In this series, Geo and I will list some of the interesting items that we have found in auctions, antique shops, or eBay. Neither do we own the items nor do we have the capability of examining the items in person in most cases. It mainly serves as an inventory record of what interests us (not necessarily in terms of value or investment opportunities) and possibly how much it fetches (if the result can be obtained). If you are serious about some lots, please contact the auction houses, dealers, or eBay sellers directly.
1. New Orleans Auction, Oct 10, 2009 Lot 63, Japanese Lacquer Storage Box
The gold, silver and red lacquer on top of the black one gives a shimmering opulent beauty to the storage box. To me, the intriguing part of Japanese decoration in the Meiji period is that the patterned design flattens and denaturalizes the spacial relationship, at the same time the delicate layering of materials adds depth into the design. Observing how the flowers, leaves and circular panels superimpose and intersect with others is such a pleasure and a surprise of the rigid and meticulous craftsmanship behind this simple restrained design. The round corners and edges enable the flowers to extend and shift into a different plane, uniting all visible surfaces into a complete scheme. This box is fairly large, what would you store in it?
2. New Orleans Auction, Oct 10, 2009. Lot 307, Pair of Chinese Blue and White Tea Caddies
It is hard to talk about the quality of Chinese porcelain without seeing and touching the items, but this one with an unusual shape and a bold design can easily catch one’s eye. The auction house did not give the date, nor the bottom of the rim has been taken a picture of. Certainly, it is very unlikely to be in the early Ming Dynasty or before when cobalt blue was so expensive that it was only used scarcely in the design. Seldom do I see Chinese porcelain objects with such lively images of compact designs, a variety of blue and naturalistic depictions. Both Geo and I simply cannot resist it.
3. Skinner Auctions, Oct 18, 2009. Lot 807, Pair of Shadow Marble Panels, China, 18th century
What would Thomas Cole have thought when the handiwork of God is evident not only in macro-scaled panoramic grand views of mountains and valleys but also in miniature-scaled natural marble stones whose beauty rivals the best works of Chinese ink-wash painters? My friend who is an artist said he would have felt ashamed if he were a Chinese painter when an artist’s lifelong effort to bring nature into a piece of paper is trivialized by what the nature gives itself. The two panels pair and complement each other marvelously. The left speaks of mass and volume while the right delights us with economic curves and airy space. In other words, one grapples us into solemn gravity; the other frees us into rhythmic flows. Just notice how the artist created a sense of balance by adding variety in the inscription on each of the two: The left is horizontal and succinct while the right is vertical and multi-lined. Quite often, western collectors who are well-versed in minimalism and abstract art show a keen interest in remote traditional Chinese art. But perhaps the artist (whose name could be identified from the seal) has the absolute right to say Jackson Pollock’s famous quote: I am nature.
Note: The lot was sold for $5500 plus premium.
4. Shannon’s Auction, Oct 29, 2009. Lot 21 Levi Wells Prentice, Still Life with Raspberries
Prentice began to focus on still life after he moved to Brooklyn, NY in the 1880’s when still life painting became an established form of art and one that appealed to the decorative tastes of the middle classes. Unlike his neighbor William Mason Brown, who occasionally set the fruits in a soft atmosphere, Prentice’s crisp and hard-edged manner of painting, as well as his equal handling of detail throughout the picture, lends his works a stylized, primitive feeling. The green leaves are painted in photo-realistic detail. Looking at how each leaf curves, folds, sprawls, touches and overlays, one can feel a bigger-than-life vibrancy and beauty resulting from an uncompromising artistic mind. It is that unusually stubborn or even crude mentality that made his works unsurpassable and excites or even freaks modern eyes. Together in that meticulously painted tin pan with freshly picked raspberries we celebrate a plentiful harvest.
5. Swann Galleries, Oct 22, 2009. Lot 198, Arnold Newman, Photograph of Igor Stravinsky
The famous Stravinsky picture was the first Arnold Newman picture I encountered. Back in college when I took a photography class, this particular picture was used in the textbook as an example of composition. Newman didn’t compose this way originally, but he ruthlessly crop anything unnecessary and put the pianist and composer in the corner. Yet magically that tiny head seems to gain all the gravity to balance against the giant piano cover. It is, after all, a classic image of instant recognition.
I didn’t know who Arnold Newman was at that time, and nor did I have any sense of the music of Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s style moved through the decades. Some of his music I like (The Firebird, The Rite of Spring), some I don’t. Yet no one can deny his pliability to adapt to modernity and his willfulness to explore both the unknown and archaic. In this elegant and simple black and white photograph, one can sense the strong personality of both artists, the one who created the image and the one who was portrayed. Yet because of their unyielding embrace of modernity, it is a striking picture with genuine coherence.
6. Christie’s Oct 14, 2009. Lot 196 of Sale 2273, a continental translucent-ruby glass bowl
This sale features a special collection from a single owner. From the press release:
This October, Christie’s is honored to present a special collection of fine art and furnishings from the Manhattan residence of the late Mr. William F. Reilly, a prominent philanthropist, collector, and former chief executive officer and chairman of the publishing firm Primedia. This superb collection of important 18th and 19th century furniture, rare antiquities, Old Master paintings, and decorative items was primarily housed in Mr. Reilly’s Sutton Square townhouse, located in one of Manhattan’s most fashionable neighborhoods. The three-story house with its dramatic river views and impeccably-designed interiors has been profiled in House & Garden and Architectural Digest, among other publications. The complete collection of over 230 items is expected to realize in excess of $5 million.
I am not sure that I would pay $600 for one giant glass bowl, but since this lot is offered without reserve the final price can be a wild card. There are some imperfections such as air bubbles, cut roughly off the pontil, etc, but none matters when you have your first glance at the sensual and sumptuous color. Yes, there is only one glass. That makes the moment when you sip the wine from it at sunset special.
7. Book: The Charm of the Antique
I first noticed this book when walking through the galleries at Winterthur. The book, published in 1914, explores a number of charms including the charm of acquisition, the charm of the thing you didn’t get, the charm of specializing, the charm of the unexpected, and finally the charm of possession. It’s this final charm I suspect the panelists would find most interesting. It touches on the differentiation between hoarding and collecting and the collector who hoarded. The book dates to the time when collecting American antiques came into vogue, and the book seems to be a must for the shelf of every collector. It helps that it’s an antique in itself. Here’s one for $25 at Cats Cradle Books.
8. Hotel Room Key
By now almost everyone who has stayed in a hotel has had to make an extra trip to the front desk because a key card isn’t working. Indeed there are some advantages to old technology. (For example, writing something down on a pad takes far less time than turning on a device and typing on a minuscule keyboard.) Hotel room keys can make one of the most interesting collections ever assembled. Not only do they lead to conversations about different hotels, cities and eras, but also what has gone on inside hotel rooms! Interior decorators take note.
Here’s one from recent memory in Las Vegas.
And two from the Roosevelt Hotel in Pittsburgh.