Purchase Story

Letter from London, December 2018

September and October sales in London saw $1.4 million paid for a Banksy painting at Sotheby’s that was seen to (partially) self-destruct as the hammer fell—and thereby immediately increase in value—while in New York City at Christie’s a far, far higher than predicted $432,500 was paid for an AI (artificial intelligence) Portrait of Edmond Belamy, a strange artwork created by an algorithm.

Here, however, you are relatively secure in a familiar world of traditional auction practices and other recent sales from which I have selected for this month’s “Letter” oak furnishings, lead cisterns, the decorative lid of a chamber pot, a carefree Roman reader, a rather fishy but seriously expensive reticulated vase, and a shipwrecked table. They are joined by an oversized and over-the-top table ornament, the fairies that fooled Sherlock Holmes’ creator, a rare and very early Iznik dish, and an extraordinarily animated dinner party.


“Armada Table” Sold but Unlikely to Sail Away

Fashioned from carvings and other wooden elements recovered from one of the ships of the defeated and dispersed Spanish Armada that in 1588 came to grief off Irish coasts in attempting a round Britain voyage back to Spain,* a long-famous “Armada table” has been recently sold at auction in Ireland.

In an October 16 sale held at Townley Hall, near Drogheda, County Louth—a stately home used as a sales venue by the Dublin-based saleroom James Adam & Sons for their “Country House Collection” auctions—it was bid to $500,250.

It has been suggested that the present tabletop may well be a 19th-century replacement, but the table was certainly constructed from elements of a galleon that foundered near Doonbeg on coast of County Clare in western Ireland.

It seems that the High Sherriff of Clare at the time, the splendidly named Boethius Clancy, salvaged parts of the ship and her ornately carved decorations and had them used in the construction of a great refectory table.

Oak and tropical hardwoods, among them manikara or “bullet wood” from South America, feature in its construction, and the top, which sits above a frieze decorated with 12 (of the original 14) carved grotesque masks, is supported on six large carved figures that would originally have been seen as decorative figures on the galleon’s stern. At the corners of the table, which is almost 8' long, are four heraldic lions (one is shown more clearly in the detail photo), and at the centre the supports are figures of Hope and Charity.

The table was later gifted by Boethius Clancy to the O’Briens of Leamaneh, County Clare, and had remained in the family ever since.

For some 300 years the table was housed at Dromoland Castle** in County Clare, but for the last 50 or so years it has been a resident of Bunratty Castle. Bunratty’s owner, Conor O’Brien, Lord Inchiquin, 18th Baron of that name, said that it had been sent to auction for financial reasons—a move that attracted some controversy and concern in Ireland.

Described by Desmond Fitzgerald, Knight of Glin (1937-2011) and a distinguished historian of Irish furniture, as “one of the most important pieces of Irish furniture” in a 2007 book, it was seen as a key attraction at Bunratty Castle, and there were calls for the Irish Minister for the Arts to save the table for the nation.

In the event the table was sold anonymously to a telephone bidder but is said to be remaining in Ireland.
* In all, around 30 Spanish vessels are thought to have foundered off the coasts of Ireland, and remains continue to be found to this day.

** In 1962 the 16th Baron Inchiquin sold Dromoland Castle, along with some 330 acres of surrounding land and hunting and fishing rights, to Bernard McDonough (d. 1985), an Irish-American industrialist who began the process of transforming the castle into a luxury hotel. Then in 1987 Dromoland changed hands again and was further developed by a consortium of mainly Irish-American investors.

The “Armada table” sold for $500,250 by James Adam & Sons of Dublin at a “Country House Collection” sale in Drogheda, Ireland.


Dolce Far Niente, or Carefree Idleness

In Olympian Dreamers of 1983, one of the many fine books he produced, picture dealer and art historian Christopher Wood (1941-2009) wrote: “...by the 1920s, the rule of Bloomsbury had begun. All Victorian painting was denounced as absurd, irrelevant, and totally lacking in significant form.... For a classical painter, there was nothing to do but give up.”

And that, quite literally, was what the very talented artist responsible for the oil painting of 1907 seen here, Dolce far niente—usually translated as “sweet doing nothing”—decided he had to do.

Give it all up!

J.W. Godward’s Dolce far niente, sold for $327,600 by Bonhams.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema had died in 1912, John William Waterhouse in 1917, and Sir Edward Poynter, president of the Royal Academy and great champion of the Classical style, had departed in 1919, and this picture’s creator, a despairing John William Godward, saw no way forward, no reason to go on.

In 1922, at the age of 61, he took his own life—gassing himself in his London garden studio.

What modest sum this picture made when first it appeared at auction, at Christie’s in 1925, I cannot tell, but fashions and reputations change, and at Bonhams on September 26 of this year, Godward’s elaborately framed 20¼" x 30" oil, a picture whose whereabouts was only rediscovered some 20 years ago, sold for $327,600.

 On a terrace high above the Mediterranean a young woman picks at a bunch of grapes as she relaxes on a marble bench, one whose cold rigidity has been softened by a pillow and, of all things, a lion skin.

They are all, of course, drawn from the artist’s working stock of props, and the distinctive lion’s foot seat-end can be seen in other examples of his work.

As Vern G. Swanson notes in his 1988 book J.W. Godward, 1861-1922: The Eclipse of Classicism, “Rather than painstakingly recreating Classical settings, Godward populated his studio with marbles, statues and other props used to create a sense of ‘Graeco-Roman pastiche.’”

An article about this painting and other aspects of Godward’s life and work by the distinguished novelist, biographer, and journalist A.N. Wilson can be found online (www.bonhams.com/magazine/26423/), though to see all the accompanying pictures you must click on the “View E-Publication” option and go to pp. 24-27.


Would Sherlock Have Let Fairy Dust Cloud His Judgement?

It may seem hard to credit nowadays, but photographs of fairies and two young girls in a garden, produced in 1917 as a practical joke, were taken to be genuine by many people.

Most famous among their number, and rather surprisingly given that he was the man who had dreamed up the incisive reasoning of a detective called Sherlock Holmes, was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Elsie, or “Iris,” and the gnome brought $7010.

Frances, or “Alice,” and her fairies brought $19,475.

In 1893, according to an online article on “The Victorian Web” that helped refresh my saleroom spirits and memory at the end of a long day, Conan Doyle had joined the British Society for Psychical Research, a society formed to investigate, in a scientific manner, the claims of spiritualists and other paranormal phenomena.

He was in some distinguished company, as other notable believers included a future British Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, the philosopher William James, and Darwin’s eminent fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.

After carrying out a series of experiments, Conan Doyle became convinced of the existence of telepathy, or “thought transference,” and in 1917 he gave his first public lecture on Spiritualism. Later he wrote books and articles and made public appearances in Britain, Australia, and America to promote his beliefs.

Together with his second wife, Jean, he held numerous séances to communicate with members of their family killed in World War I and other spirits. He even decided to abandon writing fiction and devote himself almost entirely to the study of paranormal—convinced that “intelligence could exist apart from the body, and that the dead could communicate with the living.”

The famous fairy photographs were actually of nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and a cousin, 16-year-old Elsie Wright, who were living at the time in Cottingley in Yorkshire, and the fairies were cutout figures secured in the ground with hatpins.

The “Cottingley Fairies” nevertheless became the subject of much bizarre public discussion, and even when it was pointed out to Conan Doyle that what appeared to be the head of a hatpin was being used in one figure’s stomach, presumably to hold it in place and keep it standing upright, he concluded instead that it was in fact the figure’s navel—sparking a discussion on methods of birth in the fairy kingdom!

Rather than damage the public reputations of those who professed to believe their photographs genuine, the girls kept quiet about their true origins and their own involvement in the matter for a great many years. Both died in the 1980s, and though they had owned up to the deception in their latter years, Frances continued to maintain that one image was genuine.

A couple of films inspired by the story were made in the 1990s, but I was delighted to learn that in 2003 Terry Jones of “Monty Python” fame and Brian Froud, a distinguished fantasy illustrator and designer, collaborated on a parody called Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book.

In a Dominic Winter sale of October 4 the photograph of Frances with the fairies dancing before her sold at $19,475, while that of Elsie with a dancing gnome made $7010.

In the printed captions on the mounts, Frances is called Alice by Conan Doyle, who wished to conceal the girls’ true identities, and Elsie becomes Iris.


Children’s Toys and Cradles, Cisterns, and Chamber Pots

Last month’s “Letter” included, as a trailer piece, an illustration of a huge Charles II period oak refectory table that in the most recent “Oak Interior” sale held by Bonhams—on September 18—prompted the highest bid of the day, at $32,865.

Dated to around 1660, this ten-legged monster, over 27' long, was first seen at auction in 1938, when as part of a sale held at Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire, it sold for what at today’s exchange rates would be about $165.

Rufford had been founded in 1146, but in the 16th century, following the dissolution of a great many religious houses in England, it passed into private hands and was adapted for domestic use.



Nineteenth-century Noah’s ark toy and a closer look at a select few of its inhabitants: $12,325.

A further selection from that Knightsbridge sale follows here—ranging from one lucky child’s magnificent Noah’s ark toy to something curious and rare but not quite so charming.

The animals, birds, even a few insects are all properly lined up, two by two, alongside Noah’s ark in a wonderful mid-19th-century toy that sold for $12,325.

Made around 1850 in the Erzgebirge region of Germany, close to the border with the Czech Republic—known as the Ore Mountains in English—the 25" long painted wooden ark is home to no fewer than 291 animals, birds, insects, and people in all.

A number of unusual, even exotic creatures are included among their number, as can be seen in the selection of animals, birds, and insects that in a second illustration accompany one of the four human couples aboard.

Fifteenth-century grotesque roof boss, sold for $5260.

Dated to the 15th century and thought to have its origins in South West England, a 9" high carved elm roof boss in the form of a grotesque male mask with furrowed brow and protruding tongue was sold for $5260.

Late 17th-century cradle, $9040.

Stylistic comparisons in the carving of foliage and a pair of birds with hooked beaks and ornate scrolled tails suggest that a joined oak and inlaid cradle had its origins in either southwest Yorkshire or the eastern part the neighbouring county of Lancashire. Perhaps made around 1680, during the reign of Charles II, it sold at $9040.

Lead water cistern dated 1705, $19,720.

The lead water cistern as seen at a sale in the 1960s.

Removed from Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire following a 1964 auction that saw it sold for what would today be around $100, an approximately 4' wide lead water cistern was sold for $19,720 in the Knightsbridge sale.

Decorated to the front and one end only with strapwork cartouches that include the initials “JJM,” St. George and the Dragon, a figure of Charity, more dragons, dolphins, an Earl’s coronet, and indistinct cyphers, garlands, and fleurs-de-lys, this heavyweight object is also cast with the date 1705.

The Bonhams catalogue also reproduced a photograph of the cistern taken at Elvaston Castle at the time of the 1960s sale conducted by Henry Spencer & Sons, when the top appears to have been a little more bent than it is today.

I could be mistaken about that, but I bet getting it over the wall in the foreground of the picture will have been heavy work.
More successful lots among the metalwares offered as part of the Knightsbridge sale included the two noted here.

Steel ember tongs and a pair of iron cooking forks, $4930 and $6900.

Sold at $4930 was a pair of 17" long steel ember tongs with elaborately formed tamper and spike handles that are engraved with the initials “RC” and the date 1726. A pair of iron meat or cooking forks dating from the late 17th/early 18th century sold at $6900.

The most highly valued piece of furniture, or perhaps I should say carving, in the Knightsbridge sale failed to sell against a low estimate of around $80,000, but it was such a striking piece that I felt this report should at least include an illustration and a brief note.

The Hunwick Hall overmantel remained unsold.

A little over 12' wide, this carved oak overmantel from Hunwick Hall in County Durham is thought to have originated in Newcastle around 1625. It bears a royal coat of arms flanked by panels depicting Orpheus charming the beasts with music and Arion playing a lyre whilst surrounded by sea creatures. Those panels are interspersed with figures emblematic of the Continents—“America” being seen at far right

What will not have worked in the piece’s favour, I have since discovered, is the fact that as recently as April 2016 it was sold in a Yorkshire saleroom, Tennants Auctioneers of Leyburn. At the exchange rates then in effect the selling price on that occasion would have been just a shade over $60,000.

Carved “piss-pot” lid, $2300.

Carved with a scene depicting a turbanned figure and a doctor who holds aloft a flask, the wooden object that brings this piece to its end is, to put it quite bluntly, a “piss-pot” lid or cover.

What the scene carved on the lid depicts is the process of “uroscopy,” the art of examining urine for colour, clarity, smell, and even taste! This was a practice that allowed for a diagnosis without the doctor ever having to physically see or examine the patient.

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, Sir John Falstaff’s page is sent with his master’s “water” to the doctor, reporting back later with the verdict, and here the sample appears to have been brought to a physician by a servant or possibly an apothecary.

In 1555 such practices were outlawed in England by the College of Physicians, which banned apothecaries from dispensing medicine on the basis of a doctor’s opinion, but it is very likely that popular demand saw the practice continue.

Such analysis of urine has a long history—the Mesopotamians practised it at least 6000 years ago, and even Hippocrates recommended its practice to physicians.

Reliance on uroscopy for diagnoses was nevertheless being questioned and condemned as early as the 14th century, and in 1637, around the time that this lid was made, an English physician, one Thomas Brian of Colchester (Essex), published The Pisse Prophet, or Certaine Pisse-Pot Lectures.

Bonhams also note that Epiphaniae medicorum, published in 1506, includes an illustration in which a seated doctor examines a flask of urine, with a page or apothecary before him in a scene that is very similar to that carved on the lid seen at Bonhams.

Of English or Dutch origin, it sold for $2300.


Welcome to Foujita’s Extraordinary Birthday Party

Painted in New York in 1949, La fête d’anniversaire is one of a series of works produced in homage to the 17th-century French writer and fabulist Jean de la Fontaine by the Japanese-French artist who came to be known as Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita.

Foujita’s La fête d’anniversaire, which prompted competitive bidding and sold for $9.37 million at Bonhams.

Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita aboard a liner in New York.

The artist was very fond of this extraordinary 301/8" x 401/16" (sight size) oil on canvas, and it was one of the limited number of his works for which he also created a hand-carved frame—one that itself incorporates cutlery, a corkscrew, and other objects relevant to the chaotic birthday party that is the subject of this extraordinary painting.

Foujita included the picture in a 1949 exhibition at the Mathias Komor Gallery in New York City and showed it again the following year in Paris when an important show of his work was held at the Galerie Paul Pétrides.

There, on the final day of the show, La fête d’anniversaire was bought by a French collector, and since then it had remained secure in private hands.

After almost 70 years and never seen in public in all that time, it finally reemerged in an October 11 Bonhams sale, where it was offered with a high estimate of around $1.7 million.

Come the day, eight different would-be purchasers, all of them bidding on the telephone, pushed it to a much-higher $9,378,620.

The principal focus of the painting is of course the birthday party, complete with cake and candles, at which dogs, cats, a goose, a pig, a cigar-smoking fox, and other creatures, even a monkey, tuck into a vast spread of fish, meat, and other treats—though Foujita also makes reference to his other artistic talents by having one of his own nude studies pinned up on the back wall.

To many, of course, Foujita’s name is inextricably linked with cats. His 1930 limited and first editions of A Book of Cats, a work by Michael Joseph illustrated with Foujita’s etchings, have made over $70,000 at auction—but this picture is something else entirely.

A mix of the comic, the grotesque, and the occasionally unsettling, this extraordinary work and the man who created it were the subject of two articles commissioned by Bonhams in connection with the sale, and readers wishing to learn more about Foujita, his extraordinary life, and his work will find them a useful starting place.

An article by Matthew Wilcox, who has written about Japanese art in many publications, was published in a Bonhams house magazine. To access it online go to (www.bonhams.com/magazine/26426), click on the “view E-publication” option, and look at pp. 36-39.

An article by Sylvie Buisson, a specialist in the artist’s work, formed part of the catalogue entry and is easily accessible on the saleroom’s website, but note that her account of Foujita’s life and work actually begins with the previous lot, a 1917 Paris street scene by Foujita that sold for $165,000. Look at lots 17 and 18.


And Then There Were Two Rare Fishy Vases

It was in the January 2011 issue of M.A.D. that I reported the sale at $83.36 million of a very rare Chinese vase that, having for years endured a presumably rather precarious existence on top of a wardrobe, was later found inside a cardboard box bearing a supermarket logo.

That was how it had emerged from an otherwise unexceptional house clearance in West London, and things could have turned out very differently but for the local saleroom handling the property, Bainbridges of Ruislip. This accidental find changed their world and fortunes.

The 16" high reticulated double-walled yangcai (famille rose) vase proved to be a complex creation of the Imperial manufactory at Jingdezhen and a special commission for its director from the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1736-95).

The Qianlong Emperor’s vase, sold for $19.02 million on October 3 by Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

No one seemed to know quite how that Bainbridge vase came to be in the little London bungalow, but the general assumption was that it had originally arrived in England in the 1860s, following the sacking of the Summer Palace by British troops during the Second Opium War.

A great deal of excitement and publicity ensued, but though the hammer came down at that spectacular November 2010 auction, the sale was never actually completed.

The vase was later sold by private treaty (by Bonhams) for an undisclosed sum that one trade press report suggested might have been around half what it had been knocked down for in the Bainbridges saleroom.
On October 3 of this year Sotheby’s Hong Kong offered another—or should that be the only other—example of this remarkable enamelled and reticulated “Fish” vase.

One first recorded in the hands of the Yamanaka Company of Japan and the U.S. in 1902, it has since 1924 been in the family of a Japanese collector—but it was still billed as “The Yamanaka Vase” for the Hong Kong sale.

Sotheby’s described it as carved and painted with four pairs of fish below rococo-inspired motifs on a yellow sgraffiato ground, and as an exceptional famille-rose reticulated vase that is skillfully modelled with an inner blue-and-white vase that can be glimpsed through the openwork lattice.

Such reticulated vases with double walls represent one of the last great innovations developed specially for the Qianlong Emperor by Tang Ying (1682-1756), the creative supervisor of the imperial kilns.

Catalogue notes by Regina Krahl, specialist author and president of the Oriental Ceramic Society, explain that in 1743 Tang Ying submitted a memorial to the emperor recording his presentation to the court of a total of nine jiazeng linglong (“layered openwork”) and
jiao tai (“interlocking”) vases of innovative design.

He explained that he did not dare to create larger numbers, since they are so expensive to make, but would later, if accepted, make them in pairs.

The Emperor replied that he ought to make pairs for those that stand alone, but that he should indeed keep numbers low and submit them only for special occasions.

This sequential production of pairs may explain, said Sotheby’s, why the present vase and its pair differ only in the form in which the imperial reign mark has been applied.

The vase offered this year in Hong Kong was sold at HK$149.09 million or U.S. $19.02 million.


And Now There Are Five—A $7 Million Iznik Dish Is Served

Made in Turkey around 1480, the magnificent blue and white charger seen here was billed by Sotheby’s as “without question one of the most important pieces of Iznik pottery to remain in private hands,” and in their “Arts of the Islamic World” sale of October 24, it lived up to that promotion by selling at a ten-times high estimate sum of $6.92 million.

It belongs to the earliest group of Iznik wares, produced during the reigns of Mehmet II, known as “The Conqueror,” who reigned 1451-81, and that of his son, Bayezid II, whose rule lasted until 1512.

Two views of the very rare Iznik dish sold by Sotheby’s for $6.92 million.

The finest examples of these early wares are today almost all to be found in museum collections, but this example, known as the “Debbane Charger” after its first recorded owner, is effectively a new and remarkable addition to this select group.

These exceptionally rare items of early Iznik pottery, said the auctioneers, are characterised by an intense, inky blue-black colouring that reflects an embryonic stage of firing control—that is to say, before the use of cobalt blue had been mastered by the potters.

“The same phenomenon occurs in early Chinese blue and white porcelain of the early 14th century,” said the cataloguer, “resulting in the same ‘heaped and piled’ effect that we witness on the charger,” and it took roughly two decades before a brighter and clearer blue was achieved.

Like the four fine dishes presently held in museum collections in France (two), Holland, and Turkey, this fifth—described by Sotheby’s as a lost sibling—may have been used at banquets where large quantities of food were served.

All five chargers have a central floret of varying form (the present one emanating gadrooned elements) and feature both Rumi and Hatayi motifs, the names given to the “Selcuk” arabesque decoration and Chinoiserie floral scrolls respectively. The influence of Chinese porcelains and Islamic metalware on such wares is also noted.

This piece is first recorded in the collections of Max Debbane (1893-1965), a bibliophile and businessman born into a Syrian-Lebanese family in Alexandria, Egypt, and educated before World War I in Alexandria and in Paris.

Debbane later acted as a patron to many leading cultural institutions in the town of his birth, among them the Greco-Roman Museum and Conservatoire, and served as president of Alexandria’s Archaeological Society. He was also, said Sotheby’s, a friend to the many scholars, writers, and artists who lived in or visited Alexandria in the first half of the last century.

In 1968 this remarkable dish was acquired from Debbane’s daughter, and it has been part of an American collection for the past 50 years.

A further selection of items from London’s recent “Islamic Week” sales may appear in a future issue.


A “Faithful & Constant Friend of the Working Man”

All did not turn to gold in an October 17 sale at Sotheby’s, London, called “The Midas Touch”—in fact, only around half of the 63 lots found buyers.

The definition of gold was somewhat stretched on occasion. The day’s high price of $517,755 was for a gold-coloured Ferrari 512 of 1977 vintage, and my pick from the sale is the monumental Victorian parcel-gilt and silver mounted centrepiece.

In fact, when last seen at auction, in 2001, this monster was part of a Christie’s silver sale. Almost 90" long overall and with a centrepiece that stands 31" high on the mirrored plateau, it weighs in at close on 428 troy ounces overall.

A way over-the-tabletop conversation piece, it bears a lengthy presentation inscription that reads, somewhat awkwardly: “Presented to W.H. Hornby, Esq. J.O. by the Operatives of Blackburn in token of sincere esteem for his zealous promotion of the best interests of his native town, his generous support of useful and charitable institutions and particularly as the well-tried faithful & constant friend of the Working Man, Sept 8th 1853.”

The monumental tabletop centrepiece awarded to one of Blackburn’s finest, sold at $391,600.

The recipient of this impressive centrepiece was William Henry Hornby (1805-1884), who has been described as one of the greatest men that his hometown of Blackburn in Lancashire ever produced. A leading industrialist, he was in 1851 elected as first Mayor of Blackburn.

Local records reveal that the presentation to Hornby, along with a “Family Bible and Prayer Book...got up in a style of binding rich and elegant in the extreme” for Mrs. Hornby, occurred at a grand demonstration and procession that featured no fewer than four brass bands.

As many as 15,000 people thronged the large open area in front of the then newly opened Blackburn Railway Station. “Every window within sight was filled with people, and even the house tops had their share of patronage...,” said a contemporary report.

A local paper, the Blackburn Standard, reported that “The candelabrum...of the Louis Quatorze style” was designed and made by Messrs. Barnet and Sons—in fact Edward Barnard & Sons of London—and the report went on to give a detailed description of the piece.

In conclusion, the report said that the gift “reflected the highest credit on the taste of the committee who selected it and the skill of the artist from whose design it had been produced.”

In the 1850s the cost of its manufacture was 350 guineas (around $480 at current exchange rates), but in the October “Midas Touch” sale it made $391,600.

In the 2001 Christie’s sale it had made £157,750—then $219,415.


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

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