Women who rocked the art world

Women are on the rise. You can see it everywhere—politically, culturally and, to a subtler and perhaps less profound degree, artistically. Make no mistake, women have been creating art for millennia, as long as men, only in far fewer numbers than their male counterparts. That can be attributed in large part to a woman’s traditional role throughout history: that of mother, caregiver and family provider. Those important, although burdensome and time-consuming, duties left little time for pursuits like painting and sculpture—at least for most women.

Susan Hertel (American, 1930-1993), ‘Interior with woman and dogs,’ oil, graphite and charcoal on canvas, 43¾ inches by 52¼ inches, $21,250—a new auction record for the artist (estimate $6,000-$9,000). Sold Oct. 23, 2018. John Moran Auctioneers image.

But that was then and this is now, in the era of the Me Too Movement and women in politics. The point was driven home at John Moran Auctioneers’ inaugural Women in Art Auction, held Oct. 23 at their gallery in Monrovia, California. It was so successful that a second one is planned, probably in fall 2019. Comprising 93 women artists and 124 lots, the auction shed light on mostly California and American women artists from the 19th century to the present day. Prices were strong across the board, and new auction records were set for Susan Hertel, Ethel V. Ashton and Dora Gamble.

“There’s an absolute correlation between the events of today and the rise of women in art,” said Morgana Blackwelder, John Moran’s vice president and director of Fine Art. “Early this year, given our political and social climates, we felt it was a moment in time to conduct a sale that was topical and relevant, and the Women in Art Auction proved to be a perfect choice. We wanted to remove the bias that favors men and give women more of a voice so as to call attention to their mostly prewar artistic contributions. We didn’t know what to expect, but it was a huge success.”

Kathryn W. Leighton (American, 1875-1952), ‘The Young Chief,’ oil on canvas, 44¼ inches by 36 inches, $22,500 (estimate $18,000-$22,000). Sold Oct. 23, 2018. John Moran Auctioneers image

Blackwelder said the auction enjoyed an 80 percent sell-through, with around 80 people in the gallery and hundreds more participating online. “We learned that the people who attended the sale were buying pieces they felt a connection with, and for the most part, that connection was with the female artist. Statistically, women have tremendous buying power and are able to make personal financial decisions more now than ever before.” She said it was no surprise most of the artists were California based. “The state has always been a magnet for culture and the fine arts.”

Mary Dowd of Myers Fine Art in Florida said she’s been conducting auctions since 1988 at their gallery in St. Petersburg, and has noticed more and more women being sprinkled into the mix. “I think women artists got a huge boost around 20 years ago with the opening of the Museum of Women Artists in Washington, D.C.,” Dowd said. That shined a spotlight not only on the more-established women artists, but the up-and-comers, as well. As for identifying trends and emerging talent, I find browsing Art Basel and the other fine art shows to be a great way to stay current.”

Julia Thecla (American, 1896-1973), ‘Talisman’ (1945), casein, gouache opaque watercolor on artist board, 9 inches by 9 inches (sight), $28,320 (estimate $10,000-$20,000). Sold March 13, 2016. Myers Fine Art image

Myers Fine Art specializes in artworks from the Magical Realism Movement out of Chicago in the 1930s-1950s, one that spawned talents such as Julia Thecla and Gertrude Abercrombie. Both were featured in a Myers auction two years ago that did particularly well. “Magical Realism was a regional phenomenon, and the paintings remain very popular in Chicago,” Dowd pointed out.

A painting by Thecla, in fact, was in the John Moran auction just held. It was a Surrealist composition depicting an elephantesque tightrope walker and realized $7,500.

Gertrude Abercrombie (American, 1909-1977), ‘Owl with Carnation,’ oil on Masonite, 5 inches by 7 inches (sight), $7,080 (estimate $3,000-$5,000). Sold Feb. 9, 2014. Myers Fine Art image

Some women artists have benefited from money and connections (often through marriage), which no doubt helped them attain the attention and respect they deserved. The celebrated American abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) was born into privilege but added to her cachet when she married the artist Robert Motherwell (American, 1915-1991). They both had wealthy parents (her father was a New York State Supreme Court judge) and were known as “the golden couple,” famous for their lavish entertaining. Career building is easier with no money worries.

Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887-1986), the grand dame of all female American artists, was the second of seven children born to Wisconsin dairy farmers, and struggled in her early years as an artist. But when she was introduced to Alfred Stieglitz, the successful New York City art dealer and photographer, in 1917, a professional working relationship eventually led to marriage and O’Keeffe’s emergence as the “Mother of American modernism.” She is acclaimed worldwide for her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York City skyscrapers and New Mexico landscapes.

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926), whose mother-child renderings are hugely popular among collectors, never had to worry about money. Her father was a successful stockbroker and land speculator. Her mother, the former Katherine Kelso Johnston, came from a banking family. Katherine was educated and well read, and had a profound influence on her daughter. Mary grew up in an environment that viewed travel as integral to education. She was first exposed to the great French artists of the day at the Paris World’s Fair of 1855. Some would later become her colleagues.

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926), ‘Simone Talking to Her Mother,’ pastel on paper, 25½ by 30½ inches, $990,000 (estimate $400,000-$700,000). Sold Sept. 15, 2015. John W. Coker Auctions image.

While Elaine de Kooning (American, 1918-1989) never achieved the level of acclaim of her famous husband, Willem, she still enjoyed an enviable career as an Abstract Expressionist and Figurative Expressionist painter, plus she wrote extensively on art of the period and was an editorial associate for Art News magazine. Her talent emerged when she was quite young, but she was not a privileged child. Her father worked at a bread factory in Brooklyn, and her mother had psychiatric issues. Elaine made money as an art school model to help pay for her own art education.

Returning to privilege, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was a French impressionist who came from an eminent family, as the daughter of a government official and granddaughter of a famous Rococo artist, Jean-Honore Fragonard. Morisot met her longtime friend and colleague, Edouard Manet, in 1868, and married Manet’s brother Eugene Manet in 1874. The marriage produced a daughter, Julie who posed frequently for her mother and other Impressionist painters, including Renoir and her uncle Edouard, who exerted great influence on Berthe’s emergence as an artist.

It could be argued that Lee Krasner (American, 1908-1984) was a co-equal with her celebrated but self-destructive husband, Jackson Pollock. Lee knew from an early age she wanted to pursue a career in art and attended the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union, on an art scholarship. She struggled through the Great Depression, as a waitress and a teacher, and spent a good portion of the 1940s nurturing Pollock’s home life and career, at the expense of her own art. Still, Krasner is one of the few female artists ever to have a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art.

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926), ‘Portrait of Lady in Hat with Dog,’ drypoint etching on paper, 5¾ inches wide by 7¼ inches tall. Collection of Catherine Saunders-Watson

And let’s give a nod to the better-known female American self-taught folk artists, such as Ann Mary Robertson Moses (also known as Grandma Moses, 1860-1961), Clementine Hunter (another centenarian who’s often called the Black Grandma Moses, 1887-1988), and Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980). All came from humble beginnings and overcame hardship to earn a place at the top of their craft—regardless of gender. Rich or poor, living or passed, women in art are a force to be reckoned with, and one that will only grow stronger as the playing field is leveled between women and men.

Mechanical Banks Draw High Interest

Cast-iron toy coin banks are recognized as some of the most successful mass-produced products of the 19th century. By adding a simple mechanical component, toy banks became a novelty and an immediate success.

Mikado cast-iron mechanical bank, Kyser & Rex, circa 1886, auctioned by Morphy’s in September 2012 for $198,000

Toy designers devised mechanical banks with captivating actions that served to amuse as well as to promote the concept of thrift. The banks reflected social and political attitudes of the times and humorous happenings.

American toymakers mastered the intricacies of cast iron in the second half of the 19th century. The first toy banks appeared in the versatile alloy about 1869.

Kyser & Rex Roller Skating cast-iron mechanical bank, auctioned by Morphy’s in September 2012 for $84,000

Sand casting was the preferred method for cast-iron mechanical banks, beginning in the 1870s.

In short, sand casting is just as it sounds. Create a pattern of wood, clay or heat-resistant plastic (more contemporary use) and create a mold within fine-grain sand tightly packed in two separate parts: a cope (top half) and a drag (bottom half). Remove the pattern, close and seal the two molds and fill the space with molten iron through specially created runners and feeders. Let cool. Remove the mold to revel a solidified iron casting. The separate castings are then pieced together, edges are smoothed out, and details are added either by hand-painting or dipping.

Two basic types of toy banks were produced between 1870 and the 1920s. A still bank is best described as the plain “piggy” bank, having no mechanical function. Still banks come in all kinds of shapes and materials, and depict just about anything. While still banks are collectible in their own right, it is the mechanical bank that has proven the most popular and valuable.

Kyser & Rex ‘Merry-Go-Round’ cast-iron mechanical bank, $126,000, auctioned by Morphy’s in September 2012. Morphy Auctions image

The most collectible mechanical banks were made from 1870 to 1900, however, they continued to be made through the Depression era. Unfortunately for collectors, by the 1930s, mechanical banks were being reproduced well after the originals were cast. Foundries were recreating many of the earlier banks using the originals as the new patterns. What they were reproducing, though, was nowhere near the quality of the originals.

When inspecting a mechanical bank, one will find that the parts of a reproduction will not fit together as well as those of an original. The edges aren’t as smooth. The metal also has a rougher feel from the use of rougher sand in the casting. Paint may be sprayed on instead of dipped, and will flake off instead of chipping off as originals may do. Details of wheel spokes, for example, will show trimmings that weren’t sanded down as the originals would have been. Most importantly, repros may have contemporary fittings such as Phillips screws, pins, nuts and bolts that stand out rather than having fasteners molded into the parts. If the paint over the fastener doesn’t match the surrounding area, it is quite likely to be a contemporary reproduction, experts say.

It is obvious in looking at this Fireman mechanical bank that it is a modern reproduction. Note the gritty surface and poor paint job.

Lastly, a reproduction is made from the mold of the original, so it will have a slightly smaller footprint. This is because cast iron will shrink a bit after casting, about one-eighth of an inch or so.

Early mechanical banks, with their superior quality and craftsmanship, can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Contemporary reproductions sell for significantly less. When considering the purchase of a mechanical bank, you should ask the seller to allow you to look inside to see how the component parts fit together, what types of fasteners were used and whether or not the paint is evenly distributed.

A great resource for collectors is the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America. Visit their website at www.mechanicalbanks.org. The more you learn about mechanical banks, the more informed and confident you will be as a collector. And that is advice you can take to the bank.

Vote Yes on Campaign Buttons

With the midterms looming and politics on everyone’s mind, no wonder collectors of political campaign buttons and pinbacks are in their glory, chasing up and adding new selections to what they already have. A report appearing two years ago in LiveAuctioneers’ digital newspaper Auction Central News identified campaign buttons as the most popular type of political memorabilia, followed by textiles, flags and posters. But why pinbacks and buttons? After all, they’re smaller and visually less impactful.

“Their size accounts for much of their appeal,” explained Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions and a lifelong collector of political pins. He is also the author of several books on the subject. “To me, they’re like miniature posters, and they don’t take up a mansionful of space. They’re wonderful artifacts from their time, and getting into the game is both cheap and easy.”

Indeed, nice examples from the 1896 presidential campaigns of William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan (spoiler alert: McKinley won) can be bought for as little as ten or fifteen dollars – and in nice condition! There’s a reason for that: 1896 was the first year that pinback buttons, patented only three years earlier, were mass-produced by the millions, at little cost. Prior to that, the buttons were mostly just that – buttons, which had to be sewn onto a person’s garment.

This McKinley & Hobart “Our Choice” mechanical jugate stud example, over 100 years old, sold for a very reasonable $112.50 at Heritage Auctions on Aug. 26, 2018.

To be clear, a pinback button is one that can be temporarily fastened to the surface of a garment using its attached safety pin. The fastening mechanism is anchored to the back side of the button-shaped metal disc, either flat or concave, leaving an area on the front of the button to carry an image or printed message. Such was the invention patented by Benjamin S. Whitehead in 1893.

Political campaign buttons have been around in this country literally since the election of President George Washington. At his inauguration, metal pins bearing the phrase, “Long Live the President” were worn by supporters. The phrase was probably chosen as a riff on “God Save the King!,” which the newly independent Americans had been accustomed to cheering back home in Mother England. That pin today, by the way, easily fetches in the thousands of dollars.

Think about it – what other type of collectible, outside of maybe rocks and bottles, can be picked up for free? That’s a trick question. Yes, you can gather pins and buttons at rallies, speeches and a campaign headquarters for free, but there will be a cost when buying at auction, on eBay or at an antiques shop or flea market. The spread is a wide one, as certain “Holy Grail” buttons fetch tens of thousands of dollars, while a group lot of 50 common pins might bring $20.

“Just a couple of weeks ago, we sold a Cox-Roosevelt pinback from the 1920 presidential election for $47,278,” Hake said. “Images of the two men were on the pin, as was the slogan ‘Americanize America.’ It was a record for that particular pin, but is by no means a record for a political pinback. I’ve seen Washington buttons and other rarities top the $100,000 mark. But that’s what makes the hobby so great. There’s attractive product at both ends of the market, and prices are on the rise.”

This 1920 campaign button for the Democratic ticket of James Cox-Franklin D. Roosevelt sold for $47,278 at Hake Auctions #222, held November 2017. It was a record for the pinback.

Ted Hake was first introduced to pinbacks at age five, when a friend of his mother’s – an antiques enthusiast – gave him a pin that promoted World War I Liberty Bonds. He was instantly enchanted and began collecting more pins, in varying types, not just political. Then, in 1951, his father suggested he start collecting coins, and for a time the pins got put aside. But an encounter at a local coin shop brought Ted right back to collecting buttons and pins.

