RARE EXAMPLE HAS ORIGINAL PAINT, FIRST TO APPEAR ON MARKET WITH WOOD BASE
By Kathleen Guzman
This charming miscreant was part of an Adirondack cottage purchased by the owner’s parents in the 1970s in Brandt Lake, N.Y. He stood vigilantly by the fireplace, but his history is even more interesting.
In the 19th century, many Americans, especially the burgeoning immigrant population, did not read or write. Storeowners placed various attractive signs or carvings in front of their shops so passersby knew what was sold inside.
Most of the men who carved these signs were shipbuilders, and the New York City docks had no shortage of these talented carpenters. In the 1850s, wooden ships were replaced by ironclads, so there was little need for carved figureheads on the ships’ bows. These enterprising tradesmen were happy to assist retail establishments with their wares.
One of the preeminent firms of show carvings and pipes was William Demuth (1835-1911). Of German descent, he arrived at age 16 penniless, and learned his craft. By 1863, he opened his own New York shop, offering a variety of carved displays. In 1868, Demuth went into partnership with Moritz J. Selig, a zinc manufacturer and fellow German. Together they cast store display figures in zinc of the highest quality and variety. The 1875 Demuth catalog lists 30 different metal show figures, which were far more durable, replacing wooden varieties that were prone to cracking, fading and warpage.
Punch was one of his liveliest examples, modelled after the puppet-show clown Punchinello – with his distinctive sugarloaf cap and ruff collar. Fitted on his humpback was a bellows for this counter model to blow smoke through his cigar. This rare example has its original paint and is the first to appear on the market with a wood base, similar to the bases listed in the Demuth 1875 catalog. Over time, many figures by Demuth were made, but the Punch figure remains the most difficult to acquire, and rarely comes to market in this spectacular condition. An identical example can be seen in Frederick Fried’s 1970 book Artists in Wood.
KATHLEEN GUZMAN is managing director of Heritage Auctions in New York.