This simple brooch of twisted brass wire is expected to sell for as much as $30,000 on Tuesday. [UPDATE: Brooch sold for $92,500!]
Why? Because it was made by Alexander Calder, one of the most famous American artists of the 20th century, and the only one who produced a significant body of jewelry by his own hand. As Calder once put it: “I think best in wire.” This is what he was thinking in 1939:
The pin going on the block at Skinner Boston’s fine jewelry sale was commissioned by Henry Sayles Francis, curator of prints and paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art from 1930-1970, for his wife, Frances. (Yes, she became Frances Francis when she married(!). A letter from Calder, dated December 18, 1939, comes with it.
Like other artists, Calder’s jewelry reflects motifs found in his larger works, including the iconic mobiles, a pair of which Peggy Guggenheim (right) famously wore dangling from her earlobes. She was neither the first nor the last patron of artist-made jewelry to don a Calder. Last year, I caught Helen Drutt sporting one of his brass spiral necklaces.
But, unlike other 20th century artists who dabbled in jewelry – such as Picasso, Max Ernst, Georges Braque, Man Ray and Salvador Dalí – Calder never handed his designs over to a goldsmith. He hammered and twisted each piece by hand, often creating the entire thing from a single strand of wire, connecting parts with rivets instead of solder, or wire-wrapping the stem, as with the pin selling this week.
“To me, Calder is the ultimate because he was the only one of all the famous artists who actually made the pieces from design to fabrication—pin stems, closures, everything,” says Gloria Leiberman, who has sold many pieces of Calder jewelry at Skinner in Boston. “He did a lot of texturing and his closures are all one piece—no solder in Calder’s work.”
The Calder Foundation estimates that the artist produced some 1,800 pieces of jewelry in his lifetime and, as I’ve written about Calder’s jewelry in the past, quite a few have passed through Skinner. This, however, is the first piece of Calder jewelry that’s appeared there since 2007, when this brass ring sold there for $14,100.
This ring sold a year before the exhibition Calder Jewelry appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with accompanying catalog, one of the best books on artist-made jewelry ever produced. That exhibition brought a lot of attention to Calder’s then little-known sideline as jewelry maker. But Skinner has plenty of precedent for estimating a Calder brooch at $20,000-30,000. The brooches pictured below, measuring more than four inches across, all sold for more than $20,000 and one nearly hit $40,000.
In his lean, early days, Calder would send crates of his jewelry to Manhattan gallerist Marion Willard to distribute to society ladies who would hold parties to sell the jewelry for $5 to $25. Making jewelry was a way for him to work out ideas for his sculpture and support his family.
“When he started, he wasn’t all that well-known and needed a bit of cash,” says Jane Adlin, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who helped organize Calder Jewelry. “The jewelry seemed to sell.”
But, as much as he (and his family) needed the cash, Calder had his limits. Willard once tried to convince Calder to let her mass-produce some of his jewelry but Calder turned her down.
“I really don’t like the idea of having things duplicated and made up by other people,” he wrote to Willard, “as then one will never know whether he has a thing I have made (myself) or a thing made by someone else.”
You can see the spiral and other motifs Calder was exploring in his jewelry in his prints and sketches, like the gouache (pictured right) produced in Japanese scroll form, selling at Skinner on September 20 for an estimated $30,000 to $50,000.
Other Calder jewelry sold over the years at Skinner: