Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

The earliest art of the American West tended to focus on the Indians and their culture. After mid-century, this theme slowly gave way to more of a concern with landscape and genre subjects, often portrayed in a “romantic” style. Perhaps the most influential artist associated with this change was Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). He was born in Germany, near Düsseldorf, grew up in the United States, and in his twenties studied at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany.

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.

In 1858, soon after returning to America, Bierstadt paid his own way in order to accompany General F.W. Lander on an expedition to improve the wagon route from Fort Laramie to California. In June, 1859, on his way back east, the expedition arrived at the South Platte River where they found a large number of prospectors on their way to the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. Bierstadt made a number of sketches, three of which appeared in Harper’s Weekly on August 13, 1859.

These ephemeral images were followed by a much more polished and sumptuous print of a oil painting, “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)

Bierstadt responded to the American West with a series of large, luminous canvases, the first being exhibited at the National Academy in 1860, where it was well received. His sensational 1863 painting, “The Rocky Mountain, Lander's Peak,” which showed the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, received immediate popular acclaim, establishing Bierstadt, in the minds of some of the public and critics, as the greatest American landscape artist of his day. This painting traveled widely and was purchased by James McHenry for the then fantastic sum of $25,000. Bierstadt described the painting as is it were an actual scene, though it was a fictional construct based on his sketches and photographs.

The success of “The Rocky Mountains” led Bierstadt to ask James Smillie, one of the best American engravers of the day, to produce a 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)

In 1866, Bierstadt produced another large, sensational painting, “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.

Bierstadt’s painting toured the country on exhibition and was another huge hit. A top London printmaker, Thomas McLean, purchased both this painting and his “The Rocky Mountains” in order to produce two elaborate chromolithographs. McLean used between twenty and thirty stones to make these chromolithographs, which were hailed as “unquestionably the finest examples of the chromolithographic art.” They were sold in London, New York and Philadelphia and today remain among the best specimens of chromolithography ever produced, not to mention as examples of the greatest nineteenth century art of the American West.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Giovanni Belzoni's images of Egypt

Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823) was a nearly six foot, seven inch, red-headed Italian whose fascinating life led him to become known as “The Great Belzoni.” As a young man in Rome, studying hydraulics and intending to join a monastic order, Belzoni was driven from the city when it was captured by Napoleon in 1798, moving to the Netherlands where he worked as a barber.

In 1803 he moved to England (supposedly to avoid being thrown into prison), where he became a circus strongman called the “Patagonian Samson.” Part of his act was to carry a dozen men around the stage on a metal frame.

In 1816, Belzoni traveled to Cairo in order to interest Mohammed Ali Pasha in a hydraulic lifting device that he had invented. This venture proved unsuccessful, but Belzoni became fascinated by Egypt. He turned to the British Consul, Henry Salt —-who had known him during his time as a strongman—- for possible employment. Salt, who was facing the problem of getting the head and shoulders of the colossal statue of Ramses II (called the “Younger Memmon”) from Thebes to England, hired Belzoni for this job.

Belzoni was able to complete this task with ingenuity and perseverance. The head weighs over 7 tons and it took Belzoni 17 days and over 100 men to tow it on a wooden sled to the Nile. (The statue is now in the British Museum).

Belzoni continued his “collecting” of Egyptian artifacts and explored many of the important sites in the country. In 1817, he became the first to perform large scale excavations in the Valley of the Kings, discovering a number of tombs, including those of Amenhotep III, Ramses I, and Seti I, the latter often called “Belzoni’s tomb” in honor of his discovery.

He was the first person since ancient times to enter the innermost part of the great pyramid of Khafre at Giza, though at one point he became wedged in a narrow passage, having to be extricated by his helpers.

Belzoni also was the first to excavate the great temples at Abu Simbel, which were buried under 30 feet of sand.

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.

After returning to England in 1820, Belzoni published his famous 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

and brilliant renderings of the tomb paintings that Belzoni discovered. Such was the impact of Belzoni’s publicizing of his discoveries that this can be seen as the beginning of the popular fascination with 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

Drop in prices of antiques since 2000

A number of months ago, Antiques Roadshow broadcast one of their "vintage" shows, this one showing appraisals from Birmingham in 1999. That was from only the third year of the show, the second year in which I appeared as a print and map appraiser. Watching it, the first thing that I noticed was how young everyone looked. A fair number of the appraisers who appeared in this episode are still appraising for ARS and everyone looked so much younger (of course, I haven't aged a bit...)

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.

I think probably the biggest reason for that is the lack of serious collectors. Back when the Birmingham appraisals were filmed, there were lots of collectors--some long-term, some new collectors--seeking out the best items in many areas of antiques. In my field, collectors of the best natural history prints, prints of Native Americans, Currier & Ives lithographs, and maps were steadily driving prices to new heights. The economic disaster of 2008 knocked most of these collectors out of the market, and frankly, few have come back in even a decade later.

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

The format is the message

One thing that map dealers and map collectors learn early on is that the format in which a map was published has a great deal to do with its historic significance and its monetary value. A very rare example of a hugely important map of the American West is a nice example of this truism.

In 1843, in response to the great American migration to Oregon and the American West, the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers sent out John C. Frémont to survey and map what would soon come to be known as the Oregon Trail up to the South Pass. Two years later, Frémont was sent out again, at the instigation of Senator Thomas Hart Benton (Frémont’s father-in-law) to further explore the western part of the country, following the Oregon Trail all the way to the Pacific Ocean. On his return, Frémont passed to the south of the Great Basin, establishing for the first time the basic outline of the vast region which would become, in just a few years, the western part of the United States.

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.

Despite the personal failure of this 1845-46 expedition, the 1848 publication of a journal of Frémont’s explorations, entitled Geographical Memoir upon Upper California, was well received, and the map it included, “Map of Oregon and Upper California,” which Charles Preuss produced based on Frémont’s surveys, is a cartographic landmark, one of the most important maps of the American West. It depicts the entire west from the Colorado foothills to the California coast, and from the new Mexican border to the northern border of Oregon. Drawing on an earlier Frémont/Preuss map of the region from 1845, as well as other authorities, this map is corrected and filled in considerably, making it by far the best map of the region to date.

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.

The Frémont/Preuss map was probably issued in September, 1848, just after information about the discovery of gold in California reached the east coast. This was reflected in two very small legends on the map, “El Dorado or Gold Region,” placed along the South Fork of the American River and on the upper part of the Rio d.l. Plumas (Feather River), both flowing out of the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. Though inconspicuous, these legends makes the Frémont/Preuss map the first general circulation map to include any mention of the California gold discovery of 1848.

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 same demand led to an 1849 reissue of Frémont’s Geographical Memoir, with its maps, as well as a reduced version of the “Map of Oregon and Upper California,” which focused on California, eliminating Oregon Territory and the Rockies.

What has not previously been reported is that there was the reissue of the full-size “Map of Oregon and Upper California” specifically designed for those planning to head to the “Gold Regions” of California. Rather than being a map that was issued in a report, this was produced as a separately issued pocket map.

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.

Thus, a pocket map edition of the Frémont/Preuss map was issued, probably either right at the end of 1848, or in early 1849 (the date on the map states 1848, but that is from the original title, which the map contains). The covers of the map are entitled "Fremont's Map California. &c." It was printed from the same stone as the original edition, but with a number of changes made, besides the obvious format change.

First, typically of pocket maps, this map was much more brightly and extensively colored than the original issue. Secondly, two additions were made to make the map more useful to the California gold seeker. A large legend, “Gold Regions” is placed along the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, colored with gold highlighting.

Then inserted into the upper right corner is a map “showing the various routes from New York to San Francisco.”

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

Early Baseball prints

The widely told story that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839 has been debunked for some time. The first known mention of baseball is in a children’s book from the late eighteenth century. A small illustration of three boys playing is accompanied by a poem:

The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin’d Post,
And then Home with Joy

The first known organized baseball game took place in 1846, by within about a decade a formal set of rules had developed. By the late 1850s, some baseball wood cut prints appeared in the illustrated newspapers of the day. The development of the wood cut for use in newspapers allowed for the publication of images of many aspects of American history and social life which didn’t warrant the production of more elaborate. This image is from the July 24, 1858 issue of New York Clipper.

About the same time, a number of baseball images began to appear as music sheets, including this beautiful colored cover for “Live Oak Polka,” which was printed by Endicott & Co.

By 1860, the game was well-known enough to be used by Currier & Ives in a political print related to the Presidential election. In their "The National Game. Three 'Outs' and One 'Run.' Abraham Winning the Ball," the four candidates are holding baseball bats and are dressed in baseball uniforms, with their belts giving the names of their “teams.” Lincoln stands on “Home Base,” indicating he is likely to win.

Image from collection of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art

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.

More baseball prints followed and I think my favorites are those which continued to appear in the illustrated newspapers, such as “Thrown Out on Second” published in Harper’s Weekly, September 10, 1887. These prints were drawn first hand by some of the newspaper’s many reporters, and they wonderfully capture this part of American life with graphic immediacy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Price ranges within series of prints

About two centuries ago, Thomas McKenney, the head of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, began to commission portraits of Native Americans both when they visited Washington D.C. and from artists “in the field.” McKenney realized that the “progress” of American culture threatened to wipe out the Indian cultures and he felt it was important to document the individuals and their culture for posterity.

When he left office in 1830, McKenney decided to try to produce a portfolio of lithographs based on the paintings he had gather for the government. He borrowed the paintings, had copies made, and then arranged for the production of the images as hand colored lithographs. After many years of battling poverty, politicians and printers, a portfolio, History of the Indian Tribes of North America, was published with 117 portraits and three scenes (actually 118 portrait prints were produced, but one was never included in the portfolio).

The portraits were all based on life paintings, showing many of the Native America chief from around the country, as well as some lesser individuals and women. These paintings provided an incredibly important documentation of Americans from the period, showing not only their faces, but also their dress and accouterments. Although McKenney was acutely aware that he was preserving a chapter in history, he could not have known that had he not undertaken this project, no record at all would remain, for in 1865, a fire at the Smithsonian destroyed almost all the original paintings from which the lithographs were drawn.

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).

Thus it seemed that a blog explaining why there was such a variation in prices for the prints within one series would be useful, for this type of variation occurs with lots of different series of prints, not just the McKenney portraits. It happens with most natural history prints, and probably the extreme example are the first edition, Audubon bird prints. Some of the prints from that series sell for over $100,000, which others sell for just a few thousand dollars!

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.