Felix the Cat: A century of smiles in comics, toys

NEW YORK – Felix the Cat is not only a pop culture icon but he was television’s first star. Today, with thousands of toys and comic books bearing his likeness, often depicting his famous walk, he remains a hot collectible. Head down, lost in thought, walking with his hands behind his back, the plucky Felix stole the scene in hundreds of movies and comic strips.

Back in 1919, Felix got his start in a New York City animation studio with a Felix prototype named Master Tom, making his film debut in the short, Feline Follies. By his third movie released later that year, he took on a new name, Felix the Cat, which would soon become famous.

Among highly desirable and rare Felix the Cat toys is this large windup Frolic platform toy by J. Chein, one of four known, that achieved $35,000 + buyer’s premium in September 2017. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The name reportedly comes from the Latin word for happy (felix) and is similar to the cat term, feline. Both New Jersey cartoonist/animator Otto Messmer and Australian cartoonist/filmmaker Pat Sullivan (whose name appears in the credits for Feline Follies) have both claimed credit for Felix’s creation.

In 1928, Felix became a TV star when NBC/RCA was testing television transmissions and chose a Felix the Cat figure to use as it could sustain the heat of the TV lights and the contrast of its black and white coloring would reproduce well. By this time, Felix was already a household name as a Felix the Cat comic strip was syndicated, first in England and then in America, in 1923. He was so popular that his likeness appeared on U.S. Navy fighter planes during World War II, chosen as a mascot of sorts for his “never give up” attitude.

A Felix the Cat litho tin windup scooter in original box, made by J. Chein, earned $2,500 + buyer’s premium in May 2015. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Felix’s look is striking in its simplistic elegance. His jet-black body stands in sharp contrast against the whitest whites of his eyes and his figure is basically composed of circles (from his eyes to his nose and head), which likely made it easy for different animators to draw him without much stylistic differences.

Felix was first syndicated as a comic strip in England and was beloved there, where many Felix collectibles and dolls were made. “In that country, a popular song was composed called Felix Kept On Walking,” according to this website surveying the Mel Birnkrant collection. On the cover of the sheet music, one can see Felix in his classic pensive walking pose and the song title served as a catchphrase for Felix.

This freestanding Steiff Felix the Cat toy, retaining its original Steiff ear button, went for $4,000 + buyer’s premium in March 2019. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A Felix the Cat fandom website notes the surrealism of the cartoon strips and the versatility of Felix’s tail. “Felix’s expressive tail, which could be a shovel one moment, an exclamation mark or pencil the next, serves to emphasize that anything can happen in his world,” it wrote. The comic strips were popular for a few decades and then gave way to TV cartoons, which ran for over 20 years.

Felix the Cat has appeared on thousands upon thousands of collectibles and items, including

animated clocks, flashlights, salt and pepper shakers, lamps, dishes, music boxes, cookie jars and much more. Toys, of course, are his predominant medium and range from dolls and wooden or stuffed figures to wooden pull toys, platform and balance toys, nodders and vehicle toys.

A Daven ‘Home Brew’ scanning disk television with a 13-inch-tall Felix the Cat composition doll sold for $3,000 + buyer’s premium in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Companies such as Schoenhut, Steiff and J. Chein & Co. were among those licensed to produce toys and figures of Felix and other King Features Syndicate characters.

Among top-selling Felix the Cat collectibles and Felix-inspired items are a stencils and spray paint on canvas artwork by the artist known as Seen (b. 1961) painted in 2012 that realized $70,000 in February 2014 at Fine Art Auctions Miami and a large Felix the Cat Felix Frolic platform lithographed tin toy that achieved $35,000 in September 2017 at Morphy Auctions.

For the cartoon ‘Felix Brings Home the Bacon,’ released in July 1924, original four-fold lithograph poster on linen backing, 27 x 41 inches. Price realized: $2,600 + buyer’s premium. Photo courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

This oversized toy measured nearly 14 inches and consequently, it broke easily and was probably in production for only one year because of this issue. Wooden flex dolls from the 1930s, having leather ears and marked Felix on the chest, standing around 4 inches or 8 inches tall, are quite collectible and affordable, selling for about $300 to $600. Steiff Felix dolls with the ear button are also desirable.

Armed with a memorable theme song and his bag of tricks, Felix has endeared himself to fans across the years, becoming a pop culture icon and sought-after collectable in the process.

Cuff links: personality you wear on your sleeve

NEW YORK – If clothes make the man, then cuff links make a statement. Whether bold or understated, cuff links are alive with personality just by being worn.

Fashions change. Prior to the Middle Ages, men’s fashion depended on the skill of textile weaving and availability of clothing, particularly open tunics, that were comfortable, able to be kept clean and affordable. Special adornment was left to those with much more disposable income.

An example of an enamel double-panel cuff links where usually only one side of a cuff link is shown, here both sides are noticeable connected by a short chain. This is the style of cuff link most prized by collectors. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After the Middle Ages, that special adornment around the neck and wrists was usually colored ribbon, frills or buttons. This is the precursor to neckties and cuff links. As the 19th century progressed, more formal wear included starched collars and sleeves, particularly around the wrists. Buttons were no longer able to secure them effectively. Enter cuff links.

It’s not clear what the first cuff links were made of, but it seems that those with means produced these “sleeve buttons” from gold, silver and even jewels, according to The History of Cuff Links by jewelrykind.com. The Industrial Revolution democratized the use of cuff links, so more of the middle class were able to afford them using quartz and rhinestones in place of jewels and polished metals like steel or brass instead of silver and gold.

As time progressed, cuff links took on many forms, styles and design. During the Art Deco period of the 1920s, for example, enameled cuff links took hold in that unique style. “…[E]arly craftsmen such as Faberge, Tiffany and Cartier began to use enamel to create unique cuff link styles,” according to a jewelrykind.com online article. These early enamel cuff links are highly valued by collectors today, especially if signed by an artist such as Jean Schlumberger, who designed jewelry exclusively for Tiffany & Co. from 1956 until the late 1970s.

Vintage Tiffany & Co. blue enamel and 18K gold double panel cuff links with chains that are signed ‘SCHLUMBERGER TIFFANY,’ stamped and numbered, that sold for $3,200 inclusive of buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Fortuna Auction and LiveAuctioners

Designing cuff links is a challenge, particularly double panel versions where each cuff link has a special design on both sides. Each design, while different, must complement each other in a very small space, fit directly against the sleeve, and be able to be held together perfectly. It must also appeal to the wearer as fanciful and fashionable at the same time. It’s difficult making something uniquely fashionable to be functional as well.

For cuff links to be functional, there needs to be a way to connect it through a starched sleeve and tighten it enough to close the sleeves together snugly. As it happens, there are 21 different ways to do just that, according to the website cufflinkguru.com. Collectors are most familiar with the type that is the fixed back where the post (the raised piece of metal that slides into the sleeve’s button hole) is attached to the reverse and does not move. To fasten the cuff link, a stationary toggle is attached at the end of the post which keeps the cuff link from slipping out of the sleeve.

While the post doesn’t move, sometimes the toggle at the end does. There are different shapes designed to keep the cuff link secure such as a cylinder shape called a bullet back, a whale back that looks like the flukes of a whale’s tail, or a torpedo shaped toggle that is fixed to the post. Sometimes the post is angled at a 45-degree angle with a moveable toggle at the end.

Pair of cobalt blue lapis lazuli cuff links from Bulgari showing the swivel-style post that sold for $913 inclusive of buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

There are also cuff links that use a chain to connect them, others with the shape of a barbell, and the most collectible are the double panel cuff links where each front and back of a cuff link is a unique enamel design connected by a chain. And there are other posts used to secure cuff links, more unique then the next.

It is also the design of the cuff link that provides a palette for uniqueness in style. Hardly any two cuff links are alike, much like snowflakes it seems. Many manufacturers like Krementz and Swank produce reasonably priced cuff links available to those with a fashion statement, but without the need for the detailed designer touch. Geometric, figural, whimsical and unique shapes are just as fashionable. Personality need not be costly.

Bulgari, Tiffany & Co. and Cartier are jewelers extraordinaire with personal lines of cuff links unique to their style and sophistication. Gucci, Hermes, Burberry and other fashion lines feature cuff links as part of their overall fashion sense, too. It is possible for a collector to feature their entire collection on one fashion house or jeweler.

Every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy in 1961 has provided a visitor with a set of cuff links featuring the presidential seal similar to this gold-tone set provided by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s that recently sold for $636 inclusive of buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of RR Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Cuff links are also a badge of office. It is no wonder that the president of the United States has given a set of cuff links featuring the seal of office since the administration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Each president has had a unique version of cuff link featuring a swivel and fixed posts with enamel, die cast and cobalt blue. At times, sterling silver and different karats of gold have been featured in a pair of presidential cuff links. Kings, queens and all manner of government officials and organizations also offer unique sets of cuff links to visitors as a memento.

There are many ways to create a cuff link collection. Design, color, presentation, element, era, and uniqueness all play a part in what a pair of cuff links represent – you.

“It’s my passion,” says Gene Klompus, a cuff link collector. “I wear cuff links at every opportunity. I look for excuses to wear them. They’re great for business too. They’re great conversation starters.”

PEZ: tasty and fun collectibles

NEW YORK – Collectibles are rooted in nostalgia but perhaps none more so than PEZ, with many children having fond memories of getting a colorful PEZ dispenser, filling it with equally colorful candy and eating every piece. The variety in both dispensers and flavors of PEZ candy tablets is staggering.

PEZ candy was invented in Vienna, Austria by Eduard Haas III as a substitute to smoking, according to a company history. The moniker comes from the German word for peppermint, “PfeffErminZ” taking its name, PEZ, from the first, middle and last letters. In 1952, the company made its U.S.-debut and built its first American manufacturing facility in Orange, Connecticut, where it also has a visitors center that opened in 2011.

PEZ candy refills were often sold in boxes like this in the 1940s. The candy tablets were originally round, but by 1930 changed to a rectangular shape to facilitate packaging by having tablets with a flat surface, Peterson said. Photo courtesy of PEZ Candy Inc.

PEZ collectors are as diverse as the candy itself. Some collect only dispensers or candy packs while others seek out different variations of heads or stems. Some buy everything associated with PEZ. There is no official company count on how many dispensers have been made over the years as some models have been issued in dozens of variations. There are likely well over 1,000 unique dispenser models. Movie, Disney and comic characters are perennial fan favorites as well as holiday themes.

“Some people love to collect new and old displays and, of course, vintage PEZ still in the package,” said Richard Belyski of the Fliptop Pezervation Society and founder of PEZ Collectors News in 1995. “There are also licensed items like Giant PEZ, PEZ lunchboxes and many more items with the PEZ name on it,” he said. “The latest hot PEZ collectible that some collect is called POP!+PEZ. It’s made by Funko and they took their POP concept and made many characters (new and old) that PEZ never did or will not do and put them on the top of a PEZ dispenser.”

This set of 10 unopened PEZ dispensers made $1,300 + buyer’s premium in December 2019 at Leonard Auction Inc. Photo courtesy of Leonard Auction Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

Unusual dispensers are hot, especially those made in a full-body style. PEZ made a full-body Santa Claus and another that is called Space Trooper, a ’50s-looking spaceman, Belyski noted. The full-bodied Santa seen here was made in Austria or Germany.

Santa Claus is the top-selling dispenser of all time and there have been many variations in its appearance. The Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse dispensers are among the oldest ones PEZ made (and still makes). “We have been producing a version of Santa since the late 1950s. It goes hand-in-hand with the holiday season and it’s a perfect stocking stuffer,” said Shawn Peterson, Direct to Consumer Business Manager, PEZ Candy Inc.

About 30 to 40 new PEZ dispensers are released each year, depending on how many gift sets are offered or if PEZ is revamping its seasonal lines.

Introduced in 1964, this baseball set came with a glove, ball, bat and home plate. It is difficult to find with the original vending box. Photo courtesy of PEZ Candy Inc.

Historically, dispensers’ stems are made in what is known as a non-footed style and many collectors still prefer this look, Peterson said, explaining footless dispensers don’t have the little tabs at the bottom of the stem to help them stand upright. “For collectors, generally that is the division between a vintage and a modern dispenser even though we’ve been putting feet on dispensers since 1987.”

Rarities and unusual examples obviously are of key interest to collectors. “There are some things that are exceedingly rare and then there are other things that can be found with some patience and persistence,” Peterson said. The Make-A-Face dispenser was issued in the 1970s as a kind of Mr. Potato Head where one can affix various pieces onto the PEZ face. It’s not exceptionally rare but highly desirable, Belyski said. “To find a dispenser with all of the pieces sells for around $3,000.”

Northeast PEZ Con attendees shop for rare dispensers and displays. Photo courtesy of Fliptop Pezervation Society-PEZ Collectors Club

Among high-selling dispensers are the Space Guns such as this one from the 1950s that fetched over $2,000. Peterson also cited the psychedelic flower-themed dispensers from the 1960s. “It was a hand holding an eyeball and a flower with the eyeball in the center,” he said. According to lore, the flower dispensers featured flower-flavored candies, which didn’t go over well. The psychedelic dispensers were reissued in the 1990s as a nostalgic throwback via a direct-mail offer where customers could write in to acquire them.

Serious collectors also want the store displays and cardboard that goes along with the dispensers. “What a lot of retailers would deem as trash, we have a base of people that want those items. If it says Pez, they are interested,” Peterson said. This football-themed display stand, for example, nearly 20 inches long and outfitted with 18 rare football dispensers, sold for nearly $5,000 in 2012.

This PEZ collector at a recent Northeast PEZ Con (convention) really loves his dispensers. Photo courtesy of Fliptop Pezervation Society-PEZ Collectors Club.

PEZ dispensers have long been made of hard plastic but in 1979, three prototype lines of soft-head dispensers were introduced: a Disney line, a monster line and a DC Comics superhero line. “The Disney one is the rarest so if one of those came up [for sale], they can get pretty pricey. I’ve seen them sell for $3,000 to $6,000 each,” Peterson said. “It was a rubber-based head … and the price of petroleum was going up significantly and there were gas shortages. What sounded like a good idea initially proved to be more expensive than anticipated so they decided to go back to the traditional plastic.”

From authentic vintage dispensers to fantasy ones covered in Swarovski crystals, there is a PEZ for all tastes. “It’s a favorite among generations because it’s relevant to just about any generation. That’s how we stay on the leading edge of what’s happening, and we are able to keep true to our original product,” Peterson said. “I don’t really know of any other product that can do that. It’s what makes Pez unique. It was really the first interactive candy that came about and that it’s a candy and a toy all in one.”

PEZ is a registered trademark of PEZ Candy Inc.

Kugels: biggest and best Christmas ornaments

NEW YORK – Christmas is a time of vibrant color in a season of cold and snow. Revelers can invite the warmth of the holiday to filter through the sparkle of glass ornaments, especially antique ones known as kugels.

Every family has holiday traditions and stories that are passed down through generations. Most are oral tales of family lore, but fanciful kugels tell stories, too. It’s also been suggested that before they became a Christmas tradition, kugels may have held a more ethereal secret.

A large group of vintage German, French and Indian kugels from the late 19th to early 20th century with various sizes and colors sold as a group for nearly $5,200 on Nov. 12, 2019. Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers image

In 17th century England, inhabitants thought the countryside was rife with witches. Unseen and always up to mischief, these witches needed to be kept far away from hearth and home. And since witches were known to be wary of circular shapes, legend says, a round, sometimes silvered, glass “witch ball” was hung in windows, along ceilings and even as large silvered gazing balls in the garden to keep these evil troublemakers at bay.

Large, clear hand-blown glass balls similar to these were used in the 17th century as a talisman to ward off witches. They may have influenced more radiant, mirror-like figural Christmas ornaments by the mid-19th century. William Bunch Auction & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers image

At the same time an early winter holiday tradition meant the hanging of the greens in homes and churches. Since the Egyptians, evergreen branches have been a symbol of everlasting life. They were brought inside and decorated for the holidays with oranges, apples, candles and sweets as early as the 15th century. When the fir tree was brought indoors for the Christmas holiday beginning in the early 19th century, it may just be an old folk tale, but the colorful witch ball easily transitioned from a personal guardian into a smaller, more festive holiday decoration to bring color and life to the evergreens and the fir tree.

Folk tale or not, glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany, in the early 19th century were making fashionable glass beads, bottles, scientific glass instruments and, of course, the round glass witch balls. Once the indoor trees and evergreens became a holiday tradition by 1847, they transitioned into creating colorful glass balls for decoration. Not long after, the glass balls were lined inside with silver nitrate, tin or even lead to give them a rather distinctive mirror-like finish where they positively glowed near the ubiquitous candlelight of the period. And a delightful holiday tradition was born.

Antique German silver glass squash-form kugel with Baroque cap, 4in high. Sold for $3,000 + buyer’s premium Nov. 3, 2018. Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Once the glass ornaments were widely accepted, the glass blowers became more creative and pressed glowing hot glass into molds such as a bunch of grapes, eggs, pears, berries, vegetables and even pinecone shapes. Each was hand blown with various vibrant colors from either colored glass, hand-painted on the outside or later sprayed on with a colored lacquer. These kugels (German for round ball), as they became known, were heavy and durable and remained a holiday tradition until about 1890. By then kugel production moved to Nancy, France, where their own lighter, more colorful versions, known as Boules Panoramic, predominated until the 1920s.

Because of their long-lasting durability, radiant color and simple designs, kugels are a collector’s favorite, and auction values in recent years reflect that interest. Collectors, like goldenglow.org and kugelhouse.com, express agreement that color is the first criteria for collectors when determining value. The more easily obtainable are clear glass with only the silver lining along with gold, green, cobalt, most shades of blue and most red colors, although pink is rarer. Darker reds and greens, copper colors, orange and amethyst are hardest to find.

This ribbed pear-shaped early 19th century German-made kugel sold for nearly $22,000 on Aug. 14, 2015. Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Shapes are the next criteria after color. Balls and grapes are the most common. Egg, pear and teardrop shapes and ones with ribbed forms are particularly desirable. Any other shapes, such as vegetables, fruits or pinecones, are the really rare ones.

Condition matters, too. “When collecting kugels, try to avoid pieces where the lining has disintegrated. On rarer pieces collectors will often look the other way if the lining is in bad shape, but the reality is that if you try to sell the piece, you may not be able to get a good price with a bad lining,” according to goldenglow.com, a specialist website dedicated to all things Christmas.

German-made glass berry-form kugel, copper color, beehive cap, 3½in diameter. Sold for $1,600 + buyer’s premium Jan. 13, 2018. Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

And beware of reproductions. Vintage kugels made in Germany or France from 1840s to about 1900 were made with a smooth, cut finished hole at the top flush with the ornament. A smooth or embossed brass cap fit easily over the hole with a brass, pronged wire holding the cap against the ornament. A round brass wire fit through the top of the pronged one to hang from the tree that will have aged naturally. Recent reproductions from India were made with a rougher, protruding neck over the hole with the brass cap obviously aged artificially. Vintage kugels are made with thicker glass while thinner ones were made after 1918.

Whether rare or not, vintage kugels are a decorator choice for the Christmas holidays. Featured as a table centerpiece with candlelight, hung from light fixtures, catching light from open windows, formed into wreaths or simply hung on the tree with care, kugels bring a magic of color, brightness and good spirits inside while the weather outside is frightful. There just might be something to the folk tale after all.

Pewabic Pottery: Detroit’s Arts & Crafts survivor

NEW YORK – Not everyone is familiar with Pewabic Pottery (pronounced Puh-WOB-ic), but for anyone from Detroit and the southeastern Michigan area it’s a revered and venerable institution.

In 1903, Mary Chase Perry Stratton, who went to art school in Cincinnati and New York where she worked in clay sculpture and china painting, joined her neighbor, Horace James Caulkins, to make pottery. Caulkins was in the dental supply business and had had developed a kiln for making dental enamel. Perry and Caulkins fired their first vases and tiles in that kiln. They worked out of a coach house at the back of a mansion located at John R. and Alfred streets in Detroit.

In 1907, they built a Tudor Revival structure at 10125 E. Jefferson Ave. to house their studio and laboratory, which is still there, still functioning and operational as a headquarters. The structure was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

Early Pewabic Pottery vase, 17¼in high, having a matte glaze boasting teal tones with a floral relief to the bodice, bearing two ‘Pewabic Detroit’ paper labels to the surface, est. $1,500-$2,000, sold for $30,000 + buyer’s premium at an auction held July 21, 2019 by DuMouchelles in Detroit. DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers image

Pewabic Pottery is notable for the iridescent glazes on the many handmade decorative objects it produces, such as lamps, vessels and especially architectural tiles, a staple in the firm’s history. The glaze of the tiles has been described as being “like an oil slick with an incredible translucent quality and a phantasmagoric depth of color.” Over the years they’ve been used in churches, concert halls, fountains, libraries, museums, schools and public buildings, mostly in Michigan.

Large Pewabic Pottery iridescent blue vase, signed, in perfect condition, 10½in high, est. $2,500-$3,500, sold for $2,880 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium) at an auction held March 16, 2019 by California Historical Design in Alameda, Calif. California Historical Design and LiveAuctioneers image

But the rest of the country has taken notice, too. Tiles grace such buildings as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.; the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; Herald Square in New York City; and Herzstein Hall at Rice University in Houston. Michigan installations include Comerica Park (home of the Detroit Tigers), Detroit Medical Center Children’s Hospital, Third Man Records in Detroit and stations for the Q-Line in Detroit.

Perry Stratton’s and Caulkins’ collaboration and business partnership produced a blend of art and technology that gave the pottery its distinctive qualities as Detroit’s contribution to the International Arts and Crafts movement, as exemplified by the American Craftsman style.

Mary Chase Perry Stratton (1867-1961) for Pewabic Pottery, ‘All by Myself I Have to Go’ tile
glazed ceramic, 11¾in square, original redwood frame: 15¾in wide x 15 5/8in high, est. $2,000-$3,000, sold for $7,000 + buyer’s premium. Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers image

They chose the word “Pewabic” to call their company, as it’s derived from the Native American Ojibwe, or Chippewa, word “wabic” (meaning metal) or “bewabic” (which means iron or steel). Specifically, it refers to the old Pewabic copper mine near Hancock, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula where Perry Stratton was raised. Today, the Detroit facility operates as a nonprofit educational institution, and Pewabic tile continues to be in great demand throughout southeastern Michigan and the U.S.

“Pewabic pieces can be found all across the United States and are even represented within the collection of the Louvre in Paris, France,” said Lori Stefek at Stefek’s Auctions in Roseville, Michigan. “There is a growing appreciation for Pewabic Pottery within the auction industry. We have sold pieces to buyers in many states, including California, New Jersey, and Illinois.”

Stefek added, “The distinctive glaze is … a signature feature of Pewabic Pottery. Being from Detroit, you know when you walk into a space that features Pewabic tiles; the glazes capture the eye immediately. As an auctioneer I see a lot of pottery, and you know right away when a true Pewabic piece comes through for its distinctive look and craftsmanship.”

Large Pewabic Pottery iridescent pottery vase, formerly mounted as a lamp, American, 20th century, with ‘Pewabic Detroit’ medallion paper label to underside, 18½in high, est. $6,000-$8,000, sold for $6,500 + buyer’s premium at an auction held Sept. 17, 2015 at Stefek’s in Roseville, Mich. Stefek’s Autioneers and LiveAuctioneers image

“In this age of disposable products, Pewabic pieces are still produced with the same care that Mary Chase Perry Stratton intended,” Stefek said. “The innovation and creative direction that Pewabic was founded on is still carried on today, and that attention to detail attracts a wide variety of collectors and new buyers alike who desire handcrafted goods over mass-produced generic pieces. No wonder it’s still one of the longest lasting pottery studios in the Midwest.”

“Pewabic Pottery has always been known for remarkable quality, and for that reason it received nationally acclaim,” said Rachel Szymusiak, cataloger and appraiser for Schmidt’s Antiques in Ypsilanti, Michigan. “Pewabic has supplied decorative and architectural tiles to many places, due to its remarkable quality and enduring consistency. The iridescent glaze is unmistakably Pewabic and the quintessential shapes and styles are timeless, both decoratively and practically.”

Pewabic Pottery vase having a short neck above a rounded shoulder continuing to a tapered base, and an iridescent drip glaze over mottled blue, 5 inches tall, est. $200-$400, sold for $1,300 + buyer’s premium at an auction held May 12, 2018 by Schmidt’s Antiques in Ypsilanti, Mich. Schmidt’s Antiques and LiveAuctioneers image

Gus Bolstrom of California Historical Design Inc. in Alameda, California, said Pewabic Pottery is known and revered throughout America, “not only because they were making incredible Arts & Crafts Pottery – they were early in the movement right from the earliest days of their inception back in 1903 – they were making incredible iridescent glazes unlike anyone else at the time.”

Bolstrom added, “Pewabic Pottery is one of the only pottery studios from the Arts & Crafts period still in business today. This allows collectors of modest means to afford something made from their kilns. Interest in many pieces of the Arts & Crafts Movement has been down for the past 10-20 years, but Pewabic Pottery seems to hold its own better than most other potteries.”

Pewabic Pottery vase, metallic glazed ceramic, impressed signature, 4 inches high, in excellent condition with nice drip glaze, est. $450-$550, sold for $850 + buyer’s premium at an auction held Dec. 3, 2016 by Treadway Toomey Auctions in Oak Park, Ill. Treadway Toomey Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image

As an example, Bolstrom pointed to a 16-inch carved Pewabic Pottery vase that sold not long ago for $53,125 (including buyer’s premium) at Toomey Auctions in Oak Park, Illinois. “That may be a record for a piece of Pewabic pottery,” he said, adding, “I reached out to a few collectors of Pewabic in the San Francisco Bay area to gauge market demand. The consensus is there will continue to be strong demand because of the rarity and the exceptional fine glazes.”

Rachel Szymusiak at Schmidt’s Antiques said, “There has always been demand for earlier pieces, and in general we see the demand as steadily increasing. Again, the timelessness of the pieces, consistent quality, and exceptional craftsmanship will ensure a reliable demand.”

Pewabic decorated tiles, metallic glazed ceramic, Detroit, overall 17 x 24in. Sold for $2,000 + buyer’s premium. Treadway and LiveAuctioneers image

Lori Stefek said Pewabic’s popularity among designers and collectors has remained steady throughout the years. “A lot of variables go into the demand for the pieces, including the shapes, sizes, and rarity of the glazes,” she said. “I don’t see Pewabic losing its market demand anytime soon, and if anything it has the potential for higher demand. The younger generation, especially in Detroit, is starting to move back toward appreciating quality products made in Detroit due to the city’s renaissance. They’re attracted to the tenacity of Pewabic’s heritage during the turbulent times of Detroit’s history. The Internet has also opened up the market to interested people across the globe who wish to learn more and have the chance to acquire a Pewabic piece of their own.”

Colorful Christmas board games of McLoughlin Brothers

NEW YORK – Move two spaces. Roll the dice. Learn if your turn has been naughty or nice. That’s the nature of a competitive board game, especially one played during the Victorian era. And no one created Victorian board games better, then or now, than McLoughlin Brothers Inc.

There have always been competitive board games since ancient times. The earliest incomplete board game is said to be senet found in Egyptian burial sites dated as early as 3500 B.C., including that of Tutankhamun. Its rules are unclear, but it’s thought to be a personal journey from this life to the afterlife, according to Wikipedia. The Royal Game of Ur dates back to at least 2500 B.C. with other examples such as backgammon (Iraq, Syria), chess and parcheesi (India), and Go (China) from around the world during the ancient period that are still played today.

This 1899 board game shows the wonderfully colorful illustrations of children enjoying the snow in vivid colors is what makes McLoughin Bros. board games so desirable. This set recently sold for $10,000 (inclusive of a 25% buyer’s premium) complete with all its pieces. Image courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Board games in Europe from the 16th century through the Victorian era centered around vice and virtue such as Goose – roll the dice, land on vice (get punished) or virtue (get rewarded). Land on ‘goose’ and you get another chance to be a saint again. The winner was the most virtuous – simple and straightforward.

Not much different than the games published in the United States, except the first one was a Traveller’s Tour Through the United States published in 1822 by bookseller F&R Lockwood in New York City, but morality games like The Mansion of Happiness (Heaven being the Mansion), published in 1843 by W. & S.B. Ives, were more the norm. Each game board had simple, two-color, hand-painted graphics with an average cost of $1.63 (about $45 today).

By the 1850s advancement in printing brought chromolithography, a process that allowed full-color printing on paper more economically feasible and much less labor intensive. One of the first companies to take advantage of this new process was the McLoughlin Bros, a New York City publishing company of children’s books, paper toys, and, most important to collectors, multicolored board games.

 

A series of three Christmas-themed McLoughin Bros. board games features an1899 Santa Claus Scroll Puzzle, a 1904 Automobile Race Game with Santa motif on cover and the Visit of Santa Claus board game that sold together for $5,182 (inclusive of a 22% buyer’s premium) in 2019. Image courtesy: Showtime Auction Services and LiveAuctioneers

What’s remarkable about the board games published by McLoughin Bros. was not that they were the first (the Mansion to Happiness was) it was the distinctive multicolor process that created the high quality of its box illustrations. Many well-known artists worked for McLoughlin Bros. creating dazzling images for each of the children’s books, card packs and board games. Ida Waugh, for example, is a well-known illustrator and portrait painter who had exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbia Exhibition and Woodmere Museum in Philadelphia, among others. She ultimately contributed many painted illustrations to books, games and booklets along with William Bruton, Sarah Noble Ives and so many well-known illustrators of the era. Their superior pen and ink and watercolor illustrations helped set McLoughlin Bros. apart from other publishers of the era.

The sheer number of board games offered by McLoughlin Bros. is astounding and varied. There’s the Game of Catching Mice, the District Messenger Boy (one of its first), College Boat Race, The King’s Highway, The National Game of Baseball, the Game of Three Blind Mice, and so many others. By 1920, McLouglin Bros. sold out to Milton Bradley and board games were no longer produced under their name.

Luckily, we can still appreciate the wonderful art and history of McLoughlin Bros. board games and other children’s books and educational games at auction. As with other collectibles, condition is most important, but with vintage board games, particularly those from McLoughlin Bros., the graphics are just as important. Board games were meant to be played, so some wear and tear can be expected. However, the best condition reaches a higher auction value. Every small tear, rip or discoloration will matter.

Not just board games, but books by McLoughin Bros also tell the story of Christmas such as a complete set of Game of Christmas Jewel and several children books ‘Christmas Surprise,’ ‘Christmas Joys,’ ‘The Night Before Christmas and Nellie’s Christmas Eve’ that sold for $671 (inclusive of a 22% buyer’s premium) in 2016. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Pieces matter, too. Many of the board games have more than just a board; the dice, cards, playing pieces need to be all original and intact. Even if one piece is missing, no matter how small, the value drops significantly.

The type of game usually matters as well, but with McLoughlin Bros., all board games, no matter the condition will have an interested collector. For Christmas-themed games, for example, the Game of Tobogganing at Christmas, Automobile Race Game (showing a red-suited Santa similar to Kris Kringle on the cover) and a Visit of Santa Claus shows the vivid colors and storytelling graphics on the cover. They are as special now as they were played with then.

So many collectibles were made for a certain time and place. Board games may be the exception. Even if they were created over 150 years ago, their original purpose to entertain, amaze and bring out the competitive spirit is still going strong. Vivid artwork, fanciful design and the life lessons of McLoughlin Bros board games will easily transcend the next 150 years as new generations appreciate their genius.

As Jumanji says, “A game for those, who seek to find, a way to leave their world behind.” But not too far behind. They will always live as cherished collectibles.

Jade: why some buyers are obsessed

NEW YORK – Jade is at the center of a story of money and magic that goes back over 8,000 years. In China, its use dates back to the Neolithic period, between 6000 and 5000 B.C. The mysterious bi discs and cong vessels found in burials of this period testify to its ritual significance.

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) said, “The wise have likened jade to virtue,” and went on to link its various strengths to human qualities. Difficult to find, almost impossible to work with tools, the mineral’s pull on the heartstrings began early. Then and now, jade displayed the owner’s wealth and also served as a protective talisman to ensure longevity and good fortune.

This very fine pure white Hetian jade representation of Lingzhi, a naturally occurring fungus that is said to ensure longevity, brought $54,450 at a Gianguan Auction. The 15½-inch-long Qing Dynasty sculpture includes a small dragon and other long-life symbols. Courtesy: Gianguan Auctions

After well over a decade of headline-grabbing prices, the market for Chinese jade – both objects and jewelry – remains complex and difficult to navigate. Buyers who appear discriminating and highly selective at one moment can be maddeningly capricious at others. Museum criteria are not always valid. Neither age nor appearance nor history guarantees a sale. Emotion may trump reason on the auction floor. When a particular object speaks to more than one bidder – when they must have it in their life – rational estimates are left far behind.

Beginning in the 17th century and continuing into the 20th, Europeans, and later Americans, formed collections of Chinese art, including jade. Much of what they gathered entered the permanent collections of museums. As part of the centennial celebration of their Asian Art department, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized “A Passion for Jade: The Heber Bishop Collection,” a 2015-2016 exhibition of a hundred examples. When the patron of the arts donated his jades to the museum in 1902, it was considered so important that the Metropolitan re-created Heber’s ornate ballroom as a gallery to display the collection.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, Asian collectors began competing in the international market to buy back jade objects that emerged from Western private collections, a trend that has driven up values. In March 2015 in the New York Asian sales, Christie’s presented the collection of noted American dealer/collector/scholar Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in multiple parts with a separate catalog devoted to Qing Dynasty ceramics, glass and jade carvings. Among the “top ten” were a diminutive green and russet jade seal, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that sold for $221,000 (est. $4,000-$6,000), three strands of archaic jade beads, $209,000 (est. $6,000-$8,000), and a jade cong, Eastern Zhou Dynasty, 7th-6th century B.C., for $161,000 (est. $30,000-$50,000).

This Imperial Chinese whitish-celadon jade mountain, early 18th century, sold for $195,200 at I.M. Chait. The scene of two sages on a pathway near plum blossom trees beneath an incised and gilt poem would have been an object of contemplation in a scholar’s study. Courtesy: I.M. Chait

At one time, Chinese buyers were cut off from the market, but over the past 15 years, they have been very active buyers, not only of jade, but also luxury goods of all types.  . The whole market changed. Because of the Ellsworth name, a thousand Chinese from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou flew in on private jets just to vie for pieces from the fabled collection.

Before buying jade, it is advisable to study the origin, history, varieties and styles of jade production. There are two important varieties of jade: nephrite, found in China and Central Asia, which was used for most of the archaeological, historic, and antique jade objects made in China; and jadeite, imported from Burma beginning in the late 18th century, which is a precious stone used principally for fine jewelry. The Chinese word for jade – yu – is vague and refers to either material, as well as several other hard stones.

A more technical analysis is provided by the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin: “Jadeite is a sodium-rich aluminous pyroxene; nephrite is a fine-grained, calcium-rich, magnesium, iron, aluminous amphibole. All jade is composed of fine-grained, highly intergrown, interlocking … crystals of one of both of these minerals. Though neither mineral is very hard (6-7), jade is one of the toughest gem minerals known because of the intergrown nature of the individual crystals.”

A small amount of Cr [chromium] in jadeite accounts for the translucent color known as imperial jade. This article deals principally with antique nephrite artifacts, because the jadeite jewelry market hinges on the quality of the individual precious stones, regardless of age. In 2014, a string of exceptionally large, perfectly matched jadeite beads with a ruby and diamond Cartier clasp, once the property of American heiress Barbara Hutton, sold for $27.44 million in Hong Kong [at Sotheby’s], more than doubling its estimate.

Variations in color on a piece of nephrite jade often inspired craftsmen; this unusual stone became light and dark cats playing while a rust-colored bat flutters at one end. The Qing dynasty sculpture is one example from a large collection formed by Avery Brundage (1887-1975), which became the foundation of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Courtesy: Asian Art Museum

Great American museum collections of jade are a source of scholarly research illustrated with important examples. Industrialist Avery Brundage (1887-1975) was president of the International Olympic Committee for 20 years and a determined collector of jade objects. When he gave his collection to the City of San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum was created to display it. The unique properties of jade, cited in the geological analysis above, directly influence how jade objects are created.

Although market descriptions often refer to jade “carvings,” the Asian Art Museum provides the following “how it was done” information for visitors: “Jade cannot be carved. Because of its hardness, it can rarely be shaped by chiseling or chipping but must be worn away by abrasion with tools and hard sand pastes. This is a process that requires immense patience – even with modern machinery…. Because the process was so labor-intensive and time-consuming, jades reflected the ability of a ruling elite to command resources, and therefore came to symbolize power, status, and prestige.” The difficulty of working jade makes the results achieved by craftsmen even more remarkable.

Collectors interested in exploring the museum’s collection further can turn to Later Chinese Jades: Ming Dynasty to Early Twentieth Century (2007) by Terese Tse Bartholomew, Michael Knight and He Li, which contains 400 individual object entries. The volume focuses on a particular period: “Nearly a decade in the making, this will become the definitive guide to Chinese jades from the Ming dynasty through the early twentieth century. This was a particularly rich period in jade production. As this book reveals—based on the most current scholarship—many jade objects previously thought to be of ancient manufacture were actually produced in these later periods.” For example, the museum owns a very pale green nephrite vessel with handle, made in the 19th century during the Qing Dynasty, which copies a bronze jia wine vessel from the much older Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.).

An essential accessory for a scholar’s desk, this brush pot of brilliant green spinach jade, a type of nephrite, is decorated with a mountain forest scene featuring scholars playing chess. The large pot, with a earlier Spink & Son Ltd. label on base, sold for $75,000 at an I.M. Chait auction. Courtesy: I.M. Chait

Although “jade green” is a common description, both minerals come in a range of colors, which occur because of the presence of trace elements. Nephrite can be pure white, soft yellow, pale to bright green, deep spinach green, violet, or brown with varied mottling and mixtures. Coloration often suggested subject matter to craftsmen; the light and dark cats illustrated emerged from a particularly interesting piece of stone. Bright green, transparent or translucent jadeite has always been in demand for jewelry, but the mineral also comes in other colors including white, violet, and orange. Unfortunately, jade colors can be enhanced with dyes. Auction houses will often require that jade consignments be submitted to GIA – Gemological Institute of America – for testing to rule out tampering. Just as later Chinese artists copied earlier jade styles, clever artisans today make reproductions of popular styles and periods, so it makes sense to buy only from reputable specialists.

Tapestry: portable woven wall art

Imagine myth, legend and art that lasts centuries with the simple positioning of wool, cotton, silk and threads of gold and silver. These woven murals are tapestry: colorful creations that were functional and decorative that last lifetimes.

The art of weaving fabrics to form clothing and other decorative items can be traced to linen examples in ancient Egypt in the 15th century B.C. and throughout the area of the Middle East, particularly Syria and Iraq. Fragments of Greek tapestry have been found in China as far back as the third century B.C., and tapestry was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey about the eighth century B.C. Weaving has been found in cultures around the world throughout ancient times, but many examples of early tapestry were woven into clothing, rugs and upholstery. Today, tapestry is defined as an art form specific to wall hangings.

Flemish tapestry, 18th century, depicting Cupid and Psyche, within a floral foliate border, 103in x 98in. Sold for $32,000 + buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auctions Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The need for tapestry

Cold, dark and dank. Life inside castle battlements was anything but comfortable. Stone walls, while excellent for protection, did little to provide warmth or color. From the 11th to the 16th centuries a castle was first and foremost meant for defense, a classic ‘form following function’ in architectural engineering. It wasn’t much different in a large palace either.

From the 14th to the middle of the 18th century, weaving techniques allowed large “nomadic murals,” as 20th century painter and architect Le Corbusier once described them, to be created and hung along castle stone walls mostly as insulation against the cold. Being visible required ornamentation and so an elaborate Biblical story, commemorative event, personal coat-of-arms, or hunting scene (the most popular subjects) was ordered specifically for the great rooms throughout the castle or palace with each taking at least a year to weave. For this reason, only the wealthiest could afford them.

Detail of a 16th century Flemish wool tapestry depicting a royal procession featuring griffins, maidens and mythological vignettes that sold for $200,000 + buyer’s premium in 2009. Image courtesy: Skinner and LiveAuctioneers.com

Because tapestry was so expensive to own, each became a status symbol of sorts. When the royal or wealthy household traveled to another of their properties, the tapestries were taken down, rolled up and moved to the next location with them, thus the nomadic description. King Henry VIII is said to have at least 2,000 woven tapestries at any one time.

Weaving one line at a time

The reason tapestry was only for the wealthy was that each tapestry, no matter the size, was done by hand, one thread at a time.

First a detailed, life-size drawing or painting of the subject was created, called a cartoon. If the tapestry was a series of panels or just one large tapestry, a complete cartoon was required. Once completed, a cartoon is placed behind the weaver with a mirror in front of the loom so that each strand corresponds exactly to the pattern of the cartoon. The weaver sits at a loom (there is a high-warp and low-warp loom depending on size) with warp threads (vertical ones that form a grid for the pattern) stretched tight at the top and bottom on rollers. This keeps the grid tight with the rollers adding additional warp threads as needed.

Closeup of the weft lines of a 17th century Flemish tapestry that sold for $4,000 + buyer’s premium in 2017. The dyed colors are uneven and have faded over time, indicative of its age. Image courtesy: Material Culture and LiveAuctioneers

Weft threads (horizontal ones that the weaver moves from “weft to wight” as weavers like to say) are dyed wool that placed strategically form the design of the cartoon, one weft thread at a time, one segment at a time using a smooth wooden bobbin. Weavers pass the bobbin through one or several warp threads and build up the pattern over time, perhaps a square meter a month.

As soon as one weft line is completed, it is tamped down with a comb, awl, or even long fingernails to compact the threads and disguise the warp threads. With several weavers working on one tapestry, depending on the complexity of the pattern, it can be completed in about a year or longer.

A smaller version of the high-warp loom used for smaller tapestries. The rollers at top and bottom provide new warp as the weft is added rolling up as each weft line is completed. Gregors Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Industrial Revolution and technology have revolutionized tapestry allowing it to be first mechanized and now computerized. The cost is still high, about $35,000 a yard, and depending on the complexity of the design, still more than a year to produce, but the colors are more vivid “… with more life to them …,” said Noami Robertson, a weaver at Dovecot, a British tapestry studio.

In fact, there is a new resurgence in tapestry as an art form. Abstracts from artists such as Henri-Georges Adam, Jean Arp and Salvador Dali as well as artwork by Henri Matisse and Picasso have been woven into tapestry. Still, there are companies such as Gobelins Manufactory in Paris, France, that still handcrafts tapestry the same way it has been done since at least 1602.

A Salvador Dali design titled ‘Burning Giraffe’ is an example of a highly woven, vividly colorful modern type of tapestry that sold for $400,000 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy GWS Auctions Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

What Collectors Need to Know

Identifying an early medieval or Renaissance-era tapestry is usually by the type of thread used throughout. Wool was most common, but cotton and linen were used as well. Any other type of thread suggests it is more modern. The use of silver or gold thread interwoven with other thread suggests a royal commission.

Each weft thread should not be completely even throughout. Since the tapestry was hand sewn a certain unevenness along each weft line should be expected. The colors of the weft threads were usually dyed, and some fading is expected over time, especially on the front since that side was exposed (the reverse should be more vibrant). If the design is shown only on the front, then it is definitely more modern. Always check with an expert for a complete examination.

Design is important, too. Biblical stories, hunting scenes, important events, personal coats-of-arms were the themes most reproduced in detailed, colorful tapestry during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Late 15th/early 16th century Franco-Flemish Gothic Biblical tapestry fragment, possibly depicting the life of David. Sold for $24,000 + buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Gray’s Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

And finding tapestry of this period should be easier because the cost of acquiring Renaissance-era tapestries has fallen in recent years, according to a New York Times article in 2018. “[N]ow these historic hangings sell for much less than they originally cost, and sometimes for less than they were selling even 40 years ago,” wrote Scott Reyburn.

With new techniques, colors, designs and collectibility, tapestry is no longer intended as only insulation for a drafty castle or a status symbol that is rolled up and moved from place to place, although the originals are still appreciated for their history.

Instead, tapestry has evolved as an expression of individual artistic personality finally freed from the confines of the earthly necessity of existing solely for warmth and status. Tapestry, whether old or new, still makes your home a castle.

Eons-old jet in vogue through the ages

NEW YORK – Jet, a black gemstone of fossilized wood, is primarily sourced in the cliffs and moors adjoining Whitby, a historic seaside town in North Yorkshire, England.

Since jet finger-rings, amulets, cones and beads have been found in Neolithic and Bronze Age burials in that region and farther, archeologists believe ancients associated its dark presence with death.

Similarly, Greeks associated jet with the underworld goddess, who welcomed the dead to her realm. In addition, they dedicated it to Cybele, goddess of nature, agriculture, healing and fertility.

Anglo-Saxon glass and amber restrung bead group containing small annular jet, fifth-seventh century. Property of a Nottinghamshire gentleman; found Saxmundham, Norfolk, UK in 1971. Realized £320 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of TimeLine Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

When ignited, wrote Pliny the Elder in first century Rome, fumes of this costly, magical material drove off snakes and deflected the Evil Eye. Powdered and boiled with wine, it cured toothache; mixed with wax, it cured “wicked” tumors. Naturalists, centuries later, observed that jet burns in water, is extinguished by oil, and like amber, becomes electric through friction and warms to the touch. It was also considered an excellent remedy for dropsy (edema).

In Roman Britain (A.D. 43 to 410), carved armlets, finger-rings, hair pins, beads, bangles, bracelets and brooches, made from mined or beachcombed jet, were the height of fashion. In Ireland, jet amulets protected against a litany of perils, including poison, demonic possession, disease, sorcery, snakebites and thunder.

Through the Middle Ages, nuns and monks favored jet prayer beads, crucifixes and amulets, perhaps because they merged protective pagan power with religious belief. So did travelers on pilgrimage, who purchased them as souvenirs.

A 19th century mourning pendant with lock of hair to center bordered by black Whitby jet stones, 1¼in long. Realized £120 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Dickins Auctioneers Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Whitby’s first jet workshop, established in the early 1800s, sourced local, uniformly black, hard, dense material – considered the world’s best. By mid-century, highly polished, hand-carved jet had become so popular that Queen Victoria designated Thomas Andrews as her official “Jet Ornament Maker.” A year later, when jet necklaces, bracelets and brooches were featured at London’s Great Exhibition, this lightweight gem also reached an international audience.

Jet jewelry was popularized, however, when Queen Victoria, mourning the death of

Prince Albert in 1861, obliged her entire court to mourn with her. In time, common folk too, following fashion, mourned private losses by accessorizing their dark crepe outfits with jet mourning rings, beads, buttons, bracelets, crosses, earrings and lockets. Sentimental, jet-rimmed bars and brooches, often featuring locks of the deceased person’s hair, were also popular.

Victorian mourning brooch, gold-filled oval form with jet stones and pearls surrounding woven hair under glass, second half 19th century, 7/8in x 1½in. Realized $275 + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers

Hundreds of Whitby jet workshops emerged, employing well over 1,000 grinders, cutters, lathe turners, carvers, polishers and finishers, met mourners’ needs. In addition to jewelry, they produced jet spindles, loom weights, visiting card trays, chess sets and decorative carvings.

As demand grew, some workshops imported softer jet, more suited to beads than finer works, from France or Spain. Others marketed less costly “French” black glass, obsidian, dyed horn, gutta percha or vulcanite as genuine jet.

Victorian triple cameo ring featuring three cameos including lava, coral and jet, 14K gold. Realized $300 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Cordier Auctions & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers

Although shiny jet beads jazzed up flapper belts, headbands, pumps and dresses through the Roaring ’20s, these – and similar pieces, soon fell from fashion.

Across the American Southwest, however, native tribes had long adorned silver necklaces, finger-rings, earrings, pins and bracelets with bits of locally sourced gems, including jet – albeit for their own use. As rail service expanded, scores, produced specifically for market, reached the general public. Since the 1970s, demand for traditional and contemporary Native American gem-inlay silver has soared, especially among tourists and collectors.

Night Sky and Pueblo micro inlay pendant of sterling silver, genuine jet stone, jasper, turquoise, coral and spiny oyster, 2in x 2¼in. Signed: Matthew Jack. Realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Billy The Kid Auction House and LiveAuctioneers

In recent years, fashionistas, charmed by one-of-a-kind creations by luxury jewelers like Pomellato, Vhernier , Romolo Grassi and Yossi Harari, have also discovered the allure of this dramatic, old-new gem.

Yossi Harari 24K gold jet bead necklace, 16 7/8in long. Realized $1,600 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Hampton Estate Auction and LiveAuctioneers

These days, Whitby supports just a handful of workers. Yet biannually, it goes to the dark side, hosting Goth Weekend, an alternate music festival celebrating Gothic subculture, along with the town’s association with Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Jet enthusiasts often come to strut their stuff. So do New-Agers who, observes Nicholas Pearson in Stones of the Goddess: Crystals for the Divine Feminine, wear jet gems for “binding, banishing, protection, preventing nightmares and hex-breaking.” – as of old.

Weighing in on gold and silver

Silver and gold can be weighed two different ways. If you’re not careful, you can be selling at the lower weight but buying at the higher weight. It’s important to know the differences so you don’t end up on the losing end when involved in a precious metal transaction.

Gold and silver are the only two of the “seven metals of antiquity” (the others being tin, lead, mercury, copper and iron) that are known to occur as native metal, ones that occur in pure form. For at least 40,000 years, gold and silver have been in the forefront of finance, ornamentation, technology and even space exploration.

Yet, weighing gold and silver isn’t quite the exact science it should be. There are different ways to measure just how much of these precious metals we buy and sell, yet there are easy ways to convert each onto a level playing field for all.

Gold as gram: A 35 gram gold nugget offered at auction sold for $1,800 in 2018. With a troy ounce spot price of $1,332.73 in 2018, the value of the nugget is $1,499.86 if it were 24K. Most nuggets of over 1 ounce are unusual and may still have inclusions of other metals. Image courtesy BK Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com

Troy ounce vs. standard ounce in grams

There are two types of ounces to be aware of: troy ounce (t oz) and avoirdupois ounce (avdp or standard). So if you are buying by the troy ounce, but selling at the standard ounce, the difference is already 3.5% in the dealer’s favor.

The reason is that a troy ounce is 31.10 grams while the standard avdp ounce is 28.35 grams. Be sure that the scale that weighs your gold and silver shows it as 31.10, not 28.35.

Pennyweights (dwt)

Occasionally, an auction will show gold offered in pennyweight. There are 20 pennyweight to a troy ounce. Simply take the pennyweight, shown as dwt, and divide by 20 to get the troy ounce in total weight then multiply by the karat to get the troy ounce in gold, then multiply by the spot price of gold that day for its value.

Gold as pennyweight: A simple 18K gold ring from Tiffany weighed in at 9.30 dwt, which equals .348 troy ounce with a value of $581.46 with a price of gold at $1,667.27 at the time. Image courtesy Carlsen Gallery Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Measuring gold in karats

Gold is measured by troy ounce but also by karat, which designates the amount of gold that is usually offset by a harder alloy to strengthen it. The amount of gold versus the amount of another metal determines the karat: 8K is 33.3% pure (.333), 10K is 41.6% pure (.416), 14K is 58.3% pure (.583),16K is 66.6% pure (.666), 18K is 75% pure (.750),  22K is 91.6% pure (.916), 24K is 100% pure (1.00).

Measuring silver content

Silver is measured by the amount used in any piece of jewelry or decorative item. Sterling silver, for example, is 92.5% silver and usually 7.5% copper. It is hallmarked (stamped) with the word “sterling,” “ster” or the number .925 either on the bottom or on the underside of the item. The item actually feels rather heavy as well.

Silverplate, on the other hand, is mostly base metal with a thin layer of pure silver that has been electroplated to give it the shine and brilliance of silver. If it isn’t stamped, it is silver-plated. It actually feels rather light compared to the sterling.

Silver as sterling: A set of Gorham sterling silver tureens with a total weight of 74 troy ounces of silver at $32.26 a troy ounce in 2012 with a value of $2,413.88 that sold for $3,000. Image courtesy Millea Bros. Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Coin silver is usually defined as having 90% silver and 10% copper, but depending on the melted coins used there could be a difference between having 75% to 90% silver.

One way to know how much silver an item has is to cut a small piece from an inconspicuous area of an item, but this is destructive. An X-ray fluorescence (XRF) device, while non-destructive, measures only the base silver nearer the surface and misses entirely the type of base metal alloy underneath, thereby misreading the content of silver overall.

Testing a silver item that is marked as pure silver can be done by setting an ice cube on it. If it melts quickly it is pure silver. Use a magnet to see if it sticks. If it does, it is mostly base metal. A commercial silver testing kit uses nitric acid to see if it tarnishes at a predictable rate.

Silver as plate: A complete five-piece Art Nouveau silver-plated tea set of sold for $2,400, not for its unmarked silver content, but from its artistic design. Most silver-plated tea services will auction for $50 to $150. Image courtesy Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctoneers.com

Things to know

When gold and silver are being weighed, it should be done in front of you. The scale should be at least two decimal places (31.10) to show it is being weighed as troy ounces, not in grams or pennyweight. Sending gold and silver to an offsite location by delivery service won’t allow the collector to know if it was weighed as troy ounce or a standard ounce.

Offsite locations (where you send your gold elsewhere to be weighed) will typically offer 70% or so of the spot price that day. You should be expecting 90% of the spot price or more.

If a dealer wants to sell you numismatic or “collectible” coins instead of buying your gold or silver outright by suggesting that the coins are “outperforming bullion by more than 2 to 1 … charging only … a 1 percent fee,” according to an AARP investigation, he is involved with a boiler room operation. The markup for each coin is wildly astronomical and a collector will always have trouble selling them later. This bait-and-switch tactic is not what a reputable dealer will ever suggest.

Reputable dealers will ask for your personal identification when selling gold and silver. This is to comply with federal regulations to combat money laundering and to verify against stolen goods.

Buying and selling of gold and silver at hotel shows, those offering free appraisals, answering 800 ads, getting a cold call from a so-called dealer, among other types of misrepresentations should always be avoided. Buyer beware is still the watchword. “Consumers need to do their due diligence,” says Kathy McFadden, executive director of the Industry Council for Tangible Assets, “Just as they would if buying a car or asking a contractor to come into their home. There is no difference.”

In the world of gold and silver, buy the book before you buy the coin. In other words, learn what you can first. That is the safest way to hedge against your own inflation.