Here be dragons

This pair of rampant dragon brooches set with brilliant-cut diamonds achieved €22,000 ($25,504) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Subastas Segre and LiveAuctioneers

Dragons fearsome, reptilian, legendary creatures have appeared in the cultures and lore of dozens of communities across the world, but their characteristics vary from region to region. 

China’s relationship with dragons stretches back thousands of years. It portrays its dragons as wise, benevolent, powerful protectors that symbolize wealth and good fortune. Chinese dragons are not only capable of changing their size, shape, and color, they also manage to fly despite lacking wings. Because Chinese tradition says they dwell in distant waters, these beasts are associated with rainfall, waterfalls, floods and typhoons. 

A Chinese carved and underglaze red Dragons and Waves vase, made for the Yongzheng court, sold for $1.9 million plus the buyer’s premium at Freeman’s in April 2021. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.

Some Chinese dragons that are carved into seals, sculptures, or brush bowls feature auspicious turtle bodies. Others depicted on scrolls, sculptures, mahjong tiles and porcelain appear as four-legged, undulating beings. Larger dragon motifs, which are hugely popular at festive occasions such as the Chinese New Year, incorporate nine lucky animal aspects. These can include camel heads, deer antlers, cat whiskers, dog noses, lion manes, tiger claws, hare eyes, carp scales and snake-like necks. 

During the Imperial Era, Chinese emperors and their immediate families wore so-called “dragon robes,” exquisite silk tapestries featuring dragon motifs, which symbolized majesty, wisdom, wealth, good fortune, authority and benevolence. 

Although Indian, Japanese, Indonesian and Korean dragon motifs closely resemble Chinese ones, the feet of the animals may differ. Japanese dragons generally feature three claws per foot, while Indonesian ones have four and Korean ones five. 

A Ming dynasty dragon box realized $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019. Image courtesy of Rivertown Antiques and Estate Services and LiveAuctioneers

 

Because Eastern dragons symbolize good luck and prosperity, their stylized images adorn innumerable porcelain items such as seals, teapots, bowls, boxes, vases, garden stools, planters and incense burners. Images of dragons set against billowing clouds also decorate luxurious repousse silver teapots, trinket boxes, hand mirrors, bracelets and brooches. 

Dragon seals, sculptures, plaques, pendants, and belt buckles carved from jade were considered doubly auspicious by the Chinese. The mythical animals represent prosperity, while jade represents longevity and immortality.

A Russian cloisonne enameled loving cup with figural dragon handles achieved $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2019. Image courtesy of ELITE AUCTIONEERS LLC and LiveAuctioneers

European dragons were very different beasts from those that animated the Eastern imagination. According to medieval tradition, these ancient, winged, scaly, toothy, fire-breathing creatures dwelled in dark forests, deep pools, damp caves and far reaches, guarding piles of fabulous treasure. When the dragons ventured out among mortals, they would mercilessly slaughter flocks of sheep and devastate entire villages. Unsurprisingly, slaying a dragon became a key aspect of European heroic myths. 

A Great Britain gold 5-pound quintuple sovereign BU/Proof depicting St. George slaying the dragon realized $3,650 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Golden Gate Auctioneer and LiveAuctioneers

St. George and the Dragon, the best known of these myths, was widely spread by returning Crusaders in 1200 CE. In one version of the tale, when sacrificial offerings of sheep failed to appease a local dragon, desperate villagers offered their children instead. The very day the king’s daughter was to be devoured, St. George miraculously appeared and rushed to the rescue, slaying the beast with his sword and symbolically defeating paganism. The story ends with the grateful population converting to Christianity. Depictions of St. George and the Dragon have been the subject of countless prints, paintings, porcelains, sculptures, coins, medals, and most notably, vibrant Russian religious icons; George is the patron saint of Russia and England as well as Portugal, Bulgaria, and, fittingly enough, Georgia. 

A Russian Pelakh icon depicting St. George slaying the dragon in sight of guardian angels, holy people, and members of the court sold for $44,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2012. Image courtesy of
Jackson’s International Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Mythical dragon images continue to charm and beguile us. Three-dimensional figural tributes serve as slithery loving cup handles, teapot spouts, table bases and lighting fixtures. Dragons not only crawl across rugs and tapestries but also feature in fantastical dragon-shaped rings, earrings, pendants, bracelets and brooches. 

An animation cel depicting an open-mouthed Smaug the dragon from Rankin/Bass’s 1977 film ‘The Hobbit’ sold for $1,650 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2015. Image courtesy of Weiss Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Fans of J. R. R. Tolkien may find depictions of Smaug, the devious antagonist of The Hobbit, most captivating dragon of all. Smaug, in Tolkien’s words, is the medieval dragon personified:

 I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong, Thief in the Shadows! … My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”

Whether they symbolize Eastern luck and light or Western darkness and destruction, dragons remain part of our collective culture and our artistic inspiration. Like mapmakers of old describing distant shores, we too might whimsically gaze across a carefully amassed collection of themed treasures and say, “here be dragons.”

Collecting cookbooks: Making a meal of it

A 1671 cookbook by Robert May, ‘The Accomplisht Cook or the Art and Mystery of Cookery,’ sold in January 2015 for about $670. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Nothing speaks of home and hearth more than a well-used cookbook. A favorite recipe for grandma’s noodles, Aunt Betty’s apple crisp pie, Dad’s chili, or Mom’s Thanksgiving turkey is the very definition of ‘comfort food.’ 

Cookbooks didn’t start as nostalgic compilations of beloved family dishes, however. Up until at least the 17th century, instructions on cooking were largely straightforward functional documents created by the (primarily male) lead chefs for the kitchen staffs of prominent households. Those who lacked the power and prestige to immortalize their culinary creations on paper – aka everyone else –passed down the art and science of cooking through on-the-job training at home, one meal at a time.

A 1541 reprint of ‘Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome’ by Apicius realized $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The first authenticated book of recipes in book form is De Re Coquinaria, which is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived during the reign of Tiberius in the 1st century (or maybe the 5th century, according to some scholars). The recipes, written in Latin, were arranged by meats, vegetables, fish and fowl, and even included housekeeping hints, a practice that later cookbooks would embrace.

After the advent of the printing press, cookbooks slowly turned into a distinct genre. Some showcased local cuisines and reflected whether and how its cooks employed spices, and when they prepared exotic animals for the table, such as the peacock. Tips for running a kitchen and a home appeared as well. As these household mainstays moved closer to transcending the role of the instruction manual, they evolved into anthropological documents that reveal and preserve cultural practices and values.

The first cookbook printed in the United States appeared in 1796 and was authored by Amelia Simmons, who described herself as ‘an American orphan.’ An 1808 edition sold for $1,200 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The first cookbook published in the United States was American Cookery, which was released in 1796 and written by Amelia Simmons, an American orphan. Recognized by the Library of Congress as one of the ‘Books That Shaped America,’ American Cookery was the first to rely on ingredients found only in the United States. Simmons identified pumpkin pie, cranberries with turkey, and the cookie (spelled as the Dutch word ‘cookey’) for the first time in a printed work. American Cookery became a bestseller for nearly 30 years and it continues to be reprinted by the Oxford University Press and Dover Publications.

Measurements for ingredients in cookbooks of centuries past were annoyingly inexact, advising home chefs to add a pinch of this or a bit of that without quantifying the size of said pinch or bit. Cooking temperatures weren’t uniform, either. Nor could they be, as cooks of the pre-Industrial age readied meals in open fireplaces in huge pots and kettles that could feed scores in one sitting or feed a smaller group several days’ worth of meals.

All that changed when Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families was published in London in 1845. She specified the amount of each ingredient in her recipes and standardized the cooking times. So obviously useful was this approach to recipe design that subsequent cookbook authors were compelled to adopt it.

A first edition of ‘Pauline’s Practical Book of the Culinary Art for Clubs, Home or Hotels,’ the third cookbook written by an African American woman, realized $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2019. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

In 1896, Fannie Farmer, the director of Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, published The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, which standardized cookbooks once and for all. Farmer’s contribution was a byproduct of the domestic science movement of the late 19th century, which ultimately gave rise to the discipline of home economics. Farmer placed supreme emphasis on giving precise measurements that could be confirmed and delivered by teaspoons, cups, and other purpose-made kitchen tools we now take for granted. Farmer’s focus was so intense, she became known as the mother of level measurements. Nor did she overlook the niceties of the presentation of a meal, or the merits of its nutritional qualities. Her cookbooks were so thorough, comprehensive, and revolutionary as easy-to-follow guides that they are still in print. Well-known 20th-century cookbooks such as The Joy of Cooking, Betty Crocker’s Cook Book, Better Homes and Gardens, and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking followed the format of American Cookery and Fanny Farmer’s works.

Collectors of cookbooks have as many options for approaching and categorizing their libraries as there are goods at a supermarket. Unfortunately, it is impossible to own an antique cookbook that contains what might be the best-known line from a recipe: “First, catch your hare.” The wry comment that captures the wisdom of starting at step one has been attributed to Hannah Glasse’s 1747 best-seller The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy, and also to Isabella Beeton, author of the 1861 favorite, Beeton’s Book of Household Management, but the phrase doesn’t appear in either woman’s book. Glasse, however, comes closest in her recipe for roasting a hare, which states, “Take your Hare when it is cas’d [skinned] and make a Pudding.”

Collectors can target books by region, by nation, by language, by era, and by food group. They can concentrate on cookbooks of nouvelle cuisine; on cookbooks that teach how to produce an absurdly wide range of meals with a single piece of kitchen equipment, such as a Dutch oven or a crockpot; and on cookbooks created for religious communities, such as Kochbuch für Israelitische Frauen (Cookbook for Jewish Women) which was published in 1901. The subcategory of the celebrity cookbook long predates the rise of the celebrity chef, and features many authors who made their reputations in other arenas before publishing a tome of recipes.

‘Les Diners De Gala Suite,’ a 1973 cookbook by Salvador Dali that also contained 12 color lithographs and his signature, achieved $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2013. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Diet books have been bestsellers for generations and provide a telling window on the concerns and anxieties of those who first purchased them. Yet another notable cookbook category features one main course or major ingredient, such as The Pescatarian Cookbook, created for people who eat fish rather than any other meat.

Holiday cookbooks are a perennial favorite. Many people who don’t bother with books full of day-to-day recipes clear room on their shelves for seasonal cookbooks, grateful for the refresher on preparing dishes they only make once a year, and grateful for ideas for indulgent, over-the-top dishes that delight the eyes just as much as the stomach. Popular choices in this realm include How to Cook Everything Thanksgiving by Mark Bittman, which was first published in 2012, as well as the annual Christmas with Southern Living titles. Both help steer their readers through the stress of cooking for holiday gatherings. 

An author-inscribed first edition of ‘The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book’ that contained the infamous recipe for hashish fudge sold for $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

One thing that collectors of cookbooks are never required to do is put their prizes to the purpose for which they were published. Sure, cookbooks that feature smudges, smoke-scorched pages, or cryptic handwritten notes in the margin gain an aura of authenticity that a rigidly pristine example lacks, but when it comes to book-collecting, clean copies always win. Perhaps the solution is to gather two versions of the same cookbook – one to keep in mint condition, and another that sports the wear and tear that comes with being loved and trusted by generations who rose from kitchen novices to seasoned experts while turning its pages. 

Bon appetit.

Golden Opportunities in Bars and Ingots

An example of gold bullion that was formed into a large rectangular ingot of one 24K gold kilo (2.2 pounds) sold for $105,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020. Image courtesy of Tyler Louis Jewelry and LiveAuctioneers

The enduring passion for gold is so strong and obvious, it almost defies explanation. Most of us are content to possess gold in the form of coins, medals or jewelry, but those are not the only available options, like gold bars and ingots, or oblong blocks. These particular forms of gold were intended as a functional, no-frills way to quantify, store and transport the precious metal. But the shiny, heavy yellow rectangles prove enchanting nonetheless. Contrary to what some may assume, gold bars and ingos are not restricted to the ultra-secure facilities of banks and governments. They can be purchased quite easily. You just need to know what to look for.

An ingot dating to the early 20th century and traced to the Vulture Mine near Wickenburg, Arizona, achieved $31,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Holabird Western Americana Collections and LiveAuctioneers.

The two main choices in this unconventional realm of gold ownership are cast bullion and minted ingots. The first can be purchased through refineries, with cast bars weighing up to 400 ounces, or 27.5 pounds.

The second easily portable, smaller ingots authorized by governments or private mints are more affordable and accessible, and can weigh as little as one gram. Both are acceptable ways to own physical gold, provided they come with the correct documentation.

Historic Gold

For centuries, humans have crudely fashioned gold into bars or ingots to make the metal easier to ship. Vintage and antique gold bars that have survived in their utilitarian form offer collectors something that a gold coin can’t match, and that is heft.

A late Qing Dynasty 32-gram gold ingot with its original Chinese markings sold for $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020, although its intrinsic value was only about $1,663. Image courtesy of Golden Moments Auction and LiveAuctioneers

As with any collectible, the rarity, history, condition and size of the gold ingot will determine its worth beyond the intrinsic value of the gold itself. For example, a 32-gram gold ingot minted in China in the 19th century during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) was sold at auction on June 9, 2020 for $2,600, a sum well above its intrinsic value. The Chinese ingot is more than just gold; it is history you can hold in your hand.

Avoiding Fakes

Just about anything for which people will fight to pay top prices makes it a target for counterfeiters, and gold bars and ingots are no exception. A method commonly favored by crooks involves applying a thin layer of gold to a brick made from a less valuable substance usually tungsten. The atomic weight of tungsten (74) is reasonably close to that of gold (79), but its price is not; it sells for 90 percent less. Canny collectors can foil bad actors by weighing a gold bar to at least four decimal places using a troy ounce (31.1034 grams) measurement instead of an avoirdupois ounce (28.35 grams). If the piece under consideration is, in fact, gold and not an alloy, the weight of both it and the troy ounce should match.

Another way to detect a bogus bar is to test it with a magnet. A wide range of metals, tungsten included, are magnetic, but gold is not. If a magnet reacts to a gold bar or ingot, the gold contains a metal alloy that should not be there. 

It is also important for an interested buyer to confirm all of the identifying marks stamped on a gold bar or ingot. These may include the foundry’s name, the year of production, a production number, the assayer’s monogram, the fineness of the gold, serial numbers, and the piece’s official weight. This information should be compared to the certificate of authenticity issued by the refinery, government agency or private mint. 

A 56.65-ounce gold bar bearing a Harris, Marchand & Co. stamp sold for $230,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2017. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

In addition, it is vital to check the company stamps on the gold against official ones to ensure counterfeiters aren’t replicating the stamps themselves. Some private mints have added holograms directly to their ingots during the manufacturing process to provide additional security. These hologram-sporting pieces are known as kinebars, and sometimes the holograms can actually make them more desirable to collectors. The fanciful artistic hologram design on a gold ingot from Argor-Heraeus in Switzerland sold in April 2020 for a hammer price of $2,300, or about 26% above the spot price of gold at the time.

Holograms were introduced as a security feature for small, minted gold ingots, but artistic holograms can add value. A fanciful design on a one-ounce gold bar from Argor-Heraeus in Switzerland realized $2,300 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020. That sum was about 26% above the spot price of gold at the time. Image courtesy of 3 Kings Auction and LiveAuctioneers

While most of the world’s gold is currently mined in China, the United States has produced more gold to date than any other nation, according to a September 2020 BBC report by Justin Harper. Russia, Australia, South Africa, and Peru are other significant sources. Much of the counterfeit gold in circulation comes from countries such as North Korea, which have few to no gold mining operations. Ironically, China is considered a primary source of counterfeit gold bars as well as the genuine article. Of course, industry leaders firmly insist that all gold bars and ingots should only come from reputable dealers or mints.

The Future of Gold 

Of all the gold in existence today, about 201,000 tons, or 75% of it, was mined after 1910. Even more startling is the fact that the world’s entire historic supply of gold would easily fit inside an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Explorer Mel Fisher appeared on television more than once with this petite 18.65-ounce gold bar, which he recovered in 1979 from the shipwreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha. It realized $75,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2015. Image courtesy of Guernsey’s and LiveAuctioneers

Our planet has yet to be drained of its gold supply. Another 15 billion pounds of the glittering stuff is believed to be lurking in seawater and along the seabeds of the oceans. The unexplored reaches of Antarctica could contain gold deposits, and the moon is suspected to have seams of the precious metal, too. Your golden opportunity to acquire bars or ingots is all around you, including in online auctions such as those hosted on LiveAuctioneers.

Canine Portraiture: Best In Show Forever

An 18th-century portrait of a King Charles Spaniel sold for $5,200 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $200-$300 in April 2018. Image courtesy of David Killen Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Each year the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show showcases the best of dog breeds and crowns one the Best in Show. It is an honor that is remembered for generations, particularly if a well-known artist paints a portrait of the winner.

An antique English canine portrait of a spaniel in a classic pointer pose sold for $2,900 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers and LiveAuctioneers.

Paintings of canines are not new. Wealthy owners have immortalized their favorite dogs for centuries, partly for their love for the animal and partly as a status symbol that both enhances and advertises their standing as a member of the upper classes. “The Middle Ages saw dogs being illustrated in hunting scenes, symbolizing their loyalty, bravery, and affinity between man and dog,” wrote Claire Rhodes in the 2014 article Portrayal of Dogs in Art and History for holiday4dogs.co.uk.

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer’s ‘Four Dogs in a Stable’ achieved $8,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2018. Image courtesy of Abell Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Charles I of England had his namesake Cavalier King Charles Spaniels included in family portraits done by the superlative artist Anthony van Dyke, but it was Queen Victoria who presided over a Golden Age of canine paintings. Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, commissioned royal portraits of her many dog companions, and her passion helped foster a market that allowed artists to specialize in the niche. Some artists preferred depicting purebred dogs standing, sitting or lounging on the laps of their owners, while others favored showing them in action hunting, playing, chasing, and just, well, being a dog. Sir Edwin Landseer was arguably the most famous painter of animals, particularly horses and dogs, during the Victorian era.

‘Landscape Portrait,’ a 1994 Polaroid by William Wegman, realized $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Contemporary artists who specialize in portraits of dogs succeed by capturing the animal’s individuality as well as its appearance. Many of these artists like sticking with sub-niches of the genre. William Wegman, for example, concentrates on Weimaraners, a large breed that royal families relied on to hunt big game such as boars, bears and deer, but he made his artistic reputation using his own pets as models, and not with commissioned canine portraiture. Jim Killen paints sporting dogs – animals bred to assist hunters – at work in vibrant watercolor. Other canine portraitists, such as Steven Townsend, Ron Burns and Paul Doyle, paint a variety of different breeds.

Ron Burns’ colorful 2008 dog portrait, ‘Roxie Caulfield,’ sold for $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Would-be collectors of dog portraits enjoy a range of choices for how to enter the field and how to pursue their prizes. Chris Fox, Associate Deputy Director of Americana for William Doyle Galleries, summed them up succinctly following a 2020 Dogs in Art auction. “There are three categories: Sporting, pet, and mixed breed,” he said. “The breed portraits show how breed standards have changed. For instance, an 18th- or early 19th-century Pekinese has a snout that is different than today’s dog. Usually, people collect by breed and quality of the work. Most costly are pictures of sporting dogs such as retrievers, hounds and setters. Next would be Afghan hounds. On the down money scale would be lap dogs spaniels, terriers, and pugs. Last would be working dogs such as German shepherds and border collies.”

According to dealers and collectors, personality is also essential to the success and appeal of a dog portrait. An oil painting by Percival Leonard Rosseau titled Scent’s Up sold for double its estimate at the auction for $31,250. Rousseau’s ability to capture the personalities of the dogs certainly helped drive the bidding.

‘Scent’s Up’ by Percival Leonard Rousseau achieved $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2008. Image courtesy of Neal Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers.

While dog portraits can sell well at auction, the emotional aspects of the artistic genre effectively frustrates and discourages those who are determined to see only dollar signs. Well-rendered images of man’s best friend – those that transcend mere accuracy and competence and communicate something deep and profound about the wonder, the joy, and, yes, the absurdity of owning a dog – are precisely the images that resonate with collectors. Exceptional dog portraits are born from love rather than money. They aren’t just fit to earn the title of Best in Show; they earn the title of best at home, too.

Cyanotypes: Images Out of the Blue

A unique, signed 2008 cyanotype by Christian Marclay sold for $5,250 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020. Image courtesy of Hess Fine Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Cyanotypes are almost as old as photography itself, but until now their use has been industrial, most often being seen in the form of architectural blueprints. Now they are starting to gain respect as an art form, as curators, contemporary artists and art collectors explore their history and potential.

Discovered in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, who also gave the process its name, the cyanotype might be the most widely used alternative photographic form in existence. Cyanotypes are cheap and easy to make; all the recipe calls for is paper, a mix of two chemicals (ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide), water, sunlight and time. That’s it. No darkroom or costly, cutting-edge professional camera equipment required – in fact, no camera is required at all. The odds are good that you, the reader, made a cyanotype in a school art class by placing an object on chemically-treated paper, exposing it to light, and waiting. Once you were happy with what you saw, you washed the image to “fix” it, allowed it to dry, and admired the result. Making a cyanotype might actually have been your first experience as a photographer, long before you received your first camera or smartphone.

Its very simplicity and ease of use doomed the cyanotype’s artistic reputation for centuries. The gatekeepers of fine art unsurprisingly looked down their collective noses on a process that almost anyone could master. Another strike against it was the hue imparted by its chemicals – the “cyan” of its name. Photography itself struggled to be taken seriously as a fine-art medium for more than a century. More so, a form of it that portrayed the world in a deep, strong, almost aggressive blue, rather than a sober black-and-white or civilized sepia tone, found few advocates. The 19th century writer P.H. Emerson went so far as to say, “No one but a vandal would print a landscape in red, or in cyanotype.”

A group of nine early 20th-century botanical cyanotypes by Bertha Jaques realized $4,600 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

What changed? According to Nancy Burns, Stoddard associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in Worcester, Massachusetts, cyanotypes won their chance to shine after technological changes prompted people to think anew. “When digital photography came around, the question ‘What is a photograph?’ was staring everyone right in the face,” she said. “As a result, some photographers embraced a new ‘post-film’ photographic landscape while others began to revisit various ‘extinct’ photographic processes like cyanotype, tintype, platinum, and daguerreotype. I think that’s the biggest reason you see a resurgence in the medium at the turn of the 20th to 21st century.”

Deborah Rogel, Director of the Photographs & Photobooks departments at Swann Auction Galleries, has witnessed the same phenomenon. “The so-called alternative processes [including cyanotypes] have become very interesting to artists and collectors,” she said. “For me what this really comes down to is an interest in the process itself from both the collector and the maker – the ways in which photographic images can be translated to and produced on paper. And, of course, cyanotypes are quite beautiful, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before collectors began to invest more interest in them.”

The best-known contemporary cyanotypes are probably those of Christian Marclay, the American-Swiss artist who explores aspects of sound and audio, and to a lesser extent, obsolete technology. Around 2008, he created a series of cyanotypes featuring cassette tapes, and he published a book of his cyanotypes in 2011. A 2008 cyanotype by Marclay showing a single clear cassette tape spooling ribbons of white onto a cobalt background sold for $5,250 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020.

‘Jocob’s Ladder,’ one of two John Dugdale limited edition cyanotypes offered as a single lot in August 2020, realized $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

Another contemporary artist who has embraced the cyanotype is John Dugdale, an LGBT artist who in the early 1990s lost most of his vision to complications of AIDS. It has not stopped him from creating riveting works of art in cyanotype and other photographic processes. In August 2020, Swann offered as one lot a pair of framed Dugdale cyanotypes, Jocob’s Ladder and Cresent Moon, both dating to the 1990s. They realized $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium. “Dugdale’s power as a photographer is illustrated beautifully in this pair of cyanotypes,” said Rogel. “He uses the blue tones to render both atmosphere and mood, and draws out an unparalleled level of detail and lush dimensionality within what is essentially a range of light to very dark blue. His work is timeless and beautiful, and in this way the cyanotype is the perfect format for his work.”

When contemporary artists shine a light on an overlooked art medium, it stokes interest in the works of those who came before. Almost a decade after Marclay released his cyanotypes, Burns co-curated the first dedicated museum show about the medium held in the United States, and possibly the first such show mounted anywhere on the planet. She and her colleague Kristina Wilson, a professor of art history at Clark University, which is also in Worcester, Massachusetts, knew that WAM had an intriguing collection of cyanotypes and thought it could support a museum exhibition. But as the two dug deeper, they made a startling discovery.

A circa-1852 botanical cyanotype by Anna Atkins achieved $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2016. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

“Kristina and I realized that we couldn’t find a single exhibition catalog that focused on cyanotypes aside from the work of Anna Atkins. We had stumbled into a genuinely new topic for scholarly exploration and museum display,” she said. “There was a bit of excitement and anxiety that came along with that realization, too. I remember thinking, ‘Is it even possible to do this in seven-ish months? Should we put this on a backburner for another time?’ But we were so enamored with the idea at that point, Kristina and I were going to figure out a way to make it work.” Their efforts culminated in the 2016 show Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period, which received much media coverage and introduced thousands of museum-goers and countless online visitors to the medium.

Another possible reason behind the rising interest in cyanotypes is several early practitioners were women, and greater attention is being paid to women artists. Anna Atkins, who Butler mentions above, is credited with creating the very first photo book, in 1843, a year before the photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot published The Pencil of Nature. She released the first volume of her work British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in 1843 and released the other two volumes during the decade that followed, giving one of the dozen-or-so sets to Talbot. While Atkins’ rare book has yet to appear in a May 2016 sale conducted on LiveAuctioneers, a circa-1852 cyanotype by her, dubbed Peiris Grandifolia, achieved $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium.

Another image from the group of nine early 20th-century botanical cyanotypes by Bertha Jaques that realized $4,600 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

In June 2020, Swann Auction Galleries handled a set of cyanotypes made circa 1900-1906 by Bertha Jaques, another lauded cyanotypist. As with the Atkins cyanotype sold in 2016, the set of nine images were photograms – a form of cyanotype created by laying an object, such as a flower or a branch, directly onto chemically-treated paper and then bathing everything in light. The lot notes described the set as “rich” phonograms. Rogel explains the term applied because “the images were quite a vivid blue, and many with crisp delineation of the forms throughout. They are just stunning – Jaques absolutely perfected the process … In her imagery, the specifics of the specimen are identifiable, but rendered in a way that heightens and accentuates the strangeness and beauty of their form.”

An Edward Curtis cyanotype, ‘With Her Proudly Decked Horse – Cayuse,’ sold for $3,600 in June 2021. Image courtesy of Santa Fe Art Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Another notable, but not prolific, source of cyanotypes is Edward S. Curtis, creator of the epic early 20th century ethnographic work The North American Indian. Curtis probably did not invent the notion of using cyanotypes to check the quality of his photographs, but he was certainly motivated to do so. J.P. Morgan gave him $75,000 to pursue the project, which forced Curtis to travel to some of the most remote locations in the country to obtain the 40,000 to 50,000 negatives he is estimated to have produced. He absolutely needed a way to confirm on the spot, hundreds or thousands of miles from his darkroom, that what he shot that day was good or needed a retake. Cyanotypes let him do that.

“They were his version of a Polaroid – a good way to proof something, to see a negative of what he shot in the field,” said Peter Bernardy, studio manager of Christopher Cardozo Fine Art in St. Paul, Minnesota, which was founded by a leading collector of Curtis images. He explained that Curtis “…would tear a sheet from notebook, coat it with emulsion, and let dry maybe 30 minutes to an hour to create a piece of photographic paper. Then he would take a negative he created that day, place it in contact with sheet of paper, expose it to the sun, and develop it in water. It’s very easy to do anywhere, really. If he saw a problem [in the cyanotype,] he might try to recapture the image. The cyanotype was the first step in the editing process, a very early step.”

Curtis cyanotypes are not just beautiful; they also give a glimpse of the artist at work. “Cyanotypes are the closest you’ll ever get to Curtis’s hand in the moment. This is what he used if he wanted an immediate feel for what he just photographed,” said Gillian Blitch, President and CEO of Santa Fe Art Auction, which in late June 2021 conducted an auction of Cardozo’s collection of Curtis photographs.

More than a dozen Curtis cyanotypes were in that sale, including a 1910 example titled With Her Proudly Decked Horse – Cayuse, which realized $3,600. “I love that piece, it’s wonderful. The expression on her face, the dignity and the elegance of that piece are striking. It’s got an amazing charisma to it,” Blitch said, adding, “You are looking at it as Curtis looked at it in the field, in a tent in the middle of a location. It’s quite mesmerizing.”

A group of five Edward Curtis cyanotypes from 1911, picturing dancing members of the Cheyenne tribal community, sold for $4,800 in June 2021. Image courtesy of Santa Fe Art Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Given that Curtis regarded cyanotypes merely as tools to check his work, it’s amazing that any of them survive. Bernardy says that Curtis routinely shared them with the sitters, and whatever he didn’t give away made it back to his studio, where he would file it. The few that manage to reach the market are prizes indeed.

With cyanotypes in the first blush of being collected as cyanotypes rather than as blueprints of homes by Frank Lloyd Wright or examples of early photography, the field is open for collectors seeking an exciting new niche. “I am hopeful that there is a lot of potential for growth in this area of collecting,” Rogel said. “Broadening the conversations around inclusivity of maker, format, and purpose under the very broad photographic umbrella is certainly a goal of mine, both as a specialist and an advocate for the medium. The more collectors are able to see and appreciate the numerous ways in which photography is used and can be understood, the more growth potential there is. Cyanotypes are often at an accessible price point for new collectors, and as I’ve mentioned, their unusual and appealing visual features make them a great entry point.”

“I feel like cyanotypes are a bug that you catch and never shake,” Butler said. “I’ll be the first to say that I have a very soft spot in my heart for them. I find the same is true with collectors. At least in my experience, people who collect cyanotypes really love them for their jewel-like sapphire glow and their peculiarity. Have I seen an uptick in collecting them? Yes. I think that can certainly be attributed to the fact that they are getting greater exposure and as a result more artists are trying their hand at the medium.”

Trade Beads: First-String Collectibles

A collection of several strands of trade beads, boasting a range of colors, realized $125 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2015. Image courtesy of Sterling Associates and LiveAuctioneers

Africans have valued cowrie-shell and bone beads since well before written history. Tribes eagerly accepted the sleek, shiny glass beads that 15th-century European traders offered in exchange for commodities such as salt, gold, palm oil or ivory. 

Because trade beads were typically produced on demand to suit the tastes of those on the receiving end, their designs varied from village to village. And since their production numbers were in the thousands, it can be difficult to link specific ones to particular African regions. One exception is the large, round, chunky variety known as “Dutch Dogons,” which were produced in the Netherlands or Germany during the 19th century. They have been found in vast quantities in central Mali, home of the Dogon tribespeople. Most are bright cobalt blue, while others are brown, black, or white. 

A strand of Dogon cobalt glass ring or “annular” beads sold for $100 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020. Image courtesy of Allard Auctions Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Thousands upon thousands of African trade beads were also produced in Venice and Murano, Italy. Doughnut and pineapple-shape glass chevrons, which are the most common, feature characteristic layering produced by winding multiple molten colored glass rods around hollow canes. This resulted in a layered stripe or ornamental rosetta-star pattern, usually in combinations of red, white, and blue. Deep green chevron beads, known as “watermelons,” feature delicate white, green, and red stripes. 

Bi-conical king chevrons, highly favored by tribal chiefs, do not depict rosettas. Instead, they display characteristic horizontal stripes produced by winding molten yellow, black, and green glass threads around long, thin central rods, then shaping them. 

A string of African chevron trade beads realized $80 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021. Image courtesy North American Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Spherical French cross beads, also known as “Bedoums,” range from 5mm to more than 12mm (roughly a quarter to a half-inch) in size. As with king chevrons, they were created by winding molten glass around metal cores. Most feature thin, colorful crosses or trailed designs applied by hand. Because these beads were produced in limited numbers, many Africans, particularly those in central Mali and along the coast of West African, found them desirable. 

Venetian skunk beads, on the other hand, were traded along the coast of East Africa. As merchants ventured inland in search of additional resources, these distinctive red, black, or white dotted pieces, also known as “eye beads,” eventually found their way to Mali. 

A group of Venetian millefiori glass trade beads achieved $475 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2016. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Throughout Africa, Venetian millefiori, or “thousand flower” beads, were the most prized of all. They featured tiny floral patterns created by arranging colorful glass threads in hollow glass rods that were fused, then drawn thin. After slicing these rods into tiny, slender, cross-sectional round discs, each disc was shaped around a metal core and fired. 

During the mid-1800s, large, luminous moon beads, likely invented in Murano, appeared on select sample cards used by European bead manufacturers to market their wares. These beads are often associated with the Yoruba people of present-day Nigeria, who believed that the moon held spiritual significance. 

Multiple strands of yellow-dominated Venetian glass African trade beads sold for $240 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2016. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

From the 19th century on, enormous numbers of African trade beads were produced in Bohemia. Most were inspired by so-called “bead researchers” who, after consulting with merchants across Europe, brought sketches of popular designs to Bohemian glass manufacturers. Though most of their beads were relatively simple, innovative technical strides allowed uniform, high-quality, speedy production. 

Bohemian Mali wedding beads, popular among the Fulani people, often resembled pineapples, hourglasses or lightbulbs. Their bulbous shapes, which symbolized fertility in Mali culture, sparked a tradition of fathers giving them to daughters just before a wedding. The beads were available in single opaque shades as well as flecked and striped varieties. 

Round or oval Bohemian colodontes, also known as “hummingbird egg” or “pigeon egg” beads, resemble smooth, round, glossy eggs like those laid by small birds. They have been found not only in Mali, but also along the West African coast. 

A trade bead collection including millefiori, chevron, sand cast, wound glass and Hudson Bay red-white hearts realized $150 plus the buyer’s premium i

As African trade beads passed from hand to hand and continent to continent, many suffered fading, pitting, chipping, and other signs of excessive use. Yet today, each is a poignant, visually striking and highly collectible piece of history. 

FLY ME TO THE MOON: SPACE-FLOWN FLAGS

A flag signed by Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott, which he carried in his space suit when he walked on the moon’s surface, sold in September 2020 for $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of RR Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

We can’t all go to space, even if we desperately want to. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the governing body that defines space flight, states that as of July 2021, only 574 individuals from 41 countries have made it to outer space, which is defined as traveling higher than 100 miles or 62 kilometers. Of those 574, just 12 have walked on the moon.

The next-best thing to traveling in space is owning a souvenir that did. Flags might be the most iconic space-flown collectibles. They combine national identity, culture, community, ideals and history, all in one recognizable medium. And with the price of launching cargo into orbit still hovering around $10,000 per pound, flags have the merit of being flat, light and easy to roll up or fold. While space-flown flags are relatively abundant compared to other space-flown objects, they aren’t unlimited in number, and those from the early years of space exploration can be difficult to acquire.

In April 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to circle the Earth. It’s not known whether or not his tiny capsule contained personal souvenirs. In contrast, NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions routinely permitted souvenir items on spacecraft, the lunar landing craft and even the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) – what most of us would call the moon buggy. To conserve weight, American flags measuring no larger than 4 by 6 inches were allowed on board (larger flags were flown as well, just not as many). Individual astronauts carried these flags in a Personal Preference Kit, or PPK.

A flag flown on STS-1 Columbia, the first space shuttle mission, sold in May 2016 for $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NASA had its own Official Flight Kit, or OFK, in which flags and similar souvenirs were sent on behalf of the agency itself. Anything in the astronauts’ kits belonged to them; anything in the NASA kits were property of NASA. Collectors care about this distinction. Flags carried by American astronauts in PPKs have higher auction values overall than those that ventured to space in a NASA OFK.

Several hundred American flags went to space on the early NASA missions, and most of those were of the 4-by-6-inch variety, according to collectspace.com. Many more flags were brought into space during the NASA shuttle program. Tthe final shuttle mission, STS-135 Atlantis in 2011, listed 20,000 small US flags in its cargo manifest. Flags continue to make the extraterrestrial roundtrip as part of the inventory of the International Space Station.

Larger flags carried aboard the early NASA missions and on shuttle flights were usually earmarked for specific presentations at schools, nonprofit programs, government agencies and as gifts for international visitors. The website spaceflownartifacts.com states these examples rarely appear at auction.

Collectors consider four major factors when determining the value of

a space-flown flag: 

1 – which space mission took it to the stars and back

2 – whether it made the journey in a PPK or an OPK

3 – where it was stored during the voyage

4 – who owned the flag during the flight and after it returned to Earth.

A flag carried aboard the Apollo 11 mission and later signed by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin sold in November 2004 for $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Flags flown on Mercury and Gemini NASA missions are relatively scarce and highly desired because they rank among the earliest objects to orbit the planet. Flags from space shuttle missions and those taken aboard the International Space Station qualify as space-flown but are much more accessible and affordable, especially for new collectors.

Understandably, flags flown on any of the 12 Apollo lunar missions always have serious auction value. Even then, where the flag was stored during the lunar missions affects how ardently bidders pursue them at auction. Flags that stayed in the spacecraft are prized, but those that were carried onto the lunar surface in the space suits of the astronauts are worth even more.

Not all Apollo missions are equal, either. Flags flown aboard Apollo 11, the first mission whose astronauts walked on the moon; and Apollo 13, the mission that was aborted due to mechanical difficulty, command more than flags from the other four moon missions. And as with any realm of collectibles, historic firsts affect an object’s value. The spaceflownartifacts.com website notes:

“Apollo 8 being the first mission to the moon gives flags carried on that mission a certain cachet.”

Foreign national flags from early NASA flights are relatively rare. This signed Tunisian flag that flew aboard Gemini 4 sold in June 2019 for $1,153 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The entity the flag represents also plays a role. Collectors bid the most for American flags, followed by foreign national flags, state or territory flags, the flag of NASA or other agency flags, and those with the livery of a particular church, school, corporation or other entity that has sentimental value to the astronaut who stashed it in a PPK.

Provenance obviously matters, and is fairly easy to confirm for many space-flown flags. Some astronauts from early missions signed their names directly onto a flag along with mission-specific details, but this practice wasn’t consistent or standardized (other astronauts only added a serial number to the flag, which was accompanied by a signed certificate). Later on, an agreed procedure took shape: Space-flown flags were mounted on presentation certificates created by each individual astronaut. These certificates usually featured a signature, mission details, perhaps a mission patch and a date a format consistent enough to reliably establish provenance. NASA, too, also created specially-designed certificates of its own for its flag presentations.

Collectors should be wary of unmounted flags that are not signed or identified in any way. A story alone is not sufficient to prove a flag left the Earth and came back home again. Mounted flags that are accompanied by a handmade document or photocopy of a signed or unsigned certificate lack the power of better-established examples. 

A set of space-flown American and Russian flags commemorating the joint docking effort of the US space shuttle with the Russian space station Mir in 1995 sold in April 2005 for $600 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Aurora and LiveAuctioneers

Human beings will continue to venture into space and deeper into the solar system. Space tourists, who pay top dollar to experience thrills that were once limited to a professional elite, are making their own history. One thing is for sure: current and future space travelers will continue to take flags with them, and there will always be collectors who clamor for them. 

Reach for the stars with ancient astronomical jewelry

A Greek gold repousse pendant picturing the sun, with circles representing stars, and dating to circa 4th-3rd century BC, realized $2,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Artemission and LiveAuctioneers

Humankind has marveled at the beauty of the heavens since well before written history. To the ancients, the sun was not merely a natural phenomenon, but also a god. Its daily journey across the horizon symbolized fertility and rebirth as well as strength and power. Luminous stars, which helped sailors and other travelers orient and navigate, and the silvery moon, which was revered for its recurrent, mystical phases, were objects of awe. These astronomical symbols not only featured in religious rites, but also fired the artistic imagination. 

Many early sun-shape pendants were fashioned as open bronze circles. Others were embellished with dotted rims, open crosses, rounded perforations or sun wheels — concentric circles with radiating arms. Yet shimmering gilded discs, some patterned with tiny sun motifs, may have been regarded as far more powerful.  

A gold lunar-shape Byzantine pendant, dating to circa 900, sold for £2,400 ($3,311) plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Bronze Age lunar amulet-pendants were often crude crescents, meant to represent the sliver of the new moon. Others were graduated circlets, each featuring a single, large, pointedly off-center, round perforation, possibly shaped that way to indicate lunar phases. Yet gold and silver lunulae — broad, crescent-shaped, decorative collars unearthed in Ireland — may be the most distinctive Bronze Age jewelry finds of all.  

During the Hellenistic period, wearing gold jewelry was fashionable and indicated one’s wealth, strength, and social status. Some Greeks wore simple, sun-shaped circlets. Those who were more affluent favored pendants, brooches, medallions and armbands graced with sun motifs placed amid rosettes, repousse-point stars, filagree scrollwork, and granulation — delicate ornamental patterns worked in grains of gold. Many crescent-shape pendants, representing the Greek moon god Selene, also feature granulation and repousse-point stars.  

A bronze openwork solar disc plaque with radiating arms, dating to the 2nd millennium, realized £70 ($97) plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of TimeLine Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Jewels were among the few items that Roman women could call their own. They took full advantage of the opportunity, using jewelry to signal their tastes and rank. Gold, concave or discoid sun-shaped pendants were popular, and some were enhanced with concentric filigree bands, ornamental stars, granulated collars, delicate filigree or gemstone insets. 

During the late Roman Empire, women wore gold or silver gemstone intaglio finger rings depicting a radiantly crowned Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). Members of the lower classes, however, apparently relied on simpler bronze amulets in shapes they believed would provide personal protection: shields, sunbursts and open sun-whorls. Crescent-shape lunar pendants, which represent the Roman god Luna, range from coarse stamped bronzes to gold-and-garnet beauties with filigree spirals or decorative rosettes. Gold finger rings festooned with petite crescents and stars, as well as star-shape brooches, were also desirable. 

A Roman gold intaglio lunar crescent pendant featuring filigree spirals and cabochon garnets, and dating to the 2nd century, realized $4,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Artemission and LiveAuctioneers

Ninth-century Byzantine lunar-shape gold earrings, while small, may feature extensive openwork, floral scrolling and granulation, along with suspended glass beads. In addition to bright enamel detail, Byzantine brooches typically feature intricate gold twisting or openwork that seem to subtly embrace a full moon.   

A Viking silver lunar crescent pendant depicting a mythological face and dating to the 9th or 10th century sold for $800 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021. Image courtesy of Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

Centuries later, the Vikings, who worshiped the sun, created       bronze and silver sun-wheel brooches as well as gold sun whorls and sunbursts. Since they worshiped the moon as well, many of these seafarers wore bronze, gold or silver crescent-shape amulets, brooches, pendants and pectorals. Some pieces were simple, while others featured scrolled wirework, geometric filigree or graceful granulation. Designs that Vikings regarded as protective included little raised repousse shields, fearsome mythological faces and winged monsters.         

This gilded Jewish-Islamic necklace featuring silver, coral and crescent-shaped ornaments sold for $650 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Alma and LiveAuctioneers

From the 18th- through the mid-20th century, skilled Yemeni metalsmiths created exquisite gold and silver jewelry for betrothed women. Some of their filigree necklaces that follow the natural form of the neck are lunar-shaped. Others, explain experts at Alma Gallery in Tel Aviv, take the form of large crescent-shape pendants or amulet boxes and reflect shared Jewish and Islamic historic, cultural and artistic motifs. 

Each piece of ancient astronomical-themed jewelry is unique and embodies the culture, beliefs, social status and wealth of the person who first wore it. Most were highly valued, and thus were well preserved through subsequent generations. These ancient masterpieces of the jeweler’s art are not only priceless to those who wear them, but also timeless, as they allow one to see the sun, moon, and stars through ancient eyes.

ONCE UPON A DIME: LIBERTY BY ANOTHER NAME

A 1916 D Mercury Dime, graded as nearly uncirculated, sold for $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Gold Standard Auctions. Image courtesy of Gold Standard Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Misconceptions can be stubborn things. The Pilgrims didn’t initially land on a rock at Plymouth Harbor. Betsy Ross didn’t sew the first American Flag. The Mercury dime doesn’t feature an image of the Roman god Mercury on its obverse side. Yet these ideas persist, and coin collectors continue to call the early 20th century American 10-cent coin the Mercury Dime. It has become part of the American lexicon.

In actuality, the profile on the dime is a Winged Liberty Head a woman wearing the Phrygian Cap of Liberty with wings denoting freedom. But the debut of the coin was misunderstood by the press, and it was nicknamed “Mercury” instead. 

In 1915, the Mint started the ball rolling to secure a new coin design to replace the Seated Liberty dime that had been in circulation since 1892. After a sponsored design competition failed to produce a suitable winner, a commission was given to sculptor and artist Adolph Weinman, who had created the Walking Liberty Half Dollar and several military campaign medals.

An antique-tone 1916-D Mercury Dime with a PCGS grade of MS-66 sold for $49,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles and LiveAuctioneers

Weinman’s vision featured a side profile of the aforementioned Winged Liberty Head on the obverse and a Roman fasces with an olive branch on the reverse to symbolize both war and peace. From its introduction in late 1916 until its run ended in 1945, the Mercury Dime rose to become one of the most popular coins produced in the United States. 

As with most types of collectibles, condition is key for coins. But Mercury Dimes usually show more wear than most, because the collar surrounding the outside of the coin was reduced to better interact with coin-operated machines. The higher relief of the leather bands of the fasces on the reverse is key to grading a Mercury Dime. If the bands are crisp and distinct, it is considered a “full strike,” which is something not all mints were able to produce consistently.

Rarities and mistrikes that collectors prize so highly appeared throughout the three-plus decades of the Mercury Dime’s lifespan.

1910s

The Mercury Dime was first issued in October 1916 at the Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver Mints. However, the Denver Mint was told to stop production of the Mercury Dime in favor of the Standing Liberty quarter. Denver issued only 264,000 Mercury Dimes in 1916, with most entering circulation before being collected. Production didn’t restart until late 1917 making both years from Denver relatively scarce for the dime in any condition.

1920s

Production for the 1921 Mercury Dime was relatively low, with about 1.2 million in Philadelphia and about a million in Denver. No dimes were issued in 1922 and no 1923 dimes were issued in Denver. If you see a 1923 D Mercury Dime, it’s a counterfeit.

1930s

The Denver Mint did not issue Mercury Dimes in 1930, which means any coins shown as 1930 D are bogus. In 1931, San Francisco and Denver issued relatively few dimes, making the 1931 D and 1931 S desirable to numismatists. In 1932, when America endured the peak of the Great Depression and the song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? captured the mood of the moment, American mints didn’t issue any dimes at all. The same held true in 1933 no new dimes were struck. 

A 1942/41 Mercury Dime, displaying a (noted by white edge) double-strike error, sold for $4,100 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at 3 Kings Auction. Image courtesy of 3 Kings Auction and LiveAuctioneers

1940s

The rarest Mercury Dimes are the 1942/1941 double-die errors. Both the Philadelphia and Denver Mints suffered this hiccup, produced when a mint planchet overstruck a 1942 dime with a 1941 date, in effect double-striking it. The problem is hard to spot. Usually, magnification is required to see it properly.

The 1945 S series, which was minted in San Francisco, may show a smaller than usual “s” due to using a puncheon intended for coins bound for the Philippines. While the 1945 is one of the most common Mercury Dimes, the quality of the strikes was inconsistent, and the high relief of the fasces on the reverse was more vulnerable to wear. Only about two percent of the dimes display the leather bands as clear, distinct “full-strike” examples, adding extra collectability and value to these dimes.

A 24K gold Mercury Dime, issued in 2016 to commemorate the dime’s centennial, sold for $275 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021 at Gold Standard Auctions in Dallas. Image courtesy of Professional Coin Grading Service, Wikimedia.org and LiveAuctioneers

2016

In 2016, a commemorative 24K gold Mercury Dime, weighing a little more than three grams, was issued at the West Point Mint in business proof condition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Mercury Dime in 1916. Only 125,000 gold proof coins were issued, and they sold out fast. At auction, the commemorative is usually valued more for its gold content, which is about a tenth of an ounce, than for its mintage.

No coin is immune to counterfeiting, artificial aging, and other forms of doctoring, but collectors of silver coins, the Mercury Dime included, must be wary of an extra hazard: it’s possible to reduce the silver content of a coin.

A lot of 23 Mercury and two Barber Dimes sold at auction for its silver value at $42 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021 at Lot 14 Auctions. Image courtesy of Lot 14 Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

When mulling the purchase of a 1916 D Mercury Dime, check its date. It should be on a straight line, not canted upward as a counterfeit will be. Also take care to weigh the coin. A genuine Mercury Dime weighs 2.34 grams and has 90% silver content (.07234ozt). A counterfeit will weigh more due to the heavier metal added to replace the silver. Note: Be sure the troy ounce setting of 31.10 is used, not the standard ounce setting of 28.35.

Counterfeiters may also cut away the bands on the fasces on the reverse to create the “full binding” look to increase its grade. Close examination under powerful magnification will easily identify the cuts.

It is always a good idea to have any high-value Mercury Dimes authenticated under magnification, have their weight checked, and have them screened for errors by members of the American Numismatic Association, who you can find at www.money.org.

Collecting Mercury Dimes requires a modicum of due diligence, but it’s worth it. Adolph Weinman’s creation is considered the most beautiful dime design ever struck, and it was immediately popular with the public and coin fans alike. A total of 2.6 billion Mercury Dimes were issued. Assembling a set is both rewarding and fun, and you can often find these coins in online auctions, such as those on LiveAuctioneers. 

Coffee table books bring out the beauty of reading

A signed copy of Madonna’s book ‘Sex’ sold for $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Hockessin Auction Company. Image courtesy of Hockessin Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Coffee table books took reading into the realm of beauty. While they convey information, their first job is to sit there and look pretty, giving pleasure even if no one actually lifts the cover. 

The concept of a coffee table book is a relatively recent phenomenon, although Michel Montaigne in his 1581 book Upon Some Verses of Virgil suggests that his essays would only “…serve the ladies …to lay in the parlor window…” In other words, to be seen and only occasionally browsed for amusement.

A signed copy of Helmut Newton’s limited-edition book ‘Sumo,’ which had belonged to Robert Evans, realized $22,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Julien’s. It came with its own furniture, a chrome-plated stand designed by Philippe Starck. Image courtesy of Julien’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Almost four centuries later, art books published by Cailler, Editions Tisne and Éditions Mazenod, among others, combined color images with lengthy text in a folio format a large printing size. The books targeted the art market and were limited in scope, but can still be considered coffee table books by today’s standards.

What we would recognize as the first proper coffee table book debuted in 1960. David Brower, then the executive director of the Sierra Club, promoted a series of nature books in hardbound folios called the ‘Exhibit Format.’ The series featured more photographs than text, a strategy that reversed the approach of earlier large format books, because Brower wanted “… the eye … to move about within the boundaries of the image …” The series began with black-and-white photographs from famed photographer Ansel Adams in This is the American Earth and ultimately encompassed 20 volumes of nature photographs. To see the image was almost as good as experiencing nature itself.

Publishers saw the success of the Sierra Club series and produced their own takes on the large, photo-centric and text-light format. They soon discovered coffee table books can sell well without focusing on art or nature. The first book to use the words ‘coffee table book’ in its title was The Coffee Table Book of Astrology, published in 1962.

What makes for a good coffee table book?

Size matters. A coffee table book worthy of the name should boast a trim size of at least 9in by 10in, to accentuate the table it sits on. Anything smaller would disappear into the backdrop. Of course, if it’s too big, the book could overwhelm even the room itself. The double elephant folio version of John James Audubon’s Birds of America series is lush and gorgeous and meets David Brower’s stricture that “… the eye cannot encompass the image all in one glance.” But with pages that measure more than two feet by three feet, it is so large as to be awkward and ungainly – a definite no-no for a coffee table book.

A coffee table book featuring Palm Springs, Florida, inscribed in 1989 by Bob and Dolores Hope to former President and Mrs. Gerald Ford achieved $525 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Another important part of a coffee table book is content. It needn’t be copiously wordy, but there must be some there there. Whatever the content, it must bring out an immediate ‘hmm’ which compels you to pick it up and read. 

‘The Complete Work of Michelangelo,’ an important coffee table book published in 1967, sold for $40 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Dejavu Estate Sales & Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Initially, the accepted range of coffee table book topics was limited to art histories or art-adjacent themes. A prime example is The Complete Work of Michelangelo by Mario Samli, which was published in 1967 and weighs nearly five pounds. Contemporary coffee table books deliver so much more. In a recent list dubbed 38 Coffee Table Books That Are So Beautiful It Hurts, Buzzfeed.com showed how far the coffee table book has come. Number one on the list: sneakers. The Ultimate Sneaker Book tells the story of the iconic footwear in 650 pages and countless images. There are also travel guides, such as ‘City Guides’ from Cereal Magazine that celebrates New York City, London, and Paris with images that makes readers long to pack their bags and go. Others showcase interior design, plants, furniture, food, and any topic that yields fanciful images that transform the seemingly mundane into art objects themselves.

What collectors look for

According to industry records, the fastest-selling contemporary coffee table book is Sex by the singer, actor and producer Madonna. Released in 1992, all 1.5 million copies sold out within three days of the book’s release at $50 (about $95 with inflation). Despite its abundant first-edition production run, it remains the most popular out-of-print book. A copy signed by Madonna sold for $1,100 at auction in 2018.

Conceived by William Henry Fox Talbot, ‘The Pencil of Nature’ was first produced in 1844 as a book of ‘photographic drawings.’ A 1985 reprint of the proto-coffee table book achieved €800 ($940) plus the buyer’s premium in March 2019. Image courtesy of Auction Team Breker and LiveAuctioneers

Of course, collectors of coffee table books seek rarities, too. In 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot produced a book of ‘photographic drawings’ of silver-salted black-and-white prints of daily life. The Talbot publication is considered an early predecessor to the modern coffee table book, and a 1985 reprint achieved nearly $950 at auction in 2019.

Montaigne may have lamented his essays being only fit for a parlor window, but adding exquisitely-shot color images could turn his tome into art fit for conversation at any table, library, online meeting or, why not, even a window ledge.

‘This is the American Earth’ is considered the first modern commercial coffee table book. A copy signed by co-author Ansel Adams sold in May 2016 for $90 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers