Thursday, February 26, 2009

A close encounter with great children’s art

Feb. 26, 2009
Posted by Noah

Yesterday, at the invitation of David Lisot, our Director of Video, I took a lunchtime stroll up to the executive conference room where he was filming some video lot descriptions for various categories. I walked in right in the middle of filming a few choice specimens from an important California Collection of mostly children’s art from the upcoming Illustration Auction, March 12-13.

On the table were two original drawings from the Madeline series, by Austrian-born Ludwig Bemelmans. Without thinking, I immediately quoted:

“In a little house in Paris, that’s covered in vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread, brushed their teeth and went to bed. They left the house at half past nine. The smallest one was Madeline.”

Lisot looked at me like I had uttered some arcane phrase from a long dead language. Todd Hignite, Consignment Director for Illustrations and Comics Art, laughed. He knew exactly what I meant. He has a two-year-old daughter. I have a three-year-old. If you have a well-read toddler girl at home, or had one, then you’ve read the great Madeline series.

I subsequently spent the rest of the day thinking about the vast amount of children’s literature and books that populate our bookshelves (and floors and cabinets and closets and cars) at home, and about those that stand out – those that I break out sparingly at my daughter’s bedtime because I personally love them so much. I have to number Madeline as chief among my current delights, and hers. And there I was yesterday, staring at two perfectly prime examples of Bemelmans’ airy, surreal drawings of Madeline and Pepito – that bad hat!

Three years ago I knew quite little of children’s literature and art, now I get weak in the knees at seeing prime examples of my favorites. Trust me, if I were in a position to bid on these paintings – and any number of others, including original Sendak and Seuss art, very rare! – from this specific collection, I would in a heartbeat; I have my daughter to thank for this appreciation. The process of observing the change in my own perspective, as I’ve come to intimately know much of this great art via hundreds of readings, has been refreshing and, dare I say it, delightful. Let it just be one more thing that I am grateful to her for.

The true greats of Children’s literature – see Sendak (In The Night Kitchen is one of my favorite books ever, of any genre. Period.) and Seuss above – don’t go cheap because they are so rare. Greatness on the level of Bemelmans, and many of the others, is relatively affordable to an average collector. Anywhere from $500 to a few thousand dollars can get you something pretty extraordinary. You just have to know what you like.

“The drawings from the first part of the 20th century, value-wise, are not up there with the big magazine guys of the times,” Todd said. “Some, of course, are very well respected and in museums. The peak period of children’s art, like Dr. Seuss, are extremely rare and expensive because they don’t really exist in private hands. In fact, Seuss and Sendak, two of the biggest, both gave their papers and archives to universities and values are quite high for the rare originals that come up.”

Space is short, as is time, so I’ll spare you the list of my favorite kids books, though I’d be happy to hear yours – just for fun – at

That’s all there is, there is no more.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"If Colossus Should Fall – Who Shall Stop The Juggernaut?"

Feb. 25, 2009
Posted by Noah

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked myself that very same question…

The fact is that Dave Cockrum’s original cover artwork for X-Men #102 – a seminal 1976 issue smack dab in the middle of the awesome 1970s Chris Claremont-written run of the X-Men that culminated in the single most popular X-Men storyline ever, The Phoenix Saga – is among several examples of classic original X-Men artwork featured in this weekend’s – Yes, this weekend! – Signature Comics & Original Comic Art Auction.

It’s a classic tableau of Bronze Age comics: Juggernaut and Colossus slug it out, toe to toe. Storm shields herself against a wall, paralyzed by claustrophobia, while Nightcrawler springs from a chandelier into action. The issue featured Storm’s origin story, as well as a side battle with Banshee and Black Tom, as well as some classic X-Mansion soap opera with Jean Grey, Cyclops and Professor X. But it’s the fight between Juggy and Colossus, in the very close confines of an Irish castle – Nightcrawler does cheesily end up in the clutches of some leprechauns at the end, if I recollect correctly – that steals this show. As a kid, I always loved when Juggy showed up, though I wished somebody would have just made a massive bottle opener and popped that creepy helmet off his noggin. Just knowing that the original art for this famous cover is in house as we speak is enough to make me want to go on a secret mission to bask in its glory.

In his run of X-Men #101-107, Cockrum established himself as the king of the Space Opera. In this septuplet of issues, Cockrum introduced probably the biggest, most ambitious scope for the X-Men universe yet with the creation of the Shi’Ar Empire, the JLA-parody Imperial Guard, the Starjammers and the M’Krann Crystal. And that’s just the start of the cast of thousands that populated this exciting slice of X-Men pie. It should be noted that Cockrum left X-Men after #107. John Byrne came on board for #108 and quickly brought the focus of X-Men universe back to earth.

I asked our Director of Comics, Barry Sandoval, about this art work a few weeks ago and he was equally animated – as animated as Barry will get, consummate professional that he is – about its presence.

“This is one of the great X-Men covers of all time,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of great X-Men art and comics in past auctions, but this auction is particularly heavy on great X-Men stuff. You have to count this chief among the grouping.”

I was a little more like: “What?!... Did you see-…. No way! I want it! I want it!”

I’ve looked through this auction catalog a few times now, and am quite impressed by the offerings overall, but for fans of X-men comics this one is special. There’s a ton of great Jack Kirby Art, some original Peanuts artwork, a ton of great pulps and original mint Disney comics, but give me this cover any day! This thing has already met its estimate at $20,000, so I’m probably priced out of the running. It will however, be exciting to see how this lot ultimately comes out. It comes up in the Friday, 5 p.m. session.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The secret membership of the 1872 Skull and Bones revealed!

Feb. 24, 2009
Posted by Noah

I love a good conspiracy theory as much, if not just a little more, than anybody. I don’t go to bed at night thinking about any of them, though, if you know what I mean. There plenty of other things to worry about these days, so I can’t really devote too much time to whether a secret shadow government is controlling the world from the earth’s core – or better yet, outer space – or whether Rock and/or Roll is really the root of all evil and a creation of the evil counterpart to our secret shadow government, . I’ll just let their endless struggle for the soul of the world, fought by giant lizard men well-equipped with blasters, play out in the secret cities beneath the earth’s crust and on Mars.

So… Conspiracies! Speaking of good ones, I always like a good Skull and Bones story, and a good one has fallen in my lap courtesy of Heritage Historical Manuscripts cataloger David Boozer. If you don’t know about Skull & Bones, it’s a secret society at Yale from which many prominent politicians, diplomats, judges and lawyers – all the people who control all the conspiracies – have emerged seemingly en masse. It just so happens that we have an 1872 Skull and Bones Gold Stick Pin and Album with 23 Cartes de Visite up for bid in the March 6 Manuscript Auction. It’s a very cool lot, and it's tied to the ultra-secretive society that allegedly houses many significant artifacts in its off-campus HQ, known as “The Tomb.”

The shady membership of the 1872 Skull & Bones has finally been revealed and society has been shaken to its core! Or not really.

“This lot is exciting because, finally, the 1872 members of the secretive and mysterious Skull & Bones are exposed for who they really were!” David wrote (the exclamation point it mine. – NF). “Teachers, lawyers, bankers, doctors, and several ministers. So they weren't the most exciting group – no U.S. senators, presidents, or Geronimo-bone thieves – but still, through these beautiful cartes de visite, we can see a bit into the world of secrecy and privilege in the late 19th century.”

He’s right. It’s one of those cool lots that are so in abundance here but for which there is usually little time to promote or give exposure to. This is my little addition, then, and a part of my job that I sincerely love and am glad to do.

The reference to Geronimo-bone thieves is a reference to a New York Times article last week about a lawsuit filed by Geronimo’s grandson alleging that The Skull & Bones is in possession of his grandfather’s skull and some other artifacts. The grandson wants them back, and if the society is in possession, then I don’t blame him. The story is pretty juicy, as it refers to a story that Prescott Bush – father of George H.W. and George W. – with friends, in 1917, broke into Geronimo’s tomb and stole the bones. There’s actually some evidence that the bones may well be in the society’s possession. The jury is out on Prescott’s involvement, but, you know… Boys will be boys, yes?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Inside the mind of a Heritage coin cataloger

Feb. 23, 2009
Posted by John

(I never imagined a title to a post like this one would actually sound interesting to me, but as I’ve been starting the long path of coin erudition, I have found myself entranced by several interesting coins, reading coin catalogs, and meeting the people whose job it is to do the day in and day out work of creating Heritage’s award-winning coin catalogs. One of these is John Beety, a young numismatist of note, a former junior state chess champion, and a gamer of many stripes. As you’ll see here, he’s also a talented writer. It will be my pleasure to turn this blog page over to John from time to time as he explains what makes a coin cataloger tick. – Noah Fleisher)

The Noah Fleisher monopoly on the Heritage blog has ended!

John Dale Beety here, U.S. coin cataloger. One of the best on-the-job benefits of being a cataloger is looking at thousands of coins a year from hundreds of consignors. Some of the finest collections pass through the cataloging department, and after years of looking at the best of the best in American coinage, one can become a trifle spoiled. A couple of weeks back, I was cataloging an 1893-S Morgan dollar in VF25, a mid-range coin that thousands of collectors – myself included – would be proud to own. I finished the description on that coin and put it aside, picked up the next one and saw another 1893-S dollar, this one in VF30.

I thought to myself, “Oh, there’s another one,” immediately followed by, “Did I just think that?”

As rare as the 1893-S dollar is, with hundreds of collectors consigning to Heritage with every auction, inevitably a number of 1893-S dollars will pass through the cataloging department. I’ve personally cataloged dozens of them over the course of two-and-a-half years. Prized as they are, as a rule, cataloging an 1893-S dollar is no longer an event.

There are exceptions, though; in the January 2009 FUN Auction, Heritage offered two Mint State examples, an MS64 and an MS65, and when each of those 1893-S Morgan dollars came up for description, the cataloger made a point of showing it to the rest of us so we could all appreciate it.

My fellow catalogers and I call such items “pass-arounds,” coins so special that we can’t help but share them with one another. Sometimes they are exotic rarities; when Heritage offered a Class I 1804 dollar in the April 2008 Central States Auction, all of us shared in the thrill. Others are unusually attractive coins; cataloging a piece of Seated Liberty silver with rich, original “target” toning is one of my greatest joys, and I’ve been known to show off particularly beautiful examples.

Still other pieces are not fabulous rarities but intriguing curiosities, such as the heavily worn Panama-Pacific quarter eagle commemorative from Central States in 2007 that makes one wonder whose pocket-piece it was.

In future posts, I aim to highlight some of our “pass-around” coins and what makes them so special, the better to share them with a wider audience. On occasion, I’ll also take a look beyond coins, to highlight items of interest in other departments; I’m a firm believer that no collector has only one hobby!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Forget just being a Pepper, I want to own it!

Feb. 20, 2009
Posted by Noah

You would think, given all the corporate secrecy around the secret formulas for different soda pops, fried chicken batter and sandwich sauces in America that we were dealing with issues of national security when it came to wanting to know the ratio of mustard to mayonnaise on our hamburgers, or of black pepper to paprika in our extra crispy, but no. It is just food. Still, Heritage has itself a good ol’ fashioned piece of American cola history that is as complex as and KFC original recipe mix or Coca-Cola syrup formula: Our May Americana Auction will feature a lot that should be of extra special interest to Texans, and to any one that ever swigged an ice cold soda on a very hot day – the mid-1880s original notebook containing the original handwritten formula for what was to become Dr. Pepper, the first – and arguably the greatest – of America’s big three soda pops.

Granted that Dr. Pepper isn’t what it used to be in terms of soft drink influence. You would be hard pressed to make the case that it is in America’s Top 10 beverages, let alone the top three. To Texans of a certain age, however, Dr. Pepper is what it’s all about. That original formula, deep within the Heritage vault – the source of so much speculation in the 130 years since its creation, and so much corporate deflection – is getting set to be auctioned off. Can a revival of homemade Dr. Pepper be that far off?

Uh… Probably very far off… That, though, is no hindrance. It’s the meaning of the thing; it’s the role that Dr. Pepper has played in the development of Texas’s National identity, and how it spurred on the greater success of Coke and Pepsi, and helped define the very role of America to the world.

Heritage’s Director of Americana, Tom Slater, has been involved intimately with getting the crumbling notebook with the original formula in it – Page 19, to be exact – and he has also been intricately involved with the various aspects of the potential legal wrangling around it. While he couldn’t show me the notebook just now when we met in his office, he could assure me that the formula, as it’s represented in its original state in the notebook, is probably not even close to the current formula, especially in its use of denatured rum.

This is a lot that deserves pages and pages dedicated to it, so interesting is the history, and so much secrecy is there around it, but I don’t have the space here to do anything but offer a tease. There is much in Dr. Pepper that led to America’s corporate culture, but there is also much of the history of Texas in it, as well as proof that Waco – now little more than the midway point between Dallas and Austin, the home of Baylor University and former home of the Branch Davidians – was once the most important city in the state, if not the nation. It’s all there in that sweet, odd taste.

For my part, I can remember numerous field trips to the Dallas Dr. Pepper plant at Greenville Avenue and Mockingbird Lane throughout my childhood. I drive past that intersection everyday on the way to work. Much like the original formula for the drink, though, so much has changed about the site of the plant that all that remains is a clock and sign. It’s now a super market, some apartments and a rail station, just as Dr. Pepper is but a horse in the Snapple stable. That does not, however, diminish the potential power of this piece of superb Texana/Americana at auction. In a corporate culture that closely protects even its oldest secrets, the fact that this original recipe is going to be out of the bag is pretty spectacular. It may not save the world, but it’ll have a whole host of folks whistling the tune, doing the dance with Vim, Vigor and Vitality and saying they, too, indeed wished they could be a Pepper… Stay tuned for more on this as the auction approaches.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rayograph spotting at Heritage

Feb. 19, 2009
Posted by Noah

When I was in high school here in Dallas – at the Arts Magnet just up the street from our World Headquarters here on Maple Avenue –I developed a full blown obsession with Man Ray. My friends and I were turned on to the Dadaists by a teacher, and we loved what we saw. There was something in Man Ray’s tweaking of tradition, however, that set me afire. In subsequent years, as I studied and lived in New York and Paris, I sought out all the Man Ray I could. From his old neighborhood in Williamsburg to the cafes and bars that he haunted with the likes of Duchamp and Dali in Montparnasse. I just wanted to be able to say I had walked in those footsteps – the first of many pilgrimages I have undertaken in my adult life.

Through the years, however, life has taken over and the time to read endless biographies and dig through databases and microfiche machines at libraries for obscure magazine articles is something of a vague, pleasant pre-parenthood memory. There is, though, a lot in the April Vintage Photography auction that has allowed me to briefly re-kindle my 20 year old obsession with Man Ray, and for that – today – I am thankful. It’s a 1963 silver gelatin print of Untitled, a 1926 Rayograph – Man Ray’s special name for his unique process art photographs. It’s a beauty for sure.

The artist was a great painter and photographer, but it was in his Rayographs that he truly blurred the line and forged something new, something that was neither Dada nor Surrealism, but simply great art. He was, literally, painting with photography, and redefining the rules of perception as he went.

“It’s obviously a later print” said Lorraine Anne Davis, Heritage’s Director of Vintage Photography – and a much revered appraiser of photography, “but it’s a single print from the only set of Rayographs that Man Ray signed, and it was done at the request of Helmut Newton, from whose estate it came.”

Excuse me, but that is amazingly cool. Helmut Newton, one of the best and greatest American portrait and nude photographers – he was in the vanguard of the generation that came after Man Ray – asks the greatest avant-garde photog of the previous generation to do something he never does, that is sign a portfolio, and Man Ray obliges. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.

It should be noted that there are a trio of excellent Helmut Newton photos in the upcoming photography auction, including two Polaroids, and they’re everything you either love or hate about Newton. He had a real thing for very tall women in moments of stylized extremis. Check them out here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Rat Pack Rarity: Sammy Davis Jr.’s 10 Commandments Money Clip

Feb. 17, 2009
Posted by Noah

We’re coming up on this weekend’s Music & Entertainment Auction, Feb. 21-22, which I’ve pointed to in other posts about Chet Atkins’ guitars and the amazing Eddie Kovacs and Edie Adams Archive in the auction. I like to spend a bit of time going through each catalog when it comes online, and this was no different. It’s no stretch the say that the M&E auction is deep, and features many a tasty treat for most any level of collector, but as I did last week with “The Reign of Superman” in the Comics auction, I wanted to point out a particularly special and intriguing lot in this weekend’s M&E festivities: Sammy Davis Jr.’s Ten Commandments money clip, lot 49053.

From the catalog description:

“An ornate 14k gold money clip featuring a Star of David over a menorah, with a total of eight settings of small diamonds, mounted over a pair of scrolls representing the Torah. The scrolls open on hinges to reveal the Ten Commandments underneath. The back side of the clip is engraved: "To -- Sammy Davis Jr. Good Luck Always/Jack Entratter/1957."

As you can see for yourself in the picture above, it’s a gorgeous piece of jewelry and a superb piece of Judaica, but wait! That’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as this thing goes. If I had somewhere between $6,000 and $12,000 I would go to town on this thing. It’s got the aforementioned gold and Jewish angle – Sammy converted to Judaism in 1954, after the car crash that left him with one eye – but more important is its connection to Davis himself, the Rat Pack in Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s and the various characters who populated the city in those crucial few decades. Most notably the man who gave the clip to Davis, Jack Entratter.

Entratter was a notorious Vegas booster and philanthropist, with decided mob ties, who ran The Sands Resort. He was and is a towering figure in the history of the town. It is also the stuff of Hollywood legend that he was able to “persuade” Columbia Studios honcho Harry Cohn to cast Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity, for which ol’ Frankie won an Oscar. Think Don Corleone, Johnny Fontaine and Producer Jack Woltz from The Godfather and you know just what I’m talking about. You factor in the Entratter connection, the Rat Pack Connection and the Mid-Century Vegas connections and you’re about one degree away from every single entertainer of the Golden Age of both Hollywood and Vegas.

It does also need to be said that the Sammy Davis, Jr. memorabilia in this auction is pretty amazing stuff, including one of his beloved cameras – the man was an accomplished photographer – though not much of it touches on the role he was most proud of: Civil Rights Crusader. Davis was almost singularly responsible for helping America integrate its club and theater policies regarding integration in the racially charged 1960s. Who would think twice of seeing Davis, were he still alive, playing an all white room these days? This money clip, for my bet, is the sleeper of the auction.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Can you really put a price on Lincoln?

Feb. 16, 2009
Posted by Noah

Given that today is President’s Day, the day that originally celebrated the birth of the one and only George Washington, and then grew somewhere in the mid-1980s to encompass that of America’s favorite president, Abraham Lincoln – and all our other presidents, too… – I thought I’d take a look at the historical material legacy of Lincoln, given that he has featured prominently in many Heritage Historical Auctions, and is probably still the most sought-after of all U.S. Presidents when it come to presidential memorabilia.

Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, and the day is still celebrated on its own in many states. Given that I’m some five days late for that specific day, and today is the aforementioned holiday, I’m going to assume that you’ve already forgiven my tardiness. There was a recent survey of influential contemporary Presidential historians about how our presidents rank historically, and the results were published here in today’s online USA Today. Number one and two are, respectively, numbers 16 and 1. No surprise there.

The truth is that, while you can’t even begin to put a price on Lincoln’s impact on American identity and philosophy, you can put a price on memorabilia directly linked to The Great Emancipator. There’s an archive of hundreds of Lincoln and Lincoln-related memorabilia right here. The top lot is not actually a Lincoln lot – it’s a Custer battle flag – but I can’t get the search to omit it. Oh well. The top true Lincoln lot from Heritage was a pair of Lincoln spectacles that sat on that lofty and terribly weighted brow during The Civil War. They are an amazing relic, literally drenched in the sweat of history – did I really just write that? – and having born witness to some of the darkest most mythic days of American history. They brought nearly $180,000 last November in Gettysburg. Amazing stuff.

“We’ve offered some tremendously important pieces, and we have developed as specialists in Lincoln material,” said our resident expert generalist and Historical Consignment Director Marsha Dixey. “We were fortunate a few years ago to have been selected to offer the Henry E. Luhrs Lincoln Library Collection. More recently we offered the historical Collection of Lincolniana of Dr. John Lattimer. Within the Luhrs collection were 121 legal briefs and a number of letters, some in Lincoln's hand and some signed by Lincoln himself. The Dr. John Lattimer Collection consisted of documents as well, but the highlights of this collection were the artifacts and pieces that actually belonged to Lincoln. Outside of these two collections, we offered a phenomenal Lincoln campaign flag in 2007. The flag brought one of the highest auction prices recorded for such a piece.”

You can see the demand is there, and with good reason. It’s an endlessly fascinating field. A happy 200th to ol’ Honest Abe.

As an aside, when I interviewed for my current position at Heritage last summer, during my rounds of the departments I came into the Historical Auctions secret undisclosed location. The department was preparing for the Gettysburg Auction and, in discussing the upcoming auction with Dixey, she casually handed me one of the upcoming lots. It was the blood-stained collar from Lincoln’s shirt, cut from the fallen President on Ruination Day, April 14, 1865. I stood there, stunned, delicately cradling history, unable to speak. Welcome to Heritage, I thought.

Friday, February 13, 2009

140 years later Red Stockings still rule!

Feb. 13, 2009
Posted by Noah

Friday the 13th… Ooooh. Scary stuff. If you see an Axe wielding, mask-wearing murderer and hear creepy music today here’s a word of advice: Don’t go into the house! I repeat: Don’t go into the house! It’s also my daughter’s third birthday today, so if you see her coming toward you then simply shield your eyes from the unbearable cuteness…

By now most of us – at least in this business – are familiar with the story of Bernice Gallego, a Fresno area antiques dealer who stumbled across an 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings baseball card in a shoe box in her shop – she’s actually mostly an eBay dealer these days, as most former brick-and-mortar dealers are. Anyway, she sold the card, via eBay, just yesterday – Feb. 12 – and it brought just more than $64,000. Not a bad payday for most of us. For Mrs. Gallegos, however, it’s a relative blip, considering she once hit a $250,000 jackpot on the slots in Vegas. Some gals have all the luck.

Anyway, she has maintained a great sense of humor throughout this whole thing, as evidenced by this story in today’s Fresno Bee. For our purposes, however, I once more turned to our Director of Sports, Chris Ivy, for his expert analysis. As always, I appreciate Chris being so sanguine about me bothering him.

I have to mention that we sold one of these things last May – 2008, that is – for $22,705, and from what I can tell it was in better shape than the one in Fresno. Read about it here.

HA Blog: Is the $64,000+ price ultimately paid for the card – minus Buyer’s Premium – fair?

CHRIS: Based on the condition of the card and what similar examples have sold for, the card sold for well above market. This proves how widespread exposure for auctions can lead to huge prices. In this particular case, the auction house for this item did not develop this exposure, but were the beneficiaries, along with the owner. Heritage works to develop exposure for our auctions every day through Heritage Magazine, blogs, press releases, online and trade advertisements, etc. (If you’re looking to consign some valuable collectibles, hint hint! - Noah)

HA Blog: Would it have sold for more if the economy were better – or if it was sold through a different auction company? Say one with 425,000+ registered bidder-members, and whose initials were – arbitrarily, HA?

CHRIS: It’s hard to say, I believe that the card was maximized due to the publicity that it received through the AP stories and the owner’s appearance on The Tonight show with Jay Leno. The winning bidder is part of a company that likely purchased the card at an above market price simply for the free exposure they got with the follow up stories in the mainstream press, similar to the gambling Web sites that have previously purchased grilled cheese sandwiches on eBay with the likeness of religious figures on them for tens of thousands of dollars. (Hey! That Velveeta Moses was totally worth it! – Noah)

HA Blog: Where do the 1869 Red Stockings lay in the pantheon of great baseball teams?

CHRIS: Honestly, the significance of the 1869 Red Stockings lay entirely in their pioneering status. While they were dominating for their era, there really aren’t any historians who would mention them in the same breath as the 1920s Yankees or the early 20th century Cubs, for example. There just wasn’t enough organized competition at that time to make an apples-to-apples comparison. But George and Harry Wright, both Hall of Famers in the “Pioneers” section of Cooperstown, who founded this first professional baseball team, were as essential to the development of the game as the other Wright Brothers were to aviation. So if “greatness” was calculated on the basis of historical importance as opposed to quality of play, then the 1869 Red Stockings would rank at the top.

Very nicely put. Thanks Chris!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Re-thinking Superman

Feb. 11, 2009
Posted by Noah

There are so many fantastic things to drool over in the upcoming comics auction – Feb. 26-27 btw – that I would be hard-pressed to choose just one or two lots were a suitcase of cash to fall out of the sky and land at my feet. I still look up every day when I leave the house, but so far nothing… Where was I? Oh, yes… Comics auction, many great lots... There is one lot in the sale, however, that I keep coming back to. It’s one of those things that has wedged its way into my brain in a way that happens only with certain rare and complex lots. I’m talking about Lot 91577, the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster Science Fiction Fanzine "Reign of the Superman" Group from 1932. That’s right, a full five years before Supes appeared in Action Comics #1.

In this very early rendition of what was to become The Man of Steel, Superman is actually a villain, actually looks a lot more like Lex Luthor than Clark Kent and “The Superman” is used more in the sense of Friederich Nietzsche, which I am basing solely on my knowledge of Western Philosophy and my gut feeling whenever I see a maniacal bald man with an evil grit-toothed smile and creepy Montgomery Burns hands menacing me in a futuristic cityscape.

Let me be very clear: I would take The Flash, Mad Magazine or Groo the Wanderer any day over Superman. In my comics reading days – I was never so much a collector as a reader – I made a point of skipping Superman and heading to the latest JLA or Fourth World. There was never much mystery to Superman, as far as I was concerned at least. And he wasn’t particularly given to angst, which I loved dearly about Spidey or Ben Grimm, The Thing. After looking at this particular lot, and after being amazed to witness the sheer fact of its continued existence across the decades – read about it and you’ll do the same – I have definitely have to re-think the man from Krypton. How would the history of American pop culture have been different if Supes had stayed malignant?

There have always been many ways to read Superman. Siegel and Shuster were both Jews, and the comic book came about at a time when the world was heading for war, America needed a hero and the Nazis were starting their march toward world domination. Superman perfectly captured the American zeitgeist of the post-depression era. This original, villainous Superman can be seen also as an early reaction to the influence of Nietzschian thinking on Western civilization in the first half of the 20th century and its slide into totalitarianism. Either that, or it was a couple of kids jazzed by the sci-fi serials they were seeing at the movies and reading in fanzines, and they wanted to make one of their own. You choose.

Monday, February 9, 2009

California dreamin’ (of Long Beach) on a rainy Dallas Monday

Feb. 9, 2009
Posted by Noah

I wrote about the Long Beach Coin auction on Friday of last week, as you can see below, and I said that the early news out of Long Beach, California was positive so far, and I wasn’t just talking about the surf and the sand – though I’d certainly dig a few days with my wife and daughter in the sun and fun. It’s hard not to be on tenterhooks about the state of… well, the state of everything these days, but Long Beach did indeed provide the kind of positive news that everyone at Heritage was hoping for, and the kind of news that this nation badly needs right now: The coin market is steady.

According to Jim Halperin, Heritage co-founder and best-selling fiction writer (see The Truth Machine), the total of the auction, $13M and counting with post-auction buys, exceeded what the company was hoping for. This is good news to all of us. Not out-of-control exuberant good news, or new-puppy-peeing-on-the-newspaper-when-it-sees-you enthusiasm, but steady, controlled zest for a continuance of what we saw at FUN in January.

“Prices are still down a little though higher than they were at FUN,” Jim said, “which was already above people’s expectations. We were actually expecting a $10-11M auction, so with $13M I’d say it was well beyond our expectations.”

Well. Beyond. Expectations… What a refreshing phrase to hear after the daily turmoil of the financial pages and the bum reports NPR has greeted me with every day since September of last year. Let’s all say it again, shall we? Well. Beyond. Expectations.

This is not a company given to irrational exuberance; in fact, steady guidance has been a hallmark of its existence, as has steady leadership. Most everyone at this company chooses their words very carefully – or at least those who are in a position where people listen when they talk – so I cannot imagine that Jim spoke lightly.

The future of the market, then? Same prognosis as a few days ago: You’re better off with coins than just about any other investment. It helps when you have a passion for it, and a brilliance – like so many here – but in this day and age the word of an expert like Jim might just be enough to spur investment.

“At the very least,” he said, “coins have gone down less than any other asset. At least any that I know of.”

That might as well be gospel. Here’s the link to the Long Beach catalog and the prices realized.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ruminating on economy, collectibles and coins in Long Beach

Feb. 6, 2009
Posted by Noah

Unlike so many at this company, I’m a strict neophyte when it comes to coins. When asked what he did before he became a coin dealer, Steve Ivy likes to say that he was in fifth grade. And he’s serious, even if it is a funny line. That, however, is somewhat typical of the best minds in coins: they start early and their knowledge is encyclopedic. Mine, at this point and for the foreseeable future, is more like a pamphlet. Perhaps even just a text message. What I do know, given the latest jobs numbers out this morning – 7.6% unemployment. Wow. – is that there is little safety in the market, few safe places to put your money, and that coins of most stripes are still a solid bet, as are many areas of collectibles.

Being on the inside at Heritage, and having a pretty good grasp on the business of auctions and of antiques and collectibles as a larger market, I can tell you that no sector of the business has been spared hardship since the economy sank last September. Our main two competitors had dismal years last year and recently announced job cuts totaling in the thousands. Even Heritage was forced to lay some people off based solely on the difficult numbers we’re all seeing. It’s a sobering sight to drive to work on roads that seem emptier, to see the parking garage with way more spaces than a month ago and to see “For Lease” signs in front of office buildings lining Turtle Creek where there used to be a waiting list for to get in.

Through all this, however, collectibles have remained – if not strong – steady. As I said above, coins in particular have fared well. Not perfectly, but the loss in value has been relatively little, if any, in many sectors. I can also testify to the fact that comics, movie posters, natural history and sporting, entertainment and music memorabilia all continue to perform well, hold value and allow beginners to find their way into a safe(r) market. Last month we had our FUN Auctions in FL, which were better than expected, and right now, In Long Beach, CA, we’re having the next round of important early year coin auctions. All signs, so far, are positive.

All this goes to say what? I don’t know, really, other than that it’s been on my mind a great deal lately as I’ve upped the speed of my coin education, with an eye toward getting in eventually and a developing obsession with gold dollars. With our faith shaken in traditional methods, we all need another place to put that energy. Seems to me I’m in a pretty good place to make a transition.

Here’s a link to the Long Beach catalog, if you’re curious. Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

If you could hold The Holy Grail of Stamp Collecting, without permission, would you do it?

Feb. 4, 2009
Posted by Noah

Either you know exactly what stamp I’m talking about or you don’t. I’m guessing most anyone that is coming to, either to bid or consign, has at least a passing knowledge about American pop culture. I can therefore assume that you at least know what the stamp I’m talking about – the rare and beautiful “Inverted Jenny,” one of which is in Heritage’s inaugural stamp auction, Feb. 5-7 – even if you don’t know what it’s called. If you still have no idea, then please continue to enjoy the underside of the rock that has obviously been your pop culture reference point for the last, oh, say, century or so…

The point of all this? Certainly not to berate you specifically. I know that you have great taste and all sorts of trivial knowledge stored away. This is actually my way of trying to point to the coolness of the newest Heritage auction category, stamps, which is debuting with its first auction tomorrow, Feb. 5, running through the seventh, and I’m talking about the opportunity I had about a month ago while in a brief meeting – conveniently held in a busy hallway – with our Director of Stamps, Steve Crippe, and the Account Executive for the department, Rupal Dalal.

Steve is an interesting guy, and he knows his stamps. He’d have to to take charge of a stamps department here, given that stamps used to be a staple of Heritage Co-Founder Steve Ivy’s auction repertoire (what hasn’t been?), and Steve doesn’t mess around when it comes to such things. Needless to say, Crippe’s got a good amount of expectation on him to deliver a great sale, and by all accounts he’s up to it, at least judging from the amount of rare and important stamps in this inaugural auction.

So… where was I? Oh yes, The Jenny… See, there happens to be a Jenny Invert in this first stamps auction, and I know for a fact that, at least up until the time of the meeting in question that Crippe carried the thing in its plastic holder at all times in his pocket or his hand. For a brief second, however, he put it down on a chair between Rupal and I and went off to check an email. There it sat, in all its tiny glory, on a pile of papers. I looked at Rupal, she looked at me, and I picked it up.

“Wow,” I said. “Half a million bucks.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to pick that up without permission,” she said.

I pictured the security cameras, and Steve Ivy, Jim Halperin, Greg Rohan and Paul Minshull all watching. Any second now, I thought, the doors will open and the Auction Police will swiftly take the stamp, extradite me from the area, and beat me senseless in a room usually reserved for grading coins.

It will be worth it, I thought, and clutched the thing tighter.

I didn’t get in trouble, yet, and – given half a chance – I’d do it again. Here’s a link to the Jenny, and here’s a link to the Stamps Auction. Check out the video highlights of the auction. There’s lots of great stuff.

What do you reckon a first edition, signed Harry Potter is worth?

Feb. 4, 2009
Posted by Noah

I can’t really guess, and I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this. Anyone in our Rare Books and Manuscripts department could hazard a good guess. All too soon we’ll find out exactly what it’s worth to any number of determined collectors when a book that fits the description in the title of this post actually comes across the block. March 6-7, I believe. It’s a rare softcover, it’s got the impeccable condition and it’s got all first issue points and a card on the inside front, with the cover art on it, signed by Rowling. It will, without a doubt, bring a pretty penny. There are only a handful of these softcovers out there so it’s an important volume, at least to this day and age. I think I speak for almost every writer on the planet when I say: Man! I wish I had written those books.

To be honest with you, and I am most likely in opposition to many, I wasn’t so crazy about the Harry Potter books. You can’t fault the storytelling, I know, but you can fault the writing, and I found myself repeatedly little compelled by Rowling’s prose. The tales are easy to enjoy, like a candy bar, and ultimately just about as filling. The movies have gotten better as time has gone by. I don’t know about the books. Time will be the judge. Will our grandchildren be reading Harry Potter in a couple of decades, or will they be watching it? I’m just saying…

My tastes in literature are many, but when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy I will usually choose sci-fi, and I will snap up most any dystopian futuristic novel in a second – favorite books and authors are a different discussion altogether – and speaking of sci-fi, and the March Rare Books Auction, there’s another cool bit there, too, with the original handwritten manuscript for A Prelude To Space by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Again, not really my cup of tea in terms of Clarke – the book reads like an instruction manual, which in a way it is – but it’s rare that something so specific to the process of a master is so readily accessible, and it shows the remarkable order with which Clarke wrote. Click on the link above, in this graph, to check it out.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Another Steelers Championship? Meh…

Feb. 2, 2009
Posted by Noah

Given that Heritage is a Dallas-based company, that most of its employees live here in the Metroplex and given the bad blood between the Cowboys and Steelers – not to forget that I despise the Pittsburgh Steelers almost as much as I do the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins – don’t expect me, or anyone else here, to be waiving a terrible towel this morning. In fact, I would rather have chewed tin foil than see Pitt win another championship – Six titles for this team? The most in the NFL? That’s simply not right. The fact that it came over the lowly Cards, who shouldn’t have been there in the first place? Too easy. Ugh.

I watched yesterday’s game holding my nose, wanting only to see the vaunted Steel Curtain fall into ignominy, and I almost got my wish. Arizona, however, proved that defenses do indeed win championships by not providing any of its own and letting Pittsburgh stroll down the field for the final score. I didn’t want to watch because, somehow, you just knew that with more than two-and-a-half minutes left that the game was far from over.

I emailed Chris Ivy – the Director of Sports here – this morning with a few questions about the game and its impact on collectibles. He’s much more diplomatic than I am, and I give him credit for that. Here’s the exchange:

Me: What was your estimation of the game from a pure football standpoint?
Chris: As someone that didn’t have a particular interest in either team, it certainly delivered and was a great game from a fan’s standpoint. Both teams came from behind and made great plays; it’s a shame that one of them had to lose. (It’s a shame that Pittsburgh got to win! – Noah)

Me: Will the win affect prices on SuperBowl and/or Pittsburgh and/or Cards (Kurt Warner) memorabilia?

Chris: The Super Bowl will certainly influence memorabilia prices for items related to each team from this season. Game used jerseys from both teams will see a rise. Even though his team lost the game, Kurt Warner material will see a rise in his collectibles as well. Kurt Warner was a borderline Hall of Fame prospect if his career ended this season without any additional post season appearances, but because of this post season performance and the fact that he has taken his team to the Super Bowl three times, I think that he is now probable to be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and that will affect all of his memorabilia.

ME: Just to put you on the spot, next year’s Super Bowl teams?

Chris: The Minnesota Vikings vs. the New England Patriots.

Here’s a link to some of the Steeler memorabilia that has sold at auction here in the last four years, Here’s some Kurt Warner stuff, and a single entry from the Arizona Cardinals. My picks for next year’s Super Bowl? Oakland vs. Detroit. You heard it here first.