Mexican retablos: divine folk art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chess sets enable bloodless battles

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

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

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

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

Changes in play

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

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

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

The Pieces Change

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

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

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

Collectible Types

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damien Hirst – rich, famous … and shocking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zap Comix subverts the comic genre

NEW YORK – Comic books have long fulfilled many needs from young children learning to read to adults seeking entertainment or escapism. Created for adult tastes, underground comics have all the appeal of their more straitlaced counterparts but set out to be revolutionary. With titillating covers and subversive topics, the most sought-after of these were Zap Comix, which proclaimed from its first issue that it was breaking new ground, printing on the cover “For Adult Intellectuals Only.”

Underground comics sprang from the youth counterculture movement in the late 1960s and while Zap Comix was not the first, it is well known. Its name (comix vs. comics) is not merely phonetic but spoke to the co-mixing of comics with raunchy art, dirty jokes and provocative storylines.

The first printing of ‘Zap Comix #1,’ 1968 (Charles Plymell edition, was written and illustrated entirely by Robert Crumb. It introduced characters like Mr. Natural. Photo courtesy of ThirdMindBooks.com

Alex Winter, president of Hakes’s Auctions in York, Pennsylvania, said the underground comics world embraced the counterculture movement of the time and reveled in all things subversive. “No topic was off limits from political views to drug culture to the sexual revolution and all points in-between,” he said. “While the comic book world was not without controversy over the years, what was printed in the pages of the underground comics was like nothing that had come before it. It set the stage for what would follow in the coming decades as far as taking content and subject matter to new limits and further shaking up the establishment.”

The second issue continues political incorrectness and provocation. That this is a first printing is evident in the use of heavy paper stock in the covers. Photo courtesy of ThirdMindBooks.com

Arthur S. Nusbaum, founder of Third Mind Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., said one must first consider the emergence of underground in the wake of their countercultural predecessors – the writers of the Beat Generation – and in the heady milieu of late 1960s San Francisco in which Zap Comix first appeared. “By the late 1950s, New York City was not the only countercultural hotbed for literary or artistic insurgency then flowered or blooming,” he said.

In 1963, poet-publisher-printer Charles Plymell was based in San Francisco with Neal Cassady, known to most as the muse or “hero” famously depicted in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, according to Nusbaum. Plymell’s peer group comprised Beat Generation luminaries like

Allen Ginsberg, and being a printer/publisher afforded him unfettered access to a large group of like-minded poets, activists and intellectuals.

Shown here is original artwork by Victor Moscoso for the wraparound cover of ‘Zap Comix #4,’ which was published in late 1969, leading to drawn-out obscenity trial in New York City. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Arguably the most controversial – and most well-known – of all the underground comics artists was Robert Dennis Crumb, who shared his story in volume V of The Complete Zap Comix (Fantagrafics Books Inc., 2014), explaining he drew one issue in October 1967 and one in November. “Don Donahue, publisher of Apex Novelties, saw the original art for Zap and really liked it. Donahue knew Charles Plymell, an old hipster poet who had a small offset printing press,” Crumb was quoted as saying, adding that Donahue funded Zap’s first printing in early 1968 by trading his $300 tape recorder to Plymell. “Plymell was the printer of the early runs of the most-important issue of Zap Comix, Zap Comix No. 1, and Crumb did write and ‘draw’ the entire issue himself,” Nusbaum said.

Robert Crumb’s cover for ‘Zap Comics #8’ demonstrates Crumb’s talent for portraying himself as a comic character. In this original artwork, the art is drawn in ink on sketchbook paper. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

What makes one issue more valuable than another? Just like other comics and printed matter, first and foremost are printings and condition. Most sought after are first printings in high grade of key issues, Winter explained. “Many Underground titles saw multiple printings and some are not so obvious but there is now a wealth of information on the subject, so it is key to make sure of the printing you have or are searching for,” he said. “Robert Crumb is certainly the most recognized name in underground comis, and the most collected, but there are so many legendary names that were a part of that movement and command just as much attention such as Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriquez just to name a few.”

Nusbaum echoed his comments, saying, “Early issues of Zap don’t necessarily have value because they just contain Crumb ‘artwork’ and Crumb actually isn’t even the best artist of those that contributed to Zap as it went along. His contemporaries, including the great Robert Williams, were far better artists than Crumb ever was,” he said. “What Crumb did was combine the countercultural sentiments of the Psychedelic Revolution – namely a prescription to the psychological beneficence of psychedelic drugs on one’s worldview – the literary angle of the Beat Generation (as exemplified by this partnership with Plymell) – and the sexual revolution that went part-and-parcel with both of those.”

The complete boxed set of ‘Zap Comix’ in five volumes packed in the original cardboard shipping carton includes every issue, even a 17th unpublished issue. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions.

