RM has a little box, 4 inches wide, 8 long and 5.5 inches tall, made of “composite.” The medium is not wood, not gesso, not plaster, but a combination of all three, pressed into a mold. On the very top of the box is a beautiful naked woman, seductively lying on a seabed. “What is this?” RM wants to know. She says it “called” to her, 20 years ago, in an antique shop in Missouri, and she answered the call with $75.
Originally, boxes like this were used to hold celluloid collars, and were enjoyed by men as they chose their (detachable) collar for their daily dress shirts. That’s why the box is 8” long, the length of a doubled- over collar.
Looking into the decorative motifs molded into the box, we see swordfish, coral, starfish, kelp, fish of all kinds, octopi, the female cast in celluloid. Why this “ocean” iconography?
RM, the box “called to you” because the lady on the top is no lady, she’s a siren. She’s not a mermaid, she has legs, and mermaids do not call to people. Mermaids are generally nice creatures, sirens are not. Sirens are dangerous, and sailors were lured to their deaths when following their beautiful, irresistible calls.
Remember Odysseus (Ulysses) who wanted to hear – first hand – the siren’s song? He bade his men tie him to his ship’s mast, and plugged his mates’ ears with wax. Homer tells us Odysseus struggled to join the bewitching sirens.
RM’s box dates from the late 19th century. when one of the few ways a man could enjoy a nude was to mythologicalize her. He then enjoyed a moral lesson along with his pleasure: female beauty is dangerous, corrupting, tantalizing. As long as female nudity was a lesson to be learned, such an objet d’art was socially sanctioned.
A painted by the young artist William Etty, called “The Sirens and Ulysses” was gifted in the mid 19th century to the Royal Manchester Institution. It had remained unsold because people considered it too decadent. The scene shows three white-bodied nudes, singing and waving to Ulysses’ ship; the nudes are perched upon the decaying bodies of vanquished sailors. Etty was accused of going too far; called indecent, because he painted his sirens as contemporary women. Gone was the usual Greek draping. Gone was the traditional Greek bird-woman imagery. These sirens looked just like the siren on RM’s box, a real woman.
Designed for a man’s dresser, circa 1880, this box would both remind and warn a young man that females are seductive and dangerous. The moral: “stick with nice girls!”
From this long tradition of the beleaguered feminine comes the very definition of the “Siren Song.” That song is beckoning, utterly mesmerizing. A man has no power but to stay far away from such temptation.
The great novelist and poet Margaret Atwood’s poem "Siren Song" says it best:
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible.
The song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the bleached skulls.
The song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the other’s can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me…
[off] this island,
looking picturesque and mythical…
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique –
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.
This poem deals with both the languid and lonely life of the beautiful siren on her island, and the conquering wiles of her calls for help. A favorite myth of the mid 19th century, images of the siren featured in both high and low culture. This box would have been considered low culture because instead of a precious metal medium, this is made of “composite,” cheap and machine made. The introduction of celluloid for the nude is a low culture substitution for ivory. This box wasn't expensive when produced in the late 19th century.
But what a story, told in the middle of Victorian approbation of sex and sensuality. The box is a great example of the uses of Classic Greek art and story to make something taboo acceptable. If ancient Homer wrote it, the subject was okay for the mid-19th century. RM, your sea-siren box is indeed a treasure box, and worth $300.
MAM sends me a photo of a fascinating Chinese table lamp that is a four-sided gently sloping rectangular shape in colored glazes on white with floral enameling, setting off a raised relief of a Buddha.
I have never shared with anyone the secret of the ‘hidden treasure’ potential of the Chinese vase lamp. Here it is: in the early days of electric lamps, (1920’s) many very valuable old Chinese vases were denuded of their floral arrangements from the front parlor and conscripted to be “electrified.” If you have a 1920’s table lamp, therefore, you might have a Ming Period (1368-1644) vase.
When I search the thrift stores, I always look at lamp bases because almost any handyman can take the lamp apart and reconstruct the vase. I found, years ago, an old Chinese tobacco leaf HUGE barrel shaped lamp base patterned with those bright green rows of leaves. I had the drill hole professionally filled and threw away all the electrical apparatus. It sits today as a vase on my dining room table.
Occasionally an amateur 1920’s lamp maker (and almost all lamps were custom made in home workshops in the early days of electricity) kindly leads through the top of the vase and made a niche for the old silk woven cord in the neck fitting. Those are the lamps to grab, as someone knew they were valuable. However, more often than not, the treasured vase has been drilled through the base to allow for a shaft or cord. Although this would devalue a 19th century Chinese vase, it may not significantly devalue a rare early Chinese vase. You will be shocked when you start to look at old table lamps. Craftsmen transformed everything from Bronze sculptures to giant glass pickle jars from general stores into lamps in the early 20th century.
The first quarter of the 20th century drilled away on expensive, rare vases because early home lighting via electricity was also expensive and rare. The Western Electrician of 1890 wrote “in 1878 the electric light made it appearance in San Francisco and was exhibited at the Palace Hotel.” That was the first public display of a lighting fixture in California; think of all the lamps we have in our homes today. You can imagine how early 20th century householders loved to show off the newly invented light bulb situated in a suitably impressive vase.
MAM has exactly this configuration of a lamp. Her vase is 19th century Chinese Shiwan Pottery, which is a form of high-glazed (in colors) earthenware, from a group of ancient kilns near Canton. As opposed to the finer, hotter fired, more desirable porcelain, earthenware was never made for the royal families of China. Shiwan became known as the people’s ware. Perhaps MAM’s vase was potted at the 17th century Nan Feng Kiln (the Southern Wind Kiln), 32 meters long with 26 rows of stoking holes. This shape is a dragon kiln, a long tunnel snaking up a hillside; the shape was pioneered for pottery as early as the Waning States Period (475-221 BC).
The area where MAM’s vase was thrown in the Foshan area goes back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Distinctive heavy weight pottery with a thick glaze of gray-white, over which additional glazes are added in shades of blue, rose, black and a uniquely toned blue/purple/red glaze called “the kingfisher” are the characteristics of Shiwan or Shekwan (Shek = rock in Cantonese) pottery.
Now what does the imagery on MAM’s vase mean? In Buddhist China, that figure on a lion and the figure on an elephant is Wenshu, who lives on one of the Four Sacred Mountains of China, Mount Wutai in Shanxi. Foguang Temple shrine to Wenshu was built in 1137. Wenshu’s mountain paradise in North China is in caves on a mountain in the ‘Northeast’ when seen from India. In India, this Buddha of the East Mountain Teaching is Manjusri. Indian pilgrims came to China to visit Manjusri at Wutai Shan as early as the 7th century.
Not only is Wenshu the giver of illumination to the mind’s eye, but his steed signifies the restraint needed to control the wild mind. MAM, your Wenshu was believed to have written a poem about reincarnation with his monk:
Drumming your grandpa in the shrine,
Cooking your aunts in the pot,
Marrying your grandma in the past –
Should I laugh or not?
Aside from the marvelous history and imagery, your lamp, purchased years ago at a Montecito estate sale, is worth $400.
JF sends me a picture postcard from the Panama Pacific International Exposition of San Francisco, circa 1915. What follows is a key to valuation of postcards in general – and a big surprise about this particular scenic card.
How does one judge the value of vintage postcards? The first value-factor is subject. Look for subjects that represent change. Here’s an example: the Alps have not changed. A small town, 1900 to today, has changed. The smaller the town, the rarer the card, because cities were best represented.
Picture postcards are more valuable that greeting postcards: those Valentines and Christmas postcards are not as sought after as view cards, especially when those view cards show modes of transport, especially cars, early 20th C. Those cards are ‘cross collectibles,’ meaning car enthusiasts will buy them, as well as post card collectors. Another cross-collectible card is one that features outlandish styles of the period, appealing to costume collectors and card collectors.
‘Cute kids’ postcards are collectible when the kid is holding any other animal OTHER than a dog or cat! Animals dressed as humans other than dogs or cats are also collectible. Another genre is the ‘comic’ postcard, which usually is non-PC and often downright insulting in some way. An example of such a card is an elderly Floridian walking is ‘pet’ alligator on a string. There’s the whole sub-genre of Black Americana cards.
Another type of comic postcards is the politically themed image: take, for example, the postcard picturing Adolf Hitler as a saint. Unbelievably, some postcard collectors look for ‘catastrophe’ postcards: an example would be a flooded small town with a dead cow on a rooftop. That card will sell for $35.
Another valuable category is early advertising cards- especially those for strange machines, like products for feminine enjoyment, if you catch my drift. When valuable cards are backed with linen or printed on leather or compressed wood, they can be more rare and valuable.
Earlier than the categories above are “real” photo postcards. These are pre- 1910, and may picture a live-- or even dead ---baby. Yes, you read right. Since infant mortality rate was high, a memorial to a deceased child was often such a card. The problem with identifying these photo postcards is that photographers put their names and studios in the square where for the stamp, and you’ll not want to peel a valuable stamp!
Early postcards (pre 1920) did not have space on the back for both addressee and message- just space for addressee.
Check the maker of cards 1910-1920; look for the Artura imprint. Collectors consider this the Golden Age of postcards. Cards with the Kodak imprint are from the 1950’s ---and not so valuable.
Now to JF’s great card: it is a World’s Fair Collectable, and a great subject. This is a rare night scene. The image is an illuminated building, a wonder, in 1915. This shows the lighting of the Fair’s Tower of Jewels. Illumination of this magnitude was unheard of; when fair visitors saw this spectacle at night they were moved to write poetry.
The feat was credited to General Electric Illuminating Laboratories, under inventor Walter D’Arcy Ryan. He was hired, because in 1907, he had illuminated Niagara Falls at night, with the installation of batteries of projectors with the power of 1,115,000,000 candles. The huge crowd gathered to witness this event gasped as the spotlights froze the great cascading cataracts.
For the San Francisco Fair of 1915, Ryan designed an approach to dazzle the night: he lined edges of buildings with incandescent light. He floodlit facades. Then he added depth with rose-colored lights inside the porticos and terraces. He lit interiors of buildings for that warm glow. But his piece d’resistance was the Tower of Jewels, dominating the Fair at 400 ft. To make his floodlights ‘pop’, he needed something to set off the white light. He contracted Austrian craftsmen to facet huge cut glass jewels, hung for maximum refraction over the 400-foot facade. The 130,000 glass jewels were delivered on 2/15/15, 3 weeks before the official start of the Fair. Workmen hung miles of these jewels, called Novagems.
The management of the Fair did not know if this scheme would work. When the combined floodlights and shadow- hued gels shown upon that Tower on opening night, the jewel-sparkle was caught in the lagoon below. Imagine that sight in 1915, when few people owned an electric lamp? JF’s card, because of rarity, subject, and condition is worth $50.
M.H. from Ventura has a print by Christian Riese Lassen, a fine Hawaiian marine artist. The work is titled at the top “The Circle of Life,” with the artist’s name also printed at the bottom. MH’s artwork presents the opportunity to answer common questions about popular living artists. A few of these artists, such as Lassen, Thomas Kinkade, and Peter Lik only sell at retail from their own (often online) galleries. These galleries bear the epitaph “official.” What degree does OFFICIAL play in authenticity?
This is an important question, because these popular artists who have command of their marketplace often take complete control of what it means for their own work to be authentic, and their definition differs from the majority consensus of the art world. The key to value lies, for these artists, in the phenomena of a tightly controlled market, with a unique definition of authentic and official. Does M.H. own an “authentic” or “official” lithograph, which by its nature is multiple? Or does M.H. own an “official” or “authentic” poster? The answer lies in how and whom the artist assigns to confer authenticity. Lassen’s website reserves the in-house right to authenticate, which in turn determines value. Thus, value comes from within the gallery.
This is different from other works of art. Authenticity is established, in the case of a modern master painting, by scholars, or (in France) the families of the artist. If a work is judged authentic, the market then determines value based on similar works by that artist.
Lassen’s colorful online gallery qualifies the authentication process. The site will give a current retail cost for pieces in their “Current Lassen Authorized Price Book,” which holds work currently for sale. If a run of a print is sold out, which they estimate happens in 4-years, the online gallery is unable to provide retail costs. This is the inverse of some other works of art, which mature into a price point. Lassen’s market depends on future releases that will sell at retail.
Many collectors receive a letter at purchase, a “Certificate of Authenticity.” If MH’s is lost, the gallery needs proof that she is the original owner (more about why later), the work’s title, the edition letters/numbers, the image’s measurements, and the medium. The site advises that if collectors want to sell a Lassen work, they do not offer this experience. Retail, novelty, and newness are valuation criterion.
The reason that proof of purchase is required is not altogether about establishing authenticity; it is a way to keep the retail gallery as the predominant marketplace arbiter. If nothing is authenticable unless the first purchasers hold it, only the arm’s length retail marketplace is active, and therefore only retail-sold works can be authenticated. If there’s no other work BUT retail, there’s no secondary market, such as U.S. auction houses, because auctioneers who are held to a certain regulated standard need to research and justify value.
M.H., I found many of Lassen’s lithographic prints at auction in Japan’s Mainichi Auction House; I searched for “Circle of Life” assuming I would see other eponymous prints. Other lithographs in the “Life” titles do not have a running title across the top, although some are signed in gold leaf across the bottom. Unlike yours, these actually look hand-signed.
The Lassen lithos at Mainichi Auctions fetch around $1,000 each. For Lassen’s original (acrylic on canvas) paintings, the auction sales range is wide: from $1,500 to $10,000 per canvas. Lassen’s work is attractive enough to the Japanese buyer that the lack of a secondary market established over time is perhaps not a deterrent to bidding. Mainichi auctions have sold many Lassens, thus value may be estimated by following those auction results, but, because of wildly fluctuating prices paid, I wouldn’t rely on Mainichi estimates. This is a good example of the collision of two very different methods of art valuations: one from the artist gallery that sets the price, and one from the auction world, which sets another.
I notice that the June 11th “Paintings” auction at Mainichi in Tokyo features Lassen’s acrylic original “Dolphin” at 58x88 cm, signed, going for an estimate around $18,800.
M.H., I could find no lithograph like yours, but I did find TEC Hawaii offering YOUR image in a “high-quality – the finest inks and poster board available” – poster. The retail price is $40. Unless your print is hand-signed by Lassen (and I would need to unglazed and examine it), I’m afraid it’s not worth much.
TK and her mom found this old bible, Old and New Testament, published by the NY American Bible Society, 1888. TK wants to know if it’s worth something.
Every family has such a Bible. If I had an open door policy, half of all objects in my office for a free appraisal would be these family Bibles. Most of them, because everyone has one, are worth very little, even if they appear quite old. The prime value consideration is indeed condition. And most family Bibles are NOT in good shape.
What is interesting about TK’s family Bible is the publisher: the NY American Bible Society. The very first Bible society was established in Germany by Baron Karl Hildebrand von Carstein in 1710 in Saxony. Baron Carstein was a Pietist, a very specific Christian sect, founded by this Baron. Thus, to spread the word, he published his own version of the Bible, and by the time he died at 54, he had published six million Bibles in German, Bohemian and Polish, a huge amount in the 18th century.
We may find this hard to believe today, but the Bible has had many versions, slanted various ways. Bible societies were leaders in this tradition, for the express purpose of circulating a specific set of beliefs, using the new medium of affordable book publishing. Next time you’re in a hotel room, bored, and pull out that Gideon Bible, remember Gideon is a long line in a tradition of Bible societies, although Gideon’s Bible is not directly translated.
And translation serves as the key to “interpreting” the scriptures to have them read “your way.” Note that TK’s bible says on the frontispiece “translated from the original tongues.” The translator has leeway.
One of the first translators, Jerome, in 382 AD, was commissioned by Pope Damasus to translate the various languages of the holy books known at the time, and pull them together via translation into a Bible the Pope approved of. To do so, Jerome had to translate books from Hebrew, Greek, Old Latin, Aramaic, from different origins: Alexandrian, Byzantine, Egyptian, Greek or Roman. Jerome was also the editor, and threw out what the Pope didn’t like. His Bible is written the vulgate, low Latin, which reigned until 1530, when Protestants appeared. As a reaction, the Roman Church’s Council of Trent formalized and finalized their Bible in 1564, 1100 years after Jerome’s Bible. So TK, you see your “translated” Bible has a very long tradition.
Bible societies produced sheer numbers of Bibles, and therefore TK’s has many more brothers out there in the marketplace for old books. Check out the most valuable Bibles for sale on AbeBooks if you want to see what is REALLY worth something. Condition, as stated, is important, and rare language Bibles in good condition are a real find. Those foreign language Bibles are MOST valuable.
Early missionaries translated Bibles for the peoples they called ‘neophytes.’ For example, a rare Bible published by the Jesuits for the Chinese, or those once found right here in Santa Barbara for the Native population. The Mission Archive and Library has such a Bible. But a New York Bible Society Bible is just not rare, even though it is relatively old. In addition, the leather on the cover has been worn: check the binding to make sure it is not damaged for the condition issues.
Can you picture sexy young Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum, in Paper Moon selling his door-to-door Bibles? That’s how the societies sold these, TK, and if I had to pick someone to sell me a Bible society Bible and run off with my money I'd pick Ryan O’Neal any day. In fact, the ghost of Baron Carstein has nothing on Ryan O’Neal when it comes to door-to-door Bible salesmen. A few great histories of Bible Societies in the US are indeed worth reading, so you can see how active these Societies became in the late 19th century, a time of religious fervor, especially in New York.
Thus, we’re lucky that the Bible, which has had so many disseminations, is still around. Think of all the Bible society Bibles translated by various translators since Baron Carstein in 1710. TK’s New York Bible Society was one of the largest and most productive. TK’s Bible is worth $75. Good literature has staying power, and perhaps some otherworldly help as well.
B.W. from Montecito has a painting of colorful straw-hatted workers in a rice paddy, which she believes was purchased in Thailand. It is signed “Sujarit”: the artist is Sujarit Hirankul (1946-82). Most of this artist’s works were created in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; Sujarit was a prolific painter of his day, selling such idyllic scenes to Western tourists.
This little painting is symptomatic of a global sea change in the art world, which is, briefly, the result of such romantic visions of a foreign, third world culture. Today the vision has changed to a newer, hipper brand of globalization. Which form of globalization suits a painting: consumer culture overlaid onto idealization, or conceptual culture, which teaches that art should be about a certain philosophy? This little painting tells the path into that story.
I come across many “genre” paintings like this, which sold to Western tourists coming to Southeast Asia in the mid 20th century. Artists such as Sujarit often painted delightful visions of Southeast Asian rural life, deceptively joyful and bright. However, life in Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the “Mekong” area, was not joyful and bright in the 1960’s-70’s. Images like B.W.’s romanticized what Westerners nostalgically wanted to imagine. Not all those straw hats in the hot sun bent to labor were as golden as they are here portrayed. Yet many tourists to Southeast Asian bought such ‘innocent’ images. Why?
The aesthetic sea change that has happened in Southeast Asia means that art like Sujarit’s may never be painted quite like this, for sale to foreigners, again. Art, and painting, is today thinking of itself as “global,” all over the contemporary art world, and so is the artistic idea of a “concept” behind a work of art. Today South Asian contemporary art is globally aware of itself and its philosophy. This is due in part to the generation of artists who entered overseas art schools just when Sujarit was ending his career as a painter in Thailand (early 1980’s).
Gone today are visions of happy peasants laboring in rice paddies, this singular, childlike vision in art that was purchased by American tourists after the memories of the Vietnam War. Sujarit was a fine painter, and his paintings sell in the range of $1,000-3,000; some canvases of ‘happy workers’ sell for much more. But the ‘kind’ of painting, a good craftsman painting politically romanticized Mekong visions, is a thing of the past.
That style is itself an inherited style, a hangover from late 19th century. European visions of the happy farmhand or fisherman, smithy, or seamstress. The late 19th century “genre," meaning peasants and common folk in romanticized portrayals, style of painting gave birth to Sujarit’s happy Asian peasants, painted in the 1960-70’s, the happy colors applied with expert brush strokes. These canvases sold wherever Western tourists with dollars were found.
Contrast that art scene with the Southeast Asian art scene today. Singapore today is the center of a renaissance in contemporary art. The National Heritage Board sponsors the Singapore Art Museum as well as the New National Gallery. Hong Kong, too, has a 100-acre West Kowloon Cultural District anchored by a new $642 million contemporary art museum, M+ Pavilion. Gwangju, South Korea, opened its own huge state-sponsored Asian Culture Complex in 2016.
Sujarit’s work, being Thai art, comes from the only Southeast Asian nation that was never colonized, and New Siam today has a privately owned $24.6 million dollar Museum of Contemporary Art. Moreover, Thai artists are well represented in the major festivals of the contemporary art world. The famous Venice Biennale honored a modern contemporary Thai artist, Kamol Tassananchalee. Thailand has been represented in the Venice Biennale since 2003.
The sea change, from art such as we see in BW’s painting by Sujarit, to the burgeoning contemporary art scene in southeast Asia today, shows proof how far Thai artists today are from Sujarit’s “happy peasant” subject matter: in 2009, a Venice Biennale installation, aptly titled “Gondola al Paradiso Co., Ltd”, satirized former Thai artists' visions (such as Sujarit’s) of “Tourist Art.” In other words, art is the conveyor (the gondola) of a so- called Paradise, which is, ironically, trademarked Paradise, Ltd.
That is exactly the kind of art we see in B.W.’s lovely idyllic little canvas, which tells a story of assimilated cultural values in such an appealing way that Sujarit’s canvases have been known to sell for $6,000 on a good day at auction.
P.P. sends me a copper plate engraving on paper which is signed Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-91), a French Classicist painter known for his portrayal of cocky handsome soldiers, ‘bonhommes’ – original Good Fellas of the 17th and 18th century. Meissonier loved to paint armies, Napoleon, chivalry, games of skill, and manly men smoking pipes, reading, drinking, eating and posing in uniform. His work was famed for its meticulous line and tiny details, and, although large-scale mythological and moralistic history paintings were formerly prized, he turned popular taste to the small canvas of narrative, good old days themes, often including just a few (handsome, stalwart) historically dressed subjects.
