Explore Tiffany’s earthy side through pottery

This geometric three-handled Tiffany Studios vase in green and blue-green glaze sold for $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2014.
Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Bright, iridescent glass is the hallmark of Louis Comfort Tiffany and the firm he founded, Tiffany Studios. Its stained-glass masterpieces, Art Nouveau lamps and favrile glass pottery, have attracted legions of fans for more than a century. Less well known is the fact that Tiffany pursued an interest in pottery design. Tiffany Studios pottery might even be more desirable today than it was when it was introduced at the height of the Art Nouveau movement.

A circa-1905 favrile bronze pottery vase, pictured on page 63 of ‘Tiffany Favrile Pottery and the Quest of Beauty,’ sold for $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022. Image courtesy of Rago Arts Auction and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

The leaders of Art Nouveau wanted to remove the stuffy, antiquated boundaries between decorative and applied art. In a nutshell, the former was to be admired, while the purpose of the latter was to be functional. Artists of the era insisted that practical everyday object could be just as fashionable as a strictly decorative piece. Louis Comfort Tiffany did with glass and pottery what his fellow Art Nouveau trendsetters did in their respective fields – Aubrey Beardsley with graphics, Gustav Klimt with painting, Victor Horta with architecture and Louis Majorelle with furniture.

A Tiffany Studios scarab pottery vase with a jeweled scarab mount attained $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2013. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Tiffany Studios pottery production lasted from roughly 1900 to about 1920. Louis Comfort Tiffany might have been inspired by the American art pottery movement that emerged from the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia, or perhaps he visited the French-inspired pottery exhibits at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 and was moved by what he saw. Whatever the source of the inspiration, Tiffany exhibited his firm’s earliest works of pottery at the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition in Paris in 1904 and at the Salon of the Societe des Artistes Francais in Paris in 1905.

The contours of an artichoke also serve as the body of this Tiffany Studios vase, which earned $16,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2010. Image courtesy of Rago Arts Auction and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Just like Tiffany Studios’ famous works in glass, the firm’s pottery designs were based on flowers, plants and the beauty of the natural world. Artichokes, water lilies, vines, celery, ferns, crocuses, seedpods, blossoms and poppies were translated into the medium of ceramics with exceptional authenticity, resembling the real-world models in vivid, lifelike detail. Tiffany and his artisans achieved this feat by casting actual flowers and plants into the molds that formed the final design. This strict, obsessive attention to detail sets Tiffany Studios ceramics apart from others and wins the devotion of collectors. Note: the ceramic pottery should not be confused with Tiffany Studios favrile glass pottery, which is a separate category of wares.

An ivory and moss green vase modeled after the flowering trillium plant, which features the incised initials of Louis Comfort Tiffany on the base, earned $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Part of what makes the ceramics of Tiffany Studios valuable today are the fundamental practices that led to its downfall. Louis Comfort Tiffany always strived for perfection, and whenever he had to choose between maintaining quality and increasing profits, he chose quality every time. Tiffany and his artisans were always experimenting, always improving, always ensuring every detail was just right. While most of the firm’s pieces were cast in commercial molds, it is said that Tiffany himself always threw the first piece on the line the one that would create the mold from which to shape all that followed.

The aquatic plant known as Sagittaria latifolia, possibly the arrowhead variety, is showcased in this Tiffany Studios vase that achieved $140,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2013. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Once Tiffany Studios pottery pieces were fired, talented artists painted them individually with colored glazes in matte, crystalline and iridescent finishes. These glazes became the preeminent design feature of the firm’s pottery line. “Glazes on pottery claimed much of his time in certain years,” says the authorized 1914 biography The Art Work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, written by Charles de Kay. Glazes defined his work, and his work was exacting, labor intensive and costly.

This experimental Tiffany Studios vase, colored with mottled blue, pink, and green glaze, sold for $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2017.
Image courtesy of Rago Arts Auction and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Unfortunately, Tiffany Studios pottery did not enjoy the same commercial success as its other offerings. Pottery production ceased around 1920, with only about 2,000 pieces created in total. While that was bad news for the firm, the relative rarity of Tiffany Studios pottery is good news for collectors. 

A whimsical Tiffany Studios vase depicting a frog on a green-glazed lily pad realized $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2013. Image courtesy of Treadway Toomey Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The dwindling of Tiffany Studios pottery might have been a signal of dark times to come. In the 1920s, the Art Nouveau movement was eclipsed by the sleeker, more minimalist aesthetics of Art Deco and Bauhaus. Business declined, and too many pieces went unsold. Tiffany Studios declared bankruptcy and closed in 1932. Louis Comfort Tiffany suffered a personal bankruptcy and fell ill not long after closing the foundry, dying of pneumonia in 1933.

A high-shouldered Tiffany Studios Favrile pottery jar sold for $3,750 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2018. Image courtesy of I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Tiffany was forgotten for a time by the art world, but the power and beauty of his decorative arts vision was rediscovered in the 1950s by curators and collectors. The artistic genius of Louis Comfort Tiffany and the artists he employed is proven at auction whenever original Tiffany Studios pottery captures the pre-sale high estimate, which it often does.

Budding collectors can learn more about Tiffany Studios pottery at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (www.morsemuseum.org) in Winter Park, Florida which “… houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany …” including his paintings, graphics and an ever-expanding display of decorative art.

A Tiffany Studios Favrile pottery vase, depicting a forest with the help of a matte chocolate glaze, realized $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2017. Image courtesy of Rago Arts Auction and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Speaking on Tiffany and Tiffany Studios pottery, the Morse Museum’s site states it “… celebrates the design genius’s achievements with the ceramic medium that proved irresistible in his pursuit of beauty.” It is indeed a fitting epitaph for an artist whose works are beloved and immortal. 

A SIGN OF THE TIMES

A Kelly Tires sign featuring its fictional spokeswoman Lotta Miles sold for $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2018. Image courtesy of Route 32 Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign” says the chorus of the 1971 song Signs by the Five Guys Electric Band. Signs were, and still are, everywhere. But the older a sign gets, the more charming it can become. The company that paid for it might have shuttered many decades ago, and the product or service it touts might be as absent as a dodo bird, but it can still do what it was created to do: grab your attention.

This vintage porcelain sign for RCA Victor, featuring the famous ‘His Master’s Voice’ logo, sold for $800 in May 2014. Image courtesy of Rich Penn Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Porcelain signs, in particular, conjure a sense of nostalgia and a different era because they their heyday was in the 20th century. Back then, people had to leave their homes to buy almost everything they needed. An attractive, well-designed sign would turn the head of a carriage driver or walker. If the sign was destined for display outside where it would be exposed to the elements, it made sense to manufacture it from porcelain and decorate it with enamel.

An H.P. Hood & Sons Milk porcelain sign in outstanding condition achieved $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

To some, the word “porcelain” cannot be divorced from the word
fragile,” but those people forget that ceramics are amongst the most durable of materials, able to survive for centuries with their surface decorations almost as bright and vivid as they were when they emerged from the kiln. This admirable quality ensures that vintage porcelain signs will always have an audience.

An undated porcelain sign advertising DuPont shot powder realized $1,800 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2016. Image courtesy of Rich Penn Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Collectors concentrate on two broad types of porcelain signs: petroliana/automobilia, the terminology for signs that tout anything related to gas and oil, motor vehicles and the businesses that support and maintain them; and country store, which covers pretty much everything else from the 19 and early 20th centuries. The former have a daunting number of fans, many of whom seek period decor for the garages that house their car collections. 

Of course, condition and rarity matter in the realm of vintage porcelain signs, but what trumps them both, and always will, is the quality of a sign’s graphics. Prompting people to fix their vision on a sign may seem simple enough, but it is in fact quite challenging. Cutting through the visual clutter to command attention is both an art and a skill. The best porcelain signs testify to this fact.

This large Mobil Oil Pegasus sign sold for $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2011. Image courtesy of Daniel Donnelly Vintage Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Early 20th-century designers of automobile signs faced the extra challenge of attracting drivers flying by at then-breathtaking speeds of up to 30mph. Their graphics had to be bright, whimsical, and colorful to entice the motorist to stop, top off the gas tank, and perhaps make other purchases, as well. The sign had to communicate its message quickly, boldly and efficiently. 

A unique illuminated Texaco porcelain sign festooned with red and green glass jewels achieved $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2017. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

To a collector of enameled porcelain signs bidding at auction, the most important criterion is, and will always be, the graphics. If the graphics are colorful and unique, the sign will attract healthy bids; if they are dull and non-graphic, the sign is likely doomed, unless the featured product or the company it represents has an exceptional backstory.  

Porcelain signs are relatively rare. In a 2009 interview with CollectorsWeekly.com, Michael Bruner, an enamel sign collector and author of Signs of Our Past: Porcelain Enamel Advertising in America, explained, “By World War II, a lot of those products had become obsolete. The signs came down, and they would just sit in places,” he said, adding, “The scrap drive of World War II really took a lot of our heritage away.”

A circa-1930s Canadian porcelain door push sign for Coca-Cola realized CA$1,400 (about US$1,000) plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers.

Collectors express a clear preference for smaller porcelain enamel signs. Those that are perceived as too big to ship, store and display might not attract as many bidders at auction. Another popular forms is the porcelain ceramic door push, which retailers would attach to the part of a store’s front door that customers pushed to enter. “D]oor pushes are so popular; you can put them right in the palm of your hand,” Bruner said. 

Another example of a coveted smaller porcelain enamel sign form is the pump plate, which appeared on early gasoline pumps and identified the company brand and, sometimes, the type of gasoline the pump dispensed.

A Gasco Motor Fuel porcelain gas pump plate earned $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018. Image courtesy of Route 32 Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Ceramic signs with imagery showing railroads, highways, farms, tobacco, and anything featuring the Wild West tend to be serious draws at auction. Collectors can also specialize by shape, lasering in on two-sided flat, one-sided flat, round, curved or flanged signs as well.

A Western-theme porcelain sign from the early days of service station advertising realized $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2017. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Reproductions can be an issue. According to antiqueadvertisingexpert.com, savvy collectors can determine the authenticity of a porcelain enamel sign by checking for the presence of rust spots. The genuine article will have a black-brown rust color that is noticeably metallic. Reproductions will have hand-painted or computer-applied rust spots with a distinctive orange-red color that will be evident when closely inspected.

Sun-fading affects a porcelain sign’s lettering more than its background, with the color red suffering the most. Be wary of signs with reds that appear a little bit too vibrant; they may be bogus. Other telling details include rivets and screws, which should be checked to ensure they have rusted evenly along with the holes. Unless a sign has survived unscathed, the reverse of the sign should be corroded and worn in the right places as well. 

It pays to use a magnet when examining a vintage porcelain sign. Prior to 1950, sign substrates were fashioned from steel sheeting. Reproductions, by contrast, feature aluminum. If the magnet sticks, that’s a good sign, literally and figuratively.

A curved corner porcelain sign for Old Dutch Cleanser attained $2,250 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Showtime Auction Services and LiveAuctioneers.

As of yet, no association exists specifically for the study of vintage porcelain enamel signs, however an abundance of porcelain sign collectors are members of the long-established and well regarded Antique Advertising Association of America (www.pastimes.org), which welcomes collectors of all types of antique and vintage advertising. Additionally, publications such as Bruner’s Encyclopedia of Porcelain Enamel Advertising and online sites such as antiquesigncollector.com can help novices learn more about the collecting specialty

Those who invest the time and money to acquire vintage porcelain enamel signs treat it as a lifetime hobby. They enjoy them for their artistry and for their ability to recall a vanished time when Coca-Cola cost a nickel and squads of smiling, uniformed gas station attendants would ready your car for the next leg of your journey.

Silver or Gold? With vermeil, you get both

A pair of vermeil silver Champagne coolers by English silversmith Paul Storr sold for €32,000 (approximately $33,675) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2018. Image courtesy of Colasanti Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers.

Gold is easy to work with on its own – just heat it and form it as desired. It is heavy and luxurious, but because of its price, it isn’t always practical. A solution since ancient times has been to apply gold over other metals, like silver, a time-honored choice. But early methods of applying gold to silver to create vermeil (pronounced vehr-may), also known as silver-gilt, were sometimes difficult and dangerous. 

The Incas of South America married their Sun God of gold and Mother Moon of silver in their religious artifacts through what’s known as a depletion-gilding technique, a process that employs acids, salts and heat to bind the gold to the silver. European artisans came up with a fire-gilding process by which an amalgam of gold and mercury is heated to slowly dissolve the mercury until the gold chemically binds to the outer surface to produce ormolu. This practice was finally outlawed around 1830 due to its seriously harmful effects on the health of the metalsmiths.

A French silver-gilt breakfast set once owned by August Ludwig Viktor, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, achieved NT$1,700,000 (about $58,000) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of Yu Jen Taipei and LiveAuctioneers

French artisans discovered electrolysis in the late 18th century, a far-safer process that binds gold to silver by passing electric currents through the metals. Electrolysis is now the standard technique for creating works of vermeil.

It should be said that vermeil is not interchangeable with pieces that are gold filled or gold plated. The rules for the manufacture of the latter two are looser. Gold-filled pieces feature a layer of gold electroplated onto an alloy of copper, brass or other base metal that has no less than 5% of its total weight in gold, while gold-plated works have less than 1% of their total weight in gold over alloy. No specific karat-weight of gold is regulated for either type, although each can be identified by a hallmark such as GP for gold plated and GF for gold filled.

A circa-1809 French Empire silver-gilt platter and cover made for Prince Camillo Borghese and Pauline Borghese (nee Bonaparte) achieved £34,000 (about $42,500) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021. Image courtesy of Kinghams Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Vermeil, in contrast, always has a base of fine or sterling silver – not an alloy. American government regulations require the layer of gold to comprise no less than 2.5 microns, which is about five times thicker than that used in gold plating. Also, the gold overlay can be no less than 10K in weight. With its combination of both gold and silver, vermeil is classified as demi-fine jewelry. It is by far the most coveted of the three gold-layered variations at auction.

As pointed out earlier, vermeil is created by electroplating pure gold onto a solid silver surface, but it need not be done when a piece is first made. A work of silver can be elevated to vermeil at any time. 

A circa-1950 decorative basket by Cartier featuring silver gilt bands, enameled strawberries and white enamel flowers achieved $1,400 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2017. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Any object made from gold will have a hallmark declaring its full karat weight, but items of vermeil, which have a layer of gold over silver, are not usually hallmarked for their gold content. They should sport a hallmark of .925 for sterling silver or .999 for fine silver to identify the purity of the base silver alloy. 

A circa-1900 sterling silver-gilt vermeil centerpiece bowl by Marcus & Co., sold for S1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2019. Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers

Telling the difference between a gold object and one that was originally cast as vermeil is straightforward but involves multiple steps, starting with checking for discoloration, general wear or tarnish. Pieces that have a history should show wear in logical places. If something appears too new for its age, the layer of gold you see was almost certainly added after its completion.

A 54-piece vermeil dessert service realized $2,400 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018. Image courtesy of Leighton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Just feeling the weight of an item can help determine if it is gold or vermeil. The atomic weight of silver is 47 and the atomic weight of gold is 79, a difference in weight of about 41%. Vermeil jewelry, teacups, clocks, flatware and even royal crowns will feel lighter than their solid-gold counterparts and a bit heavier than those made from an alloy of brass and copper. 

A case in point is the 17th-century St. Edward’s Crown that Queen Elizabeth II wore at her coronation in 1953. Composed of solid 22K gold and more than 440 precious gems, it weighs nearly five pounds, a challenge for anyone to manage, whether high-born or not. 

“It weighs a tonne,” Her Majesty once told an interviewer. 

An openwork vermeil and diamond bangle bracelet earned $550 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2016. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Magnets are good tools to have at hand when testing objects of vermeil. 

Magnets will not interact with gold, silver, brass or copper, but they will stick to anything that contains enough nickel, iron or steel. If the piece comprises anything except gold over silver, it’s not vermeil. 

Most vermeil items appear at auction in the form of jewelry and personal accessories, but the metallurgical technique has been used to produce other objects as well, both functional and fanciful. Teasets, mantel clocks, candlesticks, presentation bowls, serving trays and Russian icons adorned with vermeil are seldom bypassed at auction.

This Russian icon, chased and embossed with vermeil over a wood panel, sold for €1,500 (about $1,600) in November 2020. Image courtesy of Hargesheimer Kunstauktionen Dusseldorf and LiveAuctioneers

The White House has a Vermeil Room on its ground floor that showcases one of the largest collections of vermeil pieces ever assembled. Dedicated to the first ladies, the collection contains about 1,000 examples of flatware, tableware, chalices, tureens and a wine cooler donated to the Eisenhower administration in 1956 by socialite Margaret Thompson Biddle.

According to the White House Historical Association, the collection includes 18th-century vermeil in the English Regency style by Paul Storr, French Empire-style pieces by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, and examples by Philip Rundell, a London metalsmith. Vermeil designs by all of these revered names remain very much in demand.

A pair of mid-19th-century French silver and vermeil double salts by Maison Odiot, patterned after the original model by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, earned $2,600 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Contemporary artisans such as Jacquie Aiche, Alfred Phillippe, Dina Mackney and Kendra Scott create vermeil jewelry in vintage and classical designs to suit any event, even a reception at the White House Vermeil Room.

A 20th-century sterling silver vermeil desk clock with a Breguet movement sold for $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2016. Image courtesy of Kodner Galleries Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Owning vermeil, be it a centuries-old decorative object by a renowned artisan or a head-turning piece of jewelry finished last week, can make economic sense. If you don’t care to consider pure 24K gold coins, bars, bullion or jewelry part of your investment strategy, vermeil might be a sensible option.

Toleware: both useful and beautiful

An early 19th-century tin toleware lighthouse coffee pot with a gooseneck spout realized $16,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2011. Image courtesy of Pook & Pook, Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

Toleware, a term for tinned objects that have been paint-decorated and lacquered, usually with charming folk motifs, originated in 17th-century Wales. Although early examples were utilitarian in nature, many were decorated to imitate exotic Asian lacquerware imports, especially those from Japan. Cups, pans, pails, coffee pots and other standard household items boasted fanciful chinoiserie-style designs against shiny black “japanned” (aka lacquered) grounds. 