The legacy of Zap Comix is widespread and echoes today. “Zap is fun, educational and historically important because it’s virtually the first time the counterculture began to laugh at itself in order to learn from itself. It’s the counterculture, commenting on the counterculture,” Nusbaum said.

A product of its time and place in the birthplace of counterculture, San Francisco, Zap Comix influenced artists worldwide, changed how comics are created (graphic novels might not otherwise exist today) and they continue to inspire nonconformists and enthrall collectors today.

Felix the Cat: A century of smiles in comics, toys

NEW YORK – Felix the Cat is not only a pop culture icon but he was television’s first star. Today, with thousands of toys and comic books bearing his likeness, often depicting his famous walk, he remains a hot collectible. Head down, lost in thought, walking with his hands behind his back, the plucky Felix stole the scene in hundreds of movies and comic strips.

Back in 1919, Felix got his start in a New York City animation studio with a Felix prototype named Master Tom, making his film debut in the short, Feline Follies. By his third movie released later that year, he took on a new name, Felix the Cat, which would soon become famous.

Among highly desirable and rare Felix the Cat toys is this large windup Frolic platform toy by J. Chein, one of four known, that achieved $35,000 + buyer’s premium in September 2017. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The name reportedly comes from the Latin word for happy (felix) and is similar to the cat term, feline. Both New Jersey cartoonist/animator Otto Messmer and Australian cartoonist/filmmaker Pat Sullivan (whose name appears in the credits for Feline Follies) have both claimed credit for Felix’s creation.

In 1928, Felix became a TV star when NBC/RCA was testing television transmissions and chose a Felix the Cat figure to use as it could sustain the heat of the TV lights and the contrast of its black and white coloring would reproduce well. By this time, Felix was already a household name as a Felix the Cat comic strip was syndicated, first in England and then in America, in 1923. He was so popular that his likeness appeared on U.S. Navy fighter planes during World War II, chosen as a mascot of sorts for his “never give up” attitude.

A Felix the Cat litho tin windup scooter in original box, made by J. Chein, earned $2,500 + buyer’s premium in May 2015. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Felix’s look is striking in its simplistic elegance. His jet-black body stands in sharp contrast against the whitest whites of his eyes and his figure is basically composed of circles (from his eyes to his nose and head), which likely made it easy for different animators to draw him without much stylistic differences.

Felix was first syndicated as a comic strip in England and was beloved there, where many Felix collectibles and dolls were made. “In that country, a popular song was composed called Felix Kept On Walking,” according to this website surveying the Mel Birnkrant collection. On the cover of the sheet music, one can see Felix in his classic pensive walking pose and the song title served as a catchphrase for Felix.

This freestanding Steiff Felix the Cat toy, retaining its original Steiff ear button, went for $4,000 + buyer’s premium in March 2019. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A Felix the Cat fandom website notes the surrealism of the cartoon strips and the versatility of Felix’s tail. “Felix’s expressive tail, which could be a shovel one moment, an exclamation mark or pencil the next, serves to emphasize that anything can happen in his world,” it wrote. The comic strips were popular for a few decades and then gave way to TV cartoons, which ran for over 20 years.

Felix the Cat has appeared on thousands upon thousands of collectibles and items, including

animated clocks, flashlights, salt and pepper shakers, lamps, dishes, music boxes, cookie jars and much more. Toys, of course, are his predominant medium and range from dolls and wooden or stuffed figures to wooden pull toys, platform and balance toys, nodders and vehicle toys.

A Daven ‘Home Brew’ scanning disk television with a 13-inch-tall Felix the Cat composition doll sold for $3,000 + buyer’s premium in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Companies such as Schoenhut, Steiff and J. Chein & Co. were among those licensed to produce toys and figures of Felix and other King Features Syndicate characters.

Among top-selling Felix the Cat collectibles and Felix-inspired items are a stencils and spray paint on canvas artwork by the artist known as Seen (b. 1961) painted in 2012 that realized $70,000 in February 2014 at Fine Art Auctions Miami and a large Felix the Cat Felix Frolic platform lithographed tin toy that achieved $35,000 in September 2017 at Morphy Auctions.

For the cartoon ‘Felix Brings Home the Bacon,’ released in July 1924, original four-fold lithograph poster on linen backing, 27 x 41 inches. Price realized: $2,600 + buyer’s premium. Photo courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

This oversized toy measured nearly 14 inches and consequently, it broke easily and was probably in production for only one year because of this issue. Wooden flex dolls from the 1930s, having leather ears and marked Felix on the chest, standing around 4 inches or 8 inches tall, are quite collectible and affordable, selling for about $300 to $600. Steiff Felix dolls with the ear button are also desirable.

