Friday, December 25, 2009

Dogs Playing Poker

I well remember the day about 1947 that my Father brought home a framed picture of dogs playing poker, given to him by a dental supply company. An avid poker player himself, he was captured by the art and probably would have hanged it in a hallway had he not been backed down by my Mother. Little did any of us realize then what a cultural icon the picture and others like it would become in America. Nor at that time did we recognize its pedigree.

“Dogs Playing Poker” refers collectively to a series of oil paintings 
by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, shown here. He was born in 1844 in Antwerp, New York to abolitionist Quaker farmers. Known to friends and family as "Cash,” Coolidge certainly knew how to turn his talent into cash. Although he had no formal training as an artist, his natural aptitude for drawing led him to create cartoons for his local newspaper when still in his early twenties. He gained national attention when he “invented” Comic Foregrounds, life-size painted cutouts into which one's head was placed and photographed, presumably resulting in hilarious effects.

When Coolidge was in his mid-50s, his creative imagination brought him to the attention of Brown & Bigelow, a St. Paul, Minnesota, advertising firm that wanted something new and different in an ad campaign for cigars. He obliged by painting a total of 16 pictures featuring anthropomorphized canines, of which nine showed dogs seated around a card table. The first three shown here are Coolidge’s work.

Like the Elvis or the Last Supper on velvet, Dogs Playing Poker have become derisively well-known in the United States as examples of low brow taste in home decoration. One critic has described Dogs Playing Poker as "indelibly burned into the American collective-schlock subconscious" because the images are so frequently seen.

In the current Disney/Pixar movie “Up,” a brief scene occurs of card-playing dogs. Coolidge’s creations also have had regular contemporary attention on TV programs like “Cheers,” and “The Simpsons.” In one recent episode of “Family Guy,” for example, the town mayor is discovered in the basement of the schoolhouse playing cards with dogs. The references go on and on.

The number of knockoffs of the paintings is also impressive. Shown here last are two contemporary artists’ variations on the Dogs Playing Poker theme. Note that these figures appear more like humans with appended canine heads than actual dogs.

The question remains of why Dogs Playing Poker has remained so popular an American icon for more than a century. My thought is that the incongruity of so animated an creature as a dog keeping a “poker face” like the best Texas Hold’em crowd just plain tickles the funny bones of generation-after-generation of Americans whose taste for wacky comedy never seems to flag.

Coolidge died in 1934 but not before seeing his creations embedded in American popular culture. If, improbably, he had lived to February 2005, he also would have seen two of his original Dogs Playing Poker paintings selling at auction for a whopping $590,400. It proves once again that in this country schlock sometimes can pay off big time.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Appeals and Perils of Appraisal

From time to time I am asked to look at an artifact, often a whiskey jug, and provide the owner with an idea of its value. It is always a difficult chore for me. Recently, for example, I appraised an item that its owner had just bought and hoped to resell right away. When I gave him my estimate he objected that my quote was the amount he himself had paid --and he obviously wanted to turn a tidy profit on the resale. I wished him luck.

Moreover in my articles and this blog I deliberately shy away from making personal estimates of the monetary value of items being featured. While recognizing the appeals of appraisal, I am ever conscious of the ever present perils.

That was particularly brought home to me a few years ago at the Freer Gallery of Oriental Arts, located on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Once a month curators there provide free appraisals of items of Asian origin brought to them by the public. Among their unspoken motivations is locating a museum quality piece that might then be donated to the Freer.

Having spent almost two decades traveling regularly to Asia, I had a small collection of artifacts that were personal treasures, many of them on prominent display in our home. After waiting four months, the day for my Freer appraisal arrived. Among the items I brought for inspection were the four shown here.

The first inspected was a Chinese blue and white ink stand that I purchased from a shop in Vietnam about 1970. I am fond of the object, finding its slightly skewed designs very attractive. The Freer curator had other ideas. “Where did you get this?,” she demanded. Vietnam, I replied. “Well just look at the second rate work the Chinese were foisting off on their colonies.” I gulped.

From there we went to a cloisonné vase decorated with storks that has been among my prized possessions. “Where did you get this?” she asked. An antique store in Beijing, I replied. “Well, she replied, this is not Chinese. This is Japanese. Shows you how little those Chinese antique dealers know about anything!” I gulped twice.

The third item offered up for inspection was a small wine jug with an attractive glaze that has greeted visitors to our home for many years. I had purchased it in Vietnam assuming it was a vintage Vietnamese ceramic. This object was met with similar disdain. The Freer appraiser identified it as a wine jug made in China, shipped to France where it was filled with wine and then shipped back to Vietnam for French colonial consumption. Another letdown. I was beginning to regard the Freer as the Land of Broken Dreams.

Just before leaving home, however, I had spied a small earthenware vase with a brown glaze, purchased at a flea market in Jakarta, Indonesia, for half a dollar and, for a lark, included it in my haul. It was the final item for appraisal. When the curator came upon it she stopped short: “Where did you get this?” I told her. Examining it carefully under a magnifier, she kept muttering under her breath. Then she called over her fellow curator and they began a low conversation.

When they finished talking, my curator returned: “We think someone is trying to fake a early Chinese glaze.“ “Why would someone do that and then sell the vase to me for fifty cents?” I asked. She ventured no reply. Then it occurred to me that I had seen a second jug with an identical glaze at the market. “When I return to Indonesia would you like me to purchase it for you?” For the first time all day the Freer lady was enthusiastic: “By all means.”

When I returned to Indonesia and visited the same market stall, the second vase had been sold. Back home, however, the little brown vase immediately began occupying a place of special honor in our living room. It has been there ever since -- a subtle reminder of both the appeals and perils of appraisal.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Discovering the Past in Cyberspace

William Gibson, the well-known science fiction writer and the man who first coined the term “cyberspace,” is fascinated with eBay. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Gibson said: “EBay is serving this very, very powerful function which no one ever intended for it. EBay in the hands of humanity is sorting every last Dick Tracy wrist radio cereal premium sticker that ever existed. It is like some sort of vast unconscious curatorial movement.”

The author goes on to say that eBay plus Google can allow an individual in some backwoods town “become the world premier info-monster about some tiny obscure area of stuff.” Gibson is dead right. While the archeologists unearth the past shovel by shovel, others of us drag it off the Internet.

For example, take the glass paperweight shown here. It is solid glass with raised letters that say “Remember Ungar’s Hungarian Hunyadi Arpad, Natural Aperient.” It looks as if it might have been made yesterday. A few years ago, coming on this paperweight, its provenance would have almost impossible to decipher. With the help of the Internet, however, today it is possible chart the history of the object with some precision and do it in a relatively short time.

First, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “aparient” as a laxative. Good to know. Second, the Web tells us Hunyadi was the last name of a Hungarian hero known variously as John or Jonas or Jean, and sometimes as Johan Hunniad. A great warrior, in 1441 Hunyadi delivered Serbia from the Ottoman Turks and recovered for his native Hungary the region of Wallachia. In 1450 he vanquished another Turkish army and became renowned throughout Christendom. Returning to Hungary he was made governor of the kingdom. In 1456 a flotilla assembled by Hunyadi destroyed the Ottoman fleet. He died in the same year, a national hero. His tomb, shown defaced, is a place of pilgrimage even today.

Now the story jumps ahead four centuries when a Hungarian named Andreas Saxlehner about 1863 began bottling the waters of a well he owned within the city limits of Budapest. He adopted the name “Hunyadi Janos” for his product and trademarked it in Europe. Business was brisk for this bitter-tasting laxative water and Saxlehner eventually owned 112 wells. He soon was exporting it worldwide, including to the United States. His bottles bore a highly elaborate paper label for bearing Hunyadi’s likeness.

The success of this aperient, however, drew competition. A number of Hungarian springs were tapped and bottled -- and many of them used Hunyadi in their brand name, to the dismay of Saxlehner. Chief among his competitors was Hunyadi Arpad. This laxative water was bottled beginning in 1880 from a Budapest area spring owned by Ignatz Ungar. In his ads Ungar claimed that his product had been legally conceded by the Prime Minister of Hungary to be the best and strongest natural aperient. Saxlehner, asserting the Hunyadi name was proprietary, sued his rival in European courts -- to mixed results. He also financed ads claiming that his was the only genuine Hunyadi water.

Almost inevitably the watery conflict spilled over into the New World. Saxlehner had a partner firm that merchandised his aparient in the U.S. Ignatz Ungar had a brother, Joseph, living in New York who served as his agent. Between 1886 and 1893, according to import figures, 1,395,050 bottles of Hunyadi Arpad were shipped into the U.S. By this time eight other mineral waters with Hunyadi in their name also were being imported from Hungary.

The Saxlehners had had enough. In 1893 they bought out the Ungars and shut their water off. Then they went after their other competition. With their America partners they sued for the exclusive right to use the name Hunyadi in the United States. The case went through the Federal court system and all the way to the Supreme Court where the case was heard in 1898. The Supremes in a lengthy decision upheld a lower court verdict that Hunyadi was a name in general use for aperient water and that it could not be held exclusively. The Saxlehners were charged court costs.

Please recall that we began our quest with just a single glass paperweight. By investigating its origins through Internet sources we 1) learned the meaning of aparient, 2) discovered the exploits of the 15th Century hero John Hunyadi, 3) traced the origins and growth of Hungarian laxative water, and 4) ended with a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. This array of information and images could be assembled only because of the riches available through Google, eBay, and other web sources.

There also is a practical result. Because Hunyadi Arpad was imported here during only the eight years 1886-1894, we can estimate safely that my glass paperweight, despite its utterly pristine and contemporary appearance, is between 106 and 114 years old and a true antique. That also is something important to know.