Two of the early standouts in the African sale were these bronze ancestral plaques from Benin dating to the 16th-18th centuries. The one on the left, with three young men in high relief, 17½" x 14½", sold for $17,250. Right, a bronze guardian plaque of three warriors, each carrying a spear, a dagger, and a scepter with a three-dimensional bird, 19" x 27", sold for $18,400.
We’re off to sell the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz! And sell it did. This Wachsteter caricature of the lead characters from the legendary movie made $6037.50.
This charcoal illustration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt by George Wachsteter, first published in the New York Times on August 14, 1938, brought $2070. Thomaston Place photo.
George Wachsteter drew a caricature of Walt Disney for the 1963 television premiere of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. It brought $1380. Thomaston Place photo.
Thomaston Place Auction Galleries, Thomaston, Maine
March 23 and 24 was a rough weekend for Thomaston Place Auction Galleries, Thomaston, Maine. Saturday’s sale presented a selection of African tribal artifacts coming primarily from four large collections, one of which came from the Museum of African Culture, Portland, Maine, founded by Oscar Mokeme and Art Aleshire in August 1998. As part of the promotional effort, Mokeme conducted a lecture and reception at the auction hall on the evening prior to the sale.
Bidding interest in the sale, however, was considerably less than dazzling. A few items jumped out of the box and scored home runs, but nearly 220 of the 678 lots were passed altogether, and the majority of what did sell brought well below the expected prices.
If bidding on the first day was quiet, on the second day it was nearly silent. The 447-lot presentation of the caricatures of George Wachsteter (1911-2004) almost answered the theoretical question, “What if they gave an auction and nobody came?” Only a small knot of people showed up to compete with a few phoners, absentees, and Internet bidders.
Wachsteter was an American illustrator and caricaturist. He was the artist-in-residence for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal American, and he also drew extensively for the New York Times, the New York Herald, and the New York World-Telegram. A gradual loss of his vision ended his drawing career prematurely. Yet in his heyday, he was second in reputation only to the better-known Al Hirschfeld.
And therein lay the problem. Nobody’s ever written a coffee table book about Wachsteter, and when his career ended some 45 years ago, so did most of his recognition. Today, he’s almost completely forgotten. Prior to this sale, precious few of his works could be found on the Internet. But, according to the catalog, the Waldemar A. Schmidt Art Gallery of Wartburg College, Iowa, presented an exhibition, The Lost Drawings of George Wachsteter: A 30-Year Retrospective, in March 2008. The works had been gathered from his estate, and from there they came to auction.
In retrospect, the red flags are easy to spot. Presenting a large collection of a single artist in one shot is risky, and in this case, it was an artist whose star has long since faded into near anonymity. Thomaston Place did conduct an extended on-line auction to disperse the remainder of the collection.
That’s enough of the bad news. Let’s talk about the good stuff. Both auctions had their highlights. The biggest surprise of the African sale was lot 42, 33½" tall, called in the print catalog a Yoruba divination wand or a Shango dance wand. In the on-line auction archives it is identified as a Luba bow stand. In the Yoruba region of Nigeria, Shango is considered to be the royal ancestor of the tribe. He was later deified as the god of thunder and lightning and still is venerated in Africa and as far away as Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. A lengthy bidding contest carried the tribal artifact way past the $800/1200 estimate, finally ending at $21,850 (includes buyer’s premium).
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu is credited as the most famous Nigerian painter and sculptor of the 20th century. In 1937, he exhibited in London, and about 20 years later in 1956, he was commissioned by the British court to make a bronze bust of Queen Elizabeth II. His works, such as the painting sold here, often combined Modernism with West African tribal art. In gouache and signed and dated 1950, it showed three bare-breasted African women in energetic dance postures and sold well over the $3000/5000 estimate for $8050.
One of the most successful of the Wachsteter caricatures was a drawing of the characters of The Wizard of Oz, done for the 1956 premiere TV broadcast of the classic movie. It showed Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Ray Bolger in character as Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow. Fortunately, someone had the heart, brains, and courage to bid $6037.50 for it, in Toto.
Character actor Fred Gwynne (1926-1993) made two appearances in the auction, once in his character as Officer Francis Muldoon in the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? ($747.50) and once in his character as Herman Munster from The Munsters. That one topped all the others, blowing past the $2000/3000 estimate and finally settling in at $8625.
For more information, see the Thomaston Place Web site (www.thomastonauction.com) or call (207) 354-8141.
The television comedy The Munsters portrayed a farcical monster-like family played by Fred Gwynne, Yvonne de Carlo, Al Lewis, Pat Priest, and Butch Patrick. Here they had the last laugh for $8625 in this caricature by George Wachsteter. Thomaston Place photo.
This Yoruba Oshe Shango dance wand or Luba bow stand brought a commanding $21,850 (est. $800/1200). Thomaston Place photo.
Small but potent, this 19th-century carved wooden Yombe maternity figure from the Congo showed a mother with ample body scarification and a skullcap cradling her baby in her lap. It easily passed and doubled the $2000/3000 estimate to sell for $6037.50. Thomaston Place photo.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest