Purchase Story

Curiouser and Curiouser

Rago Arts, Lambertville, New Jersey

Photos courtesy Rago Arts

When Marion Harris, a regular exhibitor at the Outsider Art Fair and antiques shows, and her husband, dentist Jerry Rosenfeld, sold their house in Connecticut and moved full time to their New York City apartment, they talked to Miriam Tucker, a partner at Rago Arts, about selling what they did not have room for. Tucker told them that she had been thinking about holding an Outsider art auction and would make Marion Harris’s collection its centerpiece. “As we talked, we realized that the sale was not all about Outsider art, it was about many other curious things; every piece had a story,” said Harris, who calls her website “The Art of Collecting” and describes her living space as “a cabinet of curiosities filled with natural history and narrative objects.”

Life-size articulated artist’s mannequin, an exceptional example with a finely carved face, France, 1860, 60" high (chair not included), sold for $45,000 (est. $20,000/25,000). For three generations, it was in the window of the Ann-Morris Antique Shop on East 60th Street in Manhattan, now a lighting shop, and it was never offered for sale. Artist’s articulated figures range in size from under 7" to larger than life size. The earliest and finest examples were made in Germany in the early 16th century, and they reached their peak of manufacture and popularity in France circa 1850. Not shown, a 27" female artist’s mannequin with a painted face and hair in a bun, made in France circa 1880, also from the Ann-Morris collection, sold for $8125 (est. $2500/3000), and another, 39" high, wearing a bone skull necklace, from the Marion Harris collection, sold for $6875 (est. $2800/3500).

A pair of painted wood Woodbridge pit figures, the male with a removable penis, each with a characteristic hole in the head, the male with a stopper, early/mid-20th century, each 7" high, sold on the phone for $4688 (est. $3000/4000), underbid in the salesroom by New York City dealer Joshua Lowenfels, who left disappointed immediately after this first lot.

Woodbridge figures have confounded local historians and fueled legends since their discovery in the 1980s. The carvings were uncovered on the site of what is now the Woodbridge Center mall in Woodbridge, New Jersey, where once there were clay pits used by the local brick industry. During the demolition of a shack on the grounds in the 1950s, workmen found over 100 small polychrome wooden figures that range in size from 4½" to 7¼" high and are armless, nude, and anatomically correct. They have carved faces, each one different, and various body shapes and holes in their heads, some plugged with corks in the shape of a penis.

Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco included some of these figures in their book American Primitive (1988). It is said that the figures were bought at a pawnshop by graphic designer Milt Simpson, who sold them to New York City art dealers Ricco/Maresca, who in turn sold them in two parts to Westchester County, New York, collectors Gael and Michael Mendelsohn and to the Marvill collection. In 2013 they were reunited in the collection of James Brett, whose collection in London is called The Museum of Everything. They were displayed as a group in an exhibition at Chalet Society in Paris in 2013. Did Brett buy this pair that was recently rediscovered in a house near Woodbridge?

Frank Maresca, when reached by phone to verify the story, said Mary Ann Demos visited the site and said they were part of a fertility altar, some of the figures have a plug in the form of phallus, and some have names on paper in ink, suggesting that the person may have had fertility problems. According to Maresca, the contractor who found them, whose name is lost to history, first brought them to Joel and Kate Kopp, who had a shop on Madison Avenue. “Their shop sitter, put off by the sexual nature, asked the man to leave, and he came to us,” said Maresca.

Two untitled carved stone works by Raymond Coins (1904-1998), one of a man on a cross, 15" x 6", and the other of a man and woman, sold for $7500 (est. $2000/3000). Coins was born on a small farm in southern Virginia. He moved to Westfield, North Carolina, where he grew tobacco, corn, oats, wheat, and rye, and in the winter he worked in a tobacco warehouse. When he retired, he started carving in stone and wood. Terry Zug, a professor at the University of North Carolina, saw his work and brought it to the attention of collectors.

“I did not have enough for an entire sale, so I talked to friends about the sale, and Miriam Tucker told others about it, and before we knew it we had we had rounded up about twenty consignors for a wide-ranging 220-lot sale we called ‘Curiouser and Curiouser,’” Harris said.

Harris and Tucker cataloged the sale and arranged the exhibition. The 220 lots were offered live and online on Sunday morning, October 22, 2017, beginning at 10 a.m. at Rago’s salesroom in Lambertville, New Jersey. About 20 people came to bid in person, a dozen phones were active, and there were three bidding platforms providing online competition.

The sale followed a million-dollar Rago “Great Estates” sale on Saturday and added $451,169 (with buyers’ premiums) to Rago’s weekend total, hammering at $360,935, just short of the low estimate. It was 80% sold; 17% of the lots sold online, accounting for 48% in value, and the three top lots went to Bidsquare. Thirty-five phone bidders, 23 left bidders, and 860 online bidders were from England, Turkey, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Mexico, and many parts of the U.S.

Articulated artist’s mannequins were a strong suit. An exceptionally large (5' tall) walnut mannequin that for three generations sat in a chair at a table in the window of the Ann-Morris Antique shop on East 60th Street in Manhattan and had never been for sale sold on the phone for $45,000 (est. $20,000/25,000). Harris said the underbidder was a university. A scientist came to the presale exhibition and told her he wanted it for a robotic museum. An articulated horse and rider artist’s mannequin, 23" high, from Marion Harris’s collection sold for $11,250 (est. $3000/5000), and a 27" high female mannequin with sculpted hair in a bun from the Ann-Morris collection sold for $8125 (est. $2500/3000). A 39" tall mannequin from Marion Harris’s collection sold for $6875 (est. $2800/3500).

Varujan Boghosian (b. 1926) made this cast plaster female head adorned with ground coral beads in 1996. It is signed with the artist’s full name and dated. It came with a lithograph (not shown) of an original collage, numbered 9/25 and signed with initials “VB.” The head is 13" x 10" x 7", and the lithograph, 18½" x 16". The lot sold for $2125 (est. $1200/1800) online. Not shown, two of Boghosian’s collages sold later in the sale for $625 and $938. The artist taught at Dartmouth College from 1968 to 1995. His assemblages are in the tradition of Surrealism and Dada. He is quoted as saying, “I do not make anything. I find everything,” the mantra of the art of assemblage.

An untitled work (Women in Hats) by Madge Gill (British, 1882-1961), pen and ink on 12 mounted cards in frame, 24" x 18", sold with another untitled work (Two Women), not shown, pen and ink on fabric, 8½" x 12", for $5313 (est. $600/900). After an early life in an orphanage, Gill began to create art in 1919. She often worked on paper or rolled calico, unrolling only a section at a time and not viewing the composition in its entirety. Patterns and designs cover the surface of her obsessive drawings.

This assembled pair of Venetian painted and silvered grotto chairs, carved and painted wood, with the back and seat in the form of shells and dolphin-form arms, early 20th century, 34" x 23" x 20", sold on the phone for $5625 (est. $700/900).

Other artist’s studio props sold well. A group of 27 shading shapes—spheres, cones, trapezoids, and pyramids—ranging in size from 11¾" for the tallest cone to 2" x 3" for the smallest trapezoid sold for $2625 (est. $1200/1800). Seven elaborate engine-turned ornaments sold on the phone for $8750 (est. $2500/3500). A group of four architectural staircase models sold to a phone bidder for $8125 (est. $2500/3500). Marion Harris said that she had bought them at the sale of the Bill Blass collection at Sotheby’s in 2003, sold them, and then bought them back.

There were other collections; some sold well, and some did not. A collection of 31 French rubber mushrooms, designated as edible, poisonous, or fatal, each labeled with its botanical name, sold for $7500 (est. $1500/3000), but a collection of 31 vintage wedding cake toppers of ceramic, celluloid, and metal sold for $1000 (est. $900/1400). A collection of fake fruit–over 50 pieces in stone and other materials on a graduated tier of Victorian glass cake stands that Marion Harris had bought at a Christie’s “Interiors” sale in 2012 and used on her dining table in Connecticut–sold on one bid for $750 (est. $1200/1800). Bargains keep people going to auctions.

Howard Finster (1916-2001) created Leopard, this 1990 mixed media on wood cutout, signed, dated, numbered, and inscribed on the back. The 24½" x 54" x ¼" artwork sold for $1625 (est. $800/1200) to young collectors in the salesroom. Finster is possibly the most prolific and famous Outsider artist. His home in Georgia is known as Paradise Garden, a venue to display his vision of preaching through painting, and had a constant display of artwork for sale to collectors and dealers who were frequent visitors. Finster produced more than 20,000 paintings. He was chosen to represent America at the Venice Biennale in 1984.

Marco Marcola (Italian, 1740-1793) painted Re del Carnevale di Verona (King Dumpling, King of Carnival of Verona), oil on canvas, 21½" x 28". Marco Marcola (Marcuola) was a painter of prestigious Venetian residences and “grotesques.” Re del Carnevale di Verona depicts the most important carnival masque in Verona, with Gnocco (King Dumpling) and his court. It sold for $25,000 (est. $25,000/28,000).

This 16th-century life-size carved bust of a youth sold for $3500 (est. $1200/1800). Marion Harris said that she had bought it at Christie’s sale of the Axel Vervoordt collection in May 2004.

George Dressed for the Masqurade [sic], by Jon Serl (1894-1993), oil on masonite, titled on reverse, 60" x 19", sold on the phone for $10,625 (est. $2000/3000). Marion Harris said that she had purchased it from the artist. Born on an American Indian reservation in New York state, Serl worked in vaudeville before moving to Hollywood, where he held acting, dancing, and screenwriting jobs, waited on tables, picked cherries, and dubbed voices for silent films. His painting career began when he retired to San Juan Capistrano in 1949.

Provenance often creates interest. Harris bought a French magic set at Christie’s sale of Axel Vervoordt’s collection at his castle near Antwerp in 2004, and it sold for $2000 (est. $300/500). A 16th-century carved bust of a young boy that she had bought at the same sale sold for $3500 (est. $1200/1800).

European curiosities were in demand. The Frog Prince, a 19th-century German stoneware frog wearing a crown, with a leathery glaze, 14¾" high, sold online for $36,250 (est. $9000/12,000). Marion Harris said that her clients had consigned it, and it sold for nearly four times the price that they had paid for it.

Natural history sold well. A giant clamshell from the South Pacific, 26" across, brought $2250 (est. $800/1200), and a bear skull, 17" long, went for $5313 (est. $2500/4000).

Only a few works by American Outsider artists sold over estimates. A Raymond Coins carved stone man on a cross and a stone carved with a man and a woman sold as one lot online for $7500 (est. $2000/3000). A Jon Serl oil on masonite, a picture of George Dressed for the Masqurade [sic], 60" x 19", sold for $10,625 (est. $2000/3000). Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s untitled self-portrait, 47¾" x 24", sold for only $1750 (est. $2000/4000), and his Dancers, 23½" x 47", brought only $688 (est. $800/1200). Purvis Young’s Angels,53" x 21", sold for $1000 (est. $1200/1800). An online bidder bought a tiny James Castle untitled work (Green Figure), 3½" x 2½", for $2250 (est. $2500/5000).

Leslie Jacoby, who was bidding for clients of the online platform Artsy in the salesroom, said Artsy partners with auction houses and brings bidders to the sales. “We concentrate on contemporary art and design sales and thought this sale would interest our clients,” Jacoby said. It did. Artsy was successful on four lots and underbid several others.

The pictures and captions tell more. For more information, go to (www.ragoarts.com).

By Morton Bartlett (1909-1992), this circa 1950 untitled gelatin silver print (Teenage Girl Holding Flowers), 4 3/8 " x 2¾", sold for $10,000 (est. $12,000/15,000) on the phone. Bartlett, the adopted son of a Boston couple, left Harvard University after two years and devoted himself to creating a fantasy family of perfectly sculpted half-life-size plaster children. Bartlett dressed and posed the plaster figures and photographed them. Marion Harris promoted his work. They received international acclaim and are in museum collections. They were shown in the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013. In 2010 Marion Harris issued a limited edition of Bartlett photographs printed from original negatives. Not shown, three of the 2010 photographs sold for $3125, $3750, and $4375. Depending on the subject, vintage prints bring much more.

French articulated horse mannequin with rider, walnut, supported by an iron rod on the wood base, France, 19th century, 23" high, sold online for $11,250 (est. $3000/5000).

Originally published in the February 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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