Murrine glass: masterpieces by the slice

NEW YORK – Gather different colored glass, roll it together into a cane in such a way as to create a distinctive pattern, mosaic or detailed image, then fire it at high temperature. Before it cools, cut the cane into slices to create identical pendants or beads to infuse other glassware with artistic patterns of imaginative flowers, stars, animals, portraits and landscapes that fill the room with color from the morning sun. This is the long-lost art of murrine glass.

Producing elaborate patterns of glass is an ancient art form dating to the Roman, Phoenician and the Middle East periods dating back 4,000 years. But, over time, its very practice was inevitably lost to history when most of its practitioners had died out.

An example of colorful murrine embedded in clear glass by artist Gabrile Urban created in 2019 where each of the designs was cut from a long cane of rolled and heat colored glass and rolled into the glass and formed into a drinking vessel that sold for $110 in 2020. Image courtesy Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

Slowly, painfully and with much patience, the art of weaving mosaics of glass into distinctive shapes and designs was revived by the early 17th century. “The technique was then refined … by the 19th century by Salviati Glassworks and Vincenzo Moretti. It reached its peak in the 20th century, thanks to Artisti Barovier and Venini & Co glassworks,” according to the article ‘Murrine glass: history and production of a Muranese icon’ on muranonet.com

Curiously, this revival took place where the art was lost to history, the islands of Murano outside Venice in Italy, and it became known in different ways.

Murrine

“The term murrina derives from Murrino, the name given in 1878 by Vincenzo Zanetti, a Muranese priest and historian, who founded the Murano Glass Museum in 1861 with the intent to restore the luster of Muranese glassmaking,” the article continues.

A covered glass cylinder box created of green and yellow flowers is a souvenir of the XV Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Citta Venezia, or Venice Biennale, and dated 1926. It sold for $1,500 (plus buyer’s premium) in 2019. Image courtesy MBA Seattle Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The art of murrine starts with different colors of long, heated glass cylinders rolled together to form a pattern of stars, flowers, shapes, landscapes or even detailed portraits. Once rolled, the colors fuse together. The glass blower pulls the hot fused glass into a long, unbroken rod called a cane, then slices the cane into individual discs or squares.

Once cut, the pattern is revealed as a cross section known as murrine (murrina singular) or murrini. With so many slices, they can be artistically arranged and rolled directly onto a clear or colored glass sheet and fashioned into bowls, bottles, paperweights, sculpture or decorative items to form distinctive colorful patterns within the glass itself.

Each of the glass murrine squares was cut and laid out into a sheet and picked up by a glassblower and shaped into its final decorative form as a vase, sculpture, glassware or even paperweight. Image courtesy: By Davidpatchen and Wikimedia Commons

Millefiori

Similar in manufacture to murrine, the glass of millefiori, Italian for “thousand flowers,” usually features a star or flower pattern rather than a portrait or a contrived landscape scene as murrine glass sometimes does. And instead of round or square slices, they are long rounded beads with a hole pierced in the center and were once known as “mosaic beads.” The hole allows a string or metal wire to fashion millefiori beads into colorful necklaces, bracelets and pendants.

Millefiori was another lost art until it was revived in the 19th century. Early versions were called rosetta beads and were manufactured in a similar fashion as millefiori until the 15th century, but the final canes were pulled from a mold, rolled around a metal pin to create a hole, then cut into spherical pieces and left to cool. Millefiori is pulled without a mold.

Mosaic beads, as they are sometimes known, are decorative murrine glass usually shaped into long glass beads that are strung to form necklaces, bracelets and pendants. Image courtesy: By User: EvelynS and Wikimedia Commons

Artists and Artistry

Hand-blown murrine glass art in the traditional square and round slices are found in the studios of artists such as Dante Marioni, Kait Rhodes, Lino Tagliapietra and Richard Ritter. Artist Loren Stump creates full portraits and landscapes of murrine glass art near Sacramento, California. An example of the art of portrait murrine is an image of poet Walt Whitman added to a glass orb of flowers and murrine glass by artist Paul Stankard in 2008 that can almost be compared to a photograph because of the high level of detail.

Glass artist Paul Stankard created a clear orb of glass flowers and millefiori to include a murrine portrait of the poet Walt Whitman in surprisingly sharp detail. It sold for $3,250 (plus buyer’s premium) in 2020. Image courtesy Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

The final designs of murrine glass catches light and imagination with its colorful swirls, patterns, and sometimes lifelike portraits and landscapes. Watching an artist fashion murrine is fascinating. How is it that colored glass rolled together, fused by fire one over another in what seems to be a random and spontaneous pattern of color and art finally reveals itself only when sliced and cooled. It is artwork all by itself.

But then each slice of art is scattered or added in a pattern to a glass sheet and hand-blown to create a second piece of art such as a vase, paperweight and sculpture, turned into glassware, a photo frame or even made into whimsical glass dolphins, dogs and fish.

We can be grateful that the art of murrine glass was rediscovered and is practiced again for our delight, hopefully to be uninterrupted for the next 4,000 years and beyond.

Japan’s Leonard Foujita became toast of Paris art scene

NEW YORK – Few artists of the 1900s experienced the exhilarating highs and devastating lows as Léonard Foujita (1886-1968), the Japanese French painter and printmaker who was once called “the most important Japanese artist working in the West during the 20th century,” but was vilified during and after World War II for being a leading and enthusiastic painter for Japan’s military. Today, works by Foujita are prized by collectors and can be seen in many museums worldwide.

Color woodblock by Leonard Foujita, titled ‘Self Portrait with a Cat,’ plate signed left center, image: 13in tall x 9¾in overall; with frame: 16½in x 12in, est. $500-$700, sold for $945 at an auction held Dec. 11, 2016, at Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, Calif. Image courtesy of Clars and LiveAuctioneers

Born Fujita Tsuguharu in Tokyo, Léonard Foujita studied Western art at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. At age 27, he set sail for Paris, where he commanded almost immediate and explosive success, enjoying such luxuries as running hot water in his apartment and a chauffeur-driven car. He sought out, and befriended, artists such as Amedeo Modigliani, Pascin, Chaim Soutine, Fernand Leger, Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray and a host of others.

Foujita was able to nimbly bridge the cultures of Japan and France by introducing a completely new and original style of painting, one that blended traditional Japanese painting and inking techniques with popular modern European composition, styles and mediums (such as oils and watercolors). He was extremely prolific and painted a wide range of subjects that included cats, beautiful women and other portraits, military scenes (mostly during World War II) and himself.

Lithograph (framed) by Leonard Foujita, titled ‘Le Rêve,’ 1947, signed and noted EA in pencil lower recto, 22in x 29in, sold for $1,300 at an auction held Nov. 11, 2017, at Rago Arts & Auction Center in Lambertville, N.J. Image courtesy of Rago and LiveAuctioneers

Especially popular were Foujita’s grand fond blanc paintings – milky female nudes, outlined on white backgrounds. These served him well throughout the 1920s, when he was earning as much money as Picasso. But in 1929 he returned to Japan, primarily to escape the tax collectors in Paris, and got a chilly reception when he attempted to sell his paintings to a Japanese public that was oblivious to his fame and reputation in France. In 1931, he left Japan, this time for Brazil.

Again, success followed. Foujita traveled and painted throughout all of Latin America, giving hugely successful exhibitions along the way. In Buenos Aires, 60,000 people attended his exhibition, and more than 10,000 lined up just to get his autograph. By 1933 he was back in Japan, where the winds of war were beginning to blow. He was welcomed back as a celebrity this time, but became a noted producer of propagandistic art in Hirohito’s bellicose Japan.

Ink on paper attributed to Leonard Foujita titled ‘Girl with Dog,’ dated (1933) and signed in both English and Japanese lower left. Sight: 15¼in x 11½ in; framed: 23 1/8 x 18 5/8 inches. Estimate: $2,000-$3,000, sold for $26,670 at an auction held Oct. 12, 2019, at Michaan’s Auctions in Alameda, Calif. Image courtesy of Michaan’s and LiveAuctioneers

After the war, he returned to Paris, renounced his Japanese citizenship, became a French citizen and converted to Catholicism. Most of his bohemian friends had scattered, and the Paris art scene of his youth was also gone. He began painting caricature portraits of elfin children and took on commission work, like the decoration of a chapel in Reims. Still haunted by the war, Foujita said in a prayer at the chapel’s dedication, “I would like to atone for my sins of the last 80 years.”

Still, his successes could not be denied. His Book of Cats, published in New York in 1930, with 20 etched plate drawings by Foujita, is one of the top 500 (pricewise) rare books ever sold, and it is ranked by rare book dealers as the most popular and desirable book on cats ever published. Also, a portrait of Man Ray’s liberated lover Kiki, titled Reclining Nude with Toile de Jouy, was a sensation at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1922. The work sold for $1.2 million in 2013.

Color woodblock on paper under glass by Leonard Foujita, titled ‘Chat Couche,’ 1929, signed in ink lower left and with inscription in Japanese, sight: 12¾in x 17in, framed: 18in x 22in wide. Sold for $2,250 at an auction held April 25, 2017, at John Moran Auctioneers in Monrovia, Calif. Image courtesy of Moran’s and LiveAuctioneers

“I believe Foujita’s popularity had a lot to do with his unique blend of Eastern and Western artistic traditions,” said Lauren Bradley, a fine art specialist with Rago Arts & Auction in Lambertville, New Jersey. “He tended to explore personal subject matter – portraiture, beautiful nudes, quirky interior scenes and the like, which are more consistent with Western art. But his execution tended to be very Japanese – delicate, expressive lines, simple, bold bands of lights and darks. This combination resulted in a unique final product that was really eye-catching, particularly in Paris in the 1920s.”

Bradley said it didn’t hurt that Foujita was also a larger-than-life character. “He had a very curated look – severe bowl-cut hairdo, round glasses and big gold earrings. He wanted to be noticed. In fact, he told his father in a letter, ‘Consider me dead until I’m famous.’ Foujita was also a master at self-marketing. He took photos of himself painting and wasn’t afraid to include himself as the subject of his own works. People really fed off of it.”

Watercolor and India ink on paper x Leonard Foujita, titled ‘Cat,’ signed and dated lower left with Japanese inscription, 15¾in x 11½in (sight, less frame). Sold for $4,375 at an auction held Dec. 28, 2017, at Woodshed Art Auctions. Woodshed Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image

Bruce Wood, a painting conservator, auctioneer and owner of the Woodshed Gallery in Franklin, Massachusetts, said, “In Paris, the avant-garde artists of Montmartre in France embraced Foujita and his art as exotic. He became part of the scene that nurtured the edgy images of Picasso and Soutine, but also was inhabited by romantics. Mondrian, who became a good friend, and Cocteau, both of whom produced lyrical renderings of the human body, found a kindred spirit in Foujita, whose work represented sexual yearning and subterfuge.”

When Japanese collectors were seemingly buying everything in the go-go 1980s, Foujita’s market was “very strong – the strongest it had been since his first Parisian period,” Lauren Bradley said, “Then there was a bit of a contraction in the ’90s and early 2000s, but in just the last several year we’ve seen a renewed interest in his work. The collector pool also seems larger than it was in the ’80s, with demand from collectors all over the world. His work is still fresh and distinctive, even after all these years. Plus, because he was an adept painter, draftsman and print-maker – there are many mediums to collect at a variety of price points, which makes him really accessible.”

Japanese woodblock print by Leonard Foujita, titled ‘Portrait of a Blond Parisian Woman,’ printed in circa 1934, 16in x 10½ in. Sold for $687.50 at an auction held April 15, 2017, at Woodblock Prints World in Carmichael, Calif. Image courtesy of Woodblock Prints World and LiveAuctioneers

Bruce Wood said because Foujita was so prolific, many lower priced works are readily available. “However,” he added, “the most sought-after pieces depicting cats continue to rise in price. Still, and I think it’s mostly that Foujita worked primarily on paper, and (because) works on paper historically command less money than those on canvas his works have not achieved the stellar results of many of his peers. I think that demand for his work will continue to accelerate here in the United States as multicultural awareness raises demand for it.”

Persian miniatures illustrated historic manuscripts

NEW YORK – Persian miniatures are small, highly detailed paintings that illuminate historic manuscripts. Their designs, worked on handmade, cotton-rag paper, feature colorful, mineral pigments bound in gum Arabic. They have kept their vibrant colors because, like medieval illuminated vellum manuscripts, they were part of books kept closed for centuries.

This fine art reached the Persian Empire, a cultural crossroads associated with modern-day Iran, during the Islamic Conquest (A.D. 600-900). After medicinal manuscripts, featuring ornamental calligraphy and simple illuminations, were translated from Arabic, Persian miniaturists illustrated them.

Islamic Art Timurid miniature painting from a Shāh-nāmeh depicting Nufel against Laila’s tribe Iran, possibly Herāt, 15th century, 16.00 x 23.50cm including frame. Realized
€500 ($541) + buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Capitoliumart s.r.l. and LiveAuctioneers

Throughout Islamic dominance, Persians strove to preserve their ancient culture and identity. The monumental Shāh-nāmeh (Book of Kings), created by poet Ferdowsi, culminated this endeavor. This Persian-language epic, with 60,000 rhyming couplets and hundreds of fine miniatures, celebrates the country’s cultural character, Zoroastrian religion and mythical, legendary and romanticized past.

Through the next millennia, though Persia was repeatedly beset by foreign powers, wealthy patrons commissioned copies. Some survive.

Persian miniatures became a significant art form during Seljuk-Turkish rule (1037–1194). Many, edged by ornamental, Islamic-style vegetal and geometrical patterns, portrayed youthful, Asian-type faces featuring slanted eyes, rosebud mouths and braided hair.

Depiction of the ‘Fire Ordeal of Siyavush’ from a Shāh-nāmeh; ink, colors and gilt on heavy paper, early 17th century, 12¾ x 7in. Realized $3,800 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Tremont Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

During the Mongol conquest decades later, invaders not only slaughtered Persians and decimated their cities. They also destroyed innumerable illustrated manuscripts. Yet as the Mongols pushed eastward, examples of traditional Chinese narrative painting reached Persia. Local miniaturists soon created similar curved-line, delicately tinted, feathery designs featuring auspicious lotus, peony, phoenix and dragon motifs.

Though Persian miniature style was linear, artists also developed the concept of a parallel perspective. In other words, by creating multiple planes and layering their elements, their two-dimensional designs projected three-dimensions. Appropriately, these reflected the multilayered nuances of their traditional, calligraphic, poetic texts.

“From the historic viewpoint,” explains Iran Review, “an independent, nongovernmental and nonpartisan website,” “the most important evolution in Iranian art … has been the adoption of Chinese designs and coloring, which were mixed with the specific conception of Iranian artists.”

From ‘The King and the Ambassadors’ manuscript, gouache, ink, gilt details on paper, 16th century, 9 x 5¼in framed. Realized $900 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

As dynasties rose and fell, distinctive Persian miniature styles emerged, often differing from major city to city. Prestigious workshops in Tabriz, capital of the Timurid Dynasty (late 1300-1400s), for example, favored smaller, elongated, expressionless figures clad in Chinese-style armor or silk garments. Many, set against subtly colored landscapes or all-over designs, are depicted on multiple planes.

Miniatures created in Shiraz, also under Timurid rule, were known for vivid palettes, expansive landscapes and expressive mystical and romantic themes framed by freely drawn natural motifs. Additionally, their designs often feature a new practice of vertical perspective—layering figures one over the other. Distant objects appear at their top; near ones appear at their base.

Persian War scene featuring nasta’liq script, paper, 23 x 19cm, 19th-20th century. Realized €600 + ($683) buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Oriental Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Through the 1400s, miniatures from Herāt, now in Afghanistan, featured naturalistic plant and animal images, along with scenery and human figures on varying planes. Despite multiple viewpoints and three-dimensional, hexagonal depictions of planar pavilions, they are unified by homogenous lines and coloring. In fact, many consider Herāti miniatures the pinnacle of Persian painting.

Because Persian miniatures were traditionally created in workshops through divisions of labor, most cannot be traced to specific artists. Yet those featuring particularly expressive characters, narrative creativity, dark-light naturalism and simple spaces edged by grid-like architectural sections, for example, have been attributed to (or created under the direction of) the Herāti master miniaturist, Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād.

Illumination from the Shāh-nāmeh, Ferdusi, describing the reign of Alexander the Great, 20.5 x 27.5 cm, 17th century, possibly Shiraz. Realized €1,900 ($2,382) + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Florence Number Nine srl and LiveAuctioneers

After the fall of the Timurid Dynasty, Behzād worked under the Safavid Empire (1501-1736) in Tabriz, then in Isafan. Since manuscript illustration enjoyed royal patronage during the late Safavid era, Reza Abbasi depicted finely drawn royal courts, palaces, nobility, as well as dynamic battles and hunting scenes in sumptuous shades of gold. Many of his works, instead of illustrating costly poetic manuscripts, were created as single-page paintings for personal albums. Since these were shown privately, scores, instead of depicting discreet, Islamic-style illustrations, were far more suggestive.

Though miniatures retained the Persian spirit through the subsequent Qajar Dynasty (1794-1925), they often featured European-style shading and perspective. Hossein Behzad and Mohammad Gaffari Kamal-ul-Molk are noted Qajar miniaturists. Persian teahouse miniatures, simple, free-drawn paintings of religious stories and epics by untrained painters on cloth and walls, also arose during this era. Mahmoud Farshchian, who combines classic Persian forms with new techniques, is a contemporary Persian miniature master.

Shāh-nāmeh, Ferdowsi, featuring nasta’liq script, with Persian export stamps to text (A.D. 1890/91), paneled with calf vellum (A.D. 1823-24) 360 x 220mm, Iran. Realized £6,500 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of
Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

According to a professional preservationist, “Exposure to ultraviolet light starts and accelerates all types of deterioration in materials that make up miniature paintings. Due to their starch-paste sizing, they are also prone to damage from insects and high humidity, So, ideally, these treasures should be stored in dry, dark places, either in folders or matted and boxed. The best way to preserve them is not to display them at all.”

Yet she adds, “I’ve hung my own matted, framed Persian miniatures in a dark hallway against an interior wall of my house. To enjoy them, I turn on the light.”

Mandalas transcend form to become art

NEW YORK – In Himalayan and Indian art, the mandala is an important tool for meditation and visualization. In brief, a mandala is essentially a circular construct to diagrammatically represent the universe and typically features a deity or deities. They are highly precise and technical and come in many forms from painted ones to architectural mandalas and in the form of lotuses.

Architectural mandalas are essentially replicas of painted mandalas while lotus mandalas are more decorative. For the sake of brevity, in this article we will forgo the painted cloth examples (often referred to as thangkas) and instead focus on sculptural mandalas. These are highly sought after today and are typically crafted in gilt-bronze, silver or a copper alloy.

A large cast gilt-bronze Avalokiteshvara with many arms in front of a mandala has a Tibetan inscription on the back of its lotus base. The piece brought $40,000 + the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Madison Square Gallery Inc. Photo courtesy of Madison Square Gallery Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

For Westerners, they are collectible as art objects and transcend their original use as a tool for meditation and spiritual enlightenment. After a slump in recent years, the market has rebounded for these objects because of increased demand from both institutional and private collectors, particularly among Chinese and American buyers.

Three-dimensional mandalas run the gamut from those having a large figure of a deity atop or in front of a round mandala to lotus-form mandalas that open up their petals to reveal images of deities within a celestial abode. This polychromed copper alloy mandala, representing a lotus mandala that symbolizes the celestial environment of the deity Chakrasamvara with his consort Vajravarahi, sold for $325,000 at Bonhams New York in December 2019. Noting that most mandalas in Tantric Buddhist art are painted or ephemeral sand creations, the auction catalog says, “Rare sculptural mandalas, such as the present lot, are perhaps the most fascinating kind, constructed with a mechanism to open and close the lotus petals around the central deity.”

These bronze lotus mandalas probably originate to the Pala period in Northeastern India (8th-12th century). Sculptural lotus mandalas had a resurgence in China in the 15th century, catering to Ming imperial styles. The British Museum has a mandala in the form of an articulated pomegranate made in China during the Qing Dynasty. At its center, the mandala has a tutelary deity embracing his prajna (wisdom party) surrounded by 20 lesser deities.

A Qing kong hai mother pure silver wire inlay mandala sold for $210,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2016 at HK BGTJ International Art Auctions Co. in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of HK BGTJ International Art Auctions Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Sanjay Kapoor, owner of Kapoor Galleries in New York City, said, as with most antiques, the earlier examples are more desirable than later ones as they are harder to find. “There is no hard-and-fast rule [of what collectors look for in mandalas] but the general rule is age, condition, provenance and quality.” he said, adding that it’s very important right now, especially for Indian objects, to be able to show provenance that the object left its country of origin prior to 1972.

Most of these mandals were made by anonymous artists whose names have been lost to history. The few names known today usually come from having a signature on a bronze and being able to attribute a mandala, based on stylistic motifs. What Kapoor admires most about lotus mandalas, for example, is the attention to detail and their realism. “And you have to bear in mind that these guys are carving these in the negative, into wax, so it’s not like they can do it directly on the sculpture. These are all lost wax casts.”

A 17th century bronze lotus-form mandala from Nepal that opens. Photo courtesy of Kapoor Galleries

Laura Weinstein, a Himalayan and Indian art scholar and provenance specialist, said new collectors should know that figures often go missing on these mandalas or petals/parts can get damaged, so sometimes a mandala might be restored using parts from other pieces. “It’s important when you are looking at these things to not only look at the sculpture as a whole but to pay attention to the iconography,” she said, noting that even museums like New York’s Rubin Museum, where she formerly worked as a cataloger, has a lotus mandala with the original figure missing. “You want to make sure when you are buying these things that the figures all make sense together. It’s often helpful to look at two-dimensional mandalas in order to verify the iconography makes sense.” When figures become separated, having a knowledge of the figures can help one understand that a particular deity would likely not have been cast in bronze alone and was likely part of a mandala.

This Tibetan silver-gilt lotus mandala opens to reveal gilt bronze figures with the ten-armed Cakrasamvara at the center. It realized $11,000 + the buyer’s premium in June 2015 at California Asian Art Auction Gallery USA. Photo courtesy of California Asian Art Auction Gallery USA and LiveAuctioneers

Kapoor said seeing a full mandala in sculpture form is rare and harder to find the older it is. Often you will see them in the form of retinues with figures forming the mandala. “Over time, a lot of the sculpture that you see as individual objects are actually broken pieces of what was once a huge mandala.”

Collectors new to the market should work with experts as mandalas are a complex subject. “It’s not like other fields where you have a signature and a certificate of authenticity,” he said. There are a large number of deities depicted in mandalas and even the figures’ moods from peaceful to wrathful to powerful (with different levels of each) can change its meaning and the setting depicted. Mandalas also are categorized by their shapes, colors and adornments. Collectors need to beware too of a plethora of fakes on the market, made thanks to scanning of authentic museum examples, 3D printing and fake patination.

A cast gilt bronze Chakrasamvara mandala earned $60,000 + the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Madison Square Gallery Inc. The piece has a figure of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi surrounded by eight dancing dakinis, atop a double lotus pedestal base. Photo courtesy of Madison Square Gallery Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

Asked what a good entry point for new collectors is, Kapoor said, “You probably are going to want to start with 18th century gilt bronzes and then go backwards timewise from there to earlier and earlier pieces. You will get a sense of the subjects, the different bodhisattvas, a little bit of the style and then you will learn to appreciate the earlier pieces and have an idea for where the later pieces’ influence came from.”

Inkwells: vintage reservoirs of the written word

NEW YORK – “Ink was black, in inkwells and bottles, in the past. It would get all over your fingers because it would run and flow relentlessly,” wrote Alain Badiou in Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color.

Not if you were an Egyptian scribe. These highly trained court members, penning bills and magic spells with pointed river reeds, moistened their mineral-based, powdered pigments in small, hollowed-out stone mortars. Millennia later, Chinese calligraphers moistened ground gum-and-soot inksticks on similar, exquisitely carved soapstone, onyx, porcelain, jade or marble creations.

Jade Dragon ink-stone depicting two sinuous, horned, clawed, horned dragons amid swirling cloud patterns, 18th century. Realized $24,000 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Imperial Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

During the Middle Ages, when writing was deemed a lowly craft, European scribes and scriveners copied texts with quill pens fashioned from goose, eagle, hawk or swan wing-feathers. Because their flexible, sharpened nibs offered unmatched ease and precision, they particularly suited parchment and vellum work. Their brownish iron-gall, black “India ink” and bright naturally dyed inks were stored in inkhorns or practical pots deep enough to accommodate these quills.

As more people became literate, writing became not only socially acceptable but also a source of pride. Though simpler folks might keep their inks in unadorned pots, affluent writers adorned their fine-wood writing desks with finely crafted silver, pewter, jade, bronze, brass, cut crystal or pressed glass models. Some, like an Italian bronze cylindrical well, featuring a body supported by three, massive legs shaped like eagles and an outsized, seated putti finial holding an open book, were extravagant.

Footed silver tray featuring ink and pounce jars with engraved, monogrammed bell stand, 29 x 21cm, mid-18th century. Realized €20,000 ($22,360) + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers

Small wells, which held several ounces of ink, were generally square, rectangular or faceted. Larger ones were domed or shaped like capstans, mechanical devices used aboard ship to move heavyweights. Other sizeable wells featured sloping sides and flat, stable, wide-bottom bases. All, large or small, were lidded to prevent contamination, evaporation and spillage.

The wealthy, instead of inkwells, often acquired lavish desk standishes, known today as inkstands. These shallow rectangular, circular or oval trays, crafted in silver, gilt-bronze, onyx, brass, inlaid wood or porcelain, were the ultimate in writing luxury. In addition to matching wells, many featured grooves to store writing instruments and perforated “sand” shakers or pounce pots. Their fine- ground cuttlefish-bone powder, when sprinkled, not only smoothed rough, “unsized” paper. It also prevented ink from smearing.

Bronze-mounted Chinese porcelain double inkwell on cartouche coromandel lacquered panel with pen rest on raised feet, 14in wide. Realized $3,000 + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Abell Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Travelers in coach or on horseback, if wont to write en route, tucked tiny, hinged glass inkwells – snug in small, protective cases – into their pockets or luggage. Others toted plain or plush sloped, wooden travel-writing desks. Besides ink bottles, these often contained quills, quill knives, parchment, ponce pots, slate pencils and sealing wax.

Traveling 12-gore Globe ink wells, 4/5cm high. Realized £320 ($538) + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Innovative dip-pens, featuring small capillary-like channels and interchangeable mounted-metal nibs, replaced quills in the early 1800s. Every few words – for want of a reservoir, they had to be re-dipped in wells. Each dip could prove perilous. Nibs, falling off, could sink in the ink.

As European steamship and train travel increased, dressing cases (hand luggage) in addition to toiletries and writing implements, were often fitted with glass or rubbery, non-breakable gutta-percha ink wells. On the other hand, wells resembling the Liberty Bell, the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower, made enviable souvenirs.

Limited edition Baccarat ‘Zola’ lead crystal inkwell, marked and numbered, 6in high. Realized $600 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Well-off Victorians often sought gilt-mounted silver, cut-crystal, or ornate porcelains ink wells. Others decked their desks with ceramic tortoise, owl, camel, or elephant-shaped charmers. In time, sensuous Art Nouveau wells gave way to dramatic Art Deco models. Tiffany’s mother-of-pearl, pattern-stamped, patinated bronze, favrile glass and crab-shaped wells were particularly popular.

Tiffany Studios ‘Byzantine’ inkwell featuring glass cabochons, with glass insert for ink, 4³⁄₈in diameter, 1920s. Realized $2,900 + buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy Bruce Kodner Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The advent of the Waterman fountain pen, which prevented ink-reservoir overflow, eventually spelled the end of decorative ink wells. Though ink no longer runs and flows relentlessly, collectible wells embody art, fashion and a world of literature. Each also evokes those intimate moments when writers put pen to paper.

Remembering the suffragettes

NEW YORK – The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex – 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote, Aug. 26, 1920.

“All men are created equal,” says the Declaration of Independence, except when it came to voting rights. Without property, (white) men couldn’t vote and it left out women entirely. It would take the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in August 1920 to finally guarantee women the right to vote (owning property as a qualification was discontinued by 1856). It was a long struggle that would take 144 years from the founding of the United States before half of its population could participate in its democratic principles through the simple act of voting.

Three ways to show support for women suffrage are these different lapel pins, one in felt and two in distinctive lithographed color prominently supporting ‘Votes for Women’ that sold collectively for $248 + plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Hake’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers.com

The struggle known as the women’s suffrage movement began soon after the Constitution went into effect in 1789. While women in many Colonies were allowed to vote before its adoption, the Constitution left it up to the states to determine voting rights. And none immediately granted that right to women, except New Jersey, which then rescinded the right in 1807.

Popular opinion was changing, though. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first women’s rights convention that demanded the right of women to vote in its Declaration of Sentiments. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others emerged as leaders of an activist movement intending to secure that right across the country, instead of state by state. Adoption of a federal statute, though, was slow. Wyoming Territory was the first to grant full voting rights to women in 1869, with Colorado, Utah and Idaho granting women the right to vote in the 1890s, mostly to attract more women into these mostly desolate regions. No other state would comply.

A framed advertising broadside highlights the four states that allowed women to vote; Wyoming in 1869 and Colorado, Utah, and Idaho in the 1890s – but not yet in New York – that sold for $1,400 in 2010 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy Skinner and LiveAuctioneers.com

World War I was the catalyst for the suffragette movement both in the United States and the United Kingdom. With men on the battlefields in Europe, women were granted the right to work in factories and other wartime occupations not normally available to them before the war. This led to an increase in popular opinion that women can contribute more to society than just as housewives and schoolteachers. “Votes for Women” became less of a slogan and more of a genuine movement, especially with the increased cooperation of men.

And it was a tortuous movement. Labor and hunger strikes, parades, editorials, court cases, legal arguments, large demonstrations, abuse, legal torture and jail time were the norm. Demonstrations in front of the White House were unheard of before a “picket” of women from the National Women’s Party in 1917 camped out day and night to bring the cause directly to the president. They wore sashes and pins, held up banners, carried flags and waved signs with the ubiquitous “Votes for Women” specifically directed at President Woodrow Wilson. All the while, they were routinely carted off to jail, where they were often abused and sometimes beaten while in custody. Yet the pickets continued.

One of the key factors in ‘Votes for Women’ was the ‘picket,’ a demonstration such as this one in front of the White House in 1917. The sashes, banners and protest signs were the hallmark of the movement since the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, which began the women’s suffrage movement. Image courtesy: Harris & Ewing and the Library of Congress

The focused picket worked. President Wilson, at first reluctant, finally supported the adoption of a constitutional amendment. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally adopted on Aug. 18, 1920 with the vote of Tennessee and certified eight days later on Aug. 26 guaranteeing women the right to vote. Their first federal election was for president that same year.

One of the last images of Susan B. Anthony along with other prominent women’s rights pioneers taken at a suffrage convention in Los Angeles in August 1905. The photograph sold for $1,300 + the buyer’s premium in 2018. Anthony died almost one month after turning 86 in March 1906. Image courtesy Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers.com

Throughout the struggle for women’s right to vote, getting the message out without social media was a difficult, time consuming and a constant process. Yet, after World War I, suffragettes in the United States and the United Kingdom were creative in the use of visual items to keep “Votes for Women” in the public eye. Of all the protest movements throughout the history of the United States, auction values for women suffrage items are increasing because so many types of buttons, flags, playing cards, sheet music, posters, broadsides, clothing, sashes, signs, banners, salt shakers, currency, coins, jewelry, ceramics and other items exist that were made in relatively small batches. The book Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study by Kenneth Florey highlights the sheer number of collectibles the movement produced.

This bright yellow and black button and ribbon (colors of the suffrage movement) supported the 1920 election of Republican Warren G. Harding, who won in a landslide over Democrats James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The button and ribbon combination in such great condition sold for $340 in 2018 + the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com

Another reason for suffrage collectibility is in the branding. The slogan “Votes for Women” carried well throughout the movement in the United States and the United Kingdom for its clear and concise message.

Part of the movement’s branding was the adoption of official colors. Buttons, ribbons, sashes and banners are usually yellow and black because the colors simply stood out well (although yellow may have been adopted because the Kansas cornflower was favored by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton). Purple, white and green were UK movement colors while U.S. suffragette colors were purple, white and yellow.

Most clothing worn by suffragettes was mostly white, especially in parades and demonstrations to contrast with the darker clothing normally worn by spectators. Their white attire was also intended as a subtle sign of nonaggression signaling that the votes of women would help keep politics “clean.” In fact, wearing all white outfits by women in power today is a tribute to the women’s suffrage movement. All the women members of Congress did just that during the State of the Union address of President Donald Trump in 2019 when all 126 women of both Houses of Congress – only 26% of the total elected members – wore all white outfits to show the under-representation of women in Congress.

So it seems that even with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, issues of representation and electability still persist. Electing a woman as president of the United States still hasn’t been achieved while the UK has had only two women prime ministers since they gained the right to vote there in 1928.

At times, women could vote on a special issue that men thought women would have an interest in, such as children’s education, according to the auction description of this metal japanned ballot box intended only for women votes. It sold for $2,600 in 2010. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com

As a protest movement, ‘Votes for Women’ has come a long way, but much still needs to be done. Women have voted in higher numbers, around 55% or so, since the first election of 1920 when only 34% voted. Women legislators have steadily increased since the 1960s from the courthouse to Congress and continue to make a difference with their votes overall. However, women are still in the minority in economics, housing, finance, careers, education, as business CEOs and as major power brokers overall.

Perhaps just collecting and displaying women suffrage memorabilia will serve to underscore that no man is created equal until women are, too.

Charm of chatelaines keep hanging on

NEW YORK – Through the 17th century, women often carried small, useful items, like pencils or ha’pennies, in tie-on cloth pouches beneath their ample petticoats. Those responsible for running great houses, however, wore handy waist-clipped chatelaines, named for mistresses of medieval French manors, above their overskirts. Since their dangled keys accessed locked pantries, bureaus, chests, wine cellars and silver drawers, chatelaines came to symbolize power.

Steel-cut chatelaine, suspending panel, carnelian and two steel watch keys, fob seals, 19th century, about 35½in long. Price realized: £420 ($606) + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

As fashion silhouettes became slenderer, without provision for hidden pockets, women adopted chatelaines as their own. In addition to keys, early cut steel models kept everyday essentials, like utility knives, folding corkscrews, watches and household seals (used to impress sealing wax), at hand. Men wore them too, suspending watches, snuff bottles, pocketknives, shoehorns and writing implements. Bright, glittering, larger, clinking models not only announced their   comings and goings, but, as of yore, revealed prestige, wealth and status.

Sterling silver, hallmarked chatelaine featuring ornate change purse, snuff bottle, compact, scissors, pill box, shoe horn, circa1880s, UK, 12in x 2in. Price realized $1,450 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy Akiba Antiques and LiveAuctioneers

By the 18th century, chatelaines, often made of steel or base metal, were not only popular but also often personalized. Though servants and maids toted simple tools, a lady of the house might   keep a watch, change purse, magnifying quizzing glass and vinaigrettes (aromatic vinegar), for fear of fainting. Stitchery fans might favor sewing chatelaines replete with thimbles, stork-shaped scissors, buttons and bodkins, embroidery thread, tape measures and pincushions. Nurses might keep thermometers, sheathed scissors, safety pins, pill boxes, pencils and swiveling, ivory-paged notepads at the ready. From the mid-Victorian era, mourning chatelaines, featuring angels, likenesses, or braided hair in lockets, also became common. Some of these appendages were purchased as complete sets. Others were acquired individually, piece by piece.

Gold rococo bloodstone-mounted chatelaine suspending a pocket watch, egg pendant, etui with diamond, gilt thimble, black gem and coral charms, 18th century, UK. Price realized: £4,200 ($5,398) + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

In time, European chatelaines became more fashionable than functional. Many, featuring decorative medallions backed by metal tongues, were belt-clipped as of old. Many, mounted on elongated brooches, were pinned at the back. Some, in addition to symbolic keys, dangled heart, cross, star, anchor or flower trinkets, representing love, charity, hope or faith. Others featured tiny whistles, purses, ivory card cases, memorandum books and writing boxes holding ink, stamps, paper knives and penholders.

Wedgwood cut-steel chatelaine, with bead chain featuring ornate medallion above five drops (two with jasper beads), seal, and pencil, 10½in long, attributed to Matthew Boulton, UK, late 18th century. Realized $3,500 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of Skinner and LiveAuctioneers

By 1850, chatelaines were so popular that the British satirical publication Punch lampooned    sporting gentlemen who dangled “foxes heads, silver horseshoes, daggers, pistols and guns, gold race-horses with steel jockeys, big bull dogs and ferocious wild boars” from theirs. Yet, it  continued, “should these models also feature pencils, latch-keys, corkscrews, wire-nippers [to  pop-open soda water and champagne bottles] and miniature betting books, to pick up the stray odds,” men need not empty their pockets of letters, keys, loose silver, secrets and odd [items]” to find these articles sought.

Gold chatelaine with 11 appendages by various makers including Tiffany and Unger Bros., 214 grams. Realized $3,250 + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and Live Auctioneers

 

Fanciful, gold or silver chatelaines, worn when out for the evening, might feature combs, covered mirrors, fans, opera-glasses, handkerchief-holders, pomanders, smelling salts and vials of scent, to fend off nasty odors. Others, perhaps made of pinchback (a gold-like copper and zinc alloy), suspended decorative pendants, baubles, as well as carved cameos.

Toward the 20th century, exquisite pearl or diamond set chatelaines, created by master jewelers like Tiffany, Boucheron, Lalique and Faberge, often showcased costly watches. Others boasted    bloodstone or jasper-mounted Rococo-style plaques flanked by ornamental pendants and charms.  Many also featured central etuis, small embellished cases, containing exquisitely tiny forks, folding knives, scoops, and other gilt goodies. Yet these stunning chatelaines were prized not only for show, but also for show-and-tell.

Steck brass charivari with various pendants including a boxed thimble, bottle, horseshoe, wheel, 31cm (about 12½in) long. Price realized €150 ($183) + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Historia Auctionata and LiveAuctioneers

“How charming it was to go over the Chatelaine piece by piece, and talk about each one,” reveals The Natural History of the Flirt (1848). “Young hearts throbbed against it, making the lights flash from its polished facets at every pulsation: or, at times, the breath of low soft words, whispered over it. … There was such room for so much about anything for you might hang anything to it, from a lucky sixpence to … a desk-key, and a tiny watch, no bigger than a shilling. A pair of scissors like a bird, a horseshoe against witchcraft; a barrel pincushion, and a pistol pencil … a thimble-case, made like a wise owl, in silver, with enamel eyes … And then, on a ring all to themselves, came little Neapolitan coral charms … The remedy against an evil eye. And then a boot, a mouse, and a Punch’s head in a slipper.” Yet some charms, like lockets,  elicited just single, silent sighs.

Not all autographs are created equal

NEW YORK – Nothing is more personal than a handwritten autograph. There are literally no two alike, even from the same person. It’s why so many ask for one from a VIP they admire from afar. Having an autograph is a personal connection that will forever have its own story to tell.

The earliest known autograph, according to different sources, is that of a “signed” list on a Sumerian clay tablet verified by a scribe named Gar Ama around 3100 B.C. Curiously, no other autograph of the ancient world has survived, except copies of Greek manuscripts created around the 15th century.

Probably the most recognized handwritten autograph in American history is the large signature of President of Congress John Hancock when he signed the Declaration of Independence so that King George could read it without his glasses (probably apocryphal). This authentic autograph on an appointment sold for $3,000 + the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Americana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Collecting autographs of the famous for its own sake only began around 1700 in Europe and the early 19th century in the United States. “In the Victorian era, autograph collecting became a mania and demand was insatiable,” according to Steven Raab of raabcollecting.com. By 1887, Walter R. Benjamin opened the first retail outlet specifically for autographs in New York City.

Today, in the era of “celebrity,” autographs are still earnestly sought and traded, both contemporary and historical. Just as we know that facsimile signatures appear on copies of original manuscripts, collectors specialize in identifying five different autograph types.

Hand-signed

The best way to know if an autograph is authentic is to actually see it being written by the person whose name it is. Apart from that, there are certain ways to recognize a handwritten original autograph.

Sign your own name. The writing is not all one shade, but lightens and darkens as you go up on letters and down on others. Notice the space in between your first and last names, but more importantly notice any personal flourishes you may add such as underlining letters or how you cross your t’s and dot your i’s. These flourishes are tell-tale signs that autograph collectors and dealers compare against ones that have already been authenticated.

Naturally, once a hand-signed autograph is authenticated, scarcity and provenance determine its value. An authentic autograph of Queen Elizabeth II, for example, has a current value of about $5,800, while former President Barack Obama’s autograph is worth about $450. Both are heads of state, but Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t sign anything in public other than official documents and family holiday cards, unlike President Obama. It also depends on what is signed. A personal handwritten letter offers more at auction than a generic typed business card, for example.

Staff-signed

Presidents, prime ministers, royalty, sports figures, movie stars and any prominent author, politician, astronaut or celebrity of the day are inundated with requests for autographs. Fans and admirers want that personal connection that an autographed photo, for example, provides. However, there isn’t anyone that can satisfy this relentless demand and do the things they are well known for. Therefore, they have help.

Signed photos of President John F. Kennedy were routinely handwritten and signed by either Jill Cowan or Priscilla Wear, members of his secretarial staff, which are identified by the words and spaces are formed. An example is this photo that recently sold for $200. Image courtesy: Oakridge Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

It is well known that the personal staff of President John F. Kennedy, for example, routinely signed the president’s name on photos, unofficial correspondence, appointments and other routine items. Movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age had staff sign photos by the handful.

Collectors can easily compare a hand-signed autograph against an authenticated one to determine if it is original or staff-signed, based mostly on the most obvious tell-tale signs. Once it is known as a staff-signed autograph, the value will be about one-third that of an authentic handwritten original autograph.

Autopen

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote letters two at a time. As he wrote the original, a wooden machine (a polygraph) attached to his pen wrote the second. The duplicate was his “carbon copy” for his files. The autopen, as it eventually became known, has been upgraded since and used by other presidents as a matter of routine.

Even though the letter refers to a tragic accident aboard Apollo 1, the signature of Alan Shephard, signed as Chief of the Astronaut Office, was done with an autopen. It sold for $100 + buyer’s premium in 2014 and only because of the historic nature of the content. An authentic Alan Shephard autograph would auction for up to $350. Image courtesy: Lunar Legacy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The first president to have used the autopen is reportedly Harry Truman, although it is known that Dwight D. Eisenhower had used it extensively as commander of Allied Forces during World War II and as president. Other celebrities such as astronauts, businessmen and sports figures also routinely sign general correspondence, photos, first day covers and other ephemera with an autopen.

In short, an autopen works by attaching a pen to a holder and an engraved type of large metal piece moves the pen along ridges that simulate a signature. Because the pen does not pick up from the paper while it’s in motion, the signature is one long uninterrupted signature, unlike your own handwritten signature where your pen is picked up and brought down as you sign leaving dark and light impressions.

During the autopen process, sometimes the engraving skips, like a worn record, and squiggles appear when it happens, sometimes noticeable ones and sometimes minor ones, but it is a tell-tale sign of an autopen.

At auction, autopen autographs aren’t usually collectible and are considered as having little value on their own. However, presidential appointments or royal patents with autopen autographs may have more of an historical collectible value. A signed autopen photo made out to an individual will have less of an interest at auction, but it does add color to a family history.

Printed or stamped autograph

If you place an autopen autograph next to a printed autograph, they would look almost alike. Both would have an unbroken line throughout. The difference is that the autopen autograph would still have the rough feel of a pen or marker as if it were signed by hand while the printed autograph is flat like a photocopy. An autographed photo of a president sent from the White House on request routinely features a printed or even a stamped signature.

A routine greeting of congratulations from the White House on heavy cardboard featuring the gold embossed presidential coat-of-arms and an example of a raised printed signature of President John F. Kennedy that recently sold for $70 + the buyer’s premium. An authentic signature of JFK would auction for $900 to $1,200. Image courtesy The Written Word Autographs and LiveAuctioneers

The use of a rubber stamp to sign autographs is not unusual. Many heads of state and high-profile personalities have long used stamped signatures. Like the printed autograph, a hand-stamped autograph is more cost effective and less time-consuming than hand-signing. One can sometimes tell a stamped autograph from the smudged ink throughout the autograph and the tell-tale block of ink usually at the ends.

During the golden age of Hollywood, it was routine for studios to provide fans with publicity photos of movie stars with printed or stamped signatures. This collection of 11 pictures sold for about $34 in 2019. The signature of Cary Grant shows a clear use of a stamp. Image courtesy: Chaucer Auctions, UK and LiveAuctioneers

While it is a cost-effective way to meet the demands of admirers and collectors, a printed or stamped autograph has little value. However, it does depend on the photo or item it is printed on. For example, an oversized photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson will have a higher auction value despite its printed autograph because he was a U.S. president, but it won’t have nearly the same value as a hand-signed original.

Authentication

As in any collectible category, fake autographs are common. The family of Babe Ruth, for example, routinely signed baseballs for him. President John F. Kennedy seldom signed his own name throughout his life, relying on the autopen or staff secretaries to sign for him. In fact, any handwritten autograph of JFK has to be authenticated since it is automatically considered to be signed by his personal staff. Others that are routinely faked are Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Walt Disney.

How do you authenticate an autograph? The Universal Autograph Collectors Club (uacc.org), for example, is a trade association listing members and dealers in good standing. “Always use a reputable dealer with a long and proven track record and certificates of authentication. If you are buying online, make sure the dealer lists their full address and contact details,” says Daniel Wade of Paul Fraser Collectibles. Always check online sources, too.

It’s the story

Collecting autographs tells a story. Sometimes it is part of a historical record and sometimes it’s just personal. To enhance your personal story, have an autograph signed on something unusual such as a poster, ticket or newspaper of a special event in order for it to stand out at auction. After all, the story of how you got the autograph is quite collectible, too.

Jean Puiforcat: French silversmith-sculptor extraordinaire

NEW YORK – Jean Puiforcat (1897-1945), the French silversmith, sculptor and designer with the quirky, adorable last name (it’s pronounced “pwee-for-KAH”), was once described by Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia as “the most important French Art Deco silversmith.” His name, in fact, has become synonymous with Art Deco glamor. Even in his day, Puiforcat was renowned for the elegant, often mathematical simplicity of his geometric forms and the unexpected combination of flawless metalwork executed with brilliantly polished hardstones, semiprecious stones or glass.

101-piece Jean E. Puiforcat Cannes pattern silver flatware service for 24, designed 1928. Marks: (E-penknife-P), (Minerva), PUIFORCAT, FRANCE 10 1/8 inches, 162.02 troy ounces. Service with banded necks and geometric outlined handles, est. $5,000-$7,000, sold for $21,250 at an auction held May 5, 2020 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Puiforcat didn’t simply emerge from obscurity to become the legendary silversmith that his legacy commands. He was born into the prominent silversmith family of Puiforcat and his brother-in-law was the modernist architect Luis Estevez. Puiforcat complemented his hereditary links to design by actively engaging with prominent designers, sculptors and architects of his era.

After serving in World War I, he apprenticed in Paris as a silversmith and designer under the Ecole des Beaux-Arts-educated sculptor Louis-Aime Lejeune. His silver work had fine smooth surfaces and was based on the geometric seriesIvoryonyxlapis lazuli and rosewood were used to decorate pieces. He also used gilding.

Pair of French first standard silver and ruby glass vases designed by Jean E. Puiforcat, Paris, 15¼ inches tall, each with Mercury export marks to rim and foot. Feet marked with EP (Emile Puiforcat) losenge and Jean E. Puiforcat, est. $10,000-$15,000, sold for $29,900 at an auction held Nov. 18, 2018 by Andrew Jones Auctions in Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Andrew Jones Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Following his contribution to the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, Puiforcat’s status as a leading silversmith of 20th century design began to grow. In 1926, a tea service he designed was purchased for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Puiforcat left Paris and moved to Saint-Jean-de-Luz around 1927 and he worked briefly in Havana, Cuba from 1928 through 1930. He started designing tableware and by 1934 also had designed liturgical silver. After he moved to Mexico in 1941, he started exhibiting in the United States. Puiforcat was a member of the Société des Artistes Decorateurs, which he left to become a founding member of the Union des Artistes Modernes.

Jean-Emile Puiforcat pen holder made from sterling silver and rosewood, impressed with the manufacturer’s mark and touchmarks to underside ‘Puiforcat France,’ patina to silver surfaces in keeping with age, in excellent vintage condition, est. $1,000-$1,500, sold for $1,040 at an auction held June 6, 2019 by Wright in Chicago. Image courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Puiforcat’s work has appeared in countless periodicals and magazines, touting the designer’s bold creations and praising him as the preeminent silversmith of his day. His enduring legacy can be evidenced by a retrospective that took place in Paris in 1947, only two years after his death. Important artists of the 20th century like Andy Warhol were fervent collectors of his work. The Warhol collection is especially noteworthy because it was sold in its entirety at auction through Sotheby’s in 1988 for the staggering sum of $451,000. A single tureen brought $55,000. Warhol first began collecting Puiforcat silverware after acquiring some pieces in Paris in the 1970s.

“Jean Puiforcat’s designs were so striking because his pieces broke away from the complicated, naturalistic, and fussy patterns of the past and instead embraced sleek and simplified contemporary forms,” said Charlotte Taylor, director of Fine & Decorative Arts at Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va. “He successfully married fine craftsmanship with modernism, exemplifying the faith in social and technological progress that dominated culture between the two world wars. His legacy still continues today as he is still widely considered to be one of the pillars upon which the European Art Deco movement and modern silversmithing were built.”

Four Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver cups marked “Jean Puiforcat/Paris” on the underside. Hallmark of EP and Minerva at rim, 2¾ inches tall, est. $1,000-$2,000, sold for $726 at an auction held June 20, 2015 by Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Charlottesville, Va. Image courtesy of Quinn’s and LiveAuctioneers

Nick Coombs, a specialist in the Fine Furniture, Decorative Arts & Silver department at Hindman in Chicago, said Jean Puiforcat emerged as the standard-bearer for Art Deco silversmiths, not through a strict adherence to the movement’s aesthetic, but rather by interpreting timeless questions about proportion, ornament and beauty through his work. “In doing so,” Coombs said, “Puiforcat’s work captivated his contemporaries and continues to command reverence among silver collectors in the 21st century.”

Coombs continued, “Puiforcat’s work is firmly grounded as a response to earlier movements’ reliance on ornamentation, relying on the belief that mathematical formulae could be the source of beauty in design. A proponent of the ‘golden ratio,’ Puiforcat sought methods of design that had been pioneered during the Renaissance in the 16th century to answer questions of style and beauty in the 20th century. His works, while speaking for the aesthetic of the age, still respond to questions that are timeless, thus allowing his work to remain relevant despite changes of taste.”

French Art Deco silver-plated tea and coffee service, Jean-Emile Puiforcat, designed in 1928, Etchea pattern, comprising a coffeepot, teapot, creamer, sugar and a serving tray, each stamped ‘EP’ and ‘Puiforcat France’, width of serving tray 27½ inches, sold for $3,024 at an auction held Jan. 24, 2019 by Hindman in Chicago. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

Many museums hold Puiforcat’s works in their collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. “Today his pieces are still collected and can sell well above their estimates,” Charlotte Taylor said. She pointed to his “Bayonne” flatware set, which hammered for $65,000 on an estimate of $30,000 – $40,000 at Phillips Auction house in 2018; and last year, when Rago Auction House sold a “Biarritz” patented flatware set for $42,500 on an estimate of $25,000-$35,000. “These numbers reflect a trend in the sale of his works that has gone on for decades,” she said.

Jean Puiforcat sterling silver and wood covered bowl, stamped to the underside with hallmark of Jean Puiforcat, ‘Sterling, Jean Puiforcat, Made in Mexico,’ circa 1942-1945. 66.32 troy ounces, excluding wooden handles, 9¼ inches in diameter, 6 inches tall, sold for $13,750 at an auction held July 22, 2018 by Clarke Auction Gallery in Larchmont, N.Y. Image courtesy of Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Nick Coombs said that, despite a slight downturn in the market for Art Deco furniture and decorative arts in the auction community over the past decade, the works of Jean Puiforcat continue to be actively sought after for collectors of both silver and decorative arts. “This is likely because of the timeless quality of his design,” he said. “Puiforcat is not responding to a singular aesthetic movement in his works; rather, he is trying to answer fundamental questions regarding proportion, balance and design. This allows his work to communicate and harmonize with other aesthetic movements because it does not focus on the surface of the work alone.”

Coombs concluded, “Collectors and buyers of Puiforcat encompass a larger collecting category than strictly ‘silver collectors.’ People interested in modernism and design are also active buyers as well as prominent decorators who are always looking for a highlight work to anchor any room. They will always be able to find that in the works of Jean Puiforcat.”

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Anna Pottery snake jugs: whimsy meets satire

NEW YORK – When it came to making stoneware, the Kirkpatrick brothers did not shy away from mixing politics with their art. Cornwall and Wallace Kirkpatrick, who founded and ran Anna Pottery, in Anna, Illinois, 1859-1896, reportedly likened politicians to a “den of vipers” and often espoused their political beliefs on the snake jugs they made. Wallace Kirkpatrick was said to have been long fascinated with snakes and had quite a few of his own. It’s also been speculated that the snake imagery here is biblically inspired and symbolizes evil and mankind’s falling from grace.

This rare centennial snake jug sold for $76,000 in October 2014 at Crocker Farm. It is dated Jan. 1, 1876, and inscribed “nice young man Just going in.” Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers.

A striking form among American stoneware, Anna Pottery’s snake jugs are highly desirable today. In general, the more ornate the jug, the more valuable. Pinched forms are also highly sought after. Some jugs have one or two snakes while the best examples will have multiple intertwined snakes. Occasionally, figures and other animals also appear. These sinuous jugs have huge crossover appeal, especially among stoneware collectors and folk art collectors.

“Among 19th century potters, Wallace and Cornwall Kirkpatrick took the utilitarian stoneware medium to its upper limit of artistic expression and their snake jugs represent their most imaginative and visually appealing creations,” said Luke Zipp of Crocker Farm in Sparks, Maryland. “Collectors and museums, far beyond typical stoneware enthusiasts, have recently become captivated by the form, which is reflected in the rising prices at our auctions.”

Taking the traditional glazing and firing techniques they mastered in making stoneware to the next level by adding a sophistical level of artistry – adding both whimsical and macabre elements, the Kirkpatricks transcended the utilitarian nature of stoneware.

An Anna Pottery stoneware snake jug from 1877, marked “8 to 7,” attained $120,000 + the buyer’s premium in November 2018 at Crocker Farm. Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers.

Setting a world auction record in November 2018 that still stands as of this writing nearly two years later, Crocker Farm sold an important Anna Pottery stoneware snake jug for $120,000 + the buyer’s premium that was one of three jugs inscribed “8 to 7,” an obscure reference to the presidential election of 1876, that the company made in 1877. Profusely decorated in Albany slip decoration, the ovoid jug had a handle in the form of a coiled snake with another 12 snakes (modeled and applied by hand) on the body.

“A pattern emerges when the jug is studied closely, as the potter has applied five snakes emerging around the midsection of the jug, each with a loop-shaped form, and then applied a second group of snakes that entwine their bodies through the first group of snakes,” according to the catalog description for this jug. Early Anna Pottery jugs often had thin snakes that almost seemed harmless but by the 1870s, the snakes were more well-formed and menacing.

Decorated elaborately with Civil War, slavery and American motifs, this snake jug earned $60,000 in March 2014 at Crocker Farm. Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers.

Both private and museum collectors seek these jugs out. The Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, Ill. has an Anna snake jug in its collection, one of only about two dozen examples known. Its example features 12 well-defined intertwined timber rattlesnakes and three men. Understanding of the Kirkpatricks’ designs has changed a bit over the years, according to the museum. “In the 20th century, scholars saw the Kirkpatrick snake jugs as temperance warnings against the evils of drink. More recent interpreters, however, draw attention to the jugs’ grotesque, macabre, sexual and scatological aspects, their humor and their self-consciously extravagant style, and argue that they are an ironic debunking of Victorian values.”

Zipp echoed this assessment: “Judging by their large body of work, the Kirkpatricks were keenly aware of the current political climate and very willing to engage in political dialogue through their clay creations. There is no evidence that they supported the temperance movement. In fact, most of their best works, for instance their pig flasks, were made to hold alcohol. Most scholars agree that the Kirkpatrick snake jugs poke fun at temperance ideology.”

This temperance jug with snakes and a figure from 1881 brought $4,000 in January 2020 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Another fine jug in a museum collection is this circa 1865 example at the Minneapolis Institute of Art that depicts a Civil War vignette of Union soldiers trying to catch Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, who escapes them clothed as a woman. “The dark spots on the snakes’ heads identify them as copperheads – a moniker for Northerners sympathetic to the Confederate cause,” according to the museum website. The likely inspiration for this scene was probably in cartoons found in period newspapers that were ideologically in support of the North.

Besides political themes seen in only a few jugs, alcohol is a dominant motif. Several pieces have applied figures of men (often partial torsos) with pained facial expressions. Often there are inscriptions on the side of the jugs referencing the men “going in.” This can be presumed to mean the men are going into the (whiskey) jug to be trapped under the spell of alcohol.

The essence of the appeal of these pieces lies in their exuberant decoration and the layered symbolism and messaging. Along with crosshatching and witty written inscriptions, the snakes –be they copperheads or rattlers – and figures are well molded in exacting detail. Several figures on this jug are molded in fine detail from a Union soldier to an African-American face to what appears to be Abraham Lincoln. A slavery motif present on that jug is a set of stoneware chain links.

Made in the “Little Brown Jug” style, this snake jug dates to 1876, The Kirkpatricks were prolific potters, making many utilitarian wares but still infused them with a high degree of artistry. Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

“The more elaborate they are, the more valuable they are,” said Wes Cowan, founder of Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Whether one is looking at the larger jugs that might stand about 10 inches from base to the top of the stopper and having multiple snakes to smaller examples about 5 inches tall, with just one snake, all are desirable. “The market is very strong still for Anna.”