My friends at the Unity Shoppe asked me to identify an odd-looking stick thing with a head like a padded cloud (called a plaquette), with a long hardwood handle in the shape of a flat "s." The workmanship is beautiful, with jade at both of the ends, as well as jade characters down the shaft. The object sits in a padded bottomed glass case with a carved rosewood stand, something ceremonial, at 20 inches long. The characters may say something positive and uplifting, like "the gods wish you a long life," or refer to something more metaphoric, like "pine and crane," or "phoenix and peony." Pine means old age, and peony, wealth. One of the glories of Chinese works of art is that the form, the words and the philosophy of the object reflect each other, as we will see in this article.
This object is an early 20th century regal Chinese scepter, but in ancient times in China, this object originated as a simple, plebeian back scratcher. Its progress to the scepter of kings and emperors follows a simple trajectory: being able to scratch an itch makes us happy, especially when that itch is unreachable. (Who doesn't feel good after a good scratch?) Thus, it acquired its name: a laotoule, meaning, simply, the "old man's joy." I can see Grandpa smiling after a good rub.
These predecessors to the regal jade scepter were simple bamboo sticks, used to scratch an itch, to catch things out of reach, or to point to something (more about that later). By the 15th century, Chinese emperors began to order these useful back scratchers in gold, crystal and jade. So many types of precious materials were ordered by emperors and rulers for hundreds of years that the simple laotoule was renamed, when appropriately elegant, a Ruyi, literally the "as you wish."
The Unity Shoppe Ruyi is in a box that probably housed better versions that stayed in the royal courts besides the emperor's throne or bed. Not only did the emperor scratch his own back, but also his concubine of choice in bed gave this pleasure as well.
Emperors gave expensive and elaborate Ruyi to esteemed commoners as well. Confucius received many, as did his descendants. The Mansion of Confucius in Shandong displays many of these, as do many palaces built during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
The value of this object is, of course, in the wonderful story, but also in the materials used, which in this case is nephrite, not as valuable as some unbelievable Ruyi. The Unity Shoppe's Ruyi was, in fact, designed for the tourist market, as I can see the glue used to attach the nephrite (never done for the highly discriminating Chinese connoisseur). Favorites of mine are made of almost transparent peach tree wood or a piece of pale celadon stone. A carved celadon jade Ruyi can sell for $12,000. Many bear the image and carvings of Buddha, and I wonder what Buddha would think of scratching someone's back. One, made of gold, has an inlaid back-scratching pad made of celadon resembling two peaches. If you'd like to spend some serious cash on a regal back scratcher, consider one of celadon jade with a carved relief scene of a river landscape, at 17 inches, sold for $152,000. Many Ruyi have Wanfu markings, which stands for 100,000 blessings. If you really want a great scratch, a Ruyi of green-gray jade is carved as a thorny branch with a flat tree fungus the shape of the plaquette. Some are inlaid with multicolored jades in bright green pale green with accents of mother of pearl and tortoise shell, very showy.
Treasured, as always, these Ruyi were royal gifts to the Emperor Qianlong (1700) whose ministers went over the top for his 60th birthday, presenting him with 60 solid gold filigree Ruyi. On her 60th birthday on 1894, the Empress Cixi was gifted 81 Ruyi, symbolic because 81 is divisible 9 times by 9, the most precious and prescient number for indications of a long life.
Finally, although the Unity Shoppe is a family-centric business, the Ruyi was used for another function besides being a back scratcher. At night, the Emperor would point his Ruyi toward the lucky concubine of choice, and she would follow. This Ruyi is worth $600.
What to do when faced with a BIG move? I helped a lovely Santa Inez family move their older dad to the East Coast. Here are some hints of ways to overcome moving day obstacles.
The New York family did some very smart things to prepare for this move, taking the heat off their 90-year old dad. One daughter was in charge of a photo archive of everything of value, using free inventory software (Liberty Mutual Insurance’s Household Inventory App. BTW, the insurance company reports that a third of all Americans are unsure of the value of their belongings, and less than one in five has formally documented their personal items). Thus the daughter pulled together a photo archive noting where purchased, the year, and roughly for how much.
Our next step was for me to state liquidation value of these pieces of art and furniture, defined as what those items would sell for at a very quick auction sale, because the move was a few months away. Based on those valuations, the daughter was able to form three groups of objects: those to keep or pass on to the kids, those to auction off, and those to donate. For these three groups, she pulled together three MORE inventory spreadsheets disseminated to other siblings.
I used her “auction” inventory to write a formal fair market value appraisal (defined as the most appropriate price in the most common market for the object) to send to three selected auction houses: Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles, Clars Auctions in Oakland and Sotheby’s in Los Angeles. The auction houses got back to us: Sotheby’s was not interested in anything; Bonhams wanted a few things, but Clars wanted MOST of the objects and gave us reasonable and thoughtful value estimate ranges. We scheduled with Clars to bring a truck to pick those objects up, and the first wave was over.
The second wave tackled what the four grown children wanted shipped to them. One sibling took a survey, and I balanced the wanted objects’ values for an equitable distribution appraisal. Each sibling was asked on a conference call with me to agree to the distribution, which went easily (doesn’t always happen).
We then shopped for a moving company that could deliver to at least two addresses on the trip to New York. That was harder than it sounds – one company bid $10,000 more than another to do essentially the same move. The most difficult part of this process was insuring the fine art, because one canvas alone was about $30,000, and because dad’s house was sold, dad had canceled his homeowner’s insurance policy. What we needed was insurance BETTER than what the mover’s Bill of Lading offered, which was either .60 cents per pound (a $30,000 canvas weight less than 5-pounds) OR replacement cost. However, replacement cost did not cover breakage, and the family had fine art ceramics as well. The contract specified “limits” to coverage due to certain conditions – for example, fire loss was covered, but the (more likely) theft was not.
We finally found William Fleischer of ArtInsurancenow.com in New York City, licensed in California for just this type of transport of fine art. William explained the two types of coverage: scheduled coverage, where the owners state the value of a piece of art, say $20,000; if there is a loss, the company pays $20,000. The devil is in the details, he explained, because if the scheduled contract reads “we will pay based on schedule on file with the company,” this commits the company to pay the amount on the schedule without adjusting down.
The type of coverage William recommended was coverage by “classification” of object, for example: the family takes $100,000 of coverage for fine art and if there is a loss, I write a forensic appraisal to prove the value of that ONE item. The advantage to coverage by classification is that appreciation of an object of art is included in the coverage, something to remember because fine art increases in value over time, even during a short move, because of the fickleness of the art market, and due to the fact that artists’ work’s value increases due to their own deaths!
The final donation state: the large musical instrument went to the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation. The household stuff went to the wonderful nonprofit agency affiliated with our own Santa Barbara Housing Authority, “Second Story.” The move, except for the GOODBYE to Santa Inez, was done.
S.F. has a portrait of a young woman wearing a turban over flowing hair, with her delicate hands in a prayerful gesture. The piece is signed Popo and Ruby Lee, and underneath the signatures we see the astrological glyphs for the sun, Pisces, the moon, and Virgo. The piece is dated 1974.
Popo and Ruby Lee are artist-legends on the Central Coast. They met and married during the heyday of counterculture in San Francisco, but worked and lived in Ojai for five years. Both had worked as solo artists before they met, but one day on North Beach, in 1972, a handsome, dark-eyed man said to the pretty, petite Ruby Lee, "Let's do a painting together!," and the rest is history.
A website dedicated to Ruby Lee, says that neither artist was in the habit of signing canvases, until one day in Ojai when the vice president of Disney Productions negotiated for one of their jointly painted canvases, clinching the deal by asking for a signature. So Ruby signed both "Popo and Ruby Lee," and, as stated on the site mentioned above, "a Myth was born."
Ojai has traditionally been a breeding ground for artists, and the canvas in question is part of that story. Two artists "painting together" is fraught with difficulties. At school, Ruby studied classical art history and longed to paint like da Vinci. The figuration and detail in renaissance art became her direction. Popo, says the site, painted freely, on white canvases, using broad brushstrokes. Ruby soaked up Popo's method, combining it with her own, painting spontaneously in thin oil washes.
S.F.'s portrait assumes the guise of an oil sketch but in the palette of an old master. She says about her work: "The form, line and content, whether in stillness or in motion, is intended to reflect with beauty and grace a state of perfect harmony, so that perhaps — even for a moment — you may awaken to the wonder of Being." In the mid-1980s, Ruby set off on her own. That makes S.F.'s portrait more valuable to those who collect the duo artists.
S.F. contacted Ruby Lee to gather facts. The painting's date of 1974 matches the date of purchase by S.F.'s husband's mom that year in Santa Barbara. S.F. would like to know how this image is valued.
Many artists, Ruby Lee among them, paint in a series informed by their philosophy or worldview at a specific era of their lives. Therefore, a group of works may have a common theme or mood, indicated by similar scale, subjects, palettes and titles. Ruby Lee, in the early to mid-1970s, had a series called "Morning Prayer," which includes this portrait. Ruby Lee's life indeed included the study of yoga and tai chi. In fact, when she arrived from London to New York City in 1969, after a bohemian trek across Europe, she headed for Northern California, where she had heard about the flower children and the beliefs of American Indians. So it was natural that the prayer-like reverence we see in S.F.'s portrait became a theme of morning and nature's inevitable cycles. She is quoted as saying: "Art is an alchemical processing of Life! My work is a visual-emotional record of a journey into the human spirit and its archetypes."
Individual paintings within a beloved series are more valuable than standalone imagery by an artist, as collectors often buy a certain genre. Those who collect Popo and Ruby Lee together or those who admire the "Morning Prayer" series would pay more.
Another factor in valuation of this particular artist is the provenance of a given original work. Many times a piece of hers entered the iconography of popular culture. An added value, therefore, S.F., would be gained if your original had become a poster or print, and you owned the original. Here's a good example: The famous clown, Wavy Gravy, discovered Ruby Lee at an Earth Day Festival in the mid-1980s, when he sat for a portrait of himself, and later that portrait was used on a poster designed by Alton Kelley. Then the portrait was purchased by David Crosby. So we see that a few strong market factors are at play in her work: the original, the print, and the entry into the celebrity market. That is called provenance.
Many galleries carry Ruby Lee's vintage works, as well as the site mentioned in this article. I would assume that your piece would fetch $10,000 to $15,000.
DM sends me a print which is a silkscreen, a female head in red, signed Modigliani in the print itself. I met DM at a Road Show locally: I often volunteer to evaluate folks' things at special events throughout the Central Coast. I asked DM to send me images of her print, just to make sure it wasn't just a production copy of a contemporary (during the artist's life) print.
Modigliani in my opinion is one of the most unique artists in history. His lineage, descending from a long line of Sephardic Jews, for generations living in Italy is related to the 17th century Dutch Philosopher Baruch Spinoza. When Amedeo Modigliani was born, his father declared bankruptcy, a punishable offence in those days (1884), but the barliffs couldn't take a laboring mother's bed. His birth was under dark stars. As a youth he was sickly, suffering pleurisy, typhoid fever and tuberculosis which eventually killed him young, at 35.
True to the Jewish scholars in his lineage, he was amazingly well-read, especially versed in Nietzsche. He also loved hashish; moving to Paris in 1906, he found similar Bohemian artist friends, turning from painting in the classical style, trashing his studio, and becoming sicker with TB, which at that time was highly contagious. He turned to booze and pills to avoid the pain. He also turned to "bohemian" women, giving them portraits of themselves, therefore not all of his works exist.
He met, of course, the first love of his life when he was at his worst. She was married and left him in a year for her husband, so he came back to Italy, getting bored there, he returned to Paris, where he was mentored by Constantin Brancusi, the great sculptor; from this period comes Modigliani's great sculptures. His sculptures today are some of the most valuable in the art world. He returned to painting nudes for a 1917 one-man show which was closed down for "obscenity" by the Parisian police. He never really sold anything for much during his short life.
He was a good looking man; loving his life-drawing (sketching numerous nudes) at school, he excelled in art school and with nudes as well, seducing models along the way, history has it.
Tragedy, as usual, struck in the form of a beautiful model, 19 year old Jeanne Hebuterne, whose parents hated the debauched artist, and even more so when it was found she was carrying his child. He died holding Jeanne who by then was pregnant with her 2nd child by him; inconsolable, she threw herself off her parent's balcony and died along with her unborn child.
Their first child, also named Jeanne, lived until 1984, having spent formative years in the French Resistance in World War II, then writing a biography of her father in 1958: Modigliani: Man and Myth. Her dad was friends with everyone who was anyone in art of his time, considered by all a sweet drunk: Cocteau, Rousseau, Picasso, and Rivera, partied with him. Ironically, his daughter who was raised by her aunt was never told who her real parents were, until much later in her life. Her book was a serious attempt to know her father.
If you are interested in the contrast between an artist and his life (think nasty Mozart) take a look at Alexander Liberman's The Artist in His Studio, a compilation of great artists' horrendous living spaces.
Now, DM, that I have exited you with the prospect of a fortune, your print called "The Head in Red," is worth $400 on a good day. The printed title in English gives it away: it is not contemporary with the artist's life and dates from the mid 20th century.
Strolling down State Street, I peeked into a new business, Members Only: Barber Shop and Art Gallery.
Intrigued, I paid a visit to Franco, tonsorial artist, as his card announced. Franco had a gorgeous French Deco sideboard amid a collection of wonderful antique barbering chairs, themselves worth a great deal in the hipster market. But his sideboard, what a statement of French Deco! Shimmering, it's of wave design and matched veneering, a real piece of furniture that speaks of an era that will never come again.
France in the 1930s was conscious of its place in the world of art and fashion. The great jazz-era singers, as well as the painters and sculptors, flocked to Paris. The first World War had ended with France determined to be great again. And great it was but with a difference that no other country could boast. Because Paris, especially, was aware of the importance of the upper middle class. And a style was developing that was supremely upper middle class: showy, opulent and almost affordable. That was French Art Deco.
Italian Art Deco was linear and aggressive, focusing on the machine-era line and movement. American Art Deco was streamlined and forward-thrusting. But French Deco was graceful, playful, lighter, and harkened back to the golden era of Louis XV and XVI. And the ebenistes (furniture makers) knew how to make the surfaces of furniture come alive with veneer, and not only wood veneer. French Deco experimented with sharkskin (called shagreen), metals, mirrors and very shiny finishes, hand rubbed. The Deco parlor of 1930 was a thing to behold. This furniture catered to the new bourgeoisie of the 1930s. The best of it had a definite following in New York City, where you still find collectors of the best and most expensive French Deco.
Certain furniture makers in France were known for their popularity with the upper middle class, such as E. Jacquemin from Strasbourg. This is whom I suspect made Franco's barbershop piece.
This firm loved what we call "book-matched" burl wood veneering. A thin slice of a tree burl (a growth) would be machine cut and opened like a book. That mirror image of the graining echoed each other when sculptured side by side, as you can see in the hourglass shapes on the curvilinear sides of Franco's piece. In those sections, the graining runs vertically. The graining in the book-matched veneer to the cabinet doors to the front, however, runs horizontally, forming little islands of grain.
For this piece, the maker decided to use rosewood, a hard wood with deep, elegant, light and dark graining. The graining "waves" at the beholder; a literal wave motif was brought into the molding of the carved fretwork on the overmirror and the cornice under the drawer to the front. The whole top forms a big wave in scallops. The piece looks like it is going to shimmy out of the barbershop!
All this movement was a signature of French Deco. The cabriole legs appear to spring up and walk. Seen only on French Deco, this leg was invented for furniture in the era of Louis XV, having a "knee" meant to imitate the stance of a cat.
These pieces are rare to find because the following era, the Moderne, became devoted to simple geometric lines. So this curvy opulent look was tossed out by the real middle class, the true bourgeoisie of the working class, during the late 1940s for machine-made furniture.
The look of the French 1930s was stylish, fanciful, playfully trying to forget WWI and the shades of what was happening over the borders that would lead to WWII.
In the detail of the Carrera marble top, notice the "boiling sea" shapes that echo the waves of the furniture. This was no mistake. Richness in marble was part of the design, and this piece has its original top. The overmirror is for show and movement. In its era's setting, an elegant silver or bronze sculpture, a beautiful woman holding a brace of greyhounds, would have been reflected back in the mirror.
A period room that could hold such a piece contained silver wall sconces. The floors would have been highly polished and finished with a white rug. The chairs would have been low and barrel-shaped, in pale elegant blues or silver. The lady of the house would serve cocktails off this piece in hostess pajamas of silk. And everyone would be smoking something. The value is $1,000.
JF has a painting that has me stumped. I welcome any help from my readers. Let’s see if YOU can help me appraise this painting. Here’s the background: JF writes that he found this painting of a young Native American girl at the Unity Shoppe in Santa Barbara about a year ago. She is very well painted, (more about that later), and is decked in a strand of long coral beads, and what appears to be a wool poncho decorated with images of Plains animals. The stretcher bar is older, and is marked with a stamp from Glendale NY. In marking pen (modern), it is inscribed with a name (unreadable) and an address on Kolding Ave in Solvang. (Someone wanted to indicate ownership.) I sent a letter to this address to no avail. I searched my databases for artists in the area, under the assumption that artist usually know artists in their neighborhood, present and past. I got nowhere.
The painting seems to be signed “Sophie,” and, indeed, our area had a great artist with that name, Sophie Marston Brannan (1877-1960) but the signatures do not match. And neither does the subject matter.
And it is the subject matter and handling of the canvas that makes me think JF might have found something good.
First, it's well painted, but not finished; the details (since the technique of the painting aspires to realism, details would've been crucial) haven't been hashed in. Yet an experienced artist of traditional painting methods wouldn't sign an unfinished painting. So maybe that “Sophie” is the name of the sitter or the name of the owner.
Anyone who has ever tried to paint in oils knows that the face is almost the hardest thing to create in a portrait, second only to hands. Yet this head and face are believable. The position is fluid. Although not finished, the artist has flowed in some nice background such as that shadow behind the left side of the face. That indicates to me that the painter knew about the importance of light source and accompanying shadow. The background to the left is darker than the background to the right, also a mark of a trained painter as the illusion of depth is created. Although bearing the bones of a good painting, I see the odd hair from the brush stuck into the impasto of the painting, which indicates a true sketch, done quickly. You will see the artist was capable of suggesting movement, which is a gift. Paintings are two-dimensional representations of three dimensions, and the suggestion of movement and mass are tough. Not only that, the Edward Degas quote makes sense here: “Art is not about seeing, it is about observing. Don’t just see, observe.”
The subject matter makes me think JF might be onto something. The subject matter, if the painting is truly dating from the early part of the 20th century, is a thing of legends. The portrait of the Native American, although today fraught with the smack of colonialism, was perfected in a certain place at a certain time: The Taos Society of Artists and the School of the American West that grew there. The colony that formed included the father of the Taos Society of Artists, Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953), who studied the Plains Indians (I suspect this painting is of that People), following the Plains People into Montana, where he created over 200 portraits. He was still painting when he retired to Taos again at 93, leaving at his death thousands of portraits of the First Peoples, including from the California desert.
When you see a painting, either you start your research at the top of the heap of possibilities or you don’t. Listen to your intuition, and go from that. For JF, I looked at the Taos artists and found no match in the brushstroke and composition department.
Another clue of the value of anything: SOMEONE has deemed it important enough to leave to someone. The back of this painting says in pencil, “This picture is for Darlene, with love.” If you are a hunter, that is called provenance. Even a battered Persian Rug, repaired repeatedly, will give you a clue to its value in the very FACT that it has been repaired.
I would love to be able to share with JF that he has found something here, as he writes that he paid $39 for this painting. Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
T.A. sends me this simple elegant heating and cooking utensil called a Hibachi. Most Americans associate Hibachi stoves, ovens, grills, cooking vessels – of which there are many, for different usages in Japan – with the cooktop, knife-flashing hot-iron cook surfaces featuring theatrical chefs in restaurants such as Benihana, my little brother’s favorite restaurant. Our family sat around that iron scalding-hot surface, on which the chef cooks your order, and, for our amusement, tossed steak, fire, hot oil and knives around. The culinary display, if I remember, culminated in the massive steaming Vesuvius of onion rings. That style is not technically Hibachi, but Teppanyaki style. What T.A. from Santa Barbara has sent me is an actual Soma Ware Hibachi ceramic vessel.
This is a little stoneware brazier, used at one time to contain sifted askes and bits of unburned coal from the larger stove in a Japanese kitchen. To heat a simple pot of hot water, the family might light the brazier instead of the stove; the vessel then is called a shichirin. To aerate the coals, the cook might hold a bamboo straw in his mouth. Some such vessels, which are plainer and not ceremonial like T.A.’s, were contained in a wooden cabinet in the kitchen. The tools for using the hibachi, unlike those used by the flashy chefs at Benihana, are sparse, bamboo, and hung over the hibachi in a simple rack. Japanese aesthetic meant that if the family didn’t use the object daily, it wasn't necessary.
When a brazier becomes an artistic focal point, the vessel was meant to heat an indoor room in a fine Japanese house, or exhibiting more important philosophically based designs and compositions, may have been used in a tea ceremony. Early 1800’s ceramic hibachis such as T.A.’s were used by the samurai and aristocratic classes, but simple braziers and hibachi were used until World War II to warm with heated coals everywhere in Japan, until replaced by oil heaters in public waiting rooms and train stations. Some of these are as simple as a metal tray in a hollowed-out section of a tree.
Since T.A.’s is so delightfully decorative, hers must have been used in the tea ceremony, originally begun in the 9th century by Buddhist monks bringing tea back from China. By the 13th century the taking of tea in a social group became a status symbol. With the revitalization of “Zen” in the 15th century, the Japanese tea service developed the aesthetic of “Wabi,” which roughly means ‘inner spiritual life’, represented in T.A.’s bowl by its asymmetrical and simple design in which the ceramic of the bowl is more important aesthetically to the composition than the horse or the glaze. Witness the ceramic clay showing through the holes in the surface; the holes are for cooling the surface, but also become a philosophic statement. Wabi principles emphasized naturalism and a simple unpolished affect.
The “Way of Tea” spoke of four elements: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility, cemented in the 16th century with the philosophy of “chanoyu” (the ceremony) as a spiritual practice. As drinking tea is social, the philosophy teaches the host to value the guests: each time two people meet, the occasion is unique. So is the season: T.A.’s decorative floor-top vessel might have been used, according to chanyu history, in the warmer months of May to October; a sunken heater in the floor reigned during the winter months.
T.A.’s bowl features images of horses on a special type of pottery called Soma Ware, characterized by the light blue-green glaze with cracks (cracqueleur) on the surface of the glaze, with multiple layers of clay to keep the outside of the vessel cool. Soma Ware includes images of horses; in fact, the ‘ma’ in Soma means horse. The center of Soma-yaki pottery was unfortunately Fukushima, the site of the 2011 nuclear disaster. A 300-year old tradition in the little village near Fukushima meant all the potters had to flee the area. A small soma tea bowl, not as elegant or important as T.A.’s sold at Skinner’s in Boston for $700.
Before we had dry bars, such as the 1935-1940 Chinese export owned by B.R., we had blind pigs or blind tigers, otherwise known as speakeasies. B.R.'s dry bar — a piece of living room furniture that can disguise itself — was built as a result of this era.
During Prohibition (1920-1933), the sale, manufacture and transportation (bootlegging) of alcohol was illegal throughout the U.S. By the time B.R.'s bar was manufactured, those speakeasies, those holes in the wall, were no longer necessary if you wanted to share a drink. The sequence goes like this: the saloon (1880-1920), the speakeasy (1920-1933), the era of drinking at home (1933-1950), the era of the cocktail lounge (1950-present).
The necessity of a bar in your home in the late 1930s was a response to the lack of development of bar stools in the US, although they had them in Europe. B.R.'s dry bar represents the era of drinking comfortably in your living room. As early as the end of Prohibition, Chinese craftsmen jumped to create home bars that could close up to disguise the guilty pleasure of drinking, along with bottles and fine barware.
In fact, a whole style of interior decorating grew around the culture of drinking in the American living room in the 1930s-1940s: the cocktail table; shakers; trays; martini glasses; cigarette boxes and ash trays; crystal stirring pitchers with long, sterling spoons; and little art deco cocktail napkins. Publicly frowned upon, exhibition drinking became a cottage industry in America, from which we developed a certain living room vernacular.
Drinking in a living room was a relatively late development. The late 19th century American saloon was a dirty, smelly, dark place, filled with sawdust to catch spit and, in some cases, urine. In the days before indoor plumbing, some saloons had a metal trough that ran knee level under the main bar. Coming in handy when men were drinking beer, these troughs were connected to one hole in the foundation.
Because of this environment, women of substance were not allowed in saloons. Yet the occasional gentleman wanted to treat his lady to a drink. Though U.S. hotels developed long bars in dining rooms from which waiters marched, it wasn't until 1935 that anyone thought of clogging up the bar area with stools, as they did in the smaller dining rooms of Europe. By that time, women would go out without men, and thus the barstool was dragged from Europe and placed under the long bar.
That's when China, which had discovered a lively U.S. interest in all things Asian, began exporting foldaway dry bars. China had access to carvable fruitwoods, and bars like B.R.'s were hand-carved with Asian themes. Exotic drinks and the "otherness" of an exotic buzz lead to exotic themes of pagodas and berobed ladies in Asian paradise gardens. These Chinese dry bars could be ordered in black lacquer with applied composition or semi-precious stone figures cavorting on the front cabinet doors; some lacquered pieces had disguisable side cabinets at the canted edge. All dry bars were works of ingenuous Asian engineering. Upon opening, a shelf might slide out, or a rack might swing out, or a disclosed slotted area might be revealed for various sizes of bottles. Some side shelves housed liquor glasses. Some had a cutout for an ice bucket. Some interiors were fitted with mirrors or colored glass. I own a dry bar with a hidden colored bulb that glows when the top is opened. The tops generally lifted back on a hinge, taking that opportunity to disclose an Asian-themed landscape.
These dry bars fell out of favor in the 1950s with the development of communal drinking, represented by the midcentury cocktail lounge with those huge leatherette banquettes and saucy neon lights.
B.R., my dry bar might just beat yours because of one irreplaceable distinction: a little pierced wood post for cocktail metal toothpicks, miniature cherries and olives in glass on the tiny ends.
The value of B.R.'s Hollywood Regency chinoiserie dry bar is $400.
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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