In the American wing of the most august and magnificent metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, elegantly produced books on baseball memorabilia rest side by side with books on Tiffany glass. That should provide appraisers with a clue as to what’s being taken seriously these days in the field of high level collectibles. (We’re defining high level collectible as any non-fine/decorative art category that can reach $100,000).
Take sports memorabilia collecting seriously. At a recent Sotheby’s sale in New York, its second for baseball and sports items, the New York Yankees home run uniform worn by Roger Maris in 1961 when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, sold for $132,000 (with premium). Estimated at $20,000 - $30,000, the uniform included shirt, pants, cleats, belt, sock and cap. Prior to that coup the previous baseball uniform record had been held by Leland’s when, just a couple of months before, a Yankees 1960 Mickey Mantle jersey sold for $111,100. For comparables at that auction remember that a Roger Maris 1960 jersey fetched only $66,000.
Back to Sotheby’s auction: A circa 1910 Honus Wagner T-206 baseball (card), one of only 40 known, brought the day’s top lot price of $20,000. The same card, but in considerably better condition, was tucked into somebody’s pocket after he had paid $451,000 at the first Sotheby’s sports auction. It’s still the baseball card record, but at the rate this area of collecting is growing, the record may not stand for long. Much of the high-end collecting is being done by a group called Sports Heroes, headed by Jerome Zuckerman, a Ph.D. sports maven, who raised $4.5 million in a public stock offering in 1991 to invest in inventory. According to Zucker Sports Heroes sold $2.1 in sports memorabilia last year and netted $242,000 after taxes. In line with this big-money-speaks approach, a California Gallery is currently searching out sports memorabilia, and advertising for consignments for the first National Sports Collectors Convention and auction in July, to be held in Atlanta. This group claims to have $30 million available for cash advances for desirable sports memorabilia.
Collectibles of all sorts are pushing their way to the forefront, while the fine art market remains uncertain, despite some very good prices posted in recent weeks at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s for modern and contemporary material. Among the less esoteric goodies on the market – a pink baseball outfit that Madonna once wore in the movie League of Their Own, cost $7,150. And you know the cartoon art market is attracting collectors who never considered van Gogh nearly as much fun as Dopey. Since 1984 major auction houses have been holding specialist sales. Around Christmas a private collector paid $209,000 for a scene from Snow White. A 1930s celluloid of Donald Duck brought $286,000, and a Mickey Mouse $176,000. Since every second of a cartoon film can contain up to 24 different images, that means that there are 86,000 images in an hour-long film. Much of this material is mass produced, so to speak, with artists’ line drawings traced and inked by studio gnomes. But since celluloids were never taken very seriously by the studios, much of it was destroyed, or wiped clean and reused. At one Disney film premiere every guest was given a drawing as a freebie. And so much was either thrown out or taken home by the artists.
Look for images that show the main character facing forward in the center of the picture, together with an interesting background. Only a fraction of the cels can boast this, making them the most desirable. Prices vary considerably for cartoon art. Donatello can be found under $150, but you’ll have to produce about $7,000 for Mickey Mouse with a lasso. Average prices for very average cels run in the $400 - $600 range.
It’s possible that concern over the art market has triggered fabulous prices in the collectibles arena – trivia replacing treasures temporarily, if one wants to get alliterative about it – but we have seen a million paid this year for a collection of 23 gold clubs, $55,000 for the first Batman comic book, and $57,200 for a King Kong movie poster. Old Masters have held steady, with some impressive single sales peppering an otherwise conservative market – $13.4 million for Titian’s Venus and Adonis, for instance – while fine silver, with a world-wide following, doing very well, indeed. Domestic silver from the 19th century is also doing surprisingly well at both retail and auction. Elaborately decorated Art Nouveau Tiffany and Gorham pieces fetched double their estimated prices at a recent William Doyle sale, where rugs were also very popular. Eighteenth century French furniture continues to attract high prices for quality pieces, but Americana, having a narrower following, is down from 1990 highs. Collectors of French art glass, primarily Japanese, have slipped away, and prices are now down by nearly half of those in 1989. The market is adjusting, downward, from the frenzied buying in photography, English pottery and middle-level Modern and Contemporary painting we saw just a few years ago. Buyers are far more selective in these lean and mean days, and they know that much of what comes on the market must be sold – divorce, death and bankruptcy dictate the inevitable. Because of this bargain hunters abound, and negotiated prices are the order of the day. This calls for a good deal more investigation on the part of appraisers; the asking price is no longer the price at which an object can always be valued these days.
We’ve heard, ad nauseam, about the plunge the art market took last year when the bottom fell out of the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary sales. The situation is now equalizing, if the most recent auction sales are any indication. But the bad news is in for last year’s accounting department at Christie’s and Sotheby’s where profits fell 85 percent for both houses; Sotheby’s went from $95 million in 1990 to $13 million in1991, and Christie’s from 75.8 million to $11.3 million. Sotheby’s total sales were $2.4 billion in 1990 and $1.1 billion in ’91, while Christie’s fell from $1.96 billion in 1990 to $103 billion last year. At Christie’s last year 61 works passed the $1 million barrier; in 1990 143 went over that mark. The most recent big-ticket auction sales at both houses included the collections of McCarty-Cooper and Roos, forecast possible glad tidings for the market. These sales, however, contained some fabulous art and artifacts with excellent provenance and considerable rarity. Paintings and other objects were conservatively priced, were generally of exceptional quality, and many had not been on the market for many years. Among the star works in these sales was Braque’s Studio VIII, a 1955 4x6 foot painting that sold for $7.7 million, a 1935 Picasso featuring guitar and fruit that went for $3.85 million, a Renoir portrait of his second son, Jean, that fetched $2.31 million, and African Fang sculptures that sold for $352,000, $440,000 and $550,000 (from the McCarty-Cooper tribal art collection). You do take your chances at auction; the most expensive Fang had been sold to Mc-C in 1989 for $660,000, while the second most expensive had only cost him $71,500 in 1984. And the collector’s name does count a lot – another tribal art sale that week saw 93 of 210 artifacts go unsold.
Congressmen are currently huddling about a proposed bipartisan tax bill that will include some form of increased deductibility for charitable gifts. Currently, the alternative minimum tax (AMT) allows taxpayers to claim a full market value deduction for gifts of tangible property until June 30th – known as the “Window of Opportunity.” Whatever the shape of the new bill, it’s probably going to be a lot less inclusive that the controversial tax package that President Bush vetoed on March 30th. To keep abreast of current information regarding this bill contact the American Association of Museums Government Affairs Department, 1225 Eye Street, NW., Washington, D.C., 20005 or call (202) 289-9125. Continuation of the full deduction for appreciated property is crucial to many appraisers who had a windfall last year as a result of the open window.
For appraisers who like to read themselves to sleep, there are a number of books currently available that could be fun to cuddle up with after an exhausting day in the real world. The Man From Greek and Roman by James Goldman (Random House, 1974), is the museum mystery about a stolen golden chalice; The Melting Clock by Stuart Kaminsky (Mysterious Press, 1991), is set in Hollywood in 1940s, and deals with a set of characters that include Salvador Dali, and other folk in the art world. John Malcolm’s Sheep, Goats and Soap (Scribner’s, 1991), deals with art and mystery, a not unlikely combination, and with an art investment fund. If you’re interested in the rare book trade try John Dunning’s Booked to Die (Scribner’s, 1992). The reading suggestions came from Maine Antiques Digest and we thank them for it.
It Pays to Appraise
If it hadn’t been for an experienced dealer who caught the error in a painting signed “Haberle,” Robert Trotter wouldn’t have gone to jail, and he wouldn’t be singing like a canary now and causing a good number of red faces in the folk art field. Trotter was a talented artist whose work, executed in American primitive style, was picked up by dealers and sold as authentic Americana. Before long, buoyed by success and ego-inflated, Trotter began signing his paintings (with the names of famous American artists) – or selling them as American “old masters.” Well-known, and respected, folk art dealers were among the purchasers. A portrait of a boy with a cat was given to some dealers in Massachusetts in 1985, and subsequently sold to a famous Connecticut dealer for $16,000. She was so entranced with the painting that she paid $7,000 to have it restored and $2,000 for an ad in Antiques magazine promoting the portrait. About that time Trotter became concerned and quit the forgery business, but returned when he lost a bundle in antiques investments and needed and infusion of cash. The same Connecticut dealer agreed to pay Trotter $50,000 for an “Ammi Phillips” that he had skillfully created and even more skillfully aged under ultraviolet light. He used genuinely old canvases, melted down lead weights mixed with color, and, to escape detection by appraisers, a fast drying varnish that did not come off in cleaning. He knew – and practiced – all the time honored tricks of the forgery trade. But it wasn’t until an expert noted that a “Haberle” painting (by Trotter) had all the wrong stamps painted in the trompe l’oeil work that the FBI moved in on the (now) 38-year-old artist whose work had been exhibited (but withdrawn) from a Christie’s sale where its posted price was $30,000 - $40,000.
Trotter has the dubious distinction of being the first American convicted of selling forged art – a felony. During the 10 months spent in the poky, Trotter had plenty of time to mull over 350 interviews given to the FBI by appraisers, dealers and collectors that were part of the evidence presented during his trial. And apparently he has very little good to say of any of them. His opinion is echoed by New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky who wants extensive regulation in the art and antiques field. He and Trotter have one thing in common – a mutual mistrust of the appraisal industry, apparently lumping the few errant practitioners with those proven to be above reproach. In the recent article in Gentleman’s Quarterly, one of the several about Trotter that have chronicled his doings, Thomas Hoving, formerly director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and ex-head of Connoisseur (now defunct), joins in the attack on appraisers. Meanwhile, the pressure has eased on the forger and life is looking very rosy indeed. Trotter found that he can make a lot of money creating folk art paintings and signing them with his real name. He caught the attention of Betsey Wyeth, Andrew’s wife, now his art advisor, and has latched onto Frank Miele, now his agent and dealer. To top it all, Trotter has recreated an overmantel painting, in the style of the original 18th century artist, for an historic house museum in Connecticut. After being found out as a forger, Trotter blamed his predicament on dealers, collectors and appraisers. His viewpoint has been repeated by supporters with high visibility, who should know better than to launch an all-out and indiscriminate attack on an entire industry. Those who now treat Trotter as a kind of “fun forger”, overlook the question of personal responsibility. The problem is that collectors who once bought his paintings as genuine folk art work now are buying it as a genuine “Trotter.” And this time around he’s making a lot more money.
The 1991 Winter Antiques Show served as a predictor of what is definitely a current strong trend in decorative furnishings – garden furniture and ornaments. An entire Park Avenue Armory show will be devoted next year to all types of garden furniture (wood, cast iron and concrete), to antique weather vanes, architectural artifacts, landscape designs, gazebos and botanical prints. And Connecticut’s Litchfield Gallery has held its third spring Garden Ornaments Auction of predominately antique artifacts that included large figural fountains and life size statuary. Nineteenth century cast iron fountains were in the $6,000 to $7,500 area, while European formal figural sculpture was offered at prices up to $8,500.
Speaking of sculpture – another area of increased interest to collectors is that the late 18th-late 19th century bronzes. At an Ohio auction last year some well-executed works found handsome prices. A lot of four 30” tall bronze statuettes by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), representing the Four Seasons, brought $17,600, while bronze casts after antique originals of The Discus Thrower found $17,600, and The Borghese Gladiator brought $14,300. Another final bid of $17,600 bought a pair of marble urns of Bacchus and Ariadne. Still another area of collecting to watch out for – architectural renderings – was apparent when several of these examples (rescued when an architectural firm went out of business), found buyers for prices in the $500 - $3,000 category.
On the Block
Not that anyone is admitting to forced sales, but interesting what’s on the market these days. Barbara Piasecka Johnson, widow of Band-Aid heir Seward Johnson, has consigned 19 pieces of French furniture to Sotheby’s to fund her Eastern European ventures. And New Hampshire collector Eddy Nicholson, one of the most famous collectors of Americana, and the first to pay over a million dollars for American furniture in 1986, is selling 30 important pieces at Christie’s. Nicholson is the purchaser of Cadwalader chair, the Philadelphia piecrust table, the Houdon plaster bust of Jefferson and any number of high profile pieces. Christie’s says the 20 percent decline in prices for American furniture has primarily affected Federal period items, but that top of the line 18th century material has not dipped in value. But note that a Queen Anne mahogany candlestand (sold to Israel Sack in 1982 for $65,000), is offered at $40,000 - $60,000; a pair of Philadelphia Queen Anne walnut side chairs (sold at Christie’s in 1986 for $110,000), is estimated at $70,000 - $100,000; a Jeremiah Drummer Boston silver tankard (purchased by Nicholson for $145,000), is up for sale at $100,000 - $150,000. According to our calculations if one accounts for the decline in value of the dollar over the years since purchase, offering pieces at the same prices ten years afterwards certainly does indicate a dip in value. Maybe we’ve missed something here.
A daguerreotype record has been established by the Swann’s sale of half-plate image of a street scene by African-American photographer James Presley Ball. His image of three store facades in Cincinnati, circa 1851, brought $63,880. Estimated at $7,000 - $10,000, the daguerreotype beat out the old record of the earliest extant portrait by Matthew Brady, sold to the national Portrait gallery in 1985 for $59,400.