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After Decades Collecting Dust in D.C. Basement, Wooden Cigar Store Indian Brings $203,150 at Heritage Auction Galleries

American hand-carved Cigar Store Indian (Detail)

American hand-carved Cigar Store Indian (Detail)

78-year-old woman’s possession, sold at Heritage, sets all-time auction record

A superbly colorful and remarkably well-preserved American hand-carved Cigar Store Indian, which had sat in a Washington, D.C.-area basement for at least 20 years, brought a world record public auction price of $203,150 on May 22 as the top lot in Heritage Auction Galleries’ Grand Format Political & Americana Auction. The auction realized more than $1.25 million in total. All prices include 19.5% Buyer’s Premium.

The remarkable carving was consigned by 78 year-old Nancy Wischnowski, of Washington, DC, whose husband was an Americana collector until he passed away in 1989.

“This item was purchased in the 1960s or earlier,” she said, “before we were married.”

While Mrs. Wischnowski knew the Indian was “valuable,” she never dreamed it would sell for this kind of money. Her husband had a limited collecting budget, and was a very conservative buyer.

“I doubt that it was fully appreciated or valued when he was able to buy it originally,” she said.

Now there can be no doubt as to its full appreciation or value; it’s a world record piece of Americana.

“We expected a great response to this outstanding example,” said Tom Slater, Director of Heritage Americana Auctions, “but this was really amazing. I was watching the action, and saw at least four different bidders actually enter bids at or above the $75,000 level.”

American hand-carved Cigar Store Indian

American hand-carved Cigar Store Indian

With its powerful nostalgic draw, its’ distinctly American flavor and the masterful artistry, this example seems to have surfaced at the perfect time.

“Its overall originality was definitely key to bidder enthusiasm,” said Slater. “Most cigar store Indians have been restored and repainted to the point where they don’t even convey a sense of age. This example, with its seemingly untouched original patina, clearly appealed tremendously to serious collectors.”

This Heritage Americana sale featured the debut of a new category, as well as the revival of an old one:

Heritage became the first major auction firm to offer highly-collectable Nevada casino chips, the result of which can certainly be considered outstanding. Out of 53 casino chip lots, 51 sold for a total of $106,702. The high water mark was a prohibitively rare 1950s Sands Casino issue featuring the classic “cowgirl leaning on an hourglass” design that brought $26,290.

“Casino chip collecting has been a small but active collecting hobby for some years now,” said Slater. “It was time for a major firm like Heritage to step up and provide a national auction platform for these colorful and valuable collectibles.”

The revival at the May 22 auction came in the form of Western Americana at Heritage, with some 150 diverse lots. The top seller was a rare “Pony Express Bible,” which sold for $20,315.

“One of the partners in the firm behind the Pony Express, Russell, Majors, & Waddell, was a deeply religious man,” said Slater, “and the company provided one of these Bibles to each of its riders. Only perhaps a dozen or so copies are believed to have survived.”

The auction also included a fine selection of historical photography, a category Heritage plans to develop further in future sales, according to Slater. A three-quarter plate tinted daguerreotype of a Shakespearean actor drew spirited bidding, ultimately selling for $13,145 against a high-estimate of $6500. A number of 19th century Western images by William Henry Jackson also inspired aggressive bidding, with a photo of Sitting Crow bringing $4,183 against a pre-sale high-estimate of $2500 leading the way. A superb circa 1871 expedition photo of the Colorado River by T. H. O’Sullivan sold for $9560, completely obliterating its $800-1500 pre-auction estimate.

An important offering of 13 19th century Charleston slave hire badges also drew much attention, including considerable institutional bidding.

“This was a truly superior selection,” Slater said, “a fact not lost on some smart bidders.”

The highest price was achieved by a badge dated 1800 and marked “Fisher,” which almost tripled its $5,000+ pre-auction estimate to finish at $14,340. The year 1800 was the first year for these badges and “Fisher” is one of the rarest occupations. This example also bears what is believed to be the second-lowest number from that year’s issue.

Another high point of the auction was an important selection of 19th century political textiles sold for a total of more than $200,000, led by an Abraham Lincoln campaign flag and an 1840 William Henry Harrison flag, each of which realized $33,460.

Political campaign memorabilia, always well-represented in Heritage Americana auctions, continued to prove a major draw for collectors. The highest priced pin-back button was a rare 1924 John W. Davis variety, which brought $4,481. The top-selling item in the political section, however, was a rare and colorful 1900 McKinley campaign poster that hammered for 50% above its estimate and sold for $17,925.

The next comprehensive Heritage Americana auction is planned for November 2010.

Heritage Auction Galleries

Heritage Auctions, headed by Steve Ivy, Jim Halperin and Greg Rohan, is the world’s third largest auction house, with annual sales more than $600 million, and 500,000+ registered online bidder members. For more information about Heritage Auctions, and to join and gain access to a complete record of prices realized, along with full-color, enlargeable photos of each lot, please visit HA.com.

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