NEW YORK – Puzzles are toys, games or brain teasers that test a person’s ingenuity. Mechanical puzzles, whether twisted, assembled, disassembled, disentangled, misleading or completely “impossible,” test not only physical skills, but personal mettle as well. They also make delightful collectibles.

Chinese, hand-painted, lidless Fitzhugh Pattern Puzzle Cadogan teapot, 5½ x 7½ x 4in. Realized $175 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Greenwich Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Ring-puzzles often require long wire loops to be disentangled from networks of wires, much like disentangling a mesh of delicate gold chains. Puzzle-rings, however, are bits of wire cleverly intertwined around a central pivot. Though they may seem indivisible, they separate with a simple twist. These intriguing trinkets developed from gimmels, traditional betrothing rings typically bearing clasped hands. Their challenge, explained Mechanics Magazine in 1829, “lies in disengaging the rings from the wire; and every additional ring increases the difficulty. This puzzle is of great antiquity …”

Intricately crafted Japanese wooden puzzle boxes, famed for beautiful geometric marquetry, seem entirely sealed, with no apparent points of entry. Some open with a simple secret mechanism or two. Though owners may try every trick in the book, others open only by following complex successions of shifting, sliding, inclining, rotating, pushing, pressing and/or lifting movements in precise order.

Japanese puzzle box, 3¼ x 4¾ x 7in. Realized $175 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Fortune Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In addition to keeping secrets safe and documents free from prying eyes, a puzzle box is perfect for storing personal letters, tokens of affection or treasured trinkets. It’s also a charming way to give a gift in a gift.

Cadogan porcelain puzzle teapots, adaptations of traditional Chinese wine-pots, are named for Lord Cadogan (1675-1726), who introduced them to British society. Traditional and peach-form models often feature auspicious dragon, phoenix, lotus, prunus or peony motifs in classic blue-and-white or famille rose or verte palettes. Some, reflecting 18th-century expanding horizons, feature images of merchant fleets, trading posts or the stylized Fitzhugh china pattern, evoking the British East India Company. Other Cadogans, unadorned, glow with bright green, treacle, turquoise or aubergine glazes.

These teatime conversation-starters feature functional handles and pour from spouts, yet lack lids. Inversion is the key. When hot water is poured into wide holes at their bases, it flows into funnel-like, narrowing channels. When turned upright, the liquid pools at the base of these funnels. Bottoms-up!

Pottery puzzle jugs beguiled and befuddled European imbibers through the 17th and 18th centuries. These unique tavern amusements, due to unconventional construction, hindered filling, pouring or drinking without spilling a drop. Discovering their secrets was the name of the game.

Some puzzle jugs, like Cadogan teapots, were filled bottoms-up. Some channeled liquids through hollow handles and rims before reaching their spouts. Some, featuring decorative, perforated necks, could be filled, but not emptied. Others, to drink without drenching, required stopping up one or more holes while sipping from another. Moreover, hidden holes (and increasing tipsiness) could make manipulating puzzle jugs even more demanding. Rare ones that incorporate verse into their designs are particularly charming. A 17th century one, for example, reads, “Here Gentlemen come try y skill, I’le hold a wager if you will, That you don’t drink this liquor all, without you spill or lett, some fall.”

English Delftware puzzle jug with drinking verse, circa 1750, 7in high. Realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

Native Americans of the Great Lakes region, believing that puffs of smoke carry thoughts and prayers to the spirit world, used ceremonial pipes during traditional tribal rituals. Those with wooden stems are often highly decorative. Some boast animal hair, dyed quillwork, beadwork, feather, brass tack or hot-file branding adornments. Some spiral from top to bottom or depict carved, low-relief figures of birds, elk, bighorn sheep, turtles, fish or buffalo. Other wooden stems, in addition to spirals and bright pigmented images, feature intricate fretwork hearts, chevrons, triangles or diamond piercings along their lengths. The puzzle is how inhaled air winds its way from pipe bowl to its smoker.

Great Lakes pipe, Ojibwa, late-1800s, black steatite bowl with elaborate lead and catlinite inlays, stem carved with twist and puzzle elements, featuring brass tacks and file branding, 27in. Realized $5,000 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of Skinner and LiveAuctioneers

Model ships-in-bottles, which date from the mid-18th century, are well-known “impossible” mechanical puzzles. (Spoiler: though different techniques exist, their flexible, cabled masts, spars and sails are often rigged tight to hulls while outside, then raised when inside.)

On the other hand, Harry Eng (1932-1996) encapsulated full-sized books, golf balls, tennis balls, decks of cards, padlocks, packs of cigarettes, scissors, signature rope knots and/or puzzling Rubik’s cubes into narrow-necked bottles. Some surmise that he shrank, sliced, unstitched, bent, folded, rolled or disassembled them before slipping them inside. Then, with tweezers, pencils, rubber bands, mini-vises, tiny metal tubes, extreme cleverness and endless patience, perhaps he expanded, glued, stitched, straightened, unfolded, unrolled or reassembled them into their original condition. Or not. According to the Puzzle Museum website, Eng, educational consultant, schoolteacher, magician and inventor, created impossible bottles to make people think.

Impossible Puzzle Bottle, Harry Eng, circa 1990, 10in high. Realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Though table and floor-assembled jigsaw puzzles are perennially popular, puzzle-carpets take them to a new level. Marcello Morandini, award-winning Italian architect, sculptor and graphic designer, for example, created one featuring seven wool pieces edged with Velcro.

