Bamboo, rattan and wicker: firmly planted in history

A set of furniture from Gabriella Crespi’s Rising Sun series – six chairs and two armchairs made from bamboo, wicker and fabric – achieved €41,000 (about $41,800) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy of Piasa and LiveAuctioneers

Bamboo and rattan test the limits of belief. The former is a grass which, when used as a building material, can be stronger than mahogany, while the latter is a vine that can be fashioned into comfortable and stylish furniture. When woven together, bamboo and rattan become a third wonderful material: wicker. These seemingly fragile plants are remarkably versatile, and they are also the stuff of beautiful, museum-quality artwork.

An undated carved Chinese bamboo vase earned $47,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2017. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Bamboo is considered an evergreen perennial of the grass family poaceae.  Genetically, it’s not unlike the grass on your lawn or in nearby meadows. Giant bamboo, a subspecies strong enough for use in construction, is harvested by hand in Asia. It can grow to 30 meters, or nearly 100 feet, at the rate of an inch and a half per hour, making it the fastest-growing plant in the world. As mentioned above, mature bamboo can match or exceed the strength of mahogany. Because it is hollow, it cannot be bent, even under extreme heat.

A mottled bamboo tea ceremony shelf attained $47,500 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $1,500-$3,500 in July 2020. Image courtesy of Cardale Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

More than 600 species of bamboo grow throughout Japan. Traditionally, it has been used for drainpipes and general framing as well as religious and social purposes, such as in tea services (sets) made entirely from the hardy grass. Several dedicated bamboo guilds in Japan are recognized for their artistic works in the organic medium, which extends to musical instruments, textiles and even martial arts.

This set of eight mid-century slat-leg rattan chairs realized $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. Image courtesy of Bidhaus and LiveAuctioneers

Rattan is a vine, or more accurately, a climbing palm of the subfamily calamoideae. Rattan roots itself in the ground and uses spines to attach to trees so it can climb upward to seek sunlight. Found mostly in the wild tropical forests of Southeast Asia, rattan can only be harvested by hand, a task embraced by small, independent farmers. Rattan’s diameter is never more than about two inches wide and it is solid throughout, yet it is as strong as bamboo. The key difference between the two is rattan is thinner and can be bent and shaped when subjected to extreme heat, which makes it suitable for furniture production.

An Hermes Mini Picnic Kelly in osier, aka wicker, adorned with rouge de couer swift leather and palladium hardware, brought $40,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Greenwich Luxury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Wicker, which takes the best qualities of both bamboo and rattan, in used in a myriad of products. Possibly taking its name from the Swedish verb meaning “to fold,” wicker is created by using the outer layer of the rattan vine, known as the cane, to bind the bamboo and the rattan into one piece. Wicker is not a plant in and of itself; it is an ancient means of weaving.

Wicker is only one expression of the strength and beauty of bamboo and rattan. Over the centuries, both plant materials have been featured in paintings, sculpture, carvings, tableware, jewelry and a wide range of objets d’art. 

Japanese literature celebrates the plum, pinecone and bamboo as the ‘Three Friends of Winter’ for their ability to withstand the bitter cold. This blue and white ceramic baluster jar depicting the Three Friends of Winter sold for €11,000 (about $11,200) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Galerie Zacke and LiveAuctioneers

Celebrated in Japanese literature as a symbol for steadfastness, bamboo, along with the pine cone and the plum, is one of the “Three Friends of Winter,” a trio famed for its hardiness during cold winter months. China recognizes bamboo as a symbol of uprightness and celebrates it as one of the “Four Gentleman,” or the four seasons, which also include the plum blossom, the chrysanthemum and the orchid. Bamboo has been a part of everyday Chinese life since antiquity, and is lionized in Chinese poetry as a symbol of personal strength. About 300 species of bamboo appear throughout China, where they are used to create baskets, housing, fences, traditional medicines, and a broad range of household furnishings. 

A rattan monkey sculpture by Mario Lopez Torres earned $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of DejaVu Estate Sales and Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Rattan possesses thorns that make it tricky to harvest, and it is hard to reach as well, growing deep within the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Would-be rattan harvesters must also contend with resident wild animals. Despite these challenges, rattan is relied upon for making mundane goods such as baskets, furniture, incense sticks, walking canes and serving tools. It is also transformed into polo mallets and beaten into textiles that ultimately become clothing.

In addition to their practical uses, there is a thriving contemporary art market for bamboo and rattan sculpture at auction. Sopheap Pich, a former painter, now creates one-of-a-kind pieces for exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum. When an interviewer from theculturetrip.com asked the Cambodian artist why he enjoys working with bamboo and rattan, Pich said, “Making a three-dimensional object is different for me in that I am making something real as opposed to making a kind of illusion on a flat surface … I was concentrating on learning how to build a sculpture and testing my ability to bring something to the finished work.” 

Sculptor Tom Dixon combined rattan and bamboo to create a full-scale wicker Harley-Davidson motorcycle complete with saddlebags. It sold for $950 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Note how the bamboo remains straight and unbroken, while the rattan easily creates round curves, with cane holding the shapes in place. Image courtesy of Billings and LiveAuctioneers

Another contemporary artist who works in bamboo and rattan is Tom Dixon, a Palm Beach, Florida, resident who earned fame for creating a wicker sculpture replicating a full-scale Harley-Davidson motorcycle, complete with saddlebags. The piece is so realistic, it’s easy to imagine yourself donning a helmet, hopping aboard and driving off. 

Hayakawa Shokosai V, a fifth-generation weaver of bamboo and rattan, created this basket and dubbed it ‘Line Constructed Layered Rings.’ It realized $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2018. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Notable artists who have worked with bamboo and rattan include Hayakawa Shokusai I, a 19th-century basket weaver who twisted thin bamboo strands into unique shapes. He also signed his work, a practice his namesake sons and grandsons continue with their own bamboo work. Another well-respected name in this realm is contemporary Japanese artist Tanaka Kyokusho, who juxtaposes bamboo and black accents in forms that reflect the ancient art of bamboo sculpture. 

A pair of Paavo Tynell-designed floor lamps made from rattan, brass and wood strips commanded €71,000 ($72,490) plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of €14,000-€18,000 ($14,295-$18,380) in March 2022. Image courtesy of Piasa and LiveAuctioneers

Depictions of wicker, bamboo and rattan in paintings, haiku, glassware, porcelain and even furniture showcase them as symbols of strength and adaptability that persevere in the most trying of circumstances. The hardy grasses of bamboo and the sturdy vines of rattan endure the hardships inflicted by nature, and we can honor their strength by employing them as renewable resources. 

Whether made from bamboo, rattan, or a weave that transforms the two into wicker, we can all enjoy works made from these plants, no matter where we are from or how sophisticated we might be. 

The Bizarre world of ceramic artist Clarice Cliff

A large, boldly-colored Clarice Cliff vase measuring slightly more than 14 inches high achieved $2,200 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2019. Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

It would be hard to imagine Art Deco pottery without the brilliantly-hued palette of British artist Clarice Cliff (1899-1972). From the tender age of 13, Cliff worked as a gilder at a site in Stoke-on-Trent, England known as “the potteries,” applying conventional patterns to ceramic wares. 

At age 17, the ambitious, working-class teenager relocated to the A.J. Wilkinson pottery works to expand her creative skills. Cliff soon became a modeler, working as part of a team of designers that was otherwise exclusively male. With the support and sponsorship of factory co-manager Colley Shorter – who later married Cliff – she was able to study briefly at the Royal College of Art in London and, later, visit Paris, where she absorbed the Art Deco aesthetic like a sponge. She returned to England with sketchbooks filled with ideas inspired by what she had seen on the Continent.

This Clarice Cliff for Newport Pottery House and Bridge vase with printed Bizarre marks realized £950 (about $1,100) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Kinghams Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

In 1927, the Cliff was granted her own studio at nearby Newport Pottery and was allowed to cover imperfections on defective whiteware any way she wished. She drew bright, daring, triangular freehand designs, dubbing them “Bizarres.”

A Bizarre Clarice Cliff Art Deco teapot achieved $750 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2019. Image courtesy of Ross Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

In the late 1920s, Cliff launched Bizarre Ware, her own line of candlesticks, dinnerware, and service sets for the home, rendered in a vibrant range of colors. Hand-painted by an all-woman team of decorators known as “the Bizarre girls,” these pieces stamped with Cliff’s signature were an immediate success and remained so despite the financial challenges of the Great Depression. Celebrity and royal endorsements, in-store painting events, and media coverage trumpeting her rags-to-riches backstory turned Clarice Cliff into a household name. 

This Clarice Cliff Bizarre Crocus sugar sifter sold for £190 (about $231) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy Hannam’s Auctioneers Ltd and LiveAuctioneers

Many of Cliff’s forms, such as her conical sugar sifters and triangular-handled teapots, were based on fashionable Art Deco elements. Others, such as her Flora wall masques and Cruise Liner vases, were fancies that sprang from her imagination. 

A Bizarre by Clarice Cliff Art Deco pottery jug sold for $2,600 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2019. Image courtesy of Antiques & Art International and LiveAuctioneers.

 Cliff’s more conventionally-shaped biscuit barrels, cream jugs, chargers, jardinieres, vases, serving bowls and water pitchers boast a range of attractive patterns that are unmistakably her own. Some, such as Ravel, a leaf-and-flower motif named for the French composer of Bolero, are angular and abstract. Others, such as the 1928 pattern Crocus, a traditional pattern that was Cliff’s longest-produced design, feature purple, blue, and orange upward brush strokes amid slender green stems. Crocus became the standard dinnerware set for newlyweds and proved so popular, it was followed by variations known as Purple Crocus, Blue Crocus and Spring Crocus.

A Clarice Cliff Age of Jazz figural piece achieved £7,800 (about $9,496) plus the buyer’s premium in August 2016. Image courtesy of
Hannam’s Auctioneers Ltd and LiveAuctioneers

Cliff’s Age of Jazz series, celebrating that era’s exuberant musicians and dancers, represents a rare foray into figurative pieces. Few were made and fewer have survived. When they come to auction, they ignite fierce bidding wars. In August 2016, an example depicting formally-dressed ballroom dancers on a rectangular base achieved £7,800, or about $9,496, against an estimate of £3,000-£5,000 at Hannam’s Auctioneers Ltd. in Selborne, England.

This Clarice Cliff Sunrise Lotus jug with a printed Fantasque mark earned £1,000 (about $1,206) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy of Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

As with her Bizarre wares, Cliff’s Fantasque line showcased abstract and Art Deco-style patterns. The Fantasque Sunrise pattern, a medley of orange, yellow and cream geometrics splashed across jugs, wall plaques and clogs, radiates optimism and sophistication. The Autumn pattern initially depicted blooms in dramatic blacks, greens and corals, but later appeared in variations including Blue Autumn, Red Autumn, and freeform Autumn Balloon Tree motifs. In contrast, Cliff’s Secrets pattern features images of cozy cottages on curving pathways, rolling hills and sandy beaches in natural yellow, green and brown shades.

A Clarice Cliff charger in the Rhodanthe design sold for £140 (about $169) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy of Potteries Auctions Ltd and LiveAuctioneers

Hundreds of imaginative Clarice Cliff patterns were created. Some of the chargers she produced for A.J. Wilkinson display subtly undulating images of rhodanthes, or pink daisies. Her Melon and Circle Tree patterns, which decorated bowls, beakers and jam pots, are graced with plump, Cubist-inspired orbs that have angular geometric accents. The Honolulu pattern, seen on pin trays, napkin rings and a variety of vases, features lush yellow, red and orange-topped trees evocative of a tropical paradise, while Cliff’s paler pink and blue versions evoke Hawaiian sunsets.

Standing 18 inches tall and possibly a unique example, a 1933 Clarice Cliff Honolulu charger made £4,000 (about $4,900) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019. Image courtesy of Cheffins and LiveAuctioneers

Cliff’s Chintz pattern, based on floral motifs popular in England, is marked by large, bright, stylized flowers and foliage in shades of blue, green, coral, orange and yellow with matching banding. Cliff’s Harvest pieces, adorned with appliqued bits of fruit and corn, are perennial pleasers. So, too are Cliff’s exquisite ribbed Raffia Indiana jugs, pots, vases and art pottery, which were inspired by the forms and hues of traditional Native American basket wares.

A Clarice Cliff Blue Chintz Isis jug with a printed Bizarre mark earned £900 (about $1,096) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy of Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Clarice Cliff’s creations continue to enchant new fans on both sides of the Atlantic, as does her personal story, evidenced by the November 2021 release of the film The Colour Room, starring Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor as Cliff. Indeed, she ranks as one of the most significant ceramic artists of the 20th century – a hard-won honor for a determined Brit of humble birth. 

Tiaras: Glittering regalia for crowned heads or commoners

A circa-1910 convertible diamond tiara-necklace in a floral design, made for Phyllis Elinor Turner to wear at her presentation at court prior to her 1913 marriage, achieved £45,000 (about $54,100) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy of Dreweatts Donnington Priory and LiveAuctioneers

The tiara – a glittering, indulgent headpiece worn by royalty or any woman who wants to feel like a princess – calls to mind images from a fairy tale, but this form of jewelry has an ancient origin. It debuted as a symbol of respect and authority for Roman emperors, who would don a wreath or tiara of laurel leaves made of pounded gold. Champions of the original Olympic games were crowned with a tiara of intertwined olive branches and leaves cut from a sacred tree that grew near the temple of Zeus at Mount Olympus. The word “tiara” actually descends from a Persian description of the high crowns and diadems worn by its royal families.

A tiara festooned with at least 18 carats of diamonds, which was worn by Princess Eugenia at her 1938 wedding to Prince Dominik Radziwill, achieved $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

As centuries passed, the tiara slowly became exclusive to elite and noble women, and it evolved into four styles: the bandeau, the kokoshnik, the halo, and the fringe.

The bandeau tiara is best described as a headband designed to hold the wearer’s hair or veil in place. When Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, married Prince Harry in 2018, her wedding veil was crowned with a diamond and platinum bandeau tiara that previously had been worn by Queen Mary, who sited a diamond brooch at its center. The bandeau style can be traced back to a wreath of myrtle leaves and buds worn by brides at ancient Greek weddings. 

A 19th-century silver and gold amethyst kokoshnik tiara realized £1,300 (about $1,500) plus the buyer’s premium in September 2019. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

The kokoshnik tiara is rooted in the medieval-era customs of court officials of the Boyars in Russia, the Baltic States and small Eastern European kingdoms. Their social status depended on the height of the hats they wore, and this rule affected wives and princesses, too. These women signaled their rank and prominence with a large headdress-like tiara called a kokoshnik, which was weighted down with gemstones and diamonds. Today, the kokoshnik can take a smaller, simpler form, yet its distinctive shape and style remains essentially unchangely.

A halo tiara, as the name suggests, completely or almost completely encircles the head of the wearer. The most famous halo tiara of the 21st century was worn by Kate Middleton in her wedding to Prince William, in 2011. A Cartier creation featuring 739 brilliant cut diamonds and 149 baguette diamonds, it was first donned by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1936. She gave the tiara to her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II, for her 18th birthday, but the piece found greater favor with Princess Margaret, who wore it for her elder sister’s coronation in 1953.

The fringe tiara is so named because its diamonds and gemstones are arranged upward in rows, not unlike the fringe of a flag. Queen Mary, a keen collector of jewelry, had a fringe tiara made which Princess Elizabeth – now Queen Elizabeth II – borrowed for her wedding to Prince Philip in 1947. The reigning monarch clearly shows a preference for this diamond fringe tiara, having worn it for numerous official photographs and on state occasions. Its distinctive array of brilliant cut diamonds radiates a sense of sophistication fit for a reigning queen.

A diamond tiara topped with three cabochon emeralds weighing 3.51 carats, 10.76 carats, and 3.28 carats respectively, sold for £16,000 (about $19,200) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Elmwood’s and LiveAuctioneers

Tiaras are exquisite and expensive expressions of the jeweler’s art, but many are built around a surprising secret, one that allows them to transform with ease and grace. 

A Victorian-era 22K gold amethyst jewelry set featuring a tiara, a necklace and a detachable brooch-pin pendant earned $12,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of P.K. Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In the not-too-distant past, a tiara served as the cornerstone of a set of official jewelry worn for state or social occasions. Once the tiara was in hand, it would be matched with a separate brooch, bracelet, earrings and a necklace. This suite of jewelry, called a parure, first appeared at the court of King Louis XIV and soon became an indispensable part of a woman’s wardrobe. Parures were scrutinized as mercilessly as gowns. To maintain her status, the wearer had to have the right design, the right gemstones and the right jeweler. Keeping au courant was difficult in the fast-paced world of the royal court.

This circa-1810 kokoshnik-type tiara parure, offered in its original fitted box, sold for $2,300 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018. Image courtesy of Case Antiques Inc., Auctions & Appraisals; and LiveAuctioneers

Jewelers solved this problem and soothed the social anxieties of their clients by making tiaras convertible. The most ingeniously designed tiaras that could be broken apart into a separate necklace, brooch, earrings and bracelet. The fully-assembled tiara was suited to the most formal occasions, while its component parts could be worn at intimate dinners, parties, family gatherings and semi-official outings. Convertible tiaras delivered a parure, all in one.

A circa-1850 18K gold and silver diamond tiara that converts to a choker realized €8,000 (about $8,100) plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Ansorena and LiveAuctioneers

A notable example of a convertible tiara is the Dutch Emerald Parure Tiara of the Royal Family of the Netherlands. Created in 1899, the royal parure consists of emeralds, natural pearls and diamonds. One tiara can transform into other versions that sport different configurations. 

As you might expect, royal traditions dictate who can wear tiaras, and when. Unmarried girls are forbidden to don them on the notion that youth needs nothing artificial, including gemstones, to compete with its fleeting merits. Only on her wedding day is a high-born woman allowed to place a tiara on her head, and that tiara should be provided by her family. Once married, her husband will give her a new tiara of her own, usually as part of a parure. 

A silver, gold and diamond floral tiara, dating to the early 20th century, achieved £15,000 (about $18,000) plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

Decidedly nonroyal couples of the Victorian era embraced the tiara and the rules that came with it. Husbands presented their wives with parures centered on tiaras as engagement or wedding presents until the practice fell out of fashion after World War I. These 19th-century parures, many of which took the forms of convertible tiaras, show up with some frequency at auction. 

A tiara set with rubies, diamonds and pearls in a series of seven graduated foliate motifs attained £12,000 (about $14,400) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Elmwood’s and LiveAuctioneers

Although you might think a tiara is too fancy for your lifestyle, it delivers practical benefits anyone can appreciate. “Tiaras are unfailingly flattering,” said Claire Scott, head of design for the prestigious British jeweler Garrard & Co. “These mini crowns tend to lengthen necks and straighten backs [and] make even the slouchiest stand taller. It gives you a different feeling, a different posture. That’s something people like. It surprises them.”

Moreover, tiaras need not be made with precious metals and gemstones. They are just as delightful in enamel, coral, onyx or other semi-precious stones.

A white metal tiara sporting more than 20 carats’ worth of diamonds in four different styles of cut sold for $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2017. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

And, because it might need to be said: Yes, every woman deserves to wear a tiara. You don’t have to inherit a title first. You don’t need to be a debutante or a dowager. And you need not be married. Despite their history, tiaras can grace any head.

If you don’t have a tiara of your own yet, don’t worry. Take the advice of socialite Paris Hilton, who suggests that you “always walk around like you have on an invisible tiara.” 

A Mikimoto 18K rose gold and diamond ring, centered on a 13.5mm (0.053in) black South Sea pearl, achieved $6,000 in May 2020. Image courtesy of GWS Auctions Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

Pearls: Gems of the Sea

A pair of earrings set with natural pearls measuring 11.58mm (0.045in) and 11.62mm (0.045in) respectively, achieved £30,000 (about $36,000) in August 2021. Image courtesy of Elmwood’s and LiveAuctioneers

A pair of earrings set with natural pearls measuring 11.58mm (0.045in) and 11.62mm (0.045in) respectively, achieved £30,000 (about $36,000) in August 2021. Image courtesy of Elmwood’s and LiveAuctioneers

At a 2018 Sotheby’s auction, an exquisite pearl and diamond pendant worn by Marie Antoinette sold for $32 million. Naturally, the provenance of the piece influenced the final price, but it’s worth noting that pearls were rarer than most other gems in the doomed French queen’s time, including diamonds. Without the history, though, would the pearl jewelry have been worth as much on its own?

“A pearl is probably the most complex gem to assess,” says gemologist Tom Moses of the Gemological Institute of America in the video series So Expensive from Business Insider.

Moses noted that one reason the Marie Antoinette pearl sold as well as it did was because it was a natural pearl, which ranks as the highest of the three pearl classifications: natural, cultured and imitation. All are beautiful, but some are more precious than others.

Natural Pearls

Imagine you are a mollusk – an oyster, mussel or any type of shelled bivalve – and an irritant enters your shell. You don’t have teeth, claws or other built-in weaponry. Your only defense is to cover the invader, layer by layer, with a calcium carbonate (conchiolin and aragonite) substance you produce, called nacre (NAY-ker), or mother-of-pearl. You keep excreting nacre until the unwanted visitor is completely surrounded and no longer a threat. This irritant also serves as a bead nucleus, eventually growing large enough to become a pearl. The word “pearl” is derived from the Latin word perna, meaning leg – the shape of a bivalve known to yield pearls.

This three-strand rope of 339 natural saltwater pearls by Cartier achieved HK$4.8 million (nearly $612,000) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy of Poly Auction Hong Kong and LiveAuctioneers

This three-strand rope of 339 natural saltwater pearls by Cartier achieved HK$4.8 million (nearly $612,000) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy of Poly Auction Hong Kong and LiveAuctioneers

Until relatively recently, the only way to obtain natural pearls was to recruit a deep-water diver to retrieve them. The work was dangerous and deadly. Some divers attached weights to their feet to speed their plunge to the seabed, where they would gather all the oysters they could grab while holding their breath. They would return to the surface, deposit what they had caught, and repeat the process.

The arrival of the metal diving suit made things slightly easier, but it, too, could prove hazardous if its air hose became disconnected or there was some other mishap that required the diver to be pulled up to the surface. In any event, fishing for natural pearls is life-threatening work with no guarantee of a reward. For every ton of oysters harvested, only a handful of pearls is found.

A natural pearl necklace with three graduated strands earned €145,000 (about $148,000) in November 2020. Image courtesy of Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers

A natural pearl necklace with three graduated strands earned €145,000 (about $148,000) in November 2020. Image courtesy of Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers

This explains why natural pearls are so expensive and why only about 1% of pearls in circulation qualify as natural. In fact, most natural pearls are vintage and almost never appear outside of auction settings. Designers of contemporary pearl jewelry rely on cultured pearls instead.

Cultured Pearls

By the late 19th century, overharvesting of oysters for pearls and food, combined with pollution that resulted from the Industrial Revolution, led to the decline of natural pearls.

This set of Mikimoto akoya saltwater pearl and 18K gold earrings sold for $950 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Bidhaus and LiveAuctioneers.

This set of Mikimoto akoya saltwater pearl and 18K gold earrings sold for $950 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Bidhaus and LiveAuctioneers.

In 1893, Japanese entrepreneur Kokichi Mikimoto filed a patent on a method of creating cultured pearls. By the 1920s, after much trial-and-error and after negotiating permission to incorporate other patented methods in combination, Mikimoto mastered the production of spherical, naturally occurring cultured pearls – a feat that many had thought was biologically impossible.

A Mikimoto 18K rose gold and diamond ring, centered on a 13.5mm (0.053in) black South Sea pearl, achieved $6,000 in May 2020. Image courtesy of GWS Auctions Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

A Mikimoto 18K rose gold and diamond ring, centered on a 13.5mm (0.053in) black South Sea pearl, achieved $6,000 in May 2020. Image courtesy of GWS Auctions Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

The process involves carefully inserting round pieces of organic oyster material or shell, called saibo, into another pearl-bearing oyster or mollusk mantel as a bead nucleus. Thus prepared, the mollusk or oyster is reintroduced into either freshwater or saltwater until it generates enough nacre for the desired size of pearl, which can take between six months to two years. Mikimoto’s approach is still the basis for cultured pearl production, more than 100 years later.

Imitation Pearls

Costume jewelry pearls are usually manufactured from glass, ceramic, shell or even plastic bases that are painted or covered with mother-of-pearl to simulate the iridescent luster of a pearl. They draw little to no interest at auction.

How to tell the Difference

Just by looking at a gleaming, soft, smooth, iridescent pearl from afar, it can be difficult to know precisely what type of pearl it is. Is it a natural, cultured or an imitation pearl?

It is perfectly acceptable to drag it lightly across the surface of your teeth (not the edges, or else you might scratch the pearl) to see if it feels a bit rough and uneven. If it does, it’s either a natural or a cultured pearl. An imitation pearl will have a smooth surface.

This 10K gold and diamond ring featuring Tahitian baroque pearls sold for $550 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of The Benefit Shop Foundation, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

This 10K gold and diamond ring featuring Tahitian baroque pearls sold for $550 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of The Benefit Shop Foundation, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Gemologists use X-rays to determine a pearl’s origin. Natural pearls will show layers of growth, similar to the interior of an onion, with the bead nucleus at the center. Cultured pearls, in contrast, have only one thin layer of growth at the top. Freshwater pearls show no evidence of a bead nucleus, because it will have been completely dissolved.

Imitation pearls lack the heft of both the natural and cultured pearl and are easily scratched. Also, its manufactured covering can peel under the stress of constant use.

What to Look For

Pearls are classified by size, shape, color, luster and complexion and are measured in millimeters, usually from 5 mm (1/16in) to as much as 21 mm (13/16in).

The size of the mollusk will determine the eventual size of the pearl, but the most desirable shape is round, as round as possible. Only about one out of every 15,000 oysters produces a pearl of ideal roundness, according to gemologists.

Freshwater pearls come in a variety of colors, with the best classified as looking more pinkish than greenish, according to pearl grading charts. Luster is key to grading a pearl – it must reflect light clearly. Finally, the complexion of the pearl should be free of dents, ridges, edges or any marks to earn gem-quality status.

A Tiffany & Co., two-strand South Sea pearl, diamond and platinum necklace earned $22,000 in a September 2014 auction. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A Tiffany & Co., two-strand South Sea pearl, diamond and platinum necklace earned $22,000 in a September 2014 auction. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Cultured pearls are classified according to where they were grown. Freshwater pearls are cultivated from margaritiferidae mollusks, most of which are from China, while saltwater pearls come from pinctada oysters primarily farmed in Japan, Australia and the South Sea islands. Neither of these mollusks or oysters are the types we eat, so there’s no risk of accidentally biting into a pearl at dinner.

The smaller Akoya saltwater pearls, which come from Japan, have the highest luster of all cultured pearls and boast a desirable creamy white color. Japanese saltwater pearls classified as Hanadama are certified as having a higher gem quality. South Sea and Golden South Sea pearls are regarded as the rarest of the saltwater pearls. They feature a distinctive creamy silver luster and are cultivated in much larger sizes.

A 14mm (0.039in) South Sea golden pearl pendant was bid to $123,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Pacific Global Auction and LiveAuctioneers

A 14mm (0.039in) South Sea golden pearl pendant was bid to $123,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Pacific Global Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Freshwater pearls began to appear in the 1990s. They deliver more vibrant colors, distinctive shapes, and different sizes than their saltwater counterparts. They are much more plentiful as well. The variety known as the Baroque pearl, for example, has an irregular but pleasing shape, while the keshi or mabe (MAH-bay) pearl has a more flattened appearance, with a so-called “blister” in its center that readily accommodates a decorative gem.

A mabe pearl, sporting its characteristic blister, appears in this 14K gold and diamond pendant that realized $225 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021. Image courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

A mabe pearl, sporting its characteristic blister, appears in this 14K gold and diamond pendant that realized $225 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021. Image courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

The Tahitian pearl is cultured from the black-tip freshwater oyster producing the scarce black pearl. Dubbed the “Pearls of Queens,” Tahitian pearls usually assume irregular, baroque shapes, with perhaps one out of 10 presenting as round. Their colors range from black to gray, brown, green and even purple.

Two perfectly round black Tahitian pearls feature in these diamond dangle earrings that achieved $512,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of 3 Kings Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Two perfectly round black Tahitian pearls feature in these diamond dangle earrings that achieved $512,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of 3 Kings Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Whether natural or cultured, pearls have graced kings, queens and nobles for thousands of years. Pearls have gained even more appeal in modern times for being an environmentally friendly gemstone, the product of a renewable source cultivated in protected, unpolluted waters. They require little interference by man-made methods and provide ample luster without so much as a polish.

Whether acquired for investment, gala nights out or everyday sophistication, pearls possess a serene, magical essence that was reportedly described as “tears of joy” by Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. No matter how pearls are worn, they will look and feel timeless for generations to come. That is Nature’s way.

Roman silver coins place ancient history in your pocket

A circa-294 B.C. first mintage silver argenteus realized $1,900 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Treasures Trader and LiveAuctioneers

The Roman Empire is the longest-lasting in history, spanning the ancient world of 753 B.C. to the Middle Ages of 1453. It influenced the course of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa for more than 2,200 years. Kings, consuls and emperors reigned and ruled as dictators, despots and enlightened heroes, leaving a legacy of language, art, architecture, religion, science, technology and laws that still shape daily life around the world.

All its stories are easily told through its silver coinage which, once touched, leaves a lasting memory of all of Rome’s achievements, failures and influences.

The Seven Kings of Rome, 753 B.C. to 509 B.C.

During the early period of Rome, from its founding in 753 B.C. to about 281 B.C., currency initially took the form of sheep for barter. Heavy bronze weights were later issued in different sizes, first as unformed lumps and later as ingots classified as aes rude that weighed nearly 12 ounces. There was no coinage of any kind during this period.

The Roman Republic, 509 B.C. to 27 B.C.

As the kings of early Rome were replaced by the Senate and elected consuls in 509 B.C., coinage was still unknown. Because of the perpetual warfare waged to increase the reach of Rome, it became clear that a more suitable trading system than bartered sheep or lumps of bronze was needed to pay Roman troops and drive economic development. By 326 B.C., the first bronze coin was introduced, followed by a silver coin nearly 50 years later.

This Roman Republic silver didrachm, showing the two-faced head of Janus on the obverse and Jupiter riding a quadriga (a four-horses vehicle) on the reverse, achieved $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. 
Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Around 269 B.C. the didrachm became the first silver coin issued by Rome, strictly as a tool to pay its troops and allies in its fight to expand the Republic by gaining the port in Greek-held Taranto in southwest Italy (aka the heel of the boot-shape country), known by the Romans as Magna Graecia. The coin’s design closely followed that of the Greek drachma, but it had uniquely Roman features. It only circulated within the colony itself. 

The didrachm was phased out around 211 B.C., but not before it was issued as a lighter silver coin known as the quadrigatus (for its image of a four-horse drawn chariot) as the first uniquely Roman silver coin. It was issued around 226 B.C. Both coins were removed from circulation during the monetary reforms of 211 B.C. 

A clear example of an early Roman Republic silver sestertius sold for £60 (about $72) plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Elstob & Elstob and LiveAuctioneers

The silver sestertius (meaning “two and a half,” for its value against the Roman bronze as) was issued only sporadically as a small silver coin replacing the didrachm and quadrigatus. Initial sestertii featured the figure of Roma wearing a helmet on the obverse and Dioscuri on horseback on the reverse. The sestertius eventually became a much larger bronze coin as part of a coinage reform under Consul Augustus in 23 B.C. It was phased out completely by 275 A.D.

Also included in the previously mentioned monetary reform of 211 B.C. was the introduction of a silver denarius (equal to 10 asses, the standard circulating bronze coin) containing 4.5 grams of silver. It would become the standard silver coin circulating throughout the Roman Republic and in the beginning of the Roman Empire. Its impact is reflected in the many national currencies that imitate or reference its name: the Iraqi dinar, the (now-defunct) Spanish dinero, the North Macedonian denar and the ‘d’ for denarius, which was used to identify the UK penny before 1970. The silver content of the denarius would be debased gradually from 90% at its introduction down to only 5% by 300 A.D.

A Roman Empire silver didrachm featuring the profile of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) realized $225 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Worthington Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

At the same time the denarius was introduced, a smaller silver coin called the victoriatus was also minted. It boasted 3.4 grams of silver and its value was half of a quadrigatus or three-quarters of a denarius until it was phased out in 170 B.C. The coin featured the Roman God Jupiter on the obverse and, on the reverse, Victory awarding a wreath to a trophy above the word ROMA. It circulated mostly in the Roman province of Gaul (present day France) and southern Italy to replace the Greek drachma there.

By 101 B.C., the victoriatus was replaced by the quinarius, which was valued at five asses, or half of a denarius, and circulated mainly in Gaul for only a few years (although the victoriatus continued to circulate until about 170 B.C.).

This Roman silver argenteus marked with the image of Emperor Galerius (circa 305-311 A.D.) attained $300 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018. Image courtesy of Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers.

Though silver coins circulated during the early Republic, they were issued sparingly as the silver supply was limited. By 157 B.C., Rome had acquired the silver mines of Macedonia, after which silver coins became much more prevalent and circulated regularly, but possessed varying degrees of silver content. During the reign of the dictator Sulla in 84 B.C., the minting of silver coins increased again, making examples from this period more accessible.

One of the most sought-after silver coins of the Republic period is a denarius featuring a profile of Brutus on the obverse (the only known image) with a pileus, a cap of Liberty, on the reverse between two daggers. This silver coin commemorates Brutus’ participation in the brutal assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March (aka March 15) in 44 B.C. It is considered the most important ancient coin by collectors and is scarce because Marc Antony ordered the coin removed from circulation and melted down. 

Western Roman Empire 27 B.C. to 395 A.D.

The Roman Empire period began with the Senate declaring Octavian as Caesar Augustus in early 27 B.C., ushering in Western Roman Emperors for the next 425 years and Eastern Roman Emperors for the next millennia.

A Roman Empire silver siliqua emblazoned with the profile of Emperor Gratian (367-383 A.D.) achieved $1,025 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022. Image courtesy of Golden Gate Auctioneer and LiveAuctioneers

Throughout most of the early Roman Empire period, the silver denarius would remain the preeminent silver coin until about 214 A.D., a span of nearly 425 years. The antoninianus, a double denarius, was then issued by, and named for, Emperor Antonius Caracalla, whose profile shows him wearing a crown rather than the laurel wreath of the Roman Republic. The silver coin began with 40% silver content but was debased until it was only a thin covering before it ceased to be issued in 324 A.D.

After the year 250, fewer silver coins with significant silver content were issued until the introduction of the argenteus by Emperor Diocletian around 294 B.C., which had at least 3.4 grams of silver. The inflation of the period was extreme, and these silver coins were hoarded for their silver content and rarely circulated. A half-argenteus was minted by Emperor Constantine the Great in 308 A.D., but not in high numbers. They are usually found in mostly uncirculated condition at auction.

This example of a Western Roman Empire silver siliqua, featuring the profile of Magnus Maximus on the obverse and Roma seated on a throne on the reverse, sold for $250 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. 
Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In 324 A.D., Emperor Constantine replaced the argenteus with the miliarense, which weighed between 3.9 and 5.7 grams of silver; and the siliqua, which weighed between 2.3 and 3.4 grams of silver (a half-siliqua was issued just before the collapse of the Western Empire and represents a rare find). Together, the miliarense and the siliqua were the last official Roman silver coins in circulation until the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D.

Eastern Roman-Byzantine Empire 395 A.D. to 1453 A.D.

When Emperor Constantine split the Roman Empire into a Western and Eastern Empire around 330 A.D., it was his intention to stabilize its far-flung territories against the constantly-invading Hunnic armies from the steppes of Central Europe. He named the capital of the Eastern Empire Constantinople, for himself, but his actions only delayed the fall of the Western Empire to 476 A.D.

Issued in Constantinople circa 976, this miliaresion silver coin sports the cross crosslet of the Eastern Roman Empire and busts of Basil II. It earned £130 (about $156) plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020. Image courtesy of Timeline Auctions, Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

The Eastern Empire survived for nearly a millennium after the Western Empire collapsed, producing only two silver coins of note: the hexagram, issued in 615 A.D. and lasting until the end of the century; and the miliarense, the successor to the hexagram, which was in use until the 11th century. Most transactions were handled with gold or bronze coins throughout the Byzantine period until the Ottoman Empire supplanted the Roman period in 1453 A.D.

With nearly 2,200 years of Roman history to explore, the images of Emperors, conquests, historical events and day-to-day life depicted on its silver coins provide a unique understanding of the trials and tribulations of running a large, disparate empire. The silver content of the many coins, both large and small, was constantly in flux from the near purity of the didrachm to the thin veneer of the later argentius. In and of itself, that fact provides a lesson in the economics of running a vast empire.

NFTs: NON-FUNGIBLE TOKENS OR NOT FOR THE TIMID?

An NFT image of a poster created by renowned artist Shepard Fairey, ‘Make Art, Not War,’ achieved $200 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022. Image courtesy of ArtMeetsStreet x Mercer Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Imagine that you “own” a specific star. Ostensibly, you own it because you have its specific coordinates stored in a star registry, and a colorful certificate you received after purchasing the star says so. The star may be visible to all, but only you can claim to own that specific star.

One day, you decide to sell the star’s coordinates to someone else who buys it as an investment. The buyer, however, cannot hold the star, feel it, frame it, put it on display or store it in a box any more than you could when you owned it. The only “property” that conveys is the coordinates. And, just as you had hoped the star would one day increase in value, so does its new “owner.”

‘Suitcase in Space 1,’ a 2022 digital NFT artwork by 82-year-old Spanish artist Cristobal Toral, realized €2,000 (about $2,050) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Ansorena and LiveAuctioneers.

If you understand any of that, welcome to the world of the non-fungible token, or NFT. As a newbie, there are some basic points to understand. 

First, the term “non-fungible” means that the item is one-of-a-kind and completely irreplaceable. Your car, for example, is non-fungible as it will have a different value from other cars, even if those cars were built in the same year and may appear identical. Anything that can be exchanged with the same value is “fungible.” A five-dollar bill is easily exchanged with another bill of the same type as both have the same value. Investopedia.com explains the concept this way: just as “… No. 2 yellow corn [is] fungible because it does not matter where the corn was grown; all corn designated as No. 2 yellow corn is worth the same amount.” 

Polish artist Yerka Jacek’s ‘Water World,’ offered in March 2022 as an NFT and a giclee print, together achieved 380,000 PLN (about $85,000) plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Agra Art Auction House and LiveAuctioneers.

Every line of computer code, by definition, is strictly unique, or non-fungible. When composed as an online token on a cryptocurrency blockchain – the online registry that serves as a certificate of authenticity of sorts – it becomes an NFT that cannot be changed or altered in any way. Once downloaded, the computer code defines the specialized image or plays only the unique sound that is bought and sold at online auctions.

NFTs can take many different forms. They exist as digital-game characters and trading cards, crypto art and also Internet memes, but NFTs are also being created as a kind of license for patents or online sports. So, according to theverge.com, “… anything digital such as drawings, music, [or even] your brain downloaded and turned into an AI [artificial intelligence] …” can become an NFT along with any abstraction, idea or thought. The first-ever tweet, composed and sent in March 2006 by Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, sold as an NFT for nearly $3 million in March 2021.

‘The Great Chain of Being’ by Anna Mills is an artistic taxidermy sculpture of a savannah wildcat, an African grey hornbill and a marmoset monkey. It also exists as an NFT. The sculpture and the NFT sold together for $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Public Sale Auction House and LiveAuctioneers

There are positive and negative aspects to creating, buying and owning an NFT. One of the positive aspects can be illustrated with the star registry example above. The key difference between owning a star on a printed registry and an NFT made from computer code is that the creators of the star registry can’t collect royalties if the same star is resold, while the creator of the NFT does. Told another way, in the United States, contemporary artists are paid when their artwork is first sold, but not when it is resold.

 In 2021, Chris Torres, creator of the Nyan Cat Internet meme, said to businessinsider.com, “Most NFT platforms allow the artist to retain their copyright and trademarked work, which I feel is huge for an artist because it lets them keep their creative rights.” Also in 2021, Torres sold an NFT of Nyan Cat, a flying cat with a pop tart as its body, for nearly $600,000. NFTs allow creators of crypto art, as the Nyan Cat is called, to retain the copyright and continue to collect royalties every time the same NFT is resold to a new owner. More importantly, an artist can sell directly to a buyer without the need for a dealer or an agent who works on commission.

The NFT marketplace is relatively new. The first example, made by Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash and consisting of a short video clip of the sale itself, sold for $4 in May 2014. (Dash was the buyer.) By 2017, series of NFTs such as the CryptoPunks, CryptoKitties, Pepe trading cards and the Bored Ape Yacht Club were part of a $250 million marketplace and growing. An NFT by the artist known as Beeple (aka Mike Winkelmann) achieved $69 million at Christie’s in March 2021, generating headlines worldwide.

An individual NFT by the digital artist known as Beeple (Mike Winkelmann), titled ‘Bull Run Day #4951,’ achieved $40,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

These types of digital artworks, as well as video and gaming characters are the most traded NFTs to date. According to a financial report by globenewswire.com, NFTs represent a $3 billion worldwide market that is expected to grow to $13.6 billion in 2027. The growth is expected to come from celebrity endorsements and the increasing use of game characters that can be bought and sold via game platforms. Crypto exchange platforms are also creating NFT marketplaces such as OpenSea, Rarible, Larva Labs, Cloudflare and Dapper Labs. All that is very positive for creators of NFTs, but what are the drawbacks of the NFT itself?

Anything can become an NFT, even this collage by Marc Karzen celebrating the 40th anniversary of ‘The David Letterman Show.’ The lot consisted of a signed book, a digital print and an NFT with the cryptocurrency wallet to access it. Collectively it earned $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. Image courtesy of Santa Monica Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

As with anything considered valuable, only time and another buyer will determine its worth in the future. Remember the NFT of the very first tweet that sold for $3 million in March 2021? It was auctioned again in April 2022 and anticipated to sell for $50 million. But when no one bid more than $280, the NFT was withdrawn. Not even celebrity can help sell an NFT. In January 2022, Former First Lady Melania Trump created an NFT called Head of State Collection, featuring an image of her wearing a unique white outfit worn at a state visit with the president of France. It realized about $180,000, but public blockchain records later revealed Mrs. Trump herself purchased it after few interested buyers participated in the auction.

A fickle market aside, there are issues around the copyright of an image, video or game token represented by the NFT. Just creating an NFT doesn’t always mean ownership rights automatically transfer with it. Because of what are known as “personality rights,” buyers need to be sure the seller is also the owner of the image depicted in the NFT itself.

‘Bandera,’ a 2019 Bradley Settles landscape offered as an oil-on-board plus an NFT, sold for $850 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Vogt Auction Texas and LiveAuctioneers.

One of the most obvious downsides of an NFT is that if it is on the Internet, anyone can access it. You may have bought a video or graphic artwork as an NFT, but everyone else can still download it, too. It’s not unlike owning an original Picasso while everyone else owns a print. With an NFT, you, as the purchaser, may not own the copyright, which gives the original creator the ability to continue selling the same NFT many times over if they so desire. It wouldn’t make sense for the creator to do this, as it dilutes the scarcity of the NFT, but it can happen. Potential buyers should consider whether owning something that they can’t really control is in their best interest, bragging rights aside.

‘The Mistresses of Picasso,’ originally painted in gouache on paper in the 1930s, was auctioned as an NFT in May 2022 and attained $1,675 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of International Art Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Also, it should be noted that anything created for a blockchain requires large amounts of energy to produce and maintain. According to Columbia (University) Climate School’s website, a University of Cambridge analysis estimated that bitcoin mining consumes 121.36 terawatt hours a year. This is more than all of Argentina consumes in a year, or more than the annual consumption of Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft combined. This results in pumping some 65 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to the output of the nation of Greece. Generating Bitcoins, or any of the other 19,000 cryptocurrencies out there, makes a significant contribution to climate change. Minting an NFT is no different. 

The French newspaper ‘20 Minutes’ auctioned an offset printing plate for the front page of its January 13, 2020 supplement, along with an NFT of a complete six-page digital version of same, to benefit charity. It realized €3,000 (about $3,079) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Piasa and LiveAuctioneers.

NFTs are also closely linked to the cryptocurrency market, which is undergoing its own grim adventures. The Guardian newspaper reported on July 2, 2022 that the market for NFTs had hit a 12-month low of slightly more than $1 billion in June after peaking at $12.6 billion in January.

Nor are NFTs any less prone to theft than tangible artworks. Burglars come for them as well, as celebrity Seth Green found out. In May 2022, news broke that Green had lost four of his NFTs in a phishing scam, including a Bored Ape upon which he intended to base an animated TV show. The theft of the Bored Ape meant Green no longer controlled its likeness, placing the future of the show in doubt. The following month, Buzzfeed reported that Green regained his missing NFT by paying $260,000 to an entity known as 165 ETH, as confirmed by public blockchain records.

Any new opportunity to buy and sell will have its pros and cons. To get started in collecting NFTs requires a reasonable understanding of cryptocurrency, the blockchain, access to markets, online auctions, the attendant scams and various fees involved. You also need to school yourself on how to securitize the NFT you buy and on the marketability of any NFTs you create. And you need to understand how accessible the NFT would be in the future if the website, cloud platform or Tor network that hosts it is no longer online.

A work by Tel Aviv-based artist Shira Barzilay, aka Koketit, titled ‘Family Tree VideoArt’ and offered with an NFT, achieved $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. Image courtesy of Tiroche Auction House and LiveAuctioneers.

In the end, owning an NFT could conceivably help to preserve a small part of the Internet as a historical snapshot in time, making your collection a digital museum of sorts. Whatever the motivation, an NFT is just another way to own unique items that aren’t necessarily accessible. They may lead to future monetary and economic innovations that will benefit collectors and the world to come.

Loose gemstones – not just for jewelers

A square 5.01-carat emerald-cut diamond of D color and VS1 clarity, accompanied by a GIA graded certificate, achieved $200,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. Image courtesy of Bid Global International Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Gemstones have long been treasured for their brilliant, alluring beauty. Over many centuries, they have served as love charms and amulets as well as adornments for sacred ornaments and royal crowns. Although they are available in a wide range of ready-made settings, many collectors prefer acquiring them as single, loose stones and commissioning a jeweler to transform them into wearable works of art. Others prefer to appreciate the stones as they are. 

A GIA-certified natural loose ruby earned $10,620 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2014. Image courtesy of VDG Jewelry Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Loose gemstones that have been cut and polished into round or oval cabochons can serve as the basis for one-of-a-kind rings, cufflinks, earrings, bracelets or brooches. Flashier faceted gems have been cut into shapes that further enhance their sparkle, brilliance, clarity, color and aesthetic appeal. 

A light blue Sri Lankan sapphire weighing 12.11 carats sold for $9,750 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2018. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Natural untreated sapphires, which can come from as far away as Afghanistan or as near as the state of Montana, typically feature blue to violet hues, but those are merely the best-known colors for the stone. Thanks to a variety of trace elements, sapphires can be green, orange, yellow, purple or pink. If they have needle-like inclusions, they can display radiant star-like effects. Delicate Padparadscha sapphires, sourced initially in Sri Lanka and named for a local pinkish-orange lotus blossom, are the rarest of all. Whatever their color, sapphires are just as stunning as unset individual stones as they are when showcased in jewelry designs.

A pale pink 5.83-carat Padparadscha Sri Lankan sapphire attained €6,000 (about $6,292) plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018. Image courtesy of Kissing Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Loose rubies can be had in a range of cuts, but they might be most popular when shaped like a heart. Unsurprisingly, red heart-shape rubies give rise to extra-romantic pieces of jewelry and area a Valentine’s Day favorite. But the heart shape is not reserved exclusively for rubies. The Heart of Muzo, a heart-shape 12.07-carat emerald found in Muzo, Colombia – site of the most esteemed emerald mine in the world – might arouse greater passion in certain collectors.

The Heart of Muzo, a 12.07-carat heart-shape Colombian emerald, realized $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2017. Image courtesy of Guernsey’s and LiveAuctioneers

The emerald cut is a popular choice for gemstones of all types. It features straight alternating dark and light step cuts through large tables, which proves flattering to a broad variety of gemstones. In May 2022, Bid Global International Auctioneers of Scottsdale, Arizona, sold a square emerald-cut diamond featuring very fine color, clarity and dramatic reflective effects. Accompanied by a GIA (Gemological Institute of America) graded certificate, it earned $200,000 plus the buyer’s premium.

A 49.58-carat tourmaline found in Paraiba, Brazil, sold for $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2018. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Jewelry designers, natural history buffs and fashionistas are hardly the only audiences for loose gemstones. They also interest investors who are wary of fluctuating real estate or currency values and want to park their money in something small and easy to transport. 

A GIA-certified Mexican fire opal weighing 14.29 carats was sold for $1,600 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

For those inclined toward loose-gem investment, the choices are abundant and tempting. In August 2018, Heritage Auctions achieved $6,750 plus the buyer’s premium for an absolutely massive Rwandan 259.42-carat amethyst that represented a type discovered only three years prior to its sale. 

A massive 259.42-carat pear-cut Rwandan amethyst exhibiting a deep purple color and intermingled flashes of violet-red was purchased for $6,750 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2018. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The Super Auction Gallery, a gemstone mecca in Lahore, Pakistan, auctioned a natural deep-blue cushion cut 60.78-carat tanzanite, one of the scarcest gems on earth, for $115,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2019. 

A natural cushion-cut tanzanite weighing 60.78 carats realized $115,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2019. Image courtesy of Super Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Of course, prices for loose gemstones vary according to supply and demand. Those that are rare at purchase tend to remain so, and will remain so if the mine from which they came has since closed. Also, as a general rule, loose gemstones experience at least some increase in value with the passage of time. 

An amethyst from Afghanistan that weighed in at 719 carats was bid to $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021. Image courtesy of Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

While the market for investment-grade loose gemstones is active and robust, it’s easy to assemble a rainbow of examples in a range of sizes and cuts without breaking the bank. Savvy collectors can purchase individual citrines, amethysts, garnets and other relatively common gemstones for under $100. Those who are patient, keen-eyed and lucky can acquire vibrantly colored and pleasingly cut versions of those stones at weights of 20 carats or more for double-digit bids at auction. 

Whether they are prized as investments, transformed into pieces of jewelry, or piled into a bowl on an office desk like an exotic, glittering form of eye-candy, the appeal of loose gemstones is undeniable and is only likely to grow as more people learn that these unset beauties are within the reach of almost anyone, no matter how modest their budget may be.

The Mickey Mouse wristwatch: a pop-culture sensation that matured into an enduring style icon

Luxury watchmaker Gerald Genta produced this diamond-encrusted ladies’ quartz watch that achieved $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of Mynt Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The Mickey Mouse wristwatch is almost as iconic as the Disney character himself. The timepiece arrived on the scene in 1933 and had an instant and lasting impact, because – no pun intended – the timing was perfect. The rising popularity of the wristwatch, which first gained traction during World War I, combined with the advent of animated films with synchronized sound and the opening of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago united to fuel public demand for the product.

While it’s hard to imagine a world without the Mickey Mouse watch, its creation and its triumph were far from inevitable. The circumstances that yielded the watch were promising, but did not foretell a hit that would endure for almost a century and counting.

A Rolex Oyster Perpetual Mickey Mouse watch with a gold case and bracelet sold for $3,600 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018. Image courtesy of Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

During the early 1930s, Walt Disney was still smarting from having lost control of his first star character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, in 1927. He fought back by founding his namesake studio and launching a new cartoon character, Mortimer Mouse, who bore a suspiciously strong resemblance to Oswald. Disney’s wife suggested renaming him Mickey, and the mouse met the world with that name in his 1928 animated debut short, dubbed Steamboat Willie. 

Audiences were almost as captivated by Mickey’s whistling of the tune Steamboat Bill as they were with his animated adventures as a steamboat pilot. Synchronized sound was a fresh innovation in film, and Disney showed it off to great effect in the inaugural release from its studio. So integral was the combination of animation and sound to the success of the film studio that a clip of a black-and-white Mickey whistling cheerfully appears before every new Disney release, in recognition of the cultural juggernaut’s roots. 

