceptions. The value of fur is always problematic, and in this case, kangaroo is illegal to sell in California, although not across the U.S. However, that boils down to the same issue, as some fur types, such as kangaroo, cannot cross state lines for the purposes of commerce. A few of the skins that are additionally banned in California for commerce are polar bear, leopard, ocelot, tiger, cheetah, jaguar, sable, antelope, wolf, zebra, whale, cobra, python, sea turtle and vicuna. Rightfully so, of course, but at one point these furs may have been considered the height of glamour. R.E.'s coat's provenance is impeccable, and objects owned by celebrities have value, but the value here is in the story only. And what a story!
When Miss Diller bestowed this coat upon her assistant in the 1970s, things were different — the assistant was floored with so much glamour. Now you're thinking: Phyllis Diller, glamorous? Perhaps you will think so too after hearing the insider's scoop.
According to her personal assistant, her Brentwood home was beautifully and elegantly designed, full of roses, complete with two grand pianos, played often by the star. She trained as a concert pianist at the Sherwood School of Music in Chicago, and she performed in concert. She was married for 25 years and had five children, and she loved to cook for her household and staff. She traveled with a large storage locker full of gourmet ingredients, custom hot plates and expensive cooking utensils, which she broke out in the hotel suite. She coined many a recipe and was a gourmet chef.
Her stage presence to the world was embodied in wearable kitsch, but her daily loungewear was white capris, a white shirt and white ballet shoes. She had her own designer, Omar, in Las Vegas. Those stones she wore on stage were often the real thing, and she had a vast collection of fine jewelry. Yet Miss Diller loved shopping sprees at local thrift stores. When she found things she liked, she bought in quantity; her designer fitted them no matter how many of the same she owned.
And Miss Diller was a collector of antiques, specifically antique glass bottles, especially those mini bottles airlines used to serve on board. Her assistant writes, "If you happened to have sat near her on a flight, she surprised you by asking for the little empties." Ms. Diller predicted quite rightly that glass would be a thing of the past for beverages.
As to her costumes on stage, she could not bear to toss them. She actually sewed patchwork pillows of these exotic fabrics, and gave them to friends with a note about the origins of the fabrics. She was born in 1917, so she went through the Depression in Ohio and learned to save. She loved her home life and tended to her kids about which she said, "Cleaning up the house before your kids leave home for good is like shoveling snow before the storm is over."
Thus, we have a coat that was treasured by a great entertainer that contains wonderful stories, and reflects the changing values of California culture today.
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
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