Treenware: the natural ‘green’ collectible

NEW YORK – One can look at a large tree and see its natural lines spoiled by a somewhat cancerous growth along the base or trunk that we would call a knot. Yet, to a woodcarver, this deformity hides lovely, durable bowls, tureens and containers.

Today this knot or burl and wood objects in general are known as treenware (loosely “of the tree”). Early examples are now collectible art, but it wasn’t always that way. Wooden bowls, cups, utensils and storage containers were household necessities throughout the millennia, mostly because wood was the only affordable and plentiful resource around. Woodworking has been found in China, ancient Egypt, early Rome, and as far back as the Neolithic period 12,000 years ago.

The bulging growth on a tree trunk is call burl, in which the grain has formed in a deformed manner. Wood turners shape burl into bowls and other useful and decorative pieces.
Image courtesy: Evelyn Simak photo. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

By the 1600s, though, most of the old growth forests in Europe were long depleted to meet the needs of a growing population. With a population of the known world at about 580 million, wood was a main source of building, heating, shipbuilding and domestic implements. Wooden bowls made from burl, for example, were hard to find and not an everyday household item for everyone. The Age of Exploration of the 15th to 17th centuries helped change that. The New World, once discovered, provided not only expansive new territory but also a much needed resource – trees.

Colonial America

That was certainly a welcome surprise when Colonists first landed in the Americas of the early 17th century. There was an overwhelming abundance of old growth trees and virgin forests of every variety of hard and soft woods. Needing household cooking and working implements, the new Colonists relied on the skills of Native Americans for their first set of treenware because woodworking was a skill most early Colonists did not possess.

This 18th century New England Native American trencher bowl made of an elm burl sold in February 2018 for $2,100+ the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Native Americans had perfected the skill of carving their wooden household necessities. Bowls made from hardwood burl utilized a long process that included using fire to shape a burl bowl, then patiently smoothing it with a hard shell, beaver tooth or smooth stone. Later, woodturners, the most familiar of European woodworkers, would join the Colonies who specialized in turning bowls on pole and treadle lathes, a method unknown to the Native Americans, but most familiar to Europeans for nearly 2,000 years. The skills for learning how to fashion bowls from burl, though, had to be learned by the Colonists over time, so trading for the more highly skilled Native American burl and wooden items predominated for most of early America.


By the middle of the 19th century American craftsmen forged their own identities and specializations. The Native Americans had long stopped hand carving bowls and other wooden treenware and instead used the tools traded with the early Colonists such as axes, knives, adzes and other metalware to continue creating their own distinctive styles.

Peaseware is more basic and utilitarian without elaborate decoration. This 19th century lidded canister with handle sold for $1,400+ the buyer’s premium in 2009. Image courtesy: Pook & Pook Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

One such craftsman was David Mills Pease of the Cascade Valley of northeastern Ohio. Beginning about 1850, his woodturning skill produced the everyday useable lidded and unlidded household items to store grain, seeds, salt and general cooking implements. Natural, unadorned, practical and stable, Peaseware, as it is known, is usually turned and varnished maple, but sometimes combined with other woods. They were always more functional than decorative and made to last for generations. By 1876, Peaseware could be found at world’s fairs and international expositions until about 1906.


More distinctive treenware was created about the same time by Joseph Lehn in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. What’s particularly noteworthy about Lehnware, as it is known, is that it is quite decorative. Lehn was a wood turner, cooper and furniture maker by trade but by 1856 or so was being recognized by his elaborately designed treenware.

Turning boxes, cups, barrels, buckets, kegs and barrels wasn’t quite enough. Lehn decorated them in patterns of strawberry, pomegranate and floral decorations using yellow, blue, red, green and salmon colors. All had a repeated sequence and were uniquely hand-painted and at times, had decals added.

A colorfully painted Lehnware eggcup exhibits the floral motif associated with Joseph Lehn. It sold for $2,900+ the buyer’s premium in 2010. Images courtesy: Conestoga Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Lehn died in 1892 at the age of 94, but his distinctive style of treenware survives as collectibles today. Some of his later pieces bore a paper label that read: “Made by Joseph Lehn in his 91 year Jan. 1, 1889.”

Other Artists

Peter Stauffer was a neighbor of Joseph Lehn and made blanket chests with similar decorations as Lehn. William Carl Heilig turned cups and saucers as well as chests and chairs. He may have signed his work “Wm. C. Heilig Ephrata” in the same period as Joseph Lehn. Robert F. Lausch of Ephrata, Pennsylvania, continued the turning and decorating of boxes in the Lehn tradition in the 1960s, 100 years later.

This Northwest Coast-style grease bowl carved from cedar, 4in. x 13½in. x 6½in., is attributed to Edward Saburo Ohashi (1931-2010 American). Similar carved effigy bowls have been faked. Image courtesy of MBA Seattle Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Treen Can Be Faked

Vintage treenware is difficult to date, according to Steven Powers in his book North American Burl Treen: Colonial & Native American. “Exact dating can almost never be attained with treen,” Powers writes. “Our best gauge for dating treen is dating it to like forms in other materials that have a known date … [and so it] becomes quite instinctual or more of a feeling.”

Because of this, many early Native American burl bowls have been modified to attract more buyers at auction such as adding handles or figures into the bowls or other native treenware. Additional carvings are noticeable because the wear would be quite different, for example. Powers suggests that most faked Native American treenware at auctions are the carved effigy bowls that are carved too thin and rounded at the bottom which is not usual. Other small footed bowls have been made in China and Tibet made of ash burl and claim to be early Native American treenware, but a well-trained eye can notice the discrepancies of added carvings and unusual use of nonnative woods.

A close-up view of the finished surface of maple burl shows its irregular figuring.
Images courtesy: LiveAuctioneers

A ‘Green’ Collectible

Treenware handcrafted or turned from burl or any wood wasn’t usually as long-lasting as the metal pots, pans and other implements that were more the norm in the industrial age. But for the early Colonists and Native American communities, treenware was plentiful, strong and dependable. Only later would treenware become more decorative, artistic and collectible and yet still maintain its ability to be useful for generations to come. What could be more “green” than that?

Jasper52 introduces famous portrait miniaturists May 22

An auction devoted to 18th and 19th century portrait miniatures, small hand-painted masterpieces, will be conducted by Jasper52 on Wednesday, May 22. The online auction represents a who’s who of the rich subjects and famous miniature portraitists of their eras.

Horace Hone portrait miniature, circa 1782, painted on natural wafer, signed and dated ‘HH 1782,’ framed in a gold bracelet case (2in. x 1 5/8in.) which is in excellent condition, as is the painting itself. Estimate: $4,500-$5,500. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Top Armenian artists featured in online auction April 24

Forty-two works by world-class Armenian artists comprise an online auction to be held by Jasper52 on Wednesday, April 24.

Aram Yengibaryan, ‘Still Life with Russian Dolls,’ oil on canvas, 80 x 100cm (31.5in. x 39.4in.)
Estimate: $1,400-$1,600. Jasper52 image


View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.


Whimsy meets function in butter prints

NEW YORK – Wooden butter prints were designed to be neither strictly utilitarian objects nor objets d’art but instead fall somewhere in the middle. Highly carved and ornate yet with handles or edges worn smooth from frequent use, butter prints are curious examples of material culture. In some areas, they are all that remains of a once-thriving dairy industry.

“These deceivingly mundane tools convey changes in dining habits, rural women’s participation in local economies, and the transition to a consumer economy,” said Jennifer L. Putnam
Villanova University, in a 2017 article in butter prints for the Madison Historical Review available online.

A carved and turned tulip butter print, dated 1834, fetched $4,392 at Pook & Pook Inc. in April 2017. Photo courtesy of Pook & Pook Inc.

Butter prints were not exclusively American, as fine examples were Swiss, Austrian and English to name a few. As far as American examples go, however, Pennsylvania probably held the biggest share as more butter prints were made here in the 19th century than any other state.

Before the advent of commercial creameries, people used to make butter at home and they would take it to market,” says antique dealer John Rogers of New London, New Hampshire, who specializes in early American woodenware, including butter prints (aka butter stamps). “There would be roadside markets so people were looking for ways to differentiate their butter from other people’s butter and the butter print was a way of doing that.”

Some theories hold that printed butter sold better than unprinted butter as people considered this butter to be of a higher quality than unprinted butter but that’s probably just some very good marketing.

When it comes to collecting, forms are more important than the pattern design with double-sided and lollipop forms of the highest interest, says James Pook, vice president of Pook & Pook, Inc. in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

A small but beautifully assembled collection of truly fine prints includes lollipop forms on the top shelf. Photo courtesy of John Rogers

Butter prints come in a variety of forms from the traditional round to a half round, rectangular or block prints and the rare and highly desirable lollipop form. “Some people collect only Pennsylvania Dutch round prints, there are those who collect only lollipops or only collect animals,” Rogers said. “There is a wide variety of preference within the butter print family, I happen to be one who likes them all.”

The rarest or hardest one to find today is called the shouldered oval, he added. “It’s an oval print that has a sort of a side shoulder on both sides. Those are the rarest. They are very hard to come by; they can go for a gazillion dollars.” Semi-oval shouldered prints also can be found.

A finely carved Pennsylvania Dutch tulip print. Photo courtesy of John Rogers

Decorating motifs are infinitely more varied than the forms, ranging from flora and fauna (sheaves of wheat are common) to animals and miscellaneous objects. “The most sought-after designs would be tulips and stars and then the animals. The eagle is a frequently found motif, and the cow obviously is very popular,” Rogers said. “Other animals are harder to come by so a rooster is highly sought after. A beehive and a double beehive are very, very hard to find and expensive when you do find them.”

Craftsmanship and the level of detail in the carving are among attributes buyers most look for. The earliest examples (pre-1860) are the most sought after and all having hand-carved faces. In general, the larger the face diameter a print has, the better.

A highly desirable half round eagle butter print. Photo courtesy of John Rogers

“I would say look at the quality of the carving,” Rogers said. Butter prints were made in shops as well as by people working in their own homes so quality varies greatly. “Look for the quality of the carving and the care with which the face of the butter prints is inscribed,” he added. “Is the overall effect pleasing or cluttered? Does the design itself occupy the whole face or is it reduced by easily carved concentric circles, which go around the entire print so the actual print is smaller?

The size of the print itself, its artistry and the obvious skill in the carving are all important as is condition. “This was just a common household tool, so they were not very well treated. Because butter making stopped with the advent of commercial creameries, they were carelessly put on shelves and rodents liked to chew on them because of the salt content in to the wood.” Many of them mysteriously also bear scorch marks, which Rogers said is curious as fire certainly has no part of the butter-making process.

Two carved and turned eagle butter prints, the oblong example with a chip carved handle, made $9,150 at Pook & Pook Inc. in April 2017. Photo courtesy of Pook & Pook Inc.

While a passion for Americana has waned a bit in recent years as evidenced by the changing lineup of what once was known as Americana Week in New York City every January, the popularity of butter prints endures. “The market is pretty good,” Pook said. “We sold one for over $9,000 in 2017. As with anything in the antiques market, if you have a great example, it’ll bring good money.”

Much loved and admired portrait miniatures

Miniatures, originally, were tiny, decorative images that embellished illuminated medieval manuscripts. Portrait miniatures, head-and-shoulder portrayals of individuals about the size of large marshmallows, developed from their techniques and tradition.

From the mid-1400s, illuminators not only illustrated manuscripts and costly hand-printed books. For wealthy patrons, they also created stand-alone miniatures for private worship or as luxurious collectibles.

Gentleman, oil on copper, framed and glazed, inscribed ‘A: 1588’, 5.5 x 3.9 in., British, realized £7,000 in 2015. Image courtesy of Busby and LiveAuctioneers

During the following century, English and French illuminators created portrait miniatures on backs of stiff playing cards, copper wafers or velvety calfskin parchment using watercolors. At the time, aristocrats and royalty, like Henry VIII, commissioned these small, colorful depictions as diplomatic gifts, signs of royal favor, and to facilitate long-distance marriage negotiations.

During the Elizabethan era, miniatures depicting likenesses of lovers were intended for personal, private use. When Spain threatened England, however, wealthier subjects sometimes bore copies of Elizabeth’s image as signs of loyalty. Similarly, some bore images of James I when he inherited the throne.

Portrait miniature of Adam Babcock, signed ‘HP’ l.r. by Henry Pelham (after noted American painter John Singleton Copley), watercolor on ivory, c. 1774, 2 x 1¼ in., 18K gold case, illustrious history and provenance known, documented and exhibited through the U.S. Department of State, realized $55,000 in 2011. Image courtesy of Skinner and LiveAuctioneers

Though traditional techniques continued through the early 1700s, miniaturists usually preferred smooth, translucent ivory wafer backings, because they enhanced skin with realistic radiance. Since watercolors tended to slide off, however, many first degreased or roughened their surfaces.

In time, painting portrait miniatures became an acceptable pastime, even for women. Yet with the rise of the middle class, their demand rose dramatically. Clerics, soldiers, dignitaries, as well as common folk, not only commissioned depictions of themselves. Many also commissioned multiple copies, to be distributed to family members or as tokens of affection.

Violinist, possibly Mikhail Glinka, watercolor on ivory, signed ‘I. Gerin’ along with finely penned inscription in Cyrillic, “To my dearest friend Sofia Nikolayevna Treskina with the fondest of memories, 31st of August 1835,” 3.1 in. high, realized $5,500 in 2012. Image courtesy Jackson’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Women often wore these stunning, tiny portraits mounted in brooches, bracelets, or lockets backed by locks of hair coiled into love knots Young men, rakes and politicians concealed lovers’ portraits under lids of snuff boxes. Soldiers and sailors bore miniatures of wives and sweethearts into battle, leaving self-images for those left behind. In addition, seafaring merchants carried portrait miniatures to the American Colonies.

At first, Colonial painters produced tiny, traditional oval portraits for wealthy clients alone. Toward 1800 however, when enterprising British, French and Italian miniaturists arrived, this fine art thrived. Yet within a few decades, American miniatures, larger, brighter, sharper and featuring full-length figures, tended to resemble full-size oil paintings.

Miniature portrait of Auguste Marie von Engelhardt on ivory by Alexander Molinari, signed lower right, titled and dated verso, 1800, 3½ in. high x 2¾ in. wide, provenance known, realized $8,500 in 2011. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

British portrait miniatures gained popularity during the reign of Queen Victoria, especially following the death of Prince Albert. Since public mourning had become fashionable, women not only wore brooches of their near and dear. Many also wore ones depicting images of their dear departed.

When portrait miniatures fell from fashion, the European middle class continued to seek small, affordable ornamental items. Mass-produced miniatures, reproductions of full-scale oil paintings and depictions of famed musicians, military leaders or maidens in fancy bonnets, were especially popular. These purely decorative works, many created in Germany, were not produced to deceive the public, but to fulfill their wide demand.

Girl wearing black dress with muslin trimmings and matching hat, on ivory, signed and dated, gold frame with bright-cut sides, the reverse with glazed aperture containing hair-work monogram, John Smart (1740-1811), 1.9 in. high, realized $7,773 in 2016. Image courtesy Matthew Barton Ltd. And LiveAuctioneers

Many can be readily identified. The quality of their painting may vary, they may bear French-sounding signatures, and most are produced on low-cost, translucent ivorine wafers made from milk curd or rennet. In addition, they may be framed by lavish brass filigree or ivory piano keys backed by pages from old books, to simulate great age. Yet these attractive, available, affordable decorative miniatures are becoming antiques in their own right.

More serious collectors, however, usually seek unique miniatures featuring actual sitters. Those portraying a famed monarch, actress, or admiral, for instance, are especially collectible. So are those featuring sitters identified through historic research or genealogical studies. Works by celebrated miniaturists, like Samuel Cooper, John Smart, Robert Field and Laura Coombs Hills, are also desirable, especially if they are signed and dated. That said, rare, masterly portrait miniatures, in prime condition, in original, high quality frames, signed and dated by famous artists, and portraying known, interesting, and attractive sitters, are most collectible of all.

Child identified as ‘Aspinwall Maxwell/born in/Saugerties N.Y.,’ watercolor on ivory in locket type velvet covered case. 19th century, unsigned, 1¾ x 1⅜ in., realized $300 in 2007. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Since scores were produced by unknown artists, however, many may be found at appealing prices. Furthermore, those featuring unidentified sitters – even those not particularly attractive, may hold a certain charm. After all, these miniatures not only reveal fads and fashions of their day. They also illuminate real lives.

In addition, these miniscule, incredibly delicate works of art are wonders of survival.

Jasper52 presents Jackson Pollock Christmas card May 29

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s 1944 Christmas card is a unique highlight of a Jasper52 fine paintings and prints auction to be conducted Tuesday, May 29. The Christmas card – signed by the famed American artists and printed in black in on light blue paper – is expected to sell for $10,000.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s 1944 Christmas card, printed in black ink on light blue paper, matted and framed. Estimate: $10,000-$12,000. Jasper 52 image

View the auction.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Whistler’s Etchings: Beyond the Portrait of Mother

James Abbott McNeill Whistler is famous for his 19th-century painting Arrangement in Gray and Black, commonly known as Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, but he was by no means a one-hit wonder.

In fact, more than a decade before the American-born and the England-based artist painted the portrait of his mother in 1871; he began creating what many deem one of his most important contributions to art: his etchings.

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834, his appreciation and talent for artistic expression had an apparent calming effect on the youthful Whistler, whose temperamental behavior was evident at an early age. Not only were his natural talents recognized, but they were also encouraged while his family resided in St. Petersburg, Russia. During this time Whistler’s father served as an engineer aiding in the design of a railroad. Eleven-year-old James Whistler became a student at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.

‘Arrangement in Gray, Portrait of the Artist (Self-portrait)’ of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1872, Detroit Institute of Arts. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Alas, his opportunity to study the subject of his passion was cut short, after only four years, following the death of his father from cholera. With the elder Whistler deceased, the family was forced to return to the United States.

Lesser-known fact: At the age of 18, Whistler joined the ranks of cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Temperament and academic struggles led to his early exit from West Point. However, his introduction to cartography at the academy would result in work as a draftsman and the discovery of etching, a skill that would serve him well throughout his life.

At the age of 21, Whistler left the United States, where his devoutly religious mother and siblings resided, opting instead to settle in Europe. He would never return to the U.S., instead, he made his permanent residence in London, with frequent visits to France. However, his mother spent considerable time with him in Europe during 1871 while sitting for her son as he created his famous portrait of her.

‘Bridge, Amsterdam,’ etching, 1889, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, signed in pencil on tab at lower left with butterfly monogram and imp. And inscribed on verso at the right in the artist’s hand ‘1st proof pulled’ together with butterfly monogram, 6 ½ in. x 9 ½ in. Sold for $125,475 during a 2007 auction at Heritage Auctions. Heritage Auctions image.

His years in Europe included befriending several artists who would go on to experience great success as well. Among those were Henri Fantin-Latour, Gustave Courbet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas. Finding inspiration and influence in a variety of cultures, Whistler is reportedly among the earliest artists of the Aesthetic movement. From this ideology, the theory of creating “art for art’s sake” emerged.

During the mid-19th century, Whistler traveled through northern France, a trip that prompted him to create his first set of etchings titled Twelve Etchings from Nature, more commonly referred to as the French Set, according to information from the University of Glasgow website. After returning to London, while living near the bustling seafaring region of the River Thames, he created a set of etchings featuring the day-to-day happenings, including the activity of ships and barges docking and departing, and fisherman and dock workers tending to duties, all set against London’s architecture. These works would form Sixteen Etchings of the Scenes on the Thames.

‘The Palaces,’ etching with plate tone, on laid paper and trimmed to the platemark by the artist, 1879-80, signed with the butterfly and inscribed ‘imp’ in pencil on tab at lower right, annotated by Whistler with three tiny circles in pencil on the reverse, 9 15/16 in. x 14 ¼ in. Sold for $26,000 at auction in April of 2011. Phillips and LiveAuctioneers image.

In 1879, working on a commissioned assignment for the Fine Art Society, Whistler spent little more than a year in Venice, creating art inspired by the scenes of the Italian mecca. Among his works were 90 pastels and 50 etchings, including those that formed the Venice, a Series of Twelve Etchings set. In producing these etchings, it’s reported Whistler treated it as an opportunity to experiment with various types of ink, paper and the formation of composition, according to information obtained from the University of Glasgow website, which oversees the “James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings Project.”

‘Nocturne,’ etching and drypoint on cream paper, from ‘The First Venice Set,’ trimmed by the artist with signature on the tab in lower margin, 8 in. x 11 5/8 in. Sold for $15,500 during a December 2012 auction. Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image.

Yet, as history reveals, not all of Whistler’s artwork, and in some instances, his demeanor, was met with favor. In a well-documented lawsuit, Whistler sued British art critic John Ruskin for libel regarding his review of Whistler’s piece Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. While Whistler was successful in his suit, the judge awarded only a nominal amount be paid, and far from the expense Whistler incurred proceeding with the court action.

Also, it’s reported Whistler’s brother-in-law, Sir Francis Seymour Haden, a masterful etcher in his own right, also influenced the early development of Whistler’s use of the medium of etching, according to an article posted on Skinner Inc.’s website. However, it’s also reported a long-standing feud between the two men developed.

‘The Wine Glass,’ etching, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1858, signed by the artists and etched in the print, measuring 5 in. x 4 in. Sold for $4,400 through Jasper52 in November 2016. Jasper52 image.

Lesser-known fact: Whistler’s legacy also includes published writings. His presentation Ten o’clock: a lecture, initially given in 1885, was an hour-long discussion about art. Also, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, published in 1890, came on the heels of his lawsuit against Ruskin and discusses the case, and calls for a more progressive awareness regarding art.

Whistler created art up until his final days, before his death in the summer of 1903. His work, innovative creativity, uncommon character and outspoken commentary regarding the importance of embracing evolving artistic notions continue to speak to historians, artists and collectors around the world.

Man Ray’s Innovative Approach to Art

‘Le Temoin’ (The Witness) is an example of a modern style of furniture, boasting Dada style influence, created by Man Ray in 1971. It measures 60 in. wide x 30 in. high x 18 ¼ in. deep. and sold for $1,980 at auction in 2014. Image courtesy Design by Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers

Man Ray’s approach to artistic expression spanned styles, media and oceans. His work was definitive and inclusive, and his legacy includes invention and introduction in various forms.

According to some, his work is defined by his paintings (reflective of Cubism, Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism), while others see his photographs as the creative space where his abilities shine. Perhaps, it’s not a matter one or the other, but both.

He was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890 to parents who both worked in textiles, his father as a tailor and his mother a seamstress. The family, Russian-Jewish immigrants, moved to Brooklyn, New York, after their son was born, and ultimately changed their last name to Ray, in response to fears of anti-Semitism, according to information at The would-be artist shortened his name to Man, from the nickname Manny. His appreciation and aptitude for art and design were evident early on, and by the time he graduated from high school in 1908 he was set on developing a career as an artist.

Fascinating Fact: In addition to his talent as an artist, he possessed skills related to architecture and engineering. He was so gifted that he received a scholarship to study architecture at university, but turned it down, to follow his dream of a career in art.

In addition to formal education, Man Ray was a regular visitor to art galleries and museums in whatever area he called home at a specific time. From New York City to Paris to Los Angeles, it’s reported he remained a student of his craft until his death in 1976, at the age of 86. This spirit of exploration and intrigue is also evident in the various techniques and lasting contributions he developed and helped foster during his seven-plus decade career. Among those contributions was solarization.

Man Ray in his Paris studio in 1975. Source: Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Solarization is a process in photography where a partially developed photograph is exposed to light. When the development process is completed, the negative and positive aspects of a photo are reversed, and a halo-looking element is present. Man Ray, along with artist Lee Miller, is credited with inventing solarization for artistic expression. The process was discovered in 1857, but never utilized to create photographs.

One of the stories surrounding this discovery is that it came to be by accident. As explained at, Miller was working with Ray in the darkroom developing photos when she felt something cross her foot. Reacting in panic, she turned on the light and exposed the images. However, Ray’s intriguing mind prompted him to save the images that were thought to be “ruined,” and examine the outcome. It was something Ray spent time fine-tuning to utilize the process to create dramatic photographs. Three years after Ray and Miller’s discovery, they introduced the photography world to their technique.

This sheet-fed gravure by Man Ray, from 1934, featuring Lee Miller and indications of the technique of solarization, sold for $1,000 during a Nov. 6, 2016 auction. Image courtesy Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

Fascinating Fact: In addition to creating the process of solarization for artistic use with fellow photographer Lee Miller, they were a couple and she sat as a model for several of Ray’s works. One of the most recognizable works is the 1931 “Observatory Time – the Lovers,” which features an image of Miller’s lips.

Another technique Ray developed and used extensively during his career was the photogram, which was also known as the Rayograph. In its most essential form, the technique is about capturing images without a camera. It’s achieved by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light for a calculated amount of time. This is followed by processing the photo in the usual manner, which results in the creation of a reverse of the image.

Untitled oil on panel painting, circa 1952, signed and dated lower left: ‘Man/Ray/52.’ It sold for $15,000 during a March 19, 2017 auction at Heritage Auctions. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions

In addition to techniques and producing a variety of artwork using various media, Ray was at the forefront of the emergence of modern art. For example, Ray teamed up with his longtime friend and colleague Marcel Duchamp to establish the Society of Independent Artists, a group focused on introducing more people to the Dada style of art. The duo went on to also form the Société Anonyme Inc. in 1920, along with Katherine Dreier, which served as the first space in America that was devoted to the display of modern art. It was the precursor to the Museum of Modern Art.

An example of Man Ray’s sculptural talent is represented in this chess set, circa 1962, made of enamel, metal inlay, wood and polished brass. Board is signed and dated ‘Man Ray 1962,’ and incised signature and number to king reveals ‘Man Ray 17/50.’ The set sold for $18,000 during a September 2015 auction. Image courtesy Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Fascinating Fact: During one of his most prolific periods of artist creation, between the early 1920s and 1940s, he also is created with creating six films: Return to Reason, Emak-Bakia, Starfish, The Mysteries of the Chateau, Attempt at Simulating Cinematographic Delirium, and Dreams That Money Can Buy.

Enjoy one of Man’s films: Return to Reason, circa 1923….

Although it’s been more than 40 years since Man Ray’s death, the impact of his influence is cited among the works of many iconic modern artists including Andy Warhol, Nancy Spero and John Stezaker. Also, Nars Cosmetics, in partnership with the Man Ray Foundation, developed a limited-edition 2017 holiday collection of makeup inspired by Ray’s work, according to an article in Coveteur.

Today, just as when he was actively creating, Man Ray’s influence is as diverse and dynamic as ever.


Best know the terminology before buying art

If a golden truth of collecting is to buy something because you love it, then the silver rule of collecting may be to continually seek knowledge. An informed decision is not only immediately beneficial, but also may lead to gains in the future. Fine art is one of many interests to which this applies.

The world of art is vast and complex. It can be intimidating, but the invigorating, comforting, enticing, sometimes heartbreaking imagery and emotion that art depicts and provokes is without equal. Simply put, art is transformative and worth understanding.

‘Bamboo Grove,’ Nguyen Gia Tri, Indochina Fine Arts (My Thuat Dong Duong), 1939, lacquer painting, 43 in. x 31.5 in. Sold for $12,000 through Jasper52 in June 2017. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Jasper52

To help understand art, and hopefully to diminish any intimidation buying it may pose, the following information should be helpful to novice collectors in navigating auction catalogs with a greater awareness of art terminology.

Identifying Identity

The inclusion of the name of an artist (first, last, and additional name) is listed when the item is determined to be genuine artwork done by the artist. Often accompanying the artist’s name are the years he or she was born and died.

Silkscreen and pencil on primed canvas, ‘Men in Her Life,’ executed in October-November 1962, Andy Warhol, 84 ½ in. x 83 ¼ in. Sold for $56.5 million during a Nov. 8, 2010 auction through Phillips. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Phillips

You will also come across lot descriptions with terms that reflect ties to an artist, be it in affiliation or style. Understanding what these phrases mean is a factor in informed decision making. The most commonly seen terms include, as defined at

  • Attributed to – This indicates that the piece is likely an example of the artist’s work, in the opinion of the auction house.
  • Studio of – An indication of where the artwork was created, in the workshop of the artist mentioned, and furthermore, the artist may have been supervising the artist who created the piece.
  • Style of – Refers to an example of artwork completed in a manner of a specific artist, but not by the artist. This also speaks to the possible identity of contemporaries of a specific artist. That information can be helpful when attempting to determine the age of a piece and to authenticate it.
  • The Manner of – Like “style of,” except it is a painting done by an artist later, not a contemporary of the artist inspiring the style.
  • After – As determined by the auction house to be a copy of a specific artwork.

Italian School (17th/18th century), old master painting, head of Saint Peter, oil on canvas, unsigned, 13.5 in. x 10.25 in (stretcher), unframed. Condition report: overall fair, old relining, craquelure, possible restorations, varnish darkened, scratch at center right and lower left. Sold for $650 at auction in November of 2009. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Millea Bros. Ltd.

Another set of terms to be aware of are signed, dated or inscribed. These words indicate the presence a signature, date or inscription by the artist, in the opinion of the auction house. The inclusion of a four-letter word changes the meaning of this trio words considerably: The addition of the word “with” means the terms were added by someone other than the artist, in the opinion of the auction house.

Collecting Tip: Have language translation software, like Google Translate, at the ready while reviewing auction catalogs. Checking phrases or terms that appear in catalog descriptions will help confirm identifying details and increase your familiarity with an artist’s artistic approach.

‘Voilier sur le petit bras de la Seine,’ Argenteuil,1872, Claude Monet, oil on canvas, signed and subsequently dated lower right: ‘75 Claude Monet,’ 20 1/8 in. x 25 in. Sold for $8.2 million during Fine Art Auctions Miami’s April 26, 2012 auction. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Fine Art Auctions Miami

A good example of this tip can be applied to the following description of a Monet painting. The phrase “Voilier sur le petit bras de la Seine” translates to “Sailboat on the small arm of the Seine.” When paired with the remaining verbiage: Argenteuil, 1872, a confirmation of the history of this piece comes into view. According to information obtained from, Monet lived along the Seine River, in the village of Argenteuil, between 1871 and 1878. During this time, Monet’s production of landscape paintings showcasing the scenery of the area was prolific. Phrases and terminology within lot descriptions in auction catalogs are clues to a more deeper understanding of an artist.

Original ink drawing (with traces of pencil) on paper, untitled, attributed to/in the manner of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Signed with the artist’s monogram lower left and dated ’23, 6/12 x 9 5/8 inches (approximate dimensions). Small area of foxing to obverse principally along the edges; some foxing to reverse, otherwise good condition. Sold for $1,000 through Preston Hall Gallery on July 22, 2014. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Preston Hall Gallery

Understanding Condition

Another essential element in making informed decisions when it comes to any item at auction is condition. This factor alone can impact the value of an object substantially. Understanding the terms used to describe condition is imperative.

Collecting Tip: Review the condition report of any piece you are considering buying. Request a condition report, if one isn’t provided, although it is the protocol with many auction houses to provide the report.

‘Jacob Wrestles Angel,’ color lithograph, Marc Chagall, 1972, signed in pencil, from the numbered edition 50, framed with glass, mat and sunlight toning, with possible faint fading, soft handling crease in margin, discoloration on verso, old hinges along top with some skinning to upper sheet edge, otherwise in good condition, sight 14 ¾ in. x 11 ½ in. Sold for $2,250 at auction in February 2009 through Clark’s Fine Art & Auctioneers Inc. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Clark’s Fine Art & Auctioneers

In addition to understanding the terminology of condition, the ability to recognize elements of the condition is important.

  • Foxing – Small brown spots, also referred to as “freckles,” that appear on art presented on paper are frequently caused by mold and metal impurities within the paper. Damp and high humidity conditions can fuel the growth of mold. In some cases, professional and experienced conservators can lessen or remove foxing – for a price. This added expense should be considered when planning a bidding strategy.
  • Toning – Describes the darkening of paper over time, as well as an impact of exposure to humidity and other effects in the atmosphere, which in turn makes the paper acidic.
  • Skinning – A result of a piece being cleaned extensively, which causes a portion of the original painting to be removed.
  • Craquelure – Pattern of fine cracks that develop in oil paintings after several years. The shrinking of the paint or varnish is among the primary causes.
  • Fading – Extensive exposure to light (fluorescent, sunlight, etc.) can cause an item of artwork, among other items, to fade. The damage from exposure to light may not immediately be visible, but a negative impact is still taking place. It’s also not just fading that is a result of exposure; brittleness, yellowing, and even darkening can take place. Again, this is something a conservator may be able to address – for a price.

‘Saint Tropez – LePort,’ lithograph in colors, Paul Signac, signed and annotated ‘No. 73’ in pencil, small puncture in paper along top edge of image, a few spots of foxing, 16 15/16 in. x 12 7/8 in. Sold for $4,500 during a June 2014 auction at Rachel Davis Fine Arts. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Rachel Davis Fine Arts

Collecting Tip: Closely consider the subject and theme of a piece of artwork when determining age. Examine the style of clothing, furnishings, activities depicted and other indications of historical or social manners present within a painting to help determine age.

‘Lemon Squash (3),’ 1999, screenprint with lame, Yayoi Kusama, signed lower right, dated and titled lower left, ed. 5/60, sheet 27 1/2 in. h x 23 1/8 in.” w, overall (with frame): 31 ¼ in. x 25 ¼ in. w. This print combines three of Kusama’s iconic subjects – her ‘infinity nets’ pattern, her ‘polka-dots’ and her repeated tall glasses of beverages with lemon wedge – making this print an important work that visually and thematically encapsulates her oeuvre. Sold for $6,000 during a July 2013 auction. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Clars Auction Gallery

With sales of art topping $45 billion worldwide there is interest and opportunity to acquire art of varied styles and a range of budgets. By understanding the details presented auction catalogs and condition reports you will be more empowered in your efforts to acquire artwork, which in turn can expand your appreciation of art.

Santa Claus: He’s A Native New Yorker

1881 portrait of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

The spirit of Christmas is universal, but the embodiment of that perennially popular Yuletide figure, Santa Claus, has a history that began in the unlikeliest of places – New York.

For centuries, European artists had depicted St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Christmas, as a dour medieval bishop with a long, gray beard.  It was not until 1863 that Thomas Nast, father of American political cartooning, introduced a far more endearing version of the character, one whose robust good cheer and imaginative North Pole-based mythology was both approachable and believable to children. Over the course of time, Nast would dramatically change all traditional conceptions of the Christmas benefactor, whose other “aliases” included Kris Kringle, Father Christmas and, later, Santa Claus.

Nast drew Santa Claus, whose name originated in Holland, as a plump, jovial man who smoked a long-stemmed pipe and wore buckled clogs.  He kept a detailed book of “good boys and girls” and spent many hours answering stacks of pre-Christmas “wish” mail.

Using his own family as unsuspecting models, the artist was inspired to create enchanting scenes of children sleeping in armchairs as Santa made his stealthy entry via the chimney to deliver gifts. Sometimes the red-suited spirit’s dramatic middle-of-the-night appearance would be witnessed by a throng of family pets, who were only too pleased to keep Santa’s methods a secret. Other illustrations depicted children gleefully arranging gifts and treats for Santa at the fireplace hearth.

The family pets can be trusted to keep Santa’s arrival a secret in this classic depiction by Thomas Nast

In developing the image of his Santa, Nast acknowledged the influence of two great 19th-century American writers: Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore. Irving, famous for his tales The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, had written an article in 1809 called History of New York, which dealt with Dutch-American traditions. It included a description of St. Nicholas as a tubby Dutch burgomaster who made his benevolent rounds on a fine white horse.

This planted the seed in Nast’s mind to reinvent the legendary Christmas figure Irving had described, steering the character along more humorous, secular lines. With his formidable credentials as a first-rate artist and political satirist, Nast was eminently capable of undertaking the task. Few of his contemporaries would have dared tamper with anything quite so fragile as the faith of young children, but Nast was accustomed to tackling sacred institutions. He was already held in high public esteem for having invented both the Republican Party’s elephant and Democratic Party’s donkey, not to mention the characters “Uncle Sam” and “John Bull.”

So admired was Nast for his uncompromising integrity that the cartoonist’s influence could decide an election or bring a criminal to justice. His artistic cut and thrust on the infamous William “Boss” Tweed landed the bribe-taking politician behind bars, and Tweed, himself, was first to declare it was “them damn pictures” that had sealed his fate.

Nast’s alternative, patriotic depiction of Santa in military uniform drew respect and praise from President Lincoln for the positive influence the image had had on Army enlistments, and even General Grant attributed his subsequent presidential victory to “the sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast.”

Santa’s sleigh is pulled by eight flying reindeer in this drawing by Thomas Nast.

In 1823, Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas debuted in print. Richly descriptive, it provided the final bits of fantasy employed by Nast in fleshing out his most famous cartoon subject of all. In Moore’s tale, the white horse originally described by Washington Irving as St. Nicholas’ preferred method of transport had been replaced by “a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer.” As for St. Nicholas, he was characterized as an amiable, fur-swaddled figure toting a cornucopia-like booty of toys on his back. His “little round belly…shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.”

Moore’s details of the Christmas Eve ritual were marvelously whimsical and left the reader with the distinct impression that St. Nick was someone who might wear a lampshade on his head after one cup too many of electric holiday punch. But paradoxically, the illustrations accompanying Moore’s poem still depicted the traditional 6th-century European bishop figure, a benevolent but rather humorless fellow.

Nast set his sights on reinventing not just the central character, whom he renamed “Santa Claus,” but also Santa’s environment and supporting cast. Santa, Nast decided, should live at the North Pole, a geographically neutral location that showed no favoritism amongst the children of the world. The sole industry at the North Pole would be, of course, toy-making, and the workers would be a tireless and devoted crew of elves who didn’t know the meaning of the word “strike.”

Santa runs an efficient workshop from a geographically neutral North Pole location. Drawing by Thomas Nast

Nast painstakingly hand-engraved Moore’s poem onto woodblock, using his own revolutionary illustrations as accompaniment. The drawings were an instant sensation, going on to appear in many issues of Harper’s Weekly between 1863 and 1886. No one seemed to mind the artistic license Nast had taken, and in 1890, with chromolithography approaching its peak, Harper & Brothers published a now-classic collection called Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race.

Seeing the potential in a Christmas theme that was overtly child-oriented, American toy and game manufacturers wasted no time incorporating the new-look Santa into their production lines, resulting in a colorful spectrum of turn-of-the-century Christmas juvenilia whose beauty stands in stark contrast to the mass-produced plastic playthings of today.

Thomas Nast’s influence on popular culture – including the manufacture of toys and games – was immense. Around 1900, McLoughlin Bros. (New York) released Game of the Visit of Santa Claus with a beautiful scene of Santa’s sleigh on the box lid. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archive and Ron Rhoads Auctioneers

As for Thomas Nast, his career and life ended in unexpected tragedy.  In 1902, heavily in debt and desperate for funds, he reluctantly accepted an admiring President Theodore Roosevelt’s offer of a diplomatic post in Ecuador. There, amidst the squalor of open sewers and nonexistent sanitation, Nast contracted yellow fever. Shortly after sending money home to America to settle his debts, the visionaryartist died at the age of sixty.

Of all that he left behind – and the legacy is immense – it is said that Thomas Nast loved his Christmas Drawings best.  Certainly, they have achieved immortality, as even today there has been little change from his much-loved original interpretation of “the right jolly old elf.”

The author gratefully acknowledges historical information obtained from an introductory narrative by Thomas Nast St. Hill in the book Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings, Dover Publications, New York, copyright 1978.

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 © Catherine Saunders-Watson