Tchotchkes

Janice K. Johnson


Tchotchke: (Yiddish, of Slavic origin) a small object that is decorative rather than strictly functional; a trinket

The kind of artworld story that the public loves popped up in the general press three weeks ago: a 22-year-old college student, browsing through his local Goodwill Store, spotted a tchotchke that took his fancy, an ashtray featuring an annoyed-looking girl smoking a cigarette. He bought it for $10.

The ashtray turned out to be one of an edition done in 2002 called Too Young to Die by the noted contemporary Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara.  The ashtray had its original packaging, which added to its value.  Knowing something about what he had, the student checked eBay and found other ashtrays from the edition for sale there.  He subsequently sold the piece for $2,860.

After reading the news story, I got to thinking about a tchotchke that our 8-year-old granddaughter, exploring the shelves of our basement, had recently retrieved: a multiple by Tom Otterness.  Otterness (born 1952) has been called “the world’s best public sculptor” by critic Ken Johnson in the New York Times, and his whimsical sculptures have delighted New Yorkers for years.  My tchotchke, however, is derived from a commission for another city: Lubbock, Texas, home of my alma mater, Texas Tech. Tech’s mascot is a mysterious figure on horseback who wears a flat-brimmed hat, a cape, and a mask, all derived from the folk hero Zorro.  When Otterness was commissioned to make a statue of the mascot in 2003, he gave the horse a mask and hat as well, along with a pair of pants.

Along with the bronze, the artist authorized a tiny version of the piece in black resin.  These miniatures were sold for $30 each in the Student Union Building at Tech, where my friend Buzz Spector, doing a visiting artist gig on campus, spotted them and bought two, one for him and one for me.  I got a good chuckle out of Buzz’s present and displayed it on a table for a few weeks.  The figurine, however, only 5 inches tall, was poorly lit on the table and was dwarfed by its setting. I don’t have a mantelpiece or a vitrine where small objects could be displayed to advantage.  Blowing the already-accumulating dust off the piece, I put it back in its box and put the box in a drawer, from which it eventually made its way to a basement shelf.

When our granddaughter found the object, I had just read the story of the Nara ashtray, and it inspired Roberta, my wife, to do a quick search for Otterness’s figurine.  She found another copy of the maquette currently being offered for $5,000 on Artsy.

We called Buzz to let him know the news, and he was both happy and sad.  Happy, because of the work’s rise in value, and sad, because his own copy of the work had been broken by accident some years earlier during household cleaning. (I am reminded of one of the maxims by which I live: dust only under extreme duress, and not always even then.)

Any increase in our net worth is academic, of course, because we wouldn’t sell a gift from a dear friend.  Our daughters can decide its ultimate fate after we’re gone.  Will it change the way we see the Otterness?  I don’t think so. It was amusing last year, and it’s amusing today.  The sentimental value of the artwork remains constant.  The fair market value of a piece of art, however, will inevitably change, upward or downward.  You probably have some artworks that have great sentimental value for you.  If you want to know about their value in cold, hard cash, let’s talk.



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