The Wheat Penny: rare ones harvest big money

A 1909-S VDB bearing the initials of Victor David Brenner, sold for $700 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Gold Standard Auctions in Dallas. Image courtesy of Gold Standard Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The one-cent coin that became known as the “wheat penny” was minted in the United States for nearly half a century, from 1909 to 1958. Yet that span of time represents one of the most collectible periods for the penny because of the unusual number of changes to its design.

The 1909 centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln generated a great deal of attention from the public and from commercial vendors who were eager to have new coins and commemoratives honoring the beloved president. The Chief Executive at that time, President Theodore Roosevelt, commissioned sculptor Victor David Brenner to create a penny design based on his acclaimed bronze plaque of a right-facing profile of President Lincoln, shown below.

President Theodore Roosevelt was impressed by sculptor Victor David Brenner’s plaque of Abraham Lincoln and commissioned him to redesign the penny in 1908 based on the image seen on the plaque. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and available on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

The debut of Brenner’s penny made history in and of itself. Prior to 1909, allegorical figures such as Lady Liberty or a composite image of a Native American wearing a headdress were the most common elements in American coin design. The wheat penny, boasting the image of Lincoln, represented the first time a real person appeared on an American coin.

But it was the artwork on the reverse side of the penny that prompted its enduring nickname. It was a simple design featuring the words One Cent; United States of America flanked by a pair of curving wheat stalks. Brenner’s artistic flourish almost ensured that the coin would be dubbed the “wheat penny.”

During its five-decade reign, changes in the production of the wheat penny some major and some minor, some intended and some not – sparked interest that has yet to abate. Its journey shows just how determined collectors are in their quest to locate coins that display quirks, oddities or deviations from the norm.

1909 Wheat Penny

The Philadelphia Mint issued around 22 million wheat pennies in 1909, making them the most common variety of this mintage. The San Francisco Mint, however, issued only about 484,000 wheat pennies in that inaugural year, identifiable by the “S” mint mark and “VDB” (representing sculptor Victor David Brenner’s initials) on the reverse. The initials stirred controversy because of their prominent appearance on the coin, and ultimately mint officials decided to remove them. The letters would not return until 1918, and once reinstated, they remained part of the coin design until its discontinuation. The relative scarcity of the San Francisco Mint 1909 wheat penny makes it one of the most valuable pennies minted that year, and a 1909 S that lacks the “VDB” is a rare prize, indeed.

1910s

In 1911, the Denver Mint began striking the wheat penny with the mint mark “D,” joining mints in San Francisco (S) and Philadelphia (which did not use a mint mark) in producing the coin. D pennies from 1914 are among the lowest-circulated wheat pennies, making them a favorite among collectors and auctioneers, and, unfortunately, counterfeiters.

Wheat penny completists make a point of obtaining a 1916 example of the coin. In that year, a slightly different die was used for the Lincoln portrait, which sharpened some of the facial features such as his cheek and part of his coat.

Some examples of the 1917 wheat penny are affected by what is known as a “double-die strike” – an occurrence in which two impressions of the die overlap enough to cause a noticeable error. In this case, the word “Trust” and the date are marred. Production flubs such as these generally make a coin more valuable.

This 1922 wheat penny lacking its ‘D’ mint mark realized $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Gold Standard Auctions in Dallas. 
Image courtesy of Gold Standard Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

1920s

Another favorite from the Denver Mint dates to 1922, a year when the city’s mint was the sole manufacturer of the wheat penny, yielding 500,000 for the nation’s needs. Some 1922 specimens feature a faint “D” mint mark or don’t have a mint mark at all. Naturally, they turn the heads of collectors, but care must be taken – would-be owners will want to confirm the mint mark was not deliberately removed.

1930s

The 1931 S wheat penny was the only one issued that year due to the impact of the Great Depression. It had a rather low mintage, and most of the coins were held in US Mint vaults due to low consumer interest. For this reason, 1931 S specimens are more like proof coins – the highest quality grade of coin issued by the mint. (Proof coins are struck twice instead of just once like regular coins. The extra strike gives the coins a much shinier, cleaner-looking finish and makes the fine details of the design pop. Most proofs can be identified by their mirror-like background.)

1936 brought the issuance of one of the first proof wheat pennies, except it had a satin finish that gave it an uncirculated appearance. A second strike was issued with a more brilliant finish. Both versions are sought after by collectors.

This 1943 copper wheat penny sold for $220 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2020 at Rare Treasures in Harrisburg, Pa. Image courtesy of Rare Treasures and LiveAuctioneers

1940s

The 1940s are notable for producing the greatest variety of wheat pennies and the most error-strike coins. To reserve copper and tin for wartime needs, a zinc-coated steel wheat penny was issued for 1943 instead of the usual copper ones (which also included zinc and tin). About one billion were minted, making this issue not particularly valuable. However, a few dozen copper 1943 wheat pennies were struck from 1942 copper planchets, and these particular 1943 coins are extremely collectible.

Not surprisingly, the 1943 copper wheat penny is often forged. A favorite technique for producing a bogus specimen is removing the left side of the number “8” from a 1948 copper penny, or electroplating a 1943 steel penny with a thin layer of copper to pass it off as a full-copper issue.

By 1944, conditions had improved to the point that American mints resumed striking pennies from copper. Production of steel wheat pennies waned. As a result, the relatively small number of steel wheat pennies dated “1944” are the lead numismatic prizes from that year.

Also notable are 1944 copper wheat pennies with the “S-over-D” flaw. Some pennies minted in 1944 in Denver somehow ended up with an “S” mint mark, forcing the stewards of the mint to mechanically remove the “S” and replace it with a “D.” This type of error coin typically sells well at auction.

A double-die strike 1955 wheat penny sold for $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Premier Auction House in Englewood, Fla.
Image courtesy of Premier Auction House, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

1950s

The final decade of the wheat penny was relatively quiet, yielding few variations of note. One worth discussing is the 1955 double-die wheat penny, an error coin that displays the “shadow” appearance produced when a coin is accidentally struck twice with the same die. The effect is most visible in the motto “In God We Trust,” the date, and the word “Libert”’ on the obverse, or back, of the penny. Because of its notoriety, many counterfeits are sold to dealers and collectors and consigned to auctions.

What Collectors Look For

What we’ve discussed here are just the better-known varieties and errors of the wheat penny. The full range of variations and subtleties would keep a completist busy for a lifetime and beyond. As with most collectibles produced in massive numbers, condition comes first and foremost. The crispness and legibility of the date, the motto, the Lincoln profile, and the overall appearance of the coin affect a wheat penny’s value. So, too, do smaller details, such as the raised rim, the quality of the strike, the weight and composition of the coin, and the number of examples in circulation.

All production information for each wheat penny is available for public review at usmint.gov. Connect with other collectors online at the American Numismatic Association’s website: money.org.

