Mickey Mouse cels animate collectors

NEW YORK – Animation art has long been a popular collectible and is a great way to physically preserve a piece of one’s childhood. Among the earliest examples are production celluloids (cels) for Walt Disney animation movies, especially prewar film shorts starring Mickey Mouse.

The 1928 cartoon short, Steamboat Willie, for example, is notable in animation history as being the first film to star Mickey as well as the first cartoon to have synchronized sound. The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., has in its collection an original cel from Steamboat Willie, though it is not on public view. Cels were thin transparency plastic-like sheets that studio animation artists painted characters upon, which they then superimposed on a static background to cut down on how many reproductions were necessary to create a moving image.

An original production cel features Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice wearing the magic hat and with brooms in Disney’s 1940 feature film ‘Fantasia.’ The cel fetched $17,000 in December 2014 at Profiles in History. Photo courtesy of Profiles in History and LiveAuctioneers

Cels would be stacked and like a flipbook, the character would thus be animated to create movement. Many cels were required for even small movements so this was a tedious and time-consuming process.

Disney used this traditional style of animation in movie making for decades until digital animation became the standard in 1990 with the film, The Rescuers Down Under, the first Disney film to use a digital animation system.

This early production cel of Mickey and Minnie Mouse dancing comes from Mickey’s first official color film, ‘The Band Concert,’ circa 1936. It made $3,025 in August 2018 at RR Auction. Photo courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Made of cellulose nitrate, cels are fragile and over time, they were subject to shrinking, discoloration and damage. Some have been lost to history but in the late 1930s and early ’40s, many were collected, preserved and exclusively licensed for sale by Courvoisier Galleries, which saw these works as valuable art. At the time, the gallery was selling cels for about $5 to $35, with prime examples priced at $50. “Guthrie Courvoisier, president of the highly esteemed Courvoisier Galleries in San Francisco, was aware of Disney’s escalating reputation, and saw vast opportunity in it,” according to the Walt Disney Family Museum website.

A rare 1934 ‘Two-gun Mickey’ original black-and-white nitrate production film cel earned $13,800 in November 2015 at Hake’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions

What makes one cel more valuable than another is partly subjective, owing to a collector’s individual tastes, and partly determined by factors like rarity, condition, what the character  (Mickey, for this article) is doing, how he is posed (driving a steamboat, dancing or sitting, for example) and which film or cartoon short the cel was created for.

“Mickey Mouse has such a long and storied history when it comes to film that you can literally go in just about any direction when it comes to collecting original animation,” said Alex Winter, president of Hake’s Auctions in York, Pa. “Certainly the more expressive or unique the image, the more appeal it will have visually to collectors. When it comes to shorts, personal preference is key as to what your favorite Mickey images are to collect.”

Mickey Mouse is pictured on this production cel in one of his most famous roles as the sorcerer’s apprentice in ‘Fantasia.’ Photo courtesy of Profiles in History and LiveAuctioneers

As a general rule, the earlier the short, the more desirable and rare, he said. “Much like collecting comic books or sports cards wherein the first issue or the first year tends to be the most sought after and valuable, Mickey cels from his first black-and-white shorts fall into these same parameters. Of course, there are other shorts from later years that are fan favorites and command serious collector interest as well. The other thing you have to consider is if you just want a cel or if you want one with a production background. A full cel setup is the ultimate, but it also comes with a much higher price.”

This original production cel from Disney’s 1935 ‘Mickey’s Service Station,’ depicting Mickey Mouse and Goofy, attained $98,587 at Heritage Auctions in July 2014. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Museum-quality early cels starring Walt Disney’s favorite rodent can bring big money. In July 2014, Heritage Auctions sold an original, unrestored production cel and master background from Walt Disney’s 1935 short, Mickey’s Service Station, which starred Mickey Mouse and Goofy, attained $98,587. The film is notable as it was Mickey’s last black-and-white cartoon. “It’s an extraordinary price for an extraordinary piece,” said Jim Lentz, director of Animation Art at Heritage in a press release written immediately after the auction. “This is really a Holy Grail piece of animation and one of the best I’ve ever seen, from one of the best early Mickey cartoons and one of the very last black and white Mickey cartoons before Disney changed everything by going to color.”

Disney’s south-of-the-border features came out of the 1940 Goodwill Tour of Latin America by Walt Disney. This publicity cel of Mickey as an Argentine gaucho was from that tour. It realized $5,500 in November 2019 at University Archives. Photo courtesy of University Archives and LiveAuctioneers

Whether one is looking for high-end investment pieces or is just a casual collector, there is plenty of room in the market for all budgets and tastes. “It is really about how serious you want to get and what you are willing to spend,” Winter said, adding that the good thing is much Mickey animation has survived over the years (as opposed to some other cartoons) so the options are endless. “You can jump right in and get some wonderful one-of-a-kind pieces for very reasonable prices or start at the top and go for high end animation. Are you happy with just a few very key cels or would you like to have a sample from throughout the timeline of Mickey on the silver screen?”

David Hockney: more than pool pictures

NEW YORK – David Hockney is synonymous with paintings of swimming pools, but throughout his career he has utilized many techniques and styles in creating art and his subject matter interests have ranged from landscapes to portraits. While celebrated as a painter, he is also a talented draftsman, printmaker, photographer and stage designer. From his double-portraits in the early 1960s, which gave way to swimming pools and California landscapes later that decade to rarely shown photographic collages in the 1980s and more recent iPad drawings printed on paper, the artist is known for bold and colorful works encompassing varied media.

David Hockney’s ‘30 Sunflowers,’ 1996, oil on canvas, made $2.2 million + buyer’s premium in May 2011 at Phillips. Photo courtesy of Phillips and LiveAuctioneers

Considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Hockney was born in Bradford, England and has long maintained homes and studios in London and California, which inspires much of his artwork.

In early 2020, London’s National Portrait Gallery opened “David Hockney: Drawing from Life,” the first major exhibition of the artist’s works in two decades. The exhibition explored how drawing is integral to the manner in which Hockney (b, 1937) processes the world through his art and experiments with new techniques and concepts that later make their way into paintings. One art style seems to lead to another, creating a chain of sorts in his oeuvre.

David Hockney ‘Maurice 1998,’ etching A.P. II/X 44 x 30½in © David Hockney. Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt, Collection: The David Hockney Foundation; David Hockney ‘No. 1201,’ March 14, 2012, iPad Drawing © David Hockney. Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

“Drawing from Life” explores Hockney as a draughtsman from the 1950s to now by focusing on his depictions of himself and a small group of sitters close to him: his friend, Celia Birtwell; his mother, Laura Hockney; his curator, Gregory Evans, and master printer, Maurice Payne,” according to a press release on the exhibition.

The exhibition includes new and early works that have not been publicly shown before. The exhibition was scheduled to travel to other museums, including the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

This signed lithograph titled ‘Hotel Acatlan’ went for $67,600 + buyer’s premium in November 2019 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among his most well-collected paintings are his California-inspired works, especially those of pools. The David Hockney Foundation website notes in its chronology for the artist that Hockney found endless inspiration in California’s landscape, both natural and man-made. Swimming pools were a favorite motif during the 1960s, where Hockney explored the reflective quality of pools and its interplay with sunlight. “He continues to be mesmerized, as his work attests, by that city’s swimming pools and other glistening surfaces,” according to the foundation website.

Hockney’s paintings routinely bring solid prices on the art market and it should come as no surprise little surprise that his sun-dazzled pool paintings are among the most desirable.

This 1976 photo portfolio, ‘20 Photographic Pictures,’ with 20 chromogenic prints, published by Editions Sonnabend, brought $60,000 + buyer’s premium at Millea Bros. Ltd. in May 2018. Photo courtesy of Millea Bros. Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Hockney’s self-portrait, one of many, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972, set a new auction record in November 2018 for the most expensive painting by a living artist. It sold at Christie’s New York for $90 million. In February 2020, Sotheby’s London held a contemporary art evening auction that was led by The Splash, a 1966 acrylic, selling for over $28 million. The latter painting was made near the start of Hockney’s California era, which is marked by his California Dreaming series, where he began using acrylic paints.

While portraits and his California scenes are famous for being avidly sought after by collectors, Hockney’s landscapes are also notable, even ones not associated with West Coast locales. In February 2020, William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals in Chadds Ford, Pa., sold an English landscape from the 1950s, Kirton, an oil on board, well over its high estimate for $75,000.

This early landscape oil on board, ‘Kirton,’ circa 1950s, attained $75,000 + buyer’s premium in February 2020 at William Bunch Auctions. Photo courtesy of William Bunch Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In the 1950s, Hockney painted landscapes around Suffolk County before discovering abstract expressionism, which had a profound influence on his artistic visions,” according to the auctioneer’s catalog notes for this painting. Still a teenager at this time, Hockney and fellow artist John Loker were known to have spent some time around Kirton in 1957, on their way to Constable, to paint or sketch local scenes en plein air. They were often seen riding around the countryside on their bicycles.

In his native Bradford, where he was born, he is so revered that Bradford Museums & Galleries, whose art collection likely intrigued and inspired the artist-to-be as a child, officially opened up its David Hockney Gallery in July 2017 as part of Cartwright Hall.

A polychrome pencil and tempera work on paper, inscribed ‘Small Californian Forest,’ realized $66,572 + buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Itineris. Photo courtesy of Itineris and LiveAuctioneers

Jill Iredale, curator of fine arts at Bradford Museums & Galleries, wrote in a blog a month later about the intimate look the new gallery offers and its rare insights. “It provides examples of the different medium he has used and introduces some of the recurring themes in his work, and it gives an insight into his family life through his personal photograph albums—albums that have never been seen in public before,” she wrote.

From his self-portraits to depictions of family and people in his inner circle to idyllic landscapes and color-saturated scenes, Hockney’s works continue to fascinate viewers. In more than 60 years of making art, he has made many memorable pictures, playing with the elasticity of space and time as well as texture, color and light.

Andrew Wyeth: inspired by winter

NEW YORK – Since Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was homeschooled, he spent considerable time alone as a youth. Although his father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, introduced him to figure study, geometrics and watercolors, the young man received no formal artistic training. Nor did he study museum masterpieces.

Instead, Wyeth’s earliest works were inspired by solitary walks in and around his hometown, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. He found the neighboring Kuerner Farm especially inspiring. Through 50 years, he created nearly 1,000 drawings and paintings of its buildings, landscapes, animals and owners—Anna and Karl Kuerner.

‘Cold Spell,’ 1965, watercolor on paper, 19in x 28in, signed lower right: ‘Andrew Wyeth.’ Realized: $200,000 + buyer’s premium on Nov. 1, 2019. Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image

Many of these pieces, like Brinton’s Mill (1958), depict leaden skies above snowy landscapes. “Oh, I love white. Marvelous,” Wyeth said to Richard Meryman in a 1965 Life magazine interview. “My wild side that’s really me comes out in my watercolors—especially of snow, which is absolutely intoxicating to me. I’m electrified by it—the hush—unbelievable … the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter.”

‘In the Orchard Study,’ gouache, watercolor, 1972, signed, sheet size 20½in x 28¼in, overall 32½in x 40¼in. Realized $57,000 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

While wintry works by Wyeth may seem contemplative, moody or melancholy, their composition is often dynamic. In the Orchard Study (1972), explains Claire Fraser, fine art and silver director at Leland Little Auctions, “features a push and pull to the image. The dramatic diagonal of the hillside, broken by the lone figure and the outline of the tree, keep the eye engaged.”

‘Cow,’ pencil, signed, 4½in x 7in. Realized $1,400 + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Kaminski Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Wyeth believed that strong personal associations, when brought to significant images, imbued the artworks with their human spirits. Winter 1946, set near the location his father was killed, for example, embodies such feelings. So may Snow Hill (1989), which depicts personally significant people celebrating May Day in a winter setting.

‘Snow Hill,’ limited edition collotype, signed and numbered, framed 41in x 54¼in. Realized $2,000 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Case Antiques Inc. Auctions & Appraisals and Live Auctioneers

Wyeth was not only solitary, but also secretive. In 1986, he revealed that, for over 15 years, he had surreptitiously drawn and painted 240 intimate images of an attractive woman named Helga. Since no one had known about them, they – and the artist – immediately attracted international attention.

Soon afterward, Wyeth’s wife disclosed that his discretion was not unusual. Through their 46-year marriage, he had habitually left to paint without telling her where he would be. Furthermore, she suggested that his secret work imbued his ongoing, public work with visual and emotional power.

‘Braids [Helga],’ color offset lithograph, 1979, signed and initialed, 9 5/8in x 12 3/16in, edition unknown. Realized $900 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Stanford Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

“Wyeth’s Helga pictures resonate with viewers on two levels,” Fraser explained. “They are fascinating in a gossipy sense; but then viewers can place themselves in the landscape or relate it to their experiences and build their own narratives around the scene.”

Wyeth also drew and painted numerous scenes of Cushing, Maine, the site of his summer home. Christina’s World (1948), one of his best-known works, portrays a handicapped woman from the neighboring Olson Farm, dragging herself across a field “like a crab on a New England shore.” To some, its dark imagery suggests abandonment, loneliness or hopelessness. To others, it symbolizes courage in the face of adversity. Wyeth continued depicting the Olson Farm until Christina’s death in 1968.

Andrew Wyeth painted this watercolor titled ‘Empty Basket on a Sloping Hill’ on the title page of the book ‘Christina’s World,’ by Betsy James Wyeth, published 1982. The work is pencil-signed and inscribed, ‘Painted for Larry Webster with warmest thanks for the great design on this book, Andrew Wyeth.’ Realized: $24,000 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy Clars and LiveAuctioneers

Although Wyeth is often deemed a rural realist, he considered himself an abstractionist. “Most artists just look at an object, and there it sits, ” he explained to Meryman. “My struggle is to preserve that abstract flash – like something you caught out of the corner of your eye, but in the picture you can look at it directly.” To many, his spare images, worked in subdued watercolor, grainy drybrush or egg tempera, reflect not only deep emotion, but also the essence of life itself. In Wyeth’s timeless world, flimsy curtains flutter in the breeze, a sun streak illumines a half-opened door, potted geraniums peek out from a window, and snow flurries caress dry-bone boughs.

As the artist often remarked, “I paint my life.” Today, it touches others.

Diamonds: In Living Color

While most are familiar with the fiery sparkle of clear, colorless diamonds, the coveted gemstones actually occur in all colors of the rainbow.

Diamonds are the product of time and nature. It took an average of two billion years for highly compressed carbon, 90 to 500 miles underground, to form hardened crystals known as allotropes. Then, sometime within the last 100 million years or so, volcanic eruptions deep within the Earth deposited the highly structured crystals in vertical “pipes” of igneous kimberlite. Commercial miners have been extracting diamonds from kimberlite ever since the first major diamond discoveries in South Africa, in the mid-19th century. 

Your diamond ring or pendant tells a great story of creation from stone to symbol of love as it dazzles and throws off light in every direction. But pass a light through a clear, colorless diamond just right and you’ll discover that it reflects all the colors of the rainbow.

Pick a color, any color, and it can probably be seen in a diamond. From the colorless to the darkest black, with variations of color in between, diamonds are hued according to the impurity of chemicals found in the Earth itself.

Colorless diamonds, for example, have no visible impurity apart from small specks of black carbon called inclusions. However, an additional natural chemical impurity and how the atoms are distributed (called “lattices”) can change the colorless into a palette of colorful options. According to the diamond industry, there are 27 different official variations of diamond colors.

A GIA-certified fancy yellow diamond weighing 4.17 carats in a cushion-modified brilliant cut fluoresces a gentle yellow hue. It sold for $50,000 in September 2019. 
Image courtesy Kissing Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

What is a diamond color?

In 1953, the Gemological Institute of America (http://www.gia.com) classified the rarity of polished diamonds based on the now iconic four ‘C’s: carat (weight), how it’s cut, and its clarity. Most diamonds made into pendants, rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and brooches are clear. But even colorless diamonds usually display some subtle shade of color. The more colorless, the more valuable a diamond is per carat. 

To determine a diamond color, a standard grading system was developed that classified an individual polished diamond according to the shade of color ranging from D (colorless) to Z (light color). The closer to grade D, the more colorless it is and the more valuable. How is the color measured? A loose, cut diamond is exposed to ultraviolet light, which measures its “fluorescence,” or the light a diamond gives off. A yellow fluorescence is less desirable than a blue fluorescence, for example, which affects the final value of the cut diamond.

So with all that in mind, here’s a primer on diamond colors, based on information from the Diamond Manufacturers and Importers Association (http://www.dmia.net). 

Red diamonds certified as a “D,” the highest color standard, would be worth millions per carat as they are the rarest diamonds mined. This fancy red 2-carat example is at the far end of the color standard near the “S” range and sold for $37,500 in March 2014. 
Image courtesy Vancouver Island Art Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The fancy color diamonds


These are not actually clear or translucent, according to the diamond industry. They are classified as white diamonds, usually free of additional impurities other than pure carbon called inclusions, which determine its final value. 


Curiously enough, brown diamonds are the most common color of diamonds overall. The lattices reflect the darker brown color. They don’t have the brilliance of the more pastel varieties and were mostly intended for industrial use. However, these ‘chocolate’ diamonds are gaining gaining interest beyond their industrial applications and are being set as a distinctive counterpoint to the more reflective diamonds in jewelry. 


An orange diamond gets its appearance from its high concentration of isolated nitrogen. While pure orange color is very rare, those that have secondary colors such as yellow, brown or even pink are more commonly seen. 


Like orange diamonds, yellow diamonds contain more of the nitrogen atom that fluorescences yellow than other diamonds. The brighter the shade, the more valuable the stone. Lighter shades of yellow that also show shades of green, yellow or even brown are more readily available.

According to diamond sites, values for diamonds in fancy colors can range from thousands of dollars a carat to nearly $50,000 a carat for the very intense color range. 


One of the rarer diamond colors, this 3.5 carat fancy blue, marquis-cut diamond whose “…clarity may be potentially internally flawless…,” according to the auction-catalog description, is set off by a platinum band and baguette diamonds along the band. The ring sold for $1.4 million (hammer price) in April 2013.


The rarest diamonds

Blue and pink are among the rarest diamond colors. Such stones can sell at auction for millions of dollars per carat, depending on the vibrancy of its color.

Other diamonds that rarely appear at auction are gray, purple and green. Green diamonds, for example, are formed from natural exposure to radiation and the formation of lattices. Once found, these diamonds are usually professionally cut and retained as an investment rather than being set into jewelry. 

Black diamonds have an overabundance of graphite that makes the stone rather opaque and particularly rare in a completely dark black color. 

These color diamonds can range in value from $10,000 to several times that per carat depending on the vibrancy or absence of other colors when placed under UV light. 

The most rare of any diamond shade is the red diamond. A pure-red diamond can auction for millions of dollars per carat. Like brown diamonds, the red diamond’s color comes from its lattice construction and not necessarily from a chemical impurity, but is very difficult to find a diamond that is pure red.  

This more-standard “white” diamond shows brilliantly when cut into a heart shape and set in white gold. Its total weight is 1.65 carats. Sold for $4,600 in March 2019.
Image courtesy Great Deal Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

An investment that sparkles

Diamonds are considered a great addition to an investment portfolio. They hold their value, even during inflationary periods, don’t take up a lot of room, and are portable. Yet, diamonds are one of the few investments that can be appreciated aesthetically, as jewelry, rings, pendants, brooches or watch adornments. And they make a lasting personal connection when given as gifts on special occasions. That’s hard to do with stocks and bonds.

Diamonds and ethics

Diamonds are mined in different ways. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) is the international standard for overseeing the import and export of diamonds to severely restrict “conflict” or “blood” diamonds from reaching the end consumer. This terminology refers to diamonds mined in a war zone and sold to finance an insurgency, an invading army’s war efforts, or a warlord’s activity. While the KPCS isn’t always successful, diamonds exported to the United States, the largest diamond market, it has strengthened the diamond trade’s efforts to keep “blood diamonds” out of the marketplace. A retailer should have the certification available to prove a diamond’s source, if asked.

From millions of years as pressurized carbon to a dazzling accessory, diamonds really are “forever.”

Go green for St. Patrick’s Day

NEW YORK — On March 17, everyone gets to be Irish for one day. Created to mark the traditional death date of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival. While it has its roots in religion, today the festival is largely secular and celebratory.

The holiday honors the saint who brought Christianity to Ireland, but it has grown to celebrate the Irish heritage and culture overall. St. Patrick’s Day usually falls during Lent, a period when alcohol historically has been frowned upon, and sometimes it occurs on a Friday, when orthodox Catholics abstain from meat. But often a special dispensation by Catholic dioceses allows drinking and the traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.

This Irish Belleek 5 o’clock tea set achieved $5,000 in January 2015 at Burchard Galleries Inc. Photo courtesy of Burchard Galleries Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

Holiday celebrations are marked by carnival-like parades and festivals and the wearing of the green from shamrock accessories to green clothing. Today, some of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parades are not even in Ireland but in the United States and the holiday has become a global phenomenon. The largest parade is in New York City, which has been held continually every year since 1762, more than a decade before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Given the surge of Irish citizens who settled in New York City, especially after the Great Famine in Ireland, this is perhaps not surprising. Today, New York’s parade has over 150,000 participants.

St. Patricks Day is ripe with traditions, myths and legends. One of the most surprising facts was that Saint Patrick was not Irish but born in Norman Britain to a well-to-do Christian family around the year 385 A.D. He was kidnapped at age 16 and forced to tend sheep in Ireland for seven years. According to the lore, he became highly religious during this time and even after he returned home, he felt a calling to return to Ireland and convert people to Christianity.

A rare Vichy “Paddy and the Pig” mechanical bank sold for $9,000 in September 2018 at Bertoia Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

St. Patrick’s feast day became a celebration for Irish people in Europe by about the 9th to 10th centuries. It was officially added to the liturgical calendar in the early 1600s and became a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics in Ireland. It wasn’t until 1903, however, that St. Patrick’s Day was named an official public holiday in Ireland, largely due to the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act that year.

Customs associated with the holiday include “drowning the shamrock.” According to the Good Food Ireland website, the shamrock, which comes from the Gaelic word, “seamrog” (summer plant), is actually a common weed but was adopted as a national symbol of Ireland. Both its three-leaf and rarer four-leaf shamrock version are said to represent the “luck of the Irish.”

Candy containers are popular holiday collectibles. This composition St. Patrick’s Day figure smoking a pipe made $800 in September 2013 at Pook & Pook, Inc. Photo courtesy of Pook & Pook, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

“There’s no doubt everyone will be wearing a fresh shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s synonymous with the Saint and his feast day,” a blog on the website explains. The shamrock has its roots in the church, with three leaves signifying the Holy Trinity. Drowning the shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day is a historical custom with legend saying that St. Patrick once ordered a whiskey in a bar that came up short. He allegedly told the bartender he had a devil in the cellar that thrived on the bar’s cheating ways and urged him to not cheat his customers. St. Patrick is said to have come back later, only to get a whiskey filled to the brim and proclaiming that henceforth whiskey shall be consumed on his feast day. People would drink the whisky to toast St. Patrick and then either drink the shamrock or throw it over their shoulders for luck.

A large collection of St. Patrick’s Day postcards netted $250 in November 2019 at Merrill’s Auctioneers and Appraisers. Photo courtesy of Merrill’s Auctioneers and Appraisers and LiveAuctioneers.

Green ribbons/hats/pins and shamrocks have been donned on St Patrick’s Day since the late 17th century, and the color has been synonymous with Ireland from the 11th century. The use of the color green even extends to waters and buildings. In 1962, Chicago officials put green dye in the Chicago River green for the holiday. Other cities have lit up skyscrapers and iconic buildings in shamrock green, like The Empire State Building in New York, the Sydney Opera House and Niagara Falls.

Another legend involving St. Patrick, holds that the saint stood on a hill, wearing green clothing, and commanded that all snakes be gone. In reality, given that Ireland is surrounded by cold ocean waters, snakes would never have migrated here.

St. Patrick’s Day would not be complete with a leprechaun. This figural brass nutcracker made $2,750 in June 2016 at Dutch Auction Sales. Photo courtesy of Dutch Auction Sales
and LiveAuctioneers.

Besides corned beef and cabbage, traditional holiday foods include shepherd’s pie and Irish soda bread. McDonald’s even gets in the act, celebrating in 2020 the 50th anniversary of its green-colored Shamrock Shake, which likely has as many fans as haters.

Whether you were born in Ireland or you aren’t but happily put on your “Kiss Me I’m Irish” T-shirt once a year, St. Patrick’s Day offers many traditions to celebrate. If you have the opportunity to visit Ireland, make your way to Blarney Castle near County Cork and smooch to the Blarney Stone (Cloch na Blarnan in Irish), where legend says you will be bestowed with the gift of gab.

Pour some Guinness or a minty shake and, as the Irish toast goes, Slainte!

Harry Potter casts spell on bibliophiles

NEW YORK – Perhaps more so than any other series, the Harry Potter books have woven their magic on readers. They have spawned legions of fans with fond remembrances of midnight release parties and thumbing through dog-eared, well-loved copies. It usually takes several decades for a book to become collectible but these books already rank are among the most desirable to book collectors.

First and special editions are highly prized and the last four books in the series sold about 11 million copies in their first day of release, setting records.

A rare hardback Bloomsbury first edition of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,’ author-signed with misprint of Joanne Rowling on copyright page, attained $120,000 in November 2019 at Hindman, the second highest price ever paid at auction for Rowling’s work. Photo courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

“The Harry Potter phenomena is credited with many things, such as making reading cool again, but I believe it also introduced a generation to the idea of collecting books,” according to a blog by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. The association notes that, while aimed at young adult readers, the books gained a loyal following from adults as well. As a result, many different covers and editions were issued over time with different illustrations used to appeal to more adult audiences. The cover art illustrations of Thomas Taylor and Mary GrandPré were vastly different yet did much to introduce new audiences to Harry Potter.

This American publication of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,’ 2000, features a cover illustration by Mary GrandPré. Photo courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

“Where Taylor’s depiction of Harry waiting for the gleaming red Hogwarts’ Express on a smoky platform 9¾ helped visualize the boy with the lightning-shaped scar for audiences of adults and children alike … Grandpré’s cover for the U.S. book was the first to depict the young wizard in action, chasing a Quidditch snitch on his broomstick with the majestic turrets of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the backdrop,” according to an Observer article.

J.K. (Joanne) Rowling published the first of her seven fantasy novels starring Harry Potter in 1997 with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone through British publishing house Bloomsbury. The book was renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by American publisher, Scholastic and in the film series.

AbeBooks has sold many copies of Rowling’s books at robust prices, including a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that sold for $37,000. The bookseller notes that demand has continually stayed high even though the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published more than a decade ago, in 2007. “One simple guideline to collecting Potter books: anything signed by J.K. Rowling has significant financial value. A book signed by one of the illustrators is much less valuable,” according to the website.

A complete set of all seven UK Harry Potter books signed by the author brought $11,000 in April 2016 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Catherine Payling, director, Books and Prints Department, Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va., said when collecting investment-grade books, the most important consideration is rarity. “The most valuable book of all is the first British edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was published by Bloomsbury on June 30, 1997, and only 500 were printed [most reportedly went to libraries],” she said. “Some of those will have been lost over the years, making it even more uncommon. A signed one will be even more valuable since, at the time, J.K. Rowling was not well known and signed a small number of the books.”

Four U.S. editions by Scholastic of Rowling’s Harry Potter. Photo courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

With all the books, wherever printed, the first edition and first printings are worth far more than later print runs, especially the first book, she said. Later titles in the series were published in huge numbers as Rowling’s fame grew exponentially so they are not rare. There are also Book Club editions on the market, which have little value.

Different hardcover editions were issued over the years. “There are signed DeLuxe editions, which have some value, especially the UK editions,” Payling said. “Again, the first editions, first printings, will be most desirable. In this series, The Prisoner of Azkaban is especially rare and commands a higher price—fewer were printed.” Some of the hardcover first-run copies were released before it was noticed that the copyright page said Joanne Rowling not J.K. Rowling so the “Joanne” versions in pristine condition can go for over $10,000, according to AbeBooks.

“As with all things condition is important, since collectors will prefer a book in mint condition over one that has been handled a good deal,” Payling added.

An uncorrected proof copy of a first edition ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ sold for $11,531 at Bamfords Auctioneers & Valuers in May 2019. Photo courtesy of Bamfords Auctioneers & Valuers and LiveAuctioneers

AbeBooks noted that prices for first edition first printings of the Sorcerer’s Stone (American edition) average $4,000 to $5,000 and can fetch up to $6,500. By the second book, Chamber of Secrets, prices for hardcover first edition first printings were going as high as $9,000, with deluxe editions bringing more if signed. As the series went on, Rowling signed fewer books so those with her signature claim robust prices.

For all those collectors who wish they had been gifted with their own admittance letter to Hogwarts, Rowling’s books continue to delight audiences of all ages.

Ercole Barovier: Murano glass visionary

NEW YORK – Not many companies have been in continuous operation for 750 years, but that enviable claim can be made by the Italian glassworks firm Barovier & Toso, founded in 1295 in Italy as Vetreria Artistica Barovier & Co. The enterprise is still going strong today, with the new name the result of a merger with the Toso family of Italy in the 1930s. Today the company is run by Angelo Barovier, the latest in a long line of Baroviers dating all the way back to 1295. It was Angelo’s father, Ercole Barovier (1889-1974), who left a major mark on the company and the entire glassworks industry.

Ercole Barovier mosaic vase Vetreria Artistica Barovier, Italy, circa 1925, clear glass with mosaic pattern of clear, cobalt, amethyst, and emerald, rim with gold flecking, mosaico vaso Murano. 9½in tall, est. $30,000-$50,000, sold for $112,500 at an auction held Jan. 1, 2018. Nadeau’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers image

Ercole Barovier was born in Murano, Italy, and also died there. He joined the family business as a partner in 1919 and in 1926 was named artistic director. He was more than just a businessman; he was an entrepreneur and artistic visionary. He invented the “heat coloring without fusion” technique and from the late 1920s until his retirement in 1972 he personally designed every significant glass object produced by the company – a portfolio that boasted over 25,000 designs. Ercole Barovier lights, glass and designs can be found in major museum collections worldwide.

Beginning in 1933, Barovier designed a number of vessels with unmelted pigment dispersed in thick, clear glass as decoration. In these, he incorporated references from nature, history and contemporary art – evidence of his genius. Embellished with expressive hot-work applications, some of his creations had soft organic forms inspired by sea life and the ever-changing effect of light on water. His A Mugnoni, Medusa and Lenti series share this naturalist aesthetic, combined with the feeling of monumental sculpture most associated with the late Italian Novecento style.

In the 1950s Barovier’s interest in ancient glass and primitive objects became apparent in the series Barbarico, Aborigeni and Neolitici.  During this time period, Barovier also made poetic reference to design motifs from classical antiquity through the use of tightly controlled geometric patterning resulting in the series Moreschi, Dorico, and Argo. The Intarsio series was composed of clear and brightly colored glass tesserae and shows the influence of Op-Art. Barovier’s many bestowed honors included being named Cavaliere del Lavoro by the Italian government in 1954.

Ercole Barovier Murano Venetian glass wedding studio art glass vase with a pinched gourd design with spotted panels of blue among flecks of gold all cased in clear glass, reminiscent of Native American wedding vessels, unsigned, 10¾in tall, good overall condition, est. $500-$1,500, sold for $2,880 at an auction held Dec. 12, 2018. Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers image

So what is it about Barovier that explains the man’s success and the company’s longevity? “Color, color and color,” declared Shane Combs of Hill Auction Gallery in Sunrise, Florida. “Ercole Barovier was fearless. He wasn’t afraid to experiment with unknown formulas to create a new and exciting color. His vast knowledge of traditional techniques combined with emerging technological advances in glassmaking made for the perfect storm. Vibrant shades and artistic designs were executed with precision and elegance unsurpassed by many of his industry rivals.”

Combs said that with the rise in demand for fine midcentury modern furniture, there’s been a steady increase in the demand for decorative accessories. “Well educated consumers are seeking the best examples to accent their homes and as a long-term investment in an often-turbulent secondary market,” he pointed out. “The quiet and deceptively simple forms of Ercole Barovier vessels and their bold colors are perfect for the well curated interior.”

Rare Ercole Barovier Tessere polychrome murrine art glass vase, colorless, cylindrical form with fused murrines encompassing amethyst, teal and blue layered triangles, opal edges of the murrines, with original paper label stating ‘MARIO SANZOGNO,’ circa 1963, 9¾in tall, est. $5,000-$8,000, sold for $18,675 at an auction held Oct. 19, 2019. Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers image

Chase Lanford of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mount Crawford, Virginia, said it’s important to recognize that Ercole Barovier descended from the legendary Barovier family in Murano. “This family had been working in glassmaking for generations before, and were already a well-recognized and respected firm,” he said. “Ercole grew up around glass and, like many in Murano, it was a way of life. I think really what makes Ercole Barovier such a revered artist is he is somewhat of a transitional figure – a studio artist before the movement ever really caught on.”

Lanford said it was Barovier’s unique merger of time-honored technique and the embracing of new technology that allowed him to push the limits of glass making and introduce a large audience to his work. “He also mastered murine construction and mosiac glassmaking, showing people the tremendous scope of color that only glass can provide,” Lanford remarked. “Glass is a medium that shows color in a unique way and Barovier showed the world a new rainbow of color. So, with him being a greatly skilled technician, having a great care of form, and expressing the latter with tremendous mosaics of color, are what brought Barovier such profound success.”

Ercole Barovier ‘Maternity’ series art glass figural sculpture, circa 1933, the stylized figure having a white lattimo glass body, with a blue/green opaque glass skirt accented with gold foil inclusions, 10½in tall, unsigned, est. $800-$1,200, sold for $1,260 at an auction held April 22, 2018. Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers image

Cristina Campion of Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, California, said Ercole Barovier has always been collected by both Italian glass afficianados and interior designers alike for decades, mainly because of his Modernist techniques. “His pieces really challenged and furthered technological advancements in glass making of the 1920s through ’60s,” she said. “One of my favorite examples is the Lenti series, which used clear glass pieces having highly textured surfaces. The large oval glass pieces would be fused together, and the vases often featured beautiful gilt inclusions. This style pairs well with any Modernist home.”

Karen Swager of Brunk Auctions in Asheville, North Carolina, agreed that people are attracted to Barovier’s innovative designs and techniques, developed and revised over his long career. “His work appeals to people on different levels,” Swager said. “Some collectors may seek out pieces from a certain period in his career. Others may be more interested in the technical aspects of his work, but all can enjoy the sheer beauty of the glass.  His art glass creations can be showcased in a room or gallery with fine art and antiques or complement midcentury modern décor.”

Pezzato bicolor glass vase, designed by Ercole Barovier for Barovier & Toso, blue and white tessere fused together, label on base, ‘Barovier & Toso/Murano/21518/Made in Italy,’ 17in tall, est. $4,000-$6,000, sold for $16,640 at an auction held May 17, 2019. Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image

With regard to market demand for Barovier’s work, Swager reviewed his auction records and determined the demand has been fairly consistent for the last five to ten years. “His early works from the Primavera series can bring record prices well over $100,000, but his later pieces from the 1950s and 1960s seem to bring more in $5,000 to $20,000 range,” she said. “The Pezzato bicolor vase we sold in May 2019 hammered at $13,000 with an estimate of $4,000-$6,000. In most cases, conservative estimates for Barovier’s glass have achieved higher results as I did notice some passed lots with steeper estimates. Like so many things in the antique and art markets, I suspect values for the rare and exceptional Barovier works will continue to climb and values for later examples produced during his career will continue to hold.”

Cristina Campion at Clars said that Italian Modern Design overall today is very popular. “Furniture designers such as Gio Ponti and Ico Parisi are quite collected,” she said. “As a result of this, Ercole Barovier’s pieces are highly sought-after as well. While styles may change over time, similar to the stock market, I foresee that renowned glassmakers like Barovier will always retain their inherent value.”

Ercole Barovier bowl, Italy, 1957, glass tesserae, iridized transparent glass, Incised signature and date to underside: ‘Ercole Barovier 1957,’ 3½in tall, est. $7,000-$9,000, sold for $13,000 at an auction held May 23, 2018. Wright and LiveAuctioneers image

Shane Combs at Hill Auction said the rarity of early Barovier glass has been underappreciated for years. “The rising demand for his early innovative pieces using mosaico or murrine construction are seeing record setting prices when presented at auction,” he said. “We’re likely to see rising prices for average pieces as the market expands. Museum quality examples are likely to emerge from estates as popular culture catches on to the trend.”

Mexican retablos: divine folk art

NEW YORK – When Spain colonized Mexico (which included parts of the American West) in the 1500s, they not only expanded their empire and reaped riches. They also introduced Roman Catholicism to the native population.

Along with crosses and rosaries, Franciscan friars imported santos retablos (sacred tablets) hand- painted devotional panels featuring sacred images. Small ones adorned portable altars, for use in travels. Larger, lavishly gilded ones backed permanent church altars.

Finely painted retablo on heavy gauge tin depicting the Christ Child as El Nino de Atocha, set in a beautifully worked tin nicho presenting a rosette in repousse on the scalloped pediment with cut and repousse adorned tendril-shaped attachments to either side, as well as hand-painted glass panels depicting leafy festoons of blossoming flowers in the frame and over the image. Sheets of patterned gold foil were placed behind the glass frame panels. The tradition of the child may be traced back to Atocha, a suburb of Madrid, following the Moors’ invasion, where pious prisoners were said to have been visited and nourished by a young boy dressed as a wandering pilgrim. Because of the miraculous nature of the child’s appearance and bountiful offerings, it is accepted that he was a manifestation of the Child Jesus. He is shown in his traditional capelet and brimmed hat, with a traveler’s staff in his left hand and a basket of bread in his right. Size: 13¼in x 6 7/8in, 19th century Mexico. Realized $500 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Within a century, retablos evolved into small, personal sacred paintings, reflecting humankind’s age-old desire to communicate directly with the Divine. According to Gloria Fraser Giffords in Mexican Folk Retablos, early ones, executed on canvas or copper, usually featured refined images worked by academically trained artists. Depictions of the Virgin Mary, God the Father, Christ, the apostles, martyred saints, and archangels were most common. These are highly valued by collectors and museums alike.

By the early 1800s, however, devout, untrained, provincial artists painted holy images on small, inexpensive, tin-plated iron sheets. Their humble works, commissioned or made in bulk, were beloved by the poor. They not only figured publicly in prayers for abundant harvests and healings, but were also displayed in churches, shrines and private homes.

These bright, simple, stylized designs were likely copied from imported engravings, woodcuts, and church artwork. Since most of the poor could not read, holy images are characterized by what they traditionally wore, what they carried, as well as tools of their trade.

San Mateo (Saint Matthew), patron saint of accountants, tax collectors and bankers, for instance, often appears with open ledgers, quill and ink wells. Archangel Michael, patron saint of soldiers, mariners, police officers and paratroopers, battles evil with a fiery sword. Archangel Rafael, patron saint of travelers, the blind and the ailing, along with a vial of healing balm, clasps a walking staff.

A polychrome retablo, San Rafael, circa 1885, oil on tin, framed. Some rust and oxidation to the surface. Scattered minor paint loss and surface abrasions throughout. Nail holes along the upper center and lower edge, 14in x 11in. Realized $2,500 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy John Moran Auctioneers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

As most santo retablos were derived from copies and copies-of-copies, many eventually lost original detail or became solely decorative in nature. Few were signed. Yet certain shared technical or artistic styles suggest creation by particular families, workshops or individuals. Those primed with reddish clay or burnt-sienna paint, featuring figures with heavy-lidded eyes and finely shaped hands, for example, are known as “red bole” retablos. Those depicting simply designed Virgins in minimal pastels are commonly attributed to the anonymous “Skimpy Painter.”

This Mexican tin retablo depicting San Mateo (St. Matthew) is attributed to Agustin Barajas, also known as the ‘Skimpy Painter,’ who also embellished the beautiful composition with the saint’s name, circa 1885. Size: framed 15¼in x 12¼in. Realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Those depicting saints with pouty, “bee-stung lips” are commonly attributed to “Bee-Sting Lips Painter.”

Fine 19th-century Mexican folk retablo created by Concepcion Avila, also known as the Bee- Sting Lips Painter, portraying the Archangel Michael fighting the forces of evil. The retablo is fitted to a custom wood mount and wired for suspension, 10.25in x 7.125in. Realized $950 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

(Some now believe these artists were, respectively, Agustin Barajas and Concepcion Avila.)

Ex-voto folk retablos, like santos retablos, were also drawn on small tin sheets. Some, depicting soldiers, matadors or circus performers, for instance, request heavenly protection from danger. Others request specific blessings like safe stagecoach travel, healthy chickens or rain in the dry season.

Ex-votos were also commissioned by survivors who overcame life’s tribulations – anything from morning hangovers, lost love, broken farm machinery and sewing machine mishaps, to dramatic injuries or illnesses – through Divine Intervention.

Sewing Machine Mishap Ex-voto, Mexico, 1931. The narrative of this ex- apparently a bit too curious, unfortunately experienced on Nov. 4, 1931. See the central image of Ofelia getting pricked by a needle while using the sewing machine. Her mother Eulalia D. Villagomes, in a prayerful attitude on the left, invoked Our Lady of Guadalupe, depicted in detail on the right, to come to the church of Cerrito del Coatepe Harinas and bring her child to a healthy state without any suffering. In gratitude for this miracle, she dedicated this retablo. The inclusion of the sewing machine is charming and reflects the introduction of the early modern Machine Age to Mexico. Size: 12½in x 8¼in. Realized $475 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Each portrays the heavenly being who performed the miracle, hovering above a depiction of that event. A short narrative, often penned in regional, tricky-to-translate Spanish, follows. These unique, public tokens of gratitude were generally placed near shrines or in churches.

An unusual example, dated 1883, reveals how a man (in an impeccable gray suit), while falling from a hot air balloon 170 meters above the earth, was saved through his wife’s prayer, “invoked with true heart,” to Our Señora of San Juan (Blessed Mother Mary).

Woman at Gunpoint ex-voto, Mexico. A particularly dramatic ex-voto painted on heavy gauge tin. The composition presents a finely dressed man pointing a pistol at a woman. The ex-voto is dedicated to Santo Nino de Atocha depicted in his traditional pilgrim attire at the upper right. Size: 12¼in x 7½in. Realized $950 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Another, roughly translated, reads, “I dedicate this little retablo to Santo Nino de Atocha (Christ Child) who saved me from my husband who wanted to kill me, because evil tongues had told him gossip about me. Erminia Romero Mexico 1912.”

Since ex-votos were created by the thousands, many were traditionally discarded to make room for more. Yet scores survived. Artemis Gallery, explains Sydelle Rubin-Dienstfrey, fine art specialist and manager of its research department, currently sources them from galleries, art dealers, and private collections across the country and abroad.

“Many find their religious iconography or their folk art aesthetic appealing,” she adds. “Others find their narratives of family tragedies or expressions of gratitude for cures or good fortune intriguing. Collectors always love it when a piece has a fabulous story to tell.”

Chess sets enable bloodless battles

NEW YORK – Two armies with one objective; the total surrender of the other. One move by your opponent equals another move by yours. Centuries in the making, chess is where kings and queens are always triumphant, until they’re not. It just depends on the moves and it’s not always so black and white.

In sixth-century India a competitive board game played by two people called chaturaṅga was introduced, although its origins may predate it to the third-century B.C. This military game included pieces representing a player’s military strength and its command structure from the king, his infantry, cavalry and even its mobility in the biggest advance in military technology, the chariot. Each piece had specific strategic importance and were quite lifelike showing the visage of a king, the troops and even horses and elephants. You moved specific pieces a certain number of spaces based on throwing a die. The object, then as it is now, was to capture or isolate the king.

Fashioned from ruby, lapis lazuli, quartz, obsidian, gold, mahogany and inlaid with zebrawood, this chess set is a unique example of history, art and fashion that sold for $162,500 (inclusive of a 25% buyer’s premium) in 2013. I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers image

Within 100 years, the game of military strategy was being passed along trade routes such as the Silk Road to Persia, where it was known as shatranj, to Russia along the Volga-Caspian trade route, where it was known as shakhmaty, then along the entire Arabian Peninsula. Since Islam doesn’t allow representation of people, the pieces became less lifelike and more of an abstract design. With the conquest of Spain by the Moors in the 10th century, the board game was introduced to Europe where the abstract design became more representational once again.

Changes in play

At first, a game of chess would be played for days. By the 14th century, the queen and bishop pieces were introduced. Pawns replaced the original military troops and their moves enhanced to two spaces rather than just the one. A die that was initially intended to add a bit of gambling to the game had long been lost and now only the individual pieces and their moves mattered.

By the beginning of the 16th century, the rules that we understand them were becoming standardized, but it still took hours for players to make a move. So, with exhibition chess becoming commonplace by 1834 a timer was added in 1861 to speed decisions along and games became quicker, not lasting for days, but usually in hours. A new competitive sport was born.

This hetian jade chess set show representational warrior figures of the Ming Dynasty that were not unusual for the 15th century when it was carved by hand. It sold for $100,800 (inclusive of a 26% buyer’s premium) in 2019. Empire Auction House Inc. and LiveAuctioneers image

The Pieces Change

The change of play over the centuries is important to collectors because of the types of pieces used throughout its evolution. Early on, the individual pieces were made of materials usually available in the area it was played. In China and India, for example, ivory was a preferred material. In Africa, carved wooden pieces of ebony and boxwood were more prevalent. Europe produced more manufactured variations after the Industrial Revolution. While the material used was indigenous, the pieces themselves were at times noticeably carved with different representations and different names for the king, queen, chariot, footman and even bishop.

By 1849, though, a more standard set of pieces was needed for international exhibitions. Nathan Cook, an architect in London, redesigned the chess pieces to imitate classical Greek, Roman and Italian architectural details such as balustrades, pediments, and columns. The horse head for the knight, for example, may have been inspired by the chariot of Selene, the Moon Goddess as part of the Parthenon, as the story is told. This is the chess set that became standard.

Curiously, this redesign of all of the chess pieces is named for Howard Staunton, an influential authority on chess who organized the first international chess tournaments beginning in 1849. Today, the Staunton Chess Set, as it is known, is the only standard allowed for international play.

Collectible Types

Before 1849, though, there were other versions of the chess set, some more unusual than the next. The most popular sets include the Calvert English chess set that featured more of a finial design popular from 1790 to 1840 that were made and sold by chess dealer John Calvert. The English Barleycorn chess set used unique carved bone for the white pieces and colored red bone for the dark pieces and was popular from 1820 to 1850. The Northern Upright chess set was popular from 1840 to 1860 where the pieces were rather slim and considerably top heavy, but it’s design was similar and may have inspired the Staunton design.

The Staunton chess set features the standardized pieces for international tournament since 1849 when architect Nathan Cook named his design for the influential early chess master Howard Staunton. This complete set of carved wooden pieces sold for nearly $130 (inclusive of an 18% buyer’s premium) in 2018. Soulis Auctions and Live Auctioneers image

Even after standardization, chess pieces can still be found in all manner of geometric, representational, colorful, ornamental patterns. Historic battles can be refought with Civil War-inspired sets or imaginary contests in the Harry Potter, Star Trek or even professional wrestling patterns. Regional chess variants in Asia, the Americas, India, the Russian steppes, and the foothills of the Himalayas will always fascinate and inspire the competitive spirit.

Different materials are routinely used for chess pieces, too. They are carved from stone, wood, ivory, bone, onyx, jade and mother-of-pearl, molded from ceramic, glass and colorful plastic and even brightly lit by electronics and LED lights. Gold, silver, platinum and other precious metals have been made into highly valued chess sets on occasion.

Another variant of the chess board is this three-dimensional version based on the ‘Star Trek’ franchise in which moves are played on three separate tiers instead of the standard checkerboard. Franklin Mint released the set in 1994. It sold for $180 (inclusive 20% buyer’s premium) in 2018. B.S. Slosberg Inc. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

But don’t overlook the variants of the chess board itself.  While the 8×8 black and white chess board predominates, there are also boards that are hexagonal, multi-level, circular, 16×16 squares, rhombic and even a masonic version. According to Wikipedia, there are about 2,000 different chess boards available to create a unique collection all by itself.

Going to “war” has never been more enlightening than a game of chess. Whatever the age, strategy and conquest never gets old. Can the king survive? That’s a question that has been answered each time chess has been played for at least the last 2,000 years.

Damien Hirst – rich, famous … and shocking

NEW YORK – It’s almost a cliché that an artist needs to die before he or she can be accorded the level of fame – and fortune – they richly deserved prior to their passing. Some lucky artists occasionally do burst through to the art world’s top tier while alive. David Hockney, Jeff Koons, Dale Chihuly, Jasper Johns and Gerhard Richter come instantly to mind. Someone else who certainly belongs to that exclusive club is Damien Hirst (b. 1965), the British artist, entrepreneur and art collector.

How rich and famous is Hirst? Consider this: In 2008 he made an unprecedented move for a living artist when he bypassed his longstanding galleries and sold an entire show – titled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever – at Sotheby’s. It worked – spectacularly so. The sale raised $198 million, breaking the record for a one-artist auction. In 2010, the Sunday Times Rich List named Hirst as the United Kingdom’s richest living artist, his wealth valued at $280 million.

Etching on paper spin art by Damien Hirst, signed and dated in plate, titled ‘Throw it Around,’ sheet size 44in x 36in (framed 49in x 41in), one of a portfolio of 14 spin etchings from an edition of 68 sets, estimate: $1,500-$3,000, sold for $2,356 at an auction held April 22, 2018. Ahlers & Ogletree and LiveAuctioneers image

Damien Hirst was born Damien Brennan in mid-1960s Bristol, England, and grew up in Leeds. He never knew his father, and was raised by his mother and stepfather, an auto mechanic. He was a rebellious youth, with art being the only subject in school that he liked. He attended two art colleges in England and went on to become one of the Young British Artists (or YBAs), a group that dominated the UK art scene in the 1990s. Death became a central theme in his work.

Original marker on paper shark drawing by Damien Hirst, 8½in x 11in, unframed, signed on the bottom, letter of provenance included, estimate: $600-$1,200, sold for $640 at an auction held Aug. 6, 2014. Nico Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image

A natural born provocateur, Hirst became famous for a shocking series of artworks that featured dead animals, including a shark, a sheep and a cow, preserved in formaldehyde and displayed in large, clear display cases. Often, the animals were dissected. The best-known of these was The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (a tiger shark) and The Golden Calf (an animal with 18K gold horns and hooves, which sold at Sotheby’s for $13.39 million).

Spin painting from the Damien Hirst workshop in the UK, no marks, estimate: $600-$1,500, sold for $384 at an auction held Nov. 3, 2019. J. Garrett Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers image

Naturally, many animal rights groups expressed outrage. But Hirst produced less controversial pieces, too, like his “spin paintings” (created on a spinning circular surface) and “spot paintings” (rows of randomly colored circles, made by Hirst’s many assistants). He’s also created medicine cabinet sculptures and pharmacological art such as Controlled Substances Key Painting, and Lullaby Spring (a steel cabinet with 6,136 pills that sold for $19.2 million to the Emir of Qatar).

Not all of Hirst’s artworks have been home runs. In a 2007 exhibition titled Beyond Belief, he unveiled a work titled For the Love of God – a human skull recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds weighing a total of 1,106.18 carats. The piece was modeled after an 18th- century human skull, but the only surviving part of the original was the teeth. Hirst’s asking price was a cool $100 million, but alas, there were no takers. The following year, it finally did sell – to a consortium that included Hirst himself, along with his celebrated gallery called White Cube.

Screenprint in colors with diamond dust by Damien Hirst, titled ‘For the Love of God,’ 2007, signed in white pencil, numbered 702/1000, published by Other Criteria, London, on wove paper, sheet 12¾in x 9½in, estimate: £800-£1,200, sold for £2,800 ($3,640) in an auction held March 26, 2015. Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image

“Hirst is popular because he’s taboo,” said Julie Garret VanDolen of J. Garrett Auctioneers in Dallas, Texas. “The more outlandish his work and behavior, the more interest he generates. The old adage ‘bad press is good press’ applies to Hirst. Take Neiman Marcus. Rumor was the over-the-top retailer would produce garbage bags to sell at holiday time for insane dollars.  It was their schtick and they welcomed the controversy.  Hirst does what he wants and doesn’t fear backlash or naysayers. It makes him a bad boy, and we all know how that goes. Picasso did the same.”

Monica Brown of the Chicago-based auction house Hindman called Hirst “the master of marketing,” adding, “Everything he does, from the banal to the ostentatious, makes headlines. He was very aptly a part of the Sensations show that launched so many YBA’s careers and since then he has thrown himself into the spotlight over and over again, most recently returning to painting himself and documenting it on Instagram. Speculators in the art market wonder: Could he be the next Warhol?”

Inkjet print on glossy wove paper by Damien Hirst, titled ‘LSD,’ signed with black felt tip pen, unframed, 49½in x 42in, estimate: $2,500-$3,500, sold for $7,995 at an auction held March 30, 2015. Auction Gallery of the Palm Beaches and LiveAuctioneers image

Brown said each time Hirst unveils what she called “a new and incredible stunt, such as his Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable – the art market sits up and takes notice, “even if it’s just to cast a critical eye. In true ‘all press is good press’ style, there seems to be something irresistible about Hirst to buyers. The sheer price of his paintings create demand for his prints. And, like Warhol, one could argue that any good contemporary collection would not be complete without a Hirst.”

Garrett concurred that demand for Hirst’s work is “relatively strong, as abstract and midcentury art styles are so popular. Color is in demand, and designers are embracing pops of wild hues, and mixing old and new pieces in risky and fun ways. It’s going to become increasingly difficult to sell pieces that are environmentally controversial, but his other works will remain desirable.”

Damien Hirst, untitled acrylic on paper spin painting, 2002, pencil signed lower margin, signed, dated and inscribed ‘This is one of 100 original spins made for the Aids Community Research Initiative of America,’ 18½in x 15in wide (framed), estimate: $3,000-$5,000, sold for $8,125 at an auction held Nov. 22, 2019. Millea Bros. Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers image

Garrett said signed pieces are going to be critical as the market becomes more saturated with workshop items and knockoffs. “We recently sold a piece from Hirst’s workshop, unsigned, as a total roll of the dice,” she recalled. “It sold because of the sheer chance it could have been a Hirst. The buyer confessed it simply intrigued him and he enjoyed the colors. It was fun; I think that is probably what fans of Hirst like the most – the unpredictability and the fun of it all.”

Art critics haven’t always been kind to Hirst. His 2009 exhibition of paintings titled No Love Lost, Blue Paintings was dismissed by one as “dull” and “amateurish.” The year before, in a Channel 4 documentary titled The Mona Lisa Curse, art critic Robert Hughes called Hirst’s work “tacky” and “absurd.” Still, he’s been lauded for the way he’s galvanized interest in the arts – raising the profile of British art and helping to create the image of “Cool Britannia.” In the 1990s British Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley praised him as “a pioneer of the British art movement,” while England’s sheep farmers ironically were pleased that he’d raised interest in British lamb.