Trade Beads: First-String Collectibles

A collection of several strands of trade beads, boasting a range of colors, realized $125 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2015. Image courtesy of Sterling Associates and LiveAuctioneers

Africans have valued cowrie-shell and bone beads since well before written history. Tribes eagerly accepted the sleek, shiny glass beads that 15th-century European traders offered in exchange for commodities such as salt, gold, palm oil or ivory. 

Because trade beads were typically produced on demand to suit the tastes of those on the receiving end, their designs varied from village to village. And since their production numbers were in the thousands, it can be difficult to link specific ones to particular African regions. One exception is the large, round, chunky variety known as “Dutch Dogons,” which were produced in the Netherlands or Germany during the 19th century. They have been found in vast quantities in central Mali, home of the Dogon tribespeople. Most are bright cobalt blue, while others are brown, black, or white. 

A strand of Dogon cobalt glass ring or “annular” beads sold for $100 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020. Image courtesy of Allard Auctions Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Thousands upon thousands of African trade beads were also produced in Venice and Murano, Italy. Doughnut and pineapple-shape glass chevrons, which are the most common, feature characteristic layering produced by winding multiple molten colored glass rods around hollow canes. This resulted in a layered stripe or ornamental rosetta-star pattern, usually in combinations of red, white, and blue. Deep green chevron beads, known as “watermelons,” feature delicate white, green, and red stripes. 

Bi-conical king chevrons, highly favored by tribal chiefs, do not depict rosettas. Instead, they display characteristic horizontal stripes produced by winding molten yellow, black, and green glass threads around long, thin central rods, then shaping them. 

A string of African chevron trade beads realized $80 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021. Image courtesy North American Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Spherical French cross beads, also known as “Bedoums,” range from 5mm to more than 12mm (roughly a quarter to a half-inch) in size. As with king chevrons, they were created by winding molten glass around metal cores. Most feature thin, colorful crosses or trailed designs applied by hand. Because these beads were produced in limited numbers, many Africans, particularly those in central Mali and along the coast of West African, found them desirable. 

Venetian skunk beads, on the other hand, were traded along the coast of East Africa. As merchants ventured inland in search of additional resources, these distinctive red, black, or white dotted pieces, also known as “eye beads,” eventually found their way to Mali. 

A group of Venetian millefiori glass trade beads achieved $475 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2016. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Throughout Africa, Venetian millefiori, or “thousand flower” beads, were the most prized of all. They featured tiny floral patterns created by arranging colorful glass threads in hollow glass rods that were fused, then drawn thin. After slicing these rods into tiny, slender, cross-sectional round discs, each disc was shaped around a metal core and fired. 

During the mid-1800s, large, luminous moon beads, likely invented in Murano, appeared on select sample cards used by European bead manufacturers to market their wares. These beads are often associated with the Yoruba people of present-day Nigeria, who believed that the moon held spiritual significance. 

Multiple strands of yellow-dominated Venetian glass African trade beads sold for $240 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2016. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

From the 19th century on, enormous numbers of African trade beads were produced in Bohemia. Most were inspired by so-called “bead researchers” who, after consulting with merchants across Europe, brought sketches of popular designs to Bohemian glass manufacturers. Though most of their beads were relatively simple, innovative technical strides allowed uniform, high-quality, speedy production. 

Bohemian Mali wedding beads, popular among the Fulani people, often resembled pineapples, hourglasses or lightbulbs. Their bulbous shapes, which symbolized fertility in Mali culture, sparked a tradition of fathers giving them to daughters just before a wedding. The beads were available in single opaque shades as well as flecked and striped varieties. 

Round or oval Bohemian colodontes, also known as “hummingbird egg” or “pigeon egg” beads, resemble smooth, round, glossy eggs like those laid by small birds. They have been found not only in Mali, but also along the West African coast. 

A trade bead collection including millefiori, chevron, sand cast, wound glass and Hudson Bay red-white hearts realized $150 plus the buyer’s premium i

As African trade beads passed from hand to hand and continent to continent, many suffered fading, pitting, chipping, and other signs of excessive use. Yet today, each is a poignant, visually striking and highly collectible piece of history. 

FLY ME TO THE MOON: SPACE-FLOWN FLAGS

A flag signed by Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott, which he carried in his space suit when he walked on the moon’s surface, sold in September 2020 for $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of RR Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

We can’t all go to space, even if we desperately want to. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the governing body that defines space flight, states that as of July 2021, only 574 individuals from 41 countries have made it to outer space, which is defined as traveling higher than 100 miles or 62 kilometers. Of those 574, just 12 have walked on the moon.

The next-best thing to traveling in space is owning a souvenir that did. Flags might be the most iconic space-flown collectibles. They combine national identity, culture, community, ideals and history, all in one recognizable medium. And with the price of launching cargo into orbit still hovering around $10,000 per pound, flags have the merit of being flat, light and easy to roll up or fold. While space-flown flags are relatively abundant compared to other space-flown objects, they aren’t unlimited in number, and those from the early years of space exploration can be difficult to acquire.

In April 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to circle the Earth. It’s not known whether or not his tiny capsule contained personal souvenirs. In contrast, NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions routinely permitted souvenir items on spacecraft, the lunar landing craft and even the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) – what most of us would call the moon buggy. To conserve weight, American flags measuring no larger than 4 by 6 inches were allowed on board (larger flags were flown as well, just not as many). Individual astronauts carried these flags in a Personal Preference Kit, or PPK.

A flag flown on STS-1 Columbia, the first space shuttle mission, sold in May 2016 for $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NASA had its own Official Flight Kit, or OFK, in which flags and similar souvenirs were sent on behalf of the agency itself. Anything in the astronauts’ kits belonged to them; anything in the NASA kits were property of NASA. Collectors care about this distinction. Flags carried by American astronauts in PPKs have higher auction values overall than those that ventured to space in a NASA OFK.

Several hundred American flags went to space on the early NASA missions, and most of those were of the 4-by-6-inch variety, according to collectspace.com. Many more flags were brought into space during the NASA shuttle program. Tthe final shuttle mission, STS-135 Atlantis in 2011, listed 20,000 small US flags in its cargo manifest. Flags continue to make the extraterrestrial roundtrip as part of the inventory of the International Space Station.

Larger flags carried aboard the early NASA missions and on shuttle flights were usually earmarked for specific presentations at schools, nonprofit programs, government agencies and as gifts for international visitors. The website spaceflownartifacts.com states these examples rarely appear at auction.

