Getting hooked on folky rugs

NEW YORK – Hooked rugs have been described as the comfort food of antiques with collectors coveting them for their artistic qualities and homespun nature. Rug hooking dates back several centuries and ranges from simple rugs hooked out of fabric scraps by thrifty crafters or elegant designs.

Hooked rugs come in all sorts of designs from abstract and geometric to whimsical and floral. Karen Swager, decorative arts and textile specialist at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, N.C., says that elaborate floral wreaths and bouquets, farm scenes, cats and dogs are common motifs in the designs of hooked and sewn rugs.

A rare hooked and shirred floral rug, circa 1860-80, possibly Maine, made $25,000 in March 2010 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Lions became a popular theme with hooked rugs due to the peddler Edward Sands Frost (1843-1894) who created an industry of stenciled rugs patterns,” she says. “There are few examples of people on 19th and early 20th century rugs. The most well-known hooked rugs with people were designed by James and Mercedes Hutchinson in the mid 20th century.”

Kimberly Smith Ivey, senior curator of textiles at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Va., said rug-hooking techniques originated in North America, specifically Maine, and grew from their 19th century origins to become a national pastime.

“By the early 19th century, sewn rug work was among the special sewing projects a young schoolgirl could create while attending one of the many day or boarding schools that specialized in sampler making, wool embroidery and other female accomplishments,” she said. Jan Whitlock, in her 2012 book American Sewn Rugs: Their History with Exceptional Examples, notes that 40 schools advertising rug work had been identified. Several schools as far south as Virginia also included rug work in their curriculum.

This early 20th century ice skating hooked rug sold for $7,000 in January 2019 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among notable areas known for hooked rugs is the distinct style of hooked rug that originated in Waldoboro, Maine, a shipbuilding community originally settled by German immigrants.

“The rugs are characterized by a deep pile that is clipped and sculptured creating a design that stands out from the background,” Smith Ivey said. “The finest Waldoboro rugs were crafted between 1860 and 1880 and were intended as decorative showpieces rather than floor coverings to be walked upon. Today, hooked rugs with raised motifs are referred to as Waldoboro-types, whether they are actually made in Waldoboro or not.”

Hooked rug attributed to Lucy Trask Barnard (1800-1896), Dixfield, Maine, circa 1850; wool and cotton on linen. Photo courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg/Joseph and Linda Caputo Collection

The most desirable rugs are ones that showcase the inventiveness and artistry of the maker, Swager says, noting that whimsical designs featuring animals are very sought after. In March 2010, Brunk Auctions sold the collection of prominent collector Tom Gray, including a number of fine hooked and sewn rugs. Among them was a bias shirred rug with a whimsical farm animal scene that hammered at $30,000.

“Some collectors also seek rugs made with a distinct technique. For example, bias shirring, where fabric strips are cut on the bias and stitched to the foundation lengthwise in the center of the strip, is one of the most time consuming and difficult techniques of rug making. This technique also allows for subtle shading and the incorporation of wavy designs that can enhance the artistry of the rug.”

A folk art pictorial hooked rug depicting a portrait of lamb amid geometric designs earned $10,000 in January 2017 at Hyde Park Country Auctions. Photo courtesy of Hyde Park Country Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Smith Ivey explains that designs for early sewn and hooked rugs echo motifs found in other home furnishings including woven rugs and quilts.

“Rug makers found inspiration in published sources as well as in the details of everyday life,” she says. “Houses, birds, floral arrangements, and animal motifs, especially household pets, were the most popular designs. During this period, house cats were a major family pet and the most popular design for hooked rugs. Geometric patterns, which are the easiest designs to draw and produce in a rug, are also common.”

She said four hooked rugs created by Lucy Trask Barnard (1800-1896) in Dixfield, Maine, between 1850 to 1860 are some of the best and most striking forms of hooked rug work for a number of reasons.

“First, it is rare to find a rug with a known maker. Four hooked rugs attributed to Lucy Barnard feature a large white house on a hill with attached outbuildings,” she said. “Her rugs display an unusual sophisticated awareness of perspective through the use of oversized flowers in the foreground and two-sided buildings. Landscapes such as these require greater skill and appear less frequently than floral and geometric patterns.”

Hooked rug, New England, 1875-1925, wool and cotton on burlap (jute). Photo courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg/Joseph and Linda Caputo Collection

Highly collectible today are Grenfell hooked mats, which became a cottage industry in Newfoundland and Labrador in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. William Grenfell established “the industrial” to help provide a source of income for the local women, Swager says. “Designs for the mats were inspired by regional scenes and animals. Polar bears, owls and winter landscapes are found on a number of Grenfell mats.”

While the market for hooked rugs has softened a bit in recent years, the best and most artistic examples continue to bring strong prices while the beginning collector still has the opportunity to enter the field at affordable prices.

Some of the attributes that collectors should consider, Smith Ivey says, include:

  • Condition: Does it have its original binding? Are the colors bright or faded?
  • Materials: Is it worked on burlap, which degrades easily and indicates a later date? Is it worked on cotton or linen, which are more stable ground fabrics and indicates an earlier date? Are there mixtures of fibers in the pile that create interesting textures?
  • Design: Is the design original to the maker, and if so, is it an important expression of American imagination and ingenuity? Is the pattern derived from a published design? Did the maker customize the publish pattern to express some of her personality?
  • Maker: Is the maker of the rug identified? Does the rug have a known provenance? Is it dated or signed in any way?
  • Technique: Is it hooked or is it an example of a sewn rug, such as yarn-sewn, bias shirred; chenille shirred, or patch? Are different hues of one color used to create a shading effect?

Arts & Crafts Design: Useful and beautiful

NEW YORK – Can decoration coexist with usefulness? The Arts & Crafts movement answered that question by insisting that everyday products from homes to furniture be well designed, functional and aesthetically pleasing in an understated way.

The principles that inspired Arts & Crafts design harkened to an earlier agrarian society that focused on home, farm and family. Simplicity and necessity was more important than decoration. Food was homegrown, and clothing, furniture, tools and housing were created by hand. Mass production was limited to the sawmill, the granary and guilds of skilled craftsmen. It was a life of labor and often hardship.

American Arts and Crafts glazed earthenware vase designed by Harold Hals for Teco pottery, model 259, circa 1900-1904, covered in a matte glaze, 13¼in. high. Realized: $25,000+ buyere’s premium in 2013. Clars Auction Gallery image.

Economists agree that the shift of textile production from India to Great Britain by the 1780s began a strategic economic realignment away from a socially cohesive agricultural community to an industrial one focused only on production and dislocation. Once large-scale mechanization of textiles took hold, for example, it was felt that overall quality from the high standards of meticulous craftsman was replaced with sometimes pleasing but low-quality mass production. It was not altogether a positive trend and workers and craftsmen became more vocal about their displacement by machinery.

Rare Gustav Stickley chandelier no. 730, Eastwood, New York, circa 1904, hammered wrought iron and amber glass. Realized: $25,000+ buyer’s premium in 2014. Rago Arts and Auction Center image

It was the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, considered to be the first world’s fair, that highlighted what was considered poor quality, overly decorative and unimaginative design elements. Instead, the exhibition provided the motivation for a movement to refocus design and decorative arts with a return of craftsmanship to its medieval roots of simple forms using high-quality materials created with handmade precision. In time this artistic and social philosophy would be known as the Arts & Crafts Movement.

The beginnings in Great Britain 1860s

By the 1860s, writer John Ruskin focused his social commentary on the appalling social and economic conditions brought on by the early Industrial Revolution. Architect Augustus Pugin lamented the trend to overdecorate buildings, homes and structures. At the same time designer William Morris felt that function should not be overshadowed by intricate and dramatic design flourishes in furniture, metalwork, glassmaking and the decorative arts.

Arts & Crafts copper box with attribution to Frank Marshall, 1 7/8in. x 5¼in. x 4in. The cover has an enamel over copper inset depicting a pair of peacocks. Realized: $2,700+ buyer’s premium in 2016. Humler & Nolan image

Together the collective philosophy from these earlier reformers insisted that craftsmanship can be accomplished without the social and economic upheaval of the large-scale manufacture. And it was effective. Within a generation, guilds formed throughout the United Kingdom and Europe espousing simpler forms, a focus on the artist and direct participation by the workers themselves, all without the intervention of mass production methods.

Movement to the United States 1890s

Although the Arts & Crafts Movement in Europe was followed in the United States throughout the 1880s and 1890s, it wasn’t until 1897 that the first exhibit opened with the American Arts & Crafts Exhibition in Boston. Its success created the Society of Arts & Crafts in Boston and the Arts & Crafts Society at Hull House with Jane Addams in Chicago that same year. Other communities such as the Roycrofters in Aurora, New York, and Craftsman Farms in New Jersey with Gustav Stickley in 1907, all intended to provide hands-on experience in handcrafted furniture, textiles and metalwork.

Marked Roycrofter oak side table with mortise and tenon construction, 26in. high x 26in. long x 13 ½ in wide. Realized: $650+ buyer’s premium in 2017. Butterscotch Auction image

Unlike the European movement that disdained mechanization throughout the process, the American movement focused more on influencing consumer behavior through the practical design elements as a form of social engineering toward more progressive ideals. A bit of mechanization and perhaps some profit wasn’t necessarily a hindrance.

Major Influences

From Europe, the simple floral and medieval designs of William Morris still predominate whose influence would help inspire the Art Nouveau style that emphasized curved lines and natural forms. The Bauhaus style in Germany emphasized simple and striking design in the fine arts.

In the United States, Gustav Stickley’s “Craftsman Style” of architecture incorporates simple design elements, but so does his furniture design. Plain with little to no embellishments, a Stickley chair, sideboard, textiles, wall paper, metalwork and others evoked the Arts & Crafts Movement like no other. His influence would provide inspiration for what would be called Mission Style and even the Art Deco design movements of the early 1900s.

Early Gustav Stickley narrow bow-arm Morris chair, #2340, Eastwood, New York, circa 1902, oak with leather seat and back. Realized: $14,000+ buyer’s premium in 2014. Treadway Toomey Auctions image

The Arts & Crafts Movement spread to Japan when philosopher Yanagi Sōetsu started mingei in the 1920s to 1930s highlighting Korean and Japanese folk art emphasizing “handcrafted art made by ordinary people.” Pottery by Hamada Shōji, Kawai Kanjirō and the artisans of Onta, Japan form the basis of the mingei movement that includes pottery, lacquerware, textiles and woodworking.

End of a Period

The Arts & Crafts Movement lasted from the 1880s to the introduction of Modernism as an art form in the 1930s. Yet the simple design for well-made, functional objects in furniture, textiles, pottery, glassware and metalwork still resonates in local art fairs and as a universal collectible category more than 150 years after William Morris declared a new aesthetic movement as a progressive social cause.

Morris summed up the Arts & Crafts enduring legacy by saying, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

4th of July: a sizzling collectibles category

NEW YORK – American Independence “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more,” according to John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. While the future U.S. president was right about the celebrations, he was wrong about the day.

As it happens, the vote for independence from Great Britain was unanimous on Tuesday, July 2nd. That’s the day that John Adams envisioned for his “pomp and parade.” When the Declaration of Independence was officially ratified on Thursday, July 4, that became the de facto day that we now celebrate with “bonfires … illuminations” and collectibles.

Declaration of Independence

Naturally there are gift shop copies of the full Declaration of Independence complete with signatures of all 56 signers. Yet, a full text of the Declaration is available in many 19th century printings. Some hand-printed editions published as early as 1824 may start at $15,000, but later highly decorated 19th century versions sell for $300 or so.

A wonderfully decorated mid-19th century facsimile of the Declaration of Independence by printer Rufus Blanchard with a border of the seals of the 13 original colonies. It recently sold for $250. Images courtesy Austin Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

If you’re able to find the original historical yearbooks like the Annual Register series that began under the editorship of the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke in 1758, you’ll find a first early printing of the full Declaration of Independence along with notes and comments from Philadelphia.


Nothing says July Fourth like Old Glory, the flag of the United States. There are any number of flags and flag styles to collect from the very small to the rather large and any number of star patterns. When Independence was proclaimed in July 1776, though, a flag wasn’t even thought about until about a year later. Even then, the flag design that was approved was intended as a naval standard, not a national flag, which was a relatively new concept.

The entire resolution authorizing a flag is just 31 words: “Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Nothing about how the stars were to be arranged, how many points they should have or whether the stripes were to be horizontal or vertical.

Because the resolution was vague, manufacturers designed unusual patterns using stars with different number of points. Before the Centennial of 1876, a complete flag is relatively hard to find. Most were handmade for display at home while others were government or military standards. After 1876, the presence of the U.S. flag became more ubiquitous.

No original 13-star flags are known to have survived the 18th century. This fanciful hand- stitched version shows an unusual star pattern in silk and dated July 4th, 1865, the first Independence Day after the end of the Civil War, which sold for $20,000 in 2012. Image courtesy: Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

What makes a U.S. flag fun to collect is the star pattern. Since 1795 a star was added for each new state every July Fourth after the admittance of the state. This means that the flag has changed 28 times, the most of any national flag. There was no set star pattern until 1912, with the most unusual star patterns becoming the most collectible.

Most flags before World War II were made of wool bunting, but there are some of silk, cotton, muslin and even a combination of fabrics. Flags are handsewn, silkscreened, machine sewn (stripes after 1850s; stars after 1890), and even block printed.

Most small, late 19th century hand-held flags are easily available for $30 or less and can be removed from the stick for easier display. Flags need to fit in an acid free frame, so collectors prefer smaller flags. Very large flags, no matter how old are difficult to display, but are great as a school show-and-tell, and as a patriotic addition to a neighborhood or civic program. Banners, or “pull downs” as they are known, are also quite decorative and collectible in any condition, especially with unusual star patterns.

This is the more iconic image of Uncle Sam, a recruiting poster for World War I created by artist Montgomery Flagg in 1917. An original recently sold for $9,000 by Heritage Auctions. Image courtesy of: Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Uncle Sam

Another great symbol of the United States is Uncle Sam, the gentlemanly figure usually decked out in red, white and blue coattails and top hat. Although mentioned in a line of Yankee Doodle, the satirical song sung by the English to harass the Colonials during the Revolutionary War, popular tradition suggests it was a nickname given to Samuel Wilson, a meatpacker for the troops during the War of 1812 in northern New York state. His meat barrels bore the markings ‘U.S.’ and because of his patriotic dedication was nicknamed Uncle Sam.

Tintype of Samuel Wilson, who supplied meat to the U.S. Army during the War of 1812, was affectionately known as ‘Uncle Sam.’ The image sold for $4,250 in 2016. Image courtesy of Forsythe Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Today, the Uncle Sam character is mostly associated with a red, white and blue cast-iron mechanical bank and an image created by artist Montgomery Flagg for his World War I recruiting poster “I Want You.” Uncle Sam can also be found in so many other variables such as an Andy Warhol painting, advertising tins, World War II morale posters and pamphlets, Red Cross benefits and even as an ad to help fight forest fires.


The American bald eagle has been the most recognizable symbol of the country since its adoption on June 20, 1782 as the Great Seal of the United States. In full display, the eagle holds 13 arrows in the right talon to dramatize the commitment to fighting for freedom and democracy while finding peaceful solutions first symbolized by the olive branch and its 13 branches and berries.

Carved eagle display attributed to John Bellamy, a folk artist of the late 19th century known for heavily stylized eagle carvings. This gilded 19th century example sold for $35,000 in 2018. Image courtesy John McInnis Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Folk artist John Bellamy carved patriotic eagles for ships and home decoration from about the 1850s to 1900 that are especially prized by collectors and is one of many artists utilizing the majestic bald eagle in patriotic works. The detail apparent in the fierce eyes and almost three- dimensional carving of the feathers and talons holding flags, arrows and ribbons attest to the majestic bird’s powerful image.

Patriotic-themed fireworks labels are great collectibles such as this Marine Brand fireworks label from the Liberty Display Fireworks Co. in China that sold for $425 in 2012 and The Voioe (sic) of Freedom fireworks label that sold for $175 in 2012. Images courtesy Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Fireworks, Postcards and Noisemakers

The use of fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July began at the first anniversary in 1777. One such celebration was described by the Evening Post in Philadelphia as having “ … a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with 13 rockets) on the Commons … ” China, then and now, is the preeminent fireworks manufacturer and their patriotic-themed fireworks labels are highly collectible because as paper labels, they weren’t expected to survive the event.

Patriotic postcards were a brisk business for publishers in the early 20th century such as this lot by well-known illustrator Ellen Clapsaddle, which sold for $30 in 2017 or about $7.50 each. Image courtesy: Matthew Bullock Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

When graphic design took a decidedly industrial leap in the late 19th century in Germany, the ability to produce more colorful illustrations with raised letters and embossed images helped make the penny postcard an immediate sensation from about 1900 to 1920. The one major postcard artist of the era was American Ellen Clapsaddle, who produced many of the dazzling holiday and patriotic postcard illustrations that are highly collected today. Look for ones with her added signature below the illustration to make them even more valuable.

Family gatherings deserve noise on the Fourth of July, too. Cardboard noisemakers, fanciful pinwheels and loud horns weren’t expected to survive the holiday. Any early items that did survive are highly collectible and sought after, especially if they are in very good condition.

This colorful button is a souvenir of a Fourth of July celebration in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1916. This patriotic-themed collectible sold for $322 in July 2018. Image courtesy of Hake’s Auction

There are also many vintage patriotic-themed items such as posters, civic holiday programs, parade items, buttons, tin items, flag-themed fans, decorations and so much more that can be collected and displayed all year long.

With this many vintage collectibles to display and admire, it’s no wonder that even John Adams believed that patriotic fervor should be “ … from this time forever more.”

Pop-up books: collectible page-turners in 3-D

NEW YORK – Movable books feature dramatic, three-dimensional or moving parts that readers can manipulate. Through the 16th and 17th centuries, adults commonly used volvelles, parchment or paper wheel charts fitted with information-filled revolving discs, to decipher secret codes, plot the planets, explore mystical theories, and calculate dates of movable feasts. As the science of medicine advanced, anatomical flap books, featured superimposed illustrations covering, then revealing, concealed marvels of the human body.

Children had long enjoyed listening to tales and fables. Books illustrating morality tales and extoling maidenly virtues expressly for them, however, did not appear until the mid-1700s. To add to their appeal, publishers incorporated interactive movable paper mechanisms. Their pull tabs nodded heads and waved hands, while split flap-pages altered illustrations in pace with text, and lift flaps or slats changed illustrations entirely. In time, simple page turns, through secreted paper scaffolding, raised characters magically to their feet.

Two pop-up volumes (‘Peter and Sally on the Farm’ and ‘Ricky the Rabbit’) with text illustrations and color pop-up illustrations by noted paper engineer Vojtech Kubasta. (4to), cloth-backed pictorial boards; each volume an eight-page story book with large two-page fold-out pop-up, London: Bancroft & Co., 1961. Price realized $160 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Toward the turn of the century, Imagerie d’Epinal, a French printing company, introduced movable, hand-colored woodcuts based on popular folk, storybook and military themes. Soon after, people began exchanging similar German and British copper-engraved holiday and greeting cards. Some of their mechanisms were complex, featuring levers that simultaneously activated many movable parts.

Pocket-size peepshow books, evoking larger peephole boxes once popular at fairs and festivals across Europe, followed. Their progressive, overlapping, hand-painted page sets, bound by silken, concertina-like hinges, not only produced three-dimensional illusions in lifelike perspective. They whisked their viewers far and wide, from Queen Victoria’s Coronation and Paris by Night to Down the Rabbit Hole. On marking the 1843 inauguration of the Thames Tunnel, all tunnel-like movables were dubbed tunnel books. In time, these charmers, some offering multiple peepholes, variable lighting and changeable views, graced many a Victorian mantelpiece.

‘The Model Menagerie,’ With Natural History Stories, L. L. Weedon, Evelyn Fletcher and others. London: Ernest Nister; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1895, oblong 4to, 10¾ in. x 14in. Illustrated in sepia by William Foster with six three-dimensional chromolithographed ‘stand-up’ plates. Chromolithographed cloth-backed glazed boards drawn by E.B. Stanley Montefiore. Rebacked with front free endpaper restored and reinserted but lacking back free endpaper; cover rubbed and soiled. Price realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2007. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

At this time too, London-based Dean and Son mass-produced novelty Movable Toy Books, lavishly colored through innovative, oil-based chromolithography. Some reinforced moral and social norms through tabbed or venetian blind-like character transformations. Others featured cutout sections connected by ribbons folded flat which, dramatically with a flip of a flap raised sculptural paper “peepshows.”

From the 1880s, Raphael Tuck, in addition to lavishly lithographed die-cut paper dolls and movable paper toys, published almost 100 moveable books under the title Father Tuck. Many, in addition to pull tabs and peep-shows mechanisms, featured multilayered, three-dimensional illustrations.

‘The Frogs’ Picnic,’ a rare moveable pictorial disc with a window and two tabs, held by a wooden handle. Patent pending notice dated July 9, 1929 and copyright date of 1931 on the top disc of the transformation. A most amusing moveable, for the elaborateness of the reveals and the charm of the illustrations. The story text begins on the top disc and runs parallel to the left edge. For the continuation of the story, the reader pulls each of the three tabs from right to left so the sequence of captioned pictures on the concealed discs appear in the cutout window. The story concludes on the top disc, running parallel to the right edge. An extremely rare moveable in excellent condition, 12in. x 9in. With publisher’s original box with pictorial lid. Price realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

A decade later, Ernest Nister, based in Nuremburg, published sentimental creations in both German and English. Many feature multiple animating levers, circular pinwheel mechanics, or slatted, “dissolving,” peekaboo views.

Lothar Meggendorfer’s whimsical works, however, may contain the most innovative, ingenious paper mechanisms ever created. In many, intricate interlocking parts open eyes, drop jaws, extend arms, chop wood, catch fish, rock babies, and more, to the accompaniment of amusing verse. In others, single, wired, riveted pull tabs activate multiple (hidden) levers that animate as many as five illustrations simultaneously. International Circus, however, is Meggendorfer’s masterpiece. Though initially lying flat like any movable book, it unfolds, accordion-like, into a continuous, semicircular, six-act panorama. Lift-flaps on each of its panels reveal three-dimensional images of colorful, near-lifelike performers, spectators, circus acts, as well as an orchestra.

Lothar Meggendorfer’s ‘Internationaler Circus’ is considered by many to be his most important work. Chromolithographed panorama of six three-dimensional fold-down circus scenes. The book unfolds to form an elaborate circus scene including clowns, acrobats, horses, orchestra and spectators. First edition, Esslingen: J.F. Schreiber, 1887. Price realized $800 + buyer’s premium in 2008. Image courtesy PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Because these and all fragile movable books were enjoyed by eager little hands, surviving copies have often sustained smudges, nicks, dents, discoloring, missing tabs or tears. Those in prime condition are both rare and costly.

During World War I, publication of German movable books ceased. British creations reappeared in 1929, with S. Louis Giraud’s Express Children’s Annuals and Bookana Stories. These handcrafted “living models,” in addition to tabs, folds and flaps, feature page turns that spring up into imaginative, stand-alone, three-dimensional double-page spreads viewable from all angles. Other surprises abound. “The Circus Clown,” for instance, features a 3-D acrobat who, at page turn, not only loops a 3-D pole, but (stuck in a loop) continues looping long afterwards. These brightly colored, popular creations, though lacking delicacy and detail of earlier European ones, remain highly collectible.

During the Great Depression, New York’s Blue Ribbon Publishing Co. marketed movables as catchier “pop-ups,” heralding a new genre. These low-cost imprints, inspired by favorite fairy tale and Walt Disney characters, feature basic designs on coarse paper. Yet complete, rare, unused ones are quite desirable.

The ‘Pop-up’ Minnie Mouse, illustrated with three full-color, double-page pop-ups (two of which are on the endpapers) plus other illustrations by the staff of the Walt Disney Studios. 9½in. x 7¼in., original color pictorial boards. Plus two similar pop-ups books. Walt Disney, Ribbon Books, New York, 1933. Price realized: $200 + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Through the 1950s and ’60s, Vojtech Kubasta, Czech artist, architect and paper engineer, created an astounding number of three-dimensional books featuring highly stylized, boldly colored, witty, imaginative themes. Some begin in conventional flat format, concluding with single, dramatic pop-up punches. Others illustrate story lines with profusions of novel, geometry-inspired paper cuts, folds, pull tabs and scaffolding. These create massive, complex visuals that not only leap off the page, but also extend beyond their borders.

From then on, pop-ups have flooded British and American markets. Unlike those of old, imagined, planned and produced single-handedly, up to 60 artisans design, engineer, print, pound, cut free, fold, then hand-assemble hundreds of components into a single creation.

‘The Dwindling Party,’ New York: Random House, 1982. First edition, large pictorial hardcover. Signed by author Edward Gorey beneath the title page flap. Rhyming verse accompanied by pop-ups illustrated by Edward Gorey, and engineered into 3-D by paper artist Ib Penick. All pop-ups and pull tabs complete and functional with no creases or tears. Note: Signed copies of this title are rare. Price realized $175 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Houston Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Scores depict simple peekaboo Disney, Harry Potter or Sesame Street themes. Others, far more intricate, explore adult topics like phobias, superstitions, nightmares or the Naughty Nineties. Those interested in trying their hand at paper mechanics may also enjoy pop-ups illustrating how to make pop-ups.

Buddhist thangkas inspire devotion through art

NEW YORK – In the Buddhist tradition, thangkas have been important objects for centuries, meant to be a central teaching tool in guiding a person’s meditation and in the journey toward enlightenment. Today, these scroll paintings continue to be used as such but are also appreciated for their aesthetic value as artworks.

Highly intricate, beautifully detailed and rich in symbolism, thangkas incorporate significant Buddhist motifs. They can be in the form of a mandala (a spiritual symbol in Buddhism and other Eastern religions to signify the universe) but typically depict one deity or a grouping of Buddhist deities and holy figures, often accompanied by representations of religious lore and myths and even imperial symbols, astrological diagrams and landscape scenes.

This Indo-Tibetan thangka of Red Vaishravana, 18th century or earlier, went for $48,000 at New Orleans Auction Galleries in May 2014. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, which has a shrine room containing several important thangkas, notes on its website that artists often made paints from crushed minerals and glue to bring these paintings to life. “Most materials used for creating paintings and sculptures come directly from the earth, deepening the connection between Himalayan art and the environment,” according to the museum.

Thangkas are usually painted on cotton or silk and often surrounded by silk or brocade. They would be hung on walls or put on altars to aid in meditation. They range in size from diminutive to massive.

A Tibetan thangka of Tsongkhapa, 18th century or earlier, brought $11,000 in May 2014. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

“Thangkas are created as teaching tools, designed as visual representations to help focus the mind and ultimately the progress of the student farther down the path to enlightenment,” said Rebecca Moss, Asian arts specialist at New Orleans Auction Galleries. “Consequently, the deity depicted, the region the work was produced in, the size and age of the piece, the quality of the design and its execution, and, of course, condition, are all important factors that collectors consider. Mandalas are arguably the most recognizable representation; their intricate, mesmerizing designs immediately provoking concentration as the viewer studies the depth of detail they contain.”

A Tibetan thangka of Padmasambhava, probably mid-19th century, made $1,800 in March 2019 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Thangkas are highly collectible and sublime examples often bring big money. During the important Asia Week New York sales in March 2019, Sotheby’s sale of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art boasted a Tibetan thangka, depicting a Hevajra mandala, second half 14th century, which went way over estimate to attain $2.4 million. On LiveAuctioneers’ price database, the highest price was a set of five Qing period thangkas, which earned just over $1 million in December 2014 at Wichita Auctioneers in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“This has, historically, been a niche market. However, the growth and spending power of Chinese buyers has created a surge in popularity and prices for quality pieces,” Moss said.

A shift in Western understanding of Eastern religions and culture over the last few decades, coupled with increased scholarship has led to a greater appreciation of the art form.

A Tibetan thangka depicting two abbots, possibly 13th century, sold for $525,000 in September 2017 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Centuries after a thangka’s creation, it can be challenging for scholars and conservators to ferret out its iconography as well as the political and social contexts they were made in. There are certain rules governing content, proportion and the symbolism of color in thangkas but these rules can vary by religious or geographical stylistic differences.

According to the Asia Society New York, common decoration motifs include the lotus flower, symbolizing spiritual purity; the conch shell whose reverberation reaches far and alludes to one’s spiritual awakening from ignorance to understanding; a treasure vase with flaming jewels representing the wealth of Buddhist teaching that retains its value even as knowledge is freely shared, and the eight-spoked dharma wheel, also referred to as dharmachakra. “These spokes represent the principle of the Eightfold Path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration,” according to commentary on the society’s website.

A large Qing dynasty and seed-embroidered mandala thangka earned $280,000 in December 2016 at HK BGTJ International Art Auctions Co. Photo courtesy of HK BGTJ International Art Auctions Co. and LiveAuctioneers

“My advice to collectors new to the genre is to buy something that engages you, and helps bring you peace and clarity when you look at it,” Moss said. “Whether you are a practitioner of Buddhism, or just appreciative of the skill required to create these complex and layered compositions, it is important to find a work that speaks to you.”

As thangkas can be delicate and subject to the vagaries of light and humidity, proper storage and display is key. It was once popular for a while to remove the thangkas from their original fabric mounts and put them in “Western” style frames or remount them on to wax-resin or paper backing. “While this was not necessarily detrimental to the works themselves, many serious collectors will hunt for works with the original mounts intact,” Moss said. “If you are lucky enough to acquire an older example in its original state, then seek professional advice as to how best to display it without jeopardizing its condition.”

Finn Juhl: distinctive Danish Modern furniture

NEW YORK – Blending canny craftsmanship with discriminating details, Finn Juhl (1912-1989) introduced the Danish Modern aesthetic to America. Not only an architect, he was also an interior and industrial designer, whose innovative furniture designs, starting in the 1940s, are at the heart of his legacy.

After getting his architecture degree, Juhl began working for the renowned Danish architect Vilhelm Lauritzen in 1934 but avidly pursued his passion for furniture design, which was self-taught.

A pair of Finn Juhl rare lounge chairs model NV-45 from 1945 made $60,000 in November 2014 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers.

“Like other modernist pioneers, Juhl started from scratch without role models or inherited restrictions. He designed by measuring his own body and analyzing how the individual components of the chair should carry the human body,” according to commentary on the website of the House of Finn Juhl, which in 2001 was given exclusive rights from Juhl’s wife to manufacture and relaunch his sculptural furniture. The firm has reissued several of his most iconic designs. “But contrary to his modernist contemporaries, with their streamlined, scaffolding-like structures, Juhl aimed at a more organic, natural form.”

Juhl’s iconic armchair, model 45, takes the easy chair to new heights, breaking away from conventional furniture construction by treating the upholstered back and seat as separate entities from the load-bearing wood frame. Pushing the material’s strength to the maximum and using the expertise of his staff of joiners, Juhl designed a chair whose curves are gracefully simple and sensuous. This chair was one of several pieces that was the highlight of the 1945 Cabinetmakers’ Guild exhibition, where Juhl and master cabinetmaker Niels Vodder exhibited elegant and sculptural furniture that was comfortable yet sensible.

As designers know, the chair is not an easy thing. It needs to be both light yet sturdy and above all comfortable. Famous designer Mies van der Rohe famously said it was almost easier to build a skyscraper than a chair.

This Finn Juhl Chieftain lounge chair from 1949, its first year of production, attained $75,000 in December 2018 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers.

“Rather than thinking in terms of practical construction, Finn Juhl had the mind-set of a sculptor, when he shaped a piece of furniture. In the 1940s and 1950s, this way of working had never been seen before,” according to the website of the House of Finn Juhl. Creating pieces that evoked movement and life, Juhl’s goal was to create pieces having what he called a “visual lightness.”

While teaching himself the ins and outs of furniture construction, Juhl first began working with fully upholstered pieces, focusing on the organic shape of the furniture, which became his signature look, but within a few years, he was confident enough to focus on wood as the central material instead of hiding it under a layer of upholstery.

A group of eight Finn Juhl for Niels Vodder Egyptian rosewood chairs in blue upholstery earned $60,000 in May 2018 at Clars Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Juhl’s Grasshopper Chair, designed in 1938, was a daring innovation at the time when furniture was bulky and traditional. This design was showcased with Vodder’s stand at the Guild shows. The chair is aptly named as the back legs and armrests meet the floor on a diagonal, resembling a grasshopper’s back legs bent and poised to jump. At the time, buyers were not overly impressed and the only two examples Juhl brought to the fair, did not sell. Today, however, the design has been reissued and made its debut at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2019.

While Juhl is best known for his chair forms, he designed a variety of seating furniture, including his Poet sofa, launched in 1941, and the Baker sofa, designed in 1951, the same year that Juhl’s works transfixed American audiences when showcased in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Good Design” exhibition. He also designed credenzas and sideboards and over time drew inspiration from American designers, especially Charles Eames. While wood has been his central material up until now, he increasingly began incorporating steel and a new fondness for straight lines and simplicity in his tables, benches and sideboards. Modern sculpture, such as Alexander Calder’s mobiles, also influenced his work.

A Finn Juhl wall-mounted sofa from Villa K. Kokfeldt in Denmark, 1953, realized $60,000 in
November 2015 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers.

“Being connected to the landscape was something that Juhl both lived and practiced, and the influence is notable in the organic forms of his furniture,” according to Design Within Reach in Stamford, Conn., which also offers modern furniture and pieces in the tradition of Juhl and others, reissuing vintage designs.

Finn Juhl’s furniture, like any example of good design, has stood the test of time. Made to be comfortable above all else, they exhibit craftsmanship at its best and an appreciation for organic forms and the materials.

Vintage pedal cars copied classic automobiles

NEW YORK – What kid didn’t beg mom or dad to steer the family car, and what kid didn’t dream of having his or her own car? Child-size pedal cars, operated by leg power instead of a motor, became popular toys in the 1920s and ’30s. They were mostly a plaything for wealthy families, however, as they were expensive.

First hitting the market in the 1890s, early pedal cars were made of wood. Later on, manufacturers began rolling metal pedal cars off the assembly lines with all the bells and whistles, much as their full-size counterparts rolled off the assembly lines in Detroit. While cars were popular and usually modeled after cars of that period, there were also pedal planes, trucks, buses, trains and tractors.

This American National ‘electric’ Packard pedal car, circa 1926, sold for $18,000 in May 2015 at Bertoia Auctions. Prices quoted do not reflect the buyer’s premium. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among the biggest early makers of pedal cars in America were American National, Gendron Iron Wheel Co., Toledo Wheel, Murray and Steelcraft Wheel Goods. Pedal cars were successful up until World War II, when steel was needed for the war effort. Production resumed in the 1950s and ’60s, though, most collectors usually seek out early models or choose cars made to replicate a favorite full-size car they owned, such as a 1961 Thunderbird, a ’58 Chevy Impala or a 1927 Auburn Boattail Speedster. Pedal cars were also well represented by overseas makers from Russia to England and across Europe.

A convertible Cadillac pedal car realized $8,000 in October 2015 at Dan Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The first American company to make such wheeled toys was the Garton Toy Co., founded in 1887. The largest maker of kids’ vehicles by the 1930s was American National, which had as its company jingle, “Raise the kiddies on wheels.” The company was the result of several firms merging, including the Toledo Metal Wheel Co. and the National Wheel Co., and later, even took over one of its competitors, the Gendron Wheel Co. According to, American National exported pedal cars into nearly 30 countries.

“Pedal cars of the 1920s and 1930s are a big part of our history,” notes FabTinToys on its website page detailing the history of pedal cars. “They have moved from sidewalks into our living rooms for decorating, displays etc.”

This Gendron Buick pedal car fetched $12,000 in April 2018 at Bertoia Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Pedal cars are widely collected today and one of the largest collections was sold in January 2015 with more than 70 pedal cars owned by Ron Pratte offered at Barrett-Jackson’s car auction, highlighted by a 1956 Pontiac Club de Mer concept car design studio model pedal car at $33,925 (converted to electric), a 1930s Gilmore Speedway Special pedal car by Skippy at $13,685 and a 1958 Corvette Sting Ray pedal car by Eska at $11,500.

An American National, early 1930s Lincoln tandem child’s pedal car with all the bells and whistles earned $9,500 in August 2016 at Rich Penn Auctions. Photo courtesy of Rich Penn Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

On its website, Barrett-Jackson published an article in September 2015 about the evolution of pedal cars. “Like the first Model Ts, early pedal cars were simplistic and basic, but as the automobile evolved, so did the pedal car,” according to Barrett-Jackson. The auction house noted that the wood-frame models made in the 1920s became bigger and heavier and made mostly of steel in the 1930s. They were as well appointed as the full-size luxury cars they replicated – be they a Packard, an Auburn or a Cadillac – with chrome hubcaps, ornate hood ornaments, leather upholstery, working horns, headlights and turn signals; hood ornaments, a distinctive grill and custom body paint. Pedal cars also were usually outfitted with accessories to make play realistic from toolboxes and radiators to oil cans.

An American National tandem pedal car, circa 1933, went for $7,000 in June 2014 at Mosby & Co. Auctions. Photo courtesy of Mosby & Co. Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Pedal Power,” on view through March 10, 2020 at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington, Ill., showcases the personal pedal car collection of the late Bruce Callis, another enthusiastic pedal car collector and restorer.  His family gifted 53 cars from his collection to the museum, which are featured in this two-year exhibition. “This exhibit features dozens of child-size autos that span 50 years of pedal car production from the 1920s through the 1970s,” according to the museum in an online blurb on the exhibition.

Most veteran collectors seek out early examples with the larger, prewar pedal cars of the most interest. Collectors also find 1950s models of interest but all but ignore later cars, which often were made of plastic and lack the realistic features of their predecessors.

Whether one is mechanically minded and wants the joys of hand-restoring an antique pedal car or is simply looking to relive one’s childhood by indulging in nostalgia, pedal cars are a wonderful collectible.

Sioux beadwork brightened buckskin apparel

NEW YORK – Traditionally, Native Americans have no concept of art for art’s sake. They simply reveal the innate beauty of everyday objects.

Historically, each tribe expressed itself in its own way. Members of the Great Sioux Nation, nomadic hunter-warriors who roamed the northern Great Plains, believed that beaded belongings were not only beautiful, but brought them honor.

Creating each decorative item began with a hunt. Transforming elk, buffalo or deerskin into attractive, pliable hides, however, was women’s work. Only after soaking, cleaning and rendering them satin-soft (sometimes using cooked deer or buffalo brains), did they sinew-sew them into garments or functional items.

Pair of Sioux Quilled and Beaded Hide Moccasins with natural, purple and red-dyed porcupine quills and sinew sewn red and white glass seed beads, each with narrow horizontal bands, enclosing cross motifs, across the vamp, a beaded band, enclosing interlocking triangles encircling the foot, rawhide soles, c. 1890. Length: 11¼in. each. Provenance: Valentine Pasvolsky Collection, realized $2,200 in 2013. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

For 200 years or more, Sioux women adorned these creations with materials at hand, like shells, seeds, animal teeth, talons or naturally dyed quills, their specialty. Quillwork, the forerunner of beadwork, required cleaning stiff, hollow porcupine or bird quills, softening them in saliva, trimming their barbs, then flattening them – oft by pulling them between their teeth. When woven, plaited or twisted into embroidery-like patterns, they enhanced everything from quivers and war shirts to pipe bags and pouches. These rare, early pieces are exceedingly collectible.

Sioux girl’s beaded hide dress, sinew sewn and lane-stitched in numerous shades of opaque and translucent beads, each side decorated on the bodice and skirt with intricate geometric devices, trimmed with fine fringe, silk ribbons and tubular bead pendants terminating in hawk bells. Length: 31. overall in overall very good condition, c. 1880, realized $24,000 in 2009. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In the 1840s, white traders , arriving on horseback, introduced large, European powder-blue and chalk-white glass “pony beads.” Other shades, including black, red, and semi-transparent “greasy” yellow (think rancid butter), followed. Initially, these crude beads, worked with bone awls, home-tanned hides and sinew-thread, bordered Sioux natural or brighter aniline-dyed quillwork. Over time, however, they became integral parts of quill designs or appeared entirely alone.

Sioux beaded hide tobacco bag, sinew-sewn using bead colors of pony trader blue, greasy yellow, translucent blue and russet; shorter quilled slats in blue, orange and red; finished with long fringe; inked accession number inside throat, total length 30in., fourth quarter 19th century, realized $2,700 in 2010. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A decade later, traders introduced far tinier, brighter “seed beads,” largely imported from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. Early arrivals, hand-cut from long glass tubes, were typically narrow, irregularly shaped  and sharp-edged. Later ones, produced through more advanced methods tended to be uniformly sized with rounded edges. These miniatures not only offered attractive coverage of large areas. Their numerous shades and sizes also inspired far more imaginative creations.

These designs, which typically feature thousands of beads, were usually worked in slightly arched lazy (lane) stitchery. This involved threading identical-size beads on identical-length strings, tying them off, then, with simple running stitches, attaching them in parallel rows. Though looser than traditional one-by-one, overlay beading, this method proved a real time-saver.

Sioux buckskin possible Tipi bag with rows of sinew sewn and lazy stitch beaded bands, side and top symbols and with tin cone suspensions, very good condition, 12in. x 19in., c. early 1900s, realized $2,000 in 2011. Image courtesy of Allard Auctions Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

All pre-1880s Sioux beadwork is extremely desirable – especially items featuring strips of machine-made, yellow trade cloth, once a Native American status symbol. Bead loss, quill damage, or hide stiffness, discoloration or mold, however, may affect their value.

By the 1890s, the Reservation Period, various subcultures of the Great Sioux Nation, speaking different dialects and following differing lifestyles, developed distinctive, more elaborate beading styles of their own. The Dakota Sioux, for example, favored freestanding star, flower and leaf motifs against unadorned grounds. The warlike Lakotas preferred triangle-based geometric motifs like stepped or serrated “tipis,” diamonds and hourglass forms. Eventually, through tribal trade, intermarriage and conflict, these styles merged.

Sioux beaded awl case with bone awl, 8in. plus drop, realized $425 in 2018. Image courtesy of Old Barn Auction LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Sioux design elements, when symmetrically doubled, form elaborate patterns against light grounds, with open areas featuring decorative lines or crosses. More intricate motifs, like dragonflies, horse-tracks, three-pronged forks, turtles or feathers, actually combinations of basic lines and geometrics, may embellish areas where denser patterns were desired.

Sioux designs typically feature white, periwinkle, blue, yellow, mauve and green beadwork. Because red symbolizes lifespans, virtue and good luck, this favorite often enlivens women’s saddles, moccasins and cradleboards. Bead color variations abound, however, because they were produced through diverse technologies.

Lakota Sioux beaded hide purse, early 20th century, the circular form having decorative bead work depicting a radial medicine wheel motif, executed in red, yellow, white and black beads, in a display case, display case: 12½in. high, realized $150 in 2016. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Despite forceful government efforts to eradicate Indian culture at the turn of the century, Native American bead working flourished. In time, the Sioux, like other tribes, supplemented their incomes by marketing heavily beaded pieces, like men’s vests, purses and girls’ dresses, to tourists. Serious collectors, however, may prefer items that the Sioux themselves used and wore.

Native American culture remains dynamic, reflects veteran beader Kelly Murdock-Billy. “It’s uncanny how the styles of  Native American regalia and beadwork change. Every five to ten years,  powwow fancy-shawl dancers and jingle-dress dancers wear all-new beaded designs, the treasures of tomorrow.”

Lacquered wares cross many cultures

What started as a utilitarian need for watertight objects eventually became its own art form known as lacquerware. To keep wood, pottery tin and other metal objects watertight, layers of natural lacquer were brushed onto boxes, buckets, trays and other household items. Once dried, though, lacquer turns a distinctly dark black which is not always a designer choice of color. That’s why, over time, artistic designs were added to help make the item more decorative as well as useful.

Carved lacquer, known as diaoqi, is a buildup of many layers of different color lacquer and carved with small knives. Image courtesy Bally Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Lacquerware:  5000 BCE China, Japan, Korea

Around 7,000 years ago, sap from Toxicodendron vernicifluum, a tree grown and cultivated only in East Asia, was refined into a useable waterproof compound used to coat household items such as tableware, boxes, furniture, trays, bowls, screens and even coffins.

Known in China as a varnish tree, the sap is tapped by cutting into the bark and collected. Smaller branches are soaked in water and its sap is collected, all of which contains urushiol, the skin irritant in poison oak. Once exposed to air, the sap slowly turns black. After being strained and heated to remove moisture, the final product, lacquer, is stored in airtight containers ready to be brushed onto wood, tin or another metallic object.

A 17th century Chinese lacquerware dish in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The process of applying lacquer is a time-consuming process, usually over several days. Each successive layer, 20 or more at times, is left to dry and harden before another layer can be applied. Curiously, in order for lacquer to dry it must be placed in a moist atmosphere such as caves, according to early Chinese accounts. This process can take as long as 18 days before a design can be introduced. This process was eventually spread to Japan and the Korean peninsula by the sixth century.

Decoration can include gold, silver, charcoal, white lead, and mother of pearl surrounding decorative plants, animals and intricately carved domestic scenes. Carved lacquer, known as diaoqi, started with a buildup of many layers of different color lacquer (red, known as cinnabar, green, brown and even purple) until it was quite thick. Once dried, an intricate design was carved by hand into the object.

Chinese lacquerware was prominent throughout each dynastic period with its process a closely guarded state secret. Exports of generally mundane consumer items began in the 17th century to Europe but by the middle of the 19th century Chinese lacquerware was no longer a stable export.

An example of a 19th century European ‘japanned’ tea tray on display at the Birmingham History Galleries, UK. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Japanning: 17th Europe

Chinese exported its lacquerware to Europe by the early 17th century, mostly to the Netherlands, Italy, France and Great Britain by the East India Company, but it was mostly utilitarian items, not its most noted artwork. Yet, Chinese lacquerware became popular at all levels of society. The process of lacquer production as practiced in East Asia for thousands of years was limited to the sap from the varnish tree which grew only there. And China wasn’t sharing its secret. An alternative needed to be developed.

A viable lacquer was finally discovered from the secretions of the female lac bug known as Kerria lacca. Mixed with ethyl alcohol, these secretions became known as shellac, which dries into a high-gloss finish.

Black lacquer as a base with Japanese motifs such as this 18th century pocket watch was made in the UK and is on display at the Walkers Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With this discovery, Italian craftsmen saw an opportunity to expand a market for the popular East Asian lacquerware, particularly from Japan, by creating their own Asian-themed designs that they felt represented daily life there usually on heavily lacquered tin and ironware in stark black or red with gold painted decoration. Because Asian societies were generally closed to outsiders, particularly to Europeans, scenes depicted by Italian craftsmen were more imaginary than realistic.

Still, japanning, as the art form was known in Europe, became popular from the early 18th century until the late 19th century. Once its popularity declined by 1920, the focus moved away from japanning metal items to japanning bicycles. In fact, by 1887, the Sunbeam bicycle company was formed to create the ubiquitous black japanned bicycle with gold stenciled markings.

A painted toleware coffeepot that sold for $1,200. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Toleware: 18th century Americas

By the time lacquerware was introduced in 18th century America, rolling mills were being perfected in Pontypool, England. Pressing bars of steel and iron between rotating wheels allowed for the cost-effective formation of plates, coated with tin, then stamped into household goods like trays, candle holders, breadboxes, plates and utensils for export and commercial trade.

Once formed, the goods were coated against corrosion with a special blend of linseed oil, an asphalt compound, turpentine and other industrial compounds. The final dark varnish (a version of lacquer) is called “japan black.” Henry Ford’s Model T was painted with “japan black” giving rise to his quote that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Once the varnish is applied to iron, steel or tin-plated items and cooled, the item is decorated similar to the Japanese lacquerware, known as japanning.

An example of a hand lamp that is varnished with basic ‘japan black’ without the added decoration that sold for $50. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Rather than import these items from England and France, communities in North and South America, particularly in 18th century New England (mostly Boston and Hartford, Conn.) and the Pennsylvania Dutch, manufactured, hand-painted and later stenciled their own tin, pewter and metal goods for trade and home use. It was called toleware from the French term tôle peinte or painted sheet and practiced as tole painting.

The production of hand-painted toleware lasted from early 18th century to late 19th century when its popularity declined. There has been a resurgence of tole painting from the late 20th century within communities as an individual art project with classes, workshops and even organized groups such as the Society of Decorative Painters or the National Society of Tole and Decorative Painters.


Acrylic paints have replaced the variations of natural and industrial lacquers common before 1950 or so. Their use is simply more efficient, cost effective to produce and is more conducive to innovation where the early lacquer was easily more time consuming and toxic to create.

Lacquers aside, in the end it is difficult to distinguish vintage lacquerware in any of its forms. The use of different lacquers might just help on an atomic level (which is why this article focuses on types of lacquer) but the decorations applied, styles used or even what colors are predominant simply don’t lend itself to specific periods, which can be easily categorized without knowing each local style. Even the carved lacquer of early China is faithfully reproduced today.

Varnishing with lacquer wasn’t limited to just household items. Furniture was also ‘japanned’ such as this chest of drawers that sold for $375. Image courtesy Dumouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

Still, certain characteristics do stand out. Japanned items from France in the 17th and early 18th century, for example, have a rougher surface and more rust from peeling varnish because they hand stamped their iron or steel plate which produced more uneven surfaces.

What do collectors like? Collectors like bright colors, intact inlays like mother of pearl or gold leaf, regional styles such as “thumb work” of the Pennsylvania Dutch, flowers, Japanese or Chinese motifs, or any number of combinations. Decorators love the blend of colors that stand out. Most examples after 1950 are widely available for under $100.

Since variation is the main theme of lacquerware, whatever its name, the first rule of collecting applies: Collect what you like first.

Lifting the lid on sarcophagus relics

Sarcophagi (that’s the plural of sarcophagus, for all you wordsmiths out there) are the box-like burial receptacles, most commonly carved from stone and either displayed above ground or buried below ground. They’re most commonly associated with the ancient Greeks, and in fact the word sarcophagus is Greek for “flesh-eating stone,” as it was believed the chemical properties of the limestone used to make them rapidly facilitated the decomposition of the corpses.

Egyptian sarcophagus of Djeserkare Amenhotep, circa 1069-945 B.C. Upper half of the lid to an inner coffin. Clenched hands, striped wig, member of the priesthood. Three cartouches by the hands read: ‘Osiris, Ruler; Djeserkare; Amenhotem (Ruler of) Thebes.’ 36in. tall x 19in. wide. Estimate: $3,000-$5,000, sold for $27,000 at Cottone Auctions in Geneseo, N.Y., on March 23, 2013.

It’s rare that a complete and intact sarcophagus is seen at auction, although it does happen from time to time (more on that later). Understandably, sarcophagi mostly reside in museums around the world, most notably in their countries of origin (Greece, of course, but also Italy, Spain, India and other areas of Asia like Vietnam and Indonesia). Even so, eager collectors actively seek out any piece of a sarcophagus they can find, usually in the form of a fragment, lid, mask or panel.

Complete, life-size ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, Late Period, circa 712-332 B.C. Life-sized gesso and painted wood, pharaonic burial sarcophagus with overall black ground, 67½in. tall, complete with upper and lower sections. Estimate: $75,000-$100,000, sold for $52,500 at Artemis Gallery in suburban Boulder, Colorado on June 13, 2014.

“Perhaps there is nothing more representative of the ancient world than the proverbial Egyptian sarcophagus,” said Bob Dodge, founder and executive director of Artemis Gallery in suburban Boulder, Colorado. “They’ve been the feature of literally hundreds of movies and boast the elite of Hollywood like Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Tom Cruise, Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford and countless others.”

Dodge added, “Man has always had a fascination with death and rebirth, and the Egyptian sarcophagus is the ‘vessel’ that carried the body to the afterlife – and on occasion was the container that, when opened, unleashed the mummy back into the world of the living. Sarcophagi are mysterious, beautiful, historically significant and something that can inspire awe in people of all ages and all backgrounds. The fascination of King Tut and the beauty of his golden sarcophagus is as alluring today as it was in 1922 when Carter unveiled him to the world.”

Egyptian polychrome decorated sarcophagus cover, Late to Ptolemaic Period (circa 664-30 B.C.), mounted in a plexiglass case, with restorations, 44in. tall by 17in. wide. From the collection of the late actor Larry Hagman. Estimate: $600-$800, sold for $4,600 at Andrew Jones Auctions in Los Angeles on March 3, 2019.

Aileen Ward, vice president and senior specialist with Andrew Jones Auctions in Los Angeles, said that with specific regard to aesthetics, “there’s a lot of crossover between the style of decoration on sarcophagi and modern and contemporary art. The distillation and abstraction of features and form have been inspiring artists since the 19th century and even before. The appeal to some is the mysticism inherent in a sarcophagus. The connection with the ancient Egyptian belief in the underworld and afterlife and how best to secure safe passage and an agreeable eternity resonates with some fundamental human facet.”

Deric Torres of Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, California, said the deeper element that accounts for the appeal of the sarcophagus “is the historical aspect, compounded by the importance in human and cultural history. One needs to research the provenance of pieces being considered for purchase, as that can add a tremendous amount of value. For pieces with concrete provenance, prices remain steady, with growth projected for important pieces. By contrast, Ethnic, African and Pre-Columbian pieces have hit a slowdown in growth in auctions globally.”

Lot of two Egyptian mummified hands, New Kingdom, the larger extending to wrist and lower forearm with partial wrapping intact and two fingernails exposed, the underside with skin exposed, and retains a well-defined scarab ring, 12in. long by 4in. wide. Estimate: $8,000-$12,000, sold for $8,500 at Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2012.

Bob Dodge remarked, “The market for Egyptian sarcophagi is and always has been robust. Back in the golden age of travel – before cultural patrimony laws put a huge damper in the export of antiquities – travelers to Egypt loved to bring sarcophagi masks back from their travels to Egypt. An interesting antidote – one reason that so many sarcophagi in western collections are only the upper half of the box – if you cut a sarcophagus in half, you could fit it in your luggage. In too many cases, the lower half was simply discarded.”

Egyptian carved wood sarcophagus mummy mask showing remnants of polychrome, 10in. x 9½in, x 2in. Estimate: $200-$300, sold for $475 at Material Culture in Philadelphia on Dec. 17, 2017.

Dodge pointed out that cultural patrimony laws have had a negative impact on the sale of complete boxes, but less so on masks and sections of sarcophagi. “Before his fall from grace, Zahi Hawass, the former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities, went on a worldwide crusade to repatriate all sarcophagi back to Egypt – regardless of when they originally left,” Dodge said. “Collectors and even institutions became concerned that if they purchased a ‘sarc,’ Hawass might file a lawsuit and attempt to repatriate it.”

Going forward, Dodge says, “the price and demand for well-provenanced sarcophagi will only increase. I will say, like in most areas of the antiquity market, better quality items outperform lower quality goods and we see this trend continuing for the near term in all things Egyptian, sarcophagi included.”

Ancient Egyptian wood sarcophagus with mummified bird with blue faience Ushabti and Eye of Horus, in perfect condition, circa 700 B.C., 7in. x 2¾in. Estimate: $800-$1,200, sold for $8,503 at Palmyra Heritage Gallery in New York City on March 11, 2018.

Aileen Ward said the high-end works with long established provenance will always be in demand for top tier collectors. “The mid-range pieces have been flat but there seems to be something of an uptick in interest as collectors see that these artifacts with so much history, so much of a story to tell have been undervalued,” she said. “In light of recent world events, pieces with inveterate provenance will likely increase in value.”

As stated, occasionally a complete and intact sarcophagus comes to market, almost always with a steep estimate. Case in point: in December 2013, Artemis Gallery offered an Egyptian painted wood funerary ensemble from the Third Intermediate Period, 21st Dynasty (1070-945 B.C.). The grouping included a coffin lid, trough and mummy-board, all brightly painted with an iconographic representations and texts, the lid anthropoid, depicting the deceased, wearing a striped tripartite headcloth crowned with a fillet centered by lilies, the arms crossed and covered by an immense floral broad collar, exposing the separately made hands extending outward, two seated animal-headed deities below. The ensemble sold within estimate, for $221,000.