Q: This plaster cast (Della Robbia, I believe) is 39 inches wide, 42 inches high and 6 inches thick. It was part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection in N.Y., formed 1883-95. It’s rumored to have been placed in the drawing room of the Frick mansion in N.Y. by architect Stanford White. What might it bring at auction today?
A: A little history is in order. Yes, during the years stated, the Met Museum did commission 2,600 plaster casts for educational purposes. Intended to show the development of architecture from the ancients to the Renaissance, replicas included details from Karnak and the Parthenon to Notre Dame in Paris.
Yes, Stanford White — along with Louis Comfort Tiffany — was on the board overseeing the collection until 1895. Whether he placed the cast in the Frick, now a museum, is sheer conjecture. The burden of proof is on our reader.
In succeeding decades, the casts were used to educate school groups and artists. By 1950, they were warehoused. Many were then loaned or given as gifts to universities, art schools and museums. In 2006, the last of the collection, 177 casts, was sent to Sotheby’s for auction.
Yes, the cast is of an architectural frieze with raised figures by Luca della Robbia, an Italian sculptor who died in 1482. Showing children singing and dancing, it’s called “Cantoria” or Singing Gallery, and was made in the 1430s for the Cathedral of Florence. It is well known; you can view it on the Wikipedia entry for della Robbia.
We contacted Sotheby’s and the Metropolitan, but neither could confirm that this particular cast sold in the 2006 auction.
That leaves two likely scenarios. The most likely is that the della Robbia is one of the loaned casts. If 2,600 were made and only 177 sold in 2006, that leaves many out there. Scenario No. 2 is that it was bought at the Sotheby’s auction.
The reader does not tell us how he came upon the cast. If it is a remnant of the Met giveaways, it is no doubt by now no longer in its intended home.
Knowing the history aids in identification. Provenance-wise, it does not matter because provenance counts in authentication, particularly when value can be influenced by proving what an item is and where it has been.
But we know what this item is. This cast is a copy. Copies rarely if ever have serious value. And look at the size. Imagine the weight. This is not a portable work of original art.
When selling, a smart collector first looks at what an object is and how it compares to others of its kind. Then he or she thinks of where it will sell best. The big question is, “Who is my target buyer?” You need to find a buyer who wants the frieze and is willing to pay for a large, nonfunctional, heavy piece. Preferably someone impressed with long-ago Met provenance.
In 2006, results for similar friezes at Sotheby’s dedicated, prestige auction ranged from $60 to around $1,000.
Q: Your opinion of this original checkerboard table handmade over 100 years ago?
A: Old gaming tables are popular at auction these days. The one seen in photos has an attractive surface of inlaid light woods, and seems to be in excellent condition.
We found comparable tables on www.liveauctioneers.com that sold for $500 and more. If the maker was a noted craftsperson, value is more. Yours is a fine table!
Auction Action: A fine and rare Rolex Oyster Perpetual custom wristwatch that brought $788,048 in an Antiquorum spring sale in Geneva was one of only six made since 1950. Decorated by Marguerite Koch with cloisonne enamel, the watch called “Two Americas” combines a fine 14K yellow gold timepiece with custom art. When made, several variations of the dial could be ordered; adding fishes and birds cost extra.
Q: Can you match the vintage pinball games with their makers?
C. Addams Family
E. El Dorado
A: Answers are 1-C, 2-D, 3-B, 4-A, 5-E. Source: “The Complete Pinball Book: 3rd Edition,” by Marco Rossignoli (Schiffer, $59.99).
Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Please include an address in your query. Photos cannot be returned.