Whiskey: Building a spirited collection

Two bottles of whiskey from the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Kentucky, dating to circa 1912, sold for $23,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

For centuries, bourbon, rye, corn, wheat and other grains have provided the basis of aqua vitae (Latin for “water of life”). Once distilled, the liquid becomes ethanol with a high alcoholic content – or, as its connoisseurs know it, whiskey.

European monks in Scotland and Ireland perfected the distillation process around the 15th century, with the aim of creating medicine. Their yield was bitter and hardly diluted – almost pure. The precise addition of water, along with stringent governmental regulations, transformed whiskey into the smoother, more enjoyable spirit countless tipplers enjoy and bid on at auction.

Whiskey or Whisky?

Both spellings are valid and provide clues about the origins of a beverage. Whiskey with an “e” appears on bottles produced in the United States and Ireland; whisky without the “e” prevails at distilleries everywhere else in the world. Regardless of how it is spelled, the term is an anglicization of the Gaelic word uisce, meaning “water,” a reference to one of the drink’s key ingredients. (We’ll use “whiskey” in this article.)

A pair of 12-year-old single malt whiskeys by Suntory, a leading Japanese distillery, sold for $900 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Tenmoku Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Whiskey requires three ingredients: yeast, grain and water. How much of each the distiller includes determines the type of whiskey that will result from the combination.

Whiskey Basics

The range of possible iterations from those three simple ingredients translates to a broad and tantalizing array of choices for whiskey collectors.

If a whiskey is defined as a single malt, it has one of two additional classifications: “single” means the contents came from one distillery, not from one grain; while “malt” refers to barley that has been fermented to produce the yeast used to create the beverage. A blended whiskey combines the products of two or more distilleries. Grain whiskey involves a mixture of corn, barley, wheat or rye, sometimes in specific amounts for each. Single cask or single barrel whiskeys are spirits sourced not only from one distillery, but also from a specific cask or barrel at that distillery.

A full vintage Kinsey blended whiskey from the 1970s with an intact label and tax stamp realized $70 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2019. Image courtesy of Emanon Auctions and Estate Sales and LiveAuctioneers

Bourbon, rye whiskey, moonshine and Tennessee whiskey are distilled only in the United States. Scotch whiskey exclusively refers to whiskey made in Scotland. Those from Ireland, Canada, Japan and elsewhere are distilled under their country’s specific rules. 

Whiskeys are aged in wooden casks that are sometimes charred (for a distinctive flavor) and sometimes not. Once the spirit is bottled, aging stops. This quality has helped grow whiskey’s popularity with collectors. Wine can spoil as bottles slumber in a cellar, but whiskey will not. 

The Ways and Whys of Whiskey-Making

After the final distillation, all whiskey is clear and tasteless. Its color and flavor comes from the wooden barrels in which it is aged, such as oak (the most common choice), maple, hickory or ash. Color, complexity, and taste arise from the maturing spirit’s interactions with the wood of the barrel, which is why whiskey-makers seek barrels that are charred or have already gained seasoning from previous sessions of aging wine, madeira, port or other spirits.

The type of water from which a whiskey is distilled also affects its flavor. Natural sources of water have different minerals in different concentrations. Skilled distillers take advantage of this to craft standout whiskeys.

In the world of whiskey, place names matter, too. Bourbon is made solely in the United States under strict guidelines. To qualify as bourbon, the spirit must be distilled with no less than 51% corn; casked in new, charred oak barrels for no fewer than two years, and bottled at no less than 80 proof (which means the final product is 40 percent alcohol). 

A group of three bottles of Scotch whiskey, two by Buchanan’s and one by Ballantine’s, sold for $46 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020. Image courtesy of Lot 14 Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Ireland and Scotland both take pride in their national histories as whiskey-producers, and their spirits feature notable differences. Scotch whiskey tends to employ malted barley, while Irish whiskey recipes favor barley seeds, which gives the Irish spirit a distinct taste.

With all these preferences, characteristics and stipulations in play, collectors can assume no two whiskeys are distilled exactly alike, even if they come from the same country or region.

What Do Whiskey Collectors Look For?

During the U.S. period of Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, alcoholic beverages were banned except for whiskey. Distillers did not change how they worked, but they were forced to treat their goods as medicine. Americans who wanted whiskey had to obtain a prescription from a doctor and purchase it at a pharmacy. 

Prohibition-era spirits, especially whiskey, are highly sought after by collectors. In 2018, Sotheby’s auctioned a 1926 McCallan Valerio Adami for $1.9 million, which was a world record for whiskey at auction. A pre-Prohibition lot of 25 pints of Hermitage 9-year-old whiskey, found behind a wall in 2018, sold for $24,500, or about $1,000 a bottle. 

But collecting whiskey doesn’t require deep pockets. A 2019 vox.com article titled “The weird world of whiskey collecting, explained,” quotes Andy Simpson, co-founder of RareWhiskey101, as saying collections often start from one simple premise. According to Simpson, some common collecting themes are pursuing a bottle from every possible distillery, obtaining every bottle from a single, beloved distillery; or collecting birth-year vintages. Says Simpson, “ … the list is almost endless.”

A circa-1880s bottle of Cassidy & Co Monasterevan whiskey, one of two known, sold for €23,000 ($26,970) in July 2019. Image courtesy of Victor Mee Auctions and Liveauctioneers

Prices for elite whiskeys have risen high enough to draw the attention of forgers. To avoid expensive disappointments, collectors should consult experts and stay in touch with online communities of fellow collectors. Those sources will teach initiates key details, such as what period-correct labels and bottles look like, and, more importantly, how to know where a particular whiskey has been, and for how long.

Above all else, one should never lose sight of the fact that whiskey-collecting is about pleasure, not hoarding. Some experts advise savor your hard-won prizes neat or on ice, with friends, or with one special person; or in quiet contemplation, perhaps beside a fire. After all, as Rudyard Kipling said, “Whiskey is not a drink; whiskey is a philosophy of life.” Just be sure that, no matter how you choose to enjoy the fruits of your collection, you do so responsibly. Cheers!

Trapunto takes quilting into the third dimension

Trapunto work highlights this Italian 17th-century textile that sold as a panel for $550 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Michaan’s Auctions. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Trapunto an Italian word that means “to quilt” or “embroider” takes the fine art of quilting to a higher level. Since the 13th century in Italy, textile artists have employed the trapunto technique – with includes the use of excess soft material – to highlight certain areas of a quilt’s pattern.

Trapunto literally takes quilting into a third dimension. Padding a quilt trapunto-style makes its colors more vibrant, its patterns more mesmerizing, and imbues the whole design with a tactile quality that goes beyond what a standard quilt can offer.

The three-dimensional effect of trapunto quilting is strong in this early 19th century white-on-white quilt. It sold for $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2021 at John McInnis Auctioneers, LLC. Image courtesy of John McInnis Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

When the trapunto method is used, sewn flowers seem to emerge from the stitched garden, and stars, moons, and cloud patterns appear more lifelike. The final result is still as cozy and as inviting as a traditional quilt, but it renders a greater depth of feeling when your hands and eyes pass over its raised curves, peaks and valleys.

How It’s Done

The process of trapunto is a form of quilting, but instead of the traditional three flat layers (the stitched pattern of fabric on top; the batting (stuffing), or middle cushion of fabric; and the backing that ties it all together), the batting is increased to produce a raised surface in select parts of the pattern or motif. FaveQuilts.com says that trapunto “…patterns are intricate and visually stunning, utilizing the texture of the pattern instead of fabric color to make the design pop. Thick yarn or cotton is stuffed into the shape between the top and the batting using a needle. This puffs up the shape, giving the quilt a three-dimensional texture.”

This set of seven Japanese silk fabric trapunto scenes depicting traditional artisans at work sold for $2,100 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Converse Auctions. Image courtesy of Converse Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Trapunto quilts are not uniform in technique or production, however. Subtle distinctions can help pinpoint the specific type of needlework and period in which a piece was made.

Provençal and Boutis Quilting

Provençal quilting relies on only two layers of cloth, with no wadding in between; the stitching alone yields the final pattern or motif instead of uniting separate pieces of material to create a pattern, as in traditional quilting. The stitches in Provençal quilting are placed closer together to form smaller spaces or channels into which rolled yarn is inserted with a special needle called a “boutis” to form the raised surface.

This process of trapunto is called pique marseillais and was developed in the early 18th century in Marseilles, in the Provençal region of France.

This late 19th-century example of boutis quilting sold for $625 plus the buyer’s premium at Copake Auctions in January 2021. Image courtesy of Copake Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Boutis quilting is another type of trapunto from the Marseilles region of France. It is similar to the Provençal technique, but it dates to the 19th century. It involves two layers of cloth and requires the addition of stuffing after the running stitch has been completed.

An early 19th-century corded whitework quilted bedcover sold for $200 plus the buyer’s premium at Augusta Auctions in May 2021. Image courtesy of Augusta Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Corded Quilting 

The corded quilting technique is similar to boutis quilting, except the trapunto effect is created with a very thick thread or cord that is inserted between a double outline of thread (called stipling) from the back. This so-called “cording” is also used to frame, separate and create individual patterns within the quilt itself. It produces a heavier relief effect than the softer, more pliable yarn used in boutis quilting.

Sailor’s woolworks

While not necessarily considered trapunto in its usual definition, woolworks are forms of needlework or embroidery enhanced with layers of yarn that creates the same visual effect as trapunto.

A Victorian British sailor knitted this ‘woolie’ circa 1880 with trapunto roses, thistles and royal crown. It realized $1,250 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020 at Rafael Osona Auctions. Image courtesy of Rafael Osona Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

During the age of sailing ships, from 1830 to 1920 or so, sailors needed to spend their considerable downtime on long voyages in pursuits other than card-playing and roughhousing. Repairing sails, nets and their own clothing made sailors competent with a needle and thread, so, not surprisingly, they created woolworks or embroidered images of their ship to pass the time. The image of an embroidered ship would feature a buildup of yarn that made it seem as if it was under full sail not unlike trapunto, except the yarn was not hidden by a top layer of material.

During the First World War, soldiers in the trenches employed the same technique to create detailed needlework of flags, pocket pillows, and an embroidered form of souvenir with a place for a photograph that featured the distinctive trapunto effect. These “woolies,” as they are called, are a distinctive collectible category that reflects different levels of artistic talent and expertise.

What Collectors Look For

A textile expert can determine the age of trapunto work by looking directly at the weave of the yarn of the main fabric. An “S” weave has the twist of the yarn going upward from right to left (a detail that predominates in wool and cotton before 1865); a “Z” twist is the opposite, going from left to right (a style that prevailed after 1865).

Colors, motifs, patterns, and manufacturing techniques also play key roles in distinguishing vintage trapunto pieces from more contemporary textiles.

Not Just Quilts

Although trapunto is mostly associated with quilts, examples of the technique appear at auction in the forms of vintage clothing, decorative boxes, and artworks, as well as in military uniforms, drapery, furniture, accessories such as purses, and even on footwear.

A 17th-century bridal box decorated with trapunto and trimmed in silver braid sold for $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Willis Henry Auctions, Inc. Image courtesy of Willis Henry Auctions Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

The three-dimensional effect of trapunto adds elegance to simple embroidery that takes time to master. The story inherent in its patterns and colors represents a personal history that keeps you warm and connects one generation to the next; trapunto throws that history into sharp relief.

Raise a glass to the jolly Toby jug

A circa-1937 Royal Doulton character jug known as Black-Haired Clown realized $7,750 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Lion and Unicorn and Live Auctioneers

Toby Jugs are small ceramic drinking vessels that depict fictional, historic or generic characters in full figure and high relief. They originated in mid-18th century Staffordshire, England, an area rich in clay and other natural resources. Early designs feature merry old souls dressed in the standard men’s outfit of the day: frock coat, breeches, waistcoat, and tricorn hat. Invariably, they are shown holding jugs of foamy stingo, a strong, locally-brewed bitter ale. Because the jugs symbolized mirth and merriness, their tubby, bubbly images also graced British inn, pub and tavern signs.

A late 18th-century English pearlware Toby jug sold for $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The identity of the Toby who gave Toby Jugs their name remains unclear. Some believe it references Sir Toby Belch, a spirited character in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. Others say it likely acknowledges a legendary local tippler named Toby Philpot. Supporting the latter theory is a rollicking 1761 drinking song that celebrates the transformation of Philpot’s mortal ashes into a jug: 

Dear Sir this brown jug, which now foams with mild ale, 

Out of which I now drink to sweet Kate of the vale, 

Was once Toby Philpot, a thirsty old soul,

As e’er crack’d a bottle or fathom’d a bowl. 

Clothing depicted on early Toby Jugs reflected the typical attire of the day. As times changed, so did the porcelain materials and methods of production. Pale, delicate creamware Toby jugs gave way to blue-tinged pearlware and brighter Prattware versions. Agateware Tobys, featuring alluring marble-like surfaces, and brown, salt-glazed stoneware treacle Tobys, their glazes resembling the sticky byproduct of sugar refining Americans know as molasses, were also popular.

A circa-1800 English pearlware Sailor Toby Jug realized £700 ($969) plus the buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy Dreweatts Donnington Priory and LiveAuctioneers

Designs varied as well. So-called “ordinary” Tobys grasp their knees, hug jugs, puff pipes, or balance on barrels, and some of the bases feature inscriptions, such as ‘’Good Ale is Made for the Use of Men so fill Ould Tobe Once Again.” Another subgroup of Toby Jugs reflects common professions and pastimes of 18th-century British life: sailor, squire, snuff taker, parson, and collier. Still another iteration, Martha Gunn Tobys, immortalize a strong, stalwart Englishwoman who gained fame from her operation of a seashore bathing machine called a ‘dipper.’ 

Some Toby jugs can be purchased quite inexpensively. An early 19th-century Staffordshire Martha Gunn Toby Jug sold for CA$75 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021. Image courtesy Waddington’s Auctioneers and Appraisers and LiveAuctioneers

 

As Toby Jug popularity soared, French potters riffed on the form by creating delicate faience models glistening with tin-oxide glaze. Potters in Portugal, Britain, Germany, Australia, and America subsequently contributed bright lead-glazed majolica models. In addition to popular, political, and literary types such as the barrister, the Quaker, and the lady with a fan, many Toby Jugs portray droll characters based on well-known songs and stories. 

A circa-1900 French faience Snuff Taker Toby jug achieved $150 plus the buyer’s premium in 2009. Image courtesy Skinner and LiveAuctioneers

In the mid-1800s, Royal Doulton, a leading British producer of porcelain, introduced its own spin on the Toby Jug: character jugs. Instead of featuring seated or standing full figures, the Royal Doulton character jugs depict just heads and shoulders. Initially, these bust-form jugs portrayed Lord Nelson, a British naval hero, as well as zippy tipplers astride barrels marked XX. Other Doulton Tobys portrayed famed literary, political, and popular characters, from Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens to Theodore Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin.

During the 20th century, more than 200 potteries, including Sarreguemines, Royal Bayreuth, Royal Worcester and Wedgwood, produced a variety of Toby and Toby-like jugs. Shorter & Son alone introduced more than 100 types, including traditional favorites such as Old King Cole, Old Father Neptune, and Long John Silver. 

In the 1930s, Royal Doulton introduced their first modern character jug. It resembled John Barleycorn, the British personification of malt liquor. Old Charley, honoring watchmen who kept law and order, joined him, followed by scores more. All told, the company created more than 600 Toby and character jugs. In addition, Doulton produced limited numbers of novel Toby derivatives such as tobacco jars, match-stands, music boxes, bookends, decanters and candlesticks. 

Toby and character jug production thrived through the 1980s, with independent artists and innovative potteries issuing a range of appealing models. Many celebrate literary heroes such as Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe. Others welcomed the 21st century with more up-to-date pop-culture and historical figures, among them Paul McCartney, Marilyn Monroe, Barack Obama and Tweety Bird. While the shapes and styles of Toby jugs have changed, they have lost none of their appeal. Collectors are likely to chase them for centuries to come.

Frescoes: noble art for hallowed walls

Madonna with Child secco fresco sold for €600 ($712) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020 at A10 by Artmark in Bucharest, Romania. Image courtesy of A10 by Artmark and LiveAuctioneers

Painting on walls goes back to prehistory, when humans sketched animals, hunts, daily scenes and even their own handprints directly onto the interiors of their cave dwellings. Crude pigments made from plants, blood, red and yellow ochre (clay), charcoal, and other powdered minerals were used to render the images. Some wall art dates to 64,000 years ago.

Wall painting persists in the form of frescoes – the art of painting murals directly onto wet plaster with brushes dipped in colorful pigments. Like the works in paleolithic caves, as long as the plaster lasted, the painting did, too.

Ancient Greeks and Romans routinely used frescoes for decorating private homes, public buildings, palaces and temples. Frescoes from Pompeii continue to be excavated from the volcanic ash that buried the city in the year 79 A.D., and emerge looking as bright and colorful as they were when they were new. Frescoes became prominent in churches, cathedrals, and even in mosques and temples from the medieval period through the late Renaissance era.

Frescoes are created in two distinct techniques known as buon fresco and secco fresco. While the methods appear similar, the final results are distinctively different.

A 13th- to 16th-century Chinese polychrome fresco painting of a celestial deity with a Buddhist banner sold for €9,000 ($10,616) plus the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Galerie Zacke in Vienna. Image courtesy of Galerie Zacke and LiveAuctioneers

Buon Fresco

Buon fresco (Italian for “true fresh”) calls for mural imagery to be painted directly onto a specially-prepared three-layer wet plaster compound called intonico (Italian for “plaster”). As it dries, the plaster absorbs the pigments and the mural becomes part of the wall or ceiling itself. Buon fresco is durable as long as the plaster remains intact.

Tiziano Lucchesi, an instructor in fresco painting at the Studio Arts College International in Florence, Italy, explains the process of painting buon frescoes in three steps: “The background is laid out with a basic primer color while plaster is still wet … once the water is evaporated more, other colors can be added … before evaporation occurs … [and] … the last phase is where the evaporation is near complete and only retouches are possible.” Once the surface is ready, a charcoal or painted drawing, known as a cartoon, is laid over the top to provide the outline for the finished fresco.

Artists using the buon fresco technique must grapple with an unforgiving deadline to complete the work before the plaster dries completely. If it does, the buon fresco itself will be difficult to correct. Michelangelo’s images on the walls of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican might be the finest and best-known examples of buon fresco.

‘Dance,’ a 1939 Yannis Moralis study for a fresco, achieved €13,000 ($15,334) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Vergos Auctions P.C. in Athens. Image courtesy of Vergos Auctions P.C. and LiveAuctioneers

Secco Fresco

Secco fresco (Italian for “dry fresh”) requires painting mural scenes directly onto existing dry plaster. The target surface must be soaked with lime water before painting can begin. While the palette of paints for a buon fresco are made from a mix of dry pigment and water, those readied for a secco fresco require binders such as egg yolk, oil or glue.

Because the plaster is relatively dry, the artist has more time to complete a secco fresco than a buon fresco, but the technique has a significant disadvantage: the colors aren’t readily absorbed into the plaster and thus aren’t as durable. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is the best-known example of the secco fresco technique. The religious masterpiece has weathered the centuries poorly, demanding endless maintenance.

A sort of in-between technique, known as mezzo fresco (“medium fresh”), attempts to preserve the looser time schedule granted by secco fresco while strengthening the durability of the image it produces. Artists relying on mezzo fresco add lime water to their pigments in order to bind them more securely to the almost-dry plaster.

How to Tell the Difference Between the Two

According to experts, a quick way to spot the technique used to create a fresco is to assess its surface. Buon fresco is smoother overall; secco fresco is painted on existing dry plaster, which has a rougher appearance. Also, secco frescoes will noticeably craze, split and flake off, requiring constant attention and upkeep.

Schools of Fresco Painting

Painting on fresh plaster as a deliberate artistic style can be traced back at least 4,000 years, to the Minoan civilization near Crete. Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Roman and Northern African fresco paintings are prevalent on tombs, private homes, peristyles and public buildings from the ancient world. Catacombs in Rome feature buon fresco murals from the early Christian era. Even caves in the Indus Valley have examples of fresco murals from at least 1100 B.C., such as in the Brihadisvara Temple in India. These are all examples of very early fresco painting. Such works tend to head straight to national museums and are not usually made available at auction.

13th-century Chinese stucco fresco depicting a procession of female immortals, sold for €3,800 ($4,482) plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021 at Capitoliumart s.r.l. in Brescia, Italy. Image courtesy of Capitoliumart s.r.l. and LiveAuctioneers

Churches, cathedrals and houses of worship all relied on fresco murals to teach the lessons of the Bible in the 12th and 13th centuries. Many medieval fresco murals enliven the structures of the Eastern Orthodox community, such as Andrei Rublev’s frescoes in several prominent Moscow cathedrals. Giotto’s Betrayal of Christ, painted in 1305, is a celebrated medieval fresco that graces the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy.

The Italian Renaissance period was something of a golden age for fresco, with works rendered by Botticelli, Coreggio, and Massacio, as well as Michelangelo, whose Sistine Chapel frescoes became part of the very fabric of the ceiling of the Vatican. The painter known as Raphael created The School of Athens, one of the highest forms of fresco painting in the Vatican, completing it in 1511. Artists routinely painted frescoes until the early 16th century, when the medium’s use slowed considerably in favor of small and large oil paintings, which were far more portable.

The Baroque period, which spanned the late-16th to mid-18th century, marks the last great era for the fresco. Artists such as Pietro da Cortana, Carlo Miratta, and Tiepolo, whose frescoes featured in the Wurzburg Residences series of the 1750s, represented the last of the Italian Grand Manner painters of fresco art along with the Bolognese School.

After the Baroque Period, the use of fresco for enlivening interiors declined as an art form, although some artists, includingTheodore Chasseriau and Puvis de Chavannes, did work in the medium into the late 19th century.

A fresco ‘cartoon’ – a work laid over the target surface to provide an outline for the scene – created by Ben Long for his 2004 ‘Beheading of John the Baptist’ fresco sold for $350 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2014 at Tory Hill Auctions in Raleigh, N.C. Image courtesy of Tory Hill Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A few early 20th-century artists such as Diego Rivera, Francesco Clemente, David Siqueros and Jose Orozco, embraced the fresco technique as they led Mexican Muralism into prominence as part of a public art movement. Some projects commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the United States during the Great Depression featured secco frescoes by local artists that are still displayed in public buildings such as city halls, post offices and state capitals.

While it is not as dominant an art form as it once was, fresco painting continues to be taught online and at art schools. Budding and experienced art collectors will find examples at all levels with which to start, or enhance, any collection, and range from cartoons, studies and preparatory works to actual fragments or panels recovered from a building.

Qi Baishi: telling stories through brushstrokes

Four framed scrolls by Qi Baishi, titled ‘Flowers of the Four Seasons: Wisteria, Lotus, Chrysanthemum and Prunus,’ sold for $217,600 in March 2021 at Hindman in Chicago. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.

Anyone familiar with Chinese art history would be familiar with Qi Baishi (1864-1957), the renowned painter whose whimsical depictions of common objects and creatures made him a darling among collectors and art aficionados. Largely self-taught, Qi Baishi painted everything from animals to scenery to figures to vegetables. He was particularly fond of painting shrimps, fish, crabs, frogs, insects and peaches, which he rendered using heavy ink, bright colors and vigorous strokes that express his love of nature and of life.

A Qi Baishi scroll titled ‘Cricket & Leaf’ sold for $312 in April 2021 at Converse Auctions in Paoli, Pa. Image courtesy of Converse Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Qi Baishi was not born into privilege not by a long shot. He grew up in a large peasant family in Xiangtan, Hunan, as a sickly child who only attended public school for one year. At the age of 14 he decided to become a carpenter, but when he discovered a copy of the book Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, it sparked a desire in him to create art. He initially painted the human form, recruiting anyone he knew to pose for him. Later on, he received formal training in the gongbi mode, which emphasized fine brushwork and meticulous detail, and his subject list expanded.

A Qi Baishi painting titled ‘Chen Banding’ sold for $4,750 in Canadian dollars in June 2017 at Bowen Auction in Markham, Canada. Image courtesy of Bowen Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

He was taught that every aspect of painting mattered, from the subject matter to the way the ink was applied to the paper. Subsequent mentors steered Qi Baishi toward landscapes, which he executed with precision. Although he was trained in gongbi, he abandoned the approach and started painting in the freely expressive xieyi (“sketching thoughts”) style. He once said, “Paintings must be something between likeness and unlikeness, much like today’s vulgarians, but not like to cheat people.” He focused on life’s smaller things and not the larger landscape.

Qi Baishi was not his real name; he was born Qi Huang, but chose Baishi (Chinese for “white stone”) as a pseudonym. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that he ventured beyond his home province to see and experience more of China. Already adept at the arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal-carving (he once described himself as “the rich man of three hundred stone seals”), he came upon the Shanghai School, which was popular at the time, and was taken under the wing of Wu Changshuo, who inspired many of Qi’s subsequent works. About 15 years later, another influential teacher, Chen Shizeng, mentored him until he finally settled down in Beijing, in 1917.

A Qi Baishi Chinese traditional painting, signed and featuring red seals, sold for $156,000 in December 2018 at Lauren Gallery in Roswell, Ga. Image courtesy of Lauren Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Tommy Curtis, the president of Lauren Gallery in Roswell, Georgia, said Qi Baishi is without a doubt one of the best-known artists in China. “He began painting while still a teenager, and with no formal training,” Curtis said. Although Qi Baishi was best known for his painting and calligraphy, he considered his seal carvings his best work. Some of his major influences were the early Qing dynasty painter Bada Shanren and the Ming dynasty artist Xu Wei.”

Qi Baishi’s works are highly prized by collectors today. His paintings sell for between $20,000 to more than one million dollars,” Curtis said. “The value is based on the story of the painting as well as the colors and provenance. It does seem that his paintings are increasing in value.”

Qi Baishi watercolor painting of a group of carp, which sold for $193,600 in May 2015 at Eden Fine Antiques Galleries in Marietta, Ga. Image courtesy of Eden Fine Antiques Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

Mel Delzer, president of Eden Fine Antiques Galleries in Marietta, Georgia, said Qi Baishi’s works are known for their spontaneity and freshness. “Their value depends on the theme or story of the painting, the complications, the variety of colors and, of course, provenance. His paintings have been on a steady rise, excluding the 2020 pandemic market,” Delzer said.

It is estimated that Qi Baishi produced anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 distinct artworks. Of these, 3,000 are in museums. Since 1993, more than 16,000 of his paintings have appeared at auction. In 2011, an undated painting that was only attributed to him, titled Eagle Standing on Pine Tree, sold for $65.5 million. In 2017, his 1925 painting Twelve Landscape Scenes, which had solid authentication, soared to a staggering $140.8 million.

The Wheat Penny: rare ones harvest big money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1909 Wheat Penny

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

1910s

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

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

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

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

1920s

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

1930s

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

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

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

1940s

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

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

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

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

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

1950s

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

What Collectors Look For

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

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

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

Formidable Gang of 5 rules the toy robot realm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INSIDE EVERY YIXING TEAPOT: THE COLOR PURPLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emile Gruppe, Artist-King of Gloucester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolex: How a revered luxury brand evolved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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