Nantucket lightship basket makers moved to the island

NEW YORK – In the late 1800s, Nantucket lightship baskets were handcrafted by sailors aboard the lightships that were moored off the coast of Nantucket. These storied baskets are still being made today, though not on ships, and have kept their original name.

Weaving these rattan baskets was initially a pastime aboard New England whaling ships starting in the 1850s.

This Clinton Mitchell ‘Mitchy’ Ray basket is in the permanent collection of the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum. Photo courtesy of Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum

Later, lightship sailors had free time during the day as their work was at night, lighting hazardous waterways around the island to allow safe passage for merchant ships. They started making baskets, first for sweethearts and family members. This hobby soon turned profitable until the early 1900s when officials called a halt to lightships’ crews daytime moonlighting. Basketmaking then moved onto the island of Nantucket and transformed what was once a utilitarian object into a work of art.

Taking inspiration from the splint baskets made by local Native Americans, Nantucket lightship baskets were first made freeform without benefit of a mold but today molds are commonly used. The Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum has an impressive collection of baskets from the 1800s to contemporary examples. Its website notes that a Nantucket lightship basket today has several critical components, including weaving the basket with rattan (aka cane) on a mold and being made with a solid wooden bottom plate. Having a hinged top lid with a turned knob and a carved or scrimshaw decorative element (usually a whale, bird, seashell or other nautically themed object) adds to the value of these iconic baskets.

This Jose Reyes friendship basket from 1961 having a carved seagull is on display at the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum. Photo courtesy of Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum

Collectors have long been interested in Nantucket baskets and they are highly collectible. Rare forms are especially desirable such as the “lollipop” baskets. They are open form baskets with staves having round lollipop-shaped endings or heart-shaped endings such as this one and this one seen on the website of Nantucket’s Four Winds Craft Guild.

Early examples are particularly valuable as many have not stood the test of time. “Any 19th century Nantucket lightship basket that has its original paper label and is in somewhat good condition is highly prized,” says John Sylvia of Sylvia Antiques in Nantucket, which specializes in nautical antiques.

This Nantucket lightship basket with carved ebony whale finial by Reyes sold for $4,750 in May 2019 at Grogan & Company. Photo courtesy of Grogan & Company and LiveAuctioneers.

Among highly sought-after Nantucket basket makers are Jose Formoso Reyes (1902-1980), who learned his craft from third-generation basket maker Clinton Mitchell “Mitchy” Ray (1877-1956) and went on to himself teach many others. “Reyes’ most popular basket was the Nantucket friendship basket (akin to a pocketbook/purse),” Sylvia said. “Contemporaries of his in the 1950-1960s were Stephen Gibbs, Sherwin Boyer and Stanely Roop. They have always been collected but they made a lot less of them, so their names are not as popular as Reyes.”

A Jose Reyes Nantucket purse having a carved bone lighthouse on its lid with seagulls brought $3,900 in August 2018 at Americana Auctions. Photo courtesy of Americana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Any 19th century basket makers who worked on the lightships are very collected, he said. Some examples include Davis Hall, Andrew Sandsbury, Thomas James, Charles Sylvia, Oliver Coffin and Joseph Fisher. “Then, there is another group that learned from the crewman who made baskets on land and primarily for the tourists … Mitch Ray, A.D. Williams, Ferdinand Sylvaroma and Frederick Chadwick.” Ray learned (basketmaking) from his grandfather, Captain Charles B. Ray, a renowned basket maker. Ray had a prolific studio and signed his baskets with a paper label that read, “I was made in Nantucket, I’m strong and stout. Don’t lose me or burn me and I’ll never wear out. Made by Mitchell Ray.”

Ray would affix this paper label on the bottom of his baskets. Photo courtesy of Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum.

By the mid-1900s, makers were signing their baskets and the basket-making tradition continues today, with a new generation of makers learning and making baskets in workshops as a hobby or as a way to earn a living. While the look of a Nantucket lightship basket is immediately recognizable, forms and styles can vary slightly from lidded to open forms. Most are round or oval though a few makers create square baskets. Nesting sets of baskets are popular and baskets can range in size from 4 to 20 inches. Carrying handles are usually crafted from ash, oak or hickory.

The basket-making tradition is alive and well on Nantucket. This pocketbook-style basket by Michael Kane in 1983, who made baskets there for over 40 years, sold in 2010 for $2,500 at Louis J. Dianni LLC. Photo courtesy of Louis J. Dianni LLC and LiveAuctioneers.

“We have seen many changes in adornments, materials used and detail that goes into weaving a Nantucket basket,” according to Rafael Osona Auctions in Nantucket. The auctioneers have sold several rare baskets, including a heart-form open basket made in the last quarter of the 19th century, which sold for over $100,000.

Nantucket baskets have become inextricably linked with the island as a symbol of friendship. At one time, girls graduating from high school on Nantucket would receive a friendship basket, a form created by Reyes. “Reyes broke from tradition and called these friendship baskets because the basket symbolized a bond with Nantucket and was instantly recognized as a reminder of this special place,” according to the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum. Over the years, these baskets have been recognized as an art form and many visitors have taken their own remembrance of the island home in the form of a Nantucket basket.

Whiting & Davis mesh bags always in vogue

NEW YORK – Paired with the quintessential little black dress for an evening function, Whiting & Davis metallic mesh bags are so striking they can become the jewelry in one’s outfit all by themselves. Having clean lines and a shimmering metallic surface, these small silk-lined purses have been favorite accessories by fashionistas for decades. The bags, usually featuring sterling silver chain mesh or golden vermeil, had hand-engraved frames and were often decorated with colorful gemstones.

A 14K Whiting & Davis mesh purse made $750 in June 2019. Photo courtesy of Kamelot Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

These diminutive bags can’t hold much – maybe a pair of keys and a modern cell phone – but they pack a big style punch. At the height of their popularity, the company was selling a million bags a year, which have been embraced by women from all walks of life. While popular for decades, Whiting Davis mesh bags were especially fashionable during the disco era of the 1970s especially apropos when worn with a Halston lamé jumpsuit.

William H. Wade, Edward P. Davis and Louis Heckman founded the Wade Davis & Co. in 1876 in Plainville, Mass. Whiting came up with the design for their first mesh bag in 1892, with all rings formed and joined by hand. Four years later, he and Davis launched a partnership and renamed the firm as it the Whiting & Davis Co. For two decades, groups of women in the factory would work, linking chain rings together by hand, reportedly doing about 1,000 rings a day. The turning point in the company’s history came in 1912 with the advent of a machine that automated the mesh-making process. The company is America’s oldest handbag manufacturer and in the mid-1920s was said to also be one of the country’s biggest manufacturing firms. It had offices in New York, Chicago and Canada at the time and today is still selling American-made products from its headquarters in Massachusetts.

These two antique Whiting & Davis mesh purses brought $1,300 in August 2013. Photo courtesy of Gulfcoast Coin & Jewelry and LiveAuctioneers

Vintage fashion dealer Elaine Klausman of Vintage With a Twist in Bedford, N.Y., said people love the squishy feel of these bags and their style is so universal, they look great with jeans or an evening dress. “They have a very high fashion look that has lasted through the years,” she said.

Styles and sizes have varied for these mesh bags over the years, but most had a flat or a V-shaped bottom, sometimes adorned with a row of fringe hanging off the bottom. They were often set with a sapphire in the clasp. While gold and silver bags were the company’s bread and butter early on, colorful bags were also offered in later decades. A vintage ad from 1939-40 offered such items as “a graceful Whiting and Davis Beadlite pouch bag with chain,” silk-lined and in red, blue or green for $1.75 or a “new style mesh bag … choice of Armor or Beadlite mesh in gold or silver” in non-tarnishing mesh for $2.25. These bags today routinely sell for several hundred dollars each, while rare examples sometimes bring several thousand dollars.

This rare Whiting & Davis mesh purse with a colorful portrait advertising Moxie sold for $4,000 in October 2013. Photo courtesy Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“In the teens and early ’20s, Whiting & Davis bags are made of small precious metal rings and are unpainted for the most part, their striking designs coming from a mixture of metal colors, artfully joined rings and metal fringe,” according to a company history on its website. “By the end of the ’20s, flat Armor mesh painted in bold Deco designs and Dresden mesh, with its tiny rings silkscreened by hand in dreamy Impressionistic shades, take center stage.”

A flapper-era 14K gold mesh handbag by Whiting & Davis having a sapphire cabochon earned $850 in September 2018. Photo courtesy of Ashcroft & Moore and LiveAuctioneers

Successful partnerships in the 1930s with renowned designers Paul Poiret and Elsa Schiaparelli, further cemented the company’s reputation for quality purses, carried by flappers, movie stars and regular women. Poiret’s designs added “Parisian allure” to the bags while Schiaparelli debuted new and modern shaping.

This Whiting & Davis advertisement in the 1940s with actress Grace Kelly shows some of their mesh bags for sale. Photo courtesy of Whiting & Davis

After a production hiatus in the 1940s to support the war effort, the company returned to creating its iconic mesh handbags and soon embraced midcentury modern styling that was all the rage.

“Both Poiret and Schiaparelli were influential in changing the look of the purse,” said Lélia  Teixeira, sales manager of Whiting & Davis in Attleboro Falls, Mass. “Their designs turned the purses from ornamental delicate shapes to a more functional design that could be used to carry more than a key and handkerchief.”

‘Whiting & Davis Purses: The Perfect Mesh’ by Leslie Pena and Donald-Brian Johnson (available now from Schiffer Publishing, 610-593-1777, info@schofferbooks.com)

Keeping current with fashion trends while providing timeless styling lies at the heart of the appeal of these mesh bags, which are still made in Massachusetts today.

“We believe that the Whiting & Davis appeal throughout the decades has been the quality, craftsmanship and the classical styles,” says Teixeira. “Whiting & Davis has always had the motto that our styles should be ‘hand in hand with fashion.’”

Three ways to collect gold coins

NEW YORK – Gold shows off its attractive properties well in jewelry and watches. It’s also a key metal in medicine, electronics, science and even used in space exploration as reflective shielding because gold is malleable, noncorrosive, reflects heat well and it won’t rust or decay.

But gold is relatively scarce. In fact, all the gold mined in recorded history would reach only a third of the way up the Washington Monument, about 186,700 tons. That makes it a precious metal, enough for governments to buy and trade large ingots as part of a stable national economic policy. You can own gold for your own security, too, but because it has one of the heavier atomic weight of all precious metals, it must be acquired in smaller, more portable ways such as coins.

A 1-ounce gold Krugerrand gold coin sold for near spot price for $1,275 on July 21, but a 25 percent buyer’s premium placed it just over the spot price of $1,425. Image courtesy Antique Finders Service and LiveAuctioneers

Gold coins are classified in three categories: bullion, numismatic and commemorative.

Bullion Gold Coins

There is a reason why all the gold heists you see in the movies requires heavy equipment. Gold has an atomic weight of 79, one of the heavier of precious metals. A standard gold ingot weighs about 27 pounds or 400 troy ounces with a value of about $500,000, give or take. That’s fine for Fort Knox; not so great for your safety deposit box.

But because government central banks own most of the gold (the United States owns the most of any country at about 8,000 tons), they are able to mint national gold coins in stable weights that are certifiable and secure.

You can own gold ingots in smaller troy ounce sizes for portability or you can opt for the artistic design elements of brilliant, uncirculated, government-issue gold coins from one-quarter troy ounce to as high as five troy ounces of between 90 and 99.99% pure gold. They can be bought directly from any national mint, but it is better to buy from authorized dealers designated by the U.S. Mint, for example, for a small percentage over the daily spot price or at auction.

Bullion coins don’t circulate and so are always considered to be at the highest condition and are common, so it is unnecessary to have them professionally graded, unlike numismatic gold coins. The value of bullion coins is set by market forces determined by the buying and selling of gold on the open market on a daily basis, usually by central banks, large institutions and individual investors.

This 1904-S Liberty Head $20 gold coin is valued based on its somewhat imperfect condition and rarity that sold for $1,200 or near the spot price of gold. Image courtesy: Seized Assets Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Numismatic Gold Coins

Gold coins have been in circulation since at least 560 B.C. under King Croesus of Lydia in Bronze Age Asia Minor. Since that time, each historic age has had their national gold coins minted with their history, heroes, monuments, conquerors and kings. Holding a numismatic gold coin is to feel the weight of history.

These gold coins, known as numismatic, usually trade higher than the spot price of gold for several reasons usually defined as rarity, condition, age and historic significance. All these factors affect its final value.

Numismatic gold coins aren’t regulated by the ups and downs of the spot market based on intrinsic weight (although it’s a starting point). Collectors instead value numismatic gold coins based on history. Unlike bullion gold coins, numismatic gold coins have been circulated over time and are generally uncommon the longer ago they were minted. That’s why it is generally sound advice to have a numismatic gold coin professionally graded for rarity, age, condition and overall available quantity so as to provide a regulated basis for future value, especially for auction where values are usually set.

A gold coin representing Kanishka, an early emperor of the Kushan Dynasty from circa A.D. 400 that sold in February 2016 for $2,050 based more on its history than its intrinsic value of .28 of an ounce or about $400 of gold. Image courtesy Ancient Art & Antiques and LiveAuctioneers

Grading is usually from 0 to 70, the highest being without flaws. The lower grades, though, can still command higher auction values simply because of its rarity without regard to condition. That is the wonder of collecting numismatic gold coins. Bullion gold coins are considered only for investment while numismatic gold coins tell a great story.

Commemorative Gold Coins

Remembering an historic event, whether ancient or modern, is easily commemorated in the form of a gold coin. The U.S. Mint, for example, routinely mints many commemorative gold coins such as the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this year. Still, these gold coins are legal tender, usually uncirculated and, with some exceptions, are considered bullion despite its commemorative mint.

On the other hand, private mints produce commemorative gold coins in large volumes for special events such as a presidential inauguration. They are unregulated, are not legal tender and grading them is usually unnecessary as they are not considered numismatic. It is sometimes difficult to know whether the gold used is gold filled, gold plated or just an alloy with silver, perhaps. Yet, their cost is usually much higher than the cost of acquiring bullion gold coins and even higher than gold coins bought at auction.

When a privately minted commemorative gold coin is eventually sold out of a personal collection, the value would be in the intrinsic value of the gold it contains, not the commemorative event itself regardless of its original “limited edition” price paid for it. And that’s usually disappointing to the collector.

A proof set of three U.S. Bicentennial gold coins by the Franklin Mint that sold for $80, no doubt a fraction of its selling price in 1976. Notice that there is only 6 grams of 500/1000 gold. 
Image courtesy Midwest Auction Galleries Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Still, commemorating a special event in a gold coin that has special personal meaning makes a great memory, too. Just understand that their value over time is limited relative to bullion or numismatic gold coins.

Fakes, scams and forgeries

As long as gold coins have circulated, counterfeiters have had a field day trying to pass off lower levels of gold in a coin as the real thing. One way to accomplish this is by using tungsten as a base metal (the closest in density to gold), minting it into a recognizable coin, and adding a small layer of pure gold overall. The weight is similar to an authentic gold coin if not subjected to a higher level of professional scrutiny. Coins from the Middle East, China and North Korea, for example, account for some of the highest gold counterfeits circulating today.

One way to quickly detect a counterfeit gold coin is through its manufacture. If the details are somewhat uneven, incorrect in its original design or missing altogether, chances are the coin is a counterfeit. National mints pride themselves on the extremely high quality of their design and manufacture.

Collecting gold coins is great for investment, for history and even for personal memories. Just be sure to understand the complexities of each as your collection grows.

Russian Lacquer Boxes

Lacquered wares – wood or metal objects decorated with coats of lacquer – date from antiquity. This opulent art, however, reached Russia in the 18th century when Peter the Great “Westernized” the country.
Over time, four great schools of Russian lacquerware arose in villages near Moscow, each developing a distinct style based on specific traditions and techniques.

Russian lacquer snuffbox, circa 1860, its hinged lid finely painted with scene of a family at the market, the interior in faux tortoise shell. Lukutin mark beneath the Imperial Warrant. This item was acquired by the consignor from the noted exhibition, “Russian Lacquer Art From Two Centuries,” Museum For Lacquer Art, Münster, Germany, 1996. Sold for $1,200 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Images courtesy of Jackson’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The earliest, dating from 1795, produced lacquered, papier-mâché visors for army helmets, as well as lacquered snuffboxes. When inherited by Piotr Lukutin, this workshop also produced papier-mâché match boxes and cigar cases, typically depicting sentimental scenes of Russian life.
Preparation was extensive, generally taking an average of six weeks. Yet boiling these lightweight, handcrafted boxes in linseed oil, then oven-drying, priming, polishing, and lacquering them, made them not only durable but also impervious to water.

Russian lacquered covered box, Fedoskino, depicts a Snow Girl from a Russian fairy tale, hand-painted. Realized $300 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

When Lukutin’s workshop closed in 1904, its craftsmen continued independently under the name of their village, Fedoskino. “Fedoskinos,” created with successive layers of thin oil paint, agleam with mother-of-pearl, metallic powders, or gold-leaf underlay, are famed for their detail, visual depth, and luminescence. Many portray realistic scenes of rustic landscapes or peasants dancing, fetching water or assembling tree-bark shoes. Others depict famous personalities, miniature reproductions of classic paintings, or favorite fairy tales, like Father Frost and the Maiden, The Frog Princess, and Ruslan and Ludmila. “Fedoskino” typically appears at the center or left lower margin of these miniatures. Artists’ signatures, rendered in complementary shades, appear to the right.

A rare, very fine, highly detailed icon “Praise the Lord From the Heavens,” Central Russian, Palekh, circa 1800. Image courtesy of Hargesheimer Kunstauktionen Düsseldorf and LiveAuctioneers

After the 1917 Revolution, Russian authorities widely suppressed religious expression, so craftsmen of Palekh, a village long recognized for its superb Russian Orthodox icons, applied their extraordinary skills to lacquered boxes instead. Like their icons, “Palekhs” feature brilliant, egg-based tempera images against dark, solid grounds, enhanced by fine gold or silver leaf ornamentation.

Russian Palekh lacquer box, signed Alexei Vatagin (1881-1947), dated 1926 and N 1838. Realized $1,800 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many portray popular folk songs, legends, ballets, operas and poems with images of elongated, icon-like figures. Others feature traditional images, like fierce Cossacks atop majestic steeds, spirited “troikas,” or three-horse teams, pulling sledges through the snow; or unfolding folk narratives like “The Tale of the Humpback Pony.” More contemporary Palekhs depict dramatic scenes of Soviet life , the USSR emblem or portraits of Joseph Stalin. Many are signed in fine gold script.

Agitlak papier-mache Palekh miniature box, tempera on varnished papier-mache depicting scenes of Soviet life with portrait of Joseph Stalin and USSR emblem. Realized $24,000 + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Shapiro Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Some describe Palekh miniatures as “small miracles,” owing to their fine workmanship and illustrious lineage.
Craftsmen in nearby Kholui also originally made icons before venturing into lacquer boxes. While their boxes feature egg-based tempera images embellished with gold-leaf highlight, their designs are more realistic, less nuanced, and bolder. In addition, “Kholui” palettes feature employ reds, yellows, browns, and orange against bright, dramatic, swirled backgrounds.
Kholui lacquer boxes often depict ancient cathedrals, churches, convents, monasteries, or the architectural glories of historical cities like Suzdal or Yaroslavl. Many, celebrating the joys of nature, depict local landscapes, like the springtime floods along Kholui’s picturesque river, the Teza. Some are more fanciful and portray sweeping oral epic poems or beloved fairy tales like “Seven Semeons” or “Scarlet Flower.” Others depict traditional Russian customs, like greeting guests with loaves of bread and loaves of salt.

Russian hand-painted lacquer box, “Bread & Salt,” depicting a woman in kokoshnik [traditional Russian headdress] offering traditional welcome of loaf of bread and cup of salt. Made in Kholui, artist-signed and dated “Rozova 2012.” Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers

Mystera was once an icon-making village, too. But unlike Fedoskino, Kholui, and Palekh boxes, their designs were decorated only the lids. Some are edged in lacy gold or silver and depict fine, floral bouquets. Others portray villages, fields, or forests (replete with faraway blue and lilac-hued hills and dales), romantically melting into pale, egg-based tempera pink, blue, gold, or ivory backgrounds.
Other “Mysteras” depict seasonal fairs, festivities, or traditional Russian activities like mushroom or berry-picking. More dynamic examples commemorate historic events or heroic battles. Others feature colorful fantasies inspired by Russian songs, legends, fairy tales, and literary works like Pushkin’s “Tale of the Golden Cockerel” and “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen.
Antique Russian lacquer boxes are prized not only for their beauty and exquisite craftsmanship but also for the passion and national pride their images evoke. Because each box is a handmade artwork, collecting opportunities are endless, and the potential discovery of a new addition to one’s collection is always just around the corner.

Pennsylvania needlework: a stitch in time

Examples of 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania needlework – samplers, show towels, still life floral depictions, aprons and bibs, state seals and more – are marvelous expressions of American folk art. Some are so finely detailed, it’s hard to believe they were wrought by young girls barely in their teens, some even younger.

Rare Pennsylvania cross-stitch needlework sampler signed “Lucinda Clark” and dated 1853. Depicts a red house surrounded by a fence and trees. Contemporary frame. Very good condition. Framed size: 22¾” x 20.” Est. $600-$800, sold for $325 at an auction held Nov. 3, 2012 by Morphy Auctions

“The enduring appeal of Pennsylvania textile arts stems from its long and rich needlework tradition,” said Will Kimbrough, Vice President and Department Head of Americana and Fine & Decorative Arts at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mt. Crawford, Virginia. “This tradition is represented by any number of iconic pieces from varying regions, time periods, and styles – from the band samplers of Colonial Philadelphia, to the silk-embroidered pictures and memorials popular in the Federal period, to the pictorially exuberant compositions of Mary Tidball’s school operating at the western edge of the state in the mid-19th century.”

Kimbrough added, “This deep Pennsylvania needlework tradition is undoubtedly linked with the strong Quaker and Moravian influence in the early settlement of the state. The vast majority of this needlework was produced in schools, and the Quaker and Moravian emphasis on education led to the widespread establishment of affordable educational opportunities for men and woman alike in the early period.”

Diminutive Pennsylvania needlework pictorial sampler, silk on linen, “R.L” initials above a flower basket flanked by birds and hearts, all within a delicate rosebud border. Early wood frame with early or original backing board. Second quarter 19th century. 5¾” x 5¾” sight. Est. $100-$200, sold for $120 at an auction held Nov. 13, 2016 by Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mt. Crawford, Va.

The standard curriculum for girls in these schools, in both the English and Germanic models, included needlework as a core component of a young woman’s education. “Accordingly, more schoolgirl needlework from Pennsylvania survives in comparison with that produced in other states.”

Kaitlyn Julian of Pook & Pook, Inc., in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, said we should thank devoted scholars for their curiosity and dedicated studies to the subject of samplers. “Important research has invigorated the market and compelled collectors to appreciate the historic context and intrinsic value of samplers,” Julian said. “In the past, samplers may have been seen as frivolous pursuits or old-fashioned crafts made by little girls, but research carried out over the past few decades has revealed the extent of the craft and, more importantly, connected collectors to the young women behind the craft.”

Large Pennsylvania schoolgirl needlework sampler by Sarah Ann Smith, age 10, circa 1825, the top register with a flower arrangement and pair of birds over a homily “Sarah Ann Smith/In the tenth year of my age/My mind was thus ingaged/While on this fLowing canvass stands/The Labour of my youthful hands,” frame size 21¾” x 22¾.” Est. $1,000-$1,500, sold for $750 at an auction held June 13, 2015 by Michaan’s Auctions.

The definitive reference book for samplers is Betty Ring’s Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework, 1650-1850, published in 1993. As the body of knowledge on samplers deepened, especially in the 1990s after the publication of Ring’s book, auction values climbed. “We saw many important collections cross the auction block, like Joan Stephens’ collection in 1997 and Betty Ring’s collection later in 2012,” Julian pointed out.

She continued, “I believe a factor of the enduring popularity of samplers today is partly thanks to online genealogy websites. It is now easier than ever to connect yourself with the past. The lovely thing about samplers is that they contain the name and often location of the maker. These two pieces of information, when typed into a genealogy website, can connect you personally with the young lady who made the piece. From there, you may be able to determine who her teacher was, who her classmates were, what her family was like, and so forth. You can then begin to identify certain regional motifs taught by various school mistresses and appreciate the intricacies of design and differing skill levels among the students.’

Circa 1835 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania needlework memorial embroidery of a young woman mourning over urn mounted on a plinth, signed “Work’d by Catherine Hall”, stitched top, “To my dear Farther Benjamin Hall who died in Pittsburgh, Pa July 1835,” silk, paint, cotton and wool on linen; later gilt composite frame, 16” x 13½” (sight). Est. $600-$900, sold for $550 at an auction held March 24, 2018 by Brunk Auctions.

“Visualizing a classroom, perhaps not unlike the one you were taught in, brings to mind these girls laboring over their work, trading stories, and being rewarded by their teacher. Making a personal connection like this can make a huge difference in how you engage with, enjoy, and value historic artifacts. Across generations and centuries, the common thread of human experience endures.”

Pennsylvania has produced an abundance of samplers, partly perhaps due to its rich early history as America’s melting pot. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia was the world’s second-largest English-speaking city. Quakers, Moravians, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Mennonites all populated the state in the early 18th century, following William Penn’s dream of religious freedom. With each culture came new and different histories and traditions of needlework and embroidery. Quakers and Moravians both placed value in women’s education and as a result, Pennsylvania was one of the first colonies with schools for girls.

Rare Southeastern Pennsylvania Needlework Cotton Apron. Cross-stitch signature “I.S 1800”. Pictured in Journal of the Pennsylvania German Society, Vol. 22/1988/1, page 38. 25-1/2″l. x 31-3/4″w. Framed, 31-1/2″ x 37″ overall. Condition: Good with minor wear and stains. Est. $300-$500, sold for $950 at an auction held Dec. 3, 2016 by Conestoga Auction Company.

As for the demand for samplers and other expressions of Pennsylvania needlework, Will Kimbrough said the market for top-quality, fresh-to-the-market examples in excellent condition will continue to escalate over the next five years. “Additionally,” he added, “identified examples connected with specific schools and regions will continue to perform well. As is true with other segments of the market, more typical, less visually interesting pieces, and anything with distracting condition problems, will continue to decline in value.”

Kaitlyn Julian said, “With all the great scholarship on the subject, I believe that a continued interest in collecting samplers is here to stay. I don’t believe the market is as strong as it was twenty years ago, but interest remains high and the market now presents a chance for young collectors to build their own collection at reasonable prices. In order to maintain a strong market, it is crucial to establish an interest with the younger generations.”

Pennsylvania wool needlework, mid-19th century, 19½ x 13½” in a period frame. Some toning and very minor thread loss. Est. $500-$1,000, sold for $325 at an auction held Oct. 27, 2012 by Pook & Pook, Inc.

She added, “As always with antiques, exceptional examples will continue to achieve exceptional prices. Samplers that consistently achieve high prices on the auction block include those which are easy to read, brightly colored and without stains or fading. Easy to read samplers with visual interest and intricately embroidered borders always catch the eye of collectors, especially those with balanced compositions and regional motifs. My favorite samplers include those with spectacularly detailed brick houses, boasting rows and rows of windows, a mansard roof, and a dog running in the front yard. Especially impressive are those which are marked with the age of the maker, including some as young as five or six.”

Atomic Age furnishings exude optimistic energy

NEW YORK – Through the Atomic Age, from the late 1940s through the 1960s, developing nuclear power, atomic science and the space race inspired out-of-this-world interior design. Its stylized, instantly recognizable cosmic shapes and motifs endowed utilitarian objects, large and small, with bursts of futuristic, optimistic, peacetime energy.

Millions of kitchens, against a background of steel cabinets and Formica countertops, boasted bright walls, ceramic coffee mugs and soap dispensers patterned with whizzing rockets or dynamic galaxy decorative touches. Others, inspired by structure of the atom, depicted orbiting atomic particles.

Sunbeam atomic clock with circular pink and gold glass face, marked, 16in. diameter. Realized $100 + buyer’s premium in 2005. Image courtesy of Rago Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Drinking glasses, serving plates and Melamine dinnerware often featured colorful star bursts. Delicate, organic, spidery plant forms and amoeba-like free forms, reflecting strides in x-ray and microscope technologies, adorned place mats and table cloths. Boomerangs, another popular Atom Age motif, not only mirrored magnified bacteria. Used as stylized arrows, they symbolized directional energy fields, capturing movement.

1950s Modern upholstered screen covered with 1950s fabric printed with boomerangs and rectangles in red, blue-green and chartreuse on light gray ground, with steel legs. In as-found condition (stains and tear to fabric). 65¾in. x 58½in. Realized $125 + buyer’s premium in 2004. Image courtesy of Rago Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Bold, aluminum, atomic-inspired lamps graced millions of homes across the country. Desk and ceiling “flying saucers,” which feature gently rounded metal domed shades, were not only popular, but easy on the eye. So were minimalistic floor models, perched precariously on spindly gooseneck, tripod or “cricket” brass legs. Pole tension lamps, whose adjustable cone-shaped shades created focused spots of light, were also great favorites.

Pierre Guariche brass and enameled metal table lamp with adjustable shade, 20in. x 10½in. Realized $1,100 + buyer’s premium in 2006. Image courtesy Rago Modern Auctions, LLP and LiveAuctioneers

In contrast, airy, light-hearted, “bubble” table and ceiling lamps offered warm, soft, diffuse – yet abundant – radiance. George Nelson, for example, coaxed their malleable steel-wire frames and translucent white plastic or sprayed resin into fanciful pear, globe, cigar and elliptical shapes. Gino Sarfatti designed bubble pendant lamps featuring transparent, richly textured, handcrafted Murano glass globes. Angelo Lelli created nickel-plated brass and steel ceiling lights whose radiating branches, tipped with frosted glass spheres, look, for all the world, like planets in orbit.

Angelo Lelli, Arredoluce Stella Chandelier, nickel-plated brass and steel, frosted glass, signed with manufacturer’s label, ‘Made in Italy Arredoluce Monza,’ circa 1950, 51in. diameter, 8½in. high. Realized $19, 000 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy Cottone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Three years after Russia’s earth-shattering launch of the Sputnik space satellite, the Sputnik chandelier reached the market. This opulent starburst creation, featuring central spheres with multiple radiating prongs fitted with glowing light fittings, was a favored décor of the day. So was the Sputnik-like dandelion sphere, whose myriad glass blossoms or spiked pinpoints of light evoke their namesake. These high-end, Atomic Age decorative statements were sculptures by day, supernovas by night.

Atomic-inspired table and wall clocks also made dramatic decorative statements. Though all essentially performed the same function, they differed in shape and style. Some bear flat conventional flat faces bright with random atomic motifs. Some, bearing numerous, slender, outstretched arms radiating from round, conventional, central clockworks, resemble cheery sunflowers or sunbursts. Ball wall clocks, which feature circular centers spiked by slender shafts tipped with brilliantly hued balls, indicate time by position rather than by number. Rare models, like George Nelson’s ovoid “Eyeball,” which resembles its name and his striking wooden, watermelon-shaped ones, are particularly desirable.

Bubble Lamp, George Nelson (1908–1986) for Herman Miller, Zeeland, Mich., 1960s
sprayed resin, steel, clear label, 18in. diameter x 16in. high. Realized $250 in 2015. Image courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

During this era, designers also produced Atomic-Age inspired furniture. Some pieces, like Adrian Pearsall’s sculptured Gondola sofa, along with scores of anonymously designed coffee tables enhancing middle class living rooms, resemble boomerangs.

Others, rather than embodying atomic motifs, utilize exciting, postwar, state-of-the-art materials. Nelson’s whimsical Marshmallow sofa, for example, features comfy cushions “floating” atop tubular steel frames. Harry Bertoia’s nature-inspired, sculptural Diamond, Butterfly and Bird chairs are wrought from bent, welded, transparent steel wire grids.

Charles and Ray Eames, Side chairs, circa 1960, enameled steel wire, Naugahyde, model no. DKX-1, Herman Miller, retains manufacturer’s label. Realized $1,000 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Charles and Ray Eames’ sleek, curvy, stools, rockers and tables are fashioned from pliable plywood. These, as well as their celebrated, molded, Fiberglas chairs, realized in shades from neutral to vibrant, ultramodern orange, yellow and blues, have remained popular for decades.

Most Atomic Age pieces at auction, which were acquired from original users, were not only well used, but well loved. Today too, many appreciate their pleasing visual appeal infused with optimistic energy.

Blue Staffordshire: timeless elegance in deep, rich hues

NEW YORK – Thanks to the plentiful availability of clay, salt, lead and coal in the area, Staffordshire, England became a bustling center of ceramic production starting as far back as the early 1600s. Hundreds of firms make all manner of pottery, from tableware and decorative pieces to more industrial items. Earthenware, stoneware and porcelain were all produced in huge quantities and Staffordshire became a major innovator of bone china, jasperware, transfer printing and glazing.

Staffordshire had a major advantage over other potteries of the day: it was the strongest in the middle and low-price ranges (although fine and expensive types were also made). It was the affordability factor that helped propel North Staffordshire to the largest producer of ceramics in all of Britain by the late 18th century, even though there were many significant centers elsewhere. Starting in the 1800s, large export markets took Staffordshire pottery literally around the world.

Historical blue Staffordshire ‘New York Heights from Near Brooklyn’ platter, 19th century, by A. Stevenson, with repaired rim, 12¾in x 16¼in, est. $150-$250, sold for $1,200 at an auction held Oct. 21, 2017. Image courtesy Nadeau’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Blue Staffordshire is what caught on most quickly with the buying public, for its deep, rich color and gorgeous, intricate patterns. Flow blue was a style of white earthenware that originated in the Regency era, sometime in the 1820s, also in Staffordshire. The name was derived from the blue glaze that blurred or “flowed” during the firing process. Most flow blue could be categorized as transferware, as the decorative patterns were applied with a paper stencil to white-glazed blanks.

“Blue and white is a timeless combination that will be popular in perpetuity, for its classic elegance and versatility,” said Pam Briggs, a pottery and porcelain specialist with Leland Little Auctions in Hillsborough, N.C. “The blue transferware styles adopted by makers like Staffordshire in the 18th and 19th centuries made finely decorated tableware accessible to an ever-growing middle class.”

Group of flow blue tableware, Staffordshire, England, 19th century, three tea bowls, a covered sugar, three saucers, a low bowl, three plates (two decorated in the Sheltered Peasant design). Eleven pieces total. Largest plate 10¼in diameter, sold for $240 at an auction held Aug. 4, 2018. Image courtesy Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Briggs added, “Traditional designs have lost some popularity in the past 15 years but have recently made a comeback as consumers begin to incorporate classic elements in their home décor to soften other, more modern pieces. The blue Staffordshire pieces that command the highest prices, and are most likely to hold value, are those with historical interest, like ones that depict a landmark building or scene, or those that evoke a personal connection with buyers.”

The multi-cultural element that went into the development of blue Staffordshire was explained by Tom Curran of Litchfield Auctions in Litchfield, Conn. “There’s a reason it’s called royal blue, particularly in England,” Curran said. “Historically expensive, the pigments were originally from the Middle East and used to decorate pottery with classic Islamic motifs, then perfected by the Chinese with their discovery of porcelain. Added to the enormous risks and expense of the early China trade was the closely guarded secret of porcelain.”

Lot of 15 blue Staffordshire dinner plates English, circa 1800. Clews, Adams, Wood, Stubbs & Kent, Longport and others, ranging in diameter from 9¼in to 10½in, est. $600-$900, sold for $700 at an auction held Oct. 13, 2016. Image courtesy Litchfield Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

He went on, “So, blue and white ceramics just screamed class and wealth and we saw the Dutch first copying the Chinese with primitive pottery imitations from Delft. In the 19th century, English potteries in Staffordshire found a huge demand among the general population for affordable imitations of the fine porcelain owned by the upper classes, with blue and white remaining the standard. Even when porcelain and bone china became more common and affordable, the charm of antique Staffordshire made it appealing to 20th century antique collectors for their mantels, china cabinets and plate racks.”

Not today though, Curran remarked. “Antique Staffordshire often has minute chips, crazing and knife scratches, isn’t dishwasher or microwave safe and screams ‘grandma.’ So, collections built over the years have plummeted in appeal and value contrasted with decorative blue and white Chinese ceramics still warm from the kiln stepping in at Walmart and T.J. Maxx prices.”

Historical Blue Staffordshire Soup Bowl the Beach at Brighton with Shell Border, 9¾in diameter, in very good condition, est. $50-$100, sold for $550 at an auction held Nov. 7, 2015. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. (division of Hess Auction Group) and LiveAuctioneers

In his experience, Curran concluded, “It’s unusual subjects and the earliest examples of American historical or commemorative subjects that still sell decently – John Paul Jones, the Boston Massacre, General Lafayette. While the prices aren’t what they were, they’re still terrific examples of the creativity and marketing reach of the Staffordshire potteries of the 19th century.”

Joseph Perron of Merrill’s Auctions in Williston, Vermont, said the intense blue hues of early Staffordshire held an appeal for both collectors and decorators alike, one that endures today. “Whether it be a small arrangement of blue Staffordshire items on a wall or a shelf, or a large collection in a cabinet, their rich colors can have a truly dramatic effect in a room,” he said.

Circa 1819-1835 deep blue historical Staffordshire porcelain plate with transfer decoration titled ‘America and Independence’ showing scenic landscape and Washington memorial cartouche, surrounded by festoon bearing the names of 15 states, 8¾in diameter, est. $100-$200, sold for $175 at an auction held June 21, 2019. Image courtesy Duane Merrill & Co. and LiveAuctioneers

“Also, despite massive quantities of this type of ware being exported to the American market in the 19th century, due to the delicate nature of the porcelain, it is quite remarkable that any of it survives, which makes it all the more coveted by collectors. The combination of the potter’s art combined with the skill of the printmaker executing the transfer designs also broadens the appeal of this type of porcelain. Strong visual themes delight the collector, and detailed depictions of historic events appeal to those seeking a greater understanding of the past.”

As most of the best examples of blue Staffordshire are now in public and private collections, Perron believes the opportunity for discovery of unknown or scarce examples becomes rare, so collectors will compete more for the best examples when they come to the market. “However,” he said, “condition and subject matter will continue to be important drivers of demand. Unusual forms and scenery will continue to demand increasing prices, but more average examples with heavily floral decoration may stagnate.”

English dark blue Staffordshire soft paste pitcher with repair to rim, 7½in tall, est. $100-$200, sold for $110 at an auction held April 22, 2014. Image courtesy William Bunch Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Perron added, “We see collectors particularly interested in pieces with fantastical depictions of quadruped animals because they’re flamboyantly graphic and employ an endearingly naive sensibility about what was considered ‘rare’ and ‘exotic’ in the 19th century. The historical scene decorated pieces were produced in less quantity than the more typical wares to begin with, so their desirability by collectors will continue to increase. It seems that this type of porcelain is an exception to many other ceramics in that it will continue to hold appeal to both older and younger buyers.

Production of blue Staffordshire, which had already begun to decline in the late 19th century, took severe hits during and following World Wars I and II. Some production in the area still continues to this day, but only a fraction of what it was during its peak years and heyday.

Treenware: the natural ‘green’ collectible

NEW YORK – One can look at a large tree and see its natural lines spoiled by a somewhat cancerous growth along the base or trunk that we would call a knot. Yet, to a woodcarver, this deformity hides lovely, durable bowls, tureens and containers.

Today this knot or burl and wood objects in general are known as treenware (loosely “of the tree”). Early examples are now collectible art, but it wasn’t always that way. Wooden bowls, cups, utensils and storage containers were household necessities throughout the millennia, mostly because wood was the only affordable and plentiful resource around. Woodworking has been found in China, ancient Egypt, early Rome, and as far back as the Neolithic period 12,000 years ago.

The bulging growth on a tree trunk is call burl, in which the grain has formed in a deformed manner. Wood turners shape burl into bowls and other useful and decorative pieces.
Image courtesy: Evelyn Simak photo. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

By the 1600s, though, most of the old growth forests in Europe were long depleted to meet the needs of a growing population. With a population of the known world at about 580 million, wood was a main source of building, heating, shipbuilding and domestic implements. Wooden bowls made from burl, for example, were hard to find and not an everyday household item for everyone. The Age of Exploration of the 15th to 17th centuries helped change that. The New World, once discovered, provided not only expansive new territory but also a much needed resource – trees.

Colonial America

That was certainly a welcome surprise when Colonists first landed in the Americas of the early 17th century. There was an overwhelming abundance of old growth trees and virgin forests of every variety of hard and soft woods. Needing household cooking and working implements, the new Colonists relied on the skills of Native Americans for their first set of treenware because woodworking was a skill most early Colonists did not possess.

This 18th century New England Native American trencher bowl made of an elm burl sold in February 2018 for $2,100+ the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Native Americans had perfected the skill of carving their wooden household necessities. Bowls made from hardwood burl utilized a long process that included using fire to shape a burl bowl, then patiently smoothing it with a hard shell, beaver tooth or smooth stone. Later, woodturners, the most familiar of European woodworkers, would join the Colonies who specialized in turning bowls on pole and treadle lathes, a method unknown to the Native Americans, but most familiar to Europeans for nearly 2,000 years. The skills for learning how to fashion bowls from burl, though, had to be learned by the Colonists over time, so trading for the more highly skilled Native American burl and wooden items predominated for most of early America.

Peaseware

By the middle of the 19th century American craftsmen forged their own identities and specializations. The Native Americans had long stopped hand carving bowls and other wooden treenware and instead used the tools traded with the early Colonists such as axes, knives, adzes and other metalware to continue creating their own distinctive styles.

Peaseware is more basic and utilitarian without elaborate decoration. This 19th century lidded canister with handle sold for $1,400+ the buyer’s premium in 2009. Image courtesy: Pook & Pook Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

One such craftsman was David Mills Pease of the Cascade Valley of northeastern Ohio. Beginning about 1850, his woodturning skill produced the everyday useable lidded and unlidded household items to store grain, seeds, salt and general cooking implements. Natural, unadorned, practical and stable, Peaseware, as it is known, is usually turned and varnished maple, but sometimes combined with other woods. They were always more functional than decorative and made to last for generations. By 1876, Peaseware could be found at world’s fairs and international expositions until about 1906.

Lehnware

More distinctive treenware was created about the same time by Joseph Lehn in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. What’s particularly noteworthy about Lehnware, as it is known, is that it is quite decorative. Lehn was a wood turner, cooper and furniture maker by trade but by 1856 or so was being recognized by his elaborately designed treenware.

Turning boxes, cups, barrels, buckets, kegs and barrels wasn’t quite enough. Lehn decorated them in patterns of strawberry, pomegranate and floral decorations using yellow, blue, red, green and salmon colors. All had a repeated sequence and were uniquely hand-painted and at times, had decals added.

A colorfully painted Lehnware eggcup exhibits the floral motif associated with Joseph Lehn. It sold for $2,900+ the buyer’s premium in 2010. Images courtesy: Conestoga Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Lehn died in 1892 at the age of 94, but his distinctive style of treenware survives as collectibles today. Some of his later pieces bore a paper label that read: “Made by Joseph Lehn in his 91 year Jan. 1, 1889.”

Other Artists

Peter Stauffer was a neighbor of Joseph Lehn and made blanket chests with similar decorations as Lehn. William Carl Heilig turned cups and saucers as well as chests and chairs. He may have signed his work “Wm. C. Heilig Ephrata” in the same period as Joseph Lehn. Robert F. Lausch of Ephrata, Pennsylvania, continued the turning and decorating of boxes in the Lehn tradition in the 1960s, 100 years later.

This Northwest Coast-style grease bowl carved from cedar, 4in. x 13½in. x 6½in., is attributed to Edward Saburo Ohashi (1931-2010 American). Similar carved effigy bowls have been faked. Image courtesy of MBA Seattle Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Treen Can Be Faked

Vintage treenware is difficult to date, according to Steven Powers in his book North American Burl Treen: Colonial & Native American. “Exact dating can almost never be attained with treen,” Powers writes. “Our best gauge for dating treen is dating it to like forms in other materials that have a known date … [and so it] becomes quite instinctual or more of a feeling.”

Because of this, many early Native American burl bowls have been modified to attract more buyers at auction such as adding handles or figures into the bowls or other native treenware. Additional carvings are noticeable because the wear would be quite different, for example. Powers suggests that most faked Native American treenware at auctions are the carved effigy bowls that are carved too thin and rounded at the bottom which is not usual. Other small footed bowls have been made in China and Tibet made of ash burl and claim to be early Native American treenware, but a well-trained eye can notice the discrepancies of added carvings and unusual use of nonnative woods.

A close-up view of the finished surface of maple burl shows its irregular figuring.
Images courtesy: LiveAuctioneers

A ‘Green’ Collectible

Treenware handcrafted or turned from burl or any wood wasn’t usually as long-lasting as the metal pots, pans and other implements that were more the norm in the industrial age. But for the early Colonists and Native American communities, treenware was plentiful, strong and dependable. Only later would treenware become more decorative, artistic and collectible and yet still maintain its ability to be useful for generations to come. What could be more “green” than that?

Getting hooked on folky rugs

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

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

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

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

Kimberly Smith Ivey, senior curator of textiles at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Va., said rug-hooking techniques originated in North America, specifically Maine, and grew from their 19th century origins to become a national pastime. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, part of Colonial Williamsburg, presents the 2018-20 exhibition “Folk Art Underfoot: American Hooked Rugs”  surveying the art of hooking and sewing rugs, featuring some 20 hooked and sewn rugs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts & Crafts Design: Useful and beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beginnings in Great Britain 1860s

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

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

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

Movement to the United States 1890s

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

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

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

Major Influences

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

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

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

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

End of a Period

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

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