Such were the circumstances which surrounded the entry of this Austrian earthenware plaque to Sotheby's South in Sussex for sale on January 31. Evidently a piece of some quality to judge by the sophistication and detail of the relief moulding throughout, the plaque bore the marks of Ernst Wahliss' Turn foundary in Vienna, although why a man better known for French influenced Art Nouveau ceramics should bother himself with a satirical commemorative of a colonial war on the other side of the world, presently remains a mystery.
The plaque depicts three monkeys relaxing on a balcony in a tropical setting, one of whom is reading a newspaper inscribed with images of ships and the words Amerika and Spain, two countries who went to war in 1898 over the putative independence of Cuba.
Predominant historical theory on the causes of the war suggests that McKinley's American government wanted control of Cuba for its coal and sugar cane and, with the help of Hearst and Pulitzer's 'yellow press', either concocted or exaggerated news of native rebellion against ruthless suppression by the Spanish authorities in order to whip up support for a war among an apathetic, generally war-weary, American public.
In this context, and considering that Europe was deeply opposed to US involvement, the three symbolic monkeys could be seen as the otiose and hypocritical American public – enjoying the luxuries that Cuba can offer (tobacco and coffee) while reading, hearing and speaking evil about the country.
The war may have been all about commerce, but interest in the plaque was mostly intellectual, and it sold to an English dealer at £350 (plus 15 per cent premium).
UK: EVERY so often a dealer will acquire an object of academic interest for relatively little money and put it into an auction to see how much it will make.