While business appears to have been quite brisk in New York and other U.S. locations in 2021, the major London salerooms, as is generally the case, have been rather slow getting into “New Year” gear.
From those sales that had taken place before my copy deadline was reached, I have selected a half a dozen wide-ranging lots from “The Oak Interior,” a sale held by Bonhams in their Oxford rooms, along with a few items from a “Travel & Exploration” sale conducted by Bonhams in their main Knightsbridge salerooms.
A piece headed “Where Artists and Anarchists Met...” features a lot from a Christie’s sale, and pots by Picasso is a Sotheby’s selection, while both those salerooms feature in a selection of some of the Chinese works of art that made exceptional sums in the London rooms at the end of the old year—a primarily pictorial record that was promised in a trailer piece in last month’s “Letter.”
Drawn from recent provincial sales are a mother’s portrait of a favourite child that had many bidders in a Suffolk sale and a hangman’s calling card from Norfolk.
Where Artists and Anarchists Met to Drink and Play Chess
"Set in the Café La Rotonde, Les joueurs d’échecs en-capsulates the internationalism and tolerance that pervaded café life in Montparnasse. The game of chess is central to the composition. A battle of intellect and strategies, chess may be seen as a metaphor for the anxieties felt by many concerning the arrival of so many foreign artists in Paris.”
Henri Hayden’s Les joueurs d’échecs of 1913, sold for $1.56 million by Christie’s.
So began the catalogue entry provided by Tricha Passes, a lecturer in the history of art at the University of Bristol, for a picture that headed the bidding in a Christie’s “Impressionist & Modern” sale held on February 6. It sold at $1,564,270.
Signed and dated 1913, this nearly 6' wide oil painting was the work of Henri Hayden (1883-1970), a Polish artist of Jewish upbringing who had only recently arrived in Paris and who has pictured himself, smoking a pipe and overlooking the game of chess that is the focus of the painting.
The part of the catalogue description that I have included here draws on a 1941 book, Artist Quarter: Reminiscences of Montmartre and Montparnasse in the First Two Decades of the Twentieth Century, a recently republished work by Douglas Goldring and Charles Beadle, in which a whole chapter is devoted to the café that was the setting for this painting.
“In almost every quarter of Paris there is a Café de La Rotonde, but the only one which has attained worldwide celebrity is at the Carrefour Vavin, where the Boulevard Raspail cuts across the Boulevard Montparnasse,” wrote Goldring.
“At the height of its fame it was nicknamed the ‘navel of the world,’ and it was claimed that from a seat on its terrace, if you waited long enough, you were fairly certain to see almost every contemporary artist and writer of any importance....”
It also attracted scientists, it seems, even a sprinkling of Russian revolutionaries. Lenin and Trotsky were among the latter, and those who remember seeing them there, Goldring wrote, “...describe them as a glum and taciturn bunch, engaged most of the time in an interminable games of chess.”
On Looking into an Oak Interior
The lots featured here were among the more sought-after items in “The Oak Interior,” a sale held on January 20 by Bonhams in their Oxford rooms. This was a sale that ran to some 663 lots in all and was perhaps more wide-ranging than usual, its content not only stretching across several collecting fields but including, alongside the British pieces, a good many European items, even a Chinese one.
This modest selection of just six lots includes the very last one to be offered—one of the day’s more highly priced pieces of furniture—and, to top and tail the selection, the very first lot offered, which happened to be one of the older pieces in the sale.
Top lot in the Bonhams Oxford sale, at $46,440, was an oak bench dating from around 1550.
The sale’s most expensive lot, however, was an oak bench, or form, dating to around 1550 and said to have once been part of the furnishings of an almshouse in Taunton in the county of Somerset. Sold at $46,440, it is a piece illustrated in Tobias Jellinek’s 2009 book British Chairs and Seats: 1500 to 1700, where the author notes that the bench “...has a rich dark colour and deep patina, which is unusual for early boarded benches, and indeed very early furniture in general.” The single-piece bench top, a shade over 6' long, has a reeded edge and ornate scroll-profiled shallow aprons, while the shaped end supports have cutaway bases.
A small and rare joined oak “press cupboard,” said to date from the reign of King Charles II (1660-85), bid to $22,535.
Bid to $22,535 was what Bonhams called a particularly small, rare, and documented Charles II joined oak “press cupboard.” It also bore a rare full-name inventory mark, the name of one “G: TAYLOR” being branded on a siderail. Dated to around 1660, this 44" wide piece had a boarded top with applied moulded edge, a dentil-moulded, corbel and boss embellished frieze, and baluster-turned end columns. A pair of mitre-moulded cupboard doors are centred by an arcaded panel, and in the lower section a pair of larger matching doors enclose two short drawers over two long drawers.
An Elizabethan walnut armchair of around 1590 sold for $17,415.
My third furniture pick was catalogued as an “extraordinarily rare” Elizabethan walnut armchair that sold for $17,415. Boldly and profusely carved with stylised figures, geometric, and other decorative devices, it is thought to have been made around 1590 in the border country between Wales and the English county of Herefordshire. Bonhams observed that in January 2019 they had sold at $18,765—as part of a Welsh property, “The Olive Collection”—a “related chair” dated 1624 and noted among other similar examples one in the famous Burrell Collection in Glasgow. That one is featured in the above-mentioned Jellinek reference work.
Another piece dating from the reign of King Charles II, this pewter candlestick was sold at $27,660.
Dating from the reign of Charles II and thought by Bonhams to have been made around 1675, an 8½" high pewter candlestick with a broad circular and detachable sconce, baluster knop stem, and low circular drip tray was sold at $27,660. On the underside of its octagonal trumpet base it bears a maker’s mark of “S B” that may refer to Samuel Booth of York (fl. 1671-79), said the cataloguer. A virtually identical pair of candlesticks by the same maker can be found in the collections of The Worshipful Company of Pewterers.
The very first lot in the Oxford sale was a pewter dish of 10¼" diameter that is thought to date from the latter years of the very long reign of King Henry VII, circa 1500. It all looks rather rough in the illustration, but the plain rim is struck with a crowned ostrich feather, and on the rear of the dish there is a maker’s mark in the form of a bell—possibly that of a William Husthwaite.
Thought to have been made around 1500, this rough looking but well-documented pewter plate was sold for $6095.
This plate is one of a hoard of around 20 that were excavated in 1899 near Guy’s Hospital in London, and of the 18 whose whereabouts are presently recorded, most are now to be found in various British museums. One of six still in private hands, this one sold at $6095.
An 18th-century grater, probably used for snuff, sold at $660.
My final pick is an 18th-century grater, and one that was probably used for snuff. It has a perforated iron plate that sits within a 6" wide case with swivelling cover and is fixed by a star-headed pin. The case, said Bonhams, may be made of a lacewood of some type. It sold at $660.
Chinese Works of Art Leave Bidders Entranced and One Consignor Speechless
A trailer piece in last month’s “Letter” featured a remarkable chariot fitting, dating from the 4th-3rd century B.C., that sold for almost $1.97 million at Christie’s on November 3, 2020. It served as a trailer for this month’s larger selection of just a few of the Chinese works of art that made exceptional sums at auction on this side of the Atlantic towards the end of last year.
Most of the lots featured were to be found in sales held by Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams, but there is another that emerged from a County Laois sale that may be the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction in Ireland.
In ancient China belt hooks were an everyday, purely functional accessory designed to hold two ends of a leather or fabric belt together and to keep one’s tunic or robe tightly wrapped around the waist—but the example seen here is something rather special.
A translucent pale yellowish piece, a little over 3½" tall, it has been carved and pierced from a single slab of jade and takes the form of a single-horned mythical beast. A Western Han Dynasty work dating from the 3rd-2nd century B.C., it was last seen at Christie’s London in 2008, when it formed part of the collections of the Baron and Baroness von Oertzen and made what would then have been around $1.3 million. On November 3, 2020, and in the same rooms, the price went far above the estimate to $3,770,590.
Previously seen in a Bonhams Hong Kong sale of 2011, this Imperial stoneware inkstone of the Yongzheng period (1723-35) is 9 1/8" in diameter and is notable both for the decoration to its outer rim and for the fact that it is still in its original lacquer box. That decoration, part of which is separately illustrated above, presents a bare, winter landscape that centres on three islands in a river on which floats a sampan, and where the bare branches of the windswept trees are all in silhouette. On one island a scholar is depicted leaning on his staff as he walks towards a hut, his attendant trailing behind.
Quite why it was estimated to be worth up to $100,000 when in that earlier sale it had made just over a million dollars, I cannot tell, but it did make $630,303 on its return to auction at Christie’s.
Just 6" high, this moon flask of the Qianlong period (1736-96) boasts a streaky, flambé-glazed finish of variegated hues of purple, crimson, and milky blue. Such decoration, said the saleroom, was inspired by earlier Ming pieces and first developed during the preceding Yongzheng period at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, where experiments at reproducing the fabled Jun glazes of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) had been made. Flasks of this form and glaze are very rare, and this one made $585,410 at Sotheby’s on November 4, 2020.
Densely painted in varying shades of deep blue with large floral blooms, including lotus, peony, and chrysanthemum, all with undulating stems bearing lush foliage, this 8" tall blue-and-white vase bearing a Yongzheng mark and of the period (1723-35) was sold for $585,410 at Sotheby’s. The decoration of this rare piece, said the cataloguer, clearly takes its inspiration from early Ming blue-and-white porcelain of the Xuande period, as two early Ming examples in the Palace Museum in Beijing demonstrate.
Sold for a shade over $370,000 at Christie’s—about ten times the high estimate—was a greyish-green jade halberd blade of the late Shang Dynasty, circa 1200 B.C. Like the $3.77 million belt hook, this was another lot that once formed part of the von Oertzen collection.
One of a pair of huanghuali yoke-back chairs of the late Ming Dynasty that made $1,088,450 at Sotheby’s on November 4, 2020. They are known as nanguanmaoyi, or “southern-official hat chairs,” and examples of this specific form, said the saleroom, belong to a category of yoke-back armchairs that were very popular in the Ming period and are characterised by the unbroken line from top and side rails to arms and legs. The rich, lustrous honey-toned huanghuali hardwood back splats have a matching grain pattern, which shows that these chairs were conceived and made as a true pair, said Sotheby’s.
Exceptional examples of huanghuali furniture will form part of “The H Collection” of Chinese works of art at Bonhams in London on May 13. A simple-looking daybed and a much more complex games table each carry high estimates of $1.70 million, while among the huanghuali chairs to be offered a yoke-back armchair could make as much as $700,000.
In a sale held on November 26 and 27, 2020, bidding on the white vase pictured here started at a modest $1000 or so, and though Sheppards of Durrow in County Laois, Ireland, said later that they always knew it was going to make much, much more, I doubt they were thinking in terms of $1.42 million—which may well be a record sum for any work of art sold in Ireland. A Qing Dynasty celadon vase of amphora form dating from the reign of the Yongzheng emperor (1722-35), whose six-character mark is on the base, it sold to a telephone bidder from Taiwan—one with whom the Irish auctioneers had been dealing for many years.
That left the consignor, in whose family it had remained for over 80 years after being acquired at auction in 1938 for a modest sum, speechless and in shock, said auctioneer Philip Sheppard.
I bet it did!
Another example of what Sotheby’s called the “technical and artistic perfection achieved at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen during the reign of the Yongzheng emperor” was this celadon-glazed conjoined vase. This was a form that was particularly difficult to fire successfully, but such pieces, used for flower displays, were much admired. Like the moon flask mentioned elsewhere in this review, it was last seen at auction in the mid-1990s. On November 4, 2020, it brought $758,330.
Sold at $458,350 by Sotheby’s on November 4, 2020, was a 17th-century huanghuali altar table of a type with upturned ends that proved popular in high-ranking Chinese households of the late Ming and Qing Dynasties and served to demonstrate the status and wealth of their owners.
Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645), in his influential guide to refined taste, Treatise on Superfluous Things, recommended that such tables be placed underneath a painting and even suggested that “one may place [on them] such things as fantastic rocks, seasonal flowers, or miniature tray-landscapes; but avoid garish objects such as red lacquerware.” Wen also warned against the use of excessive carving in their design, but, said the cataloguer, the lively openwork panels of lingzhi (fungus) on this table are balanced by the simplicity of the apron and spandrels.
A little over 21" diameter, this very rare and large Yongzheng period famille rose “Dragon” dish was sold at $632,570 by Sotheby’s, who suggested that it may originally have been intended as a birthday gift to the emperor. Imperial red and green dragons are the principal feature of the central part of the dish, while cranes, traditionally associated with Daoist immortals and longevity, feature on the rim. The exterior is painted with ten iron-red bats—a visual pun for blessings, good fortune, and longevity—that hover above the tumultuous turquoise waves that skirt the foot.
Modern Chinese works were also to be found in London, and at Sotheby’s on November 4, 2020, was seen this 26¾" long hanging paper scroll featuring scenery of Huangshan, a dramatically mountainous and nowadays much-photographed region of China. Signed and dated 1963 by Li Keran (1907-1989), an artist whose works are currently being keenly pursued, it was sold at $553,970.
When the Hangman Calls
Pictured here is a simple and rather plain card, but one with an unsettling tale to tell. Sold for around $1000 in a February 11 sale held in the Diss, Norfolk, salerooms of TW Gaze, it is the calling card of William Marwood (1820-1883), who for many years was an official hangman. His simple card is ink stamped “Wm Marwood / Executioner / Church Lane, Horncastle / Lincolnshire, England,” beneath which appears an ink inscription, “Given to C.H.S.P. by W. Marwood in 1880.”
Marwood was initially a cobbler by trade, but it seems unlikely that he carried any of the skills that business required into his new profession. What he did do was develop a more humane “long drop” technique of hanging, one that ensured that the prisoner’s neck was broken instantly at the end of the drop.
The hangman’s calling card that sold for around $1000.
If that sounds brutal, it was undoubtedly kinder than the slow death by strangulation caused by the “short drop” method—a process that was particularly distressing to prison governors and staff who, following the abolition of public executions in England in 1868, were required to witness such events at close quarters.
In his nine years as a hangman, Marwood executed 178 people, and among the more celebrated criminals whose end he brought about were Charles Peace, a notorious burglar who murdered two policemen, and Percy Lefroy Mapleton. The latter was a British journalist who killed a fellow passenger on a train, but who is also notable for being the subject of the first police composite picture to appear on a wanted poster and in a newspaper in England.
Kate Webster was perhaps the most notorious of those whose end Marwood supervised. A 30-year-old Irishwoman with a history of theft, she murdered Julia Martha Thomas, a widow for whom she worked in Richmond (London) as a housemaid. Webster disposed of Thomas’s body by dismembering it, boiling the flesh off the bones, and throwing most of the remains into the River Thames. Some of those remains were recovered, but her late employer’s head remained lost until 2010, when the skull was found during building works being carried out for none other than Sir David Attenborough.
At the end of a six-day trial, Webster was sentenced to death after a jury of matrons rejected her last-minute attempt to avoid the death penalty by claiming that she was pregnant. She finally confessed to the murder on the evening before she was placed into Marwood’s care.
Three Travellers’ Tales
From the February 10 “Travel & Exploration” sale held by Bonhams, I have selected just three lots for illustration here—one painting, one photograph, and a piece of artwork produced for a very famous polar book.
Among the polar lots on offer, the most expensive was a photograph of Captain Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and ten other officers who served on Scott’s 1901-04 Antarctic expedition, all gathered together on the deck of the expedition vessel Discovery.
Signed on the mount by all of those pictured, it sold for $43,570, but for my polar pick I have plumped for a signed watercolour and pencil drawing by Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson (1872-1912), the expedition’s zoologist and junior surgeon, one that was intended for reproduction in the South Polar Times, the famous illustrated journal produced on board Discovery.
Edited by Shackleton and Louis Bernacchi, an Australian physicist and astronomer, whilst the Discovery was icebound during the winters of 1902 and 1903, that work was largely illustrated by Wilson. The watercolour design featuring a polar coat of arms offered in the Bonhams sale is a variant of the image eventually used as a frontispiece to the second volume of the South Polar Times when the original typescript version was published later in London.
Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson’s signed watercolour and pencil drawing, intended for reproduction in the South Polar Times, sold by Bonhams at $29,740.
This artwork was last seen at a Christie’s sale in 1997, but I have not been able to ascertain its selling price on that occasion. This time it made $29,740.
A later print of Summit of Mt. Jannu at Sunset, an 1899 photograph by Vittorio Sella (1859-1943), that sold at $12,345.
My photographic pick is Summit of Mt. Jannu at Sunset, one of a small group of photographs produced at the very tail end of the 19th century by Vittorio Sella (1859-1943)—though printed at a later date—which sold at $12,345. A gelatin silver print, almost 2' wide, it is described in Jean Franco and Lionel Terray’s 1967 book At Grips with Jannu as “Vittorio Sella’s telephoto-lens masterpiece of the great head of Jannu, floating on the clouds, high above the world of little men—the very symbol of an ideal mountain-peak.”
The book dealt with the first ascent of what had been viewed as one of the most difficult mountaineering challenges in the world.
The Mosque of Aurangzeb, Benares..., an 1863 painting by Richard Robert Drabble (active 1859-85) that made $34,930 in the Bonhams travel sale.
From the pictures on offer I chose The Mosque of Aurangzeb, Benares, as seen from the Ganges, which sold for $34,930. An oil painting measuring roughly 2' x 3', it was painted around 1863 by Richard Robert Drabble (active 1859-85), an obviously talented artist about whom I was able to learn nothing more.
A “Well-Known” Sleeper Awakes to a Record Price of $165,000
Everyone loves a sleeper, but though the elaborately framed portrait of a curly-haired young boy had initially been valued at only a few hundred dollars in a country sale, hopeful bidders were lining up in large numbers by the time bidding began, and the portrait ended up selling at $165,000.
Initially catalogued as an 18th-century Italian school portrait in a Florentine frame in a January 27 sale held by Reeman Dansie of Colchester, Suffolk, it had some defects of condition but had been quickly recognised as a portrait of her young son Bartholomew by Mary Beale (1633-1699).
The daughter of a Suffolk clergyman, Mary studied under Sir Peter Lely* and worked successfully as a portrait painter in London in the latter decades of the 17th century. As noted in a report on the sale by my Antiques Trade Gazette colleague Alex Capon, other studies of her son by Mary Beale are to be found in U.K. museums, and at Sotheby’s in July 2019, yet another was sold for $117,925.
The ATG report also noted that Mary’s husband, a cloth merchant, was an amateur painter, but while both their sons worked for a time in their mother’s studio, Charles became a miniaturist, while Bartholomew decided to study medicine at Cambridge and became a doctor instead.
*As Alex Capon also noted in his report on the sale, a portrait of Bartholomew by Lely was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2009 for $242,500 but was subsequently acquired for the extensive collections of London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery.
One of Mary Beale’s 17th-century portraits of her son Bartholomew—this one sold for $165,000 by Reeman Dansie of Colchester.
Pricey Picasso Pots Run Up a $3.57 Million Bill
Another largely pictorial presentation, this nine-lot selection is drawn from a Sotheby’s sale than ran from February 11 to 23 and was called “Important Picasso Ceramics”—including many works from the Nina Miller collection and featuring what they described as some of Picasso’s “most masterful, inventive, and playful creations in clay.”
“Made in collaboration with the esteemed Madoura Pottery in Vallauris, each of the works on offer will shed light on Picasso’s years in Southern France and honour their storied partnership,” said Sotheby’s. “From functional plates to fanciful vases this sale will feature a curated array of sculptural ceramics that are sure to appeal to both the first-time buyer and the established collector.”
Bid to $461,495, the sale’s top lot was Gros oiseau visage noir, a vase standing 21½" tall. Inscribed “HC,” this pitcher with a face on its breast is not one of the numbered edition of 25 such pitchers produced in 1951 but is an hors-commerce example that was for some reason not intended for sale.
A lot that more than doubled the high estimate at $266,250, Canard pique fleurs, a pitcher that stands almost 16" high, dates from 1951 and is numbered 35/50.
A fraction over 12" tall, Taureau, a pitcher of 1955, numbered 42/100, sold for a very bullish $230,750.
The cataloguer observed that Picasso surrounded himself with animals—from dogs and cats to birds, owls, and even goats and noted that many of the creatures represented in Picasso’s ceramics were of a deeply personal significance. Picasso’s father, an art teacher, specialised in painting doves and pigeons and, said Sotheby’s, it seems that his imagery had a profound impact on Picasso during his formative years.
Picasso depicted birds more often than any other creature in his work. The presence of goats and owls in Picasso’s ceramics similarly reflects their personal meaning to the artist and the adoration he had for two of his pets—Ubu, an owl, and Esmeralda, a goat.
With exception of two lots, indicated with a *prefix, the selection of lots illustrated and very briefly described here all came from the Nina Miller collection.
Oiseaux et poissons, a 19" high vase of 1955, numbered 5/25, was sold at $266,250.
Poissons, dated and numbered 17 from the edition of 25, a 10" tall partially glazed and painted vase of 1950, sold at a much higher than expected $195,250.
Colombe à la lucarne, a 15¼" long dish of 1949 decorated with a dove at the skylight, numbered 193/200, sold at $35,500.
The laughing or smiling eyes of Visage aux yeux rieurs, a 13" tall pitcher of 1969, numbered 272/350, encouraged someone to part with $115,375.
*Sujet poisson, one of a 1952 edition of 500 fishy pitchers with handles, 8½" wide, sold at $26,625.
*Pichet à glace, a 14" tall ice pitcher of 1952, numbered 36/50, sold at $142,000.
Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2021 Maine Antique Digest