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A SIGN OF THE TIMES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petroliana: Separating the real from the unreal

It’s no secret that fakes, frauds and forgeries have infiltrated virtually every corner of the antiques and collectibles market. Counterfeiters have tried to replicate everything from rare coins to Confederate belt buckles in hopes of passing them off as items of great value. And some fakes are very, very good – good enough to fool even prestigious art museums with world-class experts on staff to vet their acquisitions.
Until the 1970s and ’80s, the field of petroliana was pretty much immune to this sort of nefarious activity. It was a sleepy sub-genre of vintage collectibles, supported mainly by classic car and gas station enthusiasts. Almost nothing in the field carried great monetary value. Signs, oil cans, gas globes and pumps were pretty cheap to come by. But starting in the 1970s, and certainly in the ’80s and ’90s, everything changed as the category got more organized and the nostalgia craze took hold.

Thirty-inch Sinclair HC porcelain signs. The one at left is a rare original. The one shown at right is a poorly made reproduction. Notice the large ‘C’ that doesn’t match anything Sinclair ever incorporated into their signs. Images courtesy Petroleum Collectors Monthly

“The fakes started showing up when car guys began looking for items to put in their man-caves and garages,” said Wayne Henderson, the editor and publisher of Petroleum Collectibles Monthly. “Those reproductions started out innocently enough as restoration supply items, and they were marketed and priced out as such. Then, folks started re-working old globes and signs, often without doing a whole lot of due diligence or research. In those instances, the frauds were easy to spot. But it didn’t matter so much, because prices hadn’t taken off yet.”
Fast forward to 1992, at an auction in Charlotte, North Carolina. Over time, signs had risen in value. Henderson, who attended that event, estimated that “80 percent of what was in that auction was fake.”

At left is an authentic 1938 lithographed-tin Texaco Sky Chief curb sign. This sign and globe lenses (examples not shown) are the only legitimate non-print uses of the Sky Chief logo in a round format. At right is a neon-added 24-inch lithographed-tin fantasy sign. Neon was used in gas stations only on identification signs or building signs and lettering. This sign is much too small for any logical use. Images courtesy Petroleum Collectors Monthly

It was a wake-up call not just to him, but also to the industry as a whole. He and a colleague, longtime petroliana insider Scott Benjamin, began to write books to enlighten collectors to the dangers of buying a worthless knock-off advertised as the real McCoy. They pretty much succeeded in cleaning up the fake gas globe and gas pump trade.
Oilcans, too, have been faked, but they’re difficult and labor-intensive to produce, so they’ve never been a real factor. “I’ve seen decanter-style phony cans that wouldn’t fool a two-year-old,” Henderson remarked. “Some others have been cleverly made and can reach prices approaching five digits, but I think the payoff just isn’t worth the time and effort.” So, with cans, globes and pumps largely under control, that left just one problem area: signs.

The sign at left is a known original, with holes for mounting onto truck panels and other places. The colors and hand-stenciled irregular stroke lettering are correct. The sign at right is a fake lithographed-tin sign. It has no mounting holes, the computer-set typeface for ‘Pennsylvania Motor Oil’ is too sharp and the wrong color, and it is missing the border and motto that appear on the original. Images courtesy Petroleum Collectors Monthly

Face it, when a single Musgo, Harbor or Clipper sign can bring $50,000 or more at auction, it’s no surprise that people will be out there trying to fake them and pass them off as genuine. To be clear, most reproductions are clearly marked as such and are not meant to deceive the public. But the problem of fakes is so prevalent that a new company has sprung up to combat it. It’s called The Authentication Company (or TAC) and was co-founded by Dan Matthews, a petroliana auctioneer and expert who’s authored several books on the subject; and Joey Whiteside, a lifelong petroliana collector who specializes in advertising signs. The firm is headquartered in Nokomis, Illinois, and is online at www.MatthewsTAC.com.
TAC specializes in marketing original period-correct items, including signs, globes, cans, metal thermometers, displays and various other advertising items, but with a heavy emphasis on porcelain signs (and tin, to lesser extent). It guarantees that all items that have been marked with its special security holograms and serial numbers are original. “Many fakes are pouring into the country from places like India, China, eastern Europe, the Philippines… and, of course, some are made here in this country, too,” he said. “Most repros are easy for the trained eye to spot, but the last thing a collector or auction house needs or wants is a fake.”

The known original porcelain sign at left has a smooth finish, irregular hand-lettered lettering, and a white border ‘T.’ The sign at right is a fantasy reproduction Sky Chief pump plate. It is lithographed tin as opposed to porcelain, has an embossed logo, computer-typeset ‘Texaco,’ and a black-border ‘T,’ which was never seen on original Sky Chief pump plates. Images courtesy Petroleum Collectors Monthly

Matthews said there are eight things to consider when examining a porcelain sign for authenticity. They are as follows:
• Size and style. Was the size or style of sign ever even made? (remarkably, oftentimes it wasn’t). If, for example, a size was only made in a 30-inch and a 40-inch size and you see one that’s 24 inches in diameter, run the other way.
• Quality. Look at the sign for its overall quality of workmanship. Does it look and feel real? Original signs have crisp, clear lines and edges on all letters and graphics, and were made with porcelain covering all sides. If a sign is missing enamel on the sides or inside the grommet holes, it’s probably a reproduction. The enamel inside the grommet holes can get chipped away, but there’s usually some evidence of its prior existence.
• Stamps. Pay close attention to the stamps printed on a sign. These will often tell the date a sign was made, or the company that created it. For example, reproduction Mobil signs are supposed to be marked with the words, “Licensed by Mobil Corporation,” but a huckster may try to knock off the finish where the distinguishing words are located.
• Holes. Are the holes in the right places? Some signs look very close to the originals, but the holes that were meant to be used in hanging the signs don’t appear in the right places.
• Grommets. Does the sign have grommets in the mounting holes? Almost all original signs had them at one time or another. If the sign doesn’t have grommets, there should be some chipping in the holes since they were most likely there at one time.
• Color. Are the colors and/or sign design accurate? Compare the sign to others that you know to be legitimate. If the color of the sign is a little off, this is a red flag. It’s not a mistake that would have been made by the factory. On original signs, the paint color will always be consistent.
• Feel. Does the back of the sign feel like sandpaper? The backs of most porcelain signs are smooth, or have some texture, but if the back is rough, it’s probably a fake. There are exceptions. The porcelain on the back of an original sign is usually not as thick as the front, so that’s almost always the first place it will rust. Also, if a sign has been buried in the ground for a while to artificially render the effect of “ageing,” the back will start to rust, which can make it feel like sandpaper.
• Design. Many repros are “fantasy” pieces – signs that are appealing to the eye but were never created that way. The fabricators take the logo and colors of a company and invent a new, eye-catching piece they think people will want to buy. This is fine, so long as the sign is clearly marketed as a reproduction and not an original. Unfortunately, some people (new collectors, especially) are dazzled by what they see, believe it to be original, and as a result, overpay for it.

The original sign at right included grommets (see 6 o’clock hole). The fake at left has none. The real sign has a vertical white outside line to the left of the ‘B’ in Buick (just above the tip of the curlicue), while the fake has none. The bottom of the ‘B’ should have a wider, flowing curve, per GM specs; but on the fake sign it’s squeezed together. Image courtesy Petroleum Collectors Monthly

Matthews and Henderson both agree that best way to protect oneself against being knowingly or even unknowingly sold a fake sign is through self-education. They strongly urge newbies and even seasoned petroliana collectors to read guidebooks, join clubs, talk to people who are knowledgeable in the field and – most importantly – always buy from reputable auction companies or dealers who are familiar with the items they’re selling.
Remember, there are a lot of great auction houses and dealers who unwittingly sell reproduction items to the public because they’re not entirely familiar with a particular genre of collectible. As with many things in life, the caveat emptor (buyer beware) rule definitely applies when buying petroliana for your collection – most especially porcelain signs

Both the 8-inch Texaco sign at left with a white-outlined T and the 15-inch Texaco sign at right with a black-outlined T are authentic. The heavily pitted 12-inch sign shown at right is a phony that was aged to deceive the unsuspecting. Errors include an incorrect typeface for the word Texaco, computer typeface oversized registration text, and a fake date. Images courtesy Petroleum Collectors Monthly.

5 First Editions and Scarce Posters That You Will Love

This weekend we’re conducting a trio of auctions featuring books and ephemera. Major attractions of the curated collections include signed first edition books and rare advertising posters. Let’s take a look at 5 standout items from these sales.

Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove is among the stars of the Literature and Editions Books Auction. The first state, first edition book is signed by the author on the front flyleaf.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove, signed first edition, first state, 1985, est. $700-$800

 

Though not a first, a 40th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird signed by author Harper Lee is certain to attract much attention.

Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird, 1999 40th anniversary edition signed by author, est. $400-$500

 

Memorable images by Annie Liebovitz, who began her illustrious career, as a staff photographer of Rolling Stone magazine, fill her book titled Photographs 1970-1990. Liebovitz signed the title page of this first edition, first printing coffee table book, which is included in the Art, History and Reference Books auction.

Also included in this auction is another desirable book, Louise Saunders’ Knave of Hearts, which is illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. This is the Charles Scribner’s Sons 1925 first edition in spiral binding. All plates are present, bright and in remarkable condition.

Louise Saunders, The Knave of Hearts, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925, first edition in spiral binding, est. $500-$600

 

More than a dozen advertising and event posters are included in the 19th-20th Century Historic Ephemera Pop Culture auction. A classic bus/streetcar-size poster advertising Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum is a stone lithograph. The 1940s poster by Otis Shepard, a highly regarded American illustrator and artist for the Wrigley family and the companies, depicts a healthful young couple at the beach.

Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum bus/streetcar poster, circa 1940s, est. $1,200-$1,500

 

Formula One racing fans will be keeping their eyes on a poster for the 1970 Monaco Grans Prix. Michael Turner’s color stone lithograph juxtaposes the beauty of sailing with the exhiliration of road course racing.

Monaco Grand Prix May 9-10 poster, 1970, est. $1,200-$1,500

 

Handcrafted Advertising Signs Now Attracting Collectors

Look carefully at any real-photo postcard of Main Street in an American town of the early 20th century and chances are you will see a number of hand-painted signs. These signs were hand-lettered by sign painters, now a near-obsolete occupation in an age of computerized graphics.

Collectors are drawn to the folky look of signs made with brush and paint, which stand out amid modern cookie-cutter signage of today. There has been a renewed interest in recent years in the visually captivating craft of sign painting.

A high illiteracy rate was the main reason early trade signs were formed as figural representations of the product or service the vendor provided. A butcher might display the carved-wood head of a bull. A dentist would hang a larger-than-life molar, complete with roots. A giant pocket watch represented a jeweler or clockmaker. Of all the figural trade signs of the 19th century, the most valuable is the iconic cigar store Indian, which stood at the entrance to the town tobacconist’s establishment.

Primitive boot maker’s sign, circa 1870s, wood with metal trim reinforcement, 36 x x 23in, stenciled name ‘J.E. Breeze.’ Brian Lebel’s Old West Events image

 

By the turn of the 20th century, most Americans could read, so accordingly, commercial signs incorporated text in eye-catching lettering. Sign painters were in high demand, whether to create a sign for display in a store window or a large advertisement to be painted, and viewed, high on the side of a building.

While the latter has often been covered up by development or faded into what some call a “ghost sign,” smaller hand-painted signs advertising goods and services do appear on the secondary market and are appreciated for their folk-art qualities.

The simplest are single boards, usually having an attached wooden frame, that have painted text on a contrasting background color. The expression “to hang out your shingle,” in the sense of starting your own business, may have originated with such a sign.

Nineteenth-century wooden trade sign, ‘O.B. Richards, M. D., Office,’ artist-signed ‘ALLEN,’ 12 x 23in. Copake Auction Inc. image

 

Signs to be placed out and over a store’s entrance or posted on a roadside were double-sided so they could be seen by passersby from two directions. It’s common to find that such signs are more weathered and faded on one side than the other, due to greater exposure to the sun and prevailing elements.

‘Tourists’ sign, probably intended for travelers seeking lodging, painted on both sides with red wood frame, early 20th century, 28 x 14 in. MB Abram Galleries

 

Signs posted in rural locales often have arrows directing motorists off the highway onto a side road to the desired location.

‘Sunset Farm Milk,’ painted wood, 1930s, 15.5in x 40.5in. Jasper52 image

 

Figural signs did not disappear entirely as the literacy rate increased; instead, they transitioned to include hand-painted lettering. Like weather vanes of the late 1800s, many signs simply became flat rather than three dimensional.

Folk art hollow body trade sign, double-sided fish with painted lettering ‘Fishing Tackle and Ammunition,’ 44-1/2in long. Conestoga Auction Co.

 

For added visual appeal, many sign painters depicted the product being sold by the vendor, such as fruits and vegetables.

Double-sided farm stand sign, on plywood, 24 inches square, circa 1930. Jasper52 image

 

Reverse-painting on glass gave a sign a formal look and preserved the lettering from wear, since it was often protected by a frame.

Early 1900s reverse-painted sign, 18 x 37 1/2in. Copake Auction Inc. image

 

Expect to find usual wear, weathering and fading on signs that were used outdoors. Avoid the temptation to repaint or even touch-up old paint. It is better to leave a vintage sign in “as found” condition, which speaks to its character.

Vintage painted wooden antiques trade sign having applied carved letters on long rectangular reserve, old painted surface, now weathered, mid-20th century. 20 1/4 x 89in. Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates image

For a fascinating look into the world of antique signs and advertising turn to the Picker’s Pocket Guide: Signs by Eric Bradley (2014: Krause Publications, 800-258-0929).


For more handcrafted antique signs, take a look at our weekly Americana and Folk Art auctions.