An online sale in Bonhams’ Fine Books & Manuscripts department this week featured a whimsical variety of ephemera, ranging from a series of early 19th century chapbooks about shipwrecked mariners and a large-format folio of Eadweard Muybridge’s locomotion studies to one of the “unorthodox taxidermy” sculptures made by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), a mounted trophy head of the “Blue Green Abelard.”
The auction fetched $524,296 in total, over half of which was generated by Andy Warhol books and memorabilia. The top lot in the sale was an early artist book by Warhol, which sold for $106,562 against an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. Warhol was a freelance children’s book illustrator struggling to make ends meet in New York City when he and his mother Julia — who was also his roommate at the time — released 25 Cats Name[d] Sam and One Blue Pussy, a playful artist’s book.
Published in 1954 by Seymour Berlin, the book features 18 hand-colored lithographs portraying the felines (all named Sam, except for one named Hester) with whom Warhol and his mother shared the apartment. 25 Cats — which, contrary to its title, depicts 16 cats — was printed in an edition of 190. The signed copy is accompanied by a letter from Warhol asking the department store that ordered the book how the store discovered it, suggesting that these books often remained within Warhol’s more intimate circle of friends and clients.
Another self-published Warhol book, Wild Raspberries, from 1959, sold for $47,812 against an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. Warhol collaborated with Suzie Frankfurt and his mother on the tongue-in-cheek recipe book, which has instructions that include “To be served to very thin people” and “Always to be eaten alone in a candlelit room.” This particular copy was made out to D.D. Ryan, a fashion icon and Harper’s Bazaar editor who played a hand in the development of Kay Thompson’s famous Eloise character.
The sale also included an assortment of material associated with Georgia O’Keeffe from the archives of the painter Marilyn Thuma, who was mentored by O’Keeffe and visited the Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe’s summer property in Northern New Mexico, on multiple occasions. In addition to letters that O’Keeffe sent Thuma between 1964 and 1973 — with the older artist’s tone turning perceptibly cooler beginning in 1971, Bonhams notes in a catalogue description — the sale featured a folding safari chair and one of the custom-sewn wrap dresses that were O’Keeffe’s sartorial signature.
Leading the O’Keeffe ephemera was the skull of a Rocky Mountain Bighorn ram from Ghost Ranch, which sold for $15,300, well over its estimate of $5,000 to $7,000. O’Keeffe, who collected sun-bleached animal bones from the New Mexico desert and frequently rendered them in her paintings, gifted the skull to Thuma during the younger artist’s 16-day stay at Ghost Ranch in 1971.
Bonhams Director of Books and Manuscripts Ian Ehling noted the centrality of ram skulls in O’Keeffe’s oeuvre. “The ram’s head is etched into our understanding of O’Keeffe — beginning with her iconic 1935 painting ‘Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock Hills,’” he said in a statement about his favorite lots in the sale.
“I have wanted to paint the desert and I haven’t known how,” O’Keeffe wrote in an exhibition catalogue in 1939. “So I brought home the bleached bones as my symbols of the desert. To me they are as beautiful as anything I know … The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho’ it is vast and empty and untouchable — and knows no kindness with all its beauty.”