Six early American original tattoo flash art sheets attributed to Charlie Wagner and Sam O’Reilly sold for a combined $41,375 (includes buyers’ premiums) at Ripley Auctions in Indianapolis, Indiana, on July 28. The top-selling sheet finished at $11,250.
According to the auction house, the six sheets were found in the bottom of a trunk in the attic of an 84-year-old career Marine Corps officer. The trunk had been in storage for over 40 years. All six of the sheets carried estimates of $3000/4000 each.
Tony Gallick, an antiques collector, spotted the trunk at an estate sale. He said, “While the man was overseas in the 1940s, his wife kept busy by shopping yard and estate sales. The house was covered floor to ceiling with boxes. They moved often as he was reassigned. She bought the trunk, and it stayed in storage for decades. I saw it, thought it was pretty cool, and paid $10 for it.”
Original tattoo flash art sheet attributed to Charlie Wagner and Sam O’Reilly, two of America’s earliest tattoo artists, $11,250.
When Gallick first laid eyes on the flash sheets, he knew they were important. “I didn’t know the artist, but I knew they were highly collectible,” he said. “I did research for about two months. The 1908 date on one design was my starting point.... The flash of ships and sailors led me to research port cities.”
That took Gallick to New York City and the Bowery, then to Charlie Wagner (1875-1953) and Sam O’Reilly (1854-1909). “They were working together for a decade until Sam’s death in 1909,” Gallick pointed out. “When Sam died in 1909, Charlie moved into his shop, and their work was blended together.”
Sam O’Reilly learned tattooing in the U.S. Navy and patented the first tattooing machine in 1891. Charlie Wagner was a tattoo artist for more than 50 years. He apprenticed with O’Reilly and patented his own tattoo machine in 1904. He sold tattoo machines and his own brand of ink. He also tattooed circus performers, sailors, and “tattooed ladies.”
Gallick spoke to flash art experts, who noted several aspects of the sheets that pointed to Wagner and O’Reilly. The paper was the right size and material, and Wagner was one of the only artists of the day to use brown ink, not black.
The subject matter dated as far back as 1894 and included “Buffalo Bill” Cody, General George Armstrong Custer, and the Spanish-American War, with an image of crossed guns, representative of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. One of the images included the date 1908.
Gallick discovered an image of Jesus on one flash art sheet that can be seen in a common photo of a boy that Charlie Wagner tattooed over many years, beginning when the boy was just nine. “He brought him into the parlor located in the back of a barbershop and gave him free tattoos,” Gallick shared. “This young kid was an orphan, and in 1906 he got a full body tattoo.”
For more information, contact Ripley Auctions at (317) 251-5635 or e-mail <[email protected]>.
Originally published in the October 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest