Hongmiao Shi

101 things we have learned from the Online Magazine

The Online Magazine, our weekly email of editorial highlights from Christies.com, celebrates its 100th edition this week. To mark the occasion, we present a miscellany of useful facts, tips and insights published over the past two years

1. Modern and contemporary works typically hang at 1.55 metres from the floor, to the middle of the picture. It's the height used by museums, and for displays at Christie’s.

2. Watches should be stored away from light, although some unusual ageing — a black dial that has turned brown, or ‘tropical’, for example — can actually increase a watch’s value.

3. Artist signatures first became prevalent during the early Renaissance, when co-operative guild systems gave way to the celebration of individual creativity.

4. Asteroidal meteorites are hundreds of millions of years older than the oldest rocks existing on Earth. They are also approximately 60 million years older than the Moon.

5. Modigliani’s nudes were judged pornographic when they were put in the window of his solo show at Galerie Berthe Weill in Paris in 1917. The police shut the exhibition down.

6. The most precious materials in classical Chinese furniture are zitan and huanghuali, two types of hardwood found, among other places, on China’s largest island, Hainan.

7. Ronald Reagan began eating Goelitz Mini Jelly Beans in 1966, as part of his successful attempt to give up pipe-smoking. After he became president of the United States presidential jars of Jelly Belly beans, each in its own blue gift box, were given by Reagan to heads of state, diplomats and other White House guests.

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8. Schubert’s penwork was so clean and clear that a musician would be able to play from it directly, without the need for a fair copy, much less a printed version.

9. The earliest, securely attributed self-portrait by a European Master was made by Albrecht Dürer at the age of 13. Although there are works defined as self-portraits that pre-date this, he was the first artist considered to have looked at his own image in this way.

10. Silver should be stored wrapped in dry, acid-free tissue paper and placed inside cotton or Tarnprufe bags. It should not be kept near to or touching smoke, household paints, rubber, newspaper, wool, felt or velvet.

11. Jean Dubuffet’s collection of Art Brut, donated to the city of Lausanne in 1971, included more than 5,000 works by 133 artists.

12. A loose lining or an unusual run of nails can be a clue that a different painting might be hidden behind the work you can see.

13. Regal reds and royal blues go flat with poor-quality LED lighting. Look for a colour temperature of 2,700K, a colour rendering index (CRI) of 95 or above and a reputable manufacturer.

14. Marcel Duchamp once declared that his ambition was to be a professional chess player.

The original scorecard from a 1929 chess match between Marcel Duchamp and George Koltanowski — Duchamp beat his opponent in 15 moves

The original scorecard from a 1929 chess match between Marcel Duchamp and George Koltanowski — Duchamp beat his opponent in 15 moves

The cover of Duchamps scoring book

The cover of Duchamp's scoring book

15. Joseph Beuys’ Capri Battery, comprising a yellow light bulb plugged into a lemon, addresses the relationship between nature and technology. Energy is generated for the light when the lemon acid reacts with the copper. Beuys stipulated that the lemon should be replaced every 1,000 hours.

16. It is often better to invest in a slightly neglected Old Master painting, which can be treated relatively easily with sensitive restoration, than in one that has been subjected to numerous campaigns of restoration in the past.

17. At Christie’s we try to alert family members when portraits of their ancestors, or paintings associated with a particular house, come up for sale.

18. According to Tintoretto ‘beautiful colours can be bought in the shops on the Rialto, but good drawing can only be bought from the casket of the artist’s talent with patient study and nights without sleep’.

19. Insects such as silverfish can eat the paper on which valuable drawings have been made. Store them with care.

20. In his early career Picasso signed including his middle name as P R (or Ruiz) Picasso. During his analytical Cubist period he stopped signing the fronts of his canvases entirely in order not to detract from the art itself. Later on he adopted his famous signature, complete with an underlining dash. This was also used as a symbol of completion.

21. Each chair in Gaetano Pesce’s ‘Up’ series is made of upholstered polyurethane foam, vacuum-pressed into an envelope for packaging. Once opened, the chair swells dramatically to life.

22. The harem was a common subject for French Orientalist painters — since the they would not have been allowed to enter one, they amounted to pure fantasy.

23. Chinese calligraphy is represented in five scripts: standard, clerical, seal, running and cursive.

24. The Brueghel dynasty was founded by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525/30-1569), who was the first artist known to have captured snowfall in oil paint. Rather confusingly his son, Pieter the Younger, added an ‘h’ to the family name.

25. ‘I often paint scenes with snow because snow somehow has this effect of drawing you inwards,’ said Peter Doig in 1994.

26. If you want to know the subject of the mysterious portrait on your wall, the Heinz Archive and Library, attached to London’s National Portrait Gallery, offers a free enquiry service. 

27. In 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat made a cameo appearance as a DJ in the video for Blondie's chart-topping single Rapture — the first rap video ever broadcast on MTV.

28. 18th-century portraits were an opportunity for more self-conscious sitters to be depicted in the latest fashions — girandole earrings or a must-have sack-back gown, for example.

29. According to Seattle-based gallerist Mariane Ibrahim, ‘The next big thing will be minimalist contemporary art from Korea.

30. Members of the Gutai Art Association, founded in 1954 in Japan, created dresses from light bulbs, leapt through paper screens and painted with their feet.

31. Greta Garbo’s favourite painting was Femme à l’ombrelle  by Robert Delaunay. Purchased in 1964 for $30,000, it occupied the same spot in the living room of her Manhattan apartment until being sold for $3,607,500 at Christie’s in New York on 15 May 2017.

32. The inclusion of boron will turn a diamond blue, slippage of the lattice structure will make it pink, and radiation in the ground will turn it green. Such ‘freaks of nature’ are far more rare than white diamonds.

33. The Cuban-American geometric abstractionist Carmen Herrera, now 102, didn’t sell her first painting until 2004. Twelve years later, she was honoured with a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York.

34. The unique Swiss Mad watch by H. Moser & Cie is made partly from Swiss cheese.

35. Fernando Botero’s uncle enrolled him in a training school for bullfighters, only to discover his nephew was more interested in drawing and painting bulls than in fighting them.

36. A work of art that is 2,000 years old should have signs of age on its surface. For collectors of ancient marbles, root marks and encrustation are the most common and reliable signs of authenticity.

37. The original Rolex Explorer II Ref. 1655 is popularly known as the ‘Steve McQueen’, even though the actor apparently never sported the wristwatch himself. Instead he wore the Submariner Ref. 5512, notably on his right hand.

38. The artists of the German Expressionist movement Die Brücke  — The Bridge — founded in 1906, advocated free love, naturism and communal living. Seeking communion with the natural world, they would socialise and swim naked together at the Moritzburg Lakes outside Dresden.

39. According to veteran art dealer Guy Sainty, ‘too many people in the contemporary art market still wait to buy things when they’re at the top of the market.’

40. Jannis Kounellis’s 1969 show at L’Attico gallery in Rome consisted of a dozen live horses tethered to the gallery walls. Hugely popular with critics and the public alike, the exhibition is widely regarded as marking the birth of Arte Povera.

41. The two most expensive handbags in auction history were both sold at Christie’s, and are both rare diamond Himalaya Birkin bags by Hermès.

42. In 1976 the singer Serge Gainsbourg named an album after Claude Lalanne’s sculpture L’Homme à Tête de Chou, or ‘The Man with the Head of a Cabbage’. 

43. When an image has been perfected in the process of printmaking, a proof is made and signed B.A.T. (an abbreviation of the French bon à tirer, or ‘ready to print’). The rest of the edition is matched to this image, which is unique and traditionally kept by the printer.

44. Both of Richard Prince’s parents worked for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the forerunner of the CIA. When Prince was four his parents took him to stay with Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, at Goldeneye — the author’s house in Jamaica.

45. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are among the most famous buyers of Moebius, the pseudonym of French artist, cartoonist and writer Jean Henri Gaston Giraud.

46. Guaranteeing authenticity is tricky in Chinese traditional painting. Christie’s specialist Liz Hammer says, ‘If you get five experts in a room, they’ll end up with seven different opinions about a painting.’

47. John Leslie Breck, who is widely credited with introducing Impressionism to American audiences, was briefly engaged to Claude Monet’s stepdaughter Blanche.

48. Towards the end of the 1920s, London Underground posters attracted the best fine artists to the new field of commercial design. They included France’s Jean Dupas and the American Edward McKnight Kauffer, both now highly collectible poster artists.

49. Sam Maloof’s signature rocking chair became a part of the White House Collection of American Crafts after a chair was acquired by President Ronald Reagan.

50. Spitfire P9374, an early Mk 1 version that was sold at Christie’s in July 2015, is almost certain to have been flown at some stage by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, later ‘Big X’, played by Richard Attenborough, of The Great Escape  fame.

51. Never store pearls in cotton wool. Pearls contain moisture that can be drawn out by cotton wool, causing them to crack. Wrap them in silk cloth instead. 

52. Snuff bottles originated in China in the early part of the 18th century, and were initially made for the emperor and the court.

53. Napoleon’s bicorne hats lacked the lining commonly added to hats of the period because Napoleon was allergic to leather.

54. In the first decade of the 20th century, an old piano factory in Montmartre was the scene of the most radical experiments in modern art. The Bateau Lavoir was named by the poet and painter Max Jacob for its resemblance to the laundry boats that worked the Seine.

55. The Russian imperial family were Fabergé’s most important clients, and the Easter eggs were its most important commissions. Just over 50 Fabergé eggs were made, and the design and creation of each took the firm more than a year to complete.

56. The design of ministerial dispatch boxes in Britain has changed little since the 1860s. The boxes are covered in red-stained ram’s leather and lined with lead and black satin — according to legend, the lead would make the case sink if it was thrown overboard in the event of capture. 

57. Queen Victoria’s wedding cake weighed nearly 200lbs and measured almost three metres in circumference.

58. Three key tips for owners of prints: don’t hang a print in direct sunlight; ensure it is kept away from any source of moisture; don’t trim the sheet to try to fit it in a smaller frame.

59. The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which now houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, was once owned by Luisa Casati, one of the wealthiest women in Italy. Casati surrounded herself with a menagerie — parrots, monkeys, snakes, peacocks, a cheetah and a flock of albino blackbirds that she would dye different colours to suit her mood.

60. Andy Warhol used cheaper, thinner paper for his Soup Can  prints from the 1960s to emphasise that they were meant to be enjoyed by the masses.

61. Zhang Daqian produced an average of 500 paintings a year. He was 83 years old when he died in 1983.

62. Many Himalayan bronzes of Buddhist origin are consecrated through a ritual that invokes the spirit of the represented deity, imbuing the work with power. Sacred items such as herbs or cloth are sometimes sealed inside the statue as offerings to the deity.

63. ‘Andromeda was found hidden in a tower, wrapped up in dirty packing blankets,’ explained specialist William Russell, describing the moment he discovered a Renaissance sculpture that had been missing for more than 200 years. Made by Pietro Paolo Oliviera for the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei, it had been untraceable since the 1770s.

64. In France, first-edition comic books sell for much less than the original plates or illustrations used to create them. In the US, the opposite is true.

65. The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show  in 1964, which attracted a record audience of 73 million — or 60 per cent of all US television viewers — was commemorated with the presentation of a pair of custom-made cufflinks to each member of the band.

66. The oldest dated rum in existence, distilled in 1780, was discovered in the cellars of Harewood House, a stately home in the north of England.

A magnificent very rare large blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan. Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435). 19⅛ in (48.5 cm) high. Sold for HK$158,040,000 on 30 May 2016 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A magnificent very rare large blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan. Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435). 19⅛ in (48.5 cm) high. Sold for HK$158,040,000 on 30 May 2016 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

67. A monumental dragon jar used to hold umbrellas was found to have been made in the reign of the Xuande Emperor (1426-35), renowned for producing some of the most impressive porcelain in China’s long ceramic history. The vessel sold for just over HK$158 million (almost $20.5 million) in Hong Kong in May 2016.

68. Weighing 14.62 carats, the Oppenheimer Blue was the largest Vivid Blue diamond ever to come to auction. It inspired an extraordinary 25 minutes of bidding in the May 2016 Magnificent Jewels  sale in Geneva, before selling for more than $58 million — at that time a world record for any jewel at auction.

69. The colours of naturally dyed wool used to make vintage carpets will far outlive those of the synthetic dyed wool used today. The colours are also richer.

70. One of David Hockney’s earliest prints, made in 1954 when he was a student at art school, hung for many years above the deep-fat fryer at The Sea Catch, a fish and chip shop in Bradford, England.

71. Between 1700 and 1720, Antonio Stradivari produced some of the most famous violins and cellos ever made, instruments that went on to be played by many of the world’s greatest musicians.

72. The first Chinese ceramics date back tens of thousands of years to the Palaeolithic period. It was not until the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907 AD), however, that technology developed sufficiently for craftsmen to be able to produce uniform vessels on the wheel and colourful glazes in the kiln.

73. According to Tim Marlow, artistic director of the Royal Academy in London, it is not difficult to find Ai Wei Wei’s gallery in Beijing, ‘because he hangs Chinese lanterns beside the surveillance cameras’.

74. The Chetwode Quadrant , a rare ‘unequal hours’ time-keeping device from the 14th century, is the oldest English scientific instrument ever sold by Christie’s. It was discovered in a field by an amateur metal detectorist.

75. In 1740, Jacques de Vaucanson created an automated duck with a body made of gold-plated copper and intestines of rubber tubing. At the command of its creator, the duck rose, flapped its wings, stretched out its neck, pecked, nibbled, and then swallowed a handful of grain. The duck next took water, splashing with its beak, and then sat, before rising with a quack and defecating onto a silver dish. According to one admirer, the animated fowl was among ‘the greatest masterpieces of mechanics that humankind has ever created’.

76. Frank Auerbach says he has more conversations with minicab drivers than with anyone else.

77. In December 1962, thousands of fans lined the banks of New York’s Hudson River as SS France sailed past, carrying the 400-year-old Mona Lisa, which had journeyed from the Louvre in Paris. The painting’s hugely successful 1963 tour of the United States was organised by the then First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.

78. If left inside a gun, traditional powder will absorb moisture from the air and rust faster than you will believe.

79. In his diaries, Andy Warhol noted Danny DeVito is ‘so cute, we should all marry him’.

80. Some of the most prized examples of scholars’ rocks come from Lingbi, in China’s northern Anhui province. This is due to their density, their deep black colour and the fact that their surfaces appear moist and glossy.

Tiffany Studios, A leaded glass, bronze and mosaic ‘Lotus’ lamp, circa 1900-1910. 34¾ in (88.3 cm) high, 28 in (71.1 cm) diameter. Sold for $2,807,500 on 12 December 1997 (World record for any work of Tiffany Studios)
Tiffany Studios, A leaded glass, bronze and mosaic ‘Lotus’ lamp, circa 1900-1910. 34¾ in (88.3 cm) high, 28 in (71.1 cm) diameter. Sold for $2,807,500 on 12 December 1997 (World record for any work of Tiffany Studios)

81. Each leaded glass lampshade produced by Tiffany Studios is unique.

82. ‘We knew that it would become the most expensive picture ever sold,’ said Chairman Emeritus of Christie’s Americas Stephen Lash of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I  by Gustave Klimt. The painting was acquired by Ronald Lauder for $135 million in a private sale in June 2006.

83. The series based on Eugène Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger  that Picasso painted during 1954-55 consisted of nearly 100 studies on paper and 14 other paintings. The acknowledged masterpiece is Version “O”, which sold for a world record $179,365,000 at Christie’s in May 2015. The painting was previously sold at Christie’s in 1997, realising $31,902,500.

84. Approximately 180 copies of Gutenberg’s Bible were produced in total, of which only 49 are known to have survived. 

85. On the evening of 15 October 1972, farmhands in Trujillo, Venezuela, were startled by an inexplicable sonic boom. The next day an exotic rock was found alongside a dead cow whose neck had been pulverized. This was the first and still the only documented fatal meteorite impact.

86. There are six ritual jades: bi  (representing the heavens); cong  (tubes, representing the earth); gui  (ceremonial flat blades and axes, representing the east); zhang  (ceremonial flat blades and axes, representing the south; hu  (a vessel, representing the west); and huang  (a flat arc of jade, representing the north).

87. Compared to wine, whisky is extremely easy to store. It’s not vulnerable to changes in temperature (within reason), meaning that a cool, dark cupboard can be the beginnings of a ‘whisky room’.

88. The zippered interior pocket of a Chanel flap bag, hidden beneath the top flap of the 2.55, is said to have been created for the hiding of love letters.

89. In 1964, Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa was found guilty of counterfeiting money after creating a series that featured one-sided prints of thousand-yen notes, wrapped around everyday objects. In response to his sentence Akasegawa produced a group of zero-yen notes on which were emblazoned the words, ‘THE REAL THING’.

90. According to Thomas Struth, vanity ‘is one of the biggest problems of our time’.

91. How important is the question of when an Old Master print was made? According to our specialists, it is the  question.

92. The hot summer nights in southern China led to a surge in products designed to cool the bed, including ceramic pillows. They were also believed to keep the eyes healthy.

93. Colin Kemp, Christie’s long-serving doorman at King Street in London, will remember your name, even if he has not seen you for years.

94. Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Net’ paintings originate from hallucinations that she claims have haunted her since childhood.

95. ‘If you had bought coloured diamonds in the 1970s and sold them in the 1990s, you would have made a big profit,’ says David Warren, senior International Jewellery director at Christie’s. ‘If you had bought them in the 1990s and were selling them now, your profit would be vast.’

96. Potters who are trying to fake ceramics often may not have an original example to look at. They must rely instead on photographs, which do not feature the bases. It explains why, when checking for authenticity, you should always look at the base.

97. ‘I will not be able to run any more,’ said legendary war photographer Don McCullin, shortly after his 80th birthday. ‘But you can’t outrun a bullet anyway.’ 

98. A pocket watch made in 1762 by Thomas Mudge, which had the first perpetual calendar ever made for a portable timekeeper, is described as the ‘holy grail’ by Dr. Peter Friess, Director and Curator of the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva.

99. It was only with the guidance of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman that Jeff Koons was able to attain a state of equilibrium for a basketball placed in a water-filled tank. The resulting artwork, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series), was sold for $15,285,000 in May 2016.

100. Albert Einstein wore his favourite leather jacket so often that it still retained the scent of his pipe smoke when it was offered at auction 60 years after his death.

101. Clenching one’s buttocks is a technique Christie’s auctioneers are taught to stop their hands from shaking.