Seven-piece ‘Puzzle carpet’ from PRORGETTI series, wool/Velcro tape, 404 x 99 or 202 x 198 cm, marked Marcello Morandini, circa 1988, made by Melchnau AG, Switzerland, 1990. Realized €1,600 ($2,063) + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy Quittenbaum Kunstauktionen GmbH and LiveAuctioneers

“In my usual ‘black and white’ graphic language,” he explains, “I wanted to design a carpet that is not static in its format and its visual perception, but modifiable in its shapes for the infinite combinations and the different practical spatial needs of living. Life is a puzzle!”

Sam Maloof: a woodworker, plain and simple

NEW YORK – Of all the American woodworkers and furniture designers of the 20th century, perhaps none were at once as celebrated and humble as Sam Maloof (1916-2009), the son of Lebanese immigrants who was born in California and lived and worked there his entire life. The accolades were many: in 1985 he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant, the New York Times called him “a central figure in the postwar American crafts movement,” the Smithsonian Institution declared him to be “America’s most renowned contemporary craftsman” and People magazine dubbed Maloof “The Hemingway of Hardwood.” His furniture resides in the collections of many American museums.

But if anyone attempted to call Sam Maloof an artist, he would quickly correct them. “I am a woodworker,” he would say with typical humility. “I like the word. It’s an honest word.” Maloof worked with wood starting as a child, making a spatula for his mother, plus dollhouse furniture, cars and other toys. In 1948, he and his wife, Alfreda, moved into a house in Ontario, California, where he set up a furniture workshop in the garage. Having little money, he designed and built a suite of furniture for the home, mostly made of salvaged materials and discarded packing crates.

Walnut dining table made circa 1967 by Sam Maloof, numbered 18/67, rectangular with a pedestal base and two leaves (each leaf: 20¾in long) 113¾in wide (fully extended); 39¾in wide; 29in high, sold at Abell Auction for $16,250. Image courtesy of Abell Auction

Word spread of his creations and commissions began pouring in. A friend, Henry Dreyfuss (the noted industrial designer of such classics as the Singer sewing machine and the Hoover vacuum cleaner) commissioned Maloof to make 25 pieces for his Pasadena home. The rocking chair he designed for Dreyfuss was an instant hit and was soon found in the chicest homes – including the White House. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had rockers made by Maloof in the Oval Office. Carter signed a photograph to Maloof, “to my woodworking hero,” in a visit to Maloof’s home.

Maloof’s style was to put function over form, usefulness before artistry. His modern furniture was assembled entirely out of wood (he preferred claro walnut, cherry, oak, rosewood and yew) using no nails or metal hardware at all. These were a perfect fit for the minimalist homes of the postwar period. “He was trying to make other people appreciate what it was like to live with a handcrafted object in which there was a kind of union between maker, object and owner,” according to Jeremy Adamson, author of the 2001 book The Furniture of Sam Maloof.

‘Cradle Hutch’ made in 1971 by Sam Maloof, one of six made, walnut construction, a freestanding cradle hutch with a rectangular outset top over a double-door blanket cabinet secured with a shaped wooden latch, raised atop a central space suspending a slatted rocking cradle over a pull-out changing surface, 80¾in x 58in wide, sold for $43,750 at John Moran Auctioneers on April 25, 2017. Image courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers

Maloof’s chairs, for which he is most famous, have a sculptural quality about them, yet are also very ergonomic and austere in their simplicity. They can be characterized by completely rounded over corners at mortise and tenon joints (which are always plainly visible); carved ridges and spines, particularly on the arm rests; decorative ebony dowels; deep, dished-out seats (always made from several boards glued together); and clear finishes. Everything he made – chairs, cradles, hutches and other furniture pieces – were designed and crafted entirely by hand.

“Sam Maloof’s work is timeless; it is subtly modern and surprisingly sophisticated,” said David Rago, a partner and co-director of 20th /21st Century Design Development at Rago Arts & Auction in Lambertville, N.J. “While his famous rocking chair has a lyrical expression of line, the magic of Maloof’s designs can be found in the details the expertly formed joints, the finishing of the edges, the graining and beauty of the planks, and his use of proportion.”

Executive swivel chair made in 1984 by Sam Maloof in-studio, signed and dated, 52½in tall x 29in wide, sold for $8,960 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions on Oct. 11, 2015. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

Together, these details reveal a mastery of material and form, Rago said, resulting in works that are simple but refined and work in any interior. “I should add that he chose the discipline of a rocking chair as his cornerstone form,” he pointed out. “They are deceptively difficult to make, and yet part of the furniture vernacular for centuries. At one, a rocking chair is basic and functional, but brought to the level of high art by Maloof’s genius as a craftsman and designer.”

“A few years ago, we had a Sam Maloof bench here in the showroom,” said Wade Terwilliger, president and marketing director of Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I recall the woodworker we use – who’s normally pretty reserved – sharing with me at length his awe of Maloof’s craftsmanship. I’m sure some of the humility in Sam’s self-described title of simply “woodworker” is related to his background as the hardworking son of immigrants, but I think there may be more to it than that. The title directs your attention to what he considered most significant – the working of wood.”

Fine and rare bench by Sam Maloof made from bird’s-eye and tiger maple, 30in tall x 38½in wide, est. $30,000-$35,000, lot was passed at an auction held Nov. 26, 2011 by Palm Beach Modern Auctions. Image courtesy of West Palm Beach, Fla.

Terwilliger said Maloof’s pieces are shaped and finished to draw attention to the inherent beauty of the grain. “Wood is both the medium and the subject of a functional sculpture, without disguise or ornamentation,” he explained. “For example, the ebony dowels Maloof often used to join pieces together remain visible, providing color contrast, but are fully smoothed over and integrated into the chair’s form. It’s clear that great effort and attention to detail went into creating something so seemingly simple.”

“Furniture by Sam Maloof continues to resonate with collectors of all kinds as it is sculptural, visually pleasing, timeless and easy to use,” said Jason Stein, director of Modern Decorative Art + Design at Bonhams in Los Angeles. “I once heard him described as ‘a craftsperson’s craftsman.’ The woods he worked with were incredible and his pieces were known to be technically precise and beautifully finished.”

“The market for Sam Maloof designs has been consistent for the past decade,” David Rago said. “It’s strong, but not quite ‘hot.’ Given the relatively small number of works produced, his prices are very fair, generally ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. An interesting comparison is the market for the work of George Nakashima, for which there are over 5,000 auction results with a top price of $800,000. There are only 370 auction results for Sam Maloof and only one lot – a complete dining set – has achieved a price over $100,000, and that was more than a decade ago.”

Fine rocking chair (no. 11) made in 2004 from sculpted ebony walnut by Sam Maloof, signed, dated and numbered with copyright, 47in x 27in, sold for $26,000 at Rago Arts & Auction Center on Jan. 20, 2019. Image courtesy of Rago Arts & Auction Center

It’s hard not see the relative value in the beautifully crafted works of Sam Maloof, Rago said. “That said, the rarity of Maloof’s work counter-intuitively serves to keep prices down because there has never been sufficient availability to generate a broad market. Phil Powell, the New Hope furniture designer, perhaps made a thousand pieces in his lifetime. Though working at the same time as George Nakashima and Paul Evans, in the same town, George and Paul are said to have produced between 35,000 and 40,000 pieces.  The relative paucity of Powell’s surviving work mirrors the market’s response to Maloof.”

Wade Terwilliger said the market for Sam Maloof furniture has held remarkably steady. “His famed rockers hold most of the top spots, and the curviest forms in fiddleback maple and rosewood are the most desirable,” he said. “Beautiful craftsmanship tends to hold value, and I believe the catalog raisonné, well-documented provenance and an active studio lend themselves to a healthy market because there is little question of authenticity.”

Walnut 12-drawer cabinet made circa 1975 by Sam Maloof with dovetail joinery and circular tenon details, an exemplary of Maloof’s exquisite craftmanship, signed with branded manufacturer’s mark to each drawer, 80in wide x 20in deep x 32in tall, sold at Wright for $24,2130. Image courtesy of Wright

Jason Stein said the current market demand for works by Maloof is strong and consistent – “especially for his prized sculptural rocking chairs, cribs and hutches. I see this demand continuing and many collectors have Maloof on their wish lists.” Bonhams holds the world record for Sam Maloof furniture at auction – set in Los Angeles in 2006 for a carved walnut conference table and ten armchairs ($194,250). It also holds the record for a Sam Maloof rocking chair, with an example making $80,500 in 2012. Pieces by Maloof continue to do well at auction.

Maloof’s former residence in Alta Loma, which he purchased as a simple bungalow in 1953, was, over time, transformed by Maloof into a timbered, 22-room house with a hand-carved spiral staircase and door latches shaped like miniature golf clubs. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now serves as the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts. Tours of the historic home are given on Thursdays and Saturdays.

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Walker Evans photography: modern yet timeless

NEW YORK – Gritty portraits of a disheveled dockworker in Havana or a tenant farmer in Alabama, who unflinchingly stares into the camera, speak volumes about life’s harsh realities. Images captured by documentary photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975) tell rich stories of American life in the early 20th century. The self-taught photographer became synonymous with the Great Depression. While definitely relating to the period they were taken, his photographs transcend their era, resonating with and speaking to viewers today as fresh as the day they were printed in a darkroom.

Demonstrating his keen appreciation of the vernacular is this Evans 1936 photo (printed 1960s) of an Atlanta auto parts shop. It made €5,500 ($6,147) + the buyer’s premium in June 2017 at Leitz Photographica Auction. Photo courtesy of Leitz Photographica Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Born in St. Louis, Evans studied in Paris, where he encountered the work of forward-thinking artists that inspired his early artistic direction. After returning to the United States in 1928, he borrowed a Leica camera and started taking dramatic shots of New York City’s architecture, These images are recognized for their abstracted and striking perspectives. Within a few years, however, he switched to shooting vernacular scenes of people and American culture.

A circa 1930 untitled photograph of a step-back building in New York City, earned $6,000 + the buyer’s premium in June 2020 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

While working for the Farm Security Administration 1935-1937, Evans created many photographs that were used in the groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938, which was the museum’s first single-person exhibit. It was also during his stint at the FSA that he took a sabbatical to photograph Alabama sharecropper tenant families, whose images immediately captured the public and are still fascinating today.

According to the International Center for Photography, Evans’ work paved the way for the American documentary movement that really took hold in the 1930s and for street photographers later on. “His precisely composed, intricately detailed, spare photographs insisted on their subject matter, and his impartial acceptance of his subjects made his work seem true and aesthetically pure – qualities that have been the goal of documentary photography ever since,” according to the center’s website.

‘Alabama Tenant Farmer’ (Floyd Burroughs) photographed by Walker Evans in 1936, gelatin silver print, 9 1/8 x 7¼in. Sold for £70,000 ($110,857) + the buyer’s premium at Phillips in London in May 2012. Photo courtesy of Phillips and LiveAuctioners

Not surprisingly, among the highest-selling images by Evans on LiveAuctioneers is his iconic portrait of Alabama cotton farmer Floyd Burroughs taken in 1936 that achieved £70,000 ($110,857) + the buyer’s premium at Phillips in London in May 2012.

“In the eyes of Floyd Burroughs is a fixed, intense integrity, his strength and unwavering determination magnified by the close crop of the frame, conveying almost a numbness to his current circumstances and a knowing willingness to survive,” according to the auction house.

Evans also took four portraits of Floyd’s wife, Allie Mae Burroughs, composing the shot starkly with her standing against the wall of the cabin they rented. The sharecropping family lived in a four-room cabin and did not own their land, nor even the farm implements. Of the four portraits he took of Allie Mae, “Although compositionally similar, they record distinct facial expressions ranging from bemused cooperation to brooding anger and resentment – moods conveyed by a slight tilt of the head, the furrows around the eyes, the angle of the pursed mouth,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nearly as iconic as Evans’ photograph of Floyd Burroughs were his four 1936 portraits of the sharecropper’s wife, Allie Mae, described as a Mona Lisa of sorts. This 9½-by-7½inch image sold for $26,000 + the buyer’s premium in October 3023. Photo courtesy of Phillips and LiveAuctioners

Evans was not only a photographer but reportedly an avid collector. In his travels, he acquired postcards, a passion for which he took to early on and lectured on later in his life; as well as tools, roadside signs and more. According to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which presented a major retrospective of the photographer’s work in 2017-18, photography was an extension of Evans’ penchant for collecting. Clément Chéroux, the museum’s senior curator of photography, who organized the exhibition, said in a museum blog that “photography became for him a convenient way to acquire things too big, too unwieldy, or too complex to physically remove from American roadsides to bring back to his home or studio.”

A 1931 photograph, ‘Saratoga Springs,’ printed in 1962, brought $9,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at Stair. Photo courtesy of Stair and LiveAuctioneers

Collecting and art were twin passions and the two shared a deep interplay with Evans often staging photographs of his collections, such as when he juxtaposed American farming tools with European tools to illustrate the difference in decoration between the two. He is said to have likened a hardware store to a museum of sorts. He found not only beauty in the objects he collected and photographed but a cataloging of American culture from its businesses to products to its people.

An early example of street photography, Walker Evans’ 1929 photograph, ‘Girl in Fulton Street, New York,’ printed 1962, sold for $10,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at Stair. Photo courtesy of Stair and LiveAuctioneers

And perhaps that is what lies at the heart of the appeal of Evan’s photography is his keen ability to capture the spirit of America in a single image.

A menagerie of vintage figural lighters

NEW YORK – Cigarette and cigar lighters come in all shapes and forms. While mass-produced plastic disposables a la Bic are common today, there are elegant antique and vintage rectangular ones by Dunhill, Zippo, Ronson and other makers that are collectible as fine vintage models.

Their shape can likely be traced back to early match safes and containers as some early lighters used match strikes to ignite the flame. These latter lighters can fetch several hundred dollars each. Increasing in value, however, are figural lighters made of silver and other metals whose looks are limited only by the artist’s imagination.

A Faberge silver table lighter formed as a seated elephant, Moscow, 1895, sold for $25,000 + the
buyer’s premium in January 2019 at Shapiro Auctions. Photo courtesy of Shapiro Auctions and

Mastering fire has been a critical part of civilization from prehistoric times on and having a portable fire one in one’s pocket was a game changer in the 1800s. The earliest lighters were an adaptation of a flintlock pistol, using gunpowder. An early lighter made by German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner in 1823 created a flame by creating a chemical reaction when flammable hydrogen gas came into contact with a metal strike.

Some of the finest silver firms created figural lighters in either silver or sterling silver with rare and exceptional examples, particularly from the 19th century, comfortably bringing five-figure sums. Cast-iron figural lighters also elicit strong demand from collectors.

A ram’s horn dolphin cigar lighter by Black, Starr & Frost fetched $4,750 + the buyer’s premium in September 2020 at Showtime Auction Services. Photo courtesy of Showtime Auction Services and LiveAuctioneers

As Russian silversmith Faberge is renowned for fine silver, it’s little surprise that the firm produced some highly detailed and attractive lighters, particularly in the form of wild animals. A silver table lighter cast as a seated elephant features finely chased details to replicate the texture of wrinkled skin. Bearing the mark for master assayist Aleksandr Vladislavovich Skovronsky, an 1895 example brought $25,000 + the buyer’s premium in January 2019 at Shapiro Auctions. Faberge also made these objects in the form of a seated monkey, bearing the workmaster’s mark of Julius Rappoport, that were realistically modeled, the silver chased to simulate fur. One sold at Christie’s London in November 2012 for £85,250 ($135,010) + the buyer’s premium. Both lighters had a hinged cover that opened to reveal a lighter fluid compartment. Other desirable Faberge lighters by Rappaport include one in the form of a standing rhinoceros with a circa 1890 example selling at Sotheby’s London in June 2019 for GBP 47,500 ($60,060) + the buyer’s premium.

Established in 1845 in Sheffield, England, Walker & Hall is well known for its dragon-form cigar lighters that feature silver and antelope horn. A circa 1895 example made $8,500 + the buyer’s premium in October 2016 at Heritage Auctions. Reportedly, this lighter was likely made for military officers, as theorized by the inclusion of a flaming cannonball/grenade under the dragon’s right foot.

A rare Walker & Hall Victorian silver and antelope horn dragon-form cigar lighter, Sheffield, England, circa 1895, made $8,500 + the buyer’s premium in October 2016 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Several variations of this lighter exist, most in silver-plate, including some that attribute the dragon figure to the comic tale of the Dragon of Wantley,” according to the catalog lot description.

Cigar cutters and lighters, combined in one object, are also collectable. Not exactly portable and much too big to put in one’s pocket, these were likely designed to be tabletop models, and after a gentlemanly game of cards, the men could gather to light their cigars. At 6 inches tall, a rare J.E. Smith cast-iron cigar cutter and lighter with match dispenser would have been perfectly suited for this purpose. It achieved $7,000 + the buyer’s premium in October 2018 at Morphy Auctions.

Thought to be the only known example, this rare J.E. Smith cigar cutter and lighter with match dispenser went out at $7,000+ the buyer’s premium in October 2018 at Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Patented Dec. 1, 1896, this cigar cutter and lighter uses a cast bird to both cut the cigar by lifting the tail of the bird, pierce the match supply with its beak and then light the match. While most lighters are silver, a few are gold such as a horse head cigarette lighter made by Tiffany & Co in 18K yellow gold that was heavily chased to realistically detail the mane and head of a horse. One sold in December 2017 for $5,500 + the buyer’s premium at Kodner Galleries Inc.

A vintage Tiffany & Co heavily chased 18K yellow gold horse head cigarette lighter made $5,500 + the buyer’s premium in December 2017 at Kodner Galleries Inc. Photo courtesy of Kodner Galleries Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Dunhill also is renowned for its lighters, particularly its large “Aquarium” lighters with scenes painted on the sides of the lighter, of which Winston Churchill was said to be a fan. A Dunhill “Aquarium” lighter with a painted scene of parrots drew $7,500 + the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Clarke Auction Gallery. While the Aquarium lighters are not figural per se, Dunhill created quite a few novelty lighters such as a silver and brass hunting horn lighter and its lighter in the form of a bible.

Whether you prefer flintlock lighters to one that operates by match, naptha-infused wicks or butane, there is a figural lighter for every collecting taste.

Dr. Seuss: a 20th century cultural phenomenon

NEW YORK – Is there anyone in the world who hasn’t heard of Dr. Seuss? Certainly every American baby boomer is familiar with the iconic author and illustrator of such quirky, classic kids’ books as The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who and If I Ran the Circus.

In all, Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated more than 60 books that were translated into over 20 languages and sold 600 million copies. No wonder his name is known the world over. He wasn’t just an author and illustrator; Dr. Seuss was a true cultural phenomenon.

Colored marker on paper sketch drawing of the Cat in the Hat, signed by Dr. Seuss, 8 x 10in. Sold for $2,500 at an auction held Jan. 12, 2017 by Christiana Auction Gallery. Image courtesy of Christiana Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Theodor Seuss “Ted” Geisel (1904-1991) was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father managed the family brewery until Prohibition, when he was appointed to supervise the city’s public park system. Young Geisel entered Dartmouth College and became editor of the school’s humor magazine, the Jack-O-Lantern. When he and some fraternity brothers were caught drinking gin on campus (Prohibition had not yet been repealed), Geisel was ordered by Dartmouth’s dean to step down from the Jack-O-Lantern. He stayed on, secretly, using the name Seuss – his mother’s maiden name, which actually rhymes with “voice” – and it stuck. The “Doctor” was added later.

Geisel’s early artwork often employed the shaded texture of pencil drawings or watercolors, but in his children’s books of the postwar period, he generally made use of a starker medium pen and ink normally using just black, white, and one or two colors.

Narragansett Beer serving tray with an image illustrated by Dr. Seuss, 12in wide, only a few edge nicks, otherwise excellent. Sold for $270 at an auction held Aug. 10, 2014 by Morphy Auctions. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

His later books, such as The Lorax, used more colors. Geisel’s style was unique – his figures were often “rounded” and somewhat droopy, like the faces of the Grinch and The Cat in the Hat. Almost all his buildings and machinery were devoid of straight lines, even when he was representing real objects. For example, If I Ran the Circus shows a droopy hoisting crane and a droopy steam calliope.

Geisel’s illustrations often conveyed motion vividly. He was fond of a kind of “voilà” gesture in which the hand flipped outward and the fingers spread slightly backward with the thumb up. This motion was done in the introduction of the various acts of If I Ran the Circus, and in the introduction of the “Little Cats” in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. He was also fond of drawing hands with interlocked fingers, making it look as though his characters were twiddling their thumbs. He was a true original, someone whose artistic style was instantly recognizable.

Four Dr. Seuss limited edition prints, including ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!,’ edition 1506/2500, ‘Oh, The Stuff you Will Learn!,’ edition 995/2500, ‘Hop on Pop,’ edition 188/1500 (shown), and ‘Star Belly Friends,’ edition 576/1500, offset lithographs in colors, each signed in plate lower right, with embossed stamp lower left. Sold for $4,800 at an auction held June 14, 2020 by Clars Auction Gallery. Image courtesy of Clars and LiveAuctioneers

“Dr. Seuss had a tremendous talent for bringing whimsical characters to life,” said Alexa Malvino, a senior fine art specialist with Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, California. “No matter the age of his audience, it’s impossible to not be captivated by his vibrant colors and imaginative designs. The magical works he created under his nom de plume Dr. Seuss, geared for children’s books and drastically different from his work as a political cartoonist, have transcended generations.”

Malvino said Dr. Seuss has been a household name since the 1950s. “He invites his viewers to enter the vast world of imagination where animals talk, landscapes take on other worldly designs, and vibrant shapes and patterns distort illusions of space and time,” she remarked. “To say he was a pioneer in children’s cartoons would be an understatement.”

