The Iowan

Ken's Korner

News & Views From The World of Antiques & Collectibles

By Ken Hall

Who really owns this little Renoir?

The whole story just sounded like a fairy tale, something you wish would happen to you. Woman walks into flea market in Harpers Ferry, Va., and buys a painting with a nameplate right on the frame that says “Renoir.” Woman pays $7 for the painting, figures it’s a reproduction, brings it home and puts it into a plastic trash bag, where it sits for two years. Woman, suddenly curious about the painting, goes to an appraiser who tells her it’s a genuine Renoir (albeit a small one, painted on a napkin) and says it’s worth $22,000.

It gets better. The woman — Marcia “Martha” Fuqua, of Lovettsville, Va., — consigns the painting to an auction house, which tells her it will probably fetch $75,000. But that’s where the good news ends. The auction was halted when it was learned that the Baltimore Museum of Art reported the painting stolen back in 1951. Also, a man identifying himself as Fuqua’s brother reportedly told the media the painting has been in the family for 50 or 60 years and that Fuqua’s mother had ties to the Baltimore art community in the ‘50s.

‘Three Shots’ exhibit on view at Newseum

An exhibit of more than 100 artifacts, all relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The centerpiece of the Three Shots Were Fired exhibition is the collection of never-before-seen items belonging to JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald: the shirt he was wearing that fateful day in November 1963 at the time of his capture in Dallas, Tex., his wallet containing a Social Security card and family photos, and the blanket Oswald used to wrap the murder weapon (a rifle).

Also displayed is Oswald’s jacket found at a gas station near the Texas Theatre, a movie house where Oswald was finally captured. After the assassination, Oswald left the Texas School Book Depository building and hopped a bus. He became impatient that the bus was moving too slowly and he got off, deciding to hide from police in a darkened movie theater. But the police swept the area and flushed Oswald out, after a brief skirmish. Between assassination and capture, Oswald encountered and killed Police Officer J.D. Tippit.

McCartney helps restore historic Motown Steinway

Two years ago when he was in Detroit during a concert tour, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney toured the Motown Historical Museum, in the legendary building known as “Hitsville, U.S.A.” While there, he came upon a piano that was on exhibit but could no longer be played it had gone through so much degradation. It was an 1877 Steinway grand piano, used in songs recorded by such soul giants as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. McCartney, who recorded Motown songs in his early Beatle days, decided he had to do something.

So, with the blessing of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, McCartney paid to have the Steinway removed from the museum and completely refurbished back to original, playing condition. Work on the 9-foot Victorian rosewood piano was completed last August. Only recently, though, was it installed in a former recording studio in its museum home. But before it was, McCartney and Gordy sat down and played the piano together, during a September charitable event at Steinway Hall in New York City.

Louis XIV elephant tusk chainsawed off

The tusk from an elephant once belonging to France’s Louis XIV — the “Sun King” — got chainsawed off in the middle of the night at Paris’s Museum of Natural History, but the would-be thief fell and broke his ankle trying to escape and is now under arrest. The man, in his 20s, nearly got away, having climbed over a wall with the tusk draped over his shoulder. The tusk was not an original but had been added to the skeleton in the 19th century. Still, it was ivory, and ivory commands very high dollars on the illicit black market.

The African elephant was given to Louis XIV by a Portuguese king in 1668. It lived for 13 years in the “royal menagerie” on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, where it became the star attraction. When the elephant died, its skeleton was delivered to the natural history collection in Paris, one of the biggest in the world (along with London’s Natural History Museum). The international trade in elephant ivory has been against the law since 1990, after a sharp decline in elephant populations. But thefts, poaching and sales continue.

Francis Crick lots bring $8 million+

Remember Watson and Crick from high school science class? They were the two guys who (along with Dr. Maurice Wilkins) discovered the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material — or what would become known as DNA. Recently, two items pertaining to Dr. Francis Harry Compton Crick were sold by two different auction houses, with the result for both ending in the millions of dollars. Evidently, interest in the men who discovered DNA is still strong, 60 years later.

Crick’s 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was sold by Heritage Auctions on April 11 in New York City for $2.27 million. The medal was consigned by Crick’s heirs and was bought by Jack Wang, CEO of Biomobie, a China-based biomedical firm. Also, a handwritten letter from Crick to his son Michael, signed “Daddy” and dated March 19, 1953, in which Crick outlined the discovery and function of DNA, sold at Christie’s on April 10 in New York for over $6 million. It was a new world auction record for a letter.

1909 T206 Honus Wagner card sells for $2.1 million

A 1909 T206 Honus Wagner baseball card — the Holy Grail of sports cards, with only 200 produced and fewer than 50 known — sold at Goldin Auctions in New Jersey on April 6 for $2.1 million. The card was graded excellent, but that still wasn’t the most ever paid for a T206 Wagner. That would be the $2.8 million that Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team, paid in 2011. The card was previously owned by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and has gained notoriety for having been trimmed.

Bill Mastro, former owner of Mastro Auctions, admitted recently to having altered the famous card to better its appearance and increase its value. That’s something he had denied for years, but Mastro is currently trying to cut a plea deal with prosecutors, who charge that he used phantom bidders in his auctions to drive up prices and sold fake items, too — like a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair and an 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings trophy. Mastro admitted to trimming the rough-edged Wagner card prior to auctioning it.

Book expected to fetch $30 million 

On Nov. 26, Sotheby’s will auction one of the finest surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book — the first book printed in what is now the United States. The Congregationalist Puritans who emigrated to Massachusetts Bay in search of religious freedom quickly set about to translate and produce a version of the Book of Psalms that was a closer paraphrase of the Hebrew original than the one they had carried from England. The first edition of the resulting Bay Psalm Book was printed in Cambridge, Mass., sometime in 1640.

Only 11 copies of the book have survived the passage of time. The one being sold comes from the Old South Church in Boston. Sotheby’s has assigned it a pre-sale estimate of between $15 million and $30 million which, if it does reach that dizzying height, would make it the most valuable book ever sold at auction — more than even the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio and James J. Audubon’s Birds of America. Proceeds from the sale of Bay Psalm Book will benefit Old South Church’s mission and ministry.

Lincoln’s pocket watch carried a secret message

Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch had a secret message engraved on the inside and the President wasn’t even aware of it. It seems that on the day Fort Sumter was fired upon, a jeweler named Jonathan Dillon was doing some repair work on Lincoln’s gold pocket watch. Dillon, upon hearing the news, unscrewed the dial and engraved an inscription into the brass underside of the movement: “Jonathan Dillon, April 13, 1861, Fort Sumpter (sic) was attacked by the rebels on the above date. Thank god we have a government.”

The inscription only recently came to light when Dillon’s great-great-grandson, attorney Doug Stiles from Waukegan, Ill., contacted the American History Museum, where the pocket watch is housed, and told them about the inscription being family lore, but he had no proof of its veracity. Museum officials were intrigued, and figured the only way to find out was to bring in a watch expert to open it up. That’s exactly what jeweler George Thomas of the Towson Watch Company did, as an eager and breathless media looked on.

Jackie Robinson collectibles on rise

Interest in Jackie Robinson has shot up higher than normal since the release of the movie 42, and there’s been a corresponding spike in the value of items and collectibles associated with the first black man to play major league baseball. According to Fanatics.com, the online sports retailer, sales of Robinson’s replica jerseys and other items have increased 1,000 percent since the start of the baseball season (vs. a year earlier). The hottest seller: Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirts with Robinson’s name and number (42) on the back.

A story in the New York Times quoted Mark Roesler, CEO of CMG Worldwide (which sells the licensing rights of deceased celebrities) as saying Robinson is consistently one of the highest earning deceased sports celebrities. Michael Osacky of Baseball in the Attic, a sports memorabilia retailer, said Robinson’s 1952 Topps baseball card in near-mint condition has appreciated from $3,200 to $8,100 since 2004, and the value of a baseball signed by Robinson went up in that same period by 50 percent, to $7,500.

Chinese lotus bowl sells for $9.5 million

A Chinese “lotus bowl” made between 1662 and 1722 and measuring just 3 inches in diameter by about an inch and a half tall, sold for $9.5 million at an auction held April 9th by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. It was a new world record price for a Chinese Kangxi ceramic. The ruby-ground, double-lotus “falangcai” bowl — decorated with pink, yellow and blue lotuses — was bought by Hong Kong antiques dealer William Chak. It had been sold twice before at auction — for $68,000 in 1983 and $1.54 million in 1999.

Wanted: Someone to manage Stonehenge

The English Heritage, owners of the famous temple formation and tourist attraction Stonehenge, is advertising for a general manager for the site. The pay is only so-so — around $42,000 a year. But the responsibilities are many and include meeting with Druid leaders and maintaining the “dignity of the stones”; promoting ideas and overseeing arrangements for the summer and winter solstices and seasonal events; offering help to the site’s one million annual visitors; and overseeing the monument’s 180 staff and volunteers.

Stonehenge was raised more than 5,000 years ago, as a temple to the sun. Its ditches and banks are thought to be even older. It is aligned with the rising and setting of the sun at the solstices, but the exact purpose of Stonehenge remains a mystery. It was begun around 3,000 b.c. (in the Neolithic period) and construction continued until around 1,600 b.c. (in the Bronze Age). It is the first time in the 5,000-year history of Stonehenge that a general manager has been sought for the site. The closing date for applications passed on May 5th.

Early piece of human artwork is scrutinized

A 14,000-year-old reindeer antler found in the 1800s and engraved with parts of a figure of a horse, is one of the earliest pieces of human art ever discovered. The artifact has been kept in the National History Museum in Britain for decades, but only recently has it been scrutinized by modern science. Using a micro-CT scanner and 3D microscopy, a team of researchers found evidence that the antler had been prepared before being carved, and that the creator made an incision and then repeatedly scratched it to enlarge the engraving.

They also could determine that the outline of the horse’s body and head had been scratched out first, then anatomical features were added later. All this is significant because it shows that humans at that time — and we’re talking about stone age hunter-gatherers, living toward the end of the last Ice Age, before agriculture and the domestication of animals — were nonetheless skilled technicians and artists. The oldest examples of representational art are the ivory figurines from sites in Germany that date back 35 – 40,000 years.

When is a nickel worth $3 million?

When it’s a rare, century-old nickel sold at auction through Heritage Galleries of Dallas, that’s when. The 1913 Liberty nickel, one of five known, was recovered from a fatal car crash and then unsuspectingly kept in a closet for 41 years because it was thought to be a fake. The winning bidders — Jeff Garrett of Lexington, Ky., and Larry Lee of Panama City, Fla. — bought the coin in partnership for $3.17 million on April 25 as part of Heritage Galleries’ Central States Numismatic Society U.S. Coins Auction in Schaumberg, Ill.

The nickel was consigned by the heirs of George O. Walton, a North Carolina collector who acquired the coin in the mid-1940s for $3,750. He had it with him when he was killed in a car crash on March 9, 1962. Melva Givens of Salem, Va., one of Walton’s heirs, eventually received the coin after being told it was suspected of being an altered date fake. She kept the nickel in a box with other family items in a closet for four decades. It was authenticated by experts in a secret midnight meeting in Baltimore in 2003. 

Signed Beatles album auctions for $290,500

A copy of the iconic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, signed by all four Beatles in 1967 (the same year it was released), sold for $290,500 at an auction held in Dallas by Heritage Galleries. Heritage assigned it a ridiculously modest pre-sale estimate of $30,000, but the final gavel price proved the market for merchandise signed by the lads from Liverpool is as strong as ever. The buyer was an unnamed collector from the Midwest. All four Beatles signed their names next to their images on the album.

Sale of Hopi masks protested in France

In April, the Drouot auction house in Paris, France offered 70 Native American Hopi masks from the late 19th and early 20th century, advertising the sale as one of artwork and culture. But protesters from the Hopi tribe continually interrupted the auction while it was underway, arguing that the masks aren’t art at all, or items to be bought and sold, but have a special status and represent their dead ancestors’ spirits. Further, they claim, the masks may have been illegally taken from a Hopi reservation in Arizona in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Even the U.S. Ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, tweeted on the day of the sale, “I am saddened to learn that Hopi sacred cultural objects are being put up for auction today in Paris.” By the time the chaotic auction was over, $1.2 million had been spent, with the top lot being the “Mother Crow,” a mask from about 1880 that realized $209,000. Nearly all the masks were Katsinan (or “friends” masks). If the sale had been halted by, say, court order, it could have paved the way for French museums to empty their collections.

The new $100 bill coming in October

Come October, a new, high-tech version of the $100 bill will be introduced, one designed to thwart counterfeiters. It will have features such as a blue 3-D security ribbon made up of thousands of tiny lenses (which will work by magnifying the objects underneath, so when the bill is moved one way, whatever is beneath it seems to move the other way) and a disappearing Liberty Bell in an inkwell. The new bill was supposed to be unveiled in February 2011, but some unwanted wrinkles in the notes delayed its release.

As most people know, Ben Franklin appears on the century note, and he coincidentally designed the country’s first bills. He also agonized over counterfeiting and came up with the idea of a so-called “nature print” to protect against fakes. Franklin took a plaster cast of the surface of a leaf, which could be used to cast a lead plate that would be used to print the notes. Every leaf was unique — with veins of varying thicknesses — so the belief was that counterfeiting would be very difficult. It didn’t work. Fakes soon appeared. 

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