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.

Gold coins symbolize the glory of ancient Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timeless beauty: Raingo Freres mantel clocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lithophanes: making light of art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

French enamel pocket watches: elegant timekeepers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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