J.E. has three American Indian baskets, one at 13" diameters, the other at 7", and the smallest at 4". Her family passed these down from her great uncle, who was a well-known California antique dealer, active in the 1940s. Back then, the pickings were excellent.
I find researching the origins of these treasured pieces of cultural anthropology a challenge. We can take a few clues from what we know about J.E.'s uncle's "picking" style. He collected objects for his shop from all over California. He picked in the Fresno area as well as Carmel and Mendocino. This is an important bit of information.
But even then, these pieces are hard to place in relation to a tribe.
Unlike many other old objects, these objects have a meaning beyond their important cultural identity. If they, at one time, contained acorns or held water, they also contained a unique way of life, for which J.E. is respectful. She asked me about cleaning these. If she can dab them with slices of white bread, that's about as far as I would go. Yes, the bread will gather up some of the grime.
The first peoples of California used baskets, which were generally preferred to the rarer pottery forms. Baskets were constructed out of many things, but here we see cedar bark, pine needles and yucca root. The middle-sized basket is waterproof, and may have held one small meal of acorn mash heated with hot rocks. Accurately identifying the natives who made this one is tricky, because if it is from the Central Valley, the natives' cultural heritage was, in some significant ways, shared. This unique style of living was called a "moiety" system, meaning cultural identity was linked. The style of making and designing basketry was therefore also linked, with some recognizable tendencies, however, which experts have spent lifetimes figuring out.
I suspect the middle-sized basket to be Yokuts/Western Mono, or even Pima or Pomo, originating from a grouping of dozens of territorial groups of natives in the San Joaquin Valley.
From the Central Valley, trade relations with other peoples, sometimes hundreds of miles away, were healthy and robust. The maker of the middle-sized basket might have traded with the "Tokya" (literally, westerners), namely, the Costanoan, Salinan and Chumash tribes.
The location of each Central Valley village was originally ordained by Eagle, who, as first chief, placed a man and a woman in a certain place, creating an emotional connection with "home." This connection, however, did not exclude other people with blood ties. A good example, referring to the Yokuts, is that all cousins were referred to as brother and sister in the same place. Even third cousins. One did not consider even that distant relation "marriage material." Contrast that with late 19th century European royalty who intermarried cousins repeatedly.
The middle-sized basket, with a continuous geometric design, of Central Valley origin, is coiled into a bowl form. Because of the relatively pale condition of the undyed grass, accented with devil's claw in black, I put the bowl perhaps around 1920. The thickness of the coil indicates a three-rod support under the grass wrapping. The value of this is $400.
The smaller one, perhaps a gift basket, is tightly woven and also Central Valley in origin, perhaps Pomo, late 19th or early 20th century, with a running symbol of lightning radiating from its center. This fine little piece is worth $600.
The largest basket, however, is Southwest, in the form called "wedding tray," usually a treasured post-nuptial housewarming gift of great size. This is a large piece, and older than the other two baskets, with a linear zigzag that tells an interesting story. American Indian baskets, across the culture, often respect the great creator by allowing that the work of human hands is never perfect. Therefore, if you see a continuous design, you will often see a break in that design, a "spirit break," an opening in the flow. The value of this basket, because of its imperfect rim, with rodent gnawings, is $750. In this type of object, the value of even a damaged example will continue to increase in meaning and cost, because of the cultural history that these represent.
SJ sends me photos of a lovely little architecturally scalloped wooden tea caddy, picturing a monochromatic scene of lovers. This is a technique called “en grisaille,” painted with black, white and tones of gray. Because of the gray tones, the figures mimic sculpture, creating a three-dimensional effect. This realistic modeling in painting that is meant to mimic another medium is called trompe l’oeil (fool the eye).
Painting en grisaille was most desirable in the late 18th to early 19th centuries, the age of Chinese Export Porcelain, because Chinese artists who painted on porcelain for the European market referenced the Western classical style of the era, hearkening back to Greek and Roman sculpture. Artists found Monochromatic painting in black and gray on white porcelain easier to fire, and cheaper to produce. The English at that time saw the world in black and white in the popular engravings and etchings of the late 18th to early 20th century. So SJ’s box references black and white printmaking techniques as well as those techniques used to paint Chinese porcelain.
I can date SJ’s tea caddy by the shapes that follows the furniture styles of the century. An earlier style would echo the classical straight lines and formal massing of early Georgian furniture. The second quarter 18th century shape is Rococo in the decorative arts; the bombe form predominates. By the mid-18th century, a lighter classicism takes hold of both furniture and the decorative arts, imported from France: this is the date of the subject box.
SJ’s box in its palette en grisaille also mimics the most popular medium of tea caddies – sterling silver. Not until the 19th century do we find those heavier, less graceful wooden tea boxes with zinc-lined compartments. Many of these zinc-lined boxes were crafted in dark mahogany in a sepulchral (coffin-like) shape. Almost all box collectors have such a dreary looking 19th century tea caddy.
I put a high value on SJ’s box because of its early mid 18th century date, because of its masterful en grisaille paintings, and because the three tole boxes which are still inside. Famous European watering holes are mentioned on the sides of the box, another valuable feature – because quality water determined quality tea, and in the mid 18th century perfect fresh spring water was hard to come by. This reference makes this box historically valuable.
The form is typical of the period for a tea caddy. The name caddy is taken from the Malay word “Kati,” a unit of weight for measuring tea. The earliest tea caddies were silver, made for the wealthy under the reign of George I (1714-27). Tea was a commodity, a rarity, and heavily taxed. By the middle of the 18th century, the tax rate for tea was 119 percent. Little decorated boxes held precious tealeaves, and these boxes were steadfastly locked. The major suspects for such thefts were the household staff, especially chambermaids.
The interior of SJ’s box is also painted en grisaille, divided into three sections into which fit three tin (tole) boxes fitted with little round lids. One box contained your favorite tealeaves, and if the box contained a glass or silver bowl, that held sugar (a commodity), and one other box contained perhaps a professional tea-blender’s mix of teas for guests. Thomas Twining, a name tea-drinkers will recognize today, was mixing for George I. If Mr. Twining’s tea was too expensive, you ordered Hyson (green) tea for one container and Bohey (black) tea for the other. In fact, if you have an old English tea caddy, look for the initials H & B on the tops of the lids, which stands for the types of tea.
Thus, the box itself mirrors the ceremony created culturally around the drinking of tea through the 18th and 19th centuries, something, which our less gracious era has commoditized in a much different way into the very lucrative coffeehouse business of the 21st century: you can take tea speedily on every corner of a large metropolitan city.
Thus, SJ’s box, although smaller than today’s jewelry box, contains social history (the first tea was taken in England in the very late 17th century and did not catch on for years), as well as cultural history. You will notice that the top’s central motif is a young lady holding out a bird in a cage to a young lover. This is a painterly metaphor: a bird in a cage symbolized married love! The value of SJ’s box is $2,500.
PS sends me an old theater program from Treasure Island’s California Auditorium of 1940: Clifford C. Fischer’s Folies Bergere, showing a gorgeous “doll” with a strategically placed feather boa, pearls, black hat, red shoes, and nothing else.
I read that this Parisian production, premiering at the Golden Gate International Exposition (1939-1940), “grew legs” and remained in the San Francisco area, so popular was the Folies Bergere, known for generations from its music-hall home in Paris at 32 rue Richer, 9th Arrondissement, open for burlesque business since 1869.
The Golden Gate International Exposition was a singular World’s Fair, celebrating San Francisco in honor of the city’s two new bridges, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (1936) and the Golden Gate Bridge (1937). That special island, Treasure Island, was created artificially and attached to Yorba Buena Island, near the Oakland and San Francisco spans of the new Bay Bridge. Massive piles of landfill went into the 385 acres island. Because the Fair was literally in the water, the subtitle of the exposition was “Pageant of Pacifica, Goddess of the Pacific Ocean.” Therefore, females were definitely a theme of this world’s fair.
Take, for example, Sally Rand’s wildly famous Fair show, “Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch,” (not Dude Ranch), her “nudies” beckoning behind semi-disclosing fence posts. Her show, aptly, was held on the “Gayway,” a 40-acre midway embracing the Fair’s amusement zone. If you wanted to keep your kids away from the “nudies,” you could shuffle them off to the “Gayway” racetrack, featuring monkeys taught to drive cars.
The Folies Bergere’s impresario directed the burlesque girls, featured in PS’s program, in a two and a half hour show of “talent,” including a cast of 120 beauties, “the world’s most gorgeous girls.” These “girls” included Malica, “a saucy little dancer,” Jean Devereaux, the spinning ballerina, Ardelty, the “daring” trapeze artist; and Rollo and Verna Pickert, who tap-danced on stilts, as we read in the Sausalito News. All this in very scant costumes.
The Folies Bergere became one of the 1939-40 Fair’s most popular shows. The Oakland Tribune, on July 30, 1939, covering the show on the night of its closing, writes, it had “nothing short of a phenomenal (run), which was interrupted,” and (usually) “an interrupted run spells failure. Once the attendance is broken, the public looses its white heat and apathy sets in. The Folies Bergere proves the exception to the rule.”
Clifford C. Fischer, the impresario, continues The Oakland Tribune, will henceforward be “faced with the problem of outdoing himself.” The Folies played at the Fair for 15 weeks, averaging $27,000 per week, for an astounding box office of $400,000. How payrates have changed, but not for burlesque. The Screen Actors Guild says a major performer or guest star will be paid a day rate between $3000 and $6200, depending on the genre of the show. Stripped: More Stories from Exotic Dancers by Bernadette Barton says this ‘genre’ of performer receives on the average between $500 and $3 a performance. Even at this, the Folies dancers in 1940 did not do as well. As much as things have change in this genre of performance, things remain the same.
The show featured extravagant costumes, huge sets, and very little clothing. The original Folies Bergere, in Paris, trademarked this eroticism in a famous performance in 1926 by Josephine Baker, who danced in a string of artificial bananas only.
Clifford C. Fischer carried on the erotic tradition at the Folies Bergere of 1939 at the Broadway Theater in NY, and the Folies Bergere of 1944 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The tradition continued until March 2009, at the Tropicana Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, closing after 50 years of titillating entertainment.
Since this show was so popular, PS’s program is not all that rare, and therefore not all that valuable, worth $25 in good condition. We needed some nudity at just about that time, when the world was facing WWII. And when it comes to World’s Fair memorabilia, the market is hot, because the supply is dwindling. My prediction is that PS will have a valuable piece in 25 years, because printed paper ephemera fades, is destroyed. Furthermore, this type of art form is becoming obsolete in the world of computer printing. The artist of the “doll” portrait on the cover, Irving Sinclair (18895-1969), was a well know San Francisco artist, whose portraits included Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, and the 1920’s celebrities of Fox West Coast Theatres, not just those pin-up girls of burlesque!
C.B. sends me a photo of what appears to be a contemporary wall-mounted wooden sculpture. A further look shows its title is “Leader Clothes Dryer Pat’d July 4, 1899, GEM Mfg. Co. North Girard, PA.” This Zen-like minimalist appearing thing of beauty expands to form a tree from whose branches one can dry clothes indoors.
The history of washing and drying clothes is a snapshot of a ritual that was once a communal activity with room for socializing. European woodcuts from the 14th to the 16th century show groups of women with washing bats and boards gathered together at a river’s edge, or holding each other up to stomp clothes in a wooden tub. Women hold “possers” if they could afford better than a tree-stick to slap the dirt out of clothes.
On washing week, which was not all that frequent, women filled bucking vats with lye. Lye is a detergent of alkaline concoctions, but essentially is water silted through ashes from a wood fire. Where you lived determined your lye: seaweed ash in Spain, cherry in the Appalachians, potato plants for “weed ash” in Ireland. Some recipes call for urine to be run through the ash. This special sauce was called “chamber” lye because it “came from” bedroom chamber pots: this was perfect for stains and pre-soaking.
Adding boiled animal fat, our foremothers made black soap, known for its brownish color, but before washing with this soap, linens were pre-soaked in those bucking vats, the women continually re-heating water that passed through an ash-covered cloth for up to 18-hours. In fact the tradition of washing on Monday began because the process could take a week, between lye pre-soaks, rinses, soaping, more rinses, all interspersed with having to boil water over an open flame, let alone time for a fine day for line drying. Meaning all work had to be accomplished, in a pious household, before Sunday, and clothes had to be finished and folded before the Sabbath.
Here’s where C.B.’s object came in handy. If the weather was not conducive to drying, a system needed to be in place for room drying. Therefore, this wooden drying rack, which could be folded conveniently, was invented in the mid-19th century. At that time, Americans and Britons washed clothes twice a month, Germans once a month, and the French every three months. The wealthy families washed less because they prided themselves on full wardrobes and full linen closets. No one did his or her own washing, as it was so time consuming and laborious. Even middle-class families were visited by professional washerwomen, who spent almost a week at the house to accomplish the task, which included pre-soaking, washing, drying, sprinkling, mangling, ironing, and airing. If the week was overcast, C.B.’s little tool came in handy. City dwellers used CB’s tool as well during the early 20th century as more workers worked in cities, and apartments allowed no spacious open lawns for drying clothes. In fact, a century before, certain villages in England and American had designated open grass fields for this purpose.
Other domestic washing related paraphernalia includes mushroom-shaped linen smoothers (before the invention of flatirons) called slickenstones. Screw presses flattened large tablecloths, or in Scandinavian long flat boards were pressed down onto cloth using elbow grease; in England, “beetles” were used to pummel the wrinkles out of linen. By the mid-19th century, the mangle, with two hot rollers, was used for ‘flat work’ such as sheets, tablecloths, and wide full skirts.
About the date of C.B.’s indoor dryer tool invention, a detachable handle for heated flat irons was also invented, but a laundress still needed at least two heatable iron pieces, treated concurrently, to finish a blouse. These “sad irons” (sad meaning solid or weighty) had no thermostat, had to be polished, greased and stored well, so an experienced iron-woman was a sought-after servant. In India, a ‘press-wallah’ used an iron that contained hot coals to solve the re-heating problem, ‘wallah’ being an honorific that conveys the expertise achieved in a line of work.
A few years later than C.B.’s tool patent date, the electric iron was invented, but still fabric had to be dried in the air until J. Ross Moore of North Dakota developed the designs for an electrically operated automatic clothes dryer in 1938. Which means C.B.’s tool might well have been in use for 40 years to dry laundry indoors. Collectors for these will pay $150 for it.
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.
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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