The seemingly endless campaign to eliminate the one-cent piece from America’s currency will succeed at some point in time. Until then, it’s wise to stop and swap at the “take a penny, leave a penny” tray when you’re out shopping. A variety or error wheat penny just might be your reward.

Formidable Gang of 5 rules the toy robot realm

A boxed Machine Man toy robot soared to $159,900 and set a world auction record in so doing. It sold in September 2020 at Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — Toy robots have been popular for decades, and nobody built them better than Japanese manufacturers of the 1950s and 1960s. Several Japanese toymakers achieved global market dominance by pioneering technology that powered tinplate toys with batteries.

Japan’s oldest toy company is Masudaya, also known as Modern Toys. During the post-World War II era, its golden era of toy production, the firm produced a series of big, boxy robots that came to be known as the “Gang of Five.” According to verbal lore within the toy-collecting hobby, the Gang of Five monicker may have been invented by pioneer robot enthusiast Robert Lesser as a humorous play on “Gang of Four,” the Chinese Communist political faction that came to prominence during the Cultural Revolution.

While popular in their day, Gang of Five are in far greater demand more than half a century later. Today’s collectors of sci-fi toys will pay big money for Gang of Five robots in very good or better condition, especially those retaining their original boxes.

A Radicon robot toy earned $7,000 in May 2021 at Milestone Auctions. Photo courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

According to the Antique Toy Collectors of America (ATCA), Masudaya earned renown for its five “skirted” robots (so named because they have solid all-around bases rather than “legs”) issued during a seven-year span. The first robot in the series rolled off the assembly line in 1957. Dubbed the Radicon, it was the first radio-controlled robot toy offered by Masudaya. Radicon was a challenge to manufacture, and at 15 inches tall, it was one of the largest toy robots on the market. Its lithographed and stamped panels of grainy gray metal similar in appearance to old office filing cabinets. Its design was complex and ahead of its time.

A Non-Stop Robot, nicknamed Lavender Robot because of its coloring, realized $3,539 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2018 at Antico Mondo Auktionen. Photo courtesy of Antico Mondo Auktionen and LiveAuctioneers

Masudaya’s next entry in the series, the Non-Stop Robot, appeared in 1959. It has the same body mold as Radicon but was equipped with the extra function of what Masudaya called “non-stop” (or “bump-and-go”) action. If it bumps into a wall or object, it corrects itself and proceeds in another direction. Non-Stop Robot’s body sports a light lavender color, earning it the nickname of Lavender Robot.

A special order from an American importer spurred Masudaya to make the Giant Machine Man (better known simply as Machine Man) in 1960, a bright red robot that was similar to the Non-Stop. Unlike the other robots in the series, the third member of the Gang of Five never appeared in a Masudaya toy catalog. It shares the same catalog number as the Lavender Robot and its overall shape is nearly identical, save for the coloring on the panels, mouth and body. Some estimates say only 12 dozen examples of Machine Man were made for that one American special order. Owing to its limited production run, and perhaps its gargantuan size, it is the rarest of the Gang of Five. 

A fine example of a Machine Man set a world auction record in September 2020 at Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pennsylvania, when it sold for $159,900. It showed very little wear and came with its extremely rare original box. The bizarre artwork on the box lid depicts a huge red robot against a lunar-like landscape with a rocket in liftoff position in the background. Inexplicably, the robot is greeted by a grinning man holding a coffee cup, and a waving child, both looking like they should be in an ad for a ski resort. At the upper righthand corner of the box are the words, “With mystery non stop walking action /Eyes and ears light up /Arms swing as he walks forward and backward.”

This example of a Giant Sonic Robot brought $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2017 at Milestone Auctions. Photo courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The Giant Sonic Robot, aka Train Robot, debuted in 1962. It shares the generous size and bright red coloration of Machine Man, as well as non-stop action and a “supersonic” sound effect that resembles the “whoo-whoo” whistle of a train. 

Masudaya released the final entry in the Gang of Five series either in 1964 or ’65 (sources differ). True to its name, Target Robot came with a dart gun and suction-cup dart. If the fired dart hit the target on the robot’s chest, it would emit a screaming sound to indicate a bull’s-eye. 

A Target Robot with dart gun and suction-cup dart attained $11,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Milestone Auctions. Photo courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Interestingly, a robot shown in a 1965 toy catalog advertisement looks a lot like the Target Robot, but was given the name “Shooting Giant Robot.” No physical examples boxed under this name have ever been seen on the market, so it evidently did not leave the prototype stage.

Chris Sammet, president and co-owner of Milestone Auctions in Willoughby, Ohio, sells Gang of Five robots whenever he can, but says they don’t come to market that often. He also personally collects robots and has two from the Gang of Five series. He’s a fan, and he’s not the only one.

 “I think it was just the space and rockets and the technology of robots,” he said, explaining the appeal of the toys, which date to the middle of the 20th century and the early years of the space race. “They are almost timeless. That’s why I like them. Robot boxes are always gorgeous compared to a lot of the other toys that were produced around that time.”

Given that toy robots were designed to be played with by kids rather than admired by grownup collectors, it’s a wonder that any have survived unscathed. Original packaging was even more perishable than the toys they held, which is why attractively printed boxes with vibrant graphics add to a vintage robot’s value.

The market for toy robots is strong. Robot collections are not often consigned as a whole, which means choice examples appear here and there at auction. Of those, few are in textbook mint condition. The best examples tend to be new/old stock (products meant for retail sale but discovered years or decades later, unopened, in storerooms or warehouses) or toys that were barely played with and stashed away in attics or basements along with their original boxes. Vintage robots fitting those descriptions are scarcer than unicorns, so collectors often accept examples that are in the best condition they can find, whatever that may be, in hopes of one day upgrading. “You just want them all complete and with good colors, that’s what is really important,” Sammet said. “If you could find one that was new/old stock or never played with, it would command such a premium … the sky’s the limit.”

INSIDE EVERY YIXING TEAPOT: THE COLOR PURPLE

A Yixing gold-leaf calligraphy teapot featuring a Jiaqing-Daoguang mark achieved $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021. Image courtesy Robert Slawinski Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Tea has played a major role in Chinese life and culture for millennia. By the year 1000, it was prepared by crumbling the tea shrub’s fragrant leaves, mixing them with hot water, then sipping the brew from bowls. Yixing teapots developed soon after this technique arose, and continued through the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 through 1911).

The pots were fashioned from exceptionally hard purple zisha clay, which is unique to the region of Yixing, China. Alhough it is known as “five-color clay,” added metal oxides, along with variations in firing temperatures and kiln environments, created vessels in shades ranging from black and brown to yellowish-brown, buff and ivory.

Creating tiny Yixing teapots, initially favored by scholars and merchants, required great artistry and skill. Once the clay was readied for use and pounded into thin sheets, it was cut into rectangular and round segments. Many were then press-molded into standard teapot components bodies, handles, lids, and spouts then assembled by hand.

A Yixing Teapot by Gu Jingzhou rose to NT$1,700,000 (roughly $61,000) plus the buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of JSL Auction Co., Taiwan, and LiveAuctioneers

Alternatively, master potters created pots by hand from start to finish. First, they patiently paddled and smoothed their clay segments into desired angles and curves. After forming them into bodies, they carefully cut top openings and created lids. Then they added pre-made handles, spouts, and finials. Firing followed.

Because Yixing teapots evolved over many generations, their forms vary greatly. Scores resemble pyramids, squares, curved-squares, rectangles, or curved-rectangles. Others are conical or globular, or mimic the shapes of melons, peaches, or pears. Still others simulate gracefully draped cloth. Another notable style features exquisite double-walled reticulated designs against grounds of clay in contrasting shades.

This Chinese reticulated double-walled Yixing stoneware bamboo-shaped teapot and cover realized €3,400 (roughly $4,500) plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Rob Michiels Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Yixing teapot designs vary from simple to sumptuous. The smooth, unglazed, unadorned forms, favored by many embody the subtle beauty associated with Chinese aesthetics. So, too, do those displaying Chinese proverbs or poems inscribed in gilt-incised calligraphy, and those graced with delicate gilded dragons, blossoms, or landscapes.

This plum blossom poem-pattern tube teapot was bid to CA$20,000 (about $16,000) plus the buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Leaderbon Arts Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Themed Yixing pots often feature charming details such as mushroom-shaped lids, gourd-shaped spouts, scaly dragon-tail handles, molded fruit or flower appliques, and auspicious three-legged turtle finials. Others are lacquered, enameled, or encased in pewter. Many of these pots also incorporate incised character seal marks or artist signatures, as well as names of ruling emperors, into their designs.

An antique Zisha Yixing teapot with famille rose polychrome enameling and calligraphy sold for $1,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy Madison Square Gallery, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Yixing teapots are treasured not only as works of art, but also because they brew exceptional cups of tea. These cups are traditionally prepared according to gongfu, an elaborate Chinese ritual expressly suited to small pots.

After rinsing a teapot with hot, mineral-rich spring water, then emptying it, the host lines its bottom with tea leaves. She closes its lid, waits several seconds, opens the lid and inhales its aroma, sharing it with her guests. Next, she refills the pot, covers it, and empties it — a process that allows the leaves to expand. At that point, she adds boiling water, steeps the tea for 20 to 30 seconds, pours it into a serving pitcher, and samples it, noting its texture, taste and aftertaste. Finally, she serves it in very small cups. When the brew has been depleted, she briefly steeps the leaves again, ensuring that each cup of tea will remain hot.

An 18th-century Yixing teapot and cover sold for $750 plus the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Eddie’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Through the years, aficionados noticed that the more they brewed tea in their Yixing pot, the better the tea tasted. This is because when mineral-rich clay is fired, it creates a characteristic granular, porous surface. The enhanced permeability allows Yixing teapots to adapt to changes in temperature and “breathe,” which enhances its flavor and aroma. Yixing pots also absorb delicate oils and trace minerals that tea leaves leave behind at each brewing. In fact, some claim, only half-joking, that adding boiling water alone to an antique, well-seasoned Yixing pot will produce full-flavored tea.

No wonder hardcore tea-drinkers eschew the mundane “muddying of the waters” in favor of steeping a favorite type of tea in the traditional manner reserved for a Yixing teapot.

Emile Gruppe, Artist-King of Gloucester

An undated Emile Gruppe canvas titled ‘Old Dartmouth’ sold for $1,270 in March 2021 at DuMouchelles Fine Art Auctioneers & Appraisers in Detroit, Michigan.

Mention the name Emile Gruppe to just about anyone in Massachusetts art circles and their eyes instantly brighten. Gruppe (1896-1978) was born in Rochester, New York, raised in the Netherlands, and in the early 1930s made his way to the picturesque fishing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts. There, he embarked on a long and prolific career, first as a tonalist painter and later as a Monet-inspired impressionist, a hallmark style for which he became famous. Gruppe’s vivid depictions of life on the water, especially fishing boat scenes, earned him a nice living.

A signed, untitled Emile Gruppe painting from the estate of Diana H. Douglas of Southern Pines, N.C., sold for $24,200 in September 2014 at Leland Little Auction Gallery in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

You could say Emile Gruppe had a head start in life. His father, Charles P. Gruppe, painted with the Hague School of art in Holland and served as a dealer for Dutch painters in the United States. He actively encouraged Emile’s artistic interests (as well as those of siblings Karl, a sculptor; Virginia, a watercolorist; and Paul, a cellist). Emile would watch his father create Barbizon-inspired landscapes and in so doing learn the rudiments of painting and drawing.

The family moved to the United States permanently in 1913 because of growing tensions in Europe. Young Emile’s formal training, such as it was, began in Rochester, where his parents apprenticed him to a sign painter. But he had larger ambitions for himself. He enrolled at the National Academy in New York City and later the Grande Chaumiere in Paris. He also attended classes at the Art Students League. In Provincetown, Massachusetts, he learned from the landscape painter Charles Hawthorne at the Cape Cod School of Art. But his most influential teacher was John Carlson, whom he met at the Art Student League’s summer school in Woodstock, New York.

This Emile Gruppe painting Early Morning Gloucester sold for $13,310 in May 2016 at the Rockport Art Association in Rockport, Mass.

“John Carlson turned me into a painter,” Gruppe once said. “He taught me to see all the pictorial possibilities of a subject.” By the time he arrived in Gloucester, his style had been pretty well cemented. He was a bold, robust Impressionist, one who earned places in gallery shows and exhibitions throughout the United States. While based in Gloucester, Gruppe also maintained a studio in Carnegie Hall in New York and had vacation retreats in Jeffersonville, Vermont and Naples, Florida. He painted every day, completing around 200 paintings a year for 60 years.

An oil-on-canvas winter harbor scene by Emile Gruppe sold for $14,400 in March 2013 at Cottone Auctions in Geneseo, New York.

Mary Westcott of Kaminski Auctions in Beverly, Massachusetts, said Emile Gruppe is revered in the New England area for his outstanding contribution as a local artist who taught and mentored many other artists. “Whenever one of his paintings comes to auction, it is given prominent advertising and always photographed,” she said. “Although he painted other subjects and locations, he is best known for his ‘Ships in Harbor’ scenes.  He’s often compared to William Lester Stevens, Aldro Hibbard and Anthony Thieme, and his work is most easily recognized. He is a giant among giants and continues to be sought by collectors and museums.”

Alexa Malvino of Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, California, said Emile Gruppe benefited from being able to create art alongside a collection of other talented American artists, adapting and experimenting with impressionistic plein air painting. “The California artist Armin Hansen comes to mind first,” Malvino said. “Not only is their subject matter very similar, but even the color palettes of their works align. Small details like the execution of the hats on their fishermen make you wonder how familiar they were with each other’s work, despite working on separate sides of the country.”

The Emile Gruppe work titled ‘Morning Light at East Gloucester’ sold for $10,240 in August 2020 at Clars Auction Galley in Oakland, California.

The American Impressionist landscape was a subject often seen coming out of California from painters such as the Society of Six, Mary DeNeale Morgan and William Ritschel, the latter of whom spent much time in New York but created many of his great works after his move to Carmel in 1918. “Gruppe’s work also had a similar feel to the paintings coming out of Canada during that time,” Malvino observed. “The Group of Seven included artists like A.Y. Jackson and Tom Thomson – who passed before the creation of the group but whose work greatly influenced it – were also capturing the fantastic fall landscapes of the East Coast.”

As for the current demand for paintings by Gruppe, Alexa Malvino said the painter’s auction market has been fairly consistent for the past 10 to f15 years, with works selling for a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, contingent on the provenance, subject matter and condition of the works. “Despite the current demand for contemporary and Pop Art,” she added, “I don’t see his market softening in the coming years. His themes and beautiful execution of the Impressionist style seem to be timeless. The Impressionist era was such an important part of American art history and given his talent and many contributions to the movement, it’s likely the demand for his works will remain steady.”

Emile Gruppe’s ‘The Old Timer’ sold for $42,500 in November 2018 at Kaminski Auctions in Beverly, Massachusetts.

Mary Westcott said there continues to be a demand for Gruppe’s work. “The prices realized are on a broad spectrum and depend mostly on subject matter, early or late work and quality. Rarely are any of his paintings not sold. The demand for his work is still here and likely to continue.” Matt Cottone of Cottone Auctions in Geneseo, New York, concurred, remarking, “There has been a recent resurgence in the Gruppe market, with new interest on a national level.”

Emile Gruppe was as much a teacher as he was a painter. He founded the Gloucester School of Painting in 1942, operating it until his death, with a faculty that not only included himself but many of his own teachers, including Carlson. He wrote books for artists on brushwork, color and technique. His paintings can be found in major auction galleries, such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Skinner. His son, Robert Gruppe, a painter, maintains the Gruppe Gallery at Rocky Neck in Gloucester, while his daughter, Emilie, maintains the Emile A. Gruppe Gallery in Jericho, Vermont.

Rolex: How a revered luxury brand evolved

This 1969 18K gold Rolex Cosmograph Daytona sold for $450,000 plus buyer’s premium in 2018. It is similar to the watch worn by actor Paul Newman that sold for $15.5 million plus buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy: Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

For more than a century, Rolex has been a pioneer of excellence, distinction, elegance and accuracy in timepieces. Its products are worthy of being worn in any setting, even the most extreme. A Rolex has been carried to the top of Mount Everest, traveled to the depths of the Marianas Trench while strapped to the outside of a submarine, and flew to the International Space Station – all without losing even a second of time. Such heroic accomplishments spring from humble origins.

According to the accepted lore, in 1905, two brothers-in-law opened a shop in London called Wilsdorf & Davis, which specialized in accurate and affordable timepieces. Hans Wilsdorf had some experience with timepieces, particularly watches, thanks to his previous work in 1900 as a stem-winder with the Cuno Korten watchmaking company. Alfred Davis was the London company’s main investor and handled the business side of the new partnership.

One of the earliest wristwatches from Wilsdorf & Davis still without the Rolex brand name, but with the initials W&D etched inside the sterling silver case cover that sold for $1,500 plus buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy: Auctionata U.S. and LiveAuctioneers

In the late 19th century, pocket watches were the dominant style of timepiece. They were usually worn in a vest and attached to a chain. Smaller so-called “wristlets,” worn on the arm, were the province of women. It was said that gentlemen “…would sooner wear a skirt as wear a wristwatch.” But war changed everything.

More precisely, the Boer War started the cultural shift that made wrist-worn watches acceptable to men. The local Boers, or farmers, fought the controlling British for independence in what is now South Africa from 1899 to 1902. Wilsdorf learned that soldiers had found themselves fumbling for pocket watches during battle and, faced with the grim risk of losing precious seconds while under fire, began strapping watches to their wrists. This practice inspired Wilsdorf to create a wristwatch for men. He chose the name “Rolex,” a word that had no particular meaning. It is believed to have popped into Wilsdorf’s head during a bus ride in London.

A simple Rolex original watch from 1908 using Jean Aegler watch movements in an exterior case possibly by Denninger, the main supplier of early Wilsdorf & Davis watches, sold for $800 plus buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy: Don Presley Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Initially, Wilsdorf worried that his Rolex wristwatch would not achieve the same level of accuracy asa pocket watch. To his delight, his invention was recognized by the Society of Horology in 1910 for its highly accurate chronometer. In 1914, it received a coveted “Class A Certificate of Precision” from the King’s Observatory, becoming the first wristwatch ever to earn this honor from the prestigious Royal Astronomical Society. After these triumphs, Wilsdorf was quoted as saying that “…pocket watches will almost completely disappear and wrist watches will replace them definitively!” In 1915, the London company officially changed its name to Rolex Watch Co. Ltd. It switched to “Rolex SA” about five years after that.

Improvements in precision were the hallmark of Rolex throughout the early period, yet Wilsdorf was never satisfied. He strived to make Rolex watches more useful, accurate and stylish, for every setting.

By 1908 the new name of Rolex started to appear on watches such as this ladies 9K gold trench-style bracelet watch that sold for about $417 plus buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy: Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

In 1926, Rolex introduced the Oyster, the first watch that was completely waterproof. The Oyster Perpetual, introduced in 1931, was not only waterproof but also the first self-winding watch. The Tudor, a more affordable watch, debuted in 1952. The Submariner, a watch certified to be waterproof to 200 meters, arrived in 1959.

While a new authentic Rolex starts at about $6,500, Hans Wilsdorf insisted on a more affordable, but no less accurate watch, in his Tudor line introduced in 1952 such as this 1960s era military grade men’s watch that recently sold for $750 (without buyer’s premium). Image courtesy: Rare Treasures and LiveAuctioneers

Along the way, Rolex unveiled vast improvements such as the “Just in Time” automatic date/time movement in 1945, and the Cyclops view window over the date function in 1954, created in part to accommodate Wilsdorf’s nearsighted wife.

Since the beginning, Hans Wilsdorf was obsessed with attention to detail, and his wristwatches reaped the benefits of his toil. He insisted that the name Rolex be the definition of perfection itself. Because he aimed high and hit his target, Rolex resultedly became a target for counterfeiters.

The first clue to authenticity, according to Rolex experts, is the weight of the watch itself. Rolex watches are forged from 904L stainless steel, which has a higher concentration of nickel, copper and chromium to provide higher resistance to corrosion and wear. Most Rolex watches that are not factory-made will use a lower-grade 316L steel and will feel much lighter, like the Tudor model that was intended as a more affordable option.

Factory-made Rolex watches have markedly smooth sweep motions of the second-hand dial; they don’t stutter or shake with each movement (the Oyster quartz watch is an exception). The crystal lens of the Cyclops will be magnified no less than 2.5 times, completely filling the lens itself, and it is made as one piece, not two. Genuine Rolex products should have no imperfections of any kind, in any detail. The etchings, stems, fasteners, lettering, watchbands, caseback, crystal bezel and even the raised edgings around the watch face should be flawless. The manufacture of every component should be crisp, clear and precise.

Rolex watches also have a model number, which is placed behind the 12 o’clock clasp, as well as a serial number, typically located behind the 6 o’clock clasp. The engraving “Original Rolex Design” should appear above the model number. Watches dating from 2002 or later feature a small coronet, hardly visible, that is laser-etched under the “6” on the dial.

If you aren’t sure whether a Rolex watch is factory-made, and it isn’t possible to place it next to a confirmed authentic example prior to completing a purchase, the next best thing is to heed the expert advice to “buy the seller first and then the watch.”

Hans Wilsdorf died in 1960 at the age of 79 and gave 100% ownership of Rolex to the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. This nonprofit operates the company, using all proceeds strictly for humanitarian, philanthropic and educational purposes in and around Geneva to include “…food banks, elderly charities, scholarships, [and] school prizes with a special emphasis on the reduction of individual excessive debt,” according to its website.

RUBY GLASS: A RHAPSODY IN RED

Circa-1700 gold ruby glass perfume bottle, French or German, with 14K gold stopper. Sold for $650 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

According to legend, ruby-red glass was discovered when a noble tossed a gold coin into a batch of molten glass. In reality, it probably happened when glassworkers unintentionally contaminated batches with traces of gold residue or gold nanoparticles that were components of silver additives.

The earliest known ruby glass vessels date from the late Roman Empire and rival the beauty of intricately carved gems. Yet their appeal along with the secret of their creation faded within a century.

More than a millennium passed before the quest for ruby glass was taken up anew. Antonio Neri, a 16th-century Florentine glassmaker, experimented with magnesium oxide and copper, a red pigment used for cathedral windows. Further investigation revealed that when clear molten glass is imbued with gold salts (known as chlorides) and re-heated, it assumes a range of jewel-like pink-to-red hues. Better still, the amount of gold needed for even the darkest, deepest red is infinitestimal.

Ruby glass perfume bottle with gold painted highlights. Sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and Live Auctioneers

The first European to produce large, evenly-colored, deep red vessels was Johann Kunckel, a 17th-century glassmaker, chemist, and “alchymist,” which is an archaic spelling for “alchemist.” Alchymists had long sought the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, a transparent, glossy red substance deemed essential for transmuting base metals into gold. For hunters of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovering how to create gold ruby glass was not only highly significant, it was wondrous.

Gold ruby glass masterpieces created under Brandenburg patronage feature an extensive amount of cut decoration, such as arches and pointed leaves carved into the glass or features that stand out, dramatically, in relief. The Corning Glass website states, “Seldom has cut decoration been so organically modeled, seemingly floating on the surface.” By the early 1700s, nearly every central European sovereign owned several costly, finely crafted ruby glass goblets, footed beakers, and tankards.

Steuben art glass dresser or vanity jar with Cerise Ruby design and butterfly lid. Sold for $220 plus the buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy of Auctions Neapolitan and LiveAuctioneers

Around the same time, glassworkers in southern Germany were creating simpler, less masterly red-raspberry-hued vessels in forms such as bottles, boxes, and bowls. Many were assembled from gilded-metal mounts and glass components, and some served a dual purpose. For example, certain plates and saucers, when flipped, resembled covers. Beakers were made that looked like bowls, and knobs often formed finials or sections of glassware stems. While the provenance of Southern German ruby glass remains elusive, their uniform appearance suggests a single source.

Bohemian ruby glass epergne (centerpiece). Sold for $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Austin Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Interest in gold ruby glassware waned by the early 1800s. However, decades later, Friedrich Egermann, a Bohemian glass decorator, discovered that copper additives would stain glass surfaces a deep red. Sales of ruby glass made with copper soared. Because these pieces were inexpensive enough for mass production but had the appearance of gold ruby glass, they eventually dominated the European market.

Victorian tea warmer with scenic dark ruby glass insert in metal frame. Sold for $400 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021. Image courtesy of Woody Auction LLC and LiveAuctioneers

This variety of ruby glass was most fashionable during the Victorian era. After wine-colored wine glasses, decanters, and chandeliers studded with tiny ruby glass drops were featured at London’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, scores of prosperous homeowners graced their parlors with ruby glass candy bowls, vases and table lamps. Collectors sought ruby glass ground jugs, hinged boxes and tea warmers featuring stylized white enamel paintings of children at play. Others focused on delicate gold-painted ruby glass jars, cologne bottles and vanity sets.

Cranberry-to-clear glass dinner bell attributed to Dorflinger. Sold for $3,000 plus buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

By the mid-1800s, ruby glass was becoming popular across America, where it was known as cranberry glass. Through 1915, the Dorflinger Glass Company, based in Brooklyn, New York, created popular pattern-cut dinner bells, punch cups, cigar jars and whiskey jugs. The Indiana Glass Company produced ruby-stained and cranberry-to-clear crystal pitchers, tumblers, sherbets, goblets, serving ware and glassware. Soon after, the Fenton Art Glass Company of West Virginia introduced eye-pleasing red wine coolers, decanters and candy dishes, as well as opulent opalescent bowls, compotes, table lamps and epergnes (centerpieces). Steuben Glass, located in Corning, New York, produced fanciful ruby glass ewers, “candy-caned” vanity jars, majestic vases, lamps and more.

Twenty-first century artisans rely on selenium and rare earth elements rather than gold for making ruby glass. But their beguiling hues, ranging from pale pink to blazing red, continue to fire the imagination.

Micromosaics: Fine art, piece by tiny piece

An 18K gold micromosaic pendant with gemstones sold for $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Hampton Estate Auction and LiveAuctioneers

It is the tallest dome in the world. At nearly 450 feet high, the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is awash in color with scenes depicting the 2,000-year-old history of the Catholic church. Near the top, the Latin inscription proclaims, “…upon this rock, I will build my church,” which is ironic, considering that the entire interior dome is decorated in small, colorful stones.

These scenes carefully crafted from stone are so intricate that from below, they appear to be highly detailed paintings, yet they are not. They are mosaics, or more precisely, micromosaics. Large stones that once formed Roman roads are now small stones which, ironically enough, feature in the works of the church the Romans persecuted.

This micromosaic parure, or suite of matching jewelry, sold for nearly $2,100 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Dawsons Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

How a Mosaic Begins

Arranging large stones to form a functioning roadway, building or walkway is a civil-engineering technique that dates back to early Mesopotamia, now Iraq, about 5,500 years ago. In fact, the earliest stone road that still exists lies in Gaza and dates to at least 4,500 years ago. It may have been used to transport blocks of limestone that became part of the Egyptian pyramids.

