First of all, I kind of hate auctions. I never feel good about the amount I've paid. Did I buy because the price was good or because I got caught up competing against others? Plus, I've been burned by eBay. It's not like I ever bid $40,000 for a lock of Justin Bieber's hair (remember that?) but I did buy some antique transferware plates that, when arrived, had 'microwave safe' stamped on the back. I felt like I'd been had.
In some ways, the process of an auction can undermine any hope for a trusting relationship between buyer and seller. All focus is on a single transaction in which the seller tries to extract the highest price possible and the buyer must weigh his wants against the market forces and the seller's greed. Awful!
And then there is my recent experience on the other end of the auction spectrum. I'm sure you've heard of the venerable auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's where you have to be a venture capitalist with a degree in art history and DNA traceable to Catherine de Medici to feel like you belong. I dipped my toe in those waters by participating in an online auction of "Napoleonic Decorative Arts". You know, old French goodies. Right up my alley.
I "won" the two miniatures in the photo above. They are from the late 1800s, painted on ivory, signed by the artist, and set in very pretty ormolu wood frames. I was excited to add them to a trio of block-printed French soldiers. I envision the whole collage over a drink cart or in a den. The black and cream colors with the touch of gold is refined while the whimsical block prints keep it all from being too serious.
When the miniatures arrived, I was shocked to discover that the back of one miniature was sealed with a page from a French dictionary. Not just any page. A page with the word 'ASS' at the top. Let's speculate for a moment that over a hundred years ago, someone in Paris was assembling all the parts of this trinket, reached for a scrap of paper to apply as backing, and landed on this page. Then he or she cut the page so that the word 'ASS' is the headliner. Deliberate? Mais oui! It's like the French framer's version of the middle school 'KICK ME!' prank.
And, well, look at the guy. In his white uniform resplendent with gold medals and scarlet collar. And a forelock of golden hair. He probably waltzed into the shop to commission his likeness for his mistress and maybe he was arrogant. Anyway, he looks like Mr. Darcy, pre-contrition. In fact, he kind of looks like a Napoleonic version of Justin Bieber. And thus we have come full circle!
Why did the auction house not divulge the backing? This hidden aspect turned out to be the miniature's greatest charm. I'm guessing that whoever buys it from me will agree. Here is the collection as it appears in my shop. Let's hope that the future owner flips over that bad blonde boy miniature from time to time to enjoy the very intentional message sent from 1883 to today.
Photos by Renn Kuhnen. For more information about the Fun French Empire Wall Collage, click here.