INSIDE EVERY YIXING TEAPOT: THE COLOR PURPLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emile Gruppe, Artist-King of Gloucester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolex: How a revered luxury brand evolved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RUBY GLASS: A RHAPSODY IN RED

Circa-1700 gold ruby glass perfume bottle, French or German, with 14K gold stopper. Sold for $650 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

According to legend, ruby-red glass was discovered when a noble tossed a gold coin into a batch of molten glass. In reality, it probably happened when glassworkers unintentionally contaminated batches with traces of gold residue or gold nanoparticles that were components of silver additives.

The earliest known ruby glass vessels date from the late Roman Empire and rival the beauty of intricately carved gems. Yet their appeal along with the secret of their creation faded within a century.

More than a millennium passed before the quest for ruby glass was taken up anew. Antonio Neri, a 16th-century Florentine glassmaker, experimented with magnesium oxide and copper, a red pigment used for cathedral windows. Further investigation revealed that when clear molten glass is imbued with gold salts (known as chlorides) and re-heated, it assumes a range of jewel-like pink-to-red hues. Better still, the amount of gold needed for even the darkest, deepest red is infinitestimal.

Ruby glass perfume bottle with gold painted highlights. Sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and Live Auctioneers

The first European to produce large, evenly-colored, deep red vessels was Johann Kunckel, a 17th-century glassmaker, chemist, and “alchymist,” which is an archaic spelling for “alchemist.” Alchymists had long sought the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, a transparent, glossy red substance deemed essential for transmuting base metals into gold. For hunters of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovering how to create gold ruby glass was not only highly significant, it was wondrous.

Gold ruby glass masterpieces created under Brandenburg patronage feature an extensive amount of cut decoration, such as arches and pointed leaves carved into the glass or features that stand out, dramatically, in relief. The Corning Glass website states, “Seldom has cut decoration been so organically modeled, seemingly floating on the surface.” By the early 1700s, nearly every central European sovereign owned several costly, finely crafted ruby glass goblets, footed beakers, and tankards.

Steuben art glass dresser or vanity jar with Cerise Ruby design and butterfly lid. Sold for $220 plus the buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy of Auctions Neapolitan and LiveAuctioneers

Around the same time, glassworkers in southern Germany were creating simpler, less masterly red-raspberry-hued vessels in forms such as bottles, boxes, and bowls. Many were assembled from gilded-metal mounts and glass components, and some served a dual purpose. For example, certain plates and saucers, when flipped, resembled covers. Beakers were made that looked like bowls, and knobs often formed finials or sections of glassware stems. While the provenance of Southern German ruby glass remains elusive, their uniform appearance suggests a single source.

Bohemian ruby glass epergne (centerpiece). Sold for $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Austin Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Interest in gold ruby glassware waned by the early 1800s. However, decades later, Friedrich Egermann, a Bohemian glass decorator, discovered that copper additives would stain glass surfaces a deep red. Sales of ruby glass made with copper soared. Because these pieces were inexpensive enough for mass production but had the appearance of gold ruby glass, they eventually dominated the European market.

Victorian tea warmer with scenic dark ruby glass insert in metal frame. Sold for $400 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021. Image courtesy of Woody Auction LLC and LiveAuctioneers

This variety of ruby glass was most fashionable during the Victorian era. After wine-colored wine glasses, decanters, and chandeliers studded with tiny ruby glass drops were featured at London’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, scores of prosperous homeowners graced their parlors with ruby glass candy bowls, vases and table lamps. Collectors sought ruby glass ground jugs, hinged boxes and tea warmers featuring stylized white enamel paintings of children at play. Others focused on delicate gold-painted ruby glass jars, cologne bottles and vanity sets.

Cranberry-to-clear glass dinner bell attributed to Dorflinger. Sold for $3,000 plus buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

By the mid-1800s, ruby glass was becoming popular across America, where it was known as cranberry glass. Through 1915, the Dorflinger Glass Company, based in Brooklyn, New York, created popular pattern-cut dinner bells, punch cups, cigar jars and whiskey jugs. The Indiana Glass Company produced ruby-stained and cranberry-to-clear crystal pitchers, tumblers, sherbets, goblets, serving ware and glassware. Soon after, the Fenton Art Glass Company of West Virginia introduced eye-pleasing red wine coolers, decanters and candy dishes, as well as opulent opalescent bowls, compotes, table lamps and epergnes (centerpieces). Steuben Glass, located in Corning, New York, produced fanciful ruby glass ewers, “candy-caned” vanity jars, majestic vases, lamps and more.

Twenty-first century artisans rely on selenium and rare earth elements rather than gold for making ruby glass. But their beguiling hues, ranging from pale pink to blazing red, continue to fire the imagination.

Micromosaics: Fine art, piece by tiny piece

An 18K gold micromosaic pendant with gemstones sold for $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Hampton Estate Auction and LiveAuctioneers

It is the tallest dome in the world. At nearly 450 feet high, the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is awash in color with scenes depicting the 2,000-year-old history of the Catholic church. Near the top, the Latin inscription proclaims, “…upon this rock, I will build my church,” which is ironic, considering that the entire interior dome is decorated in small, colorful stones.

These scenes carefully crafted from stone are so intricate that from below, they appear to be highly detailed paintings, yet they are not. They are mosaics, or more precisely, micromosaics. Large stones that once formed Roman roads are now small stones which, ironically enough, feature in the works of the church the Romans persecuted.

This micromosaic parure, or suite of matching jewelry, sold for nearly $2,100 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Dawsons Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

How a Mosaic Begins

Arranging large stones to form a functioning roadway, building or walkway is a civil-engineering technique that dates back to early Mesopotamia, now Iraq, about 5,500 years ago. In fact, the earliest stone road that still exists lies in Gaza and dates to at least 4,500 years ago. It may have been used to transport blocks of limestone that became part of the Egyptian pyramids.

Arranging stone pieces to form mosaic artworks is also ancient in origin and was prevalent throughout the ancient Greek, Roman and even early Mayan periods. The difference is in the size of the stones and how they are arranged.

Mosaic creators differentiate their patterns with color. The colors come from different types of cut stone, glass, ceramic and even enamel. Cut small and usually square, each piece, called a tessera (plural: tesserae), is painstakingly fitted together on a setting bed of plaster or cement, one piece at a time. The work is destined for installation within an outline brushed on a harder, more permanent surface, such as a wall, ceiling, column, fountain or indoor floor. The more elaborate the mosaic, the more prominently it was placed. Mosaics were status symbols when they were new. Today, they are considered national treasures and are not generally licensed to be bought or sold on the open market.

This brooch of a white dove on a blue background bears the maker’s mark of Fortunato Pio Castellani, one of the most renowned Roman micromosaic artists of the 19th century. It sold for $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

Mosaics Go Micro

When the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was completed in the early 17th century, it created its own vapor clouds that eventually made it difficult to maintain its original paintings and frescoes. In the late 16th century, under the pontificate of Pope Gregory XIII, each painting and fresco was replaced via a new process that relied on long, thin, colorful segments of highly durable glass (smalti) cut into small, almost microscopic squares (filati) and placed, one by one, to recreate each masterpiece in a mosaic pattern.

The Vatican Mosaic Studio has maintained the intricate micromosaics in museum-quality condition since 1578. The studio continues to recreate paintings and images using a palette of some 28,000 separate smalti filati colors to produce micromosaic art as gifts for heads of state, for restoration projects at the Vatican, and for sale to pilgrims from around the world.

In works like this vintage floral brooch, pieces of pietra dura are cut to fit a particular shape. It sold for $60 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015.
Image courtesy of Cordier Auctions & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers

The Grand Tour

Micromosaic art was resurrected in the late 18th century but was channeled into the creation of a more compact array of wearable jewelry and smaller decorative items, rather than large murals intended for public buildings. The artistic technique reemerged at precisely the right time.

From the 17th- to the late-19th century, the Grand Tour was a rite of passage for many privileged sons and daughters of the British upper class, in particular. The canonical Grand Tour itinerary included visits to Paris, Venice, and particularly Rome. The schedule of museum tours, concerts and cultural introductions led to a trade in beautiful, highly detailed micromosaic jewelry depicting many of the sites the young travelers might have visited. Micromosaics became a favorite keepsake of the Grand Tour experience, with each image of tessarae so fine up to 5,000 small pieces per square inch that they were regarded as works of art on a smaller scale.

These souvenir pieces weren’t just executed in small tesserae, but also in pietra dura, a phrase that translates as “hard stone.” Not unlike stained-glass art, pietra dura jewelry featured different shades of stone carved and shaved to fit together into delicate images of flowers, animals or historic architecture, usually set against a black background. The pietra dura style began in 16th century Florence using polished stones such as agate, mother of pearl, lapis lazuli, jasper, and other colored, sometimes semi-precious stones, and can almost be compared to marquetry, as each piece is tightly fitted without the use of grout or other cement to secure it.

Another standard Grand Tour souvenir, particularly during the Victorian era, was a parure: a set of intricate matching jewelry, usually consisted of a necklace, earrings, brooch, bracelet and, at times, a tiara, all in micromosaic, and all packaged in a fancy clamshell box.

The Artists Collectors Look For

Collectors are drawn to micromosaic pieces with tessarae so fine, they look almost like paintings from afar. Fortunato Pio Castellani, one of the early micromosaic artisans of the late 18th century, specialized in reproducing images of ancient Etruscan archeological finds. His makers mark is a mirrored “C” in a lozenge shape and also the word “Castellani” inside a raised rectangle.

Collectors also appreciate the works of Giacomo Raffaelli, who helped pioneer early micromosaics when he set up his shop in Rome in 1775. His signature style consisted of setting square tessarae in rows to create an image of limited color and design.

Michelangelo Barberi was known for the immensely fine micromosaics he created for many royal courts and the Tsar of Russia. Domenico Moglia, Antonio Aguatti, Luigi Cavaliere Moglia, Filippo Puglieschi, and Luigi Podio are also among the prominent artists of the late-18th and 19th century whose work is found at auction.

The Golden Age of micromosaics lasted until about 1870, when the tourist trade supplanted the Grand Tour. Micromosaics took on a more noticeably cruder look after that point, with larger stone tessarae replacing the finer artistic approach of the late-18th and early 19th centuries. Such works possess limited collector or auction appeal.

In addition to wearable jewelry, fine micromosaics can be found on elaborate snuff boxes, tabletops, panels and plaques, which were originally sold as souvenirs. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert Collection is one of the largest collections of micromosaics in the world, named for the collector Sir Arthur Gilbert, who coined the term “micromosaic” in the 1940s to describe the delicate art.

Rally ‘Round These American Flags

A 30-star American Flag with a charming scattered-star pattern sold for $1,600 plus the buyer’s premium at Cowan’s in June 2019. 
Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many national flags are older than the flag of the United States, but no national flag has changed as often. From 1777, with the adoption of the 13-star design, to 1960, when it assumed the current 50-star pattern, the American Flag has officially changed no fewer than 27 times during the past 245 years.

The American Flag’s appearance is familiar, but unfixed. A new star is added to its canton the word for the blue field in the upper left for any new state on the following July 4th after its admittance to the Union. With Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico pursuing statehood, the look of the American flag could change at some point.

A flag that exists in more than two dozen iterations, interpreted by countless creators during more than two centuries, provides rich pickings for collectors. Naturally, some American Flags are more sought-after than others. Below are some of the most coveted styles and forms.

An early 19th century 13-star US flag made as a small boat flag for the US Navy sold for $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Dan Morphy Auctions in December 2019. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The 13-Star Flag

Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” That was the entire Congressional Resolution of June 14, 1777 that officially adopted the national flag of the new United States of America. There was no meaning attached to the colors, the shape of the stars, or whether the stripes were horizontal or vertical. The flag was only intended to identify the new country aboard Navy vessels when entering foreign ports.

Additional resolutions were adopted later specifying that new states beyond the first 13 would be recognized on the flag with their own stars. This ensured the American flag would routinely change as the country expanded westward.

The 13-star flag remained official until the admission of Vermont and Kentucky in 1795, yet there is no credible 13-star American Flag that has survived the 18th century.

American Flags found at auction that feature 13 stars were used primarily by the US Navy on smaller launch boats from the 1850s to 1916, when the national flag was substituted instead.

The Star Pattern

Until the advent of the commercial sewing machine around 1850 (which could only sew in a straight line), all American Flags were stitched by hand, and they were not routinely displayed at home. These facts makes any American Flag of this period the most coveted at auction.

American Flags made after 1850 but before the circa 1890 advent of the zig-zag sewing machine (which could sew stars in place) are the second most desired at auction. Flags manufactured after 1900 are less scarce.

It is important to note that the appearance of the American Flag was not regulated until 1912, when a canton with a 48-star box-like pattern was deemed the official flag design for government and military use. Prior to 1912, manufacturers and individuals created any star pattern they wanted, and some of them were exceptionally innovative and eye-catching. Unsurprisingly, the most unusual and creative star patterns have proven the most collectible at auction.

Once codified, the 48-star American Flag relied on all-wool bunting until World War II, when cotton was substituted to conserve the wool for uniforms. Wool flags, then, are generally about a third more valuable than cotton ones.

The 49-star American Flag, adopted when Alaska earned admission to the Union in 1959, was official for only one year, as Hawaii gained entrance in 1960. For this reason, it is the most collectible American Flag in any size or format. The 50-star American Flag is the longest-lived variation on the design, and is the most common.

Collectors who want to build an unusual collection seek American Flags with an unofficial number of stars, such as 14, 16 to 19, 22, 39 to 42, or 47, especially in hand-sewn wool bunting, as most examples are particularly scarce.

Civil War Flags

The three national flags of the Confederate States of America and the two national flags of the United States of this period one featuring 34 stars, and one 35 stars are extremely collectible and routinely auctioned with high reserves.

Apart from the national flags, individual regimental flags from both North and South were hand-sewn with great care. Any that appear to have been made in haste or seem unusually battle-worn are typically outed as fake.

An Apollo 10 American flag that flew to the lunar surface sold for $2,400 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2014. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Flags Flown in Space

Humans have flown in space only since Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union successfully completed one orbit around Earth in 1961. Since then, about 560 individuals have experienced true weightlessness in space, not counting the 242 visitors to the International Space Station (the structure is positioned in low Earth orbit, which sticklers don’t count as space travel).

Astronaut Alan Shepard was the first to carry an American Flag in space during his Mercury Freedom 7 capsule voyage in 1961, roughly three weeks after Gagarin’s flight. Since then, American astronauts have been allowed to pack a few personal belongings in a PPK (personal preference kit) that usually includes small American flags to distribute as souvenirs once they return home. Each of these space-flown flags routinely garner great interest at auction.

But flags flown to the moon are easily the most prized. The 18 astronauts chosen for the six Apollo missions collectively brought several hundred small American flags on their extraterrestrial journeys, leaving few for would-be owners to fight over.

Documentation proves this shredded 48-star wool American Flag flew over the US Capitol on April 6, 1917 – the day that war was declared against Germany. It sold at Dan Morphy Auctions in December 2020 for $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Historic or Special Event Flags

A tradition among those serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts calls for those on patrol to tuck small American Flags inside their uniforms. Once home, the flags are normally given to staff, family members, or institutions. Only occasionally have they sold at auction. Such flags fit the definition of “special event” flags, which can draw the interest of collectors.

An American Flag that flew over the White House or U.S. Capitol during historic or meaningful occasions tend to keep their value. Examples of events that can pique the interest of flag collectors are those flown during inaugurations; when a deceased president or legendary person lies in state; or when an act of war is declared.

Flags flown from a prominent location during a high-profile event such as the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the like can attract serious bidding at auction. Those that hovered over a gathering on a notable day of remembrance, such as a 9/11 anniversary, might be sought-after as well.

Still others that command attention are those bearing the signature of a president or someone of similar prominence; early campaign flags; folk art flags; flags sewn by prisoners of war; and those with a celebrity connection or a backstory that distinguishes its provenance.

More than a Collectible

Any American Flag that bears the official number of stars is never decommissioned even if it is rendered obsolete by an updated design. Whether it floated over a battlefield or traveled to the surface of the moon or never left the flagpole in the front yard, an American flag represents a compelling story of freedom, liberty, and national identity that makes it more than just a collectible.

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Incunabula: Books from the birth of the printed word

A copy of one the earliest known printed maps of Jerusalem, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, realized $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019.
Image courtesy Winner’s Auctions LTD and LiveAuctioneers

Incunabula, a Latin word that means “in the cradle,” describes books created during the infancy of European printing, an era that spans the years 1455 to 1501.

These early books evolved from East Asian and Middle Eastern textile block prints as alternatives to costly hand-copied, scrolled manuscripts. Though this printing technique reached Europe in the early 1300s, woodcuts, as they became known, entered general use only where paper was available.

The first type of incunabula are block books sets of sheets pasted back-to-back developed from single-leaf devotional and playing card images. They were copied in reverse on wooden blocks, which were then inked, covered with sheets of dampened paper, and hand-rubbed with heavy leather balls. Their resulting impressions were uneven, and with repeated printings, their clarity and crispness deteriorated. Though this early type of incunabula was undated and did not include printer emblems, paper analysis has traced most examples to southern Germany and the Netherlands.

Typographic books, the second type of incunabula, were created using individual units of cast-metal, moveable, reusable type. Unlike woodcut printing, this technique produced quick, durable, uniform results. It also inspired the development of various typefaces.

The quality of Johannes Gutenberg’s Latin Bible from 1454, the first printed book in the West, did not just establish the superiority of moveable type. According to the Library of Congress site Incunabula, “Gutenberg’s most significant contribution to the history of printing consists of making metal punches, moulds, and matrices by which type could be accurately cast in large quantities. Freeing letters, number, and punctuation from the single woodcut meant that pages could be assembled and reassembled quickly.”

Many collectors seek portions of incunabula. A single leaf from the Gutenberg Bible featuring decorative red and blue initials, headlines, chapter numbers, and capitals, and bound with A. Edward Newton’s essay A Noble Fragment, Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible 1450-1455 in luxurious black morocco leather is a treasure.

Leaf 156 from the Gutenberg Bible, with Old Testament passages in Gothic type, sold for $65,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Printers soon realized that combining metal type with ornamental woodcut lettering and illustrations on a single incunabula page increased its commercial value. As printing presses arose in cities such as Mainz, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Florence, and Venice, many graced their natural history, religious, and allegorical texts with carved woodcut images.

A first edition of the ‘Orthographia,’ the monumental Latin dictionary by Johannes Tortellius sold for £10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2016.
Image courtesy of Forum Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Orthographia, a monumental study of ancient Greek and Latin compiled by Johannes Tortellius between 1449 and 1495, is one example of illustrated text. So is the famed Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, which, in addition to boasting one of the largest print runs of its time, inspired several large-scale pirated editions. This ambitious work depicts the saga of human history, from the Creation through the Last Judgement, with more than 1,800 illustrations from more than 600 woodcuts.

Leaf CCXIX from the Nuremberg Chronicle, featuring portraits of King Adolph of Nassau, King Louis of Sicily, and others sold for $100 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Old World Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In addition to portraying Biblical characters, popes, rulers, and European cityscapes, it features two of the earliest known printed (though imaginary) birds-eye views of Jerusalem, depicting Solomon’s Temple. According to Rehav Rubin, Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University, Jerusalem and author of Jerusalem in Maps and Views, both resemble the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built centuries later. Through the years, charming incunabula images such as these have been reproduced repeatedly to popular acclaim.

This pair of illuminated antiphonal folio incunabula leaves on vellum with staves of music realized $150 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many music-themed incunabula, discussing topics such as plainsong, mathematical aspects of theory, and rules of notation, were illustrated with carved block prints. Liturgical graduals (which we would know as hymnals) and antiphonals (which we would call chants) were needed in great numbers because they were performed during Mass. These publications required specialized graphics staffs of continuous lines marked by symbols at varied heights, making them a challenge to produce. Initially, individual pages were block-printed entirely, or their text was type-printed, leaving space for hand-written melodies. Later, liturgical printers provided pages pre-impressed with evenly spaced staffs in traditional red ink, in the manner of medieval musical manuscripts. After black variously-shaped notes were impressed in place, a second impression added music texts, or vice-versa.

Oldest panoramic view of Erfurt, from the 1493 book, the Nuremberg Chronicle, realized $385 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

Some collectors seek incunabula by language, illustrations, country, city, edition, printer, or provenance. Others seek incunabula featuring specific subject matter, like science, mathematics, literature or religion. And still others value incunabula for their own sake, the sake of history. What unites them is a passion for the printed word in its earliest form, before people truly understood its formidable power to shape and change the world.

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.