Armed with a memorable theme song and his bag of tricks, Felix has endeared himself to fans across the years, becoming a pop culture icon and sought-after collectable in the process.

Cuff links: personality you wear on your sleeve

NEW YORK – If clothes make the man, then cuff links make a statement. Whether bold or understated, cuff links are alive with personality just by being worn.

Fashions change. Prior to the Middle Ages, men’s fashion depended on the skill of textile weaving and availability of clothing, particularly open tunics, that were comfortable, able to be kept clean and affordable. Special adornment was left to those with much more disposable income.

An example of an enamel double-panel cuff links where usually only one side of a cuff link is shown, here both sides are noticeable connected by a short chain. This is the style of cuff link most prized by collectors. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After the Middle Ages, that special adornment around the neck and wrists was usually colored ribbon, frills or buttons. This is the precursor to neckties and cuff links. As the 19th century progressed, more formal wear included starched collars and sleeves, particularly around the wrists. Buttons were no longer able to secure them effectively. Enter cuff links.

It’s not clear what the first cuff links were made of, but it seems that those with means produced these “sleeve buttons” from gold, silver and even jewels, according to The History of Cuff Links by jewelrykind.com. The Industrial Revolution democratized the use of cuff links, so more of the middle class were able to afford them using quartz and rhinestones in place of jewels and polished metals like steel or brass instead of silver and gold.

As time progressed, cuff links took on many forms, styles and design. During the Art Deco period of the 1920s, for example, enameled cuff links took hold in that unique style. “…[E]arly craftsmen such as Faberge, Tiffany and Cartier began to use enamel to create unique cuff link styles,” according to a jewelrykind.com online article. These early enamel cuff links are highly valued by collectors today, especially if signed by an artist such as Jean Schlumberger, who designed jewelry exclusively for Tiffany & Co. from 1956 until the late 1970s.

Vintage Tiffany & Co. blue enamel and 18K gold double panel cuff links with chains that are signed ‘SCHLUMBERGER TIFFANY,’ stamped and numbered, that sold for $3,200 inclusive of buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Fortuna Auction and LiveAuctioners

Designing cuff links is a challenge, particularly double panel versions where each cuff link has a special design on both sides. Each design, while different, must complement each other in a very small space, fit directly against the sleeve, and be able to be held together perfectly. It must also appeal to the wearer as fanciful and fashionable at the same time. It’s difficult making something uniquely fashionable to be functional as well.

For cuff links to be functional, there needs to be a way to connect it through a starched sleeve and tighten it enough to close the sleeves together snugly. As it happens, there are 21 different ways to do just that, according to the website cufflinkguru.com. Collectors are most familiar with the type that is the fixed back where the post (the raised piece of metal that slides into the sleeve’s button hole) is attached to the reverse and does not move. To fasten the cuff link, a stationary toggle is attached at the end of the post which keeps the cuff link from slipping out of the sleeve.

While the post doesn’t move, sometimes the toggle at the end does. There are different shapes designed to keep the cuff link secure such as a cylinder shape called a bullet back, a whale back that looks like the flukes of a whale’s tail, or a torpedo shaped toggle that is fixed to the post. Sometimes the post is angled at a 45-degree angle with a moveable toggle at the end.

Pair of cobalt blue lapis lazuli cuff links from Bulgari showing the swivel-style post that sold for $913 inclusive of buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

There are also cuff links that use a chain to connect them, others with the shape of a barbell, and the most collectible are the double panel cuff links where each front and back of a cuff link is a unique enamel design connected by a chain. And there are other posts used to secure cuff links, more unique then the next.

It is also the design of the cuff link that provides a palette for uniqueness in style. Hardly any two cuff links are alike, much like snowflakes it seems. Many manufacturers like Krementz and Swank produce reasonably priced cuff links available to those with a fashion statement, but without the need for the detailed designer touch. Geometric, figural, whimsical and unique shapes are just as fashionable. Personality need not be costly.

Bulgari, Tiffany & Co. and Cartier are jewelers extraordinaire with personal lines of cuff links unique to their style and sophistication. Gucci, Hermes, Burberry and other fashion lines feature cuff links as part of their overall fashion sense, too. It is possible for a collector to feature their entire collection on one fashion house or jeweler.

Every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy in 1961 has provided a visitor with a set of cuff links featuring the presidential seal similar to this gold-tone set provided by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s that recently sold for $636 inclusive of buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of RR Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Cuff links are also a badge of office. It is no wonder that the president of the United States has given a set of cuff links featuring the seal of office since the administration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Each president has had a unique version of cuff link featuring a swivel and fixed posts with enamel, die cast and cobalt blue. At times, sterling silver and different karats of gold have been featured in a pair of presidential cuff links. Kings, queens and all manner of government officials and organizations also offer unique sets of cuff links to visitors as a memento.

There are many ways to create a cuff link collection. Design, color, presentation, element, era, and uniqueness all play a part in what a pair of cuff links represent – you.

“It’s my passion,” says Gene Klompus, a cuff link collector. “I wear cuff links at every opportunity. I look for excuses to wear them. They’re great for business too. They’re great conversation starters.”

PEZ: tasty and fun collectibles

NEW YORK – Collectibles are rooted in nostalgia but perhaps none more so than PEZ, with many children having fond memories of getting a colorful PEZ dispenser, filling it with equally colorful candy and eating every piece. The variety in both dispensers and flavors of PEZ candy tablets is staggering.

PEZ candy was invented in Vienna, Austria by Eduard Haas III as a substitute to smoking, according to a company history. The moniker comes from the German word for peppermint, “PfeffErminZ” taking its name, PEZ, from the first, middle and last letters. In 1952, the company made its U.S.-debut and built its first American manufacturing facility in Orange, Connecticut, where it also has a visitors center that opened in 2011.

PEZ candy refills were often sold in boxes like this in the 1940s. The candy tablets were originally round, but by 1930 changed to a rectangular shape to facilitate packaging by having tablets with a flat surface, Peterson said. Photo courtesy of PEZ Candy Inc.

PEZ collectors are as diverse as the candy itself. Some collect only dispensers or candy packs while others seek out different variations of heads or stems. Some buy everything associated with PEZ. There is no official company count on how many dispensers have been made over the years as some models have been issued in dozens of variations. There are likely well over 1,000 unique dispenser models. Movie, Disney and comic characters are perennial fan favorites as well as holiday themes.

“Some people love to collect new and old displays and, of course, vintage PEZ still in the package,” said Richard Belyski of the Fliptop Pezervation Society and founder of PEZ Collectors News in 1995. “There are also licensed items like Giant PEZ, PEZ lunchboxes and many more items with the PEZ name on it,” he said. “The latest hot PEZ collectible that some collect is called POP!+PEZ. It’s made by Funko and they took their POP concept and made many characters (new and old) that PEZ never did or will not do and put them on the top of a PEZ dispenser.”

This set of 10 unopened PEZ dispensers made $1,300 + buyer’s premium in December 2019 at Leonard Auction Inc. Photo courtesy of Leonard Auction Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

Unusual dispensers are hot, especially those made in a full-body style. PEZ made a full-body Santa Claus and another that is called Space Trooper, a ’50s-looking spaceman, Belyski noted. The full-bodied Santa seen here was made in Austria or Germany.

Santa Claus is the top-selling dispenser of all time and there have been many variations in its appearance. The Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse dispensers are among the oldest ones PEZ made (and still makes). “We have been producing a version of Santa since the late 1950s. It goes hand-in-hand with the holiday season and it’s a perfect stocking stuffer,” said Shawn Peterson, Direct to Consumer Business Manager, PEZ Candy Inc.

About 30 to 40 new PEZ dispensers are released each year, depending on how many gift sets are offered or if PEZ is revamping its seasonal lines.

Introduced in 1964, this baseball set came with a glove, ball, bat and home plate. It is difficult to find with the original vending box. Photo courtesy of PEZ Candy Inc.

Historically, dispensers’ stems are made in what is known as a non-footed style and many collectors still prefer this look, Peterson said, explaining footless dispensers don’t have the little tabs at the bottom of the stem to help them stand upright. “For collectors, generally that is the division between a vintage and a modern dispenser even though we’ve been putting feet on dispensers since 1987.”

Rarities and unusual examples obviously are of key interest to collectors. “There are some things that are exceedingly rare and then there are other things that can be found with some patience and persistence,” Peterson said. The Make-A-Face dispenser was issued in the 1970s as a kind of Mr. Potato Head where one can affix various pieces onto the PEZ face. It’s not exceptionally rare but highly desirable, Belyski said. “To find a dispenser with all of the pieces sells for around $3,000.”

Northeast PEZ Con attendees shop for rare dispensers and displays. Photo courtesy of Fliptop Pezervation Society-PEZ Collectors Club

Among high-selling dispensers are the Space Guns such as this one from the 1950s that fetched over $2,000. Peterson also cited the psychedelic flower-themed dispensers from the 1960s. “It was a hand holding an eyeball and a flower with the eyeball in the center,” he said. According to lore, the flower dispensers featured flower-flavored candies, which didn’t go over well. The psychedelic dispensers were reissued in the 1990s as a nostalgic throwback via a direct-mail offer where customers could write in to acquire them.

Serious collectors also want the store displays and cardboard that goes along with the dispensers. “What a lot of retailers would deem as trash, we have a base of people that want those items. If it says Pez, they are interested,” Peterson said. This football-themed display stand, for example, nearly 20 inches long and outfitted with 18 rare football dispensers, sold for nearly $5,000 in 2012.

This PEZ collector at a recent Northeast PEZ Con (convention) really loves his dispensers. Photo courtesy of Fliptop Pezervation Society-PEZ Collectors Club.

PEZ dispensers have long been made of hard plastic but in 1979, three prototype lines of soft-head dispensers were introduced: a Disney line, a monster line and a DC Comics superhero line. “The Disney one is the rarest so if one of those came up [for sale], they can get pretty pricey. I’ve seen them sell for $3,000 to $6,000 each,” Peterson said. “It was a rubber-based head … and the price of petroleum was going up significantly and there were gas shortages. What sounded like a good idea initially proved to be more expensive than anticipated so they decided to go back to the traditional plastic.”

From authentic vintage dispensers to fantasy ones covered in Swarovski crystals, there is a PEZ for all tastes. “It’s a favorite among generations because it’s relevant to just about any generation. That’s how we stay on the leading edge of what’s happening, and we are able to keep true to our original product,” Peterson said. “I don’t really know of any other product that can do that. It’s what makes Pez unique. It was really the first interactive candy that came about and that it’s a candy and a toy all in one.”

PEZ is a registered trademark of PEZ Candy Inc.

Kugels: biggest and best Christmas ornaments

NEW YORK – Christmas is a time of vibrant color in a season of cold and snow. Revelers can invite the warmth of the holiday to filter through the sparkle of glass ornaments, especially antique ones known as kugels.

Every family has holiday traditions and stories that are passed down through generations. Most are oral tales of family lore, but fanciful kugels tell stories, too. It’s also been suggested that before they became a Christmas tradition, kugels may have held a more ethereal secret.

A large group of vintage German, French and Indian kugels from the late 19th to early 20th century with various sizes and colors sold as a group for nearly $5,200 on Nov. 12, 2019. Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers image

In 17th century England, inhabitants thought the countryside was rife with witches. Unseen and always up to mischief, these witches needed to be kept far away from hearth and home. And since witches were known to be wary of circular shapes, legend says, a round, sometimes silvered, glass “witch ball” was hung in windows, along ceilings and even as large silvered gazing balls in the garden to keep these evil troublemakers at bay.

Large, clear hand-blown glass balls similar to these were used in the 17th century as a talisman to ward off witches. They may have influenced more radiant, mirror-like figural Christmas ornaments by the mid-19th century. William Bunch Auction & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers image

At the same time an early winter holiday tradition meant the hanging of the greens in homes and churches. Since the Egyptians, evergreen branches have been a symbol of everlasting life. They were brought inside and decorated for the holidays with oranges, apples, candles and sweets as early as the 15th century. When the fir tree was brought indoors for the Christmas holiday beginning in the early 19th century, it may just be an old folk tale, but the colorful witch ball easily transitioned from a personal guardian into a smaller, more festive holiday decoration to bring color and life to the evergreens and the fir tree.

Folk tale or not, glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany, in the early 19th century were making fashionable glass beads, bottles, scientific glass instruments and, of course, the round glass witch balls. Once the indoor trees and evergreens became a holiday tradition by 1847, they transitioned into creating colorful glass balls for decoration. Not long after, the glass balls were lined inside with silver nitrate, tin or even lead to give them a rather distinctive mirror-like finish where they positively glowed near the ubiquitous candlelight of the period. And a delightful holiday tradition was born.

Antique German silver glass squash-form kugel with Baroque cap, 4in high. Sold for $3,000 + buyer’s premium Nov. 3, 2018. Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Once the glass ornaments were widely accepted, the glass blowers became more creative and pressed glowing hot glass into molds such as a bunch of grapes, eggs, pears, berries, vegetables and even pinecone shapes. Each was hand blown with various vibrant colors from either colored glass, hand-painted on the outside or later sprayed on with a colored lacquer. These kugels (German for round ball), as they became known, were heavy and durable and remained a holiday tradition until about 1890. By then kugel production moved to Nancy, France, where their own lighter, more colorful versions, known as Boules Panoramic, predominated until the 1920s.

Because of their long-lasting durability, radiant color and simple designs, kugels are a collector’s favorite, and auction values in recent years reflect that interest. Collectors, like goldenglow.org and kugelhouse.com, express agreement that color is the first criteria for collectors when determining value. The more easily obtainable are clear glass with only the silver lining along with gold, green, cobalt, most shades of blue and most red colors, although pink is rarer. Darker reds and greens, copper colors, orange and amethyst are hardest to find.

This ribbed pear-shaped early 19th century German-made kugel sold for nearly $22,000 on Aug. 14, 2015. Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Shapes are the next criteria after color. Balls and grapes are the most common. Egg, pear and teardrop shapes and ones with ribbed forms are particularly desirable. Any other shapes, such as vegetables, fruits or pinecones, are the really rare ones.

Condition matters, too. “When collecting kugels, try to avoid pieces where the lining has disintegrated. On rarer pieces collectors will often look the other way if the lining is in bad shape, but the reality is that if you try to sell the piece, you may not be able to get a good price with a bad lining,” according to goldenglow.com, a specialist website dedicated to all things Christmas.

German-made glass berry-form kugel, copper color, beehive cap, 3½in diameter. Sold for $1,600 + buyer’s premium Jan. 13, 2018. Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

And beware of reproductions. Vintage kugels made in Germany or France from 1840s to about 1900 were made with a smooth, cut finished hole at the top flush with the ornament. A smooth or embossed brass cap fit easily over the hole with a brass, pronged wire holding the cap against the ornament. A round brass wire fit through the top of the pronged one to hang from the tree that will have aged naturally. Recent reproductions from India were made with a rougher, protruding neck over the hole with the brass cap obviously aged artificially. Vintage kugels are made with thicker glass while thinner ones were made after 1918.

Whether rare or not, vintage kugels are a decorator choice for the Christmas holidays. Featured as a table centerpiece with candlelight, hung from light fixtures, catching light from open windows, formed into wreaths or simply hung on the tree with care, kugels bring a magic of color, brightness and good spirits inside while the weather outside is frightful. There just might be something to the folk tale after all.

Pewabic Pottery: Detroit’s Arts & Crafts survivor

NEW YORK – Not everyone is familiar with Pewabic Pottery (pronounced Puh-WOB-ic), but for anyone from Detroit and the southeastern Michigan area it’s a revered and venerable institution.

In 1903, Mary Chase Perry Stratton, who went to art school in Cincinnati and New York where she worked in clay sculpture and china painting, joined her neighbor, Horace James Caulkins, to make pottery. Caulkins was in the dental supply business and had had developed a kiln for making dental enamel. Perry and Caulkins fired their first vases and tiles in that kiln. They worked out of a coach house at the back of a mansion located at John R. and Alfred streets in Detroit.

In 1907, they built a Tudor Revival structure at 10125 E. Jefferson Ave. to house their studio and laboratory, which is still there, still functioning and operational as a headquarters. The structure was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

Early Pewabic Pottery vase, 17¼in high, having a matte glaze boasting teal tones with a floral relief to the bodice, bearing two ‘Pewabic Detroit’ paper labels to the surface, est. $1,500-$2,000, sold for $30,000 + buyer’s premium at an auction held July 21, 2019 by DuMouchelles in Detroit. DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers image

Pewabic Pottery is notable for the iridescent glazes on the many handmade decorative objects it produces, such as lamps, vessels and especially architectural tiles, a staple in the firm’s history. The glaze of the tiles has been described as being “like an oil slick with an incredible translucent quality and a phantasmagoric depth of color.” Over the years they’ve been used in churches, concert halls, fountains, libraries, museums, schools and public buildings, mostly in Michigan.

Large Pewabic Pottery iridescent blue vase, signed, in perfect condition, 10½in high, est. $2,500-$3,500, sold for $2,880 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium) at an auction held March 16, 2019 by California Historical Design in Alameda, Calif. California Historical Design and LiveAuctioneers image

But the rest of the country has taken notice, too. Tiles grace such buildings as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.; the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; Herald Square in New York City; and Herzstein Hall at Rice University in Houston. Michigan installations include Comerica Park (home of the Detroit Tigers), Detroit Medical Center Children’s Hospital, Third Man Records in Detroit and stations for the Q-Line in Detroit.

Perry Stratton’s and Caulkins’ collaboration and business partnership produced a blend of art and technology that gave the pottery its distinctive qualities as Detroit’s contribution to the International Arts and Crafts movement, as exemplified by the American Craftsman style.

Mary Chase Perry Stratton (1867-1961) for Pewabic Pottery, ‘All by Myself I Have to Go’ tile
glazed ceramic, 11¾in square, original redwood frame: 15¾in wide x 15 5/8in high, est. $2,000-$3,000, sold for $7,000 + buyer’s premium. Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers image

They chose the word “Pewabic” to call their company, as it’s derived from the Native American Ojibwe, or Chippewa, word “wabic” (meaning metal) or “bewabic” (which means iron or steel). Specifically, it refers to the old Pewabic copper mine near Hancock, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula where Perry Stratton was raised. Today, the Detroit facility operates as a nonprofit educational institution, and Pewabic tile continues to be in great demand throughout southeastern Michigan and the U.S.

“Pewabic pieces can be found all across the United States and are even represented within the collection of the Louvre in Paris, France,” said Lori Stefek at Stefek’s Auctions in Roseville, Michigan. “There is a growing appreciation for Pewabic Pottery within the auction industry. We have sold pieces to buyers in many states, including California, New Jersey, and Illinois.”

Stefek added, “The distinctive glaze is … a signature feature of Pewabic Pottery. Being from Detroit, you know when you walk into a space that features Pewabic tiles; the glazes capture the eye immediately. As an auctioneer I see a lot of pottery, and you know right away when a true Pewabic piece comes through for its distinctive look and craftsmanship.”

Large Pewabic Pottery iridescent pottery vase, formerly mounted as a lamp, American, 20th century, with ‘Pewabic Detroit’ medallion paper label to underside, 18½in high, est. $6,000-$8,000, sold for $6,500 + buyer’s premium at an auction held Sept. 17, 2015 at Stefek’s in Roseville, Mich. Stefek’s Autioneers and LiveAuctioneers image

“In this age of disposable products, Pewabic pieces are still produced with the same care that Mary Chase Perry Stratton intended,” Stefek said. “The innovation and creative direction that Pewabic was founded on is still carried on today, and that attention to detail attracts a wide variety of collectors and new buyers alike who desire handcrafted goods over mass-produced generic pieces. No wonder it’s still one of the longest lasting pottery studios in the Midwest.”

“Pewabic Pottery has always been known for remarkable quality, and for that reason it received nationally acclaim,” said Rachel Szymusiak, cataloger and appraiser for Schmidt’s Antiques in Ypsilanti, Michigan. “Pewabic has supplied decorative and architectural tiles to many places, due to its remarkable quality and enduring consistency. The iridescent glaze is unmistakably Pewabic and the quintessential shapes and styles are timeless, both decoratively and practically.”

Pewabic Pottery vase having a short neck above a rounded shoulder continuing to a tapered base, and an iridescent drip glaze over mottled blue, 5 inches tall, est. $200-$400, sold for $1,300 + buyer’s premium at an auction held May 12, 2018 by Schmidt’s Antiques in Ypsilanti, Mich. Schmidt’s Antiques and LiveAuctioneers image

Gus Bolstrom of California Historical Design Inc. in Alameda, California, said Pewabic Pottery is known and revered throughout America, “not only because they were making incredible Arts & Crafts Pottery – they were early in the movement right from the earliest days of their inception back in 1903 – they were making incredible iridescent glazes unlike anyone else at the time.”

Bolstrom added, “Pewabic Pottery is one of the only pottery studios from the Arts & Crafts period still in business today. This allows collectors of modest means to afford something made from their kilns. Interest in many pieces of the Arts & Crafts Movement has been down for the past 10-20 years, but Pewabic Pottery seems to hold its own better than most other potteries.”

Pewabic Pottery vase, metallic glazed ceramic, impressed signature, 4 inches high, in excellent condition with nice drip glaze, est. $450-$550, sold for $850 + buyer’s premium at an auction held Dec. 3, 2016 by Treadway Toomey Auctions in Oak Park, Ill. Treadway Toomey Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image

As an example, Bolstrom pointed to a 16-inch carved Pewabic Pottery vase that sold not long ago for $53,125 (including buyer’s premium) at Toomey Auctions in Oak Park, Illinois. “That may be a record for a piece of Pewabic pottery,” he said, adding, “I reached out to a few collectors of Pewabic in the San Francisco Bay area to gauge market demand. The consensus is there will continue to be strong demand because of the rarity and the exceptional fine glazes.”

Rachel Szymusiak at Schmidt’s Antiques said, “There has always been demand for earlier pieces, and in general we see the demand as steadily increasing. Again, the timelessness of the pieces, consistent quality, and exceptional craftsmanship will ensure a reliable demand.”

Pewabic decorated tiles, metallic glazed ceramic, Detroit, overall 17 x 24in. Sold for $2,000 + buyer’s premium. Treadway and LiveAuctioneers image

Lori Stefek said Pewabic’s popularity among designers and collectors has remained steady throughout the years. “A lot of variables go into the demand for the pieces, including the shapes, sizes, and rarity of the glazes,” she said. “I don’t see Pewabic losing its market demand anytime soon, and if anything it has the potential for higher demand. The younger generation, especially in Detroit, is starting to move back toward appreciating quality products made in Detroit due to the city’s renaissance. They’re attracted to the tenacity of Pewabic’s heritage during the turbulent times of Detroit’s history. The Internet has also opened up the market to interested people across the globe who wish to learn more and have the chance to acquire a Pewabic piece of their own.”

Colorful Christmas board games of McLoughlin Brothers

NEW YORK – Move two spaces. Roll the dice. Learn if your turn has been naughty or nice. That’s the nature of a competitive board game, especially one played during the Victorian era. And no one created Victorian board games better, then or now, than McLoughlin Brothers Inc.

There have always been competitive board games since ancient times. The earliest incomplete board game is said to be senet found in Egyptian burial sites dated as early as 3500 B.C., including that of Tutankhamun. Its rules are unclear, but it’s thought to be a personal journey from this life to the afterlife, according to Wikipedia. The Royal Game of Ur dates back to at least 2500 B.C. with other examples such as backgammon (Iraq, Syria), chess and parcheesi (India), and Go (China) from around the world during the ancient period that are still played today.

This 1899 board game shows the wonderfully colorful illustrations of children enjoying the snow in vivid colors is what makes McLoughin Bros. board games so desirable. This set recently sold for $10,000 (inclusive of a 25% buyer’s premium) complete with all its pieces. Image courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Board games in Europe from the 16th century through the Victorian era centered around vice and virtue such as Goose – roll the dice, land on vice (get punished) or virtue (get rewarded). Land on ‘goose’ and you get another chance to be a saint again. The winner was the most virtuous – simple and straightforward.

Not much different than the games published in the United States, except the first one was a Traveller’s Tour Through the United States published in 1822 by bookseller F&R Lockwood in New York City, but morality games like The Mansion of Happiness (Heaven being the Mansion), published in 1843 by W. & S.B. Ives, were more the norm. Each game board had simple, two-color, hand-painted graphics with an average cost of $1.63 (about $45 today).

By the 1850s advancement in printing brought chromolithography, a process that allowed full-color printing on paper more economically feasible and much less labor intensive. One of the first companies to take advantage of this new process was the McLoughlin Bros, a New York City publishing company of children’s books, paper toys, and, most important to collectors, multicolored board games.

 

A series of three Christmas-themed McLoughin Bros. board games features an1899 Santa Claus Scroll Puzzle, a 1904 Automobile Race Game with Santa motif on cover and the Visit of Santa Claus board game that sold together for $5,182 (inclusive of a 22% buyer’s premium) in 2019. Image courtesy: Showtime Auction Services and LiveAuctioneers

What’s remarkable about the board games published by McLoughin Bros. was not that they were the first (the Mansion to Happiness was) it was the distinctive multicolor process that created the high quality of its box illustrations. Many well-known artists worked for McLoughlin Bros. creating dazzling images for each of the children’s books, card packs and board games. Ida Waugh, for example, is a well-known illustrator and portrait painter who had exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbia Exhibition and Woodmere Museum in Philadelphia, among others. She ultimately contributed many painted illustrations to books, games and booklets along with William Bruton, Sarah Noble Ives and so many well-known illustrators of the era. Their superior pen and ink and watercolor illustrations helped set McLoughlin Bros. apart from other publishers of the era.

The sheer number of board games offered by McLoughlin Bros. is astounding and varied. There’s the Game of Catching Mice, the District Messenger Boy (one of its first), College Boat Race, The King’s Highway, The National Game of Baseball, the Game of Three Blind Mice, and so many others. By 1920, McLouglin Bros. sold out to Milton Bradley and board games were no longer produced under their name.

Luckily, we can still appreciate the wonderful art and history of McLoughlin Bros. board games and other children’s books and educational games at auction. As with other collectibles, condition is most important, but with vintage board games, particularly those from McLoughlin Bros., the graphics are just as important. Board games were meant to be played, so some wear and tear can be expected. However, the best condition reaches a higher auction value. Every small tear, rip or discoloration will matter.

Not just board games, but books by McLoughin Bros also tell the story of Christmas such as a complete set of Game of Christmas Jewel and several children books ‘Christmas Surprise,’ ‘Christmas Joys,’ ‘The Night Before Christmas and Nellie’s Christmas Eve’ that sold for $671 (inclusive of a 22% buyer’s premium) in 2016. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Pieces matter, too. Many of the board games have more than just a board; the dice, cards, playing pieces need to be all original and intact. Even if one piece is missing, no matter how small, the value drops significantly.

The type of game usually matters as well, but with McLoughlin Bros., all board games, no matter the condition will have an interested collector. For Christmas-themed games, for example, the Game of Tobogganing at Christmas, Automobile Race Game (showing a red-suited Santa similar to Kris Kringle on the cover) and a Visit of Santa Claus shows the vivid colors and storytelling graphics on the cover. They are as special now as they were played with then.

So many collectibles were made for a certain time and place. Board games may be the exception. Even if they were created over 150 years ago, their original purpose to entertain, amaze and bring out the competitive spirit is still going strong. Vivid artwork, fanciful design and the life lessons of McLoughlin Bros board games will easily transcend the next 150 years as new generations appreciate their genius.

As Jumanji says, “A game for those, who seek to find, a way to leave their world behind.” But not too far behind. They will always live as cherished collectibles.