Mandalas transcend form to become art

NEW YORK – In Himalayan and Indian art, the mandala is an important tool for meditation and visualization. In brief, a mandala is essentially a circular construct to diagrammatically represent the universe and typically features a deity or deities. They are highly precise and technical and come in many forms from painted ones to architectural mandalas and in the form of lotuses.

Architectural mandalas are essentially replicas of painted mandalas while lotus mandalas are more decorative. For the sake of brevity, in this article we will forgo the painted cloth examples (often referred to as thangkas) and instead focus on sculptural mandalas. These are highly sought after today and are typically crafted in gilt-bronze, silver or a copper alloy.

A large cast gilt-bronze Avalokiteshvara with many arms in front of a mandala has a Tibetan inscription on the back of its lotus base. The piece brought $40,000 + the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Madison Square Gallery Inc. Photo courtesy of Madison Square Gallery Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

For Westerners, they are collectible as art objects and transcend their original use as a tool for meditation and spiritual enlightenment. After a slump in recent years, the market has rebounded for these objects because of increased demand from both institutional and private collectors, particularly among Chinese and American buyers.

Three-dimensional mandalas run the gamut from those having a large figure of a deity atop or in front of a round mandala to lotus-form mandalas that open up their petals to reveal images of deities within a celestial abode. This polychromed copper alloy mandala, representing a lotus mandala that symbolizes the celestial environment of the deity Chakrasamvara with his consort Vajravarahi, sold for $325,000 at Bonhams New York in December 2019. Noting that most mandalas in Tantric Buddhist art are painted or ephemeral sand creations, the auction catalog says, “Rare sculptural mandalas, such as the present lot, are perhaps the most fascinating kind, constructed with a mechanism to open and close the lotus petals around the central deity.”

These bronze lotus mandalas probably originate to the Pala period in Northeastern India (8th-12th century). Sculptural lotus mandalas had a resurgence in China in the 15th century, catering to Ming imperial styles. The British Museum has a mandala in the form of an articulated pomegranate made in China during the Qing Dynasty. At its center, the mandala has a tutelary deity embracing his prajna (wisdom party) surrounded by 20 lesser deities.

A Qing kong hai mother pure silver wire inlay mandala sold for $210,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2016 at HK BGTJ International Art Auctions Co. in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of HK BGTJ International Art Auctions Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Sanjay Kapoor, owner of Kapoor Galleries in New York City, said, as with most antiques, the earlier examples are more desirable than later ones as they are harder to find. “There is no hard-and-fast rule [of what collectors look for in mandalas] but the general rule is age, condition, provenance and quality.” he said, adding that it’s very important right now, especially for Indian objects, to be able to show provenance that the object left its country of origin prior to 1972.

Most of these mandals were made by anonymous artists whose names have been lost to history. The few names known today usually come from having a signature on a bronze and being able to attribute a mandala, based on stylistic motifs. What Kapoor admires most about lotus mandalas, for example, is the attention to detail and their realism. “And you have to bear in mind that these guys are carving these in the negative, into wax, so it’s not like they can do it directly on the sculpture. These are all lost wax casts.”

A 17th century bronze lotus-form mandala from Nepal that opens. Photo courtesy of Kapoor Galleries

Laura Weinstein, a Himalayan and Indian art scholar and provenance specialist, said new collectors should know that figures often go missing on these mandalas or petals/parts can get damaged, so sometimes a mandala might be restored using parts from other pieces. “It’s important when you are looking at these things to not only look at the sculpture as a whole but to pay attention to the iconography,” she said, noting that even museums like New York’s Rubin Museum, where she formerly worked as a cataloger, has a lotus mandala with the original figure missing. “You want to make sure when you are buying these things that the figures all make sense together. It’s often helpful to look at two-dimensional mandalas in order to verify the iconography makes sense.” When figures become separated, having a knowledge of the figures can help one understand that a particular deity would likely not have been cast in bronze alone and was likely part of a mandala.

This Tibetan silver-gilt lotus mandala opens to reveal gilt bronze figures with the ten-armed Cakrasamvara at the center. It realized $11,000 + the buyer’s premium in June 2015 at California Asian Art Auction Gallery USA. Photo courtesy of California Asian Art Auction Gallery USA and LiveAuctioneers

Kapoor said seeing a full mandala in sculpture form is rare and harder to find the older it is. Often you will see them in the form of retinues with figures forming the mandala. “Over time, a lot of the sculpture that you see as individual objects are actually broken pieces of what was once a huge mandala.”

Collectors new to the market should work with experts as mandalas are a complex subject. “It’s not like other fields where you have a signature and a certificate of authenticity,” he said. There are a large number of deities depicted in mandalas and even the figures’ moods from peaceful to wrathful to powerful (with different levels of each) can change its meaning and the setting depicted. Mandalas also are categorized by their shapes, colors and adornments. Collectors need to beware too of a plethora of fakes on the market, made thanks to scanning of authentic museum examples, 3D printing and fake patination.

A cast gilt bronze Chakrasamvara mandala earned $60,000 + the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Madison Square Gallery Inc. The piece has a figure of Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi surrounded by eight dancing dakinis, atop a double lotus pedestal base. Photo courtesy of Madison Square Gallery Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

Asked what a good entry point for new collectors is, Kapoor said, “You probably are going to want to start with 18th century gilt bronzes and then go backwards timewise from there to earlier and earlier pieces. You will get a sense of the subjects, the different bodhisattvas, a little bit of the style and then you will learn to appreciate the earlier pieces and have an idea for where the later pieces’ influence came from.”

Inkwells: vintage reservoirs of the written word

NEW YORK – “Ink was black, in inkwells and bottles, in the past. It would get all over your fingers because it would run and flow relentlessly,” wrote Alain Badiou in Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color.

Not if you were an Egyptian scribe. These highly trained court members, penning bills and magic spells with pointed river reeds, moistened their mineral-based, powdered pigments in small, hollowed-out stone mortars. Millennia later, Chinese calligraphers moistened ground gum-and-soot inksticks on similar, exquisitely carved soapstone, onyx, porcelain, jade or marble creations.

Jade Dragon ink-stone depicting two sinuous, horned, clawed, horned dragons amid swirling cloud patterns, 18th century. Realized $24,000 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Imperial Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

During the Middle Ages, when writing was deemed a lowly craft, European scribes and scriveners copied texts with quill pens fashioned from goose, eagle, hawk or swan wing-feathers. Because their flexible, sharpened nibs offered unmatched ease and precision, they particularly suited parchment and vellum work. Their brownish iron-gall, black “India ink” and bright naturally dyed inks were stored in inkhorns or practical pots deep enough to accommodate these quills.

As more people became literate, writing became not only socially acceptable but also a source of pride. Though simpler folks might keep their inks in unadorned pots, affluent writers adorned their fine-wood writing desks with finely crafted silver, pewter, jade, bronze, brass, cut crystal or pressed glass models. Some, like an Italian bronze cylindrical well, featuring a body supported by three, massive legs shaped like eagles and an outsized, seated putti finial holding an open book, were extravagant.

Footed silver tray featuring ink and pounce jars with engraved, monogrammed bell stand, 29 x 21cm, mid-18th century. Realized €20,000 ($22,360) + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers

Small wells, which held several ounces of ink, were generally square, rectangular or faceted. Larger ones were domed or shaped like capstans, mechanical devices used aboard ship to move heavyweights. Other sizeable wells featured sloping sides and flat, stable, wide-bottom bases. All, large or small, were lidded to prevent contamination, evaporation and spillage.

The wealthy, instead of inkwells, often acquired lavish desk standishes, known today as inkstands. These shallow rectangular, circular or oval trays, crafted in silver, gilt-bronze, onyx, brass, inlaid wood or porcelain, were the ultimate in writing luxury. In addition to matching wells, many featured grooves to store writing instruments and perforated “sand” shakers or pounce pots. Their fine- ground cuttlefish-bone powder, when sprinkled, not only smoothed rough, “unsized” paper. It also prevented ink from smearing.

Bronze-mounted Chinese porcelain double inkwell on cartouche coromandel lacquered panel with pen rest on raised feet, 14in wide. Realized $3,000 + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Abell Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Travelers in coach or on horseback, if wont to write en route, tucked tiny, hinged glass inkwells – snug in small, protective cases – into their pockets or luggage. Others toted plain or plush sloped, wooden travel-writing desks. Besides ink bottles, these often contained quills, quill knives, parchment, ponce pots, slate pencils and sealing wax.

Traveling 12-gore Globe ink wells, 4/5cm high. Realized £320 ($538) + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Innovative dip-pens, featuring small capillary-like channels and interchangeable mounted-metal nibs, replaced quills in the early 1800s. Every few words – for want of a reservoir, they had to be re-dipped in wells. Each dip could prove perilous. Nibs, falling off, could sink in the ink.

As European steamship and train travel increased, dressing cases (hand luggage) in addition to toiletries and writing implements, were often fitted with glass or rubbery, non-breakable gutta-percha ink wells. On the other hand, wells resembling the Liberty Bell, the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower, made enviable souvenirs.

Limited edition Baccarat ‘Zola’ lead crystal inkwell, marked and numbered, 6in high. Realized $600 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Well-off Victorians often sought gilt-mounted silver, cut-crystal, or ornate porcelains ink wells. Others decked their desks with ceramic tortoise, owl, camel, or elephant-shaped charmers. In time, sensuous Art Nouveau wells gave way to dramatic Art Deco models. Tiffany’s mother-of-pearl, pattern-stamped, patinated bronze, favrile glass and crab-shaped wells were particularly popular.

Tiffany Studios ‘Byzantine’ inkwell featuring glass cabochons, with glass insert for ink, 4³⁄₈in diameter, 1920s. Realized $2,900 + buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy Bruce Kodner Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The advent of the Waterman fountain pen, which prevented ink-reservoir overflow, eventually spelled the end of decorative ink wells. Though ink no longer runs and flows relentlessly, collectible wells embody art, fashion and a world of literature. Each also evokes those intimate moments when writers put pen to paper.

Remembering the suffragettes

NEW YORK – The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex – 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote, Aug. 26, 1920.

“All men are created equal,” says the Declaration of Independence, except when it came to voting rights. Without property, (white) men couldn’t vote and it left out women entirely. It would take the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in August 1920 to finally guarantee women the right to vote (owning property as a qualification was discontinued by 1856). It was a long struggle that would take 144 years from the founding of the United States before half of its population could participate in its democratic principles through the simple act of voting.

Three ways to show support for women suffrage are these different lapel pins, one in felt and two in distinctive lithographed color prominently supporting ‘Votes for Women’ that sold collectively for $248 + plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Hake’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers.com

The struggle known as the women’s suffrage movement began soon after the Constitution went into effect in 1789. While women in many Colonies were allowed to vote before its adoption, the Constitution left it up to the states to determine voting rights. And none immediately granted that right to women, except New Jersey, which then rescinded the right in 1807.

Popular opinion was changing, though. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first women’s rights convention that demanded the right of women to vote in its Declaration of Sentiments. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others emerged as leaders of an activist movement intending to secure that right across the country, instead of state by state. Adoption of a federal statute, though, was slow. Wyoming Territory was the first to grant full voting rights to women in 1869, with Colorado, Utah and Idaho granting women the right to vote in the 1890s, mostly to attract more women into these mostly desolate regions. No other state would comply.

A framed advertising broadside highlights the four states that allowed women to vote; Wyoming in 1869 and Colorado, Utah, and Idaho in the 1890s – but not yet in New York – that sold for $1,400 in 2010 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy Skinner and LiveAuctioneers.com

World War I was the catalyst for the suffragette movement both in the United States and the United Kingdom. With men on the battlefields in Europe, women were granted the right to work in factories and other wartime occupations not normally available to them before the war. This led to an increase in popular opinion that women can contribute more to society than just as housewives and schoolteachers. “Votes for Women” became less of a slogan and more of a genuine movement, especially with the increased cooperation of men.

And it was a tortuous movement. Labor and hunger strikes, parades, editorials, court cases, legal arguments, large demonstrations, abuse, legal torture and jail time were the norm. Demonstrations in front of the White House were unheard of before a “picket” of women from the National Women’s Party in 1917 camped out day and night to bring the cause directly to the president. They wore sashes and pins, held up banners, carried flags and waved signs with the ubiquitous “Votes for Women” specifically directed at President Woodrow Wilson. All the while, they were routinely carted off to jail, where they were often abused and sometimes beaten while in custody. Yet the pickets continued.

One of the key factors in ‘Votes for Women’ was the ‘picket,’ a demonstration such as this one in front of the White House in 1917. The sashes, banners and protest signs were the hallmark of the movement since the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, which began the women’s suffrage movement. Image courtesy: Harris & Ewing and the Library of Congress

The focused picket worked. President Wilson, at first reluctant, finally supported the adoption of a constitutional amendment. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally adopted on Aug. 18, 1920 with the vote of Tennessee and certified eight days later on Aug. 26 guaranteeing women the right to vote. Their first federal election was for president that same year.

One of the last images of Susan B. Anthony along with other prominent women’s rights pioneers taken at a suffrage convention in Los Angeles in August 1905. The photograph sold for $1,300 + the buyer’s premium in 2018. Anthony died almost one month after turning 86 in March 1906. Image courtesy Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers.com

Throughout the struggle for women’s right to vote, getting the message out without social media was a difficult, time consuming and a constant process. Yet, after World War I, suffragettes in the United States and the United Kingdom were creative in the use of visual items to keep “Votes for Women” in the public eye. Of all the protest movements throughout the history of the United States, auction values for women suffrage items are increasing because so many types of buttons, flags, playing cards, sheet music, posters, broadsides, clothing, sashes, signs, banners, salt shakers, currency, coins, jewelry, ceramics and other items exist that were made in relatively small batches. The book Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study by Kenneth Florey highlights the sheer number of collectibles the movement produced.

This bright yellow and black button and ribbon (colors of the suffrage movement) supported the 1920 election of Republican Warren G. Harding, who won in a landslide over Democrats James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The button and ribbon combination in such great condition sold for $340 in 2018 + the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com

Another reason for suffrage collectibility is in the branding. The slogan “Votes for Women” carried well throughout the movement in the United States and the United Kingdom for its clear and concise message.

Part of the movement’s branding was the adoption of official colors. Buttons, ribbons, sashes and banners are usually yellow and black because the colors simply stood out well (although yellow may have been adopted because the Kansas cornflower was favored by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton). Purple, white and green were UK movement colors while U.S. suffragette colors were purple, white and yellow.

Most clothing worn by suffragettes was mostly white, especially in parades and demonstrations to contrast with the darker clothing normally worn by spectators. Their white attire was also intended as a subtle sign of nonaggression signaling that the votes of women would help keep politics “clean.” In fact, wearing all white outfits by women in power today is a tribute to the women’s suffrage movement. All the women members of Congress did just that during the State of the Union address of President Donald Trump in 2019 when all 126 women of both Houses of Congress – only 26% of the total elected members – wore all white outfits to show the under-representation of women in Congress.

So it seems that even with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, issues of representation and electability still persist. Electing a woman as president of the United States still hasn’t been achieved while the UK has had only two women prime ministers since they gained the right to vote there in 1928.

At times, women could vote on a special issue that men thought women would have an interest in, such as children’s education, according to the auction description of this metal japanned ballot box intended only for women votes. It sold for $2,600 in 2010. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com

As a protest movement, ‘Votes for Women’ has come a long way, but much still needs to be done. Women have voted in higher numbers, around 55% or so, since the first election of 1920 when only 34% voted. Women legislators have steadily increased since the 1960s from the courthouse to Congress and continue to make a difference with their votes overall. However, women are still in the minority in economics, housing, finance, careers, education, as business CEOs and as major power brokers overall.

Perhaps just collecting and displaying women suffrage memorabilia will serve to underscore that no man is created equal until women are, too.

Charm of chatelaines keep hanging on

NEW YORK – Through the 17th century, women often carried small, useful items, like pencils or ha’pennies, in tie-on cloth pouches beneath their ample petticoats. Those responsible for running great houses, however, wore handy waist-clipped chatelaines, named for mistresses of medieval French manors, above their overskirts. Since their dangled keys accessed locked pantries, bureaus, chests, wine cellars and silver drawers, chatelaines came to symbolize power.

Steel-cut chatelaine, suspending panel, carnelian and two steel watch keys, fob seals, 19th century, about 35½in long. Price realized: £420 ($606) + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

As fashion silhouettes became slenderer, without provision for hidden pockets, women adopted chatelaines as their own. In addition to keys, early cut steel models kept everyday essentials, like utility knives, folding corkscrews, watches and household seals (used to impress sealing wax), at hand. Men wore them too, suspending watches, snuff bottles, pocketknives, shoehorns and writing implements. Bright, glittering, larger, clinking models not only announced their   comings and goings, but, as of yore, revealed prestige, wealth and status.

Sterling silver, hallmarked chatelaine featuring ornate change purse, snuff bottle, compact, scissors, pill box, shoe horn, circa1880s, UK, 12in x 2in. Price realized $1,450 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy Akiba Antiques and LiveAuctioneers

By the 18th century, chatelaines, often made of steel or base metal, were not only popular but also often personalized. Though servants and maids toted simple tools, a lady of the house might   keep a watch, change purse, magnifying quizzing glass and vinaigrettes (aromatic vinegar), for fear of fainting. Stitchery fans might favor sewing chatelaines replete with thimbles, stork-shaped scissors, buttons and bodkins, embroidery thread, tape measures and pincushions. Nurses might keep thermometers, sheathed scissors, safety pins, pill boxes, pencils and swiveling, ivory-paged notepads at the ready. From the mid-Victorian era, mourning chatelaines, featuring angels, likenesses, or braided hair in lockets, also became common. Some of these appendages were purchased as complete sets. Others were acquired individually, piece by piece.

Gold rococo bloodstone-mounted chatelaine suspending a pocket watch, egg pendant, etui with diamond, gilt thimble, black gem and coral charms, 18th century, UK. Price realized: £4,200 ($5,398) + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers

In time, European chatelaines became more fashionable than functional. Many, featuring decorative medallions backed by metal tongues, were belt-clipped as of old. Many, mounted on elongated brooches, were pinned at the back. Some, in addition to symbolic keys, dangled heart, cross, star, anchor or flower trinkets, representing love, charity, hope or faith. Others featured tiny whistles, purses, ivory card cases, memorandum books and writing boxes holding ink, stamps, paper knives and penholders.

Wedgwood cut-steel chatelaine, with bead chain featuring ornate medallion above five drops (two with jasper beads), seal, and pencil, 10½in long, attributed to Matthew Boulton, UK, late 18th century. Realized $3,500 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of Skinner and LiveAuctioneers

By 1850, chatelaines were so popular that the British satirical publication Punch lampooned    sporting gentlemen who dangled “foxes heads, silver horseshoes, daggers, pistols and guns, gold race-horses with steel jockeys, big bull dogs and ferocious wild boars” from theirs. Yet, it  continued, “should these models also feature pencils, latch-keys, corkscrews, wire-nippers [to  pop-open soda water and champagne bottles] and miniature betting books, to pick up the stray odds,” men need not empty their pockets of letters, keys, loose silver, secrets and odd [items]” to find these articles sought.

Gold chatelaine with 11 appendages by various makers including Tiffany and Unger Bros., 214 grams. Realized $3,250 + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and Live Auctioneers

 

Fanciful, gold or silver chatelaines, worn when out for the evening, might feature combs, covered mirrors, fans, opera-glasses, handkerchief-holders, pomanders, smelling salts and vials of scent, to fend off nasty odors. Others, perhaps made of pinchback (a gold-like copper and zinc alloy), suspended decorative pendants, baubles, as well as carved cameos.

Toward the 20th century, exquisite pearl or diamond set chatelaines, created by master jewelers like Tiffany, Boucheron, Lalique and Faberge, often showcased costly watches. Others boasted    bloodstone or jasper-mounted Rococo-style plaques flanked by ornamental pendants and charms.  Many also featured central etuis, small embellished cases, containing exquisitely tiny forks, folding knives, scoops, and other gilt goodies. Yet these stunning chatelaines were prized not only for show, but also for show-and-tell.

Steck brass charivari with various pendants including a boxed thimble, bottle, horseshoe, wheel, 31cm (about 12½in) long. Price realized €150 ($183) + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Historia Auctionata and LiveAuctioneers

“How charming it was to go over the Chatelaine piece by piece, and talk about each one,” reveals The Natural History of the Flirt (1848). “Young hearts throbbed against it, making the lights flash from its polished facets at every pulsation: or, at times, the breath of low soft words, whispered over it. … There was such room for so much about anything for you might hang anything to it, from a lucky sixpence to … a desk-key, and a tiny watch, no bigger than a shilling. A pair of scissors like a bird, a horseshoe against witchcraft; a barrel pincushion, and a pistol pencil … a thimble-case, made like a wise owl, in silver, with enamel eyes … And then, on a ring all to themselves, came little Neapolitan coral charms … The remedy against an evil eye. And then a boot, a mouse, and a Punch’s head in a slipper.” Yet some charms, like lockets,  elicited just single, silent sighs.

Not all autographs are created equal

NEW YORK – Nothing is more personal than a handwritten autograph. There are literally no two alike, even from the same person. It’s why so many ask for one from a VIP they admire from afar. Having an autograph is a personal connection that will forever have its own story to tell.

The earliest known autograph, according to different sources, is that of a “signed” list on a Sumerian clay tablet verified by a scribe named Gar Ama around 3100 B.C. Curiously, no other autograph of the ancient world has survived, except copies of Greek manuscripts created around the 15th century.

Probably the most recognized handwritten autograph in American history is the large signature of President of Congress John Hancock when he signed the Declaration of Independence so that King George could read it without his glasses (probably apocryphal). This authentic autograph on an appointment sold for $3,000 + the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Americana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Collecting autographs of the famous for its own sake only began around 1700 in Europe and the early 19th century in the United States. “In the Victorian era, autograph collecting became a mania and demand was insatiable,” according to Steven Raab of raabcollecting.com. By 1887, Walter R. Benjamin opened the first retail outlet specifically for autographs in New York City.

Today, in the era of “celebrity,” autographs are still earnestly sought and traded, both contemporary and historical. Just as we know that facsimile signatures appear on copies of original manuscripts, collectors specialize in identifying five different autograph types.

Hand-signed

The best way to know if an autograph is authentic is to actually see it being written by the person whose name it is. Apart from that, there are certain ways to recognize a handwritten original autograph.

Sign your own name. The writing is not all one shade, but lightens and darkens as you go up on letters and down on others. Notice the space in between your first and last names, but more importantly notice any personal flourishes you may add such as underlining letters or how you cross your t’s and dot your i’s. These flourishes are tell-tale signs that autograph collectors and dealers compare against ones that have already been authenticated.

Naturally, once a hand-signed autograph is authenticated, scarcity and provenance determine its value. An authentic autograph of Queen Elizabeth II, for example, has a current value of about $5,800, while former President Barack Obama’s autograph is worth about $450. Both are heads of state, but Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t sign anything in public other than official documents and family holiday cards, unlike President Obama. It also depends on what is signed. A personal handwritten letter offers more at auction than a generic typed business card, for example.

Staff-signed

Presidents, prime ministers, royalty, sports figures, movie stars and any prominent author, politician, astronaut or celebrity of the day are inundated with requests for autographs. Fans and admirers want that personal connection that an autographed photo, for example, provides. However, there isn’t anyone that can satisfy this relentless demand and do the things they are well known for. Therefore, they have help.

Signed photos of President John F. Kennedy were routinely handwritten and signed by either Jill Cowan or Priscilla Wear, members of his secretarial staff, which are identified by the words and spaces are formed. An example is this photo that recently sold for $200. Image courtesy: Oakridge Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

It is well known that the personal staff of President John F. Kennedy, for example, routinely signed the president’s name on photos, unofficial correspondence, appointments and other routine items. Movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age had staff sign photos by the handful.

Collectors can easily compare a hand-signed autograph against an authenticated one to determine if it is original or staff-signed, based mostly on the most obvious tell-tale signs. Once it is known as a staff-signed autograph, the value will be about one-third that of an authentic handwritten original autograph.

Autopen

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote letters two at a time. As he wrote the original, a wooden machine (a polygraph) attached to his pen wrote the second. The duplicate was his “carbon copy” for his files. The autopen, as it eventually became known, has been upgraded since and used by other presidents as a matter of routine.

Even though the letter refers to a tragic accident aboard Apollo 1, the signature of Alan Shephard, signed as Chief of the Astronaut Office, was done with an autopen. It sold for $100 + buyer’s premium in 2014 and only because of the historic nature of the content. An authentic Alan Shephard autograph would auction for up to $350. Image courtesy: Lunar Legacy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The first president to have used the autopen is reportedly Harry Truman, although it is known that Dwight D. Eisenhower had used it extensively as commander of Allied Forces during World War II and as president. Other celebrities such as astronauts, businessmen and sports figures also routinely sign general correspondence, photos, first day covers and other ephemera with an autopen.

In short, an autopen works by attaching a pen to a holder and an engraved type of large metal piece moves the pen along ridges that simulate a signature. Because the pen does not pick up from the paper while it’s in motion, the signature is one long uninterrupted signature, unlike your own handwritten signature where your pen is picked up and brought down as you sign leaving dark and light impressions.

During the autopen process, sometimes the engraving skips, like a worn record, and squiggles appear when it happens, sometimes noticeable ones and sometimes minor ones, but it is a tell-tale sign of an autopen.

At auction, autopen autographs aren’t usually collectible and are considered as having little value on their own. However, presidential appointments or royal patents with autopen autographs may have more of an historical collectible value. A signed autopen photo made out to an individual will have less of an interest at auction, but it does add color to a family history.

Printed or stamped autograph

If you place an autopen autograph next to a printed autograph, they would look almost alike. Both would have an unbroken line throughout. The difference is that the autopen autograph would still have the rough feel of a pen or marker as if it were signed by hand while the printed autograph is flat like a photocopy. An autographed photo of a president sent from the White House on request routinely features a printed or even a stamped signature.

A routine greeting of congratulations from the White House on heavy cardboard featuring the gold embossed presidential coat-of-arms and an example of a raised printed signature of President John F. Kennedy that recently sold for $70 + the buyer’s premium. An authentic signature of JFK would auction for $900 to $1,200. Image courtesy The Written Word Autographs and LiveAuctioneers

The use of a rubber stamp to sign autographs is not unusual. Many heads of state and high-profile personalities have long used stamped signatures. Like the printed autograph, a hand-stamped autograph is more cost effective and less time-consuming than hand-signing. One can sometimes tell a stamped autograph from the smudged ink throughout the autograph and the tell-tale block of ink usually at the ends.

During the golden age of Hollywood, it was routine for studios to provide fans with publicity photos of movie stars with printed or stamped signatures. This collection of 11 pictures sold for about $34 in 2019. The signature of Cary Grant shows a clear use of a stamp. Image courtesy: Chaucer Auctions, UK and LiveAuctioneers

While it is a cost-effective way to meet the demands of admirers and collectors, a printed or stamped autograph has little value. However, it does depend on the photo or item it is printed on. For example, an oversized photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson will have a higher auction value despite its printed autograph because he was a U.S. president, but it won’t have nearly the same value as a hand-signed original.

Authentication

As in any collectible category, fake autographs are common. The family of Babe Ruth, for example, routinely signed baseballs for him. President John F. Kennedy seldom signed his own name throughout his life, relying on the autopen or staff secretaries to sign for him. In fact, any handwritten autograph of JFK has to be authenticated since it is automatically considered to be signed by his personal staff. Others that are routinely faked are Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Walt Disney.

How do you authenticate an autograph? The Universal Autograph Collectors Club (uacc.org), for example, is a trade association listing members and dealers in good standing. “Always use a reputable dealer with a long and proven track record and certificates of authentication. If you are buying online, make sure the dealer lists their full address and contact details,” says Daniel Wade of Paul Fraser Collectibles. Always check online sources, too.

It’s the story

Collecting autographs tells a story. Sometimes it is part of a historical record and sometimes it’s just personal. To enhance your personal story, have an autograph signed on something unusual such as a poster, ticket or newspaper of a special event in order for it to stand out at auction. After all, the story of how you got the autograph is quite collectible, too.

Jean Puiforcat: French silversmith-sculptor extraordinaire

NEW YORK – Jean Puiforcat (1897-1945), the French silversmith, sculptor and designer with the quirky, adorable last name (it’s pronounced “pwee-for-KAH”), was once described by Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia as “the most important French Art Deco silversmith.” His name, in fact, has become synonymous with Art Deco glamor. Even in his day, Puiforcat was renowned for the elegant, often mathematical simplicity of his geometric forms and the unexpected combination of flawless metalwork executed with brilliantly polished hardstones, semiprecious stones or glass.

101-piece Jean E. Puiforcat Cannes pattern silver flatware service for 24, designed 1928. Marks: (E-penknife-P), (Minerva), PUIFORCAT, FRANCE 10 1/8 inches, 162.02 troy ounces. Service with banded necks and geometric outlined handles, est. $5,000-$7,000, sold for $21,250 at an auction held May 5, 2020 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Puiforcat didn’t simply emerge from obscurity to become the legendary silversmith that his legacy commands. He was born into the prominent silversmith family of Puiforcat and his brother-in-law was the modernist architect Luis Estevez. Puiforcat complemented his hereditary links to design by actively engaging with prominent designers, sculptors and architects of his era.

After serving in World War I, he apprenticed in Paris as a silversmith and designer under the Ecole des Beaux-Arts-educated sculptor Louis-Aime Lejeune. His silver work had fine smooth surfaces and was based on the geometric seriesIvoryonyxlapis lazuli and rosewood were used to decorate pieces. He also used gilding.

Pair of French first standard silver and ruby glass vases designed by Jean E. Puiforcat, Paris, 15¼ inches tall, each with Mercury export marks to rim and foot. Feet marked with EP (Emile Puiforcat) losenge and Jean E. Puiforcat, est. $10,000-$15,000, sold for $29,900 at an auction held Nov. 18, 2018 by Andrew Jones Auctions in Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Andrew Jones Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Following his contribution to the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, Puiforcat’s status as a leading silversmith of 20th century design began to grow. In 1926, a tea service he designed was purchased for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Puiforcat left Paris and moved to Saint-Jean-de-Luz around 1927 and he worked briefly in Havana, Cuba from 1928 through 1930. He started designing tableware and by 1934 also had designed liturgical silver. After he moved to Mexico in 1941, he started exhibiting in the United States. Puiforcat was a member of the Société des Artistes Decorateurs, which he left to become a founding member of the Union des Artistes Modernes.

Jean-Emile Puiforcat pen holder made from sterling silver and rosewood, impressed with the manufacturer’s mark and touchmarks to underside ‘Puiforcat France,’ patina to silver surfaces in keeping with age, in excellent vintage condition, est. $1,000-$1,500, sold for $1,040 at an auction held June 6, 2019 by Wright in Chicago. Image courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Puiforcat’s work has appeared in countless periodicals and magazines, touting the designer’s bold creations and praising him as the preeminent silversmith of his day. His enduring legacy can be evidenced by a retrospective that took place in Paris in 1947, only two years after his death. Important artists of the 20th century like Andy Warhol were fervent collectors of his work. The Warhol collection is especially noteworthy because it was sold in its entirety at auction through Sotheby’s in 1988 for the staggering sum of $451,000. A single tureen brought $55,000. Warhol first began collecting Puiforcat silverware after acquiring some pieces in Paris in the 1970s.

“Jean Puiforcat’s designs were so striking because his pieces broke away from the complicated, naturalistic, and fussy patterns of the past and instead embraced sleek and simplified contemporary forms,” said Charlotte Taylor, director of Fine & Decorative Arts at Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va. “He successfully married fine craftsmanship with modernism, exemplifying the faith in social and technological progress that dominated culture between the two world wars. His legacy still continues today as he is still widely considered to be one of the pillars upon which the European Art Deco movement and modern silversmithing were built.”

Four Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver cups marked “Jean Puiforcat/Paris” on the underside. Hallmark of EP and Minerva at rim, 2¾ inches tall, est. $1,000-$2,000, sold for $726 at an auction held June 20, 2015 by Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Charlottesville, Va. Image courtesy of Quinn’s and LiveAuctioneers

Nick Coombs, a specialist in the Fine Furniture, Decorative Arts & Silver department at Hindman in Chicago, said Jean Puiforcat emerged as the standard-bearer for Art Deco silversmiths, not through a strict adherence to the movement’s aesthetic, but rather by interpreting timeless questions about proportion, ornament and beauty through his work. “In doing so,” Coombs said, “Puiforcat’s work captivated his contemporaries and continues to command reverence among silver collectors in the 21st century.”

Coombs continued, “Puiforcat’s work is firmly grounded as a response to earlier movements’ reliance on ornamentation, relying on the belief that mathematical formulae could be the source of beauty in design. A proponent of the ‘golden ratio,’ Puiforcat sought methods of design that had been pioneered during the Renaissance in the 16th century to answer questions of style and beauty in the 20th century. His works, while speaking for the aesthetic of the age, still respond to questions that are timeless, thus allowing his work to remain relevant despite changes of taste.”

French Art Deco silver-plated tea and coffee service, Jean-Emile Puiforcat, designed in 1928, Etchea pattern, comprising a coffeepot, teapot, creamer, sugar and a serving tray, each stamped ‘EP’ and ‘Puiforcat France’, width of serving tray 27½ inches, sold for $3,024 at an auction held Jan. 24, 2019 by Hindman in Chicago. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

Many museums hold Puiforcat’s works in their collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. “Today his pieces are still collected and can sell well above their estimates,” Charlotte Taylor said. She pointed to his “Bayonne” flatware set, which hammered for $65,000 on an estimate of $30,000 – $40,000 at Phillips Auction house in 2018; and last year, when Rago Auction House sold a “Biarritz” patented flatware set for $42,500 on an estimate of $25,000-$35,000. “These numbers reflect a trend in the sale of his works that has gone on for decades,” she said.

Jean Puiforcat sterling silver and wood covered bowl, stamped to the underside with hallmark of Jean Puiforcat, ‘Sterling, Jean Puiforcat, Made in Mexico,’ circa 1942-1945. 66.32 troy ounces, excluding wooden handles, 9¼ inches in diameter, 6 inches tall, sold for $13,750 at an auction held July 22, 2018 by Clarke Auction Gallery in Larchmont, N.Y. Image courtesy of Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Nick Coombs said that, despite a slight downturn in the market for Art Deco furniture and decorative arts in the auction community over the past decade, the works of Jean Puiforcat continue to be actively sought after for collectors of both silver and decorative arts. “This is likely because of the timeless quality of his design,” he said. “Puiforcat is not responding to a singular aesthetic movement in his works; rather, he is trying to answer fundamental questions regarding proportion, balance and design. This allows his work to communicate and harmonize with other aesthetic movements because it does not focus on the surface of the work alone.”

Coombs concluded, “Collectors and buyers of Puiforcat encompass a larger collecting category than strictly ‘silver collectors.’ People interested in modernism and design are also active buyers as well as prominent decorators who are always looking for a highlight work to anchor any room. They will always be able to find that in the works of Jean Puiforcat.”

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Anna Pottery snake jugs: whimsy meets satire

NEW YORK – When it came to making stoneware, the Kirkpatrick brothers did not shy away from mixing politics with their art. Cornwall and Wallace Kirkpatrick, who founded and ran Anna Pottery, in Anna, Illinois, 1859-1896, reportedly likened politicians to a “den of vipers” and often espoused their political beliefs on the snake jugs they made. Wallace Kirkpatrick was said to have been long fascinated with snakes and had quite a few of his own. It’s also been speculated that the snake imagery here is biblically inspired and symbolizes evil and mankind’s falling from grace.

This rare centennial snake jug sold for $76,000 in October 2014 at Crocker Farm. It is dated Jan. 1, 1876, and inscribed “nice young man Just going in.” Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers.

A striking form among American stoneware, Anna Pottery’s snake jugs are highly desirable today. In general, the more ornate the jug, the more valuable. Pinched forms are also highly sought after. Some jugs have one or two snakes while the best examples will have multiple intertwined snakes. Occasionally, figures and other animals also appear. These sinuous jugs have huge crossover appeal, especially among stoneware collectors and folk art collectors.

“Among 19th century potters, Wallace and Cornwall Kirkpatrick took the utilitarian stoneware medium to its upper limit of artistic expression and their snake jugs represent their most imaginative and visually appealing creations,” said Luke Zipp of Crocker Farm in Sparks, Maryland. “Collectors and museums, far beyond typical stoneware enthusiasts, have recently become captivated by the form, which is reflected in the rising prices at our auctions.”

Taking the traditional glazing and firing techniques they mastered in making stoneware to the next level by adding a sophistical level of artistry – adding both whimsical and macabre elements, the Kirkpatricks transcended the utilitarian nature of stoneware.

An Anna Pottery stoneware snake jug from 1877, marked “8 to 7,” attained $120,000 + the buyer’s premium in November 2018 at Crocker Farm. Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers.

Setting a world auction record in November 2018 that still stands as of this writing nearly two years later, Crocker Farm sold an important Anna Pottery stoneware snake jug for $120,000 + the buyer’s premium that was one of three jugs inscribed “8 to 7,” an obscure reference to the presidential election of 1876, that the company made in 1877. Profusely decorated in Albany slip decoration, the ovoid jug had a handle in the form of a coiled snake with another 12 snakes (modeled and applied by hand) on the body.

“A pattern emerges when the jug is studied closely, as the potter has applied five snakes emerging around the midsection of the jug, each with a loop-shaped form, and then applied a second group of snakes that entwine their bodies through the first group of snakes,” according to the catalog description for this jug. Early Anna Pottery jugs often had thin snakes that almost seemed harmless but by the 1870s, the snakes were more well-formed and menacing.

Decorated elaborately with Civil War, slavery and American motifs, this snake jug earned $60,000 in March 2014 at Crocker Farm. Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers.

Both private and museum collectors seek these jugs out. The Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, Ill. has an Anna snake jug in its collection, one of only about two dozen examples known. Its example features 12 well-defined intertwined timber rattlesnakes and three men. Understanding of the Kirkpatricks’ designs has changed a bit over the years, according to the museum. “In the 20th century, scholars saw the Kirkpatrick snake jugs as temperance warnings against the evils of drink. More recent interpreters, however, draw attention to the jugs’ grotesque, macabre, sexual and scatological aspects, their humor and their self-consciously extravagant style, and argue that they are an ironic debunking of Victorian values.”

Zipp echoed this assessment: “Judging by their large body of work, the Kirkpatricks were keenly aware of the current political climate and very willing to engage in political dialogue through their clay creations. There is no evidence that they supported the temperance movement. In fact, most of their best works, for instance their pig flasks, were made to hold alcohol. Most scholars agree that the Kirkpatrick snake jugs poke fun at temperance ideology.”

This temperance jug with snakes and a figure from 1881 brought $4,000 in January 2020 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Another fine jug in a museum collection is this circa 1865 example at the Minneapolis Institute of Art that depicts a Civil War vignette of Union soldiers trying to catch Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, who escapes them clothed as a woman. “The dark spots on the snakes’ heads identify them as copperheads – a moniker for Northerners sympathetic to the Confederate cause,” according to the museum website. The likely inspiration for this scene was probably in cartoons found in period newspapers that were ideologically in support of the North.

Besides political themes seen in only a few jugs, alcohol is a dominant motif. Several pieces have applied figures of men (often partial torsos) with pained facial expressions. Often there are inscriptions on the side of the jugs referencing the men “going in.” This can be presumed to mean the men are going into the (whiskey) jug to be trapped under the spell of alcohol.

The essence of the appeal of these pieces lies in their exuberant decoration and the layered symbolism and messaging. Along with crosshatching and witty written inscriptions, the snakes –be they copperheads or rattlers – and figures are well molded in exacting detail. Several figures on this jug are molded in fine detail from a Union soldier to an African-American face to what appears to be Abraham Lincoln. A slavery motif present on that jug is a set of stoneware chain links.

Made in the “Little Brown Jug” style, this snake jug dates to 1876, The Kirkpatricks were prolific potters, making many utilitarian wares but still infused them with a high degree of artistry. Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

“The more elaborate they are, the more valuable they are,” said Wes Cowan, founder of Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Whether one is looking at the larger jugs that might stand about 10 inches from base to the top of the stopper and having multiple snakes to smaller examples about 5 inches tall, with just one snake, all are desirable. “The market is very strong still for Anna.”

Collectors are flush with cash for commodes

NEW YORK – If you ask most Americans to define commode, they’ll tell you it’s a flush toilet. Period. But to those familiar with antique furniture, the word commode has an entirely different meaning – several meanings in fact. First, a bit of etymology: commode comes from the French word for “convenient” or “suitable” and was derived from the Latin adjective “commodus,” which means the same thing. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition reads: “a piece of furniture with drawers and shelves; in the bedroom, a sort of elaborate chest of drawers.”

French gilt bronze and Jasperware plaque-mounted mahogany commode à vantaux after the model by Joseph Stöckel and Guillaume Benneman, attributed to Francois Linke, late 19th century, 38 x 72 x 29½in with white marble top above three frieze drawers and two cabinet doors opening to six drawers, set with a porcelain plaque with classical figures, the sides also with bronze roundels, est. $8,000-$12,000, sold for $45,000 in an auction held May 28, 2020. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

That pretty much describes a French commode. The word first crept into the vocabulary of French furniture around 1700. Then, it was a cabinet (or chest of drawers), typically wider than it was tall and raised on high or low legs. Commodes were made by French ebenistes (cabinetmakers) who used beautiful wood complemented with ormolu (gilt-bronze drawer pulls). The finishing touch was often a marble slab top, selected to match the marble of a home’s chimneypiece. Such commodes are highly collectible today and can command high prices.

French Louis XV-style marble-top marquetry commode, 19th or 20th century, with ormolu mounts, 38½in tall x 32½in wide, est. $600-$900, sold for $15,000 at an auction held Aug. 16, 2016. Image courtesy of Nye & Company Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Meanwhile, in England (where commode is the standard term for a commode chair, often on wheels, enclosing a chamber pot, used in hospitals and in the homes of invalids), the word commode crept into cabinetmaker’s parlance in London by the mid-18th century. It was used to describe chests of drawers with gracefully curved fronts, sometimes with shaped sides as well. It was called a commode since the finished product was perceived as being “in the French taste.” It was later expanded to describe any piece of furniture with a serpentine front, such as a dressing table, or even a chair seat. These old British commodes are also highly prized by collectors.

Exceptional French bronze mounted commode after Charles Cressent (1685-1768), with elaborate and fine gilt bronze mounts on kingwood, with original thick marble top. Made in France circa 1900, 57in wide, est. $8,000-$12,000, sold for $87,500 at an auction held June 4, 2016. Image courtesy of J. Garrett Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

“French and English aesthetics in the 17th and 18th centuries are very different from each other,” said Karen Rigdon, the Silver & Decorative Arts Director at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. “Choosing one over the other would include personal preference, and consideration of the setting/feeling/ambiance being created. In general, France is considered to have the greatest furniture makers during that time period. There was significant migration in the 18th century.”

Rigdon added, “France was at the center welcoming a great influx of talent from surrounding countries. A level of excellence was achieved in the late 18th century that surpassed earlier work seen in the quality of cabinet making and the refinement of surfaces including marquetry, parquetry and lacquered surfaces, as well as in the decorative/protective gilt bronze mounts.”

Andrew Holter of Nye & Company Auctioneers in Bloomfield, New Jersey, said it certainly wouldn’t be unusual to think of furniture in the 18th century as a vehicle to display a patron’s wealth and social standing. “It’s the modern-day equivalent of parking your Ferrari or Bentley in your driveway,” he observed. “Both scream, ‘I have arrived and I want the world to not only know it, but see it.’ For the 18th century elite, furniture went beyond being simply utilitarian and served as a way to express a patron’s level of sophistication and fashion.”

English George III mahogany serpentine bombé commode, circa 1780, 34in tall x 46in wide, est. $4,000-$8,000, sold for $3,750 at an auction held Nov. 1, 2017. Image courtesy of Nye & Company Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Commodes were a popular form of furniture both because of their practicality, but also because they were great objects to express one’s tastes and preferences, Holter pointed out.  “Ordering furniture in the 18th century was like buying a computer online today. You start with a basic model and then you can add on lots of things.  Cabinetmakers offered a variety of embellishments such as marble top versus a wood top, ormolu mounts versus no mounts, a straight fronted chest versus a reverse-serpentine versus a serpentine chest versus a blocked chest versus a bombé chest. You could request straight bracket feet, ogee bracket feet, a flaring French foot, a pad foot with cabriole legs or a claw-and-ball foot.”

Oftentimes, Holter said, these stylistic embellishments could help a specialist determine where a piece was made. “For example, depending on the stylistic period, French commodes often tend to be flashier or more vibrantly decorated than English commodes. For a Louis XV-style commode, you might expect to see asymmetrical gilt ormolu mounts, perhaps a marble top, wood veneered surfaces and a shaped front. English commodes made in the George II or III periods tend to be either carved from the solid or have slightly more restrained veneers. While you can find ormolu mounts on English furniture, they don’t tend to be as elaborate or as abundant on what are seen on French pieces.”  

Edwardian inlaid book commode, demilune shape, figured satin wood veneers, the centered cabinet doors faced with leather book spines, flanked by convex doors enclosing a shelved interior, 34in x 38½in, est. $1,000-$1,500, sold for $5,040 at an auction held Sept. 15, 2012. Image courtesy by Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In terms of why a decorator might choose one style over another, Holter feels that would be based purely on the look they are trying to achieve.  “Think Versailles verse Buckingham Palace,” he said.  Both England and France make pieces that are of fabulous quality.  However, the design aesthetic is slightly different.” 

As to the current market value for commodes, Karen Rigdon said there continues to be rising value for signed 18th century examples from both France and England, putting them beyond the means of most people. However, she said, “Unsigned or unattributed commodes are both increasingly available and affordable. Over the last five to ten years, many commodes have come to market due to death, divorce and downsizing, during a craze for disposable furniture. Disposable furniture is easy to buy, and heavily marketed, impressing our minds. A mind shift is worthwhile.”

A sound 18th century English or French commode should be considered, Rigdon offered. “You can often buy excellent pieces for less than a new chest of drawers. This is certainly the case at auction. There is much added value. A well-made example will likely be a focal point in your home, adding character as well as stories of the hunt. If well-chosen and cared for, it will certainly at least hold its value during one’s lifetime, and possibly rise as new appreciation grows for 18th century craftsmanship. Include the next generation in your love, and your prized commode may still be in use in another 250 years.”

Neoclassical parquetry inlaid walnut commode, Continental, likely Italian, late 18th/early 19th century, having a molded rectangular top over three drawers, all with book matched and banded decoration and raised on short, tapered legs, 35in tall x 48¾in wide, est. $2,000-$4,000, sold for $3,410 at an auction held Sept. 24, 2017. Ahlers & Ogletree and LiveAuctioneers

Holter said that generally speaking, the market for traditional furniture – whether it be English or French – has softened over the last 10-15 years. “The one thing that remains constant despite the highs and lows of the market is the demand for top quality pieces,” he said.  “They have remained steadfast and strong. I think the short-term outlook for traditional furniture will remain steady and I am cautiously optimistic for the long-term outlook.” 

Design aesthetics tend to swing in and out of fashion like a pendulum, Holter said. “While the current aesthetic is leaning toward a more modern style now, I am a firm believer that people will soon rediscover the quality, warmth and history that the more traditional pieces bring to the table. Additionally, in an era where we talk about the Green New Deal and the need to be green to save our planet, I say go green, buy antiques and you can feel confident that you are doing your part to recycle these treasures from our past.

Defining the silver lining: 6 collectible types

NEW YORK – Silver is both a precious and a noble metal meaning that it is relatively rare, impervious to corrosion and is quite decorative to a mirror shine. So, just what collectible form does silver take anyway?

When polished, silver has a very high gloss and lends itself well for use as both a decorative item such as mirrors and candlesticks as well as a functional, everyday item like jewelry and coins. Its durability by itself, though, is too malleable and so requires an alloy during production to strengthen it. At times, silver is sometimes the alloy itself. Here are six silver categories in order of value and collectibility – and one that isn’t. 

Fine Silver

Pure 100% silver is just too soft to be used without an alloy such as copper or zinc to provide strength and durability. Utilitarian objects such as teapots or jewelry can be made with fine silver meaning less than 1% alloy, but it tarnishes and scratches easily.

Silver that is nearly pure cannot be used in the manufacturing process because it is too soft and malleable. Instead it is smelted into ingots such as this 10 troy oz. of .999 pure silver as an investment that sold for $200 + buyer’s premium in 2016 when silver was selling at $17.34 a troy oz. Image courtesy: Blackwell Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Mostly, very fine silver is intended as an investment in the form of ingots or coins with virtually no alloy at all. “Fineness” is measured by the “nines” and written as “three nines fine” or stamped as .999 for silver bullion or silver proof coins, for example, which means that .001 percent is considered to be natural impurities. The highest content silver ingot was “five nines fine” or 999.99% pure silver from Bolivia or any Canadian Maple Leaf that is a “four nines fine” or 999.9% pure silver coin. 

Finessness is also defined in other ways. Britannia silver, for example, is .958 silver with an alloy of copper, but still classified as fine silver. Other countries have similar fine silver definitions such as .750 silver from much older German, Austria-Hungarian and Swiss coinage while the United States has silver coinage having 40% silver content from 1965 to 1970.

Vermeil

This is one instance where silver is more the alloy than the final finish. According to U.S. federal regulations, vermeil, (ver’may; also known as silver gilt), “… consists of a base of sterling silver coated or plated on all significant surfaces with gold or gold alloy of not less than 10-karat fineness.”  The most famous vermeil is a collection of flatware used for official state functions at the White House purchased in 1956 from the estate of Margaret Thompson Biddle. 

Vermeil is a less expensive process than producing something in a higher grade of gold and is lighter and more durable. The crown jewels of England, for example, are mostly vermeil, much to the disappointment of those who overthrew Charles I when they tried to sell them. While the silver may be at least the quality of sterling silver, the thin gold overlay gives it a higher auction value. 

This set of vermeil flatware is an example where silver is the alloy, not the overlay. It gleams as if gold, but vermeil (or silver gilt) is more durable, lightweight and less expensive to manufacture. This 84-piece flatware set by Tiffany & Co. sold for $1,500 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy: Butterscotch Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Sterling Silver

Candelabras, flatware, photo frames, decorative bowls, jewelry, rings and so many collectible and decorative objects are labeled as sterling silver. It means that 92.5% of its total weight is pure silver. The rest is usually copper or another harder metal like bronze to provide strength. Since 1868 in the U.S. and earlier elsewhere, each sterling piece needs to be legally hallmarked (stamped) with .925 or the word “sterling” to identify it as sterling silver along with the stamp, or hallmark, of the silversmith who produced it. 

The most prominent pieces of sterling silver would be flatware produced from about 1840 to 1940 in Europe and the United States, particularly from well-known silversmiths like Paul Revere. Production of sterling silver flatware declined markedly after 1940 as mass production using hard plastics and other more accessible materials made them easier to keep clean and were more affordable. 

A group of sterling and coin silver cups, creamers, and gravy boats sold at auction for $1,200 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Some were monogrammed and hallmarked by Stieff and other silver companies. Image courtesy Cottone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Coin Silver

For most of early American history, official coinage was 90% silver and 10% alloy such as nickel or copper. But there was relatively little silver to produce other commercial products such as flatware, plates, bowls or tea services. Instead, coins were melted down and repurposed, as we say today. The resulting new teapot, bowl or flatware was sometimes stamped with “coin” or “pure coin,” but not consistently. And because the fineness of coins varied, so did the silver fineness of the new object. However, today coin silver is defined as 90% silver that may be hallmarked with .900. 

Silverplate and Sheffield Silver

What can be made with sterling silver can also be made as silver-plate providing greater access to a wider consumer market at less cost. Instead of mostly sterling silver overlaying a thin layer of alloy, a thin layer of silver was electrically bonded to an item that was mostly alloy such as copper. The results are similar to sterling, except it is much lighter and over time the thin layer of silver-plate, depending on its thickness, can separate from the underlying alloy especially in humid conditions. 

An American silver-plated 19th century biscuit box sold for only $60 + buyer’s premium in 2019 despite its fine engraving and charming style. Image courtesy: Hartzell’s Auction Gallery Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

The process of adding a thin layer of silver over an alloy was discovered in 1740, by accident as the story goes, in Sheffield, England. With early Sheffield silver (as it is now known), edges were noticeably soldered with a ‘sandwich’ of thin silver rolled between alloy over both inside and outside a bowl. By 1840, electroplating was more commercially productive and early Sheffield silver is now quite collectible. Weighted silver is just another term for silverplate as it is mostly an alloy with a thin overlay of silver. Silverplate is not usually stamped or hallmarked as the amount of silver overlay isn’t of sufficient quantity to qualify for regulation or inspection.

Antique Silver

Silver objects that can be traced back through hallmarks at least 100 years can be classified at auction as “antique silver,” especially before the advent of mass production and the discovery of silver in the late 1850s in Nevada. More of the items were handmade or produced in smaller quantities. For that reason, silver objects before 1860 have a particularly higher auction value for collectors than a similar item produced more recently. Still, silver items produced before 1940 will be classified as antique silver, too. It’s the hallmark that will tell its true age. 

And The One Silver That Isn’t

Nickel Silver 

If it looks like silver and feels like silver, it could be just nickel instead. Known as German silver, nickel mimics silver, but with a duller shine. Any item that is not marked as sterling silver or silver-plate would be composed of 60% copper, 20% zinc with a top overlay of 20% nickel. 

Nickel is an overlay of mostly copper and zinc to mimic silver, except nickel silver, as it is called, has more of a duller shine when polished as this nickel silver tea set shows that sold for $150 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy Stephenson’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Generally speaking, nickel silver has no silver content at all. Only its name suggests that there is because it can appear to shine like silver. The difference can be determined simply by rubbing it with a cloth. If it shines brighter (and it is a duller shine than silver), it is nickel. Silver requires more of a polishing agent to remove tarnish and has more of a mirror finish. If you see the letters EPNS on zippers, for example, it is an acronym for “electroplated nickel silver.”

Weighing Silver

While there are different ways that silver is used, they will all be weighed for its silver content the same way (except sterling-plate). Get the total weight, then subtract the percentage of alloy to get its silver content. Whether buying or selling silver, weight should be only in troy ounces. 

There are two types of ounces to be aware of: troy ounce (t oz) and avoirdupois ounce (avdp or standard). A troy ounce is 31.10 grams while the standard avdp ounce is 28.35 grams. So if you are buying by the troy ounce, but selling at the standard ounce, the difference is already 3.5% in the dealer’s favor. Be sure that the scale that weighs your silver shows it as 31.10, not 28.35. 

Knowing the percentage of silver to alloy will make the difference as to its value and collectibility, even if the silver content isn’t quite bullion, but is just a favorite for everyday use or special occasions.

G.I. Joe sired generations of action figures

NEW YORK – The legacy of action figures today owes much to the G.I. Joe figures that Hasbro first released in 1964. These vintage toys had it all, from the original series of 12-inch-tall figures to the now-standard 3¾-inch tall figures Most were articulated and they came with weapons, foot lockers, myriad accessories and vehicles, of course.

Pull GI Joe’s dog tags and hear him talk. In excellent condition with the original box, this 1967 Action Pilot sold for $1,700 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

For decades, G.I. Joe has had a firm foothold in pop culture. Besides toys, G.I. Joe figures were also pictured in comic books, games, puzzles and lunch boxes. They also spawned an animated series and several movies (1987 and 2002). Vintage G.I. Joe toys and figures remain highly popular.

Two Hasbro G.I. Joe 12-inch-tall ‘Adventurer’ figures from 1969 made $4,000 + buyer’s premium in August 2019 at Tom Harris Auctions. Photo courtesy of Tom Harris Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Vintage is generational. G.I. Joe was the first action figure made for boys. So if you’re in your 50s to 60s, the 1964-1969 12-inch G.I. Joe is what you remember – ‘America’s Movable Fighting Man,’” said Todd Sheffer, production manager at Hake’s Auctions in York, Pa. “That line evolved into the ’70s and when war toys were unpopular because of Vietnam, he became a member of  ‘Adventure Team,’ 1970-1976. Hasbro made accessory sets that were more like exploration or hunting, things not military. There was a brief stint that they did ‘Super Joe’ 1977-1978 and he shrunk to an 8-inch size. These weren’t too popular.”

Action figures need gadgets and vehicles and G.I. Joe has a rich history with all manner of vehicles. “One year after the debut of the 12-inch G.I. Joe, Hasbro presented a ‘5 Star’ Jeep for him to ride in 1965,” according to the Yo Joe website, adding that vehicles have been part of the G.I. Joe line ever since.

An early 1980s G.I. Joe Cobra Missile Command Headquarters set realized $3,872 + buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Hake’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The 3¾-inch figures debuted in 1982 and ran consecutively for 12 years until 1994. “Sized to compete with Star Wars figures but this time backed by a TV cartoon and comic book series by Marvel, this is the G.I. Joe of the 30s to 40s age group generation,” Sheffer said, calling this an extremely diverse collection of elaborate vehicles and tons of different characters. “It would be a monumental undertaking to collect them all. This line was resurrected in different forms from 2000 until 2016.”

Sheffer also noted there was also a foreign line in England licensed under “Palitoy,” called Action Man in the 12-inch size and Action Force for 3¾ inches. The smaller figures had less articulation than their U.S. counterparts.

This painted hard resin cast G.I. Joe prototype ‘Snow Serpent’ nonarticulated figure, 7½ inches tall, 1991, went out at $2,794 + buyer’s premium in March 2018. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Unlike some other action figures, what set G.I. Joe figures apart (whether the foot high or the small size) is their articulation, making them highly posable. There were four original 12-inch 1964 G.I. Joes: Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine and the 3¾-inch line had about 163 different figures, all with code names, he said.

The bigger the accessory, the more desirable. “The footlocker was a big deal in the ’60s. It was actual wood with a plastic tray to hold loose accessories (guns, grenades, boots) and even a figure could fit in the bottom,” Sheffer said.
Even for the small figures, big accessories tend to bring big money. “The one thing 3¾-inch G.I. Joe had going for it was the vehicles. First is the Defiant Space Shuttle Complex, which is just what it sounds like: a huge scaled Space Shuttle with launching gantry crawler,” Sheffer said. Next is the Cobra Terror Drome — a huge battle fortress playset. “The holy grail for most collectors with a lot of space and a big wallet is the USS Flagg: a 7-foot-long aircraft carrier. “Obviously at a big price point when offered, not too many kids that weren’t Richie Rich got this under the tree. Actually, it wouldn’t fit under a tree,” he said. “This now can bring well over $1,000 loose with graded examples bringing thousands of dollars.” Another large vehicle was the hovercraft called the Killer Whale. “There were about 250 different vehicles in the whole line from palm size to as long as a kid’s bed,” he said.

A 1985 Hasbro G.I. Joe U.S.S. Flagg aircraft carrier, factory sealed, brought $2,500 + buyer’s premium at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers in March 2016. Photo courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Among the myriad characters in the G.I. universe, Snake-Eyes remains the most popular and valuable of the 3¾-inch figures. “He was a Ninja all in black so kids loved that. Next would be Cobra Commander, Scarlett, Duke and all of these were in the first rounds of figures. Larry Hama, the artist for the comic book, was responsible for creating most of the characters that then became toys,” he said.

The original figures were stamped with a date on the butt, indicating what year the figure was made. To deter copying, the company also added other copyright configurations over the years such as a thumbnail on the inside of a thumb or a scar on the cheek.

A rare Hasbro 1967 G.I. Joe Action Marine rifle-rack set (right), circa 1967, made $2,250 + buyer’s premium at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers in October 2017. Photo courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Collectors often seek out carded and boxed items as these usually have the most value but people collect what they can afford or what they like, usually based on nostalgia. Based on when you were born, the 1960s or the 1980 series may be of higher interest, but there is no denying that G.I. Joes have a storied place in toy history.