Pyrex: enduring and collectible midcentury kitchenware

A mid-century Pyrex HTF Christmas mixing bowl achieved $425 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of Embassy Auctions International and LiveAuctioneers.

Vintage Pyrex has a loyal cadre of enthusiasts and collectors. A fixture in generations of kitchens, the vaunted line began with clear glass bakeware, but its enameled opal ware soon became ubiquitous.

Pyrex was developed by researchers who hoped to create a glass that would not expand in heat, so it could be used in lantern globes and battery jars without breaking. When one researcher gave his wife a casserole dish made from a cut-down piece of the experimental glass, its merits as a cooking tool were immediately apparent.

In an October 1915 ad in Good Housekeeping magazine, the manufacturer of Pyrex, Corning Glass Works, announced the debut of its clear glass wares with a bold headline: “Bake in Glass!” The dishes could withstand hot ovens and made it possible to cook and serve meals in the same dish. The most expensive item shown in the ad was the two-quart lidded casserole vessel, priced at $1.75.

Three sets of Pyrex mixing bowls brought $225 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Curated Estates Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Corning later released a line of mixing bowls that were opalescent and enameled on their exteriors in solid colors: red, blue, green and yellow.

By the 1950s, the most popular pieces of Pyrex had silkscreened pattern decorations on their enameled surfaces. “Between 1956 and 1987, Corning released over 150 different patterns on Pyrex opal ware,” according to a Corning Museum of Glass blog. 

A group of three sets of mid-century Pyrex mixing bowls that included four pink gooseberry Cinderella form-handled side pour bowls sold for $275 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Merrill’s Auctioneers and Appraisers and LiveAuctioneers.

In 1998, Corning divested itself of its home consumer products, and licensed the Pyrex brand to another entity. While the new maker of Pyrex still offers CorningWare® bakeware in plain white, most of its contemporary products are only available in clear glass.

In its 20th-century heyday, Pyrex was offered in a nearly endless variety of colors, forms, patterns and variations. There are so many small and subtle differences it would be almost impossible for a single collector to possess all of them, although a few people have tried. Pyrex mixing bowls, cookware and baking dishes, particularly the large handled casserole dishes, have long been prized. Some lucky cooks inherited their mother’s or grandmother’s Pyrex, while others scoured flea markets and thrift shops to acquire their treasures.

An assortment of seven Pyrex pieces in the Snowflake and Gooseberry patterns earned $265 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers.

Good pieces of everyday vintage Pyrex tend to sell for prices between $10 and $100, and less common examples can command several hundred dollars. Taste is subjective, of course, but there are certain Pyrex patterns that remain consistently popular, including Butterprint, Gooseberry, Dot, Rainbow Stripes and Snowflake. There are also rare color variations such as Orange Butterprint and Pink Stems, both thought to have been issued in limited runs as promotional items.

This 10-piece Pyrex set in the Pink Gooseberry pattern made $350 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019. Image courtesy of Cordier Auctions & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers.

Melanie Hartman, director of catalog and specialty auctions at Cordier Auctions & Appraisals in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, explained that the Pyrex Gooseberry pattern is not rare, but it is so beloved that few collectors are willing to part with it. Perhaps the most coveted shade of this highly coveted pattern is Pink Gooseberry, a 10-piece set of which realized $350 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019 at Cordier Auctions & Appraisals. “I think its desirability is due to the fun, attractive pattern and the vintage feel [while avoiding] some of the typical vintage kitchen colors i.e. sunset, avocado green, and the like,” she said. “The neutral pink fits into most modern decor.” 

Besides the nostalgia factor, Hartmann said Pyrex resonates with collectors because it “comes in a wide variety of fun colors and patterns and is very practical as well as pretty the mixing bowls stack nicely in a cupboard.”

Eight sets of Pyrex mixing bowls, 36 pieces in all, sold as one lot in September 2016 for $245 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Peachtree & Bennett and LiveAuctioneers.

Blue is a favorite color in many kitchens, and the pleasing dark hue of the Snowflake pattern, released in 1956, made it an instant classic. The line produced in turquoise blue was also celebrated. A group of vintage Snowflake and Floral Colonial Mist Pyrex dishes achieved $575 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020 at Scheerer McCulloch Auctioneers, Inc. 

A group of vintage Snowflake and Floral Colonial Mist Pyrex dishes realized $575 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020. Image courtesy of Scheerer McCulloch Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

Pyrex deftly combined function with aesthetics. Casserole dishes boasted pretty patterns as well as handles that made them easier to remove from hot ovens. Also, Pyrex lids could be placed upside down in the dish, allowing for easy stacking of pieces.

These Butterprint nesting bowls in a pleasing blue color sold for $375 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022. Image courtesy of Main Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

Another Pyrex favorite arrived in 1957 with the release of the Butterprint pattern, which is also known as the Amish print because the decoration pictures an Amish-looking couple, sheaves of wheat and other farming imagery. A set of Butterprint nesting bowls in white on turquoise and turquoise on white realized $375 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022 at Main Auction Galleries. 

A 116-piece set of Canadian Pyrex in the Pie Crust pattern in Delphite blue achieved CA$275 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2018. Image courtesy of Miller & Miller Auctions, Ltd., and LiveAuctioneers.

Christmas is a prime marketing opportunity for many firms, and Corning embraced it. The company offered Pyrex in several holiday-inspired patterns, including snowflakes and garlands, pine cones and ones that simply read “Season’s Greetings.” A green so-called “Cinderella” mixing bowl decorated with holly leaves and the words “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” in script along the side sold for $425 plus the buyer’s premium at Embassy Auctions International in September 2021. Reportedly, the Cinderella nickname for this Pyrex form arose because it appeared close to when Disney re-released the movie. 

A vintage Pyrex quart ovenware casserole bowl in turquoise that retained its brass warming stand and lid sold for $300 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of Embassy Auctions International and LiveAuctioneers.

Most Pyrex lids were plain glass. Worth their weight in gold are lids with matching enamel decoration, such as a green Spring Blossom casserole with cover that sold, along with three sets of mixing bowls, for $225 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Curated Estates Auctions.

According to The Pyrex Collector, one of a handful of websites devoted to the collectible wares, while Pyrex dishes were hardy enough to move from the fridge to the oven in quick succession without suffering damage, hand-washing was, nonetheless, the best way to maintain them. Some claim vintage Pyrex is dishwasher safe, but others have personally witnessed how multiple sessions in the machine’s steamy, sodden racks fade cheerfully-colored enamels to drab shadows of their former selves. It is safer and smarter to keep older and more precious pieces of Pyrex out of the dishwasher. It’s unclear exactly why, but hand-washed vintage Pyrex tends to keep its color and luster longer, and thus retains its value.

Hammering out the art of repousse

This Gorham coin silver standing bowl featuring hammered repousse in the Greek style sold for $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2013. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Making objects out of metal has an absurdly long history. The Bronze Age (approximately 3300 BC to 1200 BC) is so named because it marks the time when human metallurgists figured out how to combine copper and tin, opening up a new world of functional possibilities.

Making metal look pretty is another thing altogether. It is quite literally a different set of skills, and one of the most important of those skills is repousse. Derived from a French word that translates as “to push out,” repousse [pronounced ruh-poo-SAY] combines the brute strength of the hammer blow with the gentle touch needed to create patterns in metal that are long-lasting and visually appealing. The art really is in the detail.

This J.E.Caldwell & Co., sterling silver tea set is graced with richly detailed floral and armorial-crest repousse. It achieved $3,400 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2019. Image courtesy of Tremont Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

You might think you’ve never seen repousse, but you’d likely be wrong. Examples of the metal technique are hard to miss. The skin of the Statue of Liberty was produced in repousse. The golden death mask of King Tutankhamun, the star attraction of the still-legendary King Tut museum exhibit, was also fashioned in repousse. And if you’ve served tea to your guests with a gorgeous antique silver tea service presented on an elaborate sterling silver tray? Yes, one or more or all of those pieces were almost certainly works of repousse.

The repousse process begins with a sheet or plate of copper, bronze, steel or alloy, and also precious metals such as gold or silver. Three-dimensional designs require sheets with sufficient depth to be hammered into the desired shape. For example, the Statue of Liberty was made from about 300 separately hammered copper sheets that were each 3/32 of an inch thick, equivalent to the width of two Lincoln pennies.

A silver-alloy repousse wall charger featuring the Hindu deities Rama, Sita, Lakshama and others sold for $550 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2019. Image courtesy of Kensington Estate Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Each metal plate, no matter its size, must be softened just enough to allow it to be malleable when hammered. This technique, known as “annealing,” has the artisan hold the sheet over a hot fire to loosen up the metal. Then the sheet is hammered in bas relief, following a pattern drawn upon it. To create monumentally large works such as the Statue of Liberty, softened copper sheets were hammered over a wooden mold. Pieces for use in comprising smaller works are usually placed over compacted sand, or a heated putty-like substance called “pitch,” to absorb the hammer blows. The artisan swings the hammer many, many times before the three-dimensional design starts to emerge.

Repousse has a diametric opposite in chasing, a technique that gains its name from a French term meaning “to drive out.: Repousse designs are created on the reverse, or back side, of a metal plate, while chasing relies on specially designed punches, some blunt and some sharp, to push the metal inward from the front. The depth of the punch helps to create the effects of depth and distance, as well as ornamentation and texture, one carefully placed punch at a time.

This medieval-style humidor displays hammered brass and pewter repousse, and a cedar and porcelain interior. It realized $850 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2013. Image courtesy of Neal Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Of course, chasing is also its own art form, seen on metal pieces to include decorative cups, vases, jewelry and plate ware. But it’s common for both repousse and chasing to appear on the same piece, especially when the artisan wants a startlingly realistic life-like appearance for ceremonial pieces such as the death mask of Tutankhamen. 

Learning repousse and chasing requires “… a lot of skill, a lot of energy, knowledge of application of force, and an intuitive sense of where everything was,” said Maureen Drdak, who studied with the great Nepalese repousse master Rabindra Shakya. She remembers that she “… picked up a hammer and sat down at the anvil [and] realized making a straight line was nearly impossible,” according to a 2019 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The maker of this 19th-century Asian nipple gong relied on repousse to hammer out a brass plate to exactly match the musical note needed when struck by a padded mallet – no easy feat. The gong sold in June 2019 for $350 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Oakridge Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

While the art of repousse has been practiced for millennia, it became prominent in Europe during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, particularly in silversmithing and gold work. Complete tea sets with repousse scrollwork and charged armorial bearings were a fixture in the homes of merchants and wealthy families, and were handed down for generations. Tea sets from these centuries are sought after at auction, especially if the set is complete.

The Greek Revival period that enraptured America in the early to late 19th century included Greek-inspired repousse silverwork, which is frequently seen at auction. Repousse tea sets, flatware, chargers, candle sticks, boxes, mirrors and picture frames were routinely produced by American silversmiths such as Paul Revere Sr., Bartholomew Le Roux, Cesar Giselein of Philadelphia, and Thauvet Besley.

A highly detailed 15th-century silverwork repousse Christ figure sold for £600 (about $782) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2011. Image courtesy of TimeLine Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

In the aforementioned Philadelphia Inquirer interview, Drdak detailed how challenging and unforgiving repousse can be: “If you’re making a sculpture or statue from bronze or metal, you’re usually working with a model made out of malleable material made from wax or clay. You can correct the mold. Even after you cast the material, you can correct certain issues. But with repousse, you’re working on the finished piece, stretching it and compressing it. It requires you to be a master of the tools immediately.” In other words, repousse is not the sort of thing you can pick up in a few afternoons of practice. It’s the metallurgical version of working without a net: you can recover from a small slip-up, maybe, but big ones ruin the whole thing. 

Pablo Picasso’s ‘Tete en forme d’horloge,’ a design rendered in solid repousse silver by Atelier Francois and Pierre Hugo in France, achieved $60,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2017. Image courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Yet, the art of repousse has remained popular for millennia precisely because of its complexity in form, design and presentation. It can withstand the ravages of time better than other art forms such as glass, ceramic or even fresco painting. Repousse combines exquisite artistry with the comforting heft and substance of metal. For that reason, it will always be a constant at auction.

Gold coins symbolize the glory of ancient Rome

The profile of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, also known as Octavian, appears on this period gold coin that realized $3,400 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2016. Image courtesy of William J. Jenack Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Whenever Roman gold coins turn up in unlikely places, it’s headline news. In 2018, about 300 gold coins from ancient Rome were found buried in a soapstone jar beneath a closed-down movie theater north of Milan. Two years earlier, a Roman gold coin from the time of Nero was discovered in Jerusalem. Both of these finds attracted widespread interest.

Farmers and construction projects have unearthed hordes of Roman coins throughout the former Roman Empire. One Roman gold coin was even found in Okinawa, Japan. Often, such coins are sent to auction, where there is no shortage of collectors waiting to bid. For example, many news outlets covered the November 2020 sale of a gold coin issued by Marcus Junius Brutus, the assassin of Gaius Julius Caesar. It achieved $3.5 million and became the most expensive Roman gold coin ever sold at auction.

The coins of Rome are just as much a symbol of the defunct empire’s reach and influence as its stunning frescoes, statues and architectural ruins. Like artworks, they tell us what ancient Romans deemed important. Then, as now, these coins are worth much more than their melt value.

Securitas, the Roman goddess of security and stability, appears on the reverse of an aureus showing Emperor Probus (276AD-282AD). It achieved £6,000 (about $7,900) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2016. Image courtesy of Timeline Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Rome adopted the coinage system in the late 4th century BC, about 300 years after the Greeks did. The introduction of national coinage did at least two things for Rome: coins brought economic stability to a prevailing barter system and, more importantly, the little metal discs were excellent amplifiers of politics and popular culture. They highlighted the ruling elite, monuments, battles and victories of the far-flung empire. Every time a new coin iteration is unearthed, we learn more about Rome and its history.

At first, Roman coins were primarily of bronze, with some in silver and relatively few in gold. They were created with the precious metals acquired during the series of Punic Wars that occurred between 264 and 146BC.

Gaius Julius Caesar was in office from 49 BC to 44 BC and was assassinated on the Ides of March by a group of senators including Brutus, a longtime supporter and general. This gold coin showing Julius Caesar in profile sold for $4,200 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Ira and Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles and LiveAuctioneers

The reign of Julius Caesar, which began in 46BC, brought big changes to the minting of Roman gold coins. The weight of a coin was standardized at slightly more than eight grams (a troy ounce of gold is 31.1 grams), and contrary to the empire’s former practice, gold coins were minted more frequently. Officially called nummus aureus (gold money), the aureus was the standard gold Roman coin until 301AD, a span that lasted nearly 350 years.

A somewhat worn aureus from the time of Emperor Nero (54-68 BC) showing a reconstruction of the Temple of Vesta on the reverse achieved $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

The aureus is the most sought-after Roman coin due to its scarcity, its association with the period of the emperors, and the fact that it was minted 24K pure gold throughout the time of its production. But constant warfare and state projects prompted inflationary pressures, which nudged state authorities to slowly reduce the weight of the aureus from the 8.1 grams of Julius Caesar’s era to 6.5 grams by the time of Emperor Caracalla in 211AD – a fact that matters at auction.

In 301AD, Emperor Diocletian phased out the aureus in favor of the solidus, which was minted at 5.5 grams of gold per coin. Because relatively few were circulated, collectors still refer to the Diocletian-era coin as an aureus. Emperor Constantine reintroduced the solidus in 312AD, and it became the official gold coin of the empire, with a weight of 4.5 grams. No matter how small the solidus became, the amount of gold per coin never dipped below 24 karats.

This very thin solidus featuring Emperor Honorius (395AD-423AD), one of the last co-emperors of Western and Eastern Rome, sold for $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

By 260AD, Germanic tribes had gained enough control over the western territory to effectively cut the Roman Empire into two separate states. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 426AD, the Eastern Roman Empire, based at Byzantium in Constantinople (in modern day Turkey), persisted until 1453AD.

Gold coins issued by the Eastern Roman Empire are fairly similar to those issued by the Western Empire. They were also known as solidi and show the image of the emperor in full face on the front, or obverse (Western emperors were shown in profile); and usually have Christian symbols on the back, or reverse. By the 10th century, gold coins featured the image of Jesus in place of the emperor, along with the Latin phrase ‘”XRISTUS/bASILEU/bASILE” (Christ, Emperor of Emperors).

A small solidus from the Eastern Byzantine Roman Empire from Constantine VII’s reign (913AD-959AD), featuring the image of Christ, sold for $450 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2015. Image courtesy of William J. Jenack Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

By the time the Eastern Roman Empire ended, during the Middle Ages, its gold coins were thin wafers. They don’t bring the same prices at auction as do the aureus of the Western Empire, especially those emblazoned with the images of historically prominent Western Roman Emperors such as Julius Caesar, Nero, Brutus, Marc Antony and Octavian.

Part of the fun of collecting gold Roman coins is learning to identify the images they bear. Each coin features the likeness of the sitting emperor on the obverse, which pinpoints the era. The reverse will correspond to a particular battle, honor or victory of that period. Interpreting the coin’s symbols and markings help to establish its age.

Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117AD to 138AD and was responsible for Hadrian’s Wall, appears in profile on an aureus that achieved $3,400 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles and LiveAuctioneers

All Roman gold coins are minted with Latin script, and most feature the letters CS. The initials mean “Senatus Consulto,” or Roman Senate, which authenticates the coin as having been minted by the authority of the state.

The coins were minted by being pressed, one by one, through a plaster mold, so they were never expected to appear perfectly round. As noted above, the weight of the coin is key, and older coins tend to weigh more. Of course, condition matters, too. Gold tends not to tarnish and, in general, gold coins are better-preserved than silver and bronze ones, but the quality of the strike makes a difference at auction. The images should be clearly legible on both sides, and the crisper they are, the more desirable the coin is.

A solidus from the reign of Emperor Gratian (367AD-383AD), mounted on a gold choker and surrounded by sapphire beads and small cultured pearls, sold for €475 (about $520) plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018. Image courtesy of Balclis and LiveAuctioneers

While they are prized for their beauty and historical importance, some ancient Roman coins have investment value. According to a Classic Numismatic Group (CNG) market report in 2019, Roman-era gold was considered by some collectors to be a sort of haven. “This fervor seems to have cooled recently…but expect to see prices rebound over the next few years…,” says a report by Michael Gasvoda on coinsweekly.com. “With gold prices rising incrementally, analysts also see the value of the gold as another avenue for investment.

Yes, you could melt ancient Roman gold coins to recover their inherent value, but most collectors never would. The gold coins of Rome are ambassadors of the art, culture and language of a tumultuous but vanished time, coming to life when held in one’s hand. You can practically feel power and the glory of the empire as you do.

Timeless beauty: Raingo Freres mantel clocks

A Louis XV-style gilt bronze Raingo Freres mantel clock with silk thread suspension sold for $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Once it was realized that time could be measured, tracked and quantified with a technological device, the clock became an instant status symbol. However, clocks were expensive, affordable by only a fortunate few who “advertised” their wealth by displaying opulently decorated, artistically stunning examples in their homes.

A completely gilded ormolu and marble Raingo Freres mantel clock graced with classical figures achieved $16,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020. Image courtesy of Shapiro Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Mantel clocks – timepieces designed to sit on a ledge above a fireplace – were coveted by the well-to-do in early 19th-century France. Having gained distance on the excesses of the French Revolution and embracing the stability promised by the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, who crowned himself emperor in 1804, the French were open to tasteful decorative flourishes again. The more-is-more madness of the Rococo style died with the French kings, and the French Empire style rose in its place, an aesthetic inspired by the neoclassical motifs of ancient Greece and Rome. 

A circa-1860 Louis XV-style gilt bronze mantel clock by Raingo Freres sold for $2,200 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2016. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

One of the masters of the Empire-style mantel clock was the French firm of Raingo Freres. Not much information about Raingo Freres has survived. Its four founding brothers, Adolphe, Charles, Denis and Dorsant, were sons of the famed clockmaker Zacharie Joseph Raingo. The senior Raingo was born in Belgium in 1775, apparently apprenticed in Paris in 1790, and later won the patronage of royal clients, including King George IV of England. Zacharie Joseph Raingo died in 1847, well after his sons established Raingo Freres in 1825. They, too, catered to royalty and became a favorite clockmaker of Emperor Napoleon III, his Empress Eugenie, King George IV (maintaining the relationship their father started) and other noble families throughout Europe. The Raingos’ specialty was elaborate gilded bronze mantel, table and wall clocks in the Empire and Neoclassical styles.

A Raingo Freres mantel clock decorated with gilded bronze achieved $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2012. Image courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Every Raingo Freres mantel clock has several distinctive features. Most are rectangular and sit on at least four legs. What the legs look like is another matter. They can, and have, taken the forms of animal paws, scrollwork, leaves and round wheels. Above the feet is a pedestal festooned with flowers, wreaths, garlands or other fripperies. Atop the pedestal is a round clock face that is either centered or set to one side, depending on where an allegorical figure or neoclassical design element is placed. Most Raingo Freres mantel clocks were cast in bronze with gilding and chasing as an intrinsic part of the overall design.

Candlelight was king when Raingo Freres was ascendant. Mantel clock garniture sets containing pairs of candelabras were popular. An example festooned with grape leaves and cherubs realized $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2017. Image courtesy of Austin Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Raingo Freres is known for its use of Greek and Roman motifs. Figures of gods and goddesses such as Venus, Apollo and Mercury, as well as chariots, columns, and winged putti (cherubs) appear on its mantel clocks as ornamentation or supporting elements. A style of clock known as a figural, which depicted historical personages, was in particular demand. Raingo Freres mantel clocks have included the likenesses of George Washington, Julius Caesar, Napoleon I, Plato, Socrates, and various scientists and writers.

This Raingo Freres mantel clock decorated with gilt bronze and malachite and featuring a figure of Peter the Great sold for $1,800 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2020. Image courtesy of Neal Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

The enduring popularity of Raingo Freres mantel clock designs have given rise to nearly continuous revivals, i.e., reproductions, making it difficult to identify an authentic original mantel clock by the firm. Confirming a genuine 19th-century Raingo Freres clock encompasses at least four steps.

A round bronze Raingo Freres mantel clock sold in June 2021 for $700 plus the buyer’s premium. The sum was on the low side only because the time-and-strike mechanism did not work. Image courtesy of Austin Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

First, examine the suspension mechanism. If it is made from silk, that is a sign the clock pre-dates 1850. Second, check the position of the count wheel, a component that counts the minutes. French clocks made prior to 1880 tend to have their count wheels placed outside the back plate. Third, look for a rack and snail wheel. If it is missing, rejoice; the device, which is used to strike the time, began to appear on French mantel clocks after 1880. The final step in the four-part inspection is finding the company signature. It typically appears in fanciful script either as inlay or as a ceramic cartouche, but it is also stamped as a mark on the back plate.

The round bronze Rango Freres mantel clock that sold in June 2021 also featured a glazed ceramic cartouche and a hand stamp for Raingo Freres. Image courtesy of Austin Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

The firm routinely partnered with other major clock and furniture makers until the company dropped from view in or around 1870, save for one tantalizing exception: it was awarded a Medaille d’Or at the Exposition Universelle in 1889. Exactly what the collaboration entailed is not known. Neither is it clear whether the gold medal was earned by a clock or some other creation. 

A Raingo Freres Gothic Revival-style gilt and patinated bronze mantel clock decorated with figures of Sir Galahad and an angel sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018. Image courtesy of Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery, Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

We may not know much about the Raingo family, but their exquisitely detailed gilt bronze mantel clocks are widely celebrated by collectors and admirers for their elegant union of art and technology.

Lithophanes: making light of art

A porcelain lithophane depicting an angel appearing to a lady in prayer sold for $225 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2016. Image courtesy of Main Street Mining Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Lithophanes are three-dimensional copies of two-dimensional etchings, paintings, prints or photographs produced on thin sheets of fine porcelain. Viewed in ambient natural light, their designs appear as vague, bumpy images of varying thickness, but when they are illuminated, the images come to life in amazingly detailed, finely tinted shades of gray, as though they were embedded within the porcelain itself. Nearly forgotten, now, lithophanes had their heyday in the 19th century. Although they were based on existing designs, at the time of their creation they were considered new works of art. 

A porcelain lithophane lamp shade with a hunting scenerealized $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Cottone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Producing these popular plaques, which ranged from barely an inch to more than a foot in size, was particularly challenging. After duplicating drawings on sheets of warm beeswax, artists meticulously relief-sculpted these fragile panels with minute modeling tools that gave them depth. Then the panels were carefully molded and fired. Eventually, harder plaster of Paris molds, based on original waxworks, accelerated production.

Hand-painted interiors enhance this brass double student lamp with lithophane shades that reached $2,800 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Claystrong Enterprises and LiveAuctioneers

Because so many artisans were involved in creating a single lithophane, none signed their names to them, but the reverse sides often featured maker’s marks. Wedgwood, Belleek, and manufactories in America and in Continental Europe produced lithophanes in great numbers, with the best being the ones that came from German companies such as Prensaich Porzellan Manufactur (PPM), Berlin Porzellan Manufactur (BPM) and Koniglichen Preussische Manufactur (KPM). 

Made in the late 19th century, a Doulton fairy lamp centerpiece with lithophane shade achieved $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2016. Image courtesy of Dallas Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Many lithophanes were purely decorative. Others, which featured single or multiple panels edged with brilliant stained glass, delivered pure drama. When fixed in window panes, these sun-catching images changed as the level of sunlight waxed and waned.

This polychrome lithophane boudoir lamp sold for $275 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2010. Image courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers

Lithophanes also beautified scores of functional items. Firescreens featured large lithophane panels festooned with domestic scenes, florals or exotic landscapes. Emptied teacups and beer mugs, held aloft to light, depicted low-relief lithophane soldiers or horsemen on their bases. Translucent cups and dessert plates produced to celebrate events such as the coronation of King Edward VII or the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair included lithophane bases, as well. 

An Abraham Lincoln lithophane mourning plaque sold for $2,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2016. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Decorative lithophane panels also adorned porcelain funnel-, round-, square- and cylindrical-shaped lamps. They also enhanced lanterns, wall sconces and chambersticks – a portable type of candleholder.

This Continental porcelain lithophane chamberstick sold for $425 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020. Image courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers

Expansive trapezoidal or rectangular-paneled lithophane lampshades often portrayed architectural marvels, sentimental religious scenes or pastoral landscapes. Some, reflecting their times, depicted whaling ships or an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Others showed idealized scenes from everyday life: children sledding, boys playing ninepins, brides with attendants or women at spinning wheels. Yet single-piece, hollow-cast, porcelain lithophane lampshades depicting continuous narratives were most prized of all. 

A single-piece lithophane porcelain lampshade realized $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2016. Image courtesy of Main Street Mining Co. and LiveAuctioneers

By the mid-1800s, vigil lights, a form of small light used in personal altars, church chapels and outside homes to deter intruders, incorporated decorative lithophanes. Because they emitted a soft glow, they also served as night lights in nurseries. Lithophane-tipped fairy lamps, advertised as “improvements to night lights,” were popular, as well. Although their full-color domes appeared garish, when back-lit at night, their images became diffuse and appealing. 

A pair of Continental porcelain shade fairy lamps sold for $750 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020. Image courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers

Tiny lithophane panels were also incorporated into bedside food warmers, devices that helped soothe babies roused from sleep. Their flickering candle-lit images often depicted youngsters on swings, boys with toy sabers, children eating grapes or beloved storybook characters such as Little Red Riding Hood. 

A pair of Continental lithophane oil lamps achieved $6,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2016. Image courtesy of the Early Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

As electric lights started to gain traction in the early 1900s, European and American lithophanes fell out of fashion. Yet as Don Maust observed in a 1996 issue of Antiques Journal, “Until you see a lithophane, it is impossible to understand them because of their three-dimensional quality and their ability to spring to life when the light is turned on behind them. No experience of viewing artworks previously prepares you for the first time you see a lithophane.” 

French enamel pocket watches: elegant timekeepers

A circa-1790 French 18K gold pocket watch with a diamond and ruby enamel ballooning motif edged in seed pearls sold for $2,200 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2017. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Antique French enamel pocket watches marry fine craftsmanship and mechanical precision with classical beauty. They rank among the most magnificent miniature works of art ever created. They are also treasured for the rich histories they represent and the stories they tell. 

Wearable watches with works shielded in enameled metal cases first appeared in the early 1600s in Blois, France, where a group of skilled watchmakers served the French court. Although the pocket-sized timepieces merely indicated the hours, they gave Blois goldsmiths, engravers, jewelers and enamelers a canvas for their artistry. 

This circa-1790 French gold and open face pocket watch by Le Roy, Paris, sold for £2,000 (about $2,700) in July 2016. Image courtesy of Dreweatts Donnington Priory and LiveAuctioneers.

Primarily valued as pieces of jewelry, enameled pocket watches were extraordinarily costly to produce. Only European royalty and the elite could afford to commission them. Nevertheless, a second French watchmaking center soon emerged in Paris. Initially, Parisian single-hand pocket watches featured internal bells known as “dumb” repeater complications, which chimed the hour in muffled tones. According to the Patek Philippe website, the sounds “could only be detected if the watch was held in the hand, [thus] allowing people such as courtiers, amongst whom they were popular, to discreetly check the time in their pocket during tedious levees and royal councils, without offending the monarch.”

A circa-1765 French fusee pocket watch with an 18K gold case with rose-cut diamond bezels, lug and rosette on a cobalt blue guilloche ground sold for $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2016. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Makers of enamel pocket watches added functions that indicated the time of day and showed phases of the moon and even astrological elements. But it was not until 1675, when traditional balance wheel mechanisms were replaced with more advanced balance springs, that pocket watches became reliable timekeepers. That technological upgrade coincided with the appearance of watches fitted with two hands and dials capable of measuring minutes.

The flourishing trade came under threat a decade later when King Louis XIV formally revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted a measure of religious freedom to his Protestant subjects. Scores of Huguenot watchmakers, goldsmiths, engravers and enamelers left for the more tolerant environment in Switzerland. 

Signed ‘Berthoud, Louis XVI’ and featuring an enamel portrait, a gold key-winding repetition pocket watch sold for €1,600 (roughly $1,800) in September 2016. Image courtesy of Aste Bolaffi and LiveAuctioneers.

Back in France, however, a watch-making dynasty of sorts was emerging. Ferdinand Berthoud, a master horologist who served Louis XV, wrote extensively about timekeeping and created a variety of extravagant, technically complex timepieces, including a two-body gold pocket watch he signed “Berthoud, Louis XVI.”

Three views of the Jean Antoine Lepin pocket watch that realized $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020. Image courtesy Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers

Jean-Antoine Lepine, who also served Louis XVI, signed his works until around 1790, when references to the Crown became highly impolitic. The excesses of the French Revolution prompted Abraham-Louis Breguet, Lepine’s exceptionally talented student, to flee to Switzerland.

Fortunately, Breguet did not stay away permanently. Upon returning to France in 1795, he founded the Breguet et Fils company, which eventually created thousands of luxurious enamel pocket watches. Their amazing mechanical innovations include a perpetual calendar, an anti-shock device, a so-called “blind man’s watch” that was readable by touch, and repeater-watch gongs, which struck hours, quarters and minutes in differing tones. 

Breguet earned numerable prizes and honors throughout his life and after his death. He was among the 71 French notables whose names were engraved on the Eiffel Tower. Breguet’s design for sleek, eminently readable watch hands outlives him as well. Watchmakers still use the term “Breguet hands” to describe the style he introduced.

Made circa 1800, a French enamel pocket watch with Breguet hands and signed ‘Chevalier & Cochet’ achieved €3,600 (around $4,007) plus the buyer’s premium in September 2016. Image courtesy of Aste Bolaffi and LiveAuctioneers

Many of Breguet’s watchmaker contemporaries, such as Barbier le Jeune, Chevalier & Cochet, and Esquivillon & DeChoudens, proudly applied their signatures to their enamel pocket watches. Others crafted theirs anonymously. Regardless, their jaw-dropping creations both keep time and transcend it.

Stock and bond certificates: the value is in the story

A 1940 war bond issued festooned with Disney’s most recognizable characters to date sold for $200 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2005. Image courtesy of Early American History Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Your net worth can comprise more than money. It can be artistic, historic, and emotional, and it can showcase famous signatures. Scripophily – the collecting of vintage stock and bond certificates for their own sake – covers all those bases. These documents no longer pay out on their face values, but they deliver other riches, some tangible, some not.

Stocks

The earliest known paper stock was issued by the East India Company in 1606, but stocks have existed in one form or another since Roman times. A stock certificate states you have invested in an enterprise and you expect a share of the profits, knowing they might never materialize. Local inns often served as loosely regulated stock exchanges.

A United States stock certificate from March 1792, issued during the week of the stock market crash that caused the country’s first financial crisis, achieved $35,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Things changed in 1792 when a group of New Yorkers who traded stocks under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street signed the Buttonwood Agreement, a document for governing the transactions. It laid the groundwork for what would ultimately become the New York Stock Exchange, realizing Alexander Hamilton’s idea for a regulated national stock exchange. Today, nearly 1.5 billion stocks representing about 2,800 companies are traded every day via Hamilton’s creation.

Electronic trading has rendered printed stock certificates obsolete. In 2013, the Disney company, which knows a thing or two about shifting from analog to digital, became the last major entity to issue paper stock certificates.

A Pullman’s Palace Car Company stock certificate signed by company founder George Pullman and investor Andrew Carnegie achieved $12,000 in February 2020. Image courtesy of University Archives and LiveAuctioneers

America is an entrepreneurial nation, and stock certificates illustrate the story of its growth and expansion. Collectors can assemble portfolios of vintage certificates from companies that mined gold, silver or minerals; those that built railroads, automobiles and airlines; utilities, including providers of oil and gas; and companies for wireless or telephone services, to name a few. 

A North American Phonograph Company stock certificate signed by Thomas Edison sold for $8,000 in January 2020. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Before the rise of logos and branding, the stock certificate fulfilled many of the needs that corporate graphics address, giving investors the sense that the issuer was a serious, upstanding, well-run concern that would not abscond with their money. And, before the age of the automatic pen, titans of industry signed these documents themselves. Proof of having been touched by a famous, historic hand imbues these documents – which are really just fancy-looking I.O.U.s – with value strong enough to outlast the projects for which they were issued. 

A Standard Oil stock certificate signed three times by John D. Rockefeller and cosigned by Henry M. Flagler sold for $8,000 in February 2020. Image courtesy of University Archives and LiveAuctioneers

“If you have a stock certificate signed by Rockefeller or Morgan, it’s worth money … It doesn’t matter how good looking it is or isn’t. That’s the first component for value. The second is the aesthetics, combined with the condition. If it’s in bad condition, it doesn’t really matter how good looking it is. If you can’t display it, it’s just not as interesting,’ Gary Rose of certificatecollector.com said in a 2008 interview with Collectors Weekly.

A stock certificate for Bugsy Siegel’s Las Vegas casino achieved $37,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2012. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Other factors affecting the desirability of a stock certificate include the type and color of the paper on which it is issued; whether it is printed or written; its date of issue; the images on the certificate, with special attention given to the vignette (aka the largest central image); the company that issued it; the type of stock it represents; who owned it; its rarity; and, of course, its historical significance. All these seemingly small details can add up to serious sums at auction.

Bonds

Bonds are typically issued by an authority such as a national government, an agency, a state or a municipality to raise funds for schools, roads, utilities and other improvements to infrastructure. But initially, bonds provided governmental bodies a tool for underwriting wars and conflicts.

A Revolutionary War-era bond issued by the state of Maryland sold for $2,200 in December 2011. Image courtesy of Early American History Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The City of Amsterdam issued the first municipal bond in 1517 to help finance its debts. England paid for its continuous wars against France with bonds beginning with William III in 1694, and other European monarchs followed his lead. The American colonies issued bonds and loan certificates to fund its revolution against George III. America’s efforts in World War II likely would have suffered without sales of savings bonds.

The holder of a bond lends money to the issuing authority for a specific amount of time, expecting only interest on the loan until the bond matures, and nothing more. Unlike those who own stocks, bondholders do not gain any form of ownership in the authority offering the bonds.

Early bond certificates came with a feature that most stock certificates lack: coupons. To receive the allotted interest payment, the bondholder tore off a coupon and redeemed it with the issuing authority. The presence or absence of coupons affects how well a bond certificate performs at auction. Collectors also care whether the coupons are still attached to the bond and how many there are, in addition to wanting to know if the bond is signed, and by who, and wanting to know the overall condition of the document. 

A bond issued by the Republic of Texas in 1840 – five years before it became a state – with all its coupons intact sold for $325 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

As with stock certificates, collectors of bonds enjoy a range of targets, from zero coupon bonds (which are redeemed whole at maturity); long term; short term; municipal; utility; money market; savings; perpetual; and even war bonds that are still being paid out.

This Spanish trading stock issued to Elizabeth Farnese, Queen of Spain by marriage to King Philip V, sold for $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2019. Image courtesy of Early American History Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The practice of collecting stocks and bonds for their historic and cultural significance is relatively new, dating back to 1970 or so. Coins and stamps, two other collectibles issued with face values, have more than a century’s head start. Nonetheless, the pursuit of vintage and antique stock and bond certificates boasts a large and devoted following. Nascent collectors can look to associations such as the American Stock and Bond Collectors Association, which maintains an open group on Facebook. Also, the International Bond and Share Society (scripophilyusa.org) provides members with helpful resources and guides.

Possibly the most notorious stock certificate ever printed was issued by Playboy Enterprises. A lot containing eight such certificates, including two specimens, sold for $425 in December 2020. Image courtesy of Holabird Western Americana Collections and LiveAuctioneers

“Stocks [and bonds] are … interesting historically. Just about every stock in my collection, I’ve researched the company. A single stock can actually keep me busy for days. You try and research the company and see when it existed. Did they make anything important, was there anything special about them? They’re almost artifacts of history … ,’ said Rose.

A Houdini Picture Corporation stock certificate, signed by Houdini, realized $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2012. Image courtesy of Early American History Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Stock and bond certificates for companies long since shuttered and projects finished ages ago still have value – it’s just different from the numbers printed upon them. The best examples tell a rousing tale with colors, graphics and design. ‘If you have a great-looking stock certificate,’ Rose continued, ‘even if it’s inexpensive, you can frame it, put it on a wall and it makes a very good work of art.’ Try doing that with a stamp or a coin. 

CELLULOID: WHEN PLASTIC WAS FANTASTIC

A large Egyptian and Art Deco style brooch featuring red and black celluloid achieved $250 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Ripley Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The origins of celluloid, the first synthetic plastic, date to the 1850s. English chemist Alexander Parkes combined nitrocellulose (wood cellulose, aka guncotton) with the organic solvent camphor and named the results “Parkesine.” John Wesley Hyatt patented a similar substance in America in 1869, giving the useful stuff the name by which it is best known: celluloid. Hyatt viewed it as a substitute for ivory, using it to make piano keys, billiard balls and false teeth.

A circa-1920s set of celluloid billiard balls, with rack and carrying case, achieved $650 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2015. Image courtesy of Louis J. Dianni, LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Celluloid soon became the generic term for all nitrocellulose-based plastics. In addition to faux-ivory, this seemingly magical material could simulate mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, amber or coral, depending on which chemicals were added to it. Moreover, celluloid could be painted, molded, carved, cast or processed into sheets, blocks and rods. Its low production cost suited it to mass-produced items such as cutlery handles, straight razors, slide rules, trade signs and table tennis balls. 

Celluloid was also used to create a mind-boggling number of decorative items. Both opaque and transparent celluloid buttons brightened many a trendy outfit. So too did celluloid hatpins, belt buckles, fur clips and dress clips, embellishing opposite sides of women’s necklines. 

But this early plastic had a startling drawback, which manifested most infamously with billiard balls. If something made from celluloid struck another piece of celluloid with enough force, it could explode. Hyatt himself noted this flash-bang effect could cause serious trouble in pool halls, writing in 1914, “We had a letter from a billiard saloon proprietor in Colorado, mentioning this fact and saying he did not care so much about it, but that instantly every man in the room pulled his gun.”

Because the recipe for celluloid relied on nitrocellulose, a combustible material, the factories that made celluloid products were prone to catching fire. After a series of such blazes, The New York Times set its focus on the potential threat to consumers, stating in an 1895 article: “No man can play billiards with any real satisfaction if he knows that the billiards-ball may at any moment explode … burying the players under table and cues. Still worse would be the fate of a possessor of celluloid teeth, who should, in a moment of forgetfulness, insert the lighted end of a cigar into his mouth. The scene that would follow would make men and angels weep…”

A Victorian celluloid vanity box sold for $100 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021. Image courtesy of Frasher’s Doll Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Sudden detonation was not a concern for those who bought jewelry and accessories made from celluloid, simply because those items weren’t intended to be slammed against each other, and no lady would treat her belongings so roughly. Antique pink, lime green, ivorine and mother of pearl celluloid vanity items were often displayed on Victorian ladies’ dressing tables. The plastic appeared in basics such as hand mirrors, scent bottles, balm jars, powder pots, combs, brushes and trinket boxes, as well as matching clocks, picture frames, shoe horns and clothing brushes. Women would also tuck their vanity items into satin-lined celluloid dresser top boxes decorated with ornate florals, cherubs or Victorian beauties. 

Folding fans, some barely the size of a woman’s palm, incorporated overlapping, bladelike celluloid sticks painted with lush florals or pierced with lacy patterns. Larger, more opulent creations by Duvelleroy of Paris, the fan-maker to royalty, featured celluloid sticks crowned with masses of ostrich feathers or black organza. Still others featured dainty celluloid frames spanned by slim, gold-painted wooden ribs against fine, sequined mesh grounds. 

Decorative celluloid hair combs were popular through the early 20th century. Many were graced with elaborate pierced designs, while others had rhinestone-edged florals, lotus flowers or butterflies. Chic celluloid-tipped hatpins and stickpins also gained favor.

A group of four celluloid hair combs achieved $500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2011. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Celluloid earrings ranged from demure clip-ons molded in the shapes of bows and flowers to dramatic multicolor danglers. Rings took the forms of classic, carved florals and geometric patterns as well as inmate-made prison rings. These humble pieces, which were created by carving or heat-bonding slivers scraped from celluloid pens, toothbrush handles or hand mirrors, often featured small photos mounted on their bezels. 

A trio of celluloid sparkler bangle bracelets achieved $225 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of Ripley Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Vintage necklaces typically bore delicate celluloid beads in muted amber, white or ivory shades, while chokers bore showy coral, green or blue blossoms. Inexpensive charm bracelets jingled with ivorine mini-menageries. Lightweight celluloid bangles were no less fashionable; women routinely wore armfuls of slim, simple multiples. Others chose molded florals, swirling patterns or sparklers featuring row upon row of rhinestones. 

A photographic celluloid brooch with an image of Carrie Nation holding her hatchet realized $450 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2017. Image courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Brooches fashioned from celluloid were produced in huge quantities. They often featured molded, carved florals or bouquets, while others resembled fine, costly cameos or featured photographic portraits. Though jewelry designer Lea Stein released scores of brooches, only her earliest examples were made of true celluloid. (Her later ones, as with most pieces of jewelry, used cellulose acetate, an entirely different plastic.)

A group of 12 Lea Stein celluloid bracelets achieved $500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020. Image courtesy of Augusta Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Celluloid production ceased in the West after the arrival of better and cheaper plastics, but Japan, which holds the world monopoly on camphor, continued to make celluloid brooches, bracelets, bangles and beads. Intricate, delicately tinted, hand-painted floral designs bearing the label “Occupied Japan,” which denotes the era of American occupation after World War II, delight art and history buffs alike.

Brooches: pin pals since the Bronze Age

David Webb platinum and 18K white gold brooch centered with a 12-carat cabochon-cut emerald, auctioned for $120,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022. Image courtesy of Joshua Kodner and LiveAuctioneers

In the beginning, there was the stick pin, a slender needle of wood or metal that held a heavy cloak or cape in place. As centuries passed and other clothing fasteners became available, the stick pin evolved into a flashier, more decorative object we now call a brooch. But in spite of its elevated position as an object of beauty, it never lost its core functionality. Many brooches can still be used as fabric fasteners, taking on additional rules such as reflecting authority or cultural values, serving as a family keepsake, and even signaling the wearer’s mood.

This collection of Bronze Age stick pins sold for £180 (about $246) plus the buyer’s premium in March 2013. Image courtesy of Timeline Auctions Ltd., and LiveAuctioneers

Brooches date back at least 5,000 years, to the Bronze Age, when people kept their garments in place with bronze or iron clasps. They were most often plain objects, but some were decorated with stones, enamel, bone, polished glass and occasionally gold and silver. Archaeologists named these clasps fibulae because their construction was similar to the shape of the fibula, the smaller bone in the lower leg.

Collection of Iron Age and Roman fibulae, featuring examples with a rounded arch-crossbow design; a Celtic brooch style (with the pin worn up), and a plate with a more intricate design. Auctioned for £200 (about $274) plus the buyer’s premium in February 2020. Image courtesy of Timeline Auctions Ltd., and LiveAuctioneers

Fibulae were classified as having four parts: the body, or plate; the pin, the spring, and the hinge, which works much like the modern safety pin. Although they were more complicated, fibulae were a vast improvement over the ancient stick pin and allowed for more intricate decoration as well. Fibulae designs uncovered by archaeologists include versions that resemble a violin bow, a compact spiral, and also a flat piece shaped in the form of a hand.

The Middle Ages saw the arrival of the button and its crucial counterpart, the buttonhole. This fastening system allowed wearers to close their clothes more firmly and comprehensively. Freed from their baseline function, fibulae began the transformation into the brooch.

‘Cedar Tree’ brooch by French designer Rene Boivin achieved $100,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Grogan & Company and LiveAuctioneers

Up until the Industrial Age, only the most affluent could afford brooches. The must-have accessory of the early 15th century was a cameo brooch featuring the profile of an ancient philosopher, scholar or royal rendered in cornelian shell, sardonyx, mother-of-pearl and even lava rock. The cameo brooch was a fashion accessory that lasted. Both Empress Josephine of France and Queen Victoria of England adored them. 

Late Victorian cameo brooch in 8K rose gold, sold for $100 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022. Image courtesy of International Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

A second brooch style that lasted the test of time from the 14th century to the Edwardian era and beyond is one that depicts flora and fauna surrounded by a semi-precious stone or many different stones. Ancient Greek or Etruscan imagery was carved into cartouches during the Victorian era, with diamonds playing an important role in their designs. 

After the death of Prince Albert, the mourning brooch gained popularity. They were typically made from onyx or some other black stone and trimmed in gold. Sometimes they contained the hair of a lost loved one. 

Edwardian-era brooch depicting precious and semi-precious stones set to represent colorful flowers in a ‘wicker’ basket, sold for $950 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of MBA Seattle Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Art Nouveau brooch designs reached new creative heights in the hands of French glass master Rene Lalique and American visionary Louis Comfort Tiffany. When Art Deco took its turn in the design spotlight, Louis Cartier produce brooches resembling baskets of fruit in which jewels of  corresponding colors represented apples, oranges and grapes. Another exceptional Art Deco brooch designer, Frenchwoman Suzanne Belperron, produced brooches featuring flora, fauna and insects. 

Rene Lalique frosted glass Deux Figurines Dos a Dos design from 1913, sold for $2,100 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

By the mid-20th century, impressionist painter Salvador Dali pushed the brooch to new aesthetic heights with distinctive examples such as a gold bas-relief of Tristan and Isolde in red and clear enamel. Alexander Calder and Man Ray contributed brooches that featured highly geometric or abstract styles. Today, top-flight artisans continue to envision their own takes on the time-honored brooch with pieces that seem more like art than jewelry. Even the ancient stick pin has been revived and reimagined. 

Salvador Dali’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ brooch with a gold bas-relief design and red and clear enamel, sold for $250 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2017. Image courtesy of Omega Auction Corp and LiveAuctioneers

Brooches are, of course, made to be worn. It’s no surprise, then, that many collectors view them as personal statements. One of the most prominent brooch collectors is former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She has amassed more than 200 brooches in a collection that was comprehensive enough to sustain a 2010 exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute titled “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection.”

As the top diplomat and usually the only woman in high-level international negotiations, Albright frequently used her brooches to convey messages. In the run-up to the show, she recalled in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, “I had an arrow pin that looked like a missile, and when we were negotiating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russians, the Russian foreign minister asked, ‘Is that one of your missile interceptors you’re wearing?’ And I responded, ‘Yes. We make them very small. Let’s negotiate.’”

‘Poissons’ articulated double-fish brooch, designed by Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co., in 1965, sold for $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021. Image courtesy of Mark Lawson Antiques, Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

While they haven’t yet enthralled younger generations as they did Secretary Albright and Queen Elizabeth II of England, brooches provide both designers and jewelry fans an excellent canvas for expressing an idea or mood as the perfect finishing touch to an outfit. Albright has said that her choice of brooch broadcasts “… what I’m feeling like on a given day or where I’m going. But mostly it’s fun. It’s just a good way to get started.”

Collectors Still Burn For Zippo Lighters

A 14K gold Zippo lighter by Tiffany & Co. sold for $950 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2017. Image courtesy of Fortuna Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Click. Thunk. Simply seeing the word “Zippo” is enough to call to mind the sound a Zippo lighter makes when you open and close its sturdy hinged lid it’s that recognizable. 

The lighter rose to prominence by proving it could perform in tough conditions. A gust of wind wasn’t enough to snuff its flame, ensuring that smokers in foxholes, tents, ship decks, battlefields and other stressful settings could keep their cigarettes lit. The company touted its wares as “wind proof” and boldly promised, “It works or we fix it free.” The lighter’s reliability made it a favorite amongst smokers – predominantly men – in the 20th century. For some of them, a Zippo was the closest thing they had to jewelry, especially if they worked at factories or on shop floors where employees were barred from wearing wedding rings and wristwatches, for safety reasons. 

An 18K gold Zippo lighter by Buccellati achieved $2,750 in March 2018. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

According to official Zippo company lore, the Zippo came into being after George C. Blaisdell noticed a friend struggling to light up. The scene took place in the early 1930s at the Bradford Country Club in Blaisdell’s hometown of Bradford, Pennsylvania. The friend, whose name is lost to history, was grappling with an Austrian gas lighter made from old cartridge shells. The Zippo history page states Blaisdell observed that it “… worked well, even in the wind, due to the unique chimney, but the appearance and design were utilitarian and inefficient. The lighter required the use of two hands to operate, and its thin metal surface was easily dented.”

Inspired, Blaisdell decided to redesign his friend’s lighter, giving it a sleek, rectangular polished chrome case with a hinged cover that could be flipped open with one hand. He kept the chimney design that made it “wind proof” and dubbed his creation “Zippo,” a derivation of “zipper,” a word he liked because he thought it sounded good when spoken. Blaisdell received a patent for his lighter in 1936, three years after he started selling it for $1.95 a sum that would equate to roughly $40 today.

A circa-1934 Zippo tall case lighter with a telltale soldered exposed hinge sold for $875 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2019. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com

Blaisdell changed the Zippo design over the next few years, reducing the case by a quarter-inch, adding diagonal lines to give the case an Art Deco look, and soldering the hinge so that the top cover connected to the inside of the case instead of its outside, where it was more vulnerable to damage. Collectors prize these early examples, which are known as “tall case” Zippos, as well as those with cases that sport the outside hinge.

Another transformative event shaped the Zippo in its fledgling years. In the mid-1930s, the Bradford-based Kendall Refining Company ordered 500 lighters emblazoned with its own corporate brand. Kendall was the first entity to commission Zippos with special livery, and many, many other companies would follow.

A USS Cole Zippo lighter with a brass finish, offered with a WWI-era Bowers trench lighter, sold for $50 in September 2013. Image courtesy of Affiliated Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

During World War II, Zippo suspended civilian sales and produced lighters strictly for the military. The company lacked an official government contract, but regardless, Zippo lighters became the go-to flame-generator for soldiers, sailors and Marines who received mini-packs of cigarettes along with their K-rations. They carried their Zippos from battle to battle and kept them after the war ended. 

Most Zippos that were in use during WWII had black, crackle-finish steel cases. Soldiers believed this detail muffled the noise produced by striking, which in turn helped them keep a low profile during military maneuvers. But the company insists that the case style was chosen for mundane business reasons. Like the scrimshanders of centuries ago, bored trench-bound troops transformed the black cases into canvases, scratching all manner of designs, initials and battle dates into them with any sharp object at hand. Not surprisingly, collectors place a high value on such personalized Zippos.

WWII delivered priceless and lasting benefits to the Zippo company. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young men carried its lighters during the most daunting experience of their lives, and depended on them to deliver the nicotine that calmed their nerves in literal life-or-death situations. It’s a sad commentary, but about half of all Americans were routine tobacco smokers in 1945. 

A circa-1960s Zippo Corinthian tabletop lighter rose to $175 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2015. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In the 1950s, Zippo offered its custom-designed lighters in a range of formats, including a series of stand-alone tabletop versions with upscale names such as the Barcroft, Lady Bradford, Moderne, Corinthian, Handilite and the Lady Barbara. A handsome teal green circa-1960s Zippo Corinthian table top lighter sold for $175 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2015 at Clars Auction Gallery. 

Another innovation arrived in 1956 when Zippo unveiled the Slim design, which was smaller, thinner and sleekly polished, with rounded corners that fit easily into pockets and rolled up t-shirts. 

A circa-1950s Zippo lighter commissioned by Buffalo Bob Smith and given to a ‘Howdy Doody’ crew member sold for $454 in February 2021. Image courtesy of Hake’s and LiveAuctioneers

Custom-made Zippos, commissioned as gifts to celebrate anniversaries, retirements and similar milestones, or to create a bond amongst team members, alumni or coworkers, took off. A standout example is a circa-1950s brush-finish Zippo lighter given by “Buffalo” Bob Smith to members of the crew who filmed the Howdy Doody TV show. One that featured a camera and the name “Larry” sold for $454 at Hake’s in February 2021. The very idea that a Zippo cigarette lighter would be in any way associated with the country’s most popular children’s show seems unimaginable today, but that’s how widespread smoking was in the postwar years. 

A circa-1950s Zippo lighter owned by John F. Kennedy, depicting the ‘U.S.S. Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.,’ which was named for the president’s older brother, realized $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2018. Image courtesy of Potter & Potter and LiveAuctioneers

Even the highest of high-profile individuals are known to have carried Zippo lighters. One of the most notable was President John F. Kennedy, who took his tobacco strictly in the form of a cigar. A personally owned Kennedy Zippo, decorated with the image of the destroyer named for his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., sold in July 2018 for $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Potter & Potter Auctions. JFK also commissioned Zippos, as evidenced by a chrome example commemorating his June 1963 trip to Europe. Kennedy gave the lighter, which is emblazoned with the Presidential Seal, to his longtime friend and aide Dave Powers. It was offered with its original box at a February 2013 sale at John McInnis Auctioneers, where it made $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium.

A chrome Zippo lighter that President Kennedy commissioned for a June 1963 European trip and gave to longtime aide Dave Powers achieved $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2013. Image courtesy of John McInnis Auctioneers, LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Another Zippo commission came from John Wayne, who had lighters made as gifts for crew members on the 1968 film The Green Berets. Each lighter featured the movie’s name and a likeness of the military hat on the front, and a whimsical inscription on the back that read, in part, STOLEN FROM JOHN WAYNE. An example from the estate of one of Wayne’s friends, Chuck Iverson, sold in July 2012 for $900 plus the buyer’s premium at Profiles in History.

The cultural reach of the Zippo inevitably caught the attention of top luxury goods retailers. Tiffany & Co., created a 14K gold rendition with a vertically ribbed design, subsequently offered at Fortuna Auction in November 2017, where it realized $950 plus the buyer’s premium. An 18K gold Zippo by Buccellati, graced with brushed crosshatched engraving, achieved $2,750 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Alex Cooper.

A circa-1968 Zippo lighter commissioned by John Wayne for the crew of ‘The Green Berets,’ with the name of the film on the front and the words ‘STOLEN FROM JOHN WAYNE’ on the back, sold for $900 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2012. Image courtesy of Profiles in History and LiveAuctioneers

Spotting a genuine Zippo is relatively straightforward. Just turn it upside down. Those made between 1933 and 1955 feature an unadorned block letter logo stamped on the bottom of the case. A fancy-script logo design prevailed from 1955 until the late 1970s, when it was changed to the version seen today.

Every Zippo lighter made since 1955 also has a date code that specifies when it was made (those produced before 1955 are identified by their stamped logo design). The Zippo company is still going strong, and a page on its official website, www.zippo.com, helps collectors decipher the codes shown on their products, both vintage and new. Also standing ready to assist are Zippo collector clubs, many of which are active on social media. The Zippo/Case Museum, a 15,000-square-foot facility in Bradford, Pennsylvania, that also houses a repair clinic and a store, is normally open seven days a week.

As much more has become known about the connection between smoking and serious illnesses, the number of active smokers has dwindled dramatically. Now, only around 16% of the American population are smokers. But the habit of acquiring vintage Zippo lighters has continued, joining the many other collectibles categories that are associated with taboos of a less-enlightened era.