Signed ink watercolor on paper attributed to Dr. Seuss, image of creature in Pink detailing, unframed on paper, 7 x 9in. Sold for $448 at an auction held April 15, 2020 by the Benefit Shop Foundation. Image courtesy of the Benefit Shop Foundation and LiveAuctioneers

Pam Stone, owner and founder of the Benefit Shop Foundation Inc. in Mount Kisco, New York, described Dr. Seuss’s work as “whimsical artworks and fun to look at.” She said, “For most of us who grew up reading his books, these fantastical creatures, especially the Cat in the Hat, are fun to look at but they go deeper than that. Geisel created these with a serious-minded goal in mind: to teach children how to read, be confident and above all else, to use their imagination. Books like I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! or Oh, The Places You’ll Go are two of his books that first come to my mind, which explore these themes.”

Vince Sarchese of American Antique Auctions in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, said Dr. Seuss’s artistic style is immediately recognized all over the world. “His creative characters and environments function together in a kind of Rube Goldberg world, so playful and joyous but ready to fall apart at any second,” Sarchese said. As an illustrator, he consistently brought his written stories to life – no easy task. He kept children wanting more all the time through his kinetic and iconic characters. His art is whimsical, joyful and sometimes even angry, but always effective. I would rate him as a first-class illustrator.”

Dr. Seuss giclee on canvas, titled ‘Golden Girl,’ signed lower left, numbered 197/375, 36 x 24in, framed 44 x 32in. Sold for $1,845 at an auction held May 24, 2019 by Neue Auctions. Image courtesy of Neue Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Alexa Malvino said Dr. Seuss’s work and imagery have been desirable and sought after since their creation. “Not only have more than 600 million copies of his books been sold, but many of those stories have been made into motion pictures, several in recent years,” she stated. “The art scene has also benefited from his coveted images. Collectable prints, sculptures, and even rare paintings and drawings have sold for astonishing values, at both galleries and auctions alike.”

In fact, Malvino added, one of Dr. Seuss’s highest auction records was the sale of a small original illustration from his book The King’s Stilts, which she said sold for just over $80,000 in 2007. “Today, reproduction works and newly printed ‘limited edition’ series do threaten the market of his works by flooding it, thus driving down prices,” she pointed out. “But, for truly original works, it’s possible the market will never diminish, just as his stories and captivating imagery show no signs of disappearing from American, or even international, culture. As long as his art continues to bring out the child in all of us, it’s likely we’ll always keep wanting more.”

Pair of Dr. Seuss first day covers with Dr. Seuss drawings, signed, from the Cordelia Platt autograph collection. Platt was the president of the United Autograph Collectors Club. Sold for $172 at an auction held Nov. 9, 2019 by American Antique Auctions. Image courtesy of American Antique Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“The market is fairly steady and strong for Dr. Seuss artwork, with original pen and ink and watercolor illustrations being among the most collectible,” The Benefit Shop Foundation’s Pam Stone said. “These works, especially rare and unpublished ones, have brought around $10,000 each in the past. Marker illustrations, often in red and blue, are more commonly seen and, when signed, can bring a few hundred dollars. We sold several such artworks recently, and buyer interest was high among new collectors just starting to get into collecting this genre.”

Vince Sarchese said with children learning to read books by Dr. Seuss and billions of books in circulation, there’s little doubt his original works will continue to increase in value. “The interest has never been higher and has been increasing in recent years,” he said. “I can’t see any decrease in demand on the horizon for the works of Dr. Seuss. His unique style succeeds in making us laugh and think. Just like any other art or antique, provenance and condition are the key to value. The great thing is, small signed works are still affordable, but I wonder for how much longer.”


Alphonse Mucha, a Czech illustrator, painter, and graphic artist, lived in Paris during La Belle Epoque, a late 19th-century era associated with art and gaiety. After years of providing illustrative art to books and magazines, Mucha’s life took an unexpected turn. Legendary screen actress Sarah Bernhardt commissioned him to create an original theatrical poster for Gismonda, a Greek melodrama which she would star in and direct.

Gismonda, Sara Bernhardt, Alphonse Mucha, lithograph, 82 x 26.5”. Realized $8,500 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

As color lithography advanced, Parisian advertising posters became more artful, giving graphic designers a welcome platform in which to exhibit their talents to potential customers. When Mucha’s soft-hued, elongated, goddess-like vision of Bernhardt was released, it caused a sensation. “…Paris woke up on 1895’s New Year’s Day to find the city plastered with this beautiful and hypnotic illustration, but by lunch, all had been removed and taken home by poster aficionados and fanatic Bernhardt fans,” writes Hyperallergic a contemporary online forum offering art perspectives.

At the time, only a handful of avant-garde artists had been creating similar, free-flowing designs. Yet due to a similarity of style, Mucha’s sylph-like maidens set amidst sweeping, swirling natural motifs became associated with those of the emerging Art Nouveau movement. In France, in fact, Art Nouveau became known as le style Mucha. Like Bernhardt, the illustrator had become a celebrity.

La Dame aux Camelias, Alphonse Mucha, La Dame aux Camelias, 30 x 8”, Imp. F. Champenois, Paris , 1896. Realized $13,000 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of Poster Auctions International and LiveAuctioneers

After Gismonda, Mucha went on to create theatrical posters portraying Bernhardt as La Tosca, La Dame aux Camélias, and Medea, knife in hand, towering above her slain son. Although executed in subtle pastels and golds, all are dramatic in spirit and substance.

Concurrently, Mucha produced numerous sets of decorative art posters. The Flowers, for instance, features four sensuous damsels, each amid sprays of blossoming irises, roses, carnations, or lilies. The Times of the Day depicts maidens in natural, sun-lit surroundings framed by flowery, ornamental openwork windows. The Moon and the Stars, on the other hand, shows them free of halos or alcoves, floating dramatically through dark night skies.

Summer, lithograph, Alphonse Mucha, 44.5 x 24.25”. Realized $750 + buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy of Universal Live and Live Auctioneers

The Precious Stones series features four lithe maidens, each with an ensemble in matching amethyst, emerald, topaz, or ruby-hued eyes, robes, hair accessories, and Byzantine-like, halo-effect crescents. The Arts Series, a limited edition on vellum, celebrates aesthetic creativity with maidens and natural motifs nestled in circular alcoves. According to the Mucha Foundation, Dance is personified with falling leaves blown by a morning breeze; Painting, with a red flower encircled by daylit rainbows; Poetry, with an evening star at dusk; and Music with a birdsong at moonrise.

Alphonse Mucha Lefèvre-Utile biscuit company advertisement, designed for display at points of sale, 14 x 20 7/8”. Imp. F. Champenois, Paris. Realized $14,000 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy Poster Auctions International and LiveAuctioneers

Mucha also produced an array of bright, eye-catching advertising posters for Nestle’s Food For Infants, Lance Perfum Rodo, Cassan Fils Printing Works, and railway services in Monte Carlo. He also designed enticing posters advertising La Belle Epoque indulgences like Benedictine Brandy, Moet & Chandon Dry Imperial Champagne, and Le Chocolat Ideal.

Mucha’s designs were also adapted for use in packaging designs, postcards, menu cards, wine labels, and calendars featuring female faces framed by signs of the zodiac. As commissions continued to flow in, he also authored Documents Decoratifs, an innovative, encyclopedic handbook for artists and craftsmen, offering an array of Art Nouveau patterns for personal use. Along with copies of his decorative panels, it contains botanical and figural studies, and his delicate wallpaper, tableware, stained glass, furniture, and jewelry designs.

Alphonse Mucha Postcard, “Laurel,” circa 1901, near-mint condition. Realized $300 + buyer’s premium in 2007. Image courtesy of Jackson’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

In 1910, Mucha, who had long dreamed of painting the history of his homeland, began creating Slav Epic, a monumental series of murals depicting a millennium of mythological Slavic history. During World War II, his canvases were hidden, then languished in storage. In the years to follow, Mucha’s work fell out of fashion.

Mucha’s creations enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, however, when his pre-modern graphic art captured the imagination of free-thinking, 1960s coming-of-agers. Copies of his instantly recognizable posters adorned college dorms across the nation. Some pundits of that period speculated that Mucha’s highly detailed, spiraling images might have been the inspiration for the mind-bending swoops and swirls of post-modern psychedelic art. In examining some of the now-classic designs of rock concert posters of the 1960s/’70s – especially those of San Francisco’s Fillmore West and Family Dog – there is certainly substance to the argument that Mucha was godfather to the hippie-art movement.

Natural vs. Synthetic Diamonds: Spotting the Difference

This lovely set of natural diamond earrings with a total carat weight of 2.40 carats set in 14K white gold sold recently for $10,400. A similar set of synthetic earrings in the same setting would sparkle similarly but sell for a fraction of that price. Image courtesy: Estate Jewelry Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

A diamond is forever, but does it matter if the diamond was recently cultured or one that was produced over millions of years? It may not matter to the heart, but it can at auction.

Natural diamonds are the very definition of elegance and design. Their mystique comes from millions of years of tectonic pressure and powerful volcanic activity. However, there are other much newer options that symbolize everlasting love.

Natural Diamonds

The way a natural diamond reflects natural light is bedazzling. A rainbow of sparkling color is a natural expectation from the exquisitely handcrafted facets of a cut diamond. But what is a diamond, anyway?

Scientifically, any diamond is grown as a tetrahedron, eight triangle-shaped facets that grow from the center outward in a flat square pattern of nothing but hard carbon and tectonic pressure. This pressure deep within the earth’s crust creates the diamond, but volcanic activity “pushes” them closer to within 100 miles of the earth’s surface in kimberlite magma pipes where they are mined, sorted and processed into natural diamond jewelry. The total time from pressurized carbon to “I do” is several million years.

This sterling silver with large 2.25 carat synthetic white diamond pendant sold recently for $50 , considerably less than if it had been a natural diamond. Yet from a distance, its cut, carat, clarity and sparkle rivals that of a natural diamond. Image courtesy Greenwich Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Synthetic Diamonds

Once natural diamonds were revealed to be nothing more than compressed carbon, by Antoine Lavoisier in 1772, attempts to recreate the natural process to form synthetic diamonds were underway. It would take nearly 200 years and numerous attempts around the world to replicate the process to the point that the resulting product was acceptable for commercial or industrial use.

The most economically feasible process to create synthetic diamonds was developed by General Electric (GE) in the 1950s. The process known as High Pressure and High Temperature (HPHT) begins with a diamond “seed” placed within metallic material which is then subjected to very high pressures and high temperatures. This slowly builds up diamond carbon around the natural seed, somewhat similarly to how a natural pearl germinates, producing one synthetic diamond over a period of about a month.

More recently a Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) process was developed that uses low pressure and high temperature. Carbon-based gas such as methane or plasma is pumped into a closed vacuum chamber where a microwave beam then breaks down the carbon molecules. The carbon falls over a panel of multiple diamond seed plates over a month or so slowly building up to create more than one synthetic diamond at a time.

While both processes produce properties that are visually similar to those of a natural diamond, they are so significantly different from each other, and from natural diamonds, that close examination of their atomic structures can easily determine their origin. HPHT diamonds will show a yellow octahedral and blue flat cube structure known as a cuboctahedron, while a CVD synthetic diamond structure features a flat square structure with usually a dark brownish edge of graphite that has to be chemically removed. Neither type displays the octahedron or eight-sided triangle structure of a natural diamond.

How to Quickly Tell

Just looking at a diamond will not necessarily tell you whether it is natural or synthetic. However, there are simple tests that any gemologist can quickly perform to identify the differences through coloration, inclusions, and stress patterns.

According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA.edu) color variations help to identify diamonds in different ways. While natural diamonds can show some uneven coloration, HPHT synthetic diamonds will show mostly uneven coloration when both are viewed under either magnification or an immersion test. CVD synthetic diamonds show no uneven coloration at all. Under ultraviolet light, natural diamonds will fluoresce blue and yellow; while synthetic diamonds fluoresce in green, yellow green, yellow, orange or red.

Inclusions are an important aspect of diamonds, whether natural or synthetic. Natural diamonds feature bits of dark carbon embedded within the diamond. HPTP synthetic diamonds will also reveal dark inclusions, but these are remnants of the metal flux used in its production. Because they are metallic, they can sometimes be attracted by a handheld magnet, where natural carbon will not. CVD synthetic diamonds are manufactured with no inclusions.

Under magnification, natural diamonds will feature a “strain pattern” usually observed as a crosshatch, mosaic, or of different striations of colors that clearly demonstrate geological pressures evident from its natural creation. Synthetic diamonds show no stress patterns at all.

Other Diamond Types

There are other diamond types that form part of the gem industry classifications as well.

Within a large collection of smaller diamond stones such as are seen in this lot weighing 10 carats, there might be a mix of natural and synthetic diamonds, especially if the stones are 0.2 carats (11 mm) known as melee. There is no standardized test to sort out the difference just yet. Auction price: $1,000. Image courtesy: Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

Diamond Melee  

The term melee is used to describe smaller brilliant-cut natural diamonds as well as all small synthetic diamonds. They are used to embellish mountings around larger gems and are categorized as usually weighing about 0.2 carats (about 11mm). Because of their small size and cut in much larger quantities, determining whether they are synthetic or natural is time consuming. A cost-effective test has yet to be devised. A mix of natural and synthetic melee in a commercial packet of 100 diamonds is not unusual.

Diamond Simulant

Once diamonds were able to be replicated in a laboratory setting, a number of diamond-like substitutes were developed. Cubic zirconia, synthetic moissanite, Yttriam Aluminum Garnet (YAG), synthetic spinel, synthetic rutile, and strontium titanate easily replicate the clear brilliance of natural diamond, but at a fraction of the cost. While they have a similar appearance to natural diamonds, they have very different chemical and physical properties that can be readily identified by using a thermal tester, which won’t work with synthetic diamonds.

These 10K gold earrings are set with a quarter-carat (total weight) of irradiated blue diamonds. The “enhanced” melee diamonds are still diamonds, but the change in color reduces their overall value. They sold for $295. Image courtesy World Jewelry Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Diamond Enhancement

Neither completely natural nor completely synthetic, a natural diamond can be treated to cover or repair noticeable flaws. Drilling to remove obvious inclusions, filling in cracks, changing or enhancing the natural color through irradiation or even changing the color completely are a few ways to improve the commercial appeal of a natural diamond. Once it is disclosed that it is an enhanced natural diamond, the auction value is much lower than that of a natural diamond.

Values of Diamonds

The value of all diamonds, in any format, is still certified by the 4 Cs: color, carat, cut and clarity, not necessarily in that order. Grading each natural or synthetic diamond is still important, especially for auction and resale.

There are several well-respected diamond-grading certifications available from the American Gem Society (americangemsociety.org), the Gemological Institute of America (gia.com) and the International Gemological Institute (igi.org). While each has their own specialty, they will all evaluate and certify both natural and synthetic diamonds.

Retail prices for synthetic diamonds were higher than natural diamonds only about three years ago, according to the gem industry experts. That’s because manufacturing synthetic diamonds was very high, but innovations have begun to lower the manufacturing cost dramatically so now natural diamonds have a higher retail value overall. But what about resale value?

Natural diamonds may lose at least 50% of their retail value when it comes time to sell to a dealer. Even so, natural diamonds never quite lose their value and, in fact. rise over time at a steady rate, while synthetic diamonds never do, according to the diamond industry.

The resale value of synthetic diamonds isn’t very high if at all. “Lab-created diamonds have no resale value,” says a recent article by Michael Fried titled Lab-Created Diamonds: Prices & Value for diamonds.pro, a consumer-oriented industry website. While that may be true when you want to sell to a dealer, recent auction values show a healthy interest in synthetic diamonds, if not for investment then at least to affordably complement special occasions. “The basic question is, are you willing to sacrifice long-term value for short-term bang for your buck?” asks diamonds.pro.

Another consideration is whether the gem industry is able to confidently identify and heavily restrict “blood or conflict diamonds” that consumers don’t want to acquire. A synthetic diamond just might be a safer alternative to the ones mined and sold by murderous militia.

So, whether your goal is simply to make a sparkling personal statement or you’re planning to make it a lifetime deal after exchanging heartfelt “I do’s,” be assured that there’s a diamond for that.

Murrine glass: masterpieces by the slice

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Artists and Artistry

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

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

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

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

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

Japan’s Leonard Foujita became toast of Paris art scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Persian miniatures illustrated historic manuscripts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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