A group consisting of a 1934 or 1935 Mickey Mouse wristwatch, a 1937 version with a rectangular bezel and a box for a 1933 Mickey Mouse pocket watch together earned $1,350 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Ira and Larry Goldberg Coins and Collectibles and LiveAuctioneers

The blockbuster cartoon did not completely relieve the newborn studio’s money woes, however. It was the early 1930s, after all, and the Great Depression was raging. To bring in additional revenue, Walt Disney sold the exclusive merchandising rights to the Mickey Mouse character in 1932 to Herman Kamen, an advertising and merchandising salesman. Kamen’s initial products were a Mickey Mouse pocket watch and wristwatch. Their reception would confirm the wisdom of his commercial instincts.

Wrist watches (the two-word description prevailed then) existed, but were far from dominating the marketplace. Most still appeared in the form of the wristlet, a thin, dainty timepiece regarded as best suited to women. Nonetheless, Kamen contracted with Ingersoll-Waterbury, a struggling watchmaker, to manufacture both a pocket watch that retailed for $1.50 (about $34 today) and a wristwatch priced at $3.75 (now equivalent to $85). The faces of both sported a full-body image of Mickey Mouse telling the time by pointing his yellow-gloved hands at the correct numbers on the dial. 

A Mickey Mouse pocket watch debuted in 1933 along with the wristwatch design. An example of the former in its original box realized $950 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2017. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The timepieces debuted at the 1933 World’s Fair and were immediate best sellers. The success of the wrist-worn version led to broader general acceptance of that style of timepiece. It served as unbeatable advertising for Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoons as well – every time wearers looked at their wrists, they saw Mickey smiling back at them. The products also saved Ingersoll-Waterbury from bankruptcy; the company lived on to become Timex in the 1960s.

The Ingersoll-Waterbury company continued manufacturing the Mickey Mouse wristwatch until 1971, selling millions in many formats and characters. Throughout the watch’s roughly 40 years of production, there were specific eras that delivered a scarce Mickey Mouse design. For example, the early editions featured a spinning second sweep hand featuring a trio of Mickeys chasing each other at the six o’clock position on the dial. By the 1940s, the Mickeys had been replaced with a single Mickey in a rectangular bezel. The 1960s were the minimalist era of the watch’s design: it didn’t have an image of Mickey at all, just the mouse’s name on the dial. 

A circa-1980s Seiko Mickey Mouse men’s quartz wristwatch attained £750 (about $917) plus the buyer’s premium in February 2022. Image courtesy of Hannam’s Auctioneers Ltd and LiveAuctioneers

During the 1970s, the appearance of quartz movements and lower-cost electronic watches from Asia devastated the domestic watch market, and sales slowed considerably. Ingersoll-Waterbury stopped producing Mickey Mouse and the Disney character watches completely by 1971. Once the original manufacturer exited, other watch companies manufactured their own versions of the Mickey Mouse watches.

Seiko, a Japanese concern, produced Mickey Mouse watches during the 1980s and 1990s under license through its Lorus brand, with some subbing in musical notes and national flags for numerals. Rolex and Omega both made Mickey Mouse watches under license for special orders only. The private luxury watch label Gerald Genta also created Mickey Mouse and other Disney character wristwatches under license in limited quantities.

Omega accepted special orders for Mickey Mouse wristwatches, such as this 1958 timepiece with a Mickey Mouse character added to the face. It sold for €1,300 (roughly $1,360) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019. Image courtesy of Subastas Segre and LiveAuctioneers

Several special anniversary editions of the Mickey Mouse wristwatch have been released as well, beginning with a 25th anniversary product in 1958 to a 60th anniversary edition marketed by Seiko in 1993. In addition, Swatch commissioned artist Damien Hirst to produce a set of two colorful limited edition wristwatches for the 90th anniversary of the Mickey Mouse character in 2017, known as the Spot Mickey and Mirror Spot Mickey. 

A Spot Mickey wristwatch, designed by artist Damien Hirst for Swatch, earned $325 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Collectible Auction LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Despite the dizzying array of iterations and choices available, collectors unquestionably favor the very earliest editions of the Mickey Mouse wristwatch. An original 1933 edition in good to near-mint condition, in working order and offered with its original cardboard box and instructions, is the Holy Grail.

When evaluating an original Mickey Mouse wristwatch, condition is the most important aspect. Its value depends on whether it has been serviced in the past and whether all its original parts are present and intact. Scratches, rust, visible water damage and missing or replaced parts on the bezel connecting the band all affect its performance at auction. 

A circa-1937 Mickey Mouse Ingersoll wristwatch with its original box achieved $2,300 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $300-$500 in December 2020. Image courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Certain characteristics of the original Mickey Mouse wristwatches help mark them as original. From 1933 until 1937, the watch had a round case and the dial was decorated with a black and white Mickey Mouse in red balloon pants and shoes with yellow gloves – not the white ones shown in the early cartoons. Mickey’s feet straddle a rotating wheel of three miniature Mickeys who chase each other around a smaller dial located between the numbers 5 and 7. These watches have a rounded clear bezel with the words ‘Made in U.S.A’ to the left of Mickey and ‘Mickey Mouse Ingersoll’ next to the number 3. Also, the metal strap has small Mickey Mouse charms attached near the bezel.

From 1938 to 1942, the Mickey Mouse wristwatches featured a long rectangular case with five decorative notches and the dial had a rotating seconds hand in place of the number 6. A serial number and a US Time stamp mark the reverse of the wristwatches beginning in the 1940s, although sometimes the serial number is missing. In 1948, the numbers were luminous, and by 1950, the numbers appeared in red. The round case returned in the 1960s, but without an image of Mickey and only the words ‘Mickey Mouse’ on its face. 

A 1934 Mickey Mouse wristwatch with a metal band, cutouts of Disney characters and its original box sold in August 2020 for $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

While the original 1933 wristwatch hasn’t been actively reproduced, experts have said other early versions, such as the 1934 edition, have been reissued. Check with the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (nawcc.org) for collectors and dealers specializing in the Mickey Mouse wristwatch for help with spotting possible reproductions.

A contemporary Chopard Happy Sport Diamond ladies’ Mickey Mouse watch with a mother-of-pearl dial realized $11,250 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of 3 Kings Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The Mickey Mouse wristwatch is not as popular as it was when it debuted, but it has yet to disappear from the public consciousness. Even if you’ve never owned one, you can easily call an image of the dial to mind. If you own an Apple watch, you can download a digital version of the famous Mickey Mouse watch face, or a Minnie Mouse version if you prefer. 

If you tap the Apple Watch dial, the cartoon character will speak the time – a feature that underscores the power of uniting animation with sound, something Walt Disney grasped and ran with decades ago. The vintage watch market is large and healthy, and demand for analog Mickey Mouse watches remains strong. Generations past, present and future know their Mickey Mouse watches like the backs of their hands. 

Manet or Monet: A Contrast in Styles

Manet and Monet are two highly important, similarly named French artists who deliberately moved away from the classical Old Masters to create their own individual styles. They were distinctly different in their approach, but even now, nearly a century after Monet’s passing, the artists are confusing to some, simply because of their surnames. There are ways to immediately tell them apart, however. It starts with their choice of subjects.

The art world of the early 19th century centered on expressive, lifelike formal portraits; colorful and realistic landscapes; and the charm of generic fruits and flowers, all reminiscent of the great Old Masters. They were wonderfully arranged in their composition, character, detail and style; and if a painter followed this approach, he or she could expect their paintings to be exhibited – the all-important first step toward garnering public and critical success.

This 1863 Manet painting is a clear departure from the Old Masters, as it depicts two nude women and two clothed men having lunch in a wooded field near a spring. The artwork caused quite the stir when it was exhibited in the year of its creation. Public domain image courtesy of Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons

By 1856, the French painter Édouard Manet moved away from the conventional approach and instead began painting real workaday people, without necessarily focusing on light, detail or abundant color. He used loose brush strokes in contrasting darker colors, particularly black. Luncheon on the Grass, for example, featured two nude women picnicking with two fully clothed men along a wooded stream. The subject matter was quite unconventional – even shocking – for its time. Manet would continue painting beggars and people along the street exactly as he saw them, not as the Old Masters wished them to be. The Spanish Singer, an 1860 oil portrait of a guitar-playing singer, was his first painting that drew acclaim. Its “slapdash,” avant-garde painting style appealed to a younger generation.

Edouard Manet’s signature on an ink and gouache on paper titled ‘The Old Musician’ appears in the lower righthand corner and reads, simply, ‘Manet.’ Image courtesy: Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

With his unconventional approach to painting in which he depicted real people in everyday situations, Manet was able to influence other artistic movements, especially Impressionism.

One of the leading Impressionists of the period was the Parisian-based artist Claude Monet. He took his inspiration from Manet, leaving behind the Old Masters’ obsession for detail, and instead placed an emphasis on natural color and light. In fact, many of Monet’s paintings repeat the same subject, such as The Haystack – there are 25 versions of it, each painted in different light from dusk to dawn, in different seasons reflecting their own shaded nuances.

Monet’s 1874 oil painting Impression, Sunrise was not well received, one art critic believing it unfinished who derisively called it impressionism for its broad strokes depicting rowboats in the port of La Havre either at dawn or dusk and Impressionism became the name of an entire new movement. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important paintings by Monet was his Impression: Sunrise, painted in 1873. Executed in muted colors, it is described as a rather hazy image of several rowboats in the French port of La Havre, depicted either at dusk or dawn (it isn’t known which), with broad strokes and the light of an orange sun casting lighted shadows along the water. An art critic derisively named Monet’s “unfinished” painting as “impressionism,” and thus began a completely new art movement.

Claude Monet usually added his signature in full to the lower lefthand corner of his paintings. An example of his signature is shown here and comes from a handwritten letter dated 1908. Image courtesy: University Archives and LiveAuctioneers

While both Manet and Monet were contemporaries in the French painting community of the late 19th century, Manet was older by eight years and established as an artist by the time Monet began painting seriously by 1865.  Each widely exhibited their paintings in salons – even next to each other on such occasions where artworks were displayed alphabetically by the artist’s surname. If pressed, Manet preferred not to be considered an Impressionist, and some art scholars would agree. Given a choice, he would not participate in exhibitions with other Impressionist artists. Monet, on the other hand, enthusiastically embraced the new art movement and had no problem with his paintings being described as “impressions.”

The differences were quite clear between the two Parisian-based artists. They were not necessarily spending time within the same artistic circles, since they painted differently. Manet worked primarily in a studio with models. Often he would choose black as the background color for his artworks.

Monet, like all Impressionist painters, primarily worked outdoors – en plein air – creating landscapes relatively quickly.  Brighter colors in quick brush strokes tended to blend well together, with rowboats or even people rendered as shadows or shapes rather than being clearly defined and detailed. Nearly 90% of all of Monet’s paintings were landscapes.

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926), Water Lilies, 1919. Oil on canvas; 39 3/4 x 78 3/4 in. (101 x 200 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Walter H and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H and Leonore Annenberg, 1998, Bequest of Walter H Annenberg, 2002 (1998.325.2). Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

In short, Manet primarily painted everyday people while Monet painted natural landscapes with a diffusion of light and color. Of course, to quickly tell the difference, you could just as easily look at the painted signatures at the base of each painting, too.

The period of Impressionism lasted until about 1890 or so, when the movement gained more of an acceptance within the art world. Manet didn’t participate within the Impressionist movement itself, preferring to exhibit on his own with little recognition during his lifetime. He died at 51 in 1883 from syphilis. Monet, on the other hand, lived to the age of 86, with his paintings selling rather well until his death in 1926.

Other Impressionist artists who rose to prominence after Monet were Mary Cassatt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Alfred Sisley and others whose works embody the broad strokes and muted colors of everyday life, giving us an impression of what an artist sees and feels. It is the shifting light, the hazy unfinished reality that provide our own portrait of everyday life.

So, are the Impressionists still sought after at auction? Yes, but some observers opine that Impressionist artworks which haven’t already joined the collections of museums or institutions are the less-appealing examples, explaining why they haven’t reached the top tier of recent market sales. That’s not to say that there isn’t enthusiasm for early Impressionist works at auction – that would not be a fair comment – but as the pioneers of the movement were aware, there will always be new artists and genres to excite collectors.

Staffordshire spaniels: still fetching after all these years

A circa-1850 set of Grace and Majesty Staffordshire spaniels sold for £1,600 (about $2,000) plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. Image courtesy of Kinghams Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

During the 18th century, when millions of Britons left the countryside to seek work in larger towns and cities, enterprising potters in the English county of Staffordshire started creating a range of animal figures that evoked the charm of country life. In addition to barnyard animals, the creatures replicated in pottery included King Charles spaniels, the affectionate, luxuriantly coated toy dogs long associated with British royalty, in particular King Charles II (1630–1685), who was known as “the Cavalier King.” 

A pair of Staffordshire spaniel jugs, each standing 10in high, earned $800 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020. Image courtesy of STAIR and LiveAuctioneers

It is said that everywhere Charles II went, he took at least three of his pet spaniels with him. They had free reign of Whitehall Palace, including the monarch’s bedchamber. His preference for his dogs’ companionship over matters of state drew some criticism. Diarist Samuel Pepys observed that the king even frittered away time playing with his beloved dogs during important government meetings. 

In an entry dated September 1, 1666, Pepys described a council meeting thusly: “All I observed there was the silliness of the King, playing with his dog all the while and not minding the business.” The king’s fondness for his wee spaniels was also dramatized in the 1995 film Restoration, starring Robert Downey Jr., in which the palace physician is summoned to the king’s bedside to attend to an urgent medical matter, only to find that the patient is one of the monarch’s cosseted dogs.

A circa-1770 Staffordshire spaniel novelty bonbonniere attained £500 (roughly $630) plus the buyer’s premium in September 2019. Image courtesy of Bamfords Auctioneers & Valuers and LiveAuctioneers

Fueled by regal approval and the breed’s charming nature, pottery King Charles spaniels rose in popularity across Great Britain. Most came from potteries in England’s Midlands, an area blessed with abundant clay and water from several rivers. So prolific were those ateliers, and so winsome their depictions of the pets, that all of these pottery dogs became known as Staffordshire spaniels. 

A seated pair of black-and-white Staffordshire spaniels on ornate scrolled bases earned $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2010. Image courtesy of Wiederseim Associates, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

The earliest examples were fashioned from glassy salt-glazed earthenware or stoneware and were usually rather plain in color, shape and style. By contrast, those produced by the Brampton potteries of Derbyshire were far more artistic. Brampton artisans tended to create highly detailed, wistful-looking spaniels seated upon decorative paw-foot plinths adorned with images of sheep and floral cornucopias. 

A Brampton salt-glaze Staffordshire spaniel seated on a plinth sprigged with sheep and flower cornucopias above six paw feet sold for £650 (about $820) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2015. Image courtesy of Cheffins and LiveAuctioneers

As pottery techniques evolved, salt-glazed spaniels were replaced by fine, thin, glassier creamware, bluish-white pearlware, and underglaze-painted Prattware spaniels with more colorful decoration. The pottery dogs became even more popular when Queen Victoria, whose dearest childhood companion had been a King Charles spaniel named “Dash,” ascended to the British throne. 

A Staffordshire pearlware spaniel, depicted lying on a plinth, realized $2,200 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2011. Image courtesy of Pook & Pook, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Pairs of these canine status symbols “guarded” Victorian working-class homes. Some sat. Others stood. Still others, such as a particularly convincing 19th-century pearlware model, lounged upon textured pottery bases. Although most Staffordshire spaniels feature legs molded to their bodies, the more collectible ones boast distinctly formed front legs. Less costly, mass-produced flatback spaniels, such as the sponge-decorated pair traditionally known as “Grace and Majesty,” were designed to sit flush against mantelpiece walls.

A pair of circa-1850 Grace and Majesty Staffordshire spaniels realized £1,000 (about $1,262) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019. Image courtesy of Kinghams Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Because each Staffordshire spaniel was individually hand-painted, none are exactly alike. Black spaniels might be as black as night or feature shimmering gold highlights and gilt-painted collars as well as gleaming red or yellow glass eyes. 

A pair of Staffordshire spaniels modeled with legs that are separate from their bodies and decorated with copper luster sold for $800 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020. Image courtesy of Strawser Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

On the other hand, white spaniels might be pale as snow, the purity of their coats interrupted only by their dark, expressive noses. Scores of Staffordshire spaniels displayed dark tails, ears and snouts; all-over scatters of delicate dotting; or random russet, black, green, or copper-colored patches. Some, possibly reflecting breeds popular in the day, boasted realistic-looking tan, brown or reddish legs and flanks. Others were depicted carrying cheery baskets of flowers in their mouths or sporting fashionable Disraeli-style kiss curls across their foreheads. 

A trio of Staffordshire spaniels, two shown holding flower baskets in their mouths, earned $1,900 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers

In addition to smaller spaniel figurines, Staffordshire potteries also produced a variety of large, sturdy, so-called “begging” spaniels topped by jaunty tricorn hats. Many of these creatures served as functional jugs, pitchers or storage jars. Others served as spill vases, holding slim wax tapers used to transfer fireside flame to lamps and candles.

A pair of Staffordshire spaniels, each with pipes in their mouths, sold for $1,400 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2011. Image courtesy of Pook & Pook, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

While the majority of Staffordshire spaniels were produced during the Victorian era, accurately dating them is not always possible because identical molds were used, reused and shared among different potteries over many decades. Although it might not be possible to pinpoint their age or provenance, all Staffordshire spaniels stand for British tradition and recall a time when dogs were “king’s best friend.”