Tuesday, April 16, 2019
In Germany, Bierstadt came to be deeply impressed by the tradition of heroic painting for which the Düsseldorf Academy was famous. Upon his return to the United States he became part of the informal group of artists known as the Hudson River School. Their art work depicted a pastoral American landscape, with detailed and realistic images, but portrayed with a romantic lyricism. In later years, Bierstadt would transfer that aesthetic to the American West.
“Sunlight and Shadow,” which Bierstadt painted in 1862 based on sketches he had made while in Germany. The print was produced in Berlin in rich chromolithography, an elaborate process which was thought to be convey the subtlety of Bierstadt’s rendering of the dappling of light and shadow on the church door, statues and cobblestones. This print was quite a success, being touted as “the finest specimen of art yet seen in the country,” and it well demonstrates Bierstadt’s masterful use of light in his paintings.
However, it was the American West which would provide Bierstadt with his greatest subjects. From his travels in 1858 and 1859, Bierstadt was tremendously impressed with the Rocky Mountains, which would provide him with the subject matter for his most famous paintings. Bierstadt passed through the Rockies in the nascent days of the great American expansion west; the transcontinental railroad, the pony express, and most of the Indian wars lay in the future. Thus Bierstadt saw and absorbed an almost pristine frontier, for which the rocky peaks provided an emphatic exclamation.
In 1863, Bierstadt again traveled west, passing through the Rocky Mountains on the way to California. On this trip, Bierstadt made many sketches which he would mine over the years to create a series of superb, large-scale paintings which established him as the preeminent artist of the West. He was not the first professional artist to depict the west, “But Bierstadt became the most successful of them all and created a vision of the West that still endures..... Bierstadt was the first important artists to satisfy the renewed interest in landscape painting with original scenes from the West.” (Tyler, Prints of the West, p. 133)
large engraving of the painting. It took Smillie three years to finish the print, which is considered one of the best American landscape engravings of the nineteenth century.
Following this, Bierstadt received many commissions for new works, was acclaimed at home and abroad, and hobnobbed with the rich and royal. His canvases continued to dramatically portray the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Rockies. His were “the first paintings to capture successfully the wonder and excitement that the artist and other early trail blazers felt when they confronted the spectacular western scenery.” (Trenton & Hassrick, The Rocky Mountains, Oklahoma, 1983)
Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie,” showing Mount Evans in Colorado. [Bierstadt named the mountain after Rosalie Ludlow, who would soon become his wife. It was renamed Mount Evans in 1895, after John Evans, the second governor of the Colorado Territory.] Like with the earlier painting, Bierstadt used artistic license to rearrange his sketches to achieve what he thought was the most artistic result. In the canvas, Mount Evans is shown from Chicago Lakes, arising out of the midst of storm clouds. An Indian town lies in the middle ground on the shores of a lake while a small hunting party tries to corral some horses that appear frightened by the approaching storm.
chromolithography ever produced, not to mention as examples of the greatest nineteenth century art of the American West.
Monday, January 28, 2019
Belzoni made many enemies and stole many artifacts from Egypt (though he was only one of many Europeans doing the same thing). He also did some cringe-worthy things, such as smashing through a wall with sledge hammers, sitting on mummies so they were crushed underneath his weight, and carving his name on ancient monuments. Still, Belzoni’s enthusiasm and energy allowed him to “achieve” much. He approached his explorations with enthusiasm, mounting excavations on a massive scale, and he was highly systematic in his approach. He destroyed much, but was instrumental in awakening Europe to the glories of ancient Egypt.
Narrative, a work that excited huge interest. In 1822, the atlas of prints to accompany this work was issued, containing many detailed scenes of sites in Egypt
After Egypt, Belzoni continued his explorations in Africa, heading an expedition to Timbuktu in 1823. He caught dysentery there and died at the end of that year.
Wednesday, January 2, 2019
The second thing I noticed was how about 3/4's of items had current values below (and often well below) the original appraised values. The show initially puts up the original appraised value, and then after a pause (to let you guess which way the value has gone), they post the current appraised value. In the vintage Birmingham show, from almost twenty years ago, only a couple current values were higher than the original values and just a few were the same. By far most of the new values were below the original appraisals. So what does that mean?
This reflects the fact that, as a general rule, antiques have gone down in value since the turn of the millennium. Part of that is because in the last decade of the twentieth century, prices for antiques were quite strong. Antique shows were going strong, decorators were keen on using antiques in homes and even offices, and there were lots of established and new collectors seeking out the best antiques of all sorts.
In general, it was for the "top end" antiques that prices were steadily going up, the "low end" rising a bit, but really not that much. The advent of Antiques Roadshow reflected the popularity of antiques at the time and also helped to sustain the rise in interest and prices. Of course, in general the appraisals which were shown on ARS were for "top end" items, so combining that with high prices of the time means that the appraisals reflected the booming antiques market.
Then, of course, along came 2008 and the great economic crash. Many parts of the American economy were hurt by this, including antiques. In most cases, the purchase of an antique is a luxury or discretionary purchase, and this was the type of purchase that was most hurt after 2008. Auction and retail sales in antiques slowed dramatically. Auction prices dropped quickly, but this did not lead to an immediate drop in retail prices. Many dealers tried to hang on to the "old" pricing structure, though they were certainly much more amenable to giving a discount. Over time, however, it did definitely lead to a lowering of many prices in the antiques world. I would say that by about 2010-12, a pricing structure for antiques had become pretty standard.
In the last few years, in some areas of the antiques market, there has been some rise in prices, though we certainly have not reached the hey-day of 1999. People are much more likely to spend their discretionary dollars on things like antiques, so we have come out of the really dark days of 2008-2010. The market, though, is quite different. Few prices are reaching new heights, and some areas of antiques which used to be "hot" are no longer so.
Why is that? I suspect that some of it was that the most of the long-term collectors were not that young, and after they stopped collecting in 2008, they just never had the enthusiasm to restart. It is one thing to gear up for collecting when one is 30 or 40, but another thing when one is 60-70. Adding to the problem is the fact that there just are not that many young collectors entering the market. Whether that is a product of changing interior design styles, a lack of appreciation of "things," or just lack of education about antiques, everyone in the antiques world will tell you that there are not many millennials or other young people purchasing antiques.
Do I think prices will come back? I think eventually for the best of all types of antiques. Antiques are wonderful artifacts of our past which still can play a relevant role in our lives, even if just as furniture, decoration or whatever. If one looks at the prices for a really well-made antique compared to a mass produced modern equivalent, the antiques are often better value just as objects. When one factors in their history and scarcity, they have a huge appeal. Markets do tend to go up and down and I think the antiques market will go back up. How soon, I wish I knew. The continued popularity of Antiques Roadshow, however, is a hopeful sign.
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
In 1845, Frémont was sent out again, in part because of the tensions between the U.S. and Mexico which would lead to armed conflict the following year. Frémont arrived in California just when local ferment led to an American rebellion which soon became part of the wider Mexican War. Frémont was appointed the first Governor of California, but soon became embroiled in a conflict with the military commander of California, General Stephen W. Kearny. This led to Frémont being sent back east under arrest and to his eventual court-martial and dismissal from the army.
As Frémont himself wrote in his Geographical Memoir, “The map has been constructed expressly to exhibit the two countries of Oregon and the Alta California together. [These territories officially became part of the United States between 1846 and 1848.] It is believed to be the most correct that has appear of either of them...” The importance of this map is indicated by the fact that Carl Wheat gave more space to the description of this map than to any other in his seminal Mapping the Trans-Mississippi West.
As the news spread of this discovery, through President Polk’s announcement on December 5th and then all the subsequent newspaper articles and private publications, there was an immediate demand for information on the gold strike, especially for maps which prospective prospectors could take with them. Many publishers rushed maps to the market, many containing spotty or completely erroneous details, but the maps which had any accuracy were mostly based on the Frémonth/Preuss map, which was without questions the best map of California available at that time.
The convenience of having maps that folded into a small size had been obvious ever since maps became items that were sold to the general public. For those wanting to take a map with them when they traveled, these maps could be easily carried in a pocket or bag. In the nineteenth century, these maps were printed onto banknote paper, which is tough yet thin, so it could be folded without as much wear. The maps were folded into covers and were usually brightly colored to make them easier to read when on the road. For those heading to the California gold fields, the need for such a map would be clear.
It isn’t clear who published the map, but given the use of the original stone Frémont may very well have been involved in its production—perhaps hoping to cash in on his explorations after their rather unpleasant ending. An extensive search has turned up only two copies of this version of the map, and while all pocket maps from the 19th century have a high attrition rate, this would seem to indicate that this map did not sell as well as the publisher would have hoped. This scarcity, and its historical significance, make it perhaps as desirable a map of related to the California Gold Rush as any. A true nugget from the California Gold Rush.
Friday, September 21, 2018
The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin’d Post,
And then Home with Joy
Baseball was popular enough that Union troops played it during the Civil War, helping spread the game around the country, including to the South as the Union prisoners played the game when they could. This print is stated as being as based on a drawing by Acting Major Otto Boetticher “from nature,” indicating he was perhaps a prisoner or at least a visitor. The camp looks quite clean and the players and spectators look quite relaxed.
By the end of the war, Charles Peverelly wrote:
The game of Base Ball has now become beyond question the leading feature of the out-door sports of the United States. (Book of American Pastimes, 1866)
The popularity of the game inspired Currier & Ives, “America’s Printmakers,” to decide to produce one of their top quality, expensive, large-folio prints. “American National Game of Base Ball: Grand Match for Championship at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, N.J.” A notice in an 1860 edition of New York Sunday Mercury reported, concerning a game between the Excelsior and the Atlantic teams for the championship, that:
Messrs. Currier & Ives, the well-known print publishers, had a corps of artists on the ground last Thursday, taking elaborate sketches of the immense field, and of the players. They propose publishing a handsome colored lithograph, which will present an accurate view of the interesting scene.
Likely because of the war, Currier & Ives didn't produce the print until 1866, when they revisited the idea, using some of the 1860 sketches as well as later photographs, to produced this terrific print. [An excellent analysis of the print and the game it was meant to represent can be found on the “Our Game” blog.
Tuesday, July 17, 2018
In any case, the prints from McKenney's portfolio all share the same history, they have the same relevance to our past, they are all the same size, and they were done by the same printers and lithographers. However, they sell for a wide range of prices. The most expensive prints in this series sell for over $3,000, whereas there are a number that are generally priced at $300 or less. We had a client in the shop the other day, and he was quite puzzled why there was such a range of prices (of course, he liked the more expensive ones and wanted them to be priced closer to the cost of the less expensive ones).
The bottom line is that there is often a variation in prices within a single series of prints based purely on desirability of the prints with the public. The prints in one series tend to have equal, general historic value and quality of production, but that doesn’t mean that the public has equal interest in all of them. Sometimes there is a variation in the specific historic import of a particular print (for instance, in general prints of extinct birds sell for more than the ones of birds which are still around today), sometimes there can be prints which have a particular appeal to the public (for instance, prints of dogs and cats tend to be more popular than prints of aardvarks and mice), but the most common reason is appearance.
Within most series, some of the prints are just more visually attractive than others. It can be size (the larger birds from the Audubon series sell for more than the smaller birds), it can be color (a print of a Cardinal will sell for more than a Wren), or it can just be the prettiness of one image compared to the other.
When a print dealer sets prices for the individual prints within a series, he/she will line them up in order of what he/she thinks how their appeal compares to the others. The print market will generally set the value range of a series (so, for instance, first edition Mark Catesby prints will sell for a range between about $7,000 and $700) and each dealer will then assign his/her prints to a place within that range. It is interesting that different dealers will assign different prices to prints depending on their reading of the market, though the ranges for most dealers will be consistent.
This, of course, makes total market sense as the more desirable prints can be sold for more, while one sometimes has to really cut prices on some of the less desirable prints in order to sell them at all. Typically, despite what can be a very large variation in prices, it is the more expensive prints which tend to sell more quickly than the less expensive ones. An interestingly phenomenon is that as dealers get different groups of prints from one series over time, they will sell the more expensive prints, while the lower end tend not to sell, resulting in many dealers have few of the “better” prints, but often multiple copies of the “lesser” prints.
So, how does this play out for the McKenney prints... The most important factor in desirability is the print's appearance. Some of the Indians are spectacular, with strong colors and fierce aspects, while others look like they are refugees from an immigrant camp. Looking at the two prints above, it is not hard to see which would sell for more, and would still be easier to sell at that higher price.
There are two other aspects to the visual premium besides just appearance. There are a few prints in the McKenney series which show full figured Indians, while most are just bust portraits. Being a full figure adds a price premium. Then there is the premium for having regalia or accessories which are of interest. There is only one of the figures with the archetypal full feathered headdress, only one figure with the classic bow & arrow, and a few with interesting weapons, robes or necklaces. All of these are worth more than they would have been without those accouterments.
Two other factors in the valuation of McKenney portraits relate to the history of the particular individual depicted. Some tribes are more desirable than others, for various reasons; there are only two portraits of the romantic Pawnee tribe, the Seminoles and Creeks remain of great interest in the American southeast, and the Iroquois appeal to many in the mid-Atlantic region. Other tribes have much more passed into the historical shadows, such as the Chippewa.
More important is who the individual is, for there are a number of portraits of Native Americans who are of particular interest or importance in American history. Portraits of Pocahontas, Red Jacket, McIntosh, and Black Hawk sell for more because of who they show, not particularly because of their appearance.
So at the top of the price list, one would find a magnificent portrait of a full-figured chief of great importance; that is Osceola. At the other end of the range you will find a rather pathetic portrait of an emaciated chief from a tribe which excites little interest about whom no one knows very much; that is Waemboeshkaa. These prints share a history and quality of production, but it is really not surprising that the one is worth over ten times the other. If you look at our listing of McKenney folio prints in price order, one can see all these factors played out; one might disagree on our particular ranking, but it should make sense.