Collectors are flush with cash for commodes

NEW YORK – If you ask most Americans to define commode, they’ll tell you it’s a flush toilet. Period. But to those familiar with antique furniture, the word commode has an entirely different meaning – several meanings in fact. First, a bit of etymology: commode comes from the French word for “convenient” or “suitable” and was derived from the Latin adjective “commodus,” which means the same thing. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition reads: “a piece of furniture with drawers and shelves; in the bedroom, a sort of elaborate chest of drawers.”

French gilt bronze and Jasperware plaque-mounted mahogany commode à vantaux after the model by Joseph Stöckel and Guillaume Benneman, attributed to Francois Linke, late 19th century, 38 x 72 x 29½in with white marble top above three frieze drawers and two cabinet doors opening to six drawers, set with a porcelain plaque with classical figures, the sides also with bronze roundels, est. $8,000-$12,000, sold for $45,000 in an auction held May 28, 2020. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

That pretty much describes a French commode. The word first crept into the vocabulary of French furniture around 1700. Then, it was a cabinet (or chest of drawers), typically wider than it was tall and raised on high or low legs. Commodes were made by French ebenistes (cabinetmakers) who used beautiful wood complemented with ormolu (gilt-bronze drawer pulls). The finishing touch was often a marble slab top, selected to match the marble of a home’s chimneypiece. Such commodes are highly collectible today and can command high prices.

French Louis XV-style marble-top marquetry commode, 19th or 20th century, with ormolu mounts, 38½in tall x 32½in wide, est. $600-$900, sold for $15,000 at an auction held Aug. 16, 2016. Image courtesy of Nye & Company Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Meanwhile, in England (where commode is the standard term for a commode chair, often on wheels, enclosing a chamber pot, used in hospitals and in the homes of invalids), the word commode crept into cabinetmaker’s parlance in London by the mid-18th century. It was used to describe chests of drawers with gracefully curved fronts, sometimes with shaped sides as well. It was called a commode since the finished product was perceived as being “in the French taste.” It was later expanded to describe any piece of furniture with a serpentine front, such as a dressing table, or even a chair seat. These old British commodes are also highly prized by collectors.

Exceptional French bronze mounted commode after Charles Cressent (1685-1768), with elaborate and fine gilt bronze mounts on kingwood, with original thick marble top. Made in France circa 1900, 57in wide, est. $8,000-$12,000, sold for $87,500 at an auction held June 4, 2016. Image courtesy of J. Garrett Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

“French and English aesthetics in the 17th and 18th centuries are very different from each other,” said Karen Rigdon, the Silver & Decorative Arts Director at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. “Choosing one over the other would include personal preference, and consideration of the setting/feeling/ambiance being created. In general, France is considered to have the greatest furniture makers during that time period. There was significant migration in the 18th century.”

Rigdon added, “France was at the center welcoming a great influx of talent from surrounding countries. A level of excellence was achieved in the late 18th century that surpassed earlier work seen in the quality of cabinet making and the refinement of surfaces including marquetry, parquetry and lacquered surfaces, as well as in the decorative/protective gilt bronze mounts.”

Andrew Holter of Nye & Company Auctioneers in Bloomfield, New Jersey, said it certainly wouldn’t be unusual to think of furniture in the 18th century as a vehicle to display a patron’s wealth and social standing. “It’s the modern-day equivalent of parking your Ferrari or Bentley in your driveway,” he observed. “Both scream, ‘I have arrived and I want the world to not only know it, but see it.’ For the 18th century elite, furniture went beyond being simply utilitarian and served as a way to express a patron’s level of sophistication and fashion.”

English George III mahogany serpentine bombé commode, circa 1780, 34in tall x 46in wide, est. $4,000-$8,000, sold for $3,750 at an auction held Nov. 1, 2017. Image courtesy of Nye & Company Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Commodes were a popular form of furniture both because of their practicality, but also because they were great objects to express one’s tastes and preferences, Holter pointed out.  “Ordering furniture in the 18th century was like buying a computer online today. You start with a basic model and then you can add on lots of things.  Cabinetmakers offered a variety of embellishments such as marble top versus a wood top, ormolu mounts versus no mounts, a straight fronted chest versus a reverse-serpentine versus a serpentine chest versus a blocked chest versus a bombé chest. You could request straight bracket feet, ogee bracket feet, a flaring French foot, a pad foot with cabriole legs or a claw-and-ball foot.”

Oftentimes, Holter said, these stylistic embellishments could help a specialist determine where a piece was made. “For example, depending on the stylistic period, French commodes often tend to be flashier or more vibrantly decorated than English commodes. For a Louis XV-style commode, you might expect to see asymmetrical gilt ormolu mounts, perhaps a marble top, wood veneered surfaces and a shaped front. English commodes made in the George II or III periods tend to be either carved from the solid or have slightly more restrained veneers. While you can find ormolu mounts on English furniture, they don’t tend to be as elaborate or as abundant on what are seen on French pieces.”  

Edwardian inlaid book commode, demilune shape, figured satin wood veneers, the centered cabinet doors faced with leather book spines, flanked by convex doors enclosing a shelved interior, 34in x 38½in, est. $1,000-$1,500, sold for $5,040 at an auction held Sept. 15, 2012. Image courtesy by Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In terms of why a decorator might choose one style over another, Holter feels that would be based purely on the look they are trying to achieve.  “Think Versailles verse Buckingham Palace,” he said.  Both England and France make pieces that are of fabulous quality.  However, the design aesthetic is slightly different.” 

As to the current market value for commodes, Karen Rigdon said there continues to be rising value for signed 18th century examples from both France and England, putting them beyond the means of most people. However, she said, “Unsigned or unattributed commodes are both increasingly available and affordable. Over the last five to ten years, many commodes have come to market due to death, divorce and downsizing, during a craze for disposable furniture. Disposable furniture is easy to buy, and heavily marketed, impressing our minds. A mind shift is worthwhile.”

A sound 18th century English or French commode should be considered, Rigdon offered. “You can often buy excellent pieces for less than a new chest of drawers. This is certainly the case at auction. There is much added value. A well-made example will likely be a focal point in your home, adding character as well as stories of the hunt. If well-chosen and cared for, it will certainly at least hold its value during one’s lifetime, and possibly rise as new appreciation grows for 18th century craftsmanship. Include the next generation in your love, and your prized commode may still be in use in another 250 years.”

Neoclassical parquetry inlaid walnut commode, Continental, likely Italian, late 18th/early 19th century, having a molded rectangular top over three drawers, all with book matched and banded decoration and raised on short, tapered legs, 35in tall x 48¾in wide, est. $2,000-$4,000, sold for $3,410 at an auction held Sept. 24, 2017. Ahlers & Ogletree and LiveAuctioneers

Holter said that generally speaking, the market for traditional furniture – whether it be English or French – has softened over the last 10-15 years. “The one thing that remains constant despite the highs and lows of the market is the demand for top quality pieces,” he said.  “They have remained steadfast and strong. I think the short-term outlook for traditional furniture will remain steady and I am cautiously optimistic for the long-term outlook.” 

Design aesthetics tend to swing in and out of fashion like a pendulum, Holter said. “While the current aesthetic is leaning toward a more modern style now, I am a firm believer that people will soon rediscover the quality, warmth and history that the more traditional pieces bring to the table. Additionally, in an era where we talk about the Green New Deal and the need to be green to save our planet, I say go green, buy antiques and you can feel confident that you are doing your part to recycle these treasures from our past.

Defining the silver lining: 6 collectible types

NEW YORK – Silver is both a precious and a noble metal meaning that it is relatively rare, impervious to corrosion and is quite decorative to a mirror shine. So, just what collectible form does silver take anyway?

When polished, silver has a very high gloss and lends itself well for use as both a decorative item such as mirrors and candlesticks as well as a functional, everyday item like jewelry and coins. Its durability by itself, though, is too malleable and so requires an alloy during production to strengthen it. At times, silver is sometimes the alloy itself. Here are six silver categories in order of value and collectibility – and one that isn’t. 

Fine Silver

Pure 100% silver is just too soft to be used without an alloy such as copper or zinc to provide strength and durability. Utilitarian objects such as teapots or jewelry can be made with fine silver meaning less than 1% alloy, but it tarnishes and scratches easily.

Silver that is nearly pure cannot be used in the manufacturing process because it is too soft and malleable. Instead it is smelted into ingots such as this 10 troy oz. of .999 pure silver as an investment that sold for $200 + buyer’s premium in 2016 when silver was selling at $17.34 a troy oz. Image courtesy: Blackwell Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Mostly, very fine silver is intended as an investment in the form of ingots or coins with virtually no alloy at all. “Fineness” is measured by the “nines” and written as “three nines fine” or stamped as .999 for silver bullion or silver proof coins, for example, which means that .001 percent is considered to be natural impurities. The highest content silver ingot was “five nines fine” or 999.99% pure silver from Bolivia or any Canadian Maple Leaf that is a “four nines fine” or 999.9% pure silver coin. 

Finessness is also defined in other ways. Britannia silver, for example, is .958 silver with an alloy of copper, but still classified as fine silver. Other countries have similar fine silver definitions such as .750 silver from much older German, Austria-Hungarian and Swiss coinage while the United States has silver coinage having 40% silver content from 1965 to 1970.

Vermeil

This is one instance where silver is more the alloy than the final finish. According to U.S. federal regulations, vermeil, (ver’may; also known as silver gilt), “… consists of a base of sterling silver coated or plated on all significant surfaces with gold or gold alloy of not less than 10-karat fineness.”  The most famous vermeil is a collection of flatware used for official state functions at the White House purchased in 1956 from the estate of Margaret Thompson Biddle. 

Vermeil is a less expensive process than producing something in a higher grade of gold and is lighter and more durable. The crown jewels of England, for example, are mostly vermeil, much to the disappointment of those who overthrew Charles I when they tried to sell them. While the silver may be at least the quality of sterling silver, the thin gold overlay gives it a higher auction value. 

This set of vermeil flatware is an example where silver is the alloy, not the overlay. It gleams as if gold, but vermeil (or silver gilt) is more durable, lightweight and less expensive to manufacture. This 84-piece flatware set by Tiffany & Co. sold for $1,500 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy: Butterscotch Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Sterling Silver

Candelabras, flatware, photo frames, decorative bowls, jewelry, rings and so many collectible and decorative objects are labeled as sterling silver. It means that 92.5% of its total weight is pure silver. The rest is usually copper or another harder metal like bronze to provide strength. Since 1868 in the U.S. and earlier elsewhere, each sterling piece needs to be legally hallmarked (stamped) with .925 or the word “sterling” to identify it as sterling silver along with the stamp, or hallmark, of the silversmith who produced it. 

The most prominent pieces of sterling silver would be flatware produced from about 1840 to 1940 in Europe and the United States, particularly from well-known silversmiths like Paul Revere. Production of sterling silver flatware declined markedly after 1940 as mass production using hard plastics and other more accessible materials made them easier to keep clean and were more affordable. 

A group of sterling and coin silver cups, creamers, and gravy boats sold at auction for $1,200 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Some were monogrammed and hallmarked by Stieff and other silver companies. Image courtesy Cottone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Coin Silver

For most of early American history, official coinage was 90% silver and 10% alloy such as nickel or copper. But there was relatively little silver to produce other commercial products such as flatware, plates, bowls or tea services. Instead, coins were melted down and repurposed, as we say today. The resulting new teapot, bowl or flatware was sometimes stamped with “coin” or “pure coin,” but not consistently. And because the fineness of coins varied, so did the silver fineness of the new object. However, today coin silver is defined as 90% silver that may be hallmarked with .900. 

Silverplate and Sheffield Silver

What can be made with sterling silver can also be made as silver-plate providing greater access to a wider consumer market at less cost. Instead of mostly sterling silver overlaying a thin layer of alloy, a thin layer of silver was electrically bonded to an item that was mostly alloy such as copper. The results are similar to sterling, except it is much lighter and over time the thin layer of silver-plate, depending on its thickness, can separate from the underlying alloy especially in humid conditions. 

An American silver-plated 19th century biscuit box sold for only $60 + buyer’s premium in 2019 despite its fine engraving and charming style. Image courtesy: Hartzell’s Auction Gallery Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

The process of adding a thin layer of silver over an alloy was discovered in 1740, by accident as the story goes, in Sheffield, England. With early Sheffield silver (as it is now known), edges were noticeably soldered with a ‘sandwich’ of thin silver rolled between alloy over both inside and outside a bowl. By 1840, electroplating was more commercially productive and early Sheffield silver is now quite collectible. Weighted silver is just another term for silverplate as it is mostly an alloy with a thin overlay of silver. Silverplate is not usually stamped or hallmarked as the amount of silver overlay isn’t of sufficient quantity to qualify for regulation or inspection.

Antique Silver

Silver objects that can be traced back through hallmarks at least 100 years can be classified at auction as “antique silver,” especially before the advent of mass production and the discovery of silver in the late 1850s in Nevada. More of the items were handmade or produced in smaller quantities. For that reason, silver objects before 1860 have a particularly higher auction value for collectors than a similar item produced more recently. Still, silver items produced before 1940 will be classified as antique silver, too. It’s the hallmark that will tell its true age. 

And The One Silver That Isn’t

Nickel Silver 

If it looks like silver and feels like silver, it could be just nickel instead. Known as German silver, nickel mimics silver, but with a duller shine. Any item that is not marked as sterling silver or silver-plate would be composed of 60% copper, 20% zinc with a top overlay of 20% nickel. 

Nickel is an overlay of mostly copper and zinc to mimic silver, except nickel silver, as it is called, has more of a duller shine when polished as this nickel silver tea set shows that sold for $150 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy Stephenson’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Generally speaking, nickel silver has no silver content at all. Only its name suggests that there is because it can appear to shine like silver. The difference can be determined simply by rubbing it with a cloth. If it shines brighter (and it is a duller shine than silver), it is nickel. Silver requires more of a polishing agent to remove tarnish and has more of a mirror finish. If you see the letters EPNS on zippers, for example, it is an acronym for “electroplated nickel silver.”

Weighing Silver

While there are different ways that silver is used, they will all be weighed for its silver content the same way (except sterling-plate). Get the total weight, then subtract the percentage of alloy to get its silver content. Whether buying or selling silver, weight should be only in troy ounces. 

There are two types of ounces to be aware of: troy ounce (t oz) and avoirdupois ounce (avdp or standard). A troy ounce is 31.10 grams while the standard avdp ounce is 28.35 grams. So if you are buying by the troy ounce, but selling at the standard ounce, the difference is already 3.5% in the dealer’s favor. Be sure that the scale that weighs your silver shows it as 31.10, not 28.35. 

Knowing the percentage of silver to alloy will make the difference as to its value and collectibility, even if the silver content isn’t quite bullion, but is just a favorite for everyday use or special occasions.

G.I. Joe sired generations of action figures

NEW YORK – The legacy of action figures today owes much to the G.I. Joe figures that Hasbro first released in 1964. These vintage toys had it all, from the original series of 12-inch-tall figures to the now-standard 3¾-inch tall figures Most were articulated and they came with weapons, foot lockers, myriad accessories and vehicles, of course.

Pull GI Joe’s dog tags and hear him talk. In excellent condition with the original box, this 1967 Action Pilot sold for $1,700 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

For decades, G.I. Joe has had a firm foothold in pop culture. Besides toys, G.I. Joe figures were also pictured in comic books, games, puzzles and lunch boxes. They also spawned an animated series and several movies (1987 and 2002). Vintage G.I. Joe toys and figures remain highly popular.

Two Hasbro G.I. Joe 12-inch-tall ‘Adventurer’ figures from 1969 made $4,000 + buyer’s premium in August 2019 at Tom Harris Auctions. Photo courtesy of Tom Harris Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Vintage is generational. G.I. Joe was the first action figure made for boys. So if you’re in your 50s to 60s, the 1964-1969 12-inch G.I. Joe is what you remember – ‘America’s Movable Fighting Man,’” said Todd Sheffer, production manager at Hake’s Auctions in York, Pa. “That line evolved into the ’70s and when war toys were unpopular because of Vietnam, he became a member of  ‘Adventure Team,’ 1970-1976. Hasbro made accessory sets that were more like exploration or hunting, things not military. There was a brief stint that they did ‘Super Joe’ 1977-1978 and he shrunk to an 8-inch size. These weren’t too popular.”

Action figures need gadgets and vehicles and G.I. Joe has a rich history with all manner of vehicles. “One year after the debut of the 12-inch G.I. Joe, Hasbro presented a ‘5 Star’ Jeep for him to ride in 1965,” according to the Yo Joe website, adding that vehicles have been part of the G.I. Joe line ever since.

An early 1980s G.I. Joe Cobra Missile Command Headquarters set realized $3,872 + buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Hake’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The 3¾-inch figures debuted in 1982 and ran consecutively for 12 years until 1994. “Sized to compete with Star Wars figures but this time backed by a TV cartoon and comic book series by Marvel, this is the G.I. Joe of the 30s to 40s age group generation,” Sheffer said, calling this an extremely diverse collection of elaborate vehicles and tons of different characters. “It would be a monumental undertaking to collect them all. This line was resurrected in different forms from 2000 until 2016.”

Sheffer also noted there was also a foreign line in England licensed under “Palitoy,” called Action Man in the 12-inch size and Action Force for 3¾ inches. The smaller figures had less articulation than their U.S. counterparts.

This painted hard resin cast G.I. Joe prototype ‘Snow Serpent’ nonarticulated figure, 7½ inches tall, 1991, went out at $2,794 + buyer’s premium in March 2018. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Unlike some other action figures, what set G.I. Joe figures apart (whether the foot high or the small size) is their articulation, making them highly posable. There were four original 12-inch 1964 G.I. Joes: Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine and the 3¾-inch line had about 163 different figures, all with code names, he said.

The bigger the accessory, the more desirable. “The footlocker was a big deal in the ’60s. It was actual wood with a plastic tray to hold loose accessories (guns, grenades, boots) and even a figure could fit in the bottom,” Sheffer said.
Even for the small figures, big accessories tend to bring big money. “The one thing 3¾-inch G.I. Joe had going for it was the vehicles. First is the Defiant Space Shuttle Complex, which is just what it sounds like: a huge scaled Space Shuttle with launching gantry crawler,” Sheffer said. Next is the Cobra Terror Drome — a huge battle fortress playset. “The holy grail for most collectors with a lot of space and a big wallet is the USS Flagg: a 7-foot-long aircraft carrier. “Obviously at a big price point when offered, not too many kids that weren’t Richie Rich got this under the tree. Actually, it wouldn’t fit under a tree,” he said. “This now can bring well over $1,000 loose with graded examples bringing thousands of dollars.” Another large vehicle was the hovercraft called the Killer Whale. “There were about 250 different vehicles in the whole line from palm size to as long as a kid’s bed,” he said.

A 1985 Hasbro G.I. Joe U.S.S. Flagg aircraft carrier, factory sealed, brought $2,500 + buyer’s premium at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers in March 2016. Photo courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Among the myriad characters in the G.I. universe, Snake-Eyes remains the most popular and valuable of the 3¾-inch figures. “He was a Ninja all in black so kids loved that. Next would be Cobra Commander, Scarlett, Duke and all of these were in the first rounds of figures. Larry Hama, the artist for the comic book, was responsible for creating most of the characters that then became toys,” he said.

The original figures were stamped with a date on the butt, indicating what year the figure was made. To deter copying, the company also added other copyright configurations over the years such as a thumbnail on the inside of a thumb or a scar on the cheek.

A rare Hasbro 1967 G.I. Joe Action Marine rifle-rack set (right), circa 1967, made $2,250 + buyer’s premium at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers in October 2017. Photo courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Collectors often seek out carded and boxed items as these usually have the most value but people collect what they can afford or what they like, usually based on nostalgia. Based on when you were born, the 1960s or the 1980 series may be of higher interest, but there is no denying that G.I. Joes have a storied place in toy history.

Kyser & Rex produced mechanical banks fit for a king

NEW YORK – Considering it was only in existence for 20 years – from 1879 to 1899 – the Kyser & Rex Co. left behind a treasure trove of mechanical and still toy banks that collectors clamored for during their years of production and still clamor for today. Kyser & Rex mechanical banks have fetched over $100,000 at auction, but common examples in well-worn condition can be found for $100 or less. As with most collectibles, condition and rarity dictate the price points.

Kaiser & Rex was formed in 1879 in Frankford, Pennsylvania, a neighborhood of Philadelphia, by inventors Louis Kyser and Alfred C. Rex. The company manufactured patented hardware, specialty items and novelties of all kinds, which they made from iron, brass and bronze. These included mechanical banks, still banks and bell-ringer toys. But it was the mechanical banks that really captured the imagination of the buying public in America.

Kyser & Rex roller skating cast-iron mechanical bank. Place a coin in the slot on the roof and press the lever. The skaters glide to the rear of the rink as the coin falls into the bank, and the man turns as if to present a wreath to the little girl. To reset, slide the figures back to their original position. In near-mint condition, it sold within estimate for $107,520 at an auction held Sept. 24, 2019 by Morphy Auctions. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The company got a boost with the hiring of Randolph Hunter, whose background as a mechanical engineer led to some ingenious toy bank designs, and who also happened to be an attorney, who helped Messrs. Kyser and Rex apply for and secure patents. By the early 1880s, Kyser & Rex had around 125 employees and four branch locations: in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia. Sales were around $150,000 a year, much of that attributable to mechanical banks.

The line included the Bowling Alley, Uncle Tom, Organ Banks, the Baby Mine Bank (Feeding the Child), Chimpanzee Bank, Confectionery Bank, Motor Bank, Dog Tray and Lion and Monkeys. In 1884 Louis Kyser left the firm and the company became the Alfred C. Rex & Co. (also known as Variety Iron Works). Rex later licensed production of his patented banks (such as Bucking Buffalo, which he invented) to other makers when he shut the business down in 1899.

Only a few examples of the Kyser & Rex bowling alley mechanical bank are known. This one has been masterfully repaired and was repainted a long time ago. It was offered with three sets of bowling pins as well as several pages of literature about the bank. It sold for $20,000 at Bertoia Auctions on May 23, 2019. Image courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Michael Bertoia of Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, New Jersey, said several factors play into why Kyser & Rex banks are popular with collectors. “The first is rarity, since they were not in business as long as some of their competition. Second, they were beautifully manufactured, very colorful toys with interesting themes and actions. And third, many of their banks have multiple functions with movement and deposits, as well as bell chimes or mechanically motorized parts.”

Bertoia pointed out that a common trend has applied to all bank collecting for years, to include Kyser & Rex examples – that “condition is king.” He said, “It is a double whammy when you have a rare Kyser & Rex bank in great, all original condition. Authenticity is important as well in driving demand. While it is acceptable to have a repair or a replacement piece on your 125-year-old bank, it is always preferable to have an all original piece, even in a lower condition grade.”

Cast-iron mammy and child mechanical bank made by Kyser & Rex, circa 1880s. Place a coin in the slot of the woman’s apron. When the lever is pressed, she will spoon-feed the child, nod her head and the baby’s feet will lift up, while the coin drops into the bank. The bank has been professionally restored and has a replaced spoon. Estimated at $800-$1,200, it sold for $2,432 at an auction held March 3, 2019 by Cyber Toy Auctions. Image courtesy of Cyber Toy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In his 1947 booklet on mechanical toy banks, the collector/dealer Louis H. Herz wrote, “The mechanical toy bank is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Indeed, not until the United States had developed was there a nation where enough children had coins for banks to warrant their commercial production. The still, or inanimate, toy bank, was made in a wide variety of forms and materials, including glass, porcelain, pottery, tin and wood, beginning around the 1840s.”

But still banks soon had a more elaborate competitor in the mechanical banks, in which action was necessary to deposit the coin, or, the insertion of the coin precipitated or was accompanied by some movement, often of an amusing nature. Such banks, in regard both to their creation and their manufacture, were a natural development of American life, and were made possible by the skill and ingenuity of American craftsmen.

Kyser & Rex mechanical organ bank, patented 1882, cast iron, bell rings, all characters work, excellent condition with original paint. Sold for $1,800 at an auction held Nov. 5, 2016 by Rich Penn Auctions. Image courtesy of Rich Penn Auctions and LiveAuctioneeers

The first mechanical banks appeared soon after the close of the Civil War. The manufacture of these banks on a mass-production basis, and at low cost, was made possible by advances in the industrial revolution. Many of these American banks were destined to be copied later in Europe, especially in England. Mechanical banks, however, were not toys for Continental Europe. The German toy industry was unable to compete with the American makers in this category of toy.

Very scarce coin registering mechanical bank made by Kyser & Rex, circa 1890, in excellent condition, est. $9,000-$12,000, sold for $10,370 at an auction held June 2, 2007 by RSL Auction Co. Image courtesy of RSL Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers.

The types of mechanical banks manufactured seemed almost endless in their variety of designs. There were boys who swallowed the coin and rolled their eyes, William Tell shooting the famous apple off his son’s head with a coin, a horserace started by inserting a penny, and hundreds of other varieties. The mechanical bank was actually a dual-purpose toy – as an object designed to provoke an interest in savings, and a toy to play with. Children enthusiastically indulged in both.

“The mechanical banks are, of course, simply toys, and it is only when they are considered as toys that a proper valuation of their place in the general scene can be had,” Hertz wrote. “They were not a special class of merchandise; neither were they produced or sold as objects of art, a position to which some have tried to elevate them, by way of compensation for the fact that they are actually of much later origin than had originally been thought.”

Late 19th century Kyser & Rex cast-iron mechanical bank, marked with the title ‘Presto Bank’ on front, ‘PAT APD’ on the back and ‘485’ on the underside. Press the lever to pop out a tray; place a coin on the tray and push it back into the bank. Estimated at $100-$200, this 4½-inch-high bank sold for $123 on July 20, 2018 at Cowan’s Auctions. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

However, he added, “The actual production of the banks, the molding, finishing, assembling, painting and other operations, was manifestly a craft, and the original creation of the bank design or mechanism was quite definitely a form of art, of all the more importance and interest because it was the active, creative kind of real American minor commercial art which was transmitted into manufactured products for the use or amusement of the millions.”

Mapmaking turned globular in 15th century

NEW YORK – “Globes have something mystical about them,” enthuses Vienna’s Globe Museum website, “… echoes of long-gone days when ‘here be dragons’ was a plausible entry on maps. Most of us spent at least some time as a child poking at a globe with a finger and discovering just how little geography we know.”

Globes are spherical orbs overlain with terrestrial (earthly) or celestial (heavenly) maps. Though their images are downscaled, they depict vast areas accurately, without distortion. All feature a set of lines: longitude and latitude, the equator, the path of the sun, circles of the Tropics, and the Antarctic and Arctic Circles.

Terrestrial globe, Willem Jansz Blaeu, Amsterdam, 1602. Height (in stand) 21in x 13in diameter. Realized $80,000 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Arader Galleries
and LiveAuctioneers

Traditionally, globes are formed by positioning two half-hemisphere, papier mâché shells on their axis, then securing them at holes at their poles, and uniting them. Next, gores, strips of segmented maps narrowing to points, are glued in place. Though strides in printing eventually allowed quicker, cheaper production, this manufacturing method has barely changed through the years.

Original hand-colored lithographed gores for 10.2in globe, japan tissue. L.C. Hasselgren, Stockholm, 1864. Realized £60 + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Because the ancients saw the sun rise and set at the horizon, many believed that the earth is flat. Controversy arose in the fifth century B.C., when Greek philosopher Pythagoras introduced the concept of a spherical earth. The following century, Aristotle, through observation, confirmed this. Yet according to scholars, the earliest known terrestrial globe, depicting the inhabited world and three imagined continents bound by belts of water, appeared hundreds of years later.

Though terrestrial globes apparently existed in ancient Rome and the Islamic world, the oldest surviving one, named Erdapfel (earth-apple in German), dates from 1492. Since Christopher Columbus had not YET completed his first expedition, it does not depict the Americas.

Joslin terrestrial/lunar globes on a cast-iron base with revolving mechanism, 6in diameter. Realized $3,750 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Grogan & Co. and LiveAuctioneers

As man’s knowledge of the world grew, demand for updated, accurately mapped globes rose. Between 1597 through the early 1600s, the golden age of Dutch mapmaking, cartographers like Van Langren and Hondius competed for the lucrative market. Some, to speed production, copied competitors’ hand-painted or printed maps, simply altering landforms or adding geographical names. Others, like leading globemaker Willem Jansz Blaeu, crafted completely new creations featuring fine, copper-engraved scripts, ornate cartouches and curiously charming images of nomads, sailing ships, sea monsters and cannibals.

Terrestrial globe displaying discoveries of Capt. James Cook, with rococo cartouches, zodiac illustrations on braced horizon band. C.F. Delamarche, 1801. 8.4in diameter on a wooden stand. Image courtesy of Altea Gallery

London globemakers Senex, Adams and Ferguson pioneered globe production through the 1700s, as British trade and travel increased. Cary, Philip , Johnston, C. Smith & Sons, and others followed, marketing not only to educational bodies, but also to Britain’s expanding merchant class.

Through the 1840s, when British societies funded expeditions and fostered natural research, pocket globes, prestigious orbs housed in sleek, fish-skin cases or luxurious, lidded boxes, delighted the country’s upper classes. Though barely 3 inches in diameter, most marked major mountain ranges, rivers, islands, as well as ocean trade winds. Moreover, their interiors sometime featured concave world maps, historical timelines or celestial charts. Since geographic study was a popular Victorian pastime, these tiny globes also graced many a family parlor.

Rare W. & A.K. Johnston 1879 celestial globe, Edinburgh & London, 18in on a cast-iron base, overall 45in x 24in. Realized $3,400 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of North American Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

In time, fine globes were produced not only across Europe, but also in America. Early

manufacturers, including Wilson, Joslin, Copley, Franklin and Schedler, were based along the Eastern Seaboard. Though most created standard size globes for home and instructional use, Charles Holbrook created affordable 3- and 5-inch “hemisphere” orbs as hands-on, rudimentary tools for schoolchildren. (Despite their solid wood cores, surviving ones are often worn beyond repair.)

George III pocket globe, John Miller, 1793, terrestrial globe with a hand-colored celestial map applied to the interior of its leather case. Realized $7,500 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

In the early 1860s, A.H. Andrews, a Holbrook employee, set up his own globemaking company in Chicago. Since then, Chicago, home to Weber Costello, Rand McNally, Chicago Globe Makers and other companies, has become the leading center for commercial cartographic publishing and globe production in America.

Many collectors seek vintage terrestrial globes issued in limited numbers. Yet size and condition also affect their value. Those depicting a geographical discovery for the first time – or near its date of discovery, for example, are particularly desirable. So are globes featuring vivid, hand-colored, original maps bearing extensive, crisp detail, symbols and ornamentation – especially those by noted cartographers. A beautiful, original mount may also increase a vintage globe’s worth considerably.

Illuminated brass, glass and paper globe, 17in x 9½in, Paul Dupre-Lafon, circa 1927. Realized $17,000 + buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy of Phillips and LiveAuctioneers

European globes were traditionally mounted on mahogany, walnut, cherry or rosewood bases following popular furniture styles and fashions. American globes were often mounted on turned wood, brass or cast-iron bases. Larger models, displayed in libraries or studies, sat securely atop pedestal floor mounts. Smaller ones, designed for table or desk use, were cradled within low footed bases. Most featured supportive horizontal bands representing the celestial horizon, as well as vertical meridian bands, indicating longitude.

Globes, to some, may all appear alike. Yet to enthusiasts, each, reflecting history, science and art at its time of creation, is a world unto itself.

Ormolu: ornamental castings bathed in gold

NEW YORK – From time immemorial, mankind has been mesmerized by the glint of glimmering gold. Ancient Egyptians overlaid royal mummy cases and furniture with thin gold leaf; Chinese artisans adorned pottery, wood, textiles and decorative figurines with gilt designs. Greeks gilded marble statues and architectural elements, while Romans gilded temple and palace walls with this rare, highly malleable metal.

During the Renaissance, Italian craftsmen gilded sword blades and hilts, while masters, like Ghiberti (1378-1455) and Donatello (circa 1386-1466), created magnificent, religious-themed, gilt works of art. Ornamental gilt furnishings, however, became fashionable among French royalty and well-to-do centuries later. Their description – gilt-bronze or ormolu (literally “ground-gold”) – reflects their ancient method of production, fire-gilding.

E. Kahn Louis XVI-style desk with ormolu mounts, clock signed ‘Le Roy Paris;’ some mounts marked, circa 1900, 40in high x 40½in wide x 24½in diameter. Realized $55,000 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of Dallas Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

After metal decorative items were designed, molded and cast, they were tooled in a variety of textured surfaces. This ensured that finished products would feature lively interplays of light.

In gilding, the final step, craftsmen coated these with an amalgam of ground-gold and mercury. As they were heated over open fires, the mercury vaporized, leaving a thin, dull, pure gold film behind. Subsequent waxing, refiring and burnishing to brightness created pieces that rivaled the richness of solid gold. Yet they were more durable, less costly, and considerably lighter in weight.

Fine, rare George III-style paste-mount ormolu automaton music clock, made for the Chinese market, 32 x 16 x 15in, dial 4½in. Realized $270,000 + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of A.B. Levy’s Palm Beach and LiveAuctioneers

Like the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, however, fire-gilders suffered from exposure to the vaporized mercury. Stricken with “gilder’s palsy,” manifested by tremors, jerky gaits, stammering and “mercury madness,” few lived past the age of 40. Although France banned mercury-based artistic techniques in the 1830s, ormolu production continued. In fact, luxurious French ormolu remained the foundation of European decorative art through the early 20th century.

Napoleon III ormolo-mounted marble mantel clock, signed Raingo Freres/Paris, circa 1870, overall dimensions 26 1/8 x 22 7/8 x 8 5/8in. Realized $16,500 + buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Shapiro Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Designers closely followed evolving styles of French interior design. During the flamboyant reign of King Louis XIV (1643-1715), master cabinetmakers, fashioning exquisite furniture, for wealthy clientele, replaced functional bronze elements, protecting corners, cabinet keyholes and table feet, with ornamental ormolu-mounts. Since affluent clientele sought to flaunt their wealth, these soon became integral parts of furniture design itself.

Massive, magnificent Imperial Napoleonic Russian ormolu Damascus blade sword, signed, dated, 41in overall, 33in blade. Realized $25,000 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Through the reign of Louis XV (1715-1774), fine furniture ormolu-mounts and fittings, shaped like shells, vines, flowers or leaves, were decorative in their own right. They not only enhanced the general appearance of luxury writing-tables, marquetry-cabinets and bureaus. By accenting borders and edges, they also emphasized their stylish scrolling and serpentine shapes. Craftsmen also created lavish ormolu-mount pieces, like vases, sculptural clocks, wall sconces and firedogs (decorative andirons). Craftsmen, “gilding the lily,” also enhanced extravagant Sevres porcelain with ormolu-mounts.

Pair of monumental gilt bronze mount Sevres urns, ormolu mount base, overall 36½in high. Realized $40,000 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In the reign of Louis XVI (1774-1792), decorative ormolu-mounts embellished a wide range of pieces, including cabinet-on-stands, commodes and credenzas. Ormolu-mounts also transformed functional candlesticks, candelabras and chandeliers into fonts of shimmery, lustrous light. Richly ornamented, ormolu-mount clocks were coveted eye-catchers as well. These were so impressive that, to this day, “Louis XVI-style” creations remain the height of elegance.

Toward 1800, fine ormolu-mounts, resembling garlands, tied ribbons, drapery and classical figures, not only embellished worktables, salon-chairs and consoles. They also adorned smaller pieces like vases, jewelry boxes, inkstands, urns and crystal centerpieces. Similarly, architectural mantel clocks gleamed with ormolu-mount sculptures of Cupids, Greek warriors and winged goddesses. Toward mid-century, remarkable ormolu-mount mantel clocks even depicted highly ornate, spired façades of French Gothic cathedrals.

Rare 19th century French bronze clock, Cathedral de Reims, upon ormolu mount step base, 26 x 15½ x 15½in, overall 30 x 18 x 18in. Realized $6,000 + buyer’s premium in 2007. Image courtesy of Kaminski Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Because these creations have little melt-down value, many have survived. Since certain models appeared repeatedly, mounts were fraudulently cast, and regilded older pieces appear as new, however, dating them may prove problematic. Though few are signed, some may be identified by their quality, contemporary descriptions or study of existing models. French ormolu clocks, on the other hand, sometimes bear names of their gilders, casemakers, dial makers and enamelers.

Cameo jewelry akin to small sculptures

NEW YORK – Cameo jewelry dates back to antiquity when portraits were relief-carved out of hardstone, often onyx or agate, and then set in gold or silver. Carnelian shell, sardonyx, lava and coral are also popular materials. Cameos are not created equally; French and Italian makers are often credited as producing the most beautiful examples. What makes one more valuable than another to a collector has a bit to do with the subjective taste of the buyer but more so the skill of the maker. Overall, the more intricate the cameo’s features and exacting the detail, the more desirable it becomes. The quality of the setting also is important.

An antique hard-stone cameo having an oval-shaped intaglio of a masculine profile adorned with laurel and flower wreath sold for €11,000 + the buyer’s premium in March 2018. Photo courtesy of Aste Bolaffi and LiveAuctioneers

A cameo is a form of the glyptic arts featuring bas-relief carving, which traditionally depicts landscapes, portraits (mostly women but men are seen too, especially rulers), and mythological creatures. Allegorical scenes are also sought after by those who collect authentic cameo jewelry. Among common motifs on cameos were the Three Graces, aka the Charities, who have been referenced in both Greek and Roman mythology. They are said to represent beauty, nature and fertility. “The faces bring a sense of feminine power and simple elegance that women find intriguing worldwide,” wrote Preston Reuther in an online article here.

Cameos have been made into all kinds of jewelry, from necklaces to brooches, but rings are common. In ancient Greece and Rome, cameos were predominantly used in large earrings and signet rings to seal documents.

A Hellenistic gold and agate cameo ring, first century, made $10,000 + the buyer’s premium in October 2018. Photo courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Jewelry trends come and go and often what’s old often becomes new again. Cameo jewelry has long remained popular, however, as people seek out a vintage look that is both simple and timeless in design. While contemporary artisan jewelers continue to make modern cameos (the singer Rihanna released a cameo jewelry collection in fall 2019 celebrating the beauty of black women), many aficionados seek out antique and vintage examples. Modern day examples, particularly in costume jewelry, will use glass or plastic and lesser ones are made using molds.

Cameos are traditionally associated with the Victorian period, and indeed during the Grand Tour in this era, among prized souvenirs that women would bring back home were cameos. There have been many revivals of interest over the centuries, however. From the ancient Greeks, the techniques to create these miniature sculptures were passed down to Egyptians, Romans and so on.

An agate cameo yellow gold and enamel brooch fetched $8,728 + the buyer’s premium in November 2019. Photo courtesy of Il Ponte casa d’aste and LiveAuctioneers

“The Hellenistic Greeks were the first to excel at carving small hardstones with figures in relief, often in the images of deities or other talismanic signifiers,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The museum’s collection is particularly strong in Neoclassical works from the mid-19th century.

Cameos have been avidly collected by the well-to-do and royal families and today there are many fine examples in museum collections today. The Marlborough collection, which was assembled in the 18th century by George Spencer, the 4th Duke of Marlborough, was said to include a number of striking cameos, including a portrait of one of the wives of infamous Roman emperor Caligula, her profile carved into a sapphire ring. Other noted cameo collectors include Napoléon, who established a Parisian school in Paris to teach cameo carving techniques. He often gifted his wife Josephine with cameos and had gold crowns set with cameos made for both of them for his coronation as emperor. Pope John Paul II also was a collector and wore several cameo rings embodying religious themes.

This rare Carlo Giuliano Archeological Revival, lava, asper and 18K yellow gold bib necklace, 19th century, realized $13,000 + the buyer’s premium in August 2016. Photo courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

One of several notable pieces owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art is this cameo, circa 1530-40, depicting a portrait of then-Queen of Poland Bona Sforza, having the signature of renowned engraver/goldsmith Gian Giacomo Caraglio and inlaid with gold. In London’s V&A Museum is a cameo of Queen Elizabeth I, made about 1575-1580 by an unknown artist. Queen Victoria was also reported to be a fan of cameos.

Demand for engraved gems in Europe peaked in the Byantine era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the V&A’s website. “At each stage cameos and intaglios, these skillful carvings on a minute scale, were much prized and collected, sometimes as symbols of power mounted in jeweled settings, sometimes as small objects for private devotion or enjoyment.” Carved stones were often collected by the wealthy and those in power, and often given as diplomatic or royal gifts.

A gold and onyx cameo demi-parure, featuring a large cameo brooch and pair of cameo cuff bracelets, earned $9,750 + the buyer’s premium in May 2016. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Once a symbol of status and power, cameo jewelry today continues to be appreciated for its craftsmanship and timeless beauty. Worn singly or layered to dramatic effect as in a cameo pendant necklace, cameo jewelry is not a relic from Grandma’s jewelry armoire but a valuable addition to one’s collection.

Antique kitchen tools: cooking with style

NEW YORK – Cookware and kitchen tools are a million-dollar business today. While new products are readily available, many people still prefer to use antique and vintage tools. Often contributing to this phenomenon is the desire for having tools just like Grandma’s, which brings up fond memories of being a child and watching her cook. The aesthetic appeal of old tools is also powerful from an Art Deco toaster with its elegant streamlined shape to an ornate soup ladle.

The great thing about old kitchen tools is most are affordable and can readily be found at flea markets and garage sales. Barring rust or broken parts, tools made 40, 50 or more years ago are still functionable. In many cases, they even work better than their modern counterparts. And sometimes they are no longer made anymore or not to the same level of quality.

Early metal tools often are highly collectible. This rare set of four Pennsylvania iron and brass kitchen tools, circa 1830, went for $12,000 + the buyer’s premium at Pook & Pook Inc. in April 2013. Shown are a ladle, a flesh fork, a strainer and a taster, all with inlaid floral vines. Photo courtesy of Pook & Pook Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

“Even if you can find food mills more easily now, I’ll stick with my old one that came from my next-door neighbors because I know it can stand the test of time,” wrote Kristin Appenbrink in a blog about the appeal of old tools on thekitchn.com.

They also make decorating a kitchen fun. Instead of artwork, wall decor could be copper molds in whimsical forms such as fish. A collection of wrought iron trivets or wooden spoons can make for attractive groupings.

A collection of 18th century copper kitchen tools realized $820 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019. Photo courtesy of Bolli & Romiti and LiveAuctioneers

Cooking used to be an hours-long process in Colonial times, from roasting meat in a Dutch oven over an open fire or turning fresh-picked fruit into preserved jam. Heading into the 19th century, time-saving kitchen utensils became readily available from salad spinners to molds and potato peelers. Well into the 20th century, nonstick coated metal pans replaced copper pots for most home cooks even though many professional chefs still favor copper cookware. Cast-iron cookware, especially vintage examples, has seen a resurgence in recent years.

Among old kitchenware, vintage canisters are popular. From brightly colored enamel or metal canisters, often decorated with flowers, to ceramic examples, either round or squared off, canisters blend function and form.

This black metal canister designed to hold and sift flour, for example, has five extra drawers labeled to hold other spices, including cinnamon and nutmeg. It sold for $600 + the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among popular kitchen tools that collectors seek out are hand mixers, waffle irons, graters and potato mashers. Collectors are often drawn to items that have a striking design and the handles/ material can increase a tool’s value. Lobster forks with Bakelite handles or tools having wooden handles in certain paint colors are sought after. Cookie cutters are also desirable, and older examples made of copper usually bring higher prices than aluminum ones.

Mason jars have wide cross collecting appeal. While they were, and continue to be made, for canning fruits and vegetables, they are versatile storage containers. As far as actual kitchen and food storage goes, vintage Corningware, Pyrex and Tupperware remain perennially popular.

This huge lot of wrought iron kitchen tools, including a scrolled toasting fork, ladles and a pierced skimmer with a rattail twist handle made $550 + the buyer’s premium in June 2017. Photo courtesy Forsythes’ Auctions LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Famous chefs and the tools they use often inspire budding chefs. Even their kitchens can be of interest. Julia Child’s home kitchen is where she began cooking and filmed her television cooking show in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a decade. In 2001, she donated her kitchen and its tools and equipment dating to the late 1940s to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is on display.

A Pennsylvania horse and rider tin cookie cutter, 9½ inches long, sold for $1,100 + the buyer’s premium in July 2016. Photo courtesy of Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Toasters have long been collectibles and their design has changed much over the years. Before early electric toasters, people would use long forks to hold the slices over an open fire to toast the bread. In 1893, Alan MacMasters invented the first electric bread toaster in Scotland, which he called the Eclipse toaster. Dozens of design changes have been made since. By 1926, Waters-Genter of Minneapolis offered a redesign called Toastmaster. “It was the first automatic pop-up, household toaster that could brown bread on both sides simultaneously, set the heating element on a timer, and eject the toast when finished,” notes Linda Gross, a reference librarian at the Hagley Museum and Library in a blog on the museum website.

Enterprise cast-iron coffee grinders are a staple of flea markets and common ones are not hard to find. This fine example, retaining the original 1876 decals, sold for $650 + the buyer’s premium in April 2017. Photo courtesy of Leonard Auction Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

One sometimes finds at auction examples of an Coca-Cola electric sandwich toaster/sandwich press, made in St. Louis, Missouri, around 1930. Having decorative scrollwork and an elegant black Bakelite handle, this device embossed a Coca-Cola script logo onto the bread. Several have sold between $1,500 and $3,500 in recent years.

Antique and vintage kitchen tools are not merely utilitarian items, they are also pieces of history and often a family heirloom with many stories to tell.

White House china: dining with history

People have been collecting White House china pieces for nearly as long as there have been US Presidents. While it’s beyond the reach of many people to gather all the pieces for a full setting, most collectors gravitate toward dinner plates, as they’re large, display beautifully, and are surefire conversation starters. They’re also perceived as the most important, even though platters, gravy boats, teapots and other serving pieces are often rarer and can command higher prices.

Abraham Lincoln White House Limoges porcelain dinner plate with scallop-mold rim, decorated with the so-called “Alhambra” pattern in gold to the inner border and with the Solferino purple band to the shoulder, bracketed by slender gold lines, center painted by Edward Lycett in New York, 9½ inches in diameter, est. $300-$500, sold for $9,600 at an auction held June 21, 2014 by Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mt. Crawford, Virginia.

“All presidential relics are keenly sought after by collectors,” said Bill Panagopulos, president of Alexander Historical Auctions in Chesapeake City, Maryland, which has handled many pieces of White House china and other White House memorabilia over the years – from autographs to locks of presidential hair.

White House dinner plates are especially desirable, but not every past president ordered a new state service. However, it has become a more popular practice in the last 50 years or so, perhaps because presidents perceive it as a way to leave a legacy for the future. Also, it reflects the period in history and interests of the First Family at the time. Up until the Truman presidency, the government paid for the china. After that, private sources picked up the tab.

The first president credited with having porcelain decorated specifically for the White House was James Monroe, who ordered a dinner service of 30 place-settings and a matching dessert service from Dagoty-Honore in Paris, at a cost of $1,167.23. Monroe was criticized for buying from a foreign maker, and while Congress passed a law mandating all furniture for the White House be made in America, it excluded dinner china. When the Polks entered the White House, in 1845, a new china service was ordered and Dagoty-Honore was once again commissioned for the job.

The Lincoln china was the first service chosen entirely by a first lady. Mary Todd Lincoln selected china with a purple-red border called “Solferino” (later known as the “Royal Purple” set, in 1861. It was ordered from the E.V. Haughwout & Company in New York City and had been produced by Haviland and Company in Limoges, France. It showed the American bald eagle above a shield with the national motto displayed amidst clouds. The Coat of Arms of the United States appeared in the center. Understandably, dinner plates from the service are highly collectible.

Limited edition circa 1880 plate reproducing the ‘Blue-Fish’ design used for President Rutherford B. Hayes’s White House dinner service, designed by Theodore R. Davis and made by Haviland & Co. of Limoges, France. Back of the plate bears a Haviland mark, stamped artist signature, with patent number “11935”, est. $1,000-$1,500, sold for $1,875 in an online auction held Feb. 13, 2020 by RR Auction, based in Boston.

The dinner service of the Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration was unique in that the first lady, Lucy Hayes, suggested the china include the flora and fauna of North America as its decoration. Artist Theodore R. Davis complied and produced 130 designs at a total cost of $3,120. These designs featured not just flora and fauna but also birds and animals found in the United States. The public liked what was produced, but critics weren’t so pleased. The design wasn’t officially unveiled until a dinner for the incoming president, James A. Garfield.

Benjamin Harrison’s wife, Caroline, was an artist and helped design a service that included the country’s coat of arms in the center of the plates, a goldenrod and corn motif (representing her home state of Indiana) and 44 stars (one for each state at the time). Sadly, she was never able to use the china she ordered, as she died before its delivery in December 1892. Teddy Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, ordered 1,320 pieces of Wedgwood china, white in color and featuring the Great Seal of the United States. It was a large order, which was needed because of a new, 100-guest State Dining Room.

Limoges porcelain dinner plate from the White House service of President Benjamin Harrison, circa 1892, by Tressemanes & Vogt, marked, showing the Presidential Eagle with a sprig of olive and cluster of arrows in its talons, over a ribbon bearing the motto “E. Pluribus Unum,” 9½ inches in diameter, est. $800-$1,200, sold for $2,450 at an auction held Dec. 2, 2006 by Neal Auction Company in New Orleans.

Woodrow Wilson’s first lady Edith specifically wanted a service that would be designed by an American artist, made at an American porcelain works, and decorated by American workmen. She got her wish after viewing a Lenox sample in a Washington, DC store. The resulting design featured the Presidential Seal in raised gold and deep blue borders on all 1,700 pieces. The service was used for the next several administrations until FDR, and only then because the Wilson service had become largely depleted. In 1934, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt ordered 1,722 pieces of Lenox china through a New York store. The pattern showed the Presidential Seal and 48 gold stars, one for each state.

The Trumans ordered 1,572 pieces of Lenox china in 1951 that showed a standardized Presidential Seal, with the head of the eagle turned toward the olive branch (representing peace) and away from the arrows (representing war), per Harry Truman’s executive order issued in 1945. The seal was surrounded by 48 gold stars. Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower kept the Truman service in service, although Mrs Eisenhower did order 120 service plates from Castleton China Inc., in New Castle, Pa., at a cost of $3,606.40. The plates were white with rims covered with pure-gold medallions.

White House plate, dated 1955, marked Castleton Studios, part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s original dinner service, 11½ inches in diameter, est. $2,000-$3,000, sold for $2,125 at an auction held June 3, 2018 by Kaminski Auctions in Beverly, Mass.

In 1967, a new china order was announced, enough to serve 140 guests, at a cost of $80,028. It was the first service not purchased with government funds. An anonymous donor through the White House Historical Association funded the project, with Lyndon Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, working closely with the designer, Tiffany & Company of New York. The maker was Castleton China, the same firm that manufactured the Trumans’ china. The design incorporated Mrs Johnson’s main cause as first lady – beautification – and featured the eagle designed for the Monroe china. The Ronald Reagan state china service was modeled after Woodrow Wilson’s china and was made in the United States by Lenox.

The Reagan service was ambitious: 4,370 pieces, enough place settings of 19 pieces each for 220 people – nearly twice as many place settings as other recent prior services. Many found the $209,508 price tag extravagant, but the entire amount was paid for by the JP Knapp Foundation, not American taxpayers. The Bill Clinton and George W. Bush china services were paid for by the White House Historical Association. The Clintons’ 300 12-piece Lenox gold and white place settings (honoring the White House bicentennial) cost $239,425, while the Bushes chose 320 14-piece place settings with green and white motifs from White House history. The cost: $492,798.

Ronald Reagan White House dinner plate, by china makers Robert C. Floyd, an informal pattern also used aboard Air Force One and at Camp David, bearing a gilt Presidential seal on one side, and navy blue, burgundy and gilt trim to rim. 10¼ inches in diameter, est. $750-$1,000, sold for $896 at an auction held Aug. 1, 2018 by Alexander Historical Auctions, LLC in Chesapeake City, Maryland.

There was actually a price rollback under the Obama administration, with the 320 11-piece place settings made by Pickard China of Antioch, Illinois, costing $367,258. All 3,520 pieces were paid for by the White House Historical Association’s White House Endowment Trust. “Kailua Blue” appeared on a number of the pieces, inspired by the blue-green waters off Barack Obama’s home state of Hawaii. A White House curator said the overall design gave a modern aesthetic to the china “while continuing to draw on historic and traditional elements.” Pickard China had previously made custom china for Blair House, Air Force One and Camp David.

What factors go into determining the value and desirability of a White House dinner plate? “Two things,” Bill Panagopulos said. “First and foremost, the name attached to it. A Lincoln, Washington, JFK or FDR plate will fetch top dollar, whereas a plate from Hoover, Fillmore or Harding probably wouldn’t command a huge price.” Rarity is the second consideration, he said. “I’m not certain if Garfield even had a set of presidential china, but if he did, any piece from it would be especially rare – and expensive.”

Theodore Roosevelt: White House China. 10¼-inch dinner plate, illustration #75 in Klapthor’s “Official White House China.” Multicolored Presidential Seal at top with gold designs around the border. Wedgwood mark on verso. Estimated at $1,600-$2,400, it sold for $6,250 at an auction held Dec. 2, 2017 auction conducted by Heritage Auctions in Dallas.

Regarding the current market demand for White House dinner plates, Panagopulos observed that it’s rather soft, “in line with the decreased emphasis on the teaching of history, and therefore the [diminished] appreciation for these things.” But, he added, like any collectible, the finest pieces always retain their value, and generally increase in line with inflation. “If suddenly a president becomes the object of intense public interest, the right pieces increase in value geometrically. Look what the play ‘Hamilton’ did for Alexander Hamilton material. The important thing, though, is collect what you love.”

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Disney pins: trading up and beyond

NEW YORK – While people flock to Disney’s theme parks for the rides and photo ops with costumed characters, a popular attraction for about 30 years has been Disney pin trading. These colorful enamel or enamel cloisonné pins make for perfect souvenirs; they are cute, small and don’t take up much room in luggage or when displayed.

While new ones can be bought affordably at retail outlets, buying vintage pins to create – or fill out – a collection can provide hours of enjoyment. For collectors, it’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps them going. There are pins for all tastes and budgets with some rare pins going for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

Walt Disney used to say it all started with a mouse and Mickey Mouse pins are a staple of most collections. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

While pins have been part of Disney experience for years, it was not until the Millennium celebrations in 1999 that Disney began marketing the concept of pin trading at its parks, which quickly took off. Pins were soon on sale at nearly every shop at Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California as well as at Disney stores in malls across America. At parks, Disney cast members would gladly trade certain pins with park visitors that they wore, usually on their ties, sashes or cards.

Today, there are millions of Disney pins in existence and in every imaginable type, from characters to park attractions. Mickey Mouse pins are prolific and there are also pins for nearly every Disney character from classic movies to contemporary ones such as Chip and Dale, Goofy, Cinderella and all the Disney princesses, Maleficent, Jiminy Cricket and Buzz Lightyear and, of course, the Star Wars franchise. A “Memorable Scenes” series captures key moments from movies on pins. New pins are often launched to celebrate Disney anniversaries, the opening of park attractions, movies and other special events.

A set of five ‘Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride’ limited edition pins quadrupled its high estimate to bring $1,400 in May 2019. Photo courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Some collectors seek out “First Release” pins, which was a new classification introduced in 2008 to mark a pin’s first year. “Our guests like adding new Disney pins to their collections, especially pins featuring brand new designs,” Steven Miller, project manager for Disney Pin Trading, said at the time. “The concept of ‘First Release’ gives our guests a way to prove they were one of the first to purchase a particular open edition pin.”

Proving indeed it all started with a mouse, Disney also awards its longtime cast members and employees with service pins, the rarest of these being the Steamboat Willie pin (the first cartoon short featuring Mickey Mouse), given to those Disney staffers celebrating 50 years of service. Reportedly, this pin has resold for around $5,000.

This Disneyland tour guide pin, circa 1970s, realized $1,600 in December 2019. Photo courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

“Generally speaking, the rarest are the pin releases with a smaller edition number. If Disney created only 500 of a certain pin, they are going to be harder to find than something they’ve made tens of thousands of,” said Toby Osbourn, co-creator of the Pin Trader Club, said. “That isn’t always reflected in the cost; there are some super low-edition-size pins that don’t go for that much because no one collects that character or series of pins.”

Rarity is definitely a factor in price, but the other main driver is collectibility, he added. “For example, Stitch pins seem to go for more than some other characters, because people know the resale opportunities are higher (he is a very popular character),” he said.

These pins of the Stitch, an extra-terrestrial fugitive marooned on Earth, were included in a bag of more than 100 Disney pins that sold for $300 at an auction in March 2020. Photo courtesy of Appraisal & Estate Sale Specialists Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Early pins from the 2000s tend to bring the most money, likely owing to scarcity (they were likely produced in smaller numbers than today) and collectors seek out older pins to fill out holes in their collections.

Ryan Mondics, owner/founder of Disney Pins Blog, said typically it’s the older 2000s pins from Disney Auctions and Disney Shopping that are the scarcest. “It all depends on the collector. Most people go after what their interest is, whether that is a favorite character or attraction at the parks. Disney makes open edition pins (large quantity) and limited edition pins. Of course, limited edition pins have a higher value,” he said.

A collection of eight boxed Disneyland pin sets for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary brought $1,600 in a May 2019 auction. Photo courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

With so many pins available, both new and old, new collectors would be wise to start small and focus their collections on what they love. Instead of placing importance on pin value, collectors can start with pins that bring them joy (to borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo) such as their favorite park attraction or character.

In a Disney blog, four Disney store artists, who have designed pins, were interviewed on the design process and how they embraced whimsy to create a new take on favorite characters. Keith Fulmis, who has created pins based on Disney movies Lion King, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, said he was excited to see a resurgence in pin culture. “Pins have been part of our culture in America going all the way back to political pins that were used in Lincoln’s era and pins have been part of Disney culture from the beginning as well.”