“A friend of the fellow who ran the coin store was a collector of William Jennings Bryan buttons, and he had some on display for sale there,” he recalled. “It cost hardly anything to buy one, so I did and collected political buttons from then on.” Today, Ted is a member in good standing with the American Political Items Collectors (www.apic.us) and was even given the group’s coveted Lifetime Achievement Award.

The first political button to show a photographic image was from Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. Lincoln, as well as his opponents, used the tintype (or ferrotype) process, a photograph made of tin and dark enamel or lacquer. Lincoln’s pins featured Honest Abe’s image on the front and a locking pin on the back – a precursor to the 1896 pinback.

This Abraham Lincoln 1864 ferrotype badge (with running mate Andrew Johnson on the reverse) sold for $1,947 at Hake’s #222, held Nov. 2017.

Since around 1916, campaign buttons have been produced by lithographing the image directly onto the metal disc. One of the more famous uses of campaign buttons occurred during the 1940 U.S. presidential election, when Wendell Willkie’s campaign mass-produced millions of lithographed slogan buttons in fast response to news items about his opponent President Franklin Roosevelt.

It wasn’t until after World War II that collectors found each other and organized the hobby. In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower unknowingly fed into Americans’ appetite for the pins when it became a trend to wear an “I Like Ike” button on one’s lapel. Notice no political party is mentioned. That’s because the slogan was coined initially, to encourage Eisenhower (who was still serving as Armed Forces Chief of Staff) to commit to either the Republican or Democratic party, something he had not yet done. It worked, as the slogan helped nudge the war-hero general into the race, on the Republican side.

In the 1960s, “grassroots buttons” began popping up. These were produced not by the presidential campaigns themselves, but by regular, everyday people who wanted to either show support for a candidate or bash an opponent. An example was a 1968 pin opposing the Democrat contender Eugene McCarthy. The pin – somewhat inexplicably – said, “McCarthy for Fuhrer.”

Today, sadly, increasing advertising expenses, plus legal limits on expenditures, have led many American political campaigns to abandon buttons altogether in favor of disposable lapel stickers – which are far less expensive to produce – or even virtual campaign buttons, or “web buttons.” Internet users simply place them on their personal websites. Wide distribution is nearly cost free.

A Roosevelt/Fairbanks 1904 “Souvenir of Pretzel Town – Reading, PA” jugate button sold at Hake’s on May 14, 2018 for $9,675. Image courtesy of Hake’s and LiveAuctioneers.

But for Ted Hake and many others like him, nothing will ever replace the hold-in-your-hands little buttons and pinbacks that have been part of the nation’s election culture since the very birth of our nation. “Everyday I can look online or attend a show and see a pin I’ve never seen before,” Hake said. “It really is a wonderful little hobby, and great for every taste and budget.”

Illustrator Ellen Clapsaddle: queen of Halloween postcards

Halloween is one of the oldest holidays celebrated in the Western world. It came about in ancient times when harvesttime marked the end of the year on the Celtic calendar. A festival honoring Samhain, the Celtic lord of death, began the evening of October 31.

The change of seasons ushered in pagan rituals. To the ancients, it was a time when the boundary of our world and the spirit world was more open. They believed the spirits could more easily revisit our world during this brief period.

During the festival of Samhain, neighbors provided food and drink for “wandering spirits,” represented by those wearing a variety of costumes (guises). Bonfires provided warmth and cleansed the soul, while candles in carved-out gourds or in lanterns issued light to help keep the otherworld at bay.

International Art Publishing Co. Series 1393 Halloween greeting postcards illustrated by Ellen Clapsaddle, circa 1908, that sold for $275 in 2015. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archives and Jeffrey S. Evans and Associates

After the Romans conquered the Celts, an early Christian observance that incorporated the festivities of Samhein into a remembrance of their departed saints – known as Hallows – became the more modern version of the celebration. Thus, All Hallows Eve, shortened to Hallowe’en, marks the day before All Saints Day, which takes place on November 1.

All of these rituals were amalgamated over time with the immigration of the Irish and Scots to America in the late 19th and early 20th century. The observance of Halloween itself was reserved mostly for adult parties, although children still dressed in costumes such as ghosts (bogeys) and more scary creatures such as witches. In the early 1900s, family and friends would commemorate the holiday by sending best wishes through a picture postcard.

Although the plain postal card was first printed and mailed before or during the 1870s in the United States, the heyday of colorfully illustrated postcards lasted from about 1900 to 1920. By the time greeting postcards became popular, Halloween was already firmly established in the American culture.

The most prolific and most recognized postcard illustrator of this period was Ellen H. Clapsaddle (1865-1934). Artistically inclined since childhood, Clapsaddle left her upstate New York home in 1884 to attend the renowned Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. After graduation, she returned to her hometown, where she created landscapes and painted family portraits. She also created commercial advertising items such as calendars and greeting cards.

Ellen Clapsaddle signed embossed Halloween postcard printed in Germany and mailed in 1913. It sold for $60 in August 2017. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Matthew Bullock Auctioneers

It was through the postcard, though, that Clapsaddle’s commercial illustrations became best sellers, particularly those surrounding holidays such as Halloween. Far from showing the dark aspects of the holiday, Clapsaddle’s postcard illustrations focused more on the innocence of folklore as seen through the eyes of children and young adults.

It is estimated that Clapsaddle produced more than 3,000 different illustrations for the International Art Publishing Co., in New York City, starting in 1895. Funded by her employer, she spent several years in Germany, the center of the high-end publishing world, where she worked with engravers and printers in the world’s best printing plants. Clapsaddle is said to have established Wolf Publishing, backed by the Wolf Brothers—a full subsidiary of the International Art Publishing Co. 

Two Ellen Clapsaddle Halloween postcards produced by Wolf Publishing. Estimated at $75-$125, the pair sold for $225. Image courtesy of Live Auctioneers and Jackson’s Auction

The postcard-publishing boom ended about 1914 when World War I interrupted production in Germany. Many German factories were destroyed, and an untold number of Clapsaddle’s original artworks may have been lost along with her investments in those firms.

Today, more than 100 years after their creation, postcard illustrations by Ellen Clapsaddle are still popular and very collectible, but it is her charming portrayals of children as Halloween ghosts, witches and jack-o’-lanterns that resonate the most with collectors. The survival rate of these ephemeral artworks is a testament to her talent and broad appeal. Most of her postcards are available within the $10 to $50 range.

Apart from the colorful and embossed postcards, there are postcards known as mechanicals, examples that have a moving part within the illustration. They are highly sought after by collectors.

A complete set of Ellen Clapsaddle illustrated postcard Series 1236, circa 1913. These are examples of mechanical postcards in that the child’s hand moves the pumpkin to cover the face. The set sold for $2,400 in 2007. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archive and Lyn Knight Auction

Most postcards illustrated by Clapsaddle are signed beneath the illustration. There are some designs that are unsigned, but even so, Clapsaddle’s distinctive depictions of the joy, innocence and fun of Halloween are unmistakable.

What is folk art?

Artists of museum masterpieces created for the ages. Whether it is Michaelangelo’s marble David, paintings by da Vinci, Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog, or intricate Faberge eggs for a tsar, the beauty and power behind these works were part and parcel of creating objects that would last for the ages.

In the world of folk art, however, individuals painted, whittled or carved, drew, quilted, framed or otherwise created distinctive artistic expressions on a whim. It was simply an inspiration and it was immediate. At times, folk art made a cultural statement about what it meant to be within a community, to hold certain beliefs, to be genuine. It was only recognized as art later on.

Folk art is definitely the most inclusive of the visual arts. Unlike the trained artists behind museum masterpieces, who followed guidelines of proportion, light, space, continuity and perspective, folk artists required no particular knowledge or training. Whittling a doll for your daughter from a tree branch, for example, was a personal expression to satisfy the child’s wish – a convenient alternative if a person couldn’t afford a store-bought one. Yet, the doll was just as loved and became, by accident, just as artistically and aesthetically pleasing as any museum-worthy creation.

Embroidered flowers and animals including a lion, chickens and dogs, each block-stitched with initials of the maker, wool embroidery on wool and printed cotton; winner at the Rockingham County Fair [Virginia]. Circa 1900. Sold for $400. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Brunk Auctions

There are two distinct categories of folk art: antique and contemporary. Both are comprised of materials such as wood, clay, metal, stone, paper, cloth and whatever else might be available. Many folk art items are utilitarian in nature, such as doorstops, picture frames, business signage, or even weathervanes. They were everyday items not generally considered to be “art” at the time of their creation. The differences one may note among folk art items in general are usually connected to the time periods during which they were created.

Antique Folk Art

Early American folk art came about as the result of the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century. As urban and industrial areas grew, people developed an interest in the more rural and agrarian traditions, including primitive or “naïve” artifacts.

A circa-1860s hand-carved walnut mirror with eagle and patriotic motif throughout is an example of folk art that sold for $2,800. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archives and New Orleans Auction Galleries

These artifacts were made by itinerant craftsman, which “…led to a consideration of ‘folk art’ as anything non-elitist, primitive or homemade – art that preserved some kind of cultural heritage,” says an entry in the Art Encyclopedia. They were also made in relatively small batches, not in large commercialized lots. For example, a circa-1860s walnut mirror frame featuring a patriotic motif, hand-carved around the Civil War period, was probably a response to the war in general. It sold at auction for $2,800.

All manner of “…weathervanes, old store signs and carved figures, itinerant portraits, carousel horses, fire buckets, painted game boards, cast-iron doorstops and many other similar lines of highly collectible ‘whimsical’ antiques…” are the general categories of folk art, says Wikipedia.

Antique dealers will tell you, however, that what collectors of vintage folk art look for is the subject matter – upbeat themes such as a barber shop or fruit vendor are more desirable than funerals or sawmills, for example). Color, condition, and size are all factors as well. However, buying folk art is quite subjective. What appeals to you is the only real criterion.

An example of a simple folk art painting with hand-carved frame that sold for $50. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archives and Roland New York.

Contemporary Folk Art

After the introduction of Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, mechanization and assembly lines became the business model that persisted through most of the 20th century. Folk art itself became less about the creation of individualized utilitarian artifacts and more focused on handmade but more consistent products intended for resale as opposed to items created for personal expression.

Whether for resale or not, contemporary folk art still follows the basic principle of what folk art is, mainly that it be something that appeals to the collector, not necessarily a discipline of the fine arts. Certainly local customs, heritage and values still play a part in its creation, but the final product is intended more for display or resale than its earlier utilitarian use.

Contemporary folk art includes some handmade and hand-painted artworks, such as duck decoys, hand-stitched quilts, beadwork, jewelry, baskets, cutlery, picture frames, paintings, game boards, bird cages, tribal masks, totem poles, and smaller wooden crafts. They are distinguished by their strikingly bold colors, unique designs and personal style of craftsmanship.

Chip-carved tramp art cigar box with round decorations. Sold for $950. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Slotin Folk Art

Tramp art:

Just a word about tramp art and its meaning… At one time, homeless or itinerant people once were described as “hobos” or “tramps,” especially during the period of the Great Depression. They were of all ages, sometimes family men who wandered the country looking for any kind of work. Along the way, they were known to take pocketknives to pieces of available wood – even cigar boxes – and fashion picture frames, canes, furniture, fanciful sculpture and other objects. Many even filed down general coinage and carved elaborate images in them as well.

Curiously, tramp art is a more modern term for any type of hand-carved item that seems within the genre of “tramp art,” even if made by artisans at home. The period of “tramps” lasted only from about 1870 to 1940 or so, yet this subset is still considered within the folk art tradition even in the contemporary era.

In summary:

Folk art is an all-inclusive term that identifies visual arts that are created outside the traditions of fine art. When you hear of tramp art, naïve art and even outsider art, you are essentially within the folk art community.

So, folk art is local. It is expressive, quite colorful, without pretense and yet still reflects how we feel about the world around us. We might say that folk art is us.

E. Howard regulator clocks: dependable timekeepers

NEW YORK – Regulator clocks, also known as pendulum clocks, make a striking addition to any traditional decor. Housed in handsomely carved wooden cases, usually as floor standing models with some topping 100 inches in height, regulators made by the E. Howard & Co., were among the finest of all regulator clocks. E. Howard was a leading company among American clockmakers, creating their elegant timekeepers since the 19th century. Collectors today seek out choice examples, but E. Howard’s early 19th-century regulators are especially collectible.

A Howard & Davis astronomical floor clock reached $161,000 at Fontaine’s Auction Gallery in November 2009. Photo courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

E. Howard & Co., began when David P. Davis left the firm of Howard & Davis, which had been established in 1842, according to John Fontaine, owner of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Fontaine’s specializes in regulator clocks.

Both Edward Howard and David P. Davis served their apprenticeships under the famous clockmaker Aaron Willard Jr. of Boston. Their company reorganized and changed hands over the decades, and in the 2010s, shifted gears to focus on making wristwatches instead of clocks.

This E. Howard & Co. No. 68 astronomical regulator clock earned $277,300 in November 2013, a record for the model at auction. Photo courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

“E. Howard & Co. produced some of the finest American handmade timepieces out of Boston and was a leading manufacturer of weight-driven regulator clocks,” Fontaine said. “The pendulum clock, invented in the mid-17th century and also known generically as a regulator clock, is a precise timekeeper. It uses a swinging pendulum to regulate the speed of the clock depending on the length of its pendulum. E. Howard was one of the best, not only in producing these mechanisms, but also pairing them with the finest floor standing and wall hanging cases.”

This E. Howard No. 60 clock sold in November 2009 for $109,250 at Fontaine’s Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Fontaine’s Auction Gallery holds most of the world auction records for the rarest E. Howard regulators sold, including a No. 47 astronomical hanging regulator that achieved $356,950 in November 2014. The 8-foot, 3-inch-high clock case embodies the best of the American Renaissance Revival movement and is made from hand-carved American walnut with carved finials and incised burled trim. Its monumental crest bears a carved bust of Christopher Columbus.

An E. Howard No. 47 astronomical wall hanging regulator achieved $356,950 in November 2014 at Fontaine’s Auction Gallery, a record price. Photo courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Other record-setting E. Howard regulators that have performed well for Fontaine’s include a No. 68 astronomical regulator clock with a 14-inch bronze astronomical dial in a large carved walnut case having an arched crest with scrolled seashell over a carved maiden’s head. The 105-inch-tall clock earned $277,300 in November 2013. A No. 43 floor standing astronomical regulator clock with a reverse-painted glass astronomical dial, mounted in an elegant and carved walnut floor case with a shell carved crest over a figural maiden’s head made $254,100 two years later.

This E. Howard No. 43 floor standing astronomical regulator clock set a world auction record price for the model – $254,100 – at Fontaine’s Auction Gallery in November 2015. Photo courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

“The E. Howard catalog displays line-drawn images of various case models with reference numbers for each clock as well as the many variations in movements, dials, pendulums, etc., which could often be custom-ordered,” Fontaine said. “It is very well proven, in reference to modern sales results, that some of the finest models focused not only on the quality and rarity of the case, but also the inclusion of astronomical dials and the highest quality precision compensating pendulums.” The astronomical dial, he explained, is a dial that includes complications other than the common center minute and hour hand. E. Howard’s astronomical dials, often made from iron, silvered bronze, zinc and reverse-painted glass, generally display a center sweep minute hand with a sub-hour dial above the center and a sub-seconds dial below the center.

Rare examples, particularly those in original condition, tend to bring the highest prices. Collectors are drawn to original glass tablets and clean original dials, and seek out examples retaining their original finish and wood case.

An E. Howard & Co. No. 46 astronomical regulator clock sold for $130,000 in October 2013 at Keno Auctions. Photo courtesy of Keno Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Particularly relating to E. Howard’s larger floor and wall model clocks, there were very few produced, therefore the rarity of such a fine-quality timekeeper has enticed our auction market to stay strong through the years,” Fontaine said. “Collectors tend to want the rarest, the best quality and the finest condition when it comes to these clocks, and this ensures a strong market. When we see a certain rare model or specific example, we will often see some of the same collectors who want to trade up or expand their collection.”

This E. Howard & Co. No. 57 wall regulator realized $145,200 at Fontaine’s Auction Gallery in May 2018. Photo courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

A far cry from many of today’s digital timekeepers that lack the artistic charm of clocks crafted a century earlier, E. Howard regulators make a bold statement in the home and are eagerly pursued by collectors for their scientific accuracy and elegant aesthetic.

Anatomy of an Oriental Rug

Originally intended as utilitarian objects that provided warmth and comfort, Oriental rugs evolved to become elaborate art forms for kings and commoners alike. Pleasing in symmetry, color and design, the Oriental rug is as ancient in purpose as it is modern in comfort. Yet, little is known about its origins.

We do know that the oldest surviving rug with the handwoven symmetry that has become the trademark of Oriental rug design was uncovered at a burial mound near Pazyryk in Siberia, and that it dated to the 5th century B.C. Handcrafted with natural dyes and painstakingly crafted with heavy wool thread to create a story of color and culture, an early Oriental rug is an art form worth collecting, but if it has been properly cared for during its life, it can continue to serve the original purpose for which it was intended while enhancing a living space.

An example of a Persian Karadja rug, circa 1900, sold for $2,700 plus buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archives and Copake Auctions

Here are some frequently asked questions about Oriental rugs to help you make an informed buying decision:

Where is an authentic Oriental rug produced?

Oriental rugs have been made in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, encompassing Morocco, China, Tibet, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, India and Pakistan. Early fragments of Oriental rugs have also been found in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, dating to the first century A.D.

What sorts of materials are usually used to produce an Oriental carpet?

All Oriental carpets are made from natural fibers, such as the wool from sheep and goats’ cotton and silk. Some locally produced carpets in the Far East, e.g., China and Russia have even produced carpets using yak and horsehair. Camel wool can also be found in some local Middle Eastern rugs. Cotton is stronger than wool and is used as the foundation of the warp and weft threads since wool tends to shrink over time. Silk is usually reserved for more decorative wall hangings and tapestries.

Strands of fibers are stretched and spun into single strands or multiple strands known as “ply.” One strand is one ply, two strands are two ply, etc. The more ply, the stronger and more durable the carpet.

Are some rugs actually hand-woven?

Yes. It could take up to a year to produce a completely hand-woven Oriental rug of a particularly elaborate design on a loom.

What are some terms to know?

Horizontal yarn is called the warp; vertical strands are called the weft.

Pile is made by threading individual yarn around two or more warp strings and tamped down to form a row. Upon completion, the threads are cut to create a raised surface. The pile is made using either a Turkish (Ghiordes) knot, which is more symmetrical and the more common knot; or the Persian (Senneh) knot, which is more asymmetrical and used to form more elaborate designs.

Left: diagram rug knotting shows Persian (asymmetric) knot, which is open to the right. At right: symmetrical, or ‘Turkish’ carpet knots in a double-wefted foundation (wefts shown in red). Arie M. den Toom images, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

A Jufti knot is wrapped around four warp strings, which saves on material but doesn’t last as long as the other knots.

Variants of the Jufti knot woven around four warps instead of two. Arie M. den Toom image, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

The more knots per square inch (kpsi) in a woven rug, the more durable and long lasting it will be. It is easier to count the number of knots per square inch by counting them on the reverse. Rugs with knots per square inch lower than 80 won’t last nearly as long as one that has at least 330 kpsi. However, kpsi is only one measure of quality; the intricacy of design and where it was made also affect a rug’s value.

The reverse of this Qom rug shows a high knot density. Image courtesy of Arie M. den Toom, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

What are the elements of an Oriental rug?

From the outside in, an Oriental rug’s design basically consists of an outer secondary border (sometimes called selvedge, where the warp is tied off to prevent raveling), the larger main border, and the inner secondary border that frames the central design element.

The central medallion draws one’s eye initially for its distinctive design, usually with a pendant design above and below the central medallion. These are placed on the field with additional elaborate designs on each of the four corners.

Image courtesy of HajjiBaba, own work, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

How can I know which type of Oriental rug would work best in a particular space?

There are two basic types of Oriental rugs: kilim and pile woven rugs. Kilim is a flat rug that doesn’t show any knots but does show a space in between the warp threads. A kilim can be used as either a floor covering or tapestry.

Diagram of the Kilim slit-weave technique. Image by Chiswick Chap, own work, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Kilims aren’t as durable as pile rugs and traditionally served as prayer rugs and horse blankets.

A Senneh kilim rug from Persia, late 19th century, 6ft 3in x 4ft 3in. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archive and Austria Auction Co.

Rugs with more pile last longer especially if they are to be placed in a high-traffic area. Remember: the higher the kpsi, the more durable the rug.

What are the dyes used in an Oriental rug?

Aniline dyes, or chemical dyes, came into use in the 1860s. If the dyes in a rug are natural, it may have been made anytime in the past 3,000 to 5,000 years. Natural dyes might have been made from plant roots — onion for yellow, oak for black, and other colors from the madder plant or cochineal insects like the ladybug. Sometimes byproducts from different sources were combined to create a particular hue. Most rugs are made from synthetic dye, but modern-day Turkish rug makers are reviving the natural-dye process, so it may be difficult to know the difference between natural or synthetic dye without a chemical analysis.

Abrash is a term that means the fading of one color within a given rug. This occurs when there is a shortage of a type of yarn during a rug’s production and another, newly dyed yarn is used as a substitute. It isn’t possible for yarn to be dyed exactly the same color each time, so in such cases where a different yarn lot is used as a substitute, discoloration can occur naturally.

What must I do before choosing an Oriental rug?

Measure the area where the rug will be used. Oriental rugs are not usually wall to wall. Allow at least a foot of space from the wall itself. Rugs range in size from 2 by 3 feet to more than 10 by 14 feet. Runners measure 30 inches wide. It’s best to take a photo of the area where the rug will be placed to compare and contrast with the rugs you are considering.

As a rule, an 8-by-10-foot Oriental rug will cost between $1,000 and $5,000. A pattern that is clear and distinctive is, at times, more important than the kpsi. Geometric designs need fewer knots to create fine detail than a more elaborate floral pattern does, for example, and therefore might be more useful if placed under a large dining room table. Also, the rug’s age, quality of the wool and type of dyes used are all important factors.


Don’t be afraid to ask questions about where a rug was manufactured, whether it was hand-woven or commercially produced, and whether synthetic or natural dyes were used. Ask about the seller’s guarantee and if a certificate of origin will be provided.

Finding a vintage Oriental rug requires more in-depth knowledge than buying a more contemporary one for home use. For example, rugs from Turkey differ in quality and design from those produced in tribal Iran or China. There is really just one simple rule to follow: Go for the best quality you can afford and buy what you like.

Blanc de chine: China’s enchanting white porcelain

Blanc de chine – the white glazed porcelain prized by collectors – literally translates from the French as “white from China,” as it was (and still is) manufactured at Dehua, in China’s Fujian province. Some people, in fact, refer to it as Dehua, in honor of its point of origin. Blanc de chine has been produced since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and nearly 200 kiln sites have been identified throughout history along the Fujian coast, China’s main ceramic exporting center. In later centuries, it was exported to Europe and copied there, at Meissen and elsewhere.

It’s difficult to explain the allure behind a collectible that’s completely lacking in color, but maybe that’s the point. At Gray’s Auctioneers’ September 12 auction, the first 13 lots were all examples of blanc de chine, and that was by design. “Everyone who goes to our catalog online is automatically presented with lot one, and I wanted that lot to be not only beautiful, but also something that wouldn’t distract bidders with color, especially our Chinese bidders,” said Deba Gray, the firm’s president and chief auctioneer. “It was a marketing strategy that worked.”

This blanc de chine Guanyin figure (the goddess of mercy) sold for $3,300 at Gray’s Auctioneers’ September 12th auction in Cleveland, Ohio.

Gray added, “I personally love blanc de chine. It communicates a timeless elegance, and there’s something haunting about it. It’s beyond color. It’s purely shape. It has the collector wondering, ‘What would this piece have looked like with color?’” Of the 13 lots, the top seller (lot 3) went for $3,000, putting blanc de chine within reach of the majority of collectors. Of course, the value of a blanc de chine piece can depend greatly on its age, condition, shape and color. That point was driven home at a sale held in August by Thomaston Place Auction Galleries in Maine.

There, there top lot of the auction was a 17th-century blanc de chine seated Guanyin, the goddess of compassion. It soared to $760,500. The reason: it had the seal of He Chaozong, the renowned Chinese potter who is credited with developing and perfecting the blanc de chine process. “That made all the difference,” said Carol Achterhof of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries, “and after frenzied bidding, the figure returned home to China.” Also in the sale, a Chinese 17th-century Qilin figure set with semiprecious stones finished at $643,500.

The top lot of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries’ August 25-26 sale was this 17th-century blanc de chine seated Guanyin figure with double gourd seal of He Chaozong. It sold for a staggering $760,500.

Blanc de chine is best known for its depiction of Buddhist deities, such as Guanyin, Maitreya, Luohan and Ta-mo. Guanyin is the most popular; she was particularly revered in Fujian. Other common devotional objects include incense burners, candlesticks, flower vases and statues of saints. The more mainstream creations include joss-stick holders, candlesticks, foo dogs, libation cups and boxes. Many blanc-de chine-objects, like statuettes, were later used as lamp bases and today the many factories still producing in Dehua churn out figures and tableware in modern styles.

You might have noted that large chargers, vases and such were not included in the above lists. That’s because the Dehua clay was not suited to making sizable items. Smaller ornamental items and dense statuettes became their specialty. As for the unique, colorless nature of blanc de chine, that, too is attributable to the Dehua clay, which is unusual for having very little iron oxide in it. The clay allows for the purity in color that makes blanc de chine so attractive – that and the shiny, almost wet-looking glaze melded to the porcelain. These traits are irresistible to collectors.

This blanc de chine porcelain figure of Arhat in monk’s robes, one hand raised in mudra position, another hand holding a begging bowl, on rocky base, 16¾ inches tall, came up for bid at Dargate Auction Galleries on May 6, 2018.

“There are serious problems with dating and attribution when it comes to blanc de chine,” said blogger Jacqueline Wein of Tokyo Jinja, whose dispatches, literally from around the world, are titled Global Adventures in Antiques, Art and Design. “Even the experts can be fooled,” she said. “Without a long history or provenance, it is quite difficult to estimate when a piece was made, particularly as the same forms were produced for centuries. Also, much of the later white porcelain isn’t even from Dehua, but instead Jingdezhen (another province in China).”

Wein added: “Scholars argue all the time about color and translucence. The general feeling is that the older Dehua pieces have a more bone or ivory color and the Jingdezhen pieces are a true dead white. Yet, I have seen pure white pieces at auction from reputable dealers labeled as ‘Dehua blanc de chine.’ Modern pieces are most distinctly that very pure white. The modern design world has taken note of blanc de chine, too, notably the designers Charlotte Moss, Mary McDonald, and Ruthie Sommers. Also, blogs such as Chinoiserie Chic and others feature it on a regular basis.”

The Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio has one of the most extensive collections of blanc de chine in the country. It includes this 18th-century barrel-shaped jar and cover.

Blanc de chine is featured in museums and collections throughout the world. One of the largest collections of blanc de chine is housed at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio. The British Museum in London also has a large number of blanc de chine pieces, having received the entire collection of P.J. Donnelly as a gift in 1980. And Blenheim Palace, the home of the Dukes of Marlborough in England, contains a fabulous array of blanc de chine: foo dogs and other animals, libation cups in the shape of rhinoceros horns, a teapot with applied branches and flowers, small pierced cups, vessels and porcelain stands. The group has a colorful past.

“This collection of about 40 pieces was supposedly given to the fourth Duke of Marlborough by a Mister Spalding at the end of the eighteenth century, at the height of the craze for all things Chinese,” Wein recounted. “The impoverished eighth Duke – Winston Churchill’s uncle – auctioned most of the china from Blenheim at Christie’s in London in 1886, although the ninth Duke made the savvy choice of marrying heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt and later recovered and repurchased them, and returned them to their rightful place.” A blanc de chine happy ending.

Cigar store figures: treasured folk art

From around 1840 to 1910, life-size cigar store figures of Indian chiefs, braves and princesses – mostly carved from wood but some cast from zinc, too – could be seen inside or outside nearly every tobacco shop in America. The U.S. census from 1860 listed no fewer than 2,269 active wood carvers. Of those, 959 were living in New York, the epicenter of cigar store Indian manufacture. New York City was the unofficial headquarters for studios producing cigar store Indians, or “show figures,” as carvers called them.

This cigar store Indian statue sold for $65,000 + buyer’s premium in Material Culture’s May 26, 2013 auction in Philadelphia. It was crafted around 1850 by John Cromwell (1805-1873), who opened his first shop in New York City when he was 26.

The most famous and highly collected carvers are Samuel Robb, Thomas V. Brooks, J. W. Fiske, Julius T. Melchers, John Cromwell and William Demuth – although Demuth was not himself a carver but a tobacco products distributor who operated a carving studio. Of the group, all but one (Melchers) worked in New York City. They all even apprenticed under one another at various points in time; that’s how tightly knit the carving community was.

Melchers, the outlier, operated out of Detroit, and was the only carver who was a classically trained artist. The others were more or less folk artists and, in fact, cigar store Indians are generally considered a category of folk art. Melchers, it is said, used actual Native Americans as models in creating his highly detailed, true-to-life creations. In that regard, he’s in the top tier of most desired carvers in the collecting community.

As anyone who’s even casually familiar with the genre knows, cigar store Indians can fetch dizzying dollars at auction. “We sold a Samuel Robb figure at one of our sales not long ago for over $100,000, but that’s not unusual,” said Mike Eckles, owner of Showtime Auction Services in Woodhaven, Michigan. “Cigar store Indians sell for in the six figures all the time. They’re life-size expressions of a time gone by, and people just love them.”

When Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas auctioned this cigar store Indian attributed to Samuel Robb in May 2010 for $203,150, it set a new auction record.

In May 2010, a carved cigar store Indian done in the manner of Samuel Robb – but not definitively attributed to him, since it was unsigned (most weren’t) – was sold for $203,150 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas. At the time, it was a world record price, owing to the figure’s original paint, superb condition, impeccable provenance and detailed features. The male chief figure stood 75½ inches tall, including the base.

“Condition and original paint are especially important,” said Marsha Dixie, Heritage’s Consignment Director in the Historical Department. “Keep in mind, these figures were usually outdoors, year-round, exposed to the elements, with people sometimes throwing things at them or even hacking at them. As for paint, it was common for people to re-paint the figures, thinking they were doing the right thing. To a collector, that’s not a good thing. Patina is everything.”

The Heritage record was demolished in 2013 when a female figure – known in the trade as a cigar store princess – sold for a staggering $745,500 (inclusive of 15 percent buyer’s premium) at a sale held by Guyette & Deeter. The Maryland-based firm’s specialty is duck decoys, another genre of carved collectible that routinely sees six-figure prices. The cigar store princess was carved either by Robb or Brooks (again, unsigned) and overall stood 83 inches tall.

The current world auction record for a cigar store Indian figure was set by this spectacular example attributed to the shop of Samuel Robb or Thomas V. Brooks (it’s unsigned, so no one knows for sure). It fetched $745,500 at Guyette & Deeter in November 2013.

“I had known the owner of the figure for quite a few years,” said Jon Deeter of Guyette & Deeter. “It had been used and never traveled far from downtown Louisville, Kentucky. Its condition was pristine and it was a very attractive princess. We’ve sold other Indians in the mid-five-figure range. They’re fun to work with and are a wonderful slice of American folk art.” The sale price still stands as a record today, although it will doubtless be shattered at some point in the future.

Not all cigar store Indians sell for six figures. This carved and painted Indian chief, probably made by Thomas V. Brooks in the 19th century, sold for a very reasonable $13,800 at Cottone Auctions’ March 25, 2017 sale in Geneseo, N.Y.

The prices for better examples continue on an upward trajectory, but it wasn’t always that way. A New York Times article from 1974 stated, “It was not until the 1950s that the general public began to realize that cigar store Indians were anything more than firewood.” The article pointed out that prices in 1974 were 10 times what they were just 20 years earlier. Nostalgia and a yearning for a simpler, earlier time simply swept the category up to the big time.

One person who may own the next record-breaker is Mark Goldman, a collector and tobacconist in New York City. He began collecting in 1967 and today has over 100 life-size figures, by all the major carvers. But the one he thinks might trump them all is an early Punch figure by James “Jersey Jim” Campbell. Goldman bought it years ago when it was deaccessioned by a now-defunct U.S. Tobacco museum in Nashville. He says it’s worth about $500,000 today.

“Collectors today fall into one of two categories,” Goldman said, “people who are looking to outfit their man-caves and serious collectors. The man-cavers might be happy with a simple replica, which they can buy for around $500 or $600. The serious collectors bring serious money to the table, and are keenly aware of the often-subtle differences that can distinguish an ordinary cigar store Indian from a highly valuable piece of folk art.”

These cigar store Indians, both by Julius T. Melchers, are from the inventory of Mark Goldman, who lives in New York City and owns the largest collection of such figures in the U.S., with over 100 life-size examples, by all the famous carvers.

Aside from the obvious markers like paint and condition, Goldman says he also looks for what he calls movement. “A Samuel Robb Indian with a rose, for example, or with crossed legs, or who is showing a smile instead of a stern, steady expression, might double or even triple the value of a figure that doesn’t show those things.” Goldman said whether a figure is male or female (about an equal number of each was produced) matters little. His collection is half and half.

Books on the subject that collectors, or people considering collecting, refer to include Artists in Wood by Frederick Fried (the title refers to what Samuel Robb gave as his occupation on his marriage certificate), Hunting Indians in a Taxi Cab by Kate Sanborn (if you can find a copy; it was written in 1911), Cigar Store Figures by Pendergast & Ware, and The Ship Carver’s Art by Ralph Sessions. By the way, and fakes and repros are out there, so caveat emptor!

Warning! Things You Cannot Collect

The value of collecting begins and ends with what’s available and in what quantities. But what if you’re not supposed to collect it at all? There actually are quite a few items that, by law, collectors are not allowed to handle, sell, pawn, trade, auction, or represent in a transaction because they are protected national treasures.

What do you do if it’s a family heirloom? How can you legally convey the object outside of your own family? It pays to know which items are protected and if there are exceptions to the rules.

Apollo 15, 1971, lunar surface “moon dust” on clear cellophane tape clearly shows both the gray moon dust and ridges from the creases in the space suit worn by NASA Commander Dave Scott. The moon dust sold legally for $775. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers.com and Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins and Collectibles

Moon Rocks and Moon Dust

Only 12 astronauts have landed on the moon in six manned missions from 1969 to 1972. Over the course of those moon landings, about 842 lbs. of moon rocks and moon dust were brought back to Earth. All lunar “rubble” is considered a national treasure and is owned exclusively by the United States government. It cannot be sold publicly or privately unless it came from an official artifact that was given to an astronaut after their mission ended. An example would be moon dust embedded on patches, parts of spacesuits, boots, bags, or equipment. At one time NASA insisted that all of the artifacts kept by astronauts were government property, but Public Law 112-185, signed by President Barack Obama on September 25, 2012, gave clear title to artifacts in the personal possession of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. Go to www.collectspace.com for more insight.

Families of astronauts may sell lunar artifacts at will, with the exception of moon rocks. They are still regarded as national treasures and held by the US government.

Disaster Debris

Tragedy struck in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry, killing all seven crew members and scattering debris across a wide area in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. Some 2,000 debris fields were searched by a thousand or so volunteers. During the search, debris from the Columbia turned up on online auction sites, triggering a warning from NASA that some of it may be hazardous.

After the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York City, firefighters and other first responders volunteered to help with search and recovery efforts. Unfortunately, many items associated with these recovery efforts were later determined to have been looted from the site.

Any piece of debris, no matter how small, from any national disaster is considered to be a national memorial, and any attempt to keep, transfer, sell, trade, or otherwise profit from it is considered theft of government property. Families with relics from national disasters, no matter how unintentional, should return the item to the proper federal authorities.

Each Medal of Honor for the Army, Navy and Air Force is a protected military decoration that cannot be sold, traded, exported, imported, reproduced or otherwise involved in an transaction. Image courtesy of Wikipedia in the public domain

Medals of Honor

The Medal of Honor is considered the oldest combat medal in the US Armed Forces. Established in 1862, the Medal of Honor is awarded by the president of the United States in the name of Congress for “… conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,” per 18 USC 704. Since 1862, Congress has awarded 3,520 Medals of Honor.

There are three different versions of the modern Medal of Honor, each specific to the Army, Navy and Air Force. However, US Code prohibits “purchasing, attempting to purchase, soliciting for purchase, mailing, shipping, importing, exporting, producing blank certificates of receipt for, manufacturing, selling, attempting to sell, advertising for sale, trading, bartering, or exchanging for anything of value” a Medal of Honor.

So, if your family has one, what should you do with it? Keep it as a family heirloom. If it is necessary to remove it from the family, the medal should be returned to the Department of Defense.

The Oscar awarded in 1947 to the pioneer of the movie projector, Thomas Armat. It pre-dates the 1950 regulation that would have required its first being offered to AMPAS for $1. The Oscar sold legally for $80,000. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Heritage Auctions.

The Academy Award, aka The ‘Oscar’

“…and the Oscar goes to…” is the phrase every actor, director, producer or other motion picture professional hopes will be followed by the sweet sound of their own name. The winner’s ritual goes like this: stand, look surprised, look humble while enjoying the lavish applause, and deliver a witty speech while clutching the gold-tone statuette you just received. If you’re lucky enough to be the recipient of this most coveted of all film awards, you learn sooner or later that there’s just one small problem: the Oscar isn’t really yours. It is essentially leased to you by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).

From 1929 until 1950, an Oscar belonged to the recipient, and they could do whatever they pleased with it. They, and their families, were allowed to sell them, if they wished to do so. After 1950, however, the Academy had each award encumbered, meaning that if the recipient wanted to sell it, they had to first offer it to the Academy for $1.

All 1933 $20 double eagle gold coins were supposed to have been turned in to the federal government after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order prohibiting the possession of gold by individuals. About 20 of the coins were stolen from the US Mint. One of the coins sold for nearly $7.6 million in 2002 after a compromise arrangement was struck between the coin’s private owners and the government. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikipedia

The 1933 Gold Double Eagle Coin

It was a gold coin that really wasn’t. To help ease the banking crisis of 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that gold was no longer legal tender. All gold pieces, certificates or bullion in circulation were supposed to be turned into the federal government in exchange for currency.

As of the time of Roosevelt’s decree, 445,500 $20 gold pieces had been minted for the year 1933. All but two were subsequently melted down. However, about 20 were stolen from the US Mint, with about 13 remaining at large.

By the early 1940s, between eight and 10 specimens were known. Two of them were sold by Texas dealer B. Max Mehl. In 1944, a journalist enquired of the Mint regarding the 1933 double eagles. Mint officials could find no record of any issuance of the coins, and decided those in private hands must have been obtained illegally. Over the next few years, the Secret Service seized a number of specimens, which were subsequently melted. One piece, however, wound up in the hands of King Farouk of Egypt, who even obtained a U.S. export license for the coin. What became of the Farouk specimen after his death is unclear, but the coin resurfaced in the late 1990s. When brought to New York for sale to a prospective buyer, it was seized by U.S. authorities. After litigation, a compromise was reached to allow the coin to be auctioned, with the proceeds to be divided equally between the government and the private owners. In 2002 this coin sold at auction by Sotheby’s for $7,590,020. The purchase price included $20 paid to the federal government to monetize a coin it contended had never been officially released.

In 2004, 10 specimens of the 1933 double eagle were submitted to the Mint for authentication by the heirs of a Philadelphia jeweler who may have been involved in obtaining them from the Mint in 1933. The Mint authenticated them but refused to give them back. The heirs brought suit against the government in 2006, and a federal judge ordered the government to file a forfeiture action regarding the coins. The government brought such a suit in 2009, and it was tried in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania beginning on July 7, 2011. On July 21, 2011, a jury decided that the coins had been properly seized by the Federal government. Judge Legrome D. Davis confirmed that jury verdict on August 29, 2012. On April 17, 2015, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that the government had failed to file its forfeiture action in a timely manner, and that the heirs were entitled to the coins. That ruling was vacated by the full court on July 28, 2015, and the case was set for further argument. On August 1, 2016, the full Third Circuit ruled in favor of the government, upholding the jury verdict. On November 4 of that year, the heirs asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The request was refused on April 21, 2017, thus ending the case.

It has been legal to own gold again since 1975, however the stolen $20 gold coins are still regarded as contraband and are subject to confiscation, fines and imprisonment.

Eagle Feathers

And speaking of eagles, our national symbol is legally protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which assesses criminal penalties for those who “take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, at any time or any manner, any bald eagle … [or any golden eagle], alive or dead, or any part, nest, or egg thereof.”

However, to Native Americans, eagle feathers are sometimes used in religious ceremonies. This is why the National Eagle Repository was established by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency issues permits to members of federally recognized tribes allowing them to possess eagle feathers for such ceremonies. Families with eagle feathers or eagle parts should deposit them in the National Eagle Repository for proper distribution.