“At the very beginning, when we’re putting a sale together, we’re depending on what people offer us,” Ms. von der Linn said. As the artwork comes in, if themes or patterns develop, the auction house will put feelers out for similar work. But the results can be varied, she said: “People will offer us individual pieces or some will call and say: ‘I have 20 pieces. What do you want?’”
Sometimes, the choice can be easy. “You ideally want the ultimate example of what that illustrator is known for. I always give the example of someone giving you a Charles Schulz that isn’t ‘Peanuts’ or a Bemelmans that isn’t ‘Madeline,’” she said. “What they are known for is what’s going to bring in the money.”
Pricing is a recipe that includes “gut instinct, the quality of the work and market strength,” Ms. von der Linn said. Another determining factor is whether the illustration was published. “A proposed New Yorker cover could be great, but a published cover is a big deal.” The goal is to offer a broad range of pieces and prices. “We never want to veer from that,” she said. “We always want to make it appealing and affordable.”
These considerations factored into a discussion in late September with Ms. von der Linn and Arielle Bremby, a junior specialist at Swann, about the works in the auction on Dec. 14. The talk showed their discerning eye for quality work, their detective skills (looking for clues to help identify and verify the authenticity of the pieces) and their deep knowledge of art (providing insight into the significance of the work).
Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Some of the works up for sale – along with their opening estimates – include three animation cels (transparent sheets typically used for traditional, hand-drawn animation) from “Yellow Submarine” ($2,000); a “Peanuts” strip by Charles M. Schulz ($8,000), a cover for TV Guide ($2,000); and a sketch and watercolor combination by Maurice Sendak ($15,000). Each of these pieces provokes discussions large (What is their cultural significance?) and minute (In which category should it be placed?).
There is often serendipity in these moments. “When we’re laying out the catalog, we sometimes notice visual themes,” Ms. Bremby said. This time, it was lots of images with crowds. One of those human clusters is evident in “Movie Scream” ($12,000), a classic Charles Addams cartoon depicting the audience at a horror film casting a worried look over their shoulders.
That Addams cartoon is a good example of what draws potential buyers: a sense of familiarity. “People are just charmed or tickled by the material that we handle,” Ms. Bremby said. A sense of humor also comes through in groupings like the whimsical “Man-cave-iana” category, a catchall for sports, weird Americana, beefcake and genre art. This time, it includes “The Raid” ($1,200), by Victor Prezio, a boldly cheesy image of damsels in distress under desert surroundings that are an eye-popping orange.
Having the specialists discuss the artwork provides insights that are not obvious in casual observation. A Four Roses whiskey advertisement by John Philip Falter features two gentlemen having cocktails in a well-appointed apartment and a view of a bright sun setting in the distance. The 1942 work is titled “Strictly Off the Record” ($15,000).
The need for discretion becomes obvious when attention is given to some of the details: The men are gay. “Once you know background and social cues, you can read into it,” Ms. von der Linn said. “He has his green tie and green sock showing. That was a quiet hint to those in the know.”
Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Another stand out is “Après la Tempête,” by Georges Lepape, which was used as a cover for Vogue in April 1919. The opening estimate is $25,000. The watercolor, ink and graphite drawing depicts and is inscribed to Clarisse Coudert, the wife of Condé Montrose Nast, who took over the magazine in 1905.
“This is one of those pieces that hits all cylinders,” Ms. von der Linn said, summing up its appeal. “A famous artist, a surviving work and beautiful original color.”
One of the showstoppers is a copy of “Dr. Seuss’s ABC” ($8,000), which has an original drawing by Theodor Geisel, along with a personal inscription. In the note, Geisel apologizes to a boy named William for holding onto his book for so long. To atone, he included a lush drawing of a smiling Suess-ian beast called “A Great Gallumphing Galoot!”
The auction house gets counterfeit Seusses all the time. “We can spot a fake a mile away,” Ms. Bremby said. But this one was a revelation. “There is no way that is a fake Dr. Seuss. No one could get that detail,” Ms. von der Linn said. And “‘Gallumphing’ is a direct reference to Lewis Carroll, who uses ‘galumphing’ in ‘Jabberwocky,’ and who was Seuss’s favorite muse.” In his excitement, Geisel uses two ls in gallumphing, whereas the poem uses only one.
“That was a great day,” Ms. Bremby said.
Ms. von der Linn added, “And I happened to answer the consignor in a Suess-ian poem.”