Arranging stone pieces to form mosaic artworks is also ancient in origin and was prevalent throughout the ancient Greek, Roman and even early Mayan periods. The difference is in the size of the stones and how they are arranged.

Mosaic creators differentiate their patterns with color. The colors come from different types of cut stone, glass, ceramic and even enamel. Cut small and usually square, each piece, called a tessera (plural: tesserae), is painstakingly fitted together on a setting bed of plaster or cement, one piece at a time. The work is destined for installation within an outline brushed on a harder, more permanent surface, such as a wall, ceiling, column, fountain or indoor floor. The more elaborate the mosaic, the more prominently it was placed. Mosaics were status symbols when they were new. Today, they are considered national treasures and are not generally licensed to be bought or sold on the open market.

This brooch of a white dove on a blue background bears the maker’s mark of Fortunato Pio Castellani, one of the most renowned Roman micromosaic artists of the 19th century. It sold for $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

Mosaics Go Micro

When the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was completed in the early 17th century, it created its own vapor clouds that eventually made it difficult to maintain its original paintings and frescoes. In the late 16th century, under the pontificate of Pope Gregory XIII, each painting and fresco was replaced via a new process that relied on long, thin, colorful segments of highly durable glass (smalti) cut into small, almost microscopic squares (filati) and placed, one by one, to recreate each masterpiece in a mosaic pattern.

The Vatican Mosaic Studio has maintained the intricate micromosaics in museum-quality condition since 1578. The studio continues to recreate paintings and images using a palette of some 28,000 separate smalti filati colors to produce micromosaic art as gifts for heads of state, for restoration projects at the Vatican, and for sale to pilgrims from around the world.

In works like this vintage floral brooch, pieces of pietra dura are cut to fit a particular shape. It sold for $60 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015.
Image courtesy of Cordier Auctions & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers

The Grand Tour

Micromosaic art was resurrected in the late 18th century but was channeled into the creation of a more compact array of wearable jewelry and smaller decorative items, rather than large murals intended for public buildings. The artistic technique reemerged at precisely the right time.

From the 17th- to the late-19th century, the Grand Tour was a rite of passage for many privileged sons and daughters of the British upper class, in particular. The canonical Grand Tour itinerary included visits to Paris, Venice, and particularly Rome. The schedule of museum tours, concerts and cultural introductions led to a trade in beautiful, highly detailed micromosaic jewelry depicting many of the sites the young travelers might have visited. Micromosaics became a favorite keepsake of the Grand Tour experience, with each image of tessarae so fine up to 5,000 small pieces per square inch that they were regarded as works of art on a smaller scale.

These souvenir pieces weren’t just executed in small tesserae, but also in pietra dura, a phrase that translates as “hard stone.” Not unlike stained-glass art, pietra dura jewelry featured different shades of stone carved and shaved to fit together into delicate images of flowers, animals or historic architecture, usually set against a black background. The pietra dura style began in 16th century Florence using polished stones such as agate, mother of pearl, lapis lazuli, jasper, and other colored, sometimes semi-precious stones, and can almost be compared to marquetry, as each piece is tightly fitted without the use of grout or other cement to secure it.

Another standard Grand Tour souvenir, particularly during the Victorian era, was a parure: a set of intricate matching jewelry, usually consisted of a necklace, earrings, brooch, bracelet and, at times, a tiara, all in micromosaic, and all packaged in a fancy clamshell box.

The Artists Collectors Look For

Collectors are drawn to micromosaic pieces with tessarae so fine, they look almost like paintings from afar. Fortunato Pio Castellani, one of the early micromosaic artisans of the late 18th century, specialized in reproducing images of ancient Etruscan archeological finds. His makers mark is a mirrored “C” in a lozenge shape and also the word “Castellani” inside a raised rectangle.

Collectors also appreciate the works of Giacomo Raffaelli, who helped pioneer early micromosaics when he set up his shop in Rome in 1775. His signature style consisted of setting square tessarae in rows to create an image of limited color and design.

Michelangelo Barberi was known for the immensely fine micromosaics he created for many royal courts and the Tsar of Russia. Domenico Moglia, Antonio Aguatti, Luigi Cavaliere Moglia, Filippo Puglieschi, and Luigi Podio are also among the prominent artists of the late-18th and 19th century whose work is found at auction.

The Golden Age of micromosaics lasted until about 1870, when the tourist trade supplanted the Grand Tour. Micromosaics took on a more noticeably cruder look after that point, with larger stone tessarae replacing the finer artistic approach of the late-18th and early 19th centuries. Such works possess limited collector or auction appeal.

In addition to wearable jewelry, fine micromosaics can be found on elaborate snuff boxes, tabletops, panels and plaques, which were originally sold as souvenirs. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert Collection is one of the largest collections of micromosaics in the world, named for the collector Sir Arthur Gilbert, who coined the term “micromosaic” in the 1940s to describe the delicate art.

Rally ‘Round These American Flags

A 30-star American Flag with a charming scattered-star pattern sold for $1,600 plus the buyer’s premium at Cowan’s in June 2019. 
Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many national flags are older than the flag of the United States, but no national flag has changed as often. From 1777, with the adoption of the 13-star design, to 1960, when it assumed the current 50-star pattern, the American Flag has officially changed no fewer than 27 times during the past 245 years.

The American Flag’s appearance is familiar, but unfixed. A new star is added to its canton the word for the blue field in the upper left for any new state on the following July 4th after its admittance to the Union. With Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico pursuing statehood, the look of the American flag could change at some point.

A flag that exists in more than two dozen iterations, interpreted by countless creators during more than two centuries, provides rich pickings for collectors. Naturally, some American Flags are more sought-after than others. Below are some of the most coveted styles and forms.

An early 19th century 13-star US flag made as a small boat flag for the US Navy sold for $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Dan Morphy Auctions in December 2019. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The 13-Star Flag

Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” That was the entire Congressional Resolution of June 14, 1777 that officially adopted the national flag of the new United States of America. There was no meaning attached to the colors, the shape of the stars, or whether the stripes were horizontal or vertical. The flag was only intended to identify the new country aboard Navy vessels when entering foreign ports.

Additional resolutions were adopted later specifying that new states beyond the first 13 would be recognized on the flag with their own stars. This ensured the American flag would routinely change as the country expanded westward.

The 13-star flag remained official until the admission of Vermont and Kentucky in 1795, yet there is no credible 13-star American Flag that has survived the 18th century.

American Flags found at auction that feature 13 stars were used primarily by the US Navy on smaller launch boats from the 1850s to 1916, when the national flag was substituted instead.

The Star Pattern

Until the advent of the commercial sewing machine around 1850 (which could only sew in a straight line), all American Flags were stitched by hand, and they were not routinely displayed at home. These facts makes any American Flag of this period the most coveted at auction.

American Flags made after 1850 but before the circa 1890 advent of the zig-zag sewing machine (which could sew stars in place) are the second most desired at auction. Flags manufactured after 1900 are less scarce.

It is important to note that the appearance of the American Flag was not regulated until 1912, when a canton with a 48-star box-like pattern was deemed the official flag design for government and military use. Prior to 1912, manufacturers and individuals created any star pattern they wanted, and some of them were exceptionally innovative and eye-catching. Unsurprisingly, the most unusual and creative star patterns have proven the most collectible at auction.

Once codified, the 48-star American Flag relied on all-wool bunting until World War II, when cotton was substituted to conserve the wool for uniforms. Wool flags, then, are generally about a third more valuable than cotton ones.

The 49-star American Flag, adopted when Alaska earned admission to the Union in 1959, was official for only one year, as Hawaii gained entrance in 1960. For this reason, it is the most collectible American Flag in any size or format. The 50-star American Flag is the longest-lived variation on the design, and is the most common.

Collectors who want to build an unusual collection seek American Flags with an unofficial number of stars, such as 14, 16 to 19, 22, 39 to 42, or 47, especially in hand-sewn wool bunting, as most examples are particularly scarce.

Civil War Flags

The three national flags of the Confederate States of America and the two national flags of the United States of this period one featuring 34 stars, and one 35 stars are extremely collectible and routinely auctioned with high reserves.

Apart from the national flags, individual regimental flags from both North and South were hand-sewn with great care. Any that appear to have been made in haste or seem unusually battle-worn are typically outed as fake.

An Apollo 10 American flag that flew to the lunar surface sold for $2,400 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2014. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Flags Flown in Space

Humans have flown in space only since Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union successfully completed one orbit around Earth in 1961. Since then, about 560 individuals have experienced true weightlessness in space, not counting the 242 visitors to the International Space Station (the structure is positioned in low Earth orbit, which sticklers don’t count as space travel).

Astronaut Alan Shepard was the first to carry an American Flag in space during his Mercury Freedom 7 capsule voyage in 1961, roughly three weeks after Gagarin’s flight. Since then, American astronauts have been allowed to pack a few personal belongings in a PPK (personal preference kit) that usually includes small American flags to distribute as souvenirs once they return home. Each of these space-flown flags routinely garner great interest at auction.

But flags flown to the moon are easily the most prized. The 18 astronauts chosen for the six Apollo missions collectively brought several hundred small American flags on their extraterrestrial journeys, leaving few for would-be owners to fight over.

Documentation proves this shredded 48-star wool American Flag flew over the US Capitol on April 6, 1917 – the day that war was declared against Germany. It sold at Dan Morphy Auctions in December 2020 for $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Historic or Special Event Flags

A tradition among those serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts calls for those on patrol to tuck small American Flags inside their uniforms. Once home, the flags are normally given to staff, family members, or institutions. Only occasionally have they sold at auction. Such flags fit the definition of “special event” flags, which can draw the interest of collectors.

An American Flag that flew over the White House or U.S. Capitol during historic or meaningful occasions tend to keep their value. Examples of events that can pique the interest of flag collectors are those flown during inaugurations; when a deceased president or legendary person lies in state; or when an act of war is declared.

Flags flown from a prominent location during a high-profile event such as the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the like can attract serious bidding at auction. Those that hovered over a gathering on a notable day of remembrance, such as a 9/11 anniversary, might be sought-after as well.

Still others that command attention are those bearing the signature of a president or someone of similar prominence; early campaign flags; folk art flags; flags sewn by prisoners of war; and those with a celebrity connection or a backstory that distinguishes its provenance.

More than a Collectible

Any American Flag that bears the official number of stars is never decommissioned even if it is rendered obsolete by an updated design. Whether it floated over a battlefield or traveled to the surface of the moon or never left the flagpole in the front yard, an American flag represents a compelling story of freedom, liberty, and national identity that makes it more than just a collectible.

# # #

Incunabula: Books from the birth of the printed word

A copy of one the earliest known printed maps of Jerusalem, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, realized $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019.
Image courtesy Winner’s Auctions LTD and LiveAuctioneers

Incunabula, a Latin word that means “in the cradle,” describes books created during the infancy of European printing, an era that spans the years 1455 to 1501.

These early books evolved from East Asian and Middle Eastern textile block prints as alternatives to costly hand-copied, scrolled manuscripts. Though this printing technique reached Europe in the early 1300s, woodcuts, as they became known, entered general use only where paper was available.

The first type of incunabula are block books sets of sheets pasted back-to-back developed from single-leaf devotional and playing card images. They were copied in reverse on wooden blocks, which were then inked, covered with sheets of dampened paper, and hand-rubbed with heavy leather balls. Their resulting impressions were uneven, and with repeated printings, their clarity and crispness deteriorated. Though this early type of incunabula was undated and did not include printer emblems, paper analysis has traced most examples to southern Germany and the Netherlands.

Typographic books, the second type of incunabula, were created using individual units of cast-metal, moveable, reusable type. Unlike woodcut printing, this technique produced quick, durable, uniform results. It also inspired the development of various typefaces.

The quality of Johannes Gutenberg’s Latin Bible from 1454, the first printed book in the West, did not just establish the superiority of moveable type. According to the Library of Congress site Incunabula, “Gutenberg’s most significant contribution to the history of printing consists of making metal punches, moulds, and matrices by which type could be accurately cast in large quantities. Freeing letters, number, and punctuation from the single woodcut meant that pages could be assembled and reassembled quickly.”

Many collectors seek portions of incunabula. A single leaf from the Gutenberg Bible featuring decorative red and blue initials, headlines, chapter numbers, and capitals, and bound with A. Edward Newton’s essay A Noble Fragment, Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible 1450-1455 in luxurious black morocco leather is a treasure.

Leaf 156 from the Gutenberg Bible, with Old Testament passages in Gothic type, sold for $65,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Printers soon realized that combining metal type with ornamental woodcut lettering and illustrations on a single incunabula page increased its commercial value. As printing presses arose in cities such as Mainz, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Florence, and Venice, many graced their natural history, religious, and allegorical texts with carved woodcut images.

A first edition of the ‘Orthographia,’ the monumental Latin dictionary by Johannes Tortellius sold for £10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2016.
Image courtesy of Forum Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Orthographia, a monumental study of ancient Greek and Latin compiled by Johannes Tortellius between 1449 and 1495, is one example of illustrated text. So is the famed Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, which, in addition to boasting one of the largest print runs of its time, inspired several large-scale pirated editions. This ambitious work depicts the saga of human history, from the Creation through the Last Judgement, with more than 1,800 illustrations from more than 600 woodcuts.

Leaf CCXIX from the Nuremberg Chronicle, featuring portraits of King Adolph of Nassau, King Louis of Sicily, and others sold for $100 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Old World Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In addition to portraying Biblical characters, popes, rulers, and European cityscapes, it features two of the earliest known printed (though imaginary) birds-eye views of Jerusalem, depicting Solomon’s Temple. According to Rehav Rubin, Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University, Jerusalem and author of Jerusalem in Maps and Views, both resemble the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built centuries later. Through the years, charming incunabula images such as these have been reproduced repeatedly to popular acclaim.

This pair of illuminated antiphonal folio incunabula leaves on vellum with staves of music realized $150 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many music-themed incunabula, discussing topics such as plainsong, mathematical aspects of theory, and rules of notation, were illustrated with carved block prints. Liturgical graduals (which we would know as hymnals) and antiphonals (which we would call chants) were needed in great numbers because they were performed during Mass. These publications required specialized graphics staffs of continuous lines marked by symbols at varied heights, making them a challenge to produce. Initially, individual pages were block-printed entirely, or their text was type-printed, leaving space for hand-written melodies. Later, liturgical printers provided pages pre-impressed with evenly spaced staffs in traditional red ink, in the manner of medieval musical manuscripts. After black variously-shaped notes were impressed in place, a second impression added music texts, or vice-versa.

Oldest panoramic view of Erfurt, from the 1493 book, the Nuremberg Chronicle, realized $385 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

Some collectors seek incunabula by language, illustrations, country, city, edition, printer, or provenance. Others seek incunabula featuring specific subject matter, like science, mathematics, literature or religion. And still others value incunabula for their own sake, the sake of history. What unites them is a passion for the printed word in its earliest form, before people truly understood its formidable power to shape and change the world.

Robert Indiana’s legacy of LOVE

Robert Indiana ‘LOVE’ milled aluminum paperweight table sculpture, which sold for $576 in May 2021 at Uniques & Antiques.

Those who may not know the name Robert Indiana will still recognize his most famous and iconic creation: his LOVE print, with the word “love” in upper-case letters, arranged in a square with a tilted letter “O”. It first appeared in a series of poems originally written in 1958, but gained momentum when it was pictured on the Museum of Modern Art’s Christmas card in 1965. The print was also the basis for the artist’s LOVE sculpture in 1970 and the hugely popular US Postal Service stamp in 1973. Of the Christmas card, Indiana said, “It was the most profitable Christmas card the museum ever published.”

Robert Indiana was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, in 1928. He was adopted as an infant, but went to live with his father in Indianapolis after his parents divorced. He used the last name “Indiana” as a nod to his Hoosier upbringing, but most of his adult life was spent living in New York City and Maine. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.

Indiana’s career took off in the early 1960s after Alfred J. Barr purchased his work The American Dream 1 for the Museum of Modern Art. He became famous for artworks that consisted of bold, simple, and iconic images, especially numbers and short words such as EAT, HUG, and, of course, LOVE. In 1977, he created a Hebrew version of LOVE using “Ahava,” the Hebrew word for love, and in 2008, a stainless-steel sculpture, HOPE, was unveiled outside the Democratic National Convention in Denver. He called HOPELOVE’s close relative.”

‘HOPE,’ a 2008 limited edition silkscreen on paper, which sold for $6,500 in February 2021 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions.

“Robert Indiana was a part of the group of artists that settled on Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan in the early 1950s with his then-lover, Ellsworth Kelly,” said Monica Brown, Senior Specialist of Prints and Multiples at Hindman in Chicago. “I think that his bold use of color is very much in keeping with this group of artists that included Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin, and others, but he took it one step further by tapping into very basic human psychology with his use of words and symbols – a very apt nod to Pop Art. Words and numbers as symbols can be literal, they can be subtle, they have meaning, and they have hidden meaning.”

Brown said she thinks this is what separated Robert Indiana from the rest of the pack. “When his peers were moving into color fields, action painting, and all of the forms of abstraction they could find,” she said, “Indiana turned to language, numbers, and symbols with the very precise and deliberate colors of, say, an Ellsworth Kelly, only employing the very Pop Art style of recognizable words and symbols. In doing this, such as with his LOVE sculptures, he is bringing the viewer’s own interpretation, thoughts, and feelings into the concept of the artwork.”

Robert Indiana, ‘Star of Hope,’ 1972 enameled and chrome plated brass. It sold for $6,150 in January 2020 at Copake Auction, Inc

Rico Baca, auctioneer and owner of Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Florida, said Robert Indiana’s appeal is in large part due to familiarity, and, as with many artists, being in the right place at the right time. “Signs are such a ubiquitous part of our culture,” Baca said, “and Indiana’s reinterpretations, with their familiar text styles, imagery, color palettes, and symmetry, are just very relatable. They immediately register with the viewer.”

Baca said that while Indiana’s work catered to the preferences of the period, the concept remains relevant and easily ‘refreshed’ with current topics, such as the aforementioned HOPE or the color variant Greenpeace Love, which was created in 1994. In February 2019, Modern Auctions (then Palm Beach Modern Auctions) sold an example of the Greenpeace Love image for $5,200 against an estimate of $2,500-$3,500.

Complete portfolio of Robert Indiana ‘Numbers’ prints from 1968, which sold for $41,925 in May 2021 at Hindman.


Regarding the market for the artist, who died in 2018, Monica Brown said she’s seen strong demand for Indiana’s works during the last five to ten years. “I think that as we move forward, there are serious questions to be resolved with his estate before collectors in certain categories can feel confident that his legacy, and thus his market, will be protected into the future,” she said. “I feel – and hope, as a true supporter of Robert Indiana’s work – that this will be rectified eventually.”

Brown is alluding to how the late artist was in the news recently, and not in a good way. After three years of battling in court, the estate of the artist and his former business partner reached an agreement that settled their legal disputes, but at a steep cost. Millions of dollars were spent on the case, money that would have otherwise gone toward realizing Indiana’s dream of turning his old home on the remote island of Vinahlhaven, Maine into a museum to memorialize his legacy.

Rico Baca said it’s interesting how closely auction records support the themes in Indiana’s work. “His popularity hasn’t dropped off, especially for the most familiar titles,” he said. “His larger LOVE canvases are still selling at a million or more, higher than his other imagery. The sense of nostalgia is something people like, newer collectors included.”

‘Purim: the Four Facets of Esther (I),’a 1967 print by Indiana, sold for $2,048 in March 2021 at Rachel Davis Fine Arts.

Baca added it doesn’t hurt that there are Indiana editions available across all price points. “An entry level collector may not be ready to purchase an original work or the entire Decade suite, for example,” he said, “but a single HOPE screenprint is a viable investment with current appeal.” Modern Auctions sold one at its February 2021 auction for $6,500 against an estimate of $2,000-$4,000. 

Seth Fallon, auctioneer and co-owner of Copake Auctions in Copake, New York, said the LOVE image is so iconic it will secure Indiana’s place, and his value, in the art market. “It seems to me artists with works that are so recognizable it really lends to their ascension in the art world,” Fallon said. “You see it with artists like Jeff Koons. While some people criticize works that are so commercial, it still seems like they are able to hold values and be collected.”