American artifacts are selling at very high prices to collectors

February 05, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Defying a worldwide dip in art sales, auction-goers bid the highest prices ever last year for everything from an Audubon book and Lincoln autographs to a baseball shirt and a Dudley Do-Right lunch box.

"The dollars are chasing Americana," said David N. Redden, who heads sales of books, manuscripts and collectibles at Sotheby's in New York. "American manuscript sales this past year were the strongest ever in terms of prices."

Indeed, the Americana auctions helped to swell Sotheby's worldwide totals for decorative-art sales to $638 million, up from $618 million in 1991. At Christie's, decorative-art sales declined 3 percent, from $541 million in 1991, to $525 million in 1992.

Joshua Arfer, who heads collectibles sales at Christie's East, said, "These days, we're gearing more for American pop culture than anything else." In December, Christie's set a world record for a lunch box with the sale of the Dudley Do-Right box and thermos for $2,200. It cost $2.25 when it was new in 1962.

One of the costliest items was a copy of John James Audubon's "Birds of America," which brought $4 million at Christie's in New York last April. Audubon's brilliantly colored 1839 masterpiece has reigned for more than 15 years at auction among illustrated books and printed Americana. The record price paid was more than 10 times that for a copy of the book in 1977.

"A world-record price in this cautious auction climate is a triumph," said Stephen Massey, who heads book sales at Christie's in New York. Mr. Massey declined to reveal the names of the buyers, as did most auctioneers. He attributed the exceptional price paid for the 435-page, four-volume book, which was sold by the University of Edinburgh, to its fine condition and original binding.

Both Christie's and Sotheby's in New York auctioned important Abraham Lincoln manuscripts late last year. At each sale, the record changed for an American manuscript and Lincoln memorabilia.

On Nov. 20, an autograph album containing the 75-word sentence that begins Lincoln's second Inaugural Address ("With malice toward none . . . "), and handwritten by Lincoln himself, was sold at Christie's for $1.3 million. A month later, Sotheby's auctioned an early version of Lincoln's "house divided" doctrine, written in the winter of 1857-58, for $1.5 million.

Superman came and went swiftly last fall. On Sept. 30, a copy of "Action Comics No. 1" from June 1938, which introduced Superman on its cover, was sold for $82,500, the highest price ever paid for a comic book. In November, the last copy of Superman, marking his death, was published.

While the prices for most sporting memorabilia sagged in 1992, extraordinary prices were paid for certain historic items. A 300-year-old putting iron was sold for $175,400 at Christie's in London. Titus Kendall, a London dealer, bought it for a client to display at the Valderamma Golf Club in Sotto Grande, Spain.

A Lou Gehrig flannel shirt set a record price when it was auctioned in September for $363,000 in a sale by Richard VTC Wolffers of San Francisco. In another Wolffers sale in November, a baseball signed by Josh Gibson, a catcher known as the Black Babe Ruth in the mid-'30s when he played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro League, brought $26,400. The price was a record for a ball with a single signature.

Two rare cameras were auctioned last year at Christie's in London for record prices. A star-studded 1932 George Washington Kodak, emblazoned with his portrait, brought $28,028, a record for a Kodak, in September.

The camera, which was never produced in volume because of the Depression, was sold by the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester. An even higher price, $50,193, was paid in March for a far smaller and older camera, a Lancaster ladies' watch camera made in 1889.

By year-end, the board-game record more than doubled when Sotheby's in New York sold an early circular version of Monopoly for $71,500. Charles B. Darrow, the Philadelphia heating engineer who invented the game, made it first on a piece of

circular off-white oilcloth so he could play the game on his round dining table.

Darrow gave the prototype to a brother-in-law, a descendant of whom sent it to Sotheby's.

One of the more glamorous items sold last year was the black beaded dress Marilyn Monroe wore in 1959 in "Some Like It Hot." The dress was bought for $38,500 at Christie's East in June by David Gainsborough Roberts, a retired British investment banker living on the island of Jersey.

Buddy 'L' trucks made the records list for the first time in 1992. These pressed steel toys, an American specialty introduced after World War I, rose in value in November at an auction by Noel Barrett in New Hope, Pa., with the sale of a 1930s baggage truck for $8,800.

"There were no large-scale toy trucks until Albert Lundahl began making them," Mr. Barrett said. "Lundahl, who started in business about 1910 in Moline, Ill., making fenders for automobile producers, used the same gauge metal to make toy trucks for his son, Bud."

When the automotive business consolidated after World War I and Lundahl's fenders were no longer in demand, he switched to making toys, which he named after his son.

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