Robert Indiana’s legacy of LOVE

Robert Indiana ‘LOVE’ milled aluminum paperweight table sculpture, which sold for $576 in May 2021 at Uniques & Antiques.

Those who may not know the name Robert Indiana will still recognize his most famous and iconic creation: his LOVE print, with the word “love” in upper-case letters, arranged in a square with a tilted letter “O”. It first appeared in a series of poems originally written in 1958, but gained momentum when it was pictured on the Museum of Modern Art’s Christmas card in 1965. The print was also the basis for the artist’s LOVE sculpture in 1970 and the hugely popular US Postal Service stamp in 1973. Of the Christmas card, Indiana said, “It was the most profitable Christmas card the museum ever published.”

Robert Indiana was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana, in 1928. He was adopted as an infant, but went to live with his father in Indianapolis after his parents divorced. He used the last name “Indiana” as a nod to his Hoosier upbringing, but most of his adult life was spent living in New York City and Maine. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.

Indiana’s career took off in the early 1960s after Alfred J. Barr purchased his work The American Dream 1 for the Museum of Modern Art. He became famous for artworks that consisted of bold, simple, and iconic images, especially numbers and short words such as EAT, HUG, and, of course, LOVE. In 1977, he created a Hebrew version of LOVE using “Ahava,” the Hebrew word for love, and in 2008, a stainless-steel sculpture, HOPE, was unveiled outside the Democratic National Convention in Denver. He called HOPELOVE’s close relative.”

‘HOPE,’ a 2008 limited edition silkscreen on paper, which sold for $6,500 in February 2021 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions.

“Robert Indiana was a part of the group of artists that settled on Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan in the early 1950s with his then-lover, Ellsworth Kelly,” said Monica Brown, Senior Specialist of Prints and Multiples at Hindman in Chicago. “I think that his bold use of color is very much in keeping with this group of artists that included Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin, and others, but he took it one step further by tapping into very basic human psychology with his use of words and symbols – a very apt nod to Pop Art. Words and numbers as symbols can be literal, they can be subtle, they have meaning, and they have hidden meaning.”

Brown said she thinks this is what separated Robert Indiana from the rest of the pack. “When his peers were moving into color fields, action painting, and all of the forms of abstraction they could find,” she said, “Indiana turned to language, numbers, and symbols with the very precise and deliberate colors of, say, an Ellsworth Kelly, only employing the very Pop Art style of recognizable words and symbols. In doing this, such as with his LOVE sculptures, he is bringing the viewer’s own interpretation, thoughts, and feelings into the concept of the artwork.”

Robert Indiana, ‘Star of Hope,’ 1972 enameled and chrome plated brass. It sold for $6,150 in January 2020 at Copake Auction, Inc

Rico Baca, auctioneer and owner of Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Florida, said Robert Indiana’s appeal is in large part due to familiarity, and, as with many artists, being in the right place at the right time. “Signs are such a ubiquitous part of our culture,” Baca said, “and Indiana’s reinterpretations, with their familiar text styles, imagery, color palettes, and symmetry, are just very relatable. They immediately register with the viewer.”

Baca said that while Indiana’s work catered to the preferences of the period, the concept remains relevant and easily ‘refreshed’ with current topics, such as the aforementioned HOPE or the color variant Greenpeace Love, which was created in 1994. In February 2019, Modern Auctions (then Palm Beach Modern Auctions) sold an example of the Greenpeace Love image for $5,200 against an estimate of $2,500-$3,500.

Complete portfolio of Robert Indiana ‘Numbers’ prints from 1968, which sold for $41,925 in May 2021 at Hindman.


Regarding the market for the artist, who died in 2018, Monica Brown said she’s seen strong demand for Indiana’s works during the last five to ten years. “I think that as we move forward, there are serious questions to be resolved with his estate before collectors in certain categories can feel confident that his legacy, and thus his market, will be protected into the future,” she said. “I feel – and hope, as a true supporter of Robert Indiana’s work – that this will be rectified eventually.”

Brown is alluding to how the late artist was in the news recently, and not in a good way. After three years of battling in court, the estate of the artist and his former business partner reached an agreement that settled their legal disputes, but at a steep cost. Millions of dollars were spent on the case, money that would have otherwise gone toward realizing Indiana’s dream of turning his old home on the remote island of Vinahlhaven, Maine into a museum to memorialize his legacy.

Rico Baca said it’s interesting how closely auction records support the themes in Indiana’s work. “His popularity hasn’t dropped off, especially for the most familiar titles,” he said. “His larger LOVE canvases are still selling at a million or more, higher than his other imagery. The sense of nostalgia is something people like, newer collectors included.”

‘Purim: the Four Facets of Esther (I),’a 1967 print by Indiana, sold for $2,048 in March 2021 at Rachel Davis Fine Arts.

Baca added it doesn’t hurt that there are Indiana editions available across all price points. “An entry level collector may not be ready to purchase an original work or the entire Decade suite, for example,” he said, “but a single HOPE screenprint is a viable investment with current appeal.” Modern Auctions sold one at its February 2021 auction for $6,500 against an estimate of $2,000-$4,000. 

Seth Fallon, auctioneer and co-owner of Copake Auctions in Copake, New York, said the LOVE image is so iconic it will secure Indiana’s place, and his value, in the art market. “It seems to me artists with works that are so recognizable it really lends to their ascension in the art world,” Fallon said. “You see it with artists like Jeff Koons. While some people criticize works that are so commercial, it still seems like they are able to hold values and be collected.”

LALIQUE VASES: A BLOOMING MARKET

Left, a Perruches (Parakeets) Lalique vase in deep amber and white stained intaglio, which sold for £14,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Lyon & Turnbull in April 2021. Right, the same Lalique vase design in cased opalescent and blue stained intaglio realized £20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in the same auction.
Images courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull and LiveAuctioneers.

Vases were important to Rene Lalique. From the French artisan-entrepreneur’s earliest attempts at the form, which date to the late 19th century, until his passing in 1945, he created 200 vase designs – a staggeringly large number. Whether the volume of Lalique vase designs reflected a genuine enthusiasm for the decorative flower-holders isn’t clear, but Lalique did grasp some basic, vital facts about them.

“He was aware of the circuit of World’s Fairs and exhibitions. I think he realized vases, and particularly, experimentation with vase bodies, got him additions to his fan base and more press,” said Jill Fenichell, a furniture and decorative arts appraiser at Michaan’s Auctions in Alameda, California. “Vases did that [i.e., captured attention] better than centerpiece bowls. Vases allowed him to play with surfaces in a very sculptural way.”

There was another truth that Lalique, being a sharp businessman, could not ignore: the public definitely wanted vases. “Lalique made a lot of them, and they were always good sellers,” said Nicholas Dawes, Vice President of Special Collections at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. “Vases were a mass-market thing, and a very big part of his production.”

Now decades and even centuries old, many Lalique vases literally qualify as antiques, and yet they look as if they could have been made last week. “Lalique was clever enough to produce timeless designs with ongoing appeal,” said Joy McCall, a Senior Specialist of Decorative Arts at the British auction house Lyon & Turnbull. “Vases have universal appeal, and there’s such a breadth of design. Few people would turn down a Lalique vase.”

This cased butterscotch and white stained molded Archers Lalique vase sold for £11,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Lyon & Turnbull in April 2021.
Image courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull and LiveAuctioneers.

In April 2021, McCall curated Lyon & Turnbull’s first all-Lalique sale, with a lineup that included several vases, and was pleasantly surprised by the result. “Definitely, things [in the Lalique market] come in and out of fashion, but ultimately, people love colored vases,” she said. “I would have said the market was slightly softer for large, colored vases, but the sale proved me wrong. Overall, there was a steady interest in the pieces. It’s a nice, reliable market that has proved itself over the decades.”

Dawes noted: “Vintage Lalique, in general, is underpriced, and can only go up. That applies to every single thing, including Lalique vases. The supply is not getting any bigger, and the demand is getting bigger. We’re getting demand from Asia, which we didn’t have before, and it’s enormous. You only need four or five people to decide to buy one, and the market goes nuts.”

An amber-colored Tortues (Turtles) Lalique vase sold for $39,000 plus the buyer’s premium at A.B. Levy’s in February 2015.
Image courtesy of A.B. Levy’s and LiveAuctioneers.

Like Dawes, Albert Levy of A.B. Levy’s, Palm Beach, Florida, knows that phenomenon well, and has had the pleasure of watching it elevate Lalique vase lots offered at his auction house. In February 2015, he sold an amber Tortues (Turtles) amber-colored Lalique vase for $39,000 plus the buyer’s premium. It rocketed past its $15,000-$25,000 estimate to achieve the sum. “The quality of that vase was outstanding, and the color was outstanding,” Levy said, recalling the sale. “You don’t find a duplicate to that too often.”

This frosted glass Nadica Lalique vase earned $125,000 plus the buyer’s premium at A.B. Levy’s in February 2015.
Image courtesy of A.B. Levy’s and LiveAuctioneers.

Elsewhere in the lineup of that 2015 A.B. Levy’s auction was a frosted glass Nadica Lalique vase that earned a hammer price of $125,000 against an estimate of $60,000-$90,000. A Nepalese king had ordered it directly from Lalique, but Levy believes that while its provenance “didn’t hurt,” it didn’t play much of a role, either, instead crediting the robust result to the vase’s rarity and the crispness of its high-relief decorations. “I had it once in my life, and never again. It’s very special, very rare, a great piece,” he said.

David Rago of Rago Arts and Auction in Lambertville, New Jersey, also saw success with a scarce Lalique vase design. In October 2015, his eponymous auction house sold a Cluny Lalique vase for $100,000 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $80,000-$100,000.

In October 2015, Rago Arts and Auction Center sold a Cluny Lalique vase for $100,000 plus buyer’s premium.
Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

The vase is regarded as a triumph in Art Deco design,” he said. “It’s Rene Lalique’s interpretation of the mythical Gorgon, Medusa. It combines a clean and simple form with the sophistication of the bronze snake handles and the incorporated masques on either side to depict the Medusa motif in a way we’ve not seen before. And ignoring bronze stands made just to set a vase on, a Lalique commercial production vase incorporating bronze in the design is always going to be a rarity. There are only two models known, the similar Senlis vase with leaf handles being the other one.”

An opalescent Bacchantes Lalique vase realized $42,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Michaan’s Auctions.
Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Though strongly colored Lalique vases find favor with collectors, clear, opalescent, and frosted examples, such as the Nadica and the Cluny, can perform just as well or better. Fenichell wasn’t present at Michaan’s in June 2013 when it offered an opalescent Bacchantes Lalique vase that romped past its $15,000-$20,000 estimate to sell for $42,500 plus the buyer’s premium, but she researched the sale and provided insight. The vase was discovered in a garage, and the Michaan’s representative who first saw it recalled knowing right away that it was something special. Fenichell said that its powerful auction performance was driven by the stenciled “R LALIQUE FRANCE” signature on the vessel. “It was all in caps, with no dot visible, all in pretty big lettering. That’s unusual and early,” she said, meaning that the appearance of the signature places the vase’s creation closer in time to the 1927 debut of the popular Bacchantes design.

An example of a Tourbillons Lalique vase, clear with black enamel, sold for $35,000 plus buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions.
Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A different mostly-clear Lalique vase, sold at Heritage in November 2011, shows the master at what might be his most experimental. The Tourbillons vase, decorated with black enamel, challenges the physics of glassmaking itself. “There’s extreme variation in the thickness of the glass,” Dawes said. “When you make a vessel like this, the glass is molten and cools down. As it cools, it shrinks. If you have different thicknesses of glass, it might split apart. In all the Tourbillons, the thing is kind of fighting with itself. It’s an agonizing process of cooling down, but that’s what makes it great, and that’s part of the beauty of it.” He added, “The word ‘tourbillon’ means ‘whirlwind.’ It embodies that.” The example Heritage offered in 2011 sold for $35,000 plus buyer’s premium.

In November 2017, Heritage Auctions sold a Borromee Lalique vase in a deep blue hue for $32,000 plus the buyer’s premium.
Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Good designs and gorgeous colors attract collectors, but a Lalique vase that perfectly marries its subject with its hue beats them both. In November 2017, Heritage had a Borromee Lalique vase, decorated with peacocks, in a mesmerizing shade of deep blue. It strutted away with $32,000, plus the buyer’s premium. Dawes holds it up as an example of Lalique’s multi-faceted talents. “All Lalique vases have a name,” he said. “Some are obvious, and a lot are place names. Some are places Lalique visited himself, or read about, or wanted to romanticize. This is one of them. I believe I’m right in saying that Borromee [The Borromean Islands] is inhabited by peacocks. He’s got them all over the vase. The French for ‘peacock’ is ‘paon.’ He could have called it that, but he didn’t. That’s indicative. It’s all about marketing, and Lalique was very good at that.”

Rago is confident that the market for pieces from Lalique’s lifetime, vases included, will remain strong. “I once remarked to a Lalique dealer friend that Lalique was like Roseville pottery, but with another zero on the price tag,” he said. “I was being funny, though the comment is not without some level of merit. These are produced in multiples, fixed designs, usually offered in different colors or patinas or both, making them something of a collectible. That all said and at this point I’ve seen and handled enough of the work, over a long enough period of time the quality level pre-war was so consistently high. The control of production seems to have been very attentive to the evenness of the finished product, since I’ve not really seen any seconds. The molding is crisp, the colors even throughout. I think, in many ways, without reducing the import of the work by calling it a ‘collectible,’ it is really the perfect glass to collect. There is no mistaking the importance of that factory, which Suzanne and I visited a few years back. I think, especially with prices below the high point of that market 15 years ago, Lalique will prove durable.”

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Treasures for the dead: Tang dynasty terra cotta figures

This elegant, hollow-molded Tang dynasty terra cotta horse realized £7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The Tang dynasty (618-907), considered a Chinese golden age, was famed for its flourishing trade, cosmopolitan culture, and artistic achievements. Terra cotta production, in particular, thrived.

In addition to inventing underglaze decorative techniques, perfecting monochrome glazes, and creating utilitarian wares, Tang potters created scores of hollow, molded sculptures, intended solely for burial in noble and imperial tombs. These so-called ‘spirit goods,’ known as mingqi, reflect fascinating aspects of Tang customs, values, and beliefs.

This Tang dynasty ceramic dancer with outstretched arms realized £1,900 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy TimeLine Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Mingqi were created to attend the dead, fulfilling their needs and offering comfort in the afterlife. Because music was highly appreciated in the Tang court, elite burial chambers often featured troupes of elegant mingqi dancing girls, accompanied by sculpted musicians tooting flutes, plucking lutes, tinkling bells, and tolling chimes. Court officials and plump courtesans, fluttering fans, looked on.

Twelve Tang dynasty animal figures representing the Chinese zodiac, which sold for £32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy of Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Lunar-based zodiacs, featuring a specific animal for each year, were customarily consulted to determine destinies. For this reason, zodiac mingqisets of 12 imaginary animals finely modeled in official robes were especially desirable. These Tang dynasty terra cotta figures may have indicated personal piety or gratitude for prosperity.

Bactrian camels first appeared in Chinese art during this era, when many made fortunes trading along the Silk Road, according to Dr. Ivan Bonchev, Director at Pax Romana Ltd, a specialist gallery and auction house. These humble, two-humped beasts of burden represented economic opportunity and riches. Naturally, aristocrats and merchants alike commissioned camel mingqi for their tombs.

Tang dynasty ceramic Bactrian camel with rider sold for £5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many of these Tang dynasty terra cotta figures realistically arch their necks or toss their heads back. Some kneel, saddled and ready for loading, with hind legs up, forelegs tucked beneath, head aloft, and mouth open, as if braying. Others bear Persian riders, identified by thick beards and non-Asiatic features. These camel mingqi indicate not only the personal wealth, prestige, and cosmopolitan nature of the deceased; they also represent the cultural, artistic, and religious links between China, Central Asia, and Arabia.

Horses, an important symbol in Chinese culture and art since the Neolithic period, also represented Tang status and nobility. It is said that Emperor Xuanzong, who reigned from 685-762, graced his herd of 100 with exquisitely embroidered finery, gold and silver halters, and ornamental jade and pearls. Zhang Yue, a poet of the day, claims the empero had them taught to dance.

The emperor’s dragon-colts are well-trained.

These celestial thoroughbreds are amazing.

Nimbly prancing, they keep in step with the music.

High-spirited, they step together, never deviating.

Horse mingqi, like camels, were often fashioned in charming, lifelike poses. Many are shown lifting forelegs, flaring nostrils, perking up ears, or twisting as they stand, strut, rear, trot, or leap. Scores feature only elaborate empty saddles. Others bear riders grasping reins, leaning forward, or bracing backward.

Pair of ceramic Tang dynasty female polo players depicted mid-match, without stands, which sold for £8,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Love of horses spurred the popularity of polo, an exciting Persian mounted team sport. Not only emperors, noblemen, government officials, and aristocrats playedso did well-off women. Polo player mingqi imitate life. Some, depicted at full gallop, rise up in their saddles, their mallets outstretched. Others are shown angling mallets aside to protect equine flanks. Yet sets of two carefully coiffed, heavily rouged women, competing mid-match, are the most dynamic of all.

Simple Tang dynasty terra cotta figures, such as servants and farm animals, were often left unglazed or brushed with simple white, buff, or straw-colored slip. More impressive ones were partially or fully glazed in sancai, an earthy mix of yellow, green, and creamy-white pigments reserved for members of the Tang aristocracy. Choice mingqi, however, boast bits of cobalt blue, a hue more treasured than gold.

Tang descendants, in their hour of need, traditionally beseeched ancestors for heavenly help. Mourners, with an eye toward the future, furnished family burial chambers not only with arrays of attendant mingqi, but also powerful protectors.

Matched pair of terra cotta sanca-glazed Lokapala figures, which sold for $82,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2014.
Image courtesy of Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Fantastical beings called ‘earth spirits,’ for instance, repelled any malevolent beasts that might intrude. Fierce, armor-clad Lokapalas, also known as the Four Heavenly King guards, kept dead spirits safe and also kept them from roaming.

The number of mingqi in a Tang dynasty burial chamber varied according to the rank of its deceased. A government official might, for example, be limited to 90, while an imperial family member might merit hundreds.

Tang dynasty terra cotta figures were traditionally displayed in ritual burial processions. Then all were placed along what was called the “spirit road,” which sloped toward an underground chamber. Once the casket was in place, the soft, low-fired, mingqi were arranged within, creating a personalized paradise.

None were meant to be seen again.

Montblanc pens have the write stuff

A Montblanc Meisterstuck chevron fountain pen sold for $7,040 in March 2021 at J. Garrett Auctioneers.

Why would anyone spend $250, or $500, or $1,000, or more on a fountain pen when a plain but efficient BiC will do the job for a small fraction of the price? The answer, of course, is that pricey pens are more than mere tools. Those who spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a pen see it as a fashion accessory that ranks right up there with their Patek Philippe wristwatch and Bentley sunglasses. In those two categories, customers have a long list of name brands to choose from, but in the world of fine writing instruments, one dominates: Montblanc. The case of each Montblanc pen is crested with the image of a six-pointed snowcap with rounded edges, an homage to the highest mountain in the Alps: Mont Blanc.

Montblanc International is a German maker of luxury goods, based in Hamburg. In addition to pens, the company also sells fine watches, jewelry, fragrances, leather goods, and eyewear. It was founded in 1906 by two businessmen: Alfred Nehemias, a banker, and August Eberstein, an engineer. They produced simple, functional pens, but went on to sell the business to three businessmen who had grander ideas.

Their first model of pen, introduced in 1909, was called the Rouge et Noir. It was followed by the pen that would later give the company its name: Montblanc. In 1924, the company unveiled its first true luxury fountain pen, the Meisterstuck, which translates as “the Masterpiece.” The Meisterstuck is still the top-of-the-line offering among Montblanc pens, with prices soaring to around $1,500 and higher. The low end starts with Montblanc’s ballpoint pens, which are priced around $250.

A Montblanc Meisterstuck fountain pen with an 18K gold nib sold for $564 in Feb 2021 at MiddleManBrokers, Inc.

Montblanc continued to offer modestly priced pens until 1977, when the company was acquired by Alfred Dunhill Ltd. It focused Montblanc exclusively on the top of the writing instrument market and branched out into lines of goods other than pens (which are listed above). Today Montblanc is part of the Richemont group, which is owned by the Rupert family of South Africa. Its sister companies include Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chloe, and Baume et Mercier.

A circa-1995 Montblanc Meisterstuck limited-edition “The Prince Regent” Patron of Arts fountain pen sold for $2,662 in April 2013 at Kodner Galleries, Inc.

“I think there’s a certain status associated with Montblanc pens, similar to how designer watches are regarded. However, I don’t think it is entirely ‘snob appeal,’ as I believe that people are willing to pay more for quality items,” said Madeline Roberts, a cataloger for Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals, with locations in Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee.

She added, “Montblanc is well established as a high-end brand that uses luxury materials, such as precious resin, vermeil, and 18K gold in their pens and nibs. I think in this age of cheaply made goods that break after a few uses, people appreciate well-made items that can last a lifetime.”

A Montblanc Meisterstuck Ramses lapis vermiel rollerball pen sold for $1,188 in November 2020 at Miami Art Dealers.

Roberts said Case Antiques has enjoyed success with Montblanc pens over the years because they’re fortunate enough to have had limited-edition pens from two well-known Montblanc lines: Patron of Arts, and Writers Edition. “These are highly decorative and unique pens that celebrate certain historic figures who are known for their contributions to the arts and literature,” she said. “The fact that they’re associated with recognizable historical figures only adds to their collectibility. For example, fans of Agatha Christie’s detective novels would likely be interested in owning a pen that was inspired by her writings.”

A 1997 Montblanc Peter the Great Patron of Art fountain pen sold for $1,664 in July 2020 at Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals.

The Montblanc pens Roberts describes were manufactured in the 1990s and are not as readily available through retail stores anymore, at least not for the prices one might expect to pay at auction. For example, the Patron of Arts Prince Regent 4810 fountain pen retails for more than $4,000, whereas Case sold one for $1,320. “Granted, it was gently used,” Roberts said.

A Montblanc Lorenzo de Medici limited-edition fountain pen sold for $4,224 in November 2018 at Revere Auctions.

The market for Montblanc pens past and present remains robust. A Patron of Arts Peter the Great Montblanc pen in new condition sold for £900, or about $1,200, in 2014, a then-record for the model. “In July 2020, we sold the same pen in gently used condition for $1,560, including the buyer’s premium,” Roberts said. “This leads me to believe that Montblanc pens, especially those from the special limited-editions series, are and will continue to trend up, even if they are in used condition.”

As with any expensive fashion accessory, fakes pose a problem. Certain clues can help collectors detect genuine Montblanc pens. Meisterstück models created after 1990 have a serial number located on the ring at the top of the clip. Usually inscribed under the clip are the words “Made in Germany” and often “Pix.” Montblanc pens with black barrels might be made of what’s known as “precious resin,” and will reveal a reddish hue under strong lighting. If the pen does not have these attributes, then it could be a fake.

CHINESE GINGER JARS ADD SPICE TO DECOR

Kangxi period ginger jar depicting a gathering of Chinese figures, which realized €11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy Veilinghuis de Jager and LiveAuctioneers

Ginger jars Chinese high-shouldered, ovoid, lidded, utilitarian porcelain vessels were long used to store and transport oil, wine, salt, and spices. Decorative ones, however, date from the Ming Dynasty era (1368–1644). Created in mineral-rich Jingdezhen-area kilns, such jars were produced for domestic use, bestowed at festive ceremonies, or destined for the Chinese Imperial court. Large quantities of ginger jars were also exported to Europe.

Ming porcelain ginger jar featuring eight Immortals against a landscape, which sold for $2,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Sofe Design Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Many ginger jars feature underglaze cobalt blue images of scrolling foliage, warriors, phoenix birds, or sinuous dragons set against milk-white grounds. Others, known as “three-color,” or sancai jars, display deep violet, yellow, and turquoise floral motifs defined by cloisonne-like raised lines. Eye-catching five-color wucai jars have underglaze blue designs enhanced with bold, overglazed yellow, green, and red enamel detail.

During the decline of the Ming Dynasty, the Jingdezhen kilns not only lost Imperial support, but were largely destroyed. However, they and other private kilns regained artistic and technical distinction under the auspices of Kangxi (1661-1722), an early Qing Dynasty emperor. As the demand for porcelains increased, production evolved into specialized, more efficient subsets – e.g., mining, mixing, and shaping. Firing at extremely high temperatures created pieces that were glossier and brighter than those of the Ming era.

Imari export glazed ginger jar, which realized $2,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

With the expansion of Chinese maritime trade, merchants protected delicate exports, such as silks and tea leaves, by lining ship holds with rows of sturdy, waterproof porcelain jars. These commonly held precious spices, including ginger, a staple of Chinese medicine and cuisine. Because the British associated these vessels with treats such as ginger beer, ginger biscuits and gingerbread, they commonly called them “ginger jars.” Due to the fact that they were obviously finer than locally produced porcelain, they became valued more for their beauty than their contents.

Once ginger jars had become coveted decorative items, Chinese potteries exported them by the millions. Those depicting traditional blue-and-white figures, florals, or landscapes are not only most common, but remain the most desirable—especially if they still have their original lids.

Chinese famille rose foliage ginger jar, which sold for $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Bernards Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Antique ginger jars are often classified according to their dominant color palette. Those featuring vibrant shades of green, a type that emerged during the Ming dynasty, are known as famille verte. Ginger jars featuring famille verte elements against a ground of yellow, a hue reserved for high-ranking Qing officials, are known as famille jaune. Famille rose, another ornamental jar type, features motifs such as birds, peonies, prunus, or chrysanthemums in pale pink to ruby-red tones.

Chinese export famille verte ginger jar depicting warriors in a garden, which sold for $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

From the mid-1700s, China began flooding the European market with their lucrative ginger jars – dubbed “Chinese Imari” vessels – which were inspired by exceptionally fine porcelain items that had long been popular in Japan. These highly glazed pieces typically feature blue underglaze oriental motifs adorned with overglaze fauna, flora, and figures in vivid shades of green, yellow, red, and black.

Because porcelain ginger jars associated with particular historical eras frequently were copied by subsequent generations of ceramicists, they may prove difficult to date. Some bearing Kangxi reign marks, for instance, were actually produced centuries later to honor that vibrant artistic era.

Carved cinnabar covered ginger jar with figures against landscape, which garnered $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy Midwest Auction Galleries, Inc. and Live Auctioneers

Following an ages-old tradition, Chinese craftsmen also decorated ginger jars with highly detailed three-dimensional designs carved in red-orange cinnabar, a sap derived from the Chinese lacquer tree. Numerous examples depict opulent peony blossoms amid scrolling leaves, vines, or bamboo branches. Others portray charming images of villagers in popular pursuits set against lush Chinese landscapes. But those featuring auspicious five-clawed dragons or raised bat motifs against finely wrought so-called “diaper” or geometric latticework grounds may be most desirable of all.

Today, antique ginger jars, whatever their style, are not restricted to private collections and museums. Whether gracing entrance halls and mantelpieces or repurposed as vases or centerpieces, they lend an air of classic Chinese elegance to any interior design.

Malachite treasures will turn you green with envy

Malachite inlay box with fine flower-type patterns, which sold for $5,250 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Malachite, memorable for its rich green color and silky, swirled patterns, is actually weathered copper ore. Ancient Egyptians, who sourced this mineral in the Timna Valley in what is now southern Israel, believed that it held magical, protective powers. They carried malachite seals and amulets, and to guard against ocular diseases commonly found along the Nile River, they ground it finely, then lined their eyes with the powder.

To Egyptians, malachite also signified life, death, and rebirth. In addition to portraying Osiris, the god of the dead, with green skin, they decorated coffins and created burial chamber paintings with malachite-green pigment.

From the 7th century on, malachite pigments appeared abundantly in Chinese and Japanese paintings. But the pure, coarsely ground hue that Renaissance artists favored proved very difficult to “work,” so they rarely used it. Eventually, ground malachite fell from use entirely, replaced by artificial pigments.

Massive malachite freeform with one side polished and the other left in its natural finish, which sold for $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Limited deposits of malachite have since been discovered in Arizona, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, France, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Scores of contemporary jewelers, including David Webb, Cartier, Chopard, and Van Cleef & Arpels, feature lavish malachite pieces in their permanent collections. Yet many museum experts, connoisseurs and collectors consider Russian malachite, discovered in the Ural Mountains, to be the finest of all.

“Malachite was a favorite of Russian tsars, who used it to decorate their lavish palaces, such as the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg,” said Lauren Goforth, Sr. Researcher at M. S. Rau. “Year after year, the Russian treasury paid top dollar to hoard the best malachite, much of which went into Romanov palaces and extravagant objets d’art,” she said. “Today, the Hermitage Museum possesses more than 200 examples of this ‘palatial’ malachite, displayed in the legendary Malachite Room.”

Some of the Malachite Room’s massive urns, columns and grand fireplaces, which are carved from huge, solid blocks of malachite, feature variegated light-to-dark banding in graceful, sweeping curves. Others displaycharacteristic so-called “peacock eye” patterning. Smaller pieces, made from blocks too pocked with pits to be cut into slabs, were crafted through Russian malachite mosaic. This technique entailed skillfully laying thin malachite veneers on basalt, slate, marble or metal bases in artful artificial or random patterns.

Paired malachite-clad neoclassical-style obelisks realized $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

As Russian merchants became rich, they, too, commissioned prestigious malachite treasures. Some adorned their writing desks, cabinets, and mantelpieces with dramatic tapering obelisks. Others acquired malachite game boxes, chessmen, or elegant gaming tables topped by malachite- and-marble chessboards.

Overhead view of a continental malachite games table, which sold for $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Neal Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Though malachite is beautiful on its own, it is also sympathetic with other luxurious materials. Russian vases, jewel caskets, dresser boxes, and candelabras often feature opulent gold, silver, bronze, or gemstone decorative details. In addition, malachite clocks, inkwells, and desk sets were often mounted with ormolu, one of the most flamboyant decorative accents of the 19th century.

Lenoir Louis XV gilt bronze and malachite figural mantel clock, which realized $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Conversely, ornate gold, silver, onyx, and ormulu boxes, urn lamps, and tea caddies often featured rich, mellow malachite trimmings. Since items such as these were highly prized diplomatic gifts. Examples can be found in countless palaces, state buildings, and museums in Mexico, England, and across Continental Europe.

19th-century silver and malachite tea caddy, which sold for $2,300 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Taylor & Harris and LiveAuctioneers

In time, Russian jewelers also integrated malachite embellishments into gold and silver brooch and earring designs. They also fashioned beads or cabochons for ring stones, necklaces, cuff links, tie pins, and pendants. Smaller pieces, of course, are far less likely to display desirable malachite patterns.

“Malachite has long been a symbol of prestige and wealth,” explained Goforth. “The mineral was so prized in the 19th century that Russian papers of the time wrote, ‘To afford a big piece wrought in malachite is synonymous to owning diamonds.’”

Gorham silver shines as brightly as ever

Wright sold a Donald Colflesh Circa 70 coffee service with tray in June 2012 for $25,000, which is still a house record for the Gorham silver design.

For centuries, American silversmiths could not afford to play. The precious metal was too scarce and pricey for artisans to take a flyer on a cutting-edge silverware pattern, no matter how fun and fashionable it might seem.

Everything changed when news of the discovery of the Comstock Lode spread in 1859. The biggest silver strike on American soil freed the country’s silversmiths to experiment. None embraced this freedom more ardently than the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island.

Founded in 1831, it jumped to the front of its pack of rivals and stayed there by offering a wide variety of silver patterns, ultimately releasing more than 100. During its late 19 th century peak, it relentlessly presented America’s middle class with hot new must-haves ranging from ice cream hatchets to grape shears to sardine tongs.

Rago sold a 1929 Gorham silver cocktail set containing a shaker and 12 cups for $10,000 in October 2018.

In that same period, Gorham employed thousands, including almost 200 in its New York store on Broadway. The company grabbed attention at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago with a display that boasted a six-foot-tall sculpture of Christopher Columbus made from more than a ton of silver and cast in a single pour. (The statue was melted down after the fair ended.) Pieces bearing the Gorham hallmark rank as some of the best created in the medium in the 19th and 20th centuries.

None of that was enough to save Gorham from the effects of huge cultural shifts in how Americans lived their lives, but its past glories helped buy it a few more decades of relevance before it effectively disappeared in 1967. Today, the company’s gleaming record of achievement, along with its fundamental refusal to stick its customers with the same patterns it offered to their parents and grandparents and rest on its laurels, makes Gorham silver a favorite among collectors.

A late 19 th century Gorham Martele silver tea and coffee service fetched $18,000 at Rago in April 2018.

“Gorham is a superb example of American craftsmanship with a devoted collecting base globally,” said Megan Whippen, senior specialist at Wright. “As someone that works mostly with early 20 th century pieces, Gorham, as a firm, continued to define what modern was in their pioneering silver designs. Even in their selection of artists they were conscious of the interests of their buyers.”

Gorham’s last triumph as an innovator in silver was Circa 70, a tea and coffee service designed by Donald Colflesh. In June 2012, Wright offered a complete Circa 70 set, containing a hard-to-find but much-coveted matching tray that was released a few years after the original set. Estimated at $20,000-$30,000, it sold for $25,000, and remains a house record for that particular item of Gorham silver. “One of my favorite details on the Circa 70 service is that it was designed in 1958. The name demonstrates the forward thinking that is so majestically captured in the form,” Whippen said, adding, “Colflesh was hired by Gorham just after he graduated from Pratt, and I have always felt that New York City and its modern buildings and energy informed these soaring forms.”

Today, the Circa 70 silver service exudes retro-cool, but imagine how futuristic it must have seemed in the late 1950s. Gorham silver always included conservative, traditionalist offerings while demonstrating a willingness to push the envelope well before that phrase became a cliche.

Gorham silver deliberately aimed for the moon with its Martele line. Launched in 1897 by in-house designer William Christmas Codman, it drew its name from the French verb marteler, which means “to hammer.” Each piece of Martele is technically a one-off; the labor-intensive manufacturing process ensures that no examples are strictly identical, even if two or more take the same form. “Martele is like a different species. It really is the epitome of high-style handwork in sterling,” said Russ Carlsen of the Carlsen Gallery in Freehold, New York. “It deserves the audience it has. It’s pretty spectacular material. You’re talking about rich people’s silverware. It’s above and beyond.”

An 1899 Gorham Martele vase standing almost 19 inches tall and containing almost 80 troy ounces of silver commanded $60,000 at Carlsen Gallery Inc. in September 2013.

In September 2013, Carlsen offered a Gorham silver Martele pattern vase dating to 1899, which contained almost 80 troy ounces of silver and stood almost 19 inches tall. Estimated at $2,000 to $5,000, it rocketed to $60,000. “I remember it very vividly,” he said, adding that though he was surprised by the result, “I thought it was worth every penny of it. It was substantial. It had scale, which is important. It was very large and flashy, and the craftsmanship was undeniably the best.” Carlson said that if the vase was reconsigned to him now, “It probably would do better in today’s world, because the cream of the crop continues to excel.”

The Gorham silver company also enjoys the good fortune of having had its archives, and many of its greatest masterpieces, land in the hands of curators who love it, understand it, and want to share it with the public. The holdings of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) contain almost 5,000 items of Gorham silver and related material, such as design drawings and other company records. In 2019, RISD mounted a blockbuster exhibit titled Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850-1970 that raised the profile of the brand and introduced it to a 21st century audience who grew up with little or no genuine silver tableware in their homes. Obviously, it’s too late to see the show, but RISD keeps A-list pieces on view such as a Martele writing table and chair that consumed 10,000 hours of labor and 75 pounds of silver, and also Erik Magnussen’s 1927 Cubist coffee service, a bracingly modern design that was evidently a bit too modern for Gorham, as it never advanced past the prototype stage.

Setting aside the pieces created for world’s fairs, much of what Gorham made had a mundane purpose and function—to hold flowers, to serve food, to convey morsels to the mouth. We no longer live in the world for which Gorham silver was made, but our world still has a place for it. In June 2018, D.G.W. Auctioneers in Sunnyvale, California offered a set of flatware from Gorham’s St. Cloud (pronounced “San Cloo”) pattern. Described as “extensive,” the set didn’t just merit the term, it required it. Numbering 206 pieces and containing a total of 254 troy ounces of silver, it was estimated at $4,000-$6,000 and sold for $16,000.

A 206-piece set of Gorham flatware in the St. Cloud pattern sold for $16,000 at D.G.W Auctioneers in June 2018.

Patricia Knight, a longtime dealer and appraiser of silver who has served as a consultant to the California auction house, was not surprised to see it sell so well. “To have a gigantic set like this, all one pattern, all with the same monogram, knowing it’s very rare, very important–that provoked desire in bidders,” she said, explaining that the St. Cloud pattern was designed by Antoine Heller, a French silversmith who Gorham lured away from Tiffany; it had a relatively short lifespan on the market, perhaps about five years; and it has not been revived or reproduced.

The flatware set also contained Gorham silver items that are relatively tough to find. “Some of the pieces in there are very rare—individual knives, ladles, big, heavy pieces,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the asparagus tongs sell for $1,000 in and of themselves.” Though the set sold for almost three times its high estimate, by Knight’s calculations, the bidder walked away with a bargain; $16,000 divided by 206 works out to $77.66 per piece. She is convinced that if the set was consigned to auction today, it could “definitely” sell for far more. “I would market it as an original set, all the same monogram, a very heavy, very rare pattern from Gorham,” she said. “If you wanted something really sensational for your table, it could get up to $25,000 or $30,000.”

Whippen, Carlsen, and Knight agree that Gorham silver will always have an audience who targets and collects the brand specifically. People seek Gorham by name now; there’s no reason to believe they will ever stop. “Nobody has a problem selling Gorham,” Knight said. “Say the name, and you hear, “Ah, a good company that has a good reputation.”

Gorham silver shines as brightly as ever

LEGENDARY WATCHMAKER AUDEMARS PIGUET

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak automatic quantieme perpetual calendar octagonal wristwatch with moon phases in solid platinum, which sold for $256,000 at Morphy Auctions in December 2020.

Many people have probably never heard of the luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet, let alone own one of its products – but make no mistake: the venerable Swiss-based firm has been wowing users and collectors for nearly 150 years, from its launch in 1875 until the present day.

The company was founded by Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet, childhood friends who reconnected when they were in their twenties, as both had entered the business of watchmaking. Early on, Audemars was creating complex watch movements for other manufacturers, such as Tiffany & Co., and Piguet was specializing in the regulation of watch movements.

The two men partnered in 1875, with Audemars in charge of production and technical tasks and Piguet in charge of sales and management. In 1881, Audemars Piguet et Cie was officially founded, with operations based in the Swiss village of Le Brassus. From that point forward, Audemars Piguet was an industry innovator, introducing the world’s first minute repeating movement for wristwatches (1892), the first skeleton watch (1934), and some of the thinnest watches in the world, such as the 1986 automatic tourbillon wristwatch, the Calibre 2870. But in the 1970s the firm developed what would become its signature line of wristwatches for decades to come: the Royal Oak.

Audemars Piguet 18K rose gold perpetual calendar chronograph watch, one of 100 made to benefit a charity. It sold for $28,290 at GWS Auctions in October 2019.

“Watch collectors in the know will tell you when they think of Audemars Piguet, the words Royal Oak come straight to mind,” said Tyler St. Gelais of Jones & Horan, the New Hampshire-based auction house specializing in antique and vintage watches, clocks, jewelry, and coins. “The Royal Oak was designed by Gerald Genta, the famed designer for Audemars in the 1970s. It is considered by most to be the first luxury sports watch. Genta designed the Royal Oak to look like an antique diving helmet, with its visible screws and octagonal faceted bezel.”

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak offshore men’s watch, which sold for $25,000 at Laguna Beach Auction House in January 2019.

Today the Royal Oak is considered a classic, but it wasn’t the instant success many believe it was. “Its launch coincided with the start of the age of quartz watches, which saw the dominance of Swiss watchmaking brought to its knees,” St. Gelais said. “Over an 18-year period, from 1970 to 1988, 1,600 watchmaking firms collapsed, to just over 600 total. During that time, many makers banded together to create quartz movements to compete with the Japanese, but the effort was futile and many longstanding companies either closed their doors or merged to create more stable conglomerates. This gave rise to the Swatch group, among others.”

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore 11.5-carat diamone men’s wristwatch, which sold for $26,432 at Estate Jewelry Auctioneers in December 2019.

Audemars, keeping true to form, saw quartz as a fad and kept working on incredibly intricate and complicated mechanical movements. They knew great watches weren’t just about timekeeping but the romanticism of a truly mechanical piece set to one purpose, versus the soulless tick of its battery counterpart. During the late 1970s, at the height of the quartz crisis, Audemars released the first automatic perpetual calendar, considered by most to be the epitome of complication. This watch was able to adjust from long months and short months, as well as adjust itself for leap years every four years. If the watch were able to run indefinitely without the need of repair or fresh oil, it could do so for 100 years.

Ladies’ Audemars Piguet Royal Oak stainless steel wristwatch, which sold for $7,475 at BK Auctions in March 2019.

In terms of market value, Audemars watches are “all over the place,” St. Gelais said. “The entire watch market has been in a free climb in price since the mid-2000s, which has seen early Royal Oak models from the ‘70s go from stainless models below $20,000 and some two-tone models from below $10,000, to stainless models regularly selling for prices in excess of $75,000 and two-tone models in excess of $50,000. On the flip side, a plain hour minute dress watch from the 1950s through ‘70s or ‘80s has plummeted in value, with prices in the $1,500-$3,000 price range, making them easily accessible to most collectors.”

Unauthenticated Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore men’s watch, which sold for $2,737 at Rare Treasures in April 2020.

These changes in value are not limited solely to Audemars Piguet. “Folks are looking more toward sports watches today in larger sizes, whereas dress models from years gone by are just not desirable in today’s market,” St. Gelais pointed out. “This is true for the other members of the ‘Holy Trinity’ – Vacheron & Constantin and Patek Philippe. For the future, I see no limit to the vintage original Royal Oak models, with collectors viewing these pieces as wearable art. The sky is the limit, with smaller dress models likely to stay affordable to the average collector for years to come.”

Chinese Chops Add A Stamp Of Approval

Rare Chinese chicken blood stone seal, which garnered $65,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Chinese chops – or stamps that leave identifying impressions on personal or official documents – have been in use for at least 3,000 years. Because these pieces are portable and small, creating them required not only advanced skills and specialized tools, but also a refined sense of design. All were commissioned by individuals, making each chop unique.

Chops fashioned from durable metals such as iron, bronze, or copper represented enduring authoritative rule, but scores were also carved from blocks of attractive, semi-precious hardstone. Emperors, nobles, and high-ranking officials traditionally prized chops made of jade, which became a Chinese cultural symbol of inner beauty and immortality. The Imperial Heirloom Seal of the Realm, created for the first Emperor of China from sacred jade and passed down through following dynasties, symbolized the legitimacy of what the Chinese called the “mandate from heaven.” From around 400 AD, chops carved from rare, lustrous golden-yellow Tianhuang stone, mined in the mountainous Shoushan region of East China, were also highly desirable.

Carved jade chop featuring carved dragon knob, which rose to $17,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Altair Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

During the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912), an era of flourishing artistic achievement, nobles and other high-ranking people wanted chops wrought from beautiful, locally sourced “chicken-blood stone.” The best ones, noted the Shanghai Daily in 2013, “are bright crimson … as though they had been splashed with the blood of a freshly slaughtered chicken.” Unfortunately, cinnabar, the component responsible for this auspicious hue, darkens when exposed to sunlight. So, the redder, the better.

Shoushan Tianhuang stone chi dragon square seal, Qing Dynasty, which settled at $42,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Cardale Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

In time, artists, scholars, and common folk acquired multiple chops. Used in bank transactions, on legal documents, or as personal signatures, many simply bore their owner’s name. Others were customized with select sobriquets, scenes of daily life, or symbols of particular interest. Some chops featured carved signatures or decorative elements along their sides. In addition, many bore mottoes, auspicious sayings, or personalized information worked in delicate, stylized scripts emulating calligraphy, another esteemed Chinese art.

Shoushan stone poetry seal, which realized CA$3,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Majestic Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Most chops, whatever their design, were impressed in auspicious silk- or plant-based red paste. Two distinct carving styles emerged. Those featuring high-relief designs, known as yin chops, created red backgrounds, leaving character images white. Those featuring incised intaglio designs, known as yang chops, created red characters, leaving backgrounds white. More intricate chops combined both yin and yang designs.

Chinese calligraphy scroll featuring semi-cursive character inscriptions and red signature seals, which sold for $50,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Lauren Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

To facilitate their use, hardstone chops typically bore intricately carved, three-dimensional decorative knobs. Many were shaped like mythical creatures. One-horned qilins, complete with cloven hooves and dragon-like heads, reputedly promised good luck and prosperity. Fierce, stylized foo dog knobs guarded against harmful people and influences. Tortoise-shaped knobs, or those featuring rows of tiny tortoises, were said to insure longevity. Four-legged, serpent-like dragon-shaped ones represented Imperial strength and power. Chops featuring turtle-dragon knobs, which embodied physical and mythical features of both beasts, seem the most fearsome of all.

Twin Chinese glass seal surmounted by qilins, which sold for €13,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Sheppard’s Irish Auction House and LiveAuctioneers

As chop designs became more fanciful, artists often used them to mark completed paintings, books, and calligraphy. Collectors, on acquiring one of these treasures, often added their own marks as acts of admiration. According to The China Online Museum website, the Qianlong emperor (1711 – 1799), who was famed for his literary ambitions, used as many as 20 different chops to mark favored pieces in his collections.

Chops added by such esteemed collectors were considered integral parts of each work. In fact, from one century to the next, choice Chinese paintings and calligraphy works often would end up covered by dozens of different chops. These indisputable proofs of appreciation and provenance don’t just increase the historical significance of such works; they also increase their value.

Market for horse portraits keeps trotting along

What would you prefer: a great portrait of a horse, or a great portrait of a car? Andrew Jones, founder of the eponymous Los Angeles auction house, suggests that 90 percent of people would choose the horse, which may seem surprising to some.

More than 100 years have passed since the automobile displaced the horse as our main form of transportation. Admittedly, there are some truly spectacular cars out there. But a painted portrait of a car? Even a magnificently rendered image of a Murphy-bodied Duesenberg, or a Bugatti Type 55? No. The horse wins, and by far more than a nose. But why?

An 1879 Herbert Kittredge portrait of the stallion Bonnie Scotland and chief groom Robert Green sold for $40,000 at Case Antiques Inc Auctions and Appraisals in January 2018.

Well, the mammal has a long head start. Horses have appeared in art pretty much since human beings began creating images as art. The walls of the caves at Lascaux, France, are famously adorned with images of galloping equines rendered in charcoal and ocher. According to current scholarship, the cave paintings are about 17,000 years old. Horses star in other pivotal works of art. Two of the three paintings in Paolo Uccello’s 15th-century trio of tempera-on-wood panels dubbed the Battle of San Romano, showing the artist’s understanding of linear perspective, place white horses front and center. Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 images of Sallie Gardner galloping with a rider identified as “G. Domm” on her back literally changed the way horses are portrayed. The photographs proved that at some point, however brief, all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground when it runs.

But the biggest difference is an insurmountable one: cars don’t have personalities, but horses do. Great portrait artists don’t just capture the facts of the sitter, they also capture the intangibles known only to those who love them best, and fix them to the canvas for all to see. In the case of equine portraits, the sitter just happens to be a horse.

A set of 12 equine portrait prints, based on the work of 18th-century British artist Thomas Spencer, sold for £4,600, or roughly $6,300, at Cheffins in September 2015.

“Sitter” also happens to be a contradictory term in this context, as the horses are never shown sitting. Many picture the subject in profile, standing perfectly still, which presents the viewer with another contradiction. We seem to love horses best when they’re moving; Uccello, Muybridge, and the Lascaux artists agree on that. But painting a horse that’s standing still allows us to appreciate the horse at rest, and to admire the skill of the portraitist. “If you’ll Google paintings of horses, you’ll be shocked at how many don’t look like a horse should,” Jones said.

Sarah Campbell Drury, vice president of Fine and Decorative Arts at Case Antiques Auctions & Appraisals in Knoxville, Tennessee, points out that the noted equestrian artist Henry Stull “credited part of his success to actually having studied horse anatomy at veterinary school.”

Commissioning a painted portrait is expensive; horse portraits, in and of themselves, are luxury goods, not unlike a Patek Philippe chronograph or a Ferrari 599 Manual. Horse portraits represent the fact that decades or centuries ago, someone was rich enough to pay an artist to immortalize a favorite horse. “There is the emotional connection and desire to have a portrait as a remembrance and keepsake. But we must also remember that many horses were in fact the livelihoods of their owners. They were raced and bred for large sums of money,” Campbell Drury says. “They were extremely important financial assets. So equine portraits could be used almost as marketing or promotional materials to represent this asset in situations where the horse itself could not be present, not to mention as status symbols.”

An 1895 horse portrait by John Chester Mathews sold for $1,600 at Case Antiques Inc Auctions and Appraisals in January 2017.

British demand for these images during the 18th- and 19th centuries was strong enough to sustain dedicated specialists. “During the period when equine portraiture was at its peak, it was common for the wealthiest of racehorse owners to commission portraits of their most important animals, allowing a handful of artists to earn a living solely from those types of picture,” says Patricia Durdikova, an associate in the Paintings department at Cheffins auction house in Cambridge, England. “Portraits of the horses which defined the development of British horse racing, known as the Foundation Sires, are as sought after in the current market as they were at the time of painting.”

Some horse portraits present the animal as a supreme luxury object. An 18th-century English canvas of an unknown equine with a manor house in the background sold for $9,750 against an estimate of $800-$1,200 in February 2018 at Litchfield Auctions.

In September 2015, Cheffins offered a set of 12 equine portrait prints based on the work of British artist Thomas Spencer, one of the few who made his living by depicting elite horses. He portrayed the animals in profile, attended by riders and grooms and surrounded by text that recounted their accomplishments. Estimated at £1,000 to £2,000, or about $1,300 to $2,700, the mid-18th-century group sold for £4,600, or roughly $6,300.

Horse portraits become more interesting to collectors with each proven fact they can claim. An anonymous artist painting of an anonymous horse in a nondescript field can sell well if it’s competently rendered. If we know the name of the artist, that’s good; if we know the name of the horse, that’s equally good, and sometimes better. If the horse has a confirmed racing history, better still. If human beings appear with the horse, collectors prefer to know who they are and why they’re there. If the backdrop contains details that support and confirm what we know about the horse, e.g., buildings belonging to specific horse farms, or a glimpse of the country house of its owner in the distance, that’s beneficial, too.

Lucy Kemp-Welsh might be best known as the illustrator of the 1915 edition of Black Beauty. Andrew Jones Auctions sold an undated horse portrait of hers for $550 in December 2019.

Most desirable of all, obviously, is a portrait of a horse whose name appears in the bloodlines of winners of the Kentucky Derby and other high-stakes races. A painting that sold at Case in January 2018 featured just such an animal. The work depicted the stallion Bonnie Scotland with chief groom Robert “Uncle Bob” Green. The horse’s descendants include Man-O-War, Sea Biscuit, Secretariat, and several other immortal champions.

The 1879 painting had even more going for it. Robert Green is outstanding in his own right. He was born into slavery and, after gaining his freedom through Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, rose to become the highest-paid employee of Bonnie Scotland’s home farm. The work was painted by Herbert Kittredge, who distinguished himself as a master of equestrian art before dying at the shockingly young age of 28. The painting sold at the top of its estimate range for $40,000 to Belle Meade Plantation, the Nashville farm where Bonnie Scotland lived and Green worked.

In June 2016, an undated painting by French 19th-century artist Rosa Bonheur made $6,500 at Wiederseim Associates.

Drury acknowledges that the 1879 Kittredge painting was something of a unicorn. A horse portrait with a wealth of information behind it is, in her words, “pretty rare.” Most collectors must make do with less. However, when asked how the painting would perform if it were re-consigned to Case today, Drury replied, “Actually, about the same. The market for equestrian portraits seems to be fairly stable – pardon the pun.”

Jones says horse portraits continue to hold our attention because they give us something we need. “Horses in motion, horses standing still, it’s a very peaceful form of art,” he says. “Even before COVID-19, it was a lovely thing to hang on a wall.”