Meissonier in his day charged so much for his paintings that by mid-career in 1846 he could afford a Grand Mansion in Poissy complete with two studios, one, glass-roofed for summer, and the other, a warm top-floor studio for winter. Portly, massively bearded in white, he looked every inch the “old master,” selling to the likes of Sir Richard Wallace, the Duc de Mornay, and Queen Victoria, and later, commissioned by Napoleon III to document battle scenes as they happened.
Just 40 years before the Impressionists turned the art world on its head, fresh out of art school Meissonier first exhibited in the Salon of 1831 a small detailed painting of ‘Dutch Burghers’ in a throwback style reminiscent of Dutch Realism of the 17th C. The Salon of 1857 saw nine Meissonier paintings, all historical genre pieces, such as his “The Young Man at the Time of the Regency.” He lived what he painted: loving military life, in 1848 he fought on the French Republican side as a captain in the National Guard. King Emmanuel of Piedmont and Sardinia with Napoleon III warred against the Hapsburgs in Northern Italy; Meissonier was called to document that glory. After working three years, Meissonier produced “The Emperor Napoleon III at Solferino,” showing a grand mustachioed emperor on Campaign, at the 1861 salon.
The artistic climate of Paris in the 3rd quarter of the 19th C has often been described as the established order holding onto dear life in the dawn of industrialization, modern warfare, photography, and new ways of seeing. Meissonier represented the Old Guard. Upon their first exhibit in 1874 at the studio of the photographer Nadar of the “Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.” (the first Impressionist exhibition), Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro and Morisot saw Meissonier, a few years later and across Paris, showing 16 historical paintings at the Exhibition of 1878, such as his portrait of “Alexandre Dumas,” and “Cuirassiers of 1805,” and “Outpost of the Grand Guard.” Two more opposing currents have seldom been witnessed in the art world.
The art world and those upstart painters from the other side of the City of Lights would have to wait a bit for an Impressionist Revolution: Meissonier became President of the Great National Exhibit in 1883, showing “The Army of the Rhine,” and in 1885, Meissonier became the President of the Societe National des Beaux-Arts, a newly minted organization holding onto the Old Guard of art and architecture.
P.P. was also a Meissonier etcher, and we see this in P.P.’s piece: both a master etcher of his own works and the works of other artists; etchings sold well to the middle class, perhaps because of affordable, conservative manly themes as “Preparations for a Duel” and “The Reporting Sergeant.” The glory of French militarism was in the air: in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Meissonier was a Colonel of a regiment; previously he had accompanied Napoleon III to Italy attached to his Imperial staff. He loved his uniforms!
P.P.’s etching of two handsome young military types reading a letter is pencil signed in the margin by the artist and also signed in the “plate” which means his signature is etched into the design itself for multiples of prints; it is dated 1857 in the plate. Also in pencil in the margin is the name Henri Dioz, a soldier who fought in 17th C. in battles against the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Spanish for the treasures (mainly sugar) of Brazil. Thus, Meissonier depicts a noble soldier reading missives from this glorious foreign war to a comme il faut friend. Note a “Remarque” lower right – a small image worked by Meissonier as a footnote to this etching; this depicts two fashionably dressed young swordsmen.
Although a huge moneymaker in his time, today Meissonier is not in great demand, and I place the value of P.P.’s etching at $300.
DC sends me two Chinese works, one an ink and gouache painting on paper, and one a silk embroidery on silk. The painting depicts a lone, bearded, fur-cloaked man of the countryside in a fur wrap over baggy brown heavy trousers. He stands on a snow-filled riverside bank, under a bamboo stand speckled with snow. He holds a pole or spear to catch game. His plain ‘dǒulì’, a simple bamboo hat, is frozen over with crystalized white snow. Yet the most striking feature of this image of 12” x 22 ½” is the thick blue woolen scarf the freezing man hugs to his mouth and chest. The image effectively captures the feeling of cold; holding a warm wrap to chattering teeth, or capturing warm breaths in wool, is known to every farmer, fisherman or hunter.
The hunched posture is indicative of the poor man’s attempt to conserve body warmth. Thus, the artistry of feeling is definitely evident. This emotion in the painting is one of the clues that perhaps the painter executed the work with knowledge of the European taste for a certain type of art. This theme of the common folk in art is closer to the European tradition of Genre painting of the late 19th early 20th century. Not often in Chinese painting does the collector see a member of the common folk expressing basic simple human emotion. Yes, classic Chinese painting portrays battle scenes and sword fights and wrestling matches, but these are noble pursuits by the warrior class. Perhaps an early 20th century Chinese collector found this image of a hunter or fisherman huddled for warmth in the snowy countryside an unlikely theme for a work of art. Further indication suggests this painting was created for other than Chinese eyes, and for other than connoisseurs of classic Chinese painting.
The work is signed “Yu” in “Latin” alphabetical letters. This is not typical of the highest level of Chinese paintings, as what is considered the best Chinese paintings were painted for Chinese connoisseurs. In fact, an artist’s pictographic signature (called a chop) has pride of place in a composition. Moreover, Chinese consider the way an artist signs an art in itself. A subset of Chinese artwork features only Chinese characters; this is the fine art of calligraphy painting. A saying in Chinese states, “Calligraphy is the reflection of one’s morality and moral character.” The way an artist writes the characters of his name is his personal style disclosed to the connoisseur.
Think of the importance of writing in ancient China. Arguably, the building blocks of European plastic arts are architecture and sculpture. In Chinese art, the premier heads of the formative arts are firstly, calligraphy, and secondly, painting. One of the reasons for this preeminence is Chinese writing’s rich history: pictographic Chinese characters date back 8000 years. As far back as the Song Dynasty, (960-1279) scholars emphasized the essential element of the written word in painting. Theories of brush-handling were taught in practice that blended calligraphic skills into painting. Thus, the relationship between writing and painting is intertwined uniquely in China, in a way many Occidentals may not grasp. The style of an artist’s brush when painting or signing his/her name is therefore the soul of the painting, historically speaking.
This indicates the painting was created for the non-Chinese market, for Occidental standards of appreciation. That is not pejorative in itself, but it means DC’s painting’s style falls outside of the traditions appreciated by Chinese connoisseurs. And the art market is definitely on the side of Chinese paintings in the classic Chinese style which include certain traditions of proportion, color, perspective, and signature.
DC’s other work is a Chinese silk on silk embroidery of two kittens, gifted to her after the death of her cat. Ever see a cat sculpture with raised paw at a Chinese-owned business? Cats bring fortune. And DC’s research turned up the translation of the characters that comprise the chop: "energetic and lively-dedicated." This silk work typically comes from Suzhou, where experienced needle workers split a single silk thread to create realistic fur. Layer upon layer in various tones creates depth. DC’s work dates to before computerized machine embroiders: hand-embroiders use silk; and machines use full strands of anything but silk, which breaks easily. Yet the art market thinks of these as decorative works. The value of DC’s “Cold” painting? $300. The value of DC’s embroidery? $100.
PH sends me two pieces of ceramics in the style of Attic figural (Greek) vase painting. PH wants to know if he has something of ancient history, dating from the 6th century BC, worth millions, or a simple keepsake of a relative’s visit to Athens. He has some nice tourist vases from the 20th century. A dead giveaway is the two little lead pieces hanging from the handles. These little bits of lead are a 20th century Greek (honest) gesture meaning “copy.”
PH’s first vase shows Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, and wine. He is well built and naked, showing him to be powerful, bearded, and virile. He carries his attributes, a Thyrsus, a staff of giant fennel, which is wound around ivy vines and leaves, topped with a pinecone. He speaks to all things wild, wearing a leopard skin over his naked, massive shoulder, and carries a krater for wine. He is not only the god of wine, of course, but of madness, theater, and ecstasy. One of the three Dionysius figures carries a grape bag over his shoulder. If PH’s relatives were visiting Greece, they'd have known this recognizable god.
The other vase shows Herakles, a god for the Greek visitor, holding his attributes, a club and a lion skin. The skin of the Nemean Lion refers to the first of his famous labors. Also on the vase is a female figure who is eyeing his lion skin: that is Xenodice: Herakles killed her father, and later, her too. Although these are in the style of at least 580 BC, these vases are souvenirs only, but with a great story.
We did not know much about the production centers of early Attic pottery until 1852, when an area of Athens was demolished for a building project. German scholars discovered the Kerameikos section of the 6th century BC, the potter’s quarters in Athens. The 19th century scholars found the workshop of the Jena Painter, whose red and black works are now at the Fredrich Schiller University of Jena. Some of these vases are signed with two signatures, one for the painter, and one for the potter. The scholars could trace back some of the signatures to slaves, employed in the production.
We think of the painters as being the artists, above the skill of the potter, but in fact, the painters were the apprentices, hoping to graduate to the level of potter. The form is of utmost importance, and is a clue to the love of shape and mass in that early culture.
Vase painters were, in that early time, not considered artists but artisans, and their works were imported and traded. Some of the painters were literate, as shown by the naming of some of the gods and figures on ancient vases, but some had faux letter marks in the style of Greek lettering.
The figure of Dionysus on PH‘s vase is significant, because 6th century BC artisans made these ceramics for the Symposia. What a wonderful thing it must have been to experience such an event, not frequented by artisans, but restricted to upper class educated men. First, one dined on elegant lounges with these elegant ceramics for wine and food, and dined off precious metal platters. Then the highly decorated black and red kraters for wine only were bought in by the servants. Drinking wasn't merely part of dining: it accompanied the later conversation, loosening the lips, enlivening the appreciation of dancing, music and learned dialogue, and lustful thoughts.
Almost all households in the 6th century BC had ceramic vessels, as well as wooden platters for eating, but only the wealthy could afford elegant painted ceramic pieces.
The most interesting fact of all is that these red and black pots are found widely in the ancient world: the export market was lucrative. Scholars say that the only subject matter that was NOT exported was images of Greek Theater: trading partners Spain, France, and Portugal wouldn't have understood what magic happened on a Greek stage of that time.
PH, the market for tourist vases made in the 20th century like yours is not strong, but some of the early copies from the 18th and early 19th century are in demand. You could sell them today higher than you could have 10 years ago, because the midcentury modern market seems to like these copies. The value? $50 each.
EE sends me what might be every woman’s wish, here voiced in the form of pop art: Roy Lichtenstein’s print entitled “Well, if they can put one man on the moon, why not all of them?”
This print features this aphorism as well as two gorgeous blondes at a lady’s room mirror, fixing their hair, and wondering aloud about the ramifications of the late 60’s moon landing. EE asks, outside of the fact of the piece asking a GREAT question, what is the significance of the print? Is it a comic or something else?
There’s much interest in mid-century art. Roy Lichtenstein’s graphic images are often seen with art by Patrick Nagel. Nagel’s work features screen prints in flattened colors of seminude work-out girls from the 1970’s. Nagel’s work is not valued nearly as highly as Lichtenstein’s, for many good reasons, and an original print by Lichtenstein is valued in the six-figures.
Lichtenstein’s work turned comic book pixilation into a comment about what a work of art is allowed to be, and is popular because it spans print graphics and fine art. After mellowing for 50-years, it is considered expensive and iconic.
To see if EE has an original screen print, I would need to see the way the pigment is laid on that paper; it would be most valuable if it were signed and numbered.
As to the expression about men on the moon: most of Lichtenstein’s best work incorporates comic book-style one liners: today those one liners have a name: MEMES. And of course, I found a few sites devoted to the meme of the work she owns: Well, if they can put one man on the moon, why not all of them? One such meme site answers the question posed in EE’s print with a modern day answer: “If they put all men on the moon, we would have nothing to complain about.”
The importance of this piece was tied with the late 60’s moon landing. Almost 50 years after this event and the painting of it, Lichtenstein is still a controversial figure in art history. Arguably the first American pop artist to achieve worldwide fame (along with Warhol), his work was inspired by what was considered insipid comic strip material, and was called banal. Instead of copying, Lichtenstein’s canvases blend traditional mechanical print lithographic techniques with meticulous hand-painting.
A word on the art world before Lichtenstein: intellectuals painted in a style called Abstract Expressionism: as the name suggests, soulful abstracted colors and themes distanced the artists and the viewer from popular culture. Lichtenstein reversed the paradigm and brought popular culture to the forefront with all its garish vulgarity and surface decoration. This was a comment on how we consume art.
Anyone who has seen an original Lichtenstein up close will notice his painted dots, which mimicked print media such as illustrated tabloids. These, technically, are called “Ben-Day” dots: in EE’s work, these dots make up the whole of the image. Lichtenstein is asking: don’t we all see through a code? Is that code the very medium of a work of two-dimentional art? Or is that code the filter of common culture? His preferred medium, by the way, was a blend of the high and low: a blend of oil and synthetic polymer paint: itself a confusion of traditional and banal.
EE’s image from the 1960’s zooms in on one figure in a cartoon frame and creates a drama, albeit a comic one: two pretty blondes trivialize the moon landing in one age-old question: what if we didn’t have to live with men? Yet who are they dolling themselves up for in that lady’s room mirror? (Notice the well-upholstered 60’s push-up bra.) And notice the printed language in the artwork: that’s part of the code. The printed word, until Lichtenstein, was primarily reserved for the gallery label. Like so much in the mid-century world of consumerism, EE’s print is a comment on commercial art versus high art (in this case, regarding the earth-shattering moon shot), I should say cosmic art.
Until I see the work in person, EE, you don't have a comic book reprint. You have something much more significant.
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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