In this, the second of three parts providing an inside view from the Bill Webster sale, we shall focus on the federal waterfowl stamp prints. This was the most organized part of Bill’s collection and prior to the sale I had always thought that Bill and I were the only two collectors to acquire one print from every edition for every year.
When discussing the sale with Russell Fink (a longtime wildlife art dealer) recently, he informed me that he was aware of a couple of other “complete” collections in addition to ours.
When I visited Bill in Minnesota in the 1980s and 1990s, I was actively putting my own collection of prints together and Bill sold me many items that I needed. Some years later Bill told me he had sent an entire set of first edition prints to be displayed at a museum in Minnesota on long term loan. Last summer one of Bill’s sons told me that the family had received the collection back from the museum and it would be included in what eventually became the Siegel sale in March.
I was kind of excited for I thought that maybe this set included prints other than those Bill had let me pick from years ago. My enthusiasm was tempered a bit when I received pre-sale scans from Siegel and realized that for many of the rarer prints, Bill had had already sold me his best example. The collection that he put together for the museum (and the one to be auctioned) consisted of, in many cases, items that I had previously passed on due to condition issues.
Never-the-less, there were still many exceptional “condition rarities” among the lesser prints and a couple of Bill’s favorites that he would not sell me earlier.
When I arrived at The Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries a few days before the sale to preview the lots, they were as accommodating and gracious as always. They had the prints waiting for me in a private room and asked a couple of very lovely and helpful employees to assist me in examining what was truly a large number of items. I worked hard for four hours and managed to not only get through all of the prints, but to take an initial look at the stamp lots as well.
As expected the condition of the prints was very mixed, with many of the better prints that Bill had sold me years ago having been replaced by examples in lesser (in some cases very poor) condition. On the other hand, in the cases of the prints that I already had when previously visiting with Bill, there still remained many exceptional examples – including some that were the best I had ever seen.
Session One – Hunting Permit Prints
Any worries I had about the sale “bombing” were immediately dispelled with lot number one. The lot featured a 1934-35 federal waterfowl stamp print by Ding Darling. It was stated that this particular example was “Darling’s personal copy… which hung on his studio wall until his death in 1962”.
I must say that aside from being the rarer of two versions of this print, it was perhaps the poorest example I had ever seen with a number of condition issues – not the least of which was a stray ink streak that ran several inches into the image. Prior to the auction there was considerable discussion on why Darling would choose to frame this example and it was foremost on my mental bomb list.
I was surprised when the print received multiple bids before ending at double the low estimate and establishing a new record of around $10,000.00 (depending on whether the buyer paid NY sales tax). The next lot was another example of the same version of the print. It had the largest margins I have ever seen and the relatively minor condition issues were far away from the image and of no consequence (see Figure 1). I was able to win the lot for far less than the print with Darling’s provenance.
The next lot was a beautiful example of the 1935-36 print by Frank Benson. It was in never framed condition and really quite exceptional. I dropped out when the bidding quickly rose to high estimate, as I already had two in stock in similar condition.
The next several lots consisted of prints for which I had already bought Bill’s better example. Some sold quite reasonably, so I purchased them for resale. One of the prints that I did not buy was a 1940-41 first edition by Francis Jaques. The example in the auction was in very poor condition, with the top and side margins having been reduced to less than an inch and the bottom margin have a big hole where an adhered stamp was cut out out.
I had told myself and everyone else that I was not going to bid on this print. However, the lure of acquiring such a rare piece for stock – even in this inferior condition – was too much and I bid it up to double the estimate before dropping out.
The next lot of interest was a 1942-43 print by A. Lassell Ripley. Although not particularly rare, this example was the best I have ever seen with huge margins like the Darling print, but in never framed condition (see Figure 2). I was happy to acquire this condition rarity for under the estimate.
The following lot consisted of two 1943-44 prints by Walter Bohl; one first edition and one second edition. The first edition print was in very nice condition with large (for this print) margins and had never been framed (see Figure 3). This print is considered to be somewhat of a minor masterpiece using the etching technique and has been in high demand for the last couple of decades. The value of both editions has risen steadily during this time. I wanted the lot but knew the bidding would be fierce. After about five minutes I won the lot – for four times the estimate.
A couple of lots later there was another consisting of (once again) two prints that caught my eye. This time for the 1943-44 federal by Walter Webber; one second edition and one third edition. This print is famous for the error that resulted in the first edition lithograph image being reversed or “flopped” from the stamp design. The second edition is also a lithograph but pulled from a stone that was redrawn so that the image matches the stamp.
Walter Webber was the first artist to sign his prints in ink. As it turns out, the ink was quite fugitive (water-soluble). This comes into play when the print has to be conserved (restored). As conservation techniques involve immersing the print in a chemical bath, the fugitive ink on 1943-44 first and second edition prints dissolves – leaving only a faint brown ghost outline of the original black signature.
Experienced paper conservators are able to fix the signature with a waxy substance prior to immersion and protect the signature. However, the process is very time consuming and costly. For this reason, I am always looking for 1943-44 prints that have never been framed and, therefore, need no restoration. Not only had the second edition print in this lot never been framed, it had ridiculously huge margins. The margins were so large that Webber titled and signed the print too far below the image and had to cross it out and redo it several inches higher (see Figure 4). I had to have it.
A couple of lots later was a print that Bill would not sell me in years past. It was a 1945-46 print by Owen Gromme. Owen was a close person friend of Bills and he cherished the print. The print had very large margins (for this print) and although it had been framed, did not need restoration (see Figure 5). Although I had since acquired an example in similar condition, I knew how much it meant to Bill and won it (for double the estimate) for old times sake.
The next many lots consisted of lesser prints in a variety of conditions, some of which I won for clients or for stock. The next lot of note featured a 1952-53 first edition print by John Dick. As did Walter Webber, Dick signed his prints in ink. Although the signature is not so water-soluble as Webber’s, it still must be fixed and therefore is a costly restoration. For this reason, I am always on the look out for 1952-53 prints that have either never been framed or do not require restoration. This print had very large margins and although it may have been briefly framed, it did not require restoration (see Figure 6). It was a steal at half the estimate.
A couple of lots later featured one of the finest examples I have ever seen of the 1957-58 first edition print by Jackson Abbott. The print had full sized margins with a deckled edge on all four sides and appeared to have never been framed (see Figure 7). Abbott signed his prints in the most fugitive ink of all waterfowl stamp artists. If a conservator even looks at it – it seems to disappear.
Through much trial and error, my conservator (who is the best I have ever known) has managed to get to the point where she can preserve about 80-90% of the signature. However, whenever I see an example of this print that does not need to be restored – I lock on it.
I already had an unframed example in my collection when I was buying Bill’s prints years ago so I did not pursue this print at that time. However, it has been a long time since I have seen one this nice and decided to go for it. Much to my surprise, I was able to acquire the print for much less than I was prepared to pay.
The next lot featured a second edition 1958-59 artist proof with a personal message from artist Les Kouba to Bill. As both Les and Bill were friends of mine, I kind of wanted it. I went to a thousand dollars before dropping out. It would be the first of many disappointments to come, as the bidding frequently reached (or even surpassed) levels that I had not seen in many, many years for federal waterfowl stamp material.
The next lot was a beautiful example of the 1959-60 print featuring King Buck by Maynard Reece. The print had huge, full sized margins with a deckled edge on three sides and had never been framed (see Figure 8). This was another print that Bill would never sell me and one that I had long been hoping to acquire. My own example had been restored by my very talented conservator, but was not quite as nice. I was able to win the print for a little over the high estimate.
Several lots later featured a 1970-71 remarqued first edition print by Edward Bierly. The 1970-71 print was the first federal waterfowl stamp print to be produced in color and is very difficult to acquire, especially in never framed condition. A remarqued print has a small hand-drawn or painted area of original art that has been added to the print by the artist.
This example was pristine and had never been framed (see Figure 9). I was able to win it for about half the estimate and was very happy to do so.
The next lot was another beautiful colored print, the 1971-72 by Maynard Reece. In this case Maynard’s family (all of whom were fine artists in their own right) colored each print by hand. The initials of the family member who colored the print can be located in the bottom right corner.
This example was pristine and never framed. The colors were especially vibrant and caught my eye (see Figure 10). I was able to win the print for about double the estimate.
After buying a few more lots for stock another item of interest came up, an artist’s sample 1977-78 print by Martin Murk. The print was in very poor condition and was even folded in half but it was very interesting. Not only did it feature a remarque mock-up by Murk, but many personal notations as this was apparently his working copy. I am going to picture this print (unfortunately, I was unable to win it) as this type of thing is very unusual in the collector market (see Figure 11).
Following the individual lots were several large lots featuring groups of non first edition prints, later colored prints and quantity lots of the more recent prints. I was able to win some while others I was beat out on. In some cases the the spirited bidding prevented me from even being the under bidder.
After I returned home from New York, one of the other bidders called and informed me there was a nice little bonus included in one of the large lots I had won. Apparently someone had placed a beautiful, never framed example of the Iowa First of State (1972) print by Maynard Reece in one of the lots and it was not even described. Even more amazing, it was personally remarqued by Maynard especially for Bill (see Figure 12). I will provide it with a good home, Maynard and Bill.
While all of the bidding activity was a pleasant surprise on the prints – it proved to be a mere warm-up for the stamps to come in session two.