Collectors consider four major factors when determining the value of

a space-flown flag: 

1 – which space mission took it to the stars and back

2 – whether it made the journey in a PPK or an OPK

3 – where it was stored during the voyage

4 – who owned the flag during the flight and after it returned to Earth.

A flag carried aboard the Apollo 11 mission and later signed by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin sold in November 2004 for $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Flags flown on Mercury and Gemini NASA missions are relatively scarce and highly desired because they rank among the earliest objects to orbit the planet. Flags from space shuttle missions and those taken aboard the International Space Station qualify as space-flown but are much more accessible and affordable, especially for new collectors.

Understandably, flags flown on any of the 12 Apollo lunar missions always have serious auction value. Even then, where the flag was stored during the lunar missions affects how ardently bidders pursue them at auction. Flags that stayed in the spacecraft are prized, but those that were carried onto the lunar surface in the space suits of the astronauts are worth even more.

Not all Apollo missions are equal, either. Flags flown aboard Apollo 11, the first mission whose astronauts walked on the moon; and Apollo 13, the mission that was aborted due to mechanical difficulty, command more than flags from the other four moon missions. And as with any realm of collectibles, historic firsts affect an object’s value. The spaceflownartifacts.com website notes:

“Apollo 8 being the first mission to the moon gives flags carried on that mission a certain cachet.”

Foreign national flags from early NASA flights are relatively rare. This signed Tunisian flag that flew aboard Gemini 4 sold in June 2019 for $1,153 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The entity the flag represents also plays a role. Collectors bid the most for American flags, followed by foreign national flags, state or territory flags, the flag of NASA or other agency flags, and those with the livery of a particular church, school, corporation or other entity that has sentimental value to the astronaut who stashed it in a PPK.

Provenance obviously matters, and is fairly easy to confirm for many space-flown flags. Some astronauts from early missions signed their names directly onto a flag along with mission-specific details, but this practice wasn’t consistent or standardized (other astronauts only added a serial number to the flag, which was accompanied by a signed certificate). Later on, an agreed procedure took shape: Space-flown flags were mounted on presentation certificates created by each individual astronaut. These certificates usually featured a signature, mission details, perhaps a mission patch and a date a format consistent enough to reliably establish provenance. NASA, too, also created specially-designed certificates of its own for its flag presentations.

Collectors should be wary of unmounted flags that are not signed or identified in any way. A story alone is not sufficient to prove a flag left the Earth and came back home again. Mounted flags that are accompanied by a handmade document or photocopy of a signed or unsigned certificate lack the power of better-established examples. 

A set of space-flown American and Russian flags commemorating the joint docking effort of the US space shuttle with the Russian space station Mir in 1995 sold in April 2005 for $600 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Aurora and LiveAuctioneers

Human beings will continue to venture into space and deeper into the solar system. Space tourists, who pay top dollar to experience thrills that were once limited to a professional elite, are making their own history. One thing is for sure: current and future space travelers will continue to take flags with them, and there will always be collectors who clamor for them. 

Reach for the stars with ancient astronomical jewelry

A Greek gold repousse pendant picturing the sun, with circles representing stars, and dating to circa 4th-3rd century BC, realized $2,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Artemission and LiveAuctioneers

Humankind has marveled at the beauty of the heavens since well before written history. To the ancients, the sun was not merely a natural phenomenon, but also a god. Its daily journey across the horizon symbolized fertility and rebirth as well as strength and power. Luminous stars, which helped sailors and other travelers orient and navigate, and the silvery moon, which was revered for its recurrent, mystical phases, were objects of awe. These astronomical symbols not only featured in religious rites, but also fired the artistic imagination. 

Many early sun-shape pendants were fashioned as open bronze circles. Others were embellished with dotted rims, open crosses, rounded perforations or sun wheels — concentric circles with radiating arms. Yet shimmering gilded discs, some patterned with tiny sun motifs, may have been regarded as far more powerful.  

A gold lunar-shape Byzantine pendant, dating to circa 900, sold for £2,400 ($3,311) plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Bronze Age lunar amulet-pendants were often crude crescents, meant to represent the sliver of the new moon. Others were graduated circlets, each featuring a single, large, pointedly off-center, round perforation, possibly shaped that way to indicate lunar phases. Yet gold and silver lunulae — broad, crescent-shaped, decorative collars unearthed in Ireland — may be the most distinctive Bronze Age jewelry finds of all.  

During the Hellenistic period, wearing gold jewelry was fashionable and indicated one’s wealth, strength, and social status. Some Greeks wore simple, sun-shaped circlets. Those who were more affluent favored pendants, brooches, medallions and armbands graced with sun motifs placed amid rosettes, repousse-point stars, filagree scrollwork, and granulation — delicate ornamental patterns worked in grains of gold. Many crescent-shape pendants, representing the Greek moon god Selene, also feature granulation and repousse-point stars.  

A bronze openwork solar disc plaque with radiating arms, dating to the 2nd millennium, realized £70 ($97) plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of TimeLine Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Jewels were among the few items that Roman women could call their own. They took full advantage of the opportunity, using jewelry to signal their tastes and rank. Gold, concave or discoid sun-shaped pendants were popular, and some were enhanced with concentric filigree bands, ornamental stars, granulated collars, delicate filigree or gemstone insets. 

During the late Roman Empire, women wore gold or silver gemstone intaglio finger rings depicting a radiantly crowned Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). Members of the lower classes, however, apparently relied on simpler bronze amulets in shapes they believed would provide personal protection: shields, sunbursts and open sun-whorls. Crescent-shape lunar pendants, which represent the Roman god Luna, range from coarse stamped bronzes to gold-and-garnet beauties with filigree spirals or decorative rosettes. Gold finger rings festooned with petite crescents and stars, as well as star-shape brooches, were also desirable. 

A Roman gold intaglio lunar crescent pendant featuring filigree spirals and cabochon garnets, and dating to the 2nd century, realized $4,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Artemission and LiveAuctioneers

Ninth-century Byzantine lunar-shape gold earrings, while small, may feature extensive openwork, floral scrolling and granulation, along with suspended glass beads. In addition to bright enamel detail, Byzantine brooches typically feature intricate gold twisting or openwork that seem to subtly embrace a full moon.   

A Viking silver lunar crescent pendant depicting a mythological face and dating to the 9th or 10th century sold for $800 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021. Image courtesy of Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

Centuries later, the Vikings, who worshiped the sun, created       bronze and silver sun-wheel brooches as well as gold sun whorls and sunbursts. Since they worshiped the moon as well, many of these seafarers wore bronze, gold or silver crescent-shape amulets, brooches, pendants and pectorals. Some pieces were simple, while others featured scrolled wirework, geometric filigree or graceful granulation. Designs that Vikings regarded as protective included little raised repousse shields, fearsome mythological faces and winged monsters.         

This gilded Jewish-Islamic necklace featuring silver, coral and crescent-shaped ornaments sold for $650 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Alma and LiveAuctioneers

From the 18th- through the mid-20th century, skilled Yemeni metalsmiths created exquisite gold and silver jewelry for betrothed women. Some of their filigree necklaces that follow the natural form of the neck are lunar-shaped. Others, explain experts at Alma Gallery in Tel Aviv, take the form of large crescent-shape pendants or amulet boxes and reflect shared Jewish and Islamic historic, cultural and artistic motifs. 

Each piece of ancient astronomical-themed jewelry is unique and embodies the culture, beliefs, social status and wealth of the person who first wore it. Most were highly valued, and thus were well preserved through subsequent generations. These ancient masterpieces of the jeweler’s art are not only priceless to those who wear them, but also timeless, as they allow one to see the sun, moon, and stars through ancient eyes.

ONCE UPON A DIME: LIBERTY BY ANOTHER NAME

A 1916 D Mercury Dime, graded as nearly uncirculated, sold for $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Gold Standard Auctions. Image courtesy of Gold Standard Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Misconceptions can be stubborn things. The Pilgrims didn’t initially land on a rock at Plymouth Harbor. Betsy Ross didn’t sew the first American Flag. The Mercury dime doesn’t feature an image of the Roman god Mercury on its obverse side. Yet these ideas persist, and coin collectors continue to call the early 20th century American 10-cent coin the Mercury Dime. It has become part of the American lexicon.

In actuality, the profile on the dime is a Winged Liberty Head a woman wearing the Phrygian Cap of Liberty with wings denoting freedom. But the debut of the coin was misunderstood by the press, and it was nicknamed “Mercury” instead. 

In 1915, the Mint started the ball rolling to secure a new coin design to replace the Seated Liberty dime that had been in circulation since 1892. After a sponsored design competition failed to produce a suitable winner, a commission was given to sculptor and artist Adolph Weinman, who had created the Walking Liberty Half Dollar and several military campaign medals.

An antique-tone 1916-D Mercury Dime with a PCGS grade of MS-66 sold for $49,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles and LiveAuctioneers

Weinman’s vision featured a side profile of the aforementioned Winged Liberty Head on the obverse and a Roman fasces with an olive branch on the reverse to symbolize both war and peace. From its introduction in late 1916 until its run ended in 1945, the Mercury Dime rose to become one of the most popular coins produced in the United States. 

As with most types of collectibles, condition is key for coins. But Mercury Dimes usually show more wear than most, because the collar surrounding the outside of the coin was reduced to better interact with coin-operated machines. The higher relief of the leather bands of the fasces on the reverse is key to grading a Mercury Dime. If the bands are crisp and distinct, it is considered a “full strike,” which is something not all mints were able to produce consistently.

Rarities and mistrikes that collectors prize so highly appeared throughout the three-plus decades of the Mercury Dime’s lifespan.

1910s

The Mercury Dime was first issued in October 1916 at the Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver Mints. However, the Denver Mint was told to stop production of the Mercury Dime in favor of the Standing Liberty quarter. Denver issued only 264,000 Mercury Dimes in 1916, with most entering circulation before being collected. Production didn’t restart until late 1917 making both years from Denver relatively scarce for the dime in any condition.

1920s

Production for the 1921 Mercury Dime was relatively low, with about 1.2 million in Philadelphia and about a million in Denver. No dimes were issued in 1922 and no 1923 dimes were issued in Denver. If you see a 1923 D Mercury Dime, it’s a counterfeit.

1930s

The Denver Mint did not issue Mercury Dimes in 1930, which means any coins shown as 1930 D are bogus. In 1931, San Francisco and Denver issued relatively few dimes, making the 1931 D and 1931 S desirable to numismatists. In 1932, when America endured the peak of the Great Depression and the song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? captured the mood of the moment, American mints didn’t issue any dimes at all. The same held true in 1933 no new dimes were struck. 

A 1942/41 Mercury Dime, displaying a (noted by white edge) double-strike error, sold for $4,100 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at 3 Kings Auction. Image courtesy of 3 Kings Auction and LiveAuctioneers

1940s

The rarest Mercury Dimes are the 1942/1941 double-die errors. Both the Philadelphia and Denver Mints suffered this hiccup, produced when a mint planchet overstruck a 1942 dime with a 1941 date, in effect double-striking it. The problem is hard to spot. Usually, magnification is required to see it properly.

The 1945 S series, which was minted in San Francisco, may show a smaller than usual “s” due to using a puncheon intended for coins bound for the Philippines. While the 1945 is one of the most common Mercury Dimes, the quality of the strikes was inconsistent, and the high relief of the fasces on the reverse was more vulnerable to wear. Only about two percent of the dimes display the leather bands as clear, distinct “full-strike” examples, adding extra collectability and value to these dimes.

A 24K gold Mercury Dime, issued in 2016 to commemorate the dime’s centennial, sold for $275 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021 at Gold Standard Auctions in Dallas. Image courtesy of Professional Coin Grading Service, Wikimedia.org and LiveAuctioneers

2016

In 2016, a commemorative 24K gold Mercury Dime, weighing a little more than three grams, was issued at the West Point Mint in business proof condition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Mercury Dime in 1916. Only 125,000 gold proof coins were issued, and they sold out fast. At auction, the commemorative is usually valued more for its gold content, which is about a tenth of an ounce, than for its mintage.

No coin is immune to counterfeiting, artificial aging, and other forms of doctoring, but collectors of silver coins, the Mercury Dime included, must be wary of an extra hazard: it’s possible to reduce the silver content of a coin.

A lot of 23 Mercury and two Barber Dimes sold at auction for its silver value at $42 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021 at Lot 14 Auctions. Image courtesy of Lot 14 Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

When mulling the purchase of a 1916 D Mercury Dime, check its date. It should be on a straight line, not canted upward as a counterfeit will be. Also take care to weigh the coin. A genuine Mercury Dime weighs 2.34 grams and has 90% silver content (.07234ozt). A counterfeit will weigh more due to the heavier metal added to replace the silver. Note: Be sure the troy ounce setting of 31.10 is used, not the standard ounce setting of 28.35.

Counterfeiters may also cut away the bands on the fasces on the reverse to create the “full binding” look to increase its grade. Close examination under powerful magnification will easily identify the cuts.

It is always a good idea to have any high-value Mercury Dimes authenticated under magnification, have their weight checked, and have them screened for errors by members of the American Numismatic Association, who you can find at www.money.org.

Collecting Mercury Dimes requires a modicum of due diligence, but it’s worth it. Adolph Weinman’s creation is considered the most beautiful dime design ever struck, and it was immediately popular with the public and coin fans alike. A total of 2.6 billion Mercury Dimes were issued. Assembling a set is both rewarding and fun, and you can often find these coins in online auctions, such as those on LiveAuctioneers. 

Coffee table books bring out the beauty of reading

A signed copy of Madonna’s book ‘Sex’ sold for $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Hockessin Auction Company. Image courtesy of Hockessin Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Coffee table books took reading into the realm of beauty. While they convey information, their first job is to sit there and look pretty, giving pleasure even if no one actually lifts the cover. 

The concept of a coffee table book is a relatively recent phenomenon, although Michel Montaigne in his 1581 book Upon Some Verses of Virgil suggests that his essays would only “…serve the ladies …to lay in the parlor window…” In other words, to be seen and only occasionally browsed for amusement.

A signed copy of Helmut Newton’s limited-edition book ‘Sumo,’ which had belonged to Robert Evans, realized $22,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Julien’s. It came with its own furniture, a chrome-plated stand designed by Philippe Starck. Image courtesy of Julien’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Almost four centuries later, art books published by Cailler, Editions Tisne and Éditions Mazenod, among others, combined color images with lengthy text in a folio format a large printing size. The books targeted the art market and were limited in scope, but can still be considered coffee table books by today’s standards.

What we would recognize as the first proper coffee table book debuted in 1960. David Brower, then the executive director of the Sierra Club, promoted a series of nature books in hardbound folios called the ‘Exhibit Format.’ The series featured more photographs than text, a strategy that reversed the approach of earlier large format books, because Brower wanted “… the eye … to move about within the boundaries of the image …” The series began with black-and-white photographs from famed photographer Ansel Adams in This is the American Earth and ultimately encompassed 20 volumes of nature photographs. To see the image was almost as good as experiencing nature itself.

Publishers saw the success of the Sierra Club series and produced their own takes on the large, photo-centric and text-light format. They soon discovered coffee table books can sell well without focusing on art or nature. The first book to use the words ‘coffee table book’ in its title was The Coffee Table Book of Astrology, published in 1962.

What makes for a good coffee table book?

Size matters. A coffee table book worthy of the name should boast a trim size of at least 9in by 10in, to accentuate the table it sits on. Anything smaller would disappear into the backdrop. Of course, if it’s too big, the book could overwhelm even the room itself. The double elephant folio version of John James Audubon’s Birds of America series is lush and gorgeous and meets David Brower’s stricture that “… the eye cannot encompass the image all in one glance.” But with pages that measure more than two feet by three feet, it is so large as to be awkward and ungainly – a definite no-no for a coffee table book.

A coffee table book featuring Palm Springs, Florida, inscribed in 1989 by Bob and Dolores Hope to former President and Mrs. Gerald Ford achieved $525 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Another important part of a coffee table book is content. It needn’t be copiously wordy, but there must be some there there. Whatever the content, it must bring out an immediate ‘hmm’ which compels you to pick it up and read. 

‘The Complete Work of Michelangelo,’ an important coffee table book published in 1967, sold for $40 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Dejavu Estate Sales & Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Initially, the accepted range of coffee table book topics was limited to art histories or art-adjacent themes. A prime example is The Complete Work of Michelangelo by Mario Samli, which was published in 1967 and weighs nearly five pounds. Contemporary coffee table books deliver so much more. In a recent list dubbed 38 Coffee Table Books That Are So Beautiful It Hurts, Buzzfeed.com showed how far the coffee table book has come. Number one on the list: sneakers. The Ultimate Sneaker Book tells the story of the iconic footwear in 650 pages and countless images. There are also travel guides, such as ‘City Guides’ from Cereal Magazine that celebrates New York City, London, and Paris with images that makes readers long to pack their bags and go. Others showcase interior design, plants, furniture, food, and any topic that yields fanciful images that transform the seemingly mundane into art objects themselves.

What collectors look for

According to industry records, the fastest-selling contemporary coffee table book is Sex by the singer, actor and producer Madonna. Released in 1992, all 1.5 million copies sold out within three days of the book’s release at $50 (about $95 with inflation). Despite its abundant first-edition production run, it remains the most popular out-of-print book. A copy signed by Madonna sold for $1,100 at auction in 2018.

Conceived by William Henry Fox Talbot, ‘The Pencil of Nature’ was first produced in 1844 as a book of ‘photographic drawings.’ A 1985 reprint of the proto-coffee table book achieved €800 ($940) plus the buyer’s premium in March 2019. Image courtesy of Auction Team Breker and LiveAuctioneers

Of course, collectors of coffee table books seek rarities, too. In 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot produced a book of ‘photographic drawings’ of silver-salted black-and-white prints of daily life. The Talbot publication is considered an early predecessor to the modern coffee table book, and a 1985 reprint achieved nearly $950 at auction in 2019.

Montaigne may have lamented his essays being only fit for a parlor window, but adding exquisitely-shot color images could turn his tome into art fit for conversation at any table, library, online meeting or, why not, even a window ledge.

‘This is the American Earth’ is considered the first modern commercial coffee table book. A copy signed by co-author Ansel Adams sold in May 2016 for $90 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Whiskey: Building a spirited collection

Two bottles of whiskey from the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Kentucky, dating to circa 1912, sold for $23,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

For centuries, bourbon, rye, corn, wheat and other grains have provided the basis of aqua vitae (Latin for “water of life”). Once distilled, the liquid becomes ethanol with a high alcoholic content – or, as its connoisseurs know it, whiskey.

European monks in Scotland and Ireland perfected the distillation process around the 15th century, with the aim of creating medicine. Their yield was bitter and hardly diluted – almost pure. The precise addition of water, along with stringent governmental regulations, transformed whiskey into the smoother, more enjoyable spirit countless tipplers enjoy and bid on at auction.

Whiskey or Whisky?

Both spellings are valid and provide clues about the origins of a beverage. Whiskey with an “e” appears on bottles produced in the United States and Ireland; whisky without the “e” prevails at distilleries everywhere else in the world. Regardless of how it is spelled, the term is an anglicization of the Gaelic word uisce, meaning “water,” a reference to one of the drink’s key ingredients. (We’ll use “whiskey” in this article.)

A pair of 12-year-old single malt whiskeys by Suntory, a leading Japanese distillery, sold for $900 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Tenmoku Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Whiskey requires three ingredients: yeast, grain and water. How much of each the distiller includes determines the type of whiskey that will result from the combination.

