Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Slightly Irreverent Look at Auction Terminology

During years of combing regularly through online auction sites and printed auction catalogues to locate items of interest for my own (changing) collecting interests, I have developed my own interpretation of auction terminology.  Here in alphabetical order is my personal lexicon:

Antique:  According to common practice and import laws, “antique’ applies to an object that is at least 100 years old.   While a pair of worn out boots that have been lying in the attic for decades might qualify on age, unless they were worn by George Washington, they do not qualify as something worth collecting.  Yet every day on internet auction sites items that might be 100 years are offered as antiques when they might better be relegated to the garbage can. Often too items are offered as antiques such as the blue and white vase here.  It recently was offered up as an antique.  Yet I have one similar to it that I bought off the equivalent of a Chinese pottery assembly line some years ago, after watching the artisans at work.  In 90 years mine may qualify as antique.

As Is:  Red flags should be raised every time this is a description of an auctioned item.   For example a Philadelphia art frame shop that was in the process of downsizing, offered the art print shown left “as is.” It is wrinkled and torn, the reason given that it was stored for 40 years at the bottom of a file.  While it might reasonably be sent to the recycling bin, the owner helpfully suggest that if it were matted “it would just about eliminate the losses.”  Problem is, anything that might cover the torn part likely would jeopardize the integrity of the image, even to erasing part of the artist’s signature.

Attributed To:  I have some expertise in Theumler ceramics from the Pittsburgh area, pre-1908 when Otto Theumler died.  He marked many of his pieces but not all.  Because there are collectors of his beer mugs and steins, I often see on auction sites attributions to Theumler.  Often very little about the item, its size, shape or decoration bespeaks his work.  But this is small potatoes compared to the art market.   Above is a picture at Internet auction “attributed to” Albert Bierstadt,” a well recognized 19th century American artist whose paintings hang in many of the Nation’s museums.  The painting is done in his style but lacks a signature.  Recently a New York City paper quoted an art dealer commenting on an unsigned scene that that a seller had claimed also was a work by Bierstadt.  “I am bombarded with fakes,”  the dealer said, referencing the painting.  “Wherever you turn there’s a fake out there.”   In short, hold on to your wallet when “attributed to” is proposed.
Best Match:  This is strictly an eBay concept.  Each morning when I run through my roster of newly listed items to watch and possibly bid on, eBay helpfully puts up a string of “best match” items.  Recently, for example, the internet auction site put foremost for my attention, a paperweight with “Mother” embedded in it.  While from time to time I do buy weights, I have never bought one even close to it.  Who or what decided that this was a match for me?   My suspicion is that the sellers of these items are paying something extra to be thrust into my attention —and irritate me.

Estimate:  Auction houses almost always provide an estimate of what a item should sell for, usually expressed in a range.  If an item sells for a great deal more than its estimate at a New York art sale, it often makes the papers.  If it fails to sell, that may be publicized as well.  It the selling price falls within the estimate, that is “ho-hum” and no one seems to care.
Important:  This is a favorite buzz word for some auction houses.  Showing a handled urn such as illustrated above, the catalogue or auctioneer sometimes will anoint it as “important.” No one ever says important to whom or why.  Just important.  Often the items seems as undistinguished as this urn.  My interpretation of this term that it is important for the auction house to sell the item and get it out of its storeroom where it is taking up space from something presumably more important.

Provenance:  Publications issued by museums to illustrate their holdings often contain the history of ownership for each of the art works shown in order to validate its identification.  Over the years some art works have passed from owner to owner before being acquired by a museum.  I find it fascinating to track the succession.  That said, too frequently I see feints at provenance like the one provided for the painting shown here:  “Unframed gouache on paper signed illegibly to my eye and dated (appears to be '60, for 1960). Provenance: Arthur Nevin Gallery, Quakertown, Pennsylvania. The painting has a German Expressionist feel to it.”  These sentences are followed by a long paragraph on German Expressionism.  All this is patent nonsense.  The art work obviously was done well after that era and, besides, is amateurish in execution.  It is also damaged, although the seller rhapsodizes:  “A great piece with a real presence to it!”

Rare:  This is one of my favorite auction terms, seen frequently on internet auction sites, as in “rare beanie baby.”  That is, rare in the eyes of the seller who may be 1) stretching the truth a bit knowing that 100,000 were issued, or 2) has just not seen one in the recent past.  I have seen items listed as “rare” that I owned once and know that there are hundreds of others out there just like it. Rarity, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder, especially if the beholder owns it and wants to sell.  Case in point:  this headline from eBay: 32.15 CTs NATURAL RARE BLACK NEEDLE IN PREHNITE PEAR CABOCHON.  This is a jewel made from a gemstone found in South Africa.  Who really knows how frequently a “black needle” shows up in prehnite?  

Salesman Sample:  This is a favorite description of miniature items being sold on internet auctions.  It is supposed to confer worth, indicating that there are just a few of these in circulation.  Here for illustration is a  pot bellied stove that was touted on eBay as a salesman sample.  It weighs more than 12 pounds. I have a hard time believing that many traveling “drummers” carried around suitcases full of these to be shown or gifted to potential customers.  Whatever their purpose, these items may well exist in the thousands.

Sold for:  Some sellers like to cite a prior sale of an item (obviously not “rare”) that fetched a very handsome price and upon which they are basing their estimate of value.  Harry Rinker, a recognized expert on antiques, has provided some wisdom on “sold for.”  He notes that in some auctions two or more collectors will vie aggressively for the same item and drive up prices.  He suggests that in that case the amount a third bidder was willing to pay would approximate the true value.  Personally, I have found that view to be insightful. An example is this advertising beer mug.  It sold for $369.89 recently on eBay. The second high bidder went to $364.89 before dropping out.  Using Rinker's rule, the third bidder at $250 likely is a better gauge of its worth.

Vintage: Normally a term associated with wine, “vintage” has morphed into the lexicon of internet auction sellers.  I take it to mean items that have have not reached the age to be considered antiquities, but are old enough not to have been made yesterday.   Generally the terms refer to the 1930s through the 1960s.  But not always.  Here is a pendant being sold on eBay that was described as “vintage” in its headline.  A careful reading of the description indicates that is a brand new item and but that the dragon image is considered “vintage” by the seller. 

If there is a conclusion to be drawn from this lexicon it is “buyer beware” and know as much about an auction purchase as possible before it is made.  My object lesson is a tall wooden statue of St. George and the dragon I bought in 1970 at a dusty antique store in Guatemala City.  Assured by a companion that it must be quite old,  after I had paid and the dealer was wrapping up I asked him how old it was.  “Oh,” he said, “we made it here.”   I later sold it at a yard sale for $2.00.

Note:  By my count this post marks the 200th on my “Bottles Booze and Back Stories” blog.  Begun in April 2009, it has covered topics indicated by the title and many areas beyond, all in keeping with the motto: “More Things Than You Can Shake a Stick At.”  As of this date I have had more than 227,000 “hits” on the blog and 11 “followers,”  many of them likely my relatives.  For the foreseeable future, I will be continuing to add posts to this blog approximately every two weeks.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

When Dr. Seuss Shot Down Lucky Lindy

 When an American icon in the making launches a strong attack against a nationally recognized and up-to-then respected American icon, it definitely has historical interest.  The incident occurred in 1941 during the run-up to World War Two and involved Theodor Geisel, “Dr. Seuss,” and Charles Lindbergh, “Luck Lindy,” hero of the first trans-Atlantic solo flight.

In 1941, Geisel as “Dr. Seuss” was barely known.  He had done several modestly received children’s books and a number of advertising cartoons.  In 1941, with World War II raging in Europe and impending for the U.S., he turned to political cartoons, drawing more than 400 during two years as the editorial cartoonist for a left-leaning New York City daily called PM.

By contrast, Charles Lindbergh was known in virtually every household in America as the “Lucky Lindy” who had earned worldwide fame when he piloted his monoplane, “Spirit of St. Louis,” nonstop from Long Island to Le Bourget Field in Paris, France.  By 1941, however, Lindbergh had become the face and voice of The America First Committee, the most powerful isolationist organization in the country.  The photo left shows him speaking at a meeting of that group.
When Geisel, who strongly favored standing up to the Fascist powers, took up his editorial pen for PM in 1941, he quickly used it to skewer Lindbergh.  Three of his first four cartoons dealt with the aviator.  The first, on April 25, showed Lindbergh in a airplane trailing a banner that read, “It’s smart to shop a Adolf’s, all victories guaranteed.”  This was a reference to Lindbergh’s contention that the German war machine was invincible.  The high-flung bird at the top of the cartoon is a typical Dr. Seuss whimsical animal depiction.

The next PM cartoon, dated April 28, continued the comic assault on Lindbergh.  Captioned, “Since when did we swap our ego for an ostrich,”  the image is a Seussian idea of the flightless bird, one that legend said stuck his head in the sand at any sign of danger.  It is displayed on a mythical “Lindbergh quarter.”  Geisel’s reference to the ostrich was taken from an allusion FDR had made in his inaugural address earlier that year.

Obviously taken by the symbolism of the ostrich, Geisel repeated it the very next day.   This time it is an “ostrich bonnet” being handed to Americans by someone who has donned the hat and is promising that it relieves “Hitler headache.”  A piece of verse, often a part of a Dr. Seuss production is included:  “Forget the terrible, news you’ve read.  Your mind’s at ease, in an ostrich head.”  The dig at Lindbergh is in the smallest print:  “Lindy Ostrich Service, Inc.”
In May, the aviator was the cartoonist’s target only once, on the 28th, apparently after Lucky Lindy had made a speech for the America First Committee that apparently was considered an embarrassment by some observers.  Geisel never attempted to depict Lindbergh realistically, often showing just his back but here he shows a partial face that bears little resemblance to the man himself.  We know it is Lindbergh only because it is written on his hat.  By this time the artist had settled on an eagle with an “Uncle Sam” headpiece as the symbol for America.  Here the eagle comments: “BOY!  Is His Face Red Today!”

Geisel followed up five days later with one of his most memorable Lindbergh jabs.  Here the American Firster is seen on a soap box petting the head of a sea monster with a Hitler-like hairdo and swastikas running down his body.  In the background is a smoldering ruins of a city.  Lindbergh is intoning:  “Tis Roosevelt, Not Hitler that the World Should Really Fear.”

In July Geisel made Lindbergh a target three times.  His first cartoon ran on Independence Day, July 4.  He resurrected the ostriches who now are carrying a sign reading “Lindbergh for President in 1944.”  The humor of twenty-some marching birds with smug smiles is dampened by a trailing, furtive individual wearing a mask and identified as “U.S. Fascists.”  His sign says “Yeah, but why wait ’til 1944?  The implication here is that some may be plotting to oust Roosevelt who was still in the first year of his third term. 
The July 16 offering was truly in the Dr. Seuss ludicrous mode.  There a whale, spouting water, sits on the top of a mountain peak, startling a climber.  The image sets the scene for a limerick that prefigures so many clever rhymes from the head of Geisel:

The Isolationist
Said a whale, “There is so much commotion,
Such fights among fish in the ocean,
I’m saving my scalp
Living high on an Alp…
(Dear Lindy!  He gave me the notion!)

The last PM cartoon for July returned to the pilot theme that marked Geisel’s first slap at the tarnished hero.  Here Lindbergh is depicted as an aviator presumably guiding the American eagle with a detached steering wheel.  The message here is a bit opaque:  “Atta boy, Lindy!  Keep me under control.”  The implication is that the Nation itself is happy to guided toward isolationism, as Lindbergh was preaching, at a time when public opinion actually was moving, albeit slowly, toward intervention.

Avoiding Lindbergh in August, Geisel returned to the attack on September 2. This time the Uncle Sam eagle is seemingly an alarmed captive bird who is being asked by the America First orator to mate with a similarly distressed jellyfish.  A little over a week later Lindbergh would give a speech that one author has said, “fully knocked him off his pedestal.”  His anti-Semitism was fully on view as he blamed the Jews for pushing the country into war.  “Their greatest danger to this county lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”  
This outburst was met with outrage from many quarters, including from Geisel. It triggered a Dr. Seuss editorial cartoon with the most savage attack yet.  Geisel depicted Lindbergh standing on top of a pile of garbage, shoveling it off, replete with cats and fish bones.  Written on the side of the wagon was “Nazi Anti-Semite Stink Wagon.”  The identification of the former U.S. colonel with the Fascists was in the caption:  “Spreading the Lovely Goebbels Stuff,”  a reference to the anti-Semitic rants of Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda.  On September 22, he followed up with another with the American eagle wearing a sign, “I am part Jewish,” and an alleged repost by Lindbergh and Senator Nye, an anti-Semite , that “This bird is possessed of an Evil Demon.”
With increasing number of U.S. merchant ships being torpedoed in the Atlantic,  on October 31 the cartoonist featured an American sailor floating on a raft with a radio, hearing that “Uncle Lindy-Windy” would be explaining that: “There ain’t no boogy man now!”  That was a clear reminder that Hitler’s Germany was not shy in targeting American shipping.

Then on December 7, the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor and four days later Hitler declared war on the United States.  On December 8 Geisel featured an editorial cartoon that featured an explosion labeled “WAR,” blowing the isolationism bird out of the sky.  He would go on for the rest of the war doing cartoons that encouraged the U.S. military effort.

Lindbergh attempted to recoup his reputation by seeking to re-enlist in the U.S. military.  Roosevelt denied him that privilege.  As a civilian he later flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific (avoiding Germany) and in later years redeemed some of his reputation by becoming a prolific author, international explorer, inventor and environmentalist.  Whether he ever changed his anti-Semitic views seemingly is not recorded.

Note:  The complete set of Seuss/Geisel’s cartoons for PM were archived 2012 on the Web by the University California - San Diego under the title:  “Dr. Seuss Went to War:  A Catalogue of Political Cartoons. The Dr. Seuss Collection in the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the university contains the original drawings and/or newspaper clippings of all of these cartoons. This website makes these cartoons available to all internet users and were the source of this article. In a post of July 7, 2010, entitled, “Dr. Seuss Sells the Sauce,”  I previously featured the cartoonist’s ads for whiskey and beer.  

Postscript:   Since June the number of "hits" that this blog has experience have increased markedly.  Since it was begun in 2010, Bottles, Booze and Back Stories has averaged from 1,000 to 2,000 look-ins per month.  By contrast, this past June 39,583 hits were recorded, about 18% of the five year total of 221,624.  That pace seems to be continuing in July.  What is going on?  I am hoping some alert follower will give me a clue by leaving a comment below.  

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Birds and Booze: Spirits on the Wing

Married to a master birder as I am, the juxtaposition of the avians with my interest in the whiskey trade is inevitable.   Birds have often been selected as the name of whiskey brands, usually with an illustration of the species shown on the label, in advertising and on giveaway items.  We begin by reviewing “Warbler Whiskey,”  a label produced by H. L. Griesedieck Distiller of St. Louis, Missouri.  The bird shown is identified as “Audubon’s Warbler.”
There are just two things wrong with this picture.  First, Griesedieck was not a distiller.  Born into a well-known brewery family,  H. L. (Henry) early determined he would not inherit any of the beer industry and gravitated to the whiskey trade.  By 1894 he was the proprietary of two St. Louis liquor stores.  He was “rectifying” — blending and mixing — whiskey supplied by actual distilleries and bottling them as his brands, Warbler Whiskey among them.  Except that the label is not a reasonable likeness of the Audubon’s Warbler (now known as the Yellow Rumped Warbler) as shown above.  A comparison of the two reveals that Griesedieck’s bird is much too large and the coloring is off.

But Henry was not the only St. Louis whiskey man to misrepresent his bird.  Charles Wittenburg of that city, identified as a whiskey wholesaler from about 1884 to 1918, had “Blue Wing” as his flagship brand and a label that showed a bird that obviously was a duck.  

His reference was to the Blue Winged Teal, a dabbling duck well known to the hunting community. The label illustration bears only passing a relationship to reality.  Note that the real teal has only a trace of blue in his wing (females are plain brown), while Wittenburg’s artist has made it solid blue.  The white patch in the face is accurate.

Connor, Jaycocks & Co. of Covington, Kentucky named their liquor, “Red Bird Whiskey,” with the admonition to “Drink Pure Whiskey.”   The bird most commonly referred to as the red bird is the Northern Cardinal, adopted as the state bird in seven states from Illinois to North Carolina and one of the Nation’s most familiar avians.  The label bears no resemblance to the cardinal nor, in fact, to any bird in the Audubon Guide.  It is purely drawn out of an artist’s imagination.  

Birds have figured large in many of the trademark wars about the right to a name and an image.  Although the well-known “Old Crow” whiskey was named after a Kentucky distiller named Elijah Crow, the several ownerships of the brand have been in frequent litigation over other whiskey crows, blackbirds, and even turkeys.  In 1949 the proprietors ran an ad in major magazines bragging: “During the first century of its distinguished history, some 1,800 writs, summons, desists were circulated to prevent the imitation of the Old Crow name and label.”

In 1905, Old Crow filed a legal challenge against the C. A. Knecht & Son Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, claiming that its “Raven Valley Whiskey” would “naturally lead to a confusion and enable the [Knechts] to perpetrate a fraud.”   After losing in a lower court they took the case to a higher court.  Those judges ruled that:  “When the words ‘Raven Valley’ are considered they are so different from the words ‘Old Crow’ that any confusion or deception would be very improbable.” While noting that ravens and crows were both birds, the Court also found no similarity in their depiction on the whiskeys.

When James Miller’s “Chicken Cock” from Kentucky challenged John Miller’s “Game Cock” from Massachusetts,  the one-on-one battle was not fought within a cockpit of feisty roosters but in a court of law. Those chickens came home to roost in a dispute over whiskey trademark infringement. The conflict ended with one cock defeated and the proprietor “licking his wounds.”

By dint of vigorous advertising Chicken Cock whiskey by 1886 was being sold nationwide through a network of distributors.  Off in Boston, John Miller noted its popularity and adopted the names “Miller’s Game Cock Bourbon” and “Miller’s Game Cock Rye” for his whiskeys and adopted a posture for his bird very similar to the Kentucky product.  In that case the court agreed that a trademark had been infringed, sending John Miller off to craft a different look, shown left, for his brand.

A third bird rivalry might be adduced between the American bald eagle, a bird frequently used by distillers and wholesalers to advertise their liquor,  S. Pett Company of Boston, for example, made “Bald Eagle Whiskey” his flagship label and issued the celluloid image of the bird on a pocket mirror.  Because an eagle eats carrion, however, Benjamin Franklin favored the turkey as the national symbols.  That brings us to “Wild Turkey” brand, a favorite of many whiskey-drinkers.  By the way,  Old Crow once sued Wild Turkey.  The turkey won.
Even extinct birds can arise again in the whiskey format.  No one knows exactly what the dodo looked like and images are fashioned from skeletal remains of this flightless bird.  Thus Morrison Plummer & Co. of Chicago could give their signature avian any look they chose.  It appears that the dodo kingship relates to a 1901 American musical called “King Dodo,” by Frank Pixley and Gustav Luders.  It contained such memorable songs as “Jolly Old Potentate” and “The Eminent Doctor Fizz.”

In summary, although birds frequently have been adopted to name liquor brands, accuracy of portrayal has never bothered the originators.  The feathered friend on the label almost always bears little or no resemblance to the real thing.   Second, disputes over bird images in whiskey advertising probably have engendered more trademark court actions than any other category, with Old Crow leading the way.