This eight-piece Regency period parcel gilt toleware service sold for €1,800 (roughly $1,900) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2015. Image courtesy of Sheppard’s Irish Auction House and LiveAuctioneers

British “whitesmiths,” a term coined to mean tinsmiths, worked magic through the medium of toleware. With a thin tin coating and a deft creative hand, any humble household item could be transformed into a durable, decorative statement. As toleware became more fashionable, British whitesmiths created pieces that held higher regard in the home, such as wine coolers and molasses dispensers. 

A Victorian toleware molasses dispenser with front panels featuring a British coat of arms sold for £500 (about $653) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull and LiveAuctioneers

With the advent of roller mills, which pressed smelted iron bars into thin sheets ready for tinning, production of basic flat household toleware pieces soared. Through the mid-18th-century, both toleware and pressed tinned sheets were exported to the Colonies. Edward and William Pattison, enterprising whitesmiths based outside of Hartford, Connecticut, created similar kitchen wares of their own. Their business flourished as they took a business-to-consumer approach, peddling their fanciful wares door to door. 

This circa-1840 New England toleware document box earned $240 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2019. Image courtesy of the New Hampshire Antique Dealers Association and LiveAuctioneers

After the Revolutionary War, family-run toleware workshops also arose in Maine, New York and Pennsylvania. Simple, useful items were always in demand, but some whitesmiths graced more ornate creations with cut, punched, pierced, gilt, beaded, flat or raised details. They enlisted their wives and daughters to add freehand painted floral images in a process commonly known as “flowering.” More complex images could be produced through the use of multiple stencils. Most of these American toleware designs feature red, orange and yellow bouquets against green or black grounds. Other American toleware motifs were inspired by images found on costly imported porcelains. 

A 19th-century Pennsylvania toleware child’s mug attained $600 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022. Image courtesy of Conestoga Auction Company Division of Hess Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

The Pennsylvania Dutch (an aberration of the term “Deutsch”), a distinct European cultural group of farmers and artisans also known as the Pennsylvania Germans, settled across the southern and eastern parts of the Keystone State in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their tan, rust red, green and pumpkin-yellow toleware designs, rendered in sweeping brush strokes or by “thumbing” (blending applied paints with finger or thumb), are reminiscent of European peasant designs. In addition to fruit and florals, Pennsylvania German tolewares often bore geometric shapes enhanced with stylized images of birds, farm animals, tulips or hearts-and-flowers against dark lacquered grounds.

A 19th-century Pennsylvania toleware child’s mug with a yellow ground achieved $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Conestoga Auction Company Division of Hess Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

Although toleware fell out of fashion by the turn of the 20th century, these now-antique pieces have earned legions of fans. British, American and Pennsylvania Dutch tolewares are ardently collected, but so, too are French tolewares, famed for their superior lacquer, varied palettes, fine embellishment and elegant floral designs. 

A circa-1830 toleware box attained $300 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of the New Hampshire Antique Dealers Association and LiveAuctioneers

Toleware pieces that reflect the 19th-century French fascination with mystery and illusion might be the most intriguing of all. Elaborate magic sets were made from toleware, and sleight-of-hand tricks with names such as Scotch Purse, Hammer and Ball, Die Through Hat and Bonus Genius, often employed colorful toleware coin-conjuring plates. Hand-painted toleware changing canisters helped magicians produce objects or make them disappear, while colorful card-changing ladles fitted with hinged, moveable tin leaves inside the bowl captured and held magicians’ chosen cards. 

Alexander Herrmann’s Cards and Card Bouquet magical apparatus with toleware vase, achieved $6,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The quirky toleware Cards and Card Bouquet magic apparatus, once linked to the famed French stage magician Alexander Herrmann and once part of the Circus Museum of Sarasota Collection, was no less bewitching. It featured an internal mechanism which, once a spectator’s secret card choices were returned to their deck, reveals them in all their glory.

A Hermes coffee table with a toleware tray top sold for $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $400-$600 in August 2021. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

Toleware may have been vanquished with the rise of plastic, but it hasn’t left the art scene completely. Hermes, the fashionable, centuries-old French company, produced a coffee table with a toleware tray top in Veuve Clicquot’s trademark yellow, emblazoned with the Champagne producer’s brand name. An example of the table hammered for $4,000, 10 times its low estimate, in August 2021. But it’s the antique tole pieces that dominate, reminding their owners of plucky cottage entrepreneurs who found a way to create objects that were both useful and beautiful.

Gold dollar coins add beauty and history to your investment portfolio

An 1855 Type 2 gold dollar with an NGC grade of MS-64 achieved $8,200 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022. Image courtesy of Pacific Global Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Of the many coins created and released by the mints of the United States, only three official gold dollar coins have been issued – the fewest of any denomination. These coins lure collectors with their gold content and the traditional artistry of 19th-century American coin design. But, as with most collectibles, some specimens have greater investment value than others. 

Christopher Bechtler’s privately-minted gold dollar coins gained acceptance because they were known to be of honest weight. A circa-1840s example minted by his son Augustus earned $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Gold Standard Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Before diving in, it’s worth mentioning that collectors are not strictly limited to U.S. government-minted examples. When Congress failed to authorize the creation of a gold dollar coin in the Coinage Act of 1792, at least one individual stepped up to meet the demand. Christopher Bechtler was a goldsmith and watchmaker originally from Baden, Germany who set up a private gold foundry in Rutherford County, North Carolina, about 75 miles west of Charlotte, North Carolina. He serviced the first gold rush in the country following the discovery of gold there in 1799. 

Bechtler, later joined by his sons, minted private gold coins in denominations of $1, $2.50 and $5, based on different carat weights. His coins were not considered legal tender within the United States and circulated only within the region. The Bechtler family closed the foundry in the 1850s, but their gold coins, in any denomination, are valued at auction for both their historical connection to the first gold rush in America and the purity of their gold.

A Christopher Bechtler one dollar Carolina coin, dating to between 1827 and 1842 and with an NGC grade of MS-63, realized $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles and LiveAuctioneers

By the late 1840s, gold was being discovered in sufficient quantities in North Carolina and California for Congress to reconsider allowing the creation of a gold dollar coin for general circulation. The coin would be a boon to small, rural communities where early banknotes had not yet integrated into the economy, but a potent objection remained: gold dollar coins are easily counterfeited.

Nonetheless, Congress passed the Coinage Act of 1849, which at long last authorized the US Mint to produce a gold dollar coin. Each was a bit smaller in diameter than the dime then in circulation, with only 1.67 grams of gold (31.1 grams to the troy ounce). The dollars were minted at 90% gold and 10% copper and were struck at five different US Mints from 1849 through 1889.

A Type 2 gold dollar coin struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1855 sold for $130 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2011. Though it was in weakened condition, the auction sum beat the coin’s melt value of $76. Image courtesy of Manor Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The US Mint’s Chief Engraver, James B. Longacre, a copper plate engraver, was commissioned to design the new gold dollar coin in 1849. Ultimately, Longacre would design all three gold dollar coins, which would become known as the Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3 versions. While each was similar in design, all have individual charms that captivate collectors.

Type 1

The obverse (the heads side) of the Type 1 features a female personification of Liberty in a left-facing profile, crowned by a small tiara and ringed by 13 six-pointed stars and a raised edge. The reverse (the tails side) features an olive wreath surrounding the numeral “1”, the word “dollar” and the date, with the Mint mark added just below the wreath. The legend “United States of America” surrounds three-quarters of the outer perimeter. Together, these details would comprise the basic design of all three types of gold dollar coin, except for some minor differences.

An 1853 Type 1 gold dollar coin picturing Liberty on the front bore no mint mark, meaning that it was struck at the Philadelphia Mint. It attained $250 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2012, a sum well above the $85 melt value of the gold. Image courtesy of William J. Jenack Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

The Type 1 was minted in 1849 at the mints in Philadelphia and Dahlonega, Georgia, until 1854; at Charlotte, North Carolina and New Orleans until 1853; and at San Francisco only in 1854.

Collectors consider the most valuable Type 1 to be the 1849-C issue of the Charlotte Mint. It featured what is known as the “open wreath” on the reverse, because the wreath did not close around the central core as later issues would. Just 125 open wreath gold dollar coins were minted at the Charlotte Mint before a closed wreath design replaced it. Only five specimens are known to exist, one of which sold for $690,000 in 2004.

According to CoinWeek.com, “ … there are no overly difficult coins [of this type] to acquire although many of the Charlotte and Dahlonega issues are rare to very rare in Uncirculated [condition]. Most … collectors seek a single high-grade Type One issue from Philadelphia.”

Type 2

The Type 2 design features a profile portrait of an unidentified Native American Princess instead of Liberty. She sports a fanciful feathered headdress that was described by one critic as “ … an elegant version of folk art.” The only difference appears on the reverse, where an agricultural wreath replaces the Type 1 olive branch, featuring intertwined cotton, corn, tobacco and wheat stalks meant to represent both North and South.

An 1855 Type 11 gold dollar coin with a PCGS grade of MS-64 attained $6,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2016. Image courtesy of Richard Opfer Auctioneering, Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

This design was minted at the Philadelphia Mint in 1854 and 1855, with the mints in Dahlonega, Charlotte and New Orleans producing them in 1855 and San Francisco contributing in 1856. With lower production numbers, CoinWeek.com recommends “ … the 1854 or 1855 Philadelphia issue [as] the best choice,” with all Type 2 coins in much higher grades difficult to find at auction.

Type 3

The only slight difference with the Type 3 gold dollar coin is the portrait of the Native American princess was larger than the one on the Type 2, taking up more of the obverse. Its reverse is identical.

The Type 3 is the longest-serving dollar gold coin design, minted from 1856 through 1889. The Philadelphia Mint produced coins through the entire period, while the Charlotte Mint issued only in the years 1857 and 1859; the Dahlonega Mint from 1856 through 1861; and the San Francisco Mint from 1857 through 1860 and also 1870.

Among the most sought-after gold dollar coins is the 1861-D minted at Dahlonega, Georgia in 1861. It was struck by the Confederate government with the gold bullion left behind when they seized the mint early in the Civil War. This example achieved $32,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2008. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Collectors clamor for 1861 D gold dollar coin as it was issued exclusively by the Confederacy during the first year of the Civil War, after its troops captured the Dahlonega Mint. The Confederacy minted the gold dollar coin for its own use until the mint’s gold supply ran out. Otherwise, CoinWeek.com recommends “ … a Philadelphia issue made during the 1880s [as] a prime choice.”

This Type 3 gold dollar coin, struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1887, realized $450 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

Collectors who have heard about gold Sacagawea dollars and other commemorative gold dollars might wonder where they fit in to the larger picture. A total of 39 Sacagawea dollars issued from the West Point Mint in 1999, but were never intended to circulate. They were sent to the International Space Station and displayed at coin shows and are now stored at the Fort Knox Gold Depository. Gold dollar coins issued between 1903 and 1922 are merely commemorative and never circulated as legal tender; they don’t even feature the Longacre design. Beware of vendors or collectors who suggest these dollar coins are scarce prizes.

An 1882 Type 3 proof gold dollar coin, graded PR66, achieved $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018. Image courtesy of BK Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The value of an individual gold dollar coin depends on many factors: its year of mintage, the mint of origin, the presence of production errors, the type of proof, its condition and the overall grade itself. A complete collection is satisfying and can earn a higher value at auction, but assembling it is the work of a lifetime.

Some money managers recommend antique gold dollar coins because they diversify a portfolio into gold while enhancing it with their historic value, giving them a higher value together than they might have separately. 

A Christopher Bechtler gold dollar coin, dating to 1831-1834 and PCGS certified, sold for $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2018. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Whether you are an investor or a collector, always trade with a reputable dealer and educate yourself by consulting LiveAuctioneers, the American Numismatic Association and the American Numismatic Society to learn more about gold dollar coins. The best and rarest tell the story of a young nation that grew and transformed itself with the discovery of gold.

Meteorites: collectibles from out of the blue

A lunar meteorite dubbed The Moon Puzzle because it consists of six pieces that fit to create a whole weighing slightly more than 12 pounds achieved $500,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2018. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Comets, eclipses and other cosmic phenomena visible to the naked eye are awe-inspiring, but meteorites are in a class of their own. The name of these extraterrestrial rocks reflects their down-to-earth nature, in that only those that reach the surface of the Earth are called meteorites; those that burn up in the atmosphere remain meteors.

A Gibeon nickel-iron meteorite, part of a fall that took place in Namibia that was discovered in 1836, sold for $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2020. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The fascination with meteorites predates written history. Up until recently, it was difficult to confirm a rock was in fact a meteorite, simply because most have unremarkable appearances that give no hint of their out-of-this-world origins. Improvements in technology have made confirmation easier, and commercial travel has made it easier for meteorite-hunters to reach far-flung locations where meteorite falls have occurred. 

A slice of an Imilac pallasite from northern Chile, featuring gemmy olivine crystals in a silver matrix, made $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2012. Image courtesy of I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Some meteorites discovered during private expeditions enter museums and research collections, but many more are acquired by collectors. Due to their extreme rarity, however, most meteorites available on the open market are fragments or slices of larger masses.

This partial slice of breccia from the largest lunar meteorite, found in Morocco, earned $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Stony meteorites, age-old igneous-like silicate rock aggregations, are the most common form of meteorite. They originate from non-melted and melted asteroids in the Asteroid Belt, an area between Jupiter and Mars that experts believe to be the remains of an ancient solar system. A number of younger stony meteorites come not from asteroids, but rather from the moon. Lunar meteorites are among the most coveted and sought after. Even vanishingly tiny, unexciting-looking examples can command strong prices. Most lunar meteorites were created when asteroids pummeled the lunar surface. Others are breccias, stones made of rock fragments, glass shards or glass spherules that fused on impact. 

A Martian meteorite recovered from the Sahara Desert near Morocco realized $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The only meteorites that categorically rival lunar specimens for popularity and high bids at auction are also a type of stony meteorite from a nearby planet: Mars. Martian meteorites have unusually young crystalline structures (dating from 180 million to two billion years ago) and can contain water-bearing minerals and organic compounds that some believe might have helped give rise to life on earth. The prospect of owning a piece of another planet, however small the piece might be, inspires collectors to strain their budgets and battle ferociously to win such specimens at auction. 

The surface of this Sikhote-Alin iron meteorite was shaped by the atmosphere as it fell to Earth. Offered with Soviet limited-edition commemorative stamps, it realized $18,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Also of note are iron-nickel meteorites, which originate in the cores of melted asteroids. They are have caused earth-shattering impacts and are scarcer than stony meteorites. On the morning of February 12, 1947, a massive meteoritic fireball brighter than the sun and the largest ever known rocketed over the Sikhote Alin mountains of eastern Siberia. It was traveling at a speed of 10 to 20 miles a second and had a temperature in excess of 10,000 degrees when it hit the Earth’s surface and exploded into more than 60 tons of metallic meteorites. In addition to producing sonic booms, uprooting trees, and shattering windows over a large area, the fragments and rocks created nearly 200 separate impact craters. Because the fall was spectacular and also relatively well documented, all serious meteorite collectors seek a fine example of a Sikhote Alin.

Recovered near Seymchan in Russia in 1967, this pallasite was fashioned into a sphere to spotlight its abundant olivine crystals. It sold for $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A third type, stony-iron meteorites, contain equal amounts of silicate rocks and nickel-iron metal. They form within or upon melted asteroids. A subgroup that demands mention are pallasites cohesive masses studded with pale green peridot-like olivine silicate crystals in metal matrices. These beauties, unsurprisingly favored by collectors, have been found from Alaska to Antarctica. (It should be noted that the pallasites shown here didn’t arrive on Earth looking this pretty. Just as rough stones are pulled from mines and cut and polished into diamonds, rough meteorites with heat-scorched exteriors are cut and polished into pallasites.)

A ribbed, scalloped piece of Libyan desert glass, found in the Sahara and weighing more than four pounds, sold for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2010. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Still another form of meteorite came to light in 1922, when archaeologist Howard Carter unsealed the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun and discovered a mysterious glassy greenish-yellow carved gemstone on King Tut’s breastplate. A decade later, similar pieces were found across the Libyan Desert, and they are now colloquially known as Libyan desert glass. Although the origin of the stones remains uncertain, geologists think they appeared millions of years ago when a massive, blazing-hot meteorite struck, liquifying the sands and hurling debris into the upper atmosphere. The afflicted pieces returned to earth as hardened, yellowish droplets of natural glass meteorite byproducts known as tektites. Moldavite tektites, which are found across modern-day Germany and the Czech Republic, appear translucent or mossy green. Others found in southeast Asia, Australia and North America range in color from yellow-gray or gray to brown and black. 

This faceted Moldavite crystal, a tektite discovered in the Czech Republic, was auctioned for $1,900 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

 

Whatever their source, meteorites take their names not from the people who found them but rather from a prominent feature of the area where they landed bodies of water, towns, cities, whatever makes sense. Specimens from the same place receive identifying numbers or letters. Meteorites discovered in deserts, which feature few distinguishing geographical features, are given a name that reflects the general area, followed by a designated grid number. A mineralogically and texturally unique feldspathic breccia stony meteorite found in Morocco, North West Africa, is known as NWA 5000, while an exotic, coarse-grained, ultramafic igneous one found in the Sahara Desert near Morocco carries the label NWA 1950-SNC. 

This Muonionalusta meteorite specimen, cut into a cube to show off its striking latticework, achieved $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

When Chicken Little, a character in an ageless folk tale, was struck by a tumbling acorn, she feared that the sky was falling. Had she been struck by a meteorite and carefully documented her story, she could have auctioned it for tens of thousands of dollars, easily. Humans have always thrilled to tales of rocks raining from the heavens and setting the skies ablaze. We now know so much more about the hows and the whys of meteorites, but they are no less bewitching. They unite science and romance, and they encourage us to keep scanning the skies and dreaming about worlds beyond our own.

Vintage denim: Beloved by cowboys, film stars and fashionistas

A Lee denim jacket signed by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michael Basquiat and Robert Rauschenberg sold for $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2011. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Denim has evolved by light years since its humble origins as the poor man’s workwear. Over time, Hollywood rebels and rugged characters of the Old West have imbued the cloth with an air of glamour, ultimately elevating vintage denim clothing to the status of “collectible.” But not all denim is the same, since the product it comprises can range from standard blue jeans and overalls to bags, caps and even bedspreads. 

A complete circa-1940 denim twill conductor’s uniform for the Norfolk Western Line railroad achieved $2,250 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2015. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Denim did not actually originate with the 49ers, i.e., miners attracted by the 19th century Gold Rush in California. It was first woven as a twill fabric in Nimes, France in the late 15th century. Traders labeled the cloth as de Nimes (from “Nimes”), a practice that likely gave rise to the word “denim.”

The French fabric was favored for work clothing such as overalls, vests, jackets, and uniforms because it could withstand heavy daily use for a longer period than plain woven cotton cloth. Over many decades however, the now-classic denim look, featuring an outer finish in indigo blue with a white interior, become a staple of fashionable outerwear and accessories.

Found unworn in storage, this vintage 1930 denim jacket with the classic Levi Strauss & Co., leather label sold for $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019. Image courtesy of Daniel Buck Auctions, Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

A similar fabric to French denim was woven in the late 15th century in Genoa, Italy, but it was considered a corduroy weave rather than a twill. As with denim, the cloth was reserved for work outfits in this case, for Italian sailors, because it maintained its integrity whether it was wet or dry. The French word for Genoa was “Genes,” which may have morphed into the word “jeans.” A French military uniform made from “bleu de Genes” fabric in 1795 is the first known use of the term “blue jeans,” which is now relegated to pants only. 

A pair of circa-1940s new-old stock Lee Riders blue jeans achieved $9,600 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2019. Image courtesy of Daniel Buck Auctions, Inc., and LiveAuctioneers

A third woven twill fabric of note emerged near Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India in the 17th century. Described as “cheap, coarse, thick cotton cloth,” it was invented by the weavers of Dongri and sold under the name “dungri” Transformed into work-ready outerwear such as smocks and bib-and-brace overalls by manufacturers in England and Europe, the cloth eventually became known as “dungarees.”

Durable as these woven types of cloth were, certain areas of garments made from them wore out faster than others, especially the pocket corners, the seams and also the bottom of the button fly on men’s pants. In 1969, Jacob Davis, a tailor working in Reno, Nevada, came up with a solution. Davis routinely bought bolts of denim and canvas material from Levi Strauss, a dry goods proprietor in San Francisco, to make and sell sturdy work clothing he reinforced with copper rivets in the areas that endured the most punishment.

According to legend, Davis wrote to Strauss in 1872, suggesting a partnership. Strauss agreed, and in 1873, US patent No. 139,121 was issued for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings.” That same year, Davis added double orange thread stitching on the back pockets of the pants. The distinctive decoration, united with the copper rivets, marked the arrival of an American icon: Levi’s.

This circa-1960 pair of never-worn Levi 505 jeans, with sales tags attached, earned $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020. Image courtesy of Flannery’s Estate Services and LiveAuctioneers

Levi’s indigo blue jeans, the standard from which modern blue jeans evolved, starts with the patented copper-riveted version of 1873, which had two front pockets decorated with double-stitched orange thread and one rear pocket on the right side. The men’s style had a button fly in front and the women’s style placed the fly on the left side, following the company’s now-trademarked “arcuate” (arc-like) design.” 

‘Untitled (Jeans),’ an ink-on-denim drawing by Keith Haring, achieved $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

By 1890, the jeans featured the legendary five-pocket design, with two in the front, two in the back and a fifth small front pocket, ideal for a pocket watch. The leather tag showing two horses pulling the jeans apart, called “The Two Horse label,” first appeared in 1886, but sometime in the late 1930s, it acquired a three-digit number on the lower left side that verified the style and date of manufacture. 

The company began branding their jeans with a small red embroidered cloth tag in 1936. It introduced a denim shirt two years later and launched a denim line exclusively for women in 1949.

The upper parts of two pairs of circa-1880s Levi’s jeans earned $8,250 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021. Image courtesy of Holabird Western Americana Collections and LiveAuctioneers

Levi Strauss & Co., remains a cultural touchstone in denim wear, with consistently high auction prices for its early productions, no matter the condition. In 2018, a pair of denim jeans manufactured in 1893 sold for nearly $100,000. “It’s somebody who loves old Levi’s,” said Daniel Buck Soules, from Daniel Buck Auctions in Maine.

A door push promoting Can’t Bust ‘Em denim overalls sold for $325 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2016. Image courtesy of North American Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Other well-known brands made their debut around the turn of the 20th century, capitalizing on the success of Levi Strauss & Co. For example, Osh Kosh B’Gosh got its start in 1895; Wrangler jeans in 1904; and Lee denim overalls and shirts in 1911. Lee acquired an early brand of denim overall called Can’t Bust ‘Em that was targeted at gold miners, but lacked rivets and reinforcements. Examples of the Can’t Bust ‘Em denim brand dating to the American gold-mining period appear at auction infrequently and are regarded by some as long-term investments.

A Levi Strauss cowboy-themed display fitted with an oversize pair of jeans attained $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2012. Image courtesy of Showtime Auction Services and LiveAuctioneers

Movies set in the Old West sparked fresh interest in denim clothing that led to another enduring fashion favorite: the denim jacket, which was introduced in the early 1920s. By the 1950s, denim became associated with movie rebels Marlon Brando and James Dean, and by the late 20th century, denim had shed its workaday past and gone decidedly upmarket. Fashion designers Gloria Vanderbilt, Ralph Lauren, Gucci and others produced jeans, bags and other coveted pieces in the resilient fabric, carving out a niche of their own at auction. A vintage woman’s Chanel denim jacket sold recently for $2,200 not an unusual occurrence for designer denim.

A Louis Vuitton denim monogram handbag achieved $19,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022. Image courtesy of Bidhaus and LiveAuctioneers

Denim appears in many different forms from just as many different companies. Manufacturing details such as buttons, pockets, fly styles (zipper or button) and color variations can affect a piece’s value. A good place to start researching denim brands is VintageWorkWear.com and the collector’s guide to Levi’s at heddels.com.

This Chanel long-sleeved denim jacket sold for $6,300 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Mynt Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Denim and its cousins could have disappeared right along with the shattered dreams of those miners who did not strike it rich in the Gold Rush days, but its rugged durability spared it from that fate. Pop culture images of cowboys and societal mavericks clad in denim made the fabric seem cool, and when top fashion designers embraced denim, it rose in status yet again. Today, vintage denim doesn’t just deliver a classic look; it can also fit nicely into a collection of other investment-grade pop-culture collectibles.

Convertible jewelry: the only constant is change

This Cartier three-piece convertible platinum, 18K gold, Burmese ruby and diamond necklace achieved $120,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2018. Image courtesy of FORTUNA® and LiveAuctioneers

Generations of boys and girls have grown up with Transformers, a line of toy vehicles that convert into robots with a few deft twists and turns by tiny hands. Women are well-familiar with the concept, but in a more graceful, eye-pleasing and altogether grown-up form: convertible jewelry. 

Just like Transformers toys, convertible jewelry pieces are designed to serve multiple purposes, changing from bracelets to necklaces, pendants to brooches, pins to pendants, rings to brooches, daywear earrings to fancier earrings for evening wear, and so forth. As with Transformers toys, jewelry conversions are accomplished by swiveling or accessing hidden elements, but the jewelry can require the attaching and detaching of other elements, as well. These cleverly designed treasures enable owners to extend their jewelry wardrobes and expand their artistic self-expression without exhausting their budgets. They represent both supreme ingenuity and an unbeatable deal.

A circa-1780 18K gold swivel spinner watch fob that converts to a bracelet charm or a necklace pendant sold for $450 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2019. Image courtesy of Imperial Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The earliest form of convertible jewelry may well have been Georgian-era watch fob spinners decorative chained weights designed to ease timepieces from tiny pockets. Fob spinners feature gold frames with dual- or multi-faceted gemstone adornments. In addition to smoothly swiveling from face to face within brackets, each fob spinner could convert to a detached bracelet charm, chain, or ribbon-strung pendant. Victorian spinners that showcased ornate gems such as onyx, bloodstone, citrine, carnelian or rock crystal also swiveled, and some could be locked in place with stabilizing mechanisms. 

A Victorian 14K gold and opal pin that converts to a pendant sold for $500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2015. Image courtesy of Nest Egg Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Victorian fashionistas also adored day-and-night earrings, creations that offered two pairs of earrings in one. Their simple, lobe-mount stud or hoop elements were suitable for daywear, and when enhanced with matching drop pendants, they morphed into glamorous evening wear. Such designs were ideal for brides who wanted one look for the ceremony and another for the celebration. 

A Buccellati convertible diamond and ruby brooch/pendant with removable chain sold for $45,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2017. Image courtesy of GWS Auctions Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Victorian brooches converted into luxurious pendants, while double-clip models separated into dress clips. Necklaces featuring detachable pendants and articulated motifs transformed into individual brooches and glittery hair ornaments, and rivieres single-strand necklaces with gems graduating in size as they approached large central stones became stylish bracelets.

This platinum flower convertible ring/pendant, featuring emeralds weighing a total of 27.09 carats, realized $53,600 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Bidhaus and LiveAuctioneers

Victorian socialites often wore elegant jeweled tiaras at formal events but cherished pieces that converted to forms modest enough for lesser occasions. Beautiful bandeau-style tiaras could be transformed into simpler headpieces and necklace sets. Detaching and switching components of other tiaras yielded matching brooches, pendants and earrings. 

An Art Deco platinum convertible clip/brooch with cut diamonds, a removable frame, clip mechanisms, pin stem and catch earned $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2014. Image courtesy of Myers Fine Art and LiveAuctioneers

By the early 20th century, free-swinging sautoirs long gold rope chains set with gemstones, tassels or pendants complemented fashionable straight shift dresses. They could be looped low around a lady’s neck, wrist-wrapped into chunky bracelets, or simply shortened. Through artful engineering, more sophisticated versions could be changed into multiple pieces a brooch, two bracelets and two dress clips. The inimitable Coco Chanel was fond of sautoirs, which remain a popular part of Chanel’s costume jewelry range to this day.

An 18K gold, emerald and diamond convertible pendant/necklace sold for $55,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2019. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

During the Great Depression, master jewelers designed hugely appealing convertible jewelry that budget-conscious wearers could style in different ways on different days. The pieces boasted an array of clever mechanisms such as removable frames, multipurpose hidden catches, clip mechanisms and pin stems. 

A convertible ring set with a 28-carat cushion-cut treated sapphire surrounded by 5.50 carats of diamonds realized $60,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Tiffany & Co., created convertible 18K gold cufflinks with exchangeable turquoise, citrine, hematite and cultured pearl finials. Boucheron produced brooches that turned into dress clips and necklaces that converted to bracelets or diadems. Cartier designed a three-piece platinum and 18K gold Burmese ruby and diamond necklace-set with leaf-motif accents that became brooches.

A Van Cleef & Arpels Zip necklace that converts to a bracelet achieved HK$2,000,000 ($255,8460) plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy Poly Auction Hong Kong and LiveAuctioneers

Van Cleef & Arpels has been creating convertible jewelry since the early 1900s, but to many, its 1950 Zip necklace, the first working zipper made of precious metal, remains the firm’s highest achievement. This technical triumph, supposedly proposed by Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, took craftsmen nearly a decade to perfect. When it was opened and closed, it converted from a necklace to a bracelet and back again. Also worthy of mention is Van Cleef’s Walska briolette diamond brooch, introduced in 1971, which featured a bejeweled bird of paradise carrying a sizable yellow diamond in its beak. Its outspread wings becomes a pair of earrings and its diamond doubled as a pendant. 

A three-piece Oscar Heyman sapphire and diamond necklace that transforms into bracelets achieved $85,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Retro convertible pieces are no less charming. Flexible snake-chains feature removeable dual-purpose motifs, while matched bracelets can slink into sinuous necklaces. Flashy rings are fitted with detachable jeweled jackets or removeable bands, transforming emerald-flower motifs into brooches. Other pieces feature moveable channels which, when opened, reveal rows of dainty gemstones. 

These versatile convertible pieces of jewelry combine exceptional craftsmanship with pure beauty to offer more than meets the eye. 

Pyrex: enduring and collectible midcentury kitchenware

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hammering out the art of repousse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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