Whiskey Basics

The range of possible iterations from those three simple ingredients translates to a broad and tantalizing array of choices for whiskey collectors.

If a whiskey is defined as a single malt, it has one of two additional classifications: “single” means the contents came from one distillery, not from one grain; while “malt” refers to barley that has been fermented to produce the yeast used to create the beverage. A blended whiskey combines the products of two or more distilleries. Grain whiskey involves a mixture of corn, barley, wheat or rye, sometimes in specific amounts for each. Single cask or single barrel whiskeys are spirits sourced not only from one distillery, but also from a specific cask or barrel at that distillery.

A full vintage Kinsey blended whiskey from the 1970s with an intact label and tax stamp realized $70 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2019. Image courtesy of Emanon Auctions and Estate Sales and LiveAuctioneers

Bourbon, rye whiskey, moonshine and Tennessee whiskey are distilled only in the United States. Scotch whiskey exclusively refers to whiskey made in Scotland. Those from Ireland, Canada, Japan and elsewhere are distilled under their country’s specific rules. 

Whiskeys are aged in wooden casks that are sometimes charred (for a distinctive flavor) and sometimes not. Once the spirit is bottled, aging stops. This quality has helped grow whiskey’s popularity with collectors. Wine can spoil as bottles slumber in a cellar, but whiskey will not. 

The Ways and Whys of Whiskey-Making

After the final distillation, all whiskey is clear and tasteless. Its color and flavor comes from the wooden barrels in which it is aged, such as oak (the most common choice), maple, hickory or ash. Color, complexity, and taste arise from the maturing spirit’s interactions with the wood of the barrel, which is why whiskey-makers seek barrels that are charred or have already gained seasoning from previous sessions of aging wine, madeira, port or other spirits.

The type of water from which a whiskey is distilled also affects its flavor. Natural sources of water have different minerals in different concentrations. Skilled distillers take advantage of this to craft standout whiskeys.

In the world of whiskey, place names matter, too. Bourbon is made solely in the United States under strict guidelines. To qualify as bourbon, the spirit must be distilled with no less than 51% corn; casked in new, charred oak barrels for no fewer than two years, and bottled at no less than 80 proof (which means the final product is 40 percent alcohol). 

A group of three bottles of Scotch whiskey, two by Buchanan’s and one by Ballantine’s, sold for $46 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020. Image courtesy of Lot 14 Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Ireland and Scotland both take pride in their national histories as whiskey-producers, and their spirits feature notable differences. Scotch whiskey tends to employ malted barley, while Irish whiskey recipes favor barley seeds, which gives the Irish spirit a distinct taste.

With all these preferences, characteristics and stipulations in play, collectors can assume no two whiskeys are distilled exactly alike, even if they come from the same country or region.

What Do Whiskey Collectors Look For?

During the U.S. period of Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, alcoholic beverages were banned except for whiskey. Distillers did not change how they worked, but they were forced to treat their goods as medicine. Americans who wanted whiskey had to obtain a prescription from a doctor and purchase it at a pharmacy. 

Prohibition-era spirits, especially whiskey, are highly sought after by collectors. In 2018, Sotheby’s auctioned a 1926 McCallan Valerio Adami for $1.9 million, which was a world record for whiskey at auction. A pre-Prohibition lot of 25 pints of Hermitage 9-year-old whiskey, found behind a wall in 2018, sold for $24,500, or about $1,000 a bottle. 

But collecting whiskey doesn’t require deep pockets. A 2019 vox.com article titled “The weird world of whiskey collecting, explained,” quotes Andy Simpson, co-founder of RareWhiskey101, as saying collections often start from one simple premise. According to Simpson, some common collecting themes are pursuing a bottle from every possible distillery, obtaining every bottle from a single, beloved distillery; or collecting birth-year vintages. Says Simpson, “ … the list is almost endless.”

A circa-1880s bottle of Cassidy & Co Monasterevan whiskey, one of two known, sold for €23,000 ($26,970) in July 2019. Image courtesy of Victor Mee Auctions and Liveauctioneers

Prices for elite whiskeys have risen high enough to draw the attention of forgers. To avoid expensive disappointments, collectors should consult experts and stay in touch with online communities of fellow collectors. Those sources will teach initiates key details, such as what period-correct labels and bottles look like, and, more importantly, how to know where a particular whiskey has been, and for how long.

Above all else, one should never lose sight of the fact that whiskey-collecting is about pleasure, not hoarding. Some experts advise savor your hard-won prizes neat or on ice, with friends, or with one special person; or in quiet contemplation, perhaps beside a fire. After all, as Rudyard Kipling said, “Whiskey is not a drink; whiskey is a philosophy of life.” Just be sure that, no matter how you choose to enjoy the fruits of your collection, you do so responsibly. Cheers!

Trapunto takes quilting into the third dimension

Trapunto work highlights this Italian 17th-century textile that sold as a panel for $550 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Michaan’s Auctions. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Trapunto an Italian word that means “to quilt” or “embroider” takes the fine art of quilting to a higher level. Since the 13th century in Italy, textile artists have employed the trapunto technique – with includes the use of excess soft material – to highlight certain areas of a quilt’s pattern.

Trapunto literally takes quilting into a third dimension. Padding a quilt trapunto-style makes its colors more vibrant, its patterns more mesmerizing, and imbues the whole design with a tactile quality that goes beyond what a standard quilt can offer.

The three-dimensional effect of trapunto quilting is strong in this early 19th century white-on-white quilt. It sold for $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2021 at John McInnis Auctioneers, LLC. Image courtesy of John McInnis Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

When the trapunto method is used, sewn flowers seem to emerge from the stitched garden, and stars, moons, and cloud patterns appear more lifelike. The final result is still as cozy and as inviting as a traditional quilt, but it renders a greater depth of feeling when your hands and eyes pass over its raised curves, peaks and valleys.

How It’s Done

The process of trapunto is a form of quilting, but instead of the traditional three flat layers (the stitched pattern of fabric on top; the batting (stuffing), or middle cushion of fabric; and the backing that ties it all together), the batting is increased to produce a raised surface in select parts of the pattern or motif. FaveQuilts.com says that trapunto “…patterns are intricate and visually stunning, utilizing the texture of the pattern instead of fabric color to make the design pop. Thick yarn or cotton is stuffed into the shape between the top and the batting using a needle. This puffs up the shape, giving the quilt a three-dimensional texture.”

This set of seven Japanese silk fabric trapunto scenes depicting traditional artisans at work sold for $2,100 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Converse Auctions. Image courtesy of Converse Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Trapunto quilts are not uniform in technique or production, however. Subtle distinctions can help pinpoint the specific type of needlework and period in which a piece was made.

Provençal and Boutis Quilting

Provençal quilting relies on only two layers of cloth, with no wadding in between; the stitching alone yields the final pattern or motif instead of uniting separate pieces of material to create a pattern, as in traditional quilting. The stitches in Provençal quilting are placed closer together to form smaller spaces or channels into which rolled yarn is inserted with a special needle called a “boutis” to form the raised surface.

This process of trapunto is called pique marseillais and was developed in the early 18th century in Marseilles, in the Provençal region of France.

This late 19th-century example of boutis quilting sold for $625 plus the buyer’s premium at Copake Auctions in January 2021. Image courtesy of Copake Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Boutis quilting is another type of trapunto from the Marseilles region of France. It is similar to the Provençal technique, but it dates to the 19th century. It involves two layers of cloth and requires the addition of stuffing after the running stitch has been completed.

An early 19th-century corded whitework quilted bedcover sold for $200 plus the buyer’s premium at Augusta Auctions in May 2021. Image courtesy of Augusta Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Corded Quilting 

The corded quilting technique is similar to boutis quilting, except the trapunto effect is created with a very thick thread or cord that is inserted between a double outline of thread (called stipling) from the back. This so-called “cording” is also used to frame, separate and create individual patterns within the quilt itself. It produces a heavier relief effect than the softer, more pliable yarn used in boutis quilting.

Sailor’s woolworks

While not necessarily considered trapunto in its usual definition, woolworks are forms of needlework or embroidery enhanced with layers of yarn that creates the same visual effect as trapunto.

A Victorian British sailor knitted this ‘woolie’ circa 1880 with trapunto roses, thistles and royal crown. It realized $1,250 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020 at Rafael Osona Auctions. Image courtesy of Rafael Osona Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

During the age of sailing ships, from 1830 to 1920 or so, sailors needed to spend their considerable downtime on long voyages in pursuits other than card-playing and roughhousing. Repairing sails, nets and their own clothing made sailors competent with a needle and thread, so, not surprisingly, they created woolworks or embroidered images of their ship to pass the time. The image of an embroidered ship would feature a buildup of yarn that made it seem as if it was under full sail not unlike trapunto, except the yarn was not hidden by a top layer of material.

During the First World War, soldiers in the trenches employed the same technique to create detailed needlework of flags, pocket pillows, and an embroidered form of souvenir with a place for a photograph that featured the distinctive trapunto effect. These “woolies,” as they are called, are a distinctive collectible category that reflects different levels of artistic talent and expertise.

What Collectors Look For

A textile expert can determine the age of trapunto work by looking directly at the weave of the yarn of the main fabric. An “S” weave has the twist of the yarn going upward from right to left (a detail that predominates in wool and cotton before 1865); a “Z” twist is the opposite, going from left to right (a style that prevailed after 1865).

Colors, motifs, patterns, and manufacturing techniques also play key roles in distinguishing vintage trapunto pieces from more contemporary textiles.

Not Just Quilts

Although trapunto is mostly associated with quilts, examples of the technique appear at auction in the forms of vintage clothing, decorative boxes, and artworks, as well as in military uniforms, drapery, furniture, accessories such as purses, and even on footwear.

A 17th-century bridal box decorated with trapunto and trimmed in silver braid sold for $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Willis Henry Auctions, Inc. Image courtesy of Willis Henry Auctions Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

The three-dimensional effect of trapunto adds elegance to simple embroidery that takes time to master. The story inherent in its patterns and colors represents a personal history that keeps you warm and connects one generation to the next; trapunto throws that history into sharp relief.

Raise a glass to the jolly Toby jug

A circa-1937 Royal Doulton character jug known as Black-Haired Clown realized $7,750 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Lion and Unicorn and Live Auctioneers

Toby Jugs are small ceramic drinking vessels that depict fictional, historic or generic characters in full figure and high relief. They originated in mid-18th century Staffordshire, England, an area rich in clay and other natural resources. Early designs feature merry old souls dressed in the standard men’s outfit of the day: frock coat, breeches, waistcoat, and tricorn hat. Invariably, they are shown holding jugs of foamy stingo, a strong, locally-brewed bitter ale. Because the jugs symbolized mirth and merriness, their tubby, bubbly images also graced British inn, pub and tavern signs.

A late 18th-century English pearlware Toby jug sold for $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The identity of the Toby who gave Toby Jugs their name remains unclear. Some believe it references Sir Toby Belch, a spirited character in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. Others say it likely acknowledges a legendary local tippler named Toby Philpot. Supporting the latter theory is a rollicking 1761 drinking song that celebrates the transformation of Philpot’s mortal ashes into a jug: 

Dear Sir this brown jug, which now foams with mild ale, 

Out of which I now drink to sweet Kate of the vale, 

Was once Toby Philpot, a thirsty old soul,

As e’er crack’d a bottle or fathom’d a bowl. 

Clothing depicted on early Toby Jugs reflected the typical attire of the day. As times changed, so did the porcelain materials and methods of production. Pale, delicate creamware Toby jugs gave way to blue-tinged pearlware and brighter Prattware versions. Agateware Tobys, featuring alluring marble-like surfaces, and brown, salt-glazed stoneware treacle Tobys, their glazes resembling the sticky byproduct of sugar refining Americans know as molasses, were also popular.

A circa-1800 English pearlware Sailor Toby Jug realized £700 ($969) plus the buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy Dreweatts Donnington Priory and LiveAuctioneers

Designs varied as well. So-called “ordinary” Tobys grasp their knees, hug jugs, puff pipes, or balance on barrels, and some of the bases feature inscriptions, such as ‘’Good Ale is Made for the Use of Men so fill Ould Tobe Once Again.” Another subgroup of Toby Jugs reflects common professions and pastimes of 18th-century British life: sailor, squire, snuff taker, parson, and collier. Still another iteration, Martha Gunn Tobys, immortalize a strong, stalwart Englishwoman who gained fame from her operation of a seashore bathing machine called a ‘dipper.’ 

Some Toby jugs can be purchased quite inexpensively. An early 19th-century Staffordshire Martha Gunn Toby Jug sold for CA$75 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021. Image courtesy Waddington’s Auctioneers and Appraisers and LiveAuctioneers

 

As Toby Jug popularity soared, French potters riffed on the form by creating delicate faience models glistening with tin-oxide glaze. Potters in Portugal, Britain, Germany, Australia, and America subsequently contributed bright lead-glazed majolica models. In addition to popular, political, and literary types such as the barrister, the Quaker, and the lady with a fan, many Toby Jugs portray droll characters based on well-known songs and stories. 

A circa-1900 French faience Snuff Taker Toby jug achieved $150 plus the buyer’s premium in 2009. Image courtesy Skinner and LiveAuctioneers

In the mid-1800s, Royal Doulton, a leading British producer of porcelain, introduced its own spin on the Toby Jug: character jugs. Instead of featuring seated or standing full figures, the Royal Doulton character jugs depict just heads and shoulders. Initially, these bust-form jugs portrayed Lord Nelson, a British naval hero, as well as zippy tipplers astride barrels marked XX. Other Doulton Tobys portrayed famed literary, political, and popular characters, from Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens to Theodore Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin.

During the 20th century, more than 200 potteries, including Sarreguemines, Royal Bayreuth, Royal Worcester and Wedgwood, produced a variety of Toby and Toby-like jugs. Shorter & Son alone introduced more than 100 types, including traditional favorites such as Old King Cole, Old Father Neptune, and Long John Silver. 

In the 1930s, Royal Doulton introduced their first modern character jug. It resembled John Barleycorn, the British personification of malt liquor. Old Charley, honoring watchmen who kept law and order, joined him, followed by scores more. All told, the company created more than 600 Toby and character jugs. In addition, Doulton produced limited numbers of novel Toby derivatives such as tobacco jars, match-stands, music boxes, bookends, decanters and candlesticks. 

Toby and character jug production thrived through the 1980s, with independent artists and innovative potteries issuing a range of appealing models. Many celebrate literary heroes such as Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe. Others welcomed the 21st century with more up-to-date pop-culture and historical figures, among them Paul McCartney, Marilyn Monroe, Barack Obama and Tweety Bird. While the shapes and styles of Toby jugs have changed, they have lost none of their appeal. Collectors are likely to chase them for centuries to come.

Frescoes: noble art for hallowed walls

Madonna with Child secco fresco sold for €600 ($712) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020 at A10 by Artmark in Bucharest, Romania. Image courtesy of A10 by Artmark and LiveAuctioneers

Painting on walls goes back to prehistory, when humans sketched animals, hunts, daily scenes and even their own handprints directly onto the interiors of their cave dwellings. Crude pigments made from plants, blood, red and yellow ochre (clay), charcoal, and other powdered minerals were used to render the images. Some wall art dates to 64,000 years ago.

Wall painting persists in the form of frescoes – the art of painting murals directly onto wet plaster with brushes dipped in colorful pigments. Like the works in paleolithic caves, as long as the plaster lasted, the painting did, too.

Ancient Greeks and Romans routinely used frescoes for decorating private homes, public buildings, palaces and temples. Frescoes from Pompeii continue to be excavated from the volcanic ash that buried the city in the year 79 A.D., and emerge looking as bright and colorful as they were when they were new. Frescoes became prominent in churches, cathedrals, and even in mosques and temples from the medieval period through the late Renaissance era.

Frescoes are created in two distinct techniques known as buon fresco and secco fresco. While the methods appear similar, the final results are distinctively different.

A 13th- to 16th-century Chinese polychrome fresco painting of a celestial deity with a Buddhist banner sold for €9,000 ($10,616) plus the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Galerie Zacke in Vienna. Image courtesy of Galerie Zacke and LiveAuctioneers

Buon Fresco

Buon fresco (Italian for “true fresh”) calls for mural imagery to be painted directly onto a specially-prepared three-layer wet plaster compound called intonico (Italian for “plaster”). As it dries, the plaster absorbs the pigments and the mural becomes part of the wall or ceiling itself. Buon fresco is durable as long as the plaster remains intact.

Tiziano Lucchesi, an instructor in fresco painting at the Studio Arts College International in Florence, Italy, explains the process of painting buon frescoes in three steps: “The background is laid out with a basic primer color while plaster is still wet … once the water is evaporated more, other colors can be added … before evaporation occurs … [and] … the last phase is where the evaporation is near complete and only retouches are possible.” Once the surface is ready, a charcoal or painted drawing, known as a cartoon, is laid over the top to provide the outline for the finished fresco.

Artists using the buon fresco technique must grapple with an unforgiving deadline to complete the work before the plaster dries completely. If it does, the buon fresco itself will be difficult to correct. Michelangelo’s images on the walls of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican might be the finest and best-known examples of buon fresco.

‘Dance,’ a 1939 Yannis Moralis study for a fresco, achieved €13,000 ($15,334) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Vergos Auctions P.C. in Athens. Image courtesy of Vergos Auctions P.C. and LiveAuctioneers

Secco Fresco

Secco fresco (Italian for “dry fresh”) requires painting mural scenes directly onto existing dry plaster. The target surface must be soaked with lime water before painting can begin. While the palette of paints for a buon fresco are made from a mix of dry pigment and water, those readied for a secco fresco require binders such as egg yolk, oil or glue.

Because the plaster is relatively dry, the artist has more time to complete a secco fresco than a buon fresco, but the technique has a significant disadvantage: the colors aren’t readily absorbed into the plaster and thus aren’t as durable. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is the best-known example of the secco fresco technique. The religious masterpiece has weathered the centuries poorly, demanding endless maintenance.

A sort of in-between technique, known as mezzo fresco (“medium fresh”), attempts to preserve the looser time schedule granted by secco fresco while strengthening the durability of the image it produces. Artists relying on mezzo fresco add lime water to their pigments in order to bind them more securely to the almost-dry plaster.

How to Tell the Difference Between the Two

According to experts, a quick way to spot the technique used to create a fresco is to assess its surface. Buon fresco is smoother overall; secco fresco is painted on existing dry plaster, which has a rougher appearance. Also, secco frescoes will noticeably craze, split and flake off, requiring constant attention and upkeep.

Schools of Fresco Painting

Painting on fresh plaster as a deliberate artistic style can be traced back at least 4,000 years, to the Minoan civilization near Crete. Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Roman and Northern African fresco paintings are prevalent on tombs, private homes, peristyles and public buildings from the ancient world. Catacombs in Rome feature buon fresco murals from the early Christian era. Even caves in the Indus Valley have examples of fresco murals from at least 1100 B.C., such as in the Brihadisvara Temple in India. These are all examples of very early fresco painting. Such works tend to head straight to national museums and are not usually made available at auction.

13th-century Chinese stucco fresco depicting a procession of female immortals, sold for €3,800 ($4,482) plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021 at Capitoliumart s.r.l. in Brescia, Italy. Image courtesy of Capitoliumart s.r.l. and LiveAuctioneers

Churches, cathedrals and houses of worship all relied on fresco murals to teach the lessons of the Bible in the 12th and 13th centuries. Many medieval fresco murals enliven the structures of the Eastern Orthodox community, such as Andrei Rublev’s frescoes in several prominent Moscow cathedrals. Giotto’s Betrayal of Christ, painted in 1305, is a celebrated medieval fresco that graces the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy.

The Italian Renaissance period was something of a golden age for fresco, with works rendered by Botticelli, Coreggio, and Massacio, as well as Michelangelo, whose Sistine Chapel frescoes became part of the very fabric of the ceiling of the Vatican. The painter known as Raphael created The School of Athens, one of the highest forms of fresco painting in the Vatican, completing it in 1511. Artists routinely painted frescoes until the early 16th century, when the medium’s use slowed considerably in favor of small and large oil paintings, which were far more portable.

The Baroque period, which spanned the late-16th to mid-18th century, marks the last great era for the fresco. Artists such as Pietro da Cortana, Carlo Miratta, and Tiepolo, whose frescoes featured in the Wurzburg Residences series of the 1750s, represented the last of the Italian Grand Manner painters of fresco art along with the Bolognese School.

After the Baroque Period, the use of fresco for enlivening interiors declined as an art form, although some artists, includingTheodore Chasseriau and Puvis de Chavannes, did work in the medium into the late 19th century.

A fresco ‘cartoon’ – a work laid over the target surface to provide an outline for the scene – created by Ben Long for his 2004 ‘Beheading of John the Baptist’ fresco sold for $350 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2014 at Tory Hill Auctions in Raleigh, N.C. Image courtesy of Tory Hill Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A few early 20th-century artists such as Diego Rivera, Francesco Clemente, David Siqueros and Jose Orozco, embraced the fresco technique as they led Mexican Muralism into prominence as part of a public art movement. Some projects commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the United States during the Great Depression featured secco frescoes by local artists that are still displayed in public buildings such as city halls, post offices and state capitals.

While it is not as dominant an art form as it once was, fresco painting continues to be taught online and at art schools. Budding and experienced art collectors will find examples at all levels with which to start, or enhance, any collection, and range from cartoons, studies and preparatory works to actual fragments or panels recovered from a building.

Qi Baishi: telling stories through brushstrokes

Four framed scrolls by Qi Baishi, titled ‘Flowers of the Four Seasons: Wisteria, Lotus, Chrysanthemum and Prunus,’ sold for $217,600 in March 2021 at Hindman in Chicago. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.

Anyone familiar with Chinese art history would be familiar with Qi Baishi (1864-1957), the renowned painter whose whimsical depictions of common objects and creatures made him a darling among collectors and art aficionados. Largely self-taught, Qi Baishi painted everything from animals to scenery to figures to vegetables. He was particularly fond of painting shrimps, fish, crabs, frogs, insects and peaches, which he rendered using heavy ink, bright colors and vigorous strokes that express his love of nature and of life.

A Qi Baishi scroll titled ‘Cricket & Leaf’ sold for $312 in April 2021 at Converse Auctions in Paoli, Pa. Image courtesy of Converse Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Qi Baishi was not born into privilege not by a long shot. He grew up in a large peasant family in Xiangtan, Hunan, as a sickly child who only attended public school for one year. At the age of 14 he decided to become a carpenter, but when he discovered a copy of the book Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, it sparked a desire in him to create art. He initially painted the human form, recruiting anyone he knew to pose for him. Later on, he received formal training in the gongbi mode, which emphasized fine brushwork and meticulous detail, and his subject list expanded.

A Qi Baishi painting titled ‘Chen Banding’ sold for $4,750 in Canadian dollars in June 2017 at Bowen Auction in Markham, Canada. Image courtesy of Bowen Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

He was taught that every aspect of painting mattered, from the subject matter to the way the ink was applied to the paper. Subsequent mentors steered Qi Baishi toward landscapes, which he executed with precision. Although he was trained in gongbi, he abandoned the approach and started painting in the freely expressive xieyi (“sketching thoughts”) style. He once said, “Paintings must be something between likeness and unlikeness, much like today’s vulgarians, but not like to cheat people.” He focused on life’s smaller things and not the larger landscape.

Qi Baishi was not his real name; he was born Qi Huang, but chose Baishi (Chinese for “white stone”) as a pseudonym. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that he ventured beyond his home province to see and experience more of China. Already adept at the arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal-carving (he once described himself as “the rich man of three hundred stone seals”), he came upon the Shanghai School, which was popular at the time, and was taken under the wing of Wu Changshuo, who inspired many of Qi’s subsequent works. About 15 years later, another influential teacher, Chen Shizeng, mentored him until he finally settled down in Beijing, in 1917.

A Qi Baishi Chinese traditional painting, signed and featuring red seals, sold for $156,000 in December 2018 at Lauren Gallery in Roswell, Ga. Image courtesy of Lauren Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Tommy Curtis, the president of Lauren Gallery in Roswell, Georgia, said Qi Baishi is without a doubt one of the best-known artists in China. “He began painting while still a teenager, and with no formal training,” Curtis said. Although Qi Baishi was best known for his painting and calligraphy, he considered his seal carvings his best work. Some of his major influences were the early Qing dynasty painter Bada Shanren and the Ming dynasty artist Xu Wei.”

Qi Baishi’s works are highly prized by collectors today. His paintings sell for between $20,000 to more than one million dollars,” Curtis said. “The value is based on the story of the painting as well as the colors and provenance. It does seem that his paintings are increasing in value.”

Qi Baishi watercolor painting of a group of carp, which sold for $193,600 in May 2015 at Eden Fine Antiques Galleries in Marietta, Ga. Image courtesy of Eden Fine Antiques Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

Mel Delzer, president of Eden Fine Antiques Galleries in Marietta, Georgia, said Qi Baishi’s works are known for their spontaneity and freshness. “Their value depends on the theme or story of the painting, the complications, the variety of colors and, of course, provenance. His paintings have been on a steady rise, excluding the 2020 pandemic market,” Delzer said.

It is estimated that Qi Baishi produced anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 distinct artworks. Of these, 3,000 are in museums. Since 1993, more than 16,000 of his paintings have appeared at auction. In 2011, an undated painting that was only attributed to him, titled Eagle Standing on Pine Tree, sold for $65.5 million. In 2017, his 1925 painting Twelve Landscape Scenes, which had solid authentication, soared to a staggering $140.8 million.