Spend More on an Austen than Austen Herself Made in her Life!

chagall blue birdMy aunt gave me a $3,000 present — or, she tried to. Over a year ago, she offered me a framed Blue Bird poster signed by Chagall. It had been valued at $3,000 by the owner of a frame shop in the posh DC neighborhood of Georgetown:

Thanks very much for sending us these photos of your Chagall “Blue Bird.”  The one you have is not from the deluxe edition printed without text by Charles Sorlier, but appears to be a signed poster. If the signature is correct we would probably retail this piece for $3,000 (especially if it had a light cleaning). Supposedly Chagall didn’t sign any of the “Blue Bird” posters but [other employee] and I both think that the signature looks okay.

Curious, I walked into a frame store near my office at the time because I saw that they had arrayed in the window similar mounted posters — by, of all people, Chagall. The owner was skeptical that the poster as I described it would be worth a tenth that much but said I could bring it in if I liked. I thanked him and told my aunt that sure, we’d be happy to take the poster. This site, after all, was selling what looked like an identical poster for 12oo Euros / $1500, and my aunt said I was welcome to keep it or sell it, whichever I chose. Until recently, it languished in the bedroom, leaning against a wall like Jordan Catalano. Then Ben decided that Something Should Be Done and started emailing auction houses. A representative from Swann Galleries replied.

I reviewed your signed Chagall poster with the director, and we would be happy to offer it in our February Vintage Poster poster auction, at a preliminary estimate of $8-1200, if you are able to get it to us by the end of October.

$8, huh? “I think she means $800,” Ben said. “Maybe,” I said.   A relative once gave me a piece of oversized, oatmeal-colored clothing I assume was intended to be a shirt. When I took it in to return it, the cashier blushed to tell me how much it had been on Clearance for. Since then I have made no assumptions about the value of any gift. Regardless, that span is less than $1500 and far less than $3000. But we’re busy people with careers and a toddler; we don’t have endless amounts of time to figure out how to sell a piece of art. Of course, they probably count on that. Still, we decided to proceed.

Ben swaddled the poster and brought it into the auction house. A few days ago, we heard from our friends at Swann again:

So I just opened part of the frame on your Chagall to check on the poster’s condition, and unfortunately I found that it is mounted to a board. This does affect it’s overall value, but it’s still a really nice piece. The director would rather set the estimate at $600-900, because of the condition problem, but we’d be happy to still include it in February. Please let me know if this is okay with you, or if you’d prefer to have the poster back. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news!

$600-$900 is greater than $8 but a far cry from $3,000. Still, money is money, right? And what are we going to do, go pick it up in a huff and flounce off to sell it ourselves on eBay? We nodded again: okay, proceed.

Maybe we’re getting hosed. I suppose we’ll find out in February. Meanwhile we’re amusing ourselves by looking at the other lots available online. Perhaps your bookcase longs for a copy of Northanger Abbey for $700-$1000? If your library will not be complete without something even classier, here’s a four-book set of First Editions of both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion for $4000-$6000, which is probably more than Jane Austen herself ever saw in her life. The books are described thus:

12mo, 19th-century full tan calf, spines tooled in gilt, red morocco lettering piece to each, joints and a few corners rubbed, a few minor scuffs and shallow abrasions; scattered foxing to contents. London: John Murray, 1818.

They do look gorgeous, don’t they? Oh, to have $5K to throw around, instead of feeling twinges at spending $5 on e-books.

“THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN’S SOULS” (AMERICAN REVOLUTION.) [Paine, Thomas.] The American Crisis. Parts I, II, and III, bound together. 56 pages. 8vo, early plain wrappers; marginal dampstaining in lower corner, minor foxing and toning. [Philadelphia: Styner & Cist, 1776-77]

Estimate $120,000 – 180,000 

first edition of the extremely rare essays which helped turn the tide of the Revolution. The eloquence of the opening lines continues to resonate: “These are the times which try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” 

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