Letter from London
by Ian McKay, firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the attractions that John Woodman Higgins promised visitors to his museum when it opened in 1931 was a wing dominated by “100 Steel Knights.” A dozen or so of those steel knights were in the London sale and three of them sold up around the $50,000 mark. The most expensive, at an almost double estimate $58,015, was this composite suit of German “Cap-a-Pie” (head to toe) field armour in the so-called Maximilian fashion, which dates to 1515-30.
Of a type familiarly known as “Conquistador” stirrups, this pair of 17th- or early 18th-century Mexican stirrups are of a characteristic T-form and decorated overall with pierced and chiselled panels of trellis pattern enclosing rococo flower and scroll medallions. Very similar to a pair now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the stirrups were valued for sale at $6000/9000, but bidding reached $32,635.
Catalogued as a late 17th-/early 18th-century Ottoman saddle cover of crimson silk velvet embroidered with carnations, lotus flowers, and other foliate motifs in silver wire, this was an item last seen at auction in 1950, at Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York City. I have no record of what it fetched then, but while the estimate was a mere $3000/4500, this was one of the items from the collection that Thomas Del Mar thought worthy of a “museum quality” tag and it sold for $90,650.
Catalogued as in the Italian style of the late 14th century but probably made some 500 years later, this “hounskull” basinet—the name derived from the protruding, hound’s head form—was valued at only $475/675 but found a new home at $10,155.
The pierced heart apertures seem rather incongruous in this brutal-looking chastity belt, catalogued as of 19th-century manufacture. Probably more at home in a sale of a fetishistic nature than a museum armory, it was valued at just $225/375, but someone paid $9430 to get their hands on it.
Opened in January 1931, the John Woodman Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, one of America’s greatest repositories of such material, is to close its doors forever in December, and part of the collection has already been sold off at auction in London.
Boldly stated like that, the news sounds dreadful, but in truth it is the museum as a physical entity that is to close, and the cream of the collection is to be transferred to the nearby Worcester Art Museum, along with what remains of the endowment that in recent years it has had to draw on in order to meet its annual running costs. A temporary exhibition will open in 2014 while the Worcester Art Museum renovates and makes ready its current library building as a new home for this major collection.
John Woodman Higgins (1874-1961) and his father founded the Worcester Pressed Steel Company in 1905, using an armoured knight as the company logo, and during World War I, Higgins was engaged as an industrial consultant for an armour development project headed by Dr. Bashford Dean, curator of arms and armour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After the war, Dean encouraged Higgins to take up collecting in this field, and by the late 1920’s Higgins was buying aggressively, in Hearstian fashion, at auction and via dealers. The bulk of the collection was formed in a ferociously acquisitive period of just four years!
Initially, Higgins’ museum celebrated a much broader range of metal craft—such things as a Piper Cub, an automobile chassis, and decorative ironwork by Edgar Brandt filled one wing—but following his death and, in the 1980’s, the transfer of the museum’s management from family to an independent board of trustees, it came to be accepted that the original, rather idiosyncratic Higgins approach—what its present curator, Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng, calls “the charmingly jumbled cabinet of curiosities”—was no longer viable and the museum needed to focus on its real treasure, the armour collection.
Much of the modern material was deaccessioned and the armoury took over both wings of the museum’s gothic Great Hall—but even so, there remained an element which neither suited modern museum practice nor helped them in their financial difficulties.
Heavily dependent on earned income, the museum has an endowment that in recent years has been generating less than 10% of the institution’s operating expenses, and it was decided that much of what Higgins had collected was no longer relevant to the museum’s mission, such as reproductions by 20th-century craftsmen, multiple duplicates of military equipment of the 16th and 17th century, items of household metal craft from antiquity, etc. The road to auction lay open before them.
Much of this I learned from Dr. Forgeng’s introduction to the catalogue of the John Woodman Higgins Armory Museum sale, held in London on March 20 by arms and armour specialist Thomas Del Mar (in association with Sotheby’s), where his closing words were, “There are many pieces in this catalogue that it grieved me to see leaving the building, but I am glad to think that they will find new homes where they will be appreciated as they deserve.”
The auction decision was apparently taken in July of last year, before the decision was made to close the museum, and I was initially surprised to read in a Boston Globe article (filed by staff reporter Geoff Edgers) what appeared to be some rather disparaging quotes.
Stephen Fliegel, curator of medieval art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, told the Globe’s reporter that local museum-goers should not worry. The material might be of interest to private collectors but is not good enough to rate being shown in most institutions. Suzanne W. Maas, the museum’s (as opposed to the collection’s) interim director said the objects being sold have never been on display and are not of museum quality. “This is simple housekeeping,” she explained. “We have ten virtually identical examples of troopers helmets. Do we need ten, or do we need seven?”
Well, they may never have been displayed at the Higgins Armory Museum itself, but the sale catalogue shows that a number of the lots have been widely exhibited elsewhere in the U.S., and as the proceeds of the sale are to be added to the endowment, which Maas told the Boston Globe currently stood at $2.9 million, there will doubtless be some pleasure in learning that the London sale was a white glove event, with every one of the 484 lots of unworthy or unwanted items selling for a total of $2.14 million.
In truth, Fliegel and Maas are right—and the auctioneer, Thomas Del Mar, would agree with them—it is the term “museum quality” that is key. The real treasures of the Higgins collections remain intact, and where those categories considered core to the collection are concerned, Thomas Del Mar tells me that for every item sent for sale—be it a Greek helmet, a suit of armour, even those articulated Japanese figures—finer examples remain in the John Woodman Higgins Armory inventory.
As the accompanying illustrations will demonstrate, quite a number of things made far, far more than had been expected—estimates having reflected the poor condition of many items.
Some, like a set of four wrought-iron scrollwork grilles, catalogued as probably German or Austrian and dating to the 16th/17th century, that made $38,075, might fall into the category of surplus to the main museum focus, but one cannot help feel that just a few things, like the Ottoman saddle cover, might, just might have been considered worthy of the tag “museum quality.”
To the items from the Higgins sale illustrated and described here, I have added in the section to the right two swords from a November 28, 2012, antique arms and armour sale held by Bonhams.
Japanese content of the London sale was modest, limited to only 30 or so lots, but it produced a number of much higher than predicted bids, including the $23,555 paid for this early 17th-century helmet, or kabuto, with an iron skull that rises to a tall, rounded-off point. It had been valued at just $900/1200.
Jizai, or Japanese articulated iron models, brought far higher bids than predicted right across the board, but then as regular readers of these columns will know, they can make very high prices indeed (In the March 2011 issue of M.A.D., I featured an articulated iron dragon that sold for $193,870.). In fact, these were not, in the auctioneer’s view, of the highest standard, and much finer examples of this sort of Japanese metalwork remain in the Higgins collection. Nevertheless, demand was high. Five of the eight lots offered were single or pairs of insects, but first up was the 10½" long carp with a sectioned body, moveable fins, and gills (shown above), which was pitched at $1500/2250 but sold for $47,140. Signed Munekazu was a snake, its 38" long body made up of over 200 shaped segments, which sold for $45,325 against a high estimate of $4500. The insects included crickets, a praying mantis, a butterfly, and a couple of beetles, but the most successful was an 8" long dragonfly bearing an unspecified signature. Against a valuation of $450/750, it settled on $23,570.
I have always found the shaffron, chaffron, or champron—armoured protection for a horse’s head—strangely appealing in its elongated and natural but sometimes bizarre-looking form, and it seems that bidders were taken with the two Ottoman examples offered in the Higgins sale. Both were dated by the auctioneers to the first quarter of the 16th century and were stamped with the mark of the Ottoman Court Arsenal at Hagia Irene. The example illustrated here, which in very recent times has been exhibited at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts (2005) and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in Williamsburg, Virginia (2008), was sold for $65,270. The other one, once in the collections of William Randolph Hearst, reached $56,205. Both have cheek pieces joined by mail of riveted links that have seen some repair and restoration, and both had been predicted to sell in the $10,000 region.
Among the earliest items in the sale were a group of three Greek (Corinthian) helmets dated to the 6th century B.C. All were heavily patinated and showed extensive losses and perforations as a result of corrosion, and between them it was thought they might raise as much as $7500. There remain some much finer and more important helmets in the collection that is to move into the Worcester Art Museum, but it seemed that in the London sale some bidders were rather taken with “warts and all” look, and they sold for a total of $148,665. The most expensive, at $68,895, is that seen here.
An antique arms and armor sale held by Bonhams on November 28, 2012, included items from a Danish collection formed by Einer Andreas Christensen (1893-1969). Sold at $48,010 was a Viking sword (illustrated at left) dating to the 9th or early 10th century and probably of Norwegian manufacture, but bid to $261,265 was the rare medieval sword from the Mamluk Arsenal at Alexandria (seen at right).
Dating from the late 14th century and probably Italian, it was initially sent to Alexandria by the Christian ruler of Cyprus and Jerusalem, King Peter I, as part of a gift sealing a treaty, but it was then forcibly taken back into Christian hands during the last Crusade, launched by Peter in 1362 against the Mamluk Empire.
After Alexandria was taken, immense amounts of plunder were returned to Cyprus, and so great were the quantities of weapons taken from the captured city, many of the overloaded ships had to jettison parts of their cargo. This sword was one of those that made it back to Cyprus.
Mr. Clay’s Improved Paper Tea Caddy
The pale green oval papier-mâché tea caddy, decorated in the Etruscan style and set with Wedgwood jasperware medallions, which sold for $16,040 at Bonhams.
In 1772, Henry Clay of Birmingham patented a new improved paper-ware from which he intended to make “High Varnished Pannels or Roofs for Coaches…and Sedan Chairs, Pannels for Rooms, Doors, and Cabbins of Ships, Cabinets, Bookcases, Screens, Chimney Pieces, Tables, Teatrays, and Waiters.”
Clay’s process involved “pasting several papers upon boards...[which are] put in a stove sufficiently hot to deprive them of their flexibility, and at the same time are rubbed over or dipped in oil or varnish, which so immediately drenches into them as to secure them from damps.” By this means, he explained, “they are capable of being sawed into different forms, and planed as wood....then coated with colour and oils sufficient to make the surface even, and then japanned and high varnished.”
Where some of the decorative wares were concerned, he also came up with the idea of inserting Wedgwood cameos in tea caddies, writing desks, dressing cases, etc., and seen at Bonhams on March 6 was the tea caddy illustrated here. While it is unsigned, it seems most likely to be Clay’s work and combines Etruscan-style decoration in the manner of Robert Adam with inset Wedgwood jasperware medallions within gilt metal slips.
Clay was a contemporary of Matthew Boulton, whose great manufactory was based in Birmingham, but at the time Boulton was very involved in steam engine development with Watt, and when his attention was finally drawn to the ingenious and fashionable work being produced by Clay, he suggested a partnership. Clay declined, but his business, which he transferred to London, flourished, and he died a wealthy man.
Clay is known to have adopted the Etruscan style in the work offered in his Covent Garden workshops, and though the full extent to which he may have worked with Adam is not known, he is recorded as having supplied papier-mâché panels for doors at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, one of the great houses associated with Adam. Clay’s other important clients included Robert Child of Osterley Park, the Dukes of Bedford and Horace Walpole.
Was this Magda Lupescu’s dressing table? Shown closed and open.
Shown closed and opened up with its silver and cut-glass fittings on display, this Edwardian mahogany and line inlaid lady’s dressing table by Maple and Company of London, sold for $10,380 by Bonhams on March 6, has been in a private collection in Romania since the 1940’s, but it is a piece that has royal and romantic associations—or so the story goes. It is said to have been given in the late 1920’s by King Carol II of Romania to Elena “Magda” Lupescu, his lover.
A controversial figure in his country’s recent history, Carol II was also well known for his amatory adventures. In 1918, in contravention of royal law, he married “Zizi,” the daughter of a Romanian general. They had one son, but the marriage was annulled in 1919.
Carol’s 1921 marriage to Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark, a second cousin and, like him, a great-grandchild of England’s Queen Victoria and therefore a member of an exclusive European royal club, was seen as a far more acceptable arrangement, but his affaire with Magda, the Roman Catholic daughter of a Jewish pharmacist, who had previously been married to another army officer, rocked the royal boat once again.
In 1925, as a result of the ensuing scandal, he was forced to renounce his claim in favour of his young son by Crown Princess Helen. In July 1927, five-year-old Mihai, or Michael, succeeded to the throne and Helen divorced Carol II in the following year. But then, in June 1930, Carol II returned to Romania, reneged on his renunciation and was once again proclaimed King in place of young Michael.
There then followed ten years in which, with an increasing tendency towards authoritarian rule, even dictatorship, he sought to run the country in the way he thought best and most beneficial to all. He did oversee many improvements in the living standards of his subjects, but in 1938 he overthrew the democratic system and proclaimed his own authoritarian regime. That lasted only to 1940, when most of his powers were transferred to the Prime Minister, whose pro-German administration then forced him to abdicate in favour of Michael and go into exile. Carol and Magda travelled first to Mexico but eventually settled in Portugal.
The couple were married in Rio de Janeiro in 1947, Magda taking the title of Princess Elena von Hohenzollern, but Carol II remained in exile for the rest of his life and his son, whose second reign lasted until December 1947, when he in his turn was forced, at gunpoint, to abdicate by the new Communist government, refused to see or speak to his father ever again.
Carol II died in Estoril, Portugal in 1953, but 50 years later his remains were returned to Romania and reinterred in the Curtea de Arges monastery, outside the cathedral that is the burial place of most Romanian kings.
Now in his nineties, Michael, who lives partly in Aubonne, Switzerland and partly in Romania, either at Savârsin Castle or in an official residence in Bucharest, the Elisabeta Palace, has enjoyed a revival in popularity in his native land. In 2011, on his 90th birthday, he delivered a speech before the assembled chambers of the Romanian Parliament. According to Wikipedia, a 2012 opinion poll placed him as the most trusted public figure in Romania—far ahead of the political leaders—and to celebrate his 91st birthday, a square in Bucharest was renamed after him.
All this history you get with one $10,000 purchase, and a handsome dressing table to boot!
George Stevenson, a.k.a. “The Coachman,” a pugilist whose death following a fight against England’s champion brought about a change of rules. An English school portrait, dated 1742, it sold for $19,650 at Bonhams.
George Stevenson, known as “The Coachman” (presumably because of a previous occupation), was an English pugilist who on February 17, 1741, took on the English champion, Jack Broughton, in a fairground booth in London’s Tottenham Court Road.
Bare-knuckle fighting was a brutal affair and largely unregulated and uncontrolled at the time. Rules—such as they were—varied from place to place. Rounds had no fixed length but continued until one fighter was knocked or thrown to the ground. Those in the downed fighter’s corner were then allowed 30 seconds to return him to the “scratch,” the middle of the ring. If he failed to do so, his opponent was declared the winner.
“The Coachman,” sadly, was not up to scratch on this occasion. The fight ended after 45 bruising minutes, but the beating he had taken was severe, and within a few days “The Coachman” was dead. This fatal outcome to the bout, however, encouraged Broughton to draw up a code of rules that might help prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy.
Published in August 1743 and retained in use for almost a hundred years, Broughton’s rules included the instruction that “No person is to hit his adversary when he is down, or seize him by the ham [the back of the upper thigh/buttock], the breeches, or any part below the waist” and the instruction that “a man on his knees [is] to be reckoned down.”
Too late for “The Coachman” and those who had been badly beaten before, but Broughton’s rules must have saved quite a few lives.
This portrait of Stevenson by an unknown artist is dated 1742, and as such is a very rare example of an 18th-century painting relating to prizefighting or boxing. Presumably made in Stevenson’s memory, it sold for $19,650 at Bonhams on January 29.
Broughton started his working life as a waterman, rowing passengers on the River Thames in London, and in 1730 he won the major watermen’s race known as Doggett’s Coat and Badge, an event still held annually to this day. After his retirement, he opened a successful antiques and furniture business, though he continued to train other fighters for the rest of his life.
At his death in 1789, Broughton was awarded the singular honour of being interred, along with the kings and the poets, the great and the good, in Westminster Abbey, but for nearly 200 years his grave did not bear an epitaph. The Dean of the Abbey felt that the one Broughton had requested was inappropriate and it was not until 1988 that the words he had asked for, “Champion of England,” were finally engraved on the headstone.
Young Woman on the Beach.
Two Human Beings: The Lonely Ones.
Demand continues to be strong for the works of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), and at Christie’s on March 20, Young Woman on the Beach sold for $3,220,015, setting a record for any of his prints.
An extremely rare coloured aquatint and drypoint from the collection of Curt Glaser, it will be included in a major exhibition of the artist’s printed oeuvre that will open at the Kunsthaus Zürich in October of this year.Printed (probably in Paris) in pale blue, brown, grey and pink in 1896 and signed in pencil with a dedication to a “Monsieur…,” whose surname has since been erased, it a very fine and delicate impression of this rare print.
Dr. Curt Glaser (1879-1943) was a renowned art historian in Berlin in the early decades of the 20th century and an early champion of Edvard Munch, as well as the author of one of the first monographs on the artist, published in 1917. As Keeper of the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett from 1909 until 1924, he oversaw the formation of the most important collection of Munch prints in Germany. He was appointed director of the State Art Library in 1924, but in 1933 he was dismissed by the Nazi government.
Forced to flee the country, he had to quickly auction his entire collection to finance his emigration, travelling first to Switzerland and finally settling in the United States in 1941. This impression of Young Woman on the Beach, two other Munch prints, and a Kirchner print, all offered in the Christie’s sale, were purchased by the Kupferstichkabinett at this forced sale and remained in the museum’s collection until being restituted to Glaser’s heirs just last year.
Sold for $1,489,940 at Sotheby’s on March 19 was Munch’s Two Human Beings: The Lonely Ones, a rare and early woodcut of 1899, which is printed in pale blue, black, green, yellow and orange, and the streaks in the woman’s hair strengthened in red and brown with monotype printing.
Vladimir Tretchikoff’s ubiquitous Chinese Girl, sold for $1.48 million by Bonhams on March 20.
Sold for $544,370 by Bonhams on October 17 last year, Portrait of Lenka (Red Jacket) features Leonora (Lenka) Moltema, Tretchikoff’s muse during the years he spent in Java in World War II. He had been separated from his wife, Natalie, and daughter when the hostilities broke out, but towards the end of the war he got word through the Red Cross that they were in South Africa and left Java to find them. According to a reminiscence by Yvonne du Toit included in Andrew Lamprecht’s Tretchikoff: The People’s Painter (2011), when Tretchikoff and Natalie were reunited, he told her of his relationship with Lenka and offered her, as a personal gift, any of the works he had made during his Javanese period. It will sound odd to some readers, but she apparently chose the portrait of Lenka and hung it above the dining room table, and the picture came to auction from the Tretchikoff estate.
Monika Sing-Lee in a photograph taken around the time that Tretchikoff painted his famous Chinese Girl portrait.
Dismissed or loathed by many as kitsch, but from the 1950’s onwards adored by the majority and reckoned to be the most reproduced picture ever and familiar to millions, Vladimir Tretchikoff’s greenish blue-hued Chinese Girl could once be found hanging in print form in homes around the world—and is probably still out there in vast numbers, along with Che and that photograph of the girl scratching her bottom.
The mesmerising, iconic image which outsold, in lithograph form, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and any other famous picture you might name, also found its way on to all sorts of merchandise. There was a time when its iridescent charm was almost inescapable, and just when you thought it had been condemned to 20th-century history, along comes the original and back comes Tretchikoff into fashion.
Siberian-born Vladimir Tretchikoff lived as a child in Harbin, Manchuria after his family’s flight from Russia in 1917, but later moved to Shanghai, where from a very young age he worked in advertising and commercial illustration. In 1934 he moved on to Singapore and before that outpost of the British Empire fell into Japanese hands, worked as a propaganda artist for the British. He then spent two and half years in Java, some of it in prison.
Following World War II, he moved on again to South Africa, where he was reunited with his wife, and it was there that Tretchikoff found Monika Sing-Lee, his model for Chinese Girl, in her uncle’s laundromat in Cape Town. It was there, too, that he encountered for the first time that mix of violent dislike and adulation that characterises response to his paintings.
A review in the Cape Times called his paintings “cheap sensation for the masses,” and some were even attacked and slashed, but in the early 1950’s his exhibitions were attracting tens, then hundreds of thousands of visitors. Tretchikoff then spent a few years touring his work in the U.S. to great acclaim, and the acclaim and reception was just as enthusiastic in London and elsewhere.
In his 1973 memoir, Pigeon's Luck, the artist said he had put his “heart and soul” into a painting he hoped had “caught the essence of Chinese womanhood,” but it was his decision to reproduce his pictures as large-scale lithographed reproductions on a grand scale that was the key move for Tretchikoff.
Fashion designer Wayne Hemingway, writing in the Bonhams house journal about Chinese Girl, quotes the foreword to Stuart Cloete’s 1969 book on the artist. “The prints [sell] for a few guineas, dollars, francs, marks, escudos, yen, Malay and Hong Kong dollars. This can be no accident…and…is unique in the annals of art. It is this which infuriates his critics, who cannot understand his universal appeal.”
Five years later, a BBC-TV documentary called The Green Lady opened, with art critic William Feaver saying, “Let us examine this painting, arguably the most unpleasant work of art to be published in the 20th century. You’ve got flat form, hair that is not hair at all, simply an opaque layer of dull and insipid paint. You have shoulders which have no substance, you have muzzy line work.”
Now contrast that with the words of James Peppiatt of Bonhams, whose aim, admittedly, is to get the best price he can for the picture.
“The iridescent hues of Chinese Girl reflect Tretchikoff’s experimentation with the possibilities of his colour palette: the green-blue patina-like effect of the sitter’s face is uncanny, heightening the red of her lips and framed by her lustrous dark hair. The deftly handled golden hues and decorative detail of her tunic emerge from the lines of charcoal on brown canvas, a combination of media familiar from works like Basotho Girl and Zulu Maiden. Notably, the combination of lustrous golden silk and the blue-sheen of the model’s skin combine to produce an otherworldly glow: a luminescence that is the leitmotif of Tretchikoff’s best works.”
Boris Gorelik, author of Incredible Tretchikoff (to be published this year by Tafelberg of Cape Town), traced the green lady, Monika Sing-Lee, in 2010, and it is fascinating to learn that she didn’t like the painting that much either and thought that Tretchikoff could have come up with a more imaginative title.
“To be honest, I never liked the green face he gave me. When my sister-in-law bought me a print of Chinese Girl as a gift, I turned it down.” It was only in the 1990’s, having watched a TV documentary about the picture, that she decided to make contact with the artist again and was given a poster by him.
In 1954, during its long American tour, the original of this 20th-century icon was bought by, or perhaps for Mignon Buhler, the 16-year-old daughter of his dinner host during its exhibition at Marshall Field’s in Chicago and, aside from tour appearances at various venues in the U.S. and Canada that had to be completed as a condition of that $2000 sale, it has remained more or less unseen ever since.
More recently, in 2011—five years after the artist’s death—it was the star attraction in an IZIKO South African National Gallery show, Tretchikoff: The People’s Painter, and this year was consigned for sale by Mignon Buhler’s granddaughter at Bonhams on March 20.
Last October 17, Bonhams, who speak of exponential price rises for Tretchikoff’s work, took a bid of $544,370 for Portrait of Lenka (Red Jacket), which shows Leonora Moltema, his lover and muse during the years he spent in Java during World War II, and they put an estimate of $450,000/750,000 on the far, far more famous Chinese Girl in their March 20 sale of South African art.
Chinese Girl inevitably attracted a great deal of presale publicity and was sold on the day at $1,483,710 to Laurence Graff, a billionaire British businessman and chairman of Graff Diamonds International. The picture will go on public display with the rest of his art collection at the Delaire